This quarter’s selection

Issue: 126

New Left Review produced a massive bumper January issue to mark its 50th anniversary. It includes several interesting pieces, for example, Mike Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark?”1 This confronts the future of the planet with a characteristic mixture of “analytic despair and utopian possibility”. After charting the ruling order’s headlong rush towards climate chaos, Mike points out that the emergence of a planet of cities and slums can mark the beginning of a solution, since classical urban development that respects the differences between town and country and recycles waste represents an alternative to the dominant model of unsustainable capitalist growth.

The centrepiece of the issue—aside from Susan Watkins’s editorial, which is discussed at length in our Analysis—is Perry Anderson’s “Two Revolutions”, a systematic comparison of the origins, fate, and consequences of 1917 in Russia and 1949 in China. Anderson argues that, from the perspective of the 21st century, the Chinese Revolution seems much more significant than the Russian. Written with the lucidity, intelligence, and erudition that one would expect from the author, the article contains much of interest. As in a recent article in the London Review of Books, Anderson has no time for what he dismisses as “Sinomania”, coolly exploring instead the distinctive characteristics of Chinese development.

But undeniably China comes out well ahead of Russia in the comparison. The Bolshevik Revolution is made to seem shallow, brutal, and scant in long-term positive consequences. Anderson is remarkably indulgent to the leadership team that emerged around Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death: “they remained the revolutionaries they had always been. Their temper was Leninist: radical, disciplined, imaginative—capable at once of tactical patience and prudent experimentation, and of the boldest initiatives and most dramatic switches of direction.” The present leadership remain of high calibre, and preside over a China that “is a world-historical novum [new thing]: the combination of what is now, by any conventional measure, a predominantly capitalist economy with what is still, by any conventional measure, unquestionably a communist state—each the most dynamic of its type to date”.

Martin Hart-Landsberg offers a rather different perspective on China in his article, “The US Economy and China: Capitalism, Class, and China”, in the February issue of Monthly Review.2 Challenging the establishment view in the United States that China is screwing America by flooding it with undervalued exports, Hart-Landsberg argues that China’s export strategy must be seen in the context of “the establishment and intensification of transnational, corporate controlled, cross-border production networks”.

This analysis highlights a feature of Chinese development also noted by Anderson, namely that it has involved much higher levels of foreign direct investment than elsewhere in East Asia. But while Anderson puts this down to the strength and self-confidence of the Chinese state, Hart-Landsberg argues that East Asian and American transnational corporations are using China as a platform for the final assembly of goods whose more complex components are largely manufactured elsewhere. He concludes that both Chinese and US workers are victims of this transformation, and should see each other as allies against capitalism.

The latest issue of Historical Materialism available when we went to press dates from the end of 2009. It contains an important though difficult article by Massimiliano Tomba, one of the leading Italian interpreters of Capital. Seeking to liberate Marx from the idea of historical progress, Tomba makes points relevant to contemporary debates about Michael Hardt’s and Tony Negri’s concept of “immaterial labour” and David Harvey’s idea of “accumulation by dispossession”. His arguments dovetail in with those of the lead piece by Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger. They contend that race was central to the “scientific management” movement that decisively shaped industrial capitalism in the US in the early 20th century, reflecting a long experience of controlling and exploiting racialised workforces, slave and free. Capitalist development constantly bursts through the division between archaic and modern.

The January-March 2010 issue of Race of Class includes an interesting piece by Matt Carr on the development of a “military futurism” among defence writers and planners. This dystopian vision of the near future sees “threats to the western way of life emanating from…resurgent nationalism, conflicts over dwindling resources, migration, disease, organised crime, abrupt climate change and the emergence of ‘failed cities’ where social disorder is rife.” Carr illustrates not only how this vision is informed by popular science fiction, but also the extent to which policy makers are investing in advanced technologies which would be better adapted to it—some of which have already been deployed in places like Palestine and Pakistan.

The winter 2010 issue of Radical History Review contains two articles looking at the relationship between contemporary art and politics. Ian Gordon reviews a selection of biographies and histories presented as comic books and explores the medium’s benefits and shortcomings. Elsewhere, Johanna Gosse examines how contemporary artists have engaged with political themes in a variety of ways, as part of struggles against “bourgeois conventions”, “social injustice” or simply as a way of “revitalising their work and embedding it in the contemporary moment”.

Finally, the Marxists Internet Archive has continued its valuable work of collecting the extensive back catalogue of International Socialism articles. A highlight this quarter is the addition of Chris Harman’s classic 1979 pamphlet Is a Machine After your Job?3 Written in response to fears that workers could be replaced by computers, Harman’s central argument that what mattered was who controlled these new technologies is as relevant today as ever.

AC and JJ