Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Caroline Wickham-Jones - Orkney: A Historical Guide

This updated classic historical guide to Orkney is the perfect book to read if you are lucky enough to visit the islands. Caroline Wickham-Jones was a renowned expert historian and archaeologist who lived in Orkney, and there's a real sense of personal touch to the historical summaries and guides: "Bring a torch" she encourages the reader on occasions. 

The book is divided by time period, a short historical overview in chapters dedicated to Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age Orkney followed by the Picts, Norse and Earl eras and then 18th, 19th and contemporary history. The book covers a lot because there's a lot to see in Orkney, a place where recent history is often closely linked to ancient eras. It also means that there is a constantly stream of new things to examine in the islands, so the book benefits from a new chapter on "recent archaeological discoveries", which includes, among other things, Norse burial sites in Papa Westray and the hugely important Ness of Brodgar.

On occasion I found the book a little too compartmentalised. The fantastic Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe is described in detail, and Wickham-Jones mentions the Viking graffiti in it, but doesn't offer translations or information until the section on Norse history. A casual reader using the book as a guide book might easily miss these links. I was also surprised to see little or no discussion of enclosure, displacement or clearances relating to the sites mentioned or the history of Orkney. Given the role this played in the transformation of Orkney's farming landscape I was surprised by this.

Nonetheless this is an extremely useful book that every visitor to the islands ought to read as an introduction to the history and landscape of Orkney.

Related Reviews

Irving - The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe
Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Richards - The Highland Clearances
Pryor - Britain BC

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Brian Manning - 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution

Brian Manning's 1649 is about a seminal year in world history, the year of the English Revolution. It was a year that began with the execution of Charles I, and ended with the consolidation of the Cromwellian regime. As such its a fascinating work that brims with the insights that only a Marxist historian could develop. It is also a work that takes seriously issues such as the role of women, or the poor in the revolution. Manning begins with a clear statement of fact about the revolution itself:
What occurred in 1648-9 was a military coup d'etat... there was no conspiracy and no secrecy, the army debated and prepared in full public view and gave notice of its intentions - but its actions were decisive and its success swift, and executed by the high command and officer corps without direct popular or mass participation... The events of December-January 1648-9 did lead to significant changes in political institutions and so fall into the category of a revolutionary coup.
Having described this as a coup, Manning is at pains to explain the participation and involvement of various forces. He argues that the "men who made the revolution", where "generally they did not come from the old ruling class or elites but predominantly from the 'middle sort of people', from which sprang the most dynamic and radical force in the parliamentarian party during the civil war.

He explores the radical ideas that were swirling around in this fantastic year, describing the flowering of discontent and thought, and the people who participated in it. A Leveller manifesto from September 1648 demanded, among other things, that 
a just government be set up, wherein all men may be equally bound, and that all publike Officers throughout the Land be chosen freely every year, or oftner if need be; for usually all or most men turn Tyrants if they be in Publike Office above one year.
These ideas may have been pushed by a minority, but Manning points out they were "not so small a minority as is usually assumed", and it is notable "there was so little overt opposition or resistance" to the coup. Manning draws a very important conclusion, "That changes so profound as the transition from a monarchy to a republic caused so little disturbance or disorder implied not only acquiescence, but some willingness to give active support to the new regime.

This arises, Manning explains because of the class nature of the struggle. He says:
Class is a matter of relationships between social groups. The outcome of the revolution was determined by the widening of the gap between 'middle sort' and 'the poor' and the narrowing of the gap between the 'middle sort' and the gentry, which inhibited the 'middle sort' from appealing to the masses. The interests of the 'middle sort' lay increasingly in the extension of enclosure and wage labour. But most of them were not able to take advantage of this: some prospered but many were proletarianized, and the middle class emerged as 'a radical reordering of the social relations within the 'middling sort'. The social context of the revolution was an evolving middle class and working class.
In other words class determined the outcome of the revolution, but was a consequence of the changing economic situation within England. It was this that the old aristocracy was unable to reform itself to deal with, and thus lost out to the interests of a growing minority of the bourgeois order. 

But the nature of the Revolution did not lead to mass transformation in consciousness. Manning notes, for instance, that the "mass" of women did not question their inferior social position. That said they did engage in mass politics, such as demonstrations, preaching and presentations of petitions to Parliament. In this sense, Manning says "there was a revolt against the degree of subjection that confined them to domestic and private affairs and denied them a public and collective voice in the great matters of religion and politics."

But if 1649 saw a great revolution, and huge transformations the agent of that change - the army - itself underwent a transformation afterward. If, as Manning says, it was a revolutionary force in the late 1640s, by the next decade it was a force for "order and stability".

Manning's book is an insightful account of a crucial year of revolutionary history. For those with some knowledge of key events and social dynamics of the English Revolution as well as some knowledge of other left works on the period, it is an indispensable addition to the library.

Related Reviews

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Lyndsie Bourgon - Tree Thieves: Crime & Survival in the Woods

Forests are one of the world's most important biological reserves. They suck about a third of humanity's carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year. According to the United Nations, forests also "contain 60,000 different tree species, 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species, and 68 percent of the world's mammal species." Despite this importance, tree cover is being lost at an alarming rate, and as Lyndsie Bourgon's new book details, significant damage to our forests comes from the illegal trade in wood, driven by the poaching of trees.

This illegal trade is big business. Bourgon tells us that according to the World Bank, "the global scale of illegal logging generates something between $51 billion and $157 billion annually". Staggeringly, "thirty percent of the world's wood trade is illegal". There's a very good chance that some of the wood in your house comes from trees that were illegally chopped down, very often from protected areas or endangered species.

Bourgon's book is a study of this trade and the fight against the poachers. But what makes her book so important is that she starts from the poachers themselves. She does this by asking two related questions - "how can a tree be stolen?" and "why would someone steal one?" The first question sets up the second. Trees can only be stolen when forests are commodified. 

With the development of capitalism, there was a transformation of how humanity related to the natural world. As Karl Marx put it in his notes now known as the Grundrisse:

for the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.

Capital transforms nature, and over time, seeks to destroy those societies that retain a different approach to the natural world. The first settlers in the Americas often wrote home extolling the virtues of the landscape in terms that appear to us as a shopping list, which in effect they were. A celebration of the natural wealth of the new continent for those at home that could profit from it. Here is Martin Pring writing in 1603 about Martha's Vineyard:

As for Trees the Country yeeldeth Sassafras a plant of sovereigne vertue for the French Pox, and as    some of late have learnedly written good against the Plague and many other Maladies; Vines, Cedars, Okes, Ashes, Beeches, birch trees, Cherie trees bearing fruit whereof we did eat; Hasels, Witchhasels, the best wood of all other to make Sope-ashes withall; walnut trees, Maples, holy to make Bird lime with and a kinde of tree bearing a fruit like a small red Peare-plum.

Bourgon's book shows how trees were a particular part of this process. A tree can only be stolen once it has been accorded a value and turned into a commodity, but it also can only be stolen when there is a need to steal it. The invention of poaching as a crime made the natural usage of trees (or their fallen branches and fruits) illegal. It was a process contested by those that relied on these benefits - as Marx himself saw when he campaigned against the criminality of wood theft in 1842.

Bourgon agrees. She writes that "People have 'taken' wood for centuries, but wood has also been taken from us". But she adds an important insight, crucial to understanding what is taking place today:

Why might someone steal a tree? For money, yes. But also for a sense of control, for family, for ownership, for products that you and I have in our homes, for drugs. I have begun to see the act of timber poaching as not simply a dramatic environmental crime, but something deeper - an act to reclaim one's place in a rapidly changing world, a deed of necessity.

Her focus is on the forests of massive Redwoods in North Western America and Canada. Here she looks at the development of a huge industry based on the destruction of forests to create timber. A massively profitable industry which saw the development of wealthy lumber towns. The industry itself was based on the dispossession of the original indigenous forest communities - and one that was promethean in its approach. One joke made at the time was that there were always more trees over the hill to cut down. 

That is, of course, not true and alongside the deforestation there grew a movement to protect the trees. Bourgon makes the point that this movement itself was relatively reactionary, basing itself on the notion that "pristine" nature needed to be protected, and erasing the pre-European communities from history. But the movement was successful, creating areas of space that had to be protected and could not be used by its inhabitants in ways that had become customary. It was a process that eerily echoed the enclosure and privatisation of land in Europe, a process whereby, "hunting became poaching. Foraging and grazing became trespassing. Logging became timber theft." As Bourgon points out, many families could now only survive by breaking the law, and so, the act of protecting forests turn the trees themselves into sites for class struggle.

Bourgon explores her thesis by examining the history of Orick, a former lumber town in California. Here she interviews poachers and discusses their history. How their fathers and grandfathers worked in the lumber industry, with highly skilled jobs that were taken from them as the industry shut down. The environmental movement played no small part in this process as the creation of National Parks drove the industry elsewhere. But for some, poaching remains a way of living, and fighting the establishment. Bourgon shows how the tourist wood industry is closely linked to the illegal economy and she discusses the battle by the authorities to stop the poaching, but of greatest interest are the poachers themselves.

These were men who were told that the end of the lumber industry would lead to them having jobs in tourism. These jobs never materialised. But nor did the sort of struggle that could have won them compensation and decent jobs as well as the confidence in themselves as people. Bourgon notes the lack of "class politics" by the environmental movement which meant that they cut themselves off from the workers who could have been their allies. She quotes labour historian Erik Lommis who notes that the process of struggle "undermined potential allegiances" between activists and workers.

It is a crucial lesson for the environmental movement today. We might say "leave the oil in the ground" but unless we can articulate a viable alternative for the workers, they'll may well end up our enemies. Something the oil industry, like the Californian lumber industry, understood all too well. 

Thus the poaching of wood is far more than a way of getting some cash, though it is that. It is a way of fighting the system that decimated your community and forgot you and your family. The destruction of the logging industry saw communities lose "the central meaning of their lives". Bourgon points out that this means for Orick and other towns, "the result is a form of community trauma deeply felt in many rural areas: intergenerational poverty, long-term unemployment, degraded environments, disconnected social relationships and destructive social norms."

Poaching then, is an act of desperation combined with one of undirected rage against a system that has failed the person who is committing the theft. It has its historical parallels with those English rural activists that maimed animals in revenge against those who had dispossessed them from their lands, or those that burnt hay ricks in protest at lost jobs. While we can understand the motivations, we also have to recognise that there is an element of nihilism too. As one poacher says, "they won't have any trees left... I got a saw over there that'll cut down any trees they got".

Bourgon's book then is an insight into the poaching industry from the bottom up. We shouldn't celebrate the poachers though as modern day Robin Hoods, but we can understand them as victims of a system who were failed by the environmental and trade union movements. 

Having taken this approach, Bourgon doesn't neglect the wider economies and politics of poaching, in several chapters she looks at wood theft and the industry globally, seeking to generalise from the California experience. We see how the investigative processes developed in North America have led to remarkable technologies that can help prosecute and identify the illegal timber trade. But it is clear that this is not enough to stop a business that is remarkably lucrative, and begins with small groups of poachers far from urban areas that are impossible to police. But there is another problem - the timber business is so profitable and destructive to the environment precisely because it arises in a system of generalised commodity production, where nature itself has become part of the profit machine. Saving the trees means challenging that system and that means bringing together the environmental and workers' movement.

Lyndsie Bourgon's book then is a remarkable insight into an aspect of environmental politics that few activists even know exists. It is particularly insightful because it begins with those at the bottom of the system, who have been failed by a system that puts profits before people and planet. As such its extremely informative and enlightening. It is also an excellent read that I highly recommend.

Related Reviews

Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World, Rubber, Empire and the obsessions of Henry Wickham
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History

Archer - 'By a Flash and a Scare': Arson, Animal Maiming & Poaching in East Anglia: 1815-1870
Reed & Wells – Class, Conflict & Protest in the English Countryside 1700-1880
Hay, Linebaugh, Rule, Thompson & Winslow - Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England
Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760-1850
Rackham - Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Alec Nevala-Lee - Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard & the Golden Age of Science Fiction

John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding magazine from 1938 till the end of the Second World War marks the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It was an era when science fiction became, if not mainstream, at least popular with millions of people, particularly in the United States. Many of the greatest names in science fiction writing such as Asimov, Heinlein, Vogt, Pohl, Bradbury and Bester and many others had their career breakthrough in this period. Alec Nevala-Lee's book details the history of Astounding, and in particular the editor and three great authors of its subtitle who are most associated with the magazine - Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard.

While the book might seem a niche history, its importance is much greater. Astounding magazine was enormously important to many writers, those that had their immediate breaks with the magazine and others who came to the scene later, like George R.R. Martin. As Nevala-Lee points out, "public figures of all political persuasions from Paul Krugman to Elon Musk to Newt Gingrich - have confessed to being influenced by its stories". (We can argue how different their political persuasions are another time!) The magazine was also influential like science fiction more generally in encouraging a generation of young people to become scientists, something crucially important to the development of the US nuclear weapons and space programmes during and after the Second World War.

Astounding's most important editor was John W. Campbell, who saw the magazine as precisely a tool for developing such technical skills for America. He was evangelical in believing Science Fiction would help develop humanity, through the US economy, towards its future. As Nevala-Lee points out, "Campbell and his writers were creating nothing less than a shared vision of the future". But it was a very particular vision of the science and technology that would shape the future. As Nevala-Lee points out, "When we propose technological fixes for climate change, or place our hopes in the good intentions of a few visionary billionaires, we unconsciously endorse a view of the world straight out of the pages of Astounding."

Much of Astounding's output under Campbell confirmed to a relatively restricted framework. Stories tended to focus on heroic individuals whose technological adeptness meant they were able to save the world. Plenty of heroic figures, and few, if any, stories interrogated wider society. Campbell moulded his writers, coming up with plot lines, encouraging and shaping them. Their was a comfortable unanimity to Astounding in this period. Its readers knew what they would get, and Campbell provided it for them, issue after issue, turning the magazine into one of the most popular pulp magazines ever.

The author who best epitomises this was Isaac Asimov. When I was a young teen, convinced that scientific rigour and clarity was all that was needed in order to improve society, Asimov spoke to me. His stories had a logic, structure and clarity that spoke to me. Asimov himself was careful not to muddy the water with complexities like relationships, women or, god forbid, sex. According to Nevala-Lee, Campbell joked that Asimov's books would be ordered by librarians unseen, but those of Heinlein had to be checked first. But Asimov's writings, certainly in his early years, are decidedly conservative - though he would become the most progressive of all of the four. The matched, and indeed were shaped, by Campbell's ideas and while they are readable today, they are remarkably dated. Heinlein didn't match Campbell's conservative politics, though he was enormously popular but it was perhaps Hubbard who Campbell most identified with.

This is not to say that all of these stories are rubbish. Some of the great classics of the genre were published by Astounding - Asimov's Nightfall for instance. Campbell shaped authors, but he had an eye for talent too, though he could also dismiss brilliant writers like Ray Bradbury.

Today Hubbard is known as the founder of Scientology, but less well known is the role played by Campbell in the earlier years of Hubbard's search for a new pseudo-science. Campbell fell for Hubbard's ideas hook, line and sinker. But it is also fair to say that Astounding's editor was looking for such ideas. Hubbard's cranky metaphysical fake psychiatry fitted Campbell's belief in that some humans had greater powers and could utilise them in the quest for a better future. It fitted well with his focus on superhumans in the stories he liked to publish.

Nevala-Lee traces the story of Astounding and these four figures. It's a fantastic, if alarming read. None of these individuals were nice. Campbell himself held appalling racist ideas, and all of them were misogynist. Asimov was a serial adulterer, who was renowned for groping and sexually assaulting women, particularly young female fans. Oddly Asimov was the only individual who remained fairly progressive in opposing nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam. Though his behaviour towards women is quite shocking. I put the book down slightly sickened by how these writers behaved and thought - and how influential they had become.

Reading Nevala-Lee I was struck that all of the writers in the early years, lacked any real link to wider society. Issues such as race, class, gender etc failed to have any real impact. Their writing tended to exist in a vacuum, which saw humanity as essentially malleable, capable of being shaped by the intellectual elite. Campbell himself clearly saw Astounding as a vehicle for shaping and developing that elite.

Nevala-Lee's Astounding then is a disquieting read. It is a window on a particular part of US culture around the Second World War which became surprisingly important. It is less a history of science fiction in the era and more about how key individuals in the science fiction community came to dominate and how their views of people and society in turn became the bedrock of contemporary science fiction. Luckily there were other writers out there and the later half of the 20th century saw a "new wave" of writers who frequently broke with the formulaic writings of Astounding - something that Campbell could never quite understand.

For those interested in the development of science fiction as a genre Alec Nevala-Lee's book is a must read. But it should also be read by those interested in wider historical and cultural post-war developments in US society - not least Scientology. By turns it is entertaining, interesting, shocking and unpleasant - but its always readable.

Related Reviews

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Harry Harrison - Make Room! Make Room!

Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! is perhaps best known for the Hollywood film Soylent Green that was loosely based on it. The book itself is a political tract dressed up as a science fiction novel, but it is a decent novel - even if the underlying politics are wrong, and the there's a constant tension throughout between Harrison's liberal politics and the right-wing Malthusian agenda underlying the book.

Make Room! Make Room! is a pastiche of a noir detective novel set in New York in 1999. In this future the world is massively overcrowded. New York itself is home to 35 million people and its essential infrastructure cracks under the strain. We hear horrific reports of what is happening elsewhere in the world - Russia and China are in perpetual war in order to keep down numbers for instance. In New York, impoverished people queue for hours for water and soylent steaks [Soy Lentil], unless the water fails because farmers have blown up the pipes. The city is never far from a riot, and life has little value if murder can bring a welfare card or access to other resources.

The book begins with corruption - a wealthy gangster is killed by an impoverished youth. The city fathers think its another mafioso trying to muscle in so they pressure the police to find the killer. Andy Rusch is the policeman who was first on the scene who quickly falls for Shirl, the dead gangsters lover. Together they get a brief glimpse of a better life as they enjoy the remaining fruits of the gangster's wealth, before they move back to Andy's tiny apartment which he shares with the elderly veteran Sol. 

In the narrative Sol plays the role of political commentator - the sort that Robert Heinlein loves to place in his own works. Sol, with the benefit of age, extols on how life was, until people wouldn't stop having children. Medicine, he argues, lead to dead control which meant that the world population grew and grew, until the overcrowded planet collapsed. No-one, he tells Shirl, can have any other explanation, neatly ignoring all those economists, political theorists and activists who have argued that there is another explanation. Sol (presumably Harrison's alter-ego) joins a demonstration defending a government bill designed to limit population, at a protest between opposing camps he is injured and dies. In the aftermath of this Shirl leaves Andy, unable to cope with the arrival of a new family taking up the room, and Andy finds the killer, while the corrupt police ignore his achievement as it's no longer important.

The book does not end as the movie famously does. Instead it ends on a note of despair - though we do learn that Shirl at least has temporarily improved her position. As the new millennium dawns the world population is growing uncontrollably. It's a dire warning, and Harrison opens the book hoping for his two (remember population replacement levels are considered to be about 1.6 children per woman) children's sake that the book proves to be a "work of fiction".

It is of course a "work of fiction" because the predictions inside did not come true. It is also fictional because it is based on incorrect economics. I have written elsewhere on why Malthusian arguments linking population and environmental disasters are incorrect. I hope readers will look at that article before filling up the comment box below with feverish typing. In short, I argue that there are (and were when Harrison was writing) two basic problems with Malthusian politics. Firstly, the driving force of hunger, unemployment and ecological collapse is the capitalist system of production - because it is based on uncontrolled accumulation for profit. The second reason is that the predictions have never matched reality. World population is now reaching a plateau and will likely level off, and then decline in the coming decades. Population growth cannot be directly linked to ecological disaster, as it is mostly happening in countries that have the least population. 

But, in another sense, Harrison's book is prophetic, because the world he depicts is happening. Food and water shortages, unemployment, low pay, poverty are a reality, and enormous numbers of people are suffering and coming into conflict with the system. The cause of that is not overpopulation, but capitalism. We only need look at the way the environmental crisis is dovetailing with economic and social fractures in society to threaten enormous horror. In this sense the book is fascinating, because what Harrison does well is to give his detective novel the backdrop of a society going through a massive social crisis. In Make Room! Make Room! the politicians have no solutions, and live isolated lives of plenty while they use the forces of the state to repress the masses. The people, on the other hand, face a choice - either a personal struggle for existence through crime, or mass revolt. Riots and protests do, as a result, make for key plot points.

The problem is that while Harrison had liberal politics, and indeed the book does demonstrate a certain amount of what we might call class politics - there's a humorous aside where Sol describes the "last Tory" in England being shot trying to stop his grouse woods being ploughed under for food - the basis for the book is utterly reactionary. This is given away by Harrison's "suggestions for reading" at the end of the book (something unusual in a work of science fiction) which includes writings by reactionary overpopulation theorists like William Vogt and Robert Malthus.

Despite the reactionary politics behind it Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting read. Its origins lie in the growing concern over environmental degradation in the 1960s, yet its starting point is a politics that utterly fails to grasp the real problem with society. Nonetheless Harrison writes a good story, and there is far more to the novel than the film it spawned would suggest. It's just a shame that Harrison didn't find any more radical works to read.

Related Reviews

Harry Harrison Novels


Reviews related to population theory

Monday, July 25, 2022

Terry Irving - The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe

If you spend much time in the history sections of secondhand bookshops, two books frequently appear - Vere Gordon Childe's Man Makes Himself and his What Happened in History. Both books were enormous bestsellers. In them Childe gives a materialist account of human history, culture and social change. As Terry Irving explains, Childe "was an intellectual who had committed himself to the idea of historical progress and the role of revolutions in history". Childe's books were a popularisation of his ideas, and were extremely popular among non-specialists. But Childe was also committed to the idea of revolutionary social change in his own lifetime. Irving's biography is the first substantial attempt to link Childe's revolutionary socialist and radical politics to his life in the world of archaeology.

Chile was born in 1892. His early life was marked by a world on the brink of imperialist war and growing class struggle, a "pivotal period in Australian politics". While he was at university in Sydney in 1913 a major strike broke out. The strike itself ended quickly, but it shaped Childe's lifelong political thinking. In 1923 he published a book called How Labour Governs, a study of the limitations of Australian Labour in government. In it he would refer to Labor's Premier, Jim McGowen, a lifelong trade unionist calling on the public to "scab" on the 1913 strike. This contrast between the class struggle and parliamentary politics deeply affected Childe, who was by now involved in all the campus radicalism. Childe went to Oxford University in Britain where, despite the conservative nature of the university, its staff and student body, Childe was shaped by a radical milieu. While few Oxford students were Marxists, there was certainly much discussion of Hegel and radicalism, pacifist politics and debates about freedom, democracy and idealism. Childe returned to Australia a more convinced socialist even if he was not yet clear what that meant. 

One of the great strengths of Irving's book is that he places Childe's politics in the context of wider political events. He remarks, "when Childe returned to Sydney he was philosophically a Marxist and therefore a revolutionary. Revolution, however, when applied to Marxist political practice in the early twentieth century, was a capacious term". Irving notes how Marxist (and socialist politics generally) in the period were pulled by different political trends - the reformist ideas of German social democracy and the revolutionary politics as exemplified by Lenin's Bolsheviks. But while Childe was scornful of the "parliamentary road", he was simultaneously unconvinced by Leninism. As Irving writes:
Childe dismissed the orthodox Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist understanding of revolution as 'alluringly vague as far as its initial stages are concerned. But what was the alternative? While he was in Australia he was not impressed by the Bolshevik example. Rather, as he was drawn into the anti-war movement, he discovered the militancy of the industrial unionists, and Labor's experience of government. He was no longer in Britain where everything to him seemed so bloody because of the Labour Party's 'loyalty' to parliament and constitutionalism. In Australia, the militancy of the 'industrialists' had swept many thousands of workers into a mass strike. Was it possible that forming the Labor party might provide a non-violent but still revolutionary transition to socialism?
These were questions that would shape Childe's politics intellectually and practically. Reading Irving it becomes clear that in fact Childe never succeeded in squaring the circle of his rejection of Bolshevik style revolutionary practice and his understanding of the limitations of parliamentarianism. In part this comes from Childe's own lack of surety about his own role as an intellectual. Irving quotes an interesting letter written by Childe in 1918:
When in England I was I'm afraid inclined to be impatient with a certain vacillation of the intellectual liberals. Now I can appreciate the enormous service such a class renders when I see the deplorable results of its absence. In many ways I am delighted with the growing radicalism of the Labor Party and the Trade Union Movement here [in Australia], but I would infinitely prefer reconciliation and compromise to revolution. If the latter is forced upon the Labor Movement it will be entirely due to the unscrupulousness and bigotry of the professional and educated classes.
From this one gets a sense that Childe saw "revolution" at that time as a failure, the consequence of enlightened intellectuals being unable to direct the radical movement to a peaceful transition. But it also reflects a naive understanding of how radical change could be won. This I think reflects Childe's reading of Marxism, from which he failed to gain an understanding of the capitalist state. He was unable to grasp that a "non-violent" transition to socialism was not possible because of the state and thus failed to see the importance of Bolshevik strategy. This limitation also made it through to his theories of historical change, and I'll return to that shortly.

Firstly however it is important to explain that Irving wasn't rejecting class struggle, or militant politics. Indeed, as Irving emphasises, quite the opposite. On arriving back in Sydney Childe "welcomes the growing radicalism of the working class" and is shocked by the violence of the capitalists in return. It is a moment of personal development where, as Irving says, Childe "imagines middle-class socialists and pacifists as missionaries to the ruling class, explaining the inevitable victory of the 'world of labour'." The role of the intellectual as a "mediator" in the class struggle is clearly significant to Childe. Childe himself tried to play such a role during struggles, writing to the press to protest the treatment of political prisoners and the violence of government repression in the aftermath of the September 1918 red flag riots.

But it is clear that Childe was taking an idealistic position on the class struggle. While understanding the limits of parliamentarianism, Childe's rejection of revolution essentially forces him into a reformist position. It is notable, for instance, that Childe didn't attend the 1919 celebrations of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He never joined the Communist Party in Australia or later in England, but such nuances were lost on his critics and political opponents (and the Secret Services) who denounced him as a Communist revolutionary. 

In Childe's How Labor Governs he sets out to examine the limitations of reformism. It focuses, as Irving says, on "the likelihood of a labour party governing in the interest of the working class". He started from "an understanding of capitalism's class dynamics and their expression in the system of liberal representative government". As such How Labor Governs was one of the first attempts by a Marxist to grapple with the nature of reformism through studying the reality of Labour in government. Rosa Luxembourg had explored the economic basis of reformism in her book Reform or Revolution, but few other Marxists had the experience to develop these ideas. The lack of parliamentary politics and legal trade unionism in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1917 meant that the Communist International didn't really comprehend the political problems associated with parliamentarianism and trade union bureaucracy. As such Childe's book was of great importance. 

Childe shows how a reformist strategy cannot work, and how the workers' representatives can end up sucked into the system itself, more interested in "keeping his seat and scoring political points than of carrying out the idea that he was sent in to give effect to". But Childe is ambiguous on the political consequences of his own insights. In fact, Childe focuses on a syndicalist approach that sees industrial trade unionism as leading towards social change. Irving explains the "practical nature" of Childe's socialism in a revealing section:
One of the themes of [Childe's] intervention in the debate about the One Big Union was to caution the industrialists against relying on alluring but vague ideas about revolution. Instead he insisted on the value of practising collective self-management in state enterprises, even if it were only in the quarries at Bombo, a hamlet one the South Coast of New South Wales. Now we can grasp his idea of progress. This politics of revolutionary practice entailed an idea of progress that was not evolutionary, something emerging out of the preceding history of liberal self-government, as it was to the intellectuals of official labour. The idea of progress had to be taken away from them and reimagined as the creation of new values by a self-acting workers' movement, as a revolutionary and history making 'alteration in the social structure'. This was the view of progress that his four years in the Australian socialist movement reinforced, and which in time underlay his archaeological theorising.
Here we can see how Childe has broken with Labourism as a strategy, has a clear belief and desire for an "alteration in the social structure" but has no real clarity on what this means other than workers' making their own democracy and the nationalisation of industry. Childe clearly saw the class struggle as a vehicle for this change, but failed to see that class struggle on its own will not bring revolutionary change. The movement will have to defeat the state itself. Essentially Childe was hoping for peaceful change, even though he could clearly see that would not happen through parliament. Indeed Childe could be damning about this: "the Labour platform can give the workers no real improvement in position under capitalism, it offers them no escape from capitalism".

Irving argues that the framework outlined in the quote above is echoed in Childe's first breakthrough work on prehistory that appeared at a similar time, The Dawn of European Civilisation. In this work Childe argued for a "materialist concept of progress, and of history as a story of progress, a process created by practical activity, by human labour". 

When I first read Childe's What Happened in History I was enthused by this materialist approach, but dismayed by his framing. He essentially says that human history was, and would be, a process of gradual upward development. But because Childe cannot grasp the role of the state as an instrument of class rule that arises out of the unavoidable struggle between exploiter and exploited he fails to see that positive historical progress is not inevitable. The state is a break on progress, and can - as Childe must have seen in the archaeological record - lead to civilisations stagnating or disappearing. In the capitalist epoch it is a barrier to the development of socialism which must be "smashed". Childe, however, sees the state as neutral in this struggle. He was very much the "neo Hegelian" he described himself as. It is an ambiguity that Childe was never able to shake off. As Irving says about Childe's vision of socialist democracy:
For Childe, proletarian democracy described something elemental: the desire for self-government of the working class. In this respect Childe was not at odds with Lenin. His framing idea, however, did not have the Leninist aim of protecting and extending the proletarian revolution. Rather... Childe frames the problem of proletarian democracy as one of developing a form of representation that would protect its integrity within the existing bourgeois parliament.
Irving cautions that despite the limitations in Childe's approach we shouldn't see Lenin as a "bold revolutionary and Childe as a cautious dabbler in working-class politics". He argues that Childe had "a growing affinity with Lenin's revolutionary perspective". This is probably fair, but Childe did not take the next step which would have been to become an open partisan for revolutionary politics inside the fledgling Communist Parties of the 1920s. 

That said it is important to defend Childe. He was an intellectual dedicated to a vision of socialism and trying to understand the type of organisation and movements needed to achieve a socialist society. Despite his later success as a populariser of archaeology and Marxist history, his career was badly damaged by the principled positions he took, and there is no doubt he understood the consequences of his sacrifices. It is sad then that the recognition he has today is mostly around his historical work, which is sanitised and divorced from his politics - the very thing that he devoted his life to.

Terry Irving's book is then a very important contribution for several reasons. He rescues Childe the revolutionary and ties this to Childe the archaeologist. He also takes the reader on a journey through the political and intellectual milieu that shaped Childe, in particular the class struggle of the early 20th century. By placing Childe's near forgotten book How Labor Governs at the heart of the story Irving will also show a new generation of intellectuals and activists the limitations of parliamentary politics and that there are radically different ways of approaching the question of social transformation. 

On a personal note I was privileged to finish reading The Fatal Lure of Politics the day before a visit to Skara Brae, a neolithic site in Orkney where Childe made some of his most important excavations. While the museum there makes no comment on Childe's politics it was personally moving to see his work and put it in the context of his hope for a better, socialist, future. It is very much in this spirit that Terry Irving has written this political biography and I hope many socialists and archaeologists pick it up.

Related Reviews

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Peter E. Hamilton - Pandora's Star

There really ought to be warnings on these books. 1144 pages long and it turns out it's only part one! Despite the disappointment at the lack of closure (I had hoped this would be a nice holiday read) I quite enjoyed Pandora's Star. The book is set in the Commonwealth, a centralised capitalist economy spread over dozens of stars, with Earth at its centre. The Commonwealth is linked by wormholes, and spaceships have pretty much become outdated technology, until an astronomer sees a double star wink out. The speed of the disappearance is unusual - as though the star has been turned off. It's enough of a mystery, and implies a highly developed technology unknown to the Commonwealth, that a spaceship is built to visit. 

Turns out the stars have been enclosed in a massive force field. When it's penetrated humanity encounters a highly expansive and extremely dangerous alien race.

Most of the book deals with the build up to the arrival at the double stars and the interplay between various factions in the Commonwealth. There are various forces - the capitalists who want to protect their interests, the radicals who think that capitalism must be overthrown and there is a faction that believes there's an alien influencing humanity to open up Pandora's Star.

Most interesting, for this reader, were the revolutionaries. At least one of whom tells a brilliant story about how the capitalist food companies dump excess food into the wormholes to keep up the price. A story I've heard a few times in socialist meetings myself - though with the wormholes replaced by grain ships on the ocean.

It's all rather fun. But it is about 500 pages too long. Hamilton is given to extended descriptions of locations and a large number of minor characters, many of whom could have been dispensed with to make the novel tighter. Perhaps the target audience wants 1000 page blockbusters though. Hamilton can, however, do character development. I was struck by one character, Mellanie, who goes from being a minor character who is the sex interest of a major corporate boss, to being central to the plot at the end. He also writes decent female lead characters, even if there are slightly too many instances of sexy women using their sexuality to manipulate others. But Pandora's Star is cleverer than the average space opera, and I'll probably read the sequel for closure. Though I hear it is over 1200 pages!