Ed Edwards contributes an essay on the political background to his brilliant new play, after a short review by Mike Quille.
The Review: An outstanding dramatisation of the social consequences of neoliberal capitalism on young men and women
by Mike Quille
There have been many stimulating plays with political themes at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. One of the most outstanding plays, combining radical political insight with Trainspotting-style dramatic excitement, is The Political History of Smack and Crack, written by Ed Edwards.
It deals with the shocking story of the lost generation whose lives were ruined by the heroin and drug-related crime epidemic that swept through Britain in the early eighties. This epidemic of drug use, particularly in the North, destroyed the personal health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of young working class men and women, just as their employment prospects were being destroyed by the Thatcher government’s deliberate adoption of neoliberal capitalist economic policies.
This urgent, passionately acted two-hander, based on Edwards’ own experience of drugs and crime, dramatizes the links between the drugs story and the political story, and it fizzes with radical protest, humour and authenticity. It provokes laughter, anger and sadness, as it traces the consequences of the Tories’ political choices on the lives of two Manchester lovers and addicts, involved in the working class riots in 1981 on Moss Side – an uprising which spread to London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and many more towns and cities – and their eventual struggles with addiction, crime and recovery all taking place on the streets of Manchester.
But the play does so much more than track their personal lives. Through the bold formal dramatic device of using two ‘neutral’ narrators whose voices seamlessly blend into the two leading characters, the play insistently foregrounds the political causes behind the Tories' assault on the health, wealth and happiness of working class communities.
It shows how the brutal effects of the heroin and crime epidemics of the eighties were the direct result of shameful, counter-revolutionary foreign policies by Britain and other Western governments, desperate to uphold exploitative, capitalist imperialism against anti-colonial liberation movements.
The play itself, and the comprehensive, powerfully argued essay Edwards has written to accompany the script, and which he summarises below, dramatizes and presents the clear evidence for the links between government policy and the massive increase in drug use and drug-related crime - phenomena which still blight many working class communities, particularly in areas of de-industrialization and high unemployment.
In this present time of economic crisis, political uncertainty and deepening inequality, Ed Edwards’ arresting new play is a brilliantly relevant piece of political theatre. It helps us see the connections between disgracefully reactionary, anti-socialist foreign policies and domestic social misery. It powerfully and movingly exposes and dramatises the horrific damage caused by globalised, neoliberal capitalism to so many working people’s lives.
It is also a refreshing example of exciting, committed and challenging political theatre, whose dramatization of uncomfortable truths is increasingly smothered by overt and covert censorship by the arts elites in this country, by the growing structural barriers to working class participation in the theatre as actors, writers or directors, and the general drift towards vapid, diversionary spectacle and safe, frothy entertainment. Here’s what the playwright says about political theatre these days:
There are obvious class barriers to proper public debate, in that theatre – especially non-musical theatre – tends to be the preserve of the middle and upper classes these days. But with the budgets required for film and TV, and the unofficial but effective ban on political drama on Radio 4, theatre is still the best forum for debate.
I want the play to raise questions and make people angry and sad – and yes – to make them hate the system that can produce such a catastrophe. I hope audiences will experience thrills, spills and emotion, and enlightenment about the need for a revolution.
Later on it will transfer to the city where it was born, Manchester, opening at the Mustard Tree, which is a local refuge providing care for people trapped by homelessness, dependency and poverty since 1994.
The Essay: Maintaining a Decaying Capitalist Order
by Ed Edwards
I was politically active in the late 1980s and personally witnessed the dying away of the political spark on the streets of inner city Manchester in the wake of the nationwide inner-city uprisings of 1981-85. One day around 1987 I was asked by a Moss Side street dealer if I “wanted anything to smoke” as I passed. I knew the guy faintly from my student pot-smoking days when we might have bought a “five pound draw” if we couldn’t buy resin from our usual sources.
Instead of the usual five quid’s worth of “sensi” though, the lad proffered several bags of brown heroin. By then you couldn’t buy “a draw” on the streets of Moss Side. The miners were defeated, Winston Silcott, Mark Braithwaite and Engin Raghip had been framed for the killing of PC Blakelock during the Tottenham uprising, Viraj Mendis was soon to be deported to Sri Lanka after a police raid on the inner-city church in Manchester where he sought sanctuary, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Heroin was everywhere by then, and the cops had a free hand.
The vanishing of street politics and the flood of hard drugs into the cities never felt like a coincidence to me, and when my own drug problems took off in the dead years that followed those historic defeats, I found myself doing three-and-a-half years in jail for drugs offences. On the landing one night a white lad from working class Huyton put it like this: “We took Liverpool that night – the city belonged to the youth that night. The cops had to fight their way back into Liverpool! Next thing I’m jumping over the counter at the offie with an Uzi, tryna feed a habit!”
All these years later, I’m a recovering addict of many years sobriety – part of a worldwide 12-step movement – and that lad’s words have found their way into the heart of my play. I wonder if he’s still alive, there’s a very good chance he isn’t. Saving his words feels like a small victory.
A couple of years ago I realised that the young people I was teaching in a drama school had a thirst for political knowledge beyond what was available on the curriculum. I offered to give them some lectures on revolution. I listed some subjects on the board and straight away The Political History of Smack and Crack, with its obvious links to two revolutions, was a hit.
I felt almost obliged to write it up as a play, and the more I investigated the subject, the more the long-standing link between counter-revolution and narcotics became apparent. Unfortunately, when writing the play itself I didn’t find it possible to get all my discoveries into the script itself. Many people who witnessed early drafts fed back that the political history was interesting but hard to absorb in that much detail – after all a play has to follow the rules of dramatic structure and entertainment.
In the end, during the play itself, I opted to boil the politics down to the flood of Contra/Mujahideen narcotics hitting Britain at that dangerous moment FOR THE BRITISH STATE in 1981 when the mass inner-city uprisings occurred, in the context of world forces that could so easily have tipped away from Thatcher and her neoliberal cronies.
The publishers of the playscript – Nick Hern Books – were happy to include the historical detail we couldn’t get into the play itself, into a postscript entitled Narcotics and Counterrevolution. Culture Matters have asked me to summarise the main points of the essay, which stretches to 30 pages, here. The story is all documented in forensic detail by historians and diligent journalists elsewhere – but this is of course ignored by the mainstream media.
Prohibition, the FBI and Lucky Luciano
In the USA, 1920s Prohibition gave heroin a double boost. The drug was an obvious substitute intoxicant and created the beginnings of a mass market for illicit narcotics. Despite the disapproval of their already rich, more socially conservative bosses, such as Al Capone, young Mafia bootleggers, yet to make their fortunes, were happy to step in to meet the new demand. The end of Prohibition gave rise to an intergenerational shooting war, which established the young pharmaceutical-heroin-dealing generation as kings under a new boss of bosses, Lucky Luciano.
This newly organised Mafia became an efficient nationwide crime syndicate for the first time. However, despite the natural affinity of these gangsters for capitalism, evidenced by their enthusiastic murder and brutalisation of radicals of all kinds, in the face of impending world war the FBI take exception to the potentially morally corrosive power of heroin and they crush the new, supposedly indestructible Mafia completely. Lucky Luciano goes from New York socialite to inmate of Sing Sing prison, serving 50 years. Meanwhile Mussolini does the same to the Mafia in their homeland of Sicily for similar reasons. However....
The Mafia and the French Connection
At the end of War War II, with the fall of fascism and the anti-capitalist feeling sweeping Europe – not to mention the Soviet Army smashing the cream of Hitler’s army and making their way to Berlin – the U.S. authorities changed their approach. Lucky Luciano was promised freedom, in return for which the U.S. army got Mafia spies, Mafia guides and a Mafia-inspired uprising to aid their 1943 invasion of Sicily. The U.S. military then appointed Mafia mayors all over the island, and Mafia soldiers help brutally smash radical forces in the whole of southern Italy.
Luciano was deported to Sicily where he went on to lay the foundations of the modern international heroin trade. At home in New York, the U.S. Mafia took over the unions, as in Brando's On The Waterfront, and crushed the remnants of wartime dockyard radicalism. New York mafiosi also cleared the way for the mass importation of non-pharmaceutical heroin which they refined in collaboration with the Corsican Mafia in Marseilles: the famous French Connection.
The French Connection was established when U.S. military intelligence encouraged the Corsican Mafia to crush the left wing of the French resistance in its radical Marseilles heartland. Heroin refineries were set up locally by the Corsicans, now protected by the CIA, ex-Vichy elements and the millionaire socialist ex-resistance leader Garston Defferre, charismatic mayor of Marseilles.
By the end of the struggle to crush the left wing of the Resistance, Mayor Defferre had the two biggest Corsican gangsters – the brothers Guerini – as his personal bodyguards. This corrupt relationship continued until at least as late as 1967, as does the French Connection, although ace detective Gene Hackman, in his pork pie hat, discovered nothing about it in the film of the same name.
The dirty dealings of French and U.S. military agencies
In the postwar period, the western trade in illegal narcotics was small beans compared to that going on in the revolutionary heartlands of the anti-colonial struggle – China and Vietnam – supported by the dirty dealing of the U.S. and French militaries.
It was the West’s struggle against the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions from the late 1940s to the early 1970s that really gave birth to illegal narcotics production, and dealing on the international scale we see today. A trade that size is of course impossible without some form of state knowledge, oversight and even direct involvement. Enter the French and U.S. militaries.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, in Vietnam and China, the French and U.S. militaries must keep alive deeply unpopular, brutal and ruthless forces in the face of international revulsion and a lack of political support from their own governments at home. Both militaries arrive at similar methods at the same time, with a few subtle differences.
Secret intelligence units of the French military flew tons of raw opium from the mountains of Laos to Saigon in French Air Force planes, where it was refined into heroin by gangsters protected by corrupt elements of the Vietnamese military. They, in turn, were protected by French intelligence officials. Some of this opium was also sold to Corsican gangsters and refined in Marseilles, where militant French dock workers were striking in support of the Vietnamese liberation struggle, while being attacked by Corsican gangsters.
The profits from this whole operation were used to fund the network of spies, armed religious fanatics, gangsters and brutal warlords the French vainly relied on to keep the North Vietnamese revolution spreading to the whole country.
By the time the French were roundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu and had to hand over power to the U.S. Army, the Saigon heroin trade had become the military and political key to holding the whole of the newly created South Vietnam. This was of course an impossible task, but nevertheless 57,000 US soldiers died trying to achieve it.
Opium, heroin and counter-revolution
The CIA’s role in the anti-communist struggle was to aid the hated and defeated Chinese regime of butchers and buriers-of-people alive, as they plotted the re-invasion of China from the poppy-growing highlands of Burma.
Not surprisingly this task led the U.S. state onto murky ground. The CIA’s methods differed in that they operated at one remove compared to the French military, providing mainly logistical and political cover as well as arms and cash for their opium dealing/heroin refining allies, and for tribal warlords who acted as their “boots on the ground”. Here the trade lines ran from Burma to Thailand, where U.S. client militias handled refining and export, in collaboration with our old friends – Luciano’s Mafia.
These two opium/heroin regions, sponsored by the French and the Americans, soon merged into one – popularly known as the Golden Triangle. It was in reality little more than a huge international counter-revolutionary struggle.
So by the 1980s, nothing that happened in Nicaragua leading to the crack epidemic in the West, or in Afghanistan leading to the heroin epidemic in the West, was very new. The main difference from the Western point of view was that whereas in the Golden Triangle period relatively little of the heroin was consumed in the West, in the Thatcher/Reagan years the stuff was allowed to flood into the West, where the profits were so much more valuable. In addition, the demoralising human consequences of drugs and crime undoubtedly suited the Thatcherite neoliberal social engineering project.
In the Afghan War in the 1980s over half the CIA covert aid, amounting to about a billion dollars in the form of cash and arms, was given directly to an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist leader allied to the Pakistani secret services, who owned at least 6 major heroin refineries in the Afghanistan border region.
This character, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was famous in his early career for having dispatched his followers to throw acid in the faces of female students who dared to discard the veil. During the war 17 DEA agents were posted to Kabul, where they diligently documented the existence of 100 such refineries, run by the mediaeval bands of butchers and rapists who were described by Ronald Reagan as 'freedom fighters'. In reality, they were the West’s proxy army in the war against the Afghan revolution.
After the DEA reports were submitted, not one of these refineries were busted, although police forces across Europe complained that the decision not to move against them had been taken “at the highest level”. Neither was the existence of this network of refineries acknowledged by the army of Western journalists residing in Kabul during the whole decade of war. Only after the Soviet Army withdrew, did stories begin to emerge.
A decaying capitalist order defended by the CIA
This filthy hypocrisy in the East was matched in the West, when George Bush Sr. was filmed in the White House wielding a bag of crack, declared it to be 'a great scourge' and implicitly blamed poor black communities in America for the problem.
In reality, fascistic forces ousted from Nicaragua by the popular Nicaraguan revolution, together with anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida and Western-friendly gangster militias in Colombia, all secretly backed to the hilt by the CIA, were the real culprits.
However, it’s worth saying that despite the CIA’s international struggles to protect the world’s biggest drug dealers for decades, it’s clear that the agency has only been doing what it has to do under difficult circumstances. Its actions are only what has been necessary to maintain a decaying capitalist order, in the face of worldwide popular and desperate resistance.
Had it not been for the CIA’s gargantuan counter-revolutionary efforts through this worldwide dirty dealing, surely the world would now be a very different, massively more anti-capitalist place. There would be far fewer illegal drugs on our streets, far less drug-related crime, and socialism would have had a better chance of success.
For fuller details and references, see the essay in The Political History of Smack and Crack, published by Nick Hern Books, ISBN: 9781848427815.
See also The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the International Heroin Trade, by W. McCoy, or any of the writings of the late, great Gary Webb.
Ed Edwards is a playwright based in Manchester, has written extensively for TV and Radio and currently lectures in Theatre and Creative Writing at a small northern university.