Friday, October 21, 2016

Iain M. Banks - Look to Windward

Re-reading some of Iain Banks' works I'm constantly reminded how much we have lost with his untimely death. His science fiction, and Look to Windward is a beautiful example, is full of experiment. Banks' loves playing around with his imagination. Everything, from sexuality and language, is up for grabs.

By setting the bulk of his stories in a society that has left the inequality and oppression of capitalism far behind, and replaced it with the joyous utopia that results from a society (the Culture) were resources are managed in the interests of all, Banks' is free to explore what things might be like. In Look to Windward Banks' even imagines the boredom of those living in a society without exploitation, conflict, poverty and oppression. What do you do, if you can do anything?

There's a lovely example of this mental experiment in Look to Windward. One eccentric individual galvanizes thousands of others to build a massive complex of pylons linked by cable-cars. There's no reason for this, though it provokes a mass movement of people in favour and against, until, well, things move on. The remaining pylons simply sit there, and decay. While life continues elsewhere.

That said, most of this novel is not about utopian life in the Culture. It's actually about those societies around the Culture, and how they interact and react to their enormously powerful neighbour. Here, as in many of Banks' writings, the shady dealings of the Culture form a key plot line. Their manipulative attempts to shape other societies; bringing them into line with The Culture's norms are, at least in the short term, unethical. And in the case of the Chelgrian this unethical interference led to a brutal civil war and millions of casualties. Revenge is in the air, and a faction in the Chelgrian's leadership put in place a mission designed to get past the Culture's unfathonable technological powers.

Its a great story. What makes the book brilliant, as opposed to simply great, is how the Culture seems to others. Its allies enjoy its benevolance and the limitless supplies of wealth and entertainment that it offers. Its enemies see it as a poisoned, corrupted, unhealthy place whose citizens grow fat and lazy on over-indulgence. Banks' plays around with the problems inherent in understanding societies based on norms very different from your own. How backward ancient Rome seems to us today, how difficult to imagine a socialist society run by the "associated producers"?

Banks' dedicates this book to the "Gulf War Veterans". New readers may well wonder at this, as the book came out before Afghanistan and Iraq were turned into the death-traps that George Bush and Tony Blair made. But Banks' point - that intervention elsewhere is never as straightforward as the politicians make out - was only reinforced by later events.

Related Reviews

Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Raw Spirit
Banks - Matter
Banks - Dead Air
Banks - Hydrogen Sonata

Banks - Whit

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

John Rees - The Levellers' Revolution

This forthcoming book by John Rees is a detailed exploration of the Levellers during the English Revolution. Drawing heavily on archive material and exploring how they both shaped and were shaped by political events in the 1640s, Rees puts these radicals at the heart of developments.

I've written a longer review of this book for publication elsewhere and I'll link that review here when it is published. In the meantime here are some other reviews I've done of books related to the English Civil War and Revolution.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown
Hill - God's Englishman
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England
Purkiss - The English Civil War: A Peoples' History
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War
Stone - The Causes of the English Revolution

Wedgwood - The King's War

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Colin Dexter - The Dead of Jericho

I was struck while reading The Dead of Jericho that Inspector Morse isn't actually a very nice bloke. In fact, he's actually a bully towards his subordinates, he's condescending towards women in particular, and men that he thinks intellectually beneath him and he's arrogant to the point of distraction. It's a surprise that he's such a popular character.

The novel follows the usual Morse pattern. An obscure murder of someone that Morse has a tenuous link with, a series of inexplicable clues, and an intellectual process that finds an absolutely mind-bogglingly complex and unlikely solution, which turns out to be wrong. Finally the novel ends with the unlikeliest of suspects being arrested and Morse feeling ever more grumpy and discontent.

Jericho isn't a bad novel. It's entertaining in places, even while the plot seems very contrived. I felt a complete lack of empathy with Morse here, and saddened by the voyeuristic pleasure that the characters and the author seemed to get out of the tragic tale of the victim at the heart of the book.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

John F. Richards - The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

John F. Richards' book The World Hunt is actually four chapters from a larger work called The Unending Frontier. The four chapters deal with distinct subjects. The first two concern the surprisingly parallel stories of the transformation of North America and Siberia into a massive hunting ground for animals skins and fur. The third and fourth chapters look at the Atlantic cod fisheries of North America and whales and walruses in the northern oceans.

One common theme to all these accounts is the scale of the butchery that took place once particular animals became part of a wider European trading network. For instance,
the eighteenth-century export of deer skins from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana conformed to the classic pattern of market-driven raw materials exploitation. At a conservative estimate, pelts shipped by British, French and Spanish traders each year rose form 50,000 at the turn of the century, to 150,000 in the 1730s, to peak at 250,000 to 300,000 per year in the 1760s and early 1770s.
Similar, consider the hunt for whales and walruses:
Around the end of the eighteenth century, observers counted about 270 ships with twenty-two hundred Russian hunters gathered during the summer season at Spitsbergen, What their annual catch might have amounted to is impossible to estimate. We do have figures from one Russian hunting party that wintered on Spitsbergen in 1784-1785. When they returned they had tusks and hides from 300 walruses as well as oil and skins from 230 seals, 150 polar bear skins and 1,000 fox skins. They carried 300 kilograms of eiderdown. They also had killed 100 beluga whales and 1 larger whale. 
The consequences for the ecology were profound. But for the original inhabitants of Siberia and North America the result of the encounter with Europeans and their trading systems was violent and traumatic. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives from violence and disease, and many more suffered as their economies became closely fixed to European and Russian interests. Isolated hunter-gatherer communities in Siberia suddenly found themselves being required to hunt in order to pay taxes in kind to the Tsar. These changes fundamentally altered communities that had previously only hunted to provide for their needs.

In North America, native people became a cheap source of labour as proxy hunters, many of them becoming dependent on this trade through their need to purchase goods and alcohol from the Europeans. Their traditional hunting and agriculture were destroyed in the search for profitable furs and skins.
Although the Creeks adapted quickly and successfully to the new incentives of the deerskin trade, they, like other Indian hunters in the Southeast, faced a basic contradiction. Economic and political forces made it imperative that they deliver a maximal number of deer skins every year. They became market hunters linked into the world market who used muskets to avidly pursue as many deer and bear) as possible. 
Richards highlights the way that the native people's lives became dominated by market interests over in Europe. But in my opinion he fails to demonstrate how their attachment to this new global market transformed their own social relationships. This is not simply about "Indians" losing "restraints" on hunting. But how their perception of nature is transformed as their economic relationships become dominated by the market. Richards mentions the Montagnais peoples of north-eastern Canada, but may have missed Eleanor Burke-Leacock's study which showed how their involvement in the French fur trade transformed their whole lives.

In my opinion this is one of two great weaknesses of the book. The second is that Richards fails to adequately explain why the commodification of nature takes place. Why is there a sudden and insatiable desire for fur in Europe? What is the driving force that makes hundreds of ships suddenly start travelling to hunt whales at the end of the 17th century?

The missing component is an analysis of capitalism and its need to make profits. This explains, in part, why all these hunts explode at a particular point in European history - the moment when capitalistic relations are coming to dominate even in those countries like Russia that haven't left the old feudal order behind. It also helps to explain why some states put enormous resources into subsidising their whale or fishing fleets. So in the end Richards quite rightly can conclude that "the biomass of the Arctic translated into energy and profits for Europeans" but leaves the reader unclear as to why this happened. As a result of this much of Richards' book becomes lists of numbers of animals killed, ships sailed and profits made.

Charitably I would suggest that this weakness is a result of the plucking of four chapters from a larger book, and The Unending Frontier has far more analysis. I hope so, because there's much of interest here that makes me want to read the larger work.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History
Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Martin - Death of the Big Men and Rise of the Big Shots

Friday, September 23, 2016

John Bellamy Foster & Paul Burkett - Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique

Marx and the Earth is a detailed and vigorous defence and reassertion of the classical Marxist position in regards to Marx's Ecology.

I've been asked to review this for another publication and I'll post a link here when this has been published.

In the meantime feel free to have a look at some reviews I've written of other books by these authors.

Related Reviews

Burkett - Marx & Nature: A Red-Green Perspective
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Foster, Clark, York - The Ecological Rift (

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Barbara C. Allen - Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik

There's an old propaganda image (see below) that shows the Bolshevik leaders from 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, listing the fate of each of them under Stalin. Many are dead, and of those living when the image was made, the remainder would perish under the dictator. Some of them would admit to fantastical crimes against the Revolution in show trials. Others simply disappeared. The familiar names and faces from this image are matched by thousands of anonymous others who died in labour camps, or in front of firing squads. To protect his new order, Stalin had to both ideologically break with the old Bolshevik revolutionary ideology and destroy those who had fought for it.

Alexander Shlyapnikov was one of those Old Bolsheviks. He became a committed revolutionary as a young metalworker, working closely with Lenin, and eventually became a member of the Bolshevik organisations' central leadership. Under the Tsar Shlyapnikov became a highly respected workers leader, organising both the socialist movement and the early trade union movement. Barbara C. Allen's book is a detailed study of this revolutionary life, based in part of Shlyapnikov's autobiogrpahies and her own painstaking work in Russian archives.

Much of the book is taken with Shlyapnikov's life post-Revolution. But in fact some of the material on his early life is equally, if not more fascinating. Born into a relatively poor family of "old believers", a persecuted religious sect, Shlyapnikov's background was unusual when compared to many other Bolshevik leaders. At an early age he entered the factories and became an engineer, skills that he remained enormously proud of until the end of his life. Forced into exile in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, Shlyapnikov immersed himself in working class and trade union activities abroad. Allen argues this profoundly shaped his politics and ideas:
Shlyapnikov had become a highly skilled metal turner and fitter, a crafty and conspiratorial underground activist and a steadfast Bolshevik. As such he belonged to an exclusive group of 'conscious' Russian proleatrians. In Western Europe, however he took a path that dfiverged from that of many other radicalised Russian workers. Life and work there gave him the opportunity to observe foreign trade unions' methods of organisation. Acquisition of fluent French and proficiency in German and English facilitated his education in Western-European labour organising and radical socialism.
Shlyapnikov became a key figure for the Bolsheviks' helping organise the distribution of revolutionary materials into Tsarist Russia across the Finnish border. During the revolutionary  year of 1917 he became a central figure in the metalworkers union, which formed the basis for his support in the major debates that took place after the revolution.

The decimation of the Russian economy and population following World War One and the counter-revolutionary Civil War undermined many of the ambitions of the Revolution. Quickly it became clear that there needed to be drastic changes to defend the Revolution and save the situation. Hundreds of Bolsheviks and workers engaged in these debates throughout Russia, and Shlyapnikov placed himself at the heart of these, particularly given his position as a former industrial worker and trade unionist.
According to his proposals, reflected in major speeches, papers and published articles (1919-20), trade unions would replace state economic bodies as managers of the economy. Moreover, the CC [of the Bolsheviks] would stop interfering in the everyday affairs of local part, trade union and factory-committee organisations. He believed that the active, voluntary participation of the workers was essential for economic development and in building the new socialist society.
It would be difficult to disagree with Shlyapnikov's visions here, yet as the situation worsened through the 1920s, this idea of socialism became more and more distant. Enormous debates took place about the role of workers, trade unions and the peasantry. Shlyapnikov argued his position firmly, though it seems to me that he was guilty of a certain utopianism, or idealism when, for instance, he argued that the problem with the New Economic Programme was its focus on the peasantry. In an economy dominated by the peasantry, after the failure of European Revolution, there was always going to have to be a compromise with the peasantry for the survival of the revolution.

 Having taken an increasingly oppositional position during the debates of the early 1920s (Shlyapnikov was a key figure in the Workers' Opposition) he became a target for the increasingly repressive regime as Stalin cemented his position. In the early 1930s he was expelled from the Communist Party, despite apparently still being very much of the position that he could play a key role in developing the Russian economy and defending the revolution. In these years he certainly seemed to have been increasingly Utopian about the nature of the Soviet economy, and though he made little attempt to organise factionaly, the fact that he had been publicly outspoken in the past, meant that he was a target for Stalin's increasingly paranoid spies.

Tried, imprisoned, exiled and eventually executed, Shlyapnikov never broke from his ideals, declaring his loyalty to the idea of Soviet power at the very end of his trial. He put up with debilitating illness and saw former comrades break under the pressure, yet he never backtracked on his principles. Sadly, in the appalling, counter-revolutionary atmosphere of 1930s Russia, Shlyapnikov's "guilt" was extended to his family who all suffered into the 1950s as a result of their association with him.

Shlyapnikov is a fascinating character, and deserves a detailed biography. Sadly though, I was disappointed by this book. Despite the author's detailed knowledge of the source material, I felt that her understanding of Shlyapnikov was undermined by her lack of clarity on his politics, and those of the wider revolutionary movement. At times, her explanation of Bolshevik ideas, particularly those of Lenin, is limited. For instance, when discussing Bolshevik debates about the national question, she writes that Lenin "saw nationalism as a powerful force for bringing about revolution", a statement that is at best an extremely simplistic summary of Lenin's nuanced political position around the question.

Similarly I felt that the author lacked an understanding of the way that the economic situation was negatively transformed by the Civil War. For instance, the discussion of the Kronstadt Rising implies that those who had been so pro-revolution and supportive of the Bolsheviks during 1917 were the same as those who rose up in 1921. Yet the reality, as both Lenin and Trotsky repeatedly made clear, was that the core of the Kronstadt workers and sailors had been decimated and was dominated by the 1920s with former peasants who were no longer as seeped in revolutionary politics and experience as their predecessors. I think the fault is that the author while acknowledging that Shlyaphikov still "continued to believe in revolution" right until his death, thinks that this was naive.

Sadly, this lack of clarity about the backdrop to Shlyaphikov's life and struggles undermines what should be an excellent book. Nonetheless, for students of the Russian Revolution, the sections on Bolshevik activity in the workplaces before the Revolution and the internal debates after the revolution will be of interest. And despite some flaws, Barbara Allen's finally frees Shlyaphikov's life and politics from Stalinist distortion and lies.

Related Reviews

Badayev - Bolshevik's in the Tsarist Duma
Porter - Alexandra Kollontai - A Biography
Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Baku - Congress of the People of the East

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

James Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances

This study of the part of the Highland Clearances that took place on the Sutherland Estate in the first quarter of the 19th century makes for an important new book. James Hunter locates the Clearances, infamous for the role of Patrick Sellar and the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford (later the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland), not as part of an inevitable economic development, but as a brutal part of the class struggle in the Scottish Highlands between landowner and tenant.

As a consequence the author shows how the modern Scottish landscape, enjoyed by thousands of tourists every year, has been fundamentally shaped by this struggle. A landscape that resulted from centuries of farming, was in turn transformed by sheep farming and a later switch to grouse and deer. Thus the "natural" landscapes are not natural in the slightest, they are the result of centuries of human labour and the victory of a tiny number of landowners over thousands of farming families. The homes, schools and churches that were used by thousands of people now lie buried and forgotten with the soil itself tainted by the blood spilt during the evictions.

Hunter notes that the Clearances had their origin in the way that capitalism was transforming how landowners could make money. This meant that those who wanted to "improve" the land and make more money were
rather like settlers on some North American frontier... at the cutting edge of an increasingly commercialised civilisation's advance into a region where older forms of social organisation remained the norm.... The clash, to be sure, was a lot less violent than analogous conflicts between homesteaders and Native Americans. But the issue at stake in this Sutherland collision was the same as that posed by North America's frontier fighting: which of two incompatible ways of life was to prevail?
It would be wrong to take this analogy too far. The tenants of the Sutherland Estate were not hunter-gatherers, or even pre-industrial societies. Nonetheless their methods of farming and their social organisation were a barrier to the maximisation of profits from the land. This is not to say they were backward, primitive, lazy or perpetually poor (all accusations thrown at them by the improvers and their propagandists). In fact, one of the strengths of this book is that it demonstrates the exact opposite.

Those at the forefront of the evictions, like Patrick Sellar, used this propaganda to justify to the world what they were doing. Describing those being cleared from land their families had farmed for generations as "barbarous hordes" and "aborigines" was to justify the same sort of terror that had been deployed against Native Americans, First Nations peoples and other victims of colonialism. And terror it was. The deaths, the destruction of "homes, barns, kilns and mills" in defiance of the law, the burning of homes with people still inside, the abuse of due process and the deliberate destruction of materials so that those evicted lost even the chance of rebuilding elsewhere was nothing less than terror.

Today, the scale of the Clearances still has the power to shock. In 1819 to 1820, for instance, some 5,500 people were forced from their homes in Sutherland. In one part of the estate, between 150 and 200 distinct communities were replaced by a mere eight landholdings. Many of those evicted ended up in far inferior coastal locations were they were expected to take up industries (like fishing) of which they had no knowledge and in unsuitable locations, lacking harbours to supplement meagre incomes from the smaller and less arable new plots of land.

It is no surprise then that people fought back. The book opens with the story of a mass protest that turned away surveyors. Real or threatened protests, demonstrations and the possibility of violence clearly terrified the landowners and their representatives (though not the potential for violence against former tenants). The scandal caused by the first set of Sutherland Clearances provoked enormous criticism of the Staffords, aided by journalists and campaigners across Britain.

There's no doubt that in an era of popular anger at government and the ruling class (James Hunter notes that military force was not used on a number of occasions because the army and government were frightened of another Peterloo) there was massive sympathy for the inhabitants of Sutherland.

Because the resistance was unsuccessful, former inhabitants were spread "adrift upon the world". Hunter traces those who ended up in North America and Canada, and their struggle to survive the passage across the Atlantic and the harsh winters. Many of these families eventually thrived, and there's a poignant report from years later, of some of those who remained in Scotland wishing that their families had made the trip.

Despite the bumper profits to be obtained from sheep farming, it didn't last. The arable land that initially provided for fat animals was the result of years of careful farming. When the soil fertility dropped, so did the sheep profits and a switch to grouse and deer was the only way to maintain profits. This did little for the landscape however, which continued to be empty. As one commentator wrote in the 1840s, after travelling through the area:
All is solitude within the valley.. except where, at wide intervals, the shieling of a shepherd may be seen; but at its opening, where the hills range to the coast, the cottages for miles together lies clustered as in a hamlet. From the north of Helmsdale to the south of Port Gower, the lower slopes of the hills are covered by a labyrinth of stone fences, minute patches of corn and endless cottages. It would seem as if, for twenty miles, the long withdrawing valley had been swept of its inhabitants and the accumulated sweepings left at its mouth, just as we see the sweepings of a room sometimes left at the door. And such generally is the present state of Sutherland.
The land had been, "improved into a desert". Karl Marx, an observer from afar of the Clearances, noted that "the history of the wealth of the Sutherland family [was] the history of the ruin... of the Scotch-Gaelic population".

James Hunter ends by pointing out that the present emptiness of the Highlands is something of a strange aberration and that one day the places that had been cleared will be full of people again. While this may or may not be true one day, it is an important reminder that the countryside we take for granted is not necessarily a pristine one, but rather is in the process of constant change. The Clearances, like the Enclosures in England that cleared landscapes, destroyed communities, and transformed people into wage labourers, were part and parcel of the emergence of a system that puts people before profit. The importance of James Hunter's book is that it shows this was not inevitable, nor necessary. In doing so he rescues the stories, and frequently the names, of those who would otherwise be simply remembered as victims of the greed of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

Related Reviews

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Richards - The Highland Clearances

Ignacio Padilla - Shadow Without A Name

This compelling, if confusing novel spans the darkest years of the twentieth century, from the beginning of the First World War, to the aftermath of the second. Its characters live in central Europe and find themselves in the middle of war, fascism and the Holocaust.

The novel begins with an attempt through a bet on a chess game, to win an identity change which will leave one person in relative safety behind the lines, and the other facing the bullets and shells in the trenches. This sets the scene for repeated changes of identity, until it becomes unclear precisely who is telling the story, about whom.

These characters become embroiled in the nascent fascist movements at the end of the First World War, and eventually rise to be at the heart of Hitler's Nazi Party and, in one case, uniquely positioned to witness the beginnings of the Final Solution. To say more would spoil a complex plot that had this reader constantly looking back to earlier chapters to try and better understand events.

Well written, compelling, shocking and innovative, this is an excellent novel from an author who tragically died far too young.