Sunday, August 30, 2009

Victor Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901 - 1941

Victor Serge's life was a unique one. His experience of the highs and lows of revolutionary struggle across the globe is one shared by few people. Almost uniquely amongst the famous names to come to global prominence after the Russian Revolution, he actually started his revolutionary life as an anarchist. The early chapters of his memoirs detail the forgotten moments of struggle in Western Europe as he, together with many anarchists who eventually lost their lives and liberties to a brutal state, campaign and struggle against an oppressive system.

But for most readers the real meat of this work of personal history are Serge's experiences of the Russian Revolution. His first taste of the revolution comes following a period of imprisonment in France. The cafes of Paris towards the end of the first world war become centres of debate, discussion and polemic as radicals of all hue's attempt to grapple with the meaning of the Bolshevik lead insurrection.

Determined to see the revolution as a first step in the liberation of humanity, Serge crosses Europe with other exiles and emigres to Russia. When he reaches Petrograd in 1919, Serge is shocked how the city has been emaciated by the ravages of war - both World and Civil.

"We were entering a world frozen to death" he writes, then later "At the reception centre we were issued with basic rations of black bread and dried fish".

The isolation of the revolution and the backwardness of Russia were the twin problems for the Russian workers. The revolutionary leadership had argued that an isolated revolution would never survive and they waited in hope for further revolutions in Europe to save Russia. Serge and those returning with him were constantly bombarded with questions about the state of the struggle in the West.

"They were surer of it then we were, and our doubts made them momentarily suspicious of us. All they asked us was whether Europe would soon be kindled".

Serge grasped quickly, that whatever his differences with the Bolsheviks, they were genuine revolutionaries. The seizure of power in October 1917 wasn't simply an act of bravado, it was at that moment a historical necessity, or the counter revolutionary forces would have drowned the Russian working class in blood. But Serge couldn't quite come to terms with all the acts of the Bolsheviks since taking power. The Checka for instance, the secret police force created to help battle the counter-revolutionary forces took on a life of its own, Serge believed that this meant a layer of bureaucrats were coming to prominence who would destroy the essence of the revolution.

Despite this, and other misgivings, Serge took on a central role in the Communist International - the organisation created to help build revolutionary movements across the world. Present at some of it's most important meetings we have brilliant eyewitness accounts of the debates and discussions, with Serge's own criticisms and arguments thrown in. Serge had a wealth of experience and his understanding of the situation in France for instance, with its reformist parties and trade union groupings was much better than those of the Russians who hadn't grappled with these social forces.

One of the great strengths of these memoirs are the pen portraits of individuals Serge meets over the years. Many of them, like Maxim Gorky, are famous in their own right. Others are simple the individual workers and peasants who made the revolution their own. Serge constantly grapples, questions and debates. That he could do this was a great strength of the revolution and he argues for instance, that the gradual suppression of these rights were one of the issues which helped isolate and undermine the revolution from within. No doubt there is some truth in this, but Serge is painfully aware that there is little other choice in a country ravaged by famine, war and crisis but to try and defend the purity of the revolution from its internal enemies.

It's Serge's great fame as an international author that saves him from the rising Stalinist bureaucracy that kills so many of the revolutions great minds. So many of his portraits of those who played a leading role in the revolution, or strived to make the situation work end with "committed suicide in 1930" or "disappeared in 1931". By this point Stalin had consolidated his power and no longer looked to spreading revolution, instead opting to compete with the capitalist powers on their terms.

After being released from captivity, Serge eventually ends up, like Trotsky in South America. His writings from there document the rise of fascism and the defeat of the European working class. But his last chapters carry with them a great hope for the future battles against capitalism. Despite being labelled as counter-revolutionary by the Communist Parties, he hopes that his own experience and that of his "fighting generation" will have "some small power to illuminate the way forward". These final words are very true and all of Serge's works deserve to be re-read as a new generation of people seek to challenge capitalism once again.

Related Reviews

Serge - Conquered City
Serge - Revolution in Danger

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joseph Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism, A Guide to Marxist Political Economy

Economics is one of those subjects that those who are proficient in it, often like to pretend is beyond the understanding of most mortals. Unfortunately, recent economic news, the reactions to failing banks and the inability of governments around the world to protect ordinary people from the effects of recession, would prove that most Economists know little about economics.

There is a secondary, but related myth. That Marxist economics is even more difficult to comprehend. Marx had some interesting insights we are told, but they don't really explain what capitalism is about.

Joseph Choonara's excellent new book is a fantastic introduction to Marx's economics. Starting from the fundamental basics of economics, Choonara builds up a picture of a complete economic system. In doing this, he helps even those with little grounding in economics understand precisely what is wrong with the system we live in, and why, once again we are living through an era of economic crisis.

For Marx, capitalism is different to other, pre-existing class systems because of the nature of the basic exploitation at the heart of the system. Capitalists employ workers, who are paid less than they generate in value for their boss. As Choonara explains;

"The secret of surplus value, is the secret of the capitalist system. The world around us is based on pumping surplus value out of one billion or so wage workers."

Choonara goes on to show how, the need of the capitalists to constantly accumulate more and more value, in blind competition with the other capitalism leads to an anarchic and chaotic system. What is good for the individual capitalists is bad for the system as a whole. Unlike pre-existing economic systems, the surplus value that is generated from the exploitation of the workers is pumped back into the system - further investment in raw materials or new machinery. This allows the successful capitalist to improve is production process, stealing a march on his rivals.

But this also has the effect, of driving down the general profit rate in society - making it harder for the capitalist to accumulate more. The system as a whole finds it harder to use up what it is creating and overproduction of goods is one consequence. We arrive at a situation then, were economically capitalism produces huge numbers of products that are needed by millions of people, but these people are unable to afford to use them. A contemporary example would be the glut of flats and houses on the market in the UK today, at the same time as more and more families live in overcrowded or temporary housing.

Choonara goes one to demonstrate how this localised crisis of profit rates mean that "the least efficient capitalists are driven under", but this has a snowball effect on the system as a whole - leading to a generalised economic crisis.

But as capitalism has aged, it has become increasingly based on bigger and bigger blocks of capital. Companies have swallowed their competitors up (The revenue of the top 100 corporations in the world is now over $10 trillion, bigger than the GDP of the 174 poorest nations) and these means that the knock on effect of a single failure is far greater than in the past. Witness the desperate attempts by contemporary governments to keep banks and multi-nationals afloat.

This is a detailed and well written book. The centrality of the economic situation to political discourse at the moment makes this a must read for any radical trying to understand the ins and outs of the system. It should also be on the reading list for every economics student in the country, clearing away the confusions that a myriad of mainstream commentators have spread about Marxism.

But this book is also a weapon in the struggle for a better world. Choonara hasn't ignored the other aspects of Marx's thought. Economics isn't something outside the political struggle, but something that influences and is influenced by the wider picture. And by reasserting the central exploitation at the heart of capitalism, the author has put the exploited back at the heart of changing the world. Capitalism has created it's own Gravediggers. This book shows both the urgency of getting rid of this outdated economic system and points the way forward for doing just that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Liddiard - Castles in Context; Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500

I know little about "Castle Studies" apart from a fascination with these historic buildings and many visits to castle sites in the UK.

Robert Liddiard is a self-proclaimed revisionist. He believes that the "castle story" as it has been told for generations, fundamentally misses the point. Rather than being predominately military sites, the centres of great sieges and battles, Liddiard argues that the castle played a much more symbolic role, albeit reinforced by a contemporary perception that these huge buildings were backed up by military and economic power.

The author makes a compelling argument. Using dozens of examples of many castles from across the UK, he shows firstly how the castles raised by William in the aftermath of the Norman conquest were about "legitimising the succession of a new elite". Interestingly, centuries later, local lords would design new castles in the style of Norman keeps to help legitimise their own authority with reference to earlier symbols of authority.

Liddiard demonstrates the relative rarity of sieges and attacks on castles, going on to show how when these did take place, their rarely took the form of the huge sieges beloved of many novels and films. Instead castle warfare could well have been a highly choreographed affair, based on notions of chivalry, far removed from modern visions of battle. Many castles, were actually badly designed from a military point of view,

"At Beaumaris, for example, the most 'perfect' example of medieval military science, there was provision for a maximum of eleven separate households; to contemporaries it may have appeared more like a palace,rather than a tool of war".

This story is true of many other sites, Liddiard goes on to point out that what was often more important was the siting of the castle for visual impact. Frequently sites were chosen not for defensive purpose, but rather for the sense of power, domination and economic muscle they would have portrayed. Castle builders may well have constructed elaborate routes of approach to the castle, leading visitors past symbols of wealth (such as dovecotes or deer parks) past fortifications designed to emphasise military muscle, and on into a central area were they may well have witnessed the Lord or King sitting in his grandeur.

We also learn how the surrounding area would have been planned. Liddiard shows how we are used to thinking of palaces and manor houses having elaborate planned gardens, but many medieval castles may have been designed similarly. Lakes, deer parks, fish ponds and the like would have been visible - places like Kenilworth near Birmingham show this well, with huge artificial lakes. Okehampton Castle in Devon apparently has a strong military side, visible to people passing on the road to the North, but on the South it is more domestic, with "elaborate fenestration, window seats in upper chambers and a low curtain wall, all of which ensured a view of the park".

Liddiard paints a much more complex picture of the medieval world. One in which military muscle was less important than many history books imply. He also asks some questions which aren't easily answered. How were castles viewed by the majority of the population outside the walls for instance?

As an interesting aside, the author makes reference to the selective destruction of "specific landscape features" by the rebels during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Backing up his argument that the castle imagery was more important to medieval society as it's military muscle. That this "resonated" across the whole of society is an interesting adjunct to the ideas of Mark O'Brien's book on the Peasant's Revolt that I discussed in my previous review on this website.

Liddiard has written a well researched and well argued book that is of great interest to everyone, and deserves a far wider reading than those involved in "Castle Studies". Partly this is because it illuminates all those old buildings that we like to visit. More importantly though, because it allows a glimpse into the mindsets of those living in Medieval times.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mark O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span, A History of the Peasents Revolt of 1381

The title of this book, refers to the famous couplet that raised the question of class relations in society in a way that made sense to the ordinary people of the medieval ages.

"When Adam Delved and Eve Span, Who was then, the Gentleman?".

Mark O'Brien's inspiring history shows exactly how and why such a piece of rhyme could capture the ideas of the 14th century peasant and inspire many tens of thousands of them to rebellion. The 1381 Peasants Revolt sent shock waves through the English class system. It led to many of the worst criminals of the aristocracy loosing their heads and fundamentally changed the relations between rich and poor.

Mark O'Brien paints a fascinating picture of an England on the cusp of change. The Black Death had decimated the population of Europe and for the first time, a shortage of manpower was allowing hitherto unalterable class relations to be challenged. Previously a local Lord held his population in an iron fist. Peasants rarely left the local land, the ideas in their heads dominated by a religious orthodoxy that had a place for everyone in Gods kingdom, ruled over by a rigid class system with the king at the top. But this was falling apart. The labour shortage meant that for the first time, labourers could move around and demand higher wages. Undermining the basis of the Lord's local power.

Simultaneously, the power of the church itself was also being undermined. Internal arguments in the church nationally and internationally, meant questioning of religious doctrine. And finally, the needs of the ruling class to make others pay for it's ongoing wars created a situation were the ordinary English peasant had had enough.

O'Brien depicts the spread of the revolt not simply as a spontaneous uprising against the collection of the Poll Tax, but as a growing, developing, organised movement that involved tens of thousands of people. The rebels didn't indiscriminately loot and murder. They targeted the buildings, individuals and documents that they saw as propping up an unequal society. They were organised - the revolts leaders sent letters and messages to villages across the country, co-ordinating, organising and inspiring further revolt. And they were armed. The peasant armies that besieged London, were tens of thousands in number, armed with the weapons that many highly trained soldiers had brought with them from the wars with France.

The revolt was incredibly successful. London was captured and the King and his closest advisors besieged in the Tower of London. The King was forced to negotiate with the peasants as equals, something from which the country's rulers would never quite recover.

O'Brien shows how the rebel's ideas developed and grew. Starting of rebelling against the hated taxes, by the end they were demanding freedoms that were unthinkable months before. The abolition of the churches property - the redistribution of wealth and land and so on.

Despite the trickery of the King who murdered the rebel leaders and massacred their way around the country to regain power, England was fundamentally changed. Peasants could look their rulers in the eye, knowing that they too were human. Mark O'Brien's short book packs in a huge amount and gives a different version of medieval history - one to inspire us today at the great potential for rebellion amongst those who would be ignored by Kings and rulers. Ignored at their peril.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - Perish the Privileged Orders, A socialist history of the Chartist movement