2000s >> 2005 >> no-1213-september-2005

Book Reviews


The British Communist Left by Mark Hayes (International Communist Current, 2005) £5.00

This is a history of the so-called ‘Communist Left’ in British politics from 1914-1945, published by one of the main, contemporary organisations of this tradition and written by one of their sympathisers.

It is a largely accurate account of those identified with the left-wing of Bolshevik politics in this era, a political tendency chastised by Lenin in his famous ‘Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder’. Over a long period this tendency gradually struggled towards taking up socialist positions on the nature of the future society, reformism, the state capitalist nature of Russia, China, etc while also developing a virulent hostility to ‘bourgeois democracy’ and trade unionism. As this pamphlet unwittingly shows, it was a political current which made some serious errors during its political evolution too – and continues to do so, largely because of its adherence to the vanguard politics of Leninism.

The left communists in Britain were small in both number and influence compared to their counterparts in continental Europe, specifically the German, Dutch and Italian lefts. While elements in the Socialist Labour Party and British Socialist Party held views associated with left communism for a short time after the Bolshevik takeover, the most significant left communist organisation in Britain emerged out of the radical suffragette movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst during the First World War and was grouped around the paper Women’s Dreadnought, which by 1917 had been renamed the Workers’ Dreadnought.

This became the paper of the Workers’ Socialist Federation, a group dominated by Pankhurst and with support drawn from political activists mainly in the East End of London. The WSF never numbered more than about three hundred members at the very most and, after eventually being subsumed within the Communist Party of Great Britain in January 1921, vanished as a group or faction by 1924. Pankhurst had been expelled from the CPGB within a year for her criticism of the official Party line, before moving on to other, more eclectic (and openly reformist) causes. Although Mark Hayes doesn’t mention it, what is clear from this and every other related study is that while it would be an exaggeration to say that the Workers’ Dreadnought group was a one woman show, it would not be that much of an exaggeration. When Pankhurst moved on, the group collapsed and the paper – always owned and largely financed by Pankhurst herself – ceased publication.

Small organisations around the idiosyncratic Glasgow anarchist Guy Aldred such as the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation also came and went in this period, veering between left communism and anarchism, but none of them amounted to much. And that in essence is it: left communism in Britain until its re-appearance with the ICC itself and one or two other tiny groups in the 1970s.

After interesting beginnings, the ICC has mutated into an organisation regarded by virtually all other political groups (including those on the communist left previously well-disposed towards it) as a paranoid sect, and its treatment of the SPGB here is an interesting one, not least because we are the one workers’ political organisation discussed still in existence and thereby the most obvious target for its spleen.

The key ‘class frontier’ for the ICC and other left communist groups is whether a political organisation takes sides in a capitalist war or not. Yet, despite our impeccable record of actively opposing both world wars and all other wars too, this book gives the SPGB short shrift. It claims, “in practice” that in 1939, just as supposedly in 1914, “the SPGB made no attempt to oppose the war” (p.101). What it means by this is that we did not raise the ICC’s suicidal slogan of ‘turn the imperialist war into a world wide civil war against capitalism’.

The Socialist Standard is criticised for not publishing openly anti-war articles for part of the Second World War because of the strict Defence Regulations relating to seditious printed matter which caused the suppression of the Daily Worker, but no mention is made of the Party’s open anti-war propaganda by other means or the way in which the SPGB sought to prevent mere pacifist opponents of the war from becoming members. Presumably never having been sent to prison himself for his political beliefs, Mark Hayes also sneers at the SPGB members who applied during the world wars to be conscientious objectors, scores of whom were imprisoned by the British state for refusing to kill their fellow workers.

Quite why the ICC thinks that a few hundred political activists starting a civil war against the might of the capitalist state is a sensible socialist tactic is anyone’s guess. The SPGB members who successfully applied to be conscientious objectors or went ‘on the run’ were at least able to work for socialism and keep the organisation alive, whereas if the ICC was ever crazy enough to put its own tactic into operation it would soon cease to exist organisationally. That the ICC is not really serious about this type of abstract sectarianism though can be seen by the fact that “in practice” (to use its own phrase) there has not been one single occasion when any of its sections across the world has ever tried to do anything other when faced with a war than what the SPGB did in 1914 or 1939, i.e. denounce it as a capitalist conflict not worth the shedding of a drop of blood.

The ICC do exist in something of an unusual – not to say unique – political bubble, as this book repeatedly demonstrates. While the SPGB is lambasted for its insufficient opposition to wars and for betraying the future moneyless commonwealth by opposing the misguided tactics of the Bolsheviks (at least until the early 1920s when the ICC retrospectively thinks this became respectable), the Trotskyists – who then as now took sides in ‘national liberation’ struggles and wars, were reformist, advocated state capitalism, supported the Labour Party, etc – are regarded with some affection, until they finally ‘betrayed’ the working class by taking sides in World War Two. For sheer illogicality and inconsistency there can be little to beat this.

When it is filtered for its Leninism and sectarianism, the British Communist Left is not all bad as it is a useful historical account in parts. While it is a short book it is nevertheless a bit of a trying read, best characterised as a largely academic piece infused with heavy doses of the ICC’s somewhat tiresome political liturgy. If page after page of references to ‘centrism’, ‘opportunist currents’, the ‘proletarian terrain’ and ‘ambiguous swamps’ are your thing then go out and buy it immediately. It’s not too unkind to say you are unlikely to be killed in the rush.


Jeffrey Sachs: The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime. Penguin £7.99

There are various things wrong with this book, the first being the title. Sachs (described on the back cover as ‘probably the most important economist in the world’) is not concerned with doing away with sink estates where children do not get one square meal a day, let alone three, or the culture of pawn shops and loan sharks (which would be classified as relative poverty). Instead he is writing about eliminating absolute or extreme poverty, where households cannot meet basic needs: people are chronically hungry, have no access to health care or safe water, and may lack rudimentary shelter. In 2001, around 1.1 billion of the earth’s population were in extreme poverty. Sachs neatly places things in perspective:

Almost three thousand people died needlessly and tragically at the World Trade Center on September 11; ten thousand Africans die needlessly and tragically every single day – and have died every single day since September 11 – of AIDS, TB, and malaria.”

But even if his proposals were implemented and proved successful, there would still be plenty of poverty in the world.

Ending extreme poverty would of course be very worthwhile, but can capitalism achieve this? Sachs claims that the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.5 billion since 1981 (largely due to developments in China). Surely, however, we are entitled to be a little sceptical about such claims: they are based on World Bank estimates, and ignore the extent of poverty still found in China, especially in the countryside. He acknowledges, though, that the extreme poor in Africa have more than doubled in the twenty years to 2001, now being over 300 million, which is a rise even in percentage terms. Yet, he argues, extreme poverty can be got rid of by 2025: the key is ‘to enable the poorest of the poor to get their foot on the ladder of development.’ The way to kick-start things is by comparatively modest amounts of overseas aid, which will mean that households can save more and so increase the amount of seeds and agricultural equipment they have access to and will also allow governments to build roads, sanitation systems and so on; this will snowball and lead on to further development. The first few chapters of the book imply that Sachs has some kind of economic magic wand that he can wave over countries from Bolivia to India, delivering prosperity.

However, his proposals for ‘ending poverty’ are effectively put forward in a vacuum, unencumbered by the existence of a world dominated by one super-powerful nation, a small number of super-powerful companies, and a tiny minority of super-rich capitalists. Sachs accepts that exploitation of poor countries by the rich has happened in the past, but believes that it no longer applies. He also accepts, though without making it explicit of course, a division of the world into owners of the means of production and non-owners. Doing away with this would mean an immediate end to all kinds of poverty – extreme, moderate and relative – without having to wait another twenty years and rely on yet more empty promises.


Jung Chang and Jon Halliday: Mao: the Untold Story. Jonathon Cape £25.

Overturning a paragraph of conventional history can be the basis for an entire thesis, if not an entire professional reputation. Chang and Halliday have set out to re-write every paragraph of the story of Mao Zedong.

The authors attack the established canon of Mao biography; and their clear, unrelenting hostility may house the book’s greatest weakness. Much of their re-interpretation depends upon assessments of Mao’s character, and his internal states when he made vital decisions. For example, they maintain that Mao deliberately meandered along the Long March (a period of retreat by the Red Army from the nationalists) in order to strengthen his grip on the party before they met up with the rest of the army.

Repeatedly they make reference to what Mao was thinking, which, without written sources, is impossible to determine. Most historians and biographers would hedge and say ‘maybe’ or ‘probably’ he thought something.

Such potential weakness, although they may allow latter-day Maoist wingnuts to deflect debate away from the issues raised, aren’t fatal. The book describes in aching detail the horrors of Mao’s regime, facts established by witnesses and irrefutable evidence. This is largely because, unlike Hitler or Stalin, Mao’s preference was not for disappearances and quiet murder, but for public witch-hunts – mobilised terror in which anyone refusing to wholeheartedly join in would find themselves a target. He repeatedly used this strategy throughout his career to gain and hold power, culminating in the infamous Cultural Revolution, which accounted for some 100 million people being humiliated, tortured, maimed and, in 3 million instances, murdered.

His callousness is almost beyond the scope of human imagining. In one year, 22 million people died of starvation – brought about primarily through Mao’s disastrous project to make China – then one of the poorest countries on Earth – into a nuclear super-power. The famines and overwork induced by the programme led to 38 million deaths.

The authors maintain Mao was essentially apolitical: merely egotistic and power hungry. They reject claims that he cared about peasants – producing a quote in which he maintains that the lot of students (like himself) was worse than that of the peasants. They suggest his choice of the communist party over the nationalists (for a time the two parties were united) was simply down to a predilection for violence.

He had many homes built for himself – at great expense – which he would only set foot in once – if ever. While people starved he would gorge himself on whole chickens and huge quantities of meat and fish. Around him, millions of Chinese had less food than labourers in Auschwitz.

His reputation for supporting feminism also takes a battering in this book, as the authors reveal how he used women almost as imperial concubines, procured from the local labour force. Anyone who objected to his and other leaders’ privileges amongst squalor were derided as “petit-bourgeois egalitarians”.

Chang and Halliday even attempt to overturn the central story of the Mao myth – the war of national liberation against Japan. Even very recent writers hedge criticisms of Mao by mention of the vicissitudes of that war. However, this book alleges that the Reds under Mao were more concentrated on fighting the nationalist government than the Japanese.

Further, they try to show that on the Long March, Mao and the other leaders didn’t march with their soldiers: they were carried; that the leader of the nationalists, Chiang Kai-Shek allowed the Red Army to escape because his son was being held hostage by Stalin; and that some of Mao’s major victories may have been assisted by the treachery of the nationalist general who repeatedly allowed troops to walk into horrific ambushes.

The narrative makes out that Mao never commanded much support with either the Chinese communist party or the population. His ascent was largely down to the backing of Russian communist officials who never met him.

This book is unlikely to be the last word on the matter, but it is a forceful reappraisal of a figure who would be the equivalent of a George Washington for the emerging Chinese superpower. This is the story of what happened when a ruthless tyrant tried to rule a quarter of the human race.

The only positive message is that ultimately, his terror proved futile, as he increasingly found himself having to horse trade policies to stay in power against his rivals – leaders are prisoners of their followers. The terror of Mao’s rule could well be seen as the impotent rage of a tyrant.


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