Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fernand Braudel - The Mediterranean in the Ancient World

Fernand Braudel is one of those historians whose work looms large over his area of specialty. Braudel however was a historian whose work knows few limits and his influence is enormous. References to his writings and ideas crop up regularly in books and their bibliographies. He is also, rightly, associated with a new wave of historical teaching, helping to sweep clear the stuffy corridors of European academia, though he was himself pushed to the fringes by those who he challenged, spending some years teaching in South America.

This book is one that is probably his most accessible. Certainly, it is shorter than his three volume Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800 which might be considered his most important work.

For Braudel, the Mediterranean Sea was one of the key factors in the development of human civilisation. In a latter chapter in this book, while writing of the Roman Empire, Braudel says that "The Mediterranean did indeed operate as a mechanism tending to bring together the countries scattered round its immense perimeter. But the sea did not itself spin the web in which it was captured alive." He then continues;

"But the very fact that the Mediterranean, while in thrall to Rome, was still a living entity with a healthy pulse of its own, meant that all its cultural goods continued to circulate, mingling ideas and beliefs, and bringing about a uniformity in material civilization which has left traces still visible today."

In other words, Braudel's thesis is that the Sea permitted, through trade and the exchange of ideas, widely diverse cultures and communities to mix, mingle and come together. On this is based he argues, the triumph of the Roman Empire, the strength of Ancient Greece and the spread of civilisation, ideas and experience from East to West.

It would take a naive student of history to argue against this. There is no doubt that the Mediterranean permitted travel and communication over enormous distances, in a way that wasn't possible in other parts of the ancient world. However, I think that Braudel uses this to substitute for any other attempt to understand human society. He seems at odds when trying to understand the dynamics of particular civilisations. He makes, for instance, no attempt to explain the underlying dynamics of particular economies. So he discusses Ancient Greece and barely mentions slavery, even though when mentioning Ancient Greek currency he quotes the value of a "woman skilled at doing many tasks" as being four oxen.

This isn't a superficial problem. It means that Braudel cannot get to grips with changing dynamics of civilisation. The Roman Empire peaked at a much larger than say the Greek city states, not because they were more vicious Imperialists, but because the economic dynamic of their society was more efficient at extracting surplus value from slaves. Occasionally the author gets close to a deeper understanding. His discussion on why their was no industrial revolution in the ancient world, despite their understanding of technology and science, lays the blame in an economic system - slavery - that meant innovation was unnecessary. This is an argument that owes much to the Marxist ideas of historical change, but it seems that Braudel is consciously trying to find a explanation of history that avoids Marxism, or perhaps is cherry picking ideas in an attempt to create a new historical method.

As a result of these problems, Braudel can be immensely frustrating. Here's a comment he makes on the Greek city states, which were he says, "a strange little world, very different from the medieval town in western Europe. The latter was quite separate from the countryside; it was self-contained". Even under modern capitalism, cities are still linked to the countryside. Medieval towns were even more closer to rural areas. Economically they were very dependent on peasants coming into urban areas to sell produce. In fact towns grew up around the market, and were not cutting themselves off.

Braudel is quick to see economic systems in terms of a simplistic understanding of economic dynamics. He declares the city of Carthage as "capitalist" because it is based on trade. Again a superficial explanation of a more complex dynamic.

The sheer scope of Braudel's history here is impressive. Yet it is necessarily superficial. He covers pre-class societies up to the fall of Ancient Rome. As a result I found that his prose was at times dull. The author crams detail in, leaving the reader lost and breathless. It is almost like Braudel is making up for historical superficiality through declaring his immense personal knowledge a particular time.

Of course, the book is dated, but this is not a criticism of Braudel. He clearly bases his work on some of the most up to date writings and ideas available. Today though, some of this seems very dated. Does anyone today believe that the existence of "megalithic monuments" in places as diverse and distant as northern Europe, Thailand, India and Madagascar imply a "civilization of huge stones... propagated by sea"?

While Braudel's work is clearly of importance, it seems weak and superficial to me. At points I found the writing a real struggle, though perhaps this is a problem of translation rather than writing. His book is less an explanation of the importance of the Mediterranean Sea and more a collection of interesting facts about different societies. His attempts to gather this into a grand narrative are unconvincing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ian Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time

As readers of this blog may well have gathered over the years, I am an active member of the British Socialist  Workers Party. I've been a member for twenty years now and was attracted to the organisation for the way that it combined a serious examination of the world, with a commitment to trying to change it.

The SWP comes from very small beginnings and its founder, Tony Cliff, spent almost all of his life trying to build socialist organisations. The vast bulk of his life was devoted to the SWP and its forerunner, the International Socialists. My own personal recollections of Cliff are limited. By the time I joined he was entering the last stages of his life, and while he lived until 1999, it was clear that he was slowing down. I heard him speak on a number of occasions, at both public and internal party events. As many accounts in this biography attest, Cliff's speaking style was a wonderful mix of hard politics, quirky jokes, Marxism and mixed metaphor. He was entrancing, but political strong. Even by the time of the mid-1990s when I heard him in his eighties, he could hold an audience of workers and students spell bound.

To those outside of the world of revolutionary socialist politics, the idea of reading a 560 page biography of a little known Marxist might seem a little strange, not least if that Marxist was active in building revolutionary organisation in an era which was distinctly un-revolutionary.

But Tony Cliff's contribution to both the worker's movement, Marxist theory and the various political organisations around the globe, that, like the SWP continue to fight for socialist politics was an important one.

Cliff was born in 1917 to a Jewish family in Palestine. Early in his life he was branded a "communist" by a teacher for asking why there were no Arabs in his class. In his teens he became attracted to radical politics, and joined small revolutionary organisations influenced by Trotskyist ideas. One of the most interesting chapters of Ian Birchall's biography is this section on Cliff's early life. In part this is because for most socialists in the UK, or indeed much of the world, being active is not about clandestine politics but mostly because Birchall has managed to unearth a great deal about Cliff's early life. Only a handful of those who knew him then remain alive. It's testimony to his personality that they all, even when their politics have radically changed, remember him with warmth and affection.

Coming to the UK Cliff joined the small Trotskyist movement. His commitment to building organisations was clear, but so was his desire to both understand Marxist theory and apply it to the world around him. For me, his key theory, State Capitalism, seemed obvious. I'd been brought up by a German mother, who'd watched the wall being built and we heard the stories of families divided and repressed by the East German state. But in the post-war period, when Russia still loomed as a socialist alternative to western capitalism, a Marxist theory that argued that this was not genuine socialism and nor was it the "degenerated" socialist state that Leon Trotsky had described, was a shock to many. Today these arguments might seem of the order of counting angels on a pin, but the clarity of such politics was crucial in enabling Cliff to build a core of activists and thinkers who went on to build the forerunners of the SWP.

There is no point here re-counting the different stages of Cliff's life. He was, surprisingly for a foreigner, oddly influential in the workers movements of the 1960s though some of his writings. He had a rare ability to put complex points across clearly, with reference to the lives of ordinary people, or through the use of amusing metaphors. In fact for me, it is mostly through his writing and speeches that I remember Cliff. I was not of the era who remember him for his regular phone calls, nor was I someone who'd heard him speak hundreds of times.

Birchall's book does not fail to criticise Cliff. Cliff was a adept user of the "bending stick" method of revolutionary politics. As the world changes, revolutionary organisations needs to rapidly adapt to changing situations and this means winning an argument with the membership about a new course. Cliff was swift to change direction, quick to break with former favourites who he felt didn't fit the new course and likely to find new favourites. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but clearly from Birchall's biography there are many, former key-activists who still remain burned by the way their were treated. It is testament to Cliff's stature that many of these people felt happy to speak to his biographer. Including, surprisingly ex-Labour MPs and members of Tony Blair's cabinet. The latter stating how much they learnt from Cliff (though clearly not enough).

More interestingly, this is more than a biography. In quoting at length from Cliff's speeches and writings, Birchall gives us a glimpse of different periods of recently British political history. The section on 1968, for instance, when Cliff argued for a turn to student work and spent days winning arguments with leftist students at the London School of Economics is a fascinating insight into the period. (For more on this I'd recommend this short piece.) But Birchall also takes time to explain some of Cliff's ideas - I've mentioned State Capitalism, but his arguments around Deflected Permanent Revolution (the way that revolutions in former colonies were deflected by their nationalistic leaders down a different road from socialism) and the theory of the Arms Economy, that helped explain the long boom after World War II were important to new generations of Marxist thinkers.

Most importantly though I think Birchall helps us understand Cliff's method, and through that the general Marxist method. Since the Russian Revolution one figure looms high amongst those who fought to retain the essential core of revolutionary socialism - that working people must emancipate themselves - that was Leon Trotsky. Since the Second World War a few revolutionaries continued this work and Tony Cliff was probably the most important of this. His vision and his hope that working people on the late 20th century could still overthrow capitalism and build a new world inspired thousands. Today as we face economic chaos and environmental crisis that need is still there. Cliff helped build the beginnings of the socialist organisations that can be part of that transformation. His life and his works remain essential reading for all of us who want to take that struggle forward.

Related Reading

Given the nature of socialist politics, Ian Birchall's book has been the subject of intense debate, discussion and need I say, polemic. Sadly some of this reflects the worst of the socialist movement. Some of the most useful reviews are below, chosen more for their political insights, rather than their polemic.

Splintered Sunrise - The Most Unforgettable Person I've Ever Met in my Life
Interview with Ian Birchall, by Joseph Choonara
John Palmer - A Revolutionary with a Revolution
Two Reviews by Nigel Harris and Christian Høgsbjerg

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky; The Sword of Revolution
Cliff - Lenin; All Power to the Soviets
Cliff - Lenin; Revolution Besieged 
Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, The General Strike of 1926

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Eduardo Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America

Eduardo Galeano's classic history of Latin America, is not a cheerful book. Its subtitle, "five centuries of the pillage of a continent" sums up the general historical approach of the author. Written in the early 1970s, the book has never been more relevant, as many of the general themes that Galeano identifies occurring forty years ago have their similarities today. In Galeano's words, those who argue that Imperialism no longer has an interest in Latin America "forget that a legion of pirates, merchants, bankers, Marines, technocrats, Green Berets, ambassadors and captains of industry have, in a long black page of history, taken over the life and destiny of the most of the people's of the south."

Galeano begins his story with the pillage that began almost as soon as Christopher Columbus trod on the soil of the West Indies. The glitter of gold on the necklaces of the natives, triggered a gold lust that led to a tsunami of exploration and colonisation. With this, as Christopher Mann's recent book 1493 has demonstrated, came the diseases that destroyed millions of indigenous peoples. Columbus brought, on his second voyage, some of the plants that would further shape the destiny of the continent. Food for the slaves of future plantations, cash crops and fuel for export industries. While Galeano's book is a story of people, it is rooted very much in the exploitation of Latin America's natural resources, wood, silver, gold, oil and so on.

Early European capitalism drew strength and wealth for its nascent factories and machinery from the exploitation of Latin America. The blood and sweat of millions of slaves extracted yet further wealth from the continent, concentrating it in England, Spain and elsewhere. Before African slaves arrived in South America, Galeano points out that tens of thousands of indigenous people had been forced to work the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia. Helping to enrich the kings and queens of Europe, and their merchants. The poverty, brutality and racism that helped fuel this slavery was to be repeated on a larger scale very soon.

The Latin American colonies never had a chance. Galeano demonstrates how, from their earliest days, they were places to enrich colonial capitals. The arrival of capitalism in its modern form, simply deepened and extended the project. In simple terms he points out, that while Brazil might export Volkswagen's to Africa, America and the rest of Latin America, the profits went to German capitalism. What Brazil represented to VW Was low wages and unorganised workers. Galeano doesn't make the mistake of arguing that the populations of the wider world benefited from this unequal relationship. He understands that the wealth of Latin America was used to enrich a tiny minority, a system and a few large companies. If anything, the under-development of Latin America meant the further shackling of workers in Europe and America to the capitalist system.

The book celebrates the resistance as well. Latin America has always been characterised by people refusing to accept their lot. From slave revolts to land occupations, revolutions and the mass strikes of modern times, Galeano documents the men and women who've fought back. Though he also points out how they were frequently victims of Colonial power. By the time of writing, Galeano was having to point out the way that America, which had eclipsed Spanish and British influence in the region, was using its Marines to protect its interests. Within a few years of this book being first published, Pinochet was, with the assistance of the CIA able to ensure that any attempts to democratise and change the economy in the interest of ordinary Latin Americans would not succeed.

The vast resources of Latin America continue to be of interest to the more powerful economies. As indicated earlier, one of these is the huge populations. At the time of US independence, Brazil had the same population as the whole of America. Yet it was locked into an unequal relationship with its British governors who ensured the surplus value from that population ended up in London banks. Like an unscrupulous loan-shark, European powers and North American banks loaned money to Latin America. Much of it never reached the countries it was intended for, nor built the factories and infrastructure it was supposed to. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Galeano points out, 40% of Brazil's foreign budget was swallowed by foreign debt.

"Railroads formed another decisive part of the cage of dependency: when monopoly capitalism was in flower, imperialist influence extended into the colonial economies' remote backyards. Most of the loans were for financing railroads to bring minerals and foodstuffs to export terminals. The tracks were laid not to connect internal areas one with another but to connect production centres with ports."

The infrastructure of Latin America was thus built in the image, and the interests of foreign capital. When the minerals ran out, so did the investors. Galeano's central theme then, is the way that capitalism under-developed Latin America. The consequences remain today:

"Latin America was born as a single territory in the imaginations and hopes of Simon Bolivar, Jose Artigas and Jose de San Martin, but was broken in advance by the basic deformations of the colonial system."

By the 1970s, Galeano points out, it was cheaper and faster for Brazil to ship goods to Mexico via American or European ports. Telegrams sent between Buenos Aires and Lima had to travel via New York. Latin America was stunted by its own history.

Since it was written, much has occurred in Latin America, little of it has changed this basic analysis. Mass movements and revolution have threatened the domination of the United States. This took place in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently it continues with the election of radical and leftist governments in the 1990s and 2000s. Some of those governments have failed the hopes of the mass movements that pushed them into parliament. Others continue to be a thorn in the side of Imperialism. What happens next, will as Galeano wrote in the end of the first edition of this book very much depend on "the hands of the dispossessed, the humiliated, the accursed."

He continues that:
"The Latin American cause is above all a social cause: the rebirth of Latin America must start with the overthrow of its masters, country by country. We are entering times of rebellion and change. There are those that believe that destiny rests on the knees of the gods; but the truth is that it confronts the conscience of man with a burning challenge."
Related Reviews
Galeano - Children of the Days
Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth
Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy: Lula, the Workers Party and Brazil

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Stephen King's recent novel, Under the Dome, is a fairly monumental piece of work. At well over 800 pages, it is a hefty book to read, though an excellent one for long haul journeys. In the afterword, we're told that it was begun several times in the 1970s, and only finally finished in 2009. I'm sure that is true, but fans of King will recognise a number of themes, and I found it very similar to an early King work, The Tommy Knockers. This is not to turn potential readers away. Under the Dome is a great novel, that is King at his best.

One of the reasons for this, is his great writing. This is a novel in its truest sense, one that drags the reader along, allowing for late nights as you desperately try to find out what happens to one or other of the dozens of main characters.

But more importantly, the themes of this novel are really quite special.

Under the Dome is set in the tiny town of Chester's Mile. One day, rather dramatically, an invisible dome shuts the town off from outside. It is sudden enough for cars and lorries to impact at high speed. Birds die, breaking their necks against the invisible barrier.

All this might be the plot of a bad B-movie, and King plays that element up. What happens next though, is a vision of the dirty underbelly of American society, given free rein.

Key authority figures in the town's administration and police force are looked to for salvation. But these figures themselves are mired in corruption and wrong-doing. The appearance of the dome threatens to expose this, and through a combination of individual madness, and the logically consequences of authority figures trying to cover up crimes by commiting further crimes, the situation un-folds. Add into this mix the physical changes caused by the dome. The air is getting worse, and water is short. Power runs out, as the town relies on internal Propane for energy, rather than the regional grid. Propane is in short supply as its been a key part of the leading selectmen's self-improvement schemes. One of King's great themes, is the way that authority figures break down. Here it is taken to extremes as the police force becomes little more than the extension of the interests of key individuals. Armed bodies of men, acting in an isolated community, believing they are protecting the status quo from a wider chaos, is a fine metaphor for fascism. King makes it both believable and horrific.

In other King novels, that dwell on the chaos and madness that lies just beneath human society, supernatural elements play their role. Under the Dome relies less on this, and more on some general trends in society being distorted under extremely unusual circumstances. The dome itself, allows the US media to engage in a real life reality show. The world can see in, but no one can affect what is happening inside. There is no "voting off" here.

Cleverly, and not unlike his novel Needful Things (though this is far better written), King weaves together the tales of individual characters, building up to a dramatic climax. While this is standard fair for novels and SF, King's oblique critique of the world makes it special. Some of the metaphors are obvious (the worsening air as pollution is trapped in the dome is an obvious stand in for climate change), others less so. I was particularly struck by the way that Veteran's experiences of Iraq are now part of the discourse in fantasy novels, and form a key plot point.

Fans of Stephen King will enjoy this work. Those new to his work can do far worse than begin here, with a clever and well written commentary on the realities of life in small town America.

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Harry Harrison - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

Harry Harrison's novel A Transatlantic Tunnel Hurrah! (also known as Tunnel Through the Deeps) is a forgotten classic of steampunk alternate history. In this reality, history diverged from our own timeline around the time the Moors occupied Spain. This leads to a number of major differences in Europe (Spain and Portugal don't exist for instance). But the most important piece of this alternate history for our story, is that the American Revolution failed, and George Washington was shot as a traitor.

As a result, the United States remains part of the British Empire, though other bits are breaking away. The US is a smaller group of states, and economically in hoc to Britain. The great victorian engineer, Brunel is in the process of slowly building a transatlantic tunnel that will link this major colony with the motherland. But his drilling will take hundreds of years, and funding for the American end is short.

The hero of the tale, Captain "Gus" Washington, is a direct descendent of the traitor Washington. A brilliant engineer, his ideas and enthusiasm clash with Brunel. He determines to drive the American end of the tunnel forward faster, with new technologies, ideas and funding. The race to finish the tunnel becomes a a race between the old of the British Empire and the new of a strengthening US capitalism.

This is steampunk, so coal powered aircraft and rocket mail is mixed with atomic trains and the odd lack of the internal combustion engine. The strict hierachical society of Victorian England remains, though at its apex is the current Queen and Prince Phillip. First published in 1972 there are enough knowing nods towards the modern world to make this an amusing tale, and Harrison plays it very much for laughs. There is an obligatory race scene, that really ought to be form the centrepiece of a movie adaption, a love interest and a whole collection of pompous Victorian businessmen.

A forgotten classic of science fiction that deserves a new steampunk audience.

Related Reviews

Harrison - The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ralph Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

There is a particular literary tradition in England, of books that recount life in the countryside, or on farms. Some of these are justifiably famous, like Cider With Rosie, others are forgotten gems, like Adrian Bell's Men and the Fields, which I reviewed here. When I reviewed Bell's book, I made the point that there is a danger when writing about the rural past, that one falls into the trap of seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. Agricultural life was, and continues to be, hard work.

Ralph Whitlock's book is unusual, not in its subject matter, but because the majority of the text is devoted to his life as a farm labourer. Whitlock was from a very poor background, his mother narrowly avoided the workhouse because their deceased father had managed to build the family their own home. From his early teens, Whitlock worked in the fields, trying many jobs, though disliking most, except for his time as a shepherd.

First published in 1945, this book is pitched by the publisher (no doubt bending to some government propaganda wind) as a celebration of the life of the labourer, the "English peasant ... the same man as his forefathers, the men who fought and won Agincourt, the men who made the face of rural England with crude tools and by hard work, and defended as passionately as they worked for it."

Despite this rhetoric, the book is far more interesting. In part because of the descriptions of forgotten aspects of farming, in part because the hardwork, the poverty and the long hours are eye-opening. Whitlock's style is not as florid or poetic as Adrian Bell, but its not without humour and insight.

One interesting aspect to Whitlock's early life was the way that contracts with farmers lasted a year, from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. During that year, you were effectively tied to a particular employer, and only able to move on once that year was up. This enabled the young worker to try a different number of jobs, and find one suited, as Whitlock says "one year as a ploughboy was enough for me. When Michaelmas came again I made haste to get back to Uncle Jacob and the sheep."

Violence and abuse of young workers was clearly an accepted part of rural life. The man he works for as a ploughboy throws clods and rocks at him when he makes a mistake. But there was also laughter and free time. Whitlock learnt to play an instrument, worked long hours, but walked great distances to woo potential partners. Village life was centred on agricultural work and the church, but there was singing, dancing and games.

Towards the end of the book, Whitlock earns enough, through his and his wife's hard work to purchase land and a smallholding. But this is threatened by the changing of government subsidies between the wars and the economic recession. The Second World War was a return to boom time for farmers, and Whitlock's discussion of the expansion of farming in that period is fascinating. For those interested in agricultural history, this is a must read. For those who want to know more about those who shaped the British countryside, this is an entertaining piece of social history.

Related Reviews

Bell - Men and the Fields
Archer - A Distant Scene
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Christopher Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution

Christopher Hill's biography of Oliver Cromwell is less of the history of the man, and more a history of the world that shaped him and was shaped by Cromwell's life. As Hill points out at the very beginning of the book, the first forty years of Cromwell's life a "tangled knot of problems was forming which was only to be unravelled, or cut through, in the revolutionary decades 1640-60".  In this "decisive century in English history", the "decisive figure" according to Hill, was Oliver Cromwell. Thus this book contains very little about Cromwell's detailed life (his children and wife get a bare couple of mentions for instance) and much more about the changes going on in English society.

The first couple of pages of the book begin with a beautifully written summation of the changes taking place in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These were decades when fundamental changes in the economy and politics of Europe were beginning to reshape the old feudal order. These changes seemed minor - about the rights of people to trade without interference, about tax levels, and about the balance of power between king and parliament. But together they added together in ways that began to fundamentally shift the most established ideas of society. In particular, in England, this meant whether or not the king had the right to rule over everyone, simply as a result of the position given to him on account of his birth. The consequences for Europe were large, but in England they were the greatest. The revolution that Cromwell was a central figure of, "ensured that henceforth governments would give great weight to commercial considerations. Decisions taken during this [17th] century enabled England to become the first industrialised imperialist great power, and ensured that it should be ruled by a representative assembly".

Cromwell's role in this was central. The man himself had little political understanding. His instincts stemmed from his own social and religious position, and Hill spends some time developing the readers own ideas of what a Puritan in Cromwell's position would have believed about the world he lived in. Much of Cromwell's early life was undistinguished, though once he became a significant landowner he was able to play an increasingly important role in debates inside and outside Parliament.

Cromwell's great strength seems to have been the ability to hold together a coalition of very different parties. The parties in this sense are not political ones in the way we know today, rather the representatives of different social trends and forces in English society at the time. The radicals of the English Revolution being in the same camp as the forces of the emerging Bourgeois made for an uneasy alliance, but they were united in their desire for change. What that change was, was open to question and Cromwell was able to offer much to both sides, tacking one way and the next in order to hold the coalition together. Cromwell was clear that he wanted a world where democracy was not open to all, only to those who had property. In this sense, he aligned himself far from the Levellers and Diggers who argued for a much more democratic rearrangement of society. But Cromwell also realised that he needed this radical vision of change to inspire the "russet coated" gentlemen to fight against the King.

Cromwell didn't start out wanting to commit regicide, this was forced upon him by the reality of revolution and civil war. But once the King was out of the way, Cromwell moved quickly to strengthen the position of the new ruling class, and this meant the destruction of those social forces that threatened the new, bourgeois order. Hill portrays Cromwell's later trajectory, from military leader to Lord Protector, not as a personal voyage for power, but as a attempt to shore-up the new order against internal contradictions. It was certainly not automatic that the revolution would not lead to the re-establishment of the monarchy, and Cromwell's struggle to prevent this meant the imposition of dictatorship. When the monarchy did return, it was in a subdued and weakened form, that was never able to regain its old position without facing the prospect of further revolution.

Hill finishes the book by focusing on the ambiguous nature of Cromwell to those who came after. Today, he is both the man who cut the kings head off, and the person who ordered the death penalty against the Levellers at Burford. He destroyed the people of Ireland in the name of progress, yet destroyed a monarchy in the interests of a more representative democracy. He championed the rights of those resisting enclosure early in his career, and by the end was encouraging further enclosures of land for the wealthy.

The only way to understand these contradictions is to understand the pressures upon Cromwell from different social forces, and his own class interests. At different points in Cromwell's life, his class had different interests and hence different allies. Cromwell's changing ideas are a reflection of those changing forces, as are his actions. Christopher Hill's superb Marxist analysis illuminates this brilliantly and this book is indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand the English Revolution.

Related Reviews

Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers of London

The idea that there is an alternative, hidden, secret London just out of sight of the tourist filled streets is not a new one. In fact, the throngs of people lining the streets, bedraggled in Jubilee bunting this weekend are partaking in the most superficial level of London's strata of reality.

Ben Aaronovitch is not the first to use this metaphor in fantasy fiction. Neil Gaiman's book Neverwhere is a superb example of the genre. Aaronovitch though uses the medium of the Metropolitan Police to explore this alternate world of magic and fantastical powers.

Aaronovitch has some interesting ideas. The personification of the rivers is nice, the ladies who represent the lost London rivers forming a alternate powerbase to Old Man Thames and his sons upstream, for instance. But much of this feels superficial and, indeed the story structure feels borrowed. Our hero, Peter Grant, a lowly police constable destined for a life trapped in the lower echelons of the force's bureacracy, sees a ghost and thus begins his encounter with a secret wing of the Met. It's wizard. Like many other muggles beginning their encounter with the world of magic, he stumbles through various encounters, each more fantastical than the last, until the reader themselves discovers this new world. Neil Gaiman did it far better, J K Rowling did it with far greater numbers of words.

Aaronovitch writes for a London audience. He's keen to name drop the various cafes and bars that he and his friends clearly frequent, and anyone who has lived in the capital for long will find themselves following the streets in their minds eye. He's also keen to make it clear that he is writing about the progressive "post Macpherson" force. Our "mixed race" hero, experiences no racism, except for allusions to how it was, and women are scattered liberally through all ranks of the force.

The Met itself is a metaphor for stability and consistency through hundreds of years of riot and apparent chaos. Aaronovitch makes much of the long tradition of the force, with only a half joking reference to the them keeping down the working classes. Ironically, the centre-piece riot of middle-class theatre goers only serves to underline the unreal nature of the story. A great story-teller should be able to make the fantastical seem believable. Aaronovitch hasn't got the writing ability to do this well, and using the Metropolitan Police as a vehicle of stability and sanity in a world of chaos will raise an eyebrow from anyone whose experience of London is several layers below the pomp and circumstance of the flag waving Jubilee idiots.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - Neverwhere
Collins - London Belongs to Me