Thursday, April 11, 2024

Stephen Baxter - Raft

Stephen Baxter's Raft was first published in 1991 but it bears the imprint of an earlier generation of science fiction which made science and technology the focus of the story and world building, rather than personal characters and plot. That said, Baxter's universe is certainly unique. It is set among the descendents of humans who inadvertantly entered an alternate universe where the gravitational force is much stronger. This means that massive structures cannot exist, there are powerful localised forces - in this world humans could attract each other quite literarily - and planets do not exist. Stars are tiny, and have brief lives. 

Most humans live on the raft, which is inside a nebula of breathable air. Some miners live separately, a symbiotic relationship with the raft which seas them mining burnt out stars for metal to be traded to the raft in exchange for food. There are lifeforms that travel through the nebula, and even an exile planet of, well, you'll have to see.

The plot mostly derives from the interactions between these three planets as there is a growing realisation that the nebula is dying. Rees, a miner, comes to this realisation and stows away on a transport tree to get to the raft, where he swiftly proves his scientific ability. The Raft is a technocracy - ruled by scientists who protect and hoard the knowledge of the old spacecraft - its books and machinery, to carefully manage the human population size and share out its limited resources.

Except such sharing isn't equal, and the scientists are resented and hated by small groups of rebels - who eventually, well, rebel. The ensuing revolution is the scene for the end of the novel. Not plot spoilers here.

The problem is that Raft feels like novel that only exists to discuss the universe building. But on closer examination there are some bigger problems. The plot hinges on the role of science and technology, and Baxter appears to be saying that the only scientists are those who are dispassionate and clever enough to run society. In an era when populist politicians and rightwingers are sowing distrust at science and experts, it can feel tempting to support this thesis. But surely the problem with the raft is not the ignorant masses and the clever scientists - it is the material limitations of the society that mean the future is only getting worse. Baxter's only idea in this is that the scientists - through their dispassionate, all seeing knowledge - have the only answers. The masses are ignorant fools who disrupt the natural hierarchy.

It is, sadly, all to superficial. Scientists aren't the best rulers based on their knowledge. It would have been a far better story had Stephen Baxter explored these themes in greater depth and tried to really interrogate what it is about the interaction between society and environment that can produce progress or collapse. Sadly Raft doesn't do the context justice.

Related Reviews

Le Guin - The Word for World is Forest
Tchaikovsky - Ironclads
Neuvel - Until the Last of Me
Ashley - The End of the World: and Other Catastrophes

Monday, April 08, 2024

Ivan Doig - This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind

Ivan Doig's book is, superficially, what might be described as a memoir or autobiography. It covers, for instance, Doig's life in part of Western Montana known for the toughness of its soil and the difficulties it presents for farmers and cattle producers. Hard winters, relentlessly hot and dry summers and soil that barely produces enough food for cows or sheep. Doig grew up with his father - his mother died when he was six, and much of the book covers the story of how his father, like the generations before him - almost fought the land to survive. Doig relates the stories of the drinking dens in White Springs where his Dad sought relief, the endless stream of ranchs that they worked on - the horses, cows, chickens and cattle that kept them alive with food or payment. Doig tells how he goes to school, but learns on the ranch, gets work, more work, different work and then eventually breaks out into writing and college.

There are some great set piece descriptions - looking after sheep in the snow, and the heat. But if that were the only thing about this book it would be interesting enough - and Doig's writing is wonderful enough to draw the reader into the minutiae of life, the hardships and the jokes, like countless other memoirs of life in agricultural communities.

But what makes This House of Sky stand out are two other aspects. Doig's love for the landscape of Montana and the way he shows how life is tied up with the very soil, water and mountains. The fight to make a living is a fight to be human. Secondly, and what makes the book truely special, is that this is a book about love - the love children have for a deceased parent, for a father who fights for them even if he cannot articulate it, and for those other friends, family and community who make us all the individuals we are. Particularly, in Doig's case, this is about his father and his grandmother (on his mother's side) - the latter a singularly independent woman whose life on the prarie began when her grandfather arrived as an immigrant and worked to shape the land for a slice of its bounty. But who, though losing her family and her daughter, eventually becomes a simply inspiring woman, who gives her everything for Doig.

There's no real way to describe This House of Sky that does it justice. If you're heading out to Montana, it is, perhaps, one of the great books to read about the state. I suspect it will also be a gateway to Doig's novels.

Related Reviews

Spence - Montana: A History
Carlisle - Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America
Lause - The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots & Class Conflicts in the American West

Friday, April 05, 2024

Tom Scott - Freiburg and the Breisgau: Town-Country relations in the age of Reformation and Peasants' War

Tom Scott was one of the great historians of German history in, as the subtitle to Freiburg and the Breisgau says, the age of Reformation and the Peasants' War. This book is what might be called a microhistory, studying the detailed interactions between the city of Freiburg and the towns and villages in its rural hinterland. It charts the rise and fall of the city, through the interactions with its surroundings and the struggles within the city itself. 

What quickly becomes clear is that Freiburg's ruling class see the surrounding region as a place to strengthen their own wealth and power. It is a symbiotic relationship, but more of a parasitical one - with the villages and towns constantly striving against onerous taxes and obligations. Of course, this takes place within the exploitative fedual relationships between local rulers as well - and, naturally, the peasantry and lower classes everywhere come of worst. Within Freiburg different factions compete as well. In particular there's an ongoing struggle between nobles, merchants and guilds for power on the ruling council (the guilds "effectively seized control in the later half of the 15th century). Scott details these struggles through the 14th and 15th century in detail - its not for the faint hearted - and I was left amazed at the detailed knowledge he had of history through the archival material. 

As the economy gradually began to change this impacted upon the nature of the town's leadership. As Scott says, "as the continuing disappearance of nobles and merchants more or less forced the guilds to assume greater responsiblity... By 1490 the thirty members of the full council comprised six nobles, and twelve guildmasters, and twelve additioanl councillors from the guilds". This, however, did not represent democratic government, but wealth. 

The relationship between Freiburg and the Breisgau is characterised as by Scott as a conflict between city and hinterland. In fact Scott says that the relationship is better understood as that between a "civic lord bent upon extracting maximum economic and political advantage from its rural dependecies". This meant that in the rebellions of the peasantry that characterised the early 16th century, Freiburg found that the inhabitants of the Breisgau never rallied to the town, and indeed, he argues, they were entirely almost directly opposed. This "lasting disaffection" Scott argues, meant that the Peasant War in the region was experienced, not as class war, but as town against country.

When it comes to the Peasant War, and indeed the preceeding Bunschuh rebellions, Scott argues that the experience undermines Peter Blickle's thesis of the Peasant War being a "Revolution of the Common Man". Scott argues that the label "Revolution" doesn't fit, and that the Common Man thesis - the idea that the rebellion was an alliance of the commoners against the ruling class is undermined by the experience of Freiburg where the separation between town and country remained fixed.

I am not convinced by Scott's argument here. In many places there were significant allegiances made between town and country, and it does seem that Freiburg is a special case. Secondly I don't read Blickle's argument as one specific to relations between urban and non-urban areas. The variety of people making up the "Common Men" existed across Germany, and across the Breisgau. That's not to say there weren't differences - as Scott himself acknowledges - between the dynamics of revolution in town and country. As he says "of the Imperial Free Cities of Swabia and Franconia... not a single one entered voluntarily into an alliance with the peasants". But there were many places where peasant rebellion inspired urban rebellion too, and while the demands may have differed, they were, nonetheless demands that arose from rebellion. They represented the sectional interests of a particular group within the cities - who were striving for change as a result of the wider tensions created by the end of the feudal era and the rise of the capitalist. Which, incidently, is why its right to call events a revolution. Urban rebels might have risen up for different reason to the rebellious peasantry, but the conditions for revolt effected both groups - rural and urban.

Tom Scott's book however, by its focus on the detail of the interaction between Freiburg and the surroundings, gives plenty of insight into how complex a subject this is, and much material to grapple with while trying to develop a better understanding of the Peasants' War.

Related Reviews

Scott - Thomas Müntzer: Theology and Revolution in the German Reformation
Drummond - The Dreadful History and Judgement of God on Thomas Müntzer
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective

Monday, April 01, 2024

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Word for World is Forest

When yumens arrive on Athshe they find themselves in the midst of plenty. Earth is short of crucial resources, but Athshe is covered in one of them - its lush forests providing enormous quantities of wood. The only people who live there are the primitive indigenous people, who are easily convinced to work, in slave like conditions for the yumens - as servants, labourers, and sex workers.

The Athsheans live a peaceful existence, their culture, art and communications are almost incomprehensible to the yumens, with the exception of Raj Lyubov the human colony's anthropologist who recognises that the Athsean are just different humans. They are not subhuman as most of the colony thins, its just that their culture is so different they are viewed as being lesser, childlike and alien.

Lyubov clashes with one of the colony's leaders, Captain Davidson. Davidson is in charge of a logging camp, meaning he directly overseas the forced labour of the locals. He is also a violent man, whose rape of the wife of one of the Athsheans, Selver, helps precipitate a revolt. Selver organisies, or reorganises the Atsean, leading them in a serious of brilliant military attacks that destroy the human colony and force Earth to withdraw.

First published in 1972, this is clearly a novel heavily influneced by the US war in Vietnam. Ursula Le Guin's criticism of US imperialism is clearly on display. Yet that's not the best analogy for the book - in fact it seems to me to be much more about the settler colonialism of the US within its own country - how the stripping of resources undermined and forced Native Americans into confrontation with the US military. In the 21st century, the struggle for resources (in this case wood) takes on a different sheen as well.

The brilliance of the novel lies in Le Guin's ability to show the incomprehension of the humans in the face of Athshean culture. Like countless encounters between European colonists and indigenous people, from Africa, to Asia and the Americas, the Athsheans are dismissed as childlike, lazy, stupid or subhuman. But Le Guin takes us into the alien mind, showing us an alternative world view, that clashes with the Earthling's quest for profit. But, in this encounter, the Athsheans cannot be unchanged. We are left knowing that things will never be the same again.

This is an incredible novel that stays with the reader long after finishing, and illuminates, perhaps more than Le Guin realised, the struggles we face today.

Related Reviews

LeGuin - The Left Hand of Darkness
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Hard to be a God


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Naomi Klein - Doppelganger: A trip into the mirror world

Naomi Klein came to prominence as a journalist and author during the anti-capitalist movement of the early 2000s. Her book No Logo almost becoming a bible for the movement itself! After that she made her mark as an author of explicitly anti-capitalist books about the environmental crisis. Shock Doctrine told the story of how capitalism uses disaster to maximise profits and drive forward neoliberalism. This Changes Everything was one of the first, mainstream, books to link capitalism and the climate crisis. Within this Klein was also an activist, speaking and organising, within movements. 

So it might surprise some to find out that Naomi Klein has a doppelganger, who now holds diametrically opposed beliefs. In 1990, Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth, a feminist study of beauty, capitalism and patriarchy. But today Wolf is mostly known for her contrary and right wing positions on everything from guns to coronavirus conspiracies. Formerly a feminist icon of the mainstream media, Wolf is now beloved of the right, including figures like Steve Bannon.

Klein opens by showing how the two Naomi's were commonly mistaken for each other. She gives a number of examples, some humerous and trival, the others deeply concerning and insulting, where she is mistaken for Naomi Wolf. There's much to be said about why this happens and its not just about the same forename - I suggest it is in part because there are so few female spokespersons in the media. But this aside, Klein explores what has happened to her doppleganger to take such a shocking and stunning trajectory. It involves, as the book's subtitle says, a trip to the "mirror world", a place where conspiracy, scapegoating and distorted pictures of reality dominant - and where the real cause of societies' problems - capitalism - is let off the hook.

Klein's books about capitalism, disaster and climate change are frightening. But I actually think that Doppelganger is truely scary and discomforting for leftwing activists to read. Because what it shows is how the failure of the left to relate to wider working class concerns in the United States has opened the door to some very reactionary people and even a figure like Naomi Wolf can become part of that. 

What is most illuminating is Klein's exploration of right-wing policies, and how she shows they get a hold precisely because they speak to real concerns and are often rooted in real problems. Take the question of vaccine conspiracy:
The words she [Wolf] was saying were essentially fantasy. But emotionally, to the many people now listening to her, they clearly felt true. And the reason they felt true is that we are indeed living through a revolution in surveillance tech, and state and corporate actors have indeed seized outrageous powers to monitor us, often in collaboration and coordination with one another. Moreover, as a culture, we have barely begun to reckon with the transformational nature of this shift.
It is not enough, Klein argues, to mock the right or laugh at the ignorance on display, one has to go further. And this requires building real movements that speak to, and address concerns, while tackling misinformation and errors. The rug must be pulled out from beneath the right. Klein describes the sort of massmovement that is needed, but points out it "does not yet exist", and "it is inside this vacuum that my doppelganger is currently wreaking havoc". Wolf, "not only validates those latent tech fears but also, along with her new partner Steve Bannon, has something progressives lack: a plan for what to do about it, or at least a facsimile of one".

Some might quibble about the nature of the movement that is needed. This is to miss the point. Klein describes being heavily involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign. I wouldn't agree with that strategy, but Klein is honest enough to acknowledge the limitations of a movement based on a specific election. The important thing is that she wants much more than that.

This, I think, really comes through when Klein writes about Palestine. She makes this a central part of the argument because it shows how the right is organising, and the particular trajectory of Wolf who broke from her Synagogue to oppose an attack by Israel on Palestine, bravely stood in solidarity with the victims, but then moved away to the right. Klein argues that it is on the question of Israel and Palestine "where so many forces we have encountered on this winding journey converge and collide."

Not least with the issue of antisemitism. Klein opens this discussion by relating how her mother blamed the confusion between her and Wolf on antisemitism - "They see you both as a type". There's no doubt this is true, but Klein doesn't keep this discussion in the realms of the relationship between her and her doppleganger. She uses it to explore how and why marginalised groups are oppressed and how they resist. Her discussion on what happened to Jewish people and how they responded is powerful (and incidently mirrors some of the discussion in a new book I reviewed here recently on The Radical Jewish Tradition). Klein ties this to more contemporary racism, antisemitism and rightwing ideas. QAnon, for instance, whose antisemitic arguements are "cursing and combining and morphing in our culture". 

Why is this important? Because it is in this "mirror world" where conspiracies "detract attention from the billionaires who fund the networks of misinformation and away from the economic policies - deregultation, privatisation ,austerity - that have stratgied wealth so cataclysmically in the neoliberal era." The mashing together of antisemitism, with a resurgent right, neoliberal economics and a left that is inadequate to the task has created a situation where the likes of Wolf can rapidly evolve into significant figures, abandoning principles and raising dangerous arguements.

What then is needed? Here I was excited that Klein looked back to a period when socialist politics was counterposed to right-wing movements and was powerful enough to win, at least temporarily. She looks at the Revolutionary era after World War One, and in particular the radical Jewish socialists of the next few decades that tried to find a way forward that took on antisemitism and created a new set of ideas to appeal to working class people. Among the figures and groups she mentions, Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg, the Bund, Walter Benjamin and so on, she identifies a set of ideas that rose and fell with the fortunes of the Russian Revolution. It was in the aftermath of this failure that Zionism became the only answer to the "Jewish Question" and embedded the idea that antisemitism could not be defeated by "getting at its roots" and instead by "holding a gun to its head." Building on this analogy Klein says:
Partitioning and performing and projecting are no longer working. The borders and walls don't protect us from rising temperatures or surging viruses or raging wars. And the walls around ourselves and our kids won't old, either. Because we are porous and connected, as so many doppelganger stories have attempted to teach us. So there has to be another way. Another portal, to another story of us.
One key figure in this is Abram Leon who wrote deeply on questions of socialist politics and antisemitism while in hiding from the Nazis and then died in a concentration camp. Leon is a major inspiration for Klein and she tells his story and his politics movingly. Developing Leon's ideas further she discusses how antisemitism is not an automatic set of ideas constantly existing in society, but rather it is a racism that rises and falls, can be understood, countered and stopped. It arises from a partiulcar set of politics, and needs another set of politics to defeat it. These are the ideas of the left, and particularly the Marxist left, that Klein argues remain so important.

As an example, Klein tells an interesting story from Canada. It's a story of two trucker convoys. One of outraged and angry drivers disgusted at the latest evidence of the genocide inflicted on the First Nations people by the Canadian state in the aftermath of the discovery of mass graves of indigenous people. The second was also angry - but this time in protest at lockdowns, vaccine passports and filled with patriotism and right wing politics. "One was progress, the other a white-lash." Klein makes the point however that "some truckers participated in both convoys". They were dopplegangers in them. The point is that there is not a comfortable binary, but there is also the potential to win people away from reaction and toward progress. But it takes work.

This story then is one where the left builds movements that can form alternative polls of attraction and can draw people in, who feel alienated, cut off, forgotten and who experience poverty, housing crisis, pay freezes and all the rest of neoliberal capital's impacts. In the process of building those movements and coalitions, we have the chance to break people from reaction. As Klein says, quoting John Berger, this is because protest and demonstration (and class struggle) "people come to realise that they are not merely individuals... but that they belong to a class. Belonging to that class ceases to imply a common fate and implies a common opportunity". 

This excellent book begins with a personal story - Klein's shock at having a "doppleganger" whose politics are moving rapidly away from hers. It evolves into an account of how capitalism has created the context, in the midst of multiple crises, for millions of people to be dragged into reactionary politics. Klein's exploration of these crises - from Palestine to the environment - demonstrates the need, and potential - for revolutionary politics that can win significant, and lasting, change. From the personal to the revolutionary. But, most importantly, this book is an appeal for activists to engage and fight to make that real, and not abandon those who are being sucked into a mirror world. It is, perhaps, Naomi Klein's greatest - and scariest - book.

Related Reviews

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Pekka Hämäläinen - Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power

In the introduction to this outstanding new history of the Lakota Native American people, Pekka Hämäläinen makes the point that the Lakota are often defined by the events of a single day - June 25 187 when Lakota Souix, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces destroyed Custer's command at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. But this is problematic because it tends to ignore the rich and varied history of the Lakota both before and after that war.

Using extensive Native American sources as well as contemporary White accounts, Hämäläinen explores the long history of the Lakota, beginning when they were an "obscure tribe of hunters and gatherers at the edge of a bustling new world", through the varied conflicts and changes that led to them becoming a power on the American plains. At each stage, the Lakota demonstrate a remarkable capacity for change and adaption. Because of the images of the "Indian Wars", and especially Little Big Horn, we tend to think of them as brilliant cavalry troops, but this was only one particular point. Before they got horses (which was surprisingly late compared to other indigenous tribes) they were limited in hunting and travelling. Their were more sedentary, and like other Native Americans, often farmed for some of their food.

But they were defined by their relationship to other tribes and the European colonists. Hämäläinen gives a real sense of how the colonial wars between France and England, and later America and the European powers that remained on the American confict, shaped Lakota history. In fact, war and disease was a driving force behind the shift that saw the Lakota move into the Plains to their west, driven by the Iroquois who reacted to devastation of their population by striking out westward to capture slaves. This shift opened up the Plains, and the Lakota became part of a burgeoning trading network that saw them, and other tribes, collecting furs and hides for sale to Europeans, in exchange for food, weapons and other materials. It was a significant transformation, as this passage from Hämäläinen indicates:

By the late 1840s almost all Lakotas had made the western plains their home, visiting the Mnisose [Missouri River] only peridodically to bring their robes to steamboat stops for downriver shipment. Only Two Kettles, a small oyáte of some five hundred people, remained attached to the river. They made quick forays nto the West, but did not enage in large-scale raiding, and were known as superior hunters and tactful traders who were 'extremely fond of getting well paid for their skins'. Their semi-permanent villages near Fort Pierre were the last substantial Lakota bridgehead on the Missouri, which had lost its centrality in the Lakota universe.

The reader gets a real sense of how changing the indigenous world was, and how much they had become attached to a global economic system of trade. This transformed Lakota ideas and their social organisation, and created real tensions within their society - not least about how to relate to European power. But there is also no doubt from Hämäläinen's history that the Lakota, and other tribes were part of that great game between the colonial powers - a military and economic force that one side or the other tried to use in turn, while it also fought hard for its own interests.

Lakota power is a phrase used frequently by Hämäläinen and it is worth reminding ourselves that the Lakota were at one point, a significant national power on the North American continent. They were able, on several occasions to stop westward colonialisation, and certainly won significant gains from the American government. Indeed when their representatives negotiated with the American government they did so very much as equals.

As Hämäläinen emphasises, the Lakota's war with the US "was a shattering experience, but it did not define them as a people or their place in history". His book celebrates these "superbly flexible people" fighting for their place in a world increasingly squeezed by genocidal settlement. He continues:

Perhaps most strikingly, they emerge as supreme warriors who routinely eschewed violence, relying on diplomacy, persuasion and sheer charm to secure what they needed - only to revert to naked force if necessary. When the overconfident Custer rode into the Bighorn vally on that June day, they had already faced a thousand imperial challenges. They knew exactly what to do with him.

This is why the Lakota had to be destroyed. The Little Bighorn was their greatest moment, but it was also the beginning of their defeat. US settler colonialism could no longer keep up the pretext of living together and finding space. The punishment was explicitly genocidal, as seen at Wounded Knee, where Hotchkiss guns annihilated hundreds of Lakota.

But this was not the end, and nor did it stop the resistance, even as it transformed it. Hämäläinen continues with the history of the Lakota people in the 20th century, marked by racism and extreme oppression and economic punishment, but also by resistance. From Wounded Knee and the American Indian Movement in the 1970s to the battles over the Dakota Pipeline, the struggle continues. Hämäläinen concludes that the Lakota will prevail - "They will always find a place in the world because they know how to be fully in it, adapting to its shape while remaking it, again and again, after their own image."

Pekka Hämäläinen is an outstanding history. It never robs the Lakota of their agency, placing them in the heart of their own history - casting them not as victims, but as part of a rapidly evolving historical situation that could have gone in any one of different ways. It is noteworthy that the author uses indigenous language and spelling wherever he can, and writes from the point of view of the Lakota themselves. If you've read, like I have, countless histories of the Little Bighorn battle, then Hämäläinen's account based on indigenous sources, frames things very differently. If I have one criticism it is that I don't think the author really understands the term "imperialism" and tends to throw it about as a catch all term to describe American expansionism. For anyone interested in resistance to settler colonialism, and how that shaped and transformed the land and people on the North American continent, this is a must read.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Cronon - Changes in the Land

Cozzens - The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Seishi Yokomizo - Death on Gokumon Island

Seishi Yokomizo's Death on Gokumon Island is the second outing for his famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi (though oddly in the English translations its the fourth book published). Kosuke is returning from his military service during World War Two in the Japanese army when his friend Chimata Kito dies on the repatriation ship. Chimata entrusts Kosuke to return to bring the news to his wealthy family on Gokumon Island, and with his final breath warns Chimata that his sisters will be murdered unless Kindaichi can stop it.

Arriving on the island, the horrific news shocks the family, and the detective is quickly introduced to the complex social and economic relationships centred on the fishing industry of which the Kito's are heads. Rather fascinatingly there's an excellent explanation of the Labour Theory of Value among fishers here, as Kosuke learns how families like the Kito's get their wealth from other people's labour. Gokumon island itself is a strange place, linked to a long history of piracy, and isolated from the mainland. There's a repeated implication that everyone on the island is different, and strange things are expected.

One by one, the three women are murdered. Kosuke proves unable to stop the sequence, indeed at one point he's suspected of the crime. The bizarre murderes, a series of red herrings and the strange behaviour of many of the inhabitants make it tough for Kosuke to find the killer. But, it should be said, this is not a crime novel were readers will work it out for themselves. The clues aren't all there, and I felt it a little contrived.

Yokomizo was clearly building a brand with his second book. There are plenty of call backs to the first book, The Honjin Murders, and at least one recurring character. It gives the reader a comfortable reassurance, and while the book is not as strong there's still much here about Japanese society, the aftermath of World War Two and a fascinatingly complex series of crimes to solve. The dishevelled, scruffy and dandruff covered Kosuke Kindaichi is certainly a worthy detective to follow into all the sequels. 

Related Reviews

Yokomizo - The Honjin Murders
Yokomizo - The Inugami Curse

Donny Gluckstein & Janey Stone - The Radical Jewish Tradition: Revolutionaries, resistance fighters & firebrands

The introduction to Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone's important new book locates the work exactly in contemporary debates. They make the point that there are two views of Jewish history, the "lachrymose" one (yes, I had to look it up too, it means 'sad or mournful') and one that celebrates the struggles and contributions of Jewish people to the fight for liberation and freedom. In the first, Gluckstein and Stoney argue, "Jews supposedly went to the gas chanbers like lambs to the slaughter", but it is the second that the authors are concerned with here. It is, they write,
an alternative view of modern Jewish history and an alternative solution to perpetual victimhood. We depict Jews not as victims, or a group apart, but as people who have repeatdly fought their oppression, and often in solidarity with other social groups.
The continue:
The lachrymose conception of Jewish history requires suppression of the stories of those partisans and revolutioanies, resistance fighters and firebrands because such stories suggest that Jews have it within their own power to respond to oppression and that others will in fact support them.
Why does this matter? I authors of The Radical Jewish Tradition must have begun writing their work long before the Israeli State began their current assault on Palestine. Nonetheless they write that the "lachrymose conception" of Jewish history is important to the Israeli state, because:
The persecution and expulsion of the existing local Palestininan population, the suppression of democracy in the interest of maintinain the state, the militarisation of society and the declaine of civil society because of the increasing domination of religious zealots - all these issues are subordinated to the idea that in no other way can Jews escape the historical existence of antisemitism and cease to be victims.
The above quotes come from the first two pages of the introduction, and the rest of the book can be see as refuting the arguements made by the Israeli state in this regard. The book is a refreshing and inspiring story of those Jewish radicals who fought antisemitism, racism, oppression and exploitation. Whose ideas and actions shaped the radical movements that we have today, and whose legacy remains important to everyone, not just Jews, who want to fight for a better world. 

Gluckstein and Storey's opening chapters look at what they call the "shaping of modern Jewry" showing how the pogroms and persecutions of the fedual and medieval periods fed into ideas and racism after the arrival of capitalism. The authors write:
The Jewish Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that 'the family was a network stretching across countries and oceans... shifting between coutnries was a normal part of life'. This feature had once set Jews apart and reinforced their community ties. Now integration into many different countries created a new relationship. Radical Jews brought a sense of living class internationalism to those they interacted with at a local level.
Jewish people moved around the world - to escape persecution or to find new lives for themselves - and when they arrived they fitted into a capitalist world that integrated racism and exploitation. This forced the majority of Jews to become part of the anti-capitalist resistance, and in turn begged the question of how they related to non-Jewish activists, and how non-Jewish workers, trade unionists and radicals related to them. The authors discuss what happened by looking at some key moments in world, and Jewish, history - life under the Tsarist regime and the Russian Revolution, the life of East European Jews in Poland, the experience of working class struggle over jobs, wages and against fascism in East London as well as similar struggles in the United States. Two chapters look at the struggles of Jews and non-Jews in Germany in the run up to the Nazi victory and resistance to the the Holocaust. These two are perhaps the most important, directly challenging the idea that Jewish people were "meek" in the face of the Nazis, and demonstrating the exact opposite. Writing about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, the authors say:
Defiance pre-dated the advent of the ghetto. We saw how, during the 1930s, the fight against the rising ride of antisemitism had involved Jews and non-Jews in mass struggle. This occurred in many cities and towns throughout Poland but was centred on Warsaw. The alliances that were foged at that time continued through the Nazi occupation and underlay much of the network of help and support that the ghetto inhabitants received. The population who rose up in April 1943 had been mobilising on the streets only a few years earlier in 1938. The memory must still have been there.
In the last two chapters the authors' return to the question of Palestine. Here they make the point that experience of the Holocaust has meant that many of those who fought for radical solutions to antisemitism, became part of a state that systemtically oppressed other groups in the Middle East. Left Zionism in particular "spread ideological confusion" becoming a justification for further horror:
It was a tragedy that those once inspired by the ideas of the left could become part to the forcible displacement of the Palestinian majority from their homes and country. This was the final nail in the coffin of the remarkable phenomenon of mass Jewish radicalism.
Can this tradition be rescued? The authors suggest that yes, it can. But that requires the building of mass movements of solidarity that work on the common interest of working people to fight oppression and exploitation. They say:
We have shown who historically has engaged in the fight against antisemitism. Based in the working class it was left-wing Jews and their non-Jewish comrades who defended the Jewish community against pogroms and won emancipation in Russia. The Revolution created the opportunity on an international scale to end capitalism and its divide and rule policies which bring misery to the oppressed everywhere... Despite attempts to ignore, or deny it, the progressive role of the left, and the working -class basis for it, endures.
Antisemitism, like other forms of racism and oppression benefits no-one but the ruling class. The rich tradition of Jewish radical theory and activism will inspire us to renew and rebuild those links. It is this that can free the oppressed everywhere and build a world of equality and diversity. Donny Gluckstein and Janey Stone's book is a major contribution to this fight. I urge everyone to read it.

Related Reviews