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A Liberal Attack on Drugs Hypocrisy

Kevin Williamson, Drugs and the Party Line, Rebel Inc., 1997. Paperback, 141pp, £5.99.

Reviewed by Jim Dye

MAYBE IíVE been in the sectarian wilderness too long, because I was convinced by the title of this little book that it would be a polemic against one or other small left group! Refreshingly it isnít, but is an attack on the hypocrisy of the major political parties when it comes to the supposedly vote-catching stance of being "tough" on drugs.

Unfortunately its publication missed the delightful sight of the obnoxious Jack "blame the parents" Straw having to explain the fact that his son was a dope dealer, but it nevertheless hits hard at him and others who understand nothing of the real issues of drug use in our society.

Williamson correctly starts from the premise that cigarettes and alcohol should not be viewed separately from other drugs, and that those who do are guilty of shameful hypocrisy. You only have to think of Blairís double standards when it comes to tobacco advertising to understand this. After all, whilst both tobacco and alcohol are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year, the millions of cannabis and ecstasy users indulge in a relatively safe pursuit, but more on the health debate later.

Williamson begins by placing the various drugs in their historical and social setting, an essential starting point for anyone who is serious about understanding drug use today. However, Williamson only sketches the development of drug use, and therefore unfortunately fails to explain how drug use is determined by historical context in a really materialist manner. For example, whilst cannabis is today used as a "social" drug and an aid to relaxation in a similar manner to alcohol, Williamson fails to mention, or doesnít know, that the medieval Islamic sect, the Assassins, regularly used cannabis to help them murder their victims (see, for example, F.A. Ridleyís excellent The Assassins, Socialist Platform, 1988, pp.179-185). Drugs are therefore not unchanging or neutral substances, but determined by culture.

Another aspect of cultural interaction in drug use is the linkage with racism by the state. Williamson sketches the frequent racism involved in campaigns against cannabis that is anti-black/anti-immigrant, and those against heroin that involve anti-Chinese/anti-Asian racism. As Williamson correctly states, "the banning of recreational substances has always gone hand in hand with an attack on the culture in which they were taken", and this is often linked to music, from jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, to hip hop or rave music today.

Williamson rightly separates the various illegal drugs in use today, but does not make a simplistic division between "hard" and "soft" drugs. Of course all drugs can cause harm, and alcohol and tobacco are prime examples of this, as Williamson outlines. Unfortunately, he pays little attention to legally prescribed drugs in the form of antidepressant tranquillisers. This is a pity, as the damage that these have done (particularly to working class women) in creating millions of addicts, and their effective use as a means of social control of working class communities, deserves a great deal more attention. Nevertheless, Williamson makes a persuasive argument for his view that the "war against drugs" has been lost, and that therefore a pragmatic policy of decriminalisation should be fought for.

However, before we examine this political aspect, it is necessary to return to the health debate. Cannabis is regularly used by millions of people in Britain. Although, rather surprisingly, little objective scientific research has been carried out in relation to cannabis, it is reasonable to conclude that this is a very safe drug, with few health dangers compared with tobacco and alcohol. Of course, cannabis can be dangerous, for example if users drive or operate machinery under its influence, but again this is no worse than the situation with alcohol. Furthermore, cannabis is not physically addictive, although a psychological dependence is possible.

In the case of ecstasy, the health issue is more blurred. What is true is that millions of mainly young people regularly take the drug without any apparent serious side effects. The relatively few deaths that have occurred are invariably due to either a lack of harm reduction awareness (serious dehydration in hot clubs) or, sadly, the opposite, which in the media fuelled case of Leah Betts meant the drinking of far too much water (leading to blood thinning) in a tragically mistaken attempt to counter the drug. Whilst long term effects are not known, it too is not a physically addictive drug.

The two substances listed above are probably the most popular illegal drugs used by young people today. Interestingly, both would appear to be a relatively safe option to alcohol and tobacco, and neither leads to physical dependence (although both are habit forming). However, whilst these substances remain illegal the inevitable attachment of criminals, and the impure nature of black market drugs, lead to other social problems. Drugs are big business Ė just ask the brewing and tobacco corporations.

Of course drugs have led to serious problems in most working class areas. This is mainly due to the crime needed to finance addictions to drugs like heroin or, more rarely in Britain, crack cocaine. Heroin has normally been seen as a drug for the desperate, but in our alienated communities where hope is a rare commodity heroin is often viewed as a more realistic means of escape compared to wasting money on the national lottery. Indeed, in recent years there has been a certain false glamour attached to heroin culture due in part to films such as Trainspotting. Interestingly Irvine Walsh, the author of Trainspotting, has written a foreword for this book. In it he correctly argues that misuse of drugs is linked to the need to escape a rotten society.

So do the obviously nasty effects of heroin addiction make the strong anti-drugs line of the politicians correct? Well no, not even here. Firstly, those same politicians do nothing to end the alienation and poverty that is rife in working class areas, and is the direct cause of drug misuse. Secondly, the law and order approach, and establishing a national "drugs tsar"(!), have been an obvious failure.

Williamson devotes a large part of his book to demolishing the reactionary basis of the Tory-sponsored (and Labour- and SNP-backed) Scottish anti-drugs campaign "Scotland Against Drugs". In opposition to this reactionary lobby, Williams persuasively outlines an alternative approach based around harm reduction education and, in the case of heroin, legally prescribing a medically pure (and therefore safe) dose to registered addicts (as opposed to methadone, which is generally disliked by addicts, and has limited effectiveness). Whilst this has been done in small local initiatives, it has always been opposed by anti-drugs campaigners, and yet as Williamson shows that even on this small scale it dramatically cut crime as addicts no longer had to fund their addiction, and this also hit hard at the organised criminal supply gangs, who lost their market.

The starting point for Williamson is the recognition of the extent of drug use, and a pragmatic response. Williamsonís model is that of Holland, where a policy of decriminalisation (as opposed to actual legislation) has been followed. Certainly that would be a progressive step compared to the situation we are in now, but it is an approach that also shows the fundamental weakness at the heart of Williamsonís book. Basically it is a liberal reformist view of drugs and the state that fails to go much beyond the status quo. As Marxists we need to work out a far more radical solution than this, as my article in the next issue of What Next? will attempt to show.

These days there are plenty of books about drugs to choose from, but whilst this book is by no means perfect it does give a good response to the drivel spouted by establishment politicians. Certainly many of the facts and figures Williamson provides are useful ammunition in arguing for a progressive attitude to drugs, and so therefore it is certainly worth a read.

The Incoherence of Nairnís Nationalism

Tom Nairn, Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited, Verso, 1997. Paperback, 246pp, £12.00

Reviewed by John Sullivan

NATIONAL IDENTITIES, far from being ancient, can sometimes be constructed in a few months, with the help of intellectuals who can often be bought surprisingly cheaply. Where there is more than one national claim to the same patch of ground a Bosnian type conflict is a possibility. So nationalism has a bad name and few who study it are themselves nationalists. The admiring obituaries of Enoch Powell praised his "brilliant intellect" not his nationalist fantasies.

Tom Nairn is exceptional among academics in being an ardent nationalist. In this collection of essays, book reviews and talks written over a period of 18 years, he argues that nationalism is absolutely necessary for the transition to modernity. As it is the only game in town its absurdities donít really matter. Sometimes, he accepts, building a nation takes bloody, even genocidal forms, as in Bosnia, but often it does not. Internationalists are people who have chosen to remain pure and impotent at the cost of insulating themselves from the real world. Consequently, the consternation felt by internationalists when their party leaderships lined up behind their ruling classes in 1914 was not just naive, but absurd. The majority of Social Democrats, it is implied, did the right, certainly the inevitable, thing in supporting their nationís rulers. This view, unusual in academic writing, is of course taken for granted by nationalist ideologues.

Nairn, seeing internationalism as absurd, equates Leninís attempt to build Bolshevik parties as a lunacy comparable to an expedition which the Nazis sent to Tibet to search for traces of the Aryans, who they thought had come from another planet (p.123). He cheerfully admits that nationalist versions of history are largely invented, but this does not bother him. Peoples have to construct an identity from whatever materials are to hand. Those have to be found in the past or be invented, so people who sneer at invented "ancient traditions" such as Scots tartanry are missing the point.

Nairn makes the valid point that great nation chauvinists often adopt an internationalist rhetoric. Is he thinking of "B52 liberal" supporters of the Gulf War such as Anthony Barnett, whose help he acknowledges in his preface? Nairn denies that States must be of a certain size to be viable, citing Andorra and the Cayman Isles as proof. CuraÁao is the official headquarters of George Sorosís Quantum Fund, his instrument for forcing Britain out of the ERM, so talk of a minimum size for a State is nonsense. Objections to the existence of tax havens for our rulers smacks of Great Power chauvinism as we would all like to avoid taxes (p.140).

The chapter "Ulster", devoted to a celebration of the singer Van Morrison, is a Nineties version of hippy "Peace and Love" without the aspirations for a different world. It seems to be inserted as a stepping stone before the final section on Scotland where full blown kitsch is mandatory. Yet there are similarities between Scotland and Northern Ireland which would be worth exploring. Both the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries have recruited from their co-religionists in Scotland. You would never guess that from Nairnís account of either country.

Nairnís Scotland is really Edinburgh, minus the Trainspotting milieu. The key social strata are "teachers, clerics, lawyers, journalists" not capitalists or workers (p.188). The plebeian world of factories, job centres, or council estates hardly intrudes. Neither do religious divisions, Orange Lodges or Masonic halls. A hilarious description of a dinner party (p.184), where Nairn and his friends agonise over the problem of Scottishness, is Posy Simmons country, moved a few hundred miles north. If you liked Gordon Morganís description of his "Political Cultural Milieu" in What Next? No.4, you will enjoy Nairn even more. The author castigates the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, a colourful Tory MP famous for his reactionary views and for designing his own, tartan clothes. Fairbairn was merely an extreme example of a familiar type: the Scots landowner/aristocrat complete with kilt and Etonian accent. As even Disneyland fantasies need to be updated, the archaic Billy Connolly should be melted down and replaced by a modern stereotype designed by Nairn and Morgan.

No one would be able to guess from the ecstatic description of the "yes" vote on the Scottish Assembly that most people do not see it as terribly important. Traditionally the labour movement distrusted kilted weirdo nationalists. The Stalinists were in favour of devolution, but it was never one of their main concerns. Eighteen years of Conservative rule have persuaded a majority of Scots people that, on balance, an Assembly was worth backing, but it is not seen as the dawn of freedom, except in the Edinburgh professional circles Nairn describes.

We are not told what changes will take place when the nation becomes free. Will working people have more or fewer civil rights than at present? Would the draconian laws preventing trade union organising remain in place? Such questions are not important in Nairnís schema: once national freedom is in place such problems will decline or vanish. Nairn refers approvingly to Blairís "experiment with democracy", i.e. the replacement of the Labour Partyís democratic procedures by direct communication with the leader. Nairnís joy at the collapse of the USSR is heartfelt, surely a reflection of a belief that class politics are safely buried. "Democracy", continually invoked, is never described apart from the reference to New Labour.

The main problem with Faces of Nationalism is the extreme variety of situations described. Andorra, Bosnia, Rwanda and Scotland differ so greatly that there is little point in grouping them together. Desperate genocidal struggle and minor squabbles over patronage networks require different treatments. All that could give the book coherence would be the world view of the author. Nairnís outlook is that of a conservative former New Leftist. He advocates nationalism for its own sake, not as a means to specific objectives. While he accepts that some of nationalismís effects are horrific, Nairn is very Stoic about other peopleís pain. The view is always from above. He examines the Israel/ Palestine struggle through a polemic between the exiled intellectual Edward Said and Ernest Gellner. The conflicts which include suicide bombers and deranged religious fanatics are not denied, but pushed to the edge of the picture. Nairnís method is guaranteed to produce triviality. It prevents him asking why specific nationalisms emerge when they do. Did the emergence of Scots/Catalan/Basque nationalism have anything to do with the problems of the larger States of which they were a part?

In the 21st century the multitude of small States, which Nairn hopes will emerge, will not be able to exercise real power, erect tariff barriers or be rude to the multi-nationals, so what will they do apart from bullying their residents? Will Scotland have a tartan missile when it is accepted as a full member of the New World Order and allowed to contribute to the next Gulf War?

Historiography and the Materialist Method

Bill Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Index Books and Porcupine Press, 1998. Paperback, 440pp, £15.00.

Reviewed by John Archer

BILL HUNTERíS book is the first half of his serious attempt to do justice to the Trotskyists of his generation. It is distinguished not only in the immense range of information which he has assembled, but, even more important, by the effective historical method which he has achieved. What he writes about this method in his introduction deserves quoting at length:

"One motive for writing about my life has to do with the way the history of Trotskyism, or certain aspects of it, have been written in some documents and books. Events are described which contradict my own experience as a participant, and there are many conclusions drawn which, at best, are half-truths. One feels that some of the writers emulate the medieval chroniclers who wrote up the past in the way they believe it ought to have happened. Thus there are people who write about Trotskyism in the past with their present subjectivity and prejudices directing their conclusions as to the way things were.

"The one-sided history, or history fitted into a priori patterns Ė like the Bad Man or Woman interpretation Ė is often found in the writings on Trotskyism. Many of the historians of Trotskyism discuss what they consider its mistakes and its Ďcorrectí policies statically and negatively. Trotsky discussed in a different way, seeking to help forward development in the organisations of the time. With the former writers all we learn are one-sided definitions of leaders, of processes we learn nothing. Politics, in this way, becomes a question of personal psychology, so beloved by superficial journalism. Like many other opinions on Trotskyist history which have found their way into print, everything becomes very simplified. However, we learn nothing that helps us to build a movement today.

"Together with this there is what we can call a religious conception of Trotskyist internal struggles as struggles between evil and good. This conception comes from writers who cannot understand the real contradictions in the development of revolutionary leadership, and see only heroes or villains."

This method enables the book to make sense. It enables things about which Hunter could not possibly know to fit rationally in what he recounts. His account enriches, and in turn is enriched by, other investigators who adopt the same method. Trotsky wrote about scientific method in writing history. Let us test Hunterís method against Trotskyís. In the preface to Volume One of the History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

"The history of a revolution, like that of every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened, and how. That however is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of some preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the authorís task.

"This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollection. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon strictly verified documents.... However, the fact that the author did participate makes easier his understanding, not only of the psychological forces in action, both individual and collective, but also of the inner connection of events. This advantage will give positive results only if one condition is observed: that it does not rely upon the testimony of his own memory either in trivial details or in important matters, either in questions of fact or questions of motive or mood."

Trotsky develops this theme in the introduction to Volumes Two and Three of the History, in which he "reviews" the reviewers of Volume One:

"We take the liberty to insist firmly that the coefficient of subjectivism is defined, limited and tested not so much by the temperament of the historian, as by the nature of his method. The purely psychological school, which looks upon the tissue of events as an interweaving of the free activities of separate individuals or their groupings, offers, even with the best intentions on the part of the investigator, a colossal scope to caprice. The materialist method disciplines the historian, compelling him to take his departure from the weighty facts of the social structure. For us the fundamental forces of the historic process are classes; political parties rest upon them; ideas and slogans emerge as the small change of objective interests. The whole course of the investigation proceeds from the objective to the subjective, from the social to the individual, from the fundamental to the incidental. This sets a rigid limit to the personal whims of the author.... What convinces is the system which unites the general with the particular. The proof of scientific objectivism is not to be sought in the eyes of the historian or the tones of his voice, but in the inner logic of the narrative itself."

Then Trotsky goes on: "Spinozaís principle, Ďnot to weep or laugh, but to understandí, gives warning against inappropriate laughter and untimely tears. It does not deprive a man, even though he be a historian, of the right to his share of tears and laughter, when justified by a correct understanding of the material itself.... There is an irony deep laid in the very relations of life. It is the duty of the historian as of the artist to bring it to the surface."

If Bill Hunterís book is received as it deserves, it can help to open up a new period in the resistance of the working people to "flexibility of the labour market", "privatisation", "deregulation" and all the plans which Maastricht, Amsterdam, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have devised to load upon the oppressed and the exploited of the world the costs of preserving the system of private property in the means of production. For this reason we must thank also those who have undertaken to publish the book. It is a challenge. As the author wrote: "It is necessary to ask not only the question, ĎHow did we get where we are?í, but also the question ĎHow do we go on from here?í." There are already signs if independence among those who gave Blair his immense majority last May. Can we not put together what those who are beginning to express this independence need, a network of contacts, a paper that discusses with them and publishes their ideas and meetings? We are for uniting the "independence" movement. Let us see where we are in history, and start by discussing together "Where should we go from here?", whether we are in the Labour Party or outside it.