Book Reviews: ‘Not a Crime to Be Poor – the Criminalization of Poverty in America’, ‘A Party With Socialists In It – A History of the Labour Left’, & ‘The Kronstadt Uprising’
One Law for the poor
‘Not a Crime to Be Poor: the Criminalization of Poverty in America’. By Peter Edelman (The New Press $26.95)
In 2010 sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder was charged with stealing a backpack. The judge set bail at $3000, but his family could not afford this. He refused to plead guilty to a crime he had not committed, and so was sent to the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York City. He spent three years there awaiting trial, eight hundred days of this in solitary confinement. He was eventually released (never having been tried, let alone found guilty), but now had severe mental health problems and committed suicide in 2015.
This horrendous example is one of many discussed in Peter Edelman’s enlightening book. In the US today it is often a crime to be poor, and particularly to be poor and black or homeless or mentally ill. Cuts in government funding since the Reagan era have led to courts relying on ‘users’ to pay for the legal system, which means the accused or just those arrested without being tried. People often plead guilty in order to avoid a long period in jail before a trial; otherwise they may be held in jail for a low-level offence for which the prescribed punishment is a fine. The size of fines has been increased, and people can be fined extra for not paying immediately.
Another consequence of reduced funding was an attempt in some areas to reduce the number of calls to 911 by requiring landlords to evict tenants who call the emergency number too often. This was even applied to women who rang to seek protection from domestic abuse.
At least 300,000 people in US jails and prisons have serious mental illness, and this includes one in three incarcerated women. The penal system has in many ways been used as a substitute for a proper system of mental hospitals and addiction centres. Corizon is a for-profit company that provides mental and medical care in prisons and has an annual revenue of around $1.5bn; but various scandals have led to it losing many of its contracts.
A criminal record can have enormous implications for the whole of a person’s life, and the links between poverty and imprisonment lead Edelman to refer to a ‘cradle-to-coffin pipeline’. People may serve multiple periods in jail for not paying fines and fees to the court. Poverty can be a cause of getting a criminal record, but also a consequence, as such a record can reduce a person’s chances of getting a decent job, and many laws prevent those with a criminal record from, for instance, obtaining a licence to cut hair.
In his final chapter, Edelman examines a number of attempts to reduce poverty and cut the links between poverty and crime. He has to admit, though, that their usefulness is limited: of one project in Minneapolis he notes that it ‘is making an identifiable difference in the lives of many poor people’ but it ‘has not yet been able to affect the overall poverty in the neighborhood as a whole.’
‘A Party With Socialists In It. A History of the Labour Left’. By Simon Hannah. (Pluto Press. 2018. 250 pages)
It was Tony Benn who wrote that ‘the Labour Party has never been a socialist party, though there have always been socialists in it’ which Hannah has taken as the title of his book. The first part is true but the second depends on what you mean by ‘socialist’.
When it was founded in 1900 as the Labour Representation Committee, the Labour Party was to be a group of MPs, separate from the Liberals and Tories, to press for legislation in favour of trade unions and their members and didn’t actually become the Labour Party, as a parliamentary group, until it had some MPs elected in the 1906 general election. It didn’t even claim to be socialist. However, one of its constituent parts, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) that had been founded in 1893, did. In 1918 the Labour Party adopted a new constitution which included the famous Clause IV, which committed it (on paper and in the very long-term) to full-scale nationalisation; it also allowed individuals to join directly rather than via the ILP or the Fabian Society, which marginalised the ILP which eventually, in 1932, broke away and so was no longer ‘in’ the Labour Party.
Hannah’s history is that of the ILP up to 1932 (which he sees though rose-tinted spectacles), the Red Clydesiders, Sir Stafford Cripps and the Socialist League, Bevan and the Bevanites, Benn and the Bennites, and, now, Corbyn and the Corbynistas.
But were they socialists? They certainly considered themselves to be but understood socialism as the implementation of Clause IV. As this envisaged the nationalisation of ‘the means of exchange’, it implied the continuation of production for the market and the wages system; in effect state capitalism. Basically, they were leftwing reformists.
Hannah himself, an ex-Trotskyist, sees socialism as nationalisation under workers’ control but this is no way forward as, given production for the market, workers would be forced to run their industry on capitalist lines. He describes Benn’s politics as ‘greater democracy, greater worker involvement in industry, and a more accountable political class’ and Corbyn’s as ‘anti-neoliberal without being anti-capitalist.’ Both true.
‘The Kronstadt Uprising’. By Ida Mett. (Theory and Practice, www.theoryandpractice.org.uk)
In March 1921, after the civil war in Russia had ended with the victory of the Bolshevik government, strikes broke out in Petrograd and other cities demanding an improvement in living conditions, basically the ‘Bread’ part of the ‘Peace, Land and Bread’ slogan that the Bolsheviks had used to win enough popular support to seize power. In Kronstadt, an island fortress and naval base commanding access to Petrograd, the armed sailors went further. They deposed the Bolshevik officials, locked some of them up, and demanded free and secret elections to the soviets (councils), in effect a genuine ‘soviet government’ rather than the one-party rule of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks responded by sending in the Red Army to suppress this challenge to their rule. At least 4000 insurgents were killed or executed.
This is a reprint of Ida Mett’s classic pamphlet on what happened. Written in French in 1938, it set out to refute the Bolshevik view that it had been a counter-revolutionary plot hatched by the French secret service, led by Tsarist generals, etc. She succeeded well enough in making her case. As a native Russian-speaker (she was an anarchist exile from Russia living in France), she had access to the proclamations and declarations of the Kronstadt ‘provisional revolutionary committee’ and was able to show that they were demanding the ‘soviet’ rule that was supposed to have been established in November 1917 following the overthrow of Kerensky, but which had in fact resulted in the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party. One of the declarations she quoted denounced the ‘state capitalism’ of the Bolshevik party. All of their declarations are now available in English translation on the Marxist Internet Archive website.
Her article was published in 1948 (not in 1938 as stated in this and previous English editions) under the title ‘The Kronstadt Commune: the bloody twilight of the soviets’. Mett explained in a preface to a reprint of the French edition in 1970 that the syndicalist publication, Révolution prolétarienne, to which she had submitted it turned it down on the grounds that it was too hostile to Trotsky who was then being hounded by the Stalin regime that ended in his assassination in 1940. (It wasn’t as hostile as the Kronstadters’ declarations, though, which denounced him as ‘Field Marshal Lord Trotsky’).
Lenin and Trotsky do come out badly as what happened at Kronstadt showed that Bolshevik Russia was already in their day a brutal one-party dictatorship whose leaders would stop at nothing to hold on to power, i.e. well before Stalin was in control. To this day the very mention of ‘Kronstadt’ makes Trotskyists squirm.
This reprint includes the preface to the original edition published by the old Solidarity Group in 1967 and one by Murray Bookchin to a reprint in 1971. It is not the complete pamphlet as the opening chapter on the revolutionary role of Russian sailors in 1905-6 and in 1917 was not translated and has not yet been.