Book Reviews: ‘Worlds Apart’, ‘Zapata of Mexico’, & ‘The Communist Club’

Unequally Poor
Branko Milanovic – Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality, (Princeton University Press £22.95)

How unequal is the world, and is inequality getting worse? Has globalisation increased or reduced inequality? These are some of the questions that Milanovic deals with here, but he starts by discussing how inequality should be measured. Three different ways of doing so can be distinguished. The first is unweighted international inequality: examine the per capita income or GDP of a country, irrespective of its population.

The second is population-weighted international inequality: do the same, but take account of the fact that different countries have different-sized populations. The third is world income distribution: measure the incomes of all individuals in the world. This last is the most informative, but it requires a great deal of information for every country, much of which is simply not available. So it is the first as well as the third concept of inequality that Milanovic makes use of.

Even then, though, there are varying ways of quantifying inequality – but the contrasts between Gini co-efficients and Theil entropy indices can probably be ignored for present purposes. Between 1982 and 2000, unweighted international inequality increased, i.e. countries diverged in their economic  performance, with poor countries doing on average less well than the rich. One interesting way of looking at events is to classify countries in terms of wealth (i.e. GDP per capita) and compare how they fared between 1960 and 2000.

Milanovic divides countries into four groups in 1960: 41 rich countries (all at least as rich as the poorest country in Western Europe), 22 ‘contenders’ (no more than a third below this poorest Western European country, and so within striking distance of joining the rich), 39 in the Third World (between one-third and two thirds as well off as this same poorest Western European country), and 25 in the Fourth World (GDP per capita less than one third of the poorest country in Western Europe).

By 1978, only three contenders had made it into the rich group, while eight rich countries had fallen into the class of contenders and three into the Third World. Of the Third World group, just two had become contenders and 14 had joined the Third World. None of the Fourth World countries had moved into a higher group.

Between 1978 and 2000, a further eleven contenders had fallen into the Third World and two into the Fourth World. Milanovic gives a lot more figures, but it is plain that there was far more downward than upward mobility. Algeria, for instance, counted as a rich country in 1960, a contender in 1978, and a member of the Third World by 2000. Bulgaria was a contender in 1960, in the Third World in 1978 and the Fourth in 2000.

In 2000 all African countries bar five were in the Fourth World: Milanovic refers to ‘the unremitting downward mobility of the entire continent’, a picture more or less repeated in Latin America. But of course this says little about the incomes of actual people, since even poor countries can contain rich individuals.

This is where the third concept of inequality, world income distribution, comes in. In terms of purchasing power parity, the top 10 percent of the global population receives about half of world income. Between 1988 and 1993, the poorest 85 percent of the world saw their real incomes decline; things were not quite so bad between 1993 and 1998, except for the very poorest 10 percent.

Milanovic’s book contains a lot more information that we can’t summarise here. While all the statistics, tables and charts mean that it’s often hard going, it certainly gives a vivid picture of the unequal condition of the world today, and the fact that things are not in the process of changing.


Land and liberty

Peter E. Newell: ‘Zapata of Mexico’, (Freedom Press, £9.50

The Mexican Revolutionary War which began in 1910 saw political power transferred from a reactionary military dictatorship allied to foreign capital to the l i b e r a l constitutionalists of the rising national bourgeoisie. Z a p a t a supported the overthrow of dictatorship but once this was achieved his Liberation Army of the South refused to disband until their primary objective had been fulfilled. That objective was the return of communal lands that had been appropriated by plantation owners during the period of dictatorship.

The new government refused to redistribute land and so fighting continued for the rest of the decade until Zapata’s peasant forces, a people in arms, could no longer maintain a guerrilla war against the larger and better armed government forces.

Zapata resisted entering the politics of the national government, though he encouraged the tradition of direct democracy in the communities he fought for. At the height of Zapatista military success they conquered the country’s capital. When Zapata was invited to sit in the presidential chair in the National Palace, he is quoted as saying ‘It would be better to burn it, for I have seen that everybody who has sat in this chair has become an enemy of the people’.

Despite opportunity and popular support Zapata refused to install himself as national president. Though Zapata’s political writings and speeches are restricted to the aims of the revolutionary peasant army it is thought that he was influenced by the ideas of Ricardo Flores Magón, a Mexican anarchist who was then publishing a newspaper from the USA. The Zapatista slogan of tierra y libertad – land and liberty – was taken from Magón.

However, the Casa del Obrero Mundial (House of World Workers), an anarcho – syndicalist industrial union founded originally by Magón, considered Zapatismo to be reactionary. They opposed the peasants politically and militarily until increasing industrial action led to the new liberal government proscribing the union. Many members subsequently switched sides. Zapata did use the examples of the new government’s repression of industrial workers as evidence of the counterrevolutionary nature of Mexico’s new political leadership.

Zapata is not thought to have been religious, in fact he is said to have written ‘ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny’, but he deplored the anticlerical violence of the new liberal government which aimed to reduce the power of the churches. The banner of his ‘Death Legion’ depicted ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’, a Mexican apparition of the Virgin Mary, above a skull and crossed bones.

Since the revolutionary war, inspired by the popular image of Zapata’s heroism and virtue as a leader, rhetoric from anarchists to governments promisingreforms have invoked the name of Zapata. Zapata has even appeared on banknotes. Newell’s respected biography does not dwellon personality traits, military aptitude orleadership skills but describes the material history that produced Zapata, therevolutionary war and its outcome.

This republication of Newell’s book of 1979 begins with a new introduction which relates Zapata to the contemporary Zapatista movement, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional. The book contains a list of sources, references, bibliography and internet links and an appendix which discusses the land question in greater detail.


Keith Scholey: ‘The Communist Club’, (Past Tense (c/o 56a Info Shop, 56 Crampton St., London SE17 0AE), October 2006. £1.
Stefan Szczelkun: Kennington Park, (Past Tense, June 2006. £1)

The Communist Club was the informal name under which German Workers Educational Association came to be known. Established in London in February 1840, as the name implies, the Association functioned mainly as an educational and social club for German workers in London. Usually meeting in rooms above pubs, the Association’s first venue was the Red Lion pub in Great Windmill Street.

Some of the same members were also involved with the Communist League, the organisation which commissioned Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto in 1847. The reading and adoption of the Manifesto probably happened at the Club’s new premises in Drury Lane.

The Club went on to play important roles in the Chartist movement, the First International, anarchism and socialism in Britain. In 1903 the Association now at Charlotte Street played host, in part, to the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The main outcome of this Congress was the emergence of Lenin’s Bolshevik faction within the RSDLP.

The Socialist Party had its first headquarters at the Communist Club (June 1904 to September 1905) and often held its Annual Conferences and Quarterly Delegate Meetings there up to 1919. The Club was closed a few years later and the building was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. In view of its importance in the history of the British working class and the Socialist Party, it is to be hoped that a more detailed version of this short pamphlet will be forthcoming.

The subtitle of Szczelkun’s pamphlet, “The Birthplace of People’s Democracy,” is something of an misnomer. The allusion is to Chartism. But the Chartist rally of April 1848, held at Kennington Park, marked the end of working class agitation for democracy in nineteenth century Britain. And this pamphlet contains other contentious statements. We are told, for example, that “History is not objective truth.” Undoubtedly much history is written from a ruling class point of view, but this does not mean that an objectively true account of the past is unattainable.

Presumably Stefan Szczelkun intends this work to be more than merely his point of view, particularly if he wants to persuade others about what really happened in the past. We are also told that “Socialist parties” (apparently including us) either considered working class culture to be a distraction or were active in encouraging our members to follow “middle class” forms of recreation (p. 14). Of course, the author provides no evidence for this preposterous assertion insofar as it refers to the Socialist Party. Apart from that, this work tells you all you could reasonably want to know about the history of London’s Kennington Park. There is much that is valuable in this short pamphlet and works like it.

Both publications are produced in conjunction with the South London Radical History Group. It is part of the process of rediscovering the truth about what happened in the past in our localities, and forms an indispensable part of the struggle for our socialist future. Where is your equivalent?


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