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Can poetry change the world? This month we review a Bengali Poet who believed that it could inspire great deeds. And we discover that immigration laws are not all that they seem to be.

Editor: Amanda Root

Brandish your banners

Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems
Translated by William Radice
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Penguin 1985 (pbk) £3.95 UK, $6.95 Canada, $7.95 Australia
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Tagore pays tender tribute to one of his grandchildren with the words 'You're the one who teaches me to let myself go'. Knowing no Bengali and nothing previously of Tagore beyond the name, I cannot give this book a learned review. But lean testify to a feeling of mounting excitement and happiness and I realised that I was once again encountering a true poet, one who writes from the whole of himself on a subject as small as a ‘daybreak sparrow’, but who also took on the great themes, aiming in his writing - even on the darkest subjects - to affirm life and love. Tagore wrote of an old bard: ‘He sings for all he is worth’. Anyone who agrees with me that most of what appears as ‘poetry’ in England today lacks heart, courage and seriousness will rejoice in Tagore, who sang of:

Aiming in my melody to bring to the
theatre of physical
Existence the poetic glory of the spirit.

Thanks to William Radice, Tagore can now reach English readers in versions that are themselves poetic, in the sense of having music, metre and richness of suggestion, but that never let us lose sight of the fact that they are translations. This is the very best kind of service to both poet and reader. Translating poetry is very fashionable just now, but the admirable spirit of internationalism is too often marred by poetic colonialism. Radice’s excellent introduction and notes are appropriately restrained.

Tagore conveys his love of children, trees, his native Bengal - your plains who dust the sky bends down to kiss’ - with womanly tenderness. But, true to the balance of contemplation and action taught by the Gita, he writes also in a more masculine mode, out of political anger or the pain of war. In a poem called The Conch he seems to speak directly to the sick condition of our century. Whereas in Africa he could only urge the poet to ‘Stand in the dying light of advancing nightfall/At the door of despoiled Africa/And say, ‘Forgive, forgive . . .‘, here he spoke in a different mood. The shell, probably to be identified as Krishna’s, symbolizes the call to spiritual fight:

How can we bear to see your conch lying there in the dirt?
The tragedy of it cuts off air and blocks out light.
Warriors, rise, brandish your banners! Singers, get up and sing! Doers
Charge into action! Do not falter!
How can we let your inspiring conch stare up at us from the dirt?

What am I doing with this prayer-lamp, what do I mean by this prayer?
Must I drop my flowers of peace - weave scarlet garlands of war?
I hoped for a calm end to my struggles;
I thought my debts had been paid, my baffles Won, and now I could thankfully settle In your lap: but suddenly your mute conch seemed to sound in my ear.

…O change me, touch me with youth, alchemize me!
Let fiery melody Blaze and twirl in my breast, life-fire leap into ecstacy!
Let night’s ribs crack; let skies,
As they fill with dawning enlightenment, raiseTerror in remotest dark.
From today I shall fight to seize and carry aloft your conch of victory.

The poem is resolved by his re-dedication of himself in a line that ought to be in every writer’s heart on taking up his pen:

I shall give all my strength, win back your conch and make it BOOM.

Kim Taplin

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Broken promises

Policing Immigration: Britain’s Internal Controls
by Paul Gordon.
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Pluto Press 1985 (pbk) £3.50.
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[image, unknown] The subject of immigration control tends to promote emotive responses from all factions of society. There are two schools of thought about it: those who advocate more stringent control, and those who regard laws that restrict immigration as a gross injustice in a society which prides itself for its tolerance and fairness. Paul Gordon’s book Policing Immigration, gives ample evidence for the first group to heave a sigh of relief for it shows that immigration controls are being increased. The book also gives plenty of ammunition to those who feel that immigration controls are unfair, outlining the many dubious and cruel tactics that are used by police and immigration officials in the course of their ordinary work.

Racist immigration control, as Gordon illustrates in his historical summary of immigration, is not a phenomenon of the twentieth century. The East India Trade Act of 1813, which relieved the government of any responsibility for the welfare of Asian seamen, points to the long standing fear of being ‘swamped’ by non-white immigrants. This fear has been fuelled by Britain’s unemployment. Indeed, Gordon argues that the immigration laws of Britain have been tailored for the in built crash and booms of capitalism. In the aftermath of World War Two, immigrants were welcomed because of Britain’s disrupted economy and chronic labour shortage. However, as the expanding economy of the post-years subsided so did the need for cheap immigrant labour. The 1962 Immigration Act reflected Britain’s desire to reduce its labour force. This sounds reasonable, for every country has strict immigration controls to protect its population but the laws in Britain were aimed at Commonwealth citizens who held British passports. This is what makes the laws of this country particularly heinous. The British Government broke its promise to give these people the right to live in the UK.

Even more disturbing is the realisation that the laws designed to keep so-called aliens out are being used to keep a close watch on British citizens already resident in Britain. One of the most shocking features of Gordon’s book are the powers abused by the police when they are interrogating people within national boundaries. He cites many cases that show the blatant racism of immigration control. For example, there is the case of an Asian woman who stopped a policeman to ask directions; she was subsequently taken to the police station and held there until she could produce her passport. Had this been a white woman it is highly unlikely that she would have been treated in such a callous manner. Nearly all the cases that are related involve nonwhites or people whose speech betrays them as ‘foreign’ to the police.

This is a well documented book and an important one. It debunks the belief that immigrants are solely responsible for racial tension and so destroys the myth that curbing their entry improves race relations. And it points out that peace-protesters, people on peaceful demonstrations and striking trade-unionists are now being controlled through the use of tactics that were first used on black people. Gordon gives us bitter food for thought when he says; ‘To put it bluntly: what the police do to Britain’s black communities one day, they will do to some other minority the next.

Edda Ivan Smith


The Wealth of Nations
…being the first book to warn us about multinationals

[image, unknown] ‘The government of an exclusive company of merchants is, perhaps, the worst of all governments for any country whatever.’

‘...the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is always low in rich and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin

The interest of the dealers . . . in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public... (They) have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and accordingly have upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it’.

‘Our merchants frequently complain of the high wages of British labour as the cause of their manufactures being undersold in foreign markets; but they are silent about the high profits of stock. They complain about the extravagant gain of other people; but they say nothing of their own.’ [image, unknown]

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The above quotations are all from The Wealth of Nations, and they are all correct - unlike the version of the famous ‘invisible hand’ passage which appears at the head of Chapter Three of Samuelson’s Economics, which is so simplified that, were Smith alive, he would surely demand an apology.

The Wealth of Nations is one of those books that almost nobody reads, because everybody has been told what is supposed to be in it. Certainly Smith was optimistic as to the effects of free enterprise. He was not very optimistic, however, about the prospects of free enterprise becoming general, because he knew that the owners of capital had the ear of government. Nevertheless, he made the case against the domination of government by business as strongly as he could. That ‘three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger in one year’ in Bengal, he attributed to the monopolistic position of the East India Company, and to nothing else. If all the colonies were given their independence, he argued, it would be to the benefit not only of their own people but also of the colonising nation: but ‘contrary to the private interest of the governing part of it’.

Government, in Smith’s day, did very little, and did it rather badly. Smith did not call for less to be done by the public sector: he called for it to provide certain minimum services: defence; justice (‘separated from the executive power’), public works such as roads and subsidised education to the level of universal literacy and numeracy. Smith was well aware of the political consequences of literacy, and his reply to the argument that it might be dangerous is a masterpiece of irony. ‘An instructed and intelligent people. . . are.. . less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government.’ He approved of governments intervening on the side of labour, but not of their setting ceilings to wages.

In the following two centuries, the political empires of the European nations have risen and fallen, leaving behind them a neo-colonialism’ which looks very like the mercantile colonialism which it was Smith’s main purpose to attack. Corporate structures have, since his time, evolved in just the direction that Smith deplored: the separation of capital from management. In Smith’s time, this separation was seen in the ‘joint-stock companies’, and he presented overwhelming evidence that such concerns could never succeed in competition with ‘private adventurers’ because they could not adapt. They could succeed only if given monopolies, in which case they were run for the private benefit of their officials while the shareholders, unable even to increase the companies’ efficiency, used them as a means of gaining political influence: (‘a share, though not in the plunder, yet in the appointment of the plunderers of India’).

Reading Smith, one realises how very little the economists of more recent times have added: namely, a towering theoretical house of cards in one corner of the territory he staked out, and how very much they have forgotten.

What a curious paradox it is that the people who constantly invoke Smith today (highly selectively, and at second-hand) are just the people he was warning us against. And how embarassing it would be to those people if a nation should expropriate the transnationals and send them packing in the name of - not Marx - but Adam Smith.

Edward Wheeler

The Wealth of Nations
by Adam Smith (1776)
Penguin (pbk) £2.95

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