Monday, June 26, 2017

Dave Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed

I've already reviewed Dave Sherry's new book on the Russian Revolution for Socialist Worker, and I hope you'll read that in conjunction with these additional comments. Having read Sherry's book for a second time I wanted to add a few more thoughts.

As the centenary progresses, more and more books are being published. But Sherry's book is by far the best I've read. In part this is because he puts great emphasis on the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But it is also because he gets across the grand sweep of events - the way in which the Revolution was a process, where things happened and peoples ideas changed. Political organisations that failed to grasp this, were unable to adapt to new circumstances lost their ability to shape things as their support vanished. Take this summary of the February events:
For the Mensheviks, years of mechanical adherence to the orthodox formula, that Russian socialism would have to wait until capitalism was fully developed and assumed complete political power, blinded them to the developing situation. Their attempt to half the revolution... left the Mensheviks into supporting the new capitalist government... The paradoxical character of the February Revolution, a bourgeois' revolution undertaken by workers and soldiers, brutally exposed the social weakness of the bourgeoisie, once the crutch of the Tsarist state had been knocked out from under it.
In a sense the Revolution fed itself. As workers and peasants collectively began to understand their immense power. The "act of ridding Russia of its monarchy gave people a sense of how society can be changed, and when the Provisional government refused to stop the war, it failed to stop the momentum for revolutionary change."

Sherry explains this process well, and shows how the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, were able to both shape and learn from the movement. This wasn't inevitable and the party almost made the same mistake as the Mensheviks in the post-February period. Sherry shows that Lenin's arrival in Russia in April led to a row that redirected the Bolshevik organisation towards workers' revolution. But crucially this could only happen because the Party was so rooted in working class organisations and struggles. It was the reality of revolution as experienced by the working class, principally in Petrograd, that meant Lenin's instincts were accepted by the bulk of the Bolshevik Party.

Towards the end of the book, after summarising the numerous revolutions and mass working class actions that have taken place world wide since 1917, Sherry reminds us that only the Russian Revolution in 1917 led on to a workers' state, albeit briefly. As he writes:
Without Lenin and the Bolsheviks it is inconceivable that a coalition of workers, soldiers and peasants would have taken power in 1917. The absence of revolutionary leadership and such a bold socialist workers' party in all the other revolutionary upheavals that have challenged capitalism through the last 100 years, explains why 1917 is unique. Times change but we can still learn from the past. That is why it is such a tragedy that Lenin's real legacy has been hidden or distorted by what passes for bourgeois scholarship.
And there has never been such a need for such revolutionary organisation. The Russian Revolution matters not because of historical curiosity, but because "it provides an alternative view of what is possible when society polarises and socialists organise to offer hope and unity in place of fear and division". If you only read one book on 1917 it should be this one, because these lessons are crucial today for a new generation of socialists. As Dave Sherry concludes:
Across the world there is a revolt against the people at the top of society - the one percent. It can go left or right and it is the job of all of us who want a better, safer world to shape it and pull it in a socialist direction.
Related Reviews on 1917

Smith - Russia in Revolution
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Cliff - Lenin: All Power to the Soviets
Smith - Red Petrograd
Trotsky - Lessons of October


Related Reviews of books by Dave Sherry

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A Socialist History of the First World War
Sherry - John Maclean
Sherry - Occupy!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ian Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism

This new collection of essays from one of the world's leading Marxist environmentalists is an important contribution to discussions about how we can fight for a sustainable world, one where, as Ian Angus says quoting Marx, we live as "a society of good ancestors". More than this however the book is an important reassertion of how to approach questions of science and politics that strengthen our ability to understand the world and change it.

In the first two chapters on Marx and Engels, Angus shows the importance of the approach that they developed. He writes, "If our political analysis and program doesn't have a firm basis in the natural sciences, our efforts to change the world will be in vain". Both Marx and Engels had a keen interest in the natural sciences, and they used this scientific knowledge to develop their own understanding of the world and their "historical materialist" approach. Angus points out that understanding this is important in part because some political authors argue that Engels was the one interested in science and Marx had a less concrete approach.

The first essay here, detailing the friendship between Marx and Engels and Carl Schorlemmer the "Red Chemist" demonstrates this very clearly. Schorlemmer was a convinced Communist, and one of the leading scientific figures of his time. Marx and Engels' friendship with him was one of mutual political understanding and "intellectual exchange". Engels shared the proofs of Capital with Schorlemmer, and Marx stayed with him, quizzing him on scientific questions. This is not just of academic interest. Schorlemmer was able to aid Marx's understanding of key scientific principles that allowed Marx to develop his understanding of the relationship between capitalism and nature, and the origins of the metabolic rift. This underlines Angus' point that "An understanding of Earth System science is necessary for preventing environmental crises, but it is not sufficient". He continues:
Marx and Engels used the term “scientific socialism” not to suggest that it was comparable to chemistry or physics, but as a contrast to the utopian socialisms of the early nineteenth century, which were based on abstract moralism, not on systematic study of capitalism and its material context. For them, there was no wall between social and natural science.
The second essay, on Marx, Engels and Darwin develops this still further. In it Angus explains how the often misunderstood comment by Marx about Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, that it "contains the basis in natural history for our view" is not a crude attempt to jump on the Darwin bandwagon, nor a simplistic suggestion that there is struggle in the natural world, like the class struggle in human society. Rather, Marx was saying that because Darwin had developed a materialist explanation for how organisms changed he had, in Angus' words done "for the understanding of nature what Marx and Engels had done for human society." Darwin's book "completed" historical materialism.

In both these essays' Angus shows how Marxists must root their political analysis in scientific reality. In the rest of the book he demonstrates how to do this. One example will suffice. In an important chapter critiquing the ideas of Jason Moore, Angus points out that Moore's misunderstanding of the work of Anthropocene scientists leads him to fail to offer a strategy to change things. Angus quotes Moore saying that anthropogenic global warming is “a colossal fabrication”. Moore doesn't do this from a climate denial perspective, he is well aware that we are in an environmental crisis, but his claim is just as dangerous:
Like his [Moore's] claims that Anthropocene science is wrong, dangerous, and a tool of the bourgeoisie, such comments attempt to delegitimise Anthropocene science, to warn the left against listening to ideologically suspect scientists.
Moore does this, Angus argues because of the separation between science and humanities and an academic system that rewards controversy. What ever the reason, Angus argues that the consequences are worrying:
If we reject Anthropocene science and deny the new epoch’s world-historic importance, we will do lasting damage to both science and radical politics, and undermine our ability to carry through the radical social and geophysical transformations that are so desperately needed in our time.
What is needed is a renewed synthesis between science and the humanities, using the insights offered by both to better understand a strategy for action. Doing this properly can, as many of these essays show, offer brilliant insights into what sort of action is needed. Angus does this particularly well in his polemic here against those who misuse the idea of Environmental Catastrophism. Angus shows that those who argue that talking about the dangers of climate change undermine the ability to act on climate change are making another dangerous mistake. They can end up disarming activists, or giving them strategies that make little or no difference. Instead, what is needed is the "building mass environmental campaigns" that can relate to the majority of the population, based in scientific realities.

Here in the UK, for instance, we've tried to do this, by arguing for the trade union movement to adopt the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. This recognises the need to reduce UK emissions by 90 percent and then shows how this is possible through the creation of jobs that reduce emissions and a transition away from the fossil fuel economy.

Angus points out that socialists have to learn to relate to these movements to bring about the change we need and that this can be part of the root towards fundamental social change. As he says, if we can't stop an oil pipeline, we won't overthrow capitalism. Ultimately though, that is what is required. In Angus' words "we have to create a society based not on having more things, but living better. Not quantitative growth but qualitative change." I would have liked further discussion from Ian Angus on how this might happen, but this doesn't undermine what is an important book that deserves to be widely read and debated by people from across the left, not just those who already describe themselves as Marxists.

Ian Angus will be launching A Redder Shade of Green at the Marxism 2017 Festival in London. He will also be speaking on his earlier book Facing the Anthropocene. More information at www.marxismfestival.org.uk

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Burkett - Marxism and Nature
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jonathan Martineau - Time, Capitalism and Alienation

The way that humans have understood and related to the universe around them has varied dramatically throughout history. One aspect to this, is the question of time. One of the points that Jonathan Martineau makes in this interesting book, is that we tend to think of our modern time system as being the only way of understanding, measuring and experiencing time. Other societies, specifically non-capitalist ones, often have dramatically different ways of experiencing time. In his famous studies of the Nuer people, the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard noted, for instance, that those Nilotic cattle farmers had more time in the mornings when they were busiest with their animals.

Martineau's book is an attempt to understand how the modern, capitalist understanding of time arose. He begins by reasserting the Marxist argument that humans are the "animal" that can only differentiate itself in the midst of society. In other words their life experience is a collective one and their understanding of the world around them arises out of their social organisation. Thus, for Martineau, "Time is...a socially mediated relation between humans and their world. This social mediation is shaped by the social organisation of production and labour, and shapes it in return." [19] Time cannot be separated from the interacting relationship between society and nature.
Time being both natural and social means that 'social time'; cannot be thought of without reference to the conditioning determinations brought about by natural phenomena, just as the latter cannot be properly conceptualised and addressed without a recognition of their always already socially mediated character. Natural phenomena such as celestial movements and atomic pulses are socially standardised continua of change...Humans socially mediate natural processes and cycles of change in the sense that they alter, funnel, use, coordinate, divert, channel, exploit or conserve them, in order to survive and reproduce.
Under capitalism, time, its measurement, use and experience becomes subordinated to the needs of capital. Time itself becomes a commodity in the sense that "labour time" is the method by which capitalists extract value from workers. Time is "fetishised" because [Martineau quotes Norbert Elias] "the social standardisation of individuals in terms of socially institutionalised time is anchored more firmly and deeply in their consciences the more complex and differentiated societies become". So children are taught "clock time" as their schooling, experiencing their days through time-tables and dinner breaks, before home-time.

Clock time, arises Martineau argues, before capitalism as the needs of production begin to require more coordination and management. But it is under capitalism that clock-time reaches its "hegemonic position", and then Martineau argues, this requires industrial capitalism to ensure its fully accepted. I was reminded, while reading this, of Tony Cliff's oft repeated story. He described a wealthy Arabic businessman arriving in a factory town to purchase equipment. When the factory hooter sounds and the workers stream into work, the buyer is entranced. "Never mind the machinery, how much for the hooter".

Cliff was making a joke, but its an important point. Key to Martineau's work is an understanding that capitalism could only make clock-time hegemonic through winning a class struggle. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the examinations of how this took place - the breaking of the historic traditions of working people, the subordination of them to the rhythms of the clock. Martineau contrasts these with the historically different and specific ways that pre-capitalist societies understood and used time to fit with their economic systems. For feudal peasants day-light hours lengthened and shortened with the changing length of day. If day break marks the beginning of the twelve hours, noon the centre and sun set the end, then these hours are of variable length. Today a variable length hour sounds absurd. To a peasant in the fields its the obvious way to mark time between starting and ending labour.

But clock-time arises before capitalism, but with the need for workers to sell their labour power. Its the way that capitalism helps to quantitise that labour, and this is the key point of Martineau's book. But just as commodities have a "dual" character in capitalism, so does time. Martineau develops the thesis of Moishe Postone that argues the "distinction between abstract and concrete time rests on their definition as independent and dependent variables. 'Abstract time', for Postone, is thus 'uniform, continuous, homogeneous, 'empty' time, [and] is independent of events', while concrete times are 'functions of events: they are referred to and understood through natural cycles and the periodicities of human life as well as particular tasks or processes'."

Theory aside, once the time becomes accepted, the struggle over it is changed. Martineau utilises a famous analysis of time and capitalism by E.P. Thompson and quotes the historian on how this takes place:
The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-term committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time and a half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only to well.
This of course begs the question of how might a new society, one formed through the revolutionary over-throw of the old order, understand time. As Martineau concludes, this might "lead to a reclaiming of history and historical time by those who make it."

Clearly this is an interesting book, but I feel obliged  to make one strong critical point. It is a real shame that the publishers did not translate all the quotes from French to English. Not all of us are bilingual, and having key quotes in French and roughly translating them in the footnotes is bad enough. But having some quotes completely untranslated is a serious mistake.

That said, and leaving aside the academic style which makes some of the book rather dull, there is still much of interest here, particularly for those trying to understand how human society has transformed itself through history.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy moves from a slightly foreboding children's fantasy to a truly dark, frightening story. The story moves rapidly between worlds; initially we encounter Will in our own Earth, then we move to the world Lyra has escaped too, but this is haunted by phantoms that prey on adults and children on the cusp of puberty.

Despite its familiarity, Will's world is a dark one too. His mother has some form of delusional illness, and as it becomes clear that the family is being targeted because his absent father had found some secret information, Will's life suddenly becomes terribly uncertain. Putting his mother in a place of safety Will accidentally finds his way to Lyra's world and receives a powerful tool that allows him to travel between worlds.

Back in Will's Oxford, scientist Mary Malone is on the verge of discovering that her Earth is actually linked to all the others, and that the object of her studies - dark matter, Dust, is a clue to how everything hangs together. This in turn makes her the target of unknown forces and she too escapes into an alternative space.

The rest of the novel which further illuminates the relationship of these key individuals too each other and the wider battle that is taking place, a battle in a war that transcends the different universes.

As in most trilogies, book two is a bridge between the beginning of a novel and the climax. But Pullman expertly uses this to flesh out the universe. While setting it in a dark fantasy universe, the novel is particularly effective because it plays on the fears of every child - the lose of ones parents, fear of the unknown and, in particular, the unfathomable conspiracies of adults. There's a particularly clever approach by creating monsters that only attack adults, and children growing into adulthood. A memorable scene has these otherwise invisible creatures clustering around a unknowing boy who is on the verge of becoming a man. In a few weeks they'll destroy him, but in the meantime he runs and plays with the others.

It is no wonder that Pullman's Dark Materials have become classics. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, and leave every reader yearning for more. The Subtle Knife lays the basis for the most powerful of the trilogy and its impossible not to immediately reach for The Amber Spyglass as soon as this is finished.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Northern Lights

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pamela Horn - Joseph Arch

The life of Joseph Arch, agricultural labourer, Methodist preacher, trade union leader and liberal MP, is a fascinating one that Pamela Horn tells with her usual readable and engaging style. Horn notes that Arch was prone to over emphasise his own importance, particularly in terms of the founding and development of the National Agricultural Labourers Union that he helped found. So it is useful that Horn provides a good account of the pre-history of rural trade unionism, and the struggles of agricultural labourers.

The NALU and rural trade unionism in general was a central part of Arch's life. These arose out of necessity - the appalling poverty of rural life, in particular the low wages of agricultural workers. Horn had two strategies for dealing with this. The first was trade unionism, so that workers could come together to struggle for higher wages, particularly through strikes. Secondly, the extension of the voting franchise to male agricultural workers. There were some secondary strategies, one of which was emigration, particularly the United States and Canada. The other was migration within the United Kingdom, usually to urban industry.

Arch was sceptical of socialism as outlined by the Webbs in the late 19th century, but his politics were generally on the left. Like his hero, Gladstone, he was a champion of Irish Home Rule, even when this put him at odds with his core supporters. He was, like most at the time, however more backward about issues such as the women workers, believing they should remain in the family home. He never abandoned the trade union cause, though late in his life he became extremely cynical about workers, feeling they had abandoned him. When Arch was elected an MP he was frequently extremely poor, as MPs were not paid and he had no independent income save a small, irregular wage from the union.

But the main story here is that of the NALU. This rose rapidly, growing on the major outbreak of class struggle - the Revolt of the Fields, that is forever associated with Joseph Arch's leadership. The union grew rapidly and quickly took on a national importance. It's newspaper was read by tens of thousands, even being sold by WH Smiths in the train stations. The NALU won some initial wage rises, though it was part of some bitter strikes. Arch however was prone to personal feuds and sectarianism, both of which helped undermine his position. He was frequently accussed of living a high-life at the expense of his poverty stricken union members. There was some truth to this, particularly as Arch clearly loved being in the lime-light - he was also, in later years, very pleased with the friendship of the Prince of Wales.

The NALU declined with membership falling from a peak of around 86,000 in 1874 to 1,100 in 1894. The decline hurt Arch enormously, though he clearly had no strategy for turning this around other than exorting labourers to join. The decline of the union is clearly related to the decline in class struggle, alongside slight improvements in the economic situation.

Arch's career in parliament was relatively lacklustre. During his first period in office he made an excellent maiden speech (reproduced by Horn) on the condition of the agricultural labourer. Yet in his latter years following his second election, he was remarkably quiet, speaking on only a few occasions. Despite his earlier temperance, Arch became known for heavy drinking in London, and though he clearly loved the limelight and the acquaintance of famous figures, he remained relatively tied to his roots. Only ever appearing in his famous brown suit. Following retirement, Arch lived on a small income from a fund setup by his liberal friends. He was able, probably unlike most of those who had been his union members, to survive to a ripe old age, and his death was in 1919, by which time the English countryside had been transformed once again.

Arch's story is of interest because he, almost by accident, found himself at the head of a mass movement. To his credit he threw his enormous energy and talents into building and strengthening the union movement in difficult conditions. Horn celebrates this, while acknowledging the weaknesses of Arch's personality and politics. We should remember him as a pioneer from whose life we can learn much.

Related Reviews

Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Francis Parkman, Jr. - The Oregon Trail

This fascinating account of North America in the mid 19th century is a description of Francis Parkman's expedition into lands remote from the eastern "settlements". Parkman initially accompanies the settlers' heading west towards Oregon, and his accounts are fascinating insights into how the settlers viewed the world, and how they themselves were seen. It's notable, in this description how Parkman sees the settlers as only being interested in personal gain:
Yankee curiosity was nothing to theirs. They demanded our names, where we came from, where we were going and what was our business. The last query was particularly embarrassing; since travelling in that country, or indeed any where, from any other motive than gain, was an idea of which they took no cognisance. Yet they were fine-looking fellows, with an air of frankness, generosity and even courtesy, having come from one of the least barbarous of the frontier counties.
That said, he is scornful of them at times:
On visiting the encampment we were at once struck with the extraordinary perplexity and indecision that prevailed among the emigrants. They seemed like men totally out of their element; bewildered and amazed, like a troop of schoolboys lost in the woods.
Parkman's trek did actually have a purpose. It was, in part, simply about a young man with money wanted to see the wilderness. At the same time, it was the opportunity to hunt as many animals as possible, particularly buffalo.  Ironically, he, like many of his contemporaries shared a belief that these animals were so numerous that they could be killed without consequence - "Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species".

But it for Parkman's commentary on the Native Americans which this book shall likely be chiefly remembered. Parkman went to live with one of the tribes he encountered for a number of months. He rode with them, ate with them, hunted with them and watched their preparations for war. His accounts are frequently sympathetic, though he essentially sees them as a backward, savage race with childlike simplicity. The Native Americans, are, in Parkman's eyes untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, and prone to robbery. He also understood that things were changing:
These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilisation. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same rude garments of skins.
Great changes are at hand... With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must also be broken and scattered.The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky and overawed by military posts.
There's no doubt that Parkman sees this as a good thing. White civilisation was to be emulated and aspired too - its reality was to be contrasted with the barbarism of Native American life. Sadly, while Parkman's book is full of interesting observation about Native American life in this period and with the tribes he encounters, its tempered by his racism and white supremacy. So read this book for the descriptions and the account of a country in the process of huge transformation, but do so knowing that opinions like Parkman's would help destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people, and the environment they depended on.

Related Reviews

McLynn - Wagons West
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Joyce Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Joyce Marlow's history of The Tolpuddle Martyrs is a classic of its period. It tells the story of the Martyrs well, allowing for occasional bits of speculation by the author. The problem for those writing about the Martyrs is two-fold. Firstly there have been numerous books, plays and articles. Secondly the material itself is relatively thin.

The primary source for most authors are the pamphlets written by George Loveless and four of the other martyrs. Loveless was the key figure in the Martyrs' case, a principled and quietly heroic individual, he wrote a short, very readable, memoir of his role.

Unfortunately this is brief and while detailed in places, Marlow is right to point out that being written in hindsight we cannot necessarily take it always at face value. That said, she puts it to good use and frames a much more detailed account around it. Marlow's additional sources, mostly including contemporary newspapers and legal records help fill out the story.

Like other authors she sees the persecution of the Tolpuddle labourers as very much about an attempt to drive the nascent agricultural union movement underground. Unlike most other writers of the period she also understands that the union movement saw in the Tolpuddle case the opportunity for self promotion. The six men were safe for the union movements' leaders. They weren't violent, they didn't burn down threshing machines and the solidarity movement that grew up to demand their return was the very model of how to campaign within the system.

This is not to downplay the movement. In fact, one of the strengths of Marlow's book is that she has great detail of the solidarity campaign itself. This involved mass protest, systematic petitioning (at least 800,000 people signed one or other of the numerous petitions presented to parliament), hundreds of meetings and the use of public protest alongside of agitation within parliament.

Once free, the Martyrs became symbols of the need for trade unionism, though Marlow points out that in agriculture the government was successful in undermining the union movement. It was forty years before Joseph Arch's agricultural worker's union was the become the site for new battles with the landowners and the bosses.

Marlow's book is an easy read. It's very dated by today's standards, and in places the language would be considered quite inappropriate for a left wing author. But there is plenty of material here, and some useful background reading and history.

Related Reviews

Norman - George Loveless
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights

Ahead of Philip Pullman releasing the companion books to the His Dark Materials trilogy I've been re-reading the original novels, ones that I last read nearly 15 years back and have held a special place in my heart since then. As Heraclitus famously said, you cannot stand in the same river twice. And the same is true of favourite novels. They might be enjoyed just as much, but the context is never the same. Reading Northern Lights in 2017 I am reminded of the power of Pullman's writing. Given he is addressing a young person's audience he never patronises his reader, assuming that they are just as capable of understanding big concepts as any adult.

As a result, the books are powerful meditations on what it is to be human. Lyra, the major character in Northern Lights comes from a wealthy, closeted community. Her understanding of the real world is filtered by a privileged ability to dip in and out of other peoples lives. But always able to return to the safety of her life in one of Oxford's colleges. Thus readers can identify with her adventures exploring the roofs and cellars of the crumbling buildings, but identify more closely with her playmates. Which makes the shock of what happens to them even more striking.

Oxford here, is not of course, our Oxford. Rather its a different world where people's personalities are extended outside their bodies into animal familiers. These daemons think and act independantly, but act very much as a part of the person. While initially these seem like an amusing fantasy element to a slightly steampunk alternative universe, daemons increasingly become central to the books.

Enveloping all of this is the wider social structure. The suffocating influence of the church across science and society is unravelled not through Pullman explaining it all in a clunky chapter giving the background to the novel, but through Lyra's eyes as her understanding of the world is gradually undermined by reality. Its possible to see the Dark Materials novels as a kind of alternative story of the Reformation and Renaissance, as the old religious ideas are confronted and challenged by new technologies and science. As this takes place the whole of society is shaken. The genius of the novel is that this is the backdrop, and Lyra's adventures are the front stage. If you haven't read these books, throw yourself in, whatever your age, before Pullman's follow ups become the publishing event of the year.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz - The Shock of the Anthropocene

I found The Shock of the Anthropocene a very interesting book that has a lot to say about the multiple environmental crises that we are currently facing. But simultaneously I was left deeply unsatisfied by it, in particular its critique of the Marxist approach to the Anthropocene, and its lack of a clear strategy for solving the problem. That said, it has a lot to offer the careful reader.

It begins, like all writing on the environment must, by setting out precisely how bad the contemporary ecological crises are. Human society, the authors argue, is transforming the environment in a way that is utterly detrimental our ability to continue to live in the way we do. The authors argue that human's are not separate from nature, but part of it, and have transformed global ecology fundamentally. For instance, they point out that "Ninety per cent of photosynthesis on Earth occurs in 'anthropogenic biomes', that is, ecological ensembles modified by human beings."

It is with this approach that the authors begin their critique of contemporary Anthropocene science. They argue that discussion of the Anthropocene, reflects a "contemporary ideology of an ecological modernisation and a 'green economy' that internalises in markets and policies the values of the 'services' supplied by nature". They are scathing about the inability of this market driven approach to the natural world to deal with ecological crisis, pointing out that "the International Union for Conservation of Nature now presents nature as 'the largest company on Earth'."

Much of the early part of the book is a useful discussion of how this approach to nature developed. It is, in part, rooted in a enlightenment view of humanity sat neatly above a natural world ready and ripe for exploitation. But it is, for these authors, a result of the way that the modern economy was shaped by the interests of the Cold War, and particularly the United States.

They show how after World War Two, the concepts of ecosystems and machines, games theory and complex systems theory were used to try and break down the "Cartesian analystic reductionism" that had characterised scientific approaches to nature previously. Here they critique one famous guru of this approach James Lovelock, showing that his ideas arose out of the intellectual cradle of the US imperialist machine:
Lovelock...was in reality a pure product of the scientific-military-industrial complex of the Cold War. After collaborating with NASA, he worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War on detecting human presence under forest cover. His post-democratic conception of planetary government, his apology for nuclear power and his systemic view of the planet as a self-regulated system are the legacy of a world-view born from the Second World War and the Cold War.
The Cold War, the authors argue, shaped a way of viewing the world as a "natural world ... completely enclosed in a man-made container" (the quote is from Marshall McLuhan) and as a result, arrives at a position where, the "dominant narrative of the Anthropocene presents an abstract humanity uniformly involved... uniformly to blame".  Further, the authors argue that
The grand narrative of the Anthropocene places anthropos, humanity, into two categories: on the one hand, the uninformed mass of the world population, who have become a geological agent without realising it, and on the other, a small elite of scientists who reveal the dramatic and uncertain future of the planet.
Counter to this, the authors offer an alternative explanation of the origin of the Anthropocene, rooted in the particular developmental path taken by capitalism which has placed fossil fuels at its core. The authors quote Andreas Malm's work on several occasions, and their analysis, particularly of the post-Second World War Great Acceleration is similar to that taken by other authors such as Ian Angus.

However, Angus' own study of Anthropocene science and scientists shows that actually scientists do not by and large accept a narrative of all humans are "uniformly to blame" nor do they believe that the mass of humanity is uniformed or unconcerned about the environment. So the authors attempt to set their own work up as an alternative to the flawed approach of the scientists (and other environmental thinkers) is based on an incorrect reading of the scientific material.

My final criticism of the book is that the approach explicitly rejects Marxism as not being applicable to understanding the current dynamics of capitalism. The authors argue that the driving force of capitalism is consumption, and not accumulation. Which means that they lose vital analytical tools to explain the current inability of capitalism to respond to the climate crisis. They rightly understand that the Second World War was the "decisive break" that meant energy use leapt forward, but they highlight this only to emphasis that it laid the basis for "mass-consumption society".

Mass consumption is, of course, a major issue for the environmental impact of modern capitalism. But it isn't the cause. The cause is the drive to maximise profits, which in turn is based on the need to constantly expand production. So, the authors can reject "the great universals of 'capital' or the 'human species', " without seeing that Marx offered an analysis that put these in their historical context. Turning to Systems Theory, the authors hope that they can find a new way to understand the "ecologized history of capitalism". Unfortunately this leaves them unable to offer any alternative to the current system.

An example of their flaws is their discussion of militarism and the environment. For instance when they argue that "The 'scorched earth' practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries... the Boer War, the second Sino-Japanese War.. the German Operation Alberich of 1917... Stalin's destruction of Soviet resources (etc) should be analysed as environmental phenomena." The problem is that these are imperialist phenomena, which, given the nature of capitalism, inevitably has an environmental consequence - the two are dialectically linked, and its a mistake to separate them. In fact, separating them out means the authors commit precisely the reductionist error that they complain about others making.

This is a harsh critique of Bonneuil and Fressoz's book, so it is worth noting that I found much of interest in its pages. I was, for instance, fascinated by their material on the role of the military machine in shaping a particular approach to the environment, as is the parallel discussion of the importance of the rise of the motor car. Originally published in France the book inevitably has material from that country's environmental and industrial history that is new to me, and shows a close parallel to the historical developments of the UK.

In conclusion then, while the authors' approach is flawed by their simplistic critique of Marxism and their lack of clarity on the approach of Anthropocene scientists, there is material of interest here. However I'd recommend potential readers read Ian Angus' Facing the Anthropocene and Andreas Malm's Fossil Capitalism first, to better appreciate the context.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capitalism
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Andrew Norman - The Story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs

This short and readable account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs focuses on the life of the key figure in their struggle, George Loveless. Loveless was a Methodist minister and Andrew Norman locates his radicalism in the context of that branch of Christianity's break from the staid, pro-government, pro-system approach of the Anglican Church. But whatever George Loveless' religious beliefs he was motivated to try and organise his fellow agricultural workers to counter the appalling rural poverty that they experienced.

Drawing heavily on Loveless' own writings, we see how the Tolpuddle struggle was rooted in earlier, more radical protests. In particular, the Captain Swing rising of 1830, a few years before the Martyrs set up their union. Loveless and several other of the martyrs were part of this movement and its decline led them into the trade union movement. It's also notable that James Frampton, the magistrate who made it his personal crusade to prosecute the Tolpuddle trade unionists was himself a key figure in repressing the earlier struggles. Norman doesn't mention this, but Frampton was zealous in this earlier action, and the Dorset historian Barbara Kerr credits this central role in suppressing Swing as in part shaping his determination to foil the new trade unions.

It is arguable how much of a break this was with the past, particularly as several members of Loveless' wider family were involved in the union movement. But what is clear, is that the fledgling movement terrified the establishment. Of great interest in this book is how Norman highlights the correspondence between Frampton and Lord Melbourne in London, which shows how Tolpuddle was seen as a key case in challenging trade unions across the country. It's clear that there was a conspiracy to frame the Martyrs, and they were victims, not of the law, but of a system designed to protect the wealthy.

Andrew Norman's book focuses on the individual lives and experiences of the Martyrs, including the later lives of five of the six in Canada. I was disappointed that there wasn't more on how the trade union movement mobilised nationally in their support. Norman points out that a few days after they were found guilty, 10,000 attended a protest meeting in the capital. It would have been fascinating to know more about this. Norman attributes the freeing of the Martyrs to the way that the government found itself exposed by allegations of "illegal oaths" by the Orange Order, and downplays the mass movement outside Parliament. The problem with this, is that it ignores the fact that without the mass movement there would have been no pressure on the government to bend under over the wider question. In fact, it's doubtful it would ever have received prominence, without thousands protesting and signing petitions.

That said, this is an decent introduction to the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and the struggle that got them returned from transportation. This is, of course, in contrast with those who were deported as a result of Captain Swing. Hobsbawm and Rudé could only find two people who managed to return from exile in that case, but they didn't have a mass movement in England demanding justice. Such are the lessons of history.

Related Reviews

Griffin - The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest
Hobsbawm & Rudé - Captain Swing
Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles

Bloody terrible.

This novel is intended as a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, extending his classic tale A Meeting With Medusa. But it combines Clarke's inability to portray characters as anything other than cliched wooden extras from a bad 1950 film with a terrible plot-line that fizzles out in an unbelievable ending.

Don't bother, even if you are an enormous fan of these authors' other works.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Martin Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm

While seemingly a rather specialised topic, Martin Green's history of the neolithic, bronze and iron ages as understood through studies of the pre-history of his farm in Cranborne Chase contains a wealth of information. The Chase, an area roughly north-east of Blanford Forum in Dorset contains hundreds of locations of archaeological interest. Many of these are part of what should be understood as a cultural landscape, with sites frequently placed in relation to others.

Green is a farmer, but he has an immense skill and knowledge as an archaeologist and decades of work has led him to make some extremely significant finds. While some of the locations mentioned in this book such as the two iron age forts at Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill are well know (and well worth visiting) many others are either less well visited, or simply exist as crop marks or excavations.

I was inspired enough by Green's account of Knowlton Henge to visit. As the author explains this ruined 12th century Norman church was built in the midst of a large Neolithic henge. It does not take much expertise to understand the way the Christian church was trying to usurp "pagan" traditions here.

The book is full of fascinating details; from the explanation of archaeological method (including a chapter by Dr. Michael Allen on the links between snails and archaeological investigations) to the way modern science allows us to follow the travels of individuals thousands of years ago through the study of their bones. It is also extremely well illustrated.

This isn't a book for the casual reader, but for someone exploring the pre-history of Dorset its invaluable.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

S.A. Smith - Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928

S.A. Smith's Red Petrograd is one of the best books I've ever read in the Russian Revolution, so I had high expectations of this one. Sadly I was disappointed, even though there is much that I found of interest in it, and even for people like myself who have read widely on the subject there is significantly new material.

This review is not the place to rehearse the story of the Revolution itself. Following a useful discussion of Russian history. Smith moves to the story of 1917. Given the criticisms of the October Revolution by the right, it's worth quoting Smith's conclusions about events:
The seizure of power is often presented as a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government. It certainly had the elements of a coup, but it was a coup much advertised, and the government it overthrew had not been democratically elected. It is noteworthy how few military officers were willing to come to the aid of the government... The coup would certainly not have taken place had it not been for Lenin; and thanks to the decision of the moderate socialists to postpone the Second Congress, hi plan to present the latter with a fait accompli was achieved. But the execution of the insurrection was entirely Trotsky's work, cleverly disguised as a defensive operation to preserve the garrison and the Petrograd Soviet against the 'counter-revolutionary' design of the Provisional Government. in the last analysis, however, the Provisional Government had expired even before the Bolsheviks finished it off.
Following this, Smith looks at how the Bolsheviks' attempted to build on their success, and the various aspects of the consequences. There are useful discussions of how the Bolshevik's support for the right to self determination played out. Thirteen new states were created out of Russia between October 1917 and December 1918, for instance. But Smith also highlights how this went wrong - for instance the way that the Bolshevik's had to keep Ukraine by military not political means. There are also some fascinating sections on the way the Bolsheviks related to Muslims, invited to "order their national life 'freely and without hindrance'" in November 1917.

All of this is excellent material and there are some fine stories and quotes from the period. But the problem is Smith's framing of the material. Smith rightly sees the economic and political damage caused by the Civil War as a key turning point for the Revolution. While he notes that both sides committed "terror", he does acknowledge that the motivations were very different and that Red Terror was often in response to the brutal reality of the Whites.

But I think Smith underestimates the impact of the Civil War one the base of the Bolshevik's and their strategies. For instance, when discussing the Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks, Smith highlights the context, but neglects to point out that the Kronstadt sailors were not the same force that had been a bastion of the Revolution. They were much depleted by the Civil War and other political roles and had been watered down by an influx of new recruits. Smith's argument makes it looks like a key revolutionary force had changed sides, when this was not the case.

More problematic is the continuity that Smith places on the Bolsheviks before the seizure of power and long afterwards. There are two aspects to this. Firstly Smith frequently discusses the Bolsheviks before the Revolution (or in its early stages) and the strategy perused by Stalin as though it were the same organisation. Secondly I think he places the "Great Break", the rupture between Stalin's strategy and the old Bolshevik revolutionary strategy much too late. He argues that this was in 1928, but it is clear by then, that the policy being pursued by Stalin was already very different.
The Bolsheviks, who had so resoundingly rejected Russia's heritage in favour of proletarian internationalism, found that the greater the distance they travelled from October, the more they were hemmed in by these deep structuring forces. They did not become wholly captive to those forces, nor did revolutionary energies exhaust themselves, as Stalin's revolution from above' demonstrated, but in many areas the more utopian ideals of the early years were gradually abandoned and a new synthesis of revolutionary and traditional culture crystallised... It came about... because the Bolsheviks were transformed from a party of insurrection into a party of state builders.
But this confusing argument suggests a continuity between 1917 and the 1930s, which is inaccurate. The reality was there was a massive break, that required the liquidation of the old Bolshevik party and Stalin rebuilding a new one in his own image.

Smith effectively argues that it was the nature of Lenin and the Bolshevik organisation he crafted that led to the centralisation of power. "Lenin had ruled by virtue of his charisma, rather than his formal, position and he bequeathed a structure of weak but bloated institutions that relied for direction on a strong leader". There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story and while Smith doesn't ignore the other problems he down plays them. Thus while he does acknowledge the strategy of international revolution that the Bolsheviks hoped would solve their problems, he doesn't underline that this was actually quite realistic. In fact there is little mention here of the German Revolution, nor the other revolutions that shook Europe post 1918. Oddly there is precious little on the Comintern, before or after Stalin, except a few brief discussions.

Smith is also prone to some sweeping statements that undermine some of his better analysis. Stalin, he notes, "had read Machiavelli". So what? I suspect most intellectual Marxists of the period had. Lenin's great work State and Revolution is dismissed as having "utopian flights of fancy" in which a "cook or housekeeper could learn to run public affairs". It wasn't that much of a flight of fancy given that Soviets were being set up across Russia in their hundreds and supported by millions of workers and peasants while Lenin wrote it.

Ultimately I was left disappointed by the book. It has much of interest, but at times feels like a crude assault on Bolshevism (and Lenin in particular - hence an unreferenced quote saying Lenin described avant-guard art as "absurd and perverted"). The author concludes by arguing that the importance of the Revolution was not in its actuality (he suggests the Great Break was more important than the Revolution that preceded it), nor in the hope that workers in power would led to an end to inequality and exploitation. He argues that the Revolution's answers to these problems were "flawed".

Smith clearly sees capitalism as leading to war and environmental destruction, but dismisses the only political organisation that has created a fundamentally different workers state, arguing that their revolution "wrought calamity". Yet the reality was the calamity was a consequence of the counter-revolution that strangled the revolution and the failure of international revolution to break the chains that bound Russia in isolation.

That said, Smith can, and does celebrate what the revolution meant for ordinary people and millions of others around the globe. I can agree with him about how 1917 lifted people, and taught them to look further afield, before the revolution was defeated and drowned in blood. One example from Smith's book will suffice.
Yet the campaign to liquidate illiteracy awoke a thirst for knowledge on the part of newly literate readers. A poor peasant sent a letter to the Peasant Newspaper: 'Send me a list of books published on the following subjects because I am interested in everything: chemistry, science, technology, the planets, the sun, the earth, the planet Mars, world maps, books on aviation, the number of planes we posses, the number of enemies the Socialist Republic has, books on comets, stars, water, the earth and sky'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain State Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Smith - Red Petrograd
Cliff - The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star: Trotsky 1927-1940
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power

Friday, May 05, 2017

Carl J. Griffin - The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest

This is the most recent serious book on the Captain Swing movement. Its author is keen to present it as the definitive work that surpasses two other earlier book lengths treatments. These are the Hammond's Village Labourer and Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing. Griffin's certainty of his works' improvement on its predecessors irked me somewhat as I don't think it's fair to say that neither book offers students of rural class struggle something.

However it is true, as Griffin can say, that both of them missed crucial parts of the struggle and his work does highlight how the Swing movement was brother more intense, and more extensive than hitherto understood. Of Hobsbawm and Rudé he writes that they "seriously underestimate the level of reported disturbances".

Griffin also attempts to introduce other missing aspects of the history of the period, including the role of women, of which more shortly.

This review will not repeat an account of the Swing movement itself, but essentially this was a movement of popular outrage at rural economic conditions. The origins of these problems were simple enough - wages were low, jobs were scarce and farming was now for profit. But the situation was made worse because the standard system of poor relief was so inadequate. Old traditions however remained. Griffin notes that rural workers believed that "public relief was a right" and that "field labour [w]as a right". He argues that this "fostered a 'culture of xenophobia'," (the quote is from the historian Keith Snell) against non-indigent and migrant workers. In the context of rural England in the 1830s this meant attacks on Irish migrant labourers. Certainly this aspect was neglected in earlier histories and is an interesting fact that helps understand some of the dynamics of the period.

Griffin also argues, and I think this is an extremely important point, that Swing was not a "bolt from blue" as Hobsbawm and Rudé suggested, instead it was an intensification of events. Attacks on migrant labourers, as well as earlier attacks on machines, riots, protests and threatening letters, are part of the Swing "prehistory". Griffin also highlights how the movement continued after 1830 arguing that the repression didn't simply destroy Swing, but changed its form. For instance there are a number of cases when labourers who had won a pay rise from local farmers protested and burnt down targets again when the increases were removed.

Swing took place in the context of economic downturn. But it also took place at a time of enormous political upheaval. The 1830 French Revolution drew some support from rural workers and there were cases of the French tricolour being waved at protests. Another factor was the struggle for Parliamentary Reform and Griffin is particularly useful at understanding the interplay between that and Swing itself.

But its the sections on gender politics and the Swing movement that Griffin clearly feels are some of the most significant developments on earlier work. Here he argues that the role of the male agricultural labourer was being challenged. Their labour, he says, was about a family wage and this was being undermined. Women themselves took part, on occasion in protests during Swing and "even if men were trying to reassert their economic and household-political primacy, women clearly too had much to gain from Swing and therefore might support their husbands and brothers".

Clearly there is likely some truth to these factors, though a lack of evidence is a problem. I find Griffin's discussion of the sexual nature of machine breaking more problematic. He quotes George Youens, a labourer arrested for destroying a threshing machine at Elham, remembering that some of the gang shouted "Kill Her - More Oil". Griffin argues "Threshing machines became proxies for female bodies, something they as men should control, dominate and discipline... the allusion in the quote is in all probability to sex. Not only wasa 'woman' going to be 'killed', but the machine-breakers also were going to rape 'her'."

From a "misogynistic perspective" writes Griffin, the "machine's rhythmic action combined with the fact that it had to be 'served' through 'entry' meant that it was not unlike the objectified sexualised female body."

Personally I feel that is somewhat contrived. That's not to say that gender politics did not play a role in the Swing movement - as with Rebecca and a host of other rural movements, symbolic cross-dressing was part of some of the actions. But this over-sexualised interpretation of the Swing movement doesn't seem to fit with the evidence that Griffin has. He asserts that "gender politics in the Kentish machine-breaking heartlands shows the ingrained nature of sexual violence towards women" that sexual violence against women was an "integral part of labouring life", but I'm sceptical that the evidence proves this (Griffin highlights five cases). Even if true it seems a big leap to suggest that machine-breaking was a "reassertion, as psychological as much as it was public, of male power". I suspect that the vast majority of those engaged in machine-breaking did not approach the action from this point of view, but rather because they wanted better conditions for them and their families. If this is because their traditional roles were being challenged then we must understand that this is how class struggle takes place - in the context of the ideas "inherited from the past" and "not in circumstances of our choosing".

However Griffin is right to explore the role of women (and gender politics) in rural movements like Swing, a role that is usually ignored or dismissed. While I was not convinced by his conclusions here, the question of how women joined in the struggles for social and economic justice in the early years of capitalism are of great importance.

In conclusion I found Griffin's book very useful, developing early history a great deal; expanding the coverage of the struggles and asking some important questions of both the historical material and previous historians. Anyone studying Captain Swing will gain a lot from reading this.

Related Reviews

Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing
Hammond and Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, April 30, 2017

E.J. Hobsbawm & George Rudé - Captain Swing

Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing is one of those books that dominates a particular historical field. Their examination of the 1830 Captain Swing movement was the first attempt to systematically understand the causes of that agrarian revolt and the nature of the movement itself. Written in the late 1960s it was the first real full length account of Swing. Prior to that, only the Hammonds in their book The Village Labourer had paid particular attention to Swing, and Hobsbawm and Rudé are critical of them for underestimating the scale and importance of Swing.

Later historians, in turn, have criticised these two authors, while celebrating the first foray proper historical study into Swing. Carl Griffin's more recent book is possibly the most detailed attempt to surpass Hobsbawm and Rudé, and I'll review that on this blog soon.

Nonetheless those attempting to understand the dynamics of rural capitalism, the nascent workers movement and class struggle in 19th century England should read Captain Swing if only because the two authors bring a sensitivity and eloquence to the history that is seldom seen in writing about this period.

The authors argue that the Swing movement, the largest "machine breaking episode in English history" is rooted in the proletarianisation that takes place in rural England as a result of the changes taking place to agrarian communities. The most obvious change is enclosure, which sets the scene for a transformation of rural society from one geared towards production for immediate use and need, to one where peasant producers become transformed into labourers. Swing is mostly remembered for its machine breaking, particularly the destruction of threshing machines, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage was done. But it was also characterised by different phases of destruction - the burning of hay ricks and other property, the sending of letters, the breaking of machines and mass meetings of labourers demanding higher wages and work.

But Swing is more than an economic response to hard times. Its roots in the changing social relations, and decades of failure to address rural poverty, in the context of continental revolution and growing Reform movements in England, make it potentially explosive. Rural poverty was significant. The Speenhamland system which was supposed to help alleviate poverty had been a "millstone" for forty years, Instead of helping the poor, it actively encouraged farmers to pay labourers low wages, placing burdens on the parish that had to subsidise the difference in pay. When Swing explodes then, we see a cross-class alliance between workers and some farmers who both understand that the existing system is wrong. The authors point to a number of occasions when local authorities effectively support the movement, as they see the need to transform the status quo. In particular a large number of farmers allow their machines to be broken without opposition (in some cases doing it on behalf of the labourers) because they can then ask the labourers to also oppose the tithes that they are paying to the parish. In many cases then, wage rises are won, and these are effectively paid for by a reduction in monies to the local parish.

We should be careful though. The authors do not suggest that this is a revolutionary movement - though a few individuals wanted that, and some of the slogans suggest that labourers recognised the nature of their oppression and wanted much larger change. In fact, Hobsbawm and Rudé argue that there was "no subversion of social order" during Swing, rather a desire for a better "regulation" of rural society. But even these limited changes could not be allowed. The government reacted with ferocity and the aftermath of Swing saw the greatest ever repression on a workers' movement in England. 19 men were executed. Nearly 700 were transported and in total almost 2000 workers faced trial.

Hobsbawm and Rudé spend some time exploring what happened to those deported and this is an interesting, if not particularly relevant chapter to the study of the movement. More interesting is the appendix which analyses why threshing machines were being introduced in such vast numbers. The benefits to individual farmers in terms of money saved was minimal, which might explain the acquiescence by many in the face of rioters. But it seems the greatest benefit was that it allowed crops to be taken to the market quicker after harvest. At a time of big price fluctuations this could mean the difference between big profits or breaking even. However once the machines had become common, the benefit was no longer viable for the farmer and the labourers might well be better.

In conclusion there is no doubt that later historians built upon the pioneering work of these two authors. But this book gets across the nature of Swing - a mass movement of workers who wanted to fight for a living wage in the face of government indifference. Their struggles were partially successful, but the nature of their struggle - direct action and mass militant struggle - meant that their fight had been sidelined from the history books in favour of the much more palatable (for the trade union leadership at least) tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Captain Swing was rescued by Hobsbawm and Rudé and any study of the period begins with their memorable work.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

J.L. Hammond & Barbara Hammond - The Skilled Labourer: 1760-1832

The Hammonds begin their account of the changes to "skilled labourers" in this period by saying it reads "like a civil war". With similar themes to those covered in the first volume of their historical trilogy, they argue that the period saw a profound transformation in social relations between worker and boss:
The industrial changes that occurred at this time destroyed this social economy with its margin of freedom and choice for the worker. To the upper-class observer those changes seemed to promise a great saving of human labour. To the worker they seemed to threaten a great degradation of human life.
This is a profound statement that few in the bosses class would have agreed with at the time, and less so today. Much of the remainder of the book is an exploration of what "change" meant for different groups of workers in urban areas across England and how those workers resisted those changes. At the core of this is an exploration of how and why machinery was introduced. The Hammonds point out that the boss never introduced labour saving machinery in order to "increase leisure". Rather "if one machine could do ten men's work, there was all the more reason for not allowing so valuable an instrument to be idle a moment longer than was necessary... the machine was an argument for lengthening rather than shortening the working day."

The two most famous examples of resistance to the introduction of such machinery in England at the time were the Captain Swing movement and Luddism. Captain Swing's destruction of threshing machinery and the associated burning of buildings and other agricultural targets is covered in the Hammond's earlier work, The Village Labourer. Luddism is covered in detail in several chapters of this book. Since I've reviewed a number of books on this subject recently I won't cover that ground here again, suffice to say that the Hammonds place Luddism in a much wider context - the campaigns for a minimum wage, early trade union consciousness among urban workers and wider battles such as food riots. The scale of these struggles is fascinating, and even for a reader like myself with a good grasp of English radical history, there were many episodes that I was not aware of.

In part the context of this is the massive growth of industry and the working class. Taking just cotton workers, one of the major planks of English industry, the Hammonds point out that in 1774 there were about 30,000 persons "round Manchester" employed in cotton. By 1831 there were 833,000 across Great Britain. Similar growth in other industries meant that by the 1830s there were enormous numbers of workers who were engaged in a constant struggle over time, wages and working conditions. There was a corresponding transformation of the old, traditional crafts. So the cotton industry grew, but it was also transformed.
In 1760 cotton was carded and spun by hand in the spinsters' own houses, and woven at hand-looms in the weavers' houses. By 1830 hand-spinning was dead, and all the processes previous to weaving were carried on by complicated machinery in factories, whilst wearing was partly done in factories, by power-looms worked by girls, but partly still by hand-loom weavers in their own houses.
These changes were not automatic, and the struggles by the workers in those industries to protect their rights and conditions against "industrialisation" were ones that brought together thousands of people and required the use of the law, the yeomanry and networks of spies to ensure that "progress" could take place. Sometimes the struggles were successful, such as the Spittafields silk-weavers who get a fascinating chapter in this book. Mostly though the workers were destroyed and the "great degradation" took place.

Understanding the nature of capitalism is one thing. Seeing the alternative is another. The Hammonds were Fabian socialists, and the indistinct nature of Fabian socialism means that their conclusion rails against capitalism and its "inevitable" civil war - but offers little alternative. But this is a work of history that focuses on the forgotten struggles of ordinary working people. While in places it is dated, and other authors have surpassed the historical research, this is one of the books that 20th and 21st century English Social History rests upon. It should be read for that reason, but also to celebrate those who tried to make sure that the world wasn't simply about profit before everything else.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Beckert - Empire of Cotton
Reid - The Land of Lost Content

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Neil Gaiman - Norse Mythology

When I was about 10 my grandfather gave me a huge book of world mythology. Many of the accounts inside gave me real insights into the culture and religion of my classmates who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. But I was always most taken by the Norse myths. For a young boy these were fantastically dramatic - full of fighting, quests, drama, love and bravery.

So for me, Neil Gaiman's retelling of the myths is a return to much loved stories. And he does it extremely well. The tales aren't overly written - they're bare of details, but designed to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Readers of Gaiman's other books might be disappointed by this, as was I initially, as I was used to his incredible descriptions of fantastic places. But once you realise that these myths are told as they would be round a camp fire, perhaps by a viking bard reading them to a group of listeners, then you can understand why they work so well.

Those new to the myths, will almost certainly find something they recognise, if only the names of the gods which have recently been reused by the Marvel comic and film franchise. But these characters are different to their movie portrayals. Here for instance Loki develops from an annoying trickster to a vicious psychopath.

North Mythology is an enjoyable retelling of some classic tales. Neil Gaiman's storytelling skills fit the material admirably and its well worth reliving these ancient quests and battles as he tells them.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Neverwhere
Gaiman - Ocean at the End of the Lane
Gaiman - Stardust
Gaiman - Smoke and Mirrors
Gaiman - Anansi Boys

Thursday, April 20, 2017

John Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 2

The first volume of John Romer's history of Ancient Egypt is a brilliant examination of the rise of the Egyptian state from hunter-gatherer communities. So I was excited to read the follow up volume some four years later. Here Romer looks at more familiar periods, yet unlike the first volume this history covers the period when there are written records, on the monuments, tombs and papyrus remains. Some of these will be familiar to students of the period, but to the casual reader they offer fascinating insights into the lives of people in the pharaonic state.

It is sobering to realise that much of the grand building work of the Eygptians was done with the simplest of bronze age tools. That they could erect enormous Pyramids and build elaborate tombs, filling them with materials from around the Middle East, is because of the enormous surplus of grain that the Nile could provide. This enabled the Pharaohs to employ large numbers of workers, as well as build major trade networks. Both of these aspects are themes of Romer's books and its fascinating to see how we can trace these networks that stretch hundreds of miles away from the Nile.

But what is central to Romer's history is the Egyptian state and how its very nature was shaped by the world it arose from. Take his description of the workers that produced the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was
a vast product of the labours of large numbers of those small gangs who cuts its stones with integrity and care and set them as straight and true as the irrigation ditches in the Nile fields.
Those small-sized gangs, were working in state-wide coordinating and under a consistent and masterful direction. So whilst the rural nature of that workforce is apparent in the qualities of each and every stone they laid, so the firm and subtle manner of the pharaonic administration is equally apparent in the Great Pyramid's astonishing accuracy and consistency over long years of construction. This... had been a state whose culture had not been founded on brute force or notions of national boundaries, but whose identify had flowed outwards from the royal residence, the courtly rituals, its building yards and craftsmen's workshops.
In other words, this was a state that was very different from that imagined by film-makers in Hollywood which transferred the ideals of 20th century capitalism back three or four thousand years. Romer spends much of this book examining how we have viewed ancient Egypt through the lens of contemporary thought, and the book deals, to a certain extent on how our understanding has been transformed as Egyptology has itself been shaped and re-shaped.

One part of this, as noted in the quote above, is that Romer points out that the Ancient Egyptians had no concept of "Egypt". Nations meant nothing. So while this was a class society, based on exploitation, it wasn't a class society in the way we think of capitalism or European feudalism.

Writing about the military imagery on the tomb of Ankhtifi, a governor, nobleman and senior figure overseeing farming and religion under King Neferkare (approx 2200 BCE) Romer noes that
Rather than the generals leading conquering armies up and down the valley of the Nile... these images and texts are more likely to record the exploits of little bands of local militia patrolling the various regions of the lower Nile, maintaining, in the absence of central state control, the ancient pharaonic virtue of good order for their local populace.... the fearful links between war, nationhood and sovereignty..were not yet forged; those very concepts.. had no existence in that distant past. There are as many donkeys as soldiers drawn on the walls of Ankhtifi's tomb chapel... where fine food, civic welfare and the good life are presented as their owners' ambitions and accomplishments.
In other words, Ancient Egyptian society cannot be understood in terms of contemporary social relationships or culture. It has to be understood in its own context. This might seem obvious, but Romer shows how countless historians and archaeologists have made this mistake in the past, and continue to do so.

It is particularly important to understand this when looking at the things that the ancient Egyptians revered. For instance, they are know for their luxurious grave goods, expensive jewellery and so on.

Yet, this was "a society without money, in which nothing was counted as explicitly economic or political" and "the prime purpose of the acquisition of such goods was not to gain prestige or possessions in the modern manner".

To explain this, Romer looks at a treasure trove found buried  full of goods that had been imported from far away. The chests of treasure are
best seen as holding goods brought from regions far outside the orbit of the state and buried seed-like in the house of a court god, between the seen and unseen world - an act that had beautifully expressed a concept which is explicitly stated in later texts, that the domain of pharaoh encompasses all earthly things.
While Egypt was a class society, its rulers maintained their rule and their position by performing a real function for the mass of society - keeping things on track, organised and balanced. The production of material goods had real benefits for a minority, but this was not the driving force of society as a whole.

John Romer focuses on the nature of the Egyptian state, so those looking for a history of daily life in Ancient Egypt won't really find it here. Nor is this quite as readable as the first volume as there is much less of a historical narrative. Nevertheless together with volume one, this is an essential read that puts other works on the period in a very real context. I hope it isn't four years before the final volume arrives.

Related Reviews

Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
Romer - Ancient Lives: The Story of Pharaohs' Tombmakers

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Robert Leckie - Helmet for my Pillow

Having recently read Ian W. Toll's excellent histories of World War Two in the Pacific, I decided to seek out some of the personal accounts that he uses as material for his accounts. One of these is this classic book by Robert Leckie, which forms some of the source material for the TV series Pacific.

Viewers of that will recognise many of the scenes from the Leckie's account. Leckie begins with his training for the Marine Corp and then their deployment on Guadalcanal. Understanding exactly what was taking place is difficult without the wider military context, because Leckie writes from his position as an individual soldier, and rarely gives any wider context.

As a result this, like I imagine the conflict itself, is a claustrophobic experience, focusing on individuals. Leckies' comrades come and go, the action is limited to particular foxholes and patrols. Unusually the author is not afraid of describing personal weaknesses, fear and cowardice by him or others. His first "kill" involves shooting someone in the back and he describes the way that his comrades have to kill the injured enemy in cold-blood for fear of bobby traps and suicide bombs. One comrade, Souvenirs, removes gold teeth from the Japanese dead, until his own death on Peleliu. Leckie is forthright about how the war, and the stress of waiting for battle to begin preyed on the mental health of him and his comrades.

I was also struck by Leckies' insubordination - he, along with others, go AWOL during their recuperation period in Melbourne, an event that is as riotous and drunken as described in Toll's The Conquering Tide. Drink plays a big part of this escape following Guadalcanal, but not as much as sex does, and Leckie's descriptions of his own encounters with women in Melbourne are very different to those portrayed in the TV dramatisation. Not least because it proves that women were as forward as men in the 1940s. Sex clearly didn't begin in the 1960s.

The book after Leckie's experiences during the Battle of Peleliu. This was a brutal experience that involved heavy casualties and brutal sustained conflict between soldiers low on water, food and ammunition. Unsurprisingly Leckie is transformed by his experiences. Indeed his final meditation on the nuclear attacks on Japan poignantly makes it clear how he feels about war. This is certainly not a John Wayne's film full of heroism and clean deaths, but dirty, brutal, real and tremendously sad.

Related Reviews

Toll - Pacific Crucible
Toll - Conquering Tide
Jones - Thin Red Line
Turkel - The Good War