Sunday, September 22, 2019

John Biggins - A Sailor of Austria

John Biggins' A Sailor of Austria is a fine novel that will inevitably be compared with George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books. But this first volume of a trilogy is actually very different - not least because the hero is neither a coward, nor a racist product of British colonialism. On the other hand KuK Linienschiffsleutnant Ottokar Prohaska is also a unique character who manages to be present at some key moments in a (semi fictional World War One). Prohaska however is doubly unique - he's a U-boot captain for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though by the end of the book (and the war) the new country, Austria, has no coastline or navy.

Its a simple idea that's humorous and poignant at times. The book is related by the centenarian Prohaska who has ended up in a Welsh old people's home run by an eccentric group of nuns. His many decorations, exploits and stories fascinate the staff who encourage him to record his history. This account, both highly personal and historic is the bulk of the book though it mostly focuses on Prohaska's experience of the gradual defeat of the Empire by its myriad of enemies.

It's unusual to read a book by a British author which focuses on the enemy, and its even more unusual that the character is not German, but Austro-Hungarian. Biggins has a detailed knowledge of the experience of World War One, as well as submarine technology and most importantly the nature of the Empire itself. It makes for a fascinating read.

At times the exploits of Prohaska and his crew are extremely hilarious, as with the story of how they came to bring a camel back to Europe in their submarine, or the tale of the exploding toilet. But the book is at its best when depicting the close solidarity of a crew trapped in a dangerous environment and utterly reliant on each other for survival. It makes the ending even more poignant.

Sadly A Sailor of Austria is very difficult to find as its out of print. I discovered it by accident and I will eagerly hunt out the sequels that are set within the extended time-frame of this book.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Karl Marx - Grundrisse

When writing down my thoughts on Karl Marx's Capital last year I pondered "how can you write a review of Capital?" The same thought comes to me now, though for slightly different reasons as I sit down to write about Marx's Grundrisse. The reason though is different. Capital is a complete work that has been read and analysed, debated and written about perhaps more than almost any other book of political economy (or even non-fiction). Grundrisse on the other hand is a sprawling mass of notes made by Marx as he worked through his own ideas - many of which would come to fruition in Capital itself.

The Grundrisse was never intended for publication, though much of it is actually quite close to a finished product and reading it I'm not sure that Marx didn't expect others to read it. In most places he doesn't appear to be writing solely for himself, but for other readers. The editor of my edition, Martin Nicolaus, makes this point:
The inner structure [of Capital] is identical in the main lines to the Grundrisse, except that in the Grundrisse the structure lies on the surface, like a scaffolding, while in Capital it is built in; and this inner structure is nothing other than the materialist dialectic method. In the Grundrisse the method is visible; in Capital it is deliberately, consciously hidden, for the sake of more graphic, concrete, vivid and therefore materialist-dialectical presentation.
Later he clarifies, "The Grundrisse and Capital I have opposite virtues of form. The latter is the model of the method of presentation, the former the record of the method of working." Mind you, Nicolaus then says "In 1858, not a single person in the world understood the Grundrisse except Marx, and even he had his troubles with it".

So reading the Grundrisse is a difficult task. Partly because Marx is working through complex subjects - money and capital - and partly because his method of working - to lay out the problem, break it down and then rebuild it to examine the whole again - is difficult to follow. But having its origins in Marx's notebooks means there is repetition, arguments that wander off at a tangent, and sentences that break up. There are also not a few places were Marx works through calculations and equations that are, frankly, unfollowable. I'll admit to skipping to the end of these pages.

That said, there is much of interest. But there is much that is opaque and difficult too. On occasion it felt like I was wading through mud hoping to stumble on an insight. Inevitably I would however find something useful and clarifying. As a result my notebook is full of hundreds of references and quotes.

Marx is also making a particular argument about the origins of money and capital and doing so from a point of view of deep acquaintance with all those political economists who've gone before. One of the most fascinating things about the Grundrisse (and indeed Marx's other work) is the author's absolute control of his source material.

Those who warned me there is no point reading these notebooks, will also miss out on arguments of clarity and importance that might be made elsewhere, but are eloquently made here. Take an early point that Marx makes in his own introduction:

When we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country, the coast, the different branches of production, export and import, annual production and consumption, commodity prices etc.
It seems to be correct to begin with the real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin, in economics, with e.g. the population, which is the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production. However, on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc. For example, capital is nothing without wage labour, without value, money, price etc. Thus, if I were to begin with the population, this would be a chaotic conception [Vorstellung] of the whole, and I would then, by means of further determination, move analytically towards ever more simple concepts [Begriff], from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of a whole, but as a rich totality of many determinations and relations.
Here, summed up are some of Marx's central arguments about political-economy tied in closely with his method. It would be a shame for anyone who claimed to be a Marxist to miss reading this.

Marx's method also involved reading a lot of science. In trying to understand something Marx would take things apart down to their smallest components. In the "Chapter on Money" Marx takes time to examine the relationship between gold and silver to other metals, which means discussing melting points and specific gravity. Marx's interest in science is well attested too, though rarely is it shown how this was an interest that existed throughout his life and was central to many of his own ideas.

I said that Marx had a enormous command of those who'd gone before him, or those writing on political economy in his own time. This awareness was also critical. The Grundrisse is full of references to Robert Malthus' work, Marx critiquing his economic ideas in detail and challenging Malthus on his ideas of population for reasons similar to those outlined above. Possibly because these are notebooks Marx describes Malthus as a "baboon" in relation to the latter discussion. But Marx's criticisms aren't reducible to pure name-calling. Much of the Grundrisse is an extended engagement with those who defend the capitalist system, but also with those who sought to understand it in order to change it - Proudhon for example.

Marx never loses sight of a wider vision of social transformation. Here for instance, he argues the reforming away of the capitalist system is impossible, but notes how capitalism contains the germ of an alternative way of organising society:
Although the private interests within each nation divide it into as many nations as it has ‘full-grown individuals’, and although the interests of exporters and of importers are antithetical here, etc, etc., national trade does obtain the semblance of existence in the form of the rate of exchange. Nobody will take this as a ground for believing that a reform of the money market can abolish the foundations of internal or external private trade. But within bourgeois society, the society that rests on exchange value, there arise relations of circulation as well as of production which are so many mines to explode it. (A mass of antithetical forms of the social unity, whose antithetical character can never be abolished through quiet metamorphosis. On the other hand, if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic.)
Much later, he contrasts capitalism with the supposed "higher" societies of antiquity that did not begin from money and instead placed the human individual at the centre of society, and uses the argument to eviscerate bourgeois society.
Thus the old view, in which the human being appears as the aim of production, regardless of his limited national, religious, political character, seems to be very lofty when contrasted to the modern world, where production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production. In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois economics – and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds – this complete working-out of the human content appears as a complete emptying-out, this universal objectification as total alienation, and the tearing-down of all limited, one-sided aims as sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end. This is why the childish world of antiquity appears on one side as loftier. On the other side, it really is loftier in all matters where closed shapes, forms and given limits are sought for. It is satisfaction from a limited standpoint; while the modern gives no satisfaction; or, where it appears satisfied with itself, it is vulgar.
Let's not pretend though that these arguments are easily accessible. The Grundrisse is one of those works where the reader ends up with notebooks full of quotes and points that encourage further thoughts, which is ironic as that is what the book itself was originally. When it came to Capital Marx took the Grundrisse and made it into a coherent and grounded argument (though the Grundrisse contains more than Capital does). While the Grundrisse does ring with his anger at capitalism and the bourgeoisie, it lacks the detailed, passionate critique of capitalism and its impacts on workers which often surprises readers of Capital. That said, all serious students of Marx will find much of interest here, though no one should approach the Grundrisse without being aware of the enormous challenges contained within.

Related Reviews

Marx - Capital Volume I
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Marx - The Civil War in France
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it
Patterson - Karl Marx, Anthropologist
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism
Fine & Saad-Filho - Marx's Capital

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Choonara - A Reader's Guide to Marx's Capital

Friday, September 06, 2019

Doug Enaa Greene - Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution

The struggle against capitalism has thrown up many radicals and revolutionaries. Some of them have been a adventurers who've been prepared to risk everything for fame and glory. Among these is often included the name of Louis-Auguste Blanqui an alleged reckless insurgent who would risk anything and everyone in the name of revolution. So it is excellent that Doug Greene has written this recent biography of Blanqui rescuing his name from such crude distortions.

Blanqui was born in the aftermath of the Great French Revolution. But the legacy of that Revolution had been squandered and a new generation of radicals were looking to transform the world anew. New socialist ideas were developing, but these new formed theories had yet to crystallise into a ideology that could help the working class transform the world. Blanqui own ideas developed in the context of growing discontent with society, but he was not one to simply accept the idealism of early socialist thinkers. He railed against Utopian socialists:
No one has access to the secret of the future. Scarcely possible for even the most clairvoyant are certain presentiments, rapid glimpses, a vague and fugitive coup d'oeil. The Revolution alone will reveal the horizon, will gradually remove the veils and up the roads, or rather the multiple paths that lead to the new order. Those who pretend to have in their pocket a complete map of this unknown land - they truly are the madmen.
The early years of the 19th century in France saw the development of new social forces. The old artisans were gradually being replaced by workers in factories. This process would take many decades to complete, but these workers increasingly organised major struggles that showed their power. Two major uprisings in Lyon in 1831 and 1834 demonstrated this, and Greene argues that Blanqui would take the old revolutionary Jacobin tradition and "renew and radicalise republicanism by orienting it to the working class".

From this point Blanqui increasingly develops a more revolutionary socialism that argues"there is a war to the death between the classes that compose the nation". The July 1830 Revolution had, Blanqui thought, had seen the people drive forward against the old order, but only to see a new oppression, as Blanqui wrote:
The people were the victors. And then another terror seized them [the bourgeois[, more profound and oppressive. Farewell dreams of Charter, of legality, of constitutional royalty, of the exclusive domination of the bourgeoisie... You can see that during these days, when the people were do grand, the bourgeois were tied up between two fears, that of Charles X in the first place and then that of the workers.
The new emerging capitalist class wanted to break free of the last chains of the old feudal order but were held back by their fear of the workers power. The compromise would last till 1848 but for Blanqui it solidified a harder revolutionary understanding. Blanqui became involved (or setup) a series of radical underground organisations. Some of these were shaped by old ideas that came from the earlier period of radicalism. The Society of Families, for instance, was dominated by what Greene describes as reflecting "the Jacobin concept of the people with more than half being artisans, property owners, shopkeepers and intellectuals." Blanqui did not see this as a problem:
The bourgeoisie contains an elite minority, an indestructible phalanx - enthusiastic, zealous, ardent: this is the essence, the life, the soul and the spirit of the Revolution. It is from this incandescent core that ideas of reform or renewal incessantly arise, like little bursts of flame that ignite the population... Who leads the people into combat against the bourgeoisie? Members of the bourgeoisie.
So while Blanqui saw workers as essential to successful revolution, it would be led by a minority of the bourgeoisie who had come over the side of revolution. Sadly the strategy repeatedly failed. Greene documents some of these failed attempts at uprisings. On May 12 1839 for instance, Blanqui's forces tried to lead a revolutionary uprising in Paris. No one rallied to the flag. Greene writes:
Blanqui had expected that a single heroic strike would awaken the revolutionary elan of the workers, and this would spread the revolt across Paris. Instead the Parisian population watched in confusion... and they took no part in it. This was the fatal flaw in Blanqui's conception of revolution: the masses played no role in liberating themselves.
Blanqui was certainly no coward and he paid for his revolutionary beliefs with many years in prison - years of hardship that almost killed him. He never lost his revolutionary politics though and continued to develop his ideas of revolutionary organisation. Certainly one thing that socialists can all agree with is Blanqui's assertion that "Organisation is victory; dispersion is death". The problem is, of course, what that organisation does and why.

What Blanqui was not able to understand was that revolution is an event in which the working class is absolutely central. Workers are not a stage army, marched on at an appropriate time to display their power. Rather they are a force that will, through their own organisation, smash the old order and create a new one. This will, as Marx pointed out, lead to the transformation of both society and the workers, who throw off the "muck of ages". This was not to dismiss the importance of revolutionary organisation, but to give that organisation a specific role shaping and develop the movement, not substituting for it.

Certainly Blanqui was unable to break his faith in old forms of organising. By the mid part of the 18th century underground secret conspiracy was no longer necessary nor desirable. In fact, Blanqui's insistence on such forms of organising arguably left him unable to sense the mood of the masses or in a position to shape their struggles. It is tragically notable that Blanqui was captured and imprisoned on the eve of the outbreak of the Revolution of the Paris Commune in 1871. Interestingly the ruling class understood exactly this and refused to release Blanqui in exchange for even the most important prisoners of the Commune. While Blanqui himself failed to understand the Commune as illustrative of a new stage of struggle (he tended to compare it back to the Paris Commune of 1792), his enemies understood that where he at its head he would have brought a clarity to its revolutionary leadership that the Commune sorely lacked. Such a testimony is perhaps the greatest compliment that Blanqui could ever receive.

How should we understand Blanqui nearly 140 years after his death? It is easy, as many have done, to simply critique his vision of revolution being down to a few inspired leaders. But Blanqui was a revolutionary of his time, and if he failed to develop his organisational ideas with a changing and evolving situation, he was hardly the first or the last. The Paris Commune of 1871 led to Karl Marx transforming his own vision of revolution. Since then revolutionaries have been able to build on a nearly 150 years of experience of mass workers organisations and struggles. Blanqui did not have that luxury, but he, at least, never gave up on the dream. Doug Greene concludes by pointing out that
Marxists such as Lenin, Luxembourg and Trotsky agreed with Marx's criticism of Blanqui, but they recognised that when their opponents condemned them a 'Blanquists' it was not because they actually were... it was not because they shared Blanqui's vices, but because they upheld his virtues - his willingness to struggle against the odds, treating insurrection as an art, and his uncompromising revolutionary communism.
This short biography has much of value, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in French history. More importantly it is extremely valuable for socialists today who are trying, often in difficult circumstances, to build, or rebuild mass revolutionary organisation. In the 21st century capitalism offers poverty, environmental disaster, economic crisis and the prospect of war. Understanding how we can stop that means learning the lessons of our revolutionary history. While Blanqui's ideas are dated and misconceived, we can still learn from his failures and mistakes in order to be victorious in the future.

Related Reviews

Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf
Mulholland - The Murderer of Warren Street
Marx – The Civil War In France

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Brett Christophers - The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain

One of the things that has made Jeremy Corbyn a popular Labour politician over the last few years has been his commitment to renationalise those industries that were privatised by previous Tory and Labour governments.

But what was the biggest of these privatisations? Brett Christophers shows that it is the one that no-one has ever heard of - the privatisation of public land. He goes on to argue that this has had far reaching consequences that have big implications for society. Let's note the scale of this privatisation.
Since Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979, and continuing all the way to the present day, the state has been selling public land to the private sector. It has sold vast quantities - some 2 million hectares, or about 10 per cent of the entire British land mass.... my best estimate... is that, at today's prices, the land that has been sold is likely to be worth something in the order of £400 billion, or the equivalent of more than twelve RBSs [the bank privatised following it's government bailout in 2008].
This staggering sell-off has gone almost unnoticed, even by those academics and activists who write and campaign about privatisation. This is surprising not simply because of the scale of the privatisation, but because, as Christophers points out, "one cannot grasp actually existing patterns of socioeconomic inequality without factoring in landownership." Owning land, grants a number of things onto the owner - income, usually in the form of rent is the most obvious, but Christophers argues, more importantly land ownership,
also confers a set of powers of much more far-reaching scope: namely, to play a meaningful part in shaping the economic, social and ecological development of communities, regions and even nations. This is not just a question of power, but also of privilege.
It is not surprising then that even before the neo-liberal era began with Thatcher's election, the question of public land was already being discussed. Nor is it surprising that Thatcher and those who followed in her footsteps were keen to facilitate the selling off of land in order to grant that power and privilege to their wealthy friends in big-business.

The first section of Christophers book is a study of various attempts to understand land ownership in the context of capitalism. He draws heavily on the ideas of Karl Marx, Adam Smith and more recent authors like Karl Polanyi and David Harvey to explore this. One of his interesting conclusions is that public land is good for capitalism. He quotes Allen Scott who says, [public ownership of urban land is]... a collectively rational and necessary response within capitalism to the prevailing patter of fragmented, dispersed and privatised landownership... to ensure the achievement of he overriding capitalistic goal of unhindered expansion of the bases of commodity production". But neo-liberalism is anything but rational when looked at in wider context of society.

At the start of the Thatcher era, public landownership was at an all time high. The public sector, with organisations such as the Ministry of Defence or the Forestry Commission, owned "as much as a fifth of all British land." Sections of the civil service and the Tory Party had been sowing the ground for this moment. The concept of "surplus land" had been created, the idea that the public sector, particularly local government, had lots of land that was unused, and being hoarded. The very existence of this "surplus land" was holding society back and it should be freed up. The concept continues up until today. In 2014, the Tory MP Mark Prisk moaned that "the public sector is continuing to hoard surplus land and buildings".

But the consequence of the massive sell off of land is actually that the private sector has ended up being the real hoarders. To sweeten the sell-off of land (often done as part of wider privatisations such as railway or NHS sell offs) various governments have promised that the land will be used for house-building. The reality is that little has actually been used for this and much land remains held by private companies who are speculating in land, or getting improvements (like planning permission) so they can make a profitable sale even though nothing has been built.

The story of land privatisation is closely tied up with the story of the sell-off of council homes. Space precludes a detailed discussion of this here. But the sell-off of these homes to private business has ended up reducing the availability of housing for the poorest in society. One quoted report from December 2015 shows that "Britain's biggest house-builders owned enough land to build more than 600,000 new homes." Few of these are actually likely to be built as these companies build slowly to maximise profits by keeping demand, and hence prices, up.

Post 2008 austerity politics has made the situation worse. Governments have encouraged local authorities to sell off land to help pay for front-line services starved of cash (though they've only been able to do this explicitly since 2016). At the same time it is extremely difficult for LAs to buy land and use it for social needs because they are not on a level playing field with private sector, which as Christophers points out, is why golf courses cover ten times more land than local authorities. 

Christophers concludes that the consequence of the self off of public land has been to help transform British society into a rentier economy, as well as increase "social dislocation" and business "land hoarding". A small number of multinationals and individuals have made vast amounts of money from this process. This is no surprise. If you turn public land into a commodity than the capitalists will treat it like one, and that never benefits the majority of society.

I didn't expect to be cheered by Brett Christophers book. It is yet another insight into how successive governments have destroyed wider society through prioritising the economic interests of big business. But I did find it a really insightful book that demonstrated exactly how thought through the strategy of privatisation was and how the selling off of assets like land has helped to create the disenfranchised, economically depressed and atomised societies of today. The solutions are less obvious, but surely will begin with a future government quickly reversing privatisations and clawing back the land and other resources that were sold off. That will not be an easy process as those corporations will want to hold on to the wealth they've taken from us. Brett Christophers book tells us exactly why reversing the "new enclosure" is an urgent and necessary task.

Related Reviews

Shrubsole - Who Owns England?
Linklater - Owning the Earth
Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Jones - Chavs
Minton - Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City
Hanley - Estates: An Intimate History

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Thomas Firbank - I Bought a Star

I Bought a Star is the follow up to Thomas Firbank's much better known book I bought a Mountain. In that book Firbank told the story of how he bought a sheep farm in mid-Wales in the early 1930s and turned it into a thriving concern just in time for the start of World War Two. This book begins with Firbank hiding in France after his marriage fell apart and he'd left the farm. There are few mentions as to this sudden turnaround - readers of the first book will be left surprised at the sudden end to what seemed a successful marriage and joint-management of the farm. His former wife, Esme Cummin's remained at the farm and became a significant conservationist figure for Wales.

The German invasion of France leads to Firbank leaving his self imposed exile with a nearly unbelievable drive back to the channel ports, along with the young daughter of an acquaintance who wants her to reach England. Firbanks seems to revel in proving his chilvarous qualities, and safely escorts the woman to England where he travels around London trying to join the army. Eventually he joins the Guards regiment (though knowing an acquaintance and being the author of that book) which ends up with him guarding Buckingham Palace on a night it was bombed. Eventually because of his experiences mountaineering, Firbanks ends up in the 1st Airborne and sees action in Italy, followed by a slightly more sedate service on the fringes of Arnhem. The book ends with Firbank leaving the parachute training school that he ends up running.

Sadly despite all this action, it's a much less interesting book than I Bought a Mountain. Part of the problem is that this is just the story of someone's experience during the War which isn't that exceptional. The action scenes are limited and Firbank's general musings are less interesting than when applied to the landscape and labour of a Welsh hill-farm. More importantly Firbank's somewhat pompous attitude to those he disagrees really begins to grate.

I was annoyed, for instance, at the section when he encounters a group of "socialists" whom he disagrees with greatly. While I'd disagree with the version of socialism these individuals espouse, the dismissal of them (and socialism in general) by Firbank is patronising to the extreme - and mirrors his attitude to those he disagrees with elsewhere.

All in all this is a disappointing book, probably only of interest to those who enjoyed the first part of his autobiography and want some continuity and closure.

Related Review

Firbank - I Bought a Mountain

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Robert Poole - Peterloo: The English Uprising

During the massacre of peaceful protesters by cavalry and yeomanry at St. Peter's fields in Manchester on August 16 1819, several cavalrymen answered cries for mercy with the chilling response:

"If we let you go, you will come again some other time."

It's a telling comment that neatly sums up the reasons behind what became known as the Peterloo massacre. Peterloo was, in the words of EP Thompson, "class war", and it was the culmination of an extended period of class conflict that raged across England, but was particularly focused in the north-west. Some people have been sceptical about the title of Robert Poole's new book because "Uprising" implies for them a insurrectionist revolutionary moment. But what Poole shows very clearly is that this was a period of mass working class discontent and the ruling class responded in the most brutal fashion.

Poole puts Peterloo (and the preceding discontent) into a historical context. One of the most important factors is the war with France, and following Linda Colley's book Britons he argues that "arming the people for national defence" against Revolutionary France was a "revolutionary departure, with profound consequences". The government had won the war through mass mobilisation and heavy taxation. The end of the war brought hopes for respite, but it also left a huge number with experience of military mobilisation. But instead of relief came years of austerity. The government "had not fought off revolution abroad in order to concede democracy at home".

Ironically, the hatred of revolutionary abroad exacerbated the response of the government to demands for Reform. Few in London appear to have an sense of a nuanced response to mass petitioning for relief and reform. Today politicians are adept at dangling the hope of future change, but in the post-Napoleonic war period the response was almost always to use force and the law to stop or undermine social movements. Poole argues that this was particularly an issue in Manchester where the Collegiate church ("autocratic, secretive, enterprising and mired in corruption") ran the "greatest village". It was here that "the conflict between property and democracy was played out". There was, suffice to say, little democracy. Manchester's deputy constable, Joseph Nadin "the real ruler of Manchester" according to a contemporary newspaperman, corruptly ran the city with an iron fist. The Manchester oligarchy had "tight control" over local institutions and used them to try and undermine potential discontent where-ever it reared its head. It was this group who made sure the massacre took place, but they did it in the context of national government policy.

Followers of Tom Paine had left a radical tradition across Lancashire, but growing discontent across the region, particularly in the weaving districts, lead to the eruption of new radical groups, publications and, in particular, meetings. Activists like John Cartwright brought the practice of mass petitioning to the manufacturing areas and he and his comrades became adept at finding ways around the limitations imposed by the law. Demands at the time for reform of parliament are often understood as the start of the movement for democracy - this is of course true, and Poole details at length exactly how rotten and corrupt Parliament in the early 19th century was. But he also points out that Reform was also about economic justice. As he points out, the failure of petitioning by Stockport weavers in August 1816 meant that for them reform came to be seen "as the only option for survival". It would also have driven a strong cynicism towards those at the top of society who ignored their impoverishment.

The precise nature of the demands for reform were well thought out. As Poole says, twenty years before the Chartists five of their six demands were being raised at meetings up and down the country. Through the period from 1816 to 1819 there was a groundswell of radical activity, centered on the working class areas of the north-west, demanding change. These meetings were interpreted as revolutionary threats by the government. Poole details the way that the organisers consciously built these up into a mass movement. The August meeting at St Peter's Field in 1819 would be a climatic event that Henry Hunt in particular saw as the point when the government would have to give way.

The problem was that the government had no intention of giving way. Poole shows how the Peterloo massacre became an almost inevitable reaction to a growing mass working class movement.

This was not a challenge for political power. There were revolutionaries who wanted fundamental change and the symbols of the movement, in particularly the red caps of liberty, were understood as representing radical change. As a result pitched battles were fought between government forces and workers at mass meetings over who got the "colours" and Poole quotes many sources from Peterloo about how the yeomanry took revenge for previous failures to get these symbols. But this was not a conscious revolutionary movement.

Hunt's strategy, the "mass platform movement of 1819" had a problem. As Poole explains:
The post-war radical movement made its appeals in the name of 'the people of England' rather than the working class, to the past rather than the future, and to existing constitutional rights rather than new-found revolutionary principles. There was no master plan in 1819. The natural strategy was improvised... Hunt tried to steer a middle way, using sheer force of numbers to persuade the government to back down without getting himself or his followers arrested and with no real idea of how it would all end... Hunt hoped that the threat of insurrection would make military intervention less likely, but from the governments's point of view it made it all the more necessary.
And in August 1819 they did just that. Events at St Peter's Fields were nothing short of premeditated mass murder. The state was teaching the movement a lesson. Hunt's faith "in legal methods" undermined the movement, but that's not to put too much of a blame on him. Hindsight is wonderful, and the government was guilty very much of seeing revolutionary conspiracy where "reformers displayed community".

Two hundred years later, what is the judgement? At the time Peterloo was a massive shock to the movement. But I don't think it was the defeat it is often seen as. The peaceful march to St Peters Fields that was followed by massacre saw an explosion of rioting in the city and there were accounts afterwards of those going home preparing to "return" again but this time with arms. It reminds me of the reaction of the black-working class areas of the United States to the assassination of the pacifist Martin Luther King Jnr. His killing led to an explosion of violence and riot. At the time, the government and its cronies thought they had won. Certainly the media believed it was a famous defeat for reform. But Reform did come and today, with all its limitations, we do have at least limited democracy - thought not yet economic and social justice. In that sense the protesters at Peterloo lost a battle, but the war was won. It is an open question about what might have happened had the movement not had Peterloo. Certainly it would have grown, and might have approached the revolutionary levels that France had experienced. I tend to think that the most likely event would have been a massacre on a different day, in a different place. After all, as Poole shows, Peterloo was in no sense unique.

The 200th anniversary of Peterloo has been much discussed and there have been some wonderful events and exhibitions across Greater Manchester to mark it. Robert Poole's book is, perhaps the best book ever written on the subject. It's well written, exhaustive and covers every aspect of the movement - from the central (though neglected) role of women in the movements, to the forgotten individuals who shouted the slogan "liberty or death" and meant it. It is a masterpiece of historical writing and should be read, not just by those that want to understand Peterloo but by those who want to see how mass struggle was at the heart of the movements that won the rights we have today.

Related Reviews

Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre
Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848
Hobson - Dark Days of Georgian Britain
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer

John Williams - Stoner

I often devour novels, rushing to find out the ending as quickly as possible. John Williams' Stoner defies this because it gives you the ending on the very first page. The protagonist, William Stoner, dies and this is the story of his undistinguished life. Little noticed at his death, and un-lamented among his family, his name is quickly forgotten. But what Williams shows is that every life, however undistinguished, is one of high-drama - the sort of drama that every human being has as a result of their social networks - their partners, children, colleagues and friends - which is unimportant to most of the rest of humanity, yet is part and parcel of the network of our lives.

Stoner's parents are struggling farmers and manage to send him to agricultural college in the early 20th century. At college he discovers the wonders of English literature and ends up making a career in the university he enters as a young man. He never leaves the town, instead his exploration of the world is through literature. His marriage to Edith is an almost instant failure, marked only by the briefest weeks of passion when she determines to get pregnant.

To the modern reader there is more than the hint of mental health in Edith's life - a situation that is completely unsolvable given the circumstances of 1930s America. Instead the couple muddle along, Edith isolating her and playing games against Stoner, who tries to carry on his career and bring up the daughter he dotes upon. 1930s mores impinge again when Stoner embarks on a beautiful and passionate affair with a young student. The school authorities make it clear that this is unacceptable and she's driven out of the college.

Most reviewers discuss the book in the context of two aspects - the "campus novel" that frames the whole book - Stoner's career and his battles with bureaucracy and his management and it's celebration of literature, explored through William's discovery of books and poetry and his life immersed in the subject. These are absolutely central to the book, but for me this novel was really about alienation - the way that our lives are atomised and decoupled from wider society. Stoner's life is dramatic, but it's isolated and individualised - notably he doesn't serve in either War. His own greatest achievement - the book he authors, and reaches for on his deathbed - is almost completely forgotten by everyone in academia. Yet Stoner is no failure, his personal struggles are ones that he is happy to have made and he can pass away convinced that his life was worthwhile and satisfactory. In writing Stoner's life, John Williams teaches us the importance of every individual within the context of wider society - though he reminds us that society, certainly as it is organised today, doesn't see this importance at all.

It's a beautiful book, neglected during William's own lifetime, and thankfully having had a massive rediscovery since its republication in the 2000s it deserves continued readership. It's likely one of the most poignant I've ever read and I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Saul David - Victoria's Wars

The period of Queen Victoria's reign 1837 to 1901 saw the consolidation of the British Empire over it's most important possessions, specifically the Indian sub-continent. Full expansion into Asia, the Middle East and Africa was only just beginning, but it was certainly during Victoria's era that the system began to take shape. The period saw the end of the old rule by companies like the East India and the beginning of devolved state power. It also saw the British Army become a modern military - ending antiquated systems like the buying of commissions for officers, uniforms that were more fit for use in the varied climates of the Empire and the use of more modern weaponry.

So Saud David's book covers a fascinating period of social and military transformation. It is accessible, well-written and entertaining. At times the author is prone to turns of phrase that are somewhat uncouth. Were the mutinying soldiers in 1857 joined by "the rabble from the bazaar" or did ordinary people join them? Is it fair, relevant or even appropriate for David to describe Queen Victoria as "far from unattractive (if you liked your women plump and homely, more milkmaid than courtesan)"?

This is very much a military history. The various campaigns are described in detail, particularly some of the key battles. David dwells on the heroism of British (and occasionally allied) troops, particularly given the relevance of the Victoria Cross to the Queen's personal interest in the military. This isn't a particularly left wing or socialist history of the period, though David highlights how the British government's involvement around the world was driven by their desire to protect commercial interests. This is most clear perhaps, in David's chapter on the Opium Wars, he comments, for instance, that Prince Albert feared that the fall of the Chinese Emperor would "usher in the anti-capitalist Taipings, with all the dire consequences that would have for British commerce".  In the event, following the end of four years of war, vast quantities of opium were brought from the British Empire - a vastly profitable industry which proves, once again, that capitalists are quite happy to make money from appalling trades if they are able.

One of the good things about David's book is that he demonstrates just how useless the British command could be. Not a few of the chapters (Afghanistan and the Crimea are cases in point) deal with the debacles that followed British imperial arrogance. It was these that drove military reform, and Albert had a peripheral role in that.

I was less convinced by David's thesis that Victoria played the central role he attributes to her. He argues that she was "shaping, supporting and sometimes condemning her government's foreign policy - but never ignoring it. And through all this she was helped and guided by her talented and hugely underrated husband, Prince Albert". The evidence that David presents does show the Queen closely following events and putting an argument, but I didn't quite feel that he proved his point. In fact, his epilogue where he describes Victoria's Wars as "the flexing of Britain's imperial muscle" and continues to quote Robert Lowe on Imperialism: "the assertion of absolute force over others... to impose our own conditions at the bayonet's point." In other words Victoria's influence may have shaped particularly responses (her indignation during the Crimean War certainly helped transform Britain's activity in the latter half) but the wars arose out of the needs of British capitalism, and were driven by those interests first and foremost.

Readers who are looking for an accessible account of Britain's military actions in the mid to late 19th century will find this a good start, particularly the accounts of the Crimea and the Opium Wars (I was less taken by his analysis of the 'Indian Mutiny' which David appears to see solely as the consequence of conspiracy, rather than the outcome of British rule). But having read this, I'd highly recommend Mike Davies' Late Victorian Holocausts and John Newsinger's The Blood Never Dried - two books that properly put the wars into the context of the emergence of British capital as an international force.

Related Reviews

Macrory - Signal Catastrophe: The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842

Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres & the Indian Mutiny of 1857
Davies - Late Victorian Holocausts

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried