Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Emma Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai was one of the most fascinating and inspiring revolutionaries of the 20th century, yet today she is almost unknown. So it is marvellous that the latest in the excellent Rebel's Guide series is a short introduction to Kollontai's life and politics.

Born into the "progressive" aristocracy in Russia in 1872 she was unorthodox from a young age. She recalled she "criticised the injustice of adults and I experienced as a blatant contradiction the fact that everything was offered to me whereas so much was denied to the other children". Sent to Paris by her family who hoped it would distract her from an unsuitable marriage to an engineer, she discovered the works of Marx and Engels and began a lifelong commitment to revolutionary organising.

Key to Kollontai's life was the Russian Revolution and the politics of Lenin's Bolsheviks who led the workers to victory in 1917. Emma Davis describes who Kollontai's life was intertwined, even when living in exile, with these revolutionary politics. In particular Kollontai was one of the few who resolutely opposed World War One. Her 1915 pamphlet Who Needs War? was printed in millions of copies to agitate among workers and soldiers against the conflict.

But the most important aspect of Kollontai's activism and writing was her work on women's liberation and her development of ideas linking sex and society. Kollontai was a radical part of the women's liberation movement, but because she insisted that this movement had to recognise the class nature of women's oppression she was frequently at odds with the movement's middle class dominated leadership. This understanding of class also shaped how she understood sex. Following Marx and Engels she saw "bourgeois love" as arising out of the alienating nature of life under capitalism, and that relationships were both a solace and source of confrontation for workers. Davis quotes Kollontai:
Man experiences this 'loneliness' even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even n a crowd of close friends and work-mates. because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a 'soul mate; from among the members of the opposite sex.
But even attempts to challenge this through "experimental relationships" were doomed under capitalism, because as Davis explains, Kollontai thought
women were still subject to double standards. Men had a certain freedom to act without moral judgement from society; women did not. So Kollontai was scathing of those middle class proponents of 'free marriage' or 'free love' (having sexual relationships without the ties of marriage or partnership_ in the her and now who didn't recognise the inequalities of class and gender.
Women were at the forefront of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Kollontai, who by then was on the leadership of the Bolsheviks, became responsible for advancing women's liberation inside the new society. Revolutionary newspapers aimed at women were produced and Kollontai drove forward attempts to collectivise the production of food and childcare. She, alongside Lenin, challenged the fears of some that this was about the state taking away children, showing that this was about freeing women from the primary burden of childcare and reproducing the family. It is perhaps these sections of the book that are most inspiring as we learn about radical attempts to transform society, in the midst of appalling counter-revolution and civil war. Davis explains:
In her role of Commissar of Social Welfare Kollontai helped to write the groundbreaking decrees that opened the way for liberation. Hereditary laws were abolished, as was the authority of men in the family. Divorce was legalised and the distinction between 'legitimate; and 'illegitimate;' children was removed. Marriage ceremonies were simplified so any man of 18 and woman of 16 could marry through a short civil ceremony. Kollontai and Dybenko were the first couple married under the new law.
Given how backward pre-Revolutionary Russia was, these were amazing transformations. But the rise of Stalin and the isolation of Russia meant that these victories were rolled back. Sadly, as Davis shows, Kollontai was unable to break completely from Stalin and ended up in the 1940s praising his celebration of motherhood and traditional women's roles. But as Davis stresses, the key thing to remember about Kollontai was her revolutionary activism and organising in the run up to and during the Russian Revolution. As Davis says, "Kollontai's writings on sexual liberation point towards a world where people#s relations... are free from the obligations of economic necessity."

This Rebel's Guide is an excellent introduction to Kollontai's life and politics. I highly recommend it and hope that Emma Davis' book leads to many more activists and revolutionaries learning from and developing Kollontai's revolutionary socialism.

Related Reviews

Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography

Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Monday, July 08, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Walking to Aldebaran

You know that thing when, as a child, you wanted something so very badly that it hurt? But when you got it, it wasn't what you wanted to have at all? Well Gary Rendell, the British astronaut at the heart of Adrian Tchaikovsky's short novel Walking to Aldebaran really really wanted to go to space. He was lucky enough to have his dream come true, when an alien artefact is found far out in the solar system. When a robot probe investigates it is found to defy several laws of physics, and so a multi-nation human mission is sent to explore it. 

The artefact, nicknamed after the frog it resembles, turns out to defy any attempt at understanding - physical laws, time and motion all seem to break down in unpredictable and inexplicable ways. Gary finds himself a loan survivor of the exploratory team, and stumbles around the frog in an attempt to get home. In doing so he discovers various weird, wacky, dangerous and insane aliens and puzzles. While Tchaikovsky is brilliant at describing the aliens that survive in the artefact, the book's real wonder for the reader is what the artefact is. Is it an abandoned alien portal? Is it a dead space-ship? Is it something else entirely while the species exploring it are doing little more than a hedgehog might using a tunnel under a motorway? 

There are many reasons I loved this book. Firstly it's really tense and creepy. Secondly I love novels of first contact, space archaeology and science-fiction twists. But I also liked how Tchaikovsky made all the characters real and balanced the contemporary story of Gary in the artefact with the story of how he got there. I loved the idea that the multi-national crew all learnt Danish as part of a rebellion against their bosses back on Earth - the author's description of the crew and their interactions was done brilliantly.

While the basic concept of the book might not be that original, this is an excellent twist on the tale that packs more into it then many 500 plus page novels.

Related Reads

Monday, July 01, 2019

Lucie Green - 15 Million Degrees: A Journey to the Centre of the Sun

Despite being interested in astronomy for decades I have, like many other amateur astronomers, neglected my studies of the Sun. In part, as the author of this excellent guide to our nearest star makes clear, this is because looking at the Sun is both dangerous and difficult without specialist equipment. But I think a bigger issue is that I don't think I really understood what a wonderfully complex and fascinating body the Sun is.

Lucie Green is a longstanding solar scientist. She is also a well known broadcaster and an excellent communicator of complex scientific ideas. This latter point is important because to understand the Sun requires some getting to grips with some fundamental physics and the concepts are not always easy to understand. So the opening chapter begins with an account of the development of our understanding of electromagnetism - we need to know this because it helps us understand the information we are receiving from the Sun via the light we receive (both visible and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum). Knowing this helps us understand what's going on inside the Sun. Green then takes us through the history of studies of the Sun and shows how we have built on several centuries of observations and science.

This is science on a massive scale. The Sun itself is big - even just on the scale of what we can see. But the Sun's outer atmosphere (invisible to human senses) extends beyond the Earth itself, and the influence of the Sun, in terms of the solar wind, extends a very long way indeed beyond the outermost planet. I recently enjoyed Jim Bell's account of the Voyager missions The Interstellar Age, and Green explains just why the ongoing science obtained from those two ageing craft is so important. But the Sun is also huge in terms of the energy it produces and the length of time it has been doing this for. Even with my own knowledge of nuclear physics and astronomy I was still fascinated by Green's account of the Sun's formation and the fusion in its core. We are, Green explains, fortunate that our modern scientific era, and especially the space age have coincided with a particularly fascinating era of the Sun's cycles. But we have been, since around 1985 observing the Sun leaving it's "Grand Maximum State" and the Sun is likely to become relatively dimmer in coming decades. Here Green explains precisely why, contrary to the heartfelt beliefs of various commentators on climate change science, this will have no serious impact on global temperatures. One thing that becomes very clear is just how many of the processes that we observe are the result of complex magnetic interactions throughout the different layers of the Sun - I was quite amazed to find out that we have managed to observe the magnetism of other stars, though disappointed not to be told more about how! Despite Green's ability to communicate complex ideas I did struggle to follow some of the descriptions of what was taking place - my advice to other readers is not to worry too much if you can't understand all the detail - the big picture is very much the key issue.

One of the great things about the book is the way that Green links the Sun to our own lives and society. She shows how the Sun is responsible for life (and civilisation) but also the threats it can have to modern technology and society. The end of the book discusses the uniqueness of our Sun, when compared to the billions of other stars. Lucie Green concludes that while the Sun is not that unique in astronomical terms, it is in the sense that it is the one that we can study and that gave rise to life here. So I recommend 15 Million Degrees very much, not just because it's fascinating science, but also because it's subject, the Sun, is part and parcel of our life on this planet.

Related Reviews

Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy
Bell - The Interstellar Age
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Holmes - The Age of Wonder

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Children of Ruin is the sequel to Adrian Tchaikovsky's smash hit Children of Time and follows on directly from the end of that novel (excluding a tedious journey between stars). In CoT travellers from Earth seeded a planet with DNA to accelerate the development of a safe ecology for their colonisation. Unfortunately it ended up creating a species of intelligent spiders which, when Earth's technological society collapsed evolved on their own. Follow up missions led to war and the mutual collaboration. At the end of the novel they head off into space to investigate a planet from which human radio signals have been received.

Children of Time begins in parallel with the earlier novel telling the similar story of the failed attempt to explore and terraform an Earth like world. This time, arrogance, accident and technological sabotage also led to the creation of a hyper-intelligent community of octopuses, who in the absence of humans are able to utilise our technology to reach into space. Unfortunately, and in a somewhat crude Malthusian metaphor, the octopus civilisation growths too rapidly to escape over-crowding and pollution - leading to war.

Into this mix add a third, utterly alien (as intelligent octopuses and spiders aren't really alien) intelligence that absorbs all other intelligences into its collective mind. This is the complex mix that our human and spider heroes arrive to, and war, mutual incomprehensibility and a giant stalking alien made of stone and bits of shell, threaten to annihilate everyone. While it's all a bit of a rush, and suffers slightly from too many viewpoints, the plot is pulled together rather neatly.

As in the first book Tchaikovsky is able to use his aliens to make somewhat wry comments on our own civilisation. But I did feel that space-faring octopuses were a little over the top. Though it does mean that he get away with sentences that contain phrases such as "solar system of molluscs" entirely without a tongue in cheek. Tchaikovsky ponders a lot more in this book on intelligence, communication and social breakdown (as well as intelligent molluscs), which means the pace is quite different to the first book. I didn't quite enjoy it as much as the CoT, but its a satisfying sequel and fans of the first book should definitely get hold of it.

Related Reviews

Tchaikovsky - Children of Ruin

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Barry Commoner - The Closing Circle

Imagine a book that is written by a left wing scientist who is actively engaged in work with non-scientists to challenge environmental degradation. Imagine it is written in an engaging style, that explains complex ecological arguments clearly. The book highlights the impact of our economic system on the environment and how that then impacts negatively back on us. It challenges other popular explanations for environmental destruction - over-population and consumerism for instance, because it emphasises the way that the profit motive and the blind accumulation of wealth under capitalism destroys our ecosystems. This book offers a radical, but straightforward solution to contemporary environmental problems, but warns that without rapid and urgent action to transform the economy, humanity will find itself in a dangerous place. Its a book written to inspire collective action and social change through informed, politically engaged, social movements of citizens.

Its a book that could have been written today, but here I'm referring to a book first published in 1971 by Barry Commoner. In the 1970s The Closing Circle was a radical antidote to much of what passed for comment on what we now see as the first wave of environmental concern. But in finishing it I was filled with an, albeit brief, feeling of despair. For almost fifty years we've understood how capitalism is destroying our ecological systems and many people (Commoner's book was a best-seller at the time) understood exactly what was needed; but the environment is still being destroyed in the name of short-term profit.

Commoner begins with an overview of the science of ecology. He argues that one of the problems in trying to understand environmental destruction is that most scientists approach the issue in a reductionist way. Reductionism he explains, is "the view that effective understanding of a complex system can be achieved by investigating the properties of its isolated parts", but this is "not an effective means of analysing the vast natural systems that are threatened by degradation".

In contrast, and in possibly his most famous contribution, Commoner offers the reader four laws of Ecology. His first law, everything is connected to everything else, immediately shows why a reductionist approach is wrong. The second, everything must go somewhere is almost a restatement of the first law of thermodynamics, but applied to substances, rather than energy it points out how everything put into a system has an effect. His third law, nature knows best, is in my opinion his weakest argument. Commoner says himself it's the one that will get the most "resistance" because it "contradict[s] a deeply held idea about he unique competence of human beings". For me this isn't the problem - the real issue is that nature doesn't "know" anything. It operates and acts, but not in any conscious way. To be fair to Commoner he is making a wider point that biological entities and systems are the result of millennia of evolution, and that outside changes effect them negatively. Finally there is no such thing as a free lunch is both a return to thermodynamics and the obvious point that additions to systems are required for changes. Commoner puts it better than me:
Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of the price cannot be avoided; it can only delayed.

Using this framework, Commoner examines how post-war society destroyed the environment. He makes the same point that any serious observer of the capitalist economy highlights: "all modern economic systems are designed to grow by means of such self-generated expansion". While not a Marxist he was clearly aware of Marx's writings and in several places like this has either borrowed or independently come to similar conclusions. Writing about agriculture he argues that "once removed from this [ecological] cycle, for example to a city... bodily wastes are not returned to the soil but to surface water, the human population is separated from the ecosystem of which it was original a part". Marx, famously, used exactly this to develop his idea of a metabolic rift between society and nature in his own work.

Several contemporary environmental issues take up some space here - the question of smog, air and water-pollution and potential consequences of sonic booms from supersonic aircraft. In each case he demonstrates how these arise (and exponentially grow) out of the particular changes to the US Economy in the post-war period. I was, here, reminded on several occasions of discussions around the Anthropocene and locating its start in the same period. But what was special about this period according to Commoner. Firstly he makes his position clear:
I believe that the [environmental] crisis is not the outcome of a natural catastrophe or of the misdirected force of human biological activists. The earth is polluted neither because man is some kind of especially dirty animal nor because there are too many of us. The fault lies with human society - with the ways in which society has elected to win, distribute and use the wealth that has been extracted by human labour from the planet's resources.
The quest for profit, in Commoner's view, leads to the adoption of technologies that maximise profit and usually do so, he argues, at the expense of the environment: "There is evidence that a high rate of profit is associated with practices hat are particularly stressful toward the environment and that when these practices are restricted, profits decline."

While Commoner associates socialism with countries like the USSR, and notes their own environmental problems, he does also argue that a planned economy would allow societies to deal with the consequences of environmental destruction far better than an anarchic capitalist one. More importantly Commoner notes that Marx's theory (the ideology behind socialism as he says) certainly does envisage a society in balance with the natural world. Commoner's own solutions are based around fiddling with the economy to make environmental consequences part of the costs of production. But Commoner is very clear that it is the specific nature of capitalism as it stands that is the problem. Solving the issue, he says, does not mean
the people of industrialised nations will need to give up their 'affluence' as judged by conventional measures... is itself an illusion. To a considerable extent it reflects ecologically faulty, socially wasteful types of production rather than the actual welfare of individual human beings. Therefore, the needed productive reforms can be carried out without seriously reducing the present level of useful goods available to the individual.
He continues:

There are, however certain luxuries which the environmental crisis... will I believe force us to give up. These are the political luxuries which have so long been enjoyed by those who can benefit from them: the luxury of allowing the wealth of the natural to serve preferentially the interests of so few of its citizens... etc.

It is thus a specifically revolutionary alternative Commoner is offering, as it is one that challenges the very dynamics of the capitalist system. Commoner is clear on the need for an informed mass environmental movement. In fact some of the most interesting historical bits of The Closing Circle are those that show how scientists like Commoner and citizen movements have won real environmental changes.

Reading Barry Commoner's book I wished I had read it years ago. For many of those reading it in the 1970s it must have been inspiring. By rooting his understanding of the contemporary environmental crisis in both ecological science and a radical critique of capitalist society his work is inspiring. He also makes it clear that solving the problem required an urgent struggle for change. Sadly that did not happen, and fifty years later the environmental crisis has reached an acute point. One that Barry Commoner warned us would raise the very survival of humanity. It isn't too late to act, though time is now very short, and works like The Closing Circle remain an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus - A Redder Shade of Green

Burkett - Marx and Nature

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Wallis - Red Green Revolution

Friday, June 21, 2019

Danny Dorling - Population 10 Billion

Far too many books on population are filled with fearful predictions about what will happen if the world's population continues to grow. So it is refreshing to read Danny Dorling's much more sober study that argues for a more nuanced discussion of the subject. It is also entertaining, something that can rarely be said about demographic studies. Dorling sets his case out early on. In the opening introductory chapter titled "Stop Worrying" he argues that he problem is not over-population, or population growth, but a world that prevents people having what they need. Talking of 2011/2012 when population was predicted to reach 9.1 billion by 2100 he writes:
The main reason for the scare stories of 2011 and 2012 was that some demographers had been influenced by those with other agendas, people who were becoming interested in demography because they believed there were too many people already. Projections that indicate a 'soft landing' of human population growth do not help the agenda of those who want to cry wolf. As the world economy faltered in 2008, there were groups that wanted to put the blame for the fact there would be too little to go round in future on there being too many people, rather than not enough sharing.
As I've noted in other recent reviews on books about demography, there is a close association between the growth of global capitalism and population expansion. Dorling shows 1851 as the start of the "population explosion" but he argues that 1971 (ironically the year when Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb was first published in the UK) as being the point when population when "global population acceleration... ended". In keeping with the "Stop Worrying" theme, Dorling argues:
The latest UN projections suggest that in the 14 years following 2011, we will increase in number from seven to eight billion humans. What king of world can we expect to live in by 2025?... Look at the graphs in this book of where population growth is forecast to occur - almost all the extra people are to be born where pollution by humans is least. And notice the deceleration. It is going to take longer, another 14 years, to add this extra billion as compared to the billion that came before. This is the first time we have ever seen an increase in the number of years it has taken to hit the next billion.
Dorling puts an firm case against those who argue that population growth is the problem and that we need to take drastic action to lower population. Instead, Dorling argues, the problem is inequality in wealth distribution: "There is suddenly a very obvious solution to a rich world plagued with greed and obesity and a poor world suffering oppression and starvation, a solution that is only possible because we are not going to have additional billions to be fed decade after decade.

He also argues that population growth will decline quicker if we "tackle gross economic inequalities". He also skewers those on the right who rail against immigration and migration. Rather than this being a problem, it is enormously  important for ageing populations in the developed world, and, he notes, encourages global population to decline because immigrants to rich countries have smaller families.

This facts are important because they contradict those on the right who argue population is inevitably growing to the detriment of the plant. It also gives anti-racists further arguments to defend migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers. But I'm not sure it's the best way to approach the debate because it gives some ground to the idea that population is an issue. Here, in my criticism I should reiterate how much I agree with 99 percent of Dorling's book. He says, for instance, "Children are not a cost to the planet". This is a fundamental point, those who argue that population is a problem forget that each life matters to our world, their friends and family etc. They are part of a solution, not a problem.

But I think what Dorling fails to do is really show how the problem is the capitalist economy which is driving environmental destruction and producing hunger, poverty and unemployment. For instance, Dorling concludes:
The "problem" with global population - if there is one - is too many rich people consuming too much, not too many poor people. There are not that many rich people on the world, but there are a few rich people who consume a huge amount of our collective resources.
I disagree. I think the problem is we have a system which gives a tiny minority vast wealth because it is based on the blind accumulation of wealth for profit. It's that economic organisation that destroys the planet. Its those multinationals that burn the oil and fossil fuels and encourage more consumption and production. It's not the consumption of the rich, (nor the consumption of the masses) but the system that puts profit before anything else. And, as a by-product, it is capitalism that also produces the inequality that Dorling rightly rages against.

But this criticism aside, Danny Dorling's book is a well written powerful destruction of the "over-population" argument. It stands out for its focus on inequality and his discussion of class in this context. Written in an accessible, entertaining style but not one that omits the crucial facts and figures. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to understand population debates particularly those from the environmental movement.

Related Reviews

Bacci - Our Shrinking Planet
Morland - The Human Tide
Pearce - PeopleQuake, Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population

Monday, June 17, 2019

Hallgrímur Helgason - The Woman at 1,000 Degrees

This unusual and highly entertaining novel begins with the hero Herra Björnsson, near bedridden and living in a garage in her eighties with nothing but a laptop, her memories and a hand-grenade. It wasn't until I'd finished the book that I'd appreciated that it was based in truth - the story of  Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson whom the author met on the phone when he was telephone canvassing for an election. Brynhildur's father was one of the few Icelanders who fought for the Nazis in World War Two. I have yet to find out precisely how much of the novel is historically accurate, but the books character tells the story of her life interspersed with contemporary events when she is mainly entertaining herself by pretending to be a much younger woman online.

As a young girl Herra is trapped on continental Europe by the outbreak of World War Two. Through a series of misfortunes she finds herself a refugee in various parts of Eastern Europe and Germany itself. Her father is a fanatically follower of Hitler who joined the SS and then loses Herra in a British bombing raid. The book tells of her experiences - both while lost in rural Eastern Germany and while an outsider living among the Germans with her mother. While the book is run through with humour, its also deeply honest about life as a refugee for a young woman in wartime. Rape and murder are part and parcel of Herra's life and on returning to Iceland she cannot cope with peacetime and those around her who've escaped the war's ravages.

The story of how Herra becomes the woman in the bed with the hand-grenade is beautifully written and very poignant. From wartime Germany to Argentinian farms and Iceland's fishing villages it's a story of how we are shaped by the world we are in, and the relationships we have. It's also a story about Iceland's place in the wider world - and how the nation was buffeted by wider imperial interests and the economic world. It's a lovely book - funny, poignant and difficult in places - but well worthwhile.