Friday, July 30, 2010

Tony Barnsley - Breaking Their Chains, Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers' Strike of 1910

Winston Churchill famously said that "History is written by the victors", but the story of the Chainmakers' strike shows that this isn't true. The hundreds of women chainmakers who went on strike in 1910 for two months have been forgotten to history. Their inspiring victory was unlikely to be celebrated by those who write what passes for official history, because it was the story of how the most downtrodden, isolated and poverty stricken workers took on their bosses and won a stunning victory.

The story has recently come to light, according Tony Barnsley's preface, with the demolition of the Workers Institute in Cradley Heath. This institute was built with the cash left over from the workers' strike fund, so great was their support. The demolition of the Institute and it's rebuilding as part of the Black Country Museum and the rediscover of the story of the women's strike has led to an annual celebration of their victory. Something that would no doubt bring a smile to those who took part.

In this short book, Tony Barnsley covers an immense amount of ground. He starts with the appalling conditions that were the norm for workers in the Black Country. Low pay, appalling housing and a short life-expectancy. Despite being known as the "work shop of the world" the majority of those who lived in the growing industrial areas around Birmingham benefited little from the huge profits to be made from the coal and manufacturing industries.

But their had been some gains - trade union organisation and strikes had benefited some. But the women who made the chains that were exported around the world hadn't been part of this. Theirs wasn't a peripheral industry, they made the iron chains that helped to moor merchant ships in docks around the British Empire. They made the chains that bound many slaves in the plantations. But mostly these links were forged in the individual homes of the women and their families. This system of sweating out, meant that negotiations were individual - between a single woman and the middle men, who made their own profits from the deal.

Into this battle steps the real hero of this tale - Mary Macarthur, a union organiser who mobilises and inspires the women and their families, and puts them at the heart of a campaign that publicises their plight. As Barnsley says, she clearly had an "eye for getting the message across the press", the primitive newsreels showed film of the appalling conditions of work to tens of thousands of people around the country. Reproduced in the book is a wonderful photograph of some of the oldest chainmakers - in their 60s or 70s, they sit, proud in their best clothes. "England's Disgrace" read their signs.

The solidarity money poured in. The strikers were able to survive with decent strike pay, and the bosses quickly found the money to double the women's wages.

The story of the strike cannot be separated from the inspiration story of Mary Macarthur herself. A pacifist and socialist, she was an inspiration speaker and organiser. She launched the first women workers union, but argued that women should organise together with men, so collectively they were stronger. Her women's union quickly joined the wider TUC. She stood, but lost, for parliament and would no doubt have been an inspiring official politician.

But the story also can't be separated from the wider story of the British trade union movement, and one of the excellent things about the pamphlet is the way that the author puts the strike into the context of the growing industrial might of British workers. From the "New Unionism" to the "Great Unrest", the chainmakers struggle was an important battle in a much wider war.

In conclusion Barnsley points out that the Chainmakers' strike shows that there really are no "unorganisable" workers. Today there are still sweatshops across the globe, not a few of these in the UK. The battle for social justice continues and there are lessons from a century ago for us today.

The Chainmakers Festival takes place in September and is rapidly becoming an important date in the Trade Union calender. There is more information on the 2010 event here.

Tony Barnsley's new book is published by Bookmarks the offical bookshop of the TUC. It's sponsored in part by branches of the NUT and NASUWT in Dudley.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson - Icehenge

This 1984 novel by one of Science Fictions masters is a strange amalgam. It begins in 2248AD, with a revolution on Mars against the "Committee". This revolution is seen only at a distance, at least until its last moments. One of the co-incidental actions is that a group of space miners in the outer solar system, looking at existing society in despair, decide to build a star ship and found a new society in a different solar system.

The novel then goes through two further sections, by 2547AD the revolution is long defeated and forgotten. The ever powerful Committee funds archaeological expeditions, one of which uncovers power evidence that the revolution did occur and was more than simply an episode of rioting. This creates huge social turmoil as contemporary views of society are suddenly changed. Simultaneously a monument is found on Pluto's north pole. This "Icehenge" is accurately made and scrawled with the figures 2248, linking it to the first star ship to leave the solar system.

There follows a battle to explain and understand what has happened. Rather cleverly Robinson uses this to show how different strands of thought in archaeology often take on major contemporary importance, or reflect modern debates and prejudices. Most of part two is an attempt by a minority of experts to argue that there was a revolution, that the committee has blood on its hand for the suppression of the revolution and that the world is a different place.

Part three turns this back on its head again. To say more would undermine the plot for future readers, though again, the author is showing how we shouldn't take anything for granted.

Sadly this is possible the story's weak point. I didn't feel that the conclusion was satisfactory, even on the novel's own terms. In fact the author seems to make a virtue of not tying up the loose plot threads and certainly left this reader hanging. But as one of the few examples of the genre that I call Archaeology in Space it's certainly worth a read, if only for the reflection it allows on what history is, and who writes it.

Related Reviews

Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Castle Freeman - All That I Have

Castle Freeman's "All That I Have" is on the surface quite a simple story about a county sheriff and the places he looks after. The towns have the expected collection of oddballs and eccentrics, who one assumes get like that because of the isolation from civilisation.

But as the story progresses what we find is something much darker. The outside world is causing change, and its not welcome. Some unknown, but very rich foreigners have arrived and in building an expensive, gated mansion, they drawn the attention of what passes for the local criminal community. Sheriff Lucian Wise however isn't prepared to go for the simple answer and pick up the obvious criminals. He's more interested in the darker forces at play. This refusal to bow down to accepted practice incurs the wrath of his colleagues and things start to get out of hand.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, everything that the Sheriff holds true is under threat. His relationship seems threatened, and the very thing that makes him who he is - his job - is under threat from an ambitious, if mechanically minded deputy. Sheriff Wise has to not only solve a crime, he has to protect a carefully nurtured method of doing things, one that has served him well, but is rooted in an older, simpler time.

The sense of a town simmering away, with its internal tensions held in check by the most minor of bounds, is not new to novels; this feels very much like some of Cormac McCarthy's work for instance. But Freeman does it well. The ending isn't particularly explosive, on the surface all the loose ends are tied up. But something doesn't quite feel right. Everything stays the same, but everything has also changed.

Castle Freeman has packed a great deal into this short book. It is a story that will linger and stimulate the mind long after many longer books have been forgotten.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hannah Dee - The Red in the Rainbow: Sexuality, Socialism & LGBT Liberation

This short, but impressive book is an excellent introduction to a subject that I think has been neglected somewhat by the revolutionary left. The history of human sexuality is a complex one, tied up with the various forms of society that we have lived in and constantly changing.

Hannah Dee starts however, by looking at the modern gay liberation movement born as a result of police raids on a New York gay bar, leading to three days of rioting. The year is significant - 1969 followed the near revolutionary movements that united students and workers around the globe. The Gay Liberation Front that was launched from Stonewall, consciously echoed in its name of the organisation that was starting to grind US troops down in Vietnam, and it was inspired by (and drew support from) the Black Panthers. Dee shows how, for years, Gays and Lesbians had been brutalised, ignored and ostracised. The Stonewall riots marked the beginning of their attempts to organise and fight back, winning much of the rights that we have today. But crucially, as she points out, we still have far to go.

Human sexuality is ever changing. Early colonial visitors to the New World were often dismayed by the lack of moral codes defining sexuality or gender amongst tribes that we would now characterise as "hunter gatherers". But even more recent class societies have had differing attitudes to homosexual love and sex - witness the "highly visible" relationships between men in ancient Greek Society for instance.

Hannah shows how the development of class society changes all this. With the need to protect a "surplus" of food, came social divisions into classes. The exploiters and the exploited. Along side this develops a sub-division were the different genders in society take on different roles in the productive process. In particular, women become seen as those who primarily raise children and men those who do the work. This process takes thousands of years and for the vast majority of human history has not existed. The rise of class society creates and eventually cements this in place. Drawing on the work of Fredrick Engels, Dee shows how this "world historic defeat of the female sex" becomes central to the latest stage of class society - Capitalism.

Under capitalism however, the family becomes increasingly central, and for the rulers it becomes increasingly important to instill a particular vision of what society should be like. It is in this context that sexuality becomes legal and socially restricted in the way we have known it more recently. That's not to say that there was no oppression or restrictions on homosexuality before capitalism, but it reaches its pinnacle with modern capitalism. Henry VIII introduced laws to make sodomy illegal and punishable by death. But the death penality was rarely carried out until the late 18th century.

What is fantastic though, is that at all stages in history, men and women have ignored the law and rebelled against it. Dee shows how various radicals fought and argued for the freedom to love who you wanted. At points of high conflict, when everything is up for grabs, the way relationships are seen is also challenged. So for instance, Dee points out that the "American Revolution of 1766 against British Colonial Rule also decriminalised sodomy".

A central theme of this book, is that the struggle for sexual liberation is inseperable from the struggle for social liberation. In fact, it has often been the working class and socialist movement that struggled hardest for these rights (the "Red in the Rainbow"). Edward Carpenter is one such fascinating figure in this battle and a recent biography by Sheila Rowbotham has done much to rescue him from obscurity. The highest point though of this struggle for liberation was the Russian Revolution. Dee draws out the way in which the first working class revolution, frees human sexuality in ways unimagined in other countries - not just the decriminalisation of homosexuality, but abortion and divorce on demand.

The final part of the book looks at the ways in which the struggle for liberation has ebbed and flowed with the strength of the working class movement. The defeat of the German and Russian revolutions led to vicious attacks on Gays and Lesbians under Hitler and Stalin. But other struggles revived the movement - the chapter on the 1984 British miners strike is inspired. Reagen and Thatcherism's reassertion of capitalism's ideal of the family also hampered the LGBT struggle, and created the terrain upon which the AIDS epidemic could be painted as a "Gay Disease".

The book finishes optimistically, but with determination. LGBT people have not won freedom, but have many freedoms. These will come under attack and the struggle to defend the gains of the last few years will have to be coupled with campaigns to protect much else that is under threat in this period of austerity. But true liberation means breaking free of the class society that imposes such restrictions on our lives, including our sexual lives.

Dee quotes Engels' wonderful paragraph imagining a future society were men and women "make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual" without the restrictions of money, power and class tat capitalism imposes upon us. Such revolutionary dreams might seem unimageinable today, but as Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying on the final page "A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at".

Monday, July 12, 2010

Arthur C. Clarke & Frederik Pohl - The Last Theorem

This is a strange novel indeed. There is much of interest within it - it's certainly the only novel I can think of that starts with a Sri Lankan mathematician who has a homosexual relationship with his best friend. The story is set at an indeterminate, but short time in the future and is heavily influenced by current political and social issues - extraordinary rendition is an important theme.

But there are problems. Not least the plot, which jumps of idea to idea. The central character, Ranjit Subramanian is socially naive young man who sets himself the challenge of solving Fermat's Last Theorem. In doing so, he puts himself at the heart of a network of people of great importance to the future of planet Earth.

Simultaneously, a secondary plot line deals with several interstellar alien species. One of which has evolved to a new level of consciousness that is independent of matter. These beings see the evolution of human kind and their technological driven expansion as a threat and a couple of other species are dispatched to end human life.

Apart from the various fantastical notions in the book (Ranjit solves the Last Theorem in under five pages for instance) the authors throw half formed and irrelevant ideas into the plot seemingly at random. We're treated to the first "Lunar Olympics" and a new super-weapon which can destroy all the technological in a given national boundary.

The problem is, that neither author seems to have the skill to hang all this together in anything approaching a plausible way. Science Fiction often deals with fantastical ideas, but some of this was so implausible that it made me laugh out loud. The idea for instance that China, Russia and the USA would sit down with a new super-weapon on the table, and discuss how they could use it for the world's good was amusing enough.

But what annoyed me was the way that the more unusual elements to the story vanish and are replaced by more standard fair. Ranjit's homosexuality is simply a phase he goes through, eventually he marries a gorgeous, scientist who happens to be one of the world leaders in AI. The second target of the world's new super-weapon (after North Korea) includes Venezuela, which appears to be showing sub-imperialist interests in the region. Whether the crude descriptions of the leaderships of these two countries are lazy writing or they are common caricatures, it smacks of the worst of Cold-War science-fiction, which linked Russia and the "alien threat".

Oddly the book is compulsive, mainly I think because it's so unbelievable that the reader wants to see what depths are going to be plumbed next. The ending is a sort of "and they all lived happily ever after", but the novel is really nothing less than a collection of half-baked fantastical ideas linked by the most tenuous of plot lines.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Simon Behrman - Shostakovich: Socialism, Stalin & Symphonies

Perhaps more than any other composer Dmitri Shostakovich demonstrates how difficult it is to seperate music from its historical period. Shostakovich's life was marked by the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution and the great events that shook Russia. But Simon Behrman argues that, this is not simply reflected in Shostakovich's music, it shaped the very nature of his compositions.

In part this is negative. Towards the end of his life, Shostakovich went for several years without composing anything of note - a few film scores and so on - but this wasn't simply writer's block, it was a reaction to the huge pressure imposed upon him by the Soviet regieme which waxed and waned in its attitude to the composer.

But more importantly; and brilliantly illustrated by Behrman, Shostakovich's musical style was developed and shaped by the Russian Revolution and the tragedy of its isolation and defeat.

Revolutionary moments in history are always reflected in culture. Partly because of their inspiration - take William Wordsworth's famous declaration in reaction to the French Revolution for instance:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!"

So in part Shostakovich's music reflects the excitement and potential of the liberation represented by the Russian Revolution, as the shackles of Tsarism were overthrown and society was controlled, albeit briefly, by ordinary men and women. Behrman shows how the rarely performed Second Symphony captures the essence of the revolution, almost as a story in musical form.

But more importantly perhaps, the revolution unleashed it's own cultural revolution. Shostakovich experiments with new musical forms and even new electronic instruments. The music post revolution must, almost by definition be different to that which has gone before.

But such a celebration of the "genuine" revolutionary tradition could not surive the isolation of the revolution and Stalin's counter-revolution. Thus Shostakovich became a difficult figure for the Soviet government. Loved and venerated around the world for his musical genius, the inherent criticism of the new regieme in his music couldn't survive.

Behrman shows how Shostakovich now moves in and out of popularity with Stalin's government. Lauded then banned, until once again he is popular as his powerful celebration of the resistance of Leningrad to the Nazi invasion in the Seventh Symphony fits with the ideological needs of the time. Some of his greatest pieces of music, however are too controversial and remain unperformed until the very end of the regieme in the 1980s.

Shostakovich never quite looses the passion that the revolution introduced to his, and millions of other people's lives. He remains a complicated figure for many who perhaps cannot quite get to grips with the politics of the period - in part this is why some assume that his criticism of Stalin maust make him an "anti-communist". But this is to misunderstand the complex interaction between the inspiration of the revolution and the despair of its fate.

Behrman illustrates this brilliantly through the life of one of the 20th centuries greatest composers in an accessible book that I hope will inspire readers to explore a set of musical compositions that might not normal be considered radical.

Related Reading

Simon Behrman's 2009 piece "From revolution to irrelevance: how classical music lost its audience" is well worth a read here.

Mahamdallie - Crossing the 'river of fire': the socialism of William Morris

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Peter D. Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared

The massive extinction of the large mega-fauna towards the end of the last ice-age provides for a complex and surprisingly passionate debate. This shouldn't be a surprise - if the Mammoths and Mastodons of North America vanished because of climate change, or because of our ancestors hunted them to extinction, there are salutary lessons for us today.

Peter Ward tries to get to grips with what happened and why. To do this, he starts by looking at previous mass extinctions - there have been fifteen of these in the last half-billion years. Of these, Ward explains that five were "major", destroying over half the planet's species. Shocking though these statistics might be, Ward makes the point that we owe the existence of our own species to one of the most famous extinctions.

The disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago created the ecological space meaning that our own mammal ancestors had the space to grow, develop and evolve.

Ward looks at the various extinctions in turn - both to enable us to understand the megafauna extinction better, but also to help explain some of the central arguments around what you might dub, extinction theory. How we measure when a species dies out is complex - there isn't simply a visible line in the Earth's strata. Creatures that vanish often look like they are gradually dying out in the fossil record, leaving it hard to pinpoint what exactly happens.

The author does put both sides of the argument - for extinction of mammoths by human action and through climate change. He favours the first, so develops the theory of this more - looking at various arguments and ideas about how this has happened. The Clovis people who entered the North American continent at the end of the last ice-age clearly hunted the animals they encountered. These, as Jared Diamond argues well in Guns, Germs and Steel, had no experience of humans and had no instinctive fear of the hunter.

But Ward argues that the idea that mammoths were simply wiped out by the hunger of human mouths (as argued by Tim Flannery for instance) isn't correct. Describing the mathematical modelling of animal populations, he points out that recent research shows that a small, but systematic reduction of numbers for a population can systematically undermine the viability of a animal population. Putting an explicit figure on this, he argues that humans only had to kill 2% of the Mammoth population to help cross a "critical threshold" which meant that the whole population could crash in less than a century.

Citing evidence that mammoths that had been found were well fed and giving birth regularly, he argues that it is unlikely that we are discussing a weakened population of animals. Mammoths did not die out from starvation.

It should be pointed out that this is an explicit argument for the North American continent. In Siberia, for instance, the Mammoths were unable to survive the Ice-Age - a very different situation.

Ward argues his point well. I am sure there are arguments against his but there is much to be gained from this book even if his central tenets aren't correct. His discussion on the problems with conservation of modern day elephants, based on the computer models of isolated populations, argues well against some conservation practices used in Africa today. His explanations of why extinctions occur are useful to anyone concerned about the planet's eco-system today, though his pessimistic conclusion will not be to everyone's taste.