Sunday, March 17, 2019

Mike Gonzalez - The Ebb of the Pink Tide

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Wilhelm Liebknecht - Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Marc Mulholland - The Murderer of Warren Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, March 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Chester Himes - A Rage in Harlem

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

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

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

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Monday, March 04, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, March 03, 2019

CJ Sansom - Dark Fire

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

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

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