2000s >> 2006 >> no-1226-october-2006

Book Reviews

Travelling People

Caroline Moorehead: Human Cargo: a Journey among Refugees Vintage £7.99

The title says it all really: human beings shunted from one place to another, in response to political events, and treated as objects to be kept at arm’s length or sent back as quickly as possible to wherever they came from. There are perhaps 12 million refugees in the world today, and twice that number of internally displaced people (IDPs), who get less attention, and also less financial support when they return to their homes.

Caroline Moorehead visited a number of areas where refugees live (or survive is perhaps a better word) and talked to many people. She starts in Cairo, full of ‘lost boys’ from other parts of Africa, originally mainly from Sudan but now increasingly from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. Many asylum-seekers from Africa travel first to Italy, to Sicily and to Lampedusa, a small island less than 100 miles from the coast of Tunisia; many drown on the way there.

Between Mexico and California is a fence designed to reduce the flow of Mexican migrants northwards. The border is deliberately kept semi-closed, as the US needs some (but not too much) cheap Mexican labour power. But it is still policed in a draconian manner: for instance, a canal which provides a possible crossing point has been converted on the US side so that it’s hard to climb out once you’ve swum over. Over two thousand people have died trying to cross the border, ten times the number who lost their lives trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile, Australia has an extremely tough line on asylum, following its earlier racist ‘White Australia’ policy. Would-be migrants from Indonesia and elsewhere in south-east Asia have a hard time even getting there, following the introduction of Operation Relex, which involves naval vessels and aircraft turning back boats of asylum-seekers. Many of those who actually make it to Australia may be locked up indefinitely, despite having committed no crime.

Some Palestinians who fled their homes when Israel was established in 1948 have spent over fifty years in refugee camps not many, though, because life in a refugee camp is hard and few can survive that long. Many more in number are the children born in camps, to parents who were themselves born there too.

Often, also, refugees are driven to suicide since their stories of violence back home may not be believed. One young Iranian killed himself in Newcastle in 2003, leaving a note that said, ‘You have to kill yourself in this country, to prove that you would be killed in your own country.’

One encouraging aspect of the book is the way that local people, from Sicily to Australia and Newcastle, have rallied to support and help refugees in their midst. It is one thing to rail against those who are allegedly coming to steal jobs or live as scroungers, but it is quite another to encounter the hopelessness and destitution of people who just want somewhere to live without persecution and bring up their family.

Moorehead makes a number of good points: that migration is ‘the unfinished business of globalisation’, and that nobody wants to be a refugee. ‘Why’, she asks, ‘should something as arbitrary as where one is born determine where one is allowed to live?’ The answer, sadly, is that under capitalism, artificial lines on maps divide the world into different camps, which enable those who own the earth to defend their bit of it and to make claims on other bits. A sensible society would have no concept of refugeehood or any of the other states of oppression so movingly described here.


Das Kapital

Marx’s Das Kapital by Francis Wheen. Atlantic Books, 2006

In a series of Books That Shook The World which includes Paine’s Rights of Man and Darwin’s Origin of Species, Wheen’s biography of Das Kapital (to give Capital its original German title) is fairly short at 130 pages including index. Wheen has already had a critical and commercial success with his biography of the man himself, Karl Marx (1999) and this work seems likely to do the same.

Das Kapital was planned to be the first of six volumes, but Marx only saw the first volume through to publication. The second and third volumes, and the volumes entitled Theories of Surplus Value, were all compiled from Marx’s notes after his death. Apart from a brief Introduction, Wheen’s book is divided into three chapters: gestation, birth and afterlife. There are no notes, bibliography or guide to further reading and although Wheen is mostly content to let Marx speak for himself he does occasionally paraphrase and in one place he is seriously mistaken. Wheen explains that value (socially necessary labour-time) may differ from price and sometimes price may be higher than value, but Wheen adds, under a socialist system this surplus would be redistributed for the benefit of the workers(p.33). Marx never argued this and the whole thrust of Das Kapital is that value, price and profit can never work for the benefit of the workers. Marx also, incidentally, never argued for redistribution, preferring instead to judge the success or failure of a social system by its ability to produce for human need. Wheen is rightly critical of commentators who read into Das Kapital things which are not there (e.g. increasing immiseration or impoverishment of the proletariat), but that has not stopped him falling into the same trap here.

Controversially, Wheen claims that Das Kapital should be thought of as a work of art and this was Marx’s stated intention. Das Kapital is usually depicted as a work of science, but Marx seems to have considered art and science to have similar objectives that is, to see through surface appearances (the veils of illusion) to reveal the underlying reality. And yet it was the late Louis Althusser who maintained that there was an epistemological break in Marx’s writing, with the early artistic or philosophical work being only of marginal interest, whereas the later works such as Das Kapital contained his mature and scientific thinking. But as Wheen points out, in Althusser’s posthumous memoir he admitted to being a trickster and deceiver and only ever studying a few passages of Marx. Althusser and his work on Marx was a fraud. But even if Althusser was not a con-man, the distinction between an early and a mature Marx does not withstand serious scrutiny.

The alleged impact of Das Kapital on twentieth century politics is well summarised, including the fall of the Russian empire and China’s contradictory claim to be Marxist-Leninist (Wheen insists that ‘Market-Leninist’ would be rather more apt). The framework for viewing these and other events, argues Wheen, is to be found in Marx’s writing on capital. For as Wheen puts it:

Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century.


Marxs party

A Rebels Guide to Marx. By Mike Gonzalez. Bookmarks. 2006. 60pp. £2

While factually correct on the details of Marxs life, this SWP booklet suffers (as you would expect) from a significant distortion of Marxs views.

Marx is made out to be a proto-SWPer, obsessed with building the party. In actual fact, while Marx did use the word party”, before the 1870s it was not in the sense of an organised vanguard, but rather as those, whether organised or not, who wanted communism (or socialism, the same thing), more what we would today call a current of opinion than its subsequent sense of party as an organisation.

Marx did, during the period of Germanys aborted bourgeois revolution of 1848-9, favour communists organising themselves as a distinct group to try to push the bourgeois revolution to its limits and beyond. But, once this period was over, he argued for this communist organisation to be disbanded.

Later, when he was active in the International Working Mens Association from 1864-1872, he advocated the working class organising into a distinct political party. By then party had begun to take on its modern meaning and Marx was associated with an organisation in Germany called the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) which, after merging with another group, became in 1875 the German Socialist Workers Party (SADP). (It later changed its name to Social Democratic Party of Germany – SPD – which still exists today, as a reformist party.) Marx referred to it simply as the workers party.

So, Marxs conception of party was that of an open, democratically-organised mass party, not a vanguard of self-appointed professional revolutionaries.


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