Sunday, 11 October 2009

Book Review: Beware of Vegetarian Sharks

From LSHG Newsletter, Spring 2009

Beware of Vegetarian Sharks
By Richard Greeman
Praxis Research & Education Center, Moscow, 2008
ISBN 978-1-4303-2307-5, £8.00

Richard Greeman is best known as the translator and promoter of Victor Serge, but he has also been, over the last five decades, a socialist activist and propagandist. (Only an activist could have written of Serge with the empathy that Richard shows.) This book is a collection of articles and contains much of interest to historians of the socialist movement.
The vegetarian sharks of the title are (in an image borrowed from Brecht) those who profess progressive and liberal intentions, but remain wholly committed to a bloodthirsty exploitative system. In particular Richard reminds us of the sorry imperialist record of the US Democrats, such as Jimmy Carter. He aptly describes the US political system as “a single big party with two right wings”.
There are many of Richard’s political judgments which I, for one, would wish to contest. While he right to recognise the importance of the Internet, he seems excessively optimistic about its potential. His suspicion of national liberation movements and his rejection of the logic that “the Enemies of our Enemies are our Friends” could easily lead to a “plague on both your houses” attitude to antiimperialist struggles. And his critique of Leninism and “vanguardism”, while nuanced, seems to me weak because the alternative forms of organisation he prefers are, on his own admission “ephemeral”.
But there are some very valuable contributions in the collection. There is an interesting discussion
of the role of utopias in encouraging socialist consciousness, and a demolition of Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List (which may go too far in failing to recognise the positive merits of the film). He points out that the “Allies” were complicit in the Holocaust and the crimes of Nazism; among other things Richard points to the concentration camps in Popular Front France, a theme developed in Jean-René Chauvin’s recent book Un Trotskiste dans l’enfer nazi.
The collection opens with an autobiographical sketch of  the author, with an account of his political itinerary  in France and the USA, and his encounters with Shachtman,  Castoriadis, Dunayevskaya and others. This reminds us of  the deep roots of the socialist tradition in US society.  For those of us who have spent much time opposing the crimes  of US imperialism, it is salutary and agreeable to be reminded that there is “another America”.
This is supplemented by an interview in which Richard describes his experiences at Columbia University in 1968, a vivid piece of oral history which recalls both the idealism and the sheer chaos of that momentous
year. There are also two pieces written in 1969, describing visits to Paris and Prague. Occasionally Richard’s tendency to ultraleftism surfaces, as when he criticises the French left for devoting its attention to the referendum that overthrew de Gaulle. But there are many valuable observations here. In retrospect it is clear that Richard – like the rest of us – was too optimistic, but that simply reminds us just how much there was to be optimistic about.
There are two substantial pieces on Serge. A long study of Serge’s life and literary work looks as though it may be an outline of Richard’s long promised biography of Serge, and hopefully he will soon expand it to book length. A substantial essay on Serge and Trotsky poses a lot of questions which any intelligent supporter of Trotsky will have to confront and respond to.
This useful volume could have been even more valuable if it had been properly copy-edited. Richard is justifiably indignant at those who misspell his name Greenman. But he is carefree in his spelling of other
people’s names. Does it matter to anyone but a grumpy pedant if Victor Brauner becomes Victor Branner? Yes, if it prevents readers learning more of this remarkable surrealist painter whom Serge met in Marseille.
Again Richard includes in the text much useful historical material that has been concealed from view and written out of official histories. What a pity that he also makes a number of detailed historical errors. When told that Trotsky died from an “assassin’s bullet”, or that Serge joined the Fourth International in 1936 (two years before it was founded), a suspicious reader (and Richard would undoubtedly agree with me that all readers should be suspicious) may well ask why she should trust the rest. Let us hope this book sells well – so that Richard will soon have the opportunity to produce a second, corrected edition.
Ian Birchall

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