Thursday, December 20, 2012

Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East

 My recent reading of The Oil Road reminded me of the fascinating radical history of the city of Baku. Formally part of Russia and now in Azerbaijan the city had at the beginning of the 20th century been a hot bed of working class action. Central to both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions Baku was one of the most important cities for the new Soviet republic.

Central to the programme of the Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution was the idea of self-determination. Right from the earliest days after the Revolution different parts of the old Russian Empire were given the right to determine their own future. This contrasted very much with the policies of the previous regimes as well as the later policies of the Stalinism.

However the Bolsheviks fought the revolution with an internationalist mindset. Lenin and the other leaders understood that an isolated Russian Revolution would face starvation and defeat. They hoped for similar revolutions to break out across the world, not least in Germany. But they also understood there was enormous potential for solidarity and revolutionary upheaval in "the East". The Congress of the Peoples of the East then was called in 1920. This was a conscious attempt by the revolutionary leadership to spread the ideas of Communism and Bolshevism through countries like Turkey, Persia, Armenia, China and elsewhere. Hundreds of delegates came from all over the Middle East and further afield. They met, listened to and debated speeches from leading Russian revolutionaries like Karl Radek and Zinoviev. They also heard from representatives of new, or growing revolutionary organisations in Europe. There was a representative from France (Rosmer), Britain and even the Dutch Communist Party.

This stenographic report is not perfect. In parts it is incomplete - I'd dearly love to read the speeches and representations from the Jewish organisations that were present as well as other speeches by the small number of women delegates. The transcripts are also limited to the main speeches, rather than the smaller meetings, caucuses and fringe events. This means much of what we read a fairly long, set piece speeches, rather than shorter discussions. This doesn't mean that they are all rhetoric. There are fascinating references to ongoing struggles in countries like Turkey and debates about the way forward.

One of the key questions for the Congress was the attitude of revolutionary socialists to what would now be called movements of national liberation. Then there were mass movements growing and developing against the colonialism of Britain and France as well as the growing role of American imperialism. For some at the conference the key question was national liberation and the development of an independent national bourgeois before the socialist revolution. This mimics debates within the Russian socialist movement itself, and the Russian delegates argue hard for the idea of "permanent revolution"; revolution that takes the struggle for national liberation immediately over into the struggle socialism. 

There is much in this book, and the translation as well as the supporting notes from the British Trotskyist Brian Pearce are indispensable. Not least because names of places and individuals are often now unknown to us. Those who have read The Oil Road will find here-in the story of the Bolshevik Commissioners who used to be buried in Baku, after their murder by British forces. The Congress itself ceremonially laid their bodies to rest in a square that was only recently destroyed.

Of interest to contemporary debates around the role of women in the Arab Revolutions are the two contributions in this book from women. Comrade Nadzhiya begins her speech with this statement:

"The women's movement beginning in the East must not be looked at from the standpoint of those frivolous feminists who are content to see woman's place in social life as that of a delicate plant or an elegant doll. This movement must be seen as a serious and necessary consequence of the revolutionary movement which is taking place throughout the world. The women of the East are not merely fighting for the right to walk in the street without wearing the chadra, as many people suppose. For the women of the East, with their high moral ideals, the question of the chadra, it can be said, is of the least importance. If the women who form half of every community are opposed to the men and do not have the same rights as they have, then it is obviously impossible for society to progress: the backwardness of Eastern societies is irrefutable proof of this."

Running through the Congress, even amongst those who are not communists and hold out different visions of how to achieve freedom is the enormous respect for the Bolsheviks and the political authority that representatives of the revolution have. This shouldn't be a surprise. The world was experiencing enormous revolts and the Russian Revolution was as yet the only successful revolution. Delegates at the Congress had every reason to believe it wouldn't be the last. They were to be disappointed. Despite the Congress electing a committee to produce publications and organise future events, this was the only meeting of the revolutionary representatives of the People of the East. With the rise of Stalin attitudes towards liberation movements and minorities in the East took an entirely different route, which possibly explains why these reports did not become public until the 1970s when Trotskyists translated and published them.

Today the reports are far more than a historical curiosity. They are a wonderful insight to a political moment, when the world was being turned upside down. They demonstrate the attitude of the Bolshevik movement to different nationalities and movements and there is much to learn. They are also full to the brim of the excitement and enthusiasm of men and women believing their time has come. The transcripts tell us every time the speeches are interrupted for cheering, the singing of the Internationale, or even someone at the back shouting out "speak up". If you want to know the immediate impact of the Russian Revolution on people around the world, you could do far worse than read this.

Related Reviews and Articles

The transcipts can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive here though the book version is published by New Park and can be obtained via socialist Bookshops like Bookmarks.

Useful article on the Bolsheviks and Islam by Dave Crouch here.

Marriot and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road

Monday, December 17, 2012

Iain M. Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata

One of the great things about Iain M. Banks' Culture novels is the way that they explore what might happen in a society that has essentially left all of it worries behind. When hunger, racism and poverty are things of the past, and war is only waged to defend society from external threat, what might people do? As a result of these thought experiments, many of Banks' characters have been great artists, sexual experimenters or musicians of note. His other characters, the ship Minds with their wonderful self-descriptive names, often seem to spend their time in abstract thought, scientific study or political machinations.

Of the later, the intervention in other civilisations is the most difficult and dangerous. Hydrogen Sonata in fact deals with the collaborative intervention in a society almost as old as the Culture. Unlike the Culture though, the Gzilt have collectively decided to 'Sublime' joining a sort of extra-dimensional group consciousness. However a few days before this happens a piece of evidence turns up that seems to indicate that much of what makes the Gzilt, well the Gzilt is based on a lie.

Culture Ships intervene to try and sort out the mess that occurs as various Gzilt government factions start bumping each other off to protect their interests. Much of the novel then is a Galactic chase as the Culture ship Mistake, Not takes the novel's heroine Vyr Cossont on a tour of planetary systems to try and find the truth out. If we're honest lots of the scenarios are the author playing around with ideas. Banks' highly advanced, post-scarcity societies like the Gzilt and Culture give their peoples the opportunity to experiment with themselves. So many of his characters have extra limbs (though in one case, an important figure has 59 of a special limb that means he needs extra hearts to keep the blood pressure up).

Banks' experiments with ideas and people like this work, precisely because the Culture works. But actually people matter little in this novel. What is really important are the ship Minds (the real force behind the Culture) and the societies themselves. Rather like many historic depictions of Utopia (William Morris' News from Nowhere springs to mind) what matters is less the story than the stage. Our wonder comes from imagining how things "might be".

That said, this is a rollickingly enjoyable adventure. Its action packed, funny and trimmed of any excess fat. A great work of escapism that makes the reader think too. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Related Reviews

Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - Matter

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Francis Pryor - The Birth of Modern Britain

Probably to the annoyance of some of my fellow socialists I've championed the work of Francis Pryor rather alot. His works of popular history have certainly made many contemporary archaeological ideas accessible to the general population and together with the Time Team program, Pryor has been part of a renewed interest in the UK towards the history of Britain.

This book is the fourth in Pryor's archaeological history of Great Britain. Pryor's personal expertise is in the ancient past, and I certainly found Britain BC the volume that deals, effectively with the history of Britain prior to the Roman invasion his most interesting. Unfortunately, the further Pryor moves from his era of expertise, the more I have found that his work disappoints. In particular, this work on "recent archaeology" misses the mark completely.

Because Pryor attempts to look at the wider picture when it comes to archaeology, his work can be particularly useful for those trying to understand the way that historical change has taken place. Rather than concentration on specific sites or archaeological finds, he tries to locate monuments or old buildings within a wider landscape and history. This is most effective when he looks at groupings of monuments in wider contexts. Most obviously, Pryor's explanation of the location of Stonehenge within a wider "ceremonial landscape" that has a history extending from long before the monument was built to centuries afterwards, means that we think about Stonehenge in a wider historical way, rather than as a building from a particular point in time.

This approach should work well when Pryor considers the modern world. After all the growth of cities, the development of modern agriculture, the invention of new techniques and technologies are, as we approach modern times, very much tide up in wider questions. The landscape, the movement of people, the developing forces of production and interests of particular classes within society. The sections in here on the birth of modern agriculture, the development of towns and cities, the archaeology of the first factories and mills to say nothing of transport networks like canals, motorways and railways would seem to fit well with this approach.

Unfortunately, Pryor's approach breaks down. In part his hatred of the word "revolution" is a problem here. Pryor doesn't like revolution. This is not because he isn't a progressive. Far from it. In this book he complains for instance about short-sited immigration controls from various British governments that scapegoat people in the interest of short-term political gain.

Rather Pryor dislikes revolution, because he believes that change is effectively evolutionary. In some senses of course he is right. Human society, history and technology does change through a process of evolution. Pryor argues for instance that the industrial revolution wasn't a revolution because it was based on the gradual development over centuries, of industrial processes, science and technology.

Yet what Pryor misunderstands is that these processes develop within wider society. The enormous social upheavels that took place in the 17th cenutry in England that led to a king having his head cut off, are ones that enabled those individuals in society geared towards developing society based on the accumulation of wealth to become the dominant ruling class. This was at the expenes of the old, feudal order. These changes are in part what makes the agriculatural revoution possible. Pryor's emphasis on evolution means that he misunderstands the enormous changes taking place, emphasising the continuity, rather than the change.

This however is only part of what makes this final volume so weak. The real problem here is the enormous mis-mash of ideas and places. Pryor deliberately avoids a narrative approach, so his history jumps back and forth in time. This isn't necessarily a problem, but the reader is left bewildered by all the different ideas. One moment Pryor is discussing railways, another he is looking at mining then pottery. This means he emphasises very much the particular changes taking place around a specific industry and those who work it, but fails to develop how this is linked to the wider developments in society.

Often the most illuminating parts of Pryor's books are were he draws on personal experience to help the reader understand an archaeological dig or a particular monument. In this book though, the reader is drowned in random, personal anecdotes. He tells us how he gets out of the car to photograph a particular view or enjoys an encounter with an attractive young woman who recognises him from television. But these rarely serve to illuminate the history he is recounting and often seem a bit tacked on. It is almost like Pryor sees himself as the key to understanding British history, rather than the evidence he is presenting us with.

Unfortunately this is a disappointing book that is best avoided, though I would suggest readers should certainly pick up other books by Pryor, particularly Britain BC and his history of the British Landscape.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain AD
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages
Pryor - Britain BC

Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape
Pryor - Seahenge
Pryor - Farmers in Prehistoric Britain

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Brian S. Roper - The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation

Just what "democracy" is has varied enormously throughout history. In the developed world we are told that "our" democracy is the envy of the world, yet as this new history demonstrates, at various times in the past people have had very different and often far more expanded franchises than we have today.

Indeed modern representative democracy is actually very limited. You only have to look at the way that the 2008 economic crisis was caused by completely unaccountable people. Bankers whose actions might have consequences for millions of people were completely unaccountable to wider society. Or, as Brain Roper points out, you could examine the 2004 US election were "business contributed $1,503 million to political parties compared with $61.6 million from trade unions". More recently you might muse on the fact that almost no-one in Britain voted for a Tory-Liberal coalition, yet the inadequate election system we have produced just that.

Roper begins his survey of the history of democracy with the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece's democracy was surprisingly advanced. In fact, "for the first and only sustained period in history the producers or labouring citizens ruled." Citizens he says, "faced no major obstacles to significant involvement in public affairs based on social position or wealth". Though children, women or slaves were of course excluded. Nonetheless, this is far in advance of the rights of many early democracies such as Britain, which only extended the franchise to women in the early 20th century. Roper is absolutely correct to argue that:

"Athenian democracy... rested on historically specific social foundations in which the peasant citizen played a central role."

I stress this because one of the important themes of Roper's book is not just that "democracy" changes through history, but that it does so based on particular historical circumstances. With the decline of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, Roper argues that democracy effectively disappeared and it was only with the revolutionary struggles against feudalism that democracy reappears. This democracy then must itself be struggled for and extended.

At the heart of Roper's book is an examination of how this process takes place. He looks in detail at three bourgeois revolutions - England, America and France to try and understand how modern states appeared and how democracy became central to them. What might be termed bourgeois democracy is a direct product of these revolutions, in particular the American Revolution. Roper examines how the victorious American bourgeoisie constructed a democratic system that both protected the status quo and limited the potential for movements from below to challenge their authority. It was a democracy that had protecting property relations at its core.

But Roper doesn't ignore another aspect to these movements, which is the way that in revolutionary struggles democracy from below appears. During the English Civil War for instance, the mass of the population that took part in the fighting began to develop its own ideas for how society should be run. The Putney Debates in 1647 were an example of representatives of different social forces within the revolution trying to lay out their own visions of how people could partake in society. The more radical elements were destroyed by Cromwell, but the episode serves to show that the democratic traditions that came out of the bourgeois revolutions were not automatic. Instead they represent different class interests.

The strongest sections of this book are those where Roper shows how revolutionary movements throw up the potential for new forms of participatory democracy in the modern world. In particular he looks at the way the Paris Commune demonstrated to revolutionaries like Marx and Engels how a socialist society might be organised, based on representatives paid the same rate and working people and accountable through recall by their electors. Roper quotes Marx's pamphlet, The Civil War in France:

"[The Commune was] a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour."

The second example that the author discusses is the Russian Revolution. This is important he argues, because "it showed that it was possible for the working class to take power and run society." In a few pages Roper discusses the successes of the revolution and the functioning of the soviets, the gatherings of elected representatives that both led the revolution and then began to re-organise society. He also then shows how the revolution was isolated and destroyed by the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy.

It is easy to critique democracy. After all, democracy fails to deliver economic or political justice for the majority of those within society. But such criticisms are not necessarily revolutionary. The Marxist critique outlined by Roper is important because it points the way forward, to a society where democracy is based upon an entirely different method of organising society. Under capitalism he points out, democracy can never work properly because society is based on the fundamental antagonism between two classes, the exploitation of one by the other, true democracy can only flourish when this antagonism is destroyed.

While Ropers' book is excellent there are a number of criticisms I would make. Firstly Roper concentrates very much on democracy within class society. To this end he ignores the democratic decision making processes that must have existed within pre-class societies. Hunter-gatherer communities have frequently been shown to have high levels of participation in decision making.

Secondly, Roper argues that feudal society was fundamentally undemocratic. This is absolutely right. There was a strict social hierarchy that rested on brute force. Yet within feudal society there were, on a very localised level, often some examples of democracy. Peasants in feudal villages often met annually to redistribute strips of land. Another example might be the daily "parliament" of the community on the island of St. Kilda. We should be wary of arguing that this implied there was any sort of democratic base to feudalism, but it does demonstrate that once again ordinary people did try to organise to improve their lot.

Finally Roper quite rightly argues that democracy is a product of revolutionary times and that we see the best, participatory democracy evolve during moments of revolutionary struggle. This is not just a product of this high points, but also of most working class struggles - at the lowest level, the "strike committee" is one example.

These criticisms aside, Brian S. Roper has produced a useful and interesting over-view of the history of an idea. It is one that will be useful as we try to understand the processes taking place around the world, particularly in the Arab Revolutions, as millions struggle against dictators, for democracy, freedom and social justice.

Related Reviews

Foot - The Vote
Vallance - A Radical History of Britain

Thursday, December 06, 2012

John Gittings - The Changing Face of China

Barely a day goes by without some newspaper including an article on China. China, it is said, is likely to be the next superpower, or undergo an enormous economic crash, or haul the world out of recession. But few of the columnists writing these articles have any great depth of understanding of China's history or economy.

One of the writers who does is John Gittings. For twenty years he was The Guardian's East Asia editor and his first hand knowledge of the people, places and history of China is unparallelled. Subtitled, "From Mao to Market", this 2005 book covers modern Chinese history and attempts to explain how China is now one of the foremost world economies when, only a few decades back the country was effectively isolated from the world economy, while its leaders preached socialism. The book is a useful account of modern Chinese history. At times it is overwhelming in its detail, and sometimes it has a non-linear approach to the history, so following events can be difficult. Nonetheless it is a worthwhile read if only for the sympathetic and honest account of the Chinese people.

Gittings argues that before the 1980s China was a socialist state. It is not clear what he means by socialist in this context. Marxists in the tradition I'm from have argued that China, alongside Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, was a State Capitalist economy, one were a centralised bureaucracy directed an economy, which had very little to do with a democratic socialist tradition. Nonetheless over the decades this broke down with various attempts to reform the economy. In this context, reform means open up to more capitalist dynamics, but as Gittings' points out, this was often down in the "framework of socialist thinking which always put 'politics first'."

Yet this politics had very little to do with improving the lot of ordinary people, and everything to do with protecting the interest of the more powerful. That's not to say that the state didn't improve the lives of people at various times. Gittings shows how the ability of the state to provide health care, basic services and food for people was far greater than previously. He also shows however, how disastrous political choices often led to hunger, chaos and political crisis. By 1989 though, Gittings argues, "the scene .... with agriculture effectively privatised and the profit now accepted as the dominant force throughout the economy was unimaginable at the start of the decade." Oddly, Gittings follows this up with a quote from Trotsky, who was one of the few revolutionaries in the 1930s who argued that China had taken the wrong road and was not a bastion of socialism. Gittings' confounds this by badly misquoting Marx, "from each according to his ability to each according to his work." "Need" is the correct final word from this quote.

One of the problems with Gittings' understanding of what socialism is, is that he can wedge almost anything into the definition. In fact this is precisely what the leaders of China, in the past and more recent times have also done. Here's a fascinating quote from Deng Xiaoping justifying "reforms" that were actually impoverishing millions:

"During the 'Cultural Revolution' there was a view that poor Communism was preferable to rich capitalism... The main task of socialism is to develop the productive forces, steadily improve the life of the people and keep increasing the material wealth of the society. Therefore, there can be no Communism with pauperism, or socialism with pauperism. So to get rich is no sin."

Since the existence of "rich" people, inevitably means the persistance of poor people, Deng here is trying to have his cake and eat it. However Gittings points out that despite rhetorical appeals to "socialism" or "the party" over time, such arguments become less important and a more general appeal to the concept of "the nation" is enough. In the 1990s, change could be "justified almost entirely in terms of the material interest of the Chinese people and of the global interests of the Chinese state."

This book is at its best when describing the lives of Chinese people and the enormous changes that have taken place to them and their families over the course of the last century. In 1980, Gittings points out, over 80 per cent of the population still depended on the land. But "twenty years later, an accelerating process of urbanization had transformed the relationship between town and countryside: 31 per cent of the population were urban dwellers, the number of towns rose from some 3,500 to around 20,000."

Alongside this enormous urbanisation has been the growth of unemployment and wage labour in factories. While this book is not recent enough to include material on strikes and "events" at factories like Apples, it does include a number of accounts of strikes, as well as some depressing statistics on low pay, high levels of prostitution and the crisis of HIV/AIDS in the country. The flip side of China's rush to become a "quasi capitalist" system, Gittings puts it, is the destruction of peoples' lives in the rush to make profits. Again though, Gittings' argues that this is less to do with capitalism and more to do with "the loosening of Party authority together with the spread of corruption" which "encouraged new destructive forces in society".

At the heart of the book is an account of the 1989 repression of the protesters in Tiananmen Square. This was the culmination of many years of frustration and anger at the upper echelons of the Communist Party. The CCP had been silencing dissent and reacted to Tiananmen Square with enormous violence. While the student pro-democracy movements were silenced, the 1989 events certainly helped shape policy since. Post-Tiananmen, struggles have increased. Gittings quotes figures that show that labour disputes recorded by the Ministry of Labour went from 8,150 in 1992 to 120,000 in 1999. In the 21st century this has only increased as protests grow against unemployment, low wages as well as environmental issues.

Many years back, Leon Trotsky asked, Wither China. It is still a pertinent question. Gittings' book is reportage and doesn't seek to offer an alternative to the headlong rush towards capitalism. But socialists should neither look back to China's past as some sort of great socialist paradise (though Gittings' does appear to have some nostalgia for a time when there was less unemployment). Rather we should understand that simmering away in the belly of China is an enormous working class and peasantry who's anger at what is happening to their lives is only matched by their potential to shape society in their own interests. Those who use the language of socialism to increase exploitation can only have themselves to blame when the people fight back.

Related Reviews

Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Nathaniel Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea

The story of what happened to the unfortunate crew of the whaling ship Essex has been told many times. Not least by the poor unfortunates who survived the ordeal. Nathaniel Philbrick's retelling though is the first that includes the recently discovered personal account of the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose retelling was found decades later in someones attic. It joins that of the First Mate Owen Chase who was one of the few who sailed with the Essex to meet good fortune on his return to civilisation.

Philbrick put the story of Essex's last voyage in the context of its time. Sailing out of Nantucket, the world's most important whaling port, the crew of the Essex were almost entirely white Quakers, with the exception of a few African-Americans. It is difficult to comprehend the life of those who hunted the sperm whales in the mid-19th century. The enormous risks, the danger and the appalling quality of life and the low pay is one thing. Voyages that might take two or three years. If the ship returned with her barrels full of oil there would be a bonanza for her owners and the sailors might get their percentage. But ships on occasion came back with nothing, and their crews had nothing to show for years on low rations and full of hours of work.

The life also created unusual relations between people. Sailors who were only home for a few months every few years found their wives were running the town in their absence. Indeed, Nantucket women seem to have developed a rare 19th century sense of independence.

Then I'll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me,
But every now and then I shall life to see his face,
For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace,
But when he says "Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea,"
First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free.

This independence was one reason (the other was high rates of death in childbirth) that meant that the Captain of the Essex married four times.

Philbrick is outstanding in his imaging of the life of the whalers and their town. But the core of this book is the story of how the Essex, about as far as it was possible to be from land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was destroyed by a bull Sperm whale, perhaps 85 feet in length. The crew boarded their whale boats and embarked, with low rations and lacking water, on a voyage several thousands of miles towards land. Retelling this story is not the job of this book, Philbrick does it enormously well. He walks the difficult line between reporting what we do know from surviving accounts and what might have happened, avoiding too much needless speculation. He also discusses uncomfortable truths that the survivors failed to mention - why was it that the first people to die were the African-American sailors? Was it because they were already weakened by lower rations than their white counterparts? Or was it because the Nantucket men instinctively gathered together giving less support to those from elsewhere in America.

The story of the Essex is one of horror. Starvation and dehydration destroy, but in a slow, painful way. Left with limited food, thousands of miles from land, the sailors drew lots and ate their dead comrades. Interestingly such action was less shocking to those back home than it seems to us. The seafaring community of Nantucket understood that sometimes things had to be done at sea. Philbricks retelling of this horrible episode of history is important, in part because it forms the inspiration to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The Nantucket whaling industry was peaking at the time of Essex's last voyage. But the story of her  last voyage is one of men suffering terribly in the quest to make other men, feet firmly planted on dry land very rich. Philbrick's enormously readable history is a painful reminder of the reality of the ocean.

Related Reviews

Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sven Lindqvist - 'Exterminate All The Brutes'

The title of Sven Lindqvist's short book comes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is the supposed solution to the task of the European countries in Africa and neatly sums up the violence at the core of colonial aspiration and imperialist aggression.

Part travelogue, part fiction and explicitly "not a contribution to historical research", Lindqvist's book is an account of the way that European colonialism and then more recently imperialism has subjugated the populations of other countries. His analysis differs from a Marxist one. He doesn't argue that the problem lies within a system of competing blocks of capital. But his story is no less painful and doesn't hide from pointing the fingers of blame and governments and individuals who were prepared to commit genocide in the interest of their nation state.

Conrad's writing of Heart of Darkness forms a fixed point for Lindqvist's account. He discusses the writings and activities that took place around the time, that would inform Conrad's account of massacre in Africa. Then he looks at the rise of racism and how Darwin's evolutionary theory was used to justify genocide. Lindqvist describes how one member of the British scientific establishment saw the future:

"Africa will be shared between England and France... Under European rule, the Africans will dig the ditches and water the deserts. It will be hard work and the Africans themselves will probably become extinct. 'We must learn to look at this result with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.'"

Such scientific distortions were all to common in the 19th century. Their influence on colonialism and slavery led to the deaths of millions and the pillage of entire continents. But Lindqvist is keen to explore the links between this historical past and more recent genocides such as the Holocaust. Lindqvist argues, that the Holocaust, in the sense of a colonial massacre of millions is far from unique. Indeed he suggests that we want to see the Holocaust as a unique act, so that we can avoid the reality of our own national history a "most comforting thought" he says. Lindqvist points out that

"Hitler.... and all the other Western people in his childhood breathed was soaked in the conviction that imperialism is a biologically necessary process, which, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races. It was a conviction which had already cost millions of human lives before Hitler provided his highly personal application."

Unfortunately I think this analysis is only partially correct. The Holocaust was unique because it was the only industrially organised genocide that lies rooted in the rise of Fascism. That said, it has links to the past and  as Lindqvist suggests other Imperial powers are certainly not innocent. Fascism is a particular aberration of capitalism, but it is more than simply a more violent version.

Once again Lindqvist exposes the bloody history of colonialism and imperialism. His book is unusual in its style, but its format doesn't detract from its content. There are few positives in Lidqvist accounts. He doesn't mention those people who stood up against slavery, colonialism, racism and genocide, often at great cost to themselves. Nonetheless this is a useful demolition of those who argue that Empire and colonialism was beneficial to the majority of the population.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Pakenham - The Scramble for Africa

Monday, December 03, 2012

James Marriott & Mika Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London

Capitalism is a fossil fuel system. Historically capitalism needed the enormous energies concentrated in coal to kick off the industrial revolution. Later the wheels of accumulation were kept turning with oil. As the Canadian activist Andrew Nikiforuk points out in his book on the Tar Sands, American society needs a oil filled supertanker to arrive at one of its ports every four hours.

Some of the world's oil comes from the Caspian Sea. Vast amounts of it flow from the off-shore oil rigs through the historic city of Baku, into Georgia, through Turkey and eventually after travelling the Mediterranean in tankers, through Europe to Germany were it is refined. The oil that flows through these pipes is extremely profitable. In September 2008 one of the rigs in the Caspian developed a gas leak and had to be shut down. Output of oil dropped by 500,000 barrels every day and the daily loss in income was $50 million dollars. This money rarely makes it into the pockets of the men and women who work the oil fields, or who live and work on the land that covers the pipeline. A little of it trickles into the coffers of some of the states that protect and helped build the pipe, but only a little. Most of it ends up in the bank accounts of BP, one of the most important components of the modern energy economy.

In this book the authors try to understand this system. They try to explain why oil is so important and why it makes companies like BP such incredible amounts of profits. In doing so they explain why different countries are prepared to invest enormous amounts in protecting the pipeline, despite receiving little benefit from doing so.

More importantly the authors also discuss what this means for us. Oil after all is one of the significant ways that humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As the authors eloquently put it:

"The oil industry is build on the extraction of these long-dead ecosystems, and the Oil Road is constructed to distribute ancient liquid rocks so that our one species may live beyond the limits of the ecosystems of our times."

As they travel the length of the oil pipeline - the Oil Road - the authors meet many people from BP and the wider oil industry. Many of these people are rational individuals. They see themselves as providing a service to wider humanity, keeping the wheels of society turning. Yet BP and other oil companies are not benevolent neutral organisations. As one activist in Azerbaijan puts it, "BP doesn't do anything for human rights. Especially as BP is a great cooperator with our regime... they are not helping us build our democracy. It's great that they train some journalists to write articles professionally - but this is minor compared to their support for the repression."

On many occasions as they travel the Oil Road the authors find evidence of the way that the oil industry has propped up regimes that care little for their populations. Oil money has a nasty habit of distorting people and areas. Whole cities, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, explode around the drilling rigs. Money pours out to build shiny buildings and allow a minority to purchase expensive cars.

But the money distorts whole economies. In Azerbaijan, by 2008, "97 per cent of all exports were oil-related. The remaining 3 per cent were agricultural". This is a country that spent one billion dollars building a single, show piece bridge. Yet men and women are locked up for opposing the regime. The authors document the way that the oil companies develop the infrastructure and create countries were it is good for them to do business. This includes the funding of militias and bribery of politicians.

But the Oil Road is not just contemporary. The oil fields around the Caspian have been important almost as long as capitalism has needed the black gold. The city of Baku was one of the cities that mushroomed in Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Like St. Petersberg and Moscow it was a growing, concentrated site for workers and capitalism. Its workers were at the forefront of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and in the Oil Road there is a wonderful description of performance of the Symphony of the Factory Sirens that celebrated the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. The 1917 revolution led to the takeover of the oil industry in Baku, as the authors point out, the first nationalisation in history of an oil industry was accomplished by the Bolsheviks.

The authors travel the Oil Road and what they find is the dirty underbelly of capitalism. Particularly outside of Europe the pipeline creates a "corridor of violence", where human rights are dismissed and people are pushed around in the interest of the multinationals. Pipes are buried underground, a few metres from their homes and fields, threatening their homes and damaging their agriculture. Few of them receive adequate compensation. As the authors explore the pipeline they find the way that the oil companies receive protection from the state. Patrolled by government forces, policemen or soldiers, employed by the state but protecting the needs of private industry. This link between the oil companies and nation states is one of the most fascinating aspects to this book. When in 1992 BP was trying to get into the crucial markets of the former Soviet Union, they were allowed to set up their offices in the British Embassy. There can be few better examples of the hand in hand behaviour of the state and capital than this.

While the travelogue style of the book can at times be a bit confusing, there is much in here of use to anti-capitalists and environmental activists. It is particularly difficult to read it without developing enormous anger against BP, a company that in 2006 caused "total emissions of 5.6 per cent of the global total" over twice that of the whole of the UK. This is a company that turns oil production on and off at the press of a button if the price of crude oil falls too low, whose products make enormous profits for a tiny minority yet balks at offering a few hundred pounds to farmers whose lands have been destroyed by the Oil Road.

If there is one criticism, I feel that the Oil Road fails to offer much of an alternative. In part this is deliberate. The authors have clearly set out (and they this very well) to expose the reality of one part of the oil industry. But if humanity is to avoid catastrophic climate change, the Oil Road will need to be both explored and an alternative found. Other campaigns have been working on this and the Oil Road is an important weapon in these arguments.

Perhaps one way of finding a solution is gathering some inspiration from the Bolsheviks and their nationalisation of the oil industry after the revolution. This is not to suggest that after the revolution greenhouse gas emissions could be tamed. Rather it is to argue that the problem today are the private companies that destroy people and planet in the interest of profits. Taking control of the means of production is as important today as it was in 1917.

The left-wing Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was dazzled by the potential for technology to liberate humanity. In the Oil Road the authors quote one of his poems:

I sat at his deathbed
He said to read him a poem
About the sun and the sea
Nuclear reactors and satellites
The greatness of humanity

The press relations departments for the companies that use the Oil Road would enjoy that poem, though they probably wouldn't be able to comprehend the words of another of Hikmet's poems also quoted:

Love clouds, machines and books
But people above all

The Oil Road is driven by the irrational desire to accumulate wealth for the sake of wealth. A more rational society would shut it down and replace it with cleaner energy. James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello's book is a very useful tool in understanding the sickness of our system and the need for us all to find an alternative.

Note: You can purchase The Oil Road from Platform for the very reasonable price of £10 and help support their combination of art, education and activism. Their shop is here.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christian Wolmar - The Subterranean Railway

In his introduction to this history of the London Underground, Christian Wolmar makes the point that few writers on London discuss the enormous rail systems that lie beneath the surface. Indeed, Peter Ackroyd's wonderful biography of the city apparently only has half a dozen references to the Underground. This is a shame because the history of the London Underground parallels the rise of London the city and carries the marks of many of the social events that go with it.

In particular, the Underground bears the marks of the political and economic choices made to build it. Like most great Victorian innovations, the early lines were driven by private finance, raised by railway entrepreneurs who hoped for a swift return on their investments. Few of them, or their shareholders lived to see their money back and as the system got expanded, rival companies swallowed up others, until the 20th century when the whole became partially taken over by the government and part of what is now London Transport.

To the modern traveller this might seem unimportant. But it might be worth contemplating the years of delay caused by such early private finance schemes as when your tube sits waiting in the dark for no apparent reason, it could well be because of decisions made by early industrialists. They may well have chosen to install a rail junction instead of routing tunnels above and below each other. The money saved made the total cost easier for the board of directors, but generations of travellers have cursed their wasted time.

The lines themselves often follow roads, lost rivers and may not take the most direct route. Again this was often about saving money. Early tunnels were made through the "cut and cover" method. Engineers effectively dug an enormous ditch then covered the tunnel over. This was costly and caused enormous disruption, it also meant compensation had to be paid. Railway companies were accused of directing their proposed routes through areas were residents were easier to displace. Wolmar quotes a local vicar, near Smithfield who said against the builders of the early Metropolitan line:

"The special lure of the capitalist is that the line will pass only through inferior property, that is through a densely peopled district, and will destroy the abode of the powerless and the poor, whilst it will avoid the properties of those whose opposition is to be dreaded, the great employers of labour."

The problem wasn't just the capitalists. It was also the government. Victorian laissez-faire capitalism frowned on government involvement in such projects, so the "haphazard" design of the underground was partly due to "being a pioneer" but also "due to the refusal of the government to engage with the planning of the system". As Wolmar comments the "French system of central planning was not the British way."

Of course this doesn't just apply to the London Underground, but also other major transport systems. The lack of a central London overland station of any note, and the multiple lines heading into diverse train stations from around the country, making travellers lives overly complicated. Nonetheless there were many who wanted to make the system more rational, though not all of them had the view of a publicly owned system. Albert Stanley, appointed to oversee their investments by a group of American businessmen began the process of branding the whole tube with iconic signage at the same time as joint tickets for all the lines were coming into play. Stanley, like all good capitalists did his best to ensure that his lines made profits for the shareholders and to do so the largest bus company. Rather than close it down he began to "integrate the services in such a way that direct competition against his own underground lines was reduced, but also ensured he could weaken the remaining three lines outside his control by using buses to run against them."

Anyone who has witnessed the traumatic effects of bus de-regulation will have seen similar tactics employed by travel companies against each other, trying to drive competitors out of business before putting up their own prices.

It is tempting to repeat the many fascinating stories of social history or technical engineering in this review. Wolmar tells the story of the way that in the early days of the Blitz, Communist Party members and others forced London Underground to open up the tube as bomb shelters. He then tells the less well remembered stories of the way that the Underground became almost a permanent home for many Londoners. Authorities put on trains to provide food and water to those sheltering in the stations, and their were enormous problems with sanitation. Underground denizens even elected representatives to negotiate with the authorities. Wolmar also reminds us that the Underground was a shelter during the First World War, something often forgotten by those whose history only goes back to 1939.

After World War Two, the Underground entered a long period of decline which the system has only recently escaped. He blames this on two things:

"The lack of investment for much of the past fifty years, and overcrowding, with record numbers now using the system. The story of the Underground since the Second World War is a sad tale of missed opportunities, displaying a lack of foresight over the need for new lines and based on the mistaken notion that usage of the system would decline as a result of the nearly universal ownership of the motor car."

This lack of investment is partly to blame, in Wolmar's view for the tragic fire that took place at Kings Cross Station, an event which recently had its 25th anniversary. Perhaps more importantly Wolmar argues that successive governments saw the London Underground as a problem rather than something to assist London's economy and indeed he complains as much about "short term political interference" as he does privatisation when listing the ills afflicting London's transport system. Tucked away in a footnote he points out that:

"Even today, London Transport receives around half the level of subsidy in relation to income compared with its counterparts in European cities - typically only 30 per cent of its money comes from subsidy, compared with twice that level in Paris or Berlin."

In addition, he points out that it is almost impossible to measure the importance of the system through the money it can make:

"A financial study of the Victoria line made thirty years after the first section opened in 1968 still suggested that it was only a marginally worthwhile development even when taking into account the social benefits such as savings on car journey times.  Looked at financially, the Victoria line appeared to be a complete non-runner... Yet the line is operating at virtually full capacity for much of the day and is a vital part of London's infrastructure."

I had expected Wolmar's book to be a interesting anecdotal history of a part of London. It is that, but it is much more. It is an argument for a rational public transport policy and that makes this an even more worthwhile read. That said, it is full of fascinating information, the stories of the underground trains powered by steam and filled with smoke, the attempts to move trains with long ropes or compressed air and the experiences of passengers underground with few windows and lights are fascinating and will almost certainly give the modern commuter something to think about while waiting for the Central Line.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Alastair Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth

Warning. This review contains enormous spoilers.

Alastair Reynolds specialises in writing large scale science fiction. Often his characters, and indeed story lines can seem dwarfed by the immense scale of the environment he is writing about. His stories cross galaxies, enormous spaces and long periods of time. In this context Blue Remembered Earth is very different. If I was to be someone optioning film rights of Reynolds' works I'd choose this one.

In a very different way from his previous writings, Blue Remembered Earth seems very much character driven. We begin with Geoffrey a scientist studying elephants in an Africa several centuries from today. Humans have survived the chaos of climate change, war and environmental disaster, though Earth has changed. Greenland exports fine Merlot wine and much of what was the industrialised, developed world of today has been overtaken by the powerful economies of Africa, India and China. Reynolds is brilliant at painting this new world, dominated by clean technology, space travel and colonies on the Moon and Mars.

The technology is very much the backdrop though to a personal story of Geoffrey and his Akinya family. The Akinya are fabulously wealthy. Their capitalist fingers in every pie, from space travel to genetics research. Their ageing matriarch has died and leaves behind a series of tantalising clues that takes Geoffrey back and forth across the solar system. Geoffrey, formally a man who wants nothing more than to study the brainwaves of his beloved elephants finds himself exploring our strange future.

Reynolds' future is surprisingly believable, though some of the concepts are a little mind numbing at times. The humans who alter themselves to become sea creatures, mermaids for instance and join the aquatic nations are one example. I also felt the evolving mechanical machines of Mars had a little of the Edgar R. Burroughs to it. These are minor problems though. What Reynolds does well is to link together the different character story lines, often taking place in widely different parts of the solar system to create a novel of humanity on the edge of a new era.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chris Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx

Chris Harman's last book is breathtaking in its scope and detail. Like his classic work A People's History of the World he condensed a lifetime of reading, analysis and Marxist thought to create a book that is nothing short of an economic history of capitalism, from a Marxist point of view. It is also a deep critique of the inherent problems of the system. Finished as the latest economic crisis began to bite with the failures of banks around the globe, Chris Harman's book has left us valuable ammunition with which to argue against those who believe that capitalism can be either saved, or reformed.

Harman begins this work by looking again at the basic ideas of Marx's economic thought. He takes us through the way that Marx understood that humans interact with the natural world. Our labour being precisely our attempts to shape the world in our own interests. This labour is what makes us human. Most important to this, is the Labour Theory of Value. Human labour is the most important thing about our society, as Harman explains:

"Machines and raw materials do not themselves create value. Only the exercise of human labour has added to the natural wealth that existed in a state of nature and only continued human labour can increase it still further."

Under capitalist production what happens is that this labour is used to fulfil the interests of the capitalists. Goods that are manufactured and sold, are sold at a price that allows the capitalist to "cover not only the cost of providing the labour power of the workers (their wages) and the profit of the company, but also the cost of the wood and the wear and tear [to equipment],"

The "surplus value" - the amount extracted from the workers' labour above and beyond that needed to pay them, is the core issue for a Marxist understanding of economic. But for capitalist production as a whole there is another related factor, which is at the centre of Harman's explanation of what happens to the wider system. This is the "rate of profit". This is, in its simplest terms, "the ratio of surplus value to total investment". All sorts of factors influence the rate of profit - not least the level of wages, and it changes over time and between industries. But, what Marx identifies and Harman explains, is the great tendency for the "rate of profit" to decline over time. It is in this decline, and the attempts of the capitalists to increase their rate of profit, or slow its decline that the problems of the wider system are related to.

By arguing that the falling rate of profit is key to understanding the long term crisis of capitalism, Harman doesn't ignore other factors and issues. For instance, he recognises, with Marx, the problems of declining consumption caused by the reduction of wages, or unemployment and the way that this can feed in to wider economic problems to help create crisis. Harman also explores the role of finance capitalism and the banking industry, a subject that is particularly important when trying to understand the roots of the present crisis. Harman quotes Marx:

"The credit system accelerates the material development of the productive forces and the world market", but does this through developing "the incentive to capitalist production, enrichment through exploitation of the labour of others, to the most pure form of gambling and swindling". Finance drives "the process [of production] beyond its capitalist limits" resulting in "overtrade, overproduction and excessive credit" in ways that rebound on production itself."

The first few chapters of Zombie Capitalism which look at Marx's thought and its application to 21st century capitalism are some of the clearest explanations of the subject I have ever read. Harman's great ability as a writer was to make these concepts accessible. The rest of the book applies this analysis to this history of capitalism, and reasserts some of the ideas which the International Socialist tendency that Harman was part of, developed to explain particular aspects of economic history. Thus Harman explains again the "Permanent Arms Economy" the enormous government spending that enabled the "long boom" of the post-war years to provide so much stability to western economies until the late 1960s.

Harman also surveys the wider economists, both right and left, and both develops their work and criticises it. In particular I found his discussion around the causes of the Great Depression very useful. Of particular interest to current economic debates is Harman's critique of Keynes. Today it is popular to argue that government spending can solve economic crisis, and many mainstream economists are returning to Keynes after rejecting him through the neo-liberal era of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet Harman is critical of Keynes, not least because he argues that such government spending had little to do with rescuing the economies of the 1930s (until the war economies began) or the long boom. He also notes that during the 1970s, governments became convinced that Keynes ideas were infallible, yet when they did fail, quickly switched to more monetarist ideas. Harman locates the end of the long boom, not with particular economic priorities or policies, but rather in the falling rate of profit.

Harman concludes this monumental work by looking at the changes that have taken place in the modern economy. He discusses whether the working class, identified by Marx as the system's "grave digger" can still play that role. He finds that while the class has changed in many ways, workers of different types are still the producers of the profits for the system. He also challenges some of the myths - that manufacturing is dead in the UK, or that call centres are the most important section to developing capitalism in India. In addition, Harman argues that many of the sacred cows of those who believed in globalisation (from both the right and left) have proved false. Capital still tends to associate and rely upon one nation state and few capitalists are actually able to up sticks and move around the globe at will to defy workers fighting for better conditions.

Harman does not ignore the wider implications of capitalism's ongoing existence. He looks in detail for instance at the environmental impact of the system, he uses a classic quote from Marx to point to the way that capitalist interests over-ride the needs and interests of wider society:

"In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Apres moi le deluge! is the watchword of every capitalist.... Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society."

Harman continues;

"Exactly the same logic as that described by Marx is found in the attitude of capital to the pumping out of climate change gases today. Capitalist politicians make beautiful speeches about the need to do something.... and the bow down before interests which say that this or that measure to deal with climate change will be too costly for the economy to bear."

This analysis has only one conclusion. That if we are to avoid the destructive reality of capitalism, then we need to destroy the beast itself. Harman's book should be a weapon in the hands of every activist who wants to challenge the system. It is a forensic disection of capitalism, whether discussing the falling rate of profit, or the peasantry in the modern world. It also points to the alternative. A system based on need, not greed. The socialist society that Chris Harman devoted his life to fighting for. Zombie Capitalism along with the wealth of books and articles of Harman's are essential ammunition in that ongoing fight.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

David Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough: A Portrait of the Life of the Old Scottish Farmtouns

David Kerr Cameron was the son of a Scottish horseman, a labourer who travelled from farm to farm, working as needed. David himself became a journalist in his twenties and in his fifties produced this book. It documents a now almost forgotten part of Scottish history, the Farmtoun, which formed the basis for the agriculture of the north-east part of Scotland.

The Farmtoun was a near unique arrangement. It is essentially a collection of large farms, making up a small town in its own right. The farmtouns were centred on a house, with a bothy for the single men who made up the workforce. Usually ten, or twenty labourers would live in the bothy, each employed for six or twelve months at a time. They'd be horsemen or ploughmen, or youngsters learning to the trades. The life was hard, and unlike some who write about agricultural life in the past, Cameron does not pretend this was some rural idyll. It was;

"a lifetime of the starker side of farmtoun existence: the poor food, the continuous mud, the constant rheumy pains that came finally from wearing clothes that were damp almost from one year's end to the next; ... the squalor of bothy life and the hardships of domestic service.... Men were mangled by machinery improperly guarded, gored by bulls inadequately tethered; children drowned unseen in mill dams."

The farms themselves were in close knit communities. There was co-operation, but no sharing of crops. Co-operation was needed because of the poverty, few had enough animals or equipment to go it alone. As Cameron writes, "it was common for a joint tenant of a farmtoun to own no more than the half-share of an ox - and eight were needed to pull the plough. The run-rigs were worked by the folk of the community themselves... the farmtoun clusters were co-operatives only in the labour sense; there was no sharing of crops."

Of course the community wouldn't let one of their own starve, but this was agriculture that was frequently close to the wind. The work was tough and some farmtouns didn't survive. Their names often point to the difficulties and failures; Scrapehard, Weariefauld, Stoneyvale and Clayhill.

Working arrangements were also hard. Men were fined for leaving in the evenings without permission, or for other misdemeanours. As one ballad of the time has it;

"The order was to bed at nine,
And never leave the town,
And for every time we left it,
We'd be fined half a crown"

Of course the men did,

"We never heeded Adam
But aye we took the pass,
Sometimes to buy tobacco,
Sometimes to see the lass."

Pay was low and the work long and hard and the author points out that "many of today's farming dynasties were shamefully founded on the wealth that came from squeezing such men into penury."

At the heart of this book are the bothy ballads. Collected as the farmtouns were beginning to fade from agriculture if not from memory. Cameron uses them to great effect, using them to tell the stories of famous ploughmen, the dull, monotonous diet and the love affairs. While concentrating on the farming, Cameron also tells the stories of the women and girls who worked the farms. Getting up before the men to heat water and light a fire, their work was as dull and hard as the men's. It also involved long hours,

"For her seventeen-hour day, the pay was pitifully small a.... Mary Melvin going home to Mains of Corsindae in 1876 got £6 15s (£6.75) for the half-year while Maggie Thom that same year and in the same region, got over £2 less."

 Cameron discusses the affairs and flings that led to many illegitimate children and the way that the church tried to crack down on such behaviour. But in the isolated farmtoun, young men and women made their own rules.

This is a difficult book to read, not least because of the dialect. But Cameron writes assuming his reader has some knowledge of agriculture. He gives a detailed explanation of the importance of the introduction of the 'swing plough' for instance, without explaining what it is. But minor points like this do not really detract from an important work of social history. The poetry, songs and ballads bring to life a forgotten time, one that even as the author wrote was beginning to slip into semi-nostalgic memory, though the pain remained too:

"Have you forgotten it? The dream I mean-
That dream you buried in the ground
Like an early lamb, many winters since?
What else could keep you, knowing all
The odds, but refusing to acknowledge them,
Thinking that victory was in sight?"

The author of this song might have been thinking of a farmtoun driven destitute by the cheap imported grain that came from the US, that helped break Scottish farmtoun agriculture, or perhaps someone driven into the town by old age and unemployment. But there was pride too, pride in work and a job well done, and family and friends and the community.

"Success the ploughmen's wages crown;
Let ploughmen's wages ne'er come down,
And plenty in Scotland aye abound,
By labour of the ploughmen.
For the very King that wears the crown,
The brethren o' the sacred gown,
The Dukes and the Lords of high renown,
Depend upon the ploughmen."

For some, like the women who milked the cows before sunrise, the introduction of machinery was met with a prayer of thanks. For others it meant unemployment or the destruction of old skills. But the rise and fall of the farmtouns is the story of a brief period when Scottish agriculture was transformed. It is also the agriculture that shapes much of the landscape we see today in the north-east of Scotland and its a history that rest of the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of men and women. David Kerr Cameron's book is a fitting tribute to their lives.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Peter Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Peter Fryer was a socialist journalist of enormous reputation. As related in this obituary his experiences in Hungary during the 1956 uprising reporting for the Daily Worker led him to break from the British Communist Party. He remained active on the far left, joining a Trotskyist organisation where his talents as a writer continued to be demonstrated. I've reviewed a couple of his works, including his slightly eccentric Studies of English Prudery on this blog. Staying Power however is Peter Fryer's most important book, the culmination of a lifetimes reading, writing and research. While it covers an immense period, it concentrates on the 16th century onwards for this is when the role of black and asian people becomes most important for British history. In part this is because more and more black people are living in the British Isles, but it is also because it is during the first couple of centuries of this period that slavery becomes absolutely central the accumulation of wealth for British capitalism. It is during this period, to paraphrase Marx, that capital was born into the world, drenched in blood.

Beginning with the presence of black people amongst Roman legionnaires on Hadrian's Wall, Fryer relates much of this history through contemporary accounts, quotes and frequently the voices of black people themselves. These forgotten accounts are often powerful and heart rending - the stories of escaped slaves, people who failed to escape slavery, victims of racism and violence and occasionally those who fought back and escaped persecution or their chains.

As a socialist, Fryer's sympathies are with the oppressed, rather than the oppressor. In one of the two core chapters of the book, that on slavery, he discusses how slavery was ended, first in Britain and then in the colonies. Not for Fryer is this a result of the benevolent gentleman or the sympathetic judge. While both these figures make an appearance (Fryer is too rounded a historian to ignore their contributions) his explanation is rooted much more in the activities of ordinary people, men and women, black and white. Here for instance he describes the way that slavery was ended in Britain:

"if, contrary to popular belief, slavery in Britain was not outlawed by Mansfield in 1772, how in fact was it ended? The short answer is that black slaves in Britain voted with their feet. They had always... resisted by running away from their masters and mistresses. Helped and encouraged, and to some extent protected by the Mansfield decision, they had largely completed this process and freed themselves by the mid-1790s. This gradual self-emancipation is a matter of social rather than legal history..."

Fryer also understands that not all white people had the same attitudes to the small, but growing numbers of black people in Britain. Often those who fought and organised against slavery where the white working class, instinctively understanding that, the ruling class had an interest in dividing them and using racism to undermine their collective strength. Moral revulsion at slavery from ordinary people played its role - Fryer documents a number of accounts of escaped slaves being accepted into white working class communities and protected from their former masters, including a welsh mining community. But it was at periods of "working-class radicalism" that the abolitionist movement grew. This even went to the heart of the parts of Britain which had gained the most from slavery itself:

"The 1792 petition from Manchester, whose population was somewhat under 75,000 carried over 20,0000 signatures. Even Bristol had a petition. It was the spread of radical ideas amongst working people that had brought about this change". 

Anti-slavery was part and parcel of radical activism. It was at the core, for instance, of the ideas coming out of the French Revolution and later of Chartism. This is not surprising, the racial ideas that justified slavery were in part a product of growing fear of rebellion at home, as Fryer points out, "there was an organic connection in nineteenth century Britain between the attitude the ruling class took to the 'natives; in its colonies and the attitude it took to the poor at home."

He continues:

"Though the Chartist movement evaporated after 1848, by the 1860s working people in Britain were once more challenging the political and economic power of those who ruled and employed them. Faced with this challenge, 'the proponents of social inequality slipped all the more readily into racial rhetoric'."

The second core chapter, and perhaps the most important is the one were Fryer shows how racism was consciously created and encouraged on the plantations. This invention of racism was needed to justify what was happening to the slaves and to allow slavery to continue. It was simply too profitable for the slave owners and traders, yet without racial justification for the slave trade, it would have been impossible to continue with it. In part this was pseudo-scientific racism, in part it was simply the extension and development of the myths and prejudices that existed about Africa and the non-white world. Africans were "lazy", "childlike" or "simple" and Fryer details the development of such racist ideas and how they spread through the British Empire. One of the reasons this is so crucial is that it demonstrates that racism (as opposed to prejudice or ignorance about black people) has not always existed. It is not some inherent part of human nature, rather a product of the need to make profit by trading in people from Africa.

As always there were those who argued against this, and Peter Fryer quotes one such man a minister, Morgan Godwyn in 1680, who pointed to the "economic basis and role of plantocracy racism". Godwyn's book argued that in dehumanising black people, slavery was justified. One aspect to this, was the way that slaves were denied religion, which served, as Godwyn points out, to;

"The issue whereof is, that as in the Negroe's all pretence to Religion is cut off, so their Owners are hereby set at Liberty, and freed from those importunate Scruples, which Conscience and better Advice might at any time happen to inject into their unsteadie Minds."

Godwyn believed that the "'public agents' for the West Indies, 'know know other God by Money, nor Religion but Profit'." That the first such blows against slavery were struck in the language of religion is no surprise. They were not to be the last.

Racism did not end with the abolition of slavery. Indeed racism was to prove, as the above quote demonstrates, too useful in dividing the working class. Fryer follows the story of the battles against racism, and the experiences of black people in Britain, through the 20th century. He shows how, despite forming an integral part of the armed forces during World War One, and increasingly being accepted into British life, racism reared its ugly head. As the War finished and black soldiers weren't needed, they were forgotten, deported or ignored. Fryer uncovers the forgotten history of the race riots when groups of white men attacked (often on a huge scale) black people, their homes and clubs. These riots, particularly those in Liverpool and Cardiff in 1919 were terrifying and the authorities looked the other way.

There is much more in Fryers book. He tells the stories of various attempts to build anti-colonial movements in the UK, or to support existing struggles elsewhere. On a lighter note he documents the stories of musicians, boxers and artists who came to Britain from the West Indies and Africa.

The book finishes, abruptly to the contemporary reader, in 1981 in the immediate aftermath of the riots that swept the country. Riots that were both a response to institutionalised racism and the poverty and unemployment that often goes with it. There are many echoes of this past today, not least in the experience of the 2011 riots in Britain. The problems that Fryer identifies in 20th century capitalism for Black people have not disappeared in the early 21st century.

As a social history this book has no equal. Fryer's scholarship is detailed, but his work is immensely readable. It is a book that should be on the shelf of everyone committed to fighting racism, every socialist and every trade unionist. It is a singular history of Britain that demonstrates the way that ordinary people, black and white, have been the victims of the quest for profits, but how they have also organised to improve fight for a better world.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Matthew Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis

Given the importance of the French Resistance to the narrative of the Second World War that we hear so often in the UK, it is surprising that so little in English has been written about it. Our image of the Resistance is shaped all to often by the stereotypes in Allo Allo or spy novels. Indeed much of the non-fiction that has been published tends to concentrate on the British contribution, through the work of the secret services during the war.

In the further reading section of his book Matthew Cobb bemoans the lack of English language work on this important period and contrasts this with some 3000 books written in France. Thankfully Cobb's own history is a brilliant summary of the struggle against the Nazi occupation and one that doesn't shy from raising wider political and cultural questions.

It is easy to think of the French Resistance as being a few brave individuals clutching tommy guns and blowing up railway tracks, as well as helping Allied soldiers escape the clutches of the Germans. This did occur of course, but it was far from the only work of the resistance. If this was the only way that French people resisted, then it would have been difficult for the numbers to take part who did. That said, Cobb points out that less then two percent of the total population were involved in the Resistance and that for "most of the war, the vast majority of the French did little or nothing to oppose Vichy and the Occupation". This should not be a surprise. Standing up against the vicious brutality of the fascist occupying force took bravery. Of the half a million or so active résistants 100,000 died in the concentration camps. Cobb also makes the point that many acts of resistance stopped far short of using explosives, though they remained morally and politically important - the wearing of the French colours, listening to the BBC and discussing the news, or helping Jews.

Active resistance work took bravery and enormous commitment. Cobb mentions Andree de Jongh, a Belgian woman who organised an escape route for Allied airmen. She had contacts from Belgium to the south-west of France and accompanied almost all of her "charges" to freedom. Cobb writes that "in the space of 16 months she cross the Pyrenees 35 times, taking 118 evaders to safety". Eventually de Jongh was captured and taken to a concentration camp, though she, unlike many, survived the war.

There are some fascinating accounts of acts of resistance in this book and many of the tales of ordinary people taking up arms are inspiring. However Cobb also takes time to explore some of the other forms of resistance that have rarely been discussed this side of the Channel. For instance Cobb discusses the mass strikes and protests that at times involved thousands of ordinary French workers.

On May Day 1942 a series of demonstrations took place that involved significant numbers of people. The preparation for this again shows how organised the resistance could be - 120,000 newspapers and 250,000 "tracts" were distributed to promote these protests. In Marseilles and Lyons tens of thousands marched, their slogans including "Long Live de Gaulle". At other times during the war, acts of resistance were inseparable from wider economic questions. In June 1941 a mass strike of miners was the first example of large scale opposition to the Occupation. This was driven by the Nazi demands for raw materials from occupied countries to fuel the German war machine as well as demands for better working conditions. A hundred thousand miners, supported by their families refused to obey the Nazis. But they also refused to follow instructions from their management - not all of the French saw the Occupation as against their interests. Several hundred men and women were deported, many never to return. The strike however, despite the vicious reprisals did demonstrate, as one miners' leader said at the time, that "From now on, the Occupier knows that workers who suffer in misery will not always accept the yoke of national oppression."

The miners' spirit indeed the traditions of the French labour movement, would re-emerge on a number of occasions during the war. A number of important factories making components for German industry suffered frequent sabotage and as Cobb shows, quite a few of these required the inside knowledge of workers in the plant. On occasion, management were effectively told by the Resistance to facilitate this or face destruction of equipment on a larger scale. The Normandy Invasion in 1944 was accompanied by large scale acts of sabotage and a further miners' strike. Cobb is careful to point out that it was the Allied armies with their enormous amounts of manpower and equipment that liberated France. But the role of the Resistance at this important moment was crucial to making that a success.

Once again, we might be unaware of the scale of this. So it's worth quoting Cobb here;

"The level of Resistance action was proportionally on the same massive scale as OVERLORD. Within twenty-four hours, the railway network had been paralysed by up to 1,000 acts of sabotage.... Locomotives were destroyed, trains were derailed and bridges were blown up, reducing rail traffic by fifty per cent. Fifty-one trains stuck in a traffic jam  around Lille were easy pickings for Allied aircraft..."

The invasion led to a flood of people getting active. Elsewhere in France a number of cities and areas were liberated by their populations, occasionally too early to avoid being crushed by Nazi forces. The declaration of the Free Republic state of Vercors is a forgotten moment of revolutionary history. The battle that followed required a full scale onslaught of Nazi forces before the résistants were destroyed. SS parachutists and special forces used gliders to assault the liberated area. While a hopelessly one-sided battle that left hundreds of French people dead, these were no doubt forces that had to be diverted from the battles against the Allied forces. Many villages, towns and cities were liberated, not by American tanks but by the people themselves. Cobb says that there were over thirty insurrections that helped kick out the fascist forces, most famously in Paris.

Such acts terrified the Allied leaders. Even some of the right-wing Resistance leaders had recognised early on in the Occupation that the resistance forces could be the beginnings of a "revolutionary army that could transform French society in a socialist direction". Certainly some of the factory occupations that took place following D-Day and during the liberation of France resembled the beginnings of workers power. A terrified de Gualle did everything he could to prevent these sort of actions spreading, while the role of the Communist Party, at the heart of the resistance, both helped inspire such actions and limit them. Towards the end of the war the CP were making it clear they no longer wanted a revolution, but wanted a part of the government that would follow the war.

However some in the Resistance, often those influenced by Trotskyist ideas thought much harder about what sort of struggle would get rid of the Germans and transform society. In some cases Trotskyist and Communists produced literature aimed at the occupying forces, including a German-language paper Soldat im Westen. A Trotskyist in Paris also organised a network of German soldiers around another newspaper and argued that they had a common fight against Fascism. Ultimately these networks were smashed, but showed the potential for the war against fascism to develop in much wider directions.

Much of Cobb's book details the ins and outs of the leadership of the Resistance. Initially the Resistance was looked at with scorn by the Allies. De Gaulle himself had little interest and barely mentions it in his own memoirs of the war. However the actions of men and women on the ground forced him to take it seriously and millions of French people saw De Gaulle as the personification of the struggle against the Occupation. De Gaulle had no interest in turning the struggle against fascism into a wider re-arrangement of French society and when Paris had been liberated he callously dismissed the individuals who had gathered to welcome him on behalf of the Resistance movements.

Cobb includes his book with an examination of the historical importance of the Resistance, particularly its influence on French identity and culture. There can be no doubt that this is significant, but as the years passed there was a reshaping of official memories. French society also had to cope with the fact that many millions of people did not resist and, in thousands of cases, were active collaborators. While there was great sympathy with the suffering of the Jews, such as the solidarity acts of wearing of yellow stars by non-Jews in Paris, only one train was blocked from taking Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz. Cobb tells the story of this dramatic episode, which is worthy of a Hollywood film, but it is an isolated, if inspiring example. The truth is that thousands of French Jews did die, in part as a result of the acts of collaboration by French people, particularly those at the top of society.

In a few short years, the Resistance grew from an amateurish collection of individuals who new little of the basics of security, to a huge armies of armed men and women. Those who took part in this, whatever their own political ideas (though frequently these were shaped by left wing views) demonstrated that people would not collectively give in. The spirit of the Resistance helped shape the ideas of a generation and Matthew Cobb's book is a fine account of those who were prepared to stand up and be counted in the fight against fascism.

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