George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (62)

REVIEWING The Dammed by Fred Pearce (Bodley Head) Alex Wilks supports the book’s thesis, that big dams do more harm than good. He argues that a better approach to the problems they are intended to solve would be to ensure that water should be controlled ‘not by governments and companies, but by communities who will ensure that some remains for future generations.’ [1] This begs the question by assuming that communities generally would forego their immediate interests for the sake of posterity. Very few of them have done so in the past; why should we expect the others to do so in future? Here, as so often, we have the tacit assumption of a major ideological change; communities which put the common interest before their own advantage would be ones which have achieved the transition from eidostatic to eidodynamic modes of thought and behaviour. What seems, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a technical suggestion for altering the system by which water supplies shall be controlled, turns out to be in effect a demand for the great change which the reformists and revolutionaries have been pursuing since their inception, so far with little success. [1] TLS Sept 17,11.


WRITING under the title ‘How the Left Failed,’ Seymour Martin Lipset reviews Encyclopedia of the American Left, edited by Mari Jo Buhle and others (U of Illinois Press). [2] Noting (shades of Northcote Parkinson!) that the Colonial Office attained its maximum size after the dissolution of the Empire, Lipset remarks that something similar has happened with the American Left. With the parties composing this movement receiving their lowest number of votes since formation of the Socialist Labour Party in 1877, writings about it proliferate. The encyclopedia under review boasts over 300 authors; most of them are on the staffs of American universities, working on American radicalism, and they form only a small part of the number engaged in research on the subject. The radical sociologist Richard Flacks notes the influence of Marxism in American universities in the 1980s; John Gray, a political theorist at Oxford, has described American academic institutions as the ‘last redoubt of Marxist theorising,’ and the Marxist scholars Bertell Ollman and Edward Vernoff, authors of a comprehensive work on Marxists in the universities, claim that a Marxist cultural revolution is taking place in these institutions. In 1989 Jonathan Wiener, left-wing historian, noted that ‘radical history in the age of Reagan occupies the strongest position it ever held in American universities.’

It is not only in North America that Marxism flourishes in the centres of learning and not elsewhere. Organized labour played only ‘a very small part’ in the Mexican Revolution, and the ‘outburst of Marxist and Marxist radicalism of the 1960s’ took place in the universities and in cultural life. (Simon Collier, reviewing Marxism and Communism in Twentieth-Century Mexico, by Barry Carr, U of Nebraska).

Meanwhile support for Marxism and allied movements among the public at large falls away, both in America and in the former USSR. It becomes increasingly clear that what Marx liked to call ‘the proletarian movement’ is better understood as a movement of intellectuals.  [2] TLS May 21,10


REGARDING one-legged arguments as inherently inadequate, and applying this to the left leg as well as the right, IC brings forward the achievements of capitalism to stand beside the revolutionaries’ presentation of its horrors and disasters. Reviewing Tom Bower’s Tiny Rowland, a rebel tycoon (Heinemann) Richard Dowden reminds us that many Africans owe much to Rowland. His company, Lonrho, operates mines, cotton estates and hotels where African governments in control would have let them collapse in mismanagement and debt. ‘Of course it was exploitation, of course he fed – and fed off – “corruption”; but Rowland is living proof of the maxim that it is better to be exploited than ignored.’ Dowden once came across a vast cotton estate in the middle of a war zone in Mozambique; it had its own private army and paid its workers in plastic tokens, exchangeable at the company store. (The ‘truck’ system, long forbidden in the advanced countries as unfair to the workers). Taking the trouble to find out what some of the workers thought about this, he got the same answer from all of them: ‘Thank God for Mr. Rowland and his plastic tokens.’


CONTRARY to a common belief, American cities continue to grow. Between 1980 and 1990 the twenty-three largest grew by 6 per cent and the forty medium-sized by 20 per cent. The 131 cities of between 100, 000 and 250,000 people each have grown by more than 15 per cent and now, for the first time, house more people than the great metropolises. (Witold Rybczynski, reviewing a clutch of books on cities, NYR July 15, 13).


WARS do sometimes benefit some of the participants, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration has gained substantially from the ‘war on drugs.’ (So have the dealers!) Between 1981 and 1992 its budget grew from $200m to $800m, it moved from its old office into a sleek tower, and came to employ over 6,000 people, active in fifty countries on five continents.

Founded in 1973, the agency at first concentrated on arresting street-level dealers and seizing shipments, but the more they confiscated, the more rapidly the supply increased. In 1982, having found over a ton of cocaine in one delivery, they realised that the annual shipments, formerly estimated at thirty tons, must be in the hundreds of tons. In 1989 twenty-two tons were found in one warehouse and the wholesale price had dropped since the late 1970s from $40,000 to well under $20,000 a kilo, indicating plentiful supplies. Since then the inflow has continued to increase. Federal attempts at control now cost some $4 billion annually, although there is no evidence that they do anything to reduce the amount of drugs on the street. [3] With the example of Prohibition before them, one would think it about time that breakaway group over there began to wonder whether $4 billion could not be put to better use.

Not that things are much different in Britain, except for the smaller scale. Here, also, attempts at prohibition force up the price and attract the pushers. Viv Reid, co-ordinator of the Newham drug counselling agency, dismisses any idea of a natural inclination towards the use of drugs; addicts have to be created: ‘Initially, the youngsters are not interested in the drug itself. They are interested in the cars, the money and the strong profile of the dealers.’ [4]

Reviewing Marijuana, the forbidden medicine, by Grinspoon and Bakalar (Yale UP) A. M. Daniels remarks:

The absurdity of the “war” on drugs is by now apparent to almost everyone, except those with the power to halt it.’ Marijuana, the authors of this book claim, has for its only serious side-effects a reduction in motor co-ordination (important when driving) and a worsening of the condition of psychotics. If it ought to be banned because those who take hard drugs once took marijuana then milk too should be banned, since every alcoholic drank it before starting on booze. ‘The alleged progression from marijuana to more dangerous drugs is likely to be a consequence of its prohibition, rather than of its inherent properties.

Tobacco and alcohol do more damage than the forbidden drugs; if we can tolerate these there is no need for the futile effort to prohibit cocaine, heroin and the rest, with its devastating consequences both for so many young people and for the victims of their crimes. Legitimized and mildly taxed crack, cocaine, heroin and marijuana would lose the false glamour that tempts the young and cease to offer the easy fortunes that attract the pushers.  [3] Michael Massing, reviewing Swordfish; a true story of ambition, savagery and betrayal, by David McClintick, NYR July 15,30 [4] Sunday Times August 22,3.


ONCE agriculture and the state had found a footing, further development is comparatively easy to understand; the main difficulty lies in that first transition, and The Archaeology of Africa; food, metals and towns, edited by Thurston Shaw, Paul Sinclair and others (Routledge), has much to say about it.

As in most recent work, the stress falls upon the gradualness of the change. Domestication must have been a slow business, and an even longer period before that was occupied by a growing concentration upon wild cereals, while hunting came in some ways to resemble herd management. ‘Above all, however, it is now evident that the transition to food production, far from being a popular goal, remained for long a minor diversification of the hunting and gathering economy, acceptable in times of ecological crisis, but often abandoned when conditions improved.’

One contributor, Fekri Hassan, directly ascribes the growth of towns and cities to a growing interest in domination and control, and others present the change to agriculture and herding as secondary, only the increasing availability of possessions – houses, pots, boats, fishing gear, private land and all that came with the working of metals – inducing people to accept the disciplines of seed-time and harvest. The growing hold of the sedentary way of life seems to have been the primary incentive, with food-production rather as a consequence. (Roland Oliver)


HOW many species are there? Nobody knows, but a figure of 30 million has been suggested. We eliminate them at a rate of some 27,000 a year, but against that orchid breeders alone create some 3,000 – 4, 000 new ones annually and nature an unknown number in response to disturbance of habitat. (Mark Ridley, reviewing The Diversity of Life by Edward O.Wilson TLS Aug 13,5 in TLS July 2,5)


BACK in 1989 (see IC 38, 12) Ben Pimlott edited the first issue of Samizdat (memory says a second issue followed, but nothing about any later ones); it stood near the centre of the ideological range, perhaps towards the socialistic side, deploring the divisions among ‘non-right’ or ‘non-conservative’ movements and seeking ‘a popular front of the mind.’ These groups being what they are, the effect of this call for unity was to set up yet another division, Samizdat and its following on the one hand, those insisting on the value of independence on the other.

Now, under the title ‘Towards the Welfare State, Clinton’s Health Plan and the new Social Democracy’, [5] Pimlott discusses recent developments in Britain and America. His main theme is the fairly standard one that these have improved conditions for the majority while worsening the position of those at the bottom of the heap: ‘In Britain, the DSS’s survey on “Households below Average Income,” published in June 1993, showed that in the period 1979 to 1991, average incomes rose by a real 35 per cent, but that the incomes of the worst-off tenth of all households had actually fallen by a real 14 per cent.’ American statistics define poverty in relation to subsistence costs, rather than average income as in Britain, but the movement there seems to have been similar.

Pimlott seems at times to be suggesting that socialist regimes would not have aimed at any very different outcome; he argues that this movement never has been very interested in the outcasts: ‘Socialist art depicted muscular men and healthy women… It seldom represented unpopular fringe-groups: gypsies, new immigrants, single mothers, alcoholics. Socialists… might have sympathy for such outsiders, but they were also wary of them, and did not regard their rescue as a high priority.’

This perhaps fails to recognise the extent to which painters like Walter Crane were presenting an ideal condition still to be achieved – those muscular men and healthy women include the outcasts rescued by socialism – but as far as present socialist attitudes go he has a point. Karl Marx spoke with contempt, both in The Communist Manifesto and in the 18th Brumaire, of the ‘lumpen’ proletariat (sometimes translated ‘the dangerous classes’) as distinct from the workers.

Pointing out out that both Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain reduced spending on those most in need, Pimlott speaks of it as a discovery of these regimes that ‘prejudice against those at the bottom of the heap… actually increased as the least fortunate got pushed further to the margins.’ Clinton’s victory does not disprove this; at 43 per cent his poll was lower than that won by Dukakis in 1988 and brought him success only because the ‘maverick candidature’ of Ross Perot picked up 19 per cent of the vote.

Pimlott concludes by noting that when the majority feels in need of succour it turns to the state, not the market. [5] TLS 19 November.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.