Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.
For a small country, Guatemala has an impressive history. In 1944, a revolution tried to make good on the democratic promise offered by allied victory in WWII. In 1954, Guatemala gained the unfortunate distinction of suffering the United States’ first Latin American Cold War intervention. That event, in turn, had two important consequences: Che, who was in Guatemala at the time, would cite it throughout the rest of his life as a key moment in his political formation, and the United States, seven years later, would try to replicate its success in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs intervention. In the 1960s, following the Cuban Revolution, Guatemala was one of the first Latin American countries to develop both a socialist insurgency and an anti-communist counterinsurgency. Practices the United States rehearsed in Guatemala would be applied throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, in 1981, the Guatemalan military unleashed the worst repression in the continent, slaughtering over 100,000 Mayan Indians in a campaign a United Nations truth commission labeled genocide.
Susanne Jonas’s Of Centaurs and Doves documents and analyzes the long peace process that has brought this tragic history, hopefully, to an end. Following an historical summary, Jonas recounts and analyzes recent events well known to Guatemalanists¾from the shaky 1986 start of the peace talks through the 1999 failure to pass through popular referendum a number of key reforms. She ends her book, fittingly so considering Guatemala’s important role in the Latin American Cold War, by considering the topic within a larger “world cycle of peace processes.”
Following the end of the Cold War and of conflicts in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, a number of factors combined to hasten Guatemala’s peace process. Although the Guatemalan rebels (URNG) had ceased to be a major military threat since the military’s horrific scorched earth offensive in 1982, they still were able to mount significant military operations in certain areas of the country. Following Guatemala’s transition from military to democratic rule in 1986, activists began to organize a number of new social, indigenous, and human rights organizations. These groups, some of them directly linked to the rebels and all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, allied to the insurgents’ social agenda, began to push the state toward negotiations. Likewise, “modernizing elements” within the army and among the economic elites saw an end to the war as a requisite step to “gain access to free trade arrangements such as NAFTA, to foreign investment, and to international funding promised to Guatemala after the signing of the peace accords.”
Between 1994 and 1996, the URNG and the Guatemalan state agreed to six major accords, brokered by the United Nations, that, if implemented, would institutionalize formal democracy in Guatemala. The accord on human rights held the state to the guarantees provided by the Guatemalan constitution and international treaties signed by previous governments. The second accord created the framework for the resettlement of internal and external refugees. The next agreement established a truth commission to investigate human rights violations committed during the civil war. The fourth accord on “identity and rights of indigenous peoples” formally defined Guatemala as a “multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation,” called for ratification of international treaties that protected the rights of native peoples, and set up a number of institutional and judicial mechanisms designed to protect indigenous communities. The fifth accord treated social and economic issues and “established a series of basic reforms that could open the door to possible future longer-range changes in the direction of modernizing the state and the landholding structure.” Finally, the sixth substantive accord laid out a plan for demilitarizing society, for reducing the size and budget of the military, professionalizing the police, and dismantling the intelligence structure which serves as the brains of Guatemala’s repressive apparatus.
Jonas offers guarded optimism: “On the positive side…. the peace process and the accords have changed many rules of the political game… If the forces of the Left are coherent and intelligent enough to use it well, they now have the space to fight for many of the goals not achieved in the accords themselves… On the negative side, there are serious limitations and flaws in some of the accords and important issues that were left unaddressed.” These limitations and flaws in the accords are serious: the failure to restrict the power and privileges of an entrenched and mostly reactionary oligarchy, the inability to fully dismantle a repressive intelligence system which continues to set the limits of dissent, the failure to reform a court system which “still operates within a generalized framework of impunity and threats,” the omission of substantive social and economic reforms, and the inability to hold military and political elites legally responsible for the genocide and terror they inflicted on Mayans and Ladinos alike.
Jonas is fully away of these obstacles to social justice and real democracy but draws her hope from the belief that the framework of formal democracy established by the accords will open the space for popular organizing, which in turn will force elites to cede some political and economic power, thus creating the conditions for a more robust democracy and a decent standard of living. Liberal democracy, Jonas writes, “has arrived in Guatemala linked to a much broader national project or imaginario (vision) contained in the peace accords.”
But the accords have not created the space needed for greater popular participation. At most, they have provided a rhetorical wedge to force open that space. The accord on the Guatemalan truth commission is a good example. Vaguely worded, the accord established a commission to “clarify” past abuses, but with no legal power to subpoena witnesses or records. The commission was prohibited from “individualizing responsibility” and from having “legal effects.” Despite these limitations, the truth commission in February 1999 issued a forceful final report that not only blamed the state and military for 93 percent of the violations committed during the war but essentially condemned Guatemalan history and culture as genocidal. Despite initial suspicions and anger at the establishment of such a weak commission, Guatemalan human rights activists were overjoyed by the final report and quickly used its findings to lend moral weight to their ongoing attempts to end military impunity. Two years later, however, with no real structural changes made in the judiciary, the moral weight provided by the truth commission report has meant little in terms of indictments or convictions.
Likewise, the social and economic accord reads more like a page taken from a human relations manual than it does a negotiated agreement reached by two belligerent forces. Jonas writes that the “accord put great emphasis on mechanisms for broader citizen participation in development, ‘consensus-building and dialogue among agents of socioeconomic development’… [P]lanning and implementation of development projects were to be decentralized through urban and rural ‘development councils.’” While this accord “envisioned a more just and human development model,” it mandated nothing that would actually help achieve such a noble objective. It set goals for increasing social spending and called for a more progressive tax system. Again Jonas is fully aware of the limitations of this accord and agrees with many of its critics, yet she believes that at least it “did provide the space for political forces to put those issues on the agenda.” Jonas doesn’t point out, however, that it took other issues off the agenda. By not raising the possibility of even a future land reform, it reaffirmed the absolute right of private property established by Guatemala’s most recent constitution. Further, by calling for a national land survey to once and for all delineate ownership of all properties, it threatens to undermine the historic claims (and head off potential historic claims in future conflicts) of communities engaged in longstanding land conflicts.
Jonas’s optimism should not be quickly dismissed, for not only is it too early to tell what will come of the Guatemalan peace, but she is also right in her conviction that hope drives politics, both within Guatemala and without. Considering the country’s vanguard role in the Cold War, we would do well to pay attention to its fate in the Cold War’s aftermath. For this, Of Centaurs and Doves is a welcome guide.
Reviewed by Greg Grandin
Eric Parens and Adrienne Asch, eds., PRENATAL TESTING AND DISABILITY RIGHTS (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000).
As I sit down to review this important and wide-ranging collection of essays about prenatal testing of embryos and fetuses in the interest of predicting future disabilities, I am struck by the parallel between its theme and the fact that I look out on a city, barely covered with snow, that has come to a standstill because the weather service forecast a blizzard. Schools have been cancelled, air services suspended, friends and relatives are calling from far away, all because of multicolored television maps of what may befall us. And, all the while I remember our life before the weather service’s current sophistication, when we lived with the weather and not in anticipation of it.
It jibes well with the question running through this book, what our increasingly urgent quest to predict future disabilities of our, as yet, unborn or, indeed, unconceived children has to tell us about our attitudes to disabilities and to the people who manifest them. It also raises the question whether we, as individuals or as a society, are better off being able to make those kinds of sophisticated, yet necessarily uncertain, prognostications than we were when we lived with the realities as we encountered them.
“Disability” is such an odd concept because it casts such a wide net. Realistically speaking, all of us are disabled in one way or another, if not visibly at birth, then perhaps subtly from birth on, or later in life through acute illness, accident, or some slower chronic process. And yet, perhaps precisely because we know this at some level, for most people in this culture, the idea of disability inspires dread. And, we project this dread, in one form or another, onto the people whose evident difference from what we accept as the norm requires us to confront it. And yet, is that really all that motivates prenatal testing? Are tests a reflection on people who live with disabilities or do they not reflect our hopes and dreams for ourselves?Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights is the outcome of a two-year project by the Hastings Center, a distinguished bioethics think tank. The editors tell us in their Introduction that its intent was “to explore the disability rights critique of prenatal testing for genetic disability.” The book does that and much more. Giving us voices from the disability rights community and their allies and critics, it cannot help but force readers to explore our own thoughts and positions on the current practices in prenatal diagnosis and on the arguments being offered pro and con. It is important to note, as the editors do at the outset, that all the thinking in this book is grounded in an “ardently pro-choice” perspective, so that this disability rights critique is concerned specifically with the way prenatal testing, and abortion as its possible outcome, reflect an interest in the implications for people with disabilities, and not for embryos or fetuses as such.
The collection comes in four parts. The first discusses prenatal diagnosis and the disability rights critique. The second offers various perspectives on the implications of prenatal testing and selective abortion for the anticipation and experience of parenthood. Here, as well as in the third section, we meet important personal accounts, exploring the implications and realities, for family life, of having a child with a disability. These chapters also explore in depth the question to what extent it is fair to argue that testing in itself expresses negative views about people who live with the traits for which embryos or fetuses are being tested. The five essays in part four address practical questions for policy makers, courts, and the professionals directly involved with testing, and reflect on how the disability rights critique could, and should, affect the delivery of services to prospective or actual parents and their children.
Though prenatal testing is nominally intended to enhance “reproductive choice,” it goes hand in hand with the aim of reducing the incidence of the conditions being tested for. Indeed, the history of eugenics has been one of geneticists taking it for granted that the information they provide will reduce the birth of disabled children. And, as the editors point out, even though “prospective parents will use positive prenatal test results primarily as the basis of a decision to abort,” prenatal testing is nonetheless looked on simply as part of “good prenatal care.” Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer, in an article on the history of eugenics, have recently pointed out that the geneticists who supported U.S. eugenic sterilization laws understood full well that sterilizing the relatively few people who actually manifest disabling inherited traits would not materially reduce the incidence of such disabilities in the population. But they favored the laws on the absolutist grounds that preventing the birth of even one disabled person was worth the implicit sacrifice of reproductive autonomy. And this attitude is with us still, especially as regards mental or intellectual “defects” and hence relative to Down syndrome, the condition that continues to be the one most diligently sought out and “prevented” by means of abortion. (Books like Michael Bérubé’s Life as We Know It about his son Jamie, who has Down syndrome, are not appreciably changing the situation.)
One of the main problems, as I see it, is that all medical tests, but especially prenatal ones, reify real experiences, which usually have both good and bad sides. The long duration of a human pregnancy, when unimpeded by excessive medicalization, offers a woman and her family the opportunity to let their imaginations roam as they come to accept the fact that a new person is about to join their family for ever after. The less concrete the “information” they have about that future family member, the less their hopes and fears are channeled by “answers” that do not really tell them who that child will be and how its presence will affect their lives.
That said, I cannot agree with the argument of some disability rights activists, that the decision to test reflects a prejudice against people who manifest that condition. The reason is that I do not think the decision to have or not have a child, as also the current “choice” of what kind of child not to have, is about that child at all; rather, it is about how one imagines one’s own life from that moment onward. And, just as the decision to abort any pregnancy does not reflect one’s attitude toward people or family life in general, but only toward one’s own prospects at that moment, so it is with the decision not to continue a pregnancy, predicted to end in the birth of a child with a disability one is not ready to countenance at that point. That does not mean that one thinks the disability is altogether too awful, much less that people who have it are not worthwhile people. What I find destructive and wrong about prenatal testing is not the implication of prejudice “because I don’t think that implication inheres in the decision to test, though, of course, it may exist” but the fact that the specific test result reifies that future child as nothing but that characteristic. It is no longer a child whose existence our imagination can endow with all kinds of dreams and fears and hopes. From here on, the child is that trait tout court.
Bruce Jennings, in his essay, explores the constricting role of tests on parents’ imagination, and Bonnie Steinbock also frames the issue in terms of parents’ wishes for themselves, rather than of a reflection of their prejudices against people with disabilities. But, I want to raise a further point that suggests that the expanded use of procreative technologies, such as fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization, grows out of an excessive trust in the ability of technology to solve our problems, rather than the desire to avoid disabilities in one’s future children. Both techniques are greatly increasing the incidence of multiple births, with their attendant consequences of prematurity and low birth weight, both of which increase the likelihood of disabilities.
It is, therefore, not true that future parents are doing what they can to avoid disabilities. Rather, they are flocking to whatever new technologies are offered as long as they can afford to pay. That can mean disability prevention on one side and its promotion on the other. It is a mistake to look at only one part of this story. My guess is that both parts have more to do with professional domination and with the profitability of all forms of medical technology than with the promises (or threats) of the technologies themselves for the people who get drawn into them.
A brief review cannot do justice to the richness of this collection. The best I can hope to do is to intrigue you and pique your interest enough to make you get the book and read it in its entirety.
Reviewed by Ruth Hubbard
Mumia Abu-Jamal, ed. Noelle Hanrahan, ALL THINGS CENSORED.
Foreword by Alice Walker. (New York, 7 Stories Press, 2000).
The sheer feat of publishing All Things Censored reflects the enormity of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s accomplishment and his importance in today’s liberation struggle. One shudders merely reading the list of what went into this publication: the author living in a small, sparse cell on Death Row inside a Pennsylvania supermaximum control unit, having to fight fiercely merely to retain possession of a few papers and to receive legal mail, intermittently sent to an even more stark environment, “Phase II,” whenever the Governor, who’d long ago sworn he would see Mumia dead, legally assigned a date for his execution; Noelle Hanrahan taping the author’s notes to the unbreakable window in a visiting booth and holding up a tape recorder, always under threat of imminent disruption and arrest by guards, as a shackled Mumia delivers radio commentaries; National Public Radio discontinuing promised broadcasts lest conservative politicians cut off their public funding. The book’s publication reverberates with a contemporary liberation movement bravely facing SWAT squads on the streets and goon squads inside the prisons. The book’s contents and the accompanying CD reveal a visionary leader and a cogent analysis of what ails our society and what needs to be done.
From the deepest, darkest hole inside the belly of the beast comes one of the strongest voices of liberation in many decades. (Don’t get me wrong, I mean darkest figuratively — the lights are actually always on in the modern high-tech supermax prison with its video monitoring, remote- controlled doors and near-total isolation and idleness.) Yes, Pennsylvania’s Death Row is entombed in the supermaximum control unit at S.C.I. Greene. Why in the world would they choose that site for it? Traditionally, prisoners on death row do not constitute much of a security risk because, on average, they are contemplating their end while working on their appeals. If there is no “penological objective” in placing them in punitive solitary confinement, what objective is there? Whenever one asks such an obvious yet naive question, one discovers anew the cynicism and toxicity of the Prison Industrial Complex. Locating death row inside a punitive segregation unit serves merely to torture and demonize the residents of The Row, as if it is their bestiality that requires they be shackled inside a bare cell inside a lockup behind multiple sealed doors. The hope on the part of the authorities must be that average citizens, frightened by the image of entombed violent beasts, will support legislation to lock up ever more young people of color in ever more secure supermax prisons. Of course, awful things occur by design in our prisons. Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo’s mock prison experiment in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University in the early ‘70s proved that even students play-acting at being guards will quickly descend into grotesque sadism toward other students acting as prisoners.
Of course this kind of brutalization requires secrecy. The dominators have to be certain that their cruelty and inhumanity toward the dominated will not reach a wide audience. Thus, as our massive imprisonment binge escalated in recent decades and the brutality “inside” grew beyond what one might expect a civilized society to tolerate, every effort was made by the authorities to maintain secrecy about what goes down inside. They don’t admit that’s what they’re doing. But their policies testify to their intentions. They locate maximum and supermaximum prisons far from population centers (S.C.I. Greene, where the population is mainly African Americans from Philadelphia, is a six hour drive from that city), harassing those who do make the trek with long waits to enter the visiting area and humiliating searches (here’s a new one just in from California: low intensity xray searches of visitors); tripling and quadrupling telephone rates for prisoners and their families; creating laws that bar the press from interviewing prisoners; and taking away prisoners’ visits as punishment for a growing list of offenses.
The state’s adamant demands for ever higher security, and their campaigns to enforce secrecy about the brutality, set the stage for the ongoing legal battle over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s right to practice journalism and to have his journalism aired widely. The state maintains they aren’t trampling on Mumia’s First Amendment right to speak by quashing his articles and tapes, rather they are enforcing a prison rule prohibiting prisoners from taking part in journalistic and other business pursuits. Mumia stood up to them legally, and won an important battle in the federal appeals court. He gives his account of this legal development in this book. And then there was the shameful episode where National Public Radio dropped its contract to air Mumia’s powerful audiotaped messages from Death Row (a sampling of which appear on the CD accompanying this book, some never before published).
Whether he is winning or losing in the courts, Mumia delivers this unblinking political perspective: “Courts are inherently conservative institutions that loathe change, and…. tend to perpetuate existing power relations, even though their rhetoric perpetuates the illusion of social equality. In many instances, courts barely conceal their hostility to prisoner litigants, as evinced by increasingly restrictive readings of rights raised in the courts these days” (p 93). And this from a man who has was shackled and then barred from the courtroom during the 1982 proceedings that sent him to Death Row.
Why are the powers that be so frightened of this man? Could it be his brilliance? His subversive ideas? His strength in the face of massive repression? His ability to inspire protest demonstrations around the globe in the tens and hundreds of thousands? The fact that he’s a fine writer, a personal storyteller, a theoretician, a leader of masses? They are afraid of all the above. But their main fear is that this man’s voice is powerful enough to blast its way out of a Death Row — inside a supermaximum unit where visitors are few and there are rules against contacting the public — and reach an audience who might vehemently object to the brutality and inhumanity that is rampant in this system’s deepest, darkest prison holes. In this sense, Mumia personifies in his own life the horrors of the Prison Industrial Complex, meanwhile providing resounding opposition to an evolving police state.
Leaving for the moment the world of deep political questions, Mumia Abu-Jamal is simply a fabulous writer. He writes about his very young daughter who came to see him for the first time as he sat in shackles behind an unbreakable window: “In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglas barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn’t break” (p. 61). He touchingly describes fellow prisoners, including Hank Fahy, a man who would be executed in two weeks when the rapist of his teen daughter entered a prison unit close enough for Hank to get his hands on him. He explains to Mumia why he didn’t kill the younger con, in fact he went right up to him and said he forgave him.
Hank Fahy: “I loved my daughter, Jamal. She was my heart. But me killing that kid can’t bring my Jamie back, and ya know what else, Jamal?
Jamal: “What’s that, Hank?
Hank Fahy: “I wouldn’t wish death row on my worstest enemy” (p. 70).
During one taped message Mumia sings R & B tunes and rap lyrics while theorizing about the historical signficance of trends in modern music. He even theorizes about the gender politics of rap. His legal writing is worthy of law review articles. For example, he uncovers an 1890 U.S. Supreme Court case, In re Medley, where the majority Republican Supremes ruled that solitary confinement constituted “an additional punishment of the most important and painful character” (p. 39), and was therefore unconstitutional. He even reviews his own award-winning book, Live From Death Row: “It paints an uncomplimentary picture of a prison system that calls itself ‘Corrections,’ but does little more than ‘corrupt’ human souls; a system that eats hundreds of millions of dolllars a year to torture, maim, and mutilate tens of thousands of men and women; a system that teaches bitterness and hones hatred” (p. 120). A remarkable thing about Mumia’s writing is that he could, with his fame, have anything he produced published widely, and yet each new piece from his pen is masterfully crafted, mercilessly poignant and provocatively analytic.
Mumia Abu-Jamal does not seek stardom. In fact, in person and in his writings he directs us not to focus solely on him, but also to pay attention to other prisoners who have no voice. He opines about his case as merely representative of the millions, disproportionately people of color, who are incarcerated and forgotten. As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, a growing proportion of the population are deemed not only dispensable, but also dangerous. More of the state budget is handed over to the police, whose brutality proliferates. They beat Rodney King and kill Amadou Diallo in cold blood. But how can a citizenry take all that very seriously when that same citizenry only yesterday went to the polls to register its full support for Three Strikes, more police on the streets and more secure maximum security prisons? So the police abuse goes unrestrained and they build more supermaximum control units in the prisons. Mumia’s messages from Death Row forcefully challenge the plan. So he’s dangerous.
And Mumia is angry, and he makes no bones about it. Should we politely ask the oppressor to take his boot off our neck? There is something about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice that makes you think he knows what he’s talking about. The passion sometimes comes through best when we hear him speak. Noelle Hanrahan did us a huge favor when she alternated the voices of Mumia Abu-Jamal and such luminaries as Assata Shakur, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich, Sister Helen Prejean, Howard Zinn, and the list goes on. It’s as if they are in dialogue. And they are. We all are in dialogue with Mumia Abu-Jamal. That’s part of what holds us together as a movement. The tapes of his voice express his passionate resistance, the voices of other commentators illustrate our very earnest dialogue with him.
I am very frightened that they will kill Mumia Abu-Jamal. We all hope we’re right in assuming that if enough people take to the streets in protest, the execution won’t happen. But what of the opposite scenario?: A huge number of people take to the streets in protest and the state orders its expanded police forces and soldiers newly trained for domestic warfare to come in and suppress the revolt. More of the visionaries would be incarcerated. The police state would have proved its capacity to crush skulls and lock people up. They’d be wrong about the eventual outcome — the heightened repression would eventually drive more people into the struggles for equity and justice — but when the day came to reverse the tyranny, it would be too late to spare Mumia’s life. That is the worst case scenario. Let’s not bow to the trendy pessimism of our times. Let’s continue to assume as we organize that if enough people take to the streets and pressure their leaders and judges sufficiently, the beast will have to set Mumia free. Judging from this book written in a supermax cell, Mumia poses quite a real threat to the status quo. Imagine what it would be like to have him out here with us.
Reviewed by Terry A. Kupers, M.D.
Graduate School of Psychology The Wright Institute Berkeley, California
Bertell Ollman, How to Take an Exam…and Remake the World. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 2001.
I’ve recently been embroiled in a collective anguishing over the exam and homework strategies of a 16 year-old scholar. And with no hope of a quick resolution: it seems that college, unfortunately, can be the extension of high school by similar means.
In his continuing effort not only to say important things but to actually communicate them to a new audience, Bertell Ollman has set out to deal with the hyper-corporatization of education. The book proceeds from an outrageously simple, yet simply outrageous premise: I’m going to tell you a story you don’t want to read, and you are going to read it because it has something you do want hidden in it. It’s a carrot and stick, bitter and sweet approach: You want to know how to ace a test; I’m going to tell you that tests suck. And that if you pass, you’ll face a lifetime of working for test-designers who will surely test your patience with the meaninglessness of their (and your) pursuits.
Exams, says Ollman, are “the treadmill that prepares [students] for the still bigger rat race to come…the drug that so befogs students’ minds that they take this mad scene for normal.” Furthermore, “an exam is not the ideal occasion for laying out one’s world view.” That in itself should convince us there’s something wrong with exams. And something right with them from the point of view of the exam masters: they are, in fact, an ideal occasion for laying out someone else’s world view, the one you’ve been taught. The fragmented, incoherent, uncritical world view that’s dished out in (and out of) school in order to replicate an order already existing. More often they are the occasion for regurgitating the incoherent fragments themselves, with world view obscured by the obligatory absence of critical thinking.
Ollman pursues his point with a text rich in both startling statistics and pithy quotes, along with cartoons and song lyrics, all well suited to today’s sound-bite consciousness. Quotes about schools like Mark Twain’s “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” And quotes about capitalism like Adam Smith’s “Civil government…is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor.” “These capitalists,” explains Abraham Lincoln, “generally act, harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” “The truth is,” adds Woodrow Wilson, “we are all caught up in a great economic system which is heartless.”
And statistics!: “Since 1947, the world has spent over $15 trillion on arms… 1/2 of it (or just the amount spent by the U.S.) would be enough to industrialize the entire third world up to the level of France.” This sort of perspective ought to come as rather a jolt to students if they stop to think of how many other such things they have not been taught, and how irrelevant these most relevant things prove to be, come test time.
And Ollman continues to invent games, following up on his famous board game Class Struggle with Bullshit Bingo. He undertakes an elucidation of class struggle, sketching an outline of Marxist theory including alienation, commodification, and surplus value. He then provides a portrayal of socialism, its values, forms and practices, even down to the details of what should or shouldn’t be publicly owned.
He also encourages the reader to practice the unusual but essential skill of thinking about things from two perspectives at once, or nearly at once. He urges students to develop both the skills to survive in the system and the skills for struggling to change it. It’s very smart. It’s an anti-capitalist reference book. Yet it starts from where so many young people are – consumerist and survivalist. For this reason it should be appreciated by both the most and least activist of today’s students.
By the way, his test-taking tips are excellent, even principled. Thanks to Ollman for that.
And thanks to the folks at Black Rose Books for bringing us this handy, enjoyable tool. One thing though: get a proofreader. The frequency of dangling participles, spelling glitches and typos should disconcert anyone even casually cognizant of grammar or punctuation. In a book written by a professor, for students, these are particularly embarrassing. Otherwise, kudos. And a word to students: don’t leave this book to the last minute. Cramming, as Ollman points out in a burst of traditionalism, isn’t really learning. But then, neither are exams.
Reviewed by Dave Lippman
Chapel Hill, N.C.
August H. Nimtz, Jr. MARX AND ENGELS: THEIR CONTRIBUTION TO THE DEMOCRATIC BREAKTHROUGH. Albany, N.Y.: State University of NY Press, 2000.
“Standing up in front of real, live people and holding forth to them directly and straightforwardly, so that they see and hear you, is something quite different from engaging in this devilishly abstract quill-pushing with an abstract audience in one’s mind’s eye.” — Engels to Marx
What impact did Marx and Engels have on the 1848 bourgeois revolutions in Europe? Was Marx merely a radical philosopher involved only in fringe politics? Were Marx and Engels only theoreticians with utopian illusions? Was Engels nothing but Marx’s intellectual sidekick, or was he at crucial times the leading intellectual force in their relationship? Were Marx and Engels two armchair revolutionaries who sought only to be the elitist leaders of a proletarian movement? Or did they actively participate in organizing and rallying the proletariat?
August H. Nimtz, Jr., Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, successfully addresses these questions and puts to rest the myth that Marx and Engels were only armchair revolutionaries. He shows, on the contrary, that they were deeply involved in working-class organizing, and that although they were committed to revolution, they recognized that this could not be brought about by indulging in fringe or conspiratorial types of political activity. Marx and Engels were thus democrats in the true sense; they sought to build a movement rather than to act “on behalf of” the people. The organizations they founded, such as the Communist League and of the Communist Correspondence Committees, were not given over to intrigues but rather sought to develop the consciousness of the working class.
Nimtz chronicles in great detail the contributions of Marx and Engels to the bourgeois revolutions of 1848, emphasizing their view that a “scientific perspective” is necessary for a successful proletarian revolution. He recounts in full the circumstances of their exile from Prussia for their activity in editing and publishing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (NRZ). Major consideration is also given to the impact of the Communist Manifesto. Here again, Nimtz calls our attention to the priority that Marx and Engels gave to long-term struggle, over immediate political tactics.
Nimtz asks us to consider how important and influential the Marx-Engels team was for all workers’ movements in nineteenth-century Europe. For decades following the failures of the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels worked to organize a true workers’ movement free of what Marx called “bourgeois hypocrisies.” At the same time Marx developed the foundations for his magnum opus, Capital. Throughout this period, Marx and Engels remained politically active. Some fifteen years after the demise of the Communist League in 1850, they were asked to join the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) and to write its rules, which Marx was glad to do.
The importance of this historically informed and politically sophisticated book is not merely the chronicling of Marx’s and Engels’ political activity. Nimtz effectively refutes some commonly held views about Marx and Engels. The first is that they were elitists concerned only with creating a dictatorship. In fact, when Marx and Engels were asked to write the rules of the IWMA, they insisted that only workers should be permitted to join. Fearing that intellectuals would infuse the workers’ party with bourgeois prejudices, Marx underlined the importance of excluding them. The second misconception, linked to his phrase “the idiocy of rural life,” is that Marx scorned the peasantry. Contrary to this view, Marx expressed the fervent hope, at the time of Poland’s 1863 peasant revolts, that the unrest would spread to Russia, sparking an eventual proletarian revolution. Marx and Engels also looked to the Polish peasantry to reinvigorate the increasingly pessimistic German working class. A third misconception is that Marx and Engels did not support trade unions, claiming that they were only reforming and not revolutionizing the proletariat. But Marx, in his proposals to the IWMA and particularly in his work Trade Unions, Their Past, Present and Future, highlighted the capacity of trade unions to mobilize labor for its struggle against organized capital. In a similar vein, Marx and Engels took up a number of other demands that fell far short of being direct calls for revolution. During the Paris Commune of 1871, they were among the first to advocate Women’s Rights and the abolition of Child Labor under capital. Marx urged the creation of a non-discriminatory trade union, or the inclusion of women in existing unions. The IWMA (subsequently known as the First International) was itself an organization that gave due recognition to the importance of workers’ short-term demands.
For all those interested in the history of Marxism in nineteenth-century Europe, this book is a must read. But beyond the history, Nimtz provides a full account of the link that existed for Marx and Engels, throughout their careers, between theory and practice. He shows how this link was expressed not just in their historical or theoretical understanding, but also in the active stance they took at each point in the development of the class struggle.
Reviewed by Euripides Pelekanos
Baruch College, CUNY
Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. with Greg Albo and David Coates, WORKING CLASSES: GLOBAL REALITIES. SOCIALIST REGISTER 2001 (London, New York, and Halifax: The Merlin Press, Monthly Review Press, and Fernwood Press, 2000 and 2001).
This thirty-seventh volume of the Socialist Register contains twenty articles by twenty-six authors, the overwhelming majority of whom are academics working in North America or Europe. The volume’s central theme, summed up in its title, is the status of the labor movement/working classes in the face of today’s globalization. In all, the articles cover substantial ground, and many are rooted in short historical discussions that set the stage for contemporary analysis. The contents may be grouped under several headings. There are overviews or mostly theoretical discussions such as one on conservative tendencies among the “disappearing peasantry” (which argues that the peasantry is neither conservative nor disappearing) and another on North-South divisions (which according to the authors constitute the main obstacle to building a world proletarian movement). Regional contributions include focuses on East Asia, Southern Africa, and Western Europe. Women, who comprise 11 of the 26 contributors, are the subject of four articles (two on India), while a pair of other pieces treat Chinese immigrant workers in New York and the multi-race/class/gender Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. Two authors center in on the information age, one discussing an emerging cybertariat, the other the rise of the “no collar” worker. Lastly, geographically specific pieces discuss Russia, Iran, and Brazil, as well as Chiapas and India twice each.
Despite the scope, both geographical and topical, several major themes run throughout the volume. Perhaps the most important and unifying is the proposition that the end of the era of cooperation between labor and capital (the so-called “New Deal” for labor) and the rise of globalization have wrought profound changes for both labor and capital. What these changes are and what they mean is the subject, explicitly or tacitly, of almost every chapter. Several major sub-themes emerge. One, the rapid process of re- and de-composition of the working classes around the world. This has a different meaning in different places, but still is a fundamental trend. Two, the general all-around failure and/or inability of the old unionism to respond meaningfully to new situations, both to globalization and to the newer trends inside the working class. And three, the urgent need to reformulate old strategies and, perhaps more important, invent new ones in the face of the present world order. Any future direction must incorporate previously neglected and emerging groups and give them real voice inside the working class movement. This means women (although this process has already begun in some unions in some countries), immigrants, migrants, the unemployed, the unorganized, youth, and in some countries other minorities such as indigenous peoples, the lower castes, etc. Clearly, the old unionism’s bias¾male, white, aging, employed no longer speaks to the new working class. Further, under pressures from the neoliberal juggernaut, the traditional working class/unionists have changed due to eroding benefits, downsizing, less job security, and the demand for new skills. All of this is by now well known, but the strength of these works is that they offer in many instances concrete examples of what is, as well as theoretical insights into how obstacles might be overcome.
For the most part the authors are quite realistic about the diminished possibilities of any meaningful working class offensive in the short term. The most pessimistic have even taken the seizure of power off the agenda for the foreseeable future. Most, however, are clear that trying to buy back into the system under today’s conditions is meaningless, more so if not accompanied by a clear vision of how labor and the working classes can build a movement that will actively challenge neoliberalism and offer a viable alternative to it. Thus, merely using legal means, even putting labor and environmental clauses into international treaties, while not bad in and of itself, is not a substitute for class struggle and confrontation. On the other hand, militancy alone goes nowhere. A leitmotif of the work is that labor must somehow link with the new anti-capitalist wave (which may or may not be socialist, or even searching for alternative systems based on fundamental equality). As a whole, the volume presents differing political and ideological positions, but one senses in a number of its authors an affinity for Trotskyist interpretations.
While certainly far, far from the old “victory is inevitable” vision once put forth by some Marxists, neither is the future sculpted here defeatist. But hard realities are hard realities. In the more developed areas, despite some significant inroads and progress, the new ideas and practices have had a difficult time taking root. As more than one writer points out (e.g., in the case of Canada), the fight for women’s rights and inclusion has increased their presence, but at the cost of some institutionalization and bureaucratization, and clearly a marginalization of socialist-feminists. In India, to take another case, 92-93% of the population still belongs to the “unorganized” sector, that is, those without regular participation in the labor force. The main struggle thus is for a class, not yet against another class. Several authors examine victories, some smaller, some larger, that have occurred. Examples include the PT in Brazil, the recent wave of strikes in East Asia, the victory of a lower-caste-based electoral coalition in Uttar Pradesh, and even the demonstrations at Seattle (to which we may now add those at Davos and Quebec).
In a short review it is not possible to discuss every nuanced position or argument, let alone every article. In addition to the points noted above, several interesting issues emerge from the collection. One, clearly the feminization of the labor force has enormous implications for organizing and strategy. The feminization of migration in some areas also needs looking at, as does the emergence of poly-class families with women and men located in different relations to capital. Two, North and South workers, although facing many of the same obstacles, are at different points in terms of organization and status. The former are in retreat from the gains won over the past century, the latter more like North workers at the beginning of the past century. Three, despite wholesale repression across the board which varies only in degree (e.g., Iran vs the U.S), workers have responded and even under the worst conditions it is possible to move forward. Four, variables other than class still have an important weight in the organizing or revolutionary equation. Thus, gender, ethnicity, caste, culture, or sexual preference must be considered, although class should remain the centerpiece of any truly Marxist analysis. Five, although the counter-neoliberal movement is important, just to oppose or attempt to soften the neoliberal attack misses the mark. The anti-capitalist movement must forge a vision of its own, of which only a part concerns controlling capital. And this vision and its implementation must spring from workers themselves, and not be a product of bureaucracies or students or NGOs or international labor organizations. Activity must focus at the local level, but build outwards reaching an international solidarity.
Most of the essays are well written although a few become lost in turgid theoretical debates. Given the fact that most of the authors explicitly recognize the US as the hegemonic or imperial power, the lack of an article specifically on the US labor movement and working class strikes one as odd. Three of the pieces (e.g., the ones on Chiapas) hinge on having read a previous article on the subject, and so the debate plus the author’s response means little unless the reader is familiar with the original point of discussion. Perhaps one or two pieces by grassroots organizations or those engaged in cross-border work at the one-to-one level might have added a needed dimension, as would have some contributions from actual workers, those on the line.
The above carps, however, are relatively minor. Socialist Register 2001 makes interesting reading for anyone on the left. It raises controversial questions that we all have to grapple with in our practice and our analysis. Perhaps most important, it goes a long way towards achieving its objective of placing class squarely back into the debate.
Reviewed by Hobart A. Spalding
City University of New York (Emeritus) and Brecht Forum