Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christian Wolmar - The Subterranean Railway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Alastair Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth

Warning. This review contains enormous spoilers.

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Galactic North
Reynolds - Redemption Ark

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harman continues;

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

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

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Harman - Marxism and History

Thursday, November 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course the men did,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Hutchinson - The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris & Lord Leverhulme
Richards - The Highland Clearances
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy
Fryer - Mrs Grundy: Studies in English Prudery

Saturday, November 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Vinen - The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation
Gildea - Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Brian Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Brian Clegg is a fairly prolific writer of popular science books and he has a knack for putting across quite complex concepts in a fairly straight forward way. His decision to write a book on gravity should be welcomed because the topic is one that seems simple but in reality has some enormous complications.

Clegg begins his survey of our understanding of gravity with a examination of the way that we've understood it  historically. The common sense view of gravity is that things fall down. We know today that the rules of gravity are more complex than this - in essence the basic idea is that (following Isaac Newton) objects that have mass attract every other object with mass with a force that is inversely proportionally to the square of the distance between them, multiplied by their masses. (Things with mass attract other things, but less powerfully the further they are away).

For those of us who have had a modern science education or watched film of astronauts this may seem logical. But as Clegg points out, this understanding is very new and if we go back to the earliest ideas of gravity we have to look at some quite "alien" ideas.

The Greek thinker Aristotle had very different ideas about why things fall when you drop them. He believed that things are naturally at rest. In the Aristotilian world view, if you push something it moves until the push is removed. "The place where it stops moving depends on its elementary nature - so Earth, for example, stops moving when it as close as it can get to the centre of the universe". For the Greeks, "earthy objects had a natural heaviness (gravity) that made them want to be at the centre of the universe, while airy objects had natural lightness... that made them move away from the centre".

Such concepts seem odd because the Greeks were limited like by their different view of the universe. For them the Earth was the centre of the universe, the stars and planets fixed in place and a mere four fundamental elements. They were also limited by the stubborn refusal of people like Aristotle to find experimental verification for their theories. Their ideas seemed logical at the time, but wouldn't have often stood the most basic of tests. Famously it took the arrival of Galileo to show that objects of different weights did not accelerate at different rates, a result could have been proved with the technology available to Aristotle and his contemporaries.

The bulk of the book is devoted to more modern ideas about gravity and much of this is based on the development of the ideas of Albert Einstein. Clegg gives us a potted history of Einstein's theories. He covers the special theory of relativity in a few brief pages, concentrating on General Relativity as it is here that gravity plays its most important role. Einstein's innovation in the general theory was, in its most simplest form, to show that space and time are shaped by gravity. There are all sorts of consequences of this and Clegg does a good job of summarising many of the key points (the way that light from distant objects can be "bent" by the presence of mass for instance). He also gives a useful history of attempts to prove the theory, such as expeditions to see the way that the position of stars was distorted by the presence of our sun, something only viewable during solar eclipses.

After looking at General Relativity, Clegg moves further into the exotic. Firstly he discusses attempts to link general relativity together with the science of Quantum Mechanics - the ideas that govern what takes place on very very small scales. Famously this has yet to be achieved, but Clegg gives us some tantalising glimpses of the possibilities. Most intriguingly, Clegg discusses the  work of a Czech physicist, Peter Horava, who has managed to mathematically link general relativity with quantum theory, but only in the special case of the mathematics that might have taken place in the very early stages of the universe.

Finally, after briefly being diverted by discussions on time-travel, Clegg examines the way that gravity works. We are used to thinking of the influence being instantaneous. But gravity only works at the speed of light. Exactly HOW this happens is a matter for enormous debate. Again here mathematics is king. Some of the enormously complex equations suggest that gravity might be like other forces such as electromagnetism, whose influence is governed by the movement of packets of energy called photons. Experimental attempts to spot these packets of gravity (gravitons) have so far been unsuccessful, in part because of the great difficulties in spotting them amongst all the noise caused by masses around us.

Much of this discussion is fascinating, and Clegg's skill as a writer is to get across such ideas. I suspect that most readers will understand 90% of the book and will take the rest on trust. Some of the concepts - such as gravity itself causing further gravity - are hard to get ones head around, but often Clegg does them justice.

However there are some problems with the book. The first of these is editing. In a couple of places the sentences read very badly, and there is at least one nonsensical line ("One pound weight of coffee on the Moon would be 6 times as much coffee 1 pound weight of coffee on the Earth"). At least one of the URLs in the references, supposedly linking to a video demonstrating the properties of gyroscopes doesn't work (chapter 11, reference 3 if the publishers are reading). These are annoying problems that should have been picked up before the book was published.

More problematic is Clegg's way of drowning the reader in ideas and concepts. He mentions the idea of quantum tunnelling on page four for starters - throwing the reader in at the deep end. In the space of a few pages (84-85) Clegg discusses, tidal forces in planets and moons, red giants, extraterrestrial life, followed a few pages on by the life and death of stars. All these things are linked, but it felt like a roller coaster of a read.

These criticisms aside it is a useful book. In the final chapter Clegg quotes the American physicist Richard Feynman saying "the most impressive fact is that gravity is simple". In a way that is true but I fear that Clegg makes too much of this. Gravity might be simple, but understanding it is an incredibly difficult task. This is why many of the scientists discussed in the book devoted their entire lives to trying to solve aspects of the science. Cleggs book is a good attempt at making some difficult science easier.

Related Reviews

Clegg - Infinity: The Quest to think the Unthinkable
Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral