Book Reviews: ‘An English Affair’ & ‘The History of Democracy’

Britain fifty years ago

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines. Harper Press, 2013. £20

It is 50 years since what was termed the ‘Profumo Affair’ rocked the Establishment and the ruling class in Britain, but particularly in England and London. Davenport-Hines asserts that it was ‘a nation on the brink of a social revolution.’ It was not that, but there was considerable change in the mores and life-styles of many workers compared to the pre-war period and for many years after that war.

Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, was very much an old-fashioned Tory, dedicated to tradition, hierarchy, so-called Christian morality and, of course, a capitalist society not unlike before the war; although he realised that the sun was setting on the British Empire and Commonwealth. The working class, he felt, ‘had never had it so good.’ Many other Tories pretended to be much the same as Macmillan but, in fact, spent their time in nightclubs and at parties on estates such as Lord Astor’s Cliveden, where the osteopath, Stephen Ward, would bring young and attractive (mainly working-class) girls, such as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, mostly for their sexual pleasure.

One such visitor to Cliveden was the Minister for War, John Profumo, the grandson of an Italian baron. Ward introduced Profumo to Keeler, who had been swimming naked in the pool. Also joining the party, which included the President of Pakistan and Lord Mountbatten and other establishment figures, was the Soviet assistant naval attaché Yevgeni Ivanov (actually a Russian spy known to MI5) brought to Cliveden by Ward. Following his return to London, Profumo phoned Keeler and arranged to meet her the next weekend, as his wife would be away. Subsequently, Profumo and Keeler had an affair which was furtive but known to many people including MI5. Christine Keeler also knew Ivanov, claiming to have had sex with him. The Cold War had been ‘hotting up’; and Ward became an unofficial go-between for the Soviets and some British politicians.

When challenged by government ministers, MI5 and others, including Parliament, John Profumo denied having sexual relations with Christine Keeler. But it was too late. It was common knowledge. Profumo resigned as Minister for War, and Stephen Ward was arrested on trumped-up charges of keeping and living off the earnings of prostitutes, and various abortion offences. During his trial, however, Ward committed suicide. The so-called popular press had a field-day, publishing lie after lie about Ward, Keeler and Profumo. Davenport-Hines has an interesting chapter (‘Hacks’, no.7), demonstrating that the ‘popular’ papers and their writers were just as bad as, if not worse than, the red-top papers of today.

The author of An English Affaire is not a socialist, and his analysis has its faults, but it is a useful reminder of British society 50 years ago. It’s worth a read.



Democracy, ancient and modern

The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation, by Brian S. Roper. Pluto Press, 2013

It is ironic that, just at a time when the undemocratic nature of the SWP’s internal structure is being exposed to the public glare, an SWP sympathiser should bring out a book on democracy.

Roper’s basic thesis is that the Ancient World produced two different models of democracy – Athenian direct democracy and Roman representative democracy – and that bourgeois democracy conforms to the latter. Rome, even in its republican days, was always ruled by an oligarchy of patricians; the plebs only had a say through representatives, magistrates who were either rich plebs or patricians starting their political career.

To make his point, Roper examines the English, American and French revolutions and has no difficulty in demonstrating that their leaders rejected the concept of universal manhood suffrage; where they did accept a fairly wide franchise they imposed property qualifications on those who could be elected. Some of the New England towns practised direct democracy but the US constitution and that of its states practised what Thomas Hamilton called ‘representative democracy’, where the people were represented by those who had more property. The French republic had a similar constitution before it was overthrown by Napoleon.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw popular struggles in all capitalist countries to remove property qualifications and extend the franchise. It is a pity that Roper hardly goes into these, but those in Germany, Belgium and Russia gave rise to interesting discussions within the Marxist-oriented Social Democratic movement as to the tactics of the struggle and why it was important. He mentions Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Mass Strike but omits to mention that she was advocating this as a tactic in both Russia and Germany to obtain the vote and political democracy.

Marx himself supported the Chartist demand for a parliament elected by universal suffrage and with paid MPs and later campaigns to extend the vote to more workers. Roper does not discuss the extent to which this – where workers could in theory represent themselves – could still be called a ‘representative democracy’ in the sense Hamilton meant it but continues to use the term as if it was.

In the eulogy which Marx drafted for the First International on the Paris Commune of 1871 after its suppression, he offered a different model: a federation of municipalities elected by universal suffrage where these would send mandated delegates to a central assembly; in other words, a parliament which would only be indirectly elected. Whether this would be more democratic than a directly elected one remains a matter for debate.

Roper completely ignores Marx’s view that, under certain circumstances, the workers might be able to win control of political power via the ballot box, so turning universal suffrage from an instrument for duping people into an agent of emancipation.

According to Roper, ‘the experience of the Commune highlighted the need for a centralised revolutionary party to exercise leadership within the working class during the course of the revolution in order to ensure that capitalism and parliamentary democracy are successfully overthrown and replaced by socialist democracy.’

By ‘socialist democracy’ he means the system that was supposedly established in Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, based on ‘soviets’ (workers’ councils), in which the direct democracy of a workplace assembly would be the basic unit and which would elect delegates to wider decision-making bodies. Whilst it is true that directly elected parliaments have been hi-jacked by leadership-run parties dominated by MPs who refuse to consider themselves delegates, it is also true that the Russian soviets were taken over and manipulated by the vanguard party that the Bolsheviks were. They never did function as they were supposed to. What happened could even be used to reach the opposite conclusion to Roper’s on the Paris Commune: the dangers of the existence of a centralised party seeking to exercise leadership over the working class.

This is not a work of original research but to a large extent a rehash of the writings of SWP theorists such as Alex Callinicos and the late Chris Harman.


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