Book Reviews


Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today.
By D. L. Raby, Pluto Press

Though relatively unknown in Europe, Latin America has its own tradition of Marxism or, rather, of “Marxism-Leninism”. Descended from the bourgeois-democratic ideology that motivated those who “liberated” Latin America from Spanish rule in the first part of the 19th century, it has been more nationalist and anti-imperialist than pro wage-working class even though committed to trying to improve the lot of “the people”.

As this book inadvertently shows, Cuba illustrates this well. The Cuban revolutionaries who overthrew the Batista dictatorship in January 1959 did so in the name of the anti-Spanish Cuban revolutionary tradition and adopted the cry of “Patria o Muerte” (Fatherland or Death). It was only later that the revolution was declared to have been socialist.

In Venezuela too, Chavez, who was first elected president in 1998, did not declare himself a “socialist” till some years later (in December 2004). But, unlike Castro, Chavez does not claim to be either a Marxist or a Leninist, but a new type of socialist “a socialist of the 21st century”. For leftwingers, after deceived hopes placed in Yugoslavia, then Algeria, then Vietnam, then Nicaragua, Venezuela has become the new Mecca. Raby’s book is, in fact, an attempt to defend “Chavism” as a socialist strategy.

Her argument is that the strategy of traditional “Marxism-Leninism”, with the indispensable role it attributes to an all-knowing, centralised vanguard directing everything, as exemplified not only by the old pro-Moscow Communist Parties but also by Trotskyists and Maoists, has never worked and never will. Using Cuba and Venezuela as examples, she says that, while a vanguard is still necessary, the main thrust must come from the popular masses having a special relationship with a charismatic leader such as Castro and Chavez have proved to be. According to her, this relationship is not a simple one of leader and followers, but one where the leader somehow interprets and expresses the inchoate wishes of the people (which seems rather mystical).

In what most people wouldn’t immediately regard as a flattering comparison, Raby likens Castro and Chavez to other charismatic Latin American leaders such as Peron in Argentina. There may be something in this since Peron, too, praised the workers and enjoyed considerable working class support.

Raby also examines three unsuccessful revolutions Chile, Portugal and Nicaragua. Of particular interest to us is Chile since what happened to Allende in September 1973, when he was overthrow and died in a coup led by General Pinochet, is always being used as an argument against the possibility of establishing socialism through peaceful, democratic means. Raby confirms the analysis we made at the time: that (quite apart from having state capitalism rather than socialism as its aim) a key factor was that Allende had become president in 1970 with only 36 percent of the popular vote and that he never enjoyed majority popular support:

“with a president voted in by only 36 per cent of the electorate and a coalition which only briefly achieved a little more than 50 per cent (in April 1971), there was no real mandate for revolutionary change.”

So it wasn’t an example of a successful coup in the face of a determined majority such as would exist before socialism could be established.

Venezuela, being a leading oil-producing country, enjoys considerable income as rent, which the Chavez government has redirected from the luxury consumption of the rich towards improving education and health provision for the mass of the people. We don’t want to belittle this but it’s not socialism. Raby agrees but says that, as “an eventual worldwide defeat of capitalism” is “an ideal which may or may not be realisable some time in the future”, this is the best socialists can hope for at the present time. Socialists should therefore, she says, lower their sights and not go for socialism but only for what one of the writers she quotes, Antonio Carmona Baez, calls a “state-led economy run by socialists”. We don’t agree. Surely, one of the lessons of the 20th century has been that national state capitalism is not a step to socialism and is in fact unsustainable in the long run.


Not so glorious food

Joanna Blythman: Bad Food Britain. Fourth Estate £7.99.

Essentially this is an extended rant about the eating habits of the British, especially in contrast to countries with a proper food culture such as France and Italy. Recipe books and TV cookery programmes abound, yet fewer and fewer people actually cook food from scratch or sit down to eat with their family.

Instead more and more ready meals are consumed, mostly in front of the television rather than at a table. Less time is spent on food shopping and less money spent on food. Children are astonishingly ignorant about food, often being unable to identify common fruit and veg. The population are subject to food scare after food scare and gradually become desensitised to them. Junk food and snacks combine to make people fat, in what is apparently called an obesogenic environment.

The reaction at this point may be that Blythman doesn’t think much of the food consumed by people in Britain, but that people are after all free to eat what they want. Nothing forces people to eat a ready-made shepherds’ pie rather than peel and mash the potatoes, cook the mince, and so on. But of course this freedom is found in a particular context, and people often say they are too tired to do much in the evenings, especially cook. The pressures of capitalism are such that workers really do have insufficient energy (though maybe enough time) to cook properly.

We also have to look at the pressure exerted by the food industry. Snacks mean big profits (‘mini bites for maxi profits’, according to Proctor and Gamble), and fast food and ready meals are big profit-earners too, much more so than fresh fruit and vegetables. The food manufacturers also resist any government efforts to to rein them in a little, and are becoming increasingly involved with sports sponsorship in order to foster a healthy image.

Mind you, if living under capitalism is what makes the British diet so bad, one wonders how workers in other capitalist countries manage to fare rather better. Blythman’s final message is, ‘Eat as little processed food as possible and base your diet on home-cooked meals, made from scratch from raw ingredients.’ Advice to be borne in mind in Socialism, perhaps, when people really will be free to eat as they wish.


Trick or cheat

Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind. 4 books. £18.99.

There are not many popular entertainers and TV celebrities who declare themselves atheists and sceptical about happenings said to be paranormal. The magician and mentalist Derren Brown is an exception. His book opens with the words The Bible is not history and ends with a passage from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a teenager he was an evangelical Christian, but is at pains to explain that his book is not meant as a rant against religion and claims for the paranormal and alternative medicine. And it isnt.

He sets out to explain some of the tricks that he and others in his trade employ, even if some of the others claim rather to be exercising special powers. Its not the magicians who make this claim but the mind-readers, hypnotists and self-styled psychics. Magicians do not claim to be practising magic in the literal sense; they are and see themselves as entertainers who entertain the public by what they themselves call tricks. Brown explains the sleights of hand by which some of these tricks are done and how to memorise things and invites his readers to learn them as their party piece. It is the self-styled psychics who are the problem. In his TV and stage (and private) shows Brown performs the same tricks as them, but doesnt claim any special powers; which is why he calls himself a mentalist rather than a psychic.

In explaining how he and they do it he effectively shows that, in so far as they claim special psychic powers, they are frauds. That does not mean that they are not skilled practitioners. It is not easy to master the techniques involved: getting people to be relaxed and responsive to suggestions as in hypnosis (Brown argues that this is not a special state of mind); detecting what people are really thinking from their facial and other bodily movements (he thinks theres a bit, but not much, in neuro-linguistic programming); and cold reading (you need to think and react quickly to be any good at it).

People who have mastered these skills can be good entertainers, though Brown has surely rightly no time at all for those who take advantage of the bereaved to make a show of pretending to contact the spirits of the dead (let alone those who con such people out of their money in private consultations).

In the final chapter (on Anti-Science, Pseudo-science and Bad Thinking) Brown comes out as an eloquent and witty defender of the scientific method and critic of the post-modernists, New Agers, alternative therapists and pill pushers, and paranormalists who challenge it.


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