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Book Reviews

The Last Conflict by Pieter Lawrence, Booksurge, 2006, £10

One of the more pleasing aspects of the last couple of decades of socialist activity has been the proliferation of books written by socialists, previously quite a rare phenomenon. Almost all of these books have been non-fiction, either putting the case for socialism directly or else discussing the socialist movement itself. This book, by long-standing Socialist Party member Pieter Lawrence, is somewhat different. It is a work of fiction – and an interesting one too, in that while it is a gripping political novel set in Britain it doesn’t mention any political parties, and introduces the idea of socialism without ever explicitly identifying it as such.

Without giving too much away to future readers, it is about how a British government beset by economic difficulties and strikes handles a political crisis of a different sort – emerging news of a large comet that is heading towards Earth. Over time, it appears that if the Earth will not be directly hit by the comet, it will pass by closely enough to cause a missile bombardment from space. Fragments of rock would be detached by the comet hurtling through the Earth’s atmosphere in the type of future scenario envisaged by some current astronomers, and often argued to be the real cause of the disappearance of the dinosaurs from Earth tens of millions of years ago.

The novel focuses on the attempts by the government to cover-up news of the impending disaster and then, when mass public panic and disorder arises, to initiate a massive programme of civil defence involving the creation of deep shelters for the population, including the conversion of the London underground system.

Much of the action revolves around some of the main characters in the government and their thinking about how to handle the emerging crisis. As well as maintaining social control, not the least of their problems is a financial one. At a time when the government is already under severe financial pressure, the paid construction of a huge network of deep shelters across the country would be ruinous and logistically impossible. The government’s solution is to turn to voluntary labour, of the sort that had emerged during the economic crisis and strike wave when people had been encouraged by the government to volunteer to keep the hospitals and other essential services going. It soon emerges, however, that this sort of piecemeal voluntary labour is not enough, as materials need to be purchased and production facilities harnessed quickly and on a mammoth scale if the civil defences are to be constructed in time. So voluntary labour is generalised and supplemented by a credit note system and the requisitioning of factories, building materials, land and so on.

Such is the scale of the task however, that the majority of the population becomes involved and the credit note system – initially designed as a temporary measure – becomes meaningless as the government would never be able to pay back the massive credits owed to the working population and owners of capital when life returned to capitalist ‘normality’. The only solution is for the government – after much internal discussion and dissension – to decree a temporary cashless economy while the civil defences are built. There is a suspension of all paid economic activity and bank accounts, etc are frozen, with the population being able to directly access the goods and services produced by voluntary labour, assisted by a Second World War-type rationing system for some products. All of this occurs alongside massive campaigns and mobilisations from the general population desperate that nothing (whether shortage of resources or government reticence) should halt the vital work of civil defence, a programme which literally appears to be the only chance of human survival.

In this way, the novel cleverly introduces the idea of a society based on voluntary labour without wages, money and prices as the only way in which society as a whole can pull together sufficiently to direct the largest construction programme in the history of the planet, drawing on the type of ‘wartime spirit’ previously evident during the Blitz. To what extent this programme is successful, and for what happens when the comet finally passes by, you will need to read the book.

As a novel, the narrative is well-written and fast-paced. Indeed, even if you are not a socialist it is an exceptionally good read and this is one of its strengths. It has been written with a view to introducing the idea of a socialist society to people without the usual terminology (or, in fact, much political jargon as a whole) so that the idea slowly creeps up on the reader as they progress through the book. The characterisations are strong and believable, and help to anchor the story as one about humanity and people’s very fight for survival. In this respect it is compelling and, at times, gripping too.

The artistic licence of the fiction writer is called on only minimally, mainly perhaps with the somewhat UK-centred plotline to what is, by definition, a world phenomenon and crisis. Also, the work gives small and almost subliminal hints that it was written some time ago as in some respects the general political ‘feel’ is of Britain in the 1970s, before the internet and satellite TV, and in an era when Prime Ministers still made broadcasts to the nation pipe in hand. Indeed, whether some of the communication blackouts imposed by the government at various times in the story are achievable in today’s e-society is a moot point, though again this doesn’t seem to be a huge issue for the purposes of the plot and its underlying message.

The storyline of The Last Conflict is so cleverly woven, with the plot developing in clear stages, and the characterisation is so strong, that this is a work that would lend itself to other genres quite easily. At present, the physical binding of the book by the current publishers could be better and nothing would be more fitting for the book’s wider popularisation than if a TV dramatisation of the novel was what made it known to a mass audience. To this end, it is to be hoped that the book will find itself in the hands of someone with the opportunity and vision to put this into effect, because it could without doubt, and without a hint of exaggeration, make for one of the best political dramas ever shown on British televion.

DAP

Nick Robins: The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational Pluto Press

I often gauge how much I have enjoyed a book by the amount of highlighting and marginal notes I make in pencil. This book, like many on my shelves, will horrify those who prize pristine, unmarked first editions.

On 31 December 1600 a precursor of the modern transnational corporation came into existence. Its pioneering techniques in the field of trade and commerce, and downright murder and corruption, preceded by centuries the noxious business practices that we associate with today’s all-powerful corporations, many of whom have a higher turn over than small countries.

This book presents as a meticulous account of perhaps the most powerful corporation that ever lived, tracing how it came into existence, how it operated, its inner structure, the role of its own armies in its rise to supremacy, its part in the Bengal Famine when 10 million died as a result of the Company’s market manipulation, its militaristic role in the Opium Wars, its part in the Indian Mutiny and the Boston Tea Party and how, for the last twenty years of its existence, it ruled India as an agent of the British Empire. When it comes to downright exploitation, corruption, slaughter and sheer negligence and indifference to the suffering of others, perhaps no company that ever existed comes near the East India Company in its ruthless pursuit of profit, whilst refashioning the world commercial order in the interests of privilege and power for hundreds of years to come.

In its time the company had many critics, most notably Edmund Burke, “the real champion of India’s identity”, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Burke fought long and hard to impeach the Company’s Governor General Warren Hastings for the devastation wrought on India in its endless search for profit.

Commencing his opening speech at Westminster Hall in February 1788, Burke said:

“I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties, he has subverted, whose properties he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate . . . I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in very age, rank, situation and conditions of life.”

Despite Burke’s opening four day tirade against Hastings - one of the longest opening speeches in history - during which women were carried out fainting, at which the Speaker was “rendered speechless” and at which spectators were willing to pay ú50 for a seat, despite an ensuing trial that lasted from February 1787 to April 1795, Hastings was acquitted.

Considering the Company’s operations for the New York Daily Tribune in the summer of 1853, Marx noted five characteristics: “ . . . a permanent financial deficit, a regular over-supply of wars, and no supply at all of public works, an abominable system of taxation, and a no less abominable system, of justice and law..”

Satirising the Company’s administrative system, he commented how there existed “no government by which so much is written and so little done.” Marx furthermore viewed the company as a tool of British capitalism plc in India, observing how “the aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy wanted to plunder it and the millocracy to undersell it”.

The Second Opium War was, in Marx’s view, attributable to the Company’s operations in the East and its insistence that it had the right to swamp China with drugs in the name of profit, regardless of the addiction-induced misery its trade created or how the Chinese authorities felt. He wrote:

“While openly preaching free trade in poison, it secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to, lie at the bottom of its’freedom’”.

In eight carefully researched chapters, Robins traces the Company’s operations from its inception as a trader in spices to its role in running the Indian sub-continent on behalf of the British crown, withholding, one imagines, very little regardless how gruesome, and there indeed are some stomach-churning passages.

In the final chapter, his analysis masterly done, Robins, contemplating the state of corporate play today, reflects how the Company’s legacy reveals the importance of taking on the mega-corporations who presently rampage across the planet unhindered, and this, for socialists, is the book’s one failing.

Robins’ remedy for curbing corporate power is simple:

“First of all, its market power and political influence must be limited . . Next, stringent rules are needed to ensure that management and investors do not use the corporation as a tool for their short-term interests . . And, finally, clear and forcible systems of justice have to be in place to hold the corporation to account for damage to society and the environment.”

Thus, a brilliant attack on unchecked power in the pursuit of profit is marred by the simple request that the capitalist class behaves and shows a little more respect when carrying out its obscene business, and that the executive arm of capitalism – government – hurries to the rescue of society and the natural environment. Smiley-faced capitalism is, for Robins, the only remedy. Warren Hastings laughs in his grave.

All said, if you’re into the study of corporate power gone mad, read this.

John Bissett

Crisis of Socialism by Randhir Singh. Amit Atwal. 2006. 1087 pages. £29.99.

In Europe most Leninists are probably Trotskyists. In Asia they would seem to be Maoists. Randhir Singh falls into this category, arguing that although Stalin made mistakes and what he called socialism wasnt socialism, Russia finally became a fully-fledged new class society ruled by a state bourgeoisie only in 1964, when Brezhnev took over from Khrushchev. Russia went capitalist in 1991. Since then China has gone that way too. Only Cuba and North Korea have not yet gone capitalist, and only Cuba is on the road to socialism. Thats what this book argues but we doubt that many people will have the patience to read through 1000 pages portraying Lenin, as like Marx, an advocate of the democratic self-emancipation of the working class, interspersed with favourable comments on Mao and Stalin.

ALB