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Cults, Sects and the Far Left

Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, M.E. Sharpe, 2000. Hardback, 246pp (xvipp), £25.

Reviewed by Bob Pitt

BACK IN 1980, writing in Socialist Organiser, Sean Matgamna memorably denounced Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) as "a pseudo-Marxist, gobbledegook-spouting cross between the Moonies, the Scientologists and the Jones Cult which committed mass suicide in the Guyana jungle". Allowing for perhaps a hint of polemical exaggeration, you’d have to say that as a description of the WRP this was fair comment.

Having spent a couple of years in that dreadful organisation myself, I’m far from unreceptive to the argument that there are certain parallels to be drawn between religious cults and pseudo-revolutionary sects. So when I picked up On the Edge I was quite favourably disposed towards a study of "political cults", particularly those on the far left. By the time I finished the book, I almost felt like rallying to the defence of Healy and the WRP.

Written by two embittered former members of far left groups (Dennis Tourish was once in the Militant Tendency, Tim Wohlforth is an American ex-Healyite), On the Edge has the declared aim of examining "political cults right and left". As it turns out, the central purpose of the book is to mount a slanderous attack on the revolutionary left, which often goes further than anything you might read in even the most anti-socialist sections of the bourgeois press.

According to the authors, the far left as a whole consists of "tyrannical fiefdoms" whose "internal regimes emulate that of Stalin. Had they state power, they would also emulate his blood lust". Really? I mean, does anyone seriously imagine that if, say, the British section of the Fourth International were to come to power (a somewhat unlikely scenario, I grant you), it would inevitably reproduce the horrors of Stalin’s regime? Is Wohlforth honestly filled with terror by the nightmare vision of Alan Thornett perched on top of a heap of corpses, sipping blood from a human skull? Or is this simply an example of the kind of irrational and unsubstantiated assertion which the authors identify as a characteristic of the very "political cults" they set out to expose?

Rather than attempting to implicate all Leninist organisations in the atrocities of Stalinism, however, the main thrust of the book is to place an equals sign between the revolutionary left and the far right.

In the introduction it is argued, not unreasonably, that "healthy political organizations and movements are characterized by dissent, disagreement, and conflict rather than by stultifying conformity". Yet the Bolshevik party, an organisation which for many years was distinguished by exactly the sort of turbulent internal political life that the authors recommend, is listed along with the Nazi party as examples of "cults [that] have taken state power"! You don’t have to be an uncritical apologist for Lenin, or for the actions of the Bolsheviks in government, to recognise this as a disgraceful amalgam.

The authors happily endorse the cliché that revolutionary socialist organisations, no less than their enemies on the racist far right, "inject the venom of political hatred into the ... body of political discourse". The fact that, in the one case, hatred is directed against the exploitation, oppression and injustice that exist in capitalist society, while in the other it is directed against blacks, Jews, gays, socialists, trade unionists and feminists is, within the conceptual framework of On the Edge, an entirely secondary issue.

This argument is presented quite explicitly in the first section of the book, which is devoted to a general consideration of the nature of political cults. All such groups are held to require the existence of an "out-group", in opposition to which the cult defines its own distinctive identity. As Tourish and Wohlforth explain: "Who constitutes the out-group is immaterial – the point is to have one, thereby enhancing the in-group loyalty of cult members. In the case of left-wing cults, the most obvious out-group is the ’bourgeoisie’.... On the right, typically, [it is] racial minorities, gays, and other races outside the chosen nation ...." In other words, the far left’s active support for working people in the class struggle is in essence comparable to the racist and homophobic thuggery of the far right.

Tourish and Wohlforth seem immune to the idea that far left sects – even the most cult-like – can occasionally play some kind of progressive role in wider society. The WRP, for example, supported the PLO and the GLC in the early 1980s when both were under violent attack from the capitalist press (hence Ken Livingstone’s continuing warm regard for the appalling Healy). Militant, for its part (in the days before it succumbed to ultra-leftism and mutated into the Socialist Party), put its numerically not insignificant membership to work in the Labour Party, actively campaigning for the Party’s candidates and helping to secure their election as against those of the bourgeois parties. Another, rather peculiar, sect dealt with in the book, the shadowy Communist Party USA (Provisional) – CPUSA(P), appears by the authors’ own account to have done some positive organisational work among the most poverty-stricken working class communities in the United States.

Can it be seriously argued that these groups should be lumped together with those of the racist extreme right? Any features the two have in common are far less important than those which separate them. When the British National Party won a council by-election in East London some years ago this was greeted with universal horror, but could anyone in their right mind see a parallel between that and Dave Nellist’s election as a Socialist Party councillor in Coventry? For our authors, however, all of these organisations, left and right, are "miniature totalitarian societies" which pose an equal threat to civilisation.

This vitriolic denunciation of revolutionary socialists contrasts sharply with the approach adopted by Wohlforth in his reminiscences of life on the US far left, The Prophet’s Children, published as recently as 1994. In that book, the Workers League (WL) of the early 1970s – a particularly sectarian outfit that was Healy’s US affiliate – is treated quite sympathetically (excessively so, I would say), with credit being given to the WL’s work in politicising black youth, its intervention in the trade unions and its coverage of working class struggles in its press. Of course, it could be that Wohlforth’s attitude towards the revolutionary left has undergone a dramatic transformation during the intervening six years. Then again, the contradiction could just possibly be explained by the fact that the leader of that particular "political cult" was Tim Wohlforth.

Having set out their political stall, the authors proceed to examine "Cults of the Right". The first two chapters of this section are devoted to a general account of the numerous disparate groups on the racist far right of US politics. Although the authors have earlier defined cults according to both ideological and organisational criteria, these right wing extremists are examined almost exclusively from the standpoint of their political ideology – which includes fascism, ultra-nationalism, fundamentalist Christianity, virulent anti-semitism and extreme individualism in various bizarre combinations.

Tourish and Wohlforth seem to be aware that this is a bit of a hole in their argument. They try to cover themselves by admitting that "not all supremacist organisations are cults. Some do not meet the criteria for cultic organisations that we describe". In which case, why include them in what claims to be a study of political cults? The authors give us some flannel about how the members of white supremacist groups have "a cultic mind-set", even if "the forms of organisation adopted on the far right lag slightly behind the mentality of their members". The real reason for the inclusion of these right wing non-cults, I would suggest, is simply to further the authors’ project of associating the revolutionary left with the lunatic fringes of the extreme right.

The third and last chapter in the "Cults on the Right" section is a study of an actual cult – the one led by the eccentric Lyndon LaRouche. In terms of its origins, social base and organisational methods LaRouche’s sect has almost nothing in common with the groups studied in the previous two chapters, and there is only a partial overlap in their current ideology and political objectives. The function of this chapter, however, is to construct a direct link between the far right and the revolutionary left, as LaRouche’s group first emerged from the US Trotskyist movement (some three and a half decades ago, mind you) before moving off on an increasingly right wing trajectory.

The next section of the book, "Therapy Cults and Politics", deals with three organisations in the US that have supposedly combined politics with some rather grotesque forms of group therapy. However, of these, only the organisation led by Fred Newman has engaged in anything that could be accurately described as political activity, doing entry work in Ross Perot’s Reform Party and ending up in an alliance with Pat Buchanan. Another "therapy cult" studied here, Reevaluation Counselling (RC), was founded by Harvey Jackins, a collaborator of L. Ron Hubbard in the early years of the Scientology movement. However, although Jackins was later influenced by Maoism and claimed to be inspired by the Communist Manifesto, no evidence is presented of any actual political intervention by RC. The third example studied by Tourish and Wohlforth – the Synanon cult – originated as a small breakaway from Alcoholics Anonymous and specialised in weaning drug addicts from their habits (its most notable adherent being the jazz saxophonist Art Pepper). Again, there doesn’t seem to have been any definably political aspect to Synanon’s public activity, unless like the authors you find it highly significant that the organisation’s guru Charles Dederich "hung out with a group of Communist Party members" back in the early 1930s.

Having so far devoted a large part of their book to the study of political groups that are not cults and of cults that are not political groups, in the final section the authors reveal what all this has been leading up to. In "Cults on the Left" four organisations are examined – the WRP and Militant from Britain, together with two American groupings, the CPUSA(P) and the now defunct San Francisco-based Democratic Workers Party. Being unfamiliar with the last two groups, I will restrict my comments to the authors’ analysis of the WRP and Militant.

As far as the WRP is concerned, I’ve already noted that there are grounds for viewing it as a type of cult. It featured a ruthlessly authoritarian internal regime presided over by an all-powerful, all-knowing leader, who maintained his position by subjecting cadres to psychological manipulation and physical and sexual abuse. In its final years, Healy’s organisation was distinguished not only by the almost total suppression of dissent, but also by the cultivation of paranoid fantasies (the "Security and the Fourth International" campaign) and a pseudo-philosophy, consisting of incomprehensible gibberish, which the glorious leader claimed gave him a unique insight into reality (Healy’s "dialectics").

But these were aspects of the WRP which led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself, as the quote from Matgamna at the beginning of this review indicates. Far from being typical of the far left, the WRP stood out precisely because its cult-like character made it atypical.

When it comes to the Militant Tendency, the authors’ attempt to apply the cult paradigm breaks down. A moment’s consideration would reveal that the notion of Ted Grant presiding over a regime comparable to Healy’s is laughable. Indeed, when Peter Taaffe, as the Tendency’s general secretary, began to develop an authoritarian leadership style (albeit of a much milder character than that in the WRP) Grant and his supporters reacted with outrage.

Tourish and Wohlforth complain that Militant’s members were "expected to contribute between 10 and 15 percent of their income to the party, buy the weekly newspaper, contribute to the special press fund collections, subscribe to irregular levies (perhaps to the extent of a week’s income), recruit new members, and raise money from sympathizers". Which suggests that a serious level of commitment was required, but no more than that. It is also argued that political culture in the Tendency was at a low level and that members had to go to a lot of boring meetings. Which sounds to me not unlike life in the broad labour movement. In fact, as the authors accept, if you were a member of the old entrist Militant most of your activity actually took place in the broad labour movement – attending meetings of your Constituency Labour Party or Young Socialist branch, canvassing for Labour candidates, etc.

There were obviously a whole range of problems with the politics of Militant, as indeed there are with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to which the authors compare it. But to describe such organisations as cults expands the definition of the term to the point where it becomes pretty well useless.

Apparently conscious of this problem, Tourish and Wohlforth try to get round it by arguing that "cults are best viewed as a continuum". At one end there are "totalitarian enclaves in which conformity is prized above all else and people are frequently manipulated against their will for the greater good of the cult leader", while at the other there are "healthy, well-functioning groups in which dissent is respected, people participate in decision making, and members at all times retain a foot in the real world". But it is difficult to see how the latter type of organisation can be meaningfully described as any kind of cult at all.

In the conclusion to the book, the authors are prepared to concede that "not all Leninist groups are full-blown cults" (so why claim that every one of them is a totalitarian society in miniature?). Nevertheless, they insist that "we have yet to discover a single one lacking in at least some cultic features".

But surely the same could be said for many mainstream political organisations. Certain features which the authors hold to be characteristic of cults – the demand for unquestioning loyalty to a single great leader who is free from democratic control, the attempted imposition of strict ideological conformity on the membership, and the condemnation of even the mildest internal dissent on the grounds that it aids the organisation’s external enemies – could just as well describe the kind of regime that the Blairites are trying to establish in the Labour Party. But would it make any sense to analyse New Labour as a quasi-religious cult, draw parallels between Millbank and the racist far right, and assert that Tony Blair’s ultimate aim is the imposition of a bloodthirsty Stalinist-type dictatorship that would physically exterminate his political opponents? On balance, I think probably not.

Rather than analysing far left groups as cults, it seems to me to be far more productive to see them as sects. By which I mean that they almost always place the narrow concerns of their own organisation above the interests of the workers’ movement as a whole. "What the working class needs is a mass revolutionary party", the sectarian reasons. "We are the revolutionary party in embryo, but as yet we are too small to play that role effectively. Therefore, anything that advances the struggle to develop our organisation into a mass party is necessarily in the interests of the working class." The expansion of the group’s own size and influence thus becomes the primary consideration in any political intervention, and if this conflicts with the requirements of a particular strike or campaign then the group’s interests usually take precedence. The result is that any positive effects of the sect’s political work are generally outweighed by the disruption it causes.

Sectarianism in its extreme forms can indeed result in the development of genuine cults – the rule seems to be that the further removed from the broad labour movement a left wing sect becomes, the more open it is to that kind of degeneration. Healy’s organisation, for example, always had some cult-like features, but these intensified in proportion to the organisation’s self-exclusion from the organised working class – milestones in this process being the withdrawal from the Labour Party in 1959-65 and the destruction of the WRP’s main trade union base through the expulsion of Thornett and his supporters in 1974. If the US far left is particularly prone to the formation of cults, this is perhaps not unrelated to the weakness of that country’s labour movement.

A group whose members are required to attend Labour Party and trade union meetings on a regular basis may not be very exciting, but it is constrained in the degree of political idiocy it can get away with – at least, if it wants to get a hearing for its ideas.

However, as the record of the old Grant-led Militant Tendency demonstrates, while this may obstruct the transformation of the group into a cult, it doesn’t provide any guarantee against sterile sectarian behaviour. And it is that sort of sectarianism, rather than cultism as such, which is so widespread on the far left, in Britain anyway. This, I would argue, is what prevents most nominally Marxist organisations (even relatively large ones like the SWP) from having any but the most marginal political impact on society.

Tourish and Wohlforth claim that one of their purposes in writing On the Edge is to counter the negative methods of the far left and encourage "a balanced form of political activity on the part of many more people". Which is an entirely admirable aim. Unfortunately, this malicious and incoherent book contributes virtually nothing to the achievement of that objective.

Labour History: Engels versus the SWP

John Charlton, "It Just Went Like Tinder": The Mass Movement and New Unionism in Britain 1889, Bookmarks, 1999. Paperback, 142pp, £6.99.

Reviewed by Martin Sullivan

AS THE Blairites pursue their "project" of breaking up the movement that working people took generations to build, a study of the origins of that movement, in its modern form, is of more than academic interest. The crucial period, as is well known, was the few years from the late 1880s to the early 1890s. Under the leadership of socialists such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne, John Burns, Eleanor Marx and others, trade unionism, which had previously been restricted to the labour aristocracy, was extended to unskilled and semi-skilled workers (the "New Unionism"), and the first steps towards independent working class politics were taken, resulting in the foundation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893.

"It Just Went Like Tinder", written by long-time Socialist Workers Party (SWP) member John Charlton, concentrates on the industrial upsurge in London’s East End, which began with the Match Girls’ strike in 1888 and reached its peak with the Great Dock Strike the following year. This is well-trodden ground for historians, and you might think that it was difficult to find anything new to say about it. But Charlton manages to do so – putting forward a contentious analysis which challenges the accepted interpretation of these events.

He sets out to overturn the conventional view of the New Unionism, according to which the pioneers "consolidated those gains they could and laid the foundations for general unionism", and then, "realising the limitations of the industrial struggle ... used the skills acquired in the struggle to move towards the creation of independent labour representation". His declared aim is "to show how this movement, which might have threatened the stability of late 19th century Britain, was headed off by the conscious efforts of a group of bourgeois apologists aided, perhaps unwittingly, by the newly emerging leadership of the new unions".

Charlton claims to base his approach on what he says was "Engels’ notion that there had been the possibility of an aggressive anti-capitalist movement leading towards the building of a socialist society". In reality, however, his analysis stands diametrically opposed to that of Engels on virtually every main point.

Central to Charlton’s analysis is his assertion that the bitter industrial conflict of the period led to a mass radicalisation, in which "the working class demonstrated a sort of ’runaway consciousness’". It is from this standpoint that he criticises the conduct of the 1889 dock strike, putting forward a distinctly ultra-leftist interpretation of the events surrounding the decision by the dockers’ leaders on 28 August, three weeks into the dispute, to issue a manifesto calling for a London-wide general strike.

Charlton presents this as a decision taken in the "heady atmosphere" of a mounting wave of strikes throughout the East End, by activists "elated by the tide running in their direction". And he regards the reversal of the general strike call a day later as the result of a loss of nerve by the strike leaders. This, Charlton argues, was the critical point where the militant mass movement was diverted into peaceful channels, with its leaders turning instead to "respectable" supporters like the Catholic Church leader Cardinal Manning, who helped to resolve the dispute on terms broadly favourable to the strikers.

The reality, however, is that by the end of August the striking dockworkers were in severe difficulties. They had received only limited aid from the established trade unions, who were unenthusiastic about backing mass picketing by unskilled workers led by socialists. Consequently, the dockers were mainly reliant on donations from the general public, among whom there was widespread sympathy for the strike. But this fell far short of what was needed to feed some 20,000 strikers and their families.

Every contemporary account agrees that, by the end of August, with the employers obdurately resisting a negotiated settlement, the dockers were confronted with the prospect of being starved back to work. It was only the arrival of massive sums of money from Australia – some £30,000 in all – that saved the strike from defeat, but most of this didn’t arrive until September. The call for a general strike is best understood as an act of desperation, prompted by the threat of the strike collapsing.

The actions of the strike leaders tend to bear out this analysis. First of all, on 26 August, they issued a call to other groups of dockside workers not to down tools without instructions from the strike committee, obviously with the intention of stemming the flow of strikers seeking relief. Then, two days later, the general strike call was issued, only to be withdrawn the following day. This looks like the behaviour of men who were not so much brimming with confidence at the escalation of industrial action but rather struggling to find a way out of an apparently impossible situation.

Charlton is forced to register the "uncomfortable evidence" that the general strike call was opposed by Engels, who described it as "a declaration of despair" and wrote to Eleanor Marx asking her to use her influence to get the decision reversed. Charlton explains this as the result of Engels’ failure to understand the role of the mass strike, there having been no experience of industrial conflict on this scale in Britain since the time of the Chartists.

Given the balance of forces, however, it is difficult to fault Engels’ judgment. The existing craft unions wouldn’t have supported a general strike, so it would have been restricted to unskilled, mostly unorganised workers. This would have multiplied the number of people dependent on the strike committee for financial support, while at the same time alienating the public who were the primary source of that support. Even the generous contributions from Australia would not have been enough to sustain a London-wide stoppage for long. The general strike could not have succeeded unless it forced the dockers’ employers to back down very quickly, which seems unlikely. Indeed, by rallying the entire bourgeoisie behind the reviled dock owners, it would have strengthened their resistance.

In any case, what should the object of a general strike have been, other than the achievement of the dockers’ demands over wages and conditions? Charlton criticises the strike leaders for failing to "broaden their demands" and realise the "political possibilities" of the dispute. But he offers no suggestions as to what demands should have been raised or what the actual political potential of the strike was. Although the stated purpose of the book is to demonstrate how the mass movement around the dock strike could have destabilised British capitalism, we are given not the slightest indication as to how that might have come about.

Reading between the lines, it looks as though Charlton has made the familiar mistake of assuming that because industrial militancy and revolutionary socialism share a common antagonism towards the class enemy, the transition from one to the other should be fairly easily accomplished. His use of the impressive-sounding but conveniently vague term "runaway consciousness" allows him to evade the task of evaluating the actual level of ideological development among the working class.

Although with hindsight it is clear that Engels himself tended to overestimate the situation, his assessment was far more sober than Charlton’s. Engels noted that, while the strikers had chosen socialists as their leaders, they had only a "dim idea" of "what final aim they are working for", and would have to "learn by their own experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes".

Of vital importance in this process of ideological development, in Engels’ view, was the campaign for independent labour politics. This was a policy he had argued for in the Labour Standard in 1881, when he had urged the trade unions to form their own political party in order to secure "the full representation of labour in Parliament". By contrast, Charlton ignores the whole problem of how political consciousness could be developed.

Certainly, it is a step forward in class awareness for employees at an individual workplace to band together in order to defend their collective interests against their employer. And it is an advance on that for workers to exercise solidarity with others engaged in similar struggles against their own bosses. But it represents a leap in consciousness for working people to organise as a class, at the level of society, by forming their own mass political party – even one of a reformist character. This is surely demonstrated by the fact that it wasn’t until the 1923 general election, over thirty years after the foundation of the ILP, that working people in Britain broke from the Liberals and Tories in sufficient numbers to allow the formation of even a minority Labour government.

Charlton, however, resorts to a quasi-syndicalist fetishisation of industrial action, dismissing the campaign for parliamentary representation as a diversion from the class struggle. The socialists who led the strikes of 1888-91 are castigated for their later turn to political action, and accused of having "exchanged the politics of picket line and mass demonstration for those of the electoral process".

In fact a major weakness of the New Unionists in London was that they didn’t place sufficient emphasis on using their industrial successes as a springboard for independent working class politics. Only the gasworkers’ union played much of a role in this, and that was because of the influence of Engels’ co-thinkers, Eleanor Marx and her partner Edward Aveling, who were members of the union executive. It is they who were instrumental in getting the gasworkers to initiate the May Day demonstration of 1890 around the demand for a legal eight hour day, which they and Engels saw as a means of directing the new movement towards collective political action and the formation of a workers’ party.

But the leaders of the dockworkers’ union – Tillett and Mann – came out against the campaign for a new party. They argued that the New Unions should concentrate on organising industrially and limit their political activities to municipal elections where they could use their local strength to secure some immediate improvements for their members. It was Mann, as a delegate from the dockers’ union, who successfully moved that the London Trades Council should oppose the 1890 May Day demonstration for a legal eight hour day, and instead organise their own rival demonstration in support of achieving that objective by purely trade union methods. In this Mann and Tillett found themselves in a block with the conservative craft unions who believed that politics was best left to the Liberal Party, and with the sectarian Social Democratic Federation who wanted to leapfrog the campaign for political independence and win workers directly to revolution – a block directed against Engels and the genuine Marxists.

A statement by Mann from that period, calling on trade unionists to "steer well clear of Parliament ... and pay honest and sole attention to our many duties as organised workmen", is quoted approvingly by Charlton and contrasted favourably to Mann’s subsequent, belated decision to support the fight for political representation and join the ILP.

What convinced Mann and Tillett to change their minds on this question was the advances made in elsewhere in Britain, notably in West Yorkshire, where socialists had pursued a policy in line with that advocated by Engels, using industrial organisation as a basis for developing independent working class politics. Tom Maguire, one of the leaders of the 1890 Leeds gasworkers’ strike, drew the conclusion from this struggle that political action was "the next immediate step to take in order to keep the labour unions militant, and to emphasise the conflict of the workers and the employers". It was the trades councils in West Yorkshire, formed by New Unionists who wanted to combine industrial and political action, that provided the main base for the launch of the ILP at Bradford in January 1893.

Engels enthusiastically welcomed the formation of the ILP, declaring it to be "the most genuine expression of the movement thus far". Charlton, however, ignores the potential contained in the creation of a working class party, seeing in it only a retreat from the real business of the class struggle – industrial militancy combined, presumably, with propaganda for revolutionary socialism.

Indeed, Charlton attacks the members of the ILP in the most disgraceful fashion. While the founding conference overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to restrict the new party to mere political independence, and voted almost unanimously to adopt as its aim "the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange", the conference also opposed the inclusion of the word "socialist" in the name of the new party. This was in order to avoid presenting an ultimatum to workers that they had to be convinced of socialism before they gave their support to the party. Charlton denounces this as a "deception", and comments: "The long road to Ramsay MacDonald, Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair had begun." When you consider that class fighters like Tom Maguire were prominent among those ILPers who, for tactical reasons, rejected the idea of declaring a "Socialist Labour Party", it becomes clear that Charlton has crossed the line from political confusion to outright slander.

Charlton’s utterly false analysis can perhaps partly be explained as the product of ignorance. After all, this is a historian of New Unionism who believes that Tom Mann was elected secretary of the ILP at its founding conference – which Mann didn’t even attend. But the main problem lies in an attempt to apply the political conceptions of the SWP to the history of the labour movement.

Over the past decade or so, the SWP has been afflicted by a persistent tendency to exaggerate the political situation and the level of consciousness of the working class. As a member of an organisation that called for a general strike in response to the pit closures crisis in 1992, Charlton is hardly in a position to provide an objective evaluation of the prospects for a general strike in 1889. And his rejection of electoral politics as a reformist diversion from strikes and other forms of direct action was until recently common currency in the SWP. Of course, by the time "It Just Went Like Tinder" was published at the end of last year, the SWP was rediscovering the importance of intervening in elections. So perhaps we can look forward to a second edition of Charlton’s book, rewritten to take account of the change of line, a la Tony Cliff’s Rosa Luxemburg!

One thing is certain, though. A political group that shows such a total misunderstanding of the origins of our movement is incapable of defending it from the current attempts to destroy it.

The Politics of Culture

Fighting the Multinationals: Raising the Cultural Horizon, Movement for a Socialist Future, 2000. Pamphlet, 16pp, £1.

Reviewed by Matthew Willgress

ONE OF the issues that the British left is generally least interested in, with a few honourable exceptions, is the question of culture. It may surprise certain readers that a self-confessed Big Brother addict like myself would put words to paper on this question, but I’ll give it a go!

This pamphlet’s central point is that "Culture allows people to rise above the day-to-day struggle to survive.... But, under today’s conditions, the ultra-commercialisation of culture threatens culture itself".

Currently, nine global corporations own and control the mass of cultural production and its distribution. These multinational companies span the entire media and have the effect of limiting creativity and diversity. "New" Labour’s attitude to this is one of "facilitating the global corporations" and it therefore "plays its own role in discouraging creativity". Its lavish support for the Millennium Dome, a creature of the multinationals, is an example of this. As Lottery money is being thrown as this so the multinationals keep their revenue from advertising up, the poorest cities in Britain are losing museums and public collections.

Socialists need to promote diversity and creativity in order to break through the barrier of the indirect censorship of the multinationals who "need to market goods they feel confident they can sell. They therefore have a built-in antipathy to artistic productions that threaten the status quo". As Professor Robert W. McChesney notes, the global commercial media system "is politically conservative, because the media giants are significant beneficiaries of the current social structure".

This monopolisation threatens the historic, national and independent culture of developing countries. It also leads to a narrow, restrictive approach towards what art is promoted in the west, squeezing out those who don’t fit in with the current scene. The same process is taking place in TV where Chris Smith, welcomed by Murdoch, is waiving monopoly prevention laws.

Socialists need to encourage artists to revolt and challenge the way things are – "through culture and art human beings can aspire to and visualise a different kind of life than the existing order". If not, culture will be further threatened and continue to turn into its opposite of "police canteen culture".

To conclude, this pamphlet serves as a good and needed introduction to culture and its relationship both to capitalism in the era of globalisation and to the socialist future.

The Chairman Dances

John Adams, Nixon in China. English National Opera, London Coliseum, June 2000.

Reviewed by John White

OF THE "gang of four" minimalists (Reich, Riley, Adams, Glass) the work of John Adams is probably the most approachable and he is the one who has moved furthest away from that rather empty and sterile style of composition. This move became openly apparent with the first production in 1987 of his opera Nixon in China, which recently received its first London staging at the Coliseum.

Although minimalist repetition is much in evidence, there is a great deal of subtlety and eclecticism in the musical language of this work, with, in particular, several references to neo-romanticism. The key to this approach was given by Adams himself when he said: "Something tremendously powerful was lost when composers moved away from tonal harmony and regular pulses. Among other things the audience was lost." He also referred to himself by this time as "a minimalist bored by minimalism".

Adams’ opera is based on Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. In many ways it can be said to be a strikingly depressing work as, more than anything else, it underlines the fundamental differences between the two cultures represented and their lack of understanding of each other and their respective traditions. It also underlines the fact that issues of great weight that can impact upon the lives of millions hang upon the decisions of fallible human beings who are not really very different from the rest of us.

Unfortunately, one product of this is that, despite the basis of the opera, there is little if any political comment. I, for one, regretted that the composer and librettist did not have the skill, or desire, to challenge the audience with moral and/or political questions in the way in which Verdi and his 19th century contemporaries did.

In Peter Sellars’ otherwise imaginative production James Maddelena, as Nixon, gave a wonderful performance bringing out all the uncertainties and complexities of his role’s personality. Even though he performed the part at the opera’s premier, it is clear that he has not become bored with it and he delivered his lines with a conviction and a clarity that many would envy. Sadly, this could not be said for several other members of the cast. Janis Kelly (Pat Nixon), Robert Brubaker (Mao) and Judith Howard (Chiang Ch’ing) sang well but were frequently incomprehensible. Fortunately, this was not a general problem. Victoria Simmonds, Ethna Robinson and Rebecca de Pont Davies performed admirably as Mao’s three secretaries and David Kempster (Chou En-lai) was excellent, and the work was held together well by conductor Paul Daniel.

If Adams’ wish really is to recover audiences, he would have been pleased with the production at the Coliseum as it played to full houses. Perhaps that is because it is an easily approachable work for those who do not wish to ponder the deeper aspects of its subject. Whether or not it will survive the vagaries of time and fashion is another matter.