Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Fire Last Time

Review of Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time - 1968 and After

Of all the articles, features, memoirs, and books devoted to 1968 ‘The Fire Last Time – 1968 and After’ by Chris Harman, formerly editor of Socialist Worker and now editor of International Socialism Journal, is, by some distance, the best. Its merits are easy to summarise.

First, it is not written in a spirit of nostalgia. I have no problem understanding why people are nostalgic about ’68 – indeed it is much better than being nostalgic about the World Cup or Harold Wilson and old Labour – but nostalgia is a poor basis for history or analysis. This is especially true when the nostalgia for a certain historical moment becomes mingled with nostalgia for lost youth .In my experience, far more people were at Grosvenor Square ( the March 17 Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration that ended in a punch up with the police in front of the US Embassy) in memory than were there in fact. Far more people like to think of themselves as part of ‘the movement’, and think of the movement as far larger than was often the case. The attendance at Grosvenor Square from my university was ten people in one minibus.

By the same token nostalgia can lead to a massive underestimation of the significance of events which didn’t happen to impinge on the narrator’s memory. Harman has none of this. It is an ‘objective’ i.e. impersonal, not neutral or non-partisan, history which deals with the past in order to understand the present and shape the future.

Precisely because of this, it offers a clear, accessible and accurate account of what happened in many different countries in that dramatic year. The focus, rightly, is on the USA and France, but Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Ireland and Italy are also covered, while the student revolt in Britain, in which the author played a not insignificant role, is treated as ‘a ripple from the storm’. Of course there is a weakness here, acknowledged in the Prologue, in that events outside of North America and Europe, such as the Naxalite Revolt in India or the rise of Al Fatah in Palestine, are not given their due, but this due to lack of space and Harman is always clear that ’68 was a world revolutionary process.

However Harman’s prime concern is not to describe or even to inspire but to understand. And this is where The Fire Last Time really scores. For Harman 1968, for all its unique features, was not some mythical golden moment that fell from the skies, but a period in which the class struggle, that is continuous under capitalism, burst into the open with particular intensity. It was, therefore, a revolutionary moment like revolutionary moments in the past – 1848, 1871, 1917, 1936, 1956, etc, - and others to come in the future, and it is to be analysed by means of the Marxist method. This means beginning with the development of the forces of production and its impact on social relations.

Harman shows how the post war economic boom produced a period of relative social peace in the fifties and early sixties, which he calls ‘the long calm’, but also how within this calm economic and social contradictions gradually accumulated and intensified – ‘a slow train coming’. He particularly stresses how economic expansion produced a massive process of urbanisation and proletarianisation which undermined and clashed with the conservative social structures inherited from the more rural past (such as Jim Crow in the US South or the protestant ascendancy in Northern Ireland) leading to explosions when the boom began to falter.

The same boom, he argues, produced a big increase in the number of students and a change in their social status, thus preparing the ground for the student revolt which played such a prominent role in 1968. Harman is an enthusiast for the student struggle and gives its full due as a revolutionary catalyst, but he doesn’t make the common mistake of seeing 1968 as being ‘just’ or ‘all’ about students. Although it had a degree of autonomy, the student revolt was fundamentally a reflection of the wider economic, social and ideological crisis in society, and was only able to offer a serious challenge to the established order when it linked up to wider social forces, above all the working class, as in the ten million strong French general strike.

It is impossible to do justice to the range of The Fire Last Time in a short review but it should be said that it deals with far more than just the events of 1968, analysing the whole wave of massive workers struggles that continued through to 1974, including how the ruling class was eventually able, with the aid of the reformist leaders, to bring the upheaval to an end and move onto the offensive, thus inaugurating ‘the downturn’.

But again it is Harman’s ability to combine detailed concrete analysis of specific struggles with a firm grasp of the broad movement of history that makes this such an outstanding work and still so relevant today.

John Molyneux

15 April 2008

Extreme Crimes- What do Socialists Say?


Extreme Crimes– What do Socialists Say?

From time to time in every modern country certain individuals commit horrific crimes against other individuals. These crimes tend to be particularly disturbing when they are of a sexual nature, and even more so when they involve children, either as victims or perpetrators.

The capitalist media invariably relishes these tragic events. They report them in lurid and sensationalised detail, according to well established formulae. At least initially, the victims are always exemplary characters, beloved of family and neighbours, while the suspects or accused are painted as ‘evil’ and ‘monstrous’. If it then emerges that the victim’s family is less than perfect, they too have their private lives picked over and ruthlessly pilloried.

Of course a major motive for this is simply to sell more newspapers or increase audience ratings and thus raise profits. But the media, and the ruling class who control it, also have an ideological and political agenda, which we need to understand and combat.

Our rulers have a general interest in us seeing human beings as basically bad and therefore in need of control from above. The idea that socialism is impossible because of the inherent defects of human nature, has long been a cornerstone of capitalist ideology. Politicians feel they have to flatter the electorate- “ I believe in the American/British/ Korean people’’ that sort of thing – so horrible crimes are a good opportunity for the media to ram home the message about basic human wickedness.

Another strand of bourgeois (and pre- bourgeois/feudal ideology) sees sex as essentially bad and as a dangerous force capable of undermining the social order if not strictly controlled. This view is reinforced by being able to link sex to violence and crime as in cases of serial rape, murder and child abuse.

The ruling class also wants us to be afraid of each other: to be afraid of the foreign enemy (the terrorists or the communists), of foreign workers (immigrants), of young people (in gangs and hanging on street corners) and of the man hiding in the bushes or lurking in the alley. The more we are afraid the less confidence we have in ourselves; the more we fear our neighbours and workmates the harder it is to unite with them against our rulers; the more atomised and isolated we are the less power we have to resist. Fear of crime, especially hideous crime, can easily be exploited to feed general fear and strengthen the grip of our rulers.

And the ruling class prefers the general intellectual level of working people to remain low. It doesn’t want us to develop a coherent or sophisticated understanding of the social world or human behaviour. It is therefore quite happy to foster among ‘ordinary’ people moralistic and superstitious ideas about individuals being ‘born evil’, even if it doesn’t hold them itself. Sex crimes provide excellent material for this. Notice how often the mass media encourage grief stricken relatives to give vent to their emotions, their feelings of hatred and desire for revenge.

Finally, the hysterical atmosphere generated around extreme crimes always includes demands for ‘tough measures’ and ‘action’ from the authorities – longer sentences, return of the death penalty and that sort of thing. And sometimes the ruling class accedes to these demands, or takes advantage of them, and uses the situation to push through increased powers.

So, faced with this kind of response from the media and the ruling class, what should socialists say?

First, we need to explain that these extreme crimes (paedophile murders, serial rapes and killings, etc.) are very rare. The incidence of crime as a whole, and its real affects on most people’s lives, is less than media coverage would suggest and this is especially true of the crimes at the most horrific end of the spectrum. In reality they are far less of a threat to the average person’s life and well being than unemployment, inflation, rent rises, cuts in services, illness, accidents on the roads or in the home, war, climate change and a host of other dangers.

Second, these events are invariably terrible personal tragedies for the victims, the victims’ families, and for the perpetrators’ families and, actually, the perpetrators themselves, NONE of whom benefit from the glare of publicity and sensationalist reporting. The perpetrators are NOT ‘monsters’ or ‘born evil’, no matter how awful the crime, for the good reason that no one, not even Hitler, was ‘born evil’ any more than they were born angels – it is a stupid, reactionary concept. They are people who have broken down, fragmented, gone to pieces under the hideous pressure of alienation, oppression and exploitation to which all of us are subjected under capitalism, and which distort all our lives to some degree.

When it comes to explanations of particular crimes there can be no question of simplistic ‘one size fits all’ theories or answers, in ignorance of specific facts, but socialists should be heavily biased in favour of social and psychological explanations over biological or ‘genetic’ ones and completely opposed to mystical or superstitious ones. It is not a matter of arguing, simplistically, that poverty or unemployment or similar material deprivation makes people into rapists, killers or child abusers but of understanding how these social factors combine with unique individual experiences in the family and in childhood to increase the likelihood of personality collapse, just as they increase the likelihood of infant mortality.

And from this it follows that socialists stand firmly against all the media induced hatred and hysteria. We resist the baying for vengeance, which does NOT benefit victims, and only degrades those who exact it. And we reject calls for longer sentences or harsher laws. This is both because they do not work either as a deterrent – clearly extreme crimes are irrational and cannot be prevented by rational calculation – and because they can be used by the ruling class for other purposes.

All such laws and increased powers granted to the police, the courts, and the prisons, although apparently directed against a small minority of ‘evil-doers’, in fact increase the overall power of the state, and the state is not the friend but the enemy of the working classes, not their protector, as it likes to claim, but the guarantor of their exploitation. Measures pushed through in the period of moral panic following particularly awful crimes (it is the same after terrorist outrages) are then available to the state to use on other occasions and against other enemies e.g. industrial militants or political opponents.

In the end the only way to abolish these horrible crimes is to abolish the sick, violent, sexist, racist, exploitative and alienated society that produces them.

John Molyneux

26 April 2008