Friday, December 31, 2010

Elaheh Rostami-Povey - Iran's Influence

Despite the rhetoric you hear from many of the leading politicians of the western world, and even from sections of the more liberal establishment, Iran is not the monolithic Islamic state that they would have us believe.

Elaheh Rostami-Povey's multi-layered book explores in detail the country's history, its part in the wider economic, political and cultural history of the Middle East as well as the role of various political forces, religions and external influences in shaping it, to give us a rounded and useful understanding of the country today.

Quite rightly, Rostami-Povey argues that no country is monolithic. In particular she demonstrates that despite the view of some, the Islamic regime that consolidated its power following the 1979 revolution against the Shah, was one that had immense popular support, and hence helped introduce a huge variety of popular reforms that made a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in Iran.

Again, contrary to the view that today's Iran is a conservative country dominated by those who would restrict women to wear full body coverings and stone those who commit adultery, she shows an Iran were there are competing political and ideological forces, many of whom are lead by women and trying to resist the further strengthening of conservative forces.

But in terms of the forces shaping modern Iran, the biggest factors are external - the existence of Israel and its continued assault on the Palestinians and the US's imperialist ventures in the region. This has a historical importance because the 1979 revolution against the Shah was as much against his role in supporting Israel and backing Western interests as against his internal repression. The support for the regime post 1979 hence also stems from the perception of it as anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist.

This causes problems for those inside Iran who want to change the country. The pro-democracy movement that burst onto the streets of Iran in 2009 following the election there, is often viewed with suspicion because of the Wests support for it. Even though those involved are very clear that they reject the vision the West (particularly the US) has for the Middle East, the actions of the US etc in the Middle East have the effect of strengthening the conservative position in Iran. The real threat of US attack leads to a strengthening of the existing government.

Rostami-Povey is particularly strong on two aspects of the history of Iran and the region - firstly the role of women in the various anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and pro-democracy movements that exist today and have existed in the past. This is essential because often we are presented an image that all Islamists are against women's participation in society, and this is clearly untrue even in Iran.

She is also very strong when she writes about how other forces in the Middle East are influenced by Iran's anti-imperialism and its political support, but don't necessarily follow its line or instructions. Most importantly the role of Hezbollah and Hamas in resisting Israel in Lebanon and Palestine. Both these movements enjoy Iran's support, but economically they are far more dependent on international and local donations from those impressed by their ability to stand up to the Zionists and to provide the basic needs for the people whose lives have been destroyed by war and imperialism. Rostami-Povey is particularly impressive when she traces the way in which Hezbollah for instance has be so central to providing basic healthcare and food, that it receives the support of people (rich and poor) from across the religious spectrum, including substantial numbers of non-Muslims.

Rostami-Povey is firmly on the side of those who want to see more democracy, more rights for women, more involvement of minorities and less sectarianism. She shows how the simple demonisation of Iran will make this worse, as in the past when the destruction of secular, nationalist and leftist movements by the US helped to create the Taliban and Al-Qqaeda. In her conclusion she says

"The impact of sending more ships and missiles to the Persian Gulf by Obama has been negative for the democracy movement in Iran, as the conservatives within the regime have used the pressure from outside as an additional protect to clamp down even more fiercly. In this context, history is repeating itself: the West in the past destroyed the secular and nationalist movements that were fighting for democracy and independence in Iran and the wider region; now they are destroying the Islamist modernists through the constant threat of military intervention."

The wider support for Iran across the Middle East comes because it is seen precisely as a country that has stood up to the US and western intervention. Iran's own history shows however, that the ordinary people of the wider Middle East are the force best positioned to overthrow dictators and right-wing leaders. Rostami-Povey also shows how these people want solutions that mean those from different cultures, religions and communities can live together. To do this means changing the power relations in the Middle East and that means uniting against oppression and foreign intervention.

For those wanting to get a good understanding of the current situation in the Middle East, this is an essential read. Sadly the price of £18.99 for a 264 page book (including references and index) will put many off. I hope that should it get republished, the publishers will consider that such high prices limit readership.

Related Reviews

Marshall - Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Iran
Rose - The Myths of Zionism

A useful short introduction to the current political situation in Iran can be found in this article here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tim O'Brien - If I Die In A Combat Zone

This Vietnam memoir follows Tim O'Brien from his basic training to his time on the front line in Vietnam. It finishes with his time in a safer post, behind the lines working in the administration. By the time he got there, he'd seen several friends killed and injured and dodged sniper fire in the places that became infamous for the massacre at Mai Lai.

While the storyline has become a fairly standard structure for the Vietnam film or novel (or indeed many other war stories), here it works because of the authors brutal honesty. He documents his plans to run to Sweden - researched in detail and planned in depth, because of his terror at going. He talks about the ineptness of one of his commanders and he admits to barely seeing the enemy during his tour of duty.

The power of the book, apart from its honesty, is the way in which we see reflected the greater struggles that take place. Hindsight gives us a particular set of images when we hear the name Mai Lai, but for Tim as he moved around there it was simply another place.

Definitely one of the classics that came out of that war, it'll help clarify the fears and emotions of those soldiers who went to Vietnam but also fueled the struggles against the war and against Imperialism.

Related Reviews

Marlantes - Matterhorn

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jules Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Jules Verne was rather a prolific writer. Many of his novels have gone down in history as representing the hopes for a technological future. One in which nothing was beyond the realms of human achievement so long as the technology could be invented. In doing this he created incredible adventures, often populated with tremendous machines and larger than life heroes.

Five Weeks in a Balloon was Verne's first novel. It's rather more sedate then some of the others, and the specific nature of the voyage described inside means that the story line is mostly a collection of experiences of observations from a hot air balloon as it crosses the African continent. Verne was writing in the era of Livingstone and Stanley and other great explorers. Africa was one of the few places that Europeans hadn't quite got their heads around yet. Important discoveries remained - the exact route of the Nile, the origin of other cities and what places like Timbuktu were really like. It was fertile ground for an adventure novel, and by placing his explorers in a balloon, Verne doesn't have to explore in great detail what life was really like on the ground below.

Though the Africa Verne does describe is very much that of the Victorian fantasy. Africa is populated by savages and cannibals and all sort of other prejudices against the people who live there. Here is Verne describing a battle between two tribes that the balloon passes over;

"The mutual massacre continued with axe and assegai. As soon as an enemy fell... his adversary would at once cut off his head. The women, mingling with the tumult, picked up these bleeding heads and piled them up at either end of the battlefield, often fighting among themselves for possession of the hideous trophy".

Here we have combined the vision of the African as a savage, so savage that African women actually take to the battlefield and fight over the human remains. Why might they do this? Verne continues;

"The chief of one of these savage armies was distinguishable by his athletic build.. once he hurled away his blood-stained assegai, threw himself upon a wounded man, cut of his arm with a single blow, picked it up and, raising it to his mouth, bit into it with his teeth".

Such cannibal behaviour is too much for our heroes, who shoot the chief with a rifle from their vantage point above the battle.

The heroes themselves are cut from singular cloth. The organiser and chief explorer, Dr. Fergusson, who invents the new type of balloon capable of making the trip and is destined for scientific greatness, is the archetypal hero. So much so, that as a boy he "never appears to have known fear, quickly displayed a bright intelligence, an inquiring mind, a remarkable propensity for scientific work. In addition he displayed unusual skill in getting out of difficulties. Nothing ever perplexed him, not even the handling of his first fork, with which children are not as a rule very successful."

With such children in their midst, how could Europeans fail to bend the rest of their world to their will?

The storyline itself is mostly the observations from the balloon. One of the travellers, Fergusson's manservant, displays ample self knowledge when he sacrifices himself to avoid the balloon being destroyed. But Fergusson, ever the Victorian gentleman, rescues his servant in reward for his selfishness. Rescue features again later, when a European explorer is rescued from the hands of a murderous tribe.

Verne puts moral codes at the heart of the story. The servant who always knows his place and will do whatever his master wants. The loyal friends who never give up searching for their lost companions, the difficult choices faced by those who find great wealth in the desert, but can't carry it in an over-laden balloon.

The novel itself probably found a great audience on it's first publication, catering to the mass audience that was fascinated by newspaper tales of exploration. It should be read today, chiefly for it's insights into the moral codes and prejudices of Victorian society.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hassan Mahamdallie - Crossing The River Of Fire: The Socialism Of William Morris

One of the central arguments of Hassan Mahamdallie's introduction to the life and politics of William Morris, is that all to often he is reduced to an artist, a poet, or simply a lover of nice things. Even when Morris' politics are considered, they are described as a strange mix of abstract socialism with a hoped for return to some sort of medieval utopia. This no doubt lies behind Tony Blair's declaration that William Morris had been a "inspiration" while he was a student. Morris' socialism isn't seen as being challenging today, indeed it can be used to give a red veneer to those who want to be on the right, but need to look left.

Hassan Mahamdallie smashes this nonsense. For him, William Morris was a dedicated revolutionist who spent his life fighting for a better world and dreaming of a time when the workers would seize power. In perhaps his most famous work, News from Nowhere, one of Morris' characters describes the social change that lead to the creation of the future socialist society. "Did the change... come peacefully?" he is asked;

"Peacefully?"..."What peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the 19th century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it."

Mahamdallie traces William Morris' development as a political activist and Marxist. From his earliest days in the radical movements, his disillusionment with the parliamentary activity he saw around him and the formation of the Socialist League that Morris remained loyal to for most of his life. Morris spent much of his life touring the country, lecturing, speaking and inspiring workers. News from Nowhere was apparently written on the train to and from meetings. He published huge numbers of articles in the League's newspaper Commonweal, even when the newspaper was no longer representative of Morris' own socialist ideas.

One of the best parts of this short book is the section where the author looks at Morris' environmental outlook. Many have argued that Marx and his followers have shown little interest in this subject, but as John Bellamy Foster writes, William Morris' ecology is very much "in the spirit of Marx". Morris understood that people's "alienation from the earth" was the "ultimate foundation/pre-condition for capitalism".

It's for this reason that the sections of his writings that mention the natural world - especially News from Nowhere - are so important - the belief that socialism wouldn't simply be an economic change, but would involve a fundamental change in human relationships with the natural world.

Morris wasn't without fault. Many of his errors and in particular his sectarianism towards parliamentary struggles and the Leagues refusal to be involved in many of the mass industrial struggles stem from the weaknesses of the earliest socialist movements in Britain. But Mahamdallie points out that rather than Morris stepping back from revolution towards the end of his life, his Marxist understanding was developing and growing.

Unfortunately it was too late for Morris to be part of those later struggles that shaped the early part of the 20th Century. His death in 1893 was the occasion for outpourings of grief from the working class movement. But already his socialism was being denigrated and denied in the obituaries. The simpler and easier story of Morris the Middle Class wallpaper designer was being written. Hassan Mahamdallie's book rescues the far greater and more inspiring story of the all-round socialist who wanted to see beauty and art for everyone, in a society that was free of oppression and exploitation.

Related Reviews

Behrman -  Shostakovich: Socialism, Stalin & Symphonies

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chris Harman - Marxism and History

These two essays from Chris Harman form one of the clearest and most accessible introductions to the question of history in Marxist thought that it's possible to find. The first essay deals with the oft confused concepts of Base and Superstructure that Karl Marx refers to in one of his articles. The base - the economic organisation at the bottom of different societies allows the creation of a superstructure - the political, legal and cultural structures at the top of society. Different, or changing societies, organised along different economic lines allow different types of superstructures. Both of these react back and forth of each other, depending on the changing balance of forces in society.

Harman makes the point, that what is important for Marxists is how societies change - how do we move from one historical epoch, or mode of production to another. How does feudalism change to form capitalism for instance? Harman picks apart Marx's theory of history, to look at how the economic forces of production produce "relations of production", between people and between classes. But the forces of production rarely remain static in society. Things change - new tools are invented, new methods of organising production or agriculture, and these in turn create new relations of production. These develop and grow and produce new interests in society that may clash with the existing order, producing a period of social revolution.

Into this mix, Marx puts class struggle. Historical change is driven by class struggle at periods when the development of productive forces have made other change possible. He explores this in greater depth in the second essay which is a detailed look at the process of change from feudalism to capitalism. Harman is both taking on those particular Marxists, such as Robert Brenner who have, in his view, over simplified the argument or misunderstood the processes at work.

What's fascinating about both works, is that Harman picks from a deep knowledge of history to give many concrete examples to back up his explanations (something he does on an even greater scale with his fabulous "People's History of the World"). This has the effect of illuminating what are, in actual fact, slightly obscure academic debates.

But for Harman, these debates are crucial. The first essay in particular concludes with a look at how revolutionary processes happen and the role of ideology and political organisation. For Marxists, the question isn't simply to study history for the sake of it, but to understand history to learn from it, in order to strengthen our ability to change the world today.

Related Reviews

Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sheila Rowbotham - Hidden from History

This is no doubt one of the classic books of working class history. First published in the early 1970s though, it's groundbreaking aspect was too look at the "hidden history" of the struggle of women for equality and rights, in the context of the broader working class struggles and movement.

As such it takes on some uncomfortable truths. Despite the fact that at least on the surface the labour movement in the UK (and one hopes much wider afield) supports the notion of women's equality, the right for women to play a full role within the labour movement and wider society, as well as equal pay, maternity rights and access to childcare etc, this wasn't always true. Indeed, it's not always true now.

Rowbotham shows how early pioneers of the notion of women's rights didn't always meet with a friendly reception from their male contemporaries. Often for instance, this was from organised workers who were worried that women would undermine male pay levels or workplace organisation.

But also it was true within personal relationships - Rowbotham shows how women often found their socialist partners would, once married, revert to the same expectations of the role of women in the family as their bourgeois contemporaries.

But the author doesn't try to find some natural antagonism between men and women, she places such relations firmly in the context of a system that saw both the need to divide and rule, and to place the burden of raising the next generation of workers on the woman.

The struggle for the right to vote for women forms the backdrop to most of the book, though the turning point comes with the first world war, with women entering the workplaces in large numbers for the first time. Even though this ended to a certain extent with the return of peace, the fact that women had taken on jobs seen as being exclusively male fundamentally shifted social attitudes. This even survived the mass unemployment of the 1930s. Further struggles were ahead, ones that weren't simply about economic equality, though these were important. But struggles over childcare, the right to abortion and access to contraception were ones that eventually became those of the whole movement.

Rowbotham's book finishes in the 1930s. The later struggles are no less important, and this early work of hers has made me keen to search out her more recent work.

Related Reviews

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Barbara W. Tuchman - The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890 - 1914

The "Proud Tower" of Barbara Tuchman's title belongs to Edgar Allan Poe and from it "Death looks gigantically down". Any writing about the period covered in this work is of course coloured by the knowledge that it ends with the slaughter of the First World War.

Tuchman's history of the "world before the war" however is often at great pains to avoid discussing this. She wants to understand the period without its ending. Though she cannot but help herself occasionally, mentioning for instance, without comment, that a follow up to the Hague peace conference is scheduled to take place in 1916.

And because of this position it is hard at first to understand the author's theme. The first chapters (all of which originate as separate essays) seem at first to be simply about individuals - British "patricians" in the first, leading Anarchists in the second are followed by chapters on the political establishment of the United States and so on. But gradually what is exposed is a world in intense crisis - ripe it would seem for explosion or rift. So the chapter on Britain paints a portrait of a political world dominated by the old aristocratic order, heavy with tradition, individuals who are self-interested, bored by politics and economics. These Patricians increasingly clashing with a newer order, more professional men with wider interests.

This crisis at the top of society is best explored in Tuchman's chapter on the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier is wrongly accused of being a German spy. Despite a lack of evidence, lies and forgeries from the military high-command result in a prosecution that rapidly becomes a cause celebre. France is riven by a huge debate, engulfing everyone. This much we know. But what Tuchman argues is that the affair, and the eventual release and pardon of Dreyfus marks the end of an era for France. The older order, a France dominated by an aristocratic military is no more, the world changes and new forces come on to the scene.

This sense of social crisis is nicely summed up in her chapter on Germany, which deals in depth with cultural changes in music and the arts, "A restlessness fermenting under the superabundant materialism was producing in artists a desire to shock; to rip and slash the thick quilt of bourgeois comfort."

The problem with the book isn't with the writing or the history. Well researched, and eminently readable, Tuchman has a fantastic prose that brings to life the characters she describes. Often her brief portraits can both capture and skewer an individual.  Lord Salisbury the British Prime Minister "cared nothing for sport and little for people. His aloofness was enhanced by shortsightedness so intense that he once failed to recognize a member of his own Cabinet, and once, his own butler". Tuchman does not fail to point out Salisbury's hatred of the lower orders and his fear of popular democracy.

The problem comes because Tuchman starts with the individuals. Any attempt to give a narrative to the history other than the most simplistic one of a society in crisis, is thus lost. Even though the build up to war, the growing economic and industrial power of the future belligerents and the potential for international clashes are there through out the book, Tuchman doesn't put this at the heart of the story, so the reader is left high and dry when trying to understand why war began in August 1914.

The problem becomes worse when you look at what is missing. Tuchman doesn't deal with the world beyond Europe and North America much - with barely a mention of South America, Asia or Africa, except as the arenas for Great Power clashes. And while the mass of the population is referred to obliquely (in terms of numbers of votes for instance) they don't really enter the story except very occasionally. Tuchman is only interested in the majority when they have some impact upon on the few individuals she is discussing.

This becomes almost distressing in her two chapters on the radicals. We are again treated to a long list of pen portraits of famous Anarchists and Socialists, some of which are frankly insulting - Rosa Luxemburg is described as "not good-looking". Yet the radical ideas of these individuals exist in a vacuum for Tuchman - there is no sense that some of these individuals commanded mass organisations, with the allegiance of millions of workers.

It is true to an extent that the leading members of the Social Democratic parties in the early 20th Century did become detached from those of the mass of workers. But to believe that millions of working people did not oppose the coming war, even if they felt unable to act against it, flies in the face of the evidence that she herself quotes.

Of course, this doesn't mean the book is without value. There is much to learn from Tuchman's wide reading and accessible language. Some obscure but fascinating moments in western history are brought out that illuminate the wider period. The chapter on Dreyfus is a fantastic summary of that complex and eventful time. The chapter that deals with Richard Strauss' radical and challenging music which caused shock and debate across Europe in a way that seems incredible today is fascinating, especially if you want to understand later developments in music, and the hopes for the international peace conferences convened by the great powers seem naive with hindsight, but clearly carried the aspirations of millions.

Tuchman writes wonderful history. But it is history from above even if she didn't want it to be. Her works illuminate some of the darkest times of human history and are best seen I think as giving a framework for the wider study of the historical forces that shaped our modern world.

Philip Pullman - The Ruby In The Smoke

The sheer brilliance of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series for young adults has unjustly hidden his excellent other works. His series of novels about Sally Lockhart, that begins with The Ruby in the Smoke, contains no fantasy, though at times they are fantastical and amazing. Ruby is at times a deeply disconcerting novel, even for the adult reader. The plot begins with Sally trying to find out about her missing father, by enquiring at his former place of work. Anonymous letters and brief allusions, as well as the sudden death of one of her fathers colleagues when she mentions an unknown phrase, spur her to dig deeper into a growing mystery.

This is a novel for young adults. So the structure and plot is not as complex as adults might expect. It is however deeply descriptive and for those who know East London, it certainly feels real. Indeed I wouldn't have been surprised if Pullman had tramped the streets of London to get the descriptions right. There are shocks, and Pullman doesn't hide any of the nastiness of Victorian poverty. In fact he highlights it, partly I think to underline the horrible future that Sally faces, should she fail in her adventure.

As in so many other novels aimed at this age group, most of the people who Sally meets are kind, and she falls on her feet many times. Though at one point late in her adventure, the expected rescue is nothing of the kind. Sally travels back and forth across London, eventually facing down her evil enemy, who is a brilliantly realised nemesis aimed particularly to frighten, or at least un-nerve younger readers.

Pullman has created a brilliantly realised world. It evokes a time of poverty, hunger and unemployment, when women were expected to know their place, but were people were already questioning the social setup. Later novels in the series develop this further, exposing and challenging other aspects of Victorian society (anti-Semitism for instance).

In many ways Ruby is a precurssor to the Dark Materials, not by content but by structure and emotion. It's a great read for an adult, it'd be amazing for younger readers.