Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles

Bloody terrible.

This novel is intended as a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, extending his classic tale A Meeting With Medusa. But it combines Clarke's inability to portray characters as anything other than cliched wooden extras from a bad 1950 film with a terrible plot-line that fizzles out in an unbelievable ending.

Don't bother, even if you are an enormous fan of these authors' other works.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Martin Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm

While seemingly a rather specialised topic, Martin Green's history of the neolithic, bronze and iron ages as understood through studies of the pre-history of his farm in Cranborne Chase contains a wealth of information. The Chase, an area roughly north-east of Blanford Forum in Dorset contains hundreds of locations of archaeological interest. Many of these are part of what should be understood as a cultural landscape, with sites frequently placed in relation to others.

Green is a farmer, but he has an immense skill and knowledge as an archaeologist and decades of work has led him to make some extremely significant finds. While some of the locations mentioned in this book such as the two iron age forts at Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill are well know (and well worth visiting) many others are either less well visited, or simply exist as crop marks or excavations.

I was inspired enough by Green's account of Knowlton Henge to visit. As the author explains this ruined 12th century Norman church was built in the midst of a large Neolithic henge. It does not take much expertise to understand the way the Christian church was trying to usurp "pagan" traditions here.

The book is full of fascinating details; from the explanation of archaeological method (including a chapter by Dr. Michael Allen on the links between snails and archaeological investigations) to the way modern science allows us to follow the travels of individuals thousands of years ago through the study of their bones. It is also extremely well illustrated.

This isn't a book for the casual reader, but for someone exploring the pre-history of Dorset its invaluable.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

S.A. Smith - Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928

S.A. Smith's Red Petrograd is one of the best books I've ever read in the Russian Revolution, so I had high expectations of this one. Sadly I was disappointed, even though there is much that I found of interest in it, and even for people like myself who have read widely on the subject there is significantly new material.

This review is not the place to rehearse the story of the Revolution itself. Following a useful discussion of Russian history. Smith moves to the story of 1917. Given the criticisms of the October Revolution by the right, it's worth quoting Smith's conclusions about events:
The seizure of power is often presented as a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government. It certainly had the elements of a coup, but it was a coup much advertised, and the government it overthrew had not been democratically elected. It is noteworthy how few military officers were willing to come to the aid of the government... The coup would certainly not have taken place had it not been for Lenin; and thanks to the decision of the moderate socialists to postpone the Second Congress, hi plan to present the latter with a fait accompli was achieved. But the execution of the insurrection was entirely Trotsky's work, cleverly disguised as a defensive operation to preserve the garrison and the Petrograd Soviet against the 'counter-revolutionary' design of the Provisional Government. in the last analysis, however, the Provisional Government had expired even before the Bolsheviks finished it off.
Following this, Smith looks at how the Bolsheviks' attempted to build on their success, and the various aspects of the consequences. There are useful discussions of how the Bolshevik's support for the right to self determination played out. Thirteen new states were created out of Russia between October 1917 and December 1918, for instance. But Smith also highlights how this went wrong - for instance the way that the Bolshevik's had to keep Ukraine by military not political means. There are also some fascinating sections on the way the Bolsheviks related to Muslims, invited to "order their national life 'freely and without hindrance'" in November 1917.

All of this is excellent material and there are some fine stories and quotes from the period. But the problem is Smith's framing of the material. Smith rightly sees the economic and political damage caused by the Civil War as a key turning point for the Revolution. While he notes that both sides committed "terror", he does acknowledge that the motivations were very different and that Red Terror was often in response to the brutal reality of the Whites.

But I think Smith underestimates the impact of the Civil War one the base of the Bolshevik's and their strategies. For instance, when discussing the Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks, Smith highlights the context, but neglects to point out that the Kronstadt sailors were not the same force that had been a bastion of the Revolution. They were much depleted by the Civil War and other political roles and had been watered down by an influx of new recruits. Smith's argument makes it looks like a key revolutionary force had changed sides, when this was not the case.

More problematic is the continuity that Smith places on the Bolsheviks before the seizure of power and long afterwards. There are two aspects to this. Firstly Smith frequently discusses the Bolsheviks before the Revolution (or in its early stages) and the strategy perused by Stalin as though it were the same organisation. Secondly I think he places the "Great Break", the rupture between Stalin's strategy and the old Bolshevik revolutionary strategy much too late. He argues that this was in 1928, but it is clear by then, that the policy being pursued by Stalin was already very different.
The Bolsheviks, who had so resoundingly rejected Russia's heritage in favour of proletarian internationalism, found that the greater the distance they travelled from October, the more they were hemmed in by these deep structuring forces. They did not become wholly captive to those forces, nor did revolutionary energies exhaust themselves, as Stalin's revolution from above' demonstrated, but in many areas the more utopian ideals of the early years were gradually abandoned and a new synthesis of revolutionary and traditional culture crystallised... It came about... because the Bolsheviks were transformed from a party of insurrection into a party of state builders.
But this confusing argument suggests a continuity between 1917 and the 1930s, which is inaccurate. The reality was there was a massive break, that required the liquidation of the old Bolshevik party and Stalin rebuilding a new one in his own image.

Smith effectively argues that it was the nature of Lenin and the Bolshevik organisation he crafted that led to the centralisation of power. "Lenin had ruled by virtue of his charisma, rather than his formal, position and he bequeathed a structure of weak but bloated institutions that relied for direction on a strong leader". There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story and while Smith doesn't ignore the other problems he down plays them. Thus while he does acknowledge the strategy of international revolution that the Bolsheviks hoped would solve their problems, he doesn't underline that this was actually quite realistic. In fact there is little mention here of the German Revolution, nor the other revolutions that shook Europe post 1918. Oddly there is precious little on the Comintern, before or after Stalin, except a few brief discussions.

Smith is also prone to some sweeping statements that undermine some of his better analysis. Stalin, he notes, "had read Machiavelli". So what? I suspect most intellectual Marxists of the period had. Lenin's great work State and Revolution is dismissed as having "utopian flights of fancy" in which a "cook or housekeeper could learn to run public affairs". It wasn't that much of a flight of fancy given that Soviets were being set up across Russia in their hundreds and supported by millions of workers and peasants while Lenin wrote it.

Ultimately I was left disappointed by the book. It has much of interest, but at times feels like a crude assault on Bolshevism (and Lenin in particular - hence an unreferenced quote saying Lenin described avant-guard art as "absurd and perverted"). The author concludes by arguing that the importance of the Revolution was not in its actuality (he suggests the Great Break was more important than the Revolution that preceded it), nor in the hope that workers in power would led to an end to inequality and exploitation. He argues that the Revolution's answers to these problems were "flawed".

Smith clearly sees capitalism as leading to war and environmental destruction, but dismisses the only political organisation that has created a fundamentally different workers state, arguing that their revolution "wrought calamity". Yet the reality was the calamity was a consequence of the counter-revolution that strangled the revolution and the failure of international revolution to break the chains that bound Russia in isolation.

That said, Smith can, and does celebrate what the revolution meant for ordinary people and millions of others around the globe. I can agree with him about how 1917 lifted people, and taught them to look further afield, before the revolution was defeated and drowned in blood. One example from Smith's book will suffice.
Yet the campaign to liquidate illiteracy awoke a thirst for knowledge on the part of newly literate readers. A poor peasant sent a letter to the Peasant Newspaper: 'Send me a list of books published on the following subjects because I am interested in everything: chemistry, science, technology, the planets, the sun, the earth, the planet Mars, world maps, books on aviation, the number of planes we posses, the number of enemies the Socialist Republic has, books on comets, stars, water, the earth and sky'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain State Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Smith - Red Petrograd
Cliff - The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star: Trotsky 1927-1940
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power

Friday, May 05, 2017

Carl J. Griffin - The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest

This is the most recent serious book on the Captain Swing movement. Its author is keen to present it as the definitive work that surpasses two other earlier book lengths treatments. These are the Hammond's Village Labourer and Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing. Griffin's certainty of his works' improvement on its predecessors irked me somewhat as I don't think it's fair to say that neither book offers students of rural class struggle something.

However it is true, as Griffin can say, that both of them missed crucial parts of the struggle and his work does highlight how the Swing movement was brother more intense, and more extensive than hitherto understood. Of Hobsbawm and Rudé he writes that they "seriously underestimate the level of reported disturbances".

Griffin also attempts to introduce other missing aspects of the history of the period, including the role of women, of which more shortly.

This review will not repeat an account of the Swing movement itself, but essentially this was a movement of popular outrage at rural economic conditions. The origins of these problems were simple enough - wages were low, jobs were scarce and farming was now for profit. But the situation was made worse because the standard system of poor relief was so inadequate. Old traditions however remained. Griffin notes that rural workers believed that "public relief was a right" and that "field labour [w]as a right". He argues that this "fostered a 'culture of xenophobia'," (the quote is from the historian Keith Snell) against non-indigent and migrant workers. In the context of rural England in the 1830s this meant attacks on Irish migrant labourers. Certainly this aspect was neglected in earlier histories and is an interesting fact that helps understand some of the dynamics of the period.

Griffin also argues, and I think this is an extremely important point, that Swing was not a "bolt from blue" as Hobsbawm and Rudé suggested, instead it was an intensification of events. Attacks on migrant labourers, as well as earlier attacks on machines, riots, protests and threatening letters, are part of the Swing "prehistory". Griffin also highlights how the movement continued after 1830 arguing that the repression didn't simply destroy Swing, but changed its form. For instance there are a number of cases when labourers who had won a pay rise from local farmers protested and burnt down targets again when the increases were removed.

Swing took place in the context of economic downturn. But it also took place at a time of enormous political upheaval. The 1830 French Revolution drew some support from rural workers and there were cases of the French tricolour being waved at protests. Another factor was the struggle for Parliamentary Reform and Griffin is particularly useful at understanding the interplay between that and Swing itself.

But its the sections on gender politics and the Swing movement that Griffin clearly feels are some of the most significant developments on earlier work. Here he argues that the role of the male agricultural labourer was being challenged. Their labour, he says, was about a family wage and this was being undermined. Women themselves took part, on occasion in protests during Swing and "even if men were trying to reassert their economic and household-political primacy, women clearly too had much to gain from Swing and therefore might support their husbands and brothers".

Clearly there is likely some truth to these factors, though a lack of evidence is a problem. I find Griffin's discussion of the sexual nature of machine breaking more problematic. He quotes George Youens, a labourer arrested for destroying a threshing machine at Elham, remembering that some of the gang shouted "Kill Her - More Oil". Griffin argues "Threshing machines became proxies for female bodies, something they as men should control, dominate and discipline... the allusion in the quote is in all probability to sex. Not only wasa 'woman' going to be 'killed', but the machine-breakers also were going to rape 'her'."

From a "misogynistic perspective" writes Griffin, the "machine's rhythmic action combined with the fact that it had to be 'served' through 'entry' meant that it was not unlike the objectified sexualised female body."

Personally I feel that is somewhat contrived. That's not to say that gender politics did not play a role in the Swing movement - as with Rebecca and a host of other rural movements, symbolic cross-dressing was part of some of the actions. But this over-sexualised interpretation of the Swing movement doesn't seem to fit with the evidence that Griffin has. He asserts that "gender politics in the Kentish machine-breaking heartlands shows the ingrained nature of sexual violence towards women" that sexual violence against women was an "integral part of labouring life", but I'm sceptical that the evidence proves this (Griffin highlights five cases). Even if true it seems a big leap to suggest that machine-breaking was a "reassertion, as psychological as much as it was public, of male power". I suspect that the vast majority of those engaged in machine-breaking did not approach the action from this point of view, but rather because they wanted better conditions for them and their families. If this is because their traditional roles were being challenged then we must understand that this is how class struggle takes place - in the context of the ideas "inherited from the past" and "not in circumstances of our choosing".

However Griffin is right to explore the role of women (and gender politics) in rural movements like Swing, a role that is usually ignored or dismissed. While I was not convinced by his conclusions here, the question of how women joined in the struggles for social and economic justice in the early years of capitalism are of great importance.

In conclusion I found Griffin's book very useful, developing early history a great deal; expanding the coverage of the struggles and asking some important questions of both the historical material and previous historians. Anyone studying Captain Swing will gain a lot from reading this.

Related Reviews

Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing
Hammond and Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, April 30, 2017

E.J. Hobsbawm & George Rudé - Captain Swing

Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing is one of those books that dominates a particular historical field. Their examination of the 1830 Captain Swing movement was the first attempt to systematically understand the causes of that agrarian revolt and the nature of the movement itself. Written in the late 1960s it was the first real full length account of Swing. Prior to that, only the Hammonds in their book The Village Labourer had paid particular attention to Swing, and Hobsbawm and Rudé are critical of them for underestimating the scale and importance of Swing.

Later historians, in turn, have criticised these two authors, while celebrating the first foray proper historical study into Swing. Carl Griffin's more recent book is possibly the most detailed attempt to surpass Hobsbawm and Rudé, and I'll review that on this blog soon.

Nonetheless those attempting to understand the dynamics of rural capitalism, the nascent workers movement and class struggle in 19th century England should read Captain Swing if only because the two authors bring a sensitivity and eloquence to the history that is seldom seen in writing about this period.

The authors argue that the Swing movement, the largest "machine breaking episode in English history" is rooted in the proletarianisation that takes place in rural England as a result of the changes taking place to agrarian communities. The most obvious change is enclosure, which sets the scene for a transformation of rural society from one geared towards production for immediate use and need, to one where peasant producers become transformed into labourers. Swing is mostly remembered for its machine breaking, particularly the destruction of threshing machines, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage was done. But it was also characterised by different phases of destruction - the burning of hay ricks and other property, the sending of letters, the breaking of machines and mass meetings of labourers demanding higher wages and work.

But Swing is more than an economic response to hard times. Its roots in the changing social relations, and decades of failure to address rural poverty, in the context of continental revolution and growing Reform movements in England, make it potentially explosive. Rural poverty was significant. The Speenhamland system which was supposed to help alleviate poverty had been a "millstone" for forty years, Instead of helping the poor, it actively encouraged farmers to pay labourers low wages, placing burdens on the parish that had to subsidise the difference in pay. When Swing explodes then, we see a cross-class alliance between workers and some farmers who both understand that the existing system is wrong. The authors point to a number of occasions when local authorities effectively support the movement, as they see the need to transform the status quo. In particular a large number of farmers allow their machines to be broken without opposition (in some cases doing it on behalf of the labourers) because they can then ask the labourers to also oppose the tithes that they are paying to the parish. In many cases then, wage rises are won, and these are effectively paid for by a reduction in monies to the local parish.

We should be careful though. The authors do not suggest that this is a revolutionary movement - though a few individuals wanted that, and some of the slogans suggest that labourers recognised the nature of their oppression and wanted much larger change. In fact, Hobsbawm and Rudé argue that there was "no subversion of social order" during Swing, rather a desire for a better "regulation" of rural society. But even these limited changes could not be allowed. The government reacted with ferocity and the aftermath of Swing saw the greatest ever repression on a workers' movement in England. 19 men were executed. Nearly 700 were transported and in total almost 2000 workers faced trial.

Hobsbawm and Rudé spend some time exploring what happened to those deported and this is an interesting, if not particularly relevant chapter to the study of the movement. More interesting is the appendix which analyses why threshing machines were being introduced in such vast numbers. The benefits to individual farmers in terms of money saved was minimal, which might explain the acquiescence by many in the face of rioters. But it seems the greatest benefit was that it allowed crops to be taken to the market quicker after harvest. At a time of big price fluctuations this could mean the difference between big profits or breaking even. However once the machines had become common, the benefit was no longer viable for the farmer and the labourers might well be better.

In conclusion there is no doubt that later historians built upon the pioneering work of these two authors. But this book gets across the nature of Swing - a mass movement of workers who wanted to fight for a living wage in the face of government indifference. Their struggles were partially successful, but the nature of their struggle - direct action and mass militant struggle - meant that their fight had been sidelined from the history books in favour of the much more palatable (for the trade union leadership at least) tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Captain Swing was rescued by Hobsbawm and Rudé and any study of the period begins with their memorable work.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

J.L. Hammond & Barbara Hammond - The Skilled Labourer: 1760-1832

The Hammonds begin their account of the changes to "skilled labourers" in this period by saying it reads "like a civil war". With similar themes to those covered in the first volume of their historical trilogy, they argue that the period saw a profound transformation in social relations between worker and boss:
The industrial changes that occurred at this time destroyed this social economy with its margin of freedom and choice for the worker. To the upper-class observer those changes seemed to promise a great saving of human labour. To the worker they seemed to threaten a great degradation of human life.
This is a profound statement that few in the bosses class would have agreed with at the time, and less so today. Much of the remainder of the book is an exploration of what "change" meant for different groups of workers in urban areas across England and how those workers resisted those changes. At the core of this is an exploration of how and why machinery was introduced. The Hammonds point out that the boss never introduced labour saving machinery in order to "increase leisure". Rather "if one machine could do ten men's work, there was all the more reason for not allowing so valuable an instrument to be idle a moment longer than was necessary... the machine was an argument for lengthening rather than shortening the working day."

The two most famous examples of resistance to the introduction of such machinery in England at the time were the Captain Swing movement and Luddism. Captain Swing's destruction of threshing machinery and the associated burning of buildings and other agricultural targets is covered in the Hammond's earlier work, The Village Labourer. Luddism is covered in detail in several chapters of this book. Since I've reviewed a number of books on this subject recently I won't cover that ground here again, suffice to say that the Hammonds place Luddism in a much wider context - the campaigns for a minimum wage, early trade union consciousness among urban workers and wider battles such as food riots. The scale of these struggles is fascinating, and even for a reader like myself with a good grasp of English radical history, there were many episodes that I was not aware of.

In part the context of this is the massive growth of industry and the working class. Taking just cotton workers, one of the major planks of English industry, the Hammonds point out that in 1774 there were about 30,000 persons "round Manchester" employed in cotton. By 1831 there were 833,000 across Great Britain. Similar growth in other industries meant that by the 1830s there were enormous numbers of workers who were engaged in a constant struggle over time, wages and working conditions. There was a corresponding transformation of the old, traditional crafts. So the cotton industry grew, but it was also transformed.
In 1760 cotton was carded and spun by hand in the spinsters' own houses, and woven at hand-looms in the weavers' houses. By 1830 hand-spinning was dead, and all the processes previous to weaving were carried on by complicated machinery in factories, whilst wearing was partly done in factories, by power-looms worked by girls, but partly still by hand-loom weavers in their own houses.
These changes were not automatic, and the struggles by the workers in those industries to protect their rights and conditions against "industrialisation" were ones that brought together thousands of people and required the use of the law, the yeomanry and networks of spies to ensure that "progress" could take place. Sometimes the struggles were successful, such as the Spittafields silk-weavers who get a fascinating chapter in this book. Mostly though the workers were destroyed and the "great degradation" took place.

Understanding the nature of capitalism is one thing. Seeing the alternative is another. The Hammonds were Fabian socialists, and the indistinct nature of Fabian socialism means that their conclusion rails against capitalism and its "inevitable" civil war - but offers little alternative. But this is a work of history that focuses on the forgotten struggles of ordinary working people. While in places it is dated, and other authors have surpassed the historical research, this is one of the books that 20th and 21st century English Social History rests upon. It should be read for that reason, but also to celebrate those who tried to make sure that the world wasn't simply about profit before everything else.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Beckert - Empire of Cotton
Reid - The Land of Lost Content

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Neil Gaiman - Norse Mythology

When I was about 10 my grandfather gave me a huge book of world mythology. Many of the accounts inside gave me real insights into the culture and religion of my classmates who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. But I was always most taken by the Norse myths. For a young boy these were fantastically dramatic - full of fighting, quests, drama, love and bravery.

So for me, Neil Gaiman's retelling of the myths is a return to much loved stories. And he does it extremely well. The tales aren't overly written - they're bare of details, but designed to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Readers of Gaiman's other books might be disappointed by this, as was I initially, as I was used to his incredible descriptions of fantastic places. But once you realise that these myths are told as they would be round a camp fire, perhaps by a viking bard reading them to a group of listeners, then you can understand why they work so well.

Those new to the myths, will almost certainly find something they recognise, if only the names of the gods which have recently been reused by the Marvel comic and film franchise. But these characters are different to their movie portrayals. Here for instance Loki develops from an annoying trickster to a vicious psychopath.

North Mythology is an enjoyable retelling of some classic tales. Neil Gaiman's storytelling skills fit the material admirably and its well worth reliving these ancient quests and battles as he tells them.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Neverwhere
Gaiman - Ocean at the End of the Lane
Gaiman - Stardust
Gaiman - Smoke and Mirrors
Gaiman - Anansi Boys