Tuesday, July 17, 2018

James Hobson - Dark Days of Georgian Britain

History bookshelves groan under the weight of books devoted to kings and queens, famous generals and well known figures. Rarely do ordinary people get a look in, and it is even rarer to find a book devoted to their struggles. This is particularly true of the Regency, a period in English history where, if one was to focus on the output of television drama departments, everyone lived in a country house.

So it is with pleasure that I review James Hobson's Dark Days of Georgian Britain. Hobson begins with two quotes to illustrate his central thesis, one from Jane Austen's Emma where the titular character is described as living twenty-one years "with very little to distress" her. The other from Karl Marx noting that "the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle". It's an excellent juxtaposition, for the book deals with, both the actuality of those class struggles and the society that bred them.

The Regency period was not one were it was pleasant to be poor. England was in a period of transition. It was rapidly moving towards a society where the urban population would outnumber the rural, and the transition was painful for the majority of the countryside's population who were being forced from their land into poverty. It was, as Hobson, explains "a new society; one where it was every person for themselves and previous mutual obligations between the rich and poor were dissolving." The rich, of course, justified these changes as being either natural or inevitable. The poor existed so that there could be rich people, though the wealthy seemed to work hard to make life worse for the lower classes. As Hobson concludes,
Two sets of conflicting ideas existed. Britain was still a community-minded society where the rich felt the need to help the poor under certain conditions. However it was also one where market forces and laissez-faire economics were all the rage, and were used to condone the suffering of the poor. A more fatalistic view of suffering was developing as Britain industrialised.
Whether these changes were laws to maximise profits from agriculture, or changes to the game laws to prevent the poor catching and eating food, ordinary people resisted. Mass protests, demonstrations, riots and occasional strikes shook the establishment. Hobson looks at a number of these, including food riots and in two excellent chapters he discusses the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 though a discussion of the "establishment cover up" and the role of women. The latter is particularly interesting, highlighting the way that the role of women in the protest was considered shocking to the press and establishment, despite the attacking militia having no qualms in attacking both sexes indiscriminately. However many of these women had deep roots in radical movements that would continue long after the massacre; Mary Fildes was knocked off the platform at Peterloo, and slashed at by a member of the yeomanry but went on "to be an activist for women's contraception and supported the Chartists in the 1840s."

Not all of the chapters focus on resistance. Several look at wider contexts, such as the ideological role of charity, the disgusting Prince Regent, Crime and Punishment and so on. Some of these, such as the chapter on the Irish, remind the reader that divide and rule was a conscious strategy of the ruling class two hundred years ago, and there are some appalling stories of how this racism led to repression and exploitation of immigrant communities on a huge scale. Other chapters, such as the ones on adultery and suicide, show how society was beginning to change, but how it retained many dubious older prejudices.

Hobson's running theme through the book is the similarities between then and now. Economic discontent, racism towards immigrants, under employment and low pay and a ruling class only interested in their own wealth. It's not a bad thing to highlight, though perhaps what is missing is a attempt to explain why it is that capitalism encourages this sort of behaviour. Hobson's book is a good read, entertaining and shocking by turns. On occasion I was frustrated at the poverty of references. For instance Hobson writes about the "Stale Bread Act" and a quick look on the internet brings few references, and I would have liked more information. Also on occasion chapters finish two quickly, leaving questions unanswered. I was, for instance, surprised that Hobson did not write more about Oliver the Spy whose extensive career and unmasking at the hands of brave journalists tells us a great deal about the nature of the period. These, minor, criticisms aside, Dark Days of Georgian Britain is a great readable antidote to all those costume dramas.

Related Reviews

Hammon & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Navickas - Protest and the Politics of Space and Place
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

Friday, July 13, 2018

Greg Grandin - Fordlandia

In the 1920s Henry Ford decided to build a city in the Amazon. He was not the sort of person who was shy of self-promotion so he named it after himself. The purpose was to ensure a safe, cheap supply of rubber for Ford's car factories in North America, but Ford's real dream was the transformation of a section of the Amazon into a recreation of a highly stylised small town America. Doing this required a few things. Firstly it needed an enormous amount of money, something that the Ford corporation had in vast quantities. Secondly it needed land that could be transformed into rubber plantations and urban areas and, most importantly, it needed a large number of people who would work for Ford.

Ford famously built his empire by paying workers much more than the competitors. In theory they were paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they made. But Ford also made sure that his workforce conformed to a very strict set of standards. Alcohol was frowned upon, and often forbidden. Trade unions were strictly banned and Ford's hired thugs were prepared to use the utmost violence to prevent any hint of workers organising. Inspectors were sent to workers' homes to quiz the family on propreity and behaviour, even their sex life came under examination. While Ford liked to argue that he was the epitome of the good capitalist, at home and in the workplace he strictly controlled his workers' labour.

Ford has gone down in history for a number of things. He is credited with the transformation of factory work. Everything that could be done to improve efficiency was done. Today workers in call centres have their toilet breaks timed. In Ford's factory's workers had every movement calculated and analysed. The pay might have been good, but the relentless hard work meant turnover was high. Ford took his beliefs to all the logical, and illogical, extremes. According to Grandin he once sacked 700 orthodox Christians for taking a day off to celebrate a holiday. He believed that cow's milk was unhealthy and forced soy milk and food made from soy substitutes on his guests. Gardin writes, and  quotes one contemporary journalist, Walter Lippmann:
The industrialist's conviction that he could make the world conform to his will was founded on a faith that success in economic matters should, by extension allow capitalists to try their hands "with equal success" at "every other occupation." "Mr. Ord is neither a crank nor a freak," Lippmann insisted, but "merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success." 
Importing this to the Amazon was fraught with peril. The rubber trade had brought capitalism to the rain-forest. But Ford brought it on an enormous scale. The heart of this book is the story of the consequent clash. Nature and people had to be shaped in Ford's image, and both resisted!

Firstly the people. Many of those that Ford's employees wanted to work for them in the Amazon had little or no experience of working to the regimes that Ford wanted. Some had no experience (or need) for money and wanted goods in kind - Ford refused to allow this, and so the workers refused to work for him. Others didn't want to work continuously, just enough to earn some money before returning to their own land. Still others wanted to bring their whole families with them. A year or so into the project, when Fordlandia was beginning to work, a huge riot destroyed nearly the whole complex. The trigger was management's insistence that workers had to queue in a canteen for food, rather than being served by waiters, behind this though was intense anger at the regime, the strict clocking in and out, and so on. One of the notable pictures in the book is of a clocking machine destroyed by the rioters.

Secondly nature. Like so many capitalists before and after Ford believed that he could simply force nature to do what he wanted. There's a famous quote from Fredrich Engels where he warns, "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us..." This was very much true in the Amazon. The stripping of the land required far more work and money than Ford expected and, because he ignored local advice and refused to hire experts, his operations were repeatedly beset by problems. In particular, he and his managers, did not understand that rubber plantations cannot work in South America because of the native pests and diseases. This is why Henry Wickham had to steak Brazilian rubber seeds for plantations in Asia which were free from these threats. Ford's plantations repeatedly failed, costing millions. As Grandin explains, "The Ford Motor Company, with the endorsement of a well respected pathologist with experience on three continents, had in effect created an incubator" for disease.

Today Ford's plans seem unbelievable. He wanted to strip bare a massive area of the rain-forest and build a huge plantation, serviced by a town modelled on his vision of small-town America. Building an electric plant and a dock is one thing, but cinemas, bandstands and an 18 hole golf course seem utterly bizarre. But behind this, as Grandin explains, was Ford's own vision of society. He believed that men like him could transform the world into a system that would provide peace and prosperity through the control of workers and nature. Ford's pride and arrogance failed. Fordlandia was a disaster and as it declined, the aged Ford retreated further and further into his own artificial world populated with antiques and fake town life.

Ford, it should be emphasised, was not some benevolent eccentric. He was a ruthless capitalist, who drove his workers hard and held some extremely offensive views - particularly his Antisemitism, though his racism also affected his (and his company's) attitudes to the Brazilians. His attempts to shape people and nature where of course celebrated by Hitler's Nazis, a group that Ford famously courted.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Engels wrote about capitalism's globalising vision:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
With Fordlandia, Henry Ford literally wanted to create the Amazonian world into the very image of an imagined America. At the same time he wanted to entrap the people into his factories and transform nature into something that could readily guarantee his profits. The story of his failure is brilliantly told by Greg Grandin, and I highly recommend this well-written, gripping history.

Related Reviews

Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World
Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Richard Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind

When I was much younger, sometime in the 1970s, I had a picture book of animals and rather fascinatingly to me it had a drawing of a living fossil, the Coelacanth fish. I was captivated by the idea that animals that had been alive in the distant past were still alive today. Around the same time I also watched that terrible film The Land that Time Forgot but I don't think I ever believed that there was anywhere were dinosaurs continued to exist.

The Coelacanth jumped into my mind as soon as I saw Richard Fortey's book. Many years later I was still fascinated by the idea that animals could survive into contemporary times. While this is not a history of evolution Fortey does tell the story in a roughly linear way, and so we begin with very early animals and plants to understand how some examples of these remain alive today.

The first thing to point out is that Fortey never uses the term "living fossil". As he explains, no living thing remains still, a species is in a continuous process of evolution, but with some we can see something very similar to their historical ancestors. Sometimes this is because an organisms "niche" the "place where it fits in, earns a living, reproduces" remains constant and so little change takes place. Quite a few of the organisms in this book are like that, particularly bacteria and so on. Others may have evolved elsewhere but found in radically different environments today. Cacti, Fortey points out "are now specialists for life in arid conditions in the Americas, but did they originate in damp forests in Gondwana?"

Despite my youthful enthusiasm for the Coelacanth, I was particularly fascinated by the examples of lifeforms that are close to those that existed very early on in Earth's evolutionary history. Of these the Stromatolites must be the most amazing example in this book. They look like "flat-topped cushions and low pillars, or even giant mushrooms expanding upwards like plush stools".  They are built up by tiny organisms, year after year, and so are not a single organism, but a "whole ecology". Usually such microscopic organisms would be eaten away, but in the special conditions where they are found today, a warm shoreline in Australia, would be consumers are absent. Fossil stromatolites have been found from as far back as the Archean era, up to 3.5 billion years ago. They are found in many different places around today's globe (Fortey recounts finding them in Spitsbergen as an undergraduate) and must have been very common. Seeing pictures of them today gives us a tiny insight into what life was like very early on in its evolutionary career.

As with Fortey's other writings this is highly personalised. His career has taken him to many places to
see many things and this helps make his books highly readable. Unfortunately this book's illustrations are reproduced very badly - in black and white, on paper - and much of the detail is lost. Luckily the internet allows readers to quickly find more useful examples.

Fortey ends the book with a discussion of how these creatures in their niches or Time Havens, face the pressures of environmental change. He points out though, that even if catastrophic climate change wipes out the vast majority of living things on Earth, small bacteria will still be there and that "the wheel of life will have turned full circle". It's a great book that gives an unusual insight into evolutionary history.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Trilobite!
Fortey - The Earth: An Intimate History

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Neil Rathmell - 1549

This is an unusual novel that deserves to be better known. Neil Rathmell tells the story of Kett's Rebellion of 1549, a major upheaval that shook Norfolk as tens of thousands of peasants revolted against rural poverty and the attacks on their communities. Rathmell tells the story from two perspectives; the first from Robert Kett's rotting corpse who recounts the history of the rising backwards to an audience of rats. Kett has been cruelly executed and his remains hung to remind the population of the folly of rebellion, but after death he celebrates the struggle and the value of resisting inequality and oppression.

In the second interleaved story a Norfolk merchant falls in love with his brothers' wife. From this perspective the rebellion is a disturbance that reflects the upheaval in their lives, but is also distant and remote. It is chiefly noticed for the problems it causes for trade, though the family is more closely involved in the rebellion than either of the major participants initially realises.

Rathmell knows the history of 1549 well though it might not be the best place for someone new to the period to start as the novel's structure means the history is told backwards. Nonetheless, while strange in places, Neil Rathmell tells a good tale with a fascinating backdrop.

Related Reviews

Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Land - Kett's Rebellion
Flecther & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions

M. Jahi Chappell - Beginning to End Hunger Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond

A study of attempts to deal with poverty, hunger and malnutrition in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and what this means for food poverty, sustainable farming and wider questions of food sovereignty for the majority of the city's population.

I have been asked to write a full review of this book for another publication and when that is published I shall link to it from this post.

Related Reviews

Vergara-Camus - Land and Freedom
Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Sader - The New Mole
Robb - A Death in Brazil

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Stephen King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

Long term readers of this my reviews will know that I have a great love for much of Stephen King's work and particularly his Dark Tower books. Nearly four years after finishing that epic series I was finally able to return to them by reading The Wind Through the Keyhole a novel set between volumes four and five of the original series. The novel adds little to the actual series, but adds a great deal to the backstory of the Gunslinger and his companions. It also builds on the wider history of the world they inhabit.

Sheltering from a stark-blast, an enormously powerful storm that drops temperatures to freezing and shatters wood with high-speed winds, the Gunslinger is reminded of a story his mother used to tell him. As his companions huddle around a fire, he tells them the story of how he first retold that tale, and thus we are treated to a story within a story. The Gunslinger tells us of his adventures that took place after those described in the forth volume Wizard and Glass. They deal with a mission he is sent on to kill a skin-man, a shape-shifting creature that has been massacring the population of a small mining village near to Roland's home.

During an over-night shelter there, Roland tells tells a nervous witness to a massacre the story that his mother had told him, of a small boys adventure that leads him to become a Gunslinger. Readers hoping to find answers to the great mysteries of the other novels will be disappointed. The book contains little of that, though it does tie up some loose ends and certainly gave this reader a sense of a deeper knowledge of Roland's world and his motivation. Telling more would ruin much for future readers, so I'll leave it there, except to recommend the Dark Tower series once again to those who haven't read them.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Wilhelm Hasbach - A History of the English Agricultural Labourer

This classic study of English agriculture was first published by the author in Germany in 1894 and translated into English in 1908, where it was reprinted several times. I read the 1920 edition which has an introduction by the famous Fabian socialist Sidney Webb reflecting the left leanings of the writer.

Hasbach's History of the English Agricultural Labourer is a fantastically detailed work. Some of it is, without doubt dated, and on occasion the constant repetition of facts, figures and dates makes it tiresome to read. But Hasbach manages to show how, within the broad sweep of historical development, the peasant and then the labourer in England's rural economies had their lives transformed. The first chapter looks at the feudal manor as an organisation unit for labour and rent. But Hasbach is only interested in these feudal arrangements for how they frame the later development of capitalist agriculture.

Hasbach repeatedly emphasises that the rural masses were very much the victims of agricultural development in England. They were pushed from their land, had their wages constantly driven down, and faced all sorts of legal restrictions on their ability to improve their lot. Enclosure, for instance, didn't simply remove people from the land, destroying their homes and communities, but those that remained found their lots immeasurably reduced.
As for the great mass of the cottagers and squatters, it is obvious that to them division meant simply that the very backbone of their economy was broken. They had few friends, and many bitter enemies, and were unable to get their case represented in Parliament. They could do nothing, and went empty away....The wastes being divided, shelter and firing were no longer to be had for nothing. Men must either pay or go without. And in very few places was any compensation paid for this loss.
Hasbach sees enclosure not as a simple change to the organisation of the countryside which brought about mass depopulation, but also a transformation in the economic relations. New forms of labour are developed (which he explores in horrific detail) such as the gang systems. This is agriculture designed to maximise profit.

Hasbach looks at how many reformers tried to understand what these changes had done to the population and how things might be improved. A whole variety of strategies were looked at - from the creation of allotments, to the recreation of rural communities. One 18th century commentator, Richard Price who regarded "the agricultural changes mainly from an ethical, social and political standpoint" and had a rather romantic view of the "earlier stages of civilisation" based on small holding farming, argued that there was a need to "drive back the inhabitants of the towns into the country. Establish some regulations for preserving the lives of infants. Discourage luxury and celibacy, and the engrossing of farms".

This is an extreme approach, but it does highlight one problem of the time when discussing the conditions of the poor, one that Hasbach himself repeats, which is the lack of any believe in the poor themselves playing any role in the improvement of their situation. They are passive recipiants of government plans, or reforming strategies. As a result Hasbach also fails to highlight in detail any of the great acts of resistance by the rural communities. In fact, when he does comment on these events, it tends to be in a negative way.
The constant war which the pauper has to wage with all who em,ploy or pay him i destructive to his honest and his temper; as his subsistence does not depend on his exertions, he loses all that sweetens labour.
Later he continues
The demoralisation reached its height when labourers revenged themselves on obnoxious farmers by rick-burning. It was was not uncommon for several fires in one night to proclaim grimly and plainly to the propertied classes the destruction o the ancient concord of the village community.
But at times rick-burning etc became a genuine mass movement in the countryside that went far beyond simple revenge on obnoxious farmers, taking up questions of wages, village organisation and made attempts to democratically control aspects of peoples' lives such as by the removal of particular over-seers. This brief paragraph neglects the strikes, protests and other mass actions of the rural class struggle.


On occasion modern readers will smile at Hasbech's 19th century prejudices. Several times he suggests that part of the problem was that rural labourers were too ignorant to understand their position, particularly in regard to the employment of children. In others his language is very dated, as when he writes that "the prettier and livelier country girls sough situations in the towns and returned no more". But despite this, the book echoes with Hasbech's deep sympathy for the poverty and problems of the rural masses throughout history. This means that his discussions on the family wage, children employment, gang labour and the levels of wages don't ignore that behind all these things are real sufferings that he hopes can be alleviated. Thus he can write in the conclusion:
Up to the present time the two most important stages in the history of the agricultural labourer have been, first, his acquisition of personal freedom and second his severance from land and capital. The first was an historical process, desired by many but... intended by no one. The second was, on the contrary, definitely intended, end as well as means, by many people. They desired to place proletarian labouring class as the disposal of the farmer, believing that such as step was in the interest both of employers and the public.
Hasbach however, can only see the solution as being a return to some sort of closer relation between land and labourer. This means the redistribution of land and a vast increase in the numbers of small holdings. This Hasbach believes, will also bring the added benefit of strengthening protectionism against free-trade, which Hasbach saw as being a driver of the impoverishment of the rural masses.

These are conclusions that are tied up in 19th century economic debates and few will read this book to rediscover them. But Hasbach's book is a treasure trove of detail of the economic lives of the rural population of England, it never romanticises that life, even if it sometimes neglects the role of ordinary people in resisting the changes that took place.

Related Reviews

Whitlock - Peasant's HeritageHowkins - The Death of Rural England
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mike Davis - Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx's Lost Theory

Mike Davis is the author of many excellent socialist books, two of which have been highly influential on me - Late Victorian Holocausts and Planet of Slums. I was also highly impressed with his book on Avian Flu, The Monster at the Door. Old Gods is a reassertion of Marxism in several collected essays. I've been asked to do a full review of it for a separate magazine and I'll update this post when that is published.

Related Reviews

Davis - Planet of Slums
Davis - The Monster at Our Door

Davis - Late Victorian Holocausts

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

John le Carré - The Looking Glass War

By all accounts John le Carré wrote The Looking Glass War disappointed that readers of his best selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was taken far to seriously, and not understood as the satire it was intended as. Looking Glass focuses on The Department, a section of British Intelligence that has left its wartime glamour far behind. Now, instead of an essential section of Britain's military machine, it is a poor second cousin to Smiley's Circus. Lacking funding, infrastructure and staff the Department is a spy network without any spies.

Beginning with a botched intelligence job, over some dubious intelligence, the Department is dragged into a dangerous mission in East Germany which senior figures clearly see as a last ditched attempt to regain wartime levels of funding, glory and acceptance in the Intelligence Community. The botched job is followed up by amateurish attempts to retrieve a roll of tape that nearly blows the whole thing open. Despite this, the Department's head Leclerc, a boorish former pilot uses his knowledge of Whitehall's bureaucracy to secure under the table funding to send a spy into East Germany.

The mission is, inevitably, a cock up. But what makes the book is the meticulous way that le Carré depicts the build up. Here are bureaucrats scheming against each other for funding and ministerial approval. Leclerc himself oversees much of the hiring of the Departments new spy, but is keen to keep from him the reality of his organisations eclipse. The former spy, now gone to grass in a second hand car salesroom is repeatedly told that the Department has "got boxes of files" of other operatives. Reality is, of course, exactly the opposite, and readers cannot help but feel that someone is being hung out to dry.

Much of this is presumably based on le Carré's own experiences. Infighting, competition and lies are the staple of government departments and spies. The grim, competing world of the Department and the Circus is a complete contrast to the glamour of James Bond. By the time that The Looking Glass War was finished Ian Fleming had published all of his Bond books. There's no doubt that le Carré was writing to stab that particular image of the intelligence services in the back. When people try to understand how Tony Blair's government could come up with something as crude as the 45 minute dodgy Iraq dossier, it's not hard to imagine some of these self-serving bureaucrats behind the scenes.

As with all the other le Carré novels that I've read, this is tightly written. It's grim and the characters are unlikable. Unusually, the plot matters little. What's really interesting is the tension between individuals and the nasty backstabbing world of the intelligence services.

Related Reviews

le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Emily Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

When Caroline Herschel was born in 1750 no one would have imagined that she would have become lauded throughout Europe as one of the most important astronomers of the 18th century. Women simply did not do that sort of thing.

As Emily Winterburn says "nothing about Caroline's early life suggested she would grow up to become a pioneering female astronomer". In fact quite the opposite. She grew up in Hanover in a male dominated household. Her father was an accomplished professional musician and her brothers were expected to follow in his footsteps. Caroline was "taught to cook, clean, spin and make clothes, and was required to look after younger children... Caroline and her older sister Sophia were trained to run a household and to be useful and agreeable to her family".

However when her older brother William found a musical job in Bath, England she joined him there and soon became a close partner with him in his astronomical work. William Herschel was catapulted into fame when he discovered the planet Uranus and received a (relatively low paid) job as a royal astronomer. Caroline is often portrayed as William's able assistant. Yet she was a skilled a diligent observer and scientist, and while he was away on a journey delivering a telescope he had sold, she made the first of her discoveries. Her own notes from 1786 detail it:
1st August: I have calculated 100 nebulae today, and this evening I saw an object which I believe will prove to-morrow to be a comet.
2nd August: Today I calculated 150 nebulae. I fear it will not be clear to-night; it has been raining throughout the whole day, but seems now to clear up a little. 1 o'clock; the object of last night is a Comet. I did not go to rest till I had wrote to Dr Blagden and Mr Aubert to announce the comet.
It was a brilliant discovery. Her paper announcing the comet at the Royal Society was read by her brother because women could not be members. Winterburn explains how Caroline carefully neutralised her announcement and had it backed up by others to ensure that it was taken seriously. It began, "In consequence of the Friendship I know to exist between you and my brother I venture to trouble you in his absence with the following imperfect account of a comet." At the end of the paper, her brother and a (male) friend both add their confirmation of the discovery leaving no room for excuses.

Winterburn explains that Caroline's careful wording was not the result of meekness but a calculated way of making sure she had to be taken seriously. She was using all the social skills she had been taught to make sure that she could not be sidelined. As a result of this, and her other work, Caroline became the "first high-status woman paid for her science [in England], and almost certainly the first to receive royal patronage". It was an amazing achievement and gave her unprecedented financial independence to continue doing what she loved. She continued to make discoveries and fight to ensure that she was recognised for them, including an amazing horse-ride through the night to announce a different comet discovery (though on this occasion she wasn't quite the first).

Caroline Herschel made many further discoveries and did some incredibly important other work. She became famous as the "Lady Astronomer" and while well known for the comets she found, her cataloguing work was much more mundane but perhaps more important. Winterburn explains:
Caroline's real skill, her gift to astronomy, was being able to see the importance of what she was doing, even as she meticulously sifted through observation after observation searching out the occasional error, omission or duplication. It was a job that not even William could bring himself to do. It took a very specific set of very much undervalued skills.
But Caroline's class and gender in 18th century English society meant she also had to play all the other roles demanded of her. Her brother's eventual marriage and the pressures that this put upon Caroline as she became responsible for two households, in a complicated social hierarchy with Williams wife Mary Pitt, form a core part of Winterburn's book as she explores Caroline's life.

But slowly society was changing. Not everyone believed women could not be part of the scientific establishment. Her brother in particular promoted and supported her. Incredibly, because she was his sister and working with his equipment, it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to claim her discoveries as his own; yet he did the opposite. In fact their relationship was much closer to that of a equal partnership. Winterburn writes:
In writing about women in science... we often tend to get bogged down in trying to extract work that was purely theirs from the record. We try to find something tangible that we can connect with their name so they can be returned to history. What we lose when we do that, however, are the ephemeral stories of process, unminuted discussion, teaching as a way of learning and companionship.
There were other male scientists who were keen to work with and promote women scientists. Caroline was included in an updated edition of Jerome Lalande's Astrronomie des Dames and the scientist and mathematician Nevil Maskelyne was a close friend and supporter of Caroline. He was also one of the first scientists to employ women to work as "computers" doing the complicated calculations that astronomy required.

Caroline had her own way of promoting her scientific work, which would not have met approval from all those arguing for greater equality. Winterburn quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer of the fight for women's rights, who attacks those who used "pretty feminine phrases" to make it difficult for men to dismiss them. But Caroline was trying to find a way to fight for her position using the weapons she had, and was remarkably successful, and as Winterburn points out, if Wollstonecraft was criticising the strategy it must have been widespread.

By the end of her life Caroline Herschel had been celebrated across Europe, and won awards of scientific bodies across the world. Still unable to become a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, she, along with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville, was made an "honorary" fellow in 1835. More importantly she became an important "icon" for generations of later women scientists.

If all Emily Winterburn had done in this book was to tell the amazing biography of Caroline Herschel it would have been a great read. But she puts that story in the context of a society undergoing dramatic changes. Firstly, and most obviously, there is the scientific revolution that is opening up new views of the universe and new areas for study. Secondly society itself was changing dramatically, most obviously with the French Revolution which was raising all sorts of questions of equality, freedom and democracy. For a growing number of women (and some men) this meant a belief that women should not be subordinate to men and a small minority of women were beginning to challenge their position in society. How this played out for individuals like Caroline Herschel was complicated and nuanced. Emily Winterburn's biography explores this brilliantly, and I have no hesitation in recommending this brilliant book.

Related Reviews

Holmes - The Age of Wonder
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits
Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Monday, June 04, 2018

Charles Oman - The Great Revolt of 1381

Charles Oman's book is an important historical milestone. It was one of the first historical works to treat the English Peasants Rebellion of 1381 through a modern historical approach. Originally published in 1906 it builds on the historical research of poll tax records by the academic Andre Reville who died very young before he could finish his own work on 1381.

Oman's book is a fairly decent historical overview of what was then known about the rebellion. It has, of course, been surpassed since then by more contemporary work. But many more recent books have been heavily indebted to Oman's work and it is worth reading on that basis.

Oman is in no way sympathetic to the rebels, in fact when discussing events in Scarborough when "at least 500 men" led by Robert Galoun, William Marche and Robert Hunter made "a systematic attack on all against whom they had old quarrels, or wishes to pick new ones" he argues that despite escaping the death penalty, the three men "richly deserved" it. That said, the greatest strength of Oman's work is that he puts the rebellion in the context of the poverty, oppression and high exploitation of the feudal period.
All over England we may trace, in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, local disputes in which one or other of the rural grievances came to the front. The only thing that was new in 1381 was that the troubles were not confined to individual manors, but suddenly spread over half the realm. It is dangerous to conclude, as some writers have done, that this simultaneous action was due to deliberate organisation. We have no proof that there was any central committee of malcontents who chose their time and then issued orders for the rising. The leaders who emerged in each region seem to have been the creatures of the moment, selected almost at hazard for their audacity or their ready eloquence.
Oman's certainty on the lack of political organisation behind the rising ought to have been heeded by others who followed his lead on this subject. But Oman is on less sure ground when he applies a crude economistic analysis to the growth of trade and manufacturing in the 14th century. He writes,
A new industrial proletariate [sic] was in process of formation, and was striving hard against the conditions which it found existing... the growing industrial activity of England, and the multiplication of wealth, was tending to create a class of great employers of labour, and a class of artisans who could never aspire to become masters. 
Here Oman telescopes several centuries of industrial development in England and places the birth of an industrial working class far too early. Oman is right however to note the importance of the lower orders in London in supporting the rebellion, and helping drive it forward. But he is wrong to see these doing this as an industrial working class movement.

The book finishes by arguing that while the events of 1381 failed to transform England's rural economy:
We may well believe that many landlords were taught caution by the events of June 1391, and that they conducted the rural machine with comparative moderation for the future, lest another outburst of discontent should ensue. But there can be no doubt that the old system went on; it had received a rude sock, but had not been completely put out of gear. The best proof of this is that for the next ten years the archives of England are full of instances of conflict between landlord and tenant precisely similar;ar tp those which had been so rife in the years immediately preceding the rebellion.
But eventually, "villeinage died out from natural causes and by slow degrees". In this I think Oman neglects that the very processes that drove the peasants to rebellion were in fact making villeinage outdated. The withering away was not simply about gradual economic changes, but because it could no longer be made to work effectively.

Oman's book is an important read. It is a good supplement to other books, such as Juliet Barker's excellent England Arise! It also has Charles Oman's own translation of the Anonimal Chronicle, and a series of interesting examples of poll tax rolls. Disappointingly the "report of the sheriffs and jurors of London" on the events of June 1381 are published untranslated in their original Latin.

Related Reviews

Barker - England Arise! The People, The King and the Great Revolt of 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Lindsay & Groves - The Peasant's Revolt of 1381
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
Basdeo - The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana

Having recently enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky I took Tigana from the library to read on a brief holiday. Sadly I was not as enamoured by this novel whose bulk became a hindrance rather than representing a satisfyingly detailed plot.

The Tigana of the title is a conquered nation. It's destruction has been so complete that the sorcery of its new dictator has ensured that no one can even hear its name. Tigana, now known a Lower Corte, is but one of a number of tiny states on the peninsula that forms the geographical backdrop for the story. Clearly based (as in Children of Earth and Sky, the map is barely disguised) on medieval Italy, the region is made up of a variety of city states and small countries vying with each other. But geo-politics are dominated by two competing magical warlords. Brandin, who destroyed Tigana and Alberico, his sworn enemy.

The story focuses on two areas. The first is the tale of a growing rebellion led by a small group of rebels to free Tigana, through killing the tyrant Brandin. The problem is that if only Brandin is killed, Alberico will simply take over. So freedom means destroying two enemy states. The second focus of the novel is events in Brandin's court where a woman from Tigana arrives as a concubine with the intention of killing Brandin, but eventually falls in love with him.

Unlike a lot of historical fantasy these characters are morally ambiguous and fairly well rounded, even if the vast number of them can be confusing. Brandin might be a fearful and violent tyrant, but he has his loving side too, causing his would be assassin enormous confusion. The rebels themselves are prepared to use any means necessary to further their cause, but their plan to free their homeland requires years of planning (and not a few nearly unbelievable coincidences).

Tigana is a complex novel. This, for me, was its major difficulty. There's simply too many characters, too much convoluted plot, and a few too many coincidences. I can't recommend it, despite enjoying Kay's book Children of Earth and Sky.

Related Reviews

Kay - Children of Earth and Sky
A&B Strugatsky - Hard to be a God
Morgan - The Dark Defiles

Friday, May 25, 2018

John le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Re-reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold ahead of its getting hold of its sequel, I am struck once again how perfectly crafted le Carré's books are. In barely 200 pages the novel takes us from its famous opening scene in the dark night near the border between East and West Berlin, to a thrilling ending after an incredibly complex story. In fact, much of the story is simply people conversing, as former spy controller Alec Leamus changes sides and begins to work for the other side. Needless to say there is a deep and shocking twist, but what really makes the novel is the increasingly scary and intense atmosphere as Leamus is pulled deeper and deeper into enemy territory.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to review this book without giving away plot details. But the atmosphere for dull, grey 1960s London is worth mentioning. Beef tea, tinned chicken and cold single rooms warmed by a weak gas fire...it's not just the interrogations that are chilly. You get a real sense of Britain at the end of it's imperial greatness... it's neighborhoods are dirty, it's airports and bars grim and utilitarian. Even the drinks are bland. Everyone is tired and fed up. Even the activists of the Communist Party groups fake their paper sales figures so they can go home early.

Its a wonderful novel. It's so perfect that when they filmed it they barely seemed to change a scene. By turns punchy and shocking, and ultimately deeply tragic. This is spycraft stripped bare of any glamour - lies and counter lies, bureacracy gone mad, cowardly murders and every sentence uttered mined for information. Its not James Bond, its something far more real.

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Michael Roberts - Marx 200: A Review of Marx’s Economics 200 years after his birth

This short, but clear and well-written book is one of the better explanations of Karl Marx's economics to come out of the publishing frenzy that marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Michael Roberts focuses on Marx's economic work and its importance today, as well as defending Marx's approach (in particular his laws of the labour theory of value, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall) from critics, both left and right. In doing so, Roberts demonstrates the importance of Marx's ideas to understanding capitalism in the 21st century.

I have been asked to write a fuller review for a publication and I'll post that review here when it is published. In the mean time below are links to a review of Robert's book on the Long Depression and in the same vein a highly recommended book by Chris Harman Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.

Related Reviews

Roberts - The Long Depression
Harman - Zombie Capitalism

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash

Snow Crash is one of the great works of science fiction that came out in the run up to the millennium. Alongside writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson pushed new boundaries that saw the potential for new technologies like virtual reality, but also recognised that society limited how those technologies would be used.

Snow Crash is notable for putting virtual reality at the heart of the story, and in some ways it probably works better now than it did in 1992. 25 years ago did anyone really think that it would be possible to enter a virtual world on your computer while travelling at high-speed along a motorway?

The brilliantly named Hiro Protagonist is sacked from his job delivering pizzas right at the start of the book. He's a hacker extraordinaire and quickly becomes involved in a complicated plot involving a corporate Mafia, a computer virus that can kill in the real world, and the interests of an extraordinarily rich private church. The characters are all larger than life and many of them poke fun at particular sub-cultures. The 15 year old Y.T. who is a kourier using her skateboard to surf through traffic via grappling hooks is brilliant. But even the minor characters, like the US President that everyone ignores, are well done.

The plot races along, in fact there are several dramatic chase scenes as Hiro and Y.T. try to get to the bottom of what is happening.

Despite being published in 1992 this dark comic novel of hacking and virtual reality set against a backdrop of a disintegrated United States has aged extremely well. In part that is because Stephenson doesn't spell out in to much detail the technology of the time. Technology has a way of developing far quicker than authors imagine and too much science fiction is blighted by characters using technology that sounded futuristic when it was written, but dated five years later. In fact the most fantastic technology in Snow Crash is the wonderful adaptive wheeled skateboard that Y.T. uses; and that's because its actually unworkable.

But what really makes the novel work today is that the trends that Stephenson has bigged up for comic effect in 1992 still seem eerily real. A United States were the Mafia have achieved corporate power and Fast Food delivery has become something done by low paid couriers racing against the clock, risking death as they go, doesn't seem that far off. The coding factory that Y.T's mum works in, where managers monitor every mouse click and time taken to read an email might have seemed like a dystopian future in the 1990s, yet today it's reality for millions of workers.

Snow Crash is a classic novel that retains much of its punch over a quarter of a century after its initial publication, but in someways seems even more relevant today. It would be churlish to compare this with Stephenson's absolutely superb Baroque Cycle, as they are completely different books, so whether or not you liked those as much as I did, you should try Snow Crash.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - Quicksilver
Stephenson - The Confusion
Stephenson - The System of the World

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chris Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After

Rather like 2017, 2018 is proving to be a year of reading books associated with various anniversaries. But most importantly it is fifty years since 1968, a year of global rebellion, and Chris Harman's Fire Last Time is an excellent introduction to the period. I first read this as a student when I was a new recruit to the socialist movement and the accounts of massive student rebellion linking together with workers rising was extremely inspiring. Re-reading it today I was struck by Harman's ability to contextualise these struggles and highlight the dynamic of student and workers' revolt.

1968 saw the May events in France when the outbreak of student protest against de Gualle's government led to massive street fighting in Paris and, until then, the biggest General Strike in history. It also saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to stop the Prague Spring, huge radicalism in the United States against the Vietnam War and an escalation in the Civil Rights movement. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Black Panther's became mainstream. It was also the year of student revolt (and massacre) in Mexico, and in Britain (where Harman was himself active) student radicalism, leading within a few years to workers struggle.

Within a few years, military juntas and fascist dictators in Greece, Portugal and Spain had also fallen, with movements that shared many similarities to those of 1968. Italy saw an explosion of workers struggle and in Portugal the spectre of revolution in Europe was raised for the first time since the 1920s.

Harman is brilliant at showing the dynamics of these movements, how they arose out of changes within the system but where also limited by existing organisations. In particular the role of the Communist Party in Western Europe was to limit struggle, redirect it and often to conciously protect the system in exchange for a seat at the Capitalist table. Take, for example, Harman's comments on the end of the French revolt. de Gaulle had described the situation as a choice between elections and civil war. But Harman points out that there was another way forward,
This would have meant encouraging forms of strike organisation that involved all workers, the most 'backward' as well as the most advanced, in shaping their own destinies - strike committees, regular mass meetings in the occupied plants, picketing and occupation rotas involving the widest numbers of people, delegations to other plants and to other sections of society involved int eh struggle. Everyone would then have had an opportunity to take part directly i the struggle and to discuss its political lessons. It would also have meant generalising the demands of the struggle, so that no section of workers would return to work before a settlement of the vital questions worrying other sections.
In other words, what was needed was a deepening of the struggle. No organisation existed that was willing to do this, and it wasn't certain that it would have been successful. But the Communist Party didn't try - it was to concerned with events getting out of control and threatening its own position. Instead they did the opposite - preventing student protesters meeting workers on strike for instance. The result was the defeat of the movement and de Gaulle winning the election.

1968 saw rebellion grow on a mass scale, and we get a real sense of the way that this transforms ordinary people. For example, this account, quoted by Harman, by a worker who was also a part time student, of a meeting in their factory in the midst of the Yugoslavian student movement.
I proposed the workers first familiarise themselves with the demands and problems presented by the students... The leaders of the meeting did not allow me to continue speaking. But with the loud support of the workers I climbed on a chair and read an 'appeal' to all workers written by the students... I would have to be a poet to describe the excited reaction of the workers as they learned of the students's demands.
There are countless other examples in this book, and while Harman apologises for focusing on key movements (particularly Western Europe) he does highlight many struggles that are not usually associated with 1968.

But his analysis stands out also for his ability to locate 1968 in wider contexts.
1968 was itself a product... of the way the pattern of capital accumulation on a world scale had caused a crisis of US hegemony, of the fragmentation of the Stalinist bloc, and of the fusing together of formerly submissive rural populations into powerful new groups of workers. Likewise objective economic changes had led to the creation of the vast new student populations, forced to try to learn sets of ideas which no longer made sense of a world that seemed to be cracking up.
He continues that without these changes, the
student movement along would have ended as it began, as a pressure group committed to university reform. The anti-war movement... would have been trapped in the politics of pacifist protest and moral indignation. Revulsion at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia would merely have strengthened liberal ideas in East Europe and built Eurocommunist reformism in Western Europe. Even the strikes in France might have been experienced just as economic protests, without any great ideological significance.
This is important because it illustrates that 1968 was not a unique event but arose out of the internal contradictions of capitalism. While events will not repeat themselves, the contradictions have not gone away, and so 1968s lessons remain important. Crucial to this is the experience of the newly formed revolutionary, anti-Stalinist, socialist organisations. Harman devotes space to showing why many of these failed to grow and why others were successful. But he points out how, at key points, particularly in the aftermath of 1968 some of these groups were able to play important roles in the struggles that took place. Chris Harman devoted his life to building revolutionary socialist organisation. The First Last Time was an important contribution that helped a new generation understand that vital need. In 2018, as capitalism once again offers us war, racism, poverty and now environmental disaster, the book deserves to be read by a new generation of anti-capitalists.

The Fire Last Time has just been republished by Bookmarks Publications, with a new introduction by Joseph Choonara.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Harman - Marxism and History

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Children of Earth and Sky

Having picked up Children of Earth and Sky on a whim in the library, I was extremely taken by Guy Gavriel Kay's writing. This sweeping alternative history is well written, engaging and doesn't suffer at all from the common fantasy troops that bedevil so much writing in the genre. In fact there is very little fantasy at all - some characters can talk to dead relatives, who advise, protect and seem to operate as a sort of sixth sense. But there is are no spells, teleportation or magical swords.

It took me a while to realise, that the obligatory map at the front is a lightly concealed plan of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed the book is set mostly in what is now Croatia in the later medieval era. It deals with the clashes between city states of our Italy (principally a very thinly disguised Venice, called Seressa) and the Asharia empires to their east. While religious practice is completely different in Kay's world, the beliefs of the characters are analogous to Christian and Islam.

The characters are well rounded, believable and entertaining. I was particularly taken by Danica Gradek, a young woman archer who is determined to avenge her brother's kidnap by Asharia raiding parties. But the plot hinges on the mission of a young, and distinctly naive painter,  Pero Villani, who is travelling from Seressa to paint the Grand Khalif of the Asharias in the western style.

The author sets things up well for a thrilling denouncement, but there are several thoroughly enjoyable subplots and story arcs, as well as some brilliant characters. The lightness of the fantasy makes this more an alternative history, and I am already looking forward to returning to the author's writing.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Marek Edelman - The Ghetto Fights

This month saw the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. This prompted me to re-read this extraordinary account of the rising by Marek Edelman. Edelman was a socialist, a member of the Bund, an organisation of Jewish socialists, who, along with other groups, including radical left-wing Zionist organisations decided to resist Nazi attempts to deport Jews from the Ghetto to the concentration camps.

Hindsight makes it very difficult to read. We know what was to happen to those who were sent to Treblinka and other camps, but those in the Ghettos did not. Edelman's organisations began to get news from brave individuals about what was taking place, and they produced news sheets to explain to the thousands in the Ghettos what was happening. But it seemed to fantastic - as Edelman writes, "people who clung to their lives with superhuman determination were unable to believe that they could be killed in such a manner". When the decision to "liquidate" the Ghetto was made, the Nazis made the Jewish Council announce that all "non productive" Jews were to be deported, and ensured that the "Jewish police was designated as the agency to execute the deportation order". As Edelman explains this mean that the Germans "made the Jewish Council itself condemn over 300,000 Ghetto inhabitants to death".

It is hard to comprehend the callousness of the Nazis. But this deportation order came on the back of their systematic violence against Jews in the Ghetto - arbitrary killing and torture. The sections of the book that describe life in the Ghetto, with the constant threat from the Nazis, as well as the desperation of hunger and poverty of the inhabitants, are terrible to read. As are the accounts of the conditions in the areas were the Jews were gathered to face deportation:
The sick, adults as well as children, previously brought here from the hospital lie deserted in the cold halls. They relieve themselves right where they lie, and remain in the stinking slime of excrement and urine. Nurses search the crowd for their fathers and mothers and, having found them, inject longed for deathly morphine into their veins, their own eyes gleaming wildly. One doctor compassionately pours a cyanide solution into the feverish mouths of strange, sick children. To offer one's cyanide to somebody else is now the most precious, the most irreplaceable thing. It brings a quiet, peaceful death, it saves from the horror of the cars.
When the decision to liquidate all the Jews in the Ghetto is finally made, the groups of organisations that have come together to form fighting units eventually resist. With a handful of weapons, including a single semi-automatic machine gun, and homemade grenades they stop the Germans dead, killing dozens. Edelman rights that once the Nazis plan is clear, every house "becomes a fortress". In the midst of the horror, the resistance is inspirational, despite the fact that most of those fighting back are doomed by the German's overwhelming firepower.

At the same time heavy fighting raged at Muranowski Square. Here the Germans attacked from all directions. The cornered partisans defended themselves bitterly and succeeded, by truly superhuman efforts, in repulsing the attacks. Two German machine guns as well as a quantity of other weapons were captured. A German tank was burned, the second tank of the day. At 2pm, not a single live German remained int he Ghetto area.

Some of the fighters did eventually escape, some joining Polish resistance fighters, and their story did reach the world. After the war Marek Edelman wrote this book and it was published in Warsaw in 1945, then in English in 1946. It is an inspiration story, and demonstrates that contrary to many myths, Jewish people did not walk passively into the Concentration camps, but many fought back. Today we see the growth of the far-right across Europe, with a rise in racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. In Eastern Europe we see fascists and the far-right beginning to gain real traction. The Ghetto Fights is an inspirational story to help us build resistance today.

Related Reviews

Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Gluckstein - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Frederick Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

This short work by Frederick Engels is rarely read, but it forms an important part of his contribution to Marxist historical works and theory. Dealing with the German Peasant War of 1525-1526, part of the enormous upheavals that shook Europe during the Reformation, Engels argues that this has it roots in the economic changes taking place in German society, combined with the class struggle between those at the bottom of society and the ruling classes. Engels explains that in contrast to Britain and France which were seeing the rise of "commerce and industry" a consequent political centralisation,

Germany had not got any further than grouping interests by provinces... which led to poltiical division...Uncertain of its own position, the imperial government vacillated between the various elements comprising the Empire, and thereby lost more and more authority... In these circumstances, the position of the classes inherited from the Middle Ages had changed considerably, and new classes had emerged beside the old.

These new classes were beginning to struggle for their own interests. It would be wrong to argue that these new classes were capitalists, or represented capitalism trying to break through. But they were traders, merchants and urban ruling class who were getting wealthy from the "growth of commerce and the handicrafts". They wanted more control over their ability to make wealth, and end to taxes and tithes that stole their wealth and while these "did not overstep purely constitutional limits" they wanted a larger share of power. At the same time there was a growing "plebeian opposition" which "brought together... parts of the old feudal and guild society with the undeveloped, budding proletarian elements of the germinating modern bourgeois society". At the same time, the peasant mass of Germany were struggling under the oppression and exploitation of society, desperate for more land, more wealth and an end to their poverty.

Because the dominant ideology in 16th century Germany was religion, the arguments and struggles played out through religious language, but were about much more than interpretations of the Bible or arguments about religious practice. As Engels explains:
It is clear that under the circumstances all the generally voiced attacks against feudalism, above all the attacks against the church, and all revolutionary social and political doctrines were necessarily also mostly theological heresies. The existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.
The two key figures in this struggle were Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer. Engels argues that both of these were shaped by the political and economic milieus that they operated within. Luther, he argues, rebelled within a safe set of boundaries:
When in 1517 Luther first opposed the dogmas and statutes of the Catholic Church his opposition was by no means of a definite character. Though it did not overstep the demands of the earlier burgher heresy, it did not and could not rule out any trend which went further... But this initial revolutionary zeal was short-lived. Luther's lightning struck home. The entire German people was set in motion. 
But Luther had to chose his position. And so
He dropped the popular elements of the movement and took the side of the burghers, the nobility and the princes. His appeals for a war of extermination against Rome resounded no more.
Engels writes about Luther becoming more and more the "vassal" of the princes who had the most to gain from the struggle against the nobility. Müntzer on the other hand was the voice of those at the bottom of society. Engels portrays him as anticipating much later political movements; "his political programme approached communism" writes Engels. Certainly Müntzer did have a Communist approach, along the lines of the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley a century or so later.
By the kingdom of God Müntzer meant a society with no class differences, no private property and no state authority independent of, and foreign to the members of society. All the existing authorities, insofar as they refused to submit and join the revolution, were to be overthrown,m all work and all property shared in common and complete equality introduced.
Müntzer set out to organise this. He preached, wrote tracts and travelled to the areas of greatest unrest organising and mobilising the masses. Engels claims Müntzer not just as an early Communist thinker, but an early vanguard revolutionary organiser, who "organised a party of the elite of the then existing revolutionary elements, which, inasmuch as it shared his ideas and energy, always remained only a small minority of the insurgent masses".

Unfortunately the mass peasant armies could not prevail against the organisation of the ruling class, though they has some impressive victories. Tens of thousands were killed, or executed or lost their lands for their rebellion. Müntzer himself is executed for his leading role.

Engels is writing in the context of the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Germany. He's trying to explain why during that Revolution the bourgeoisie was unwilling to carry through its revolution. In essence it is the same reason as why the discontent princes of Germany would not support the Peasants risings in 1525 - they were not willing to lose their own wealth and privilege and preferred to join the suppression of the masses.

The Reformation can be a confusing mass of shifting alliances and religious currents. In this short book, Engels cuts through all of this and highlights the real economic and political changes. He doesn't ignore the story of the war either, but puts it in the context of wider events. There are also fascinating parallels between this and other peasant risings, and looking at the 12 "articles" produced by the German Peasantry I was struck by the close similarities with contemporary risings in places like England - in particular Kett's Rebellion of 1549. This short book is a brilliant example of the Marxist method and is a classic of historical materialism. Few other authors have come close to Engels in their accounts of the period and this book should be required reading for students of the period.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided
Engels - Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State
Engels - Socialism: Utopian & Scientific
Engels - Condition of the Working Class in England
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology

Friday, April 20, 2018

Colin Dexter - The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn

One of the great things about the Inspector Morse novels is that they are relatively timeless. Morse and Lewis don't have mobile phones and communication suffers as a result, but by and large the books could be set in contemporary times. Reading The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn I didn't realise that it was first published as long ago as 1977 until I checked the front of the book. Amusingly the thing that made me look up the date was a part in the plot where a character travels back from London to Oxford first class instead of of the second class his ticket allowed. On admitting this at Oxford the staff member tells him it doesn't matter. Try doing that on Virgin Trains today!

As with all Morse novels, little details like this matter even though while you read them they seem somewhat inconsequential. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is finely crafted in this regard. It is set in the dusty atmosphere of the Foreign Examinations Syndicate. A rather fuddy-duddy organisation that allows foreign students to sit British exams and then potentially get into English universities. Unsurprisingly, given that some of their biggest clients appear to be royalty in oil-rich Gulf states, there is a sniff of corruption, and when Nicholas Quinn is murdered, the reader is won't be surprised in the slightest.

Quinn is almost completely deaf, and until I read up about the book, I didn't realise that the sections that deal with his hearing difficulties (and which form a crucial plot point) were based on Colin Dexter's own experiences. In fact its this aspect of the mystery which actually means that Morse makes a unusual mistake and accuses the wrong person.

This is only the third volume of the series, and Morse's character isn't quite as well rounded as he is in later books. I was surprised by Morse's sexism in this book. In fact, at one point, Dexter has the detective's side-kick Lewis describe Morse (internally of course) as "crude" following a comment made about a female suspect. While I've noted before that Morse isn't actually that likeable, I don't recall Morse being quite so aggressively sexist in other books (though he frequently thinks and comments on women's looks and bodies) and this volume does also involve a pornographic movie as part of the story which seemed slightly odd. One of the problems with the TV series of Morse is that it made him much more loveable, and a lot less sexist and rude, and viewers can be surprised at the Morse of the books.

Despite the sexism, the plot is entertaining, though I always feel you're reading Morse as much for the atmosphere as the whodunit. The ending is, as I said, unusual, in that Morse get's it wrong initially - but that helps round out his character a little more - he certainly isn't the infallible Holmes type. More interestingly, Dexter uses a sort of Agatha Christie Poirot denunciation at this, perhaps to increase the embarrassment that follows Morse's mistake - for the character and the reader.

Like all of Colin Dexter's novels, this is a tight read. It's not the best Morse book, but it fills in some blanks and has some memorable clever moments.

Related Reviews

Dexter - The Way Through the Woods
Dexter - The Dead of Jericho

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ian Mortimer - Outcasts of Time

Outcasts of Time is a beautiful book. It tells the story of two Devon men caught up in 1348 in the horror of the plaque. John Wrayment is a skilled stonemason who has carved many of the statues in Exeter cathedral, including the faces of his beloved wife Catherine and his brother William Beard. William is more boisterous, interested in wine, women and song. John's attempts to do a good dead for a baby whose mother has died of the plague. His brother chastises him, arguing that it will bring them no good and only delay their perilous journey home. The good dead turns into its opposite, and in horror and anger, John question's God's purpose.

A disembodied voice offers the two brothers a choice. Return home, and die from the plague, or live six more days each day spaced at intervals of 99 years. The brothers take the second option and their journey through Devon's history begins.

It's a wonderful pretext for a novel. It's made better by Ian Mortimer's historical knowledge and eye for detail. There's plenty here on how the villages change, on how the improving fabric of the buildings themselves allow John and William to see that the country is growing wealthier, though neither brother is naive enough to miss the poverty in the backstreets. There are poignant moments, particularly when the brothers return to their home village and see places they know well, but ruined by age and decay.

John in particular, to William's annoyance believes he has a quest to full-fill. His attempts to do good, improve things take various forms - including simply doing a hard days work. But nothing seems to come of it. But the over-arching change, one that John finds particularly difficult, is the way his religion is taken from him and destroyed by the rise of Protestantism. He visits Exeter cathedral after the Reformation and is shocked to have to pay to enter, but even more shocked to see the destruction of the beautiful statues he has made. Later he comes to blame Henry VIII but he keeps his own faith close, despite it putting him and his brother in danger.

Mortimer does this transformation brilliantly. The brothers can understand technology - there's a touching scene in the 19th century when a clergyman explains steam engines - but they are more upset and shocked by the way that their religious framework has been dismantled. John is particularly troubled by this - if he is on a religious journey or quest, then why is his religion destroyed?

A friend of mine who read this said that they'd enjoyed it, but found it too religious. But for most of the last 800 years most people in England would have only understood the world through their religion. Mortimer's description of the transformation of England works so well precisely because he understands that the changes aren't simply technological, or political, but they are about how the whole ideological fabric of the country was remade. And he let's us understand what that might have meant to an ordinary person experiencing part of the changes. It is, after all, why many people took up arms to defend their communities and their faith during the Reformation.

It's a lovely original story, well told and deeply moving. I highly recommend it.

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