Showing posts with label biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label biography. Show all posts

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gregory N. Flemming - At the Point of a Cutlass

At the heart of this book is the near unbelievable story of the "capture, bold escape and lonely exile of Philip Ashton". It is an amazing story of pirates and castaways, but around it, Gregory N. Flemming has woven the fascinating story of the Golden Age of Piracy, as well as conflicts between Spain and England, the slave trade, the radical preaching tradition and buried treasure. It's a book that is both historically informative and an entertaining read, and one that puts paid to many myths that have developed about piracy.

Philip Ashton was a cod fisherman who was captured by the Pirate Edward Low in June 1722 off Nova Scotia. Low was to gain infamy because of his successful piracy career and because of his violence. This was such that eventually his own crew rebelled against him, but not before Low had captured many vessels, run the Royal Navy a merry chase, and murdered many men. As Marcus Rediker has argued, pirates in the Golden Age were both attempting to escape the violence of the Atlantic shipping industry and enriching themselves. Surprisingly though, they tended to organise in far more democratic ways than existing ships. Rather than the rigid hierarchy of merchant or naval vessels, pirate crews elected and deselected their captains, a fate that was to eventually befall Low.

This view of piracy is the backdrop to Flemming's book. It helps to explain why, when Philip Ashton refused to sign the ships' articles (effectively signing up to a life of piracy) Edward Low was so angry with him. For Ashton signing up, might mean escaping the threat of violence from the pirates, but would mean the end of a rope if their ship was captured.

The pirate, Edward Low
Ashton eventually escapes by marooning himself on an island. With no clothes, tools or weapons he barely survives, until a rather improbable episode with a passing Scotsman gives him the tools to live on. Ashton survives two years on the island, eventually meeting a group of logging workers fleeing the violence of the Spanish - English conflict. Then, in yet another awful coincidence, Ashton is nearly captured by some of the same pirates he escaped from years before. Eventually Ashton makes it home, where an unusual local minister writes down his story. In the puritanical world of north-eastern America, novels are frowned upon, but stories that suggest the positive input of a benevolent god quickly become bestsellers. Because of this, while Ashton himself returns to a quiet life of fishing (though Flemming wonders how he felt every time a large ship appeared on the horizon) his story lives on, inspiring many, even on the other-side of the ocean. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, appears to have read and drawn inspiration from it.

The story of piracy, sea battles and the castaway alone would make this an enjoyable and recommended read. What really adds to the story is the historical background. At times Gregory Flemming has perhaps included a little too much detail. That said, the book paints an detailed picture of the Americas, whose Atlantic coasts were crisscrossed by networks of trade - slaves, fish, furs and wood. This creates a political and economic battleground for the European powers within which piracy flourishes (and is at times actively encouraged). But we also see the beginnings of the United States as an economic power in its own right.

Such conditions - the danger, violence, poverty and potential riches - meant that piracy would inevitably arise. Sometimes that meant that men like Edward Low with his taste for killing and torture would also exist. But without the lives of men like Philip Ashton, who daily risked their lives for a boat load of cod, Low could not have existed and nor could the wider Atlantic economy. Gregory Flemming's book is an excellent introduction to the subject and the period, which is both entertaining and illuminating.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh and Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - Villains of all Nations

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dick Gregory - N*****

Until I picked up this old autobiography, I knew nothing abut Dick Gregory. Today he is relatively well known in the United States for his comedy, his social activism and his long record. Gregory's autobiography, written with the US sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, is an insightful look at the life of someone growing up black in 1950s America, and the early years of the Civil Rights moment.

The book is poignant. At times Gregory's descriptions of his childhood, the family's poverty and his mother's desparate hard work to try and keep the family alive will bring tears to your eyes. But Gregory also describes the sheer normality of vicious racism that went along with this. As a young man, Gregory was an accomplished runner. Such is the reality of racism in the US in that period, that it is actually atheletics that brings him into contact with the Civil Rights movement. He is angered that his running record isn't recorded in the local newspaper, because it was a race for blacks. He joins a protest march, and quickly becomes a key figure.

In the army, Gregory learns that he is an accomplished comedian. Youtube has a few of his early stand-up routines, sand 50 years later they sometimes still work. In his biography he describes how he combined an act that didn't ignore racism, at the same time as learning how to deal with it. Gregory's early efforts in showbiz cost him money and friends, but he does eventually break through. With fame though, comes responsibility, and as a prominant black figure, he eventually gets pulled into the Civil Rights movement as a leading figure. Despite being followed by the media everywhere, the police still brutally beat him (away from the cameras) and Gregory gets pulled further into activism.

For those who've read about the Civil Rights movement, Gregory's slightly oblique look at the struggle will be facinating. He's not really a leading figure, though a key part of it. But he describes the March on Washington, and the murder of school girls in Alabama with passion - these are not remote incidents, but ones that he sees as pulling more people into the struggle. Gregory has his own tragedies. Since this is autobiography, at times he seems to over-emphasise his own importance, but mostly he inspires because he is honest - about his fears, about his guilt and about why he gets motivated. At the end of the book Gregory writes with hope:

You didn't die a slave for nothing, Momma. You brought us up. You and all those Negro mothers who gave their kids the strength to go on, to take that thimble to the well while the whites were taking buckets. Those of us who weren't destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. N*****.

Sadly, we still have a long way to go. But people like Gregory were a key part of starting the Civil Rights movement. He remains active today, and his story should continue to inspire a new generation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tony Cliff - Trotsky 1927-1940: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star

The last thirteen years of Leon Trotsky's life, documented in this fourth volume of Tony Cliff's biography, are among some of the hardest of the Russian revolutionary's life. The book starts with Trotsky in internal exile, having been defeated by Stalin's faction. It ends with his murder in near political isolation. Having led millions of revolutionary workers, created and then led the Red Army to defeat the hostile imperialist powers in the Civil War, by the end of his life Trotsky finds himself isolated, with a few hundred followers in the newly formed Fourth International.

There is little in this book that deals with Trotsky's actual life. Cliff does document how Trotsky's family suffered. Children and grandchildren, even those with no interest in politics, are imprisoned, murdered and denied medical treatment by Stalin. In a brief passage dealing with Trotsky's personal feelings, Cliff quotes the anguished statement made by Trotsky and his wife after their son is murdered by Stalin's thugs.

But the vast majority of this book deals with the political activities and writings of Trotsky. Trotsky was a lifelong revolutionary, a committed Marxist. To attempt to write a biography of him that dealt with this period and didn't concentrate on his political activity would be impossible. In fact, in March 1935 Trotsky himself wrote:

"I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life - more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other."

What was this work? Much of it involved writing. Trotsky was prolific, producing pamphlet after article, followed by books and an endless stream of letters to his friends and comrades. Cliff argues that some of Trotsky's writings during this period are some of the finest Marxist writings ever produced. From Trotsky's extraordinary work The History of the Russian Revolution which details the transformation of the Russian economy, the growth of the revolutionary movement and the day-to-day struggles of the Bolsheviks during 1917, to his extraordinary analytically clear writings on Germany, Spain and France in the 1930s.

The chapters on France, Germany and Spain in Cliff's book are worthy of particular mention. In order to comprehend the brilliance of Trotsky's analysis, Cliff gives us a detailed overview of the situation in these three crucial countries during the 1930s. In particular Cliff details the rise of Fascism and the struggles to stop it. Trotsky's writings on Germany are among the most useful today. He argued that a United Front between the two mass left wing parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats could provide a strong enough movement to defeat Hitler's Nazis. But he also saw this method as winning masses of workers to revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, as Cliff argues, Trotsky had no forces to put this strategy into effect. The German Communists dutifully followed the Moscow line - Social Democrats were no better than the Fascists and the Communists had to resist both. The left, divided was defeated.

Cliff concludes:

"Neither the Communist Party nor the Social Democratic Party paid any heed. If Trotsky’s analysis and proposals for action had been accepted, the subsequent history of the century would have been completely different. Trotsky’s analysis of German events was particularly impressive in view of the fact that the author was removed from the scene of the events by a considerable distance. Still he managed to follow the day-to-day twists and turns. Reading Trotsky’s writings of the years 1930-33, their concreteness gives the clear impression that the author must have been living in Germany, not far away on the island of Prinkipo in Turkey."

But Trotsky wasn't always right. Tony Cliff argues that Trotsky's analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, particularly as outlined in his book The Revolution Betrayed, remains the starting point for any Marxist analysis of Stalin's Russia. But Cliff argues that Trotsky failed to understand that the bureaucracy that had arisen was a new class, with a new set of collective interests. Instead of simply being a managerial force in society, they were directing and shaping Russian society in their interests. This analysis of Russia as a degenerated workers' state was further weakened when the Red Army invaded Eastern Europe. These socialist societies were claimed, by some of Trotsky's followers after his death, as degenerated workers' states yet their had been no workers revolution to create them.

Cliff, briefly outlines his own explanation for Soviet society post 1920s, as State Capitalist. This is not, Cliff is quick to point out, to denigrate Trotsky's work, but to build on it. Cliff also critically discusses the Fourth International, the international grouping that Trotsky set up. Cliff had been a member of this, but here he tries to explain why the International didn't take off. Cliff asks if Trotsky had a choice whether he should setup the Fourth International. He rejects the approach of those who thought Trotsky could have entered a "watchtower" simply commenting on events. Instead he insists that

"if in these impossible circumstances Trotsky made some mistakes in the way the Fourth International was built – its over-ambitious structure, mistaken perspectives, including the semi-messianic spirit affecting it, let that be. Without trying to build a revolutionary party Trotsky would not have written his brilliant articles and essays at the time, analysing the situation and putting forward the strategy and tactics necessary for working class advance. Without the effort of building the revolutionary international, Trotsky’s contribution to Marxism, which kept it alive and preserved it from ossification, would not have been achieved."

But Cliff concludes that:

"struggling to build the Fourth International, which Trotsky did from 1933 onwards, was not the same as formally declaring its existence, which he did in 1938. The former was absolutely necessary, whilst the latter was almost certainly a mistake."

Volume four of this brilliant biography ends then at a difficult moment. Trotsky's death leaves a tiny number of isolated and weak revolutionary organisations dedicated to keeping the flame of Bolshevism alive. The Second World War and the Holocaust confirm the barbarity of capitalism and the continuing need for socialist revolution. Yet the revolutionary organisations that can led that struggle seem weaker than ever. Yet the great achievement of Trotsky, when many of his contemporaries gave up in the face of Stalin or were murdered on his orders, was to keep that flame alive. The last few chapters of this biography are particularly sharp, in part because they document Tony Cliffs own initial work developing Trotsky's ideas. That today we have, in however small a way, revolutionary organisations in many different countries is in large part because of the work of Leon Trotsky and those he inspired.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky 1: Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky 2: Sword of the Revolution
Cliff - Trotsky 3: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chanie Rosenberg - Fighting Fit: A Memoir

Fighting Fit: A MemoirMany members of the British Socialist Worker's Party and its sister organisations will be familiar with Chanie Rosenberg. She is one of the group's longest standing members, who helped, alongside her husband Tony Cliff, found the International Socialist tradition. In this short memoir, Chanie says that she hopes "to show that we revolutionaries are people like anyone else.. what happens between the evening meeting and the weekend paper sale?"

It is an excellent reason for writing such a book, but Chanie's life has been far from normal. She grew up in a Jewish family in racist South Africa, moved to Palestine to live on a socialist kibbutz in the 1940s but found her eyes opened to the racist nature of that state, and then began to engage in illegal, underground work agitating as part of a small Trotskyist organisation. Chanie and Tony Cliff lived in extreme poverty during these years. Moving to England things improved as Chanie was able to work as a teacher, and in doing so became central to some of the major struggles in the 1960s as teachers began to organise. Chanie played a central role in the rank and file of the teachers' union, and was blacklisted for her activity. Nonetheless she clearly, and rightly, remains proud of the victories they won.

Chanie's second great love is art. When she retired she took up sculpture, and has exhibited in the Royal Academy ("I wish the 'Royal' but could be removed, but that might need to wait for the revolution" she says). But her interest in art and culture is also reflected in her writings and articles. Included in this short volume is an illustrated reprint of Chanie's pamphlet on the Russia artist Malevich and his life and times.

Malevich and Revolution examines the evolution of the artists work, and vividly brings home the provocative, challenging nature of these "avant-garde" artists living in pre-revolutionary Russia.

"They walked the Moscow streets provocatively in fancy dress, with flowers, algebraic or other motifs pained on cheeks, or masks, and violently coloured shirts.... Malevich [wore] a red wooden spoon, the symbol of Futurism, in his lapel...They tried in this way to drag the established poets and painters our of their ivory towers... into the streets, to reconcile art and society."

Chanie Rosenberg's treatment of Malevich's work is fascinating, comparing him to another "giant" of 20th century art, Picasso, she writes that Malevich

Kasimir Malevich - The Knife Grinder (1912)
"had one important circumstance missing in Picasso's life - the actuality of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Picasso, who was a Communist, had an intellectual's orientation to the new society, but the reality of the revolution... and this difference influenced the direction of their artistic efforts enormously."

While her discussion of Malevich's art is interesting, the way young, fledgling revolutionary society attempts to promote and develop art and artists as part of their transformation of society is equally fascinating. The Bolsheviks were keen to promote art as part of wider society, freeing artists from the need to produce art in order to live, instead living in order to produce art.

This short volume should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of revolutionary socialism, particularly that of the IS tradition. But Chanie Rosenberg's life will fascinate everyone who has an interest in ordinary people who have tried to change the world. Chanie has fought her whole life for a socialist society that will free ordinary people, economically, politically and culturally. The second half of this book is an inspiring example of how revolution can do that.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Dewar - The Quiet Revolutionary

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tony Cliff - Trotsky 1923-1927: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy

Of the four volumes of Tony Cliff's biography of Leon Trotsky, I suspect that this one was the hardest to write and it may well be the hardest to read. The first volume Towards October dealt with the early years of Trotsky's revolutionary life. His work in small political organisations, followed by the 1905 revolution which Trotsky helped to lead. It's a work that captures Trotsky's political brilliance and his organisational genius as he led the St. Petersburg Soviet through advances and retreats.


Volume two, Sword of the Revolution also deals with an inspiring period, that of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 as well as Trotsky's time in exile. Here again Cliff stresses the role of Trotsky in organising the insurrection, as well as his brilliance during the Civil War.

By contrast volume three deals with the defeat of Trotsky's ideas. This defeat cannot be separated by the isolation and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself and the triumph of an entirely different set of ideas - those of Stalin and the notion of Socialism in One Country.

Cliff discusses the various political forces ranged against Trotsky, those individuals around Stalin - particularly Kamenev and Zinoviev - and the growing strength of the bureaucracy. Cliff argues that Trotsky never abandoned a revolutionary outlook. Stalin on the other hand, retreated into the idea that socialism could survive alone in Russia in the midst of a capitalist sea. The struggle between these two viewpoints became the core debate in Russian politics, being reflected in, as well as shaping wider discussions on foreign policy, agrarian questions and the economy. As such much of this book is devoted to the factional struggles within the Communist Party.

Trotsky did badly in these battles. It clearly wasn't his natural territory, despite being politically and intellectually head and shoulders above his opponents, he wasn't able to break through. Towards the end of the book Cliff asks why this was, and can only conclude that it was the very isolation of the revolution and the retreat of the international working class movement that was hampering Trotsky. As Cliff writes;

"One should have a sense of proportion about the strengths and weaknesses of Trotsky's stand in the years 1923-27. While his strategic direction was correct, he made a number of serious tactical blunders and compromises. The point is not that had he been firmer he would have been able to beat Stalin, but that he would have laid firmer bases for the growth of the Opposition, not allowing the 1923 Opposition to wither on the vine, not disorienting his followers in the foreign Communist Parties."

But during a period of retreat, Trotsky's mistakes had far greater consequences than in a period when the working class was moving forward, "not a few mistakes were committed by the Bolshevik leaders during 1917 and the period of the civil war. But the sweep of the revolution repaired the errors. Now the march of reaction exacerbated the impact of every error committed by Trotsky."

The isolation of the revolution led to a number of serious problems for Trotsky. One of these was the lack of a cadre who understood what the party had been through and who Trotsky was. When Stalin and his cohorts argued that Trotsky had disagreed with Lenin and quoted him out of context, or pointed to his errors, many Communists were disorientated. But many of those who understood the past were gone. Support amongst Old Bolsheviks for Trotsky and the Opposition to Stalin was significant, yet in 1922 there were only 10,431 party members who had joined before February 1917. By 1927 the figure was less than half of this.

Some of the core chapters of this book also look at Trotsky's attempts to understand the failures of the wider struggles in the international working class. Cliff retells some stories familiar to readers of this blog, he looks at the defeat of the 1923 German Revolution, the British General Strike and the Chinese Revolution. Cliff argues that these were important, because in all cases, their victories could have helped end Russia's isolation. More importantly the incorrect analysis applied to the events by Russian revolutionaries, and Stalin in particular stemmed from the weakness of their own politics. Even today Trotsky's analyses from afar are often head and shoulders above anyone else.

The period of transition between the revolutionary era and the Stalin era was a slow drawn out process, but one that has concrete roots in economics and international politics. Cliff's analysis is beautifully clear and he is not afraid of criticising his subject. In fact I was quite surprised at how weak and compromising Trotsky was at times. In fact for a period of 18 months in the aftermath of the defeat of the 1923 Opposition, Cliff says that Trotsky effectively abstained from fighting inside the party leadership. He even remarks that Trotsky sat reading novels during Central Committee meetings.

Nonetheless, eventually Trotsky did come out fighting. He made a compromising alliance with Kamenev and Zionviev. When they proved inadequate in the face of Stalin's onslaught, Trotsky along with many of his supporters and other Oppositionists were drummed out of the Communist Party. Trotsky spent the rest of his life keeping the flame of international revolution alive in the face of Stalinist lies and slander. As Tony Cliff concludes:

"After 1927, when Trotsky grasped the enormity of Stalin's crimes, and called him the 'gravedigger of the revolution'. when the bloc with Zinoviev and Kamenev fell apart - from then onwards Trotsky became completely uncompromising."

The story of his final years of struggle is in volume four of Cliff's biography.

Related Reading

Cliff - Trotsky Volume One: Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky Volume Two: Sword of the Revolution
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivisation

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cathy Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography

Alexandra Kollontai's life matches almost exactly the rise, and then fall of revolutionary Russia. She was born to a well-off, upper middle class Russian family, but her life was shaped by the socialist politics of the early twentieth century. Cathy Porter's detailed and readable biography traces Kollontai's life, from her early engagement in underground revolutionary politics, on to her role as a central committee member of the Bolsheviks. Along the way she traces the development of Marxist parties, the crisis of socialist politics during World War One and the Russian Revolution. Kollontai was an early opponent of Bolshevik politics in the early 1920s, eventually her critical engagement with the building of a revolutionary society was used against her with the rise of Stalin's bureaucracy. In fact it was only Kollontai's fame in Russa and abroad that saved her from the purges. She died in the 1950s, one of the few old-Bolsheviks to have survived so long, having made a decision to remain quiet for the sake of her own life.

Today Kollontai is remembered for her writings about the position of women under capitalism, and the potential for a socialist society to transform this. She also was one of the first Marxists to explore how human sexuality might be transformed under a classless, equal society. Her articles and theories were often popular, if sometimes lacking a grounding in what was really happening. Both the right and left wing of the revolutionary movement seem to have on occasion dismissed her as idealistic.

Porter's book traces Kollontai's development as a Marxist as well as her growing concern with the position of women in Russia's backward economy. From early on, Kollontai fought for the Russian revolutionary movement to take work amongst women workers and peasants seriously. In this she was often derided or ignored as this was seen to be a distraction from the more important task of developing revolutionary politics and ideas. Kollontai also faced the sexism of the early socialist movement, and after her exile to Germany, the entrenched ideas of the German socialist parties.

One of the most interesting chapters in this biogrpahy is the section where Porter looks at Kollontai's experiences in Germany. A popular and passionate speaker, she toured the country speaking to crowds of workers, trying to win them to the German SPD. In this she was enormously successful, though the party's bureaucrats where often less sure of her arguments around the emancipation of women.

In early 1911 Kollontai spoke in the industrial town of Grossenhain; describing the aged Party secretary, Kollontai recounts:

"His tone changed sharply when she enquired about women's activities. When women worked men suffered he said. 'The house becomes a pigsty, the children die... and what does a woman look like when she works in a factory? You expect love to survive when a man's wife looks like a witch?" A crowd of women gathered around her after the meeting and took her to the station. 'Silly old fool,' they said. 'We're stronger than he knows'."

Such attitudes certainly prevailed within the German Party and women like Kollontai fought hard to change them, by creating women's organisations and sections. Inside Russia underground socialist organisation made it even harder for women to organise. In addition the male dominated revolutionary organisation often saw incipient "feminism" within attempts to struggle for women's liberation. Kollontai herself was often accused of feminism, and not keeping to the party line, but in reality she and her comrades were fighting hard against the middle-class women's movement that saw all women, irrespective of class, being part of the same fight for suffrage.

Porter quotes Trotsky's "jaundiced" comments on Kollontai, "During the war she veered sharply to the left.... Her knowledge of foreign languages and her temperament made her a valuable agitator. Her theoretical views have always been somewhat confused however." Nonetheless, as the war lead to revolution, Kollontai became a leading member of Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd.

She was part of the Bolshevik central committee that agreed the insurrection in October 1917. Porter describes 1917 as being happiest of Kollontai's life. In the midst of revolution, Kollontai talents as a speaker and organiser came to the fore. She spoke to mass meetings and, was delegated to the Petrograd soviet to represent a unit of male soldiers. A perfect example of the way that class struggle begins to transform peoples ideas.

Readers who are inspired by the Russian Revolution, will find Porter's accounts of the period and Kollontai's involvement fascinating. Here are some brilliant accounts of mass meetings and debates within the working class. There are detailed accounts from Kollontai's own diaries of the pressures on the leading revolutionaries;

"Trotsky had collapsed from fatigue the previous day; that afternoon, after three astounding days charged with an almost electrical tension, and after a particularly fraught argument with a Socialist Revolutionary, Alexandra was overcome by dizziness. She was prevented from falling by a Red Guard, who offered her a ruble for bread. She was grateful, but refused; but he insisted on taking her address, and later that evening crept into her flat, left some bread there for her, and crept out again before she could discover his name to thank him."

After the seizure of power, Kollontai was appointed the head of the Commissariat of Social Welfare. Her work was blocked by a strike of civil servants, but her struggles to attempt to help those in need, impoverished by war and economic chaos are central points to the book. Her attempts to create communal kitchens, orphanages and the like are met with hostility, both from representatives of the old order, such as priests, but also from workers themselves who often believed the Bolsheviks were out to "nationalise the family" and take children from their parents.

The years of economic collapse, famine, disease and civil war that followed the successful insurrection helped undermine the basis of Soviet Power. During this period argument raged about the way forward for the revolution. Always a free thinker, Kollontai was often in opposition to leading Bolsheviks and she was an early member of the Workers Opposition. Her thoughts and writings about the potential for sexual liberation flourished in this period, though again they were often at odds with other leading revolutionaries, who were more concerned with trying to drive forward attempts to stabalise the Russian economy and strengthen the basis for Soviet rule. Kollontai argued that women must be central to a developing economy;

"Her chief hope therefore, was that women's continued involvement in production would have a dramatic effect on their consciousness and confidence, and would help to free them from the vestiges of fatalism and ignorance which so tenaciously clung to them from the past. Women's release from the private family was not only an essential precondition of their liberation; of equal importance in her opinion, was the fact that all the labour hours women spent on housework were unproductive and of no value to the revolution. It was only when women contributed these labour hours to social production in the factories that the material conditions for creating socialism could be said to exist."

Despite these confused ideas, which downplay the existing economic role of women, Kollontai was at the heart of Bolshevik attempts to try and dramatically transform the role of women's lives in the early Soviet state. Her speech at the Party congress in 1919 had led to a "flood of complaints" from women that their work was being undermined, leading to the establishment of the Zhenotdel. Much of Kollontai's work over the next few years was associated with this organisation. Zhenotdel took on many tasks, involving women in factory inspections, ensuring that pregnant women were adequately protected and taking up issues such as prostitution, venereal disease, education and child care.

"The Zhenotdel delegate, with her red headscarf and shabby clothes was soon a familiar and popular figure in every village and town in Russia, as she trudged from house to house, often taking abandoned children into her own home, and when necessary, picking up a rifle and leaving for the front."

During the Civil War Kollontai traveled the length and breadth of the front on agit-trains, speaking to large and small crowds on station platforms and in cold halls. She rallied women to the revolution and to the war, helping in no small way to enable the Red Army to win.

But the rise of Stalin and the isolation of Russia further undermined Kollontai's ideas. As an old-Bolshevik, who had briefly joined the Menshevik party, she was particularly vulnerable and she was driven out of the Party leadership. Stalin used Kollontai in a diplomatic role, further leading to her isolation. Kollontai herself understood that she was threatened, returning in 1930 to Russia from Stockholm were she was a diplomat, she wrote "How can you oppose the apparatus? How can you fight, or defend yourself against injury? For my part, I've put my fight into a corner of my conscience and carry out as well as I can the policies dictated to me."

She even went so far as to write participles criticizing old Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev who had been put to death by Stalin.

Kollontai's life was dedicated to the emancipation of working people. She was one of the few to try and grapple with what socialist transformation might mean for the relationships between people, freed from economic chains. She was not by any means always correct at particular points, and in places her ideas were often idealistic given the concrete situation. Nonetheless, her life spanned an incredible period of history, and her importance to the genuine revolutionary movement, is demonstrated by the way that her death barely warranted a mention in the pages of Pravda despite her years of work.

Cathy Porter's 1980 biography of Alexandra Kollontai is a must read for anyone trying to understand revolutionary history and the ideas at its heart. Her detailed accounts of life in exile, of the German movement, and the early days of Soviet power are fascinating. The exploration of Kollontai's ideas has rarely been done better and the book is a brilliant tribute to one of the socialist movement's most important figures.

Related Reviews & Reading

Cathy Porter in Socialist Worker on Alexandra Kollontai and International Women's Day
Tony Cliff: Alexandra Kollontai: Russian Marxists and Women Workers

Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Smith - Red Petrograd; Revolution in the Factories: 1917 - 1918

Friday, August 24, 2012

Roger Hutchinson - The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris & Lord Leverhulme

Part history and part biography, The Soap Man is an impressive account of the clash of two modes of production. Lord Leverhulme the industrialist of Port Sunlight fame was a classic example of the capitalist who believed that organised correctly and benevolently the system could bring happiness, wealth and employment for all.

Having made his fortune creating a model (or so he thought) community near Liverpool whose workers toiled in his soap factories, Leverhulme's gaze turned elsewhere. In 1918 he bought the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The act of purchase wasn't simply about owning the land. The old semi-feudal laws that still existed in the Isles meant that Leverhulme effectively became the owner of everything on the Island, towns, roads, people. The new Laird was determined that Lewis would be remodelled in the image of Port Sunlight. He dreamed of technology and capitalism reinventing the Island, creating enormous amounts of wealth and dragging the people of Lewis out of the dark ages.

Roger Hutchinson speculates that Leverhulme wasn't so much the benevolent capitalist as a clear thinking man of money who recognised, at least in part, that the gigantic turmoil that had shaken Russia at the end of World War One would have its echo even in far flung bits of Britain. His desire to improve the lot of the workers, was less about helping them and more about stemming the tide of revolution. But he also viewed the islands with pounds signs in his eyes. In Leverhulme's vision the old crofting way of life should be destroyed so that the true wealth of the island, as a source of wood, a base for fishing and growing industrial quantities of fruit, could make him even wealthier. There would, naturally be a trickle down effect and the people of the island would benefit, as would the thousands of other workers that would stream into the cities and towns that would spring up on the beautiful island.

The problem was, that the people of the island, in particular the returning soldiers and sailors wanted nothing more than a piece of land to call there own. The 1886 Crofters Act had indeed promised them this and offered, for the first time, in a bleak and difficult history, security of tenure that their ancestors could only have imagined. Free from eviction they would be free to farm as they wanted.

Leverhulme couldn't see this. To him, these were backward people, living the lives of savages and this needed to be uprooted. To the crofters and their representatives, who initially welcomed him with open arms. his schemes were interesting, but not for them. They wanted land. Hutchinson has unearthed some extraordinary accounts of the clash between the people and their landlord.

The seen is early in the morning, a large group of people, Leverhulme is at the centre. He speaks in English through an interpretater. Most of the assembled group only speak Gailec. Many of them had taken part in raids only the day before to seize land for their families.

Speaking through an interpretor to a crowd of crofters, Leverhulme derides their way of life:

"The fact is, your fishing is presently carried on is a hit or miss. I want to make it a hit every time. How can I do that? Well everytime you now put to sea you blindly hope to strike a shoal of herrings. Sometimes you do. Oftener you don't. But there shoals are there if you only know the spot. and that is were I can help you. I am prepared to supply a fleet of airplans and observers who will scan the sea in cricles around the island. An observer from one of these planes cannot fail to notice a shoal o herrings over which he passes. Immeiately he sends a wireless message.... the boats are headed for that spot and next morning they steam back to port loaded with herrings......"

Alan Martin "a prominent raider" who had been organising the occupation of land. spoke next. In Gaelic, for a long time. Leverhulme's translator explained the speech, which finished like this.

"This will not do. This honey mouthed man would have us believe black is white and white is black. We are not concerned with his fancy dreams that may or may not come true. What we want is the land and the question I put to him now is; will you give us the land?"


To which Leverhulme answers, "No. I am not prepared to give you the land."

A former serviceman, MacLeod spoke next at length, his speech finished like this:

"Lord Leverhulme, you have bought this island. But you have not bought us. We refuse to be the bondslaves of any man. We want to live our own lives in our own way, poor in material things it may be, but at least it will be clear of the fear of the factory bell; it will be free and independent"


 Here, summed up is the clash between two modes of production. On the one hand a way of life that brings little riches, but has existed for hundreds of years, that provides for the needs of people and would give happiness. On the other is the desire to exploit the natural resources of Lewis in the interest of making money. Leverhulme's cannot understand why the crofters won't accept his changes, because he viewed 20th century capitalism as the pinnacle of human achievement.

At one point, he refuses his personal piper holiday leave, because the man wanted to go home to his croft and plant potatoes. He explained that with his wage labour on the estate he could buy all the potatoes he wanted. When the farmer went home unofficially to do his work, Leverhulme sacked him. A further example of this is the response of a few crofters who were taken to Port Sunlight to see the bright opportunities offered by capitalism. While polite to Leverhulme during their visit on their return they described Port Sunlight as having "nothing but slavery there".

Leverhulme was seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. The fishing off Lewis was not as good as he imagined. The opportunities to grow soft fruits like raspberries for export was limited by the prevailing weather on Lewis. But Leverhulme was a man used to getting his way; nature could be bent by modern technology and economics.

Leverhulme may be portrayed as a kindly philanthropist. But in reality he was a ruthless capitalist. He was also unused to resistance and the refusal of the Islanders to accept his schemes. Their continued occupation of the lands, their anger at his behaviour and their natural cynicism towards landlords frustrated Leverhulme. But so did the British Government, who found Leverhulme's semi-feudal behaviour an embarrassment. As economic crisis arrived and Leverhulmes plans became even more untenable. He gradually withdrew from the islands and the crofters gradually got their way.

Today, Hutchinson tells us, the islands are owned by a myriad of landlords. But there are many memorials to those who occupied land and refused to let the dream die. Their hope that they could obtain "security of their children's children at peace on the soil of thei island" was to a certain extent realised.

This short book is a wonderful piece of history well deserved of its accolades. There is probably no better guide to the history of Lewis and Harris and visitors to the Outer Hebridies could do far worse than read this on their travels. As a record of a unique period of Scottish social history it deserves a wider readership.

Related Reviews

Richards - The Highland Clearances

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ian Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time

As readers of this blog may well have gathered over the years, I am an active member of the British Socialist  Workers Party. I've been a member for twenty years now and was attracted to the organisation for the way that it combined a serious examination of the world, with a commitment to trying to change it.

The SWP comes from very small beginnings and its founder, Tony Cliff, spent almost all of his life trying to build socialist organisations. The vast bulk of his life was devoted to the SWP and its forerunner, the International Socialists. My own personal recollections of Cliff are limited. By the time I joined he was entering the last stages of his life, and while he lived until 1999, it was clear that he was slowing down. I heard him speak on a number of occasions, at both public and internal party events. As many accounts in this biography attest, Cliff's speaking style was a wonderful mix of hard politics, quirky jokes, Marxism and mixed metaphor. He was entrancing, but political strong. Even by the time of the mid-1990s when I heard him in his eighties, he could hold an audience of workers and students spell bound.

To those outside of the world of revolutionary socialist politics, the idea of reading a 560 page biography of a little known Marxist might seem a little strange, not least if that Marxist was active in building revolutionary organisation in an era which was distinctly un-revolutionary.

But Tony Cliff's contribution to both the worker's movement, Marxist theory and the various political organisations around the globe, that, like the SWP continue to fight for socialist politics was an important one.

Cliff was born in 1917 to a Jewish family in Palestine. Early in his life he was branded a "communist" by a teacher for asking why there were no Arabs in his class. In his teens he became attracted to radical politics, and joined small revolutionary organisations influenced by Trotskyist ideas. One of the most interesting chapters of Ian Birchall's biography is this section on Cliff's early life. In part this is because for most socialists in the UK, or indeed much of the world, being active is not about clandestine politics but mostly because Birchall has managed to unearth a great deal about Cliff's early life. Only a handful of those who knew him then remain alive. It's testimony to his personality that they all, even when their politics have radically changed, remember him with warmth and affection.

Coming to the UK Cliff joined the small Trotskyist movement. His commitment to building organisations was clear, but so was his desire to both understand Marxist theory and apply it to the world around him. For me, his key theory, State Capitalism, seemed obvious. I'd been brought up by a German mother, who'd watched the wall being built and we heard the stories of families divided and repressed by the East German state. But in the post-war period, when Russia still loomed as a socialist alternative to western capitalism, a Marxist theory that argued that this was not genuine socialism and nor was it the "degenerated" socialist state that Leon Trotsky had described, was a shock to many. Today these arguments might seem of the order of counting angels on a pin, but the clarity of such politics was crucial in enabling Cliff to build a core of activists and thinkers who went on to build the forerunners of the SWP.

There is no point here re-counting the different stages of Cliff's life. He was, surprisingly for a foreigner, oddly influential in the workers movements of the 1960s though some of his writings. He had a rare ability to put complex points across clearly, with reference to the lives of ordinary people, or through the use of amusing metaphors. In fact for me, it is mostly through his writing and speeches that I remember Cliff. I was not of the era who remember him for his regular phone calls, nor was I someone who'd heard him speak hundreds of times.

Birchall's book does not fail to criticise Cliff. Cliff was a adept user of the "bending stick" method of revolutionary politics. As the world changes, revolutionary organisations needs to rapidly adapt to changing situations and this means winning an argument with the membership about a new course. Cliff was swift to change direction, quick to break with former favourites who he felt didn't fit the new course and likely to find new favourites. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but clearly from Birchall's biography there are many, former key-activists who still remain burned by the way their were treated. It is testament to Cliff's stature that many of these people felt happy to speak to his biographer. Including, surprisingly ex-Labour MPs and members of Tony Blair's cabinet. The latter stating how much they learnt from Cliff (though clearly not enough).

More interestingly, this is more than a biography. In quoting at length from Cliff's speeches and writings, Birchall gives us a glimpse of different periods of recently British political history. The section on 1968, for instance, when Cliff argued for a turn to student work and spent days winning arguments with leftist students at the London School of Economics is a fascinating insight into the period. (For more on this I'd recommend this short piece.) But Birchall also takes time to explain some of Cliff's ideas - I've mentioned State Capitalism, but his arguments around Deflected Permanent Revolution (the way that revolutions in former colonies were deflected by their nationalistic leaders down a different road from socialism) and the theory of the Arms Economy, that helped explain the long boom after World War II were important to new generations of Marxist thinkers.

Most importantly though I think Birchall helps us understand Cliff's method, and through that the general Marxist method. Since the Russian Revolution one figure looms high amongst those who fought to retain the essential core of revolutionary socialism - that working people must emancipate themselves - that was Leon Trotsky. Since the Second World War a few revolutionaries continued this work and Tony Cliff was probably the most important of this. His vision and his hope that working people on the late 20th century could still overthrow capitalism and build a new world inspired thousands. Today as we face economic chaos and environmental crisis that need is still there. Cliff helped build the beginnings of the socialist organisations that can be part of that transformation. His life and his works remain essential reading for all of us who want to take that struggle forward.

Related Reading

Given the nature of socialist politics, Ian Birchall's book has been the subject of intense debate, discussion and need I say, polemic. Sadly some of this reflects the worst of the socialist movement. Some of the most useful reviews are below, chosen more for their political insights, rather than their polemic.

Splintered Sunrise - The Most Unforgettable Person I've Ever Met in my Life
Interview with Ian Birchall, by Joseph Choonara
John Palmer - A Revolutionary with a Revolution
Two Reviews by Nigel Harris and Christian Høgsbjerg

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky; The Sword of Revolution
Cliff - Lenin; All Power to the Soviets
Cliff - Lenin; Revolution Besieged 
Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, The General Strike of 1926

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ralph Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

There is a particular literary tradition in England, of books that recount life in the countryside, or on farms. Some of these are justifiably famous, like Cider With Rosie, others are forgotten gems, like Adrian Bell's Men and the Fields, which I reviewed here. When I reviewed Bell's book, I made the point that there is a danger when writing about the rural past, that one falls into the trap of seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. Agricultural life was, and continues to be, hard work.

Ralph Whitlock's book is unusual, not in its subject matter, but because the majority of the text is devoted to his life as a farm labourer. Whitlock was from a very poor background, his mother narrowly avoided the workhouse because their deceased father had managed to build the family their own home. From his early teens, Whitlock worked in the fields, trying many jobs, though disliking most, except for his time as a shepherd.

First published in 1945, this book is pitched by the publisher (no doubt bending to some government propaganda wind) as a celebration of the life of the labourer, the "English peasant ... the same man as his forefathers, the men who fought and won Agincourt, the men who made the face of rural England with crude tools and by hard work, and defended as passionately as they worked for it."

Despite this rhetoric, the book is far more interesting. In part because of the descriptions of forgotten aspects of farming, in part because the hardwork, the poverty and the long hours are eye-opening. Whitlock's style is not as florid or poetic as Adrian Bell, but its not without humour and insight.

One interesting aspect to Whitlock's early life was the way that contracts with farmers lasted a year, from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. During that year, you were effectively tied to a particular employer, and only able to move on once that year was up. This enabled the young worker to try a different number of jobs, and find one suited, as Whitlock says "one year as a ploughboy was enough for me. When Michaelmas came again I made haste to get back to Uncle Jacob and the sheep."

Violence and abuse of young workers was clearly an accepted part of rural life. The man he works for as a ploughboy throws clods and rocks at him when he makes a mistake. But there was also laughter and free time. Whitlock learnt to play an instrument, worked long hours, but walked great distances to woo potential partners. Village life was centred on agricultural work and the church, but there was singing, dancing and games.

Towards the end of the book, Whitlock earns enough, though his and his wife's hard work to purchase land and a smallholding. But this is threatened by the changing of government subsidies between the wars and the economic recession. The Second World War was a return to boom time for farmers, and Whitlock's discussion of the expansion of farming in that period is fascinating. For those interested in agricultural history, this is a must read. For those who want to know more about those who shaped the British countryside, this is an entertaining piece of social history.

Related Reviews

Bell - Men and the Fields

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Christopher Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution

Christopher Hill's biography of Oliver Cromwell is less of the history of the man, and more a history of the world that shaped him and was shaped by Cromwell's life. As Hill points out at the very beginning of the book, the first forty years of Cromwell's life a "tangled knot of problems was forming which was only to be unravelled, or cut through, in the revolutionary decades 1640-60".  In this "decisive century in English history", the "decisive figure" according to Hill, was Oliver Cromwell. Thus this book contains very little about Cromwell's detailed life (his children and wife get a bare couple of mentions for instance) and much more about the changes going on in English society.

The first couple of pages of the book begin with a beautifully written summation of the changes taking place in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These were decades when fundamental changes in the economy and politics of Europe were beginning to reshape the old feudal order. These changes seemed minor - about the rights of people to trade without interference, about tax levels, and about the balance of power between king and parliament. But together they added together in ways that began to fundamentally shift the most established ideas of society. In particular, in England, this meant whether or not the king had the right to rule over everyone, simply as a result of the position given to him on account of his birth. The consequences for Europe were large, but in England they were the greatest. The revolution that Cromwell was a central figure of, "ensured that henceforth governments would give great weight to commercial considerations. Decisions taken during this [17th] century enabled England to become the first industrialised imperialist great power, and ensured that it should be ruled by a representative assembly".

Cromwell's role in this was central. The man himself had little political understanding. His instincts stemmed from his own social and religious position, and Hill spends some time developing the readers own ideas of what a Puritan in Cromwell's position would have believed about the world he lived in. Much of Cromwell's early life was undistinguished, though once he became a significant landowner he was able to play an increasingly important role in debates inside and outside Parliament.

Cromwell's great strength seems to have been the ability to hold together a coalition of very different parties. The parties in this sense are not political ones in the way we know today, rather the representatives of different social trends and forces in English society at the time. The radicals of the English Revolution being in the same camp as the forces of the emerging Bourgeois made for an uneasy alliance, but they were united in their desire for change. What that change was, was open to question and Cromwell was able to offer much to both sides, tacking one way and the next in order to hold the coalition together. Cromwell was clear that he wanted a world where democracy was not open to all, only to those who had property. In this sense, he aligned himself far from the Levellers and Diggers who argued for a much more democratic rearrangement of society. But Cromwell also realised that he needed this radical vision of change to inspire the "russet coated" gentlemen to fight against the King.

Cromwell didn't start out wanting to commit regicide, this was forced upon him by the reality of revolution and civil war. But once the King was out of the way, Cromwell moved quickly to strengthen the position of the new ruling class, and this meant the destruction of those social forces that threatened the new, bourgeois order. Hill portrays Cromwell's later trajectory, from military leader to Lord Protector, not as a personal voyage for power, but as a attempt to shore-up the new order against internal contradictions. It was certainly not automatic that the revolution would not lead to the re-establishment of the monarchy, and Cromwell's struggle to prevent this meant the imposition of dictatorship. When the monarchy did return, it was in a subdued and weakened form, that was never able to regain its old position without facing the prospect of further revolution.

Hill finishes the book by focusing on the ambiguous nature of Cromwell to those who came after. Today, he is both the man who cut the kings head off, and the person who ordered the death penalty against the Levellers at Burford. He destroyed the people of Ireland in the name of progress, yet destroyed a monarchy in the interests of a more representative democracy. He championed the rights of those resisting enclosure early in his career, and by the end was encouraging further enclosures of land for the wealthy.

The only way to understand these contradictions is to understand the pressures upon Cromwell from different social forces, and his own class interests. At different points in Cromwell's life, his class had different interests and hence different allies. Cromwell's changing ideas are a reflection of those changing forces, as are his actions. Christopher Hill's superb Marxist analysis illuminates this brilliantly and this book is indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand the English Revolution.

Related Reviews

Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Adrian Desmond & James Moore - Darwin's Sacred Cause

Charles Darwin is one of those people whose lives inspire in all sorts of ways. His work on evolution is one part of this, his insights and his method are worth studying for the brilliance of his scientific method. But his science cannot be separated from his life and Darwin's travels, writings and activities are also fascinating in themselves. He is one of the few individuals who can inspire people to follow in his footsteps simply because he stands like some sort of colossus over science and history.

As a result of this, Darwin has had many biographers and Desmond and Moore's book at first seems like an attempt to find a new hook on which to hang yet another book about his life. The central idea of their work, is that Darwin's science and life cannot be separated from one of his great "passions", the movement to abolish slavery. From the desire to end slavery, and prove that all humans descended from the same origin, the authors argue, all the rest of Darwin's work flows.

What initially seems a convenient hook rapidly becomes a very readable and convincing biography that puts Darwin's genius in the midst of the intellectual and scientific debates of the 19th century, rather than locating the man, simply as a scientist with particularly brilliant insights.

The boo, and Darwin's life, can be split into two parts. The first centres of Darwin's upbringing. His family were rooted in the liberal anti-slavery movement. The authors show how Darwin's childhood and early adult years would have been seeped in political discussions about slavery. The accounts of the barbaric mid-Atlantic passage, the murder of slaves and life on the plantations were something that Darwin would have known well. His family were subscribers to a number of political campaigns on the question, attending meetings and supporting candidates that pushed for abolition and reform. By the time he got to university, Darwin's blood was thoroughly abolitionist. At university Darwin worked closely for some weeks with an ex-slave. The authors speculate, with some basis, on the way that their conversations would have turned to the realities of slavery. Interestingly, Darwin's notebooks and diaries contain no hint of racism or prejudice. To him, the black man teaching him to stuff animals was another man, slightly lower on the social scale, but in no way unequal. This contrasts, the author's point out, with the reality of life in the cities as viewed by many from the United States. Visitors from the other side of the Atlantic were appalled to see white and black couples parading the streets, arm in arm.

Darwin's experiences on the Beagle are well documented, as are his disagreements with his Captain over the question of slavery. Less well know, are the way that these experiences and what he saw of the reality of slavery helped steel his anti-slavery position. This might seem unsurprising, but several of Darwin's contemporaries later in life, visited the states and came to opposite, pro-slavery positions. Darwin's experience with indigenous people in South America also bore fruit later in his life, as he took up the political and scientific arguments associated with the origins of humans.

The second part of the book, and, it could be argued Darwin's life, is associated with the work that he began towards publishing his two masterpieces, the Origin of the Species and the Descent of Man. These two works are the culmination of a lifetime of study and research, and I will not repeat the science here. But the authors of this biography put them squarely at the heart of the changing debates that took place in England in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery.

During the campaign to free the slaves and end the slave trade, the notion of equality between black and white was taken as read. In the aftermath though, there was a increasing tendency to argue that the "races" were different. White people were superior, and blacks represented either a different race, or an earlier place in the development of humans. These debates were tied up with political questions justifying the existence of Empire, or the supposed lack of civilisation in Africa, for instance. They were also rooted in some of the new science that was developing, around the questions of brain size and head shapes.

Darwin placed himself in the camp of those who argued for a common ancestry for humans. But to explain this took Darwin decades of work and study. His reading was enormous, on everything from geology to the breeding of pigs and sheep. He ordered specimens from around the world and, in order to make sure that his scientific credentials were valid, he made himself a world expert on barnacles. Most interestingly, as the authors document, he engaged in the great debate about the origin of domesticated animals. In order to prove that domesticated pigs, sheep, cows and pigeons came from single origins, rather than multiple locations he needed to demonstrate that the great variety of life was possible from a single pair on animals. In order to do this, Darwin became an expert pigeon breeder. He spent time with working class breeders in their homes, to learn all he could and finally proved beyond doubt that it was possible to create enormous variations in animals from a single breeding pair.

This obscure work on pigeons was greatly important, because it undermined that argument that different "races" of humans, with their different coloured skins and different body shapes must have originated from different apes around the globe.

"After setting up his [Darwin's] target,
'The doctrine of the origin of our several domestic races from several aboriginal stocks, has been carried to an absurd extreme by some authors...
he would let pigeons lead the fight-back. The social context of Darwin's offensive has slipped away and been subsequently lost, but recovering makes sense of the project in Darin's moral world. It scientifically undermined the ethnographic drive for segregation and 'aboriginal' homelands so comforting to the 'slave holding Southerns'."

As America descended into Civil War, intellectuals on both sides grasped different aspects of the argument to polemicise in favour or against slavery. Darwin found himself part of that debate, his publications being quoted in the arguments and used against the pro-slavery side. But Darwin was propelled to his work by the growing crisis. He understood that part of winning the war, was undermining the idea that black people were suited to slavery because they were not biologically equal for Darwin "Slavery, race and evolution remained inseparable."

The book finishes with Darwin publicising his final work on human evolution. As with Origins it caused enormous debate and argument. Darwin had long since abandoned his religious beliefs, but if anything he was a stronger and harder fighter against racial ideas.

This is a rather astounding book. At times it reads like a scientific thriller, as you will Darwin to publish his book and damn those establishment figures he's concerned about upsetting. At others, it is a clear and readable introduction to the ideas at the heart of Darwin's science. Above all though, this is a masterful explanation of why at a certain particular moment in history, Darwin (and to a certain extent other scientists) were able to make the intellectual leaps that meant that evolution could become a live scientific idea. Ideas cannot be separated from the society in which they develop. The world around Darwin was changing. Slavery had been morally repugnant, and then was in danger of becoming scientifically supported. Darwin's work was a result of that world and a response to it.

As I read this book, I was reminded of biography of another, similar figure that I recently read. Karl Marx's life shares many similarities with Charles Darwin. This is not to say I am trying to claim Darwin as a Marxist - that would be laughable. But both men were engaged in a struggle to better understand the world they lived in. They were also in different ways, trying to change it. Both engaged in bitter polemics and struggles with friends and people on the other side of the world. Both were driven to despair at their work and frustration at other thinkers. Karl Marx dedicated the first volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, in part because of his great respect for The Origin of the Species. While there is no evidence that Darwin read Das Kapital, he would have understood the blood, sweet and tears that went into producing it, because it mirrored in many ways his own life's work.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore have produced a fascinating, readable and passionate look at Darwin's life and ideas. For its clarity in explaining both his thought and its origin, it should be read by everyone who wants to better understand the world we live in, and evolutionary science today.

Related Reviews

Darwin - Voyage of the Beagle
Simons - Darwin Slept Here
Rediker - The Slave Ship - A Human History

Monday, April 23, 2012

Franz Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life


Unsurprisingly, Karl Marx is one of those figures in history who attracts biographers. Some of these are sympathetic, some are hagiographies, others are attempts to explore Marx's thought by understanding him as a man, and others are attempts to justify all sorts of contemporary ideas by appealing to the great man himself.

One of the most recent biographies was the 1999 book by Francis Wheen. It is certainly an accessible read, and in parts is a good introduction to Marx's life and times. Wheen is not a Marxist and he struggled here, and in a later book, to explain some of Marx's concepts. Wheen also was obsessed with Marx the man, portraying him as a grumpy old man, who spends lots of time in dark rooms, writing impenetrable texts, and forming lifelong feuds with former friends over minor points of doctrine.

Franz Mehring on the other hand, was a dedicated Marxist and one of the leading members of the German socialist movement in the run up to World War One. Along with his comrades, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, he fought to retain the genuine, revolutionary socialist tradition through the war years, when most of the socialist movement had capitulated to the needs of the German ruling class.

His biography is very important, because it is both a sympathetic account of Marx's life and an attempt to explain and reassert Marx's ideas. Unlike Wheen's book, Mehring does not dwell on Marx's private life. It is not that Mehring thinks it unimportant. Marx's lifelong friendship and collaboration with Frederich Engels clearly was extremely important to his ideas, and his ability to get them down on paper. 

Similarly, Mehring doesn't dismiss Marx's marriage. Jenny Marx shared in many of Marx's struggles through his life and the descriptions of their joint suffering when one of their children dies are deeply moving. Jenny Marx pre-deceased Karl by barely a year, and while Mehring doesn't dwell on this part of their lives in detail, it's heart-rending to realise that Marx was too ill to attend her funeral. His despair at her death remains with him in that dark final year.

For Mehring, far more important than the private tribulations of the Marx family, is Karl Marx the activist, the revolutionary fighter. Its difficult to reconcile this Marx with those critics who complain that the great socialist did not know workers, because he lived on donations from his rich friend. Marx and his family certainly knew poverty, but more important, Marx knew hard work. While he never turned a lathe or laid bricks, his life was one of constant writing, meetings and argument. His editorship of several newspapers during times of revolutionary upheavel were certainly difficult jobs, but essential to his life. Marx was not a revolutionary who sat back and commentated on events, he took part and actively engaged and tried to shape movements; often at risk of prison, or worse punishments.
Anyone who has been around the socialist movement for any length of time will recognise the debates and discussions that Marx and Engels engage in. In particular, the rows, polemics and arguments during the rise and fall of the First International seem eerily familiar. But again, this is Marx in his element, part of the struggle, trying to change the world.

Franz Mehring
Mehring takes time to explain Marx's developing thought through the book. In fact, placing his ideas at the core of the work makes the book far superior to other biographies. Marx's ideas developed and changed over time, as he learnt from the world outside and the experience of struggle. The first chapters on Marx's earlier philosophy are a little hard going as the explore the works of figures like Hegel, but Mehring shows how Marx breaks from these as he watches the struggle of workers, living and fighting in the real world. 

At each stage in Marx's life, Mehring examines his life and his work. So he takes us through the debates with other writers, the writing of the Communist Manifesto and Capital. The detail of the Paris Commune and Marx's brilliant polemic The Civil War in France is a fascinating chapter. Here we see Marx learning from the movement, but also actively engaging in solidarity. His home became a refuge for those fleeing the persecution of the Commune and his daughters married Communards.

Mehring describes some of the feuds Marx engaged in. Marx was no saint and like many socialists since, he was wrong occasionally and he was prone to beliving false rumours. Mehring criticises his subject when describing the debates Marx had with Bakunin for instance, and has many good words to say about that class fighter, despite his critique of anarchism. 

The Karl Marx in these pages is a fighter - a man angry at injustice, but thoughtful and inspiring. Someone prepared to fight his corner against all comers, but in no way monolithic in his thought. The author too comes through as deeply familiar with his source material and knowledgeable about obscure letters and newspapers. This is clearly the culmination of a lifetimes work. Like Marx, Mehring to was a revolutionary who fought to change the world. If at times this book errs a little into the history of Germany and Prussia, it is in part because Mehring is engaged in debate and argument with his own comrades, as well as describing the background to Marx’s life. 

For those who want to know Karl Marx better, as well as understanding his ideas, I can think of no finer biography.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gitta Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth

Gitta Sereny's detailed and scholarly examination of one of the key figures in Hitler's leadership is also extremely readable and powerful, two qualities rare in biography. At times it is terrible to read, the subject matter by necessity must examine details of the Holocaust and the use of slave labour that is repugnant. There is a compelling fascination though. For anyone who has ever wondered how the Holocaust could happen, how fairly ordinary men and women could be complicit in the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of communists, socialists, trade unionists, Gypsies, gays and lesbians and countless other "undesirables" there is a desire to try and understand the reality of life under German Fascism.

There is meticulous research behind this book. Sereny seems to have spent a lifetime in archives, reading documents and interviewing every conceivable participant who knew the individual she was writing about. From his secretaries and servants in Hitler's bunker, to his wife and prison guards. But most of all, she interviewed Speer himself.

Following his trial at Nuremberg for his involvement in war-crimes, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even before the trial itself he was undergoing a transformation. By the time of his release, he seemed obsessed with expressing his own repentance. Many of his existing circle of friends disowned him - they could not understand his desire to distance himself from Hitler, nor criticise the former Fuhrer. This process had begun, at least publicly, for Speer in the dock, when he'd attacked the man to whom he owed so much. Even in Spandau prison, several of his co-defendants could not forgive him for this.

Sereny's biography beings with Speer's childhood. Given the realities of German life in the early twentieth century, Speer was lucky to be the son of a prosperous, if unloving architect. The stilted and cool atmosphere of the middle class upbringing shaped Speer's own inability to display warmth. No doubt, his later relationship with Hitler carried echoes of the relationship that Speer would have liked to have had with his own father. However, to reduce their complex friendship to this would make nonsense of the other factors and realities of Speers' life.

By chance Speer found himself the favoured architect of Hitler. Speer had never been a party man, though he rapidly found himself at the heart of the Nazi organisation, joining formally in the early 1930s. However his rise was startling, and by the time of the war, he had moved on from designing homes to prominent Nazis, to heading up some of the most important industries of the German war economy. He proved extremely able. Even during the height of the bombing campaigns Speer helped ensure that the German economy continued to produce munitions and equipment for the armed forces. Central to this was the question of slave labour, labour that originated in the concentration camps, from Jew's exiled from their homes and from captured prisoners.

At the heart of the book, and indeed most articles about Speer is the question of his knowledge. To what extent was he aware of the mass murder taking place? Sereny's answer is couched in riders. Firstly she argues that it wasn't true that everyone in Germany was aware of the mechanised slaughter taking place at death-camps in Poland. This is not to say that people didn't think killing was taking place, or that something was going on. She includes Speer in this - he must have been aware that large numbers of people were being transported away from their homes, just has he must have known that hundreds of thousands of labourers were coming from somewhere.

Central to this debate, is whether or not Speer was present at an infamous speech that Himmler made to leading members of the SS. The text of Himmler's speech, which mentioned the slaughter and what needed to be done to solve the Jewish question, refers to Speer on several occasions, as if Speer himself was in the hall. Speer admits that he was there in an earlier session, speaking on questions of wartime production, but claims to have left. When the speech was made public, Speer spent many long hours trying to prove that he wasn't there, by sitting in the archives looking for evidence.

It is worth at this point noting Sereny's own brilliance as a researcher and historian. She examines Speer's life day by day, sometimes hour by hour, trying to tease out exactly where he was and when. What could he have known, who else was with him, what might he have heard. The detail is almost overwhelming, but builds up her central thesis, that Speer knew far more than he let on. This level of detail is important for Sereny too, because Speer spent many many ours creating his own story in an attempt to free himself of suspicion.

This desire to clear his name shaped Speer's later life. His defence at Nuremberg, was to denounce Hitler and his actions, accepting his responsibilities, but not his guilt. However once his imprisonment began, he seems to have begun to construct a careful web of stories that highlight his independence and criticism of Hitler as well as ignore his links to the aspects of the regime that would have acknowledged his awareness of the Holocaust. One example of this, is in the description of his final meeting with Hitler. Speer claims in his book, Inside the Third Reich, that he re-afirmed his personal loyalty, but admitting to working to countermand Hitler's final scorched earth policies. In a famous paragraph, Sereny points out that:

"Psychologically, it is possible that this is the way he remembered the occasion, because it was how he would have liked to behave, and the way he would have liked Hitler to react. But the fact is that none of it happened; our witness to this is Speer himself." [529]

Speer's original draft manuscript for the book, written in prison, contained no such story - surely something that would have been at the forefront of his mind. In fact the opposite is then claimed, Speer saying that he did not confess to Hitler. Similar examples abound in Sereny's book, as she uncovers the detailed process that Speer went through, before presenting his carefully selected story to the world. Speer makes much of his break with Hitler - his desire to protect the German people. So much so, that Speer claimed to have made plans to kill the Fuhrer.

After reading over 700 pages of Sereny's detailed account, its difficult to believe anything that Speer says. Not necessarily because he deliberately lied all the time, but because he was keen to portray himself in a particular way. He was after all, one of the last remaining figures from Hitler's inner circle and few could contradict him.

Sereny doesn't limit herself simply to telling, or criticising Speer's story. She spends time examining other aspects to the story of Nazi Germany. Some of the powerful parts are the tales of those that did know about the Holocaust and sought to alert the world. Some of these tales are tragic, as the fairly to be believed or listened to, drove individuals to despair and suicide. Sereny highlights these tales, to argue that some people were brave enough to stand up, or at least find out what was going on. Those who argue that the only chance to survive the dictatorship was to keep ones head down, may have been accurate, but they took a particular moral path.

Speer did not do this. He feigned ignorance and enjoyed his privileged life as long as he could. That said, he did clearly break with Hitler. He seemed to be one of the few who could challenge Hitler's madness, though Speer was not brave enough to break completely. There is an element, at least in how SEreny describes it, of love between the two men. Or perhaps hero worship by Speer. His return to Berlin to see Hitler one last time, smacks vaguely of the behaviour of a lover who cannot quite bring themself to say a final goodbye.

Sereny shows that many of those who knew Speer, during the war, during his imprisonment and after his release seem to have fallen into a kind of spell. Speer was clever, articulate, handsome and dashing. But she reminds us, he worked closely with people who had inspected concentration camps. Drank champagne with men who organised the Holocaust and had visited the slave labour camps. Even if the experience here shocked him enough to demand improved conditions for the workers.

Sereny concludes by quoting an exchange with Speer. An article she'd written quoted some word's of Speer's, written in 1977:

"However to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews."

After he had checked this with her, and added a clarifying footnote which, if anything, strengthens the statement, Sereny asks why he was saying this now after denying it for so long. The article he had written was in response to a Holocaust denial book and Speer explained that he could no longer "hedge" the question, "for this purpose". Sereny comments that had Speer said this at Nuremberg, he would have hung with the other Nazis.

Sereny's book leaves little doubt that Speer knew far more than he admitted. His survival at Nuremberg and the second career he carved out as a writer stem from his ability to selectively tell a horrific story. But it is also clear that Speer was himself horrified by what had been done. The Holocaust was the outcome of the coming to power of a powerful political force that had been moulded by Hitler. The fascist bands that made Germany safe from socialist revolution relied on racism and prejudice to cement the street gangs together. They broke the communists and the trade unions, but they also opened the door to mass murder. Speer, and many of the industrialists that he came to work closely with during the war, found the world of Hitler one that they could do business with. A tiny number turned their backs and walked away, Speer and many others did not.

Related Reviews

Sereny - Into that Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and History