Friday, June 05, 2020

Ian Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis

If the first volume of Ian Kershaw's biography of Adolf Hitler teaches us how he could have been stopped, then the second tells us the consequences of failing to do that. The book begins in 1936 as Hitler is consolidating his own position and that of the Nazi regime. But the majority of the book deals with Hitler's obsessive preparations for war and the history of Hitler's roll in World War Two. Here one thing is clear. For Hitler wanted war. His adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled Hitler saying in 1938, "every generation must at one time have experienced war". As food shortages, hard work, low wages and, in particular, labour shortages began to take their toll in the late 1930s Hitler saw "war as panacea. Whatever the difficulties, they would be - and could only be - resolved by war." When finally made to comment on the anger among German farmers about the shortage of labour, he answered that their complaints would be dealt with after the war.

This obsession with war arose directly out of Hitler's worldview. The German people needed to be strengthened through the experience of conflict at the same time as restoring the country to its proper position in Europe. War eventually came in 1939. Hitler was surprised that Britain and France stood by Poland, as he'd been convinced by their actions of Czechoslovakia that they would back down. His disappointment that Germany hadn't been able to seize Czechoslovakia by force was now matched by excitement at the potential victories.

The machinations over the Ruhr, Austria and Czechoslovakia need not detain us her, but it is worth noting that Kerhsaw makes it very clear that, through their inaction, the British and French governments had allowed Hitler to strengthen his power base by proving he was able to regain national pride and territory as he had promised. Among most ordinary Germans, even including sections of the left who had bitterly opposed the fascists, Hitler's star was rising. This was taking place against the backdrop of intensifying repression of Jews and other minorities, but Hitler's successes in the international field helped his regime get away with increasing violence internally.

In war Nazism came into its own. It's worth quoting Kershaw on this:
The war now brought the circumstances and opportunities for the dramatic radicalisation of Nazism's ideological crusade. Long-term goals seemed almost overnight to become attainable policy objectives. Persecution which had targeted usually disliked social minorities was now directed at an entire conquered and subjugated people. The Jews, a tiny proportion of the German population, were not only far more numerous in Poland, but were despised by many within their native land and were now the lowest of the low in the eyes of the brutal occupiers of the country.
As before the war, Hitler set the tone for the escalating barbarism, approved of it, and sanctioned it. But his own actions provide an inadequate explanation of such escalation. The accelerated disintegration of any semblance of collective government, the undermining of legality by an ever encroaching and ever-expanding police executive, and the power ambitions of an increasingly autonomous SS leadership all played important parts. These processes had developed between 1933 and 1939 in the Reich itself. They were now, once the occupation of Poland opened up new vistas, to acquire a new momentum altogether. 
He continues:
The key area was Poland. The ideological radicalisation which took place there in the eighteen months following the German invasion was an essential precursor to the plans which unfolded in spring 1941 as preparation for the war which Hitler knew at some time he would fight: the war against Bolshevik Russia.
In volume one Kershaw introduced the concept of "working towards Hitler" as an explanation for how diverse parts of the Nazi state (in Germany and occupied areas) made the Holocaust and other aspects of Nazi ideology real. But Kershaw doesn't intend this to mean that Hitler was somehow unaware of what was transpiring. Some readers might hope that Kershaw has found some lost document detailing Hitler's thoughts or instructions about, say, Auschwitz. This is to misunderstand what the Nazi regime was and how Hitler operated.

Hitler provided a "general license for barbarianism" but others acted on it. In the case of the euthanasia of disabled people in Germany before the war started, Kershaw points out that Hitler "hand-picked" trusted Nazi "old-fighters" - "They knew what was expected of them. Regular and precise directives were not necessary".

Lack of evidence of Hitler's direct knowledge of the Holocaust arises in part because of his keenness "to conceal the traces of his involvement in the murder of the Jews". That said,
compared with the first years of the war when he had neither in public nor - to go from Goebbels's diary accounts - in private made much mention of the Jews, Hitler did now, in the months when their fate was being determined, refer to them on numerous occasions. Invariably, whether in public speeches or during comments in his late-night monologues in his East Prussian HQ, his remarks were confined to generalities - but with the occasion menacing allusion to what was happening. 
In fact, Kershaw has  assembled lots of comments, fragments and texts which make it clear that Hitler was aware of plenty of details of what was happening. Eg, in October 1941 Hitler said of the Jews "Don't anyone tell me we can't send them into the marshes". This reference refers to attempts to "drown Jewish women by driving them into the Pripet marshes". Goebbels, in his diary, referred to "the most brutal means" being used against the Jews. Later he wrote "A judgement is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved" and continued "the Fuhrer is the unswerving champion and spokesman of a radical solution".

While Hitler created the framework for Nazi followers to drive forward the Holocaust in horrific ways, he was very much culpable in what happened. As Kershaw concludes:

Hitler's role had been decisive and indispensable in the road to the 'Final Solution'. Had he not come to power in 1933 and a national-conservative government, perhaps a military dictatorship, had gained power instead. Discriminatory legislation against Jews would in all probability still have been introduced in Germany. But without Hitler, and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a programme to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe would have been unthinkable.

Hitler was, by the start of World War Two, convinced of his own infallibility. He never lost this belief, even as the tide turned and military forces advanced over Germany's territorial gains and then the country itself. Everyone else, the Jews, his generals, the German people, became objects for Hitler's scapegoating. Kershaw details the inability of Hitler to accept criticism, to trust generals and to understand the need to tactical decisions such as strategic retreats. It is notable here that Hitler's actions are very much linked into his world view. This is not simply about his inability to trust others, but a world view that saw the German people as being superior to everyone else. His paranoia arises out of his belief that defeat in World War One was not military, but the consequence of others.

But the Nazi state Hitler created was also culpable. It's breathtaking that as Germany's defeat becomes inevitable and as their power is reduced to almost zero, Hitler's various underlings remain dedicated to strengthening their own positions, however ludicrous it might be. The figure of Hitler within this remains constant and unbelievably powerful right to the end.

The book finishes with the defeat and suicide of Hitler. Amid the shattered ruins of Berlin, with the deaths of tens of millions of people arising out of the war and Holocaust, the conclusion has to be "never again". That said, how do the books stand up?

The first volume dealt with the rise of Hitler to power and the second with the war and Holocaust. But it strikes me that while these work as biography they don't entirely match up to Hitler's life. In his own review, Alex Callinicos writes:
[German historian Joachim] Fest argues that Hitler's political career can be divided into three phases. In the first, which lasted till the late 1920s, he was simply a fascist demagogue, in rebellion against a society that offered him no place, and in pursuit of the barbarous utopia of a racially pure German empire. Then, as power beckoned, Hitler developed a more realistic side--first carefully courting the German economic and military elites, and then, once in power, manoeuvring with great success to win control of most of Europe by diplomatic and military means. The final phase began as failure became plain--after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1942-43. Hitler then relapsed into the racist fantasist of his youth, progressively ignoring the realities of power.

I think this fits well with what Kershaw describes. Hitler's obsession in the bunker with models of how Germany could be rebuilt and his obsessive return to stories about the early days of the Nazi party illustrate the point. It explains why Hitler put himself into supreme command of the army and why he refused to allow tactical retreat, or entertain the idea of negotiations with the Allies. At the end Hitler feels abandoned by everyone, including the German people. He had placed himself at the centre of the Nazi state, and when that collapsed, he blamed everyone else. Retreating into personal fantasy, he abandons the people themselves - it is striking (even to Goebbels) that as the fortunes of war turn Hitler, the arch-propagandist, refuses to speak in person, or by radio, to the German people. 

So while the two volume approach works as books, it doesn't quite work in terms of Hitler's life. I also felt the subtitles of the books, Hubris and Nemesis, imply an inevitability to the fall of Hitler. But Kershaw's whole story shows that there was no inevitability to anything that took place. Had things been slightly different Hitler might never have achieved power, but had other things been slightly different he might well have defeated the Soviet Union. The strength of Kershaw's books is that he places events in their historical context and there were many factors that shaped what took place.

But these criticisms are minor compared to the brilliance of Ian Kerhsaw's work. They are not easy reads - because of their scope and the material covered. But they are important works. As we struggle today against fascism and racism in all its forms, the lessons from history remain crucial. Ian Kershaw's work remains essential in our understanding of the past, in order to shape the future.

Related Reviews

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Ian Kershaw - Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris

Why read a two volume, nearly two thousand page biography of one of the 20th century's most appalling dictators? The answer lies in who Adolf Hitler was. He was a dictator, but he was also, as Ian Kershaw's biography ably shows, a shrewd organiser who was able to build a movement that could take power and install a fascist leader. Thus, understanding Hitler is in no small part of importance for trying to stop this reoccurring.

The two volume format works well for two clear phases in Hitler's life. Whether these are the only two phases I will return to in my discussion of volume two. But certainly the first half consisting of Hitler's youth, army service followed by the route to power neatly fits a first book. The longer second book focuses almost entirely on World War Two. But the two books cannot really be separated. This is not simply because they tell the story of a single life. But because the ideas that Hitler developed early were at the core of his thought and action for his whole life. These included but weren't limited to extreme antisemitism, nationalism, a pathological hatred of the left, belief in a "stab in the back" of Germany following World War One, and the desire for a strong, dictatorial leadership for Germany. To his dying day he clung to this fascist "worldview". In fact, key, flawed, decisions made between 1939 and 1945 arose directly from the Nazi ideas that Hitler developed in his 20s and 30s.

But I get ahead of myself. Readers picking up Kerhsaw's book for information on Hitler's personal life will find them sorely missing. But this is not the fault of the biographer. Hitler had very little personal life. Even in his early life he comes across as lazy, quick to blame others for his own failings, unable to make friends and obsessed with his own intelligence. It's easy to draw parallels between this characteristics and Hitler's later behaviour. To do so would be massively over simplifying things. Instead Kershaw shows how Hitler's world-view and the fascist movements he helped create arose out of two key things. Firstly the long tradition of far-right, nationalistic and antisemitic organisation that existed in Austria and German. Hitler's early engagement with these ideas and the organisations that preceded him, gave him a quick entry to fascist organisation. Of most important though was World War One. As Kershaw says:
On the eve of the First World War, Germany was certainly a state with some unattractive features - among them those of the unbalanced character sitting on the Imperial throne. But nothing in its development predetermined the path to the Third Reich. What happened under Hitler was not presaged in Imperial Germany. It is unimaginable without the experience of the First World War and what followed it.
What followed was economic crisis and revolution. In a hospital in 1918 Hitler watched the revolutionary events with horror. Kershaw says that his "entire political activist was driven by the trauma of 1918- aimed at expunging the defeat and revolution which betrayed all that he had believed in, and eliminating those he helped responsible."

While we know Hitler as the beer-hall agitator, he (and others on the right) discovered Hitler's speaking talents working for the Reichswehr (the German counter-revolutionary defence force) that organised against the left in the aftermath of World War One. It was this that "turned Hitler into a propagandist". Here he developed the ideas that would crystallise into the Nazi worldview. Kerhsaw:
At first Hitler's antisemitic tirades were invariable linked to anti-capitalism and attacks on 'Jewish' war profiteers and racketeers, whom he blamed for exploiting the German people and causing the loss of the war and the German war dead... There was no link with Marxism or Bolshevism at this stage. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed Hitler's antisemitism was not prompted by his anti-Bolshevism; it long predated it.
This combination of antisemitism and anti-capitalism allowed Hitler to appeal to layers of the masses who had been left devastated by the economic crisis following World War One. Rather than blaming the capitalist system itself though, Hitler's antisemitism played on the racist conspiratorial view that it was the Jews who had caused economic crisis and allowed Germany's defeat. But for Hitler ideology was not an abstract question. It mattered little that his ideas held little internal coherence, they were important because they were tools to mobilise people. The people could be shaped into a movement that would lead to the fascist seizure of power.

It is worth noting Kershaw's point that the iddea of Hitler as Fuhrer of Germany (and indeed the Nazi party) did not originate fully formed in his head in 1918. It arose out of the experience of the struggle to build Nazi organisation and Hitler's increasing obsession with his own self importance.

Much of Kerhsaw's book charts the rise to power of the Nazis. Here the book is full of detail. From small details about the organisation of the early Nazi party, including Hitler's seizure of the leadership to the Beerhall Putsch that temporarily set his movement back. The final section details the machinations of Hitler in the last years of the Weimar Republic, the massive election campaigns, the innovative use of propaganda and the hard nosed negotiations that eventually got him chosen as Chancellor.

In part Hitler was able to achieve this because of the close links he began to increasingly make between Jews and Marxism. Kershaw explains that in court for his role in the Putsch, Hitler used the platform to declare that [Kershaw's words] "The Nazi movement knew only one enemy... the mortal enemy of the whole of mankind: Marxism. There was no mention of the Jews." As Kershaw explains "Marxism and the Jew were synonymous in Hitler's mind". It is this that is key to understanding why many in the German ruling class were prepared to give Hitler power.

But on the eve of success Hitler nearly failed. What Kershaw does brilliantly is to place the story of the rise of the Nazis into wider contexts. Hitler was lucky as well as being a shrewd organiser of the mass fascist party. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Nazis increased their vote share extraordinarily rapidly rising on the back of economic and political crisis, using antisemitism and anticommunist hysteria to attract large sections of the population. But the party was, on occasion, internally divided and crisis prone. In the last election before his victory, the Nazi vote was declining and Hitler faced a crisis in the organisation that nearly split it. Had this happened, Kershaw argues, Hitler would not have come to power.

The point, though I don't think that Kershaw makes enough of it, is that Hitler could have been stopped right up until the last moment. The near splitting of the Nazi party during the Strasser crisis, was a sign that had united organisation existed that was prepared to challenge the Nazis on the streets, on the ballot and in the workplace existed, it could have broken Hitler. Certainly the experience since 1945 has been that were mass anti-fascist movements been able to pressure emerging fascist movements through counter-protest and propaganda, the splits that follow often set the Nazis back many years.

Kershaw concludes:
Democracy surrendered without a fight.... In the final drama, the agrarians and the army were more influential than big business in engineering Hitler's takeover. But big business, also, politically myopic and self-serving, had significantly contributed tot he undermining of democracy which was the necessary prelude to Hitler's success. The masses, too, had played their part in democracy's downfall... Democracy was in a far from healthy state when the Depression struck Germany. And in the course of the Depression, the masses deserted democracy in their droves... The working class was cowed and broken by the Depression, its organisations enfeebled and powerless. But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximise their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organised labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome.
The working class was broken. But its political parties still retained the loyalty of millions of voters. Had the Communists and Social Democrats united to stop Hitler, the story might have been very different. The ruling class certainly didn't think Hitler would last long. But they were, in many cases sympathetic to his ideas. It was a frightening combination.

The great strength of this volume is that Ian Kershaw places the rise of Hitler in the context of the historical moments. Those readers expecting to learn that the origin of the Holocaust and World War Two lay in some combination of Hitler's personality or the nature of German people will be disappointing. But understanding Hitler as both a product of his times and someone who shaped the situation through the mass Nazi party is much more useful.

Hitler could have been stopped. That's the conclusion that should be drawn from this book. The story doesn't end in volume one though in 1933. It shows the consolidation of power through his destruction of his own enemies (real and perceived) in the Night of the Long Knives, the defeat of the left and the trade unions, and the emergence of the Nazi state. It also show how the steps towards the Holocaust began. Here the development of trhe Fuhrer state on the back of a network of millions of members of the Nazi party allowed for a myriad of small bureacrats and activists to "work towards the Fuhrer". These individuals had no specific instructions, but they too lived inside Hitler's worldview and worked towards the implementation of those ideas. In volume two we see precisely what that meant for millions of Jews, disabled people, gays and lesbians and leftists, as well as the populations of Europe.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Kershaw - The End
Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism

Monday, May 25, 2020

J.L.Carr - How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup

This is possibly the funniest novel from the 1970s that you have never heard of. Steeple Sinderby is a tiny village, a "tiny grey-walled settlement, forgotten in the western wolds". It is populated by exactly the sort of people you imagine populate tiny forgotten villages and its amateur football team won the FA Cup. Or at least they won a slightly alternative FA Cup where Scottish teams participate and in which Manchester United might be persuaded to play in an uneven, uphill field in the middle of nowhere for the semi-final ("we make it an all-ticket game... but...  decided that it would be immoral to raise the charge for admission from the 5p with which we'd begun the season").

Sinderby Wanderers are doubly lucky. There is at least two former first division player in their village and the local school headmaster is a exiled Hungarian genius whose fresh eyes on football allow him to devise fiendish strategies to defeat all the higher placed players. From the polygamous landowner who chairs the football board simply because he chairs everything else in the village, to the vicar who plays on the wing (except when there's a funeral to organise) these beautifully drawn, hilarious, characters give an odd sense of realism to the unlikely tale. There are spectator brawls, improbably goals, and a hilarious TV interview with the chairman who channels Enoch Powell in his vision for Britain, nearly bringing down the government.

The book is not the official history of Wanderers' victory. Rather its the private memoirs of Joe Gidner who usually takes the ticket money from the derisory number of fans who normally watch Wanderers play, and makes a living writing poems for greeting cards. Told through flashback, newspaper reports and committee minutes, this is an absolutely hilarious and deeply poignant story.

JL Carr was himself delightfully eccentric. His most famous book is probably A Month in the Country. Readers of that beautiful and sad novel will be unprepared for the humour of this one. I'd recommend both if only to see the true genius of this forgotten writer. Perhaps the funniest book I've ever read, this is certainly in the top ten. Buy it as soon as you've finished reading this review, you don't even need to like football.

Related Reviews

Carr - A Month in the Country

Lev Grossman - The Magician's Land


There is no denying the consistent high quality and ongoing inventiveness of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy. Three volume fantasy novels are hardly new, but few maintain their quality (whatever level that might be) through the whole series. Grossman's books however are excellent and this conclusion is both satisfying and different enough to the early volumes to hold the reader till the end.

The first two books dealt with the adventures of Quentin Coldwater who having been accepted into a hidden magical college in the first volume, then expelled from the alternative magical realm Fillory that he came to jointly rule in part two, spends much volume three trying to re-enter  Fillory. The final part is a battle to save Fillory from complete destruction.

Such a summary only superficially explains the story. Quentin, as in the rest of the series, is an annoyingly self-obsessed figure, a loner who is convinced of his talent and genius who is prepared to knock over everyone else on the way to success. He has never quite got over the guilt of the death of his partner earlier in the tales, and thus broods his way through much of this book as he tries to bring her back from the dead. The beginning of the book is focused around an entertaining magical burglary but quickly the reader learns that this is nothing more than an entree to the larger story.

But the book neatly brings the story full circle. By the end, we know much more about Fillory, but we also understand more about how children from Earth first found their way there. These tales are much more dark than we might have first believed and Grossman ties all the lose ends together very neatly.

All in all a very satisfying, dark and entertaining conclusion to an excellent fantasy series.

Related Reviews

Grossman - The Magicians
Grossman - The Magician King

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Colin Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds

This is a fantastic book to introduce you to its subject. Tudge's easy going, but informed, style is that of a genuine enthusiast whose desire is to develop all his readers to the same level of knowledge. Tudge begins with a couple of seemingly easy questions - what is a bird, and how should they be classified. From these he takes the reader through the complexities of groups and species, through to grappling with more esoteric questions like what is it to be a bird. What we quickly learn with is that birds are infinitely more complex than they seem at first. These are more than just flying animals that eat and lay eggs, these are creatures with complex social lives, the ability to learn and comprehend their surroundings and a huge variety of ways of living. For instance, birds are able to learn about their surroundings and make decisions based on how their environment changes. For instance, take the Collared Flycatcher:

In one field experiment, scientists, being scientists, added more eggs to Collared Flycatcher nests in one area, and in a neighbouring area they reduced the number of eggs in the various nests, and the next year mos males turned up in the territory that had been given more eggs. Once more we see that birds can be aware of their environments; they know what they are doing and build their knowledge season by season throughout their lives.

Key to understanding the enormous variety of bird life on our planet is how these animals evolved. Tudge takes us from the time of the dinosaurs onward, showing how different aspects of bird life - feathers, song, brain and so on - would have evolved. One of the most amazing examples of this is the parasitic behaviour of the European Cuckoo which has evolved in a way that is, surprisingly, often of use to the other species that are lose their eggs when the Cuckoo lays its eggs in their nests.
Once the parasitism of one species on another becomes habitual, an arms race would develop between parasite and host. As the centuries pass the parasites mimic the eggs of their hosts more and more accurately, while the hosts become more and more adept at detecting the minute differences o that the parasites need to be more and more accurate. Eventually we reach the fine-tuned versatility of the European Cuckoo - to which its hosts have yet to mount a convincing defence.... But the relationship... in which the hosts can apparently discriminate foreign eggs pretty well, but sometimes choose not to- adds yet another layer of subtlety.
One final point which I found fascinating. Birds superficially seem to offer a classic example in nature of the family unit consisting of two adults and babies. Yet there seems an infinite array of different ways of bringing up baby birds in nature. From the parasitism of the European cuckoo to the sharing of eggs, to the species that move eggs into different nests and have multiple partners (both female and male birds breeding with others). All human life, so to speak, is here.

Tudge's final chapter ruminates on the threats to bird biodiversity. He shows how bird life is intrinsically part of wider networks, relying on other animals, plants and birds. Destruction of individual species can undermine wider eco-systems. Sadly, if anything, the trends he outlines are far worse now then when the book was published in 2009.

My only criticism of the book is that the detailed "cast list" of birds, dividing them into different orders was overlong, though Tudge skilfully keeps the reader attentive by giving them morsals of fascinating and sometimes hilarious titbits about different examples. For the reader with a passing interest in birds, or the more serious watcher, this book has a lot. Read it with an internet connection so that you can look up each amazing creature and marvel at the wonder of evolution, and, then go outside. You'll see birds with new eyes.

Related Review

Tudge - Good Food for Everyone Forever

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Terry Sullivan & Donny Gluckstein - Hegel and Revolution

There is a famous quote attributed to Lenin about Marx's Capital where he claims that Marx's masterpiece is impossible to understand completely "especially its first Chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic". But Hegel himself is considered daunting in the extreme. His name and works used as examples of complex books that are considered to be beyond the reach of ordinary readers. Many times I've sat in pubs after socialist meetings and heard such discussions.

So I am very pleased that Terry Sullivan and Donny Gluckstein have produced Hegel and Revolution. This is intended as an introductory work with, according to the authors, two aims. The first is to introduce the "thought and life" of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The second is to "outline the very strong influence Hegel had on Karl Marx... as well as the wider Marxist and socialist movement". These are ambitious aims, and to attempt the task in a book of less than 100 pages is a brave feet. The authors acknowledge that there are "certain areas of Hegel's thought" that they do not consider at all. Instead they focus on three key areas that connect to the work of Marx and give a feeling for Hegel himself. These are alienation, Hegel's philosophy of history and dialectics.

Key to understanding Hegel is the French Revolution and so the authors begin with placing Hegel into the context of the Revolution, and putting this Revolution into its historical context. It's an approach that Hegel himself might well have appreciated:

Hegel realised that dependence on a single element of the overall picture, or an individual human being, or a piecemeal analysis of separate events would miss the complex and interconnected character of the transition. 'Everything that exists stands in correlation,and this correlation is the veritable nature of every existence'.

I found the author's summary of Hegel's thought accessible, though I had to read and re-read several pages to get my head around his concepts. Their focus is on how Hegel's ideas were developed and built upon. So in the section on alienation, where they summarise Hegel's approach like this:
Importantly for Hegel consciousness is not just the consciousness of the individual but it is also the consciousness of spirit. More precisely this should be 'Absolute Spirit', that is, God. This might lead the reader to question: 'How does this square with the first-person point of view of phenomenology?' Hegel rejected the common idea that God is different from and superior to the world it has created. Rather, he held that God is in some sense constituted by humans and the natural world. Consequently, humans including the self-examination of their consciousness that, make up, at least in part, God. 
But Marx argues this is wrong:
'There is a double error in Hegel'. The first is that 'When, for instance, wealth, state-power, etc. are understood by Hegel as entities estranged from the human being, this only happens in their form as thoughts'. This is, for Hegel it is not wealth (or the lack of it), state-power or anything else that we experience as part of the material reality of our lives that is of primary importance in understanding alienation. It is not our separation from and lack of control over these aspects of the material world that is the source of our alienation. Rather, it is the thought of such entities which confronts us as something alien. 
The second error, detected by Marx, is that Hegel "only knows and recognises... abstractly mental labour". So it is on the mind that matters, not the real world outside. The authors conclude that, according to Hegel, "we humans have created the world around us but we are not aware of this and thus we are alienated from it". These differences are not abstract. Overcoming alienation for Hegel requires the changing of the mind - hence his emphasis on the importance of rational thought. For Marx it requires the changing of the world.

While critical of Hegel the authors nonetheless defend him from some of his critics. For instance they argue against the idea that Hegel held a "great man theory" of history. I don't know enough about the debates here and it was one of those places were the focus of the book slightly undermined the material. Because the writers are emphasising the importance of Hegel's ideas and method to Marx, I felt the material on Hegel suffered. To be fair they are doing this in a book of very short length and something has to go, but I wondered if another twenty pages could have helped flesh out debates.

It is the material on dialectics that readers will find perhaps the most useful, and perplexing. Here the authors are brilliant in demonstrating Hegel's own thoughts (and approach) and how Marx takes things forward. But they are also cautious. Responding to one critic of Hegel they write:
These irregularities do not mean that the dialectic method is wrong, rather, merely that Hegel has not been able to carry out his own method consistently. Our own conclusion is that this inability of Hegel is indicative of the fact that the dialectic and dialectical method is not as widely applicable as he argues. It cannot he used to understand all of thought, rather, it must be used much more selectively and when that is done appropriately it can be uniquely insightful. 
I think this is important. What the authors celebrate is not simply Marx's development of Hegel, but Hegel's own philosophical approach (they say it feels "fresh") because it allows us to unpick the processes of change and development. One of his "great innovations was to put a sense of history into the study of philosophy". In that sense his work is "timeless" as they say, but it is also a basis for other developments. 

I'm not sure that Hegel and Revolution will lead me to read Hegel. But it did give me a sense of the basic ideas that a much better appreciation for the work of Marx and Engels in developing philosophical thought - though as always, we must remember that "the point is to change it".

Related Reviews

Löwy - The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War
Gluckstein - The Tragedy of Bukharin
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Philip de Souza - Seafaring and Civilisation

Subtitled "Maritime Perspectives on World History" Philip de Souza's Seafaring and Civilisation is intended to be examination of the role of maritime commerce and communication in shaping world history. It's an ambitious project that deserves far more than the 200 pages that the author has. Unfortunately while the book touches on a number of interesting ideas, it fails to develop these beyond a superficial argument that maritime transport allowed exploration, facilitated the exchange of ideas, disease and new commodities and allowed states to extend their influence regionally and eventually globally. Philip de Souza fails, for instance, to get to grips with why it was European explorers arrived in the Americas, and not the other way around. Nor does he explain why, beyond generalities, why the much more advanced Asian and Middle Eastern Empires did not arrive off the European coasts in sufficient numbers to mean that that their influence would dominate the world after the Middle Ages.

De Souza argues that seafaring was highly influential. He writes, for instance:
maritime networks promoted and helped to maintain highly diverse social structures in which individuals and groups were able to specialise in economic, religious, military and cultural tasks. It is important to emphasise the role of staples in the expansion of this trade. A great deal of it was bulk cargoes of food, raw materials such as metals and timber, cloth, aromatics and spices which were so throughly embedded in the urban cultures of many places in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near and Middle East, South and East Asia, that they can be considered part of the fabric of civilisation.
He continues by arguing that the growth of large states "gave added impetus" to the development of urban civilisation in places linked by the ocean. In turn this stimulated production and taxation.

But I didn't feel that this was as profound an insight as the author seems to suggest. In fact what was key was trade, not the mechanics of trade. There is nothing here about how the expansion of trade and production shifted civilisation. Surprisingly the word capitalism isn't mentioned - because it is the capitalism's great expansion in production, with the associated need to expand and claim new resources, that means that seafaring explodes in the late 17th century. In contrast de Souza merely sees the expansion as being associated with the development of European empires.

The book contains many interesting facts and some wonderful illustrations. But there is no space for the author to develop any insights. At the same time his claim that "Many British families are, quite reasonably, proud of their ancestors' achievements in the Indian subcontinent" is very strange. I'm not sure this is a argument that stands up to any sort of scrutiny. The book also doesn't really mention the way that seafarering power became key to 19th and 20th century history, nor how this shaped industrial development.

Sadly despite the interesting premise I didn't think the book was long enough for the author to develop a coherent argument that raised it beyond merely interesting.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Frederick Engels - Dialectics of Nature

Writing a review of Frederick Engels' Dialectics of Nature is a difficult task. The book is incomplete - fragmentary in parts - covers a wide range of subjects that do not always sit easily together and is, at least from a purely scientific point of view very dated in parts. Readers are hampered also by the language, as Engels use of key scientific terms reflects the era of writing and not their usage today. Yet the book remains worthy of study and, had it been available earlier in English, could well have been much more influential than it was. In 1873 Engels wrote to Marx that he had been lying in bed and decided to begin work on what would become the Dialectics of Nature after realising that the natural sciences were all about "matter in motion". This is important because it shows that Engels was beginning from the nature of change - the dialectics of the title - rather than the science that makes up much of the current manuscript.

The science, as I said, is dated. But it is important. Reading it today much of the material would seem (if updated) fairly obvious to say a first year physics student at university. But it must be seen in the context of contemporary debates. What Engels demonstrates is an amazing awareness and knowledge of what were front line scientific debates at the time he was writing. This is not the product of a casual enthusiast but someone who was au fait with the detail of major scientific debates. The chapter on electricity, which forms a substantial chunk of the manuscript deals, in great depth with the nature of electricity itself, Engels placing himself firmly on the modern theories against the "barren lumber of ancient, doubtful experiments... an uncertain fumbling in the dark." His detailed refutation of what he calls an "obsolete scientific standpoint" leads to him rejecting "all traditional theoretical notions about electricity" and highlighting more contemporary theories based on a detail knowledge of the science and experimental results available at the time. It would be another fourteen years before the electron was finally discovered so Engels is firmly on the right side of science.

It is, however, the sections on dialectics itself which remain of most interest and use today. Sadly these are mostly in note form. They form, at least in the 1939 British addition, a general argument, but in some places are little more than jottings down of comments and ideas. These in themselves are sometimes fascinating - I was struck by the evolution of ideas in astronomy that were taking place and how scientists (and Engels) were grappling with a transformative moment in the understanding the universe. But Engels argues what matters most is an approach to science that uses dialectical thinking:
Dialectics divested of mysticism becomes an absolute necessity for natural science, which has forsaken the field where rigid categories sufficed as it were the lower mathematics of logic, its everyday weapons. Philosophy takes its revenge posthumously on natural science for the latter having deserted it; and yet the scientists could have seen even from the successes in natural science achieved by philosophy that the latter possessed something that was superior to them even in their own special sphere.
Earlier he comments, "thinking is necessary: atoms and molecules, etc, cannot be observed under the microscope, but only by the process of thought". Yet Engels isn't arguing for abstract thought - he points out that a much more resolute materialist than the modern natural scientists" because he was concerned with "the thing in itself".

Engels is concerned with the process of change that takes place in nature. Sadly his work here on dialectics has often been confused by an over focus on the three laws of dialectics that he presents early in the work. Some on the socialist left, particularly the Stalinist brand of Marxism, tend to see these laws as rigid, leading others to reject them. In an essay on Dialectics, nature and the Dialectics of Nature Camilla Royle has made the point that these rules are important in helping us understand processes in nature and aspects of dialectics, but we cannot reduce science down to them. She concludes:
However, noting interesting examples of Hegel’s laws in “nature” does not give much clue as to how, if at all, scientists can use these laws. If scientists are expected to start from the idea that they go out and look for examples of the laws in their work...  it risks turning dialectics into a scholastic exercise. All of the biologists mentioned state that what they do when they go into a lab is the same science using the same methods as anyone else. Dialectics is for them a way to interpret the results of their experiments rather than an excuse not to do those experiments. Knowing the laws of dialectics is no substitute for a scientific understanding based on knowledge of specific material phenomena.
Engels' work abounds with examples of this approach. For example:
Continual change, i.e., abolition of abstract identity with itself, is also found in so-called inorganic nature. Geology is its history. On the surface, mechanical changes (denudation, frost), chemical changes (weathering); internally, mechanical changes (pressure), heat (volcanic), chemical (water, acids, binding substances); on a large scale – upheavals, earthquakes, etc. The slate of today is fundamentally different from the ooze from which it is formed, the chalk from the loose microscopic shells that compose it, even more so limestone, which indeed according to some is of purely organic origin, and sandstone from the loose sea sand, which again is derived from disintegrated granite, etc., not to speak of coal.
Here Engels is emphasising the process of historic change as being integral to understanding the geology that we see in the landscapes today. Again, in a small not "Simple and Compound", Engels shows how a living creature is a not reducible to components, nor is it simply a sum of those components:
Categories which even in organic nature likewise lose their meaning and become inapplicable. An animal is expressed neither by its mechanical composition from bones, blood, gristle, muscles, tissues, etc., .nor by its chemical composition from the elements. Hegel (Enzyklopädie, I, p. 256).The organism is neither simple nor compound, however complex it may be.
And elsewhere he emphasises dialectics as an approach that can destroy old irrational beliefs. Writing on life and death he comments:
The dialectical conception of life is nothing more than this. But for anyone who has once understood this, all talk of the immortality of the soul is done away with. Death is either the dissolution of the organic body, leaving nothing behind but the chemical constituents that formed its substance, or it leaves behind a vital principle, more or less the soul, that then survives all living organisms, and not only human beings. Here, therefore, by means of dialectics, simply becoming clear about the nature of life and death suffices to abolish an ancient superstition. Living means dying.
One of the most complete sections of Dialectics is the famous chapter The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. This is probably the most influential part of the work, which has been published separately on many occasions. Engels demonstrates how the evolution of modern humans was shaped by our inherent ability to labour on nature for our own needs. This then transformed our brain in a dialectical process. This pamphlet is also where Engels sets out a wider understanding of society's interaction with nature and he highlights the impact of capitalism on our environment - arguing, though he doesn't use the word, that capitalism cannot be sustainable. For readers who think that Marx and Engels had little to say of use to the environmental movement, this is the chapter to read.

In fact, while much of the book is dated, and some of it feels abstract, Engels never loses sight of his wider project - the struggle to end capitalism and win socialism. Right at the start of the book Engels highlights how capitalism has immiserated the mass of humanity and a new, higher, form of social organisation is needed to liberate us all:
In the most advanced industrial countries we have subdued the forces of nature and pressed them into the service of mankind; we have thereby infinitely multiplied production, so that a child now produces more than a hundred adults previously did. And what is the result? Increasing overwork and increasing misery of the masses, and every ten years a great collapse. Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species. Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade. 
Related Reviews

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Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England