Mark Twain once quipped, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Replace the word “lie” with the phrase “ideologically motivated myth” and it sums up what has happened to the commonsense understanding of the world held by much of the left. It has absorbed from the mainstream media two related notions: that material production and class are no longer central to the modern world. The second issue of Historical Materialism for this year (volume 15, number 2) contains a devastating critique by David Camfield of the these myths as propagated by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their books Empire and Multitude.
A related myth is that capitalist development is leading inexorably to the replacement of permanent workers by temporary ones, who can be disposed of whenever management wants, so undermining old forms of industrial struggle. Ben Selwyn, who contributed to this issue of International Socialism, has also written a fascinating article in the Journal of Agrarian Change (volume 7, number 4, October 2007). It looks at what is really happening in one of the “commodity chains” used by Western supermarkets to obtain food from elsewhere in the world.
He looks at the farming of grapes in north west Brazil, and shows that to provide the fruit of the right quality at the time when the supermarkets need it the farms become very dependent on skilled and, in most cases, permanent workers.
He writes, “Buyer demands, more complex production processes and farms’ demand for an increasingly skilled workforce enhance workers’ structural power, because even short work stoppages can disrupt the entire harvest calendar and prevent farms producing export standard grapes. This structural power of workers in the labour process is realised through associational power, via trade union organisation and representation which gives them notable bargaining power.”
The usual figures provided for US military expenditure understate its real level and its economic impact, argues James M Cypher in June’s Monthly Review. Total expenditure, he calculates, jumped from 5.9 percent of GDP in 1999 to 7.1 percent in 2006: “far from the 3 to 4 percent range commonly assumed by pundits and economists”. The article is available online: www.monthlyreview.org/0607jmc.htm
George Monbiot’s book on climate change, Heat, is the best introduction to the subject so far. But his solutions are open to challenge both from a reformist perspective and from a revolutionary one. The former challenge is presented in New Left Review 45 (May-June 2007) by Clive Hamilton: www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2671 with a reply by Monbiot: www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2672.
The leftward swing in the politics of Latin America is increasingly a focus for the left internationally. But it is sometimes difficult to find out what is really happening. Readers who have followed our coverage on Bolivia and want an update on the current situation will find an excellent account by Jeffrey R Webber in the July-August 2007 issue of Against the Current. The article is available online: www.solidarity-us.org/node/577.
Anyone who wants a slightly different take on some of the points made by Mike Gonzalez in the interview in this issue of International Socialism should look at the piece by Ivan Briscoe on the Open Democracy website. The article, “Is Hugo Chavez in Control?”, is one-sided in stressing the limitations of the “Bolivarian Revolution”, but it is a powerful antidote to the tendency to see the process as a smooth, continuous extension of popular power.
Briscoe argues that Chavez’s policies are almost entirely dependent on oil sales, which allows the “bloating of imports” for the poor, while avoiding progressive taxation. Both the wealthy, and sections of the state apparatus are enjoying a boom time, while many progressive measures are ditched or actively sabotaged. The army, generally seen as universally pro-Chavez, is, claims Briscoe, deeply divided. Finally, the new PSUV party is packed with “every opportunist in the land”, and reflects a desire to concentrate power at the top of society. Read the article here: www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/politics_protest/
The most contentious issue for some on the left is the question of Cuba. Sam Farber reports on his latest visit to Cuba and discusses the future of the island after Fidel Castro in the summer issue of New Politics: www.wpunj.edu/newpol/issue43/Farber43.htm
Some of the best treats this quarter are to be found in the Marxist Internet Archive, which is increasingly offering, free of charge to a general readership, amazing historical texts previously only available to specialist historians in obscure libraries.
Its archive of work by the founder of Indian Communism, M N Roy, now contains a number of his articles from the 1920s attempting to work out the approach of revolutionary socialists to the mainstream bourgeois nationalist movements of Gandhi and the middle class “bhadralok” radicals in Bengal. Access the archive here: http://marxists.org/archive/roy/index.htm
Just added to the Clara Zetkin archive is her intervention in the debate within German Communism after the failure of the attempt at revolution in 1923: http://marxists.org/archive/zetkin/xx/xx/congress.htm
The Karl Radek archive contains a work I had never even heard of—his reply to Kautsky’s Terrorism and Communism, as well as a fascinating article by him on Bertrand Russell and a letter to Clara Zetkin defending the left opposition: http://
Finally, those interested in the history of the socialist movement in Britain (and some premonitions of debates taking place today) will welcome the addition of articles from the British Socialist Party paper, the Call, from 1917 to 1919. The party was the successor to the old Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman, after he had been expelled for supporting the First World War. The articles show the new party enthusiastically embracing the Russian Revolution and turning towards genuine revolutionary socialism. One of the fascinating nuggets is a statement by socialist Jews denouncing Zionism for both turning people away from the revolutionary socialist struggle and trampling on the democratic rights of Palestine’s Arabs. The articles are indexed here: www.marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/call/index.htm