issue 224 - October 1991
The Great Reversal
by William Hinton
(Monthly Review Press US; Earthscan UK)
William Hinton has been arguably the greatest single commentator on post-revolutionary China. This is not because he analyses the comings and goings at the top of the Beijing gerontocracy with more acuity than other observers but because he sees China’s rulers and their policies as most ordinary Chinese people do: from the vantage-point of a small farming community far from the capital. In his classics Fanshen1 and Shenfan he wrote about the commune of Long Bow, giving a warts-and-all picture of how the Maoist Revolution of 1949 changed the lives of its people utterly and – we might once have thought – irrevocably. More than any other writer, he showed just how much the Maoist changes were needed.
For years he languished in the Cold War wilderness: the manuscript of Fanshen was confiscated by the US Customs and could not be published until 1966, long after the McCarthyite hysteria had subsided. Then, after Nixon made his overtures to Beijing, a pro-China position in the US became increasingly fashionable. After 1978, the West started praising Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms to the skies and, as a consequence, Hinton found himself sliding back into ‘glorious isolation.’
The Great Reversal, subtitled The Privatization of China, lays out Hinton’s grounds for opposing the changes of the last 13 years. It is very different from his previous books in comprising a series of essays written over the whole period of the reforms. But there is a value to this. Instead of a seamless study of the country written with post-Tiananmen hindsight, we get an evolving sense of the writer’s dissatisfaction. First there is a brief sketch of Long Bow in 1978, as yet unwashed by the revisionist tides. Then we catch him in 1983, sceptical but open-minded on a visit to a county regarded by reformist ministers as a model. Only after that does his anger at the destruction of all that the Revolution had built up start to gather momentum.
The initial leap in rice production following rural privatization was illusory… As communes have been dismantled, so all the infrastructure and the chance to mechanize have withered on the vine… Encouraged to get rich, ordinary people have ransacked and devastated the environment in a frantic scramble for short-term profit… Corruption has become a byword, and the Deng Xiaoping clique in Beijing has become a modern equivalent of the Chiang Kaishek ruling group which Mao originally overthrew – the Tiananmen Massacre (which Hinton witnessed) was simply the most glaring sign of that.
We have become used to socialist countries embracing the free market; become used, even, to thinking that they are probably right to do so. William Hinton has nothing but scorn for that point of view and his analysis of why China cannot take the capitalist road is both penetrating and convincing. The Great Reversal is not a documentary classic like Fanshen. But at a time when socialist ideas and traditions are routinely discredited, it makes for just as essential reading.
1 Fanshen was reviewed as a classic in NI Issue 195.
directed by Claude Berri
The moral ambiguities of collaboration in wartime France were rarely studied with such detached conviction as in Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien. Similarly, the contradictions of the purge of collaborators which followed Liberation are examined in Christian de Chalonge’s forthcoming Docteur Petiot, the true story of a serial killer who thrived in Occupied Paris and, briefly at least, turned the aftermath of war to his advantage. Based on a novel by Marcel Aymé, who himself wrote for the pro-Vichy press, Claude Berri’s new film Uranus attempts a similar dissection of the war-torn French psyche.
Set in a small French town in 1945, Uranus follows the fortunes of a diverse set of characters, waging their own petty rivalries and wars of attrition amidst the debris of social reconstruction. The Archambaud family, liberal Christians, share their apartment with Watrin (Philippe Noiret), a beatific humanist teacher, and the family of Gaigneux (Michel Blanc), a communist. As the Communist Party takes the ascendancy in town affairs, there are only too many people willing to exploit the social divisions. The spark that finally sets off the town’s volatile energies is the arrival of Maxime Loin, a collaborating journalist.
The film’s moral proposition is a little too schematic and banal to convince – suppose the Communists weren’t all heroic and suppose the reviled Loin turned out to be essentially decent? Berri simply lacks the finesse to make anything interesting out of it. He’s aiming for something as grandly operatic as his Jean de Florette diptych more or less managed to be.
But in the generally stodgy conception of the whole, the historical analysis loses out to a succession of various showy star turns – and only Gérard Depardieu’s typically ebullient performance as a barkeeper with delusions of poetic grandeur is worth the effort. In the end, Uranus has little to say other than ‘Isn’t war terrible, and aren’t people odd?’ and says it with the minimum of eloquence.
Voices of the Rainforest
by Milton Nascimento
The sounds of the rainforest in the comfort of your own living room? There could hardly be a more Californian idea, and sure enough Voices of the Rainforest is released under the auspices of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s production company. Recorded by Steven Feld in Basavi, Papua New Guinea, the CD collects the sounds of birds, crickets, frogs and weather, together with the chants of the Kaluli people.
Feld’s sleevenotes point out the Kaluli’s sense of themselves as ‘voices in the forest’ and indeed the continuous backdrop of natural sounds meshes flawlessly with the work songs which accompany their tree cutting and sago making.
But the effect of gathering it together on CD is bizarre in the extreme – in a sense, this is the ultimate New Age soundtrack for jaded urbanites. Serious as Feld’s intent is, and no matter how emphatically his notes stress the Kaluli’s endangered situation, the recordings lend themselves only too easily to providing a vicarious frisson – simply programme the birdsong and you have instant wallpaper for your Papuan cocktail party.
The latest record by Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento may have its soppy moments but it successfully avoids the cocktail trap. Nascimento intersperses his own lavishly-orchestrated ballads with recordings of tribes from the Amapá, Pará and Rondônia states of Brazil. The recordings followed in the wake of Nascimento’s journey up the Juruá river (the route followed by the NI’s own David Ransom) and the mixing of his songs with those of the Yanomami, Kayapo and other peoples underpins the LP’s basic humanitarian message (its title is a Kaxinawa word, roughly meaning ‘companion’).
Nascimento’s slightly dewy-eyed humanism is backed up by his long-standing commitment to the cause of rainforest preservation, and the sleeve notes document his involvement with Brazil’s Union of the Indigenous Nations and the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and their proposals for environmentally constructive extraction programmes. The music itself may be patchy, occasionally verging on the glutinous, but there are some powerful moments, and Txai is anything but a vicarious travelogue.
When the white South African lecturer Dr Jacklyn Cock was interviewing white employers in the Eastern Cape on their treatment of servants, she managed to elicit some extraordinary confidences: ‘I don’t have any (breakages). I’ve worked out a way of coping with that. The first time she chips a plate or a cup I call her out to the stoep (verandah). I take that plate or cup and tell her to watch. I then drop it on the cement floor so it smashes. Then I deduct the cost from her pay… You have to do it. Otherwise they chip things on purpose because then they think you will give it to them. You only have to do it once.’
How far does this book get under the skin of apartheid and its multiple oppressions of black workers in South Africa? A very long way indeed suggests the aftermath: after the book’s first publication in 1980, Jacklyn Cock received a series of menacing phone calls. One night she was sitting over a late supper with friends when a huge pack of lighted dynamite was hurled through the window, fortunately failing to explode. ‘If I had known the anger my research would provoke,’ comments Dr Cock in a revised edition, ‘I doubt very much that I would have found the courage to complete it.’
As a pupil at Swaneng Hill School in Botswana in the early 1970s where Jacklyn Cock was my Development Studies teacher, I never understood the everyday details of oppression that lay behind the burning sense of anger, humiliation and frustration felt by African classmates returning from visits to relatives in South Africa. As this book shows, understanding the broad cruelties of apartheid is not the same as getting right inside the day-to-day pattern of deprivation and humiliation.
What is the worst part of the job for a domestic worker in South Africa, who will generally work an exhaustingly long week for less than $20 a month? In interviews with Dr Cock’s black field worker, herself a part-time domestic, the answers varied: ‘Cooking the dog’s food and not eating it’; ‘Not being allowed to sit in the kitchen. We have to sit outside next to the toilet and it smells worse than hell’; ‘I never sleep at home with my husband and children. Even if I have a half day off I have to come back and sleep here at night’.
In their spartan servants’ quarters, usually without access to a bathroom or hot water, the women’s responses when asked what they would most like to add to the room illustrate the meagerness of their existence at the back door of South Africa’s wealth: ‘Blankets’; ‘A chair’; ‘A table to put my plate on when I eat’.
But the other concern of the book is equally fascinating: the interviews with the madams, who refused to talk when Jacklyn Cock said she was ‘investigating the situation of domestic servants’ but happily participated in ‘a study on the position of women and the organization of the home’.
It seems that white employers routinely reassure themselves that black servants are well treated – and that there is anyway such a difference between white and black that the servants get far more than they deserve. The responses are generally smug: ‘In Rhodesia a “boy” does three times the work these do’; ‘They are very mentally inferior. They don’t think like us… you only get the odd one with a bit of intelligence’; ‘Until they lift themselves up we can’t love them. There’s so much disease and ugliness…’ ‘They don’t think and feel like we do’. Far from being limited to South Africa, those processes of self-justification and distancing have been the foundations of oppression everywhere.
Yet even in the white employers' testimonies there is some acknowledgement that black workers are treated unfairly; there are glimmerings of awareness that the system is oppressive. Rather more surprisingly, Jacklyn Cock also concludes that these white women are more unquestioningly subordinate in society than are the black ‘girls’ they have such power over.
Maids and Madams ends up being surprisingly optimistic. Charting the growth of women’s unions as well as their consciousness, Cock concludes: ‘I have tried to emphasize the extraordinary strengths black women have developed within this oppressive structure which bear witness to their power to endure, to survive and nurture life amidst the violence and social disintegration of contemporary South Africa… Their strengths should inspire all people’s struggle for equality and freedom everywhere.’
Maids and Madams by Jacklyn Cock. First published by Ravan Press in South Africa, 1980. Revised UK edition from The Women’s Press.
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