Vol. 34 No. 8 · 26 April 2012

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Marx at 193

While discussing Marx’s insights, John Lanchester asserts that today we ‘have an affluent bourgeoisie which is international but which in the Western world forms the majority of the population, and a proletarian workforce largely in Asia’ (LRB, 5 April). The global working class is incontestably far larger today than it was in Marx’s time, and more than 50 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. De-industrialisation, far-reaching technological change and the rise of the financial and service sectors are all features of the Western economies. But this does not mean that the working class in these countries has disappeared or somehow morphed into ‘the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour’, as Marx and Engels defined the bourgeoisie in The Communist Manifesto. The capitalist class includes many people whose remuneration may come nominally in the form of a salary but is in fact given to them in virtue of their position (for example, the directors of large companies), as well as others who are not employers but who serve the capitalist class in high administrative positions. Yet they remain a fraction of the population in Britain or anywhere in the West.

The proletariat is, according to Engels, ‘that class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live’. This is still an apt description of the economic reality facing the vast majority of working people today. Lanchester asserts that ‘there is no organised global conflict between the classes; there is no organised global proletariat.’ But there is heightened class struggle in many parts of the world, including several European countries. The Eurozone crisis and the troika’s harsh austerity medicine was met with a series of general strikes in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and last November’s public sector strike in Britain.

Marx and Engels laboured to build a workers’ International that sought to challenge and overthrow capitalism and to usher in a new socialist society. This is clearly not the intention of today’s well-salaried international trade union bureaucrats or the leaders of the pro-big business, social democratic parties. But the continuing capitalist crisis and seemingly endless austerity lead to deepening class struggle and to ‘new’ forms of mass opposition to capitalism and its ideology such as the Occupy movement.

Niall Mulholland
London E7

If the West now benefits from the production of an ‘external proletariat’ as John Lanchester suggests, those workers pay a high price for the privilege of working for us. More than 75,000 Chinese people died in accidents at work in 2010, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Lanchester describes the Chinese mega-factories producing consumer goods for export. These are powered by electricity generated overwhelmingly in coal-fired power stations. On average, in the collieries where the coal is mined, more than six miners die each day – again, according to the official figures. Chinese officials acknowledge that the death rate per million tonnes of coal extracted is between thirty and fifty times that in ‘developed’ countries. If the official figures are to be believed, these death rates are falling even as output increases. In 2005, when total production was under two billion tonnes, nearly six thousand miners were killed. In 2010, output had risen to 3.5 billion tonnes, and the official death toll was 2433. However, the real number of fatalities is thought to be many times more because thousands of mining deaths go unreported in China.

James Stewart

John Lanchester errs in claiming that Marx doesn’t allow for the fact that nature’s resources are finite. ‘All progress in capitalistic agriculture,’ Marx wrote in the first volume of Capital, ‘is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil … All progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility.’

Neither did he believe that such issues would be resolved once the capitalist mode of production was superseded. His observations chime with current concerns about sustainability: ‘Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.’

Stephen Low

John Lanchester’s explanation of how Facebook – a company that creates no obvious material value – could be worth more than $100 billion is interesting. I wonder, though, if Marx would have seen Facebook’s owners more as landowners or ‘rentiers’ than as capitalists. Websites don’t create any value, but by exploiting their property rights in highly sophisticated advertising space they allow capitalists to compete with each other in exchange for a slice of the heightened surplus value. Facebook’s appearance as a (free) leisure good is supported by its essence as prime retail space.

Edward Robinson
London NW6

A Lifetime of Being Not-Picasso

T.J. Clark promotes what I think of as the Whig interpretation of modern art, which traces a line from Manet and Monet to Cézanne, Van Gogh and the Cubists and the Fauves, triumphantly culminating in abstraction (LRB, 22 March). In doing so he calls in a view of Turner that is equally out of date, linking as examples of his achievement The Blue Rigi and Interior at Petworth, the first one of the supreme works of the British Romantic watercolour school, the second an ébauche, the meaning and purpose of which has yet to be determined.

Only under the rubric of ineluctable progress towards abstraction can the so-called Interior at Petworth be awarded this accolade. X-radiography has now shown that it has nothing to do with Petworth but is (very loosely) based on an interior at John Nash’s East Cowes Castle; its extremely confused details have been thought to indicate that Turner intended a ‘Sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem’, which would fit with other biblical subjects of about 1830: Pilate washing his hands, exhibited that year, and the unexhibited Christ driving the traders fromthe Temple. If it had ever reached completion, it would have been very far from abstract, but a detailed historical invention of a type fashionable in the 1820s and 1830s.

It is fifty years since Kenneth Clark and Lawrence Gowing held up Interior at Petworth as a masterpiece by which Turner’s international renown ought to be assessed. Those pursuing the ignis fatuus of ineluctable modernism will no doubt continue to misread it for their own purposes. As Sam Smiles has recently shown, the narrative of ‘Turner as proto-modernist’ was largely invented by the Arts Council after the war (using previously unseen and largely unfinished sketches) to counteract the equally politically motivated campaign by the US to promote abstract expressionism.

Andrew Wilton
London SW11

T.J. Clark mentions a ‘crazy hole in the dancer’s torso to the left’ in Picasso’s Three Dancers. Rather, it is clearly a patch of blue sky, and a balcony railing, visible through the window inside the curve of her right arm as she reaches to touch hands with the dark, seemingly masculine figure on the right. And the ‘striped gobstopper’ in the middle of that space is almost certainly the setting sun – perhaps accounting for the patches of maroon strewn about the room and the one outside: evening light.

Dennis Cunningham
San Francisco

T.J. Clark discusses in passing a ‘flawless Pissarro of the railway station at Lordship Lane. The painting has a strange shape, 17 and a half inches by 28 and a half.’ These dimensions are extremely close to those of the Golden Rectangle. In what European context can that appear as a strange shape?

Kenneth Rower
Newbury, Vermont

In the 2011 Champions League final there’s a momentary camera close-up of Alex Ferguson clenching his fists as he realises his team is losing irreversibly to Barcelona – Giggs and Rooney are found wanting next to Messi. It is amazing that Tate Britain’s curators walked into the same trap in staging Picasso and Modern British Art, as they too are caught on Barca’s ‘roulette wheel’. T.J. Clark’s analysis is acute and traces the emotional arc of that Ferguson moment; sheer dismay by the time he reaches Hockney, and catharsis at the encounter with Les Danseurs by the other Malaga-born genius from Barca. The encounter brought back that revelatory moment some of us experienced at school in the 1950s and 1960s when our art teachers showed us Picasso for the first time and initiated us into a lifetime of being not-Picasso.

Stephen Greenberg
London NW1

What to say about Lanzmann?

As Adam Shatz points out, Claude Lanzmann wasn’t, as he liked to think, the first person to return to the scene of the Holocaust (LRB, 5 April). Rudolf Vrba, for one, had preceded him, though he had a very different story to tell from the ‘long moan’ of Lanzmann’s Shoah.

In 1944, the communist cell in Auschwitz organised Vrba’s escape, along with a comrade, Alfred Wetzler, with the remit to warn the Jewish community in Budapest of their imminent deportation to the camps. They conveyed the message to Rudolf Kastner, one of the Zionist leadership in Budapest, but Kastner and his colleagues bribed Adolf Eichmann to permit a group of 1684 Jews to escape by train for Switzerland, abandoning the remaining 437,000 to their deaths.

Vrba ended the war as a machine-gunner with the partisans. He graduated and worked as a biochemist until the resurgent anti-semitism in Communist Czechoslovakia forced him to escape to Israel. There he found the same Zionists in power who had earlier betrayed their communities. Kastner was even briefly a minister in Ben-Gurion’s government, resigning only after his role in Budapest had been exposed (he was assassinated in 1957).

Vrba left Israel in disgust in 1960, settling first in London, where we met him, and later, more happily, in Vancouver, where he died in 2006. He submitted evidence to the Eichmann trial in 1961. Although he remained committed to Israel as a safe haven for Jews, the original title of his own life story, I Cannot Forgive, reflects his ambivalent feelings.

Hilary Rose and Steven Rose
London WC1

In 1981, when making Auschwitz and the Allies, a documentary film for the BBC, I got in touch with the estimable Jan Karski, mentioned by Adam Shatz in his review of Claude Lanzmann’s memoir, in the hope of including the remarkable story of his attempt to warn the Allies of the horror unfolding in Poland. Eventually I met with Karski on a research trip to Washington. He agreed to take part, but told me he had been asked by a French director called Claude Lanzmann not to appear in any other documentary. If Lanzmann agreed, then he would happily participate. I rang Lanzmann in Paris. I explained the genesis of the film and argued that surely there was room in both our productions, with their different perspectives, for such an important contribution. ‘No,’ Lanzmann replied, ‘forget your film. I am making a masterpiece.’ The conversation ended.

Rex Bloomstein
London NW3

A and C or B and D

Glen Newey, writing about Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, doesn’t give a full enough explanation of the ‘sure thing’ principle (LRB, 22 March). It can perhaps be best understood in the context of Maurice Allais’s famous paradox. Allais asks us to choose between two options, say A and B, where A is an offer to receive £1 million for certain, and B is a lottery ticket that offers an 89 per cent chance of winning £1 million, a 10 per cent chance of winning £5 million and a 1 per cent chance of winning nothing. A and B thus share a ‘common consequence’ (or ‘sure thing’) – i.e. an 89 per cent chance of winning £1 million. According to standard economic theory, we should immediately detect this common consequence, and see that the only relevant part of A is an 11 per cent chance of £1 million and the only relevant part of B a 10 per cent chance of £5 million and a 1 per cent chance of nothing.

Allais then asks us to choose between C and D, where C offers an 89 per cent chance of nothing and an 11 per cent chance of £1 million, and D offers a 90 per cent chance of nothing and a 10 per cent chance of £5 million. The common consequence across C and D is an 89 per cent chance of nothing. Thus the relevant parts of A and C are identical, as are the relevant parts of B and D. That is, we should prefer A and C, or B and D, but never, as is often observed in practice, A and D.

That people tend to prefer A over B can be attributed to the ‘certainty effect’, which can in turn partly be explained by loss aversion: when certainty is offered, people weight it heavily, far more than can be explained by standard concepts of risk attitude. More generally, the Allais paradox implies that we do not evaluate goods independently of one another (i.e. our valuation of A is influenced by B): actual choice is often at odds with the normative precepts of the dominant theories of rational choice. This can have huge implications across all realms of life, from the ordering of items on a supermarket shelf so as to maximise sales of particular products, to the composition of programmes that a state sponsored TV channel may choose to transmit so as to maximise trust in its nightly news features.

Adam Oliver
London School of Economics

Paint it as you see it

Seamus Perry’s essay on Samuel Palmer makes his defiance of proportion and perspective seem natural (LRB, 5 April). As a boy aged 11 I met Stanley Spencer, whom I liked because he wore a shabby pin-striped suit and was the same size as me. My mother teased him: ‘Why do the figures in your paintings have such puffed up limbs – like bolsters?’ He replied: ‘I’m very small, you know, and I see them that way.’ If only Palmer had kept his own vision when he went to Italy – as the more robust Turner did. Sadly he allowed the emotional lability that let him see blossom rushing at him out of a tree to be tamed by Victorianism into mere fussiness.

Seán Haldane
London E12

It was about the Cold War

Geoffrey Wells is right that anyone who was alive in the years following the publication of Catch-22 will recognise it as a novel of the Cold War (Letters, 5 April). As a national serviceman, I was stationed at the Army School of Education (at Wilton Park near Beaconsfield). With ammunitionless rifles and in best battledress and boots, we guarded a concrete citadel with no visible means of access surrounded by the buildings of the school. It turns out that it was, in its day, unique: a fallback nuclear defence HQ provided against the possibility of the unthinkable. Several were planned, one for each of the regions of the UK, but this was the only one ever built. For this duty we paraded in front of Wilton Park House, built for an 18th-century governor of Madras called Du Pre. Claiming to quote the then Nato supreme commander, one of the senior officers, who used it as a mess, condescended to inform me that the price of liberty was eternal vigilance, before demoting me from acting sergeant.

Jim Brennan
Dalcross, Inverness-shire

Judicial Politics

Benedict Birnberg is to be congratulated on his support of Stephen Sedley’s demolition of Jonathan Sumption’s thesis that the judiciary has been overreaching its constitutional powers in the area of political decision-making (Letters, 5 April). Birnberg rightly points out that any blame for inappropriate allocation in law-making or decision-making lies primarily in the parliamentary forum. He might have added that the process of legislation can only cover the situation at the time of the statute and then only in general terms; as to the latter it is the function of the courts to determine whether an individual citizen’s case falls within the statutory provisions. Who ever thought that Parliament’s authority could reach out to effective enforcement in individual cases years ahead? It has been the traditional role and function of the judges to interpret the language of the statute; courts have frequently complained that the statute is unclear or misses the target, and the judges then have to resolve the ambiguity or fill in the gaps. Rather than engage in vapid debate about the relationship of the judiciary to the other two arms of government, and vice versa, the urgent need is to review the process of legislation in the bicameral system and, more specifically, to improve substantially the scrutinising of the parliamentary bills sponsored by the executive.

Louis Blom-Cooper
London N1

Drones, Baby, Drones

Andrew Cockburn, writing about the US predilection for unmanned warfare, mentions an effort from the Vietnam War era called Igloo White, which was intended to disrupt the flow of men and matériel along the Ho Chi Minh trail (LRB, 8 March). He mentions that the Vietnamese were able to disrupt the signals, but doesn’t mention how. Christopher Robbins, in The Ravens, his account of the air war over Laos, notes that the Igloo White system included ‘people sniffers’ that detected body odour. As a countermeasure, users of the trail placed bags of buffalo urine along the way for the B-52s to find. In addition to the more lethal measures used to disrupt the trail, the US also dropped laundry detergent and Budweiser (to make the trail more slippery in the rainy season), and hatched a plan to attach bomblets to homing pigeons.

Jannie Armstrong

Don’t forget the Irish

Barbara Newman writes that ‘for much of the Middle Ages the vernaculars were scarcely thought to have grammar at all’ (LRB, 22 March). In fact, vernacular grammar was studied in early medieval Ireland at an extremely advanced level, by means of a linguistic philosophy derived directly from the Latin grammars of Donatus and Priscian.

This high regard for the vernacular is perhaps best reflected in the Irish grammatical treatise Auraicept na nÉces (The Scholars’ Primer), the core of which is dated to the eighth century, and the study and transmission of which continued for centuries thereafter. Similarly, Newman’s account of Isidore’s Latin etymologising fails to note that his influence also extended into the vernacular, for example in the early Irish etymological glossaries, such as Sanas Cormaic (‘Cormac’s Glossary’), whose earliest strata are in Old Irish and therefore date from before c. 900 AD. In her concern to emphasise the gender imbalance of the early medieval Latin classroom, Newman neglects the geographical and political imbalance of her own account, thus obscuring the complex interactions between Latin and vernaculars to be found in the early medieval world. Medieval Ireland’s significant cultural achievements might have a better chance of being more widely known if the chairs of Celtic at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh were not presently unoccupied, the former as a result of recent failure to raise funds to endow the post fully, the latter having been subordinated to the interests of the Modern Scottish Gaelic lobby.

Elizabeth Boyle

In the Negev

In light of Neve Gordon’s disturbing report, ‘In the Negev’ (LRB, 22 March), readers might wish to know of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel, which has been launched by the American Jewish Alliance for Change and Rabbis for Human Rights, in North America and Israel.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

Nothing to Read

In his review of the recent Bowie biographies, Thomas Jones misquotes a line from ‘Sound and Vision’ as ‘Pale blinds drawn all day/Nothing to do, nothing to say’ (LRB, 5 April). It should be ‘Nothing to read, nothing to say.’ Having nothing to do might be any old statement of youthful anomie; not wanting to read anything speaks of a far deeper disengagement. The record was made while punk was busting out all over, and represents Bowie’s own response to the prevailing mood of nihilism. While others did hysterical anger, he opted for an affectless stoical note, in which nothing – looking at the outside world, picking up a book, talking to anybody about anything – is worth doing.

Stuart Walton

Thomas Jones writes: I wrote ‘nothing to read/nothing to say’, but a scrupulous colleague corrected it according to the published lyrics (my fault: I meant to warn them not to but forgot). They also changed ‘drifting into my solitary’ (with its overtones of ‘confinement’) to ‘solitude’, again according to the lyrics as usually printed but not what Bowie sings. Or at least, not what I hear him sing. Someone told me he always heard ‘pale blinds drawn all day’ as ‘playing the blinds’ and imagined Bowie running his fingers down a Venetian blind.


Charles Glass claims to have discerned a pattern of violence between the Greeks and the Turks in 1821, and again from 1919 to 1922, that was characterised by Greek ‘massacres’ of Turks followed by a disproportionate ‘hyper-retaliation’ from the Turks against the Greeks (LRB, 8 March). Hence, he sees the Greek uprising in the Peloponnese in 1821 and the violence against the Muslim population that followed as the cause of the Turkish massacre of the island population of Chios. Similarly he sees the ‘mass murders’ of Turkish soldiers and civilians at the quayside in Smyrna in May 1919 as being responsible for the slaughter of perhaps as many as two hundred thousand Greeks and Armenians during the sacking of Smyrna by the Turks in September 1922. However, context and perspective are everything.

The fact is that massacres were committed by both sides in the 1821 uprising and the ‘mass murder of Turks in Smyrna’ in 1919 followed an attack on the recently disembarked Evzones regiment as it marched past the heavily armed Turkish garrison. In the ensuing battle, between three and four hundred Turks and a hundred Greeks were killed. No mention is made by Glass of the Greek victims.

Glass also suggests that Venizelos had intended to ‘impose Greek rule on the Turks in 1922’. This had never been Venizelos’s intention. He had from the outset of the Greek campaign in Anatolia agreed with the allied powers to restrict his ‘megali idea’ to Smyrna and its hinterland, where the Greeks claimed, with some justification, to be the majority population and where they had lived continuously for more than two thousand years before the Turkish occupation. But in any case, Venizelos could not have engaged in a campaign to impose Greek rule on the Turks in 1922 as he had been voted out of office on 14 November 1920.

Andrew Digenes

Don’t give up yet

Colin Kidd is too pessimistic about Labour’s electoral chances were the union with Scotland to be dissolved (LRB, 8 March). ‘Without support from its Scottish heartlands,’ he asks, ‘how often, if ever, could Labour hope to form a majority in England, or even in England and Wales?’ Only in the highly marginal general elections of 1950, 1964, February and October 1974, when Labour scraped home with single-figure majorities would the party have failed to win a majority without Scotland. In 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005, Labour would still have enjoyed overall majorities in the Commons.

Vernon Bogdanor
King’s College London

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