Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Naguib Mahfouz - Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth

Novels set in the ancient world often suffer because the author feels obliged to describe the alien surroundings. We end up reading all about the buildings, the food, the sounds to the great detriment of the story.

Naguib Mahfouz's short novel of ancient Egypt is an exception. For Mahfouz, the story is the most important part and there are only the vaguest of descriptions. Ancient Egypt here comes across to us through the voices, ideas and religions of its inhabitants rather than an authors attempt to evoke the world.

But it is not just the style that makes this a unique book. The story is a series of interviews with prominent ancient Egyptians, all of whom are linked - through marriage, servitude, or blood to the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Historical Akhenaten, the father of King Tutankhamen, forcibly changed religious practises, pushing aside the old polytheistic beliefs and encouraging worship of a single god, Aten (or Ra). This caused enormous social and political problems and with Akhenaten's death Egypt only gradually returned to more normal religious practise. Much of the construction projects associated with Akhenaten were dismantled.

The novel centres on the turmoil created by Akhenaten's beliefs, in particular his visions of a single god. As he encourages the worship of this "One God", he preaches love over violence and revenge. But Egypt's bureaucratic and religious structures are too closely linked with the old ways and economic crisis, military invasion and rebellion threaten the whole order.

Akhenaten; Dweller in Truth centres on the series of interviews conducted by the scribe Meriamun with members of Akhenaten's court to attempt to understand what took place. Twenty years after the events, many of those involved find their stories shaped by their own contemporary interests, or a wish to portray themselves in a more favourable light. Conflicting accounts, rumour and propaganda come together to muddy the true story and the reader is left to sort out in their own mind, what really happened. This is a clever novel, its brevity hides a complex and powerful tale. A good book to while away a cold-autumn evening.

Related Reviews

Graves - I, Claudius
Graves - Claudius the God

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cathy Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography

Alexandra Kollontai's life matches almost exactly the rise, and then fall of revolutionary Russia. She was born to a well-off, upper middle class Russian family, but her life was shaped by the socialist politics of the early twentieth century. Cathy Porter's detailed and readable biography traces Kollontai's life, from her early engagement in underground revolutionary politics, on to her role as a central committee member of the Bolsheviks. Along the way she traces the development of Marxist parties, the crisis of socialist politics during World War One and the Russian Revolution. Kollontai was an early opponent of Bolshevik politics in the early 1920s, eventually her critical engagement with the building of a revolutionary society was used against her with the rise of Stalin's bureaucracy. In fact it was only Kollontai's fame in Russia and abroad that saved her from the purges. She died in the 1950s, one of the few old-Bolsheviks to have survived so long, having made a decision to remain quiet for the sake of her own life.

Today Kollontai is remembered for her writings about the position of women under capitalism, and the potential for a socialist society to transform this. She was one of the first Marxists to explore how human sexuality might be transformed under a classless, equal society. Her articles and theories were often popular, if sometimes lacking a grounding in what was really happening. Both the right and left wing of the revolutionary movement seem to have on occasion dismissed her as idealistic.

Porter's book traces Kollontai's development as a Marxist as well as her growing concern with the position of women in Russia's backward economy. From early on, Kollontai fought for the Russian revolutionary movement to take work amongst women workers and peasants seriously. In this she was often derided or ignored as this was seen to be a distraction from the more important task of developing revolutionary politics and ideas. Kollontai also faced the sexism of the early socialist movement, and after her exile to Germany, the entrenched ideas of the German socialist parties.

One of the most interesting chapters in this biogrpahy is the section where Porter looks at Kollontai's experiences in Germany. A popular and passionate speaker, she toured the country speaking to crowds of workers, trying to win them to the German SPD. In this she was enormously successful, though the party's bureaucrats where often less sure of her arguments around the emancipation of women.

In early 1911 Kollontai spoke in the industrial town of Grossenhain; describing the aged Party secretary, she recounts:
His tone changed sharply when she enquired about women's activities. When women worked men suffered he said. 'The house becomes a pigsty, the children die... and what does a woman look like when she works in a factory? You expect love to survive when a man's wife looks like a witch?" A crowd of women gathered around her after the meeting and took her to the station. 'Silly old fool,' they said. 'We're stronger than he knows'.
Such attitudes certainly prevailed within the German Party and women like Kollontai fought hard to change them, by creating women's organisations and sections. Inside Russia underground socialist organisation made it even harder for women to organise. In addition the male dominated revolutionary organisation often saw incipient "feminism" within attempts to struggle for women's liberation. Kollontai herself was often accused of feminism, and not keeping to the party line, but in reality she and her comrades were fighting hard against the middle-class women's movement that saw all women, irrespective of class, being part of the same fight for suffrage.

Porter quotes Trotsky's "jaundiced" comments on Kollontai, "During the war she veered sharply to the left.... Her knowledge of foreign languages and her temperament made her a valuable agitator. Her theoretical views have always been somewhat confused however." Nonetheless, as the war lead to revolution, Kollontai became a leading member of Bolshevik organisation in Petrograd.

She was part of the Bolshevik central committee that agreed the insurrection in October 1917. Porter describes 1917 as being happiest of Kollontai's life. In the midst of revolution, Kollontai talents as a speaker and organiser came to the fore. She spoke to mass meetings and, was delegated to the Petrograd soviet to represent a unit of male soldiers. A perfect example of the way that class struggle begins to transform peoples ideas.

Readers who are inspired by the Russian Revolution, will find Porter's accounts of the period and Kollontai's involvement fascinating. Here are some brilliant accounts of mass meetings and debates within the working class. There are detailed accounts from Kollontai's own diaries of the pressures on the leading revolutionaries;
Trotsky had collapsed from fatigue the previous day; that afternoon, after three astounding days charged with an almost electrical tension, and after a particularly fraught argument with a Socialist Revolutionary, Alexandra was overcome by dizziness. She was prevented from falling by a Red Guard, who offered her a rouble for bread. She was grateful, but refused; but he insisted on taking her address, and later that evening crept into her flat, left some bread there for her, and crept out again before she could discover his name to thank him.
After the seizure of power, Kollontai was appointed the head of the Commissariat of Social Welfare. Her work was blocked by a strike of civil servants, but her struggles to attempt to help those in need, impoverished by war and economic chaos are central points to the book. Her attempts to create communal kitchens, orphanages and the like are met with hostility, both from representatives of the old order, such as priests, but also from workers themselves who often believed the Bolsheviks were out to "nationalise the family" and take children from their parents.

The years of economic collapse, famine, disease and civil war that followed the successful insurrection helped undermine the basis of Soviet Power. During this period argument raged about the way forward for the revolution. Always a free thinker, Kollontai was often in opposition to leading Bolsheviks and she was an early member of the Workers Opposition. Her thoughts and writings about the potential for sexual liberation flourished in this period, though again they were often at odds with other leading revolutionaries, who were more concerned with trying to drive forward attempts to stabilise the Russian economy and strengthen the basis for Soviet rule. Kollontai argued that women must be central to a developing economy;
Her chief hope therefore, was that women's continued involvement in production would have a dramatic effect on their consciousness and confidence, and would help to free them from the vestiges of fatalism and ignorance which so tenaciously clung to them from the past. Women's release from the private family was not only an essential precondition of their liberation; of equal importance in her opinion, was the fact that all the labour hours women spent on housework were unproductive and of no value to the revolution. It was only when women contributed these labour hours to social production in the factories that the material conditions for creating socialism could be said to exist.
Despite these confused ideas, which downplay the existing economic role of women, Kollontai was at the heart of Bolshevik attempts to try and dramatically transform the role of women's lives in the early Soviet state. Her speech at the Party congress in 1919 had led to a "flood of complaints" from women that their work was being undermined, leading to the establishment of the Zhenotdel. Much of Kollontai's work over the next few years was associated with this organisation. Zhenotdel took on many tasks, involving women in factory inspections, ensuring that pregnant women were adequately protected and taking up issues such as prostitution, venereal disease, education and child care.
The Zhenotdel delegate, with her red headscarf and shabby clothes was soon a familiar and popular figure in every village and town in Russia, as she trudged from house to house, often taking abandoned children into her own home, and when necessary, picking up a rifle and leaving for the front.
During the Civil War Kollontai travelled the length and breadth of the front on agit-trains, speaking to large and small crowds on station platforms and in cold halls. She rallied women to the revolution and to the war, helping in no small way to enable the Red Army to win.

But the rise of Stalin and the isolation of Russia further undermined Kollontai's ideas. As an old-Bolshevik, who had briefly joined the Menshevik party, she was particularly vulnerable and she was driven out of the Party leadership. Stalin used Kollontai in a diplomatic role, further leading to her isolation. Kollontai herself understood that she was threatened, returning in 1930 to Russia from Stockholm were she was a diplomat, she wrote "How can you oppose the apparatus? How can you fight, or defend yourself against injury? For my part, I've put my fight into a corner of my conscience and carry out as well as I can the policies dictated to me."

She even went so far as to write participles criticising old Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev who had been put to death by Stalin.

Kollontai's life was dedicated to the emancipation of working people. She was one of the few to try and grapple with what socialist transformation might mean for the relationships between people, freed from economic chains. She was not by any means always correct at particular points, and in places her ideas were often idealistic given the concrete situation. Nonetheless, her life spanned an incredible period of history, and her importance to the genuine revolutionary movement, is demonstrated by the way that her death barely warranted a mention in the pages of Pravda despite her years of work.

Cathy Porter's 1980 biography of Alexandra Kollontai is a must read for anyone trying to understand revolutionary history and the ideas at its heart. Her detailed accounts of life in exile, of the German movement, and the early days of Soviet power are fascinating. The exploration of Kollontai's ideas has rarely been done better and the book is a brilliant tribute to one of the socialist movement's most important figures.

Related Reviews and Reading

Cathy Porter in Socialist Worker on Alexandra Kollontai and International Women's Day
Tony Cliff: Alexandra Kollontai: Russian Marxists and Women Workers

Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Smith - Red Petrograd; Revolution in the Factories: 1917 - 1918
Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lynsey Hanley - Estates: An Intimate History

Having seen Lynsey Hanley's book on council estates favourably mentioned in Owen Jones' book Chavs I was looking forward to reading it. Not least because I currently live on a former council estate, and grew up near to the estate on the outskirts of Birmingham that forms some of the centre piece to Hanley's book. I also spent many years living on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, not far from the estate where Hanley now lives and many of the buildings and sites she mentions in London.

Council housing, built by the state and administered by local government forms an important part of British social history. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 a third of the British population lived on council estates. Today only around 12 percent live in this type of housing. Along with Owen Jones, Hanley argues that Thatchers' changes to the law to allow council tenants to buy their homes, began the process of transforming both the housing stock of the country and the social attitudes of many of the population.

But the story of council housing begins much earlier. Take east London in the late 1800s, here:

"life expectancy of mechanics, servants and labourers in Bethnal Green was sixteen.... Tradesmen, on average reached the age of twenty-six before keeling over, while the outlying professional classes generally made it to forty-five."

The scandal of such poverty meant that Victorian governments recognised the need to clear slums and improve housing. Initially rents were set so that the poorest couldn't afford the new homes, but as World War One finished, there were other reasons to try and alleviate the worst conditions of the poorest in society:

"As Russia... fell to the Bolsheviks, the need to fulfill the basic needs of the working class and thereby dampen their desire for revolt became ever more urgent".

Hanley demonstrates that today, the very notion of council housing has become a by-word for the poorest, most disadvantaged and often the most scapegoated people in society. But it wasn't always so. In the 1930s, she shows how the keys to a council house transformed peoples lives, offering them decent accommodation for the first time in their families history. Standards were also very high. One architect, Raymond Unwin, the designer of Letchworth Garden City, recommended that houses "should not be built more than twelve an acre, with six good-sized rooms and large windows to maximize the penetration of daylight. Minimum floor space was set at 760 square feet, using three standardized types of house design which... should be used to break up the monotony."

After the Second World War and with the destruction of large areas of housing by enemy bombing, the pressure to build more homes was high. The incoming Labour government considered nationalising the entire stock of the countries rented accommodation. This didn't happen but the minister responsible for housing had very high ideals of the type of homes to be built.

Most importantly, he believed that the new housing and estates needed to be designed to offer comfort, decent housing but also specifically to avoid creating new slums. Unfortunately, these high ideals, combined with a lack of raw materials and economic problems meant that homes were not built as quickly as demanded by those in over-crowded, bombed out areas. Hanley argues that the two elections of 1950 & 1951 were fought and won on the question of housing. When Labour eventually lost to the Tories the new housing minister, Macmillian had a very different attitude to Bevan. Speed was now of the essence, reducing costs, standards and quality to throw up homes as rapidly as possible. As Hanley summarises, "Bevan feared building quickly least he built new slums. Macmillan seemed less bothered by this prospect and passed this crucial lack of foresight into the very fabric of the council-housing landscape."

This contributed to the "long decline of the council house". Policy now was "one that saw public housing as providing the nation with a collective legacy to one that saw it as a brief stop towards acquiring an individual legacy."

In this context the actions of Margaret Thatcher is less of a break with the past than might have been thought. The idea that council housing was a stepping stone to something better, rather than the provision of decent homes for large numbers of families has now degenerated into the idea that council homes are for those who can't have anything else. But here to, the roots of this attitude lie years back, when in the 1960s and 1970s, councils started gathering the poor, mentally unwell, unemployed and vulnerable into areas of estates. Rather than trying to create self supporting communities, they created ghettos of the most vulnerable.

Hanley is at her best when describing the degeneration of the council house ideal. She shows how the building of enormous estates was done without thought to peoples' needs (no pubs or buses!). Homes were built to cheaper and cheaper standards. The extraordinary number of tower blocks built (Birmingham had 492 alone) created "slums in the sky". Creating a situation that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Victorian past. As Hanley concludes:

"We've made the class divide worse by allowing the better-off to run off with the profits of their homes, and preventing the worse-off from having new council homes in their place. We've made sure that the poorest people in society are back in the same relative position they were before the first council estates were built."

Estates "are like ghettos, in the sense that the worst-planned and poorest served o f them are so cut off from their surroundings that they may as well have walls built around them..... estates are class ghettos, places were few middle class people aside from those who are paid to do so ever venture."

Hanley clearly believes that there is an alternative, and it requires the rebuilding of decent social housing. How this happens is the big question, and is one that Hanley has no answer to. She recognises that the barriers to such a program are huge. Not least the politics of mainstream British politics which still have all the prejudices and economic principles that lead to the destruction of the council house ideal in the first place.

In her desperation to improve the lot of her particular estate, Hanley was part of an local tenant organisation that oversaw the selling off of a council estate in Tower Hamlets to a new social landlord. She seems positive about the experience, though many of the criticisms of the process of privatising council homes have proved valid elsewhere.

Sadly such schemes are unlikely to be the solution to the problem of council housing in the future. Forcing through a massive program of council home building will not come from arguing that particular areas of existing homes need to be sold off to private landlords. Nonetheless, Hanley is right to argue that tenant participation in the development of new homes and estate is absolutely crucial for creating decent esates in the future.

Sadly I found Hanleys' book quite frustrating. On the one hand, it is a passionate defence of the importance of social housing. On the other it comes across as the last, exasperated gasp of someone who has given up on an ideal. Hanley's solution was individual. She was able to escape "the wall in her head" - the barriers imposed upon someone from her class. She was able to escape her council estate in Birmingham and build a new life, in a former council house elsewhere. That's not a solution for everyone, and as a result, while Estates: An Intimate History has many fine points, at times it feels like she is putting across the same prejudices that she herself escaped.

The fact that in the last decade voters on council estates in large areas of the country have rejected sell offs of council housing implies that thousands of people still recognise the importance of state provided homes. The future of housing policy will have to be written by these people, and others who face high rents, appalling housing conditions, and over-crowding. There needs to be a radical break with existing government policy, which is unlikely to come from the Tory cabinet or from New Labours policy makers. We can only hope that it will come from mass movements of people demanding better, just like their forebears did in the 1930s and 1940s.

Related Reviews

Jones - Chavs
Robbins - There's No Place

See also Owen Hatherley's review of this book in Socialist Review here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rachel Carson - Silent Spring

The fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson has been covered widely in the media (see this rolling coverage by The Guardian for instance). It seemed a good opportunity to read this famous book, often credited as being the trigger for the modern environmental movement and certainly one that continues to provoke wide debate today. Carson's book is a beautiful read, it is eloquent, learned and funny. To take one example; when describing attempts to eradicate the Japanese beetle from croplands, she describes Sheldon in Illinois. Of which she says, that "perhaps no community has suffered more for the sake of a beetleless world." Carson puts across complex ideas well for the layman readership and it is no surprise that it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the first few months of publication.

The book concentrates on one key environmental issue - the use of chemical pesticides to destroy insects and weeds, particularly for agriculture. Carson rages against the over-use of the chemicals, she describes how the over use of chemicals like DDT to destroy pests (over 200 new pesticides were created between the 1940s and publication) has led even to a "fad of gardening by poisons" in the United States.

The book is most well known for its expose of the use of DDT. Carson is meticulous in her detailing of the problem. She shows how DDT and other pesticides are concentrated as they move up the food chain, meaning that even when the correct amount of poison is used, animals and humans can suffer overdoses because of the food they are eating. There is a powerful section of the book where she explains how earthworms are the "concentrators" of DDT that is used to control Dutch Elm Disease. This then destroys the robins who eat enormous quantities of worms, leading to the loss of birdsong - the silent spring of the title.

She shows how rivers and streams are destroyed by the chemicals, and describes the impact on the wider ecology. Carson even describes the "spontaneous" formation of other weedkillers, when certain chemical compounds combine in the soil and water.

However there is much more to this book than Carson's dramatic denunciation of this culture of poison. The is an intensely ecological book. By that I mean that Carson's analysis is rooted in an understanding of the webs and chains that form nature. In particular she hates the notion that humans are somehow external to the natural world. She writes eloquently;

"As man proceeds towards his announced goal of the conquest of nature, he has written a depressing record of destruction, directed not only against the earth he inhabits but against the life that shares it with him."

But for Carson this "announced goal" is nonsense. Humans aren't separate from nature, they are part of it, and our actions impact upon the natural world and back upon ourselves. This is why she has to spend so much time discussing the illnesses, diseases and cancers that result from the use of chemical pesticides.

But Carson's analysis isn't simply ecological in the sense that she understands the natural world, she also understands the historic and economic reason that pesticides are used in the modern world. She describes the "treadmill" of pesticides, which we might interpret as the logic of the market - that once you begin using vast quantities of chemicals, it is logically to use more and more of them, due to their decreasing impact, rather than switching to more rational alternatives. Carson locates the pesticides use and promotion within an "era dominated by industry... in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged". The pesticides that the US used in the 1950s had their roots in the nerve gases and poisons manufactured for military purposes in the First and Second World Wars. The use of Agent Orange as a weapon against the ecology of Vietnam and its people is the logical extension of this.

Carson also appears to see the problem located much more in the structures of modern society. The insect problem she describes, that requires such enormous quantities of pesticides, arose with the intensification of agriculture, in particular the practise of mono-cropping, which she describes as "agriculture as an engineer might conceive it to be".

Carson's environmental critique then, leads directly to a critique of an economic and political system that has profit as its sole goal. Its noteworthy that Carson isn't anti-science or anti-technology. She is not the environmentalist that argues for a return to a more primitive existence. Indeed her well-argued alternatives are often very technological (involving for instance the laboratory sterilisation of insects to undermine populations in the wild). It is dangerous to draw from this that Carson was some sort of Revolutionary Socialist, though her enemies often described her as a Communist. Other writers like John Bellamy Foster have shown the extent to which Carson's world view was influenced by left wing ideas - see this article for instance.

Carson was working and writing in the 1950s and 1960s so it was inevitable that a critique of the priorities of a section of American industry would be highly controversial. Indeed it is noticeable that in many places she draws parallels in her criticism of pesticides with radiation poisoning. At the time the American public was only just coming to terms with the impact of fallout and its links to cancer. So Silent Spring is also a detailed explanation of cancer and how it can result from external environmental influences. Carson clearly believed that an informed public was one that was more prepared to ask questions and protest at what was happening to them.

Carson's work may have helped kick-start the modern environmental movement, but its impact otherwise was limited. DDT and a few other very dangerous chemicals were banned. But pesticides are still used in vast quantities and still suffer from the problems and limitations outlined in Silent Spring. As the world faces even greater environmental problems in the 21st century, Carson's book is important for many reasons, but not least its attempt to locate ecological crises within the framework of a whole system. For that reason alone it deserves a read during the 50th anniversary year.

Related Reviews

Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Richard J. Evans - Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial

When I reviewed Deborah Lipstadt's book Denying the Holocaust I wrote that it was "a service to all those who believe in historical truth and that history is a science that must be based on evidence, facts and documentation."

One person who didn't think this was the "historian" David Irving. In her book Lipstadt had accused him of being "discredited" and having connections to those who denied the Holocaust, as well as other "neo-fascist" organisations.  Irving was, according to Lipstadt (and quoted in Evan's book), "an ardent admirer of the Nazi leader" and had been accused "of distorting evidence and manipulating documents to serve his own purposes".

As a result of these allegations Irving sued Lipstadt and her publishers, Penguin. Despite their being only references to Irving on six of the pages of her book (which had over 300) Irving demanded the retraction of the publication. The case went to court and among those who were asked to work for the defence was Richard J. Evans, an expert on modern German history and the Nazi period in particular.

There are several parts to this book. Evans documents his own analysis of Irving's writings and public statements. As a result of the disclosure ordered by the High Court, Irving gave over to the defence enormous quantities of his writings, as well as video and audio footage of his speeches. From this Evans and his assistants were able to build up a picture of Irvings' method of research and his wider ideas.

This book is a description of that process, and includes a fairly forensic demolition of Irvings' ideas and books. It also contains a fascinating account of the trial itself, which while centred on Irving suing Penguin, was often portrayed (and interpreted) as a trial of Irving's beliefs. As they discuss the realities of the Holocaust, there are few light hearted moments (though Irving referring to the judge as "Mein Fuhrer" is one of these.

The case was the first were a High Court judge made a ruling on points of historical fact. Evans muses on the advisability of this as well as the problems with following such a trial when enormous quantities of paper and evidence (often in archaic German script) made up the evidence. As the Guardian reported, "The judge found Ms Lipstadt was justified in saying that Irving had falsified history to exonerate Hitler, driven by anti-semitism and his own pro-Nazi views."

In conclusion Evans also quotes the Guardian "even a casual reader of the case reports could quickly see how painstaking genuine historical scholarship is; it builds detail upon detail, avoiding casual inference and thin deduction." Evans then continues that the trial "demonstrated triumphantly the ability of historical scholarship to reached reasoned conclusions about the Nazi extermination of the Jews on the basis of a careful examination of the written evidence".

There is much in this book for those who want to understand the Irving trial, as well as wider questions of complex British libel laws. More importantly though, this book is enormously important for those who want to gain a wider historical understanding of the Holocaust as well as the motives behind those who seek to undermine that understanding, or distort it.

Related Reviews

Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Richard Morgan - The Cold Commands

Spoiler Alert

This sequel to The Steel Remains is a very different novel, and if I can indulge myself in a slightly unfair metaphor, I'd label it The Two Towers of what I imagine is going to be a trilogy. It is very much a bridging novel, that develops and continues the themes and characters of the first book and gives greater shape and depth of their worlds, but within which not much seems to happen. Actually, that's not quite fair. A lot happens. A lot of fighting, sex, running around and skulking around in corridors happens, as well as palace macinations and strangers flexing muscles in bars. But not much big happens.

In The Steel Remains we met a trilogy of war veterans. Each scarred and near forgotten by the society they served. They came together and fought off a fantastical threat, the Dwenda. In this novel, the threat returns, but is almost un-noticed until the very last pages. In fact Morgan is so concerned with setting up the plot-lines for volume three that the plot-line in this book seems to barely exist.

There are some great set-pieces. The central character, Ringil Eskiath destroys a slave-caravan in a classic piece of revenge. The following scene though, is a very harrowing gang-rape, as Ringil uses his mercenaries as a weapon again the mistriss of the caravan, a character who is also related to him. The scene is fairly awful and almost made me give up on the novel. Richard Morgan presumeably thought so too, as he has Ringil curtail it, though he cuts the victims throat to do so.

I've often wondered whether Morgan is trying to be gruesome out of realism for his fantastical feudal setting, or simply because he likes to shock his readers. Frankly this went a little too far. As with the previous novel, there is a lot of sex. Unusually for the genre, several of the most important characters are gay, and the way that they carry their sexuality in a world that is deeply homophobic is one of the ways that Morgan has rounded out his characters. In one scene, Archeth Indamaninarma, a half alien, half human woman who lives in the service of the Emperor, has sex with a female slave, Morgan came close to using one of the worst cliches of the Fantasy genre. Instead he has Archeth debate endlessly about the rights and wrongs of the act, and question her slave deeply before giving in to her charms. If this is meant to justify sex with a slave as somehow being alright, I'm not sure. Nothing about the power-relations in the relationship appears to change and the slave herself admits she's been instructed to fuck her mistress. Hardly likely to tell her that she doesn't want to.

Morgan is clearly trying to write fantasy novels that are above the usual dross, which is of course a crowded field. His 21st century reworkings of some classic themes, do feel different. If only for the blending of science fiction elements into the mix. Like some of his other novels, I found The Cold Commands overwhelming in places. Characters come and go at a rate of knots. Individuals change location and time, moving between worlds in a bit of a blur. They also change. Somehow, at some point on his travels in this novel, Ringil picks up magical powers. Perhaps I was reading a section superficially, but I really didn't understand where this came from. Maybe one of my readers can help me out?!

Overall, I'd suggest that this is a novel that is worth reading. I don't know when the follow-up (I assume there will be one) is likely to arrive, and I fear that I'll have forgotten important details by then. Nonetheless, worth reading if you like your SF&F a little more gritty than normal.

Related Reviews

Morgan - The Steel Remains
Morgan - Black Man
Morgan - Woken Furies
Morgan - Market Forces

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mikhail Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita

Begun in the late 1920s, finished in 1937 after the author burnt the first version and not published until 1966, The Master and Margarita is a classic of 20th century Russian writing. On one level, it is a fantastic fairy tail, full of witches on broomsticks, magic, talking animals and other unbelievable characters. On the other hand, it is a tale of redemption, a necessarily metaphorical tale that criticises 1930s Soviet life.

Bulgakov certainly had an interesting life, very much tied up with Russian history of the early 20th century. He was a young doctor in the First World War then worked in Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. He doesn't seem to have been particularly political, as a biographical essay in this new edition of the novel points out, a contemporary poet "talked of his 'magnificent contempt of their [the Communists] ethos." His novels were of an earlier style. By the time Bulgakov gave up his medical career to concentrate on literature, in early 1920, the culture peaks of the very early revolutionary era had begun to give way to the leaden-headed time of the emerging Soviet bureaucracy. This was an era of shortages, starvation and civil war. Despite these shortages, as the 1920s progressed a new emerging class of bureaucrats and functionaries began to consolidate power. With the death of Lenin this class became even more entrenched around the figure of Stalin who turned his back on the "revolution from below" socialism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and argued for "Socialism in one country".

By the time he begun The Master and the Margarita it would not have taken a genius to recognise that contemporary Soviet society was along way from the dreams of the early revolution. Much of the realities of this life are apparent in the novel. The stifling bureaucracy, the pompous functionaries who only serve to bolster their own roles and egos through endless regulations and paperwork. Much of the humour in the novel comes from the popping of these individual's self-importance.

The novel centres on the arrival in Moscow of Satan and his assistants. These fantastical characters proceed to create mayhem around the city. But rather than killing and hurting people, Satan's exploits the greed and selfishness of many of Moscow's inhabitants, in particular the literary types and low level functionaries. In the first of two wonderful scenes, Satan, in the guise of a stage conjurer causes a riot as greedy theatre goers are given enormous quantities of cash and beautiful, but fatally flawed, clothes.

Satan is here an ambiguous figure. His evil seems more directed at those whose greed and selfishness make them deserve some vengeance. He can also be helpful and rewarding as the principle characters, the eponymous Master and Margarita eventually find out.

These two form a parallel and intertwined story. The Master has written a novel, which in echoes of Bulgakov's own writing of the book, he has destroyed in frustration at the barriers erected by the literary establishment. The novel tells the true story of Jesus' trial and Crucifixion. Its own message carrying echoes of the more explicit attacks on those in positions of power. For much of the novel, the Master is in a lunatic asylum, joined as time passes, by many of those who encounter Satan's memorable band. In particular, the enormous black cat, that walks, talks and carries itself with enough bearing to fit in well with the newly enriched sections of the Moscow elite.

Margarita agrees to serve Satan and presides at a fantastic feast. The ball's guests are the most evil figures from history, and Margarita endures their company while absorbing their pain and suffering. An act of kindness on her part helps prove her purity and, passing an invisible test, Satan rewards her, and the Master.

The Master and Margarita is not an easy novel. It is full of historical and literal allusions and, presumably to escape the censors, much of the material is allegorical in nature. Bulgakov's brilliance is to make the extraordinary seem reasonable, as testified by Behemoth the giant cat. But while the book is clearly a powerful critique of Soviet society, it is also a fantasy that offers little alternative to the economic realities. The conclusion appears to be that things are as they are and cannot be changed, only escaped.

This new edition from Alma Classics is particularly useful for readers who are new to Russian literature and the period. In addition to the main text (which has had very useful footnotes added explaining many of the more obscure references and characters) there is a biographical essay, pictures of the author and his family and extracts from Bulgakov's personal correspondence. Rather oddly the publishers have also included the first few pages of the book in Russian. As a result the book has some very useful supporting material and will help the reader understand the writer, the period and the nature of the book. Whether it enables you to also get your head around the story is entirely a different question.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Owen Jones - Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Owen Jones is clearly a rising star of the Labour left. I've arrived late to review Chavs which has been extensively reviewed, debated and discussed here in many different publications (see for instance, The Guardian, Lenin's Tomb, Socialist Review and The Daily Telegraph). Since its publication in 2011 its seen (as reflected in the number of reviews) enormous success. It has also seen a further deepening of some of the trends portrayed in the book, which the author argues in his new preface helped detonate the riots of the summer of 2011.

Jones points out, back in that strange week when the forces of "law and order" seemed to have lost control of their inner-cities, there "was little appetite for social and economic explanations". In reality it wasn't so much that "People just wanted to feel safe and for those responsible to be punished", there was also a ready appetite from the media for simplistic explanations that placed the blame on greed, feckless young people and uncaring people.

Jones locates the riots in the wider problems in British society. For the left many of these are obvious - the current ConDem coalition is rightly condemned for its austerity policies that have cut back enormously on public services and the welfare state, cut funding for the few facilities for young people and of course, the police racism that helped spark the riots in the first place.

Jones begins the book by arguing that the last few decades have seen a growing "demonisation" of working people. The Chavs phenomena, the image of a social underclass, that is both permanently unemployed and unemployable, given to petty crime, racism and unwanted pregnancies is, for Jones, both a reflection of this demonisation and part of the problem. Comedians, newspaper columnists and politicians paint a picture of the Chav (Council Housed And Violent as one backroynm has it) that reinforces popular perceptions of such a section of society.

In reality, Jones argues that what has changed is the systematic destruction of working class communities, jobs and workplaces that has created vast pools of poverty and under-employment. Jones' book is in part a detailed explanation of some of these trends, for instance the growth in short-contract, low-waged, unskilled jobs, and the expense of well-paid, skilled, long-term jobs that created the basis for a wider community. Such communities, Jones argues, helped to solve other social problems, but once the core work was destroyed, whole areas went into decline.

Secondly Jones argues there has been a deliberate transformation of attitudes towards the working class by politicians. This he rightly locates in the Thatcher era, where the Prime Minister spearheaded a conscious drive to instill ideas of individuality into the mass of society. At the same time, her government laid waste to whole sections of British industry in an effort to destroy the very organisations, the Trade Unions, that helped workers protect themselves and their communities. One key example of this, is the destruction of Council Housing.

Thatcher's Right-to-Buy scheme helped transform Britain from a country where 2 in 5 lived in council housing to one in ten. Councils have been blocked from building new homes, and the under-mining of these estates, combined with the encouragement to own your own property helped undermine the wider community. The boom in housing buying coincided with an increasing sense of individualism. Now one had to fight everyone else to get ahead, rather than standing together for ones interests.

This destruction of council housing was important, not simply for what it did to the communities, but for how it has shaped the perception of working people since then. As Jones' explains:

"Because of the sheer concentration of Britain's poorest living in social housing, council estates easily become associated with the so-called 'chavs'. While it is true that about half of Britain's poor own their homes, they too tend to live on estates. The increasing transformation of council estates into social dumping grounds has provided much ammunition for the theory that Britain is divided into middle-class society and a working-class rump, suffering from an epidemic of self-inflicted problems."

Despite this assault, Jones argues, a lot has survived. Trade Unions still have enormous numbers of members and still have the power to terrify governments when they act together. Over half the population still describe themselves as working class, despite the way that successive governments have tried to undermine the words meaning, and working people still stand together to try and improve their collective lives in the face of austerity and indifference from on high.

Part of this indifference comes from those governments that have followed Thatchers. While Jones rightly reserves enormous contempt to the Tories (which comes across in his interviews with former Tory MPs and ministers), Jones also lays part of the blame at the feet of the Labour administration. Right from the time of Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have aped the Tory views that being working class is bad and middle class is an aspiration for all. Indeed, Jones points out that Gordon Brown fought the 2010 general election on the slogan of creating "a bigger middle class than ever before".

The failure of Labour governments to undo some of the chains that bind working people (such as anti-union laws) have only accelerated the destruction of working class communities. But Jones also argues that their policies have copied and made this worse. In a interesting chapter on racism in Britain, Jones points out:

"New Labour launched a £12 million project specifically designed to help white working-class communities. Of course it is true that there are many working-class - and yes, largely white - communities that have been neglected or even abandoned by New Labour.... But this approach takes us further down the road of linking the problems of working-class communities to their ethnic identity, rather than their class. More dangerously it encourages the idea that working-class people belonging to different ethnic groups are in competition with each other for attention and resources."

This approach must be lauded coming from someone inside the Labour Party and Jones spends a good section of the book demonstrating that the working class is not the bigoted mass that liberal journalists often think it is. He does however over-state the question when discussing the Lindsey Oil Dispute. In this strikes, mass numbers of workers walked out, some of whom carried banners with the phrase "British Jobs for British Workers". While not everyone in the strike was racist, and there were those who argued against this slogan, the slogan itself was racist and demonstrated the potential for anger at government and job-losses to be turned down a more ugly direction (for more on this, see this article).

Jones builds up an impressive mass of data that undermines current government policy and demonstrates the mistakes of previous ones. His research also demonstrates just how wrong popular perception of society actually is, take for instance his figures on single-mothers, widely blamed it seems by Tory MPs for everything from economic crisis to rioting. Rather than single mothers being feckless young women, "only one in fifty single mothers are under eighteen. The average age for a single-parent is thirty-six, and over half had the children while married."

Jones' arguments that the anti-union laws should be repelled, that council houses should be built to high environmental standards to reduce emissions and create homes and jobs, and many other ideas are very positive and must be supported. But Jones' limitations come in the final twenty or so pages. The problem is, that individual socialists can all come up with alternative economic policies. What we also need are strategies for winning them.

For all his criticisms of Labour in power, Jones clearly believes that the only way forward is a reformed Labour party, which has better economic policies aimed at improving the lot of working people. While a laudable aim, the problem with this approach is that it ignores the reality of the current Labour Party, as well as Labour over the last 100 or so years. Labour consistently has signed with the capitalist system against working people. Labour's role as a reformist party that plays the systems game to try to win a few bread-crumbs, means that inevitably it sides with that system. Indeed, the real problem that runs through this book, as it has done for Labour thinkers throughout the last century, is that the working class must be a passive recipient of benevolence from reforming government, rather than an active agent of change.

It is true that Jones supports strikes and protests, though they have only passing mentions in this book. But  the problem is, that in order to survive the current economic crisis, working people are going to have to fundamentally challenge the priorities of the system. Labour politicians, and many of their leading supporters in the unions run terrified of such a response from below. For them, and Jones, the system must be reformed in the interests of the majority in society.

Revolutionary socialists have a different starting point. For us, the system leads inevitably to economic crisis. It has war, bigotry and environmental destruction built into it. This is a fact of life, not a aberration. This is a system that must be smashed, and the only social force that can do this, is the working class. This requires political organisation outside the Labour Party.

While reading Chavs I was seized on a number of occasions by enormous amounts of rage. What has been done to working people by successive governments over the last two or three decades is appalling. Jones' book documents well what has taken place and the consequences here. Marshaled inside this book are vast arrays of facts and figures, together with detailed arguments, that undermine the actions of the current government. For these reasons it deserves a wider readership. It is part of a weapon in our armoury against those who rule in the interests of banks and big business.

But this book is also a starting point for a debate. That debate is about what sort of political organisation working people need. Do they need a Labour Party that asks them to vote once every few years, or do they need parties that try to strengthen resistance, to unite different struggles, to push for stronger action to win the changes that are needed? Such a debate has been taking place since the beginning of Social Democracy. The weakness of the Labour Left in the last few years has muted it, but Owen Jones has helped revive the debate and his book is an excellent starting point for this discussion.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Studs Terkel - 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War Two

At first sight 'The Good War' simply looked to me like a collection of reminiscences from people who had been involved in World War Two. That's not to demean them, these are fascinating and powerful glimpses of how peoples lives were transformed by that enormous conflict.

The accounts range from young men who pulled the dead and wounded out of the water at Pearl Harbour, to women who went to work in the munitions factories for the first time or Japanese Americans made to spend the war in near concentration camp like conditions. For Studs Terkel a history of the war is far bigger than simply that of servicemen, or those who were victims of bombing, it is the history of a transformation of peoples lives. Nor is it simply a bottom up history. Most of Terkel's collected pieces are from those at the bottom, either low ranks in the services or ordinary men and women working in war industries or trying to survive the conflict. However he also interviews an Admiral or two, and one J M Keynes who was in charge of assessing the impact of the Allied bombing effort, in an attempt to improve in future conflicts.

However, as I read this collection a different structure began to emerge. This is far more than a collection of memories. Terkel builds up a picture of the war that is terrifying. The narrative that emerges is more than simply the story of the conflict, but it is also powerfully anti-war. Terkel makes the point in the introduction, that World War Two is different to many other conflicts. Many of the participants felt that it had to be fought, in order to save democracy from fascism. But if these accounts are representative, many of those involved, particularly the fighting men, came away from the conflict believing that wars should never happen again. Of course there are some gung-ho stories, but time and again, Terkel's interviewees finish their accounts by talking about the war raging in Vietnam and how they want it to end. Several talk of the way that they learnt from World War Two that their government lies, and how they don't believe them over Vietnam, just as they didn't over Korea.

Another aspect to this, is the experience for black Americans (most of Terkel's interviewees are American). The war was fought by a segregated army, whose leaders believed that black people could not and would not fight properly. For the poorest in American society, particularly the black population, the war offered the chance of a job, but it often also meant high levels of discrimination and racism. One officer gives an example of the racism;

"There's a story about Ace Lawson. He tried to enlist along with some of his white contemporaries. This major at the recruiting place told him, 'What are you doin' here boy? The air force doesn't need any night fighters.'"

This type of experience undermined the claims of the Allies that they were fighting for democracy and freedom. Lowell Steward, who became a black fighter pilot points out about this racism that "This is why World War Two doesn't read popular things in my mind. They were fighting fascism and letting racism run rampant."

For many of the women interviewed here, the War transformed their lives. It also sowed the seeds of far wider changes in society. Talking about women going to work in the factory for the first time, Dellie Hahne says:

"For the first time in their lives, they worked outside the home. They realized that they were capable of doing something more than cook a meal. I remember going to a Sunday dinner one of the older women invited me to. She and her sister at the dinner table were talking about the best way to keep their drill sharp in the factory. I had never heard anything like this in my life. It was just marvellous."

She continues because "they had a taste of freedom, they had a taste of making their own money, a taste of spending their own money, making their own decisions. I think the beginning of the women's movement had its seeds right there in World War Two."

The war transformed peoples' expectations of what they should get from society. Indeed things like the GI Bill meant that a generation that might well have continued to live through a economic depression without the economic stimulus of mass military spending, were able to educate themselves and get proper jobs in bomb-time post-war America. But it also opened up peoples' eyes to the world. One GI comments;

"The war changed out whole idea of how we wanted to live when we came back. We set our sights pretty high. If we didn't have the war, in Ploughkeepsie, the furthest you'd travel would be maybe New York or Albany. But once people started to travel - People wanted better levels of living, all people."

Elsewhere in the book, another account touchingly tells of the wonder of a young US soldier gazing at the amazing European cities and even the countryside at the same time as he's fighting off an attack by a German unit.

It is tempting to regurgitate large chunks of the book in this review because Terkel has found such an amazing collection of individuals. I won't do that, but it is worth noting that there is much here for students of history, as well as people wanting to get a feel "for what it was really like". Some of the notable interviews in here are with survivors of the death camps, prisoners of war, and veterans of Stalingrad. The final section deals with the nuclear bomb. Harrowing accounts from victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mixed with the stories of some of those who worked on the Manhattan Project. Some of these are powerful, particularly as many of the scientists really believed that the weapon would never be used.

I will finish with the words of  John H. Grove, a physicist who describes his thoughts on hearing the first atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima; 

"My instantaneous reaction was elation. Then there was a second reaction. (Whispers) Oh. My God! On a city! I went in and talked to my boss. (Whisper builds to a shout) They dropped an A-bomb on a big city, a hundred thousand or so. Why didn't they drop it on Tokyo Harbor or that great naval base at Truk? Why on a civilian population? My boss was Jewish and he knew about the Holocaust. He said, 'What the hell, they're just Japs. Dumb animals.' I was stunned. Lost all my respect for him."

The ending of the war ushered a new era in. Many of the those interviewed describe their expectations that there would be a inevitable war between Russia and the United States. The attitudes towards the nuclear bomb, the Cold War and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam however, were very much shaped by the experiences of World War Two. Unsurprisingly this did not automatically mean support for everything the US government said or did, but often the reasons were complex. Studs Terkel's fascinating history helps us understand not just what war is like, but the way that it shapes peoples ideas. 'The Good War', for many who took part, should have been the last war. The fact it was not is an indictment of those at the top of society far more than most of the people interviewed in this wonderful book.

Related Reviews

Calder - The People's War 
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War