George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (56)

MICHAEL Gossop reviews Solomon H. Snyder: Brainstorming; The science and politics of opiate research. (Harvard UP) and Ronald K.Siegel: Intoxication; Life in pursuit of artificial paradise (Simon & Schuster). Both authors point out how drug control strategies can do more harm than good. Snyder describes how the American campaign to eradicate the use of opium was one of the things that led to the development of a morphine and subsequently a heroin problem. Siegel provides a nicely ironic account of how Operation Cooperation, the American drive to destroy Mexican marijuana crops, led to the importation of more potent supplies from Thailand, and of hashish from North Africa and the Near East. Similarly, the spraying of paraquat on Mexican marijuana so powerfully encouraged the production of home-grown cannabis that in 1987 it was estimated that the US marijuana crop was worth 33.1 billion dollars (of which only about 16 per cent was seized by the government). (TLS Jan 19 1990)

E. P. THOMPSON, famous for The Making of the English Working Class, has produced Customs in Common (Merlin Press). Reviewing it, John Brewer reports a persistent criticism, coming from the left as well as the right, that Thompson has selected those parts of working-class behaviour that fit his preconceptions. He ignores the working-class supporters of church and chapel and respectability, the nationalists and patriots and conservatives. (TLS 15 March)

CLOUSDEN Hill Free Communist and Cooperative Colony, an anarchist(ic) commune, was founded in the 1890s and collapsed in the same decade. Kropotkin inspired its anarchism but declined an invitation to become treasurer. A local historian, Nigel Todd, has published a study reporting that the members were better able to handle ideas than farming equipment; he ascribes the failure to a shortage of capital and a tendency to do the splits or, as he puts it, to inability to reach the consensus held to be necessary for a decision. (Based on a report in the Observer 2 February).

ATTACKS upon ideas of racial superiority tend to produce the impression that only whites think in this way, that if they could be dissuaded from doing it the problem would be solved. Not so. Frank Dikotter’s book, The Practice of Race in Modern China (Hurst) shows the Chinese pitying Europeans for their ash-white skin and indelicate hairiness; in the early 19th century Yu Xengxie announced that the European male had four testicles, and even today a Westerner in China may hear himself called ‘Big-Penis.’ The blacks come off worse; in 1902 Kang Youwei argued that yellows and whites (‘gold’ and ‘silver’) could improve the race by marrying (‘base-metal’) blacks. As so often with racial perceptions, an undertone of envy for the despised produces ambiguity, some Chinese paying cosmetic surgeons to give them ‘the European look.’ [1] In China as in Europe the eidodynamics oppose these ethnocentric tendencies, and there as here their efforts remain largely ineffective.

MARXISM Today has joined all the yesterdays. In its farewell issue David Edgar makes a point not to be forgotten as Leninism also fades into history: ‘One glance at any nazi publication, followed by one glance at any communist one, would demonstrate that Leninism was a serious attempt to address the most fundamental questions of earthly life, while fascism was a stew of spite, stupidity, hysteria and kitsch.’ [2] Bolshevik practice differed less from that of the Nazis than that remark would lead one to think, but they had little choice. The overwhelming power of the expedient mass forces any governing party largely to abandon any socialistic, non-coercive, egalitarian principles it may have held.

FAMINE specialist Alex de Waal reviews William Moskoff’s The Bread of Affliction; the food supply in Soviet Russia during World War Two (Cambridge UP). He brings out the extent to which ‘famine’ is a social construct and one that varies with place and time. African farmers consider it to have struck long before acute hunger occurs, let alone death from starvation, and Bangladeshi villagers distinguish three severities of famine. Through all the desperate food shortages in the USSR during the war the word was never used, but there does now seem to be a prospect of panic-famine, though not of outright starvation. Famine has struck when there is popular acceptance that it has done so. ‘What would a famine in a modern industrial society look like? This is a difficult question to answer because, outside of wartime, no such event has ever occurred.’ (TLS 27 Dec 91).

MUSEUMS used to be depositories for what was fixed, settled and dead but they, too, are becoming battle-grounds for the ideologies. Organisers of the exhibition ‘Hispanic Art in the United States’ had the liberal intention of doing justice to a neglected group of artists and bringing their work before a wider public. They found themselves in controversy with the eidodynamics, who saw the exhibition as an attempt by the mainstream to incorporate and neutralize a necessarily political artistic movement. ‘Why on earth,’ the protesters almost asked, ‘should Chicano artists want to appear in the Metropolitan Museum?’ (Mary Beard in TLS 3 January).

HERBERT Samuel, who became Leader of the Liberal Party in 1931, displayed with unusual clarity some features of the precision ideology to which s.i. ascribes that movement. An enthusiast for attempts to perfect the existing system he introduced (first as junior minister and later as Home Secretary) the probation system, juvenile courts, reform schools, the eight-hour day for miners, British Summer Time and the British Board of Film Censors. He saw himself as a meliorist and Anthony Howard, reviewing Herbert Samuel, a political life, by Bernard Wasserstein (Clarendon) describes him as ‘never quite able to raise his eyes above the level of being a social engineer.’ (Sunday Times, 19 January).

WRITING on British Politics and the Great War, coalition and conflict 1915-18 (Yale U.P.) John Turner notes that explanations of political behaviour based on class or sect have proved so fragile as to call in question ‘the very essence of “class” as a political concept.’ Reviewing the book, Peter Clarke queries Turner’s suggestion that the Labour vote increased smoothly from 1.3 per cent in 1900 to 7 per cent in 1910 and to 29.7 per cent in 1922. The figures, and still more their significance, get complicated, but there has clearly been no such steady progression since 1922. (TLS 6 March)

GEOFFREY Parker, reviewing The European Dynastic States 1494-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon), by Richard Bonney, reminds us how recent a development is the nation state. Throughout this period dynastic loyalties, not national ones, dominated political history. And the dynasties in question were not only the ones ruling states; each elite family had its clients and dependents, and in a crisis these might support their lord rather than their sovereign.

LINKING up with the item above, the reviewer of P. D. A. Harvey’s Medieval Maps (British Library) remarks that Roman world maps were better than those of the Middle Ages. For the medieval man it was less important to know which country he belonged to than to be familiar with his fields, parish, tithing, vill and county. (TLS 6 March)

RECOGNITION of the link between liberalism and the feature s.i. defines as precision appears in this extract from a law drafted by the Nazis: ‘Liberalistic thinking only saw the “rights” of the individual, and was more concerned with the protection of rights vis a vis the power of the state than with the wellbeing of the community.’ (Quoted by C. R. Browning, TLS 20 March)

ADAM Smith favoured government measures intended to promote economic growth, including the regulation of currency and banking. He also contended that a thriving commercial society might be able to provide even its labourers with a standard of living higher than that of the rich and powerful in a less developed economy; this argument provides ‘the moral thrust’ of The Wealth of Nations. [3] Developments since Smith’s time amply confirm this second point. In the advanced countries (and in some others, to a lesser extent) unskilled workers now enjoy facilities, for example in health care, communication, transportation and entertainment, that Alexander, Julius Caesar and Napoleon never knew. Even the (anarcho-)socialists of the (A-)SPGB will often admit this, while maintaining that the change has been accompanied by an increase in the gap between rich and poor (‘relative deprivation’)

[1] TLS 7 February.
[2] Quoted in TLS 27 December 91.
[3] Jerry Muller reviewing Spencer J.Pack: Capitalism as a Moral System; Adam Smith’s critique of the free market economy Aldershot: Elgard, TLS 28 February)

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.