New Internationalist

Book Reviews

Issue 96

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This month's books explore the divergent views of two prominent Soviet dissenters. And we look at a children's book on constructive attitudes towards people with disabilities.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Shades of dissent

History's Carnival
by Leonid Plyushch
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UK: Collins Harvill (hbk) £9.50
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US: Harcourt Brace (hbk) 14.95
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On Soviet Dissent
by Roy Medvedev
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UK: Constable (hbk) £5.95
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US: Columbia University Press
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Chernyakhovsk Prison Hospital USSR
Chernyakhovsk Prison Hospital USSR

These two books by prominent Soviet dissenters once again belie the western media's attempts to pressgang all dissidents into some sort of simplistic anti-communist stance. Indeed, like their counterparts in the last century, today's dissidents are notable for the rich diversity of their political and social philosophies and it is precisely their avoidance of crude counter-revolutionary dogmatism that makes them such a threat to the ruling autocracy. Both Plyushch and Medvedev are convinced Marxists yet even here the differences seem greater than the similar-ities except in the crucial matter of their shared allegiance to the development of a democratic and pluralistic society.

For Plyushch, whose book is a personal and philosophical autobiography, the change from Komsomol zealot to membership of the democratic movement was gradual. The essential puritanism of his personality, that had once led him to try and join the K.G.B., now revolted against the corruption he saw around him. His readings of the young Marx and the pre-revolutionary Lenin bound him increasingly tightly to the revolutionary idealism of the early Bolsheviks and he began to sense ever more deeply the betrayal of those ideals by the Party. An extremely distinguished scientist, married with two sons, he discovered that his personal integrity inexorably led him, like many others, into the wards of a special psychiatric hospital where he survived brutal treatment and massive drug abuse only by retreating into a form of self-induced hibernation . His release came about primarily because his detention was simply too difficult to square with the desire of western communist parties to broaden their electoral appeal, and so with only hours of warning he was bundled onto a train and deposited with his family at the Austrian border.

It's nice to think that Medvedev on the other hand is still causing the grey suited bureaucrats of the Kremlin to scratch their heads. Aggravatingly, he refuses to fit neatly into an ideological pigeon hole. He can't be accused of delusions of reform quite like Plyushch, for he defends strongly many of the current Soviet political and economic policies. He's a dissident alright, but tends also to be a dissenter among the dissidents, disagreeing sometimes as much with the style of their protests as with the government they mutually criticise. He is a Marxist historian with a liberal's passion for free speech; an apologist for the Russification of the Soviet Empire who also argues for a pluralist, socialist society that respects human rights.

What can they do with him? If Soviet repression is based upon a version of the domino theory- that intellectual dissent will lead first to a religious revival and eventually to a growth of nationalist movements that could threaten the very union of Socialist Republics - then Medvedev is both an ally and a threat. He believes in the unity of the USSR but argues that its validity can only be established by free and open discussion. Were they to remove their blinkers for an instant, he could be seen as a persuasive ally: in the event, he is perceived as part of the first tottering domino. So far, unlike his twin brother Zhores, who saw the inside of a psychiatric institution, Roy Medvedev has not suffered the full weight of the state's hostility, though he has lost his job and is under constant surveillance.

Medvedev's book is a collection of interviews given to Italian journalist Pietro Ostellino and provides a coherent analysis of the roots of Soviet dissent. In the last chapter - a postscript given to one of Ostellino's colleagues in 1980 after the invasion of Afghanistan, the internal exile of Sakharov and the boycott of the Olympic Games - he seems to be moving towards an increasingly pessimistic view of the future. `The outlook' he concludes, `is very dark indeed.'

Both books deserve to be read, especially Plyushch's profound account of a dissident's development. What is more, both books deserve to be read critically. To do less would be to insult their authors.

Peter Luff
(Former Assistant Director of Amnesty International)

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Epilepsy in perspective

What Difference Does it Make, Danny?
by Helen Young
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Andre Deutsch (hbk) £3.25/$7.95
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Chernyakhovsk Prison Hospital USSR
Danny copes with an epileptic fit with his teacher's help. Illustration: Quentin Blake

Teachers or parents looking for material that gives children insight into what it means to have a disability could start with Helen Young's first-rate book. What Difference Does it Make, Danny? is the story of an ordinary little English boy, full of beans, who happens to have epilepsy. With the help of sensible and well-advised parents, teachers and medical staff (not such an ordinary combination, unfortunately) he has learned to take the occasional grand mal attack in his stride.

The book doesn't underestimate the difficulties. What it does stress - and this is the main thrust of the book - is that the difficulties caused by the disability can be put into perspective and largely overcome by practical means: the problem that is hardest to get to grips with is the nebulous one of social attitudes. Danny, for instance, is fine until an over-protective gymnastics teacher discovers his epilepsy and peremptorily bars him from sporting activities. Excluded unnecessarily from what he excels in, Danny withdraws into himself, bewildered and resentful. Gradually his anti-social behaviour gives rise to more problems than his epilepsy ever did.

The root of the problem clearly isn't in Danny, but in the teacher who had stopped seeing Danny as Danny. All he saw was `an epileptic', and even that stereotype only through a fog of ignorance and prejudice. It's a variant on the old game of Blaming the Victim: treat a child as if he were a problem for long enough and you'll force him to become one.

Helen Young is a journalist and a mother of four: both add to the quality of her book. She knows the sort of story a 10-year-old would find exciting. She can also write a myth-exploder about epilepsy with enough wit and insight to keep an adult absorbed.

This is a particularly appropriate book for 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, but the principle of seeing a problem instead of a person applies to anyone (disabled, poor, black, female, or whatever) who has been 'disadvantaged' by social attitudes.

Anna Clark


CLASSICS

The Art of Loving
...being the book that analysed the political force of love

GOD HAS BEEN transformed into the General Director of Universe, Inc. That's how Erich Fromm, social philosopher and psychoanalyst summarised the effect of capitalism on modern man's values. In a world where everything is for sale, `fair exchange' becomes the highest principle. Time, energy, love - all are bartered for, not offered as a gift. `I give you as much as you give me', according to Fromm, is the prevalent ethical maxim.

Capitalist society is `governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness'. Too often, even that solitary positive principle is not applied, and unfair exchange prevails. Then every human need becomes open to exploitation.

Even those who might act as guardians to the fragile psyche or the vulnerable soul, the psychiatrists and the priests, are enlisted in the service of business: `Just as modem psychiatrists recommend happiness of the employee in order to become more appealing to the customers, some ministers recommend love of God in order to become more successful.'

Although Fromm is so critical of modern industrial society, his work is anything but negative. In The Art of Loving, he posed the universal imponderables about human society. Why are men inhumane to other men? Why do the victims put up with it? How can human misery be overcome? But he didn't shirk seeking and offering answers. Nor did he look for answers within a narrow ideology.

Trained as a Freudian analyst in the 1920s, he was frustrated by Freud's devaluation of economic, social and religious factors in shaping man's consciousness. To the disgust of his orthodox colleagues, Fromm strayed from their preoccupation with unconscious drives as far afield as the ideas of Meister Eckhart, Marx, Spinoza, Aristotle, Lao-Tse, and even the rival Jungian psychoanalysts.

Fromm fled Nazi totalitarianism in 1934. Man for Himself (1947) made explicit his conviction that each individual must cultivate his own ethical standards and not merely bow to authority. In his attempt to comprehend Nazism, he helped develop a psychological theory of mass society. He saw the individual as characterised by his isolation. The alienated self yearns for approval and identity, both on a personal and on a collective level. But having no well-spring of love inside himself, he is incapable of truly loving either himself or anyone else. All he can do is to crave to be loved. He is only too ready to limit his terrifying isolation by putting his free self at the disposal of another, more authoritative entity. Since he waits for cues outside himself, rather than being guided by an internal sense of direction, he is a perfect victim for a demagogue or a sadist.

The demagogue, in turn, was seen by Fromm as incapable of love, since he too can only operate when fused in a parasitic relationship. To Fromm, real love can only exist in a union which respects the integrity of each individual.

On the other hand, he was not advocating relationships where no walls come tumbling down. He scorned the polite `team' marriage where each partner provides the other's superficial needs. An `egoism a deux' is what he calls this 'well-oiled relationship between two persons who remain strangers all their lives'. They form an alliance of two against the world but never turn inwards to face the shallowness of their own selves or their relationship. Love implies awareness and requires courage. Fromm defined it as `the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love': giving care, rather than demanding shelter.

In The Art of Loving, Fromm summed up his ideas in a simply-written, methodically organised essay. It makes an absorbing read, gently thought-provoking. A quarter of a century ago, his ideas were profoundly influential. To a readership that is bombarded with popular psychology from every paperback stall, it may seem a little tame. Countless books like Passages, The Erroneous Zones, I'm OK-You're OK, not to mention The Female Eunuch (reviewed last month) have used and developed many of Fromm's ideas. But underestimating Fromm's perception is a bit like complaining that Hamlet is full of well-known quotations.

Anuradha Vittachi

The Art of Loving
by Erich Fromm (1956)
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UK: Unwin Paperbacks 95p US/Aus: Allen & Unwin $2.00
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