Book Reviews: “Deadly Waters”, “Lenin”, “So You Think You Know about Britain?”, & ‘Gerrard Winstanley’
‘Deadly Waters: Inside the Hidden World of Somalia’s Pirates’. By Jay Bahadur. (Profile £12.99.)
Somalia is often referred to as a ‘failed state’, one with no effective central authority. Instead there are a number of autonomous enclaves, owing little if any allegiance to the official capital, Mogadishu. One of these is Puntland in the north-east, which, with a long coastline on the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, has become a centre for piracy (over forty hijackings in 2008, for instance, with ships, crew and cargo held for ransom of several million US dollars).
Fishing (especially for lobsters) used to be one of the main occupations in Puntland, but from the 1990s fishing fleets from other countries (mainly China, Taiwan, South Korea) began using dragnets and so destroyed much of the marine life, leaving locals with no reliable source of income. The effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aggravated the situation. Many Puntlanders retaliated by capturing the fishing vessels and keeping their catches, but then graduated to full-scale piracy.
Some pirates benefit far more financially than others. The ‘holders’, who guard the crew once a ship has been captured, earn about US$10 an hour, while those who carry out the attack get a fair bit more (but have a much greater chance of being killed or arrested). The controller of a pirate gang might receive a million dollars per hijacking, so they are in effect rather like capitalist bosses.
And indeed the pirate industry has a number of similarities to other capitalist enterprises. There are investors who expect a return, both single investors and those who operate on a private equity model. As Bahadur says, “Piracy is not so much organized crime as it is a business, characterized by extremely efficient capital flows, low start-up costs, and few entry barriers.”
The Puntland pirates benefit from the area being not quite ungoverned but not completely stable either. There is no out-and-out civil war, unlike other parts of Somalia, but neither is there an effective coastguard operation. The Puntland government officially has a clampdown on piracy, but cannot afford to implement this properly. Instead, private security companies place staff on some ships, and international navy patrols are another deterrent. But there is an awful lot of ocean to cover, and a comprehensive naval force would cost far more than is paid out in ransoms.
Bahadur bases a lot of his discussion on interviews with pirates and members of Puntland’s government. His suggested solutions (such as enlarging the local prisons and stopping illegal fishing) can hardly be taken seriously, though. And it is, to say the least, unfortunate that he refers to Said Barre, who ruled Somalia in the 1970s and 80s, as a “Marxist dictator”.
‘Lenin.’ By Lars T. Lih, (Reaktion Books, 2011, £10.95)
This is a good biography of Lenin, who was born Vladimir Ulyanov in 1870, the son of a top Tsarist civil servant. Lih brings out well how until 1917 Lenin was essentially an anti-Tsarist Russian revolutionary with his own particular theory and strategy of how to overthrow the Tsarist regime and replace it with a democratic republic that was the aim of all 19th century Russian revolutionaries. At first many thought that the mass basis for the overthrow of Tsarism could be the peasantry. Then they turned to assassination (Lenin’s brother, Alexander, was executed in 1887 for his part in an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III). After widespread strikes in the 1890s some turned to the factory proletariat as the mass basis and identified themselves as Marxist Social Democrats. One of these, from 1893, was Lenin.
As Marxists, the Social Democrats accepted that Russia, at least on its own, would have to pass through capitalism, which would create the material basis for socialism as well as preparing the working class to run society. Some argued that it was therefore best to leave the leadership of the popular, democratic (or “bourgeois”) revolution that would overthrow Tsarism to the bourgeoisie supported by the workers and peasants. Lenin disagreed. Lih describes him as holding to “the heroic scenario” of the factory proletariat leading the mass of the Russian people (who were mainly peasants) to overthrow Tsarism and establish a democratic republic. Lenin knew very well that socialism in Russia (alone) was out of the question.
As it turned out, the Tsarist regime collapsed of itself in March 1917 under the impact of WWI. Lih describes how Lenin now shifted his position and began to argue that, instead of a democratic republic and liberal capitalism, what could be established in Russia was a working class regime which could take some “steps to socialism” while awaiting a socialist revolution in the rest of Europe which he was convinced was imminent. It was on this basis that the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917.
The European socialist revolution that Lenin had gambled on failed to materialise (in reality it was never on the cards) and he found himself the head of the government of a country that was both economically and culturally backward. Lenin suffered a first stroke in May 1922 and was no longer at the centre of power until he died after a third stroke in January 1924. Lih detects, as others have done, in Lenin’s last articles written in 1923 doubts creeping into Lenin’s mind:
“The cultural deficit explained the failure of Lenin’s hopes for the Soviets, but it also posed a direct challenge to the legitimacy of socialist revolution in backward Russia. Lenin was confronted by this challenge in January 1923 when he read a memoir of the 1917 revolution written by the left-wing socialist Nikolai Sukhanov. In notes dictated soon afterwards Lenin admitted that socialist critics such as Sukhanov had correctly asserted that Russia was not ready for socialism. He responded to these familiar arguments with a flood of rhetorical questions (I count nine in two pages). Such questions are the rhetorical device of choice for those who are not quite sure of their position.”
It was to his credit that he did have doubts, even if it was psychologically impossible for him to admit that he had been wrong in 1917. There never was of course any prospect of the Bolsheviks giving up their control of political power. Maybe if Lenin had not died at the relatively young age of 53 the capitalism that inevitably developed there would not have been called “socialism” but the “state capitalism” Lenin knew it to be.
‘So You Think You Know about Britain?’ By Danny Dorling. (Constable £8.99)
It is often argued that there are too many old people or too many immigrants in Britain, or simply too many people. In this informative and enlightening book, Danny Dorling subjects these and many other commonly-held beliefs to a thorough examination, with frequently-surprising conclusions.
The north–south divide has been moving gradually southwards, with more and more areas being categorised as part of the less well-off ‘north’; the dividing line in fact runs diagonally from the Humber to the Severn estuary. On average, if you live on the London side of the line your life expectancy is two years greater than otherwise. Life expectancy is also influenced by many other factors (extra years likely if your father worked in a non-manual occupation, if you have never smoked, if you eat fruit daily, if you have sex at least twice a week, for instance). The north–south divide is now wider than at any time since the 1920s, and is most graphically illustrated by the difference between how long a child born in the most affluent part of London is likely to live as opposed to one born in the poorest part of Glasgow (86.7 versus 74.3 years).
Women on average live longer than men, which is why Eastbourne, a popular retirement destination, has 87 men for every 100 women. In other cases, such as Glasgow, a comparable imbalance is caused by men either leaving the area or else dying before they reach retirement age. But women in their late twenties are the most likely to get into debt. And a recession leads to both an increase in emigration and a drop in birth rates, as people are less willing to start a family.
Inequality has increased in various ways, with the incomes of the richest fifth of the population having grown at eight times the rate of the bottom fifth. By 2005, 27 percent of households could be classified as poor, living below the breadline. This poverty is largely geographically-based, but there are no ghettos, in the sense of districts almost exclusively the preserve of one ethnic or cultural group. Yet in England most children who live above the fourth floor in tower blocks are black or Asian.
Dorling is well aware that measuring things in terms of profit is not always sensible:
“British roads, pavements and railway carriages could be far more comfortable places to travel on (and in) if we did not so often judge an activity as worthy only if it makes a profit. We don’t always do this, we don’t always seek only profit, otherwise none of us would have children.”
This is reinforced by the discovery of the large numbers of unpaid carers, who ‘often visited others’ homes simply to help, for no monetary reward, and often for reasons other than family ties’. There are more carers in places with more people in need of care. So the view, often put forward by supporters of capitalism, that people will not work without being paid in return, is simply untrue. This book not only shows that many beliefs about Britain are wrong – it also discredits a common argument against socialism.
Gerrard Winstanley. A Common Treasury. Presented by Tony Benn. Verso, 2011. £8.99
Verso have republished this selection of writings by Winstanley chosen by Andrew Hopton that first appeared in 1989, but have given it a new title, a new Foreward (20 pages) and an introduction by Tony Benn (3 pages). Winstanley, as an early advocate of making the Earth a common treasury for all is always worth reading. The selection here includes only his writings from 1648-9 and so does not include his main work The Law of Freedom.