Collected short book reviews
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Collected Short Book Reviews:
These reviews first appeared first in the Morning Star at the time of publication of the books involved :
“A Very British Strike” by Anne Perkins (MacMillan)
Anne Perkins is not a labour historian, nor an academic, and, alas, it shows. It is not so much that one can point to many precise errors as such, much of the account is pretty standard, and the book is very readable, but there’s a pervading sense of a lack of familiarity with the labour movement.
For example, the T&G was by no means just a creation of dockers’, or local unions; and conflating Sidney Webb with the ILP may be just a drafting error but one wonders. And being the `buggin’s turn’ annual chair of the TUC is hardly “leading” it. Whilst I would query whatever system she has relied upon to translate 1920’s prices into contemporary monetary equivalents and it would be rather difficult to be reading the `Daily Worker’ in 1926, when the first issue only came out four years later! (An error that appears twice, so it can’t be a word processing problem; it’s the `Weekly’ Worker, of course, and it’s not the only 1920s journal misunderstood.)
The exclusion of Communists from the Labour Party was a good deal more problematic than merely declaring membership of both “incompatible”; the flawed insight comes from a later period of relationship. Only a “handful” of Labour Party CLPs refusing to implement the initial ban (actually on Communists as parliamentary and council candidates) was in reality over a 100 of the strongest constituencies. The LRD was (and is) not of course formally anything to do with the TUC, contrary to Perkins’ misunderstanding about the site of its offices in 1926.
Though I tried hard to like the book, its rationale as an attempt to contextualise the General Strike into a larger narrative about Britain stood in the way. Her big idea is to parallel the way that the present British state has reacted to Islamic terrorism with the way the `threat’ of Bolshevism transfixed the early 20th century. Seemingly, the Russian revolution of 1917, created “fear … (that) lingered like a cloud of volcanic ash”.
Seeking to provide a “political account rather than a study of the strike”, she has largely relied on entirely secondary sources. We are urged to look elsewhere for “dense details of negotiations” but, I fear, we need to look elsewhere for political analysis, too.
The perception that MacDonaldite `gradualism’ may be bracketed with Blairism, and an over-eagerness to find parallels in sometimes not very significant statements or events, exemplifies a tendency to downplay ideological factors that have historically weakened the labour movement. I wondered in vain exactly who it was that “often spoke” of Jimmy Thomas as the “best politician in the Labour Party”. The book is all too anxious to prove that mass political strike action is not the British way and that this has been `evident’ since 1926. The reluctance to accept any validity for the analysis of the Communist Party even results in a use of language that is redolent of the Cold War; the theoretical journal “Communist Review” is described as a “Moscow-backed publication”. Well, yes but no!
There’s too much ready reliance on recently released MI5 documents purporting to be blueprints for a British revolution. I baulked (but Perkins does not) at the suggestion that the aging Tom Mann would be responsible for “blowing bridges”, or that Arthur MacManus, the unwell Chair of the Communist Party, would be “responsible for machine gunning and bombing in Manchester”!!!
One atypical local example of a failed Communist attempt at preparing the movement fails to convey the urgency and depth to which the Party’s warnings about the imminence of conflict dominated. Throughout 1925, `Workers’ Weekly’ carried a box giving the diminishing countdown of the weeks of subsidy left; so many weeks left to prepare for the struggle. Yet the General Council dallied, refusing to prepare right up to the eve of the strike.
So many weaknesses in a book hardly inspire confidence in the sources used, or the judgement employed. Yet, perhaps because of her aim of drawing modern parallels, and a possessing a liberal ethos, Perkins is clearer about the class synergy between mine owners and Tory politicians, the bias of the BBC, the marginalisation of the Churches’ appeal to government to negotiate, the insidious role of the right wing press in concert with organs of the state and the licence given to the burgeoning fascist movement.
A little elliptically, we learn that Britain’s ruling circles were not so far from contemplating solutions to working class aspirations, already found in Italy and later in Germany and Spain. 1926 was not a revolutionary situation but it could have slid into one; there was a point at which sectional consciousness could have moved into a unified class position; however, the problems of leadership and ideology that are implied entirely elude Perkins.
Yet, for all the problems of this book, the writer’s perception about a parallel with the urgency of spirit that today dominates millions of dispossessed peoples in the Islamic world, albeit at times in defence against rather than a truly challenging offence to imperialism, and the militancy that 1917 begat across the world is not so far removed from reality. It’s just that I’m not sure that a retelling of the 1926 story was the way to get at the kernel of truth. Ah, what it is to be able to commission and publish a book; feel the marketability of the anniversary rather than the erudition!
“Ricky” by Ricky Tomlinson (Time Warner Books)
Liverpool based character actor, entertainer and former flying picket, Ricky Tomlinson dedicates his memoirs to his mum, for “being there through all my lives”. Many chapters are opened with Ricky’s reflections on life at her funeral. She died only recently, at a great age, saying that she was “glad to be going out of this world and not coming in”. This sense that the world has changed, and not all for the better, permeates the book. Building aren’t made to last and football clubs are more about corporate boxes than fans.
Rick is utterly class conscious. Family and friends are hugely important to him. And he eulogises working class folk as the best in the world. He has become a favourite target of the red top tabloids, on account of the many scrapes he has had, yet about the only thing they have written about him that’s true is that he has taken cans of mild to world premiers! In contrast, his book is “all true … enough lies have been told about me without me adding to them”.
A solitary reader and secret poet, his only discernable talent at school was telling stories, even the teacher would set him off whenever he wanted to leave the classroom quiet whilst he left it for a few minutes. Putting on shows for the neighbourhood kids when only a boy, he’s been “improvising ever since”.
In a bizarre imitation of Northern Ireland, in those days, you voted Labour if you were a Catholic, whilst Protestants had their own candidate. They were “like football teams. You supported the same team as your Dad”. He’s not much of a church goer and loves to question it. This explains why he began adult life as a monarchist and a Tory. But now he he is man of the Left: “A generation of Scousers will dance on (Thatchers) grave.”
Whilst a plasterers apprentice he volunteered to become the shop steward, winning improvements. Only to find himself shifted to another job, a classic tactic by the building employers. But his job did not truly satisfy. Increasingly, he felt that there was something missing. He tried drama groups but was “frightened (by) how little I knew”. His adoption of the banjo saw him playing stand-up comedy in working class clubs as “Hobo Rick”, since he always arrived in his working clothes! The irregular nature of the building game saw him rely on the extra income from the brand of sketch-related rude slapstick comedy that he began to develop.
This mileu was, to say the least colourful, Liverpool drinking clubs being the preserve of a gangsterish element. Honestly regaling us with the story of his chequered love life, we discover that romanticism only came later, the first thing he asked his longest serving wife was what her religion was! Marlene was never a lover of the showbiz life, and their interests and ambitions began to differ. Gradually Ricky’s playing away from home came to mean more than doing gigs in other towns. He’s not proud of all this, there’s more than one tale of close shaves with potentially jealous husbands. But Rick had found himself suddenly deep in love with another women, when after nine years of childlessness Marlene fell pregnant. He resolved to win her back and went on the have two more children with Marlene. After an absent parentship role, he later became deeply fond of them, even though Ricky and Marlene later parted. Late in life, he was to find stability and happiness.
Back when he was in his late twenties, Ricky, by his own admission was “politically naïve”. The simplicity of the arguments put in 1968 that housing and employment problems could be easily resolved if immigration were ended appealed to him. He genuinely had no racist instincts but made the mistake of his life by briefly joining the National Front. This quickly fizzled out, but if was to be another four years before Ricky made a clear decision that he was wrong. He has been solidly on the Left for the last thirty years.
The catalyst for this arose a couple of years after he had moved to join Marlene in Wrexham. Ricky became the site convenor for a major building project, having always kept his union membership up. He was a fair negotiator, always looking after the underdog, and respected an old workmate, who was now the full time official, Alan Abrahams, a Communist Party member. Some of the others were “lazy and corrupt”.
In the summer of 1972, a national strike of the two main building unions, UCATT and the T&G, was called. It was a time of rising militancy against a Tory Government. Ricky’s job voted to join in and he became a key figure of the local strike committee. The question of his past politics came up, but Abrahams and Des Warren, also a CP member, lept to Ricky’s defence.
Due to the scattered nature of building sites, flying pickets were the obvious form of action. Picketing was so good-natured, Ricky often took his toddler son along with him. Unfortunately, “amongst us was a police informer … every time we turned up to picket a site, the police were already there”.
On 6th September, Des and Ricky led a picket in Shrewsbury. Afterwards, a chief superintendent shook hands with them and congratulated the two on a peaceful picket. The strike ended, most of the demands were won, and three months later two detectives visited Ricky to ask if he would help them as a prosecution witness in view of his political background. “The National Front has no time for commies.” Ricky declined the offer and found himself arrested with others under the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, unused since its enactment. Conspiracy law, rooted in treason cases held no limit of maximum jail sentences! Conspiracy to intimidate workers from “abstaining from lawful work”, was a bit of joke when most of them were tax and benefit illicit `lump’ workers.
Charged with Something else
I have long watched Ricky’s progress with interest, not the least because I was one of five young Birmingham building workers, mentioned in the book, also charged with conspiracy the year after the strike. Intimidation was not the accompanying tort but trespass. Our local jury, we later discovered, was stuffed with trades unionists and the absence of any evidence of violence, even though it was not actually the legal issue at hand, convinced them three months before the Shrewsbury case opened to find us innocent. I’ve often wondered if this accounted for the lurid and untruthful characterisation of the prosecution case against the Shrewsbury pickets.
Interestingly, the report from the West Mercia Police to the DPP had queried the likelihood of a successful prosecution, as any violence that had occurred had been limited, spontaneous and deprecated by the picket leaders. Having been brought up to respect the law, Ricky thought it was all a mistake at first but the support he got from the rank-and-file and from the Left generally began to make him think. “The decision to prosecute has been a political one.” He was offered a deal, of a fifty pound fine, easily payable by his union, if he pleaded guilty.
The case itself was a farce, presided over by an ecclesiastical judge, and dominated by perjury. Witnesses bent Ricky’s appeals on 6th September to “break it up”, when pickets and scabs scuffled, to “smash it up”. He had supposedly led rampaging mobs, yelling out “Kill, Kill, Kill”, presumably whilst still holding the hand of his toddler!!!
Des Warren’s threat to burn down a canteen turned out to be a disparaging comment that the filthy hole was only fit for burning down. Another only remembered threats to use four inch nails as daggers after a lapse of six month because “it changes every time I think about it”!! An enormous copper was “petrified” when he saw the mangy, underfed, ill-clothed pickets. The Chief Inspector had only shook Des’s hand because he “didn’t know he was a criminal then”.
Two years in jail changed Ricky Tomlinson. He was never broken by the system. Blacklisted when released, he had to make a go of his entertainment career. Beginning with the setting up of a casting agency to provide work for Liverpool characters, he drifted into extra work and then acting. He has little time for precious actors, not seeing it as much of a real job. The master of spontaneous dialogue, he has proved to be a godsend for directors such as Ken Loach, who are dedicated to cinema verite. Most people will know him as Bobby Grant in Brookside, a soap he left because he feared the sensation seeking producers would force him to mouth reactionary words. Incredibly, the series did not once mention the miners’ strike.
Despite brushes with bankruptcy and huge financial debts, dodgy business partners and having to rely on social security, Ricky came through it all. He has made a string of high quality films in the past decade, often being feted at international cinema festivals, such as Cannes and Berlin. He’s now best known for the TV comedy, the Royle Family, in which he plays Jim, a grouchy slob much like himself! Divorced by Marlene, he has eventually found happiness and true love, also becoming reconciled to his now grown up children.
This is an honest book, often funny and always thought provoking. Ricky is a man of his times and background. He even agrees that he has done some unappealing things at times. But he has more than paid for his mistakes. His one remaining ambition is to clear his and Des Warren’s names, for the Shrewsbury pickets were set up. He has never forgotten that and has backed every workers’ fight ever since. Ricky Tomlinson is an OK kind of guy.
`The Complete World of Evolution’
Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews (Thames and Hudson )
This is one of a series of up to the minute histories, in this case produced in co-operation with the Natural History Museum, using writers who are experts in their fields. Stringer will be known, to anyone who has seen one of the many recent television documentaries touching on human evolution, as a strong advocate of the `out of Africa’ hypothesis, which stresses the common origins of all humans. He is however mainly a specialist on Neanderthals, and as such is a welcome supporter of those newer interpretations that see this species as more human than has often been credited in the past.
The history of human origins is a field beset with strong controversy and has been used by those with political agendas to make reactionary conclusions about `human nature’ as parallels that address current political debates. This book is clearly broadly in the liberal humanitarian tradition and there is no comfort here for those who employ obscurantism in the explanation of human origins.
Yet, whilst in practice following the materialist conception of history (for scientists are not generally historians!), the authors do not pursue any particular ideological stance. Moreover, they recognise the full range of controversies within their field, treating these fairly, as the instructional purpose of the book requires.
It is, of course, common to recognise the contribution that Darwin made to this field in his general theory of evolution. However, it rare for even a nod to be made in the direction of Frederick Engels and this book is not exceptional in this sense at least.
Unquestionably, the most significant application of the conception of historical materialism arises from the treatment of early human origins by Engels in his “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”. This was published for the first time in 1895 but had been written very much earlier as an introduction to a larger, never written, work. Instead, Engels concentrated upon the `Dialectics of Nature’. Indeed, it had been the ferment of intellectual debate following the discovery of the Neanderthal three decades before that inspired Engels.
What he had to say needs to be read today with great care, since he based his analysis on the state of scientific knowledge prevailing in the late 19th century and, hence, reproduces many errors of the time. But the essence is consistent with most modern anthropological and archaeological understanding as reproduced by Stringer and Andrews.
`The Complete World of Evolution’ is not however a taxing work that pushes at the boundaries, nor was it intended to be. No doubt such activity is reserved for the highly contended world of the scientific-historical monograph which these respected palaeo-anthropologists inhabit. For, as with any highly specialised sphere, there is a positively dazzling array of competing arguments, in this case about the nature of varying skulls or bones, as to which species or group one specimen belongs compared to others. Nonetheless, full justice is done to recording the key areas of controversy and those who are interested can find out more from sources in an excellent bibliography.
The 420 illustrations, 175 of them in colour, are excellent, accurate and relevant to the text. In some ways, this is the best thing about the book, which exudes confidence, authority and encyclopaedic knowledge. But do not imagine that this is `illustrated dictionary of palaeo-anthropology for dummies’. Nonetheless, whilst this would be a welcome present for any intelligent reader of any age, young people with a bent towards scientific history and who want an overview of the present state of knowledge on human origins could not do better than to read this.
Distinct sections chronicle the opening of excavation sites such as Olduvai and Boxgrove. The extraordinary technological advances that have enabled so much extension of our knowledge of early pre-history is detailed, as is the present state of known fossil evidence and its interpretation. Perhaps a little more on this might have been welcome, for those who are already familiar with the more general ground covered. This is especially so regarding the issue of the evolution of human behaviour; for this has so much to say, by inference, on contemporary issues of morality, social policy, politics and economics.
Controversies over the history of early humanity often lie in the reluctance of adherents of orthodoxy to ascribe intelligence or culture to earlier societies and species of human. Yet, everyday, science pushes back the date by which this or that development was achieved. Another irritation is that archaeologists are too fond of dubbing something that is unknown as `ritualistic’ in function. A case in point is a frequently found early Stone Age `baton’ that some insist on classing as a shaman’s symbol of office, which others think had a rope-making function! There is also a tendency in the historians of the Palaeolithic to see new cultural and economic developments as coming out of the blue. The word `suddenly’ appears far too often in the work of some analysts of the ancient world of pre-history! Thankfully, Stringer and Andrews are not prone to such condescension.
“Michael McGahey – a trade union tribute 1925-1999”
(Midlothian Trades Union Council)
This attractive booklet celebrates the life of Mick McGahey, leader of the Scottish miners, as well as the Midlothian TUC’s now regular annual commemoration of International Workers’ Memorial Day, inaugurated by him in 1992. Rab Paterson recalls the special talent that endeared Mick to so many. Calling to picking him up to take him to the event one year: “As we were about to leave, his wife Cathie asked him if he had his speech. Michael tore open his cigarette packet, jotted down a few words (and) went on to deliver one of the most heartfelt and powerful condemnations of capitalism I’ve ever heard”.
The pamphlet contains a piece by McGahey, entitled `What the struggle means to me’, in which he speaks of his “anger born of a feeling that poverty was an injustice…. It isn’t socialism that has failed; it is the attempt to come to terms with the huge capitalist multi-national banks and financiers”.
There’s a brief biography of McGahey and a multitude of photographs of him and others in this commemorative work that rightly celebrates a man whom the red-top newspapers dubbed “Red Mick”. As a former Chair of the Communist Party and member of the TUC General Council, McGahey was a formidable opponent of capitalism. So, for once the red tag was no misnomer. As McGahey noted before his death: “I’ve seen working people in action and it fills me with hope, still”.
Copies available free, with £2 for p&p payable to Midlothian TUC, from Jonsen Green, 2a Potton Terrace, Lasswade, Midlothian EH18 1BN
“A New Labour Nightmare – the return of the awkward squad” by Andrew Murray (Verso)
An invaluable account of the new generation of trade union leaders, this contrasts the new mood with past years of despondency. Murray cites an instance, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Bill Morris puzzled: “what does public ownership or socialism mean now anyway?” He was not on his own.
This is no call to go `back to the 1970s’; impossible since there has been a “vast recomposition of capital”. Union power was regarded as “finished business”, yet, there is now a sense that the “Forward March of Labour” has resumed.
Part of the book is a series of interviews. Jack Jones’ prescription is to build the union in localities, forging links amongst the rank and file. Noting that unions have reacted in “a constitutional way”, he notes dryly that: “The law has always been against us.” Ken Gill recounts how unemployment destroyed the confidence of the unions and the decline of the Communist Party in the 1980s affected the left, whilst a problem for the movement has always been its “contempt for theory”.
Murray contrasts all this with the movement’s now faded faith in `social partnership’, the EU and Blairism: “reformism without the reforms”. A return to “real Labour” is the only way to keep the trade union link alive. The electoral weaknesses of alternatives to the left of New Labour are considered, as is the quagmire of pursing a breach. As unions elect `awkward’ leaders, a renewed interest in the role of the Communist Party and the Morning Star is evident.
The movement must organise new sections of the working class, taking up a wider range of issues. The “casualised, contracted out, more insecure workforce needs union protection”. The role of the trade union internationals becomes ever more important, in an age of globalisation.
For the new breed, Heather Wakefield of Unison speaks frustratedly at slow progress towards feminisation. Gender employment segregation creates differences in attitude to solidarity and struggle. Over a million local authority workers went on strike, it being almost un-noticed that most of them were women. The paternalism of male-run unions disconnects them from the mass of women. It is mainly women’s jobs that have been privatised.
The TUC General Secretary “declined all invitations” to speak at the recent vast anti-war rallies, yet one of the most outspoken of the new breed, Bob Crow faced assaults of all kinds. (Stories emerged during his election of personal interference by a TUC official.) Popular amongst his members, Crow’s outspoken socialism connects him to broad popular opinion in his commitment to public ownership of railways.
Both he and Mick Rix cite their family backgrounds and early contact with the Communist Party as significant to their development. Mick displays the acute political judgement that marked him out for special attention by outside forces that fanned internal tensions against him in his tragic election defeat. But, as a cabinet minister, remarked `one swallow does not a summer make’. The bastard!
Derek Simpson of Amicus reveals a marked sense of dry humour, no doubt something that stood him in good stead in beating Ken Jackson. (And now the secretive forces seeking to unseat him?) Jackson’s `partnership agreements’ are “crap … you can’t even negotiate on wages”. The new mood comes from the real experience of workers and the source of Simpson’s commitment is clear: “Capitalism … can’t deal with society’s problems, it only deals with the pursuit of profit.”
Cabinet ministers need not darkly refer to his past membership of the dissolved CPGB to convince us that his trades unionism is informed by a critical analysis of our society. (Derek humourously pretended to think Blunkett was slagging off Dr. John Reid, a former Euro-Communist…. So that’s where they all went to!)
Billy Hayes, of the post and communications workers contributes a thoughtful understanding of the need to challenge the “neo-liberal flexible labour market agenda”. His anti-war position saw “massive lobbying” against him, from government sources. Thankfully, this fell on stony ground.
The intensity of dislike for the new generation is remarkable when one considers just how modest are most of their hopes. Many talk of Scandinavian style social democracy, Keynsianism even. Rozanne Foyer is very positive about the concrete nature of the STUC’s links with the Scottish Executive. She also astutely points out that a key to the promotion of the organising agenda amongst unions is predicated upon “empowering activists” and changing the role of the full time officer.
This concept is well illustrated by the otherwise hardly commented upon dispute of Dolphin Square service workers in a massive complex of luxury flats. The polyglot, multi-ethnic, `flexible’ workforce carried off a text-book struggle with success, even winning support from the well-heeled tenants. (William Hague, we learn, is a “lousy tipper”!) Nick Page, the unsung but imaginative official who co-ordinated the campaign, is bemused by the indifference of his union’s bureaucracy. This example of the new mood makes real sense when you learn that the strikers to a woman (and a few men) voted for the `fight back’ candidate, Tony Woodley.
Tony himself “talks about `fighting back’ a lot, which, coming from him, is more than rhetoric”. He sees the decline of union strength as being rooted in the response to anti-union legislation, creating cynicism and disillusionment of workers. Exploitation followed passivity, the car industry now produces the same output, with only a tenth of the direct workforce. We are at a disadvantage whilst “capital is global and labour is local”. Unions cannot keep competing for single union deals by offering the worst common denominator. Woodley is buoyant, offering the prospect of major mergers that will extend assertive trades unionism.
For Tony, “New Labour’s days are over”, as the new left unionism reclaims the party. Mark Serwotka, however, is more sceptical. Nonetheless, he welcomes the debate and sees the anti-war movement as offering a sign of the challenges ahead to connect the left with a wider constituency. Serwotka’s faith in the ability of socialists working to make progress as New Labourism fades provokes the pithiest sentence in the book from Murray; “separate socialists without organised labour are sterile, and labour without socialists are pragmatic and limited”.
The values of trades unionism, if we go beyond pragmatism, could “explicitly challenge the private monopoly on wealth and power”. Supeseding capitalism will “certainly be awkward, but not as much as tolerating it” A great read, every cabinet minister should get a copy!