Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Judith Orr - Sexism and the System, A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation


This, the most recent addition to Bookmarks' "Rebel's Guide" series, is slightly different than the earlier books. Rather than dealing with a revolutionary individual, it deals with an issue - the on-going struggle for women's liberation.

The author, Judith Orr is the editor the monthly magazine Socialist Review. She isn't a feminist in the strict definition of the word. The sexism of society, the oppression of women, isn't for Orr because "All Men are Bastards", rather it is because capitalism requires women's oppression.

In this context the systematic way that women are treated as second class citizens is actually beneficial to capitalism. For instance, by relying primarily on women to bring up children, to feed, clothe and look after the next generation, capitalism is avoiding the immense cost of socially provided child care. But it's not just financial - the family creates the ideological backdrop to capitalism - with women at home and men at work, and all the problems of the world being down to us as individuals.

The early chapters of this short book, re-assert the Marxist position on Women's oppression. Despite us being told that Marxism is purely about economic issues, Orr shows how both Marx and Engels understood that there was "nothing 'natural' ... about the way we live today". Indeed, for tens of thousands of years there were no class divisions, and women's oppression simply did not exist.

Orr looks at the way that the rise of class society led to the oppression of women, with the rise of more labour intensive forms of farming.

However, for me the strongest and most interesting chapters in the book are those that look at contemporary society. Orr rattles off some depressing statistics for a world where women are supposed to be equal. On average women earn "18% less than men". The UK's childcare situation is the "worst in Europe" and it's high price means that lowest income families are unable to afford it - "low paid women simply can't afford to work".

Simultaneously we have, as Orr shows, the rise of "Raunch" culture. The attempt to make porn mainstream, the rise of lap-dancing and children's clothing with the Playboy logo. She points out that this isn't new. Women's bodies have been used to sell all sorts of things for many, many years. The difference is that it is now "being sold to women as empowering".

All this means that real liberation for women won't come about under capitalism. The system that oppresses women doesn't benefit the majority of men, whose own lives are blighted by the distortions caused by capitalism telling us that the family is the only way that we can bring up our kids.

Judith Orr shows how in all struggles the ruling, sexist ideas in society, are challenged. She finishes her book by showing how the Russian Revolution introduced massive changes in the lives of women and men. Abortion and divorce on demand, socialised childcare and launderettes, equal employment rights between the sexes and paid maternity leave. That backward country, in the midst of revolution, civil war and famine made it a priority to tackle women's oppression.

So important was this that Orr points out that Leon Trotsky measured the success of Stalin's counter revolution by his undermining of these measures.

Ending the book with a quote from Engel's about how a socialist society would transform our sexual lives, Orr shows a vision for us all a truly equal society, were no one is excluded from enjoying life to the full simply because of they are the wrong sex.

Related Reviews

Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Victor Serge - Conquered City


The title Conquered City is a multi-layered one. It refers, in the most, to the great city of St. Petersberg, conquered in the first successful working class revolution, and renamed Petrograd. However it must also refer to the near defeat of those workers in the civil war that followed the revolution. The attempt to isolate and strangle the fledgling workers democracy by the invading armies of the capitalist power.

Serge's novel deals with the lives of the workers of Petrograd. Both conquerors and conquered. Many of the best had died, or were dying in defense of the revolution. Those who remain in the city starve, working in factories almost devoid of materials or resources, or queue for hours at shops rapidly running out of the necessities of life.

Those who hate the revolution deal with their hunger by dreaming of the restoration of the old way of life. Impossible though this is, as there can be no return to the city of the Tsars. Revolutionaries and workers repeat the slogans of the revolution, but as the city's life is squeezed from it, as time and again supply trains fail to arrive, for many the slogans are now hollow, for many others they offer an inspirational hope in the midst of hunger and fear.

For me, the plot of the novel matters little. What's important is the description of the people and the city. This is what the civil war was like - this is what the capitalists were prepared to do to those that challenged their way of living. Victor Serge arrived in Petrograd to this reality. The descriptions have a ring of truth about them, because they must be his experiences. Indeed in one section, the author himself enters the novel, describing his own experiences amongst those of the characters.

At the end, the city and it's people are triumphant. The invaders are defeated, their terror having been beaten by both the enthusiasm for the revolution in the Red Army and the terror of the "reds" prepared to use revolutionary justice to force through victory. This is of course only one of the compromises that the revolution had to make to survive. But as the characters in the book learn of the defeat of the European revolutions, the isolation of Russia becomes cemented and the path to bureaucratic state capitalism opens up.

Coming from the libertarian background that he had, this novel is Serge wrestling with the realities of revolutionary struggle. But he also wrote it as a dedication to those who continue to fight for justice. Indeed he wrote it while in prison under the watchful eye of Stalin's jailers. He could barely use the name Trotsky, and the small parts of the book that refer to Trotsky's heroic leadership, do so obliquely, without naming him.

Serge was never broken by the counter-revolution of Stalin, but he was lucky. In the afterword, the translator, Richard Greeman, quotes from Serge's diary, on the occasion of meeting Trotsky's widow many years later.

"There is nobody left who knows what the Russian Revolution was really like, what the Bolsheviks were really like"

But Serge wasn't alone, though there were few like him. His novels, books and writings helped keep alive the real tradition of the revolution, warts and all, and for that reason he deserves a much wider readership.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mike Gonzalez - Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution


Cuba is a bit of an enigma for many people. For some, it is a socialist country, dedicated to the world revolution. For others it is simply a beautiful, but poor holiday destination.

Che Guevara, the face on a million t-shirts, is of course the revolutionary most associated with this island. His life has been the subject of many biographies and much comment. He is an icon for millions of people who want a world free of poverty and oppression. Mike Gonzalez's book is an important work - not simply because it is about finding out who the "real" Che is. But more because it is about asking difficult questions that will help inform today's struggles to change the world.

Despite his association with armed Guerilla uprisings and revolution, for most of his short life (he died just short of his 40th birthday) he wasn't political in any meaningful way. Growing up in Argentina in the period that he did - he was surrounded by political events and it seems his parents had communist party sympathies. But it was only later on, around the time he finishes his university medical studies that he shows a definite turn towards radical ideas.

Falling in with a group of radicals around Fidel Castro, and seeing the suppression by US imperialism of various attempts to challenge it's power (particularly in Guatemala), Che becomes convinced of the ability of a small band of dedicated Guerilla fighters to topple oppresive regimes and bring about radical change. As he develops his ideas, he comes to see himself as a communist - reading the works of Karl Marx and increasingly identifying with the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro, on the other hand, the man who comes to symbolise Cuba for the rest of the century though, is clearly far from an explicit identification with Communism, only later developing these ideas himself to improve economic links with the USSR.

As many readers will know, Che's Guerilla army land in Cuba and eventually topple the corrupt and brutal Washington orientated regime. But the story of this revolution is less important than the story of Che for this review. Mike Gonzalez time and again shows how the revolution in Cuba wasn't a workers and peasents uprisiing. In fact the Guerillas show disdane for the movements in the cities, and the peasents are a backdrop to help the fighters, but not to be part of the battles.

As the new Cuba is isolated on the world stage, and increasingly comes to rely on Soviet aid, Che looks to spread the Latin American revolution. Sadly, his strategy that was so fortunate in Cuba, fails in both Congo and Bolivia. Che is murdered by state forces as US representatives look on.

Che is a fascinating figure. What I like about this book is how Gonzalez rescues the real Che - the brave, heroic figure, prepared to sacrifice everything to the struggle. But that heroic image has it's warts. Much of these are political - Che believed that simple will power on the part of revolutionaries would be enough - he doesn't seem to have understood the world situation and how it can impact on the lives of ordinary people. To put it bluntly, Cuba was ripe for revolution, Bolivia wasn't. And even were there were people challenging the existing state, such as Bolivia's Copper miners, Che ignores their power in favour of his small military force.

Often the Che that comes through is naive - he seems to have taken Soviet propaganda at face value, neglecting the very real problems of the mass of people under the "Communist" regimes. He seems to have idolised Castro, at the same time as Castro clearly uses Che's image and popularity for his own ends.

This short book is a fabulous read. It's an insightful look at one of the world's most famous revolutionaries, and by refusing to simply re-create the heroic Che, it enables us to learn the lessons of the past, to better change the future. What better memorial could a revolutionary want?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Alan Weisman - The World Without Us


One of my favourite science fiction novels, is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. His book imagines the way the world develops as the an unknown disease decimates the population of the planet, leaving a few survivors. In imaginative chapters he describes how cities fall apart, car tyres rot, cattle in fields die off, unable to survive without their farmers and roads are torn apart by weeds.

Alan Weisman's book is a non-fictional version of this "Deep Green" fantasy. Anyone who has ever watched how mould can break through the smoothest of bathroom tiles, or watch weeds spring up through the smallest of cracks in concrete, has a glimpse of just how frail out technological civilisation is. The opening chapters imagine how quickly our cities would vanish. Weisman visits parts of the world where humans have disappeared - the contested zones between North and South Korea, or the abandoned cities in the divided Cyprus He illustrates how quickly nature returns, and breaks down seemingly eternal buildings.

Occasionaly giving you the impression that he is somewhat excited by the prospect of the extinction of the human race, we learn much about our societies relationship with the planet. Because, while our cities will crumble, and in a few hundreds of thousands of years only trained alien archaeologists might find anything of us, we will leave a lasting legacy. The radioactive waste lying about our planet - the depleted uranium debris that litters Iraq (and will remain posionous long after the expanding sun has boiled our planet away). The millions of tonnes of plastic in the oceans that won't decompose. The giant rifts in the planets crust where we've mined the minerals underground.

Interestingly though, some of the largest changes we have made will vanish the quickest. The Panama Canal would rapidly be overcome by flooding and landslides as the pumps and channels that keep it open, block and overfill for instance.

Weisman also clears up one of those silly arguments that the pro-nuclear lobby throw at envrionmentalists occasionally too. The abandoned areas of Chernobyl may have recovered a rich and varied collection of flora and fauna, but the radiation continues to produce mutations and genetic changes that often make those animals and plants unviable. An interesting discussion about the consequences for the planet if we vanished and couldn't shut down our nuclear power plants follows these observations.

While the book has much of interest, it suffers a little from trying to be too readable. We don't need to know the hair length, body shape, posture or mannerisms of every scientist the author interviews. Nevertheless, it's a readable, and humourous (if terrifying) introduction to some of the big questions facing humanity.

Unfortunately I thought the assertion that our brain emanations, "like radio waves" might well travel through space and curve back on the planet, and at some distant time, ("long after we're gone"), "our memories might surf home abroad a cosmic electromagnetic wave to haunt our beloved Earth" was a load of mystical, unscientific nonsense. A horrible way to finish the last chapter that jarred with the clearly explained scientific notions elsewhere in the book.