Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stephen King - The Waste Lands

Volume three of Stephen King's series, The Dark Tower, develops the story into a much more concrete and traditional form. I found the two earlier novels slightly esoteric. They were readable, but seemed a little indistinct. The Waste Lands brings together some of the earlier loose-ends and seems to be taking the series onwards quite well.

The hero of the books, Roland, the Last Gunslinger is now permanently joined by two companions who we met in the previous book. All the characters exhibit imperfections, though Roland represents less the fallen individual, but the last of a noble race, who has watched, perhaps for centuries, his world decline. This fallen world is the real star of the story. A once powerful technologically advanced society has collapsed. Cities are ruins, population collapse has left a few small groups of people, who have lost the art of repairing their old technologies. In places these have reverted to almost medieval societies. Elsewhere groups of violent thugs scavenge the surrounding country like something from Mad Max III.

Roland's quest for answers takes him and his companions onwards. As they travel we learn more about the world around them, and our heroes themselves. But as I said, the world is the real centrepiece of the story. It appears to have some sort of relationship to our own, a crashed aeroplane is marked by insignia that we would recognise for instance. What keeps the story ticking over, like a lot of King's writing, is the desire for an explanation of what is going on. Where are they? What is the Dark Tower? What are the links with Earth? Knowing King, no definitive answers will be forthcoming even after all the sequels have been read. But the beauty of King's writing is that the reader probably won't mind. The point IS the journey.

The Waste Lands ends mid flow. It is much faster paced than the earlier stories, though I found it more readable and enjoyable. The urge to read the sequel as soon as possible has not left me yet.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chris Stringer - The Origin of Our Species

Trying to understand the development of the earliest humans is an extremely difficult task. What evidence there is, is limited to a  few fossilised bones from a handful of sites scattered across the world. Most of the other evidence comes from the DNA extracted from those bones, or a the stone tools that seem to have been produced in vast quantities by these early humans.

Chris Stringer's new book is probably one of the best introductions to the subject that I have read. His account is determindely materialistic. It is rooted in the evidence we have, and an understanding of the wider environmental conditions hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is also approachable, though I did find some of the sections on DNA needed re-reading at times, but they are rewarding if the reader perseveres. Rarely does a writer actually explain how the DNA is obtained and how it is studied.

Stringer has a long pedigree in terms of the academic study of ancient humans. He was one of the first scientists to argue for an Out of Africa hypothesis for modern humans. The idea that our species, Homo Sapiens, spread outwards from Africa, following earlier migrations by earlier species of humans. According to this theory, which it seems, is now fairly common currency the origin of Homo Sapiens was a fairly recent one and our immediate ancestors only left Africa around 100,000 years ago. Surprisingly it took some 65,000 more years before they reached Europe. Spreading initially eastwards, through the modern Middle East and into Asia.

Of course, with limited evidence controversry reigns. Stringer doesn't shy from giving both sides of a debate, though he never fails to give his point of view, backing it up with his own examples and evidence. Take the discussion about why the Neanderthals died out and were replaced by modern humans. Stringer cites the work of colleagues like Clive Finlayson, who argue that the Neanderthals were on a long decline and that their last homes, in Gibralter, were the last places they survived. The existence of their species ended by a changing climate to which they couldnt adapt.

Stringer's argument doesn't dismiss this, but builds on it. He argues that in some places modern humans may have pushed the Neanderthals out, in others the Neanderthals may have died out unable to adapt to a changing world. Modern humans may or may not have been present, but it seems unlikely that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were always in competition, particularly given evidence that they may have exchanged ideas and interbred. This seems to me a more realistic answer. Trying to reduce the end of a intelligent species like our human ancestors, simply to climatic changes doesn't feel right. A more complex interaction with a changing world, with different groups struggling to adapt and one being better than the other seems much more logical.

Stringer also touches on other debates and discussions. How did language develop? Where did geographical differences in human bodies come from and when? How did changes in our bodies relate to changes in our behaviour and brains and vice versa? Many of these questions have surprisinly detailed answers given the lack of archaeological data. Chris Stringer has produced an excellent introduction to the subject. It is an excellent starting point for the debates and discussions around early human evolution.

Related Reviews

Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Robert Gildea - Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation

Having read Angus Calder's wonderful book on the experience of ordinary people in Britain during World War II, I began to wonder if there was a similar work that examined the lives of people elsewhere during that conflict. Marianne in Chains was suggested to me as a book that might help bring to life the experience of the German Occupation of France.

Robert Gildea argues that the French experience of the Occupation is far from the simplified one that is usually portrayed. Far from the population being divided into those who resisted, and did so united together, and those who collaborated, he believes that reality was much more complex. In particular he argues that those who resisted were very much in a minority and that most people acted under a more complex code. For instance he considers the case of employers who committed their factories to producing materials, such as weapons, for the German war effort. Here he argues that the consensual view at the time was that "employers had no choice about working for the Germans and that jobs had to be preserved [or the factory might be relocated to Germany]. What was not acceptable was doing the German's bidding with too much enthusiasm and putting pressure on workers to go to Germany."

Later he continues "[a]s a rule of thumb, actions that undermined the family, community, or nation were illegitimate... To rip off the Germans by small-scale black marketing was just Gallic cunning, but large-scale dealing that deprived the community of scarce resources was not considered right. Socially, it was acceptable to drink with a German in a bar but not to invite him home" and so on.

Where resistance did occur, Gildea implies it was rarely the action of a whole town or community. He examines one important case, the assassination of a leading German soldier Colonel Hotz by a Communist, Gilbert Brustlein. After the war, the PCF argued that this action had helped trigger mass resistance in the west of France. For the people of Nantes however, the event was remembered as ushering in repression and the murder of dozens of people in revenge.

For Gildea any resistance that took place was likely to be much more muted. A defiant piece of graffiti or displaying the French flag, singing the Marseille or engaging in illegal dances. Here though the breaking of German rules is considered rarely an act of conscious resistance as opposed to an act of rebellion against rules.

However while Gildea is clearly right to argue that any resistance to the German Occupation rarely involved thousands of people taking up guns, in his enthusiasm to pursue this theme I think he misses far more fundamental questions. This becomes clearer when he examines the events that took place as the German's ordered Jews to be identified, then deprived of their social positions and eventually deported.

Gildea argues that when it came to the "Aryanization" of the French economy - depriving Jewish business owners and workers of their positions, the removal of Jewish company directors and so on, the "French public could be a good deal more anti-Semitic and mercenary than the French administration." He lists a number of heart-breaking examples of how business owners, like the owner of the Cafe de la Ville in Saumur, "saw the opportunity to deal with a rival by complaining to the sub prefect that 'the Jew Lazare Schnerb' had not yet put up a yellow sign on his Hotel-Bar."

Other examples include firms were directors turned on Jewish directors to save their investments. Lawyers who took on the "administration" of Jewish businesses then often took over those firms. Jewish businesses that were sold off were not short of buyers. Gildea concludes that:

"The details of the process of Aryanization provide hard evidence of the anti-Semitism of at least a portion of French people, including the wealthy and privileged, a conclusion that goes against the grain of some recent writing that tends to blame the Vichy regime while exculpating the people."

While this is undoubtedly true, Gildea concentrates on business examples. His only counter examples however are from a different section of the French population - the working class:

"The labor inspector of Maine-et-Loire, Lehlmann, refused to organise a census of Jewish employees in private firms, with a view to dismissing them, saying that his job was to protect workers."

While Gildea frequently discusses strikes and actions of working class organisations, particularly the Communist Party, he lacks any class framework. This leads I think, to a lack of clarity when he's trying to explain the dynamics of the occupation. The working class prior to the war had seen enormous rebellions, particularly during the Popular Front government. The lack of any major French fascist forces was in no small part due to the activities of the working class movement in the early 1930s. The demoralisation that followed, in part because of the limits of Third Period Stalinism, had led the PCF into a dead end. The fact that significant numbers of workers did strike, even if it was mostly over bread and butter issues, during the war, shows the reality of what resistance meant.

This is not to say that Gildea is wrong to argue that the reality of France during the occupation was not one of mass resistance. As he points out, many places never saw a German soldier and the occupying forces took a conscious decision that they were not doing to France what was being done in Poland and Eastern Europe. "The Germans are not the enemies of France, but their friends" stated one German military administrator to his French colleague as he prepared to leave following the Allied invasion.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is Gildea's examination of the transition from occupation to the post-war world. He makes the point that most of those mayors and town bureaucrats who had continued in place during the years of Vichy and Occupation remained in their seats and were re-elected. Those who joined the resistance (or claimed membership) often did so late in the day or to avoid, what they saw as the potential for Communist rebellion in the wake of the war. Gildea looks at the way that the myth of the resistance was being created even as the German vehicles pulled out of the town squares, but that often this covered up the fact that for much of the war, many bureaucrats had collaborated with the fascists believing that they had no other choice.

Robert Gildea's book has provided much food for thought. I do not think it should be the last word on this subject though as it certainly left me feeling unsatisfied. I felt that there were insights but that Gildea hadn't quite got to grips with what was really happening. The book probably suffers because it concentrates on a particular region of mid-France rather than Paris or other larger cities. Nonetheless this is an interesting read, though I am told that Robert Paxton's book on Vichy France covers the subject far better.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Pierre Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923

In the introduction to his own book on the German Revolution, the Marxist Chris Harman wrote that "Revolutions that are defeated are soon forgotten. They become lost from view; footnotes to history, glossed over by all but a few specialist historians." This is indeed true of the German Revolution, in part because the defeat of this revolution was the beginning of the "midnight of the century". Had the German Revolution been successful, it is likely that Hitler would never have come to power, the Holocaust been avoided together with the Second World War and the Russian Revolution would have lost its economic and political isolation. Stalin might not have seized power and the history of the second half of the twentieth century could have been very different.

Pierre Broué's book on the German Revolution is extremely important. Its detailed analysis and systematic use of the archives available at the time it was written mean that it is an important text of history itself. This is part serves to rescue some of the "Lost Revolution" for new generations. But Broué is no objective historian, he writes with the explicit intention of understanding the defeated revolution and the forces involved to better arm future socialists and revolutionaries. He concludes that "the history of the Communist Party of Germany during the early years of the Communist International ceases to be a history of lost illusions, and become the prehistory of a struggle which continues to this day."

Despite covering an event that lasted barely five years, the book is enormous in its scope. The Brill edition that I have read weighs in at almost 1000 pages (though rather extraordinarily and frustratingly it has no index, which for a book of this nature is a terrible omission). It would be a mistake for me to attempt to tell the actual narrative of the German Revolution in this review, instead I recommend both this book and other readings below.

Broué begins with the concrete forces on the ground, or the "battlefield" as the first chapter is called. Broué weighs up the isolation of the revolutionary left in Germany during the First World War, a few thousand individuals, with no common organisation or strategy. A few individuals such as Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibnickt remain prominent, both from their anti-war campaigning and their prestige from years in the German Social Democratic Party. The SPD had, at the outbreak of war, abandoned its traditions of revolutionary Marxism and supported its own national bourgeoisie. Millions of workers were demoralised and isolated by this, and many supported the war itself. But as the years passed, conditions worsened and the reality of modern warfare became apparent. The German Revolution exploded in November 1918, driven by a enormous mutiny of sailors who refused to take their ships to certain destruction. Within days the revolt had spread the length and breadth of the country and revolutionary organisations, councils representing workers, sailors and soldiers were elected. This was enough to force the abdication of the Kaiser and bring an end to World War One. The weakness of the movement was the lack of political clarity and the old SPD, reclaiming its socialist mantle was able to take the movement by the head and subdue the revolutionary impulse. With a new government in power, the counter-revolution began and many militants, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who had just formed the German Communist Party (KPD) were murdered.

The strength of Broué research though, is to put this into the context of the changing Germany. The story of World War One here, is not one simply of passive acceptance of the slaughter in the trenches, but also of heroic individuals who organised anti-war activities, who printed leaflets and distributed them on pain of death, who organised underground networks of workers and militants to strike and protest against food shortages and worsening conditions.

This approach to the history of the revolution continues throughout the book. Broué constantly attempts to get across what the situation was like on the ground. In part he does this by reporting the slogans and "political lines" of different left organisations, such as the KPD. But he also reports from the memoirs of individuals involved. This is a social history from the bottom up, but not one were individuals are examined in isolation. The role of the political parties is scrutinised deeply, particularly the KPD and its predecessors. Related to this, is the importance to which Broué places the role of the Communist International.

The Russian Revolution had a profound importance for the German Revolution and those who took part in it. Early photos of the street demonstrations of November 1918 show placards with "All Power to the Workers Councils" written on them, and Karl Liebknecht in his speech to the assembled masses in which he declared the Socialist Republic of Germany, extended greetings to the brothers in revolutionary Russia.

The Russian Revolutionaries, conscious of the need to spread the revolution, created the Communist International to assist with this, and the influence of the International was felt throughout the years covered by this book and beyond. This was in terms of financial aid, Broué comments on how the resources of the KPD during 1923, the year of extreme economic crisis were helped by the CI which:

"in 1923, the material help of the ECCI [Executive Committee of the Communist International] permitted the Party to maintain 27 daily papers, and to pay 200 full-time workers. With its own resources, the KPD could have maintained only four papers, and barely a dozen employees."

But the assistance was also personal, both in terms of individuals like Karl Radek who spent months at a time in Russia assisting and advising the German socialists, as well as reporting back to Moscow. Additionally, delegates from the German socialist parties would visit Russia for advice and discussions.

One of Broué's themes is that the revolutionaries were frequently unprepared for events. The spontaneity of the November revolution took even the most brilliant Marxists by surprise. Yet frequently the KPD were left bewildered by events. Take the Kapp Putsch, when a proto-fascist leader attempted to seize power, only to be prevented by mass strike action happened almost independently from the KPD leadership who initially denounced the strikes.

Part of the problem was that the KPD constantly looked to Russia for advice. While this was was understandable, the Bolsheviks had, after all, made their own revolution, the situation was very different. It also led to a certain lack of self-confidence from the Germans as well as a certain naivete. Broué quotes one German KPD leader, again in 1923, as arguing that;

"under no circumstances should we proclaim a general strike. The bourgeoisie would find out what we are planning and would destroy us before we start. On the contrary, let us soften down out spontaneous movements. Let us hold back our groups in the factories and the unemployed organisations so that the government will think that the danger is over. And then - after they are lulled into an illusion of complete safety - let us strike in one night, quickly and decisively, arrest the government, storm the Reichswehr barracks and ring the knell of the last battle."

Such simplistic notions of how class struggle can be carried out were extremely worrying, but in part they had be fostered by an International that had encouraged the German's to believe that they were on the verge of revolution. Despite the bravery of thousands of communists, the belief that revolutionary movements could be turned on and off like this had soured the organisation for several years. The faith in the CI as an instrument of revolution helped undermine the ability of the KPD to understand the mood inside the workplaces and on the streets. This is why the mass strikes that brought down the Cuno government in 1923 seemed to come out of the blue for the Communists and why, when the CI insisted that another revolutionary movement was on the cards in October 1923, the leaders of the KPD were unable to argue against them, or present a more realistic portrayal of the balance of forces.

This is not to say that the CI was a negative force. Without the CI the KPD would have indeed been short of resources, as mentioned above. But they would also have been without some brilliant leaders and ideas. The turn taken by the Communist International towards United Front work in the early 1920s as the revolutionary moment ebbed was crucial in Germany. It meant that the growing KPD would try and find common ground with the members of the SPD over concrete demands, and pull them towards revolutionary politics, out of the arms of reformist leadership of the SPD. As the fascists began to grow, and increasingly use murderous methods against the left, such united tactics would prove indispensable. Their abandonment in the Stalin era, post 1923 for a set of politics that deemed the SPD worse than Hitlers' movement, would lead directly to the destruction of the left.

The problem was that the KPD became a mass party in the midst of successive revolutionary periods, or at least periods of intense class conflict. This meant that at its core were very few revolutionaries who had been skilled in years of organising. The lack of self-confidence at crucial moments, betrays a lack of confidence in their own organisation and ideas and that in turn, is a consequence of lack of experience.

This problem begins with the death of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their murder removed the best leaders of the revolution, individuals who, had they survived would have developed and learnt from the different stages of the revolution. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Rosa Luxemburg who had, over the decades, engaged in fraternal debates and polemics with Lenin and Trotsky, accepting the ideas of the CI automatically.

A third key individual, was the revolutionary Paul Levi. Broué's book in some ways is an attempt to rescue Levi and his legacy from the mud that has been thrown at him over the years. For a period in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht he was the KPD leadership. His instincts were cautious and balanced the ultra-leftist tendancies of the young organisation, but mixed with this caution was a genuine gift for understanding the balance of forces. His critique of the KPD in calling the March Action in 1921, an attempt to physically kick-start the revolution, was entirely accurate, yet his breach of discipline was severe enough for him to be expelled. Sadly Levi refused to attempt to work for conciliation and he became another lost leader, in a time when his experience and links to the pre-war socialist movement would have been invaluable.

Broué finishes the book with an analysis of the CI itself. It is clear that the author puts much importance to this body, indeed he wrote a history of the Third International that has yet to appear in English. For Broué the CI was a brilliant tool, but a flawed one. He quotes Lenin, arguing that many of the motions passed by the CI were "too Russian", i.e. that they were based too much on the Russian experience, with all the differences that existed between that country and those of Western Europe. As one chapter title has it, "Grafting Bolshevism onto German Stock" was never going to be easy. Broué acknowledges that often the KPD had it right,

"relations between the KPD and the Russian Party between 1919 and 1922 followed almost constantly the same pattern: a sharp conflict at the level of proposals made or initiatives taken by the Germans; a vigorous critique by the leaders of the ECCI; and then an intervention by Lenin, who while making some formal criticisms, judge the German initiative acceptable". 

With Lenin's death and the loss of his personal prestige and brilliant analysis, this process was made worse. Lenin fought to develop and build the independence of the KPD as well as maintain its organisation integrity, taking a deep and close personal interest in the ideas and activities of individual German leaders. Following the defeat of 1923, Broué concludes ominously, that the role of the CI was fundamentally different, from then onwards "the policies of the KPD were to be written almost entirely in Moscow, and in Russian."

Broué's has produced a rich and important text here. The detail is astounding and, particularly I imagine, for those engaged in the socialist movement today, the defeat and mistakes made in this period are terrible to read about. The lost opportunities doomed millions to a terrible fate in World War Two and the Holocaust. But learning from the past, and in particular, learning the lessons of revolutions, even lost ones, is something that is important to those organising today. Broué's book deserves to be a key text for revolutionaries today, those building movements or engaging in revolution will find much of use here.

At the heart of Pierre Broué's monumental work, is the idea that ordinary people can and do change the world. Its this revolutionary emphasis that makes this book more than a work history but part of helping us change the future. As he puts it near the end;

"We believe that the German Communist Party could have been victorious, even though it was defeated. There does not exist any Book of Destiny, in which the victory of the Russian October and the defeat of the German October, and the victory of Stalin and then Hitler, could have been written in advance. It is human beings who make history."

Related Reviews

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades

Recommended Reading

Chris Harman's history of the German Revolution, The Lost Revolution, is a superb introduction to this event and, while similar in analysis to Broué he has a number of differences. It is also shorter and much easier to carry on the bus. You can buy it here. Revolutions don't just have economic consequences, they change all sorts of aspects of people's lives, The German Revolution for instance, led to new freedoms for gays and lesbians, Colin Wilson's article here has much more about this aspect.

Neil Davidson has reviewed Broué's book here and I recommend that review. Leon Trotsky's Lesson's of October is a polemic written about and in response to the failure of the German Revolution. My own review of this contains further links to aspects of that discussion.

In this Socialist Worker article Ian Birchall introduces two short extracts from The German Revolution. His conclusion that "Broué was a revolutionary first and an academic second. He knew which side he was on and he knew what was at stake" is a fitting tribute. He also wrote a obituary of Broué here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Ernest Cline - Ready Player One

If I was being brutally honest, I'd say that Ready Player One is a vehicle to deliver a particular kind of self-satisfaction to a geeks of a certain age. Or at least those who'd like to think they are. While the story is quite novel, the real satisfaction in his book is spotting and getting the references. As a result the story has a number of plot holes, or deus ex machina which complete the story. But that's not the point. Ready Player One is the sort of read that takes the reader along, rather than trying to deliever a fully rounded plot.

Set in the fairly near future, Earth has become an over-populated, ecological disaster zone. High prices for fossil fuel have meant that the vast majority of the world's population rely utterly on government handouts to survive, or a life of crime. As always a few have made it very rich and corporations run roughshod over people in order to maximise their profits.

As a solution to this misery, a ruclusive video-game designer, obsessed with the culture of the 1980s, creates OASIS, an alternate reality world. This multi-verse has many planets. Players can go to lessons there, move around the planets and, should they earn credits and XP, they can in turn purchase upgrades and expansions, giving them more powers and abilities. OASIS itself is a fully functioning alternate reality. Sex, violence and work exist here. Avatars fight each other for money and prizes, rather than merely points. The creator, James Halliday became the richest man on the planet, and his libetarian, benevolent views have sought to keep OASIS accessible to all.

With his death, Halliday unveils a quest. Those who find the hidden Easter Eggs can inherit his vast fortune. Such a implausible hope inspires millions of people to spend their lives mastering 1980s culture to search out and understand the clues in the hope of freeing themselves from poverty. Of course the corporations too are in on the games, they can afford to pay underlings to learn about obscure computers games, or the lyrics to 1980s songs.

And its here that this bizarre plot actually works. Rather than this becoming some strange work of fiction based on a World Of Warcraft storyline, the internal references to Midnight Oil (The Beds are Burning), the awful sequels to Indiana Jones (post Crystal Skull) and so on are enough to hook those of us who remember the 1980s, or some of it. There is also plenty here for the contemporary geek - who wouldn't vote for Cory Doctorow to be in charge of their online multiverse?

The rag-tag bunch of social misfits who try and solve the clues and win the prize, the vision of the internet / OASIS as some sort of anarchic alternative to reality and the faceless corporations that kill on a whim are not particularly new, but Ready Player One works, rather surprisingly and make for an amusing Back to the Future type of distraction for a few hours.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt

Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate world history is an incredibly well thought out imagining of how our world might of developed had European civilisation been stopped completely by the Black Death. In this alternate timeline, history develops outwards from the far-East, China in particular. Thus the world is dominated by different religions, ideas and methods.

The scientific revolution takes place in Samarkand, the America's are discovered from the West by Chinese explorers and geo-politcal tensions eventually explode in a pre-atomic age world war, only in this timeline it lasts six decades.

The detail of the story is immense, rather than telling a complete narrative, the author focuses on individuals at different times. Borrowing heavily from Buddist ideas, Robinson centres the story a small group of individuals, reincarnated time and again, they occasionally remember their own pasts, and at different times and places are each others parents, lovers and friends. This allows Robinson to focus on indivudal relationships as well as the grand narrative and helps make this unreal history seem much more realistic.

At times, the book seems over-seeped in religious and ideological discussion. This can be annoying, but its worth reading through. With some of the discussions, such as the debates about reincarnation, I think Robinson is demonstrating how different ideas fit different times. In the atomic age, reincarnation seems quaint and ill sits in a world where the tiny atoms are being studied. This is a very religious novel, in the sense that religion plays an important part in the story, and Robinson clearly has done his research well. Again though, his musings on how things might develop and change are clever - I particularly like the way that the shortage of men following the great war leads to a growth of feminist thinking and new forms of Islam, influenced by these ideas.

Robinson himself develops an almost Marxist view of history, though he seems to focus mostly on a sort of inevitable rise of civilisation, through science and technology. Towards the end his characters, this time female scientists, attempt to set up a world grouping of scientists to better lead humanity and avoid nuclear war.

This is a long novel, 700 odd pages, but the different parts are very self contained, some are love stories, some tales of anguish and war. The common threads help it hang together well. There are some lovely injokes to, the Islamic archaeologists attempting to understand the purpose of stonehenge, or excited by a preserved village from medieval France and the musing of people who wonder what the world would have been like had civilisation not come from the East.

While its hard at times, The Years of Rice and Salt is a fascinating and clever novel that's worth reading.

Related Reviews

Stanley Robinson - Icehenge

Friday, February 03, 2012

James Hinton & Richard Hyman - Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the early British Communist Party

How should revolutionary socialists best relate to situations that are not revolutionary? How should those socialists organise, particularly in periods when the working class is not yet confident to fight against the system, when their rights, pay and conditions are under attack by the capitalists?

These questions are not easy ones to answer, but for socialists in Britain and indeed in large parts of the world, they are crucial ones. In Britain, with its history of Labour politics and Trade Union bureaucracy, it has been common to look back to the early years of the Communist Party and attempt to learn lessons from their activity.

The British CP was founded in the early 1920s. It brought together a number of varied factions of the Marxist left, encouraged by the success and the prestige of the Russian Revolution. Early in its history, as a party of a few thousands, though with many key industrial militants and in places, significant influence in the working class movement, the CP faced one of its greatest tests - the General Strike of 1926. This strike was a bureaucratic one. It stemmed not from the anger and militancy of ordinary workers, but from the leadership of the Trade Unions. Millions of workers took part, bravely and committed yet during the strike it was rare for their own creative organisation to break through the barriers of the trade union bureaucrats. After the defeat of the strike, the CP which had used its influence to encourage workers to look towards the General Council of the TUC, rather than their own self organisation, suffered major setbacks. Along with victimisation of many committed activists, the party lost many members and much influence. Rather than learn from its mistakes, the CP continued down a mistaken path which, it could be argued, left its union militants confused about the role of the union bureaucracy for decades.

This short book, published in 1975 is an explicitly socialist attempt to understand what the CP did wrong and draw some conclusions. Hinton and Hyman make no bones about it. They believe that the CP strategy was based on an incorrect understanding of the role of the union leaderships and an incorrect vision of how to move forward. In particular, they argue that any attempt to build a mass communist organisation in the 1920s was not just doomed to failure, but a mistake that could only further damage the prospects for building the revolutionary socialist movement.

This can be summed up in their conclusion, emphasised by being provocatively re-printed on the back cover. "By attempting to build a mass revolutionary party in Britain in the 1920s, where the labour movement was in retreat, the Communist Party committed a tragic blunder. It sacrificed clarity in its propaganda and its theory, and lost the opportunity to form a revolutionary cadre."

This cadre, they argue, could have formed the basis of a much stronger party in the future, for coming struggles. There is some truth to this. The ongoing existence of many tiny socialist sects throughout the world, demonstrates that theoretical clarity can create resilience. Yet the ongoing existence of a theoretically pure, stable, yet tiny socialist organisation that merely replicates itself over the years is hardly what the founders of revolutionary Marxism had in mind. The CP were, under the influence of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International attempting to build political organisation that could lead to a successful socialist revolution in the UK.

The CP's own analysis of the union leaders was frequently excellent, and their strategies for strengthening the working class movement and building their own influence were based on some excellent initiatives. The National Minority Movement was a CP initiative aimed at "making the trade unions real militant organizations for the class struggle". This attempted to bring together the best rank and file workers with the best of the union leaderships to encourage more militant action. Yet the CP underestimated the degree to which union bureaucrats are pulled by their social position, desiring less social confrontation and more negotiation.

The betrayal of these leaders, including many lefts whom the CP had courted and worked with over the years left the organisation confused. As the authors point out, "many party leaders found the betrayal of the General Strike incomprehensible."

So why did the CP have such a confused understanding of the situation. In one sense, Hinton and Hyman are right. Lack of theoretical clarity stemmed from the confused and ofter sectarian politics that marked out the socialist organisations that had developed in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet there was also the dominating influence of the Communist International and, in particular the Bolsheviks. The Russian Revolution had be lead by individuals and organisations that had little practical experience of trade unions and reformist organisations. Their understanding of the role of the trade union bureaucrat was limited and, in the aftermath of the Revolution, the isolation of Russia had led the Soviet government to court those organisations in the capitalist nations that could help undermine that isolation. The Anglo-Russian Trade Unity Committee was one example that helped to encourage the British CP to support leaders of British unions.

Hinton and Hyman play down the importance of this, as an excellent critique of this book by Duncan Hallas points out;

"the CPGB was not and could not be left to itself. It was part of a centralised world movement. It owed its very existence to the Russian revolution. Its leaders and members were profoundly influenced by advice and guidance (leave aside the question of “orders”) from the Moscow centre."

Hinton and Hyman also, repeatedly play down the opportunity for building "mass" socialist organisation, it is "only in the most abstract sense that 1926 can be described as a moment of revolutionary opportunity", they continue;

"The Party was operating in a profoundly unfavourable situation... Politically, the established institutions of the labour movement exerted a profound influence over the working class..."

Earlier the authors argue that building a mass organisation of revolutionary socialists is only possible at very specific times, "[t]here are moments, but only moments, when revolutionaries should concentrate their efforts on building a mass party."

The problem with this analysis, is that it is a recipe for sitting back and concentrating on discussing abstract ideas until the moments of revolutionary crisis appear. Yet, by then the moment will be lost as Rosa Luxemburg found to her dismay. You cannot build a mass revolutionary socialist group during the throws of a revolution. 1926 was not a revolutionary moment, yet it was a year when millions of workers took extended action as part of a General Strike, albeit one with many weaknesses. The organisation may have been small, but it had prestige and influence - the Russian Revolution was still a living reality, even with its distortions and the rise of Stalin.

Had the CP operated better during 1926 they may not have become a mass organisation. Certainly they were unlikely to prevent the sell-out of the bureaucrats. Yet they could have won significant numbers of militants to a stronger understanding of their role and the role of the union leaderships. The CP could have ended the General Strike with a growing membership, rather than a shrinking and demoralised one. By tying their flag to closely to the union leaders, they left themselves isolated from the best elements of the working class and hampered themselves for some time to come.

Hyman and Hinton argue that it the CPs strategy should have been one that allowed them to strengthen their own organisation to better ride out the coming storms. But the mistakes made by the CP stemmed in large part from mistaken analysis as well as the degeneration of the political leadership of the Communist International. Socialists cannot abstain from the struggle. The best way of building a revolutionary cadre is not to sit isolated, reading Marxist tomes, but to engage with the movement and further develop the ideas and theories that you have. Theory is important, but it must breath and grow as part of the class struggle. Hyman and Hinton here are arguing against a revolutionary strategy that involved engaging with the working class and, in part, I suspect they were penning a justification for their own trajectory out of revolutionary politics.

I've devoted a lot of words here, to a very short book. In part this is my own attempt to grapple with a similar political situation in Britain. The study of the 1926 General Strike and the actions of the best militants who were organised in the CP is important so that we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. For that reason, this short book deserves to be read, but it should be read in conjunction with other writings, in particular the Duncan Hallas article linked above, but also some of the books mentioned below.

Related Reviews

Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926
Dewar - Communist Politics in Britain: The CPGB from its origins to the Second World War
Trotsky - On Britain

Useful Articles

Chris Harman - The General Strike 
Martin Smith - Britain's Trade Unions: The Shape of Things to Come
Duncan Hallas - The Communist Party and the General Strike

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Brian Fagan - The First North Americans

Around 15,000 years tiny bands of people travelled across a narrow band of land between what is now the far eastern end of Russia and Alaska. The land bridge caused by the colder climate at the end of the last Ice Age allowed these hunter-gatherers to arrive in a new world. A vast area without humans, but teaming in animal and plant life.

Brian Fagan's book is a brilliant introduction to the history of the next 15,000 years told through the archaeological evidence that remains to us. The earliest arrivals into the American continents left little remains, we are limited to a few handfuls of their stone tools and little else. But these first Americans rapidly developed an astonishing variety of communities and were able to exploit the varied natural world in many different ways.

The story of the Native American's very much one of change. Often this was gradual, though, as Fagan points out, it could be very rapid. For thousands of years different groups remained as hunter-gatherers. The famous site of Head Smashed In a Native American hunting area in modern Canada where bison were driven off a cliff in their hundreds was used for 7000 years. However the "buffalo jump" here was part of a much larger and more complex community rather than simply being a site for killing animals.

One of the great strengths of this book are the brilliant illustrations. Many of these are black and white photographs as well as line-drawings and maps. However pride of place goes to the stunning colour plates, some of which, such as the images of the Mesa Verde, "Cliff Palace" in Colorado are stunning. I particular liked the images of the Clovis points - spear heads used by some of the very earliest peoples in America. These are shown in full colour in someones hand, helping the reader understand why these pointed stones must have been awesome weapons.

The later depiction of the Native American peoples as savages deliberately hides the very complex and advanced societies that they had developed. The arrival of agriculture initially of maize, spread rapidly through the continent and helped some of the groups develop complex, class societies which in turn produced some of the most fascinating archaeological sites. The communities that built the Hopewell mounds or the enormous earthworks at Poverty Point in Louisiana certainly must have had very complex social structures and organisation. Poverty Point was a tiered earthwork with some 35,000 cubic metres of soil. Fagan estimates that all this material, carried in woven baskets would have taken 1,350 people three years if they worked 70 days a year.

Fagan's book covers an enormous quantity of material, rapidly and thus out of necessity it glosses some details and he admits that it concentrates on the basics rather than reporting every archaeological debate and difference. Aimed at the general public as well as students and academics, this is an accessible introduction, though sometimes it tends towards academic jargon. The word "palimpsest" should, in my opinion, never be used if the author is striving to be accessible. Its use here on the first page of chapter one might well be considered off putting.

Fagan finishes by discussing the horrific impact of European arrival on the populations of the Americas. Here he documents the genocide and disease that destroyed thousands of people and generations of culture, often in a few months.

He also discusses the way that European demand for resources such as fur changed the dynamics of the existing cultures. Here I think he underestimates the way that the European notion of commodity ownership helped destroy hunter-gatherer cultures. Prior to European arrival resources or land were mostly for the use of the community or to solve people's needs. Once European traders arrived, the exchanging of resources such as fur, created a situation were commodities were important for their value in exchange rather than their ability to serve peoples' needs. I've discussed this further in my review of William Cronon's excellent book, Changes in the Land here.

But these are minor points that come at the end of a wonderful examination of the development of many different cultures across North America. I would heartily recommend this to anyone interested in the lives of hunter-gatherer communities and the evolution of the earliest class societies. The pictures and maps are particularly enlightening and Brian Fagan deserves credit for bringing them together.

Related Reviews

Fagan - Floods, Famines & Emperors - El Nino & the Fate of Civilisations
Fagan - The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilisation
Mithen - After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 - 5,000 BC