Sunday, March 17, 2019

Mike Gonzalez - The Ebb of the Pink Tide

In the early years of the 21st century one of the inspirations for radicals in the anti-capitalist movement were events in Latin America. There a succession of left governments seemed to emerge out of economic and political chaos, on the back of, or buoyed by mass radical movements. The Zapitistas, the MST, Hugo Chavez, President Lula and in particular, revolutionary events in Bolivia seemed to offer real hope to millions of people. Mike Gonzalez emphasises however that these movements were the latest stage in a "relentless" struggle by the people of Latin America, one of which the outside world is "largely ignorant".

Today the picture is very different. We've seen the election of the far-right Bolsanaro in Brazil, the latest in repeated attempts by the United States and the Venezuelan capitalist class to undermine the legacy of Chavez's rule in that country. The "Pink Tide" is very much on the retreat as suggested by the title of Gonzalez's new book on the region. Gonzalez begins by tracing the origins of the movements that inspired us back in the 2000s. He is careful however, to make two crucial separations. First he doesn't suggest that all the governments and leaders that claimed the mantle of the pink tide were actually part of it. He notes, for instance, that
The example of Ecuador...illustrates... that the discourse of twenty-first century socialism and the pink tide slips easily off the tongue of eloquent and charismatic leaders like [Rafael] Correa. But the content of their actions belies the rhetoric.
Secondly he separates those left leaders like Lula and Chavez from the mass movements that both lifted them, and helped shape them. This I think is particularly important when we look at Venezuela. To many people around the world Chavez was an inspirational socialist leader and, in some ways he was. However Chavez was not originally a socialist, and while his reforms were significant steps forward for many of the poorest in that country, they did not originate from any attempt at fundamental transformation of society. Indeed, Chavez was not initially part of a mass movement - the revolutionary movement came when Chavez was threatened in a coupe by the Venezuelan capitalist order:
What was understood by revolution in the Venezuelan context?... if revolution is defined politically as the moment when the protagonist of revolution, its subject, becomes the mass of working people, then it can be descried as the sign of a profound political change. What happened on 12-13 April [2002] as the mass movement descended on the presidential palace demanding the return of Chavez, was such a sign. But that is all it was. The bosses' strike, and the attempt to sabotage the oil industry and bring down the Chavez government with it, deepened the class confrontation, and marked a second phase in the class struggle... it was the intervention of organised workers that ensured the continuity of production that was key to victory.
What workers did was to keep the system running in the face of a bosses strike that brought the economy to a temporary halt. But that was all. There was no real attempt to turn this into fundamental reorganisation of the workplaces under workers' control. The bodies that were set up were not bottom up democratic organisations. The problem, as has been argued elsewhere, was not too much socialism, but not enough. Gonzalez emphasises this:
in practice there is nowhere in the pink tide countries any evidence of the laying of the foundations of a new economic order. One possible framework would be buen vivir - but the realities appear to have flown in the face of any attempt to put it into practice.
In fact:
Insofar as buen vivir reflected the accumulated experience of collective labour among indigenous peoples, or the protection of territories where that experience was embedded, the opposite developments seem to have occurred.
Gonzalez notes that at the highest points in struggle, in particular the revolutionary movements in Bolivia in 2003 to 2005, when millions of "peasants, workers, indigenous communities, men and women in urban and rural struggles, students, youth" came together in a movement that challenged directly capitalist power, there was the "absence of a common project for an alternative order, and alternative vision".

Unfortunately Gonzalez's book fails to spell out what this means. What I think he means is the lack of a mass revolutionary socialist party that could both shape and lead struggles, build the links between different movements and argue for that alternative vision. It is clear that in all the cases he examines such a party might have made a fundamental difference in pushing forward the interests of the workers and peasants. That need hasn't vanished, as Gonzalez notes, "Resistance continues, but this time, and increasingly, against the very states that the movements raised to power."

Gonzalez is very clear in his conclusion that the movements that emerged in Latin America failed, in part, because the "pink tide was a movement whose economic thinking was shaped by developmentalism" and points out "the future will pose the same problems again". The alternative is a socialist society created through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Getting to that goal will require the building of new revolutionary organisations - a challenge for activists following the "ebb of the pink tide", but as Mike Gonzalez's book makes it clear, Latin America has no shortage of workers who have fought in the past and will fight again in the future.

Related Reviews

Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy
Sader - The New Mole
Galeano - Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Wilhelm Liebknecht - Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs

Wilhelm Liebknecht was a founding figure of German Marxism and a leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party. He was a principled activist who spent years in exile during which he met, and became very close to Karl Marx and his family. These memoirs are not particularly political - they contain little about Marx's ideas - except for a brief discussion of Marx's historical materialism and focus instead on Marx and his family. I picked it up because I wanted to read the first hand account of Emmanuel Barthélemy whom I'd encountered in Marc Mulholland's book.

Readers familiar with the biography of Karl Marx will recognise some of Liebknecht's book as the major sources. Liebknecht's account of a pub crawl along Tottenham Court road in which Liebknecht, Marx and their (then) friend Edgar Bauer has become a oft-told story among left-wingers who gleefully recount how the group got into a near fight after challenging some "old-fellows" English patriotism and then fled the police after breaking numerous street lamps at 2am. The book is also the likely source for the accounts of Marx's love of chess and cheap cigars.

Wilhelm Liebknecht
At times the book approaches a hagiography. For Liebknecht Marx was an infallible, enthusiastic and important teacher. He does acknowledge Marx's tendency to feuds and polemic, but locates this all in Marx's desire for political clarity and the strengthening of the revolutionary movement. Perhaps most importantly the book challenges any idea that Marx was an uncaring, miserable revolutionary hidden in the British Library. Liebknecht attests to Marx's inability to ignore the plight of an impoverished child, describes a nearly dangerous encounter when Marx tried to save a woman being assaulted by her husband and attests to Marx's love for poetry, literature and his friends. The Marx home itself is a place of welcome and friendship - Marx's wife Jenny was a welcome support to many of the lost and isolated exiles around the group. Liebknecht saw her as a mother figure having lost his own mother very early, and the terrible poverty which they all lived in - as well as the early deaths of their children, clearly moves the author long after events.

It's a melancholy book. Wilhelm Liebknecht is writing his memories, together with the recollections of Eleanor Marx, towards the end of his life and the final section - when he returns to the London of his youth to find the places that he, Marx and the wider circle of exiles argued, debated and laughed - is tinged with real sadness. Marx was clearly a towering political figure for Liebknecht, but also a close friend - the description of his first meeting with Marx and Engels as they cross-examine him over beer and food gives an idea of how Marx would allow people into his inner circle, but only if they could demonstrate their political principles. Once in that circle however, Marx and his family would gladly give everything they could.

The book is not easily available. But it is online at the MIA while it is not a starting point to understand Marx's ideas - it is the basis to understand him as a person.

Related Reviews

Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Karl Marx
Marx - Capital Volume I
Löwy - The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Marc Mulholland - The Murderer of Warren Street

On December 8th 1854 Emmanuel Barthélemy visited the home of his employer George Moore together with a woman. After a discussion that became an argument Moore was killed and, during his escape, Barthélemy shot a second person who was pursuing him. As a result, Barthélemy was eventually executed.

It is an intriguing setup worthy of a detective novel. Who was Barthélemy? Why kill George Moore? Who was the woman with him? What was in the document that she read aloud that enraged Moore and led to a deadly struggle? The setup becomes even more interesting when we unpick more about Emmanuel Barthélemy himself. He was no ordinary worker - rather he was a leading French revolutionary, a man who had fought on numerous barricades, commanding one in Paris during the 1848 Revolution. But how did he end up in England? Why commit murder? And why George Moore?

Marc Mulholland's thrilling historical book reads very much like the novel I assumed it was when I first picked it up. But rather than a novel it is a book that puts a seemingly minor murder in a grand sweeping historical context. Mulholland expertly depicts a France where hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers and peasants had repeatedly engaged in a life and death struggle for social justice. For those of us who have identified with "revolutionary" politics during decades devoid of European revolution, the years of Revolution in France seem like a fairy tale - yet for individuals like Barthélemy there were decades when a new world seemed only a mass uprising away.

Barthélemy was not alone - he was part of a wider network of radicals and particularly identified with the revolutionary Auguste Blanqui whom he once planned to spring from jail. He was acquainted with Marx and Engels, though his impatience, as well as his uncouth manner (Jenny von Westphalen, Marx's wife, disliked him) and political disagreements led to a characteristic split from Marx's circle. In his memoirs of Karl Marx the German Marxist Wilhelm Liebknecht remembers Barthélemy and notes how even his death mask the revolutionary bore an expression of "iron determination".

The story of Barthélemy's life which forms the core to this history reads at times like a Boys' Own adventure. There is a detailed account of a duel in which Barthélemy kills an opponent who had slurred him; there's also a thrilling escape from a French prison over the roof tops and an escape from the barricades following a defeated insurrection. But what's remarkable about the book is that it is so much more than just this. Barthélemy's life can only be understood in the context of the enormous ferment that Europe was going through and the scale of the French revolutionary movements. Few authors could handle both aspects to the story and Mulholland does it extremely well.

For me, the Emmanuel Barthélemy that emerges is a brave but tragic figure. There is no doubting his commitment to the transformation of the world, but his radical beliefs were prefigured on a few brave individuals leading a spontaneous uprising. Barthélemy very much lived these ideals - on several occasions he was prepared to lay his life on the line for his political beliefs. But bravery and spontaneity are no substitute for strategy, tactics and the slow building up of a radical movement. Barthélemy last revolutionary plan - the assassination of Napoleon that curiously ended up in George Moore's second best visiting room - are the actions of a man who has had every other plan fail.

Today few on the socialist left see political assassination as a way forward and thus, to us, Emmanuel Barthélemy is an enigmatic, perhaps even insane, figure. Marc Mulholland's brilliant account helps us to understand how and why such individuals laid their lives on the line; even if we might ultimately look to other revolutionary strategies.

Related Reviews

France - The Gods Will Have Blood
Marx – The Civil War In France
Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf
Jaures - A Socialist History of the French Revolution
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution

Monday, March 11, 2019

Glenn Frankel - High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

High Noon is, in my opinion at least, one of the greatest Westerns ever. I watched it again while reading Glenn Frankel's fascinating book and I was repeatedly struck by how modern it seemed. The fact there are not just one, but two, strong women leads is unusual for the period and the genre in itself - that one of them was a Mexican actor is even more surprising. The film is incredibly paced - almost every scene has a clock, and as the noon train gets closer the film seems to zoom in, closer and closer, on Gary Cooper, playing Marshal Will Kane. On that train is the killer Frank Miller whose gang will try and take revenge on Kane for his imprisonment. Kane is gradually abandoned by everyone in the town - some who are cowards, some who are scared and some who would simply prefer Miller back.

The backdrop to the making of the film is the second wave of American anti-Communist witch-hunts centred on alleged Communist influence in Hollywood. Carl Foreman, who wrote the screenplay, and was one of the few to stand up to the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings, was half-way through when HUAC called him in. Frankel's book looks at how Hollywood became associated with the left and what, limited, influence the Communist Party had. Essentially with the end of World War Two, and a strategic alliance with Russia no longer necessary, it became politically useful for the right to run a big red scare. The witch-hunts were appalling, and broke every law of natural justice there is. People lost their jobs, families and livelihoods simply because they had been associated with the left, or were once, however briefly, Communists. A few made retractions, many more named names or swore loyalty oaths and not a few disavowed everything they'd believed in.

But interestingly the Witch-hunts also destroyed the idea that the US was a pluralist society that could accept dissent and criticism. The idea that democracy allowed different views of society was simply cast away. While many individuals suffered, so too did film-making with figures like Carl Foreman leaving the US to making films elsewhere. Films themselves would suffer without that talent or the ideas that inspired them. One "blacklist exile" Michael Wilson, a "thoughtful and unrepentant Marxist" screenwriter who had won an Academy Award for his work on the film A Place in the Sun in 1951 had refused to submit to the HUAC hearing and made the very valid point in a statement that the "consequence of these hearings will be appalling pictures, more pictures glorifying racism, war and brutality, perversion and violence". He was, of course, absolutely right.

There are three strands to Frankel's book - there is the story of High Noon itself, how it came to be, how it was made, and how it was affected by the swirling chaos of the witch-hunts going on around it. The second story is of the blacklists themselves, and the third is the story of Gary Cooper whose late career received and enormous boost from the film (and who got an vast quantity of cash from it too). Cooper was a right-winger, though somewhat naive and surrounded by Hollywood liberals he never quite agreed with it all. Carl Foreman was kicked off the production (though he got a handsome golden handshake) and went on to make some major pictures in Europe. Frankel details the ins and outs of what happened - how Foreman remained unacknowledged following the films blockbuster success and how those involved argued for decades about who was responsible for the final product.

Frankel writes all this well, though I think he is a little too convinced that High Noon is the progressive response to the witch-hunts that he argues it is. In this viewing High Noon is about the hero abandoned by his friends and nearly broken by his experience. There is another, more mainstream view - which explains the film's popularity for some. This is the idea that the individual is more powerful than the collective. That the lone hero can, and will win out, if only he (and its always a he) is brave enough; and finally that such an individual will save society. In this vein it's notable that the film is the one most requested by US Presidents (Bill Clinton screened it twenty times in office!)

When thinking of this interpretation I am reminded of another great liberal film that is often celebrated by the left, but can also be interpreted as a story of the limits of the collective - 12 Angry Men. It is a point also made by Peter Biskind in his book Seeing is Believing. Perhaps the real issue is that liberal politics isn't enough to distinguish yourself from the right in the contested cultural sphere. Whether you like High Noon or not, there's a lot in this book. But fans of the film specifically and the Western genre in general should not miss this.

Related Reviews

Biskind - Seeing is Believing
Biskind - Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Stone - The 50 Greatest Westerns
Portis - True Grit

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Chester Himes - A Rage in Harlem

Chester Himes was a repeated victim of the institutional racism of the United States. As a young boy his brother was injured in an accident, and failed to receive treatment because he was black. When Himes went to college he was expelled for a minor prank - a white student would likely have had a telling off - and eventually ended up eventually in prison for armed robbery. While in prison he began to write stories and then, on parole, he gets a job as a screenwriter, only to lose it because he is black at the behest of the the studio head (Jack Warner). Himes ended up in France where, like a number of other black expats, his career took off and he began to get real recognition.

Today Himes is best remembered for a series of detective novels set in Harlem in the 1950s featuring the black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. A Rage in Harlem is the first of these and it is run through with a rage at the condition of poor black working people in Harlem. This is a community of solidarity - were people don't rat on those running from the cops - but it is also a community where people swindle and steal to stay ahead - or to try and get free. Jackson the lead in this novel is swindled out of a everything he owns and the novel follows his naive attempt to fix things and get his lover, Imabelle, back. Jackson's brother dresses as Sister Gabriel and cons people into buying tickets for heaven, while looking for their own, big break.

Jackson finds himself deep in a violent mess, not quite knowing who to trust and egged on by Sister Gabriel who is hoping to con the conners in turn. 1950s Harlem, with its drugs, drink and poverty stricken housing is a brilliantly drawn, backdrop to a fast paced story of bent cops, violence and, in Jackson's case, sheer bloody naivety in the face of overwhelming evidence that Imabelle is not who he thinks she is. This is a highly recommended novel that drips authenticity, born out of the reality of Jim Crow America.

Related Reviews

Mullen - Lightning Men

Monday, March 04, 2019

Peter Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation

The English Reformation is a daunting subject for the reader. There are countless contemporary books about the period, not least those the huge number that deal with the life and loves of King Henry VIII. The debates that took place during these years of social and religious change were complex and all encompassing. They were also perhaps the first major social changes to be thrashed out on paper in front of a mass audience that was, as Peter Marshall notes, experiencing a "slow but steady rise in literacy". Printing, Marshall points out "reflected and invigorated lay piety" and despite high-levels of illiteracy, he argues that in the early "sixteenth century, perhaps a third to a half of male Londoners were able to read". Thus the Reformation saw a correspondingly growth in material (religious and non-religious) that today informs historians and histories.

This vast quantity of sources means that any decent history of the Reformation is going to be long, even if the author has done their best to pare down the material. Peter Marshall's new history Heretics & Believers is a massive work. It is based on a scrupulous study of contemporary material, which informs the work, but doesn't over-whelm it. Marshall's book is not over-written, and on occasion, despite its length I sometimes felt I needed more than the few sentences devoted to a particular person or incident.

For Marshall, the Reformation is essential a period when religious change took place on the basis of a rejection of existing ideas and practices. Writing about Thomas More he says that he, "exemplifies the contradictory impulses felt by many thoughtful and spiritual persons in early Tudor England. They longed for reformation of Church and people. But there was a little clarity about who could lead that reform to fruition." Thus there was a "longing" for change that Marshall sees as coming inside the Church itself. As he explains in a key paragraph:
Resentment at the Church's jurisdictional powers, a dislike of overweening or immoral priests, exposure to the levelling wisdom of Lollardy - all these played their part in preparing people to welcome the winds of doctrinal change. But they were not the real wellsprings of the Reformation movement. It arose from deep within the devotional core of late medieval Christianity, a paradoxical tribute to the Church's success in cultivating among priests and people alike a serious concern with salvation, and in fostering a personal relationship with Christ.
This is not to say that Marshall neglects the way that ordinary people understood, debated, interpreted and argued over religion. In fact one of the lovely things about this book is that he celebrates this participation, and some of the most fascinating bits are those that explore the way that people experienced and, on occasion, drove the reformation forward (or indeed tried to hold it back).

But what Marshall lacks is an clarity in trying to explain what triggered the "wellsprings" of the Reformation. Why drove some among the "devotional core" to begin to question and demand change?

Interestingly on the page after the one where I've taken the above quote from, there is a hint at what I think is the real cause. Marshall writes:
One important resource, a true birthplace of the English Reformation, was... Antwerp...a hundred miles from the furthest tip of Kent. Antwerp was the 'staple' or designated port of business, of the Company of Merchant Adventurers, who enjoyed a monopoly of the export of cloth, mainstay of the late medieval English economy. Perhaps a hundred English merchants resided permanently in the city, but the transient population was much higher. Overwhelmingly the Merchant Adventurers were Londoners... Antwerp was also a centre of book production, the international lustre and technical capacity of its printing houses outclassing anything to be found in London.
So for Marshall, the close links with Antwerp and the importance and power of its printing and publishing trade were key. But he quickly moves on from Antwerp's role as a centre of merchant power, a crucible of capitalism. For me the roots of the Reformation lie in most part with a changing world. The decline of the old feudal order and the beginnings of a new society. Marshall himself understands this to some degree - in the early pages of the book he argues that "Catholicism was a better 'fit' for the traditional agricultural communities of late medieval England than for its developing urban centres". But for most of the book he sees the Reformation as essential a battle of ideas.

In some ways this doesn't matter. After all the Reformation was experienced by the majority of the population as a series of confusing changes to religious and secular practice. Old, traditional customs and traditions were gradually (or not so gradually) changed and replaced with new ways of doing things, new books and new languages. These changes were expressed as ideas about how to worship. No one turned up and said "hey capitalism is coming, you've got to change your religion". But in other ways it does matter. Religious practice was intimately tied up with everyday economic life. Thus when Marshall discusses the great rebellions of 1536 and 1537 the Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace, they are, for him, simply rebellions about religion. Yet they were also about mass rejection of the way that the Reformation was forcing change upon economic life. Religion was not a separate realm to everything else. They were inseparable.

While I disagree with Marshall's framework, I cannot help but celebrate his book. In its wealth of detail and breadth of coverage it is a definitive account of what took place during the Reformation. From the early religious arguments before Henry VIII's reign to the years of confusion that marked his rule, to the near Civil War that takes place afterwards, Peter Marshall manages to keep the narrative rooted in historical records. He never looses sight of the human aspect to the period - and whether its the execution of Thomas Cromwell, or the burning of some unfortunate heretic - Marshall puts each story into its wider context. It should also be noted that Heretics and Believers is an excellent read with smatterings of humour - quarrels between King and Pope, Marshall jokes, were to be expected "like rain on a Scottish holiday". So despite my reservations about the authors' framework for understanding the period, I have no hestitation in recommending that those interested in the period read it. Few books have the material and fewer still keep the reader engaged for 600+ pages.

Related Reviews

Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy - Voices of Morebath
MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Paul - Thomas More
Wilson - The People and the Book
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

Sunday, March 03, 2019

CJ Sansom - Dark Fire

The second volume of CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series begins with an unusual request to look into a case involving the alleged murder of a boy by his cousin. Shardlake resents the intrusion - in the aftermath of the events of the previous book he thinks he is out of favour with his former employer, Thomas Cromwell, and is trying to keep a low profile by earning his keep working as a jobbing lawyer. But 1540 sees Cromwell's seemingly unassailable position becoming threatened and so, Shardlake is drawn into a parallel quest - a mission to find a source of Dark Fire that has been discovered during the dissolution of a monastry. This Dark Fire is an ancient weapon that will simultaneously strengthen Henry VIII's forces in the face of threat from Catholic powers and save Cromwell's position (and probably life).

It's a much tighter mystery novel that the previous book and it uses the tension of the years of Reformation well. We get a real sense of anguish and fear among the mass of the population - as old certainties change and the future is unclear. Gossip in the streets and pubs centres on rumours that the King will marry again and what this will mean for religion. But saying the wrong thing can still lead directly to prison, torture and execution and this, together with court intrigue, means the investigations continue in an atmosphere of extreme tension. CJ Sansom uses this well - the novel is long, but constantly intense - the reader is pulled along by events as, it must be said, is Shardlake who is frequently at a loss with what to do. Cromwell's servant and Shardlake's new sidekick - Barak - is a welcome foil to his new employers plodding honesty. The two go together well, and as they blunder towards a solution to a murder, they find themselves at the heart of a remarkable dangerous moment in the Reformation - publicly associated with the least popular person in the Kingdom. It's a great whodunit, even if you do know what happens to Cromwell.

Related Reviews

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Ashley Dawson - Extreme Cities

The extreme city is, for Ashley Dawson, the supreme example of capitalism self-confidence in the face of almost certain disaster. The environmental crises that have arisen out of capital's insatiable desire for accumulation impact cities in unique ways, but capitalist urbanism creates a particular set of social structures and physical designs that exacerbate the impact of environmental disaster and further encourage it. As Dawson puts it:
If today's cities are one of the major drivers of climate chaos, they are also its principal victims. The storms of climate chaos are already breaking on human shores and the devastation is most apparent in the planet's coastal mega-cities, where vulnerable infrastructure, massive  economic resource, and human populations are concentrated in unprecedented quantities. The city is paradoxically the greatest expression, principal culprit and most endangered artifact of our turbulent times.
Dawson begins with New York. His home city and, in the period covered, the site of two major disasters. The first on 9/11 led to an unprecedented rebuilding, one where urban designers and architects encouraged a siege mentality with protective bollards and CCTV. Dawson was a participant of the second, albeit in a neighbourhood that took far less damage than many others, when Hurricane Sandy devastated the city. The anti-terrorist architecture was useless against the rising waters, high winds and consequent blackouts. Emergency response teams were swamped and miraculously activists from Occupy New York created, seemingly from nowhere an infrastructure of self-mobilised aid to help the poor and vulnerable. Often these activists were the first and sometimes only people to reach victims, helping provide food, medical aid and building a community response.

The problem, Dawson is arguing, is that emergency response, planning and rebuilding are done in the interest of those best served by the capitalist city itself. Thus neo-liberalism has gutted the public services that make sure that the majority of the urban population have access to services both in and out of times of disaster; but neo-liberalism also shapes the design and planning of cities themselves before and after crisis. In Extreme Cities the rebuilding of New York's waterside communities in the aftermath of the decline of the city's industry serve as a class case-study of this. While the wealthy are able to buy their way out of trouble, the poorest end up losing everything. As Dawson comments, "as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy demonstrated all to clearly, it makes little sense to talk about urban resilience in the face of climate change without considering how social inequality renders particular neighbourhoods dramatically more vulnerable than their more well-heeled neighbours."

Globally, some cities, most notably those in the Netherlands have built strong barriers to protect their inhabitants. Dawson contrasts those historical large scale public infrastructure projects with the prevailing economic logic:
To imagine that a Twitter or a Tesla would be capable of such extensive public workers - that capitalist corporations, in other words, would address the threat of flooding on such a massive and systematic scale - is to fundamentally misunderstand the task of building infrastructure... which must be holistic or must fail utterly. The fragmentation and advanced decline of public infrastructure in the US- our collapsing bridges, mass evacuations from unstable dams and highways that are more potholes that roads - is a symptom off the neoliberal doctrines of private affluence and public penury.

Even when some attempt is made to build infrastructure in a more thoughtful and careful way - Dawson gives the example of the Living Breakwater project to protect parts of New York's edge, planners often fail to see wider impacts of their projects or even, in the case of Living Breakwaters, the way that plans to have oyster beds on the breakwaters will be negated by ocean acidification. In the case of this particular plan, Dawson highlights a tendency for protective infrastructure to be associated with a "build it back" vision - a return to a rose-tinted past that is impossible within the context of 21st century environmental chaos. In the case of Living Breakwaters, ambitious plans to build floating barriers covered in oysters as a way of re-stimulating the historic oyster industry seems laudable, but idealist in the context of global catastrophe. At least Living Breakwaters have attempted to engage with local communities and consider the wider ecological impact - something that is not true of other projects that Dawson describes.

The reality is, as Dawson makes clear, that we need a radical approach to building out cities. Some of this will involve "retreat" - some cities, including large parts of New York are not viable in the new environmental context - though it would be political suicide for politicians to admit it. The capitalist solution - large scale, privatised infrastructure projects will, at best, only hold the waters back for a limited period of time. But simply retreating and building again elsewhere on the same model is not the answer either. Dawson argues that the most resilient places are those that put the needs of people and planet first; through community democracy and economic policies not based on profit. That will require an entirely new approach - one that breaks with the prevailing capitalist system. Luckily as Dawson reminds us, the populations of cities are not passive bystanders - they have always been a key part in revolutionary processes:
Cities are the point of greatest vulnerability for the global 1 percent, not just because they possess symbolically resonant rallying sites for the dispossessed... but also because they concentrate the accumulated assets of the world's wealthy in physical form.... As command nodes of the global economy, cities are sites of vulnerability for elites. Revolutionary movements of the past two centuries have almost always had an urban dimension, and sit should be no different in a period of rapid urbanisation.

As Ashley Dawson's excellent book reminds us, the future of the city lies in a new type of political and economic system. Luckily that is not simply wishful dreaming. Whether Paris in 1871, Petrograd in 1917, Cairo in 2011 or in many other examples, urban populations have played a central role in fighting against their exploitation and oppression, as well as creating and recreating their spaces anew. Herein lies the future.

Related Reviews

Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History
Varga - Hell's Kitchen & the Battle for Urban Space
Hollis - Cities are Good for You
Harvey - Rebel Cities
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Minton - Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City
Robbins - There's No Place
Smith - Uneven Development

Saturday, February 16, 2019

David Reich - Who We Are and How We Got Here

Where did we come from? When I was young I had a book that showed how humans had evolved in Africa and spread outwards, moving left and right into Europe and Asia and then colonising the whole world. At a certain point a few brave souls must have crossed the land bridge into North America and spread through the Americas. Much later in history these groups of people started to encounter each other - and the rest is history. A slightly less crude version of this history sat in my head until I picked up David Reich's book which uses the science of Ancient DNA to uncover the much more complex history of population evolution and movement to clarify much better who we are.

It is a complex book. I'll say at the outset that lacking a background in the biological sciences I struggled to really understand some of what Reich writes about DNA. Precisely how scientists can examine the strands of DNA (modern and ancient) to determine an individual's history is a complex bit of science and understanding it fully will require more than Reich's book. That said you don't need the complete science to get his argument and readers who stumble at that first block should persevere.

Reich covers a lot of ground, and I can only acknowledge some of the discussions - for instance the detailed debate about the interaction between modern-humans and Neanderthals is covered extensively. This is always a favoured point of discussion for people interested in ancient human origins so I'd encourage them to pick it up. More importantly what Reich demonstrates is that humans today are the consequence of wave after wave of migration, encounters and mixing. As he says:

Ancient DNA has established major migration and mixture between highly divergent populations as a key force shaping human prehistory, and ideologies that seek a return to a mythical purity are flying in the face of hard science.

The complexities of these migrations are written into the genes if you know where to look. So regarding the entry of humans into the Americas, it turns out that there were at least four, and possibly five migrations onto the continent that each followed different routes once on the landmass and different genetic legacies. These are written in ancient bones and modern people, and Reich gives a fascinating (though he is very frustrated) discussion of how indigenous communities in the Americas have demanded back ancient remains and refused to give DNA samples because of how they have been treated. Given the treatment of Native Americans today and in the past it should not be a surprise that they have suspicions of researchers aims - not least because sample taken has on one occasion been tied to the promise of social care. But one solution to the frustrations that Reich and other researchers feel might be if some of the communities' grievances and injustices were solved.

Those interested in the development of inequality might be surprised to learn that DNA carries traces of this historical process. Reich writes:
The genome revolution has shown that we are not living in particularly special times when viewed form the perspective of the great sweep of the human past. Mixtures of highly divergent groups have happened time and again, homogenising populations just as divergent from one another as Europeans, Africans and Native Americas. And in many of these great admixtures a central theme has been the coupling men with social power in one population and women from the other.
Later he writes about the Bronze Age when:
Powerful men in this period left an extraordinary impact on the populations that followed them - more than in any previous period - with some bequeathing DNA to more descendants today than Genghis Khan.
In other words the development of a class society which located power in the hands of a small, male, elite has left evidence in the DNA unto modern times, not least because the new class society (though Reich doesn't use this phrase) allowed these individuals to pass on their "social prestige to subsequent generations". This is also true when Reich studies communities in the Americas today - white male slave-owners were able to rape black women and they bore their children and there is a DNA legacy today. Unfortunately I think that Reich is wrong to frame this through the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings - which almost implies that these relationships were mutual rather than ones of about the power of owners over slaves.

Finally I understand that Reich has been the subject of criticism about his comments on race. In this book Reich makes his opposition to racism, discrimination and bigotry abundantly clear. He does however argue that studies of ancient and contemporary DNA with the new technology does make it clear there are differences genetically between groups of people. Reich is very clear that he does not say this means that the concept of "race" in its historic, and racist use, is correct. He argues that precisely because some groups of people separated from each other many thousands of years ago, that it is inevitable that differences arise. Indeed he gives several examples - for instance some people of African descent are more likely to have Sickle Cell Anaemia as this arose out of an evolutionary building of resistance to malaria. He also argues that these differences, while they can lead to social effects, are negligible in the context of the influence of wider social conditions. I do, however, think that sometimes Reich minimises the social context. For instance, he argues rightly that:
Suppose you are the coach of a track-and-field team, and a young person walks on and asks to try out for the 100 meter race, in which people of West African ancestry are statistically highly over-represented, suggesting the possibility that genetics may play a role. For a good coach, race is irrelevant. Testing the young person's sprinting speed is simple... Most situations are like this.

Unfortunately what this neglects is the possibility that the coach might be racist, or influenced about racist stereotypes of different people's ability to run. Or that different students have varied access to training, facilities and support because of their skin colour or background. We should treat everyone like this, but society doesn't and that is because racism in society is underpinned by longstanding ideologies. David Reich's book is a good way of demonstrating how racism is scientifically inaccurate and how far-right fantasies about race and history are completely untrue. But this is not enough - confronting racism and racist ideas will not be done just through the use of facts and figures from scientists, but also through confronting and challenging the system that breeds and uses racism to divide and rule.

Related Reviews

Stringer - The Origin of Our Species
Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived
Flannery - The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

Monday, February 11, 2019

Derek Robinson - Hornet's Sting

Hornet's Sting is the third novel that I've read recently about the Royal Flying Corps in France in World War One. It is a prequel to the excellent Goshawk Squadron, which I reviewed here. This has many similar themes - though set a year earlier its pilots fly the Bristol F2 flyer and some of the characters from the later book only appear in this one latter on.

The introduction of the Bristol F2 was a disaster - depicted here in a horrific scene where five planes are lost as the pilots and gunners strive to use tactics that are brilliant on paper, but terrible in the air. Flying straight and level the gunners are supposed to knock attacking aircraft from the air, but the technical difficulties of this sort of shooting condemn the crewmen to certain death. Captain Woolley, who is the key figure in Goshawk Squadron turns this on its head and orders his pilots to fly the F2 like the fighter it is intended to be.

Here, Robinson is using themes that are evident from many of his books - the leadership of the RFC and later RAF are unable to allow themselves to learn from those fighting the actual battles and stick hard to outdated tactics. For Robinson the men flying the planes knew best and should have had more freedom to learn them. In particularly his novel argues that the Deep Operating Patrols over enemy territory were dangerous and unproductive.

Either way, the turnover of pilots is shocking. New faces come and go, and few last more than a couple of pages. From their vantage point the pilots know that's its worse on the ground and there's a clever scene when they get to view the water-logged ground ahead of the final Battle of Ypres.

As with all of Derek Robinson's novels in this vein there is brilliant dark humour as the men drink and joke their way through the stress and losses of friends. Hornet's Sting doesn't work as well as te earlier books, and I felt that some of the subplots were a little unbelievable, particularly the one that takes place on the other side of the lines. The depiction of air-combat is believable and the senseless waste of war is a constant theme, that underlines a solid novel that isn't quite up to the excellence of other books by this author.

Related Review

Yeates - Winged Victory
Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Michael Manson - Riot! The Bristol Bridge Massacre of 1793

During a recent trip to Bristol for a meeting I took some time out to walk around the city and quickly got some insights into its radical history. By chance I came across a copy of Michael Manson's book in the markets and bought it to learn a little more.

In the introduction to the book the author jokes that he often had to answer "No not THAT Bristol riot" when asked about what he was writing. In 1831 there was a major riot in the city when the Reform Bill was rejected. Instead Manson is writing about an earlier event in 1793 that today is little remembered, but lived long enough in popular memory to coin the defiant shout "Give them Bristol Bridge". The story is rooted in two events. The first is the decision to extend the period of time that tolls would be charged for the crossing of Bristol Bridge. This was expected to have been cancelled once the building costs had been paid off, but the lucrative income was too much for the town's leaders to abandon, and they decided to extend things. The second is the French Revolution.

The authorities were terrified. Manson quotes a little in a local newspaper which expressed fear at the "machinations and plots of evil and designing men". It seems that no such plots really existed, but there were certainly tensions and anger from the ordinary people of Bristol. The economic situation was difficult and a decision to continue charging tolls hit a section of the population hard. Indeed given that foot travellers didn't have to pay, but only those in carts or on horseback, Manson points out that it might have worried the authorities that the "labouring poor" were protesting.

The actual protests took place over the course of a couple of days and involved the destruction of the toll booths and pricing boards - something that echoes the Rebecca Riots - and then a much bigger protest when the bridge was reopened on Monday 30 September, 1793. A huge crowd gathered to watch proceedings, and as Manson points out, it is likely that only a small group were involved in the actual destruction of property. The situation rapidly became a confrontation as magistrates were belligerent, eventually calling in a troop of soldiers who were quickly driven off:

While the unfortunate soldiers remained on the bridge they were an easy and defenceless target... Oyster shells from the fish stalls on Welsh Back, stones, brickbats and clods of mud rained down on them. Captain Maxwell was hit on the head and his hat was knocked off.

A hasty retreat followed, but later another group of soldiers marched up with fixed bayonets. "Children in the crowd were hoisted onto shoulders to get a better view... The crowd's mood of exhilaration changed to apprehension" and suddenly the troops opened fire into the crowd of thousands. The troops then turned and fired again. In moments eleven people were killed and up to forty-five injured - though we might not know all the injured as people were wary of going to the hospital.

The reaction was anger and bewilderment. How could this have happened? A local doctor and other liberal luminaries set up an independent inquiry but despite dozens of interviews and long investigations it failed to be able to point the finger at who had given the order to fire. Officialdom, needless to say, remained quite. And Manson concludes "following one the worst civilian massacres of eighteenth century Britain no one had been brought to trial, nor had any named person been officially implicated".

Manson argues that the authorities got away with it, and it wasn't until the wider riots in 1831 and the 1832 Reform Act that their monopoly of greed and power was broken. Reading this at the same time as Jacqueline Riding's Peterloo I was struck by how frequently the British authorities resorted to violence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The police at Orgreave in 1984 might not have used rifles, but they certainly were certainly prepared to injure to prevent people protesting.

This short book is a fascinating insight to one such moment in history, when the state intervened to stop the masses having their say against a perceived economic injustice, though the bridge toll was quickly stopped. It locates the episode in the context of Bristol's economic and political development and as such is well worth a read for the contemporary Bristolian or visitor.

Related Reads

Riding - Peterloo
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Jones - Before Rebecca: Popular Protests in Wales 1793-1835
Williams - The Rebecca Riots

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

V. M. Yeates - Winged Victory

Having recently finished Derek Robinson's classic novel of war in the air Goshawk Squadron, I was directed towards V.M. Yeats' book Winged Victory. This, I was told, is the definitive novel about the subject written in the aftermath of World War One by someone who had reached Ace status flying Sopwith Camels on the Western Front.

Winged Victory deserves its accolades. It is a powerful denunciation of that particular war and what it did to the men who fought it. The key figure in the book, Tom Cundall, who we can suppose is a proxy for Yeates himself, begins the novel relatively cynical, but by the end has been destroyed emotionally and psychologically by the deaths of his friends and the strain of combat.

Ironically this is a novel where little happens. The main characters in the story exist against the backdrop of wider conflict, but their space in the war is reduced down to small areas, intense, short lived conflict with enemy planes or horrible periods of dangerous ground strafing. Despite their height above the battlefield the pilots, like the men in the trenches, lack the over-view of the war. Inevitably their is a disconnect - from far behind the lines the squadron is ordered into the air, despite the weather meaning its dangerous to fly and the enemy can't be scene. Pilots die on the whims of commanders, through accident or through enemy action they don't even see. Names come and go, and few pilots last long enough to develop the skills and instincts to survive. Even fewer pilots last the six months that Tom endures; and increasingly he copes through heavy drinking.

Tom and his closest friends try to understand the war. Tom's and some of his friends blame a nebulous group of financiers and capitalists who are making massive profits out of the war - given the book was written in the early 1930s I was struck by occasional references to Jewish people. Tom's closest friend Seddon argues:
Do you think we're fighting for England? In private life I'm a ruddy bank clerk, and it's some of those big bank balances we're fighting for. They're not England: they're what gangs of financiers, Jew and Gentile, get out of England. It's too damn funny the way people think England belongs to them because they've nearly all got the vote, whereas its parceled out among a lot of blasted tradesmen who run it as a business for their own profit.
These ideas are confused. Later Seddon sees the war as originating in "Germanic revolt against the International Jew". It's impossible to know whether Yeates intended Seddon's anti-Semitism here as commentary on the growth of fascism in Europe while he was writing, or whether they reflected real arguments in the mess halls of his squadron in 1918. But they have the ring of truth of the type of debates that take place when people are struggling to understand what is going on around them; and the only source of information is propaganda.

Tom is pulled in different directions. On his leave he sees the green pastures of England from his train window, but also visits the East London slums to try and understand what they are fighting for. But by the end of the novel he no longer sees England as his own. The decline in belief in the war - the rapid erosion of patriotism, or indeed humanity, is a great theme in this microcosm of wider arguments around the conflict.

Furious arguments like these, the occasional fantasy of life after the war, heavy drinking, food and a preoccupation with women are the only things that keep the men going between combat. But even these aren't enough and boredom is the day to day reality.

Some will read Winged Victory for its accounts of combat. But there's much more to this than a tale of flying. This is a detailed account of the way the war ruined lives; it demolishes the myth of Biggles and "knights of the air", replacing it with alienated, scared, confused and drunk young men, desperate to survive but with little hope. It deserves to be read alongside great anti-war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front or Catch-22.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Goshawk Squadron
Macdonald - Passchendaele
Romains - Verdun
Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Jacqueline Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

2019 marks the bicentenary of the most infamous event in British history. In August 1819 at a mass Reform rally, a charge by the yeomanry led to 15 deaths and perhaps 600 injured. Peterloo, as the massacre in St. Peters Fields came to be known, has been the subject of many books, pamphlets and most recently a film by Mike Leigh. Now, Jacqueline Riding who has been the historical adviser to several of Mike Leigh's films has produced her own account.

Peterloo shocked the nation, and even The Times in its reports of the event had to acknowledge that there was nothing "unlawful" about the event that had been smashed up by the Manchester authorities. For the emergent working class movement, for political radicals and for generations since it has become short-hand for the way that the ruling class will use its power to protect its privileges and its system.

Riding's book is an excellent account of the event and its historical context. She begins with the reality of working class life in the early 19th century. The rapid growth of industrial cities like Manchester which sucked in labour and created enormous wealth. Manchester itself was unique - there is a telling quote from a Swiss traveller who describes the city's factories where "a single steam engine frequently operates 40,000 to 50,000 spindles in a mill which has eight or nine floors and 30 wiondows" A single Manchester street has "more spindles than the whole of Switzerland" he complains.

However those who built these factories and operated the machinery benefited least from the wealth that flowed from their labour. Our Swiss traveller noted that "Not one of the many thousand English factory workers has a square yard of land on which to grow food if he is out of work and draws no wages." Low pay, poverty, over-crowded decrepit housing was the workers' lot and they lacked any ability to influence government, so it is no surprise that a movement for Reform was gathering strength among working people across the country and in Manchester in particular. 

So when well known Reform activist Henry Hunt called a rally in Manchester he knew he was guaranteed a monster turnout. Riding argues that the rally, like others before, was an attempt to change the balance of power by forcing the hand of one side or the other:
A key purpose... of these mass meetings was a powerful display of numerical strength and significant collective will, in order to overawe the authorities. There were those on each side who hoped the other would be the first to move beyond the bounds - transgressing the constitution and thus forfeit public support.
The danger with this line of reasoning is it could imply that the Reform movement, and Henry Hunt in particular, hoped for an over the top response from the government that would shift opinion Reforms way. Given the shocked reaction of Hunt to the violence (and his actions in trying to calm the crowd and urge them not to bring weapons), this seems unlikely. Nonetheless, when the yeomanry attacked the crowd, who as The Times understood, had not heard the Riot Act being read and could not have expected it, the authorities certainly did forfeit public support. 

It is clear from Riding's account that the magistrates clearly believed that the meeting was getting out of hand, but though it is also clear that the event was chaotic and confusing - it was not the "tumultuous" event that some thought it was. Rival accounts differ on whether the soldiers and authorities had stones thrown at them - it seems on balance that if this happened it was the exception not the rule for a crowd that had turned out in its best clothes for a spectacle. William Hay is probably representative of the authorities when he said "the assemblage of such a large number of people to be a breach of the peace, according to the the rules of common sense and the best slaw authorities." I also suspect that the size of the crowd terrified Hay and his compatriots because it demonstrated how large and powerful the Manchester workers were.

One of the great strengths of the book is that it brings together the wider issues of the time. Riding describes the inclusion of a group of Irish weavers carrying a banner coloured with their "national" colour. Most importantly however she puts women at the centre of the story of Peterloo in a way that has seldom been done previously. In the years before Peterloo, women had begun to get organised as a section of the Reform movement, and Riding's account of this is fascinating. In particular I was struck by a reproduction of a caricature of women protesters which used the most vile, sexist language and imagery. Clearly the idea of women organising worried many; but Hunt made their involvement central to the day. The arrival of Hunt's carriage with Mary Fildes "perched prominently" was greeted with a "universal shout from probably eighty thousand persons" according to one eyewitness. So it was the sheer size of the crowd and its constituents that terrified the magistrates; Hay said that was "one of the most tumultuous meetings he ever saw" though the reality seems to have been exactly the opposite, right up to the moment the troops went in.

The victims of Peterloo show no deference to age or gender. Witnesses describe indiscriminate slashing with edged weapons and riding down of the protesters. Senior soldiers afterwards described the events with language reminiscent of descriptions of victory on the battlefield.

Yet, strangely perhaps, the movement was not cowed by the massacre. Riding shows how in the aftermath workers clearly wanted to resist. A shop that supposedly had a captured banner on display was attacked in a mass riot a few days later, and in the towns around Manchester men gathered to sharpen weapons and talk of revenge. But the authorities moved to behead the movement. Leading figures where imprisoned and while imprisoned Hunt himself seems to have believed that the time was ripe to move to constitutional change. There was no outbreak of revolution or further protest in the aftermath of Peterloo - though many of Reform activists would form the basis for the emergent Chartist movement; and as Riding points out the women Reformers were the precursor to the suffragettes.

Peterloo is remembered for its violence. Sometimes I think it's infamy lies in the idea that it was unique. But this was not so. In fact in the period around then there had been a number (some of which Riding mentions) of incidents where state violence was used to quell protest movements - usually deploying overwhelming firepower against unarmed civilians. The British state might have realised that reforms had become necessary in the decades following 1819 (though it didn't stop them massacring workers in Merthyr in 1831); but they remained prepared to use violence against those who challenged them elsewhere - particularly in the colonies. In that sense, Peterloo is not a unique event, but a tragedy in a long line of violent tragedies.

Yet for its fame, and its impact upon subsequent social and political movements Peterloo itself is barely acknowledged in Manchester. Katrina Navickas has written recently on how St Peters' Fields became a site that radical movements wanted to associate themselves with in the years following Peterloo, marching to and rallying in the area the massacre took place. So perhaps this is partly why the Manchester authorities have barely acknowledged the events that took place there.

There's a plaque and proposals for a monument, but today it is easy to walk along the streets that are mentioned in this account and not know that the event had taken place. So it is with great pleasure that I recommend Jacqueline Riding's highly readable account of Peterloo in the hope that radicals old and new can learn the lessons of how far the state will go to protect its interests.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

James S.A. Corey - Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn, volume four of the Expanse Series, continues with the soap-opera like structure of the earlier books. Each chapter's focus is on a different character and while central figures from earlier books return (and seem insanely indestructible) new characters are added and some even make it to the end of the book alive.

Unusually though Cibola Burn isn't set in multiple locations across the universe. This time the setting is a much more claustophobic alien planet. In the previous volume our heroes helped explore a set of enormous gates that had opened on the edge of the Solar System. These gave humanity access to a myriad of alien planets, light-years from Earth. At the start of the story a craft full of colonists has burst through the gates and set up a new home on one of these planets; a planet claimed by a mega-corporation which is keen on its easily accessible mineral wealth.

There follows a complex stand-off as each group stakes its own claim and James Holden and his crew are sent in by the UN as mediators, until the planet itself intervenes to get rid of its unwanted inhabitants.

No one would pretend that the Expanse series is great literature. Yet it is compelling reading - well paced and entertaining, and like a soap-opera you know what you are going to get. It's with a only a tinge of guilt that I look forward to the next volume.

Related Reviews

Corey - Abaddon's Gate
Corey - Leviathan Wakes
Corey - Caliban's War

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Brenda Maddox - Reading the Rocks

In 18th and 19th century Britain there was an explosion of interest in scientific ideas. In this accessible book, a combination of biography and scientific history, Brenda Maddox argues that geology played a central role in developing both an scientific cadre who went on to much wider pursuits, and helped encourage the development of wider sciences. Initially geology was a pursuit of the wealthy - gentlemen who had independent means, that could enjoy examining rocks and finding fossils. Unlike other European countries Britain didn't have any institutions dedicated to mining, so there was no real basis for systematic study of rocks and minerals.

However the study of geology raised big, complicated questions that challenged orthodox religious understanding - particularly over the age of the Earth, but also specific questions from the Bible (was there a global flood?) and with the discovery of progressive fossils, opened up the debate about evolution. This, combined with the needs of industry, and the expansion of the British Empire turned Geology into a serious scientific pursuit that linked many of the most important figures of 18th and 19th century science.

Maddox book is well written. But unfortunately I found it failed as a history of geology, or as an account of the science itself. There are many fascinating individuals here, but the author seems to focus on individual anecdote rather than detailed biography. In the history of geology there are plenty of instances of individual rivalry or contested ideas, and Maddox highlights these, but often the reader is left unclear on what the science was. In short I would have preferred more on the nature of the Great Devonian Controversy between Roderick Murchison and Henry De la Beche, and less humorous anecdote. Indeed the history of geology itself seems to be simply an excuse to show how it ended up influencing Darwin's evolutionary theory - a subject that makes up a good percentage of the book and is clearly the author's real interest.

I was particularly disappointed that the final chapter didn't really integrate earlier science into contemporary geology. Instead today's science felt bolted on, almost like the previous 200 years of work didn't really matter.

Readers who want a deep understanding of the Earth's history will need to look else where - Richard Fortey's book Earth is a good start. While Brenda Maddox's book is a quick overview, readers might then want to follow it up with other books on geology and the history of science.

Related Reviews

Fortey - Earth: An Intimate History
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Weiner - The Piltdown Forgery
Desmond & Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Derek Robinson - Goshawk Squadron

I first read Goshawk Squadron in the 1980s when I found books with aircraft on the cover irresistible. I tended to find World War Two much more exciting than the first global war as the planes were faster, sleeker and had bigger guns. But Goshawk Squadron is the sort  of novel that takes hold of you and shakes you hard. Thirty or so years later I found the book as gripping as the first time, though likely for different reasons.

The novel begins with Squadron Commander Stanley Woolley watching his pilots land their S.E.5 aircraft at a new base. Several of them crash, others barely make it down. He curses them, and later when fresh-faced replacements arrive for dead airman he mocks and belittles their innocence and ideals of chivalry. "The firs Hun you met would cut you in half without even taking the sausage sandwich out of his mouth. You know nothing - nothing." Woolley is angry, violent and a drunkard. But he is also a survivor. Despite being only 23 he looks grizzled and he tries desperately to transfer some of his knowledge and experience to the young men under his command.

Few of them make it. Accidents, inexperience and stupidity finish many off before the better equipped and more experienced enemy even find them. There's a powerful section where a couple of new recruits are shocked at Woolley telling them to shot at the enemy pilots, preferring to think they'd chivalrously aim for the enemy propellers. Withing a few days they're partaking in shooting up unarmed artillery observers.

This is a book full of painful violence - the pilots cope through heavy drinking, and the protection of Woolley. But the German push in early 1918 means everything is thrown into the sky and the whole system reaches breaking point. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments - mostly because the banter of groups of young men getting drunk is funny - which Robinson describes brilliantly. But it is Woolley's story that holds the tale together - he is Goshawk Squadron and the pilots live or die around him. The ending is remarkably poignant.

When it was first published, Goshawk Squadron received great praise. Yet according to an afterword by Derek Robinson, it also received some veterans of World War One's Royal Flying Corp were angered and felt it insulted their former comrades. In his defence Robinson argued that "War is not sport. War is not fair. War in the sky... had to be unusually callous and cold-blooded". He explains that it is based not on imagination, but on reading the "real history" of the war, the letters and diaries of the airmen themselves. Twenty odd years later Churchill would praise the "few" of the RAF for their work in stopping a German invasion. His praise suggested that the myth of knights of the sky continued. Despite being fiction, Goshawk Squadron should be read as an insight into the reality of war.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Victor Wallis - Red-Green Revolution: The Politics & Technology of Ecosocialism

The scale of environmental crisis is absolutely terrifying. So I was very pleased to read Victor Wallis' new book Red-Green Revolution which aims to both explain capitalism and environmental destruction and offer a clear strategy for building a movement to challenge both. Wallis takes up this point early on:
To puncture the resulting sense of helplessness, we need an approach that is at once immediate (short-term) and comprehensive (long-term). A comprehensive approach is a radical one. It embraces every aspect of reality. Without such a panoramic sweep, we cannot even begin to counter the multifold scale on which the threats to life present themselves - whether in the form of war, hunger, pollution, illness, repression, insecurity or insanity.

Wallis uses the term ecosocialism to argue for a "synthesis of ecology with socialism". But, and its an important but, he doesn't argue that socialism (or indeed Marxism) has never had an ecological component. He notes the work of writers like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who have drawn out an ecological core to Karl Marx's work and shows how other revolutionary thinkers and activists have also understood the destructive dynamic at the heart of capitalism; and the potential for socialism to resolve the contradiction of a society dependent on the natural world that simultaneously destroys it.

Wallis argues then, that there must be a multi fold strategy. The first stage is exposing the limitations of capitalism. Too many proffered solutions to environmental crisis are based on making capitalism better, or greener. But simultaneously Wallis argues we must put forward alternative models:
Token green measures may bring some relief, but they fail to challenge the power that keeps the toxic practices going. How can people be persuaded to target that power and build a political force capable of supplanting it?.. It entails on the one hand exploring the sometimes indirect arguments whereby the green-capitalist... approach is upheld. On the other hand, it requires attention to positive models, both actual and potential, of societies, movements, institutions, or even individuals that embody a cooperative rather than an aggressive/competitive approach to work and life.
Returning to this theme, Wallis notes that Marx understood that a future, sustainable socialist world, would be one based on democratically organising and controlling the means of production. He notes though that we should not ignore the reality that not all socialist approaches (or societies that described themselves as socialist) have behaved like this. Wallis emphases the limitations of what he calls "first-epoch" socialism, the Soviet Union and Chinese society for instance, and argues that "the notion of workers' control offers, from within socialist thought, the basis for a thoroughgoing ecologically-oriented critique of the legacy of first-epoch socialist regimes."

With this in mind I was enormously pleased to see Wallis defend and promote the concept of "planning" as part of his solution. Wallis makes it clear that he doesn't mean the top-down planning of the Soviet variety, but a bottom up approach that involves mass involvement. If we, as socialists, are to offer concrete solutions and strategies one of the most powerful tools we have is a vision of how a sustainable world can work - and the idea of democratically planning production is one that is unique to the revolutionary tradition. Simultaneously it allows us to show how the great wealth we are capable of producing can be used in a sustainable and equitable way. Too few socialists (eco or otherwise) put this forward and I think it an essential argument for our alternative.

Wallis also discusses technology with this same approach. Technology he argues, is not neutral within society, but is determined by the dominant political and class dynamics. Thus technological solutions to environmental destruction serve the interests of those whose wealth and power implements them - which can in turn exacerbate the wider problem. Socialist technology must be marked by a "commitment to social equality and to ecological health" - it should also be democratically controlled, and the result of democratic decision making in contrast to the way that capitalists simply deploy new technologies to make profits.

I do have two slight linked disagreements with the book. The first is about context, and doesn't really undermine Wallis' wider argument. Among his criticisms of first-period socialism lies an argument that the ecological limitations of those societies arose because they favoured taking and maintaining state power, over the "transforming production relations". I am not sure I entirely agree with this. In the case of Russia in the aftermath of 1917 I think the problem was far more that the devastation of the working class core to the revolution in Civil War and famine destroyed the basis for real workers control. The failure of the German Revolution in turn left Russia isolated and encouraged an inward turn; the development of a bureaucratic class and finally the rise of Stalin's counter-revolutionary interests.

Secondly, I thought that while Wallis was excellent on showing how building a revolutionary ecologically aware socialist movement required strategies for the here and now, as well as a longer term goal, I felt that he missed out having a serious discussion on the nature of the capitalist state and the way it would organise to protect and defend its own interests. Here I think we still have much to learn from Lenin and his understanding of how revolutionary movements can simultaneously smash the capitalist state and create the basis for a new, workers' state.

But these are not points of departure they are places to begin a debate. All in all I found Red-Green Revolution a deeply stimulating read, that tackled important issues without simply regurgitating tired old formulae - the chapter on intersectionality and class was particularly good in this respect. I'd recommend Victor Wallis' book both to environmental activists who want to better understand revolutionary socialist ideas and other, longer standing socialists who want to think through how to engage with the growing ecological movements.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Saito - Karl Marx's Eco-socialism

Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution

Sue Burke - Semiosis

Novels of first contact are extremely common - it's been a standard subject for science fiction since almost the beginning. A slightly smaller subset of first contact novels deal with the arrival on and exploration of alien planets. But Sue Burke's new book Semiosis is probably unique in its depiction of the intelligence that the arrivals from Earth encounter.

Fleeing an Earth ruined by war, ecological crisis and inequality, a small group of settlers arrive on Pax to try and create an egalitarian, peaceful society. Early accidents leave their numbers depleted, but enough humans survive to begin to carve out an existence from their surroundings. Imported seeds from Earth take root and the local flora and fauna appears, at least in some cases, to be edible. Until its not. Suddenly the food turns poisonous, and it quickly becomes clear that Pax's new arrivals have to deal with an extremely complex local ecology where the plants themselves are sentient.

What follows is a fascinating story that examines the way that ecology is always a system of interlocked relationships between plants and animals. Intervening from outside can disturb an equilibrium and the system will react to try and fix that. The humans face a choice - repeatedly in fact - as to how to best relate to the rest of the world. Should they react with the strategies that they fled earth to avoid - with destruction and combat? Or should they come to a mutual arrangement with their fellow sentient beings, and risk losing their own identity?

It's a very readable, interesting and extremely unusual novel that I recommend to science fiction fans. Semiosis' tale of an idealistic group of people arriving in an alien world and being thwarted by the local ecology reminded me a little of John Wyndham's novel Web, but Sue Burke brings a very different and excellently written twist to an age old science fiction plot.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - Web

Newman - Before Mars
Pohl & Kornbluth - Wolfbane
Aldiss - Non-Stop
Christopher - The Death of Grass