Sunday, November 27, 2011

Leon Trotsky - On Britain

Leon Trotsky is of course, best known for helping lead the Russian Revolution and creating the Red Army to win the Civil War. He was also someone who took great interest in history and current affairs. His belief in the socialist future, and his internationalist outlook contrasted him to the growing clique around Stalin who, after the failure of revolutions in Europe in the early 1920s, turned increasingly towards the idea of Socialism in One Country.

Trotsky wrote a number of polemical pieces and books aimed at communists in other countries. This collection of essays begins with his book "Wither Britain" and includes extracts from a several reviews (almost all of them hostile) and a critical introduction by a British Labour leader. The later parts of this are Trotsky's responses and further writings, dealing in the main with the role of the Anglo-Russian Committee and the attitude of leading communists in the Soviet Union towards this body. The ARC was a co-ordinating group between leading British trade unionists and parts of the Soviet's international bodies. Designed to support the Russian Revolution at a time of isolation, it was also seen as a way of helping strengthen socialist forces in the UK. Trotsky's polemic here is aimed at the forces around Stalin who increasingly saw the ARC as being a way to help defend the USSR from intervention and economic isolation, rather than as a tool for revolution.

This attitude helps explain the earlier parts of the book. Trotsky attacks the sacred beliefs of many leading British Labourites and socialist. In particular, he opposes their arguments of non-violence (or pacifism) and the concept of gradualism. These arise, he says, not because of any inherent differences between the British national character and that of workers abroad, but because they are fundamentally opposed to the action struggles that are needed to over throw the state. As his writings get closer to the 1926 General Strike, from afar, Trotsky's view is much clearer than the so called socialist leaders in the UK. He can see the preparations being made for class-war by the capitalists. The British leaders, he points out, are enjoying too much their new found positions at the head of trade unions and in parliament.

The inclusion of articles by his critics, including Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and Bertrand Russell is useful, because it shows how bankrupt their politics already were. They constantly argue that Trotsky's book is interesting and entertaining but shows no understanding of the life of British workers, or the nature of the movement. They urge him to acknowledge the role of the progressive church, of gradualism and the better relations with capitalists here. Trotsky, in response, points out their own lack of understanding, the bankrupt nature of the church and the failure to understand the way that the British ruling class was prepared to maintain its position by making workers pay. Something all too familiar today. Britain is different they plead, no it is not responds Trotsky, speaking to those who had already broken from the reformists but lacked clarity from their own leaders.

Trotsky's major problem is the fledgling nature of the British Communist Party, founded only a few years before the General Strike. The CP was, at its beginning, hampered by sectarian attitudes from some of its constituent members. Despite the bravery and commitment of many of its members, its small size and its distorted politics (in particularly, its belief that it was possible to win the Labour Party to socialism by leaning on the leadership) was to lead to disaster during the General Strike. The Russian leadership of the Communist International did not help much, in part because of their lack of understanding of the nature of trade union bureacracies, steming from their lack of experience in this field. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein have discussed this in detail elsewhere.

Trostky's polemic is shaped by the recent disasters in Germany. Time and again he returns to the need for a mass, revolutionary organisation, capable of working with, but independently of the trade union and Labour leaders. One of the strengths of the book is seeing how Trotsky was coming towards a detailed grasp of the United Front tactic. However even Trotsky's brilliant mind is, occasionally confused by the reality of the Labour Party.

Ultimately, the sell-out of the 1926 General Strike by the union leaders seems to have come as a shock to the commentators overseas. Trotsky and those around him no-doubt hoped that this was the very beginning of the British revolution. Instead it was to herald a period of defeat for the British workers. The mistakes made by revolutionaries no had a far greater impact. The failure to break with the ARC in the aftermath of the sell-out, was one side of the coin. The other side was the way that the British CP put all its hopes in the General Council of the TUC. For Stalin, the way forward was now to appease the capitalist powers and build up the economic strength of the USSR. But this strategy helped to lay the path for the defeat of revolutionary movements in China and Spain. Trotsky's brilliant analysis in this book, shows the beginnings of his increasing break with the official politics of the CP and the twists, turns and betrayals of revolutionary movements that Stalin would now take.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe
Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October 1879 - 1917
Cliff - Trotsky; Sword of the Revolution 1917 - 1923
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Choonara - A Rebels' Guide to Trotsky

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sally Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg

In this latest addition to the Rebel's Guide series, Sally Campbell points out that many aspects of the modern world would be instantly recognisable to the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. We live in an era of revolution and war, repeated mass strikes have taken place in many countries in the last year. Here in the UK a public sector strike of up to 3 million workers at the end of November may well signal a new period of working class struggle.

Sally Campbell also points out, that the stark choice that Luxemburg offered, between "Socialism and Barbarism" remains even more true. The failure of the German revolution in the early 1920s led to the further isolation of Russia's revolution. This in turn helped entrench Stalin in power. In Germany the defeat of the revolutionary left, led to the rise of the Nazis, and in turn, the barbarism of the Holocaust and World War Two.

Rosa Luxemburg is one of the more misunderstood revolutionaries. Her incredibly important contributions to Marxist theory and revolutionary practice are often ignored in favour of detailing her polemics against the Bolsheviks. She is, as Campbell points out, many things to many people, tending to be a pawn in wider political arguments. Possibly the worst example of this that I have ever seen, is Joel Kovel's argument in The Enemy of Nature, where he declares that Rosa Luxemburg was more concerned that other male revolutionaries about questions of nature and ecology, because of her gender.

This makes Campbell's short book very important. Luxemburg's revolutionary life deserves to be celebrated, not simply for her dedication, nor to mark her horrific death, but because her contributions to the wider movement were so important. Her polemics with Lenin over questions of party organisation or the nature of Imperialism, which Campbell ably details, are not ones that are the result of cynicism towards revolution, rather they are the thoughts and writings of someone determined to play a part in the working classes' victory over capitalism.

The author of this book deserves congratulations for fitting so much into so few pages. The book never reads as superficial, though I wished it was longer. The section on Luxemburg's pamphlet The Mass Strike will, I hope, encourage many more people to read this important work themselves. Similarly I hope that people might go on to read her Junius Pamphlet, one of the most powerful polemics against war and imperialism I've ever read.

As Campbell celebrates Luxemburg's life, she also critiques her. Luxemburg made many mistakes, as do all revolutionaries. Perhaps her greatest mistake was remaining part of a broader socialist organisation for far to long, before she broke and formed the group that eventually became the German Communist Party. As Campbell points out there were reasons for this, and the debates were long and detailed as German socialists weighed up the pros and cons of their actions. Sadly they got it wrong and this mistake was a major factor in the failure of the German Revolution and Luxemburg's own death. Today, as a new generation of socialists face the challenges thrown up by a decaying capitalism - war and economic crisis, we must relearn the lessons from our own history. Sally Campbell has produced a great introduction to a forgotten but important part of that history. I urge comrades, old and new to read it.

Related Reviews

Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee - Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire

Jared Diamond's books have become phenomenal bestsellers. Both Guns, Germs and Steel and the more recent Collapse have sold in their thousands and are regularly referenced, quoted and used as academic texts. Diamond has been, and should be praised for his attempts to look at human society and history with a critical eye. Famously he quotes a Papua New Guinean, Yali, in the first book, who questions why it is that white people have all the goods and his people have none. In trying to answer this complex question, Diamond challenges many assumptions. Not least some attitudes of racial superiority from the whites against those with darker skins.

However, many people clearly feel that Diamonds reductionism is inadequate. I felt that Collapse was less persuasive than Guns, Germs and Steel. In my review of it though, I complained that I didn't like the way that Diamond could point the finger at irrational behaviour in historical societies, without a similar critique of the irrationality at the heart of modern capitalism.

In Questioning Collapse, a wide range of anthropologists, archaeologists and social scientists offer their responses to Diamonds books. Most of these responses are very critical indeed. The advertising campaign for Collapse centred on Diamond's version of the story of the end of the civilisation on Easter Island. Diamond located the collapse here, in the irrational destruction of the islands forests. "What did the person who cut the last tree down think?" was the question posed by the advertising agency. Yet the title to the chapter on Easter Island in this volume refers to the "Myth" of ecocide on Easter Island. The authors conclude that "there is no evidence that the island represents a case of 'ecocide' where a large population crashed from environmental ruin before Europeans arrived".

Instead, this version of the Easter Island story is one were the European arrival was the trigger for population crash on the islands, instead, "as the idea of 'ecocide' has gained currency, the victims of cultural and physical extermination have been turned into the perpetrators of their own demise!"

Similar arguments are thrown up in other chapters. The author of the chapter responding to Diamond's thoughts on the "Archaeology of the American Southwest" is very critical of Diamond's methods. He accuses Diamond of "completely ignoring" thousands of years of history. The story of "environmental mismanagement" by indigenous people that Diamond offers, this author suggests, ends up justifying the actions of the colonizers. After all, if the native people couldn't manage the land properly, than those who came after them could. Thus, despite the evidence of thousands of years of successful farming in the desert, we are led to believe that the indigenous people were "failures" whereas those who green the desert of the American south-west with golf courses are somehow successful.

Several essays remind us that many of the civilisations that Diamond classes as failures, have survived far longer than those that he considers successes. The decline of the Norse society in Greenland, long enough to provide "four additional generations" is, longer than several twentieth-century European states have lasted. The city of Uruk in Mesopotamia, "flourished, though not without its ups and downs, for more than 3,000 years", hardly an example of a mismanaged environment.

What these authors are trying to do, is to avoid looking for simple answers to difficult questions. Several of them ask, what do we actually mean by collapse? In Mesopotamia, or South America in the case of the Maya, civilisations declined, and populations decreased enormously. But this does not necessarily mean the end of civilisation. Hundreds of thousands of people still speak Maya, and even play a version of the ancient ball-game. Is this actually a Collapse?

Changes to human societies, and even their collapse is down to many factors. Sometimes environmental questions play a role. Though more often, the determining factor is not the climate, but the political and economic setup. The "choices" a society can make are constrained by the social forces within those societies. Some Maya cities did decline rapidly in the face of drought. Others continued to thrive or expand, despite suffering from similar environmental problems. Those that survived were ones that adapted and changed, often because new forces were able to force rulers to behave differently, or stand aside. As in the case of the American people in the south-west, Diamond's failure to explain their own history, ends up misunderstanding the nature of the decline of their society. It ends up letting those who re-shaped America in their own interests, off the hook. Consistently Diamond is accused of misrepresenting the realities of the societies he examines, in the case of south America David Cahill argues, for instance, that he "misrepresents, perhaps unintentionally, the complexity and achievements of Incan or Andean civilization".

These essays are stimulating and informative. They are also unusual in that the authors are presented not simply as academics, but as people engaged in real dialogues and discussions with the people and places that they study. Several, such as Michael Wilcox who wrote the chapter on the indigenous people of the south-west of America, are also part of the communities they study. His chapter is both an academic critique of Diamond's work and a personal cry of rage at the attitudes that many academics have taken towards his people.

This is not to say the essays are perfect. I was struck reading the book that rarely are Diamond's ideas laid open. It would be more useful if some of the authors had said "on page X, Diamond argues this, but we believe this other thing". Too many of the responses are generalised critiques of Diamond's positions, not detailed challenges to his ideas.

These are not academic spats. There are real questions of how groups of humans can and do survive environmental catastrophe. These have important lessons for our own times. As the authors of the chapter on Easter Island finish, the "real story here is one of human ingenuity and success that lasted more than 500 years on one of the world's most remote human outposts."

I would recommend this book to those interested in the fates of human societies facing environmental and social changes. But I would also encourage people to read Jared Diamond's books alongside them, at least for reference. Diamond builds up a powerful case and we can all learn from the challenges to his arguments and ideas.

Related Reviews

Diamond - Collapse

This review of Questioning Collapse by a anthropology academic is also useful and can mark the start point for interested readers who want to reader more about the debates that have sprung up as a result of the publication of QC.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Immanuel Ness & Dario Azzellini (eds) - Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present

As I write this review, tens of thousands of people are engaged in Occupy protests and occupations around the world. Most famously in Wall Street, but also on the doorstep of the London Stock Exchange and in a hundred other locations around the globe. Workplace occupations have also been part of the recent struggles - here in the UK, in the last few years at the Visteon and Vestas plants. As this book ably documents, workers control, or at least workers management has been a feature of recent class struggle, as well as in the past. The revolution in Egypt is still developing, so it forms no part of the debates here. Perhaps a new chapter will have to be written soon.

Nevertheless, this collection of essays is extremely timely. Divided into several parts, the editors have collected articles to examine the full range of experiences. Some of the strongest articles are over-views of the historical process from a Marxist point of view. Of these, two in particular stood out. Donny Gluckstein's summary of the experience of Workers' Councils in Europe, based in part on his excellent book The Western Soviets looks at how workplace council's rose as out of revolutionary struggles, beginning with the Paris Commune and then the upheavels following the end of World War One. Similarly, Sheila Cohen's article looks at some of these events and those post World War Two in Europe, together with questions of the role of the State and alternatives to capitalism.

Several articles examine these processes in detail. Three look at the worker's council movement in Europe post World War One, examining Italy, Germany and Russia. The article on Germany is particularly interesting, as it looks at the question of workers organisation under the conditions of illegality, as well as the challenges posed by a young, immature shop-stewards movement faced with an explosion of revolution. It also rescues the fascinating and magnificent role of the workers leader, Richard Muller, who has been largely forgotten to revolutionary history. There are also superb chapters on obscure moments of working class history, Java and Algeria being two. One great strength of this book, is that it doesn't concentrate on the experience of workers in America or Europe, but draws on lessons from every corner of the globe, including near forgotten moments of our history.

These chapters are in my opinion some of the strongest. This is not because they are better written than the others, rather it is because the revolutionary period they cover is inspiring and offers real examples of alternatives to capitalism. The stories of how worker's ideas change at moments of mass revolutionary action is always inspiring and examples of how people take production into their own collective hands, overthrowing the boss and the manager and beginning to run society in their own interest are always useful.

Sadly, later chapters don't match these peaks. This is not simply because the subject matter is obscure. Their is confusion with the definition of workers control. For some authors, it is blurred between the potential for the revolutionary control of the means of production and any example of workers being involved in factory management. This later definition can often come from very top down initiative, such as the experience in Yugoslavia (the rather clunky titled chapter on "Self-Management as State Paradigm").

This is duplicated in later chapters on South America. Here worker's control and self-management have been taken to great heights by the state. Workers are encouraged to take control of their factories, managing them in the interest of the wider economy, yet without the bottom-up experience that marks the high-points of revolution. This is not to say the experience isn't positive. In Brazil, the reaction to bankruptcy of some industries has lead to "Recovered Factories" where despite the problems, it is "impossible to be indifferent after entering a factory like the former Botoes Diamantina... and watching the factory workers handling all different matters themselves, with the CUT flag hanging in the conference room."

However in many cases, the experience of taking over factories in economic crisis has proved difficult, if not impossible. A chapter on Venezuela points out many of the difficulties for such workers co-operatives. How much worker's control is there really when because "the state was the majority stockholder, all important decisions had to be approved by the ministry"? In response, the workers moved on from "comanagement" to workers councils, because, as one worker said, "we didn't kick out one capitalist to create 60 new ones". There is a danger, within capitalism, that isolated examples of workers management lead to a "market of solidarity" between such enterprises, struggling to survive without a further challenge to the status quo.

Despite this, even in the context of capitalism co-operatives challenge the priorities of the system. One characteristic of almost all the examples in the book is that when workers are given some control over their lives, they begin to change. The thrilling story of the Canadian telecom workers who, for five days ran the whole telephone company is a powerful story of how, by kicking out managers, work becomes more interesting, more fulfilling and the service improves. These workers learnt their own power, and because they could engage with others in the workplace, they understood their industry even better, learning about company jobs that they had never heard from before. This is the very beginnings of the old quote from Lenin, about how in the new workers state, "every cook should govern". The Canadian telecoms workers remained until forced out by the existing state and its legal apparatus, though the solidarity they received shows the potential for action even at low points in the class struggle (this was 1981). Their story is particularly of interest, because the strategy of occupation and control was used by a union that was considered weak and couldn't sustain the normal strike procedures.

It would be wrong to review such an important book without engaging in some slight criticism. One criticism I have is that in too few of the articles do we hear how the actual occupations, workers control or self-management worked. The Canadian story is one of the exceptions, but if we are to inspire a new generation of factory occupations and workers councils, we'll have to show how workers' democracy can work (warts and all) and how occupations might proceed. This book has too much of what the people at the top say and do, and too little stories from the ground. A few more quotes and recollections from participants would have helped enormously.

Finally, my main criticism is the old point about reform or revolution. For me, we look at workers councils in the past, to learn lessons about how to transform society in future revolutionary moments. The councils that sprang up from the bottom during the revolutions of 1917-1920, or those in Spain in 1936 or Chile, Portugal and others in the 1970s offer both a potential for a future society and lessons for us today. There is a danger that we see them as historical curiosities. Peter Robinson falls into this trap when he concludes his chapter on Worker's Control in Portugal, writing that it "was an extraordinary period, one that needs to be further studied and celebrated". Here Robinson makes the process sound like an abstract historical argument, rather than, as other chapters show, a living breathing debate that workers' in many parts of the world are engaging in today. As the recession deepens and the capitalists try to make workers globally pay for the crisis, its a discussion that millions more will take part in.

Related Reviews

Dave Sherry - Occupy! A Short History of Workers' Occupations

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Eric Simons - Darwin Slept Here

While this book will contain little for evolutionary scientists or Darwin scholars, for those who like their travel books to be a little more than stories of visiting unusual places and gawping at them, it is interesting enough. Eric Simon's is travelling in South America when he stumbles across a copy of Charles Darwin's accounts of his own travels around that continent, The Voyage of the Beagle.

When I read Voyage myself, I was struck by Darwin as a person. Taken direct from his own diaries, the trip is as much a voyage of scientific discovery as it is the tale of a young man grappling with his own ideas and thoughts.

Simon's decides to try and follow in Darwin's footsteps. While this means trying to locate obscure valleys or buildings from descriptions that are over a hundred years old, it also means grappling with some of Darwin's thoughts ideologically and scientifically. There is very little hear about the scientific ideas. Simons dwells mostly on Darwin's thoughts about slavery, which he hated. In trying to understand this, Simons comes to realise that much of the history of the region has been lost. In particular, the story of the impact of European colonialism upon the indigenous peoples of South America has been forgotten, or perhaps distorted. In one tourist video Simons sees at a distillery in Chile, the subtitles inform the tourist that "The indigenous people had developed a culture perfectly suited to receive the Spanish settlers".

This of course fits the narrative that the people of the majority of the world were fit to become the ruled, rather than run their own lives. Darwin himself grappled with the complexities of these ideas. Complex not because they are difficult, but because challenging things like racism meant challenging the Victorian world view. Something that Darwin was to prove more than fit for later in life, though in his earlier twenties he was still learning.

Simons' is keen to bring to life the story of the young Darwin, excited by travel and exploration, amazed by the world around him, on the cusp of greatness and scientific breakthrough. Darwin Slept Here won't detain the reader for long, and it will ably prepare them for reading Darwin's own travel accounts, which should be the next step.

Related Reviews

Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle

Monday, November 07, 2011

Terry Pratchett - Snuff

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Snuff, has become the third fastest selling non-fiction book in history. It deserves this accolade. Pratchett has kept us entertained now for many years, and while his books are always fun and deeper than many critics might imagine, in recent years they haven't quite touched the heights that some of his earlier books did. Snuff is a return to form. I think it is one of the best since Night Watch and is on a par with some of the earlier novels, such as Jingo or Feet of Clay.

I pick these three quite deliberately. Pratchett being back on form is not simply about laughs. But at his best he manages quite detailed social commentary. Jingo was an outstanding statement about the insanity of war and Imperialism at the time of the First Gulf War. That war unlike the more recent Iraq conflict was not marked by repeated, huge anti-war protests. It is a brave novel that deals with the consequences of war and racism. Night Watch was about revolution, or at least rebellion and Feet of Clay used the metaphor of the Golem to represent the struggle for worker's rights.

I have complained about the recurrance of the Watch and Sam Vimes in particular in recent Discworld novels. But Snuff shows how wrong I was. The problem wasn't the characters that Pratchett was using, rather it was the tales themselves that had lost their way. In this latest book, Pratchett deals explicitly with class and class conflict. Class has always been a part of the Discworld. There are rich people and lots of poor people. Vimes rises from the lowly rank of policeman to Commander of the Watch at the same time as marrying the richest woman in Ankh Morpork. The question of Kings and Regicide as been a repeated theme of several of Pratchett's books.

What is different here is that Pratchett makes the question of class a key component of the story. Holidaying at his wife's country home, Vimes is stunned by the attitudes of the servants who behave like characters in some victorian novel. They face the wall as he, the master of the house, walks past. Rural workers doff their caps and stammer when spoken to. All except the Blacksmith who speaks in near cliched terms of the oppression of the ordinary folk.

Skillfully though, this is the precurrsor to wider conflict. For crime rears its head as it is bound to, with a policeman on holiday. This time the victims are a new race. The Goblins. Decride as being dirty and disliked unanimously by the rest of the Discworld's many peoples, the Goblins are new to the canon. Their emancipation is forced by Vimes and others (though not, Marxists should note, by a mass movement). The slavery and suffering they experience, is brutal and violent. Pratchett does not shy away from this aspect of his tale. The question of money and those landed gentry who profit from the deals forms a backdrop to the wider story.

It would be easy to try and impose some Marxist sub-text onto the novel. Certainly though there are some interesting comparisions. Vimes carries with him the stigma of the city, and the gulf between the attitudes of the city dwellers from advanced Ankh Morpork and those in the countryside might be interpreted as some fantasy version of Marx's rift between Town and Country. Perhaps that's reading a little too much into it. But certainly the countryside here is backward and superstitious, the city advanced and benvolent.

If a Marxist wanted to critique this further, one could see illusions in the state. Vimes himself and the cities ruler, represent a liberal, outward looking state, keen to drag the system into a modern era, doing away with the old trappings of fuedalism that hold things back. But both Vimes and the Patrician like to reserve the right to violence themselves. The Death Penalty is something that should, according to Vimes, be reserved for use by those in power, not arbitarily executed by the common people, no matter how justified their cause. This personal urge for revenge is played out in this novel through Vimes. Sickened and appalled by the violent death of a female Goblin, Vimes barely restrains himself from summary justice.

There's much else here. The process of Goblin emancipation is fascinating too. It is only when their "humanity" is recognised, rather than their intelligence, that they become accepted. They can be free, so long as they behave like sensible people and aren't too outlandish.

I hope that Pratchett continues to write and I hope that his future writings match the depth and passion contained in Snuff. Fantasy fiction has too often been claimed by the right-wing. But this is progressive fiction at its best. Pratchett isn't a revolutionary, but he certainly is on the side of the 99%. Though we must remember that fantasy is rarely totally accurate and there are few, if any benevolent dictators, or policemen. They still have the monopoly on violence in the real world too.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Making Money
Pratchett - Wintersmith
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Colour of Magic

Further Reading

Great Review of Snuff from Comrade Markin here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

J.G.Farrell - The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip is a different novel to the others in J.G.Farrell's Empire trilogy. At just of 675 pages in length it is by far the longest and sadly at times, it has a somewhat bloated feel. But its length is not the only difference. The two earlier novels dealt with the end of the British Empire, through the lens of two moments of Imperial collapse. The first, The Siege of Krishnapaur, deals with the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the follow-up, Troubles, with the Irish Rebellion of 1919.

The Singapore Grip, as the name suggests, deals with the invasion of the supposedly impenetrable base of Singapore during World War II. Singapore, the jewel in the crown of Britain's South-East Asian interests, is, at the beginning of the conflict, seemingly untouched by the troubles of the home country. The Second World War has barely impacted upon the lives of the British characters here. In Singapore, most Brits lead a life of luxury, lording it over the natives whose lives are destined to serve and create profit for the British.

Here is the crucial difference. Rather cleverly, Farrel spends the vast majority of the novel dealing with metaphors for the end of the old order, without dealing with the war itself. Reflecting the period he is writing about, the novel is dominated by the business of making profits from rubber. The characters who he concentrates on, are those intimately connected with big business. Even their love lives and weddings are about sealing the future of profits. Rubber is a business that is doing well from the war, in high demand for the tanks, planes and ships that the Allies need. There appears to be a high demand, much higher than the rubber being sent abroad. Yet the industry is barely operating at capacity, much more rubber could be produced, but that would reduce its price and effect profits. Despite their protestations of loyalty, these rubber barons stand first and foremost with their shareholders.

So here is the decline, a metaphor for the changing world itself, the power of big business to override all other ideas and principles in the search for higher profits. Farrell challenges this of course. The main spanner in the works is Matthew, a young heir to a vast rubber fortune, whose ideas of human fraternity, clash badly with those at the dinner parties around him.

As with Troubles and Siege, the principle characters steal the show. We know what is coming, so we can guess the threat they face. But Farrell spends much more time filling in the faces of the supporting cast. Here are native workers from Singapore, refugees from the conflict between China and Japan and servants. Few of these are as obnoxious as the establishment figures that we follow, but they had, as history shows, far more to lose.

The ending is ambiguous. Delightfully so. We do not know what happens to most of the characters, though Farrell leaves us some hints. Singapore was liberated eventually, but the refugees who had escaped there and been trapped as well as many of those soldiers taken prisoner, suffered dreadfully. But the British experience was never the same. The last of the Empire Trilogy, is a fitting end to a story that spans a period of a century - the gradual decline and fall of the British colonial rule. The ambiguity of the ending of this novel, perhaps being a further metaphor for the continuing imperial ambitions of a small island off the north-west of Europe that cannot seem to realise that its glory days are over.

Related Reviews

Farrell - Siege of Krishnapaur
Farrell - Troubles