Breasts and Eggs-by Mieko Kawakami, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd-Europa, 430 pp., $27.00; $16.95 (paper)

“I guess she was one of those people you see a lot these days who looked young from behind, but the second that she turned around…. Her fake teeth were noticeably yellow, and the metal made her gums look black. Her faded perm had thinned so much that you could see the perspiration on her scalp. She was wearing way too much foundation. It made her face look washed out and more wrinkly than it was. When she laughed, the sinews of her neck popped out. Her sunken eyes called attention to their sockets.”

Breasts and Eggs

‘Women are no longer content to shut up’

Mieko Kawakami

“the dominant view today is that women have always been to some degree oppressed—the usual term is “dominated”—by men because men are stronger, they are responsible for fighting, and it is in their nature to be more aggressive. Common among those who discuss sex roles are blunt judgments, empirically phrased, that casually relegate to the wastebasket of history”.

F Engels

Reading Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs, one concludes that it is not easy being a working-class woman in any country at the moment. Described as a Feminist, Kawakami seems more interested in describing the human condition rather than being saddled with this unsatisfactory label.

Her opposition to being called a Feminist writer has not stopped numerous people from labelling her so and a fighter against male domination. While God forbid that she stops writing the way she does, it would improve her writing if she imbued her characters with a little historical perspective. After all, men’s relationship with women has been around for a long time and is a complex issue. While she would be met with hails of derision from her Feminist readers, she could do no worse than consult Friedrich Engel’s extraordinary book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels writes eloquently, “the dominant view today is that women have always been to some degree oppressed—the usual term is “dominated”—by men, because men are stronger, they are responsible for fighting, and it is in their nature to be more aggressive. Common among those who discuss sex roles are blunt judgments, empirically phrased, that casually relegate to the wastebasket of history the profound questions about women’s status that were raised by nineteenth-century writers. “It is common sociological truth that in all societies authority is held by men, not women,” writes Beidelman; “At both primitive and advanced levels, men regularly tend to dominate women,” states Goldschmidt; “Men have always been politically and economically dominant over women,” reports Harris. Some women join in. Women’s work is always “private,” while “roles within the public sphere are the province of men,” writes Hammond and Jablow. Therefore “women can exert influence outside the family only indirectly through their influence on their kinsmen”.

The first problem with such statements is their lack of historical perspective. To generalise from cross-cultural data gathered almost wholly in the twentieth century is to ignore changes that have been taking place for anywhere up to five hundred years as a result of involvement, first with European mercantilism, then with full-scale colonialism and imperialism. Indeed, there is almost a kind of racism involved, an assumption that the cultures of Third World peoples have virtually stood still until destroyed by the recent mushrooming of urban industrialism. Certainly, one of the most consistent and widely documented changes during the colonial period was a decline in the status of women relative to men. The causes were partly indirect, as the introduction of wage labour for men, and the trade of basic commodities, speeded up processes whereby tribal collectives were breaking up into individual family units, in which women and children were becoming economically dependent on single men. The process was aided by the formal allocation to men of whatever public authority and legal right of ownership was allowed in colonial situations, by missionary teachings, and by the persistence of Europeans in dealing with men as the holders of all formal authority. The second problem with statements like the above is largely a theoretical one. The common use of some polar dimension to assess woman’s position and to find that everywhere men are “dominant” and hold authority over women not only ignores the World’s history but transmutes the totality of tribal decision-making structures (as we try to reconstruct them) into the power terms of our society.[1]

Breasts and Eggs is Kawakami’s first full-length novel for English-language readers. This novel takes its characters and setting from a short novella published in 2008 and was awarded Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize. This book, it must be said, is not an easy read. The novelist and politician Shintaro Ishihara described Breasts and Eggs as “unpleasant and intolerable”. This statement, however, can be taken in many ways.

While it is perhaps unusual for two people to translate a book, it is beautifully done by Sam Bett and David Boyd. However, they have faced criticism for moving away from the essence of Kawakami’s use of the Osaka dialect, Which reinforces the working class nature of her characters. The dispute over their translation is above my pay grade, so I will leave it to others to argue the merit.

Madeleine Thien writes in her review, “the real Osaka dialect is not even about communicating. It is a contest. How can I put it? It’s an art” – translators Bett and Boyd do not render it. In 2012, an excerpt of Breasts and Eggs was published by another translator, Louise Heal Kawai, who offers Makiko’s “I’ve been thinking about getting breast implants” as “Natsuko, I am thinking of getting me boobs done”. Kawai compares the Osaka dialect to Mancunian: rough, friendly, outspoken. In Bett and Boyd’s translation, Kawakami’s feminism is vivid, but the language occasionally feels placid; meanwhile, in Kawai’s translation, feminism and language collide in a way that feels deliciously irreverent. Here is Brett and Boyd, translating Midoriko’s response to her mother’s desire for surgery: “It’s gross, I really don’t understand. It’s so, so, so, so, so, so gross … She’s being an idiot, the biggest idiot.” Here is Kawai: “I don’t get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! … She’s off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks.”[2]

To what extent this is an autobiographical piece will be known only to some extent by the author. Maybe women will have a closer bond with the characters in the book, but as a man, the plight of the women in the book also forces the male reader to confront their past and how they fit into the modern-day World.

The book’s narrator represents a new generation of Japanese women who, while rejecting much of Japanese cultural, social and political norms, have yet to strike out in a new direction. Sarah Chihaya writes, “The idea that a woman, or anyone for that matter, might be able to articulate and lay claim to exactly what they want is laughably unsuited to these uncertain times. So what kinds of novels can be written about women who may not want anything from a world that may not have anything to offer them?”.[3]

The book is divided into two parts, Breasts and Eggs. I am not inclined to separate the book into parts. The book deals with many problems of everyday life. Kawakami’s first chapter is titled “Are You Poor?”. It must be said that Kawakami is one of the few writers addressing the problems faced by working-class women in society. Her work cuts across the money-grabbing women of the #MeToo movement

The main character in the book is largely unconcerned with desirability, romance, or sexual pleasure but has yet to find a replacement for these basic social mores. She is not content with putting up with how she has been treated in the past but has yet to formulate a social or political way forward. One feels this novel is closer to the author’s life than she may let on. The intensity of this study of Japanese working-class women forces both male and female readers to re-examine their own lives.

Kawakami is a precise and razor-sharp writer who discusses complex and sensitive subjects honestly and sensitively. She is a keen observer of the problems faced by working-class women. As this brutally honest depiction of one of the characters in the book shows, “Natsu sees everything and everyone she encounters, including herself; its dryness saps the poignancy from statements like “She reminded me of Mom.” It is not that Natsu is devoid of emotion—her sadness at the earlier loss of her beloved grandmother is apparent throughout the novel. Yet that sadness, and her loneliness and estrangement, do not lead to yearning or desire. Mothers and grandmothers haunt all of the women in this novel, not just Natsu and Maki, but their ghosts do not emit the glow of family romance. Rather, the spectral presences are reminders of the accumulating malaise of the female body as it participates, willingly or unwillingly, in the mingled economies of labour and sexual desire—as one of Natsu’s not-quite-friends unforgettably declares, their mothers and their mothers before them were just “free labour with a pussy.” While a powerful bond of love joins these successive generations, it is a luxury that contemporary women’s schedules cannot often afford”.

One can see why the novel was harshly criticised in some conservative quarters because it exposes the horrendous plight of working-class women in Japanese society that treats them as second-class citizens.

As Vrinda Nabar writes, “It is easy to understand the outrage caused by Breasts and Eggs among a section of readers in Japan. Published in a newly expanded form in English translation in April this year, the novel’s titillating title belies its upfront focus on themes that have less to do with female anatomy and more with the ways many women have quietly subverted gender roles. The discursive style allows its narrator Natsuko Natsume (a blogger nobody reads), to touch on several aspects of a single woman’s life in Tokyo”.[4]

Like all good writers, Kawakami draws heavily on her own experiences as a woman in modern Japan. However, there is nothing parochial about her work as she discusses universal themes of loneliness and sexuality in capitalist society. Her novels have struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of her readers. I highly recommend this book and cannot wait to read and review her new book. [5]


[1] https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5128-engels-and-the-history-of-women-s-oppression

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/11/breasts-and-eggs-by-mieko-kawakami-review-an-interrogation-of-the-female-condition

[3] https://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-new-york-review-of-books/20210429/281573768498656

[4] https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/review-breasts-and-eggs-a-novel-by-mieko-kawakami/story-gu4VLuf12Xofl726VXpTgM.html

[5] All The Lovers in the Night-Picador 2022

George Orwell-(1903-1950) At Notting Hil

One of my favourite walks is from my home through the Portobello market up to Notting Hill Gate. Once you fight past the tourists, it is a pleasant stroll. A few years ago, I spotted a blue plaque on the side of a house. To my amazement, it was where the novelist George Orwell lived in 1927. The author of Animal Farm and 1984 lived at number 22 Portobello Road.

To my disappointment, the great man never wrote anything worthwhile staying at the house except for a few articles. But it did inspire him to write some important stuff in the early 1930s. According to Gordon Bowker, “In late 1927, his friend Ruth Pitter, the poet, found him an unheated attic at 22 Portobello Road, a short walk from his old home at Notting Hill Gate. The room was so cold that he had to warm his hands over a candle-flame before he could start writing in the morning.

From this icy cell, he set out in old clothes to mingle with the tramps and down-and-outs who slept along the Embankment, in common lodging-houses and ‘spikes’, the casual wards of workhouses. Most of these spikes and lodging-houses (or ‘kips’) have long gone, though a few old workhouse buildings survive, often as NHS hospitals. It was from a kip in Lambeth that he tramped down to Kent to go hop-picking among the East Enders and gipsy families who migrated there every year for a working holiday. This experience was recaptured in his first article for the New Statesman in October 1931 and lay at the heart of his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter.[1]

As I said, Notting Hill is a great attraction for tourists looking for a door that does not exist and a bookshop that does not exist except in the film. As I walked by Orwell’s house last week, two young women, whom I assumed were tourists, took a photo outside the house. I guessed they had not spotted the blue plaque, and I was correct. They were even more surprised when I told them who had lived there. I asked one girl if she had read him, and she replied only 1984. I asked her where she was from, and she said Spain. I did not have the energy to tell her that Orwell had fought Fascism in her country. Or that, in my opinion, Homage To Catalonia is his greatest book.


[1] https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/articles/gordon-bowker-orwells-london/

The Ghetto Fights: Warsaw 1941-43-By Marek Edelman £7.99- January 1st 2020-Published By Bookmarks Publications

The decline of capitalism has suspended the Jews between heaven and earth.”[1]

I am not acquainted with the young author of this booklet, one of the leaders of the Jewish Uprising. He brought me a typewritten copy, and I read it all at once, unable to interrupt my reading for a single moment. … “I am not a writer, ” he said. “This has no literary value. “However, this non-literary narrative achieves that which not all masterpieces can achieve. For it gives in serious, purposeful, reticent words a record, simple and unostentatious, of a common martyrdom, of its entire involved course. It is also an authentic document about perseverance and moral strength kept intact during the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind.”

Zofia Nalkowska, LODZ, November 1945

 This book is the second reprint by Bookmarks (the publishing arm of the British  Socialist Workers Party) of Marek Edelmann’s extraordinarily harrowing and inspiring account of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising 1941-43 against the Nazis. The book contains an introduction by SWP member John Rose of which more will be said later in this review.

Edelman was a member of the Bund, an organisation of Jewish socialists, who, along with other groups, including radical left-wing Zionist organisations, militarily attacked the Nazis after they began to deport Jews from the Ghetto to the various Nazi concentration camps.

Despite several warnings from outside that Jews were being systematically murdered on an industrial scale, few inside the Ghetto believed it was happening. Edelman writes that “The Warsaw ghetto did not believe these reports. People who clung to their lives with superhuman determination could not believe that they could be killed in such a manner. Only our organised [youth] groups, carefully noting the steadily increasing signs of German terror, accepted the Chelmno story as probable and decided upon extensive propaganda activities to inform the population of the imminent danger. A meeting of the Zukunft cadres took place in mid-February 1941, with Abrasha Blum and Abramek Bortensztein as speakers. All of us agreed to offer resistance before being led to death. We were ashamed of the Chelmno Jews’ submissiveness, of their failure to rise in their defence. We did not want the Warsaw ghetto ever to act in a similar way. “We shall not die on our knees,” said Abramek, “Not they will be an example for us, but men like our comrade Alter Bas.” While Chelmno victims were dying passively and humbly, he, after having been caught as a political leader with illegal papers in his pocket, and tortured in every manner known to the Germans, resisted the barbarous torment through superhuman efforts when but a few words would have saved his life”.[2]

The book is light on analysis and is narrative-driven. Edelmann’s description of everyday life in the Ghetto is harrowing and, at times, hard to comprehend. He writes, “The sick, adults and children, previously brought here from the hospital lie deserted in the cold halls. They relieve themselves right where they lie and remain in the stinking slime of excrement and urine. Nurses search the crowd for their fathers and mothers and, having found them, inject longed for deathly morphine into their veins, their own eyes gleaming wildly. One doctor compassionately pours a cyanide solution into the feverish mouths of strange, sick children. Offering one’s cyanide to somebody else is now the most precious, irreplaceable thing. It brings a quiet, peaceful death. It saves from the horror of the cars”.[3]

The Nazis used the Ghetto as a holding area to process people to the concentration camps, and they were able to do this with a minimum of fuss because of the pernicious role played by the Jewish Council, who collaborated with the Fascists in the industrial-scale murder of Polish Jews.

After the final decision was made to liquidate the Ghetto, many different political organisations came together to fight the Nazis. Despite having few weapons, the various fighting units killed many Nazis.

Marek Edelman wrote this book just after the war finished and was published in Warsaw in 1945, then in English in 1946. The book raises several important issues, such as the collaboration of the Jewish Council in facilitating the Nazi’s mass death programme. It also highlights the difference between the lives of working-class people who lived and died in abject squalor and sections of middle-class Jews who could live a relatively comfortable life for a short time. As Jim O’Connell writes, “During the early days of the Ghetto and indeed to different degrees even, later on, many aspects of normal social life continued to exist relatively unaffected by the enforced confinement and growing instances of deportations and physical abuse. Some of the wealthier members of society carried on a relatively privileged existence while their fellow residents died of hunger on the streets. Commerce continued along with black-market dealings for profit. In such an environment, it might be that even those people with the most access to information (by paying for it) refused to believe that the same fate that was visited on the lower classes could be inflicted on themselves”.[4] The book counters the myth that there was no opposition amongst the Jews to the Nazi Genocide. It is clear from the bravery of the Ghetto Fighters that some Jews fought back.[5]

There are several issues that Edelmann does not touch upon it in the book. The fact that the Ghetto fighters fought alone and had few weapons was primarily down to the role of Stalinism. Their brutal stance was best summed up by Stalin’s general, Rokossovsky, “We are responsible for the conduct of the war in Poland, we are the force that will liberate the whole of Poland… [The Home Army] have butted in like the clown in the circus.”[6] The Red Army might have helped deliver the knock-out blow against Hitler in the end, but the 1944 Polish uprising was defeated because Stalin ordered them to halt outside Warsaw. Most importantly, the Kremlin’s suppression of independent political action by the working class of Europe had a devastating impact on the ability of the Jewish working class to fight the Nazis.

Edelmann is slightly critical of some of the political parties’ lack of support for the Uprising, writing, “the fact that none of the other active political parties took part in this action is significant as an example of the utter misconception of existing conditions common to Jewish groups at the time. All other groups even opposed our action. It was, however, our determined stand that momentarily checked the Germans’ activities and went on record as the first Jewish act of resistance”. Other than a few paragraphs, Edelmann has no substantial political analysis of the leadership inside the Ghetto.

While it is commendable of the SWP to publish this account of the Warsaw Ghetto, a couple of issues arise from John Rose’s introduction. Rose’s friendship and use of the work of Professor Anthony Polonsky is questionable. Polonsky’s defence of Adam Czerniakow(who committed suicide rather than collaborate with the deportations of the Jews to the concentration camp) is contentious.

The most important thing I take issue with is Rose’s uncritical attitude towards Edelmann’s participation in the Solidarity movement. As Dorota Niemitz points out “the vast majority of the petty-bourgeois and academic advisers of the Solidarity trade union aspired to integrate Poland into the world and European capitalist economy and supported “shock therapy”, austerity measures and Poland’s accession to NATO and the EU. This, and not the defence of the working class, was the content of their call for “freedom” and “democracy.”[7]

This is an important book as it gives an account of the bravery of sections of the Jewish people in their fight against Fascism and nails a myth that the Jews went quietly into the good night. It is not a political account of the struggle against Fascism, so I have included some further reading.

Further Reading.

1.   https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1940/xx/jewish.htm

2.   The Myth of “Ordinary Germans”: A Review of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners-David North- www.wsws.org/en/special/library/russian-revolution-unfinished-twentieth-century/15.html

3.   Wolfgang Weber-Poland 1980-1981: The Solidarity Movement and the Perspective of Political Revolution-Mehring Books.

4.   Abram Leon (1918–1944)-The Jewish Question-A Marxist Interpretation- https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/


[1] Abram Leon-The Jewish Question-https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/leon/ch8.htm

[2]   The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by Marek Edelman-https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/warsaw-uprising.html

[3] The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, by Marek Edelman-https://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/warsaw-uprising.html

[4] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/irishmr/vol03/no09/oconnell.pdf

[5] http://irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/116

[6] https://socialistworker.co.uk/features/anti-nazi-fighters-who-were-left-to-fight-alone/

[7] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/05/03/wale-m03.html

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK-Simon Kuper-Profile, 240pp, £16.99

“Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste”,

Simon Kuper

“To understand the man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Chums is a useful but limited look at a group of Oxford Tories who now run the country on behalf of a section of the English bourgeoisie. As Kuper adeptly explains, this group is hardly a set of intellectual giants.

One of the group’s cheerleaders and media friend Toby Young was forced to admit that “It has become a commonplace of Islington dinner parties that the reason Britain is in such a mess is because of its wretched class system which has condemned us to be ruled by a bunch of incompetent Tory toffs. Not only are they lazy and amoral, believing the rules don’t apply to them, but for the most part, they are innumerate and scientifically illiterate, thanks to the humanities bias at Britain’s elite public schools and Oxford University. Little wonder they have made such a hash of governing the country, culminating in the disastrous decision to leave the European Union”.[1]

The leader of this group is Boris Johnson, who learnt at a very early age that he was never going to win a sustained intellectual argument with anyone. So, according to Kuper, to defeat opponents whose arguments were better, he ignored them and offered “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowerings of the voice, and ad hominem jibes”.

During his time at Oxford, Johnson was at the heart of a somewhat incestuous network of friends that now hold political power in Britain. This clique, according to Kuper, was “born to power”. More importantly, it was this clique that organised Brexit. According to a statement by the Socialist Equality Party, “the Remain and Leave wings of the British bourgeoisie had opposing strategies to respond to the inexorable drift towards trade war between the major powers. Both factions are equally reactionary. The Remain faction wanted to preserve Britain’s global position within the EU trading bloc and its massive single market. The Leave forces viewed the EU as an impediment to the UK’s pursuing a global trade and investment policy as a deregulated base for financial speculation, centred on a strengthened alliance with the US and directed against Germany and France.

Brexit is, therefore, a product of global economic and social contradictions produced by capitalism. This was underscored within months of the referendum vote by the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, standing on his nationalist “America First” agenda. Trump embraced Brexit as a weapon to encourage the breakup of an EU he denounced as a “competitor,” not an ally, and as a “cartel” run in the interests of Germany.[2]

The book details this group, including Michael Gove, Patrick Robertson, Dan Hannan and Dominic Cumming and others who, under the influence of the right-wing historian Norman Stone hatched the idea of a break away from Europe. As Jacob Rees-Mogg put it so bluntly, “We on this side know each other.” It is not difficult to see why a section of the English bourgeoisie choose this group of vacuous individuals or, as Kuper puts it, a “chumocracy” to do its dirty work for it.

If Johnson and his friend’s behaviour during their reign has taught us anything, this psychopathic social class has lost any right to rule. During their reign, Johnson and his allies launched a one-sided class war. It is clear to anyone that Johnson’s reputation is now in tatters, but according to Chris Marsden, “the more fundamental issue at stake is whether he is too damaged to navigate the treacherous waters British imperialism has now entered. Most importantly, can Johnson lead Britain’s war drive against Russia and China, in alliance with the United States, while carrying out the brutal offensive against the working class needed to pay for it?”[3]

While it is politically important that Kuper has identified the class and social base of the Tories, it is hoped that Kuper’s next book would do the same for the Labour Leadership. It also contains a significant number of privately educated individuals, and therefore Labour is no less a party of the super-rich than the Conservatives.

Kuper has done a good job is raising the question of class in Britain. The crap espoused by Labour and Tories alike that Britain is a classless society has been badly exposed as a lie. However, under conditions of mass death and massive levels of social inequality, it is a dangerous act to raise the issue of class in Britain because Britain’s ruling elite sees it as “tantamount to an invitation to working people to join a class war that has—to date—been raging in an almost entirely one-sided fashion”.


[1] https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/a-onesided-selective-narrative-toby-young-reviews-chums

[2] Britain leaves the European Union: Against nationalism, For the United Socialist States of Europe!- https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/01/31/pers-j31.html

[3] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/04/23/john-a23.html

Royal Mail Profits Surge But Offer A Pay Rise With More Strings Than An Orchestra

Royal Mail is expected to reveal record full-year profits of around £720million, up from £664million the previous year. Given Royal Mail’s previous promise to shareholders to cut staff and escalate further attacks on postal workers, it is no surprise that it has offered a paltry pay rise of 2% with massive changes in working conditions.

Royal Mail wants compulsory Sunday working; an additional 1.5% pay rise will be directly linked to increased productivity. Royal Mail wants a reduction in sick pay, scrapping several allowances, later start times, annualised hours and significantly different pay for all new members, creating a two-tier workforce.

The only people surprised by Royal Mail’s actions are the Communication Workers Union(CWU), who have bent over backwards to present the new Royal Mail management as a friend of postal workers and someone they can work with.

Over the last two years, the union has collaborated with Royal Mail in imposing draconian new changes in working conditions. When postal workers sought to oppose these attacks, the union called off a strike ballot and began phoney negotiations. These negotiations resulted in many dead and sick postal workers who were forced to work during a lethal pandemic, with the union calling postal workers the “fifth emergency service”.

The new national agreement (Pathway to Change) agreed between Royal Mail and the CWU has led to a massive increase in productivity with huge amounts of packets delivered, which meant a massive increase in profits, and at the end of last year, £400 million was given to shareholders.

The CWU has reportedly overseen record-breaking revisions, leading to hours cut, longer walks, and utter chaos in numerous offices. According to one worker,” Our office has just started its new duties after a revision where deliveries are too big, the way walks have been laid out is absurd, mail not being delivered for days and overall morale varying from discontent to hilarity at the fiasco developing. Customer service is non-existent, and turning this around seems impossible. Posties are so fed up that mail is taken for a ride and then returned to be rethrown off for the next day when the pantomime is repeated. Bigger walks, less time to do them, photographing packets daily van checks before you go out, HCTs that are not fit for purpose and a union that seems oblivious”.[1] Several Royal Mail delivery offices took unofficial industrial action in opposition to the ‘Pathway to Change’ national agreement. One such strike at the Invergordon delivery office was taken to defend a temporary member whose contract was ended.

Amesbury and Frinton delivery offices took strike action over the massive increase in parcel delivery with cuts in staff leading to unrealistic delivery times. Workloads have now reached breaking point at a large number of offices. At Wakefield Delivery Office, West Yorkshire, the agreement rollout of a structural revision resulted in 94% of the workforce voting it down after producing unachievable workloads. Unofficial actions by postal workers have been left isolated by the CWU leadership. Regarding the current pay dispute, the union has, instead of calling an immediate strike ballot, will continue four-week negotiations behind the backs of postal workers.

As part of the CWU’s supposed battle on pay, its London organisation has released a leaflet entitled  London Calling-Royal Mail’s Pay Betrayal To The Workforce. The leaflet insults the intelligence of postal workers, as no postal worker believes Royal Mail has betrayed them. If anything, large sections of postal workers conclude that it is their union that has betrayed them and collaborates so much with Royal Mail that it is becoming difficult to tell them apart.

This treachery is not just confined to British unions. Trade unions all over the world are carrying out similar policies? Embracing labour-management collaboration and handing back to the employer’s gains won by previous generations of the working class.

To defend their pay and conditions, Postal workers must break from the CWU and establish a network of rank-and-file committees.


[1] https://www.royalmailchat.co.uk/community/viewtopic.php?f=69&t=104536&p=973472

The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives by Adolph L. Reed Jr. (London, UK & Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books, 2022)

“Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present.”

Adolph L. Reed Jr

We must find the road to the most deprived, to the darkest strata of the proletariat, beginning with the Negro, whom capitalist society has converted into a pariah, and who must learn to see in us his revolutionary brothers. And this depends wholly upon our energy and devotion to the work.[1]

Leon Trotsky

“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, there would be no cotton. Without cotton, there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is, therefore, an economic category of paramount importance.”[2]

Karl Marx

One of the purposes of this excellent new book by Adolph L Reed is to preserve the voices of the last generation of Americans with a living memory of Jim Crow.[3] In the words of the English historian E. P Thompson, it attempts to rescue them from the “enormous condescension of posterity”.

The South documents Reed’s personal history almost in the manner of a memoir. However, unlike similar books, Reed presents a historical and class-based analysis of the racist Jim Crow laws.

As Barbara J Fields explains, it is important to understand the race from a historical perspective. She writes, “When virtually the whole of society, including supposedly thoughtful, educated, intelligent persons, commits itself to belief in propositions that collapse into absurdity upon the slightest examination, the reason is not hallucination or delusion or even simple hypocrisy; rather, it is ideology. And ideology is impossible for anyone to analyse rationally who remains trapped on its terrain. That is why race still proves so hard for historians to deal with historically, rather than in terms of metaphysics, religion, or socio- (that is, pseudo-) biology”.

Nothing so well illustrates that impossibility as the conviction among otherwise sensible scholars that race “explains” historical phenomena; specifically, it explains why people of African descent have been set apart for treatment different from others. But race is just the name assigned to the phenomenon, which it no more explains than judicial review “explains” why the United States Supreme Court can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, or than Civil War “explains” why Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865″.[4]

Reed’s defence of a historical and class-based understanding of race has led him to be heavily criticised and ostracised. Reed has opposed what he calls “race reductionism,”. In 1996, he famously described Barack Obama as a “smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” [5].For Reed, class-based inequality is the historical constant, not race. Reed examines how the black middle class were treated differently than the black working class. He recounts how many black middle-class people could avoid some of the worst excesses of the murderess Jim Crow regime.

As Reed contends in his article Separate and Unequal, “Middle-class, “respectable” black people sought as much as possible to insulate themselves and their children from contact with those they considered to be class inferiors. An elaborate structure of social clubs—for example, the Links and the Girl Friends for women, the Boulé for men, Jack and Jill for children, and fraternity and sorority chapters for students and alumni—evolved to create and sustain homogeneous middle-class social networks locally and nationally. Segregation did have a levelling effect on race. Those with higher status were forced to share neighbourhoods, schools, churches, restaurants, and other public entertainments with those they would prefer not to associate with. From the system’s beginnings, a complaint about the injustice of enforced segregation was that it did not account for class distinctions among black people”.[6]

DSA

Reed has also criticised “critical race theory”, saying, “It is another expression of reductionism. On the most pedestrian level, it is an observation that what you see is a function of where you stand. At that level, there is nothing in it that was not in Marx’s early writings or Mannheim. But then you get an appropriation of the standpoint theory for identity that says, for example, all blacks think the same way. It is taxonomic, a reification. So the retort to that critique has been “intersectionality.” Yes, there is a black perspective, but what you do is fragment it, so there are multiple black perspectives because each potential—or each sacralised—social position becomes discrete. That is what gives you intersectionality.[7]

Reed’s political and class-based perspective has been too much for the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA), who had a speech of Reed’s cancelled due to objections by the AFROSOCialist and Socialists of Color Caucus over his “reactionary and class reductionist form of politics”.

1619 Project

His critique of the 1619 project has led to personal and political attacks. In a recent interview with Tom Mackaman- Reed states, “I did not know about the 1619 Project until it came out, and frankly when I learned about it, my reaction was a big sigh. But again, the relation to history has passed to the appropriation of the past in support of whatever kind of ‘just-so’ stories about the present is desired. This approach has taken root within the Academy. It is like all bets are off. Merlin Chowkwanyun and I did an article a few years ago in the Socialist Register that is a critique of disparitarianism in the social sciences, by which this or that disparity has replaced the study of inequality and its effects. As Walter Benn Michaels said, and as I have said time and time again if anti-disparitarianism is your ideology, then for you, a society qualifies as being just if 1 per cent of the population controls 90 per cent of the wealth, so long as that within that 1 per cent 12 per cent or so are black, etc., reflecting their share of the national population. This is the ideal of social justice for neoliberalism. There is no question of actual redistribution.[8]

Reed demolishes one of the myths of the 1619 project that enslaved people were introduced to America because of racism. Reed points out that the first slaves were brought over under the auspices of a wage labour system. He writes, ” the 1619 Project assumes, in whatever way, that slavery was the natural condition of Africans. And that is where the Afro-pessimism types wind up sharing a cup of tea with James Henry Hammond.”

As Niemuth points out in his defence of Reed, “The furious reaction within the DSA leadership to the invitation to Reed reveals how deeply the organisation is imbued with the reactionary and right-wing politics of racial division. The extreme hostility to any analysis based on the primacy of class expresses the interests of affluent sections of the petit bourgeoisie, who utilise racial and identity politics in the fight over positions of power and privilege within the apparatus of the state, the trade unions, academia and corporations”.

Conclusion

This concise volume deserves to be read widely and hopefully put onto university reading lists. It is hoped a younger readership picks it up and learns about a class-based and historical perspective on racism than the racialist perspective touted by the 1619 project.

About the Author

Adolph Reed, Jr., is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books and articles dealing with race and class in American society and writes regularly for the New Republic.

Further Reading

1.   The cancellation of professor Adolph Reed, Jr.’s speech and the DSA’s promotion of race politics-Niles Niemuth- 18 August 2020-wsws.org

2.   The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History: Essays and Interviews Paperback – 26 February 2021

3.   by David North, Thomas Mackaman


[1] On Black Nationalism-Documents on the Negro Struggle- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1940/negro1.htm

[2] 1846 in The Poverty of Philosophy,

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Crow_laws

[4] Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America-https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5281-slavery-race-and-ideology-in-the-united-states-of-america

[5] https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/03/obama-and-the-left-95-edition-026114

[6] https://harpers.org/archive/2022/02/separate-and-unequal-the-south-jim-crow-and-its-afterlives-adolph-reed-jr/

[7] “Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present”-An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project-Tom Mackaman-20 December 2019-wsws.org

[8] “Reinventing the past to suit the purposes of the present”-An interview with political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. on the New York Times’ 1619 Project-Tom Mackaman-20 December 2019-wsws.org

UK Post Office workers to stage national strike on May 3 against government pay restraint

This article by Tony Robson first appeared on the website wsws.org)

Post Office workers are to take national strike action May 3, in opposition to pay restraint imposed in line with the public sector policy dictated by the Johnson government.

The one-day stoppage will close 114 Crown Post Offices (those run directly by the Post Office) around the country and there will be no cash deliveries or collections from 11,500 sub-post offices. The action involves over 1,000 workers including counter staff as well as clerical, administration and call centre workers.

Royal Mail van, outside the Axminster post office (Image Credit: Wikipedia/Felix O)

Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) voted in March by a 97.3 percent majority for strike action in a ballot turnout of 70 percent. They have rejected a miserly 2.5 percent pay rise, offered as inflation climbs to a 30-year high of 6 percent CPI and 9 percent RPI.

The proposed two-year deal includes the pay freeze for last year and a lump sum of £250 in addition to the 2.5 percent from April this year.The determination of postal workers to fight back is in sharp contrast to the CWU. While the union is making token noises about the insulting pay offer, its efforts have been directed towards preventing a struggle from taking place.

Andy Furey, CWU Assistant General Secretary, told the Independent, “Despite this union’s best attempts to avoid strike action, the Post Office has displayed no interest whatsoever in meaningful negotiations.”

The union has confined itself to evasive references to a decent and fair agreement rather than specify a demand in line with inflation and which compensates for last year’s pay freeze.Now that a national strike is taking place the CWU is seeking to head off a confrontation with the government and drive a wedge between postal workers and millions of public sector workers suffering widespread austerity.

In a press release Furey states in reference to the Post Office, “They have told us that they’re freezing pay in keeping with official government and public-sector pay policy… But that’s an outrageous and dishonest excuse as the government’s austerity measures do not apply to the Post Office and it should be borne in mind that our members worked throughout the pandemic to provide essential services to the Great British public.”

He added that “the further irony here is that our members are always being told by senior management that they are a commercial operation and required to make a profit – yet the Post Office is a profitable concern – profits made by the hard work and dedication and skill of our members.”

Health workers, teachers, refuse workers and millions of other public sector workers have served on the frontline of the pandemic in which their safety was disregarded only to be rewarded with below inflation deals. The divisive approach of the CWU must be rejected in favour of a unified fightback.

Furey argues for accepting the entire framework of cost cutting and restructuring in the name of profitability on the false pretence that workers will get their “fair share” rather than suffer stepped-up exploitation.

The state-owned Post Office was separated off from Royal Mail when the latter was privatised back in 2012, splitting the cashier and retail operations from the letter and parcel delivery service. Since then, the number of Crown Post Offices has been reduced from 373 by more than two-thirds, to 114. Fully 99 percent of Post Offices are run by an independent postmaster, or what is described as a larger franchise partner, i.e., major retail chains.

The government subsidy has been reduced from £210 million in 2012-13 to £50 million annually, according to a Financial Times article last August, “in the drive to make the Post Office commercially viable.” Post Office CEO Nick Read explained that while the plan to remove all government subsidy, except for rural branches, by 2022 has been postponed, it was still intended to be achieved by 2025-6.

Read outlined plans to introduce self-service kiosks in 2,000 to 3,000 branches following the example of Post Canada. He admitted this would be at the expense of jobs. Read also referred to a move into the pick-up and drop-off market and for the Post Office to act as an outreach for banks that have deserted the high streets in favour of online services. The Post Office has entered into agreements with Amazon and DPD in relation to parcel deliveries, rather than their exclusive handling by Royal Mail.

The sole focus of the Post Office is to maximise profits as the government subsidy is stripped out. This can only further undermine the social obligations it is formally committed to in providing an accessible service to the elderly and most vulnerable, and will be done at the expense of workers’ jobs, pay and terms and conditions.

The Post Office has been at the centre of a massive frame-up of postal workers through the Horizon scandal. Hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongfully convicted to cover up the defective Horizon IT auditing system designed and installed by Japanese company Fujitsu. This was introduced across the Post Office network in 1999 at the cost of £1 billion. The defects in the IT system showed false shortfalls in branch accounts and led to 736 unsafe convictions for offences ranging from false accounting, theft and fraud between 2000 and 2014, resulting in some prison sentences.

This was only brought to light due to the legal campaign by those wrongfully convicted and their supporters, spanning a 20-year period against bitter resistance from the Post Office. At the end of 2019 the Post Office finally agreed to pay damages to 555 claimants in civil cases. Last April the Court of Appeal quashed in a single ruling the convictions against 39 postmasters, part of a total of 72 such rulings to date, with many more expected to go to court. The bill of compensation for the victims of injustice meted out by the Post Office is estimated to be £1 billion.

One of the “Post Office 39” who had their convictions overturned is Seema Misra, a mother who was eight weeks pregnant with her second child when she was sentenced in 2010 for theft and false accounting, spending four months in prison, and ordered to pay £40,000 in compensation to the Post Office. Misra stated, “The Post Office was like a mafia. They have blood on their hands. We live in a developed country, how can we let these criminals roam around freely?”

There is widespread anger among postal workers over the fact that nobody in authority at the Post Office or Fujitsu has faced criminal prosecution for what has been described as the most “widespread miscarriage of justice” in recent UK history. Both parties have been shown to have withheld evidence regarding the faulty IT system. Paula Vennells, who oversaw the cover-up and persecution of sub-postmasters, is estimated to have raked in £5 million in pay and bonuses during her time as managing director and later chief executive of the Post Office before stepping down in 2019. 

Post Office workers should reject the CWU’s argument that their fight should be conducted separately from those in the public sector facing austerity. The claim that a pay rise can be achieved by accepting the pro-business framework for the Post Office of further restructuring to hike up profits is bogus.

We encourage Post Office workers to read the Socialist Equality Party statement, “The working class must mobilise to bring down the Johnson government.” This outlines a strategy to mobilise the working class independently of the Labour Party and trade unions, which act as accomplices of the government and the employers as they demand increased exploitation and social looting in the interests of the corporate and financial elite.

Letter to Janan Ganesh on “Elegant” Theories and the Ukraine crisis

Dear Janan

Given that you are a journalist in Financial Times Global Affairs department, I was a little surprised that you could only find two previously discredited and bankrupt theoreticians, namely Francis Fukayama and Samuel Huntingdon, to prove your assertion that there is no “elegant” theory to explain the “Ukraine Crisis”.Fukayama’s “End of History” hardly prepared him for the Ukraine crisis, and his train wreck of an analysis of the End of the Soviet Union was almost as bad.

An elegant document released at the time by the World Socialist Website provided a superb and, I might add, elegant rebuttal to Fukayama stating “the dissolution of the USSR provoked within the bourgeoisie and its ideological apologists an eruption of euphoric triumphalism. The socialist nemesis had, for once and for all, been laid low! The bourgeois interpretation of the Soviet Union’s demise found its essential expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Employing a potted version of Hegel’s idealist phenomenology, Fukuyama proclaimed that the weary march of history had arrived at its final station—a US-style liberal bourgeois democracy based on the unfettered capitalist market. This was the summit of human civilisation! This theme was elaborated in countless variations by gullible and impressionistic petty-bourgeois academics, always anxious to be on what they take to be, at any given moment, the winning side of history”.[1]  

As a journalist for the Financial Times, you will have access to every global media publication online and in paper form. So it is a little surprising that you ignore the one publication that would refute your premise. That publication is the World Socialist Website (wsws.org). I can only assume that you ignore this publication out of ideological consideration. It is clear from your previous writings that from an ideological standpoint, you are an anti-Marxist. If you were to suspend your ideological prejudice, you would find several articles on their website that would provide an elegant and correct perspective on the Ukraine war.

Please permit me to quote a rather elegant analysis. A letter was sent by WSWS International Editorial Board Chairman David North to a friend who requested his opinion on a recent online discussion held at a US college on the Russia-Ukraine war. David North makes the following point “Momentous events such as wars and revolutions invariably raise complex problems of causation. That is one of the reasons why the study of history is an indispensable foundation of serious political analysis. This general truth acquires exceptional importance in any discussion of Russia. This country was the site of arguably the most significant political event of the twentieth century, the 1917 October Revolution, whose historical, political and intellectual legacy still reverberates in our own time. The study of Soviet history remains critical to understanding the politics and problems of the contemporary world”[2].

Having read your columns on several occasions, I conclude that you have read very little about Russian history, particularly its revolution of 1917. Before writing such a provocative article, you should have brushed up on your history.

In doing so, maybe you would have suspended your anti-Marxism and not written a crass piece of journalism. Lastly, you write that “a strict realist wants you to believe that Putin would now be no trouble if only Nato had not moved east. Holding domestic values cheap, realism cannot explain why the sanctioning countries are almost all democracies. It cannot explain why Ukrainians want to face the west in the first place. When Putin himself cites culture and values, a realist must diagnose him with false consciousness and stress that what moves him is the dry calculation of the chessboard”.[3]

I will call upon the elegant Mr North to refute your argument. North writes, “The examination of the aggressive foreign policy of the United States since the dissolution of the USSR is not only a matter of exposing American hypocrisy. How is it possible to understand Russian policies apart from analysing the global context within which they are formulated? Given that the United States has waged war relentlessly, is it irrational for Putin to view the expansion of NATO with alarm? He and other Russian policymakers are certainly aware of the enormous strategic interest of the United States in the Black Sea region, the Caspian region and, for that matter, the Eurasian landmass. It is not exactly a secret that the late Zbigniew Brzezinski and other leading US geostrategists have long insisted that US dominance of Eurasia—the so-called “World Island”—is a decisive strategic objective”.

This is not to excuse Putin’s actions. I condemn the war in Ukraine, but as the great Spinoza said once, ” I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.[4]

Notes

janan.ganesh@ft.com


[1] The Struggle Against the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification-www.wsws.org/en/special/library/foundations-us/58.html

[2] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/03/19/cmmf-m19.html

[3] No grand theory can explain the Ukraine crisis- http://www.ft.com/content/881c14dd-08ce-4266-8127-24f3c398e8d3

[4] Baruch Spinoza 1632–77- Tractatus Politicus (1677) ch. 1, sect. 4 

Regicide-The Trials of Henry Marten-John Worthen-Haus Publishing-30/08/2022-ISBN-13: 9781913368357

“If the world was emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John and John with Lilburne.”

Henry Marten

“Let that ugly Rascall be gonne out of the Parke, that whore-master, or els I will not see the sport.[1]

Charles I

“And therefore, Sir, to give you your due and right, I must ingenuously a•… knowledge, that I have for a long time looked upon you, as one of the great p•…lars of the Liberties of the Commons of England, and your name amongst all ju•… and unbiassed men, hath been extraordinary famous this present Parliament, therefore, and for this, you suffered an expulsion of the House, and a reproachfull a•… unjust imprisonment in the Tower of London, by the guilded men of the time who (you then discovered) carried two faces under one hood; & many monet•… (if not some yeares) you continued an ejected person from your just place in th•… House”[2]

Rash oaths unwarrantable-John Lilburne

“He was a great lover of pretty girles, to whom he was so liberall that he spent the greatest part of his estate”. He was a great and faithfull lover of his Countrey, and Never gott a farthing by Parliament. He was of an incomparable Witt for Repartes; not at all covetous; not at all Arrogant, as most of them were; a great cultor of Justice, and did always in the House take the part of the oppressed”.

John Aubrey 

John Worthen’s biography of Henry Worthen is both intriguing and illuminating. It is a sympathetic portrait of one of the leading figures of the English revolution. Marten was a republican way before it became fashionable, being the only convinced Republican in the Long Parliament at the outset of the civil war and was one of the few leaders of the English revolution to be intimately connected with the Leveller movement.

The book is deeply researched, drawing extensively on letters Marten wrote while awaiting trial. He was accused of organising the trial of Charles I and being one of the signatories of the King’s death warrant. Amazingly, these letters remained intact since, during his captivity, his letters to his mistress Mary Ward were stolen and published in an attempt to destroy his reputation. However, their publication revealed a thoughtful, intelligent and tender man. Worthen’s use of them is to be commended. They are an extraordinary source material.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Marten was at the fulcrum of the English bourgeois revolution. But history has not been kind to Henry Marten. Today, he is a neglected historical figure. If any person needed to be rescued from the condescension of history, it was Marten. It has not helped that several conservative and revisionist historians have heaped a pile of dead dogs on his historical reputation. Many have repeated old accusations that he was a womaniser and have tended to downplay his importance or close connection to the Leveller movement.

The unseriousness of these historians is perhaps encapsulated by the article in the august publication, The History of Parliament Blog, by Dr David Scott called Sex in the Long Parliament, in which he writes, “No sex survey of the Long Parliament, however brief, can omit its supposedly most libidinous member, the arch-republican MP for Berkshire, Henry Marten. Parliamentarians and royalists alike denounced him as a libertine and ‘whoremaster’. Yet this moral outrage owed less to his womanising than to the shamelessness with which he abandoned his wife and lived openly with his mistress, to whom he seems to have remained faithful to the end of his life in 1680. The greatest sexual offence a Long Parliamentarian could commit was refusing to acknowledge it as an offence at all. If this were a defence of Marten’s reputation, I would hate to see him attacking him.[3]

Worthen does not buy into Marten being a whore-master. Charles I’s accusation, alongside many others, has been largely accepted down through the ages. A far more reasoned explanation can be found in Sarah Barber’s article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She writes, “His reputation for whoring seems to have been generated by the flagrant way in which he breached conventional mores by openly living with a common-law wife, Mary Ward, whose brother, Job, was parliamentarian commander of the fort at Tilbury. There is evidence that they were a couple from as early as 1649 when they lavishly entertained visiting dignitaries and kept liveried servants together. They may well have been a couple from Marten’s earliest time in London in 1640. If so, this was a relationship that remained constant for forty years. It was, however, adulterous, and Marten was quite open about it. Mary referred to herself and was referred to by others as Mary Marten. There were frequent plays on the word ‘leveller’ to argue that Marten’s radical political stance was, in fact, a synonym for the seduction of women, and satires on Mary to imply his possession of a ‘creature’, in the same way, that his regiment and his political power were bought. The couple had three daughters: Peggy, Sarah, and Henrietta (Bacon-hog).[4]

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Worthen’s book is his failure to pursue more in-depth research into Marten’s close connection to the Leveller movement, particularly his association with its leader John Lilburne. Further research is needed also regarding Marten’s time in the New Model Army and to the extent of Leveller’s ideas permeating the Army. Did Marten spread Leveller inspired ideas amongst his troops, and how did he come by the secret codes that the Levellers used to hide their correspondence?.

According to Sarah Barber, “Marten developed a close working relationship with the Leveller leaders during the late 1640s. He was closest to John Wildman, who was to marry Lucy Lovelace. Wildman was named with Marten in a cypher outlining sympathetic individuals and regiments, as well as identifying opponents, during the army agitation of summer 1647. Throughout their lives, Marten and Wildman retained their cypher letters as pen names. John Lilburne also trusted and respected Marten. The latter chaired the committee charged with examining Lilburne’s imprisonment, a committee that was unable to secure Lilburne’s release, and in Rash Oaths Unwarrantable. The Leveller published an invective against Marten. Marten was hurt by Lilburne’s personal attack and drafted a reply, ‘Rash censures uncharitable’, but did not publish it. The two seem to have mended their relationship and developed mutual respect. Marten also knew several minor Leveller figures. He took part in negotiations to draw up an Agreement of the People and was praised by Lilburne as the only parliamentarian to actively do so in late 1648. Marten approved of the idea of a fundamental constitution and was later, with Edward Sexby, to assist the frondeurs in drawing up a similar agreement for the French rebels”.[5]

Despite Worthen’s reluctance to deeply pursue Marten’s connection with the Levellers, this is a much-needed attempt to restore Marten’s historical importance. Hopefully, this book gets a wide readership and opens up a debate about the much-maligned Marten.

Notes

S. Barber, A revolutionary rogue: Henry Marten and the English republic (2000)

Henry Marten and The Levellers at the National Portrait Gallery-john Rees- www.youtube.com 

About the Author

JOHN WORTHEN is a biographer and historian. Professor of D. H. Lawrence Studies at the University of Nottingham from 1994-2003, he is the author of critically-acclaimed biographies of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Robert Schumann.


[1] Aubrey’s Brief Lives-By John Aubrey

[2] Early English Books Online- https://proquest.libguides.com/eebopqp

[3] Sex in the Long Parliament- https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2019/08/22/sex-in-the-long-parliament/

[4] https://www-oxforddnb-com.

[5] https://www-oxforddnb-com 

A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa. By: Beinin, Joel. Haddad, Bassam and Seikaly, Sherene. Eds. 2021. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. 2021; pp. 344; Paperback:

Joel Beini et al.’s volume is premised on the idea that ‘Rentier State Theory’ (RST) can no longer serve as an explanatory principle in analyzing state dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The editors presuppose that only a methodology rooted in critical political economy can explain the fortunes of MENA peoples in their respective polities. 

Class used to be swept under the carpet, but not anymore in this volume. A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa prides its credentials on reversing the trend put in place by RST. Given the neoliberal domineering order, marshaling the courage to discuss class is certainly an added value. Nevertheless, what is troublesome is the rejection of causality in this volume. The editors follow Louis Althusser’s structuralist approach where “…causes are simultaneous effects; all events are situated in a relational matrix; all social hierarchies are subject to contestations. (p. 1) The flattening of causes by equating them with effects and presupposing both as free-roaming enunciations explain the revival of classless for tracing classes’ role in deciding the destinies for emancipation and more towards stultifying the dynamics of social change.

The editors claim that developmentalism is a colonial and postcolonial paradigm par excellence. Developmentalism has been responsible for the reintegration of precapitalistic modes of production into global capitalism. The contributors show that indeed, postcolonial regimes share with their respective colonial antecedents more than the former are willing to admit. Applying units of measurements such as GPDs not only hides how measurements remain littered with ideological biases but that the sophistry of numbers can replace analysis. The oversight paves the way for what the editors seize as “the triumphalist account of the European Miracle” (p. 10) which is nothing but an ideological imposition of the imperial modes of production. Developmentalism sells the illusion that peoples of the MENA region may one day become the replica of Europe.

The book is divided into two uneven parts: Part I: “Categories of Analysis” has four chapters. Kristen Alff in Chapter One illustrates how diverse practices of land tenure under the Ottomans, and contrary to Orientalist allegations, have never been a hindrance to capital accumulation. Mercantile activities have been predominant in the region but the wide-ranging practices of Middle East elites have not been capitalistically-driven. The imperialists who came by the end of the nineteenth century and all through World War II coerced Egyptians and peoples of the Levant into capitalism (p. 26). But according to Alff, the imperialists simply pressed through various Oriental regimes such as the corvée system that was already there to enforce capitalism. The only violence that capitalism introduces in the Middle East, Alff finds, is the commodification of labor (p. 42).

Max Ajil, Bassam Haddad and Zeinab Abul-Magd in Chapter Two trace the fortunes of developmentalism in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The 1967 defeat before Israel brought a coup de grace for Egypt and Syria’s developmental projects. But the coup de grace implies that subterranean forces, varying between class antagonism and cold war politics (stretching to the developmental policy of careless borrowings of Muhammad Ali’s successors, a century before) had been at work. Again, it is large-scale debts that were meant to fund development that decided the fate of Arab Socialism in Egypt and Syria. (p. 61) While Egypt succumbed immediately to the infitah policy, Syria resisted but not without a considerable cost to the material well-being of its population. Tunisia’s nationalist movement was only pitted against European settlers’ supremacy. The moment that supremacy was reversed, President Lahbib Bourguiba was happy with just replacing, not undoing, the colonial system (p. 51). The contributors explain the persistent infightings in Syria today on the ground that “…the war simply is too lucrative to dissolve.” (p. 67).

Chapter Three by Timothy Mitchell dispels roaming myths regarding the role of oil both in the MENA region and the world at large. Oil supply—readers find—is governed by conglomerates whose concern is not ensuring the supply of hydrocarbons but rather the control of production and circulation for the sake of cashing in monumental profits. Once ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron become the principal players in the market, their efforts are geared toward the orchestration of scarcity: maintaining the illusory combination of risk and rarity whereby “…earnings stretch far into the future” (p. 73). No less consequential is Mitchell’s observation that, unlike coal which helped to create mass democracies, oil accelerates regressions towards inegalitarian polities. Labor has not challenged oil conglomerates, only nation-states have. The unfortunate side of this equation is that these states become resistant to coups (p. 77). Perhaps it is better to underline how MENA states have become resistant to democratic change since by exempting populations from taxation, governments could elide the maxim of no taxation without representation. Again, RST is found to be reductive because states benefiting from oil revenues have integrated the newly generated wealth into other business ventures and created independent assets, spelling rapid growth.  

Shana Marshall in Chapter Four finds that the endurance of say, Egyptian, Syrian or Algerian militaries in power despite popular contestations can be explained through the latter’s congruent connections with the global military-industrial complex. Such regional militaries are not simple to state functionaries but form a powerful class whose interests explain the need for a powerful metropolitan class for growth through expanding arms sales. In recycling oil money in Western economies, the MENA militaries become indispensable, even, invincible for the world order as it is, making a radical change exceptionally challenging. Suffice it to know that “[m]ajor arms exporters and their host governments were often at the forefront of efforts to pressure the international financial institutions to rescind demands for sharp reductions in defense spending.” (p. 91)

Part II: Country/Regional Studies: comprises seven chapters of which I am zooming only on two as they best illustrate the editors’ stance vis-à-vis class. Adam Hanieh’s fifth chapter rejects Hossein Mahdavy’s RST whereby Gulf governments have been classically approached. Hanieh posits that state and class are phenomenologically interlinked. Therefore, reliance on oil may have initially served, even fueled, consumptive habits but in the long run, it has facilitated the diversification of Gulf economies, creating a wealth-generating class, not crooked elites. This position contradicts standard accounts of the Gulf. Meanwhile, Hanieh never undermines these economies’ heavy reliance on non-citizens as this labor regime can be fatal.

Chapter Eight by Muriam Haleh Davis follows Jacques Marseille’s presupposition that starting from 1930 onward France was overburdened by her colonies, and that the idea of metropolitan France enriching itself from the colonies is but a myth. Davis posits that no rupture exists when moving from colonial to postcolonial modes of production (p. 164). What can be considered as a rupture is between pre-colonial and colonial modes of production in which the appropriation of tribal lands not only explains the proletarianization of large sways of the Algerian population but the foundation of a system that systematically worked against the historical owners of the land.

Indeed, the importance of class is not news. Nevertheless, the book stays fixated on one class: a single-player; the one that is holding power at this point. Nowhere do readers see the strife that usually accompanies competing classes, a situation that leaves the same readers wondering if editors consider lesser classes unworthy of attention or whether attempts to alter the present configuration of classes in the region are simply naïve and wasteful. Such a stance explains a static account of class; an account divorced from regimes of land tenure, oil production and circulation, arms dealerships, state control, and the challenges facing labor. The integration of class in understanding the tapestry making the MENA political economy is not there yet. Various contributors, including the last one, zoom in on the role that the lesser classes or the subaltern may play in reshaping the political economy, but overall, the contributors treat the subaltern as an immobile category: only the imperialists, the capitalists are rendered as agents of history.   

Regarding the rising fortunes of capital in the Gulf, it remains a mystery how the emergence of the capitalistic class which the contributors claim to be independent of rent has neither flattened the state’s capacity for coercion nor forced it toward democratization. Such a state of affairs leaves interested audiences wondering how could such feudal monarchies maintain their grip on power if indeed there exists a solid capitalistic class, as Hanieh advances. Indeed, the crash of the real-estate sector in 2009 offers a reflective insight into how privately owned businesses could be after all a bubble as they cannot survive without state patronage because they are concentrated in non-productive sectors. The thesis of the state playing the role of “a midwife of capitalistic class formation …” (p.121) cannot stand up to scrutiny. Similarly, Chapter Eight makes it look that Algeria’s independence was a charity from the capitalists. This is no different from squeezing facts to meet a theory. All these untenable conclusions result from confusing causes with effects. 

While the book traces a progressivist line from Orientalism and modernization theories, the overall approach is non-emancipatory as it is geared toward justifying the triumphant status quo, the one that emerged after the 2011 popular uprisings. With this conservative outlook, it becomes unsurprising to find the three contributors of Chapter Two concluding that these uprisings subscribe to classical bourgeois revolutions (p. 66). They do, but only when flattening cause and effect, that is, when refusing to register that the uprisings initially started as incendiary but the revolutionary momentum was crushed in consequence of the counterrevolution coercive policies, the least of which has been physical violence. Thus, the book’s approach is geared towards confusing, not explaining what indeed took place. This underlines the extent to which a triumphant regime of political economy pretends to provide a critique by simply promoting capital’s counterrevolutionary moment.   

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

ORCID iD https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1590-8524

fouad.mami@univ-adrar.edu.dz