Skip to Content

Book Reviews

Watching over us

Spies, Lies and the War on Terror.
By Paul Todd, Jonathan Bloch and Patrick Fitzgerald: Zed Books £14.99.

The ‘Cold War’ has been replaced by the ‘War on Terror’ as a means of defending the interests of Western capitalism. The identification of a new enemy has paralleled an enormous increase in the amount of snooping that goes on, with governments spying ever more closely on their own citizens. These are the kinds of developments chronicled in this volume.

For the United States in particular, the gathering of intelligence has come to serve the purpose of pre-emptive war, aimed at stopping any perceived threat to the power of the capitalist class before it can be put into action. This may involve ‘creative destruction’ in the Middle East (a term coined by an American neo-con, not by the authors). The idea of a US military presence in the Middle East became a long-term goal, eventually realised in Iraq. In fact, intelligence is sometimes massaged (as with Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction) or deliberately ignored. Consequently much US policy backfires, as when Iran has benefited from the elimination of regional rivals (the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam).

At the same time, and as state and corporate intelligence functions increasingly merge, domestic spying is becoming more and more pervasive. The National Security Agency in the US, for instance, has been monitoring all phone calls made to overseas, and the president has powers to authorise surveillance without a warrant. Sometimes the information recorded is laughable, with Quaker meetings logged as ‘suspicious incidents’, but the spread of government intrusion into people’s lives is no laughing matter.

Similar developments have been taking place in the UK, with increased powers for the police and much so-called anti-terrorist legislation. There have been arrests of people (as in a supposed bomb plot in Manchester in 2004 and one in East London in 2006), accompanied by lurid press speculation and much disinformation from police sources; in neither case was any evidence found, and the arrested were released without charge. Lengthy detention was introduced for those who had not done anything, just supposedly threatened to undertake some action designed to advance a political cause.

The War on Terror, then, not only results in killings on a massive scale in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, in the interests of Western, specifically American, power. It also leads to the creation and expansion of databases containing enormous amounts of information on people, information that we cannot access, let alone challenge, even if we know it’s there. This book gives a detailed and frightening account of how and why this is happening.


History matters

Why History Matters  by John Tosh,
 Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

At the completion of the invasion of Iraq in July 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech to the US Congress in which he declared: “There has never been a time ... when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day” (Quoted by Tosh, p.5). Gordon Brown, with a Ph.D in history and current Prime Minister, supported that invasion.

Blair was probably speaking out of ignorance rather than deceit, for that was not the first time British military forces had invaded Iraq. In 1914 Britain acted alone in invading Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) to drive out the Ottoman Turks. Britain then administered Iraq as a Mandate of the League of Nations until 1934, and remained in a position of informal influence until the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958. Strategic interests were the initial motivation for the invasion, but important oil reserves were known to exist. As Marian Kent's study of this period shows, “by 1920 Mesopotamian oil ... had come to occupy a major place in British military and diplomatic concerns in the Middle East” (Oil and Empire: British Policy and Mesopotamian Oil, 1900-1920, 1976. Quoted by Tosh, p.2). History matters.

Politicians are often ill-informed, but Alan Greenspan, the long-time head of the US central bank, admitted that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was really aimed at protecting Middle East oil reserves. “I thought the issue of weapons of mass destruction as the excuse was utterly beside the point”, he said (,,2170602,00.html). How are we to explain these events? What processes are involved and what is a proper historical perspective? For John Tosh, a professional historian, “public history” matters because it can provide the basis for informed and critical understanding of the present. But there is no place for causation in this understanding of history: the invasions of Iraq in 1914 and 2003 were wars for oil, as Tosh would probably agree, but for him the causes were unique and all we can learn from history is their similarities and differences: there is no underlying structural cause. This is an unconvincing and inadequate theory of history given the regular occurrence of wars and other social problems thrown up by capitalism. History matters more than that.

Socialists have a materialist conception of history in which we view the past in the context of the development of the forces of production (productive technology) and relations of production (economic classes), and analyse social development to better understand the present and possible futures. The state and its machinery of government have historically favoured the interests of the economically dominant class - presently the capitalist class. It is in their interests that wars have been prosecuted in Iraq for oil, or for their strategic interests as in Afghanistan. This follows a regular pattern in capitalism, and using a materialist historical perspective we can see the capitalist process at work and predict that as long as we have capitalism we will have wars. We cannot predict where and when, but they will happen: the forces and classes driving history will always make them likely, and since the end of the Second World War there has always been a war being fought somewhere in the world. An understanding of the materialist conception of history would provide a rational motivation for revolutionary political action by us, the subordinate class in society, to end capitalism as the cause of war in the modern world. History matters because your life may depend on it.


Too late?

Too Little, Too Late. The Politics of Climate Change.
By Colin Challen. Picnic. 2009. £9.99.

It’s not going to happen. CO2 emissions are not going to peak by 2015 which, according to some scientists, will mean that the average world temperature will rise by more than 2ºC by the end of the century. Will rise? Actually, what the scientists say is that, according to the assumptions of their computer models, there is a high probability that this will happen. It is not a definite prediction. It is only amateur environmentalist campaigners who say that it will happen and that the end of the world is just about nigh.

The fact is that we don’t really know. We don’t know how realistic the scientists’ models really are and we don’t know what other, relevant events might happen between now and 2100, including what people and governments might do. To influence governments to do something is of course why campaigners sometimes exaggerate the dangers. They may well sincerely believe their own exaggerations.

If you really believe that civilization will collapse in 2100 as a consequence of the effects of global warming, then it’s logical for you to see this as the only issue worth campaigning on. You will be led, like James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, to embrace nuclear power, despite its dangers, as the main alternative source to burning fossil funds for generating electricity. Or, like the author of this book, Colin Challen, Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell and chairman of the All Party Climate Change group, to envisage a coalition government and a committee presided over by the monarch – King Charles III? – to deal with the issue. You will certainly tell us – as we were told by CND in the 1960s – that we can’t wait for socialism as this won’t come in time, so that we should suspend campaigning for socialism in favour of campaigning on the single issue of climate change.

But this is to assume that this could be avoided without getting rid of capitalism. Challen himself provides grounds for seriously doubting this: that, in intergovernmental negotiations,  “trade always trumps conservation” (p. 71) and that competition impedes agreement (“Nobody wants to see their economy damaged by another’s which itself dos not face the extra costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions”, p. 93).

Which is why he himself is rather pessimistic about the prospects of CO2 emissions peaking by 2015. But even on the worst scenario – rising sea levels, displacement of populations, shifts in the balance of geopolitics – only socialism would provide the framework for dealing with the problems.