1990s >> 1999 >> no-1141-september-1999

Book Reviews: ‘The Plague Makers’, ‘What Was Fascism?’, & ‘Social Protest Literature – An Encyclopaedia’

Plague wars

The Plague Makers: The Secret World of Biological Warfare. Wendy Barnaby. Vision paperbacks, London 1999, £9.99.

This interesting book looks at the history of biological weapons; their development this century; who produces them and why; and the attempts to prevent them from being used.

The Persians, Greeks and Romans poisoned wells by throwing corpses into them and, in 1763, a British captain tried to kill North American Indians by giving them blankets from a smallpox hospital. The crudeness of delivery systems in the past led to a belief that biological weapons were not reliable, but the development of modern techniques has led to this assumption being questioned.

Wendy Barnaby points out that biological weapons can be made much more cheaply than nuclear or chemical weapons and that attacks may be impossible to determine from naturally occurring outbreaks of disease.

The destruction that can be wreaked by biological weapons is frightening: “One gram of anthrax could, if distributed effectively, kill more than 100 millions people.” And it is not only governments that develop biological weapons; their cheapness makes them available to terrorist groups. It has been estimated that “. . . a major biological arsenal could be built in a room 15-by-15 feet, with £5,000 worth of equipment”.

The Aum Shinrikyo sect, responsible for the nerve gas attack in Tokyo’s underground in 1995, had 160 barrels of media for growing clostridium botulinum and members of the right-wing supremacist group, Order of the Rising Sun, had more than 30 kilograms of typhoid bacteria in their possession when they were arrested. They planned to poison the water supplies of major cities to create a master race.

The duplicity of governments is demonstrated by the manufacture of biological weapons despite endorsing the 1925 Geneva Protocol which condemned them. Britain produced five million cattle cakes containing anthrax in “Operation Vegetarian” during the Second World War although they were never used despite Churchill’s readiness to wage war with them in 1945, prevented only by the cessation of hostilities. The island of Gruinard was contaminated with anthrax in 1942 and remained closed to the public until decontaminated in 1990. Nevertheless, the UN General Assembly was assured in 1969 that Britain had never produced biological weapons. The American programme was even bigger, employing nearly 4,000 people after the war.

Thousands of American prisoners were killed in experiments by the Japanese, but the perpetrators were given immunity from prosecution provided they shared their knowledge. Barnaby shows how utterly ruthless capitalist politicians are in pursuit of power. The apartheid regime in South Africa had a programme to try to develop vaccines that only worked on black people, and a number of political assassinations were carried out with biological and chemical weapons including poisoning Steve Biko with thallium and poisoning three Russian advisers to the ANC by contaminating their food with anthrax.

Between 1949 and 1969, the Pentagon carried out 239 tests, spraying Serratia marcesens and Bacillus globigii over populated areas. Despite claiming that the bacteria were harmless the army decided not to continue trials in case they affected the health of servicemen. On 26 July 1963, Bacillus globigii was released in London’s underground to see how it would spread.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention has had little effect on the manufacture of biological weapons. We cannot know to what extent they are manufactured because of the secrecy with which governments operate. Barnaby states: “a more informed public would want to reinforce the revulsion ordinary people fell about the use of biological weapons” and “a public more alive to the threat posed by biological weapons would back up governments trying to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention”. But governments will always operate in secret because the cut-throat competitive nature of capitalism permits of no alternative. Attempts to reform capitalism and make war more humane are doomed to failure because the availability of naturally-occurring bacteria makes it impossible to police the activities of governments or terrorist groups. Only socialism can eliminate war by removing the profit system which is the driving force for competition and conflict. Unfortunately, in this interesting and well-researching book such a solution is not even considered.



What was fascism?

What was fascism? By Dave Renton. Pluto Press.

Fascism was basically an extreme form that nationalism took in Italy and Germany, for reasons specific to the particular history of these capitalist states, in the period between the 20th century’s two world wars.

Fascism originated in Italy in 1919 in Italy when Mussolini set up the fascisti di combattimento, so called after units of the Roman army. Later the word was used in relation to a similar extreme nationalist movement in Germany even though this described itself as “national-socialist” (Nazi) rather than fascist. Both these movements won control of political power more or less constitutionally, in Italy in 1922 and in Germany in 1933, and proceeded to establish a one-party dictatorship with mass organisations to embrigade the population and preaching that all members of the “nation” had a common interest. Fascism/Nazism was implacably opposed to Marxism for its internationalism and its advocacy of the class struggle within nations.

Analysing this new phenomenon, which represented political regression compared with how Marx and Marxists until the first world war had seen things developing (political democracy, then socialism), was a challenge to those who called themselves Marxists. It is how they met this challenge that Renton’s book describes. Well-written and easy-to-read it suffers from the defect that its author is an SWP member who sees Trotsky as a brilliant political thinker. But Trotsky was disqualified from usefully contributing to the debate since, although he wasn’t a racist, he too favoured a one-party dictatorship.

The SWP makes campaigning against the fascist grouplets that exist today one of its top priorities but since fascism is only an extreme development of nationalism they ought also to campaign against nationalism. Only they don’t; they support the so-called “right of nations to self-determination”, a doctrine which accepts the myth that “nations”—and so “aliens”—exist and so provides ideological ammunition to justify “ethnic cleansing” of members of other “nations” living on a “nation’s” territory.



Social Protest Literature

Social Protest Literature: An Encyclopaedia of Works, Characters, Author, and Themes. Patricia D. Netzley, ACB-CLIO Inc. 1999.

You will learn a lot from this dog’s dinner of a reference book. Did you know that “monkeywrenching” in America is a form of environmental sabotage? Or that a character called Teacake, in a black feminist novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, contracted rabies and had to be shot by his wife? You didn’t? Well, you do now.

The trouble with Netzley’s confection is that it is wilfully selective, often tediously trivial—and, frankly, just too American. Of the 343 works cited, no less than 93 percent were published in the US. The British ones include those by or about Dickens, Aldous Huxley, Gilbert Murray, Herbert Read, Shaw and Raymond Williams. Bernard Marx, a character in Huxley’s Brave New World, merits a 200-word discussion. No entry for Karl Marx—only a passing reference to him under communism and socialism. The social reformer Edward Bellamy, with his boring prediction of a nationalised “socialist” America in Looking Backward, gets an enthusiastic 700-word coverage. For William Morris’s much more imaginative News from Nowhere—zilch! The entries for communism and socialism are disappointing. We are told that the principles of communism developed in ancient times, that Marxists split into several factions during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that McCarthy led a crusade against communism. Not a word about what communism actually is as an alternative to capitalism.

Socialism fares only a little better. After being told that it “is an ideology that advocates equality and the abolishment of class structure and capitalism” we learn that “Socialists believe that the people, in the form of the state, should control all property and production of goods”!

Perhaps the main problem with this book is her focus on the word “protest”. It is a weak and even cunning word, exemplified in the protest vote, when you vote for someone you don’t agree with to give someone else a warning. Protest is often ineffective and done from a position of subservience: you protest the price of fish when you ought to be boldly changing the world. Socialists don’t go much on protest—vigorous opposition and constructive imagination are more our style.

Social Protest Literature has some good points. As the blurb says it is beautifully illustrated and would look good on a coffee table. It gives a fair introduction to a wide range of fictional literature on the lives of victims of property society. But don’t expect to find anything useful about how to abolish that society and replace it with socialism.


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