Thursday, October 10, 2019

Leon Trotsky - Terrorism and Communism

It is fair to say that Terrorism and Communism is not one of Leon Trotsky's greatest works. That stems to my mind from the conditions in which it was written. First published in 1920 it was written in the during the hellish fighting that marked the Civil War in Russia. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 counter-revolutionary White Armies of former Tsarist loyalists and Imperial troops from a dozen nations invaded Russia to attempt to destroy the Revolution.

Trotsky wrote Terrorism and Communism in part as he led the fight of the Red Army against the Whites. The tension, stress and heart-ache come through on every page of this polemic as he counters those socialists, in particular Karl Kautsky the leading German socialist and former revolutionary, who are effectively siding with the counter-revolutionary armies.

Kaustky argued that the Bolshevik's were wrong to seize power, that the new society was undemocratic, and that the masses in Russia were incapable of running society. His alternative view was that Russian society should have had time to develop it's economy and its democracy and experience a latter transition to socialism. Trotsky dismisses Kautsky as Utopian. The capitalist class aren't willing to give up their wealth, and in fact had engaged in a murderous war to protect it.
As for the bourgeoisie of the victorious countries, it has become inflated with arrogance, and is more than ever ready to defend its social position with the help of the bestial methods which guaranteed its victory. We have seen that the bourgeoisie is incapable of organizing the division of the booty amongst its own ranks without war and destruction. Can it, without a fight, abandon its booty altogether? The experience of the last five years leaves no doubt whatsoever on this score: if even previously it was absolutely utopian to expect that the expropriation of the propertied classes – thanks to “democracy” – would take place imperceptibly and painlessly, without insurrections, armed conflicts, attempts at counterrevolution, and severe repression, the state of affairs we have inherited from the imperialist war predetermines, doubly and trebly, the tense character of the civil war and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Kautsky himself was no longer the socialist leader he once was,
The imperialist war, which killed every form of vagueness and brought mankind face to face with the most fundamental questions, exposed all the political bankruptcy of Kautsky. He immediately became confused beyond all hope of extrication, in the most simple question of voting the War Credits. All his writings after that period represent variations of one and the same theme: “I and my muddle.” The Russian Revolution finally slew Kautsky. By all his previous development he was placed in a hostile attitude towards the November victory of the proletariat. This unavoidably threw him into the camp of the counter-revolution. He lost the last traces of historical instinct. His further writings have become more and more like the yellow literature of the bourgeois market.
Much of the book is a defence of Marxism and the revolutionary practice of Bolshevism in the face of Kautsky's criticism. There's an intriguing chapter on Marx and the Paris Commune where Trotsky shows precisely how Kautsky had abandoned his Marxism.

But for me the most interesting parts were those were Trotsky, speaking as a leading figure in the Revolution defends the practices of the Revolutionary government. For instance, he defends something that Kautsky is unable to contemplate - compulsory labour. Here is Trotsky:
The very principle of compulsory labour service is for the Communist quite unquestionable. “He who works not, neither shall he eat.” And as all must eat, all are obliged to work. Compulsory labour service is sketched in our Constitution and in our Labour Code. But hitherto it has always remained a mere principle. Its application has always had an accidental, impartial, episodic character. Only now, when along the whole line we have reached the question of the economic re-birth of the country, have problems of compulsory labour service arisen before us in the most concrete way possible. The only solution of economic difficulties that is correct from the point of view both of principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power – an almost inexhaustible reservoir – and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilisation, and utilisation.

Trotsky shows how compulsory labour isn't the draconian forced labour that Kautsky and others imply, but it is a system that does direct labour and on occasion, has to use compulsion. But, he points out, this is in the context of the great urgency caused by the economic destruction of Russia by the counter-revolutionary forces. What is interesting, and Trotsky emphasises the point, is that by and large workers (especially former soldiers) tend to be willing participants in the process - this is, of course, because they are part of an entirely new social formation. It's this latter point that Kautsky is unable to grasp - that something fundamental had changed in Russia after 1917 and that the old ways of doing things no longer fitted.

My edition of the book (Verso 2017) contains a useful, if idiosyncratic foreword by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek argues that while it is easy to crudely argue that this book demonstrates a continuum from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin, in fact Trotsky's method in the book (and Bolshevik practice) is the exact opposite. Žižek makes a note about the "democracy" that Kautsky is obsessed with.
In such dynamic times where the situation is 'open' and extremely unstable, the role of the Communists is not to passively 'reflect' the opinion of the majority, but to instigate the working classes to mobilise their forces and thus to create a new majority.
It's precisely this dynamic that Kautsky cannot grasp, which ends up with him in the Bourgeois camp.

Sadly this isn't Trotsky's best work, in part because it is so polemical and it is very much of the moment. Trotsky is writing at the lowest moment of the counter-revolution and the Revolutionary government is, at times, close to being destroyed. Trotsky's arguments reflect that situation.

That's not to say however that the book is not worth reading. On the contrary, for those attempting to understand the fate of the Russian Revolution, this is powerful argument from one of the leading Bolsheviks in defence of the Revolution whose faith in the revolutionary masses remained undiminished.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1
Cliff - Revolution Besieged

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Diarmaid MacCulloch - Thomas Cromwell: A Life

I have long anticipated Diarmaid MacCulloch new biography of Thomas Cromwell and there is no doubt that it is a masterpiece of research and writing. It is no easy read, not least because its' great length and weight preclude taking it with you on the bus. But it is rewarding, insightful and almost certainly one of the most definitive biographies of any figure in the reign of Henry VIII.

MacCulloch, it must be acknowledged, is an absolute master of the material. Cromwell's archive of letters is a rich source of information about the day to day activity of the man who became Henry VII's chief adviser. As MacCulloch points out though the archive is deficient in one crucial regard - the vast majority of Cromwell's own letters are missing, presumed destroyed when he fell from grace and material that might be incriminating to him, or those around him, was spirited away to prevent others sharing his fate. We must instead rely on the letters he received from others, for all the limitations that brings.

It is a major problem. Because, for all the detail about the life of Cromwell, there is a very large Cromwell-shaped hole in the biography. All too often this becomes an account of what happened, and how Cromwell made it happen, but lacking any personal detail of Cromwell - his motivations, his thoughts, his plans. On occasion we do get a glimpse, usually when a letter survives, or some other source gives us a glimpse into Cromwell's mood. A classic example is of course, the event that was the immediate cause of Cromwell's fall - his breaking of the King's great secret about his impotence with Anne of Cleaves. Here we feel Cromwell's alarm about the future.

Most importantly we lack any great insight into Cromwell's motivation for driving through change. His rise to power in the early 1530s is, it must be said, surprising. Cromwell didn't come from the sort of family that would have led him to be assigned key administrative roles in Henry's government. MacCulloch himself describes the sudden rise to the corridors of power as "furtive". Implying, though not deliberately, that Cromwell slunk into the inner reaches of the court through subterfuge. Once in a position of power Cromwell lost no time in using his roles to enact change, and to gather more wealth and power himself. For instance, he became known as the "hammer of the weirs" for his systematic destruction of barriers on the rivers. Cromwell even prepared a legislation for the February 1536 Parliament that would have banned any weir or water-mill anywhere in the realm, though this was never passed. This, together with Cromwell's better known work in preventing unnecessary enclosures of land seems surprising given the way enclosure forms such a central part of post-Tudor agrarian history. It must be understood, however, in the context of the government's desire to protect the status-quo - in this case, feudal relations. As MacCulloch explains:
Tudor people were more ready to judge problems in terms of morality than economics. Just like enclosure for sheep-farming, the matter of weirs took on moral dimensions: it demonstrated human greed and selfishness, which threatened to damage a frail social fabric by endangering food supplies. In Tudor society, famine still loomed, with all its capacity to poison human relations and cause very public suffering, let alone riot and rebellion; the moral outrage was not some academic debate. Weirs had been the subject of moral outrage long before Cromwell's years of power, when he was just a boy living in a Thames-side village... there was repeated agitation in the Parliaments of Henry VII about them.
Such economic and social context to Cromwell's behaviour is important in understanding his role. But it is less obvious in MacCulloch's account of later aspects of Cromwell's role. For instance, his role in driving forward the Reformation, which is clearly a very personal project.

MacCulloch digs out a series of expeditions to one of the continents centres of Protestantism, Zurich by people aligned to Cromwell. These mutual exchanges facilitated the development of the "crystallising identity of that form of Protestantism later called Reformed". The detail doesn't matter here, though its worth noting that MacCulloch sees this part of Cromwell's life as "perhaps the most important story in Cromwell's career." I just want to note his further comment that "Cromwell was deliberately laying foundation for a Protestant future". Yet nowhere are do we get any sense of why Cromwell was doing this. This is not to doubt reality. Cromwell did peruse this as a very personal project.

In the sections on the 1536/7 Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace, rebellions against the King that shook the North of England and involved tens of thousands, MacCulloch demonstrates just how much those rebels blamed Cromwell personally. Having studied these rebellions myself I'm not sure I'd appreciated quite the extent to which they targeted the King's minister. Though it is also worth noting that MacCulloch writes that these rebellions were not simply about rejection of reform in religion; but had other causes too.

It is this lack of clarity about the motivations of Cromwell and other principal figures in the machinations at Court that means the downfall of Cromwell becomes simply about different factions taking sides over Reform. Again why they took those positions is much less clear and so it ends up feeling like Cromwell was the victim of personal dislikes. MacCulloch notes the longstanding feuds between Cromwell and his enemies, but other than personal choices about religion I felt the book had little to really explain these events. Of course you can try and explain these faction fights in simple terms of the desire for wealth and power (and Cromwell was certainly guilty of that!). But that's just superficial.

This limitation is also, I would argue, present in another recent block-buster of a tome about the English Reformation, Peter Marshall's Heretics and Believers and certainly in MacCulloch's earlier book on the European Reformation. I won't rehearse my arguments further, but I think any biography of Thomas Cromwell must try and clarify his motivations and sadly I think that MacCulloch doesn't quite get to the heart of it here, though he is far better than most, particularly in his look at Henry's foreign policy.

Henry VII once said to the French ambassador of Cromwell  that he "was a good manager, but not fit to meddle in the concerns of kings". There is no doubt that Cromwell was a "good manager", but he did meddle in the concerns of his king a great deal, and he was very good at it. When he came unstuck in late 1539 he likely did so because he failed to appreciate the way his personal enemies had mobilised against him. But Cromwell had engaged in a deeply personal project of Reform, one that had a profound impact on England's subsequent history. It is thus noteworthy that, at his execution, Cromwell made no attempt to deny, back-track or beg forgiveness. He was, in his own way, dying for his beliefs, and it is fair to say that this biography gives him his due.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Wilson - The People and the Book
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation
Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy - Voices of Morebath

Ernest Dunlop Swinton - The Defence of Duffer's Drift

Despite being dated this classic military text retains much value both historically and as a work of literature. The author, later Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, was a commander in the Boer War and wrote this in order to explain basics of small unit military tactics in an easily accessible style. The book has been repeatedly reprinted and emulated, and as recently as 1989 was republished by the US Marine Corps.

The story centres on Lieutenant Backsight Forethought (BF) a new commander with no battlefield experience who commands a small force of 50 soldiers and NCOs and is ordered to prevent the Boers crossing a shallow river at "Duffer's Drift". Arriving at the drift BF fails to setup a defended base and allows the locals to enter his camp to sell milk and eggs to his men. Thus spied upon, an approaching force easily overwhelms his position with high causalities.

Following this easy defeat, BF awakens to dream the scenario again, this time remembering the lessons of his previous defeat. Six times the dream repeats and it is only on the final occasion that the Boers are defeated and BF's command is relieved.

All twenty-two of BF's lessons learnt can be read on the wikipedia page. Of most interest for those of us unlikely to command a small military force in the near future is two fold. Firstly, in defeating a experienced guerrilla army, BF is forced to deprive his enemy of their local support - imprisoning the local farmers, their families and their (black) workers. Readers should be aware that the author uses language in referring to this latter group that today is consider offensive, though I note that the Marine Corps version fails to comment on this.

Secondly, it is only by throwing the military manual away, ignoring some of his hard learnt lessons from the academy and adopting the tactics of the enemy that BF is successful.

Chiefly of interest for its historical lessons, the book is also remarkable as being an early example of that genre of fiction that focuses on the impact of small decisions and their outcome. For want of a nail...

Stephen Baxter - World Engines: Destroyer

*** Warning Spoilers ***

I picked up Stephen Baxter's latest novel World Engines: Destroyer after a very positive review in the Guardian. Sadly the book didn't live up to it's promise despite having an agreeably interesting premise.

Astronaut Reid Malenfant awakes in his own far future. His body has been in cold storage since a shuttle accident which killed his co-pilot. Malenfant's own partner Emma Stoney had also been killed exploring Mars' moon Phobos. He is awakened because, impossibly, several hundred years into their mutual futures, Earth has received a message from Stoney.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that Malenfant awakes in a future that he cannot understand and which cannot, for the most part, accept him. His brash ways are incompatible with the slow moving life of a post-scarcity, post-space age society. In fact, he is only useful really, for being willing to try and visit Phobos to find out what is happening there and because of the threat to Earth from a rogue planet.

Arriving at Phobos with a motley crew of rejects, Malenfant and his companions discover that the moon is a gateway to a whole number of different universes, each with a "jonbar hinge" that makes them subtly different. In one Russia and the US engaged in major nuclear war, in another Britain stayed out of the Second World War and let Hitler and Stalin slug it out with nuclear weapons. Characters and crews from this travel to Malenfant's timeline and visit the outer solar system to try and understand what's taking place there.

The problem is that the book really isn't up to the interesting premises. All the characters, without exception, are extremely annoying. The British crew are such caricatures that I wondered if the author had ever met anyone from Britain. Malenfant and the people from his own timeline are so annoying I kept hoping they'd be pulled slowly into a massive black hole, though it would have to be massive indeed to overcome the gravity of Malenfant's own massive ego.

From around page 300 there are indications that the only reason the next 300 or so pages exist is to set up the sequels. There are subplots that make no sense (what's the can of Cola about?) and pages upon pages of exposition about technology that are boring and unnecessary.

The most interesting stuff here receives little or no resolution - specifically the nature of Phobos. But then the publisher's wouldn't get the profits from another sequel would they?

Unless you're a major fan of Baxter's work I would avoid this.

Related Reviews

Baxter and Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles ("Bloody Terrible")
Pratchett & Baxter - The Long Earth ("Quite Disappointing")

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works

The question of non-violent social change has once again become a major focus of discussion within social movements, in particular because Extinction Rebellion in Britain have argued that non-violent civil disobedience is the only viable strategy to force governments to enact the changes that will enable society to reach zero-carbon by 2025.

In their theory Extinction Rebellion have placed central importance on the work of Erica Chenoweth, an academic and researcher at, among other places, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Why Civil Resistance Works is her most significant publication, jointly written and researched with Maria J. Stephan a "strategic planner with the US Department of State". In the book the authors attempt to show how and why non-violent civil resistance works and argue that no other form of action is as successful.

As a revolutionary socialist I must admit to beginning the book expecting to significantly disagree. This is not because socialists favour violence above all else, but because the crude summaries of Chenoweth's work that I had heard and read, mostly in the new British environmental movements, had led me to be sceptical. While I finished the book unconvinced of the authors' arguments I found them much more nuanced that expected, and there is material here that is both important and interesting.

The authors' central argument is quite straightforward: "The most striking finding is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts." Their detailed statistical arguments show that:
Among the 323 campaigns, in the case of anti-regime resistance campaigns, the use of a nonviolent strategy has greatly enhanced the likelihood of success. Among campaigns with a territorial objectives, like anti-occupation or self-determination, nonviolent campaigns also have a slight advantage. Among the few cases of major resistance that do not fall into either category (anti-apartheid campaigns, for instance), non-violent resistance as had the monopoly on success. The only exception is that nonviolent resistance leads to successful secession less often than violent insurgency.
It is important to note that the authors do not claim that non-violent resistance always wins, or that violent campaigns don't/can't win. They argue that non-violent strategies are most often successful.

The main explanation they have for this is that "non-violent campaigns have a participation advantage". In other words, it is harder to get people involved in campaigns (eg terrorism) that are likely to lead to their death or injury. Also non-violent strategies tend to create moral situations which encourage participation, or help to portray the opponent as amoral, particularly if the respond with violence. Finally, it can be harder (though by no means impossible) for an enemy to unleash violence on a non-violent campaign. The consequences of this, the authors write, is that mass non-violent campaigns can create the sort of situations that are likely to win - encouraging foreign support, encouraging regime supporters to break away, or helping to turn soldiers or the police onto the side of the protesters.

The authors then continue by arguing that not only are non-violent campaigns more likely to succeed, but that the "transitions that occur in the wake of successful non-violent resistance movements create much more durable and internally peaceful democracies than transitions provoked by violent insurgencies".

None of this is particularly surprising or disagreeable. I also, for fear of seeing crude critiques of Chenoweth and Stephan follow from this review, want to note that they do highlight situations where there are differences to their general case. For instance, they write, "It is worth noting that there are some important deviations from our assumption that violence campaigns attract only limited numbers of participation" and continue by listing the Russian, Chinese, Algerian, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.

So what did I think? Well I think there are a few issues that arise from the book. Firstly the question of violence itself. Often campaigns and movements adopt non-violent strategies for moral reasons. But the violence that Chenoweth and Stephan talk about is usually terrorist or guerrilla warfare. They aren't really considering situations where a few windows get broken as part of a much bigger demonstration, or where during a mass, non-violent protest strike or stay-away, a group of protesters might injure or kill a policeman. In fact, in many cases, the authors note that these sort of incidents did occur but class the movements as non-violent.

The problem is that most contemporary movements that argue for these strategies are not arguing against terrorism as a strategy, but arguing that no sort of violence is permitted - which can lead to problems when, for instance, understanding the role of the police, or considering whether to resist arrest. This isn't a criticism of this book, but of some of those who claim to follow its teachings.

Aims

Secondly we have the question of aims. The book has four major case studies that it examines to understand the authors' thesis practically - the First Intifada (1987), the Iranian Revolution (1979), the Burmese Uprising (1988) and the Philippine People Power Movement (1983-186). The case studies are themselves quite interesting. But they are limited. For instance, despite the close arguments of the authors I struggle to see the First Intifada as a non-violent movement, though I appreciate it was much more than stone-throwing. Secondly the discussion of the Iranian Revolution focuses on the movement that ousted the Shah, but neglects the role of mass workers movements in almost reaching a point when the question of workers' state power was on the cards.

In fact, when it comes to aims, the authors really judge success through the lens of bourgeois democracy. So the First Intifada is considered a partial success because it led to the recognition of the Palestinian Authority, despite the fact that the Israeli occupation still continues today and that Palestinians are still violently oppressed. The Iranian Revolution was a success because it brought down the Shah, but what came afterwards was hardly a victory for the oppressed masses. Other classic non-violent movements such as the American Civil Rights movement and the anti-Apartheid movement are considered successful, despite the ongoing existence of state racism in the United States and the extremely unequal reality of contemporary South Africa (indeed their active violence against workers).

The case study of the Iranian Revolution is also of interest because the authors make clear that it was the very possibility of the use of violence against the old order that helped the new regime to victory. As they themselves note the Ayatollah almost issued a declaration of Holy War, but stopped short.

Thirdly I think the approach of the authors that "the way a transition occurs predicts the way that the new regime will rule". Here the obvious example is the Russian Revolution, which they decry as a violent movement whose violence originated with the revolutionaries. They note the civil war that followed, but this was, of course, caused by the intervention of the old bourgeois order and the imperial armies of the capitalist nations who wanted to crush socialism as quickly as possible.

The problem is that the authors are not considering the sort of movement that can end capitalism. In order for that to take place, the capitalist state must be defeated. While it is certainly true that powerful mass movements and strikes can lead a movement to the point when the question of state power is in the balance, these are not enough to actually seize state power. That will require the use of force (though we should note that this is not the same as violence). The insurrection of October 1917 was relatively bloodless in Petrograd because of the scale and discipline of the movement. This was not as true in Moscow where the Bolsheviks were not as embedded in the working class. But the violence of the revolutionary year of 1917 arose, by and large, out of attempts to limit or stop revolution - though it should be said that centuries of oppression and exploitation did mean that when the workers and peasants rose, unsurprisingly they did enact revenge.

It is entirely possible to bring down governments, end unjust laws, or enact change through movements that are non-violent. But the key thing here is not actually non-violence, but a mass movement, particularly one where the economic power of workers is deployed through strikes and stay-aways to undermine the existing authorities (I was very pleased that the authors repeatedly note the importance of strikes). An attitude of non-violence on the part of the movements can help to encourage participation, but fetishising it can undermine the movement when violence is deployed against it. If the question of state power is to be considered, then non-violence will not be enough.

In conclusion then, I found this book stimulating in its discussion of social movements, but limited because its authors saw change solely through the prism of bourgeois democracy. Though I am never convinced that applying mathematical models to such movements is viable. They also rarely discussed the type of single-issue movements that their main exponents today are part of. In fact, when considering the battle to stop environmental destruction today, the question of state power is very pertinent. Everywhere fossil capitalism survives with the support of the capitalist state. Getting to zero-carbon by 2025 means challenging the state. But as Leon Trotsky wrote in his writings on Britain, the question of state power is one that inevitably brings with it the question of force:
In preparing to take state power it is thus necessary to prepare for all the consequences that flow from the inevitable resistance of the possessing classes. It must be firmly understood: if a truly workers' government came to power in Britain even in an ultra-democratic way, civil war would become unavoidable. The workers' government would be forced to suppress the resistance of the privileged classes... A truly Labour government, that is to say, a government dedicated to the end to the interests of the proletariat would find itself in this way compelled to smash the old state apparatus as the instrument of the possessing classes and oppose it with workers' councils. That means that the democratic origin of the Labour government... would lead to the necessity of counterposing revolutionary class force to the reactionary opposition.
Addendum

Extinction Rebellion and other activists make much of a figure from Erica Chenoweth that says that movements that involve 3.5 percent of a population in a sustained non-violent campaign fail. This conclusion is not in this book, but is based on further study of the data that the book is based on. You can read more on that here.

Related Reviews

Ahmed - Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience
Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism
Extinction Rebellion - This is not a Drill
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Stephen King - The Stand

Today it seems that post-apocalyptic novels are ten a penny. The combination of Trump's Presidency, Brexit and the climate catastrophe have driven all sorts of authors to write about the end of civilisation. Few of those get to grips, in my opinion, with the likely reality - which is likely to involve global war for diminishing resources, rather than the Swiss Family Robinson fantasy of isolated groups living in the midst of plenty as they rebuild civilisation.

I first read The Stand in the early 1990s and had little recollection of it other than it involved a clash between good and evil in a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. Re-reading it I was pleasantly surprised to discover an epic which cleverly challenges some of the stereotypical "end of the world" stories. Despite being written in the 1970s the book itself felt remarkably fresh and sadly relevant.

The story begins with an accidentally release of an experimental biological weapon "Captain Trips" which rapidly spreads across the states. The original version of The Stand was shortened by several hundred pages and the complete book released a few years later, has much more on how this happened and the way that the military attempt to keep control. These extracts help make the book feel much more gritty, and relevant, as the US state desperately attempts to hang on to power. The collapse of the chain of command as almost 9/10 of the population succumbs to Captain Trips means that those remaining soldiers descend into horrific barbarism.

Small groups of survivors share dreams that pull them in two different directions, setting up the Good v Evil climax to the books. One group are pulled towards an elderly black woman, Mother Abigail, a deeply religious person who becomes the focus for new, democratic society around Boulder Colorado. The others are pulled towards a recurring evil figure from King's canon, Randall Flagg, who runs a type of fascist society that rapidly sets about putting civilisation back together - the sort of society where the trains run on time, but those who dissent are crucified from telegraph poles.

The upturning of the genre occurs when Mother Abigail realises that her purpose in bringing the good together was not to rebuild civilisation in a new, democratic and fraternal way, but to destroy Flagg and his creation. It's leads to a magnificent about turn in the story, as key figures realise their destiny is not to live life in a new society, but to travel across the desert and engage in a confrontation that will decide humanity's future.

It being Stephen King, the delight of the book is in the detail. The individual stories of those who survive the pandemic are told with wit, sympathy and horror. In fact one of the reasons I class King as such an excellent writer is his ability to expose the dirty underbelly of US society through the medium of horror. Racism, poverty, unemployment and misogyny are the backdrop to the tales of pandemic. This is not a pleasant white middle class society, set in picket-fenced suburbia, brought to its knees.

Instead it's America, warts and all, that collapse and that makes the anguish of the survivors, who wonder whether anything has been learnt from it all so important. King doesn't think so - the circle opens and closes, history repeats, it's all inevitably going to go wrong - but that doesn't diminish the story itself. The characters too are far from one-dimensional. They agonise over choices, change allegiances and do the unexpected - though not always for the right reasons. It makes for a remarkably satisfying reading experience.

One other influence I noticed was ecological. King shows many animals - particularly dogs - dying as a result of Captain Trips and his characters worry about the population explosion of pests like rats. King is clearly influenced here by George R. Stewart's classic (if far less brutal) end of the world novel Earth Abides. But I wondered whether Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was also an influence. His characters, looking for drinking water, note that the factories haven't been shut down long-enough for the rivers to be safe, and one buries his rubbish rather than throwing it on the road - "not going down that route again" seems to be the message.

Like his other classic IT, The Stand will be all too frequently dismissed because of its genre. But both works deserve reading for the light they shine on our troubled times and for the epic story-telling.

Related Reviews

King - Under the Dome
King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla
King - The Wind Through the Keyhole
King - The Dark Tower

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Helen Rappaport - Caught in the Revolution

The Russian revolutionary year of 1917 was a world historical event that has been the subject of countless books at articles. Some of the most important works have been those that focus on the revolutionary process, bringing to life the events that took place and the role of ordinary people; workers, peasants and soldiers in making the revolution. Chief among these for those of us on the left are Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and US socialist journalist John Reed's eyewitness reportage Ten Days that Shook the World.

Less well know however are the countless reports, books and memoirs made by another group of eyewitnesses in Petrograd - the foreign communities that were there, often as part of Western diplomatic missions or representatives of foreign business interests. Some of these left detailed accounts, photographic records and even films of 1917 and many of them form the basis for Helen Rappaport's book written for the centenary year.

As a result much of the eyewitness accounts in this book will be completely new to those of us who have read lots of books about the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately those who know little about 1917 or pick up this in the hope of learning about this important event will be given a distorted view of the Revolution, mainly written by those who did much to try and stop it proceeding.

The book is at it's best when it gives a sense of the mass involvement in the Revolution. The first chapters deal with the outbreak in February, with numerous individuals swept up in the mass protests and demonstrations as strikes exploded in factories across Petrograd. The accounts of these demonstrations, pouring through the city streets, dragging these watchers with them and then confronting the state's forces - principally the Cossacks - are breathtaking to read. They give a real sense of the spontaneity, the confidence of the protesters, and the speed with which the old order was brought to its knees. The collapse of the old order is fascinating to watch through the eyes of Rappaport's commentators, not least because the majority of them are individuals who had, a few week's earlier, been enthralled to be invited to the Tsar's balls and lavish parties.

Here in lies the problem. Rappaport's eyewitnesses are precisely the class that feared genuine revolution. Most are pleased by the prospect of a "democratic" transition in Russia, but they, are universally keen to ensure that the new Russia maintains its old commitments - principally it's involvement in World War One. They fear the radicalisation of the Revolution precisely because they fear it will pull Russia out of the War and challenge their wealth and privilege.

This is very noticeable when it comes to the reports of General Kornilov's attempted coup against Kerensky. The diplomats, their wives, friends and acquaintances all want Kornilov to succeed, precisely because he will put an end to the Bolsheviks. As Florence Harper, a Canadian journalist in Petrograd wrote after Kornilov's defeat, "I was filled with blind rage. We all knew it was the last chance., The Bolsheviki were armed; the Red Guard was formed. The split was definite; Kerensky was doomed."

The problem is that Rappaport share's these prejudices. She begins by arguing that the October Revolution was a coup, and repeatedly portrays the Bolsheviks as a bloodthirsty minority who somehow trip the mass of the population into following them. Of course, given their politics and class position, those who she relies on for eyewitness accounts, tend to highlight the bloodshed, violence and killing that takes place. But rarely do they (or Rappaport) mention the poverty and hunger that drives the Revolution. Violence is solely blamed on bloodthirsty revolutionaries, and never on the oppressed who are sick to death of being exploited and treated like dirt. Given the reality of Russian society prior to 1917 it's no surprise that so many policemen were killed - but its mostly blamed on blood-lust.

Throughout 1917 Russia's continued involvement in the War helped radicalise the revolution. But rather than seeing this as a result of a country sick to death of death and suffering at the front, and privation at home, Rappaport blames this on the agitation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Sadly, and this again is a consequence of her chosen source material, what is almost completely missing from this account is a sense of what the masses were doing, saying and thinking. Did none of the journalists Rappaport quote join in a meeting of the soldiers or workers? The only mass conference discussed here is one organised by Kerensky, which most of the eyewitnesses thought was dull - but why would it be anything else given it was mostly pompous establishment figures denouncing the revolutionaries. On occasion we get a glimpse of what ordinary people wanted (such as two servant girls demanding two hours off every day so they can go to the cinema). But all too frequently the eyewitnesses denounce these individuals, or the masses in general as ill-educated fools who know and understand little about events around them. The book cried out for the authentic voice of the working class Russian - not just descriptions of mass protests, but the sense of what was happening in the workplaces and barracks. Readers will have to look elsewhere for that.

Sadly this book is ruined by the anti-Bolshevik outlook of its author and the eyewitnesses she quotes. While there are occasional glimpses of wider political events, the book fails to give a real sense of the Revolution as being made by ordinary people. As such we lose the essence of the Revolution and the book becomes little more than another attack on 1917, such as those written by many of Helen Rappaport's eyewitnesses when they returned to their privileged lives back home.

Related Reviews

Smith - Red Petrograd
Rodney - The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World
Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed
Smith - Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Serge - Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921

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