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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Austin Challen


Unnatural punishments


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment
Kate Millett
Viking £18

As you read this, someone, somewhere is being tortured by government officials. If they survive, they may spend the rest of their lives in solitary confinement. Nearly half of the 154 countries of the UN currently practise torture on political prisoners.

Kate Millett’s The Politics of Cruelty is at its best, and most harrowing, when dealing with the resistance and heroism of individuals: Henri Alleg, a journalist in Algiers, who withstood months of electric shock and beatings to safeguard his associates and eventually published material that helped topple the French rulers; the Kenyan writer Ngugi who kept his sanity by writing novels on toilet paper while locked in a small cage for a year. Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, and other magnificent people describe how they endured pain, mutilation, isolation, and the murder of their families, some by escaping into an imaginary world, some by meditation, some by sheer, stubborn conviction.

Sadly, little is said about collective resistance: uprisings in concentration camps, organised prison protests, or the international solidarity that freed Mandela. Millett’s antagonism towards armed struggle also shows through in her description of schoolchildren in Soweto killing a black policeman, but examples of peaceful mass resistance are also lacking.

At times, Millett becomes enmeshed in the apparent logic of torture as a method of gaining vital information, although elsewhere she concedes that torture is inefficient and expensive, that confessions can easily be fabricated and that the purpose of state cruelty is to suppress and decimate opposition through terror.

Millett’s style is personal and compassionate, but often disorganised, her own emotional reactions to the art and literature of torture mingling with fragmented analysis. In one chapter, Millett blames ‘Special Powers’ legislation such as Britain’s Prevention of Terrorism Act for facilitating secret brutality. In another, torture is a parallel of patriarchy: state pornography, state rape. In another, institutionalised religious fanaticism is to blame.

Millett does not think working people should have much part in getting rid of torture, nor, surprisingly, as a pacifist and feminist, is she keen to develop ideas of non-violent action or women’s struggle. Instead, awareness must be raised by writers and journalists; non-governmental, organisations like Amnesty must campaign, and eventually torture will be abolished.

Because of her distrust of action by ordinary people, Millett hangs on to the dim hope that we can get rid of torture by changing the law! By ignoring class, she can only see the excessive power of the 20th century state as an aberration, which can, she tentatively hopes, be curbed by an otherwise fair system. She fails completely to show that such a state is essential for all ruling classes to hang on to their power and wealth in a grossly unequal world.

This book is a reminder of the barbarity of the capitalist state, and the necessity of resisting all increases in its powers to arrest, detain and brutalise, but offers no suggestions on how to organise in opposition.

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