Friday, January 27, 2012

Jules Romains - Verdun

The Battle of Verdun, that took place in early 1916 was one of the most horrific clashes of World War One - well over 700,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing in the battle. It was marked by enormous barrages, the first systematic use of flame throwers and like the Battle of the Somme does, it continues to cast its shadow over subsequent generations of Frenchmen and Germans alike.

Jules Romains' novel Verdun is, at least according to the blurb here, a "lost treasure", first published in 1938 it is an unusual novel. There is almost no narrative structure, save that of the Battles' history itself. Instead chapters are devoted to a few individuals, some soldiers, the occasional person fighting on the "home front", officers and generals and on one sole occasion, the Kaiser himself - the only appearance of the German enemy in the book. I picked it up, expecting that this would be a French version of All Quiet on the Western Front. As a novel it is very different to that powerful story. Yet in an unusual way, despite the occasional lapse in translation or the somewhat overblown dialogue in places, this remains an interesting work, though its lack of narrative makes it hard to follow at times.

The first chapters deal, as many novels of World War One do, with the way that the patriotic glee of the opening days are to be contrasted with the dull horrors of trench warfare.

"Were were those battles for freedom which begin with the soudning of the "charge" and end with cheering and the song of victory? The people of France almost blushed to think that they had ever believed in such things."

Nonetheless, if there was one ambition that remained;

"it was the destruction of war itself; its suppression for ever, its deletion from the pages of history. That, and that alone, must be the object of this war. There should never be another."

Passages like this, and the late reference to France as the great friend of Poland are perhaps a reaction to the coming Second World War. Yet the book itself is less an anti-war novel as a book about the reality of war. So we have the ordinary soldier scrabbling in mud and snow and praying for his life, together with the plump industrial profiteer, getting rich on the shoddy equipment he's selling to the army. Finally, Romains holds real contempt for the generals and politicians , those men who play games with others lives. As one of the soldiers remarks as he's about to return to Verdun;

"War, claims many victims, but very few of them are innocent. For some time now, as I think I've told you already, the spectacle of my fellow-men has filled me with loathing. The trouble is that those who are most to blame are not, as a rule, those who suffer the worst punishment."

Romains however makes this a soldiers war. The home front knows little of the reality of the trenches. The Generals care less, but talk of sacrifice. Only the soldiers understand and they have their "freemasonry of front-line fighters" to keep them going.

As the novel finishes with truck-loads of French soldiers heading for the front and a renewed offensive, we are left with little but despair and hopelessness. This perhaps was the feeling of many of those French people who survived Verdun, and lost friends and family to its horror, as they contemplated renewed European war.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - The Guns of August

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

J. Samuel Walker - Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective

For a few brief years following the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island plant, it was known as the world's worst nuclear accident. The far greater disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 soon rightly took that accolade. Three Mile Island has however gone down in infamy. J. Samuel Walker's account of the event is an attempt both to describe the accident as part of the history of nuclear power and to try to separate the real story from the myths.

In the public perception TMI lead to large releases of radiation into the surrounding atmosphere. While there were some releases both controlled, as the technicians struggled to stabilise the damaged reactor, and uncontrolled. The amounts released were not as great as many thought. Walker's summary of health studies afterwards errs on the side of those that argue there were few, if any humans injured or made sick by the accident in the short or long term. That said, one thing the book does make clear is that at TMI the United States came close to a situation which could have had very severe consequences for the population surrounding the plant.

The clean-up operation after the accident took many years and cost huge amounts of money. Money that by and large came from central government, not the private nuclear industry. But the most important consequences are not as easily quantifiable. Walker documents the dip in public support for further plants - a dip that when exacerbated by the Chernobyl disaster, pretty much screwed the US nuclear industry completely.

In addition the existing nuclear agencies were roundly condemned. Several of these proved lacking in their hour-to-hour handling of the situation. Walker documents the clash of managerial styles between the company running the plant and the national bodies setup to regulate the industry. The was frequent disagreement over interpretation of what was happening in the reactor and this, combined with aggressive media interest, meant representatives frequently contradicted each other and gave differing accounts of what was going on.

One of the ways that this was most felt was in the discussion about whether to evacuate the surrounding population. Evacuation plans were limited and the area contained many schools, hospitals and several prisons. At the height of the crisis when evacuation was on the agenda as a serious option most of those responsible wanted to avoid it, condemning those who supported the call. The factors determining their opposition to evacuation were linked to political and economic consquences as well as the risk of injury during any panic.

Walker notes one such example. A key figure in the Presidential staff assigned to the TMI question, Jessica Matthews, concluded that "evacuation was not advisable", basing her judgement "primarily on the pitfalls and costs of conducting a large-scale evacuation, and secondarily on the harmful effect it would have on the nuclear industry."

With quotes like this, it is not hard to conclude that many of those taking decisions in the immediate wake of the TMI accident were not doing so primarily based on the interests of the population surrounding the reactor complex.

This is not to say that individuals, primarily those technicians at TMI did not work very hard in a potentially fatal situation to avoid serious catastrophe. Walker tries to avoid describing heroics, so we learn few of the names of individuals who clearly risked their lives trying to prevent a core meltdown. However much of the post-accident analysis concluded that it was individual error that was the biggest single factor in the developing problem.

In summary for instance, Walker says that TMI, along with Chernobyl were accidents "due largely to operator errors that exacerbated design flaws or mechanical malfunctions. In both cases, technicians overrode safety systems that could have prevented or mitigated the damage."

However phrasing the problem like this implies that the mistakes lay simply with the technicians. In the case of TMI, Walker also explains early on that once the accident took place it proved very difficult for experts on the ground to understand what was happening. Alarms that represented different problems all had the same sound and banks of flashing warning lights did not help technicians prioritise. Key information such as the level of coolant in the reactor was simply not available. The lack of this piece of information led to one of the key mistakes made as officials turned off cooling mechanisms and precisely the moment they were needed.

As one of the investigations into the accident at TMI later concluded was that those trying to anticipate problems and prevent accidents in nuclear reactors was preoccupied "with the safety of the equipment, resulting in the down-playing of the importance of the human element in nuclear power generation."

Walkers' book is a interesting social history as well as a technical one. He notes for instance that most families did not evacuate themselves, preferring to believe that the accident was not as serious as they imagined, despite some dramatic press reports. But the reasons people gave for not evacuating are interesting in themselves. "[I]n households in which no family members evacuated, 65% cited their conviction that 'whatever happens is in God's hands' as a reason for not leaving their homes." Though the same report also showed that 71% of "respondents" said that they did not evacuate because they were waiting for an evacuation order.

Walker is attempting to give a balanced account of the accident. Despite his sponsorship by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission he does manage to be nonpartisan in his approach. As a result however those who have positions opposed to, or in favour of nuclear power are likely to read this book to find information that will only bolster their own positions. Those who argue for nuclear power and its safety will argue that from TMI, "lessons have been learnt" and "designs improved" meaning it could not be repeated.

As a convinced opponent of nuclear power, my own conclusions are the opposite. What TMI proves is that nuclear accidents cannot be avoided altogether. When something does go wrong through human error or technical failure the consequences have the potential to be enormous. That is not to say that all reactors will ultimately fail, nor that all accidents will inevitably lead to death and destruction on a vast scale, but that the potential remains in a way that doesn't exist with other forms of power generation.

The more recent tragedy at Fukushima has only underlined the inherent problems of nuclear power. This is a source of power that is not needed either to generate electricity or to combat climate change. The alternatives exist, yet the obsession with nuclear energy from governments around the world remains. At times, Walker's detailed, moment-by-monent account of events at Three Mile Island is both fascinating and nerve-wracking. But it should also give food for thought for those who continue to advocate this extremely dangerous way to boil water.

Related Reviews

Caldicott - Nuclear Power is not the Answer

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ralph Darlington & Dave Lyddon - Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972

"I was a 22 year old docker, I'd been working in the docks for two years. And I turned up at the World's End massive building site in Chelsea rather sheepishly and knocked on this little wooden door to be greeted by Frank Campbell, one of the IS builders, who said 'Thank God, you're here now'. And I just stood at the door while Frank went inside and shouted 'There's a dockers' picket line, everybody out'. And they all came out..."

1972 was the year when rank-and-file action by workers from the dockers, to the railworkers; from building workers to engineers and most importantly coal miners fought a British government to a standstill and broke the back of their attempts to undermine trade union organisation and attack pay and conditions.

Forty years later, when most British workers are used to unions dominated by their bureacracy, who seem rarely to fight back and often appear to capitulate in the face of governments, stories like that of the docker above may seem impossible. Yet the 1972 strikes were not predicted by anyone. The government was fairly confident that it would be able to push through legislation that curbed union activity and many of the union leaders at the time were wary of a major struggle.

As a year of battle, 1972 developed quickly. The miners took on the Tories early in the year and rapidly learnt new methods of organising and fighting. These were driven by the bottom of the union. Ordinary trade unionists, often shop-stewards, learnt that two things were needed - militant mass action by union members and solidarity. So the miner's strikes of 1972 were not won simply by the strikes, but by mass pickets that encouraged solidarity action and prevented coal being moved. As the lights failed and coal stocks dropped, the cabinet met by candle-lit. Darlington and Lyddon quote an article from that bastion of revolutionary socialism, Management Today which argued that the miner's strike was "unquestionably the most bitterly contested. The determination, not to say ferocity, of the pickets will be remembered for a long time yet. Their tactic of preventing coal moving not just out of the colleries but into the power stations was novel, intelligent and very largely successful."

Other groups of workers quickly learnt that if you want to win, you need solidarity. Fighting alone would lead to defeat, as a high-profile strike by Postal Workers had shown a few years previously. When the dockers came out, later in 1972, and several were imprisoned for breaking the government's shiny new Industrial Relations Act, mass strike action and picketing out of workplaces like the World's End building site mentioned above quickly forced a government turn-around. In all of this, as airports closed, building sites shut down, trawler fleets refused to fish and trains stopped at the mere sight of a union placard, the official leadership of the union movement remained unable to act. As an unofficial general strike grew from the bottom up, the TUC's leaders struggled to stay in charge. In effect they became irrevlevant in the face of rank and file organisation and activity.

The docker mentioned above, Bob Light, is quoted later by the authors. Talking about the five dockers imprisoned in Pentonville and the effective general strike that forced them to be released, he remarks;

"Why is it there are no badges, no mugs? Why is it that Pentonville is the forgotten epic? It is precisely because it doesn't suit the rotten stinking politics of all the reformists who control the labour movement in the country. The lessons of Pentonville are essentially revolutionary."

Glorious Summer is a tremendously important book for trade union militants today. In the wake of the November 2011 strikes, when 2.5 million workers went out in a brilliant display of solidarity and workers' power we need to learn the lessons of the past. The trade union leadership will only fight if pushed from below. Much of this book enables us to understand the dynamics and potential of a workers' movement growing in confidence. In places it is full of detail - of the machinations of the union leadership or the precise natures of government offers. This isn't mere historical information but helps give the reader a sense of the precise situation that workers were fighting in.

Ultimately the Tory government of the early 1970s was left reeling by this mass action. From Saltley Gate to Pentonville, workers had shown they wouldn't take orders from the bosses' party. Further strikes in 1974 brought Edward Heath to the floor and his government was broken at the next election.

Sadly the revolutionary left at the time was too small to shape the struggles and allow them to grow and develop further. The Communist Party by then was too obsessed with making sure that left union leaders weren't damaged by the action. While individual members of the CP (and of groups like the International Socialists) led brave battles, the CP itself proved unable to shape the future.

So the lessons here, as Bob Light says are essentially revolutionary. If we want to bring down the current crop of Tory politicians, we'll have to learn them. Our best hope is that ordinary workers and trade unionists will develop some of the spirit of their parents and grand-parents in the 1970s, and not be held back by opportunistic union leaders.

Related Reviews

Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926
Henderson - Life on the Tracks: Memoirs of a socialist worker

Bookmarks, who published Glorious Summer, have recently brought out a short pamphlet by Pete Jackson, celebrating one of the high-points of 1972 - the Battle of Saltley Gates. There is a commerative website and Jackson's pamphlet Close the Gates can be purchased here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Richard Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt

If there is one conclusion that can be drawn from Richard Gott's extensive analysis of the resistance to the British Empire, it is that for most of the time those people unfortunate to live on the pink coloured parts of the map, simmered with resentment. Frequently they rebelled, revolted and fought back against British forces. Most of the time they were defeated, sometimes they weren't and on occasion they won stunning victories against the odds.

This view of Empire is far from the benevolent, benign one that has been portrayed by some historians recently. In seeking to justify more recent international interventions some historians have tried to look back into the past to find examples of Imperial benefits. Gott's book shatters those myths.

Some of the stories in here will be familiar. The "Great Rebellion" of the Indian regiments against their officers and rulers that forms the climax to Gott's book has been written about in great detail elsewhere. Gott places this enormous piece of resistance at the end of a long chain of events. The brutal reality of British rule, combined with a number of other setbacks and defeats that helped give the people of India a belief that they could defeat the British.

Other accounts of rebellion though have almost been forgotten and it is a great strength of Gott's book that he brings these back to our attention, rescuing the stories, as well as some of the individuals from oblivion. No doubt the Xhosa people of Cape Colony, who fought the British to a standstill on a number of occasions are remembered and celebrated in that part of the world today, but their names are almost forgotten to those of us who live in the British Isles. Defeat and massacre don't help to justify Imperial adventure. The "self destruction" of the Xhosa, convinced as they were that divine intervention would soon help them rid their country of the British, does not mask the fact that the defeat of their people after half a century of resistance was the opportunity for British representatives to open up new lands to settlers.

The settlers of the British Empire - frequently men and women fleeing persecution, poverty or hunger back home, such as the Scots and Irish form a second, interesting and neglected role in the story of Empire. Frequently these groups who settled down on land stolen from native peoples, themselves found themselves revolting against British domination. Most obviously, the white settlers of Cape Town who fled Britain's rule and setup the Orange Free State. But Gott documents resistance and rebellion by similar groups from Canada to Australia.

This is not to downplay the fight of the aboriginal, native peoples though. In every country Britain annexed or invaded they needed to use military muscle to keep their land. Sometimes this wasn't enough, as in the amazing stories of the defeat of British expeditions to South America. Native people destroyed settlements and fought some of the best regiments back into the sea to keep these particular Europeans out.

Violence and brutality tended to follow as well as precede rebellion. Defeated peoples were destroyed in many cases. The infamous treatment of the people of Tasmania is one example:

"Taking a leaf from the policing model of New South Wales, Colonel Arthur decreed in November 1828 that the Tasmanian Aborigines should be subject to martial law. Arthur claimed he only wanted to punish the Aborigine 'leaders', but the settlers.. aimed more widely. In one case... thirty Aborigines were massacred by convict 'servants' of the Van Diemen's Land Company, who threw the survivors over a cliff. Many Aborigines were killed, and several women were axed to death. Prisoners were shot. Renewed in 1830.... martial law lasted until 1832, effectively breaking Aborigine resistance in Tasmania."

By putting resistance at the heart of the story of the British Empire, Richard Gott has perhaps made one of the clearest statements yet about the reality of British Imperial rule. However the book is not without flaws.

Firstly the sheer scale of the material has meant that much of what Gott has covered is done superficially. This is not helped by the lack of maps (though there are some fantastic images in the text). Many of the places are obscure and maps would have helped. This would also have given a greater sense of the scope of resistance.

Gott attempts to tell the story chronologically, but this means we are presented with a series of very short chapters, that skip around different parts of the Empire. For instance, the story of the Xhosa (chapters 23, 54, 57 and 65) is scattered through the book which makes it hard to understand the very real continuity between different parts of their story. This format also means that you skip around to such an extent that the readers head hurts - the last five chapters of part five for instance, deal with Africa, the Persian Gulf, Mauritius, Seychelles and Indonesia, Nepal and then Ceylon.

My biggest criticism is that Richard Gott offers very little in the way of analysis. Almost nowhere does he attempt to explain the British Empire. What is its driving force? Why is so much money and resources, as well as human life pumped into overseas expansion? This can leave the reader confused. Was the problem with Empire simply bad local management, or the actions of particularly racist or violent individual leaders? Or was there something else? Related to this is the lack of any explanation of the role of racism - or its development as part of the slave trade. The book ends up being a long litany of abuse and resistance, without any real explanation of the other forces that drive these two factors.

Rather oddly the book finishes with the 1857 Indian Rebellion. While the rebellion was an enormous blow to Imperial hopes, it was hardly the end of Empire. Gott skips over the remaining hundred or so years of British Colonial Rule - so there is nothing here about the final defeat of Britain in India, or the Mau Mau rising in Kenya for instance. Despite a final chapter that tries to rapidly fill in the blanks, the book does feel unfinished.

Sadly though, I do have to take issue with Gott's final comments. Rightly he points out that there is an "unhappy legacy" today of Empire and that Britain continues to fight wars in parts of its former Empire today. But then argues that "much of the British population has reverted with-out question to its old position of accepting unthinkingly what is being done in its name in distant parts of the globe."

Considering that in Britain in the last decade that has been marked by an enormous repulsion towards what is being done abroad by the British military at the behest of successive governments, this is a strange conclusion. Two million people protested on one day against the war on Iraq. Even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took place, many hundreds of thousands protested, rallied, petitioned and campaigned to end those wars and bring the forces home. The failure of the anti-war movement to prevent war, should not be taken as an acceptance of what is being done abroad. One of the most popular slogans of the anti-war movement; "Not In My Name" continues to have a resonance today. This statement is as much a rejection of British Imperialism today, as it would have been in the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th century.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire

Monday, January 16, 2012

Neil Gaiman - Neverwhere

Rather like his later novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere deals with the seedier underbelly of modern society. Fantastic parallel worlds mark both stories - the reality of Gods in the first, living hidden from human view amongst us is similar in many respects to the alternate world that exists beneath the major cities of human civilisation in the second novel.

Neverwhere is set in both Londons. The one we all know, populated by bankers and workers, commuters and schoolchildren is London Above. Here, our reluctant hero Richard Mayhew lives as a fairly successful, if unexciting banker. His fiance is possibly one of the most annoying people in London, yet Richard's engagement to her is part of a seemingly unstoppable treadmill. He will marry her, they'll have children, he'll get promoted and eventually his life will end.

The other London is one that Richard strays into because he takes the time to care for a stranger. Someone who looks dirty and dangerous, someone to ignore and move on. The fact that Richard stops and helps Door while his fiancee continues to her business dinner marks out their diffrences.

From this Richard enters a new fantastic reality - London Below. Here are the forgotten people. The people who sit hungry on street corners, the people who die forgotten and unwanted. The people who live on the edges of society. The homeless, the penniless, the mad. Invisible to London Above, their magical lives have not brought them freedom from the cares of the human world. But they may have a purpose Below.

This other London feels astonishingly familiar. Who hasn't wondered who the Black Frairs were, or which aristocrat sat in Earl's Court? The Shepherds of the Bush are to be feared and forgotten tube stations like British Museum are entries into other worlds. The dirt and squalor, the exagerated violence and the pain of London Below mirrors our own world. Money means nothing here, exchange, barter and personal debts mean everything.

Richard embarks on a quest with the Lady Door. He has rescued her, but lost and scared in this half familiar world he needs her as she needed him. Their quest brings them into contact with the weird and violent. Their bodyguard Hunter, for instance, who killed the Bear beneath Berlin and others is a particularly well drawn character.

This earlier work of Gaiman's is not as fully rounded as American Gods, though it is still a work of brilliance. The idea of a hidden, parallel world to great cities is not particularly new, but the genius here is that it is both strange and familiar. When Richard leaves the London Above for the strangeness of Below, we feel perhaps, the precarious nature of our own existence. Its a powerful metaphor for a world where economic crisis could easily bring unemployment, hunger and homelessness to so many, used to the trappings of London Above.

Related Review

Gaiman - American Gods

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rosa Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg's short book Reform or Revolution is often overlooked these days, in favour of her more famous, Mass Strike. Written while in her late twenties, Reform or Revolution demonstrates the keeness of Luxemburg's Marxism and the sharpness of her polemic.

The book is a response to a series of articles and an eventual book by Eduard Bernstein. Berstein was an important figure in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to which Luxemburg also belonged. Bernstein was arguing for a movement away from the ideas embodied in classical Marxism.

"..hi conception of the march of economic development is incompatible with the Marxist theory of surplus value. Therefore, Bernstein abandons the theory of value and surplus value, and, in this way, the whole economic system of Karl Marx."

In fact, Luxemburg argued that he was breaking with the whole of Marxist thought - thought that was the rock upon which the SPD was built. The SPD had been founded as an avowed revolutionary organisation. It's leading members in the late 19th century had been close to Marx and Engels, but several where now demonstrating a break with that tradition. As the quote above suggests, Bernstein had dropped, or questioned a series of key Marxist ideas. In particular, he was hinting that the revolutionary transformation of society was no longer required because capitalism had the potential to solve its own contradictions.

Famously, she quotes Bernstein "The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” Bernstein saw the socialist movement and the workers' organisations, such as the Trade Unions, not as weapons to further the struggle for socialism, but as tools to tame capitalism.

Luxemburg's anger at Bernstein's betrayal of the movement shines through. Yet her writting is never simply polemical. It is a clear restatement of basic Marxist arguments, in part an attempt to educate and win new workers to the revolutionary movement. Her final dismissal of Bernstein emphasises this:

"Not the shadow of an original though! Not a single idea that was not refuted, crushed, reduced into dust, by Marxism several decades ago!"

"Bernstein appear as an unconscious predestined instrument, by means of which the rising working class expresses its momentary weakness, but which, upon closwer inspection, it throws aside contemptusously and with pride."

This is a wonderful piece of polemic. Luxemburg clearly believed that Bernstein and those who rallied around him should be challenged, but she also clearly believed that the problem of reformism, or opportunism as she called it, was simply one of ideology. Defeated by a re-assertion of Marxism, she hoped the reformists would vanish and the SPD would continue along the correct road.

Unfortunately, what wasn't clear to her, was the extent to which reformism had a very real, material base within the SPD. Having made the transition from illegality to legal organisation, the SPD had built an immense organisation. Hundreds of newspapers and workers' clubs, thousands of full-timers. The organisation, as hinted by the quote from Bernstein above, was becoming an end in itself. Revolutionary activity, that challenged the state and the capitalists put all this in jeopardy. As Duncan Hallas once wrote, "they had much more to lose than their chains".

The rot went deep. Luxemburg herself details a number of examples of the way that the party had, in some localities, compromised with the capitalist system. This was, barely two decades after the publication of the book, to come to a head with the complete capitulation of the SPD's leaders to the system when it backed the First World War. In the aftermath of that, Luxemburg and a few other German revolutionaries were left almost alone to try and rebuild revolution organisation in the midst of World War. The lack of an independent, mass revolutionary socialist party was one of the major factors in the failure of the German Revolution that erupted at the end of the First World War.

Reform or Revolution is not an easy read as it contains many contemporary references. Though a decent introduction in the edition I read, by Donny Gluckstein put the work in context and had many useful endnotes. The question she addresses though, remains important. It is the basic arguement about how to challenge capitalism. Today, reformist organisations seem bankrupt. Here in the UK the Labour Party is a shadow of its former self. Yet reformist ideas remain the dominant ones in workers heads. Re-reading Rosa Luxemburg's polemic is a useful tool for all of us as we engage in the debates taking place today in every workplace and college about how to best challenge capitalism. Luxemburg's clear call for revolution speaks to millions today.

Related Reviews

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - The Mass Strike

Sunday, January 08, 2012

John Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised? A Marxist Analysis of the Media

John Molyneux's short book on Anarchism that I reviewed recently is an excellent and fraternal critique of the main threads of Anarchist thought. His book on the media, which came out nearly simultaneously is a very important book, given some of the scandals and issues that arose in 2011, notably the crisis of the Murdoch press following the 'phone hacking scandal.

Molyneux sets out to answer a number of questions that radicals often pose about the media. His starting point though, is the irrationality of the system. The fact that there is poverty in the midst of plenty. Hunger and over consumption co-existing. Billions spent on weaponry, yet death due to absence of simple medicines. Molyneux asks why it is that people tolerate this system? Why do people accept ideas that are manifestly untrue? And consequently, why do people accept this state of affairs.

One answer that is often given, is the media. The media is seen as an all powerful force, disseminating ideas that are favourable to the capitalists and under-mine those of the radicals. The media as a whole serves the status quo. Molyneux sets out to examine the media - who runs it, and in whose interest as well as ask whether it is, indeed all powerful.

The media, be it television, radio or newspapers is demonstrably the tool of the wealthy. Murdoch's empire shows this. As a result, the media tends, to portray a particular view of the world. One in which capitalist ideas are the norm. Molyneux gives several examples, not all of them obvious. Most socialists and radicals are used to the way that even so called "independent" or "non-political" news outlets fail to report even the most enormous protests. When they do so, they often concentrate on the actions of a small minority, or accept, unquestioningly figures from the police for attendance. More subtly though, Molyneux shows how many other aspects of the media's output back up the status quo. Gameshows for instance, encourage the idea of competitiveness. Prizes are awarded to a lucky few for outdoing their opponents.

Molyneux argues that this is very much because of the interests of the system. That the media is not neutral, but is part of a system that protects itself from criticism, and were "common sense" ideas are those of the status quo. Even prestigious outlets, like the BBC, supposedly neutral, rarely allow critical voices to be heard. For them, neutrality lies midway between the left and right of mainstream politics. Yet the mainstream parties of the UK are all pro-capitalist. Neutrality hear gives no voice to socialist or other anti-capitalist ideas.

There is much more to Molyneux's short work. There is a fascinating examination of reality TV, how it has developed and how it again, portrays a particular image of society. Molyneux tries to explain the popularity of these. While I am not sure I entirely agree with his conclusion that "in watching the programmes and, importantly, in discussing them with family, friends, workmates etc, viewers are able to use them as a sounding board by which to judge standards of conduct, norms of behaviour, in times when these are changing rapidly", it is certainly an interesting point.

Molyneux looks at other aspects of culture, perhaps rarely discussed by Marxists. Why are their so few non-white people in Eastenders? A programme set in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of London? Similarly, why are so few of them actual workers, rather than owners of small businesses? His brief examination of the role of advertising in setting the agenda of newspapers is also interesting.

Finally Molyneux argues that rather than the media giving consumers "what they want", they create a market for what they offer. In times when millions of people question the world around them, and more importantly, when they are engaged in collectively changing things, such as during the Egyptian Revolution, Molyneux shows how "what people want" from the media changes dramatically. In fact, his examples of voting patterns and social attitudes from studies of newspaper readers show how even the hold of this media on its dedicated readers is often tenuous and more complex. Not everyone who reads the Daily Express is, it turns out, actually a rabid racist.

I suspect that much of what is in this short book will not be new to those studying the media. But I recommend Molyneux's analysis because it is remarkably clear and cuts through some of the academic jargon that dominates discussion of this topic in academia. He also points the way forward to some interesting articles for further study.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Critique

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Edwin Black - IBM and the Holocaust

This book is a detailed demolition job. Edwin Black explores in great detail, with solid evidence what IBM, one of the largest, wealthiest and most important multinationals did during World War II. As such, the book also tells us something about the priorities of business.

Edwin Black argues that IBM's desire to maximise profits and in particular, the instincts and priorities of Thomas Watson, its chairman directly contributed to the Holocaust. IBM Germany, or Dehomag as it was known during the Hitler era, was run by "openly rabid Nazis" and IBM New York "always understood - from the outset in 1933 - that it was courting and doing business with the upper echelon of the Nazi Party".

Thomas Watson could not claim to be unaware of what was happening in Germany. Edwin Black uses the New York Times to illustrate exactly what was being reported about events in Germany following Hitler's election and occupied countries after the beginning of the war. He chooses this newspaper because it was the major newspaper of the city in which Watson lived and worked, and the city from where he frequently travelled to Germany, or sent representatives, to micro-manage IBM's business.

Black begins his story with the background to IBM and the key individuals who founded the business. Their ruthless business instincts make for fascinating reading, particularly in the light of later events. IBM's business and its fortune were based on mechanical counting and sorting machines. These machines, constantly being innovated and jealously guarded by patent, used punched cards to store data. IBM had sold these machines to the US government for use in censuses. For the first time detailed information could be stored and analysed, without laborious human work. With their introduction it was possible for the government to count the number of people with particular skills, or in age-groups or match up groups of people to almost any desire. Work that would previously have taken months now took hours. The success of the machines in the US census quickly meant that IBM could sell the technology to other governments and organisations. Soon, most of the capitalist world was using IBM technology to guide trains, count people or sort information.

Edwin Black details the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. He spends time dwelling on some of Hitler's plans and ideas. This is more than a simple rehash of history, Black is demonstrating as much as possible, the type of government that IBM was prepared to do business with. Anyone who sold counting machines to Hitler's Germany for censuses, and used their technical expertise to detail and prepare the punch cards required, could not have helped but know to what use they would be put to. IBM kept a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of the punch cards, essential to the work of the sorting machines. They did this for two reasons, one so they could continue to make profits from the machines once they had been leased and secondly to protect their monopoly of the business. IBM made themselves essential to Hitler's Germany and what they did.

That is not to say that IBM only did business with Fascist regimes, though their particular need to identify groups of individuals meant they were in high demand. IBM also sold machines to Allied governments. At one point IBM machines were being used to store information on movements of military equipment for both sides. IBM technology was used to decode Germany military messages at Bletchley Park. It was also used by the German's to encode them prior to transmission. As the German's invaded Poland, Czechoslovakia and France the machines were captured and put to use by the Nazis. IBM made sure that its company was kept up to date with the location of all the leased machines, understanding that its interests would be protected as a company from a country that was not yet involved.

As the years passed since Hitler's coming to power, popular opinion in the US turned heavily against the Nazis. As each story of atrocity emerged, more and more people and companies joined a boycott of Germany business. This boycott bit hard into the German economy. Thomas Watson became a central figure in arguing against the boycott. He was Germany's business man in the US. Free Trade to bring the world closer together and prevent war was his mantra. So pleased were his friends in Berlin that they gave him a medal at a glittering ceremony and party in the capital. Watson ensured that few in the US knew IBM's business links and Watson's relished his role as unofficial ambassador.

A Hollerith machine, as used by the Nazi regime. Note the IBM logo.
The Holocaust needed IBM punch cards. When the SS arrived in a town and produced a list of Jews they wanted, the names were sorted on the basis of data organised using IBM equipment. When those Jews were packed into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps, the trains ran to a timetable organised using IBM equipment. When the Jews were selected for forced labour, their skills and experiences were listed on cards. And when they were killed or sent to their deaths, the punch cards were marked to list their deaths. In Dachau, prisoners understood that the removal of the cards meant those individuals had been selected to die.

The Holocaust would have happened without IBM. But the business of mechanised slaughter and forced labour, as well as the ability to wage war was facilitated by IBM. The outbreak of war with the US meant that IBM's German operations were separated from New York, but Watson could rest easy, knowing that his interests, and the company's were protected for future peacetime. To make sure that IBM did not lose out, Watson created a group of soldiers from drafted IBM personnel. These men visited company premises with the advancing armies, securing IBM equipment. When IBM's involvement was exposed, the US civil servant who broke the news to his government was eventually told to keep it quiet. The US government wanted to make sure that they could have access to IBM's particular skills after the war, to make Europe work again.

The importance of IBM's equipment and the assistance that they offered to Nazi Germany in the years before the US entered World War II cannot be under-estimated. Edwin Black documents that in Norway, the resistance tried to destroy the sister company there with bombs (the company was called Watson Norsk) to stop the Nazis using the information to organise slave workers. Watson Norsk's "longtime manager", Tellefson ensured that information had been stored off-site in anticipation of such an attack, which "allowed IBM's lucrative service to continue. In Norway, annual revenues doubled from 161,000 crowns in 1940 to 334,000 crowns in 1943."

In 1941, Watson "set the stage for IBM Europe's wartime conduct". In instructions he wrote and sent out, he said that because of the war, "we cannot participate in the affairs of our companies... as we did in normal times... you are advised that you will have to make your own decisions and not call on us for any advice or assistance". As Edwin Black points out, this instruction did not tell them to stop working with the Hitler regime, or stop selling punch cards to the concentration camps, only to stop telling the New York office what was happening.

The centrality of IBM to the Holocaust is summed up by the one small positive story that exists in the book. This concerns an individual who deserves to be known as a hero to all of us today. Rene Carmille was a French military technologist who offered to take charge of the IBM machines to process the census returns. However the anticipated lists of Jews never materialised. Instead, when the invasion of Algeria began, the US forces had a ready list of Frenchmen able to join the Free French forces. The section of the punch cards "column 11" which asked for Jewish identity was never filled in. Carmille was a double agent for the French resistance. He produced 20,000 fake identity passes and a database of 800,000 former French soldiers, but he never produced a list of Jews for the SS.

Carmille was finally arrested in 1944 and tortured by the infamous Klaus Barbie. He never talked and eventually died in Dachau in early 1945. His personal contribution to blocking the production of the lists, illustrates the importance of IBM and the role of individuals who worked for it. The Author contrasts France with Holland were in a similar situation, IBM equipment was used to create a database of Jews and send them to concentration camps.

"Of an estimated 140,000 Dutch Jews.... 102,000 were murdered - a death ration of approximately 73 percent. Of an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 Jews living in France... about 85,000 were deported... barely 3,000 survived. The death ration in France was approximately 25 percent."

The destruction of the French Jews was made infinitely harder because of the lack of a working punch card system. Carmille and his mis-use of the IBM equipment played a central role in this.

IBM has never come clean about its operations during World War II, nor those of its affiliates in Europe. Important documents remain locked in archives and historians are not allowed access. Edwin Black's own researches have been restricted and blocked by IBM. Black says that IBM seems to be "hoping the matter will simply go away." A careful reading of Black's book has left me in no doubt that members of IBM's senior management during the 1930s and the early 1940s were well aware that their equipment was being used in Germany, and had detailed knowledge of the type of work that was being done with it. By continuing to produce punch cards for that market, training individuals in Germany and other European countries and offer maintenance contracts, IBM made enormous profits. IBM should come clean about this role and open up their archives for scrutiny by Holocaust experts.

However we should be clear about one thing. Thomas Watson was not a Nazi. Nor is it likely that any others in IBM New York's senior management were pro-Hitler. Nor was Watson particularly anti-Semitic. Indeed several of his close friends were Jewish and some, in Germany suffered under the regime, as did a number of Jewish employees of IBM in Germany. The logic driving IBM's involvement with Germany and the particular work that they did was the logic of capitalist business. Watson was particularly unprincipled in this, but nobody else in the organisation criticised the source of the money flowing into the bank. IBM found itself in a unique position and its senior staff drove home this advantage.

Fascism in power has close links with big business. Despite its appeal to the small businessman and the middle classes, Hitler's movement was about ensuring the continuation of the capitalist system. Hitler courted and was courted by businessmen from across the world. IBM and Thomas Watson were just one example. They were able to profit out of that relationship in spectacular ways and they should be held to account for it.

Related Reviews

Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Sereny - Albert Speer - His Battle with Truth

Sunday, January 01, 2012

George V. Higgins - The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Described in the introduction as the "game changing crime novel of the last fifty years" it is difficult to understand the hype that surrounds The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It certainly is a well written novel, a tale told almost entirely through conversations between central characters. But while the conversations certainly allow the author to demonstrate his skills, but this isn't enough to make the novel as brilliant as many claim.

Eddie Coyle is a small time, and fairly inept gangster. Facing jail for his part in a minor crime, he is offered a way out if he is prepared to tell the police about other, bigger crimes he knows of. Coyle is a small cog in a larger, wider criminal network. Amongst these acquaintances are gun-smugglers, murders and bank robbers.

The choice Eddie faces, which "friend" to sell out makes up the central part of the story. The problem is that the police want more, and once Eddie has begun the journey of selling out his friends, it is difficult to go back. The conclusion is not-unexpected, but at least the drama mounts and the story holds till the end.

I'm not sure that this really is "one of the greatest crime novels ever written". But it is fairly enjoyable and it'll keep you off the streets yourself for an hour or so.