50 Years Ago: A Plea for Human Survival

CATCH-22, by Joseph Heller. Jonathan Cape, 18s.

This is a brilliant, powerful, bitter book.

The military machine is one of capitalism’s ugliest children. Ugly not only because it is a killer machine, but also because of the discipline, stupidity and wastefulness which its killer motive compels it to have. Some workers glory in these things. They never forget their days in the Forces; they join ex-service men’s associations, parade in their earner; medals, perpetuate the slang they learned in the Nissen huts.

CATCH-22 looks at all this with the searing eye of remorseless satire. (…) Joseph Heller is another of the people who, without being Socialists, can compose impressive indictments of capitalism. He is a writer of enormous impact, who constructs and times his sentences to perfection. He can make us laugh and he can grip us horrified with sensitive, compulsive prose. His description of Yossarian brooding through Rome, watching human behaviour decay all around him, will haunt us for a long time. All in all he makes the post-war wave of British novelists, with their startling discovery that a lot of people under capitalism have to work for their living and that in their spare time they sometimes get drunk and have illicit sexual relations, look pretty sick. (…)

At the moment, Catch 22 is sweeping the United States, where cars carry window-stickers which say “Better Yossarian Than Rotarian.” Nobody need think, because of that, that if capitalism throws up another world war the people who have laughed at, been moved by, and agreed with Heller’s book will not turn the required mental somersault and join up with a will. We know now that working class ignorance runs that deep.

For all that, Catch-22 deserves to be read and to find its place among the books which stand out against the lie that war is romantic and glorious and necessary but which say unmistakably that the people have nothing to gain from war and that war is sordid and obscene and futile.

(From review by Ivan, Socialist Standard, November 1962)

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