Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Yvonne Kapp - Eleanor Marx, family Life 1855 - 1883

Yvonne Kapp's two volume biography of Eleanor Marx is probably one of the least well known biographies but it deserves to be on every readers bookshelf, both leftie and not, for the simple reason that it is a fantastic study in the art of biography writing.

Eleanor Marx was Karl's third daughter. Her life was overshadowed by the activities of her father. But she carved an independence that is remembered, celebrated and praised by socialists to this day. Ultimately she became one of the foremost activists of her time, leading strikes and struggles and becoming the head of one of the largest of the "New" unions.

The first part of her life was marked by poverty. It is also inseparable from that of her father and wider family. Yvonne Kapp doesn't shy from explaining why Marx's work and life is more important during the first decade or so of Eleanor's life - not because Eleanor is boring, but because her own life's work was founded on the principles and ideas that her father worked out and outlined.

Indeed Eleanor's early life is amazing. She was intelligent and well educated, a friend to the countless people who passed through the Marx household. At an early age she joined demonstrations and spoke passionately about causes such as Ireland and freedom.

The biography is in two parts. The second half is going to be more exciting in some senses. The period of "New Unionism", William Morris, the Match Girls strike etc. But do not underestimate what you can learn and enjoy from an early life that included sheltering refugees from the Paris Commune and helping Karl Marx work in the British Library.

Ultimately Eleanor Marx will be remembered through this wonderful work. It is to Yvonne Kapp's credit that she keeps the essence alive of what made Eleanor such an incredible woman - her politics. The gossip, fabrications and discussions are there - after all it was snobbish Victorian England. One establishment 'lady' wrote that Eleanor Marx,

"Lives alone, is much connected with the Bradlaugh set, evidently peculiar views on love etc, and should think has somewhat 'natural' relations with me! Should fear that the chances were against her remaining long within the pale of respectable society".

But these details help illuminate the woman, rather than bore us with murky details. After all Eleanor Marx was someone who believed that humans can change the world they live in, and that they must be politically active to do so.

Full title - Eleanor Marx, family Life 1855 - 1883

Related Reviews

Mehring - Karl Marx - The Story of his Life 
Hunt - The Frock Coated Communist; The Revolutionary Life of Frederich Engels 

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Daniel Guerin - Fascism and Big Business

The recent film “The Downfall” caused an interesting response from some reviewers. For so long, Hitler had been portrayed as a “monster” or the epitome of “evil”, that to see a film which portrayed the reality of his last days – with him talking, smiling and discussing the war, was unbelievable.

Surely Hitler was a foaming at the mouth madman, whose every word caused the impressionable German people to become Zombies, unable to think for themselves?

What caused this confusion was a misunderstanding amongst the reviewers about the nature of fascism, and the society it created. Daniel Guerin’s classic analysis of Fascism was first published before the war had ended. It looks at the rise of Fascism in both Germany and Italy, analysing the similarities and looking for clues to it’s real nature.

Firstly Guerin has to explain how both the Italian and German fascists conned people into supporting them, but also gathered the support of the big wheels of capitalism, themselves terrified of the consequences of economic devastation and working class revolution.

Fascism offered everything to everyone. To the peasants and small farmers it offered land and an end to the burden of taxes. To the small businessmen and shopkeepers it offered stability and better prices. To the working men it offered jobs and a stable economy. To big business it guaranteed profits and the end of the “class struggle”.

To get the support of the lower classes it had to appear to be challenging the existing status-quo, that is why the speeches of Hitler and Mussolini in the early years of their careers are peppered with promises to end the tyranny of capitalism. But at the same time they promised to make the world even better for the masters of big business.

Guerin shows how once in power, Fascism immediately turns it’s back on the workers, peasants and small business men. Destroying jobs, smashing unions, breaking agreements and giving concessions and tax breaks to large land owners and big businesses. There are some incredible statistics to show just how much wages fell. While it is true that unemployment collapsed, this is partly do to whole sections of workers becoming ineligible for work. But it is also because the regimes started huge building projects (roads, railways etc) to create work, employing people on pittance wages and because of the expansion of the arms industry in both Italy and Germany.

It’s might be surprising to someone whose sole knowledge of Nazi Germany is the holocaust and the massacre of some 10 million people in concentration camps, that Guerin spends little time mentioning this side to the regimes. But this is because Guerin is partly looking at one aspect of those regimes, and partly because he is trying to explain the fundamental nature of Fascism – that it is a ideology directed at stabilising capitalism, using the adherence of large sections of the middle class population to get it’s support. It wins that adherence through racism – towards Jews in the case of 1930s Germany.

This is much clearer in Italy, where the stronger working-class movement and the Capitalist fear of revolution in the early 1920s meant that Fascism was much more explicitly anti-working class, only taking up the mantel of racism much later on.

Guerin’s work is a superb introduction to these regimes. It’s difficult to read at times – there is lots of empirical evidence to plough through, but it’s worth the effort to uncover a frequently ignored aspect to Hitler and Mussolini’s regimes.

Related Reviews

Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Ed McBain - Long Time No See

Ed McBain stands out as a detective writer - not because of his gigantic output, though that is impressive - he wrote literally dozens of short novels set in the fictitious 87th precinct.

In my opinion McBain stands out because he looks at the world of police work, with the jaundiced eye of someone who has seen the real world, and it's people, and knows that it hurts.

His characters are very often ordinary working class people, living their lives in shitty, dull, boring jobs on the edge of respectability, and sometimes slipping over it. The criminals victims are Vietnam vets, prostitutes, low paid workers and factory fodder.

Of course, being police procedural novels, they concentrate on murder and violent crime. But the characters - mainly the detectives who staff the precincts unresourced and outdated police stations, grow older, marry, fight and complain. This is the real world.

But McBain is at his best when he looks at how crime isn't something special, murder isn't unusual - it's inherent in a society that alienates and atomises the individuals, putting the importance of money above the needs of the individuals, and his policemen pick up the pieces and almost always get their men, but can only rail impotently at the far greater crime going on.