Book reviews: Farage / Racism and hostility / Unlearning Marx
Making fans for Nigel?
One Party After Another. By Michael Crick. Simon & Schuster. 2022. £25
Ex-Newsnight journalist Michael Crick has something of a reputation as a hatchet-job specialist, though this book is more well-rounded than expected. It is helped by the fact that Crick is a good writer and so the book is an entertaining read, well-researched and salacious perhaps in equal measure. He portrays Nigel Farage as ‘the great disrupter’ and as the arch-UK populist of his time, and there can be little doubt about that aspect of Farage’s life.
Crick argues that Farage was like this from the outset, from his apparent teenage dalliance while at Dulwich College with the National Front, straight to his high-octane career as a City metals commodity trader (bypassing university, which never interested him). It was the decision in 1990 by the then Conservative government to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) that impelled Farage to take politics seriously – he had previously been a sometime member of the Tory Party but had also on one occasion voted Green.
Joining the Anti-Federalist League set up by Dr Alan Sked, he was eventually to take it over – pretty ruthlessly according to Crick – and turn it into what became UKIP. Crick does a good job of chronicling the turbulence at the centre of Farage’s life since (the multiple affairs, the serious drinking culture, the near-death experiences including the plane crash on election day in 2010) which has mirrored in some ways the turbulence of his political career. Hence the title One Party After Another – Farage has been UKIP leader and then resigned only to return so many times it is genuinely difficult to keep count, and of course then went on to form the Brexit Party and latterly Reform UK. He is portrayed as a veritable ‘force of nature’ who bizarrely couples a genuine talent for communication with a profound difficulty in working with other people.
His ultimate legacy is Brexit of course, though while Crick doesn’t underplay the role of Johnson, Gove, Cummings and their ilk in this, he does rather underplay the role of the tabloid press, who arguably enjoyed their last hurrah in promoting the greatest irrelevance ever purveyed to the British working class. And all with the help of arriviste businessmen and hedge fund managers who bankrolled the operation both before and after the 2016 referendum. Crick outlines how this campaign then paved the way for the 2019 General Election, the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ and the eventual UK withdrawal from the EU. Crick says:
‘For a hundred years the Labour Party had depended on class loyalty. People voted Labour because they’d always voted Labour, and their families and friends all voted Labour too… In the 2016 referendum, Labour officially urged people to vote Remain, yet in hundreds of traditional working-class Labour seats, especially in the Midlands and the North, Labour supporters and trade unionists voted emphatically to leave the EU. The 2016 referendum burst the rising dam of resentment in such places that Labour no longer delivered for poor people like them with insecure, lowly paid jobs, and that under Blair, Miliband and Corbyn, Labour had become just another London party for wealthy middle-class types who’d gone to university’ (p.547).
In some ways, it’s difficult to disagree and Farage’s Brexit Party rubbed salt in this wound. But for what ? Crick argues that part of Farage’s legacy is that it may be difficult for the Labour Party to ever form a government on its own again. But as people are now discovering with a likely pending recession (according to the Bank of England) and because Brexit has helped propel price rises to their greatest rate in decades, Brexit was just another illusion as a supposed solution to people’s problems. In fact, not only wasn’t it the answer, it wasn’t even asking the right question.
Farage was a key player in creating one of the biggest political apparitions of the last century and as time passes this is likely to become clearer. As a result, what seems like a career that had a massive impact now (Crick rates him as one of the five most significant political leaders of the last 50 years) might look rather differently when those voters in the Red Wall seats notice their lives haven’t actually changed for the better after all. Meanwhile, both UKIP and Reform UK have struggled to find a new purpose and given the political trajectories of both Northern Ireland and Scotland currently, it might not be too long before one of the greatest political ironies of all time emerges when UKIP has to rename itself ‘EWIP’.
Farage is currently marooned at GB News, which ever more seems to exist as being purely and simply his very own ‘news’ channel. Here he continues his rather repulsive dalliance with fellow egomaniac Donald Trump together with his campaign against men in little boats crossing the channel at great peril, effectively an unwanted latter-day Dunkirk without white faces. A man of the people until the end, clearly.
Racism and hostility
Of Fear and Strangers: a History of Xenophobia. By George Makari. Yale University Press £20.
The word xenophobia may sound as if it is from Classical Greek, but in fact it is much more recent. It dates from the 1880s, as a psychiatric condition (pathological fear of strangers) and a term for irrational enmity towards other nations, with terms such as Francophobia found. But its real use for dislike of ‘foreigners’ dates from the 1900 Boxer Uprising in China, after invasions by various European colonial powers led to a resistance movement which included the slogan ‘destroy the foreigners’. It was thus employed to explain why people living in Asia or Africa might hate Western armies and colonialists.
A so-called racial science was developed, which inter alia claimed that ‘primitive races’ saw all outsiders and strangers as enemies. This licensed violence against those who evinced such hatred. But, as George Makari shows here, this position was gradually undermined. Reports such as Roger Casement’s on Belgian atrocities in the Congo, together with many other examples of colonial murders and forced labour, made it clear that Western behaviour and attitudes were to blame: ‘Their wild and primitive xenophobic rejection of us was actually our violent dehumanization of them.’ Immigrants to the West, such as Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia, encountered xenophobia from organisations like the British Brothers’ League, which at the start of the last century wanted to halt immigration by ‘destitute foreigners’.
In the 1930s there was a ‘general panic’ in Europe against migrants, and Nazi policies had been foreshadowed in many ways by earlier colonial conquest and domination. Their killings of Jews and others seemed to go beyond ‘just’ xenophobia, and the term genocide was coined in 1944 to describe the intent to destroy a human identity.
Makari provides a full and detailed account of how xenophobia and other racist views have been used to justify mass killings, slavery and so on. The second half of the book, which examines the ideas of psychologists and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, is less interesting, but the final section has a useful discussion of the return of xenophobia, especially since 2016, as witness Brexit and Trump. It cannot be explained simply as due to economic problems or ‘cultural preservation’. Perhaps more extensive discussion of populist politics would have been helpful here.
It is sometimes argued that it is just part of human nature to distrust strangers or outsiders, who are not part of some in-group and so threaten ‘us’ and need to be driven off. But Makari cites the research of various writers who have argued that restraining aggression had advantages for survival and so led to bands of humans becoming larger, safer and not living in constant fear.
Marx was right
Unlearning Marx. Why the Soviet Failure was a Triumph for Marx. By Steve Paxton, Zero Books, 2021. 165pp.
The thesis of this interesting book is that the failure of the Bolsheviks to establish a socialist society in Russia following the 1917 revolution shows the correctness of Marx’s contention that such a society can only arise from advanced capitalism. And since Russia was not an advanced capitalist society in 1917, it could not ‘jump’ the capitalist stage and go straight to socialism. This is not of course a new argument. In fact, it’s one of the arguments against Bolshevism posing as socialism that appeared in the Socialist Standard in the period immediately following the Russian revolution. Those early members of the Socialist Party were clear that, whatever was happening in Russia, it wasn’t and couldn’t be socialism. But this book has the merit of going to extensively researched lengths to prove beyond any conceivable doubt not only that Russia was massively backward in terms of capitalist development in 1917 but probably more so than has previously been thought. To do this it goes into enormous detail on economic developments in Russia throughout the 19th century and right up to the revolution, often comparing these to what was happening in Western Europe and in particular in the motor of capitalist development that was England. Such detail is used to demonstrate conclusively ‘the failure of capitalist production to penetrate the lives of the mass of ordinary Russian producers’ and so the inevitably premature nature of the seizure of power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks ‘in the name of the proletariat’.
The author follows this by discussion, again highly detailed and documented, of how the Russian economy was built up by the Bolsheviks after the post-revolution period of ‘War Communism’ (1917-22), first under Lenin and then under Stalin, often of course with unbridled violence and brutality inflicted on much of the population. And far from being the development of ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ as the regime presented it, he sees this period as representing the transition stage from feudalism to capitalism that Western Europe had undergone earlier and much more gradually over a period of several centuries. He rejects too the idea that what Russia had during this period was ‘state capitalism’, on the grounds that capitalism was not sufficiently developed there for that name to be attached to it (more like ‘state feudalism’ at least at the beginning, he suggests). And indeed he argues that capitalism didn’t in fact come to Russia until the end of the Soviet Union in 1989 when the Soviet system reached peak ‘stagnation’. This is debatable as before then Russia had all the typical features of capitalism – a money economy, wage labour, capital investment, buying and selling, a small privileged class in control (in this case Party bosses and bureaucrats) and in effect ownership of the means of production, and a large mass of workers with no control over the means of living.
His book also presents the opportunity for the author to effectively put to bed common misrepresentations of Marx and his ideas. He does this, in the sections that focus on it, in a highly readable and credible way. So, far from the collapse of the Soviet Union being ‘a fatal blow to important Marxian theses’, he makes it clear that ‘Marx specifically predicted that projects like the Soviet Union would fail’ and that such an outcome does not in any way mean that ‘socialism has been tried and found wanting’. A further merit of this book is the nuanced discussion of class to be found in the section entitled ‘Deeper into Marx’ which recognises that a relatively small number of exceptions to the Marxian model of the class divide between those who own and control the means of production and those who have to work for a wage or salary to survive may blur the overall picture, but at the same time makes short shrift of the idea of a large number of classes in capitalist society and correctly sees the key to class not in whether someone actually works for a wage or salary but the ‘economic pressure’ on that person, i.e. whether that person has to work in order to survive or can choose not to if they want.
The book’s short concluding chapter which looks to the future is also encouraging. Using Marx’s theory of historical development (historical materialism) as a framework, as the writer has done throughout the book, it states tellingly of capitalism that ‘it has provided the means to produce more and better and faster’, that it has developed ‘technology to the point where we can produce the material abundance required by a free society’ and that ‘the level of technological development it has delivered means that we have now entered a post-scarcity world’. Yet, as he points out, ‘Twenty thousand people starve to death every day. Not because we don’t have the food to feed them – but because our current economic and social mechanisms don’t allow us to deliver that food to them.’ At the same time, he sees no virtue in violent revolution: ‘We are not going to progress past capitalism by seizing the means of production in armed conflict.’ Nothing here that socialists can disagree with, but this reader was left a little bemused by the remedy proposed, as a way of organising our ‘post scarcity world’, consisting as it does of ‘new approaches to the relationships between work and leisure, between work and reward, between possession and ownership and between private property and public value’ and not a democratic system of free access to all goods and services.