Book Reviews: ‘Notes From the End of History’, & ‘The Village Against the World’
Memories are made of this
‘Notes From the End of History: A Memoir of the Left in Wales’. Philip Bounds. Merlin.
Philip Bounds is an historian and journalist and this is his memoir about being attracted towards – and involved in – radical politics and organizations in Wales. It focuses mainly on the 1980s and 90s when he was growing up in a dynamic political environment punctuated by seminal events like the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. In particular, he tries to answer the questions ‘Why has Marxism survived in spite of enduring so many defeats?’ and ‘What was it like to belong to the radical left at a time when Marxism was at its lowest ebb?’.
In some ways, he gives a more coherent answer to the latter than the former question though it is interesting that his political journey started out attending meetings of the SPGB as a teenager. His accounts are at times funny and nearly always insightful, a flavour being his vivid description of his first ever political meeting, addressed by late comrade Ron Cook:
‘I suppose he was the sort of socialist Orwell might have been too narrow-minded to appreciate. Grey haired, bespectacled and genial he came across like a university lecturer who had thrown it all up for a career in market gardening . . . I understood about a third of it but in my heart I embraced it all.’ (p.62-3)
Bounds says that despite his admiration for the SPGB’s vision of a peaceful, democratic socialist revolution (which has clearly stayed with him since) he moved on to associate with various of the more conventional organizations of the political left, saying of the SPGB that he was ‘thrilled by its internal culture but dismayed by its lack of activism’. He ended up – perhaps bizarrely – in the Communist Party of Great Britain and then one of its successor organizations after its demise, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the group still associated with the Morning Star newspaper. The political journey he took, via meetings of the SPGB, an interest in the punk band Crass and the anarchist group Class War is a fascinating one, though despite all his self-reflection in this book, it remains something of a puzzle that he chose to end up in the CPB. Indeed, it is very clear that he retains an affection not only for the style of politics of the SPGB but for the Party’s insistence on majority democratic revolution and hostility to the totalitarian dictatorships of the former Soviet Union, China and North Korea, etc. These are dictatorships for which members of the CPB are normally want to retain something of a political affection.
At times there is a sense that Bounds wishes to challenge his readers to move beyond the stock-in-trade reformism and sloganeering of the far left. For instance, towards the end of the book there is a moving and insightful piece about the occasion he accompanied a poverty-stricken member of the CPB around Swansea late one night, as she rooted through leftovers behind a luxury hotel in search of free food to be distributed amongst those on her estate:
‘With her gift for locating sources of free food in a hostile city and her uncompromising insistence that the booty be shared out equally among her kinsfolk, she gestured towards a past in which no one thought of themselves as better than anyone else and everyone said ‘this is ours’ but never ‘this is mine’. In reminding us that communism had once been the natural order of things, she incarnated the hope that one day – at a much higher level of technology and culture and at a much lower level of superstition – we could do it all again.’ (p.186)
There is another way in which this book challenges the reader and pushes them further than they might otherwise have gone in their thinking. It is exceptionally well written and the prose flows beautifully. However, it is best to realise that amongst all this are often some very unfamiliar phrases and words. It is almost as if Bounds like to lull the reader into a false sense of security through the fluidity of his writing style before including something more challenging that will have readers running for the dictionary: ‘aetiology’, ‘exegetically gifted’, ‘subfusc’, ‘manichean intuitions’, ‘marmoreal’ and the wondrous ‘gallimaufry of soporific guests’ are but a random selection.
A highly entertaining and enjoyable memoir that deserves a wide audience, in Wales and beyond.
A Co-op in Spain
Dan Hancox: ‘The Village Against the World’. Verso £9.99.
Marinaleda is a village of 2,700 people in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, about sixty miles east of Seville. Under the Franco dictatorship it was poor and underdeveloped, like most places in the area, where massive landed estates owned by aristocrats prevailed. When Franco died in 1975, Spain began a transition to capitalist democracy. The people of Marinaleda organised in unions and demanded land; eventually, in 1991, the government gave them 1200 hectares of land belonging to a duke.
So began the development of what Hancox terms ‘an anti-capitalist answer … [a] community founded on mutual aid and collectivism, not the profit motive’. The village co-operative owns El Humoso, a farm several miles away. This is planted with labour-intensive crops such as cotton and sugar beet, thus providing more employment than the previous practice of growing crops such as corn that need little labour power. All co-op members earn the same wage, and any surplus is re-invested to create more jobs. There are no local police, the village is run by assemblies on the basis of direct democracy, and many villagers live in self-built homes for which they pay just fifteen euros a month. Each month the villagers work together voluntarily doing improvement work, such as gardening in the park.
Yet all is not quite what it seems. The regional government provides building materials and architectural assistance for the self-built homes, and also some kind of farming subsidy (unfortunately Hancox does not say much about this). The unemployment rate is much lower than the national average, but is still five to six percent. The present economic crisis in Spain has not left the village untouched, with regionally-based funding drying up, and there is insufficient money to pay the workers at El Humoso. The charismatic mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, is taking a back seat and is powerless to solve the current problems.
Further, some rather unpleasant aspects of local life are mentioned. Two of the village’s elected councillors are from the PSOE (roughly the Spanish equivalent of the Labour Party). One of them tells Hancox that those who do not agree with the mayor (those who are not Gordillistas) do not bother to attend the assemblies, and many of those who attend do so as a way of getting work. Some opponents have felt uncomfortable staying in Marinaleda and so have moved to live elsewhere. Hancox comments that in this and other cases it is impossible to distinguish facts and gossip, leaving the reader with no idea of where the truth lies.
Marinaleda carries on some Andalusian traditions of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, and shows that people can live without large landowners and capitalists. But it is not a socialist village, just one way of organising production to survive under capitalism.