Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Carl J. Griffin & Briony McDonagh - Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500: Memory, Materiality & the Landscape

2019 was a very interesting year to be a socialist in Manchester. The bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 was marked by a plethora of events: a controversial new memorial was (finally) unveiled, walking tours, exhibitions, meetings and a major day of marches to a central rally all took place. I suspect that there were many more, smaller scale, events in schools, colleges and trade union meetings. At those events I attended I was struck by the contemporary parallels with Peterloo. Many speakers also noted this - not because they expected an imminent cavalry attack - but because there was a sense of deep discontent, poverty and inequality about Britain in 2019.

Manchester has, to a certain extent, always marked Peterloo. In a recent book Katrina Navickas has shown how the protest was a touchstone for numerous protest marches in the years and decades after 1819. Radicals and social movements sought legitimacy for their contemporary causes by associating themselves with Peterloo - by marching to St. Peters Fields or invoking the name of the massacre.

But as Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500 shows this is nothing new. Those of us who have been involved in radical and trade union politics for a while will know our movement is often more fond of celebrating past victories and defeats than it is of fighting to win new struggles. But this was very much true of the past. As Nicola Whyte says in the introduction to her chapter in the the book:
Memory has not atrophied, but rather the relationship between society and its past always takes on new forms, being wrought in the dialogical space between official and unofficial perspectives. Meanings do not merely shift with the passage of time, they are renewed through the evocation of various, multiple and unpredictable pasts.... people interpret and employ the past for diverse ends, both as a social resource and means to articulate their own life-histories.
Whyte explores these concepts by looking at Mousehold Heath, the site outside Norwich where in 1549 Robert Kett and thousands of rebels camped as part of what became known as the "Camping Time". While 1549 rebellion was part of a much larger period of rebellion Andy Wood has shown elsewhere how it was highlighted to posterity by the local establishment who wanted to use it's lessons to undermine potential future rebellions.

But Mousehold Heath was a site of protest going back to 1381 and for long after 1549. A 1589 map reproduced in the book is as much as record of past events as it is of contemporary locations and pathways. It is a "way of seeing" as Whyte explains, a "lord's view of the world...that chronicles past events and actions attaching them to physical places, and embedding a hierarchical understanding of social relations in the landscape". Even in the 21st century there were protest events on the Heath that had links back to the distant past. It is not enough to think about the impact of an event like 1549 through "oral tradition" or the records people have:
Memories do not simply reside in the mind to be evidenced in the speech patterns of local people; rather, memories are made through routine practices and experiences of being in and making landscapes. Memories of Mousehold Heath operated at the level of the everyday, remembering past generations and... the material work of day-to-day resistance. A landscape approach provides a useful methodological and conceptual framework for our understanding of the dynamic and contingent relationship between people and the material worlds in which they lived.
Such an approach is further developed in Briony McDonagh and Joshua Rodda's discussion on the Midlands Rising of 1607. This "all but forgotten" event saw a major, though relatively localised protest against enclosure in Northamptonshire. However 1607 was not an isolated event in the grander historical narrative. The authors put the rebellion in a "longer-term historical context and wider landscape setting". For them, the key question is the way that "national and local politics of land" shaped events prior to, during and after 1607. Primarily this relates to the way that the enclosure of previously open lands impacted upon those who lived and worked in the localities - thus 1607 was not a unique event, rather a peak of struggle. As the authors write:
We can read the Midlands Rising not simply as a response to an unprecedented upsurge in the scale and frequency of enclosure in the English Midlands in the decade prior to 1607, but rather the most striking movement in an ongoing surge of discontent with enclosure which had been building at least through much of the previous reign.
Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that class struggle "was [an] uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight". History is full of peaks of rebellions and revolutions, but these are really the more visible parts of a continuum. McDonagh and Rodda bring this out extremely well as part of their discussion on 1607, an event that continued to inspire and worry both the authorities and the lower orders for years afterwards. The authors highlight several examples of those who raised the spectre of 1607 as part of their struggles (and legal cases) in the aftermath.

A similar continuum of protest is discussed in Simon Sandall's account of the protests in the Forest of Dean when protesters and rebels retained memories of previous social organisation (the Mine Law Court) to justify and bolster contemporary struggles against injustices caused by the development of capitalist relations in the region. This was more than simple tradition, but an active use of tradition as a weapon in their struggle - to inspire participants and give vindication to a cause.

Ruth Mather's chapter takes a different approach looking at the hitherto mostly ignored subject of the way that protest was remembered within the homes of working class people. Visitors to the Peoples' History Museum in Manchester and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford will know that the events like Peterloo were often commemorated by the issuing and sale of "memorabilia". But this was more than simply the purchase of pictures or plates that serve as a talking point, it was part of creating a radical tradition of memory and connection to the past.

This was not just about physical objects. Mather notes Peterloo was memorialised through "radical child-rearing". This included the naming of babies after radicals (136 children received the unfortunate first name 'Henry Hunt' after Peterloo), but also the production of materials to instruct children in the history of struggle. A map produced as a teaching aid, is Mather says, "physically materialising reminders of the events of the day" to "carry forward the aims of the sustain the movement into the next generation."

Mather's chapter, draws on the memoir of Peterloo leader Samuel Bamford. She notes that the description of his home notes with pride the items that decorate a typical working class home. I raised a smile at this because in a recent visit to Rochdale museum's exhibition on Peterloo I noted that among the exhibits were Bamford reading glasses. The use of object to venerate, remember and memorialise history continues.
Samuel Bamford glasses, among other historical objects
associated with Peterloo in Rochdale Museum (my photo).
Space precludes a detailed discussion of all the chapters in this excellent book. They all, in different ways, contribute to a wider understanding of how radical movements create spaces for memorialising that draw on the past. Rose Wallis says in her discussion of the Captain Swing movement that "the memory of popular protest was... central in shaping both the resort to protest in the present and the responses of the authorities".

The past cannot be separated from the present. Historical struggles shape the terrain that contemporary women and men fight on, and within which they try to shape the future. Radicals planning incendiary attacks in 1830, riots in the Forest of Dean or organising marches to St Peters Fields in 1819 drew on their experiences, knowledge and understanding of what had gone before to try and be victorious. Similarly the forces of the establishment and authority learn their own lessons, for their own class. But what this book also shows, is that those memories are not simply remembered from generation to generation, but are often written into the very landscape that people act upon. As Carl Griffin comments,
we might usefully understand plebeian communities, individual bodies and the landscapes in which they lived as bearing the characteristics inherited of past tragedies, something akin to a cultural form of Lamarckism,... It is all there, but it is just that in the shift from the personal to the community narrative, the archive is used selectively, past events become written in the matter of place and in the body of the community...Through remembering to remember and remembering to forget, the past was constantly folded, remade, reanimated, becoming something always new.
Understanding how the past has been interpreted and memorialised thus helps us understand the actions and motivations of later generations. Learning from protest history is more than simply empowering our contemporary struggles - it helps explain the world we are in and the movements we have. Carl Griffin and Briony McDonagh's book is a wonderful insight into these processes. The individual chapters contribute to the central theme and are also very illuminating on their specific subjects. I highly recommend this collection to those interested in the history of protest and the writing of that protest.

Note: I do feel bound to comment on the disappointingly high price of Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500. Aimed at an academic audience it was only because the publisher had a massive online sale that reduced the price by about £60 that I was able to afford to get hold of it. Sadly this will price the book out of reach of the hands of almost any ordinary activists and readers who do not have access to an academic library. It is a real shame because its contents would appeal greatly to a current generation of radicals who might want to learn from the past.

Related Reviews

Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848
Griffin - The Rural War
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the making of Early Modern England
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Poole - Peterloo: The English Uprising
Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Jeff Sparrow - Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch Massacre

This new book by Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow is an important contribution to understanding fascist movements in the 21st century. It is a short book that focuses on the Christchurch killer, a fascist activist who murdered 51 people and injured 49 more at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Person X, as he is anonymously labelled in Sparrow's book, left a detailed manifesto which was much more than the ramblings of a madman. Instead it was a carefully crafted piece of writing, that was designed to appeal to a particular set of far-right online activists and encourage further killing.

I initially picked up the book because I wanted to know more about "eco-fascism". This is the tendency for far-right activists to use concern over environmental crisis to push their own agenda. As Sparrow shows, close links between fascist ideas and nature are not new. While concern about the environment is usually seen as a left-wing cause, there has historically been a far-right strand of environmentalism. This, as Person X demonstrated, is usually tied up with ideas of over-population.

The concern of Person X and other "eco-fascists" is contradictory, and so , says Sparrow, needs to understood in what Person X "describes as his 'tactics for victory' - in particular, something he calls 'accelerationism'." Sparrow spells out what this means:
Person X's embrace of accelerationism means, above all, an advocacy of social and political breakdown as both necessary and desirable. Stability and comfort constitute, he says, major obstacles to the fascist revolution, which can only arise from the 'the great crucible of crisis'. As a result, fascists 'must destabilise and discomfort society where ever possible'. Even someone pushing for minimal changes with which fascists might agree should be considered 'useless or even damaging' far better, Person X says, to have 'radical, violent change regardless of its origins'.
So fascists can even celebrate climate change as a solution - one that will kill off many of those who they hate, and where, as one commentator points out "only the strong should survive". 

But Sparrow's book is far more than an explanation of eco-fascism or even a detailed study of Person X's motivations. He also shows how, perhaps paradoxically to the outside observer, Person X's appalling crime was actually a response to the success of the anti-fascist movements. Sparrow shows how, in the wake of Trump's victory, the fascist movement in the US was able to grow. Far-right politicians like Trump in the US, as in a host of countries post 9-11 created an atmosphere of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling, within which fascists were able to grow. The movement tried to move from "online influence" to "real-world popularity". To do this, the fascists "needed to bring their supporters out from their computers and into the streets".

At the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, USA in 2017, where fascists openly marched and chanted antisemitic and anti-Muslim slogans, a young anti-fascist activist, Heather Heyer, was killed. The violence that is never far below the surface among fascists surfaced. But in the context of 2017 caused massive revulsion. After this, fascist protests were massively outnumbered and proved unattractive for the Nazis.

A similar process took place in Australia where Person X originated. Finding it impossible to march and create the atmosphere of togetherness that the Nazis wanted, some, like Person X, looked for other strategies. Sparrow explains:
American fascism hadn't disappeared. But its key figures learned... that they couldn't convert their online support into a conventional political movement as easily as they had hoped. Such was the context in which Person X developed his own strategy for bridging the gulf between fascism's online strength and its real-world weakness. That strategy was terrorist murder.
Compared to other mass killings, Person X "injected political content into an apolitical form":
In his reshaping of rage murder - injecting a conscious political element into the already-existing massacre script - Person X hoped to set in motion a cascading sequence of atrocities, in which young men (on the fringes of the fascist movement or at least already vaguely sympathetic to far-right ideas), would individually decide to, as he put it 'stop shit-posting and make a real-life effort' with each murder inspiring murders to come.
Tragically Person X has already inspired copy-cats. Massacres like this will not provoke a fascist revolution - but that was never really Person X's plan. He hoped that such events would help spread the fascist message in a way that couldn't easily be stopped by counter-protests.

Historically we know that fascism grows during periods of political and economic crisis; it is then that the violent fantasies of the fascists can be taken up by mass movements. The task, as Sparrow explains, is to build social movements that can fracture the nascent fascist movements which people like Person X want to build. To do this means of course confronting the far-right and fascists wherever they appear - out-numbering them, exposing them and preventing them marching. But it also means providing an alternative to economic and environmental crisis. It means creating a positive message that can offer an alternative. As Sparrow concludes, "the more we offer an alternative to environmental destruction - and to the society that unleashes such destruction - the more squalid and miserable fascism seems."

Jeff Sparrow's book is an excellent, and much needed, introduction to contemporary fascism; online and in "real life". It contextualises this with a detailed explanation of historical fascist and Nazi movements, showing how fascism has evolved, while retaining links to its past. But Sparrow emphasises that fascism's ambition is to rebuild mass movements - to break out of the on-line ghetto - and that what the left does on the streets and online matters in terms of stopping it. I encourage everyone to read this, and then get involved in fighting the far-right, wherever you live.

Related Reviews

Wendling - Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust

Friday, January 03, 2020

Ian Cameron - Red Duster, White Ensign

The battle for Malta during the Second World War was a key strategic question for the Allies and Axis powers. Malta had, for centuries, been a gateway to the rest of the Mediteranean. With Britain keen to protect its colonies and strategic assets in the Middle East and North Africa, the small island would be crucial. Initially however few, according to Ian Cameron's short history, understood this, with Winston Churchill nearly a lone figure in wanting to protect the island. Churchill would not have been motivated for his interest in the people of Malta - more the British Empire's needs.

Malta was a forgotten place for the London establishment. When the King visited the island in 1943 it was the first visit by a monarch since 1911. As Ian Cameron shows, the Maltese faced a horrific onslaught. The blitz that rained down upon the island was on a terrifying scale - far worse than that unleashed on London, though not on a par with the attacks on Berlin, Cologne or Dresden. The Maltese at least had nearly bomb proof shelters in the catacombs in the rocks. Nonetheless suffering was terrible, particularly when combined with hard rations.

The lifeline - the convoys, and the often forgotten supply trips by submarine - are the meat of the book. These were costly enterprises and the heroism of sailors from the Merchant Marine and the Navy is deservably celebrated here. Cameron tends to highlight the bravery, and like many others since the War, particularly celebrates the contribution of the civilians on the islands. Though there is precious little in the way of personal accounts, or detailed analysis of the feelings of those under fire. Cameron tends to give us the impression that everyone was supportive of the war, and hated the Germans and Italians. Is this true I wondered?

This is very much a short, readable account that focuses on the action and the famous highlights. It's worth noting that the air battles and bombing where on a scale far greater than the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, but few films or novels are set in these battles. There are enough accounts by participants even in this short book to provide source material.

Malta was, eventually relieved as the war moved further away from its location and as German arms and bases were reduced. This short, readable account gives the general story, but I felt it lacked detail on the bigger context and the experience of the civilians. Perhaps there are more recent accounts that fill this gap.

Related Reviews

Lund and Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Monsarrat - Three Corvettes

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Nick Ashton-Jones - Landscape, Wealth & Dispossession Part 2: Feudalism

Part two of Nick Ashton-Jones projected six volume study of the British Landscape and the way it has been shaped and used by various human societies. This book looks at Feudalism and the emergence of capitalism.

I've been asked to review this, and the previous volume, for a journal and I'll post a link to that article here when published.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Georges Duby - The Age of the Cathedrals: Art & Society 980-1420

Georges Duby's The Age of the Cathedrals is a classic work that shows how the development of feudalism transformed the sacred art of the time, in particularly how it manifested through the art and architecture of cathedrals, but also monasteries, churches as well as the actuality of worship. Duby shows, in great detail, how social changes were reflected (and encouraged) by artistic changes. But he also roots his explanation in an understanding that society was one of class inequality and struggle. Thus, in a passage I first read when Nortre Dame Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 2019, we can see both Duby's beautiful prose and his clarity of understanding:
By definition, a cathedral was the bishop’s church, hence the city’s church; and what the art of cathedrals meant first of all, in Europe, was the rebirth of the cities… They were lodestones drawing wealth. After a long period of obscurity, they became the principal centres, north of the Alps, of the most advanced culture. But for the time being virtually all of their vitality still came from the surrounding fields…Thus, although cathedral art was urban art, it relied on the nearby countryside for the major factor in its growth, and it was the efforts of countless pioneers, clearers of land, planters of vinestocks, diggers of ditches, and builders of dikes, all flushed with the success of a flourishing agriculture, that brought cathedral art to its fulfilment. The tower of Laon rose against a backdrop of new harvest and young vineyards; the image of the oxen used in ploughing, carved in stone, crowned those towers… The facades of the cathedrals in Amiens and Paris showed the turning of the seasons by depicting different types of peasant labour. It was only right to honour them in this way, fort it was the work of the harvester sharpening his scythe, of the vine-grower pruning or layering his vines or spading about them, that had made the edifice rise little by little. The cathedral was the fruit of the system of manor lords – in other words, of the peasants’ labour.
As society changed, art reflected these changes:
Within the ruling class, a split widened between the warriors... and the churchmen, who took over all the charismatic missions that had belonged to royalty. This is what matters, particularly for anyone interested in the conditions with which social structures surround the birth of works of art. In the course of the eleventh century the local lords seized most of the royal prerogatives... They thus deprived the kings of the benefits hitherto conferred by the position of doing so they limited the extent to which the sovereigns could play a role in artistic creativity, fostered instead by the muted yet decisive emergence of the new class of lords.
Thus art would be representative of the interests and needs of these new classes. But religion couldn't lose one of its primary roles - to offer hope in the heartless world - and so "eleventh-century art helped to reveal God's face. It shed light. It claimed to offer man the sure means of coming back to life bathed in light". This came through architecturally as Cathedrals became massive spaces of light, instead of massive towers and heavy columns, big windows, open spaces and thin beams allowed light to fill the void.

A few hundred years of artistic evolution and social change later, things and developed further. Art was now more show, don't tell. It had become, in the view of artists and patrons, "a means of dispelling the mysteries of the world and revealing its inner order... Art... became an illustration, a narrative, a tale....intended to provide an immediately intelligible relation of a story... of God, but also of the knights of the Round Table, and the conquest of Jerusalem". Duby continues:
In the fourteenth century, creativity turned into the pursuit of fancy. As a result, its major objective was not to provide a space conducive to prayer and suitable for processions or psalmody as before, but one designed for display. Thus painting, the most appropriate medium for suggesting visions, raised itself at that very moment in Europe to the highest rank of the arts.
But if art reflected the system, it also was part of shaping it. Emphasising the interests of one or other class against the masses - shaping their ideas, helping to control and manipulate them. In the 13 the century when feudal society had reached "fulfilment" the "two dominating orders, churchmen and men of war, gathered around the king in whom priesthood and knighthood were joined" and so "royal liturgies accordingly installed that equestrian figure in the cathedral". Art in the places of religion now sent a message about who God's representatives were on Earth. Poignantly, Duby points out that "nothing is known of peasant death". The fears, hopes and dreams of the nobility were written large in their art and architecture. The peasantry had to look at these, and donate money for the privilege of pilgrimage. Cathedral art (and feudal art in general) was a message from one side to the other.

Duby's book is fascinating. But I found it a slog. The Age of the Cathedrals is one of those books that I read, but felt I was only scratching the surface of its insights. Lacking an in-depth knowledge of the history of the period, or the detail of the Bible I was only really able to accept what Duby was saying, not follow through his ideas. I suspect that other readers will get much more from what is a deeply sympathetic, materialist account of the linkage between art and society.

Related Reviews

Lacey & Danziger - The Year 1000
Faith - The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England
Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Lindsay - The Normans and their World

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Nick Ashton-Jones - Landscape, Wealth & Dispossession Part 1: Humanity

The first part of Nick Ashton-Jones projected six volume study of the British Landscape and the way it has been shaped and used by various human society. It begins with an examination of the underlying geology of the British Isles and an overview of hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies until the Roman era.

I've been asked to review this, and the succeeding volume, for a journal and I'll post a link to that article here when published.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bruce Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

Dark Emu is a remarkable book that deserves to be widely read and discussed. Firstly it is a fascinating discussion of the history and culture of Australia's Aboriginal people before European colonial arrival. But it is also a brilliant, and very readable, account of how that history was distorted, covered-up and forgotten in order for the colonial powers to develop their own political and economic structures that benefited a new capitalist order.

I suspect that most people who pick up Dark Emu might believe, at best naively, that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers before the arrival of Europeans. Using primary and secondary sources Bruce Pascoe shows that this is completely erroneous and, Pascoe argues, prevents us developing a clearer understanding of both historical Aboriginal society and how that relates to contemporary political, environmental and social politics:
Arguing over whether the Aboriginal economy was a hunter-gather system or one of burgeoning agriculture is not the central issue. The crucial point is that we have never discussed it as a nation. The belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession. Every Land Rights application hinges on the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people did nothing more than collect available resources and therefore had no managed interaction with the land... If we look at the evidence... and explain to our children that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their closes and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, Aboriginal, pre-contact society was not just one of nomadic hunter-gatherers, though, as Pascoe points out that does not mean there were no communities like this.
It may be that not all Aboriginal peoples were involved in these practices, but if the testament of explorers and first witnesses is to be believed, mos Aboriginal Australians were, at the very least, in the early states of an agricultural society, and, it could be argued, ahead of many other parts of the world.
But the crucial thing is that Aboriginal societies were dynamic - they changed and evolved. And in most areas, by the time of European arrival, Aboriginal communities had developed complex systems of agriculture, aquaculture and villages.  For instance, Pascoe describes the work of archaeologist Heather Builth who shows how a complex system of fish traps at Brewarrina, in NW New South Wales, supported a community of about 10,000 people in a "more or less sedentary life in this town". With such a large population, people would have needed to store food and Builth shows how food was smoked and stored and "formed the basis of trade with regions in New South Wlaes, South Australia and other parts of Victoria".

The evidence for complex human society (particularly agriculture) from archaeological sources as well as records of early European colonists and explorers is incredible. What is even more shocking is the way that this evidence is dismissed, ignored and hidden. Part of the reason for this is the racism of the European eyewitnesses. There is an incredible example of this from the accounts of James Kirby who , in 1843, explored an area which not not yet seen European colonisation. He describes (using racist language) an ingenious fishing device whereby people fished with an rod in tension that when triggered by a fish, "threw the fish over the head of the black [the Aboriginal fisher], who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again". Kirby interprets this in the most racist way. Rather than be amazed at the semi-automated fishing system, he says he has "often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true".

All human societies transform the landscape they inhabit. This is not usually recognised about the Aboriginal people because of the inherent racist assumption that they were savages who existed simply through an negative relationship with their environment. Again, the opposite is true. In one of the most fascinating sections of the book, a section that has particular resonance given the recent horrific wildfires in Australia, Pascoe shows how Aboriginal agriculture frequently relied on regular firing of the bush to encourage conditions for improved farming. Europeans, on arrival, feared fire and so they didn't use it to clear land. Ironically this encourages the conditions for more power fires, and undermined the fertility of the land itself: "Changing the timing and intensity of fires radically changed the nature of the country, so that what had been productive agricultural land became scrub within a decade." Fire was "part of a planned program of cropping or". This has implications for how we understand the Australian landscape. Pascoe quotes archaeologist Rhys Jones:
What do we want to conserve, the environment as it was in 1788 or do we yearn for an environment without mas, as it might have been 30,000 or more years ago? If the former then we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions. 
But this also has implications for continued agricultural practices that, driven by the desire to maximise profits, encourage environmental degradation and make fires more likely.

Pascoe doesn't pretend that Aboriginal societies were without conflict. Though he does point out that judging Aboriginal society by standards of European "civilisation" means that you miss the democratic, sustainable, non-hierarchical society that was able to provide for the needs of thousands of people for centuries. Nonetheless I think Pascoe is guilty of some naivety when it comes to understanding why, for instance, European societies were brutal and exploitative, and Aboriginal societies were not. It is clear, for instance, that class society had not developed in Aboriginal communities - historical development elsewhere in the world demonstrates that the invention of agricultural allows the creation of a surplus which can (I emphasise can) lead to the development of class society. When European colonialists arrived and smashed up Aboriginal society any further development was ended. What Pascoe makes clear is that had this development not been prevented, the peoples of Australia may well have begun the long historical road to further evolution of society - the had clearly already begun to develop complex agricultural based societies. But it is not inevitable that any future development would have retained social mores that made Aboriginal society so different to that which supplanted it.

Pascoe's use of source material shows what had long been hidden. Aboriginal societies, prior to the arrival of Europeans, were complex and extensive. But I am not sure how unique this is. Pascoe makes some reference to other pre-capitalist, indigenous societies. This could have been developed more and I think would have illuminated the way that capitalism has only succeeded through the destruction of other modes of production. Unfortunately for the limited analysis of this aspect of his argument Pascoe relies on the work of Gavin Menzies, whose work has been discredited.

However this does not discredit the arguments that Pascoe is making. In fact, I'd suggest that Dark Emu is one of the most important contributions to understanding the Aboriginal history that has been hidden and forgotten. It is also a powerful critique of contemporary Australian society - a society where the very land burns because profit is more important than people.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance