Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Frederick Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Frederick Engels' book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was an incredible achievement. It shows Engels' and Marx's fascination by every aspect of human life and history. Engels shows a deep knowledge of his subject, which while dated by today's understanding, must have meant he was at the forefront of contemporary anthropological work.

Origin is an attempt to demonstrate that the way in which human society is organised has radically changed through the years. Human's haven't always lived in a society that is based on competition, earlier societies, particularly those we would now call hunter-gathering communities, were Engels argued based on primitive communism. In these there was no private property of land or materials and this meant that human relationships were based on eglatarian principles.

Engels' starting point for much of his work are the writings of Lewis Morgan, who was the first person to propose a stagiest history for humans, arguing, based on his understanding of langugages around the world, that people tended to follow a particular set of social organisations through the centuries. These three stages, savagery, barbarism and civilisation had with them a particular set of social organisations, particular those to do with the family and marriage.

Engels is particularly keen to show that the subjagated position of women under capitalism, was not something that was always true. He writes "That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions that have come down to us from the Enlightenment".

Engels, following Morgan, writes that the modern family arises as part and parcel of the development of private property relations. Because in the first instance, material objects (such as tools) and the produce of agriculture end up in the hands of males in society (due to the division of labour that takes place as women take on the primary role of bringing up children) this leads to the male lineage becoming important for the inheritance of wealth. This then, for Engels is the world historic defeat of the female sex. It is also a defeat for males to, as it creates a situation were no one can be happy. Engels is at his best when he demonstrates, that we live in a world were monogamy is held up to be the ideal, but is not the reality (particularly for men) and this situation will continue until the means of production are once again held in common - and the individual family ceases to be the basic economic unit in society.

Much of the central arguments of Engels work, on the social relationships between people in ancient societies and their languages can be shown to be flawed. But this doesn't invalidate the central themes of his book, that the rise of class societies and the associated move towards private property leads to radically different family relations.

The section on the state is the most useful here. Engels shows how the state machinary develops as classes arise, with the needs of one group (the ruling class) to protect its interests and its wealth. Engels contrasts the complex machinary of the state, with its police and judges and so on, with the "child like simplicity" of earlier societies that needed no such armed bodies of men. This state, Engels argues needs to be smashed and placed in a musuem alongside the "spinning wheel and the bronze axe". This will require a revolution in property relations, and the creation of a world which holds the means of production in common.

This new world would bring with it the emancipation of women. Only when women are able to take a full part in production within society will they truely hold an equal position in society - in other words, when women are free to do what they want, because of socialised childcare, because of full access to abortion and contraception and because they are not held back by artificial social constructs like the family under capitalism.

Engels work is still inspirational, if a little complex at times. It's worth perservering with, because it is the first real attempt by a Marxist to grapple with some of the complex questions thrown up by human history. If you get a copy, it's worth finding an edition that has an introduction that takes up some of the anthropological questions and develops these. The Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock wrote an introduction that did this, though I am not aware that it is in print. Part of it was reprinted in her collection Myths of Male Dominance, which I will review shortly. It is also mostly available here at Google Books.

Related Reviews

Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England
Dee - The Red in the Rainbow - Sexuality, Socialism & LGBT Liberation

Friday, January 21, 2011

Keith Miller - St Peter's

The church of St Peter's is surely one of the most awe inspiring pieces of architecture in the world. Whether or not you find it beautiful, or whether you yourself inspired into religious excitement by it is a different question. It's a powerful statement of strength by the Catholic Church, perhaps summed up by one visitor, Florence Nightingale who wrote that:

"No event in my life except my death can ever be greater than that first entrance into St Peter's, the concenrtated spirit of the Christianity of so many years, the great image of our faith which is the worship of grief."

Keith Miller explores the buildings history and its links with the growing power of the Popes and the Church. The building itself is a strange amalgam, being built on the site (and incorporating some of the walls of a much older St. Peters). Miller points out that this may in part be deliberate - by re-using ancient materials, we get a sort of concrete (excuse the pun) statement about the triumph of the Christian church over paganism. Its architects seem inumerable and its inspirations are many. Fashion comes and goes in the world of bricks and mortar as much as in that of fashion, and the changes of style and design over the centuries are well documented here.

For the non architectural expert, some of the book is daunting. Like all experts there is a private language which, even in books that are attempting to be accessible can only serve to mask what is being said. What are pilasters for instance, and how do windows "snarl" as Michelangelos are supposed to? The book is perhaps also a little incomprehensible to those who haven't visited St Peters, unlike some of the others in this series, you really have to have been there. And perhaps this is the real aim of the book - it is a trawl through the history that frames St Peters - the stories of the ruling classes who have used the building, or sought to use its image to strengthen their own social position, rather than a blow by blow account of the building itself.

St Peter's continues to inspire - many buildings have borrowed its dome in particular - the Bank of England and St Paul's for instance. Though I was interested to learn that while a recent church in the Ivory Coast has done the same, their dome is bigger!

So if you're going to Rome, and plan to visit St Peter's this is a great guide book. It is fascinating and amusing and doesn't simply fall into the trap of listing sculpture after sculpture with some meaningless dates.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series
Watkin - The Roman Forum
Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

J.G. Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur

The Indian Rebellion against British Rule in 1857 has had a number of interesting treatments in novel form, I think in particular of Fraser's Flashman novel, Flashman In the Great Game. Both Fraser's book and this one use the comic form to great effect, though Farrell's book is, it must be said, far better.

Concentrating on the fictional town of Krishnapur, Farrell examines the lives of the upper-class English residents there. Years of peaceful rule has left them bored and remote from the locals. Diverted by hunting and dinner parties, as well as the endless search for a marriage partner there are few among them even aware of the changing world around them. Farrell's characters each represent a particular strand of thought, or ideals (though they are never wooden). The central character, The Collector, epitomises the sense of industrial progress at the heart of the Victorian colonial dream. Having been inspired by the Great Exhibition, he has learnt it's catalogue of by heart, and many of the exhibits have made their way to his home. He dreams of the civilising powers of British capitalism, railroads across India and the like.

The Magistrate is his foil, a Chartist in his youth, he cynically notes the excesses of colonialism, but finds his ideals gradually undermined by events, mostly because the rich and pampered people around him cannot comprehend breaking from their lives of luxury. Two different doctors represent the old and the new, their endless debates about how to deal with a Cholera epidemic that strikes the besieged town, highlighting different traditions - the old irrational and the new scientific. The worst though are the women, endlessly fanning themselves and worrying about the servants. Gossiping and shunning those who've broken the complex and rigid social codes that maintain themselves even in a state of war.

And here's where the comedy at the heart of the novel comes from. It stems from the inability of those trapped in the siege to break with their rigid class structures as society breaks down. As the dead and wounded pile up, as food runs out and the poshest of ladies are reduced to eating horses, then dogs and eventually insects, they still argue about who should sit where given their social positions.

By concentrating in this way on this tiny group of individuals, all trying to reshape India in their own way, with their own prejudices, Farrell highlights the racism and arrogance that allowed the British rulers to be so shocked by the great Mutiny. We don't hear the voices of the Indian people themselves often, though occasionally we see how shallow the support amongst event the most loyal of servants is (I particularly liked the servants who gradually put up the prices for cleaning clothes as the siege continues, till even The Collector must wash his own shirts, adjacent to the lowest of the servants).

There is much to this novel - Victorian attitudes to sex, marriage and technology all come under the darkly comic scrutiny of the author. It's a fabulous novel, that will keep you gripped till the end. Farrell does such a good job of painting the central characters as the most annoying, obnoxious colonial representatives you can imagine, I kept hoping the rebels would wipe out every last one of them - but you'll have to see for yourself what does actually happen.

Related Reviews

Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered
Farrell - Troubles
Farrell - Singapore Grip 
Macrory - Signal Catastrophe; The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Karl Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1

Karl Kautsky 1854 - 1938
Karl Kautsky was the foremost intellectual leader of the Marxist movement internationally at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th. His betrayal of the workers movement with his support for the First World War is an important story, rooted in his flawed  understanding of the process of social change. That particular tale is out of the remit of this review.

However Kautsky did have an excellent knowledge of Marxist economics, he was a popular and extensive writer though, according to the biographical sketch at the start of this volume, he wasn't a particularly good public speaker and didn't enjoy taking a political lead.

This extensive inquest into the history and politics of agriculture was certainly one of the first of its kind. Kautsky wrote it to get to grips with the politics of the peasantry and farmers at a time when most of the countries of Europe still had significant rural populations. The book arises out of an attempt by the German Social Democratic Party to get to grips with the subject as they developed their program.

It was hugely influential. Lenin, who went on to write a number of works on the question agrarian question as well as the peasantry was enthusiastic, it was the "most important event in present-day economic literature since the third volume of [Marx's] Capital" he said. The role of the peasantry and the rural masses was significant during the Russian Revolution. The policy of the Bolsheviks towards them, was in no small way influenced by some of the ideas at the heart of Kautsky's book.

So what are the ideas? There are many, and again, they can't all be covered in this review. But I think the key question is that of large and small farms. Kautsky challenged the idea that there would be a tendency towards larger and larger farms. Marxists have shown how under capitalism, there is a tendency towards monopolies - larger and larger blocks of capital, as firms swallow up competitors etc. That this was inevitable in agriculture too, was directly challenged by Kautsky's systematic work. The evidence he piles up, shows that this is not the case.

This has important ramifications for revolutionaries - if the farms become larger, there is an increasing tendency towards proletarianisation amongst the peasants and it makes question of collectivism flows then from the actual experience of the farmers (See Tony Cliff article at end of this review for more on this discussion).

Kautsky's detail of the particular situation and changing circumstances of agricultural workers in various countries is fascinating. He shows how farming practices are slow to change - using a US report that showed French peasants still using the Roman plough in the 19th century. He also expands in detail on the value of individual farms versus their larger competitors. The later are more efficient and better at utilising technology, though often suffer from being run by wage labourers rather than individuals with a personal interest in the farm's well being.

The question of the life of the peasant is important to Kautsky - he details their suffering, their hard work, pointing out that their dependency on the market is a weight around their neck - a good harvest, once a blessing under earlier economic systems, becomes a curses under capitalism if the price of corn collapses.

Kautsky also looks at important technical questions - the role of synthetic fertilisers, the separation of town and country, the size of fields and so on. This is an investigation of great depth and thought.

The second volume deals with the more political questions of the role of the peasantry, though Kautsky argues that "Agriculture's political significance is in inverse proportion to its economic significance". This is plainly wrong for many countries even today, and had Lenin followed this line, the outcome of the Russian Revolution would not have been such an initial success for the Bolsheviks.

He also displays a particularly mechanical method in his application of the Marxist method. At one point, he argues that "the effects of climate, topography and other natural circumstances represent a vanishing term when set against the specific impact of the mode of production". While this might be strictly true in some circumstances, I am not sure that in an period of environmental crisis such as the one we now live in, this is a helpful counterposing of ideas.

Finally, Kautsky is particularly good at clarifying the question of the Marxist theory of Ground Rent, which is far too much to go into here, but students reading this in the hope of cribbing for an essay are well advised too look into the explanation in Kautsky's book.

I will return to the second volume of the Agrarian Question later.

Related Information

In 1964, the Marxist Tony Cliff took a look at the question of agriculture and built on some of the ideas of Kautsky and Lenin, developing and critiquing some aspects of what they said. This short article is well worth a read for the student of Agrarian issues. It can be read online here.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Joseph Choonara & Charlie Kimber - Arguments for Revolution

Subtitled, "The Case for the Socialist Workers Party", this is a shamelessly partisan book. It's a book that argues the case for the radical, revolutionary change in society and puts the case that to do so socialists must be organised into a revolutionary organisation capable of shaping and leading that struggle.

Joseph Choonara and Charlie Kimber are both leading activists in the British SWP. This short book by them is a clear and basic introduction to the Marxist ideas that inform the politics and practice of that organisation. There a facts and figures to arm readers for arguments against capitalism, but more than this, it is an introduction to a wealth of ideas that can shape the world.

Capitalism they argue is a system that creates immense wealth, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of individuals (1011 billionaires) who have spent the last few years doing very well out of the economic crisis. This wealth could provide for the needs of everyone on the planet, yet is used not in the collective interests of people, but in the interests of that tiny elite and the system they represent.

Starting from the nature of the very system, the authors show how capitalism isn't the usual way for humans to organise society. The exploitation at it's core, the systematic extraction of surplus value from the mass of workers, simply didn't exist in earlier societies. The drive for profits, the accumulation of wealth that is the motor of the dynamics of capitalism is also the cause of its periodic economic crises (on average every 6.3 years in the US) and what drives the capitalists to constantly seek to cut pay and conditions and undermine the welfare state.

The authors show however the way in which capitalism creates in the words of Karl Marx, its own "gravediggers". The working class who have the power both to overthrow capitalism and create a new socialist society based on collective democratic society. But the workers don't simply have this importance because of their economic power, they quote Engels; who pointed out that the working class "cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation".

The working class, through the revolutionary struggle throws off the muck of ages and creates the democratic bodies that can form the basis of a new society. The capitalists don't however roll over, they have a myriad of ways to protect their interests, the authors again tackle the question of the state who protect class rule and explain how the Marxist attitude to the state differs from that of say the Anarchists. The look critically at the historic role of the British Labour Party - a reformist organisation that whenever it has been tested has propped up the system rather than side with the interests of the workers. They also look at the way the working class is divided by sexism, homophobia and racism.

Finally the sections on revolution look at the Russian Revolution and how it was distorted and defeated by the rise of Stalin, rescuing as they do so, the sense that socialism has to have the concept of the "self emancipation of the working class" at its heart.

This short book covers a tremendous amout of ground. There will be many socialists who think they know it all and have heard it all before. In a sense this is true but refreshing old arguments in the context of new, emerging struggles is always important. But this book is one to be read, passed on and distributed far and wide. At the beginning of 2011 capitalism offers millions of ordinary workers a bleak future. The only hope is the struggle of working people to challenge the power of capital. This short book with its extensive further reading list is a guide to new activists, young and old, about how to do that.

(Find out more via the Facebook group or purchase online here)

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Engels - Socialism, Utopian and Scientific

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Caspak Trilogy

The Caspak Trilogy comprises three of Edgar Rice Burroughs less famous novels - The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot and the oddly named Out of Time's Abyss.

If I am going to be honest, all of these novels read like spoof 1920s adventure tales. Of course this isn't high literature, this is pulp fiction and that's a particularly generous description. That's not to say that mass market novels don't have any merit, even when they are swamped in the prejudices of their time - see for instance this review of a Jules Verne novel I did recently.

However these three novels are in a class of their own. If you've seen the film that carries the same title as volume one, you'll know the rough plot line. Heroic, square-jawed types get captured by cowardly Germans in a submarine and get taken to a uncharted island that turns out to be populated by prehistoric people and animals. Lots of shooting of ancient dinosaurs occurs and there is some love interest. Frankly if you've seen the film and not the book, leave it at that.

The book is truely awful. Even at the time of printing, people must have read it and though, "he's taking the piss isn't he? He's trying to see how awful a book he can get away with?" Let me give you an example of what I mean, by exploring the use of coincidence in the first couple of chapters of book one.

One of our American heroes is on a transatlantic liner (a neutral one) for this is the early days of World War One. His ship is torpedoed by a submarine which, being a submarine designer he both recognises as one he built and also knows how to control. Finding an empty rowing boat in the ocean following the ship's sinking, he rescues a young woman on her way to Germany to get married to a German Naval officer. Hero is in turn rescued (along with his dog) by a English tug, which then is attacked several days later by the same U-boot. The heroic English captain tries to ram the U-boot, which our heros manage to capture and because they have the knowledge to pilot now, they can take to England. One board the U-boot is a nasty, evil German officer. Guess what? Yes, he is the person that beautiful maiden intended to marry.

Frankly it doesn't get better than that and we haven't even met the dinosaurs. I jest.

Oddly enough, Burroughs doesn't simply have prejudices, he is also a downright nasty rightwinger. One of the traitors who does over our heroes is, guess what? Not a German spy, but a member of the IWW who "hates America". Shades of Mcarthy there.

The only other fascinating bit here, apart from the endless shooting of dinosaurs, traitors, wild men and Germans, is the evolution that the prehistoric island of Caspak has. Burroughs realised that he couldn't have a snapshot of time, otherwise Tyrannosaurus Rex couldn't chase Cro Magnon. Rather oddly he invents a new evolutionary method - everyone and everything passes through every stage of their evoution on the island, from small tadpole to primitive then older creature. It's fascinating for a while, then you spot the plot holes.

Anyway. Read this if you are a sucker for really bad novels or like dinosaurs being shot. But avoid it if you really want to try and read Dickens.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Robert Roberts - A Ragged Schooling

Robert Roberts wrote one of the all time great studies of working class life, The Classic Slum, but this short book is a truly wonderful account of his boyhood growing up in the slums of Salford in the early years of the 20th Century.

Salford then was a city dominated by industry. Roberts' father works in a light engineering factory, where it turns out he is a leading trade unionist. He also drinks to deal with the pain and poverty of working class life. Very early on in his life he persuades his wife that they should purchase and run a small grocery shop.

Roberts' life is difficult. There are moments of real pain and suffering. Schooling was minimal and even then what they had was driven by his mother's desire for them to become educated - this passion makes her the real hero of the tale. She is the one that dresses their wounds and helps them with the problems of everyday childhood. But she slaves and works to make this possible.

One of the interesting points raised, is that the shop enables Robert's family to have a better life than most of those on the estates around them. But it still requires backbreaking work. One Christmas day, Robert's mother lies in till 10am. Because it is the only whole day a year that the shop is closed. She then gets up and makes a Christmas dinner for eight.

As the children grow older, the tensions between his parents grow - on Robert's journey to the world of adulthood and work, he tells us of the theatres and the music, the children's games, their explorations (I'd love to know more about the history of Salford's "poisoned wood" that they try and find), sexual awakenings. There are stories of strikes and protests against the Duke of Wellington, the burning out of a Jewish shopkeeper by a local man, the dreams of Roberts' father who buys a second rate piano for his children.

These fascinating tales make for fine reading. But Robert's lyrical writing is also beautiful. The poignant suicide of a woman who can't take one more day in the mill is particularly moving, but the description of the river Irwell then will stick with me, every time I cross the local bridges, there

"tumbled a river on whose purling waters the very rainbows appeared, at times to melt, though basically it ran the colour of plain chocolate. But catch the stream in happy mood and under one's eyes brown would dissolve into Mediterranean blue, azure slide into rich crimson.... standing entranced upon a bridge, we threw quantities of rubbish over to mix the creeping palettes".

Stories that bricks would float near Victoria station are dismissed by the author as "libel", but the output of the dye factories around the river meant that Roberts thought it would be 2040 before salmon swam the Irwell again.

This is a lovely little book for anyone who wants to understand working class life in Salford 100 years ago. There are still those around who will recognise from their parents the place names and descriptions, but it is a vanishing world, and every time they erect another block of identity kit yuppie flats that will remain empty for years, they wipe away an important bit of history that should not be forgotten - the struggle of ordinary people simply to live in dignity in the face of the ever hungry capitalist system.