1990s >> 1998 >> no-1131-november-1998

Book Reviews: ‘The World Within War’, ‘The French Revolution’, ‘Mother Courage’ & ‘Socialism and Religion’

Inhumanity of war

The World Within War: American soldiers’ experience of combat in World War II
by Gerald F. Linderman. The Free Press, New York 1998. £20.

Linderman’s book is a definitive exposé of the psychological trauma of combat on America’s young men. As such it is worthwhile reading just as a refresher course in the real effects of war in the raw. The loss of sense of time (the “infinite extension . . . of the living instant”), the erosion of the facility of logical thought and concentration, the inability to react to events, the loss of moral values and ultimately the will to live, which turned men into living robots with “Thousand-Yard stares”. It is also useful for its recounting of personal experiences of war’s brutalities and pathos. However all this is rather familiar “War is Hell” material. Where Linderman really excels is his contrast between the European theatre (“The War of Rules”) and the Pacific theatre (“War Unrestrained”) particularly in the field of taking prisoners.

In the war against the Germans a certain code of combat evolved to some degree independent of the wishes of the high command. For instance, orders from the US command prior to the D-Day landings that no prisoners were to be taken were generally disregarded. The general attitude of the US fighting soldier turned out to be “they were conscripts just like us” and faced with the massive superiority of the Allied armies the Feldgrau was often only too willing to give in. The US military machine saw advantages in this and rapidly re-evaluated its position: it was not in their interests to make surrender impossible as enemy troops would fight to the end causing heavy casualties. On the other hand neither high command wanted to make surrender too easy, too safe or too certain. When periodically prisoners were killed—through fear, callousness, anger or even envy—the culprits, even if brought to justice, were almost always exonerated. This attitude and the German’s response meant soldiers never surrendered unless forced to.

The war in the Pacific was something else altogether. The brutality of the US-Japan war is infamous. Everyone knows of the brutalities of the Japanese towards prisoners of war. Far from being an innate response (earlier wars against the West show the Japanese in a more favourable light) this attitude was a result of intense propaganda activity by the Tokyo government against the West. For this was a war of anger against the western powers conducted with fierce nationalist determination. If the Japanese took prisoners reluctantly and treated them inhumanely the US troops responded with gusto. The Japanese who found opportunity to surrender was a lucky man—for the Americans this became a war of extermination carried out with disgustingly racist terms (“they ain’t nothing but a bunch of monkeys”). The brutality of the war in the Pacific was unparalleled even on the Eastern Front. Civilians sheltering in fear in caves on Okinawa were killed by poison. The taking of body parts, ears, fingers, gold teeth from corpses or even live prisoners was common and taking a skull was almost de rigeur.

So what is the relevance of all this to socialists? Just this: all wars are anti-working class. Not just because of why they are fought but in the ways they are fought. War produces inhumanity. To assert to the contrary, as do many on the Left is to pander to the tastes of the capitalist history mongers with their glorification of war and their whitewashing of atrocities of their own armies.


Bourgeois revolutionaries

The French Revolution. Edited by Gary Kates. Routledge, 1998

“Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

On the night of 4 August 1789 the newly triumphant French National Assembly issued a decree formally abolishing feudalism. The process of building a bourgeois (capitalist) society in France has been documented by the influential French academic historians Albert Mathiez (1874-1932), George Lefebvre (1874-1959) and Albert Soboul (1914-1982). They were also very public members of the French Communist Party, and in due course this provoked a “revisionist” challenge from liberal and conservative ideologists. This collection of essays provides further proof, if it were needed, that the study of history is not just about interpreting the past but part of a struggle for the sort of future people want.

For liberals, Alfred Cobban (1901-1968) argued that the revolution had an early constructive phase, but efforts to create a liberal capitalist constitution were overcome by violence. The conservative François Furet (1927-1997) emphasised the role of political ideas, especially those of Rousseau, upsetting the natural order of things. A central concern of these “revisionist” challenges has been what they saw as the dominance of Marxism in interpreting the French revolution and its relevance for the modern world. Marx drew attention (see quote above) to the way the French revolutionaries referred to ancient Rome, as a mask for their tawdry bourgeois objectives. It provided the revolutionaries with: “…the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles and to keep their passion at the height of the great historical tragedy”.

The French Stalinist historians, following Lenin and the Bolsheviks, drew an explicit parallel between the French Jacobins and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 Russia. In 1920 Albert Mathiez wrote:

“Jacobinism and Bolshevism are two dictatorships born of civil war and of war, two class dictatorships operating through the same means: terror, requisitioning and taxes; and having, in the last resort, the same goal: the transformation of society and not only of the Russian or French society, but of the universal society.”

The Jacobins under Robespierre’s leadership, and the Bolsheviks with Lenin’s leadership, acted in the belief that their small elites represented the real will of the people, even though they were not accountable to them. The French revolution, of course, was the classic bourgeois revolution. Robespierre and the Jacobins employed the means and objectives appropriate for such a revolution. The Russian revolution, as Matthiez unwittingly revealed, used the same methods for the same goal: a capitalist revolution. The Bolsheviks abolished feudalism and constructed a society based on wage labour and capital, but under state control. This, historically, is the bourgeois role of Bolshevism.


What liberation?

Mother Courage: Letters from Mothers in Poverty at the End of the Century. Ed. Christine Gowdridge, A. Susan Williams and Margaret Wynn. Penguin 1997. £8.99.

The Maternity Alliance was founded in 1980 to campaign for improvements in the lives of parents and babies in Britain. In its policy document, “Maternity into the twenty first century”, the Alliance states, “We believe not only in the right of women to choose where and how to give birth, but, most importantly, in the need to address the economic and social factors which . . . determine women’s experience of pregnancy and the health of the baby.”

Mother Courage, published in association with the Maternity Alliance, is a collection of letters written by mothers whose struggle against poverty in their daily lives undermines the work of bearing and raising their children. It mirrors a similar publication by the Women’s Co-operation Guild 1915, Maternity: Letters from Working Women, and is overtly political in its intent. In the introduction by Ann Oakley, the changes and continuities in the lives of mothers in poverty over the intervening period are chronicled. The question is posed, but remains unanswered, “Why is it still necessary, over 80 years later, to collect together and publicise women’s accounts in this way. Surely the situation of mothers is vastly different now?”

Clearly there have been real improvements, particularly in the area of maternal and child health following the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. But there is also something much more fundamental going on than mere deficiencies in the welfare state when it still has to be stated as an aim for the next century that “no baby should be born poor” (Maternity Alliance policy document).

Nonetheless this is an important book that gives voice to those mothers whose welfare is systematically neglected and about whom our society is silent, except in condemnation. Their poverty is one of bare subsistence on means-tested benefits, or of being trapped into low paid, insecure part-time work. They are frequently without the financial, practical or emotional support from the father of their children, and many face domestic violence.

Submerged beneath the political rhetoric of the family as the moral heart of society (and motherhood as its lynchpin), they sustain their hopes and fears with more courage than most. The book bears the following dedication from Brecht’s 1940 play, Mother Courage: “Poor folk got to have courage . . . Mere fact they bring kids into world shows they got courage.” Remember these mothers when next you hear the claim that women have been liberated.


The incompatibles

Socialism and Religion.
By F. A. Ridley. Rational Socialist League, 70 Chestnut Lane, Amersham. 40 pages.

This is a reprint, updated by the author before he died in 1994, of a pamphlet originally published in 1948.

On religion, it takes up a basically similar position to ours, derived from Marx: that religion is an expression of human alienation, of the fact that humans are not in control of their destiny but are the playthings of uncontrollable, impersonal economic and social forces and resort to religion to console themselves and to try to make sense of this. This is why, as Ridley puts it in a criticism of bourgeois non-political rationalists and freethinkers, “no amount of merely expository or destructive criticism—useful and necessary as such criticism is in itself—can finally destroy religion; only the coming of international socialism can do that, by abolishing the social antagonisms which necessitate its existence”.

On socialism, however, Ridley is not so clear. Since he was a member of the old Independent Labour Party (ILP) who hob-nobbed with Trotskyists this is not surprising and explains his reference to that contradiction in terms a “workers state” existing in socialism.

He mentions our 1910 pamphlet Socialism and Religion which he says relied too much on Herbert Spencer’s ghost theory of the origin of religion according to which the first gods represented the imagined spirits of dead heroes as they appeared in the dreams of their followers (fair enough). He also mentions a pamphlet, Christianity and Socialism, published by an SPGB member, Horace Jarvis, in the 1970s. This was published privately, partly because a pamphlet on religion was not considered by us to be a priority but also because it was more oriented towards textual criticism of the bible than a deeper Marxist analysis of the social and historical origins and role of the Christian religion. Even so, some Socialists have always liked that sort of thing. Jarvis, incidentally, before he joined the Socialist Party, had been a member of the Communist Party’s front organisation, the League of Atheists, but left the CP when they dissolved this body so as to be able to attract religious support for the Popular Front policy they adopted in the second half of the 1930s.

Leave a Reply