Monday, September 28, 2015

Claire North - Touch

Touch follows Claire North's brilliant and extremely successful novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which played delightfully with time travel. This novel is a good read, with North's typically tight and breathless writing. Here, our hero is also afflicted with an unusual problem. Instead of being doomed to repeat his life upon his death like Harry August, the individual known as Kepler can transfer his or her personality, complete with memories, between bodies at will, dependent on being able to touch skin.

At the beginning of the novel Kepler is running hard. A body he'd recently been wearing has been shot dead and Kepler only just made the transfer to the killer. We find out that Kepler's kind (for there are many) have been persecuted for centuries, considered demons or, in more enlightened times, beings that despoil ruin those that they inhabit.

This theme of pursuit by an unknown force, with unknown motivation is a theme that readers will find familiar from Harry August. I think it works well here, but the novel is not quite as sharp and at times felt unfocused. Perhaps that was the difficultly of keeping track of precisely who was in who. Its a good read, and Claire North shows once again a flair for finding a new and unusual premise.

Related Reviews

North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tamás Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

In recent years there has been a intense discussion about the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Lenin. Some of this has its roots in the class struggle - the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement both threw up questions about the nature of revolutionary organisation. Others have attempted to re-examine Lenin to critique existing organisations and ideas. There have been some excellent books, articles and events debating these questions.

Tamás Krausz's important new biography must be seen as part of this debate. His work is very much an attempt to re-examine Lenin's ideas as part of a resolute defence of Lenin and his work. Krausz is clear that this is intended to take forward the revolutionary movement that can challenge and defeat capitalism.

The Lenin that comes through on these pages is far from the mechanical, doctrinal individual, whose personal single-mindedness somehow embodied the future authoritarian Stalinist state. Rather he rigorously applied the ideas of Marxism to the concrete situation, confident to update and alter his viewpoint depending on circumstances, and ever open to learning from workers. Indeed, Krausz highlights Lenin's own celebration of the importance of the workers' own spontaneity and self-organisation
Lenin considered the workers' soviet as the political arm of the uprising and an institution of the revolution. The soviets and similar popular organizations... were the product of the workers' autonomous agency. As Lenin wrote about the uprising of December 1905, 'It was not some theory, not appeals on the part of someone, or tactics invented by someone, not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led these non-party mass organs to realize the need for an uprising and transformed them into organs of an uprising.'
That said, Lenin's Marxism began with the concrete situation and ended with the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This comes through clearly throughout the book, but I found the discussion of Lenin's attitude to the National Question, particularly illuminating. Krausz says
Lenin always approached the role and character of national movements from a historical and class perspective. He did not support the struggle of each and every small country fighting the great imperialist powers. He also had a strictly imposed condition: the uprising of any class more reactionary than the bourgeoisie of the center countries is not to be supported. 
It is precisely this approach that allowed Lenin to become the leading revolutionary critic of war and capitalism during the First World War. Those who supported the war ended up siding with their own ruling class. But those who did not get the question of national liberation also failed the revolutionary movement. "Lenin considered national self-determination a fundamental issue of democracy that revolutionaries 'may not undercut!'." These debates continue to have a resonance today. Lenin, for instance, opposed the slogan of "No Borders", not because he wasn't for a world without borders, but because in the concrete situation, demanding the self-determination for oppressed countries meant the defacto creation of borders.

Another excellent chapter is on the nature of the early Soviet regime. Here Krausz describes how Lenin again saw everything through the lens of the defense of the revolution. "To Lenin, mass terror counted as the most extreme instrument of struggle against the enemy and was to be applied (and often demanded by him in vain) on a case-by-case basis". Given the way that under Stalin the Soviet Union's peasantry were forced into collectivisation, its interesting to read that
In April 1919, some peasants in certain parts of the country were going to be forced to join the collectives, rather than doing so of their own free will - a behavior categorically prohibited by Lenin in the name of the Council of People's Commissars. The peasant base formed the backbone of the Red Army, and 'Compulsory measures of any kind to make the peasants pass over to the communal working of the fields are impermissible. Non-observance of this will be punished with all the severity of revolutionary law'.
Krausz's treatment here of the Civil War and the suppression of the Constituent Assembly is refreshing - seeing Lenin (and the early Soviet state) actions through the question of the defence of Revolution. Lenin is often accused of celebrating revolutionary violence. But his approach was very different, Krausz notes how in the aftermath of the defeated 1905 revolution Lenin advocated the use of political terrorism if it took the movement forward, however, he quickly changed his mind after seeing how terrorist actions in response to counter-revolution made the situation worse.

Later, as it becomes clear that the Russian Revolution was isolated, Lenin was forced down even more pragmatic roads. Krausz explores in detail the years of War Communism and the NEP, seeing these as steps along particular routes attempting to deal with particular situations. Lenin and the leadership of the Bolsheviks had always been clear that without international revolution, the Russian Revolution would become isolated. The end of the First World War did lead to revolutionary upsurges elsewhere, and real hope in Russia that countries like Germany would overthrow capitalism, and the centre of revolution would move to Berlin. Unfortunately Krausz downplays this. His focus on Russia implies that the key moment for international revolution was the failed Red Army assault on Poland in 1919. And at times, Krausz suggests that there was limited potential for a Germany revolution and for Bolshevism to spread among western workers.
Lenin also mentions another defining trait - that a majority of the Western workers were not ready to seize power. However, he only sensed that they were subjectively ill-prepared for it, and he neither analyzed the causes nor sought the origins of this phenomenon. He understood that revolutionary Bolshevism could not penetrate the cultural traditions of the Western working masses, but he lacked a well-differentiated sociological analysis of the reasons for the inner stratifications of Western labor.
If Lenin really believed that "Bolshevism could not penetrate the cultural traditions of the Western working masses" then he gave no real sign of it in his writings. Krausz bases much of this on a description of a single visit by British workers to Russia in 1920 (though he fails to mention that in 1919 and prior to the First World War) there had been near revolutionary strike movements in Britain.

While this is a disappointing it should not be used to completely rubbish Krausz's book. The author rescues Lenin as a practical revolutionary, constantly returning to the concrete situation, analysing, listening and learning from those around him. For many decades after the Russian Revolution, we were told there was "actually existing Socialism" in Russia. Lenin would have been appalled. As Krausz points out,
Lenin stated in his last public speech that the realization of socialism was not on history's agenda yet. Now was the time of the transitional period, of creating the historical-cultural preconditions for socialism
Tamás Krausz's books deserves to become a key text for those trying to change the world. As he points out, the discontented keep running into Lenin, which is why his work is endlessly debated. This is not an abstract debate, but one that Lenin would have approved of. Here's Krausz ably summing up why
certain authors have deliberately eliminated from Lenin's legacy the essential philosophical tenets and methodology that made him who he was. For one thing, they neglect his most important practical discovery, namely his precise theoretical interpretation of Marxist dialectics, its reconstruction, and his practical application of those dialectics. Lenin understood, even on the basis of its Hegelian roots, that dialectical materialism (and epistemology) incorporates the self-movement in things, phenomena, processes, as well as the conscious human activist to transform society. Thus it is not a matter of the historical dialectic of ideas, but rather the self-movement and self-creation of history through social classes and individuals. For Lenin, epistemology was not simply a matter of getting to know reality. It did not exist for its own sake. He aimed instead to seek out the truth, the solution to contradictions within things, and the struggles that resulted. He wanted to see a radical transformation of the world so that humanity could rid itself, by its own will, of the dominant powers. Lenin gave Marx's eleventh Feuerbach thesis a new urgency: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it'. In other words, history was not an abstract whole, an object of study for him, but a tool through which the elements and tendencies to be continued or transformed could be located in the midst of 'collapse'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

Nation - War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left and the Origins of Communist Internationalism
Cliff - Revolution Besieged
Cliff - All Power to the Soviets
Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Jonathan Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time

The finches of the Galapagos Islands are the poster animals for Charles Darwin's ideas. On Darwin's voyage he shot and identified a number of species of finch and their variations on the different islands helped give the young scientist clues that hinted toward his theory of evolution. The finches have developed amazing variations to adapt to the different ecology of the various Galapagos Islands, and this book explores that evolution and the scientists who have studied the finches as part of an exploration of how evolution actually works.

Darwin, and most natural scientists who came after him, before the late 20th century believed that evolution was a extremely slow process, observable through fossil remains. In part that was because they lacked the tools to see it, in particular the genetic science that is now such an important part of evolutionary science. Even with this science, it is still difficult for the layman to imagine the actual processes taking place which lead to the evolution of one species into another.

A quote from Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin's most able and enthusiastic supporters, illustrates this well,
the more we learn of the nature of things, the more evident is it that what we call rest is only unperceived activity; that seeming peace is silent but strenuous battle. In every part, at every moment, the state of the cosmos is the expression of a transitory adjustment of contending forces; a scene of strife, in which all the combatants fall in turn. What is true of each part, is true of the whole.
Huxley ably captured the processes that are observed in the finches described in Weiner's book. Though he couldn't have comprehended how they were working. Finches live, like birds everywhere, by eating various foods, finding a mate and escaping danger. Some of them are more able to do these things than others, and often tiny differences can make a difference to whether or not one bird or another is able to survive. One of the surprising things in this book is how tiny these differences are, and how big an impact they can have. The finches are famous for their different beaks, and Weiner explains how during periods of abundance the finches eat varieties of food. In times of shortages however, the different shapes of their beaks allow them to specialise in foods, and here is where tiny differences have the most impact. Talking about the Grants, two scientists who have made a career studying the finches in intricate detail, Weiner writes:
Thus the Grants suspect that the finches here are perpetually being forced slightly apart and drifting back together again. A drought favors groups of one beak length or another. It splits the population and forces it onto two slightly separate adaptive peaks. But because the two peaks are so close together, and there is no room for them to widen farther apart, random mating brings the birds back together again. 
It is worth noting Weiner's consideration of environmental conditions here. They play a key role in evolution, though he includes other factors such as the role of people bringing new species, or changing the landscape of areas that in turn force changes on other species. Writing in the early 1990s, Weiner doesn't ignore the threat from global warming, though he clearly could not foresee the amount of climate change we would be facing just twenty years later. But Weiner understands that the greatest threat to diversity is human action, and he explores in details the way that this can impact upon species population and evolution.

Sometimes, the tiny changes don't get fusioned back together. And tiny differences become permanent transformations.
What drives the first widening wedge? It is... a little like the splitting of an amoeba: one population goes one way and the one goes the other. You have one vessel, one gene pool, and you end up with two. And the beginning of the splut can be a very small thing,... Even a detail that has no adaptive significance can make all the difference in the world. In other words, the origin of species can lie in the kinds of small, subjective decisions and revisions that in our species come under the heading of romance.
Sexual selection isn't the only way that species diverge, though it does seem that the shapes of beaks of finches are one of the key things that potential mates look at when hunting a partner. Perhaps key to finch evolution is the way that environmental changes, such as droughts, force a wedge between birds with different lengths of beaks. In examples studied by the Grants, we have drought conditions favouring long and short beaks. The gap widened as the drought continued, and the longer this went on, the harder it would have been for random mating to bring them back together again.

With any book that has such extraordinary detail and is written so well, it's difficult to summarise it all in one review. One thing did strike me though. Weiner is able to write brilliantly because, in part, he is describing the extraordinarily persistent and detailed work of a small group of professionals over many decades. The work of Peter and Rosemay Grant is at the heart of this work, but so are many other scientists. That they were funded to spend years of their lives on an isolated island measuring beaks and observing finches' mating has been crucial to how we have begun to understand evolution. It is worth thinking about this when universities cut their budgets.

Jonathan Weiner's excellent book is one of the best introductions to this topic that I have ever read. It deservedly won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize when it was first published and remains extremely readable and relevant today. It would be fantastic if it could be updated with more on the work of Grants and their colleagues since 1995, as well as further discussion on global warming and its impact on the Galapagos Islands. But even so, this is well worth getting hold of.

Related Reviews

Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause
Jones - Darwin's Island
Simons - Darwin Slept Here

Sunday, September 20, 2015

James Morrow - This is the Way the World Ends

*Warning Spoilers* 

To what extent are those that do not speak out guilty when atrocities happen? This is one of the themes of this very funny, but extremely dark and bleak novel. George Paxman is an ordinary worker, a tombstone engraver, whose attempts to get a protective radiation suit for his daughter leads to him being charged with culpable guilt when humanity is destroyed by nuclear war. Alongside the generals and politicians whose only strategy to stop nuclear war was to build more weapons, George is put on trial by the ghosts of those who were never born.

First published in the 1980s this is a novel that is clearly influenced by the anti-nuclear war movements. The arguments for nuclear weapons are brilliant pastiches of the pro-war ideas that continue to be used to justify the bombing of other countries or the renewal of Trident nuclear submarines. Though the threat of nuclear war has retreated with the collapse of the USSR, the book feels surprisingly relevant to an era of seemingly unending war.

There are no happy endings here. Its nuclear war after all. It cannot end well. But the novel grips till its grim end, and the laughs are tinged with sadness. Justifiably republished as part of the SF Masterworks series, this is one of the best SF novels I've read.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A.L. Beier - The Problem of the Poor in Tudor and Early Stuart England

This short book is a detailed contribution to the discussion on responses to the question of the poor in early modern England. The question is an important one, because on it hinges the way that the state tried to both conceptualise the question of poverty and deal with it.

We are used to thinking of early modern society as poor. But that's a perception that probably comes from us contrasting imagined life for the majority of peasants with our own lives today. But poverty was a much deeper part of Tudor and Stuart life, and reached far into society. So Beier's can write that "reliable" tax records
suggest that a third to a half lived in or near poverty in the 1520s and again in the 1670s... thus England began the Tudor and ended the Stuart age with a great army of needy persons, possibly the majority of the country's inhabitants.
There were of course short term fluctuations, which depended mostly on the success of the harvest. We know little about what life was like for the poor, though as Beier points out it was hard. We can get some indication from prices and wages. Between 1500 and 1650 there was a "sustained" rise of about 4 percent in prices for this period, but "real wages for agricultural and industrial labour actually fell by up to 50 per cent in the period". This was closely related to the growth in population which produced a surplus of labour holding wages down.

A bigger question was that of enclosure and engrossing (the enlargement of farms) both of which tended to drive people from their land. The population at this time was surprisingly mobile and workers often moved on from employers seeking better wages. The scale of poverty (and know doubt the regular revolts against enclosure) meant that the state had to act, Beier's argues that
there was no solution to the Tudor and early Stuart poverty problem, short of a social revolution (always a remote possibility) in which wealth and power were radically redistributed. Just the same, officials intervened precisely to ensure that that did not happen.
While the author argues many individuals were generous to the poor, the poor collectively were seen as lazy and wasteful, as well as potentially rebellious. Beier argues that there were three lines of thought that led to state action on poverty. One was the fear of rebellion. The other was the belief that society was an "organism" were each section of it played a role in keeping the whole healthy. The third was what Beier calls "Renaissance humanism", a belief that the poor could be improved by education and assistance - though in particular this meant attacking "idleness".

State action meant the passing of acts forcing local authorities to raise taxes to tackle poverty. This was mainly through paying the poor "weekly cash doles" but also the provision of "housing, medical care, clothing, fuel, apprenticeships... education and burial expenses" if needed. Beier's argues then, that by 1650 there was
a powerful weapon for checking poverty on a national scale, funded by statutory taxes and administered by state officials. In the Europe of 1650 that was no mean achievement and undoubtedly contributed to England's long-term social stability compared with other states.
While I'm sceptical of his conclusion, its is no doubt true that the state had put in place mechanisms for dealing with poverty, though this was mostly of the form of supporting those in poverty, rather than raising them out of it. Alongside this action were laws to restrict movement and changing of employment and to control "dangerous trades" particularly those who travelled about, like peddlers, who could spread discontent. This helps to underline the main reason for state driven assistance for the poor. It was not to end poverty, indeed its doubtful that many in the Tudor or Stuart ruling class believed this possible, or even desirable. Instead it was to protect their own position. As Beier's concludes in this useful, if short study,
it is unlikely that the position of the poor was transformed by weekly doles and the rest, any more than that of today's is by social security payments. But for the ruling elites who instituted and administered the legislation, the poor-laws had positive results. They protected them from a host of disorders that might otherwise have threatened their social supremacy.
Those ruling elites didn't survive the next half century. And, as the British government is currently eroding the welfare state, it is worth remembering that the origins of the poor laws and welfare lie in ruling class fear of those at the bottom of society.