Monday, September 30, 2013

Stephen King - The Dark Tower

I began reading Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series back in 2006. For reasons best known to myself I decided only to buy them when I found them second hand. Hence it's taken longer to finish them than Roland, the last gunslinger and hero of the novels, spent on his quest. It's perhaps this time lag that has helped make reading the series feel like an epic trek, but most of that is to do with King's writing. The scope of this series is truly huge. The characters are numerous, but never shallow. Even relatively minor characters (I'm thinking of Bill the Stuttering Robot in the final book for instance) feel worthy of their own books.

The books themselves vary. Some aren't as good as others, and strangely, the two I enjoyed the most, are the ones least about the quest. Wizard and Glass and The Wastelands both work almost as self contained books, and King's writing befits this well. That said, they are essential to the wider story, and must be read as part of that.

In reviewing the climatic novel of such a long and complex series, it would be wrong to talk about the plot. Mentioning almost any details might ruin other readers taking the same journey. I suspect that most readers are reading toward the end, though the true enjoyment of these books is the trip. King understands this (in fact, in the epilogue to this last volume, he acknowledges this explicitly, and alludes to it in the last chapter) and perhaps the ending is not as satisfying as many would hope. That said, when you have followed characters through some thousands of pages, it is difficult to not feel emotionally linked to them. The ending itself is, at first glance, somewhat flat, but the reader might have to read it again, in detail to understand exactly what is being said.

Back in 2006, I worried that this might be a "long turgid trip" to volume seven. It certainly was long, but it was rarely turgid. While occasionally I felt an editor might have removed some of the words, the imagery and characters will long remain with me.

"Go then, there are other worlds than these."

Related Reviews

King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla
King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

Friday, September 27, 2013

Gary Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream

Published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jnr's famous "I have a Dream" speech, Gary Younge's new book is more than an examination of those famous words. It is a celebratory and occasionally critical account of the birth and growth of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King's role within it.

The speech, as Younge points out, was not just made at a huge demonstration. It was made in a year that would see immense change. It was "delivered in a year that started with Alabama governor George Wallace... declaring, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,' and ended with President Kennedy's assassination.

Within in a year, Lyndon Johnson had passed the Civil Rights Act, which many of those who heard King's speech would see as a limited step forward. King himself was transformed by the speech, which while it was broadcast live and heard by many, only really received the iconic status it has today with the his assassination. Younge quotes one of King's colleagues as saying "Though he was extremely well known before he stepped up to the lectern, he stepped down on the other side of history."

King was a polished speaker. Younge tells us that in 1963 alone, King made 350 speeches. He takes us through the speech sentence by sentence, showing how King's training as a preacher, his politics and his religion are used at key points, to raise the crowd up, to give power to his rhetoric and to draw the listener in. No wonder that JFK remarked on hearing it, "He's damned good. Damned good."

But the speech was of its time and place. The movement was evolving and growing, but so was King. The march's culmination was King's "dream" but the speakers themselves went on to reception at the Whitehouse. That may well have been a step forward, but the links between sections of the Civil Rights movement and the democratic party helped to dampen down the more radical demands. One of the strengths of this book is that it draws this out - from the secret switch that would have allowed the US state to shut down militant speakers, to plans by the march organisers to drown out more radical action themselves with calming singing by the stewards. Indeed, right until the very last moment, key figures in the coalition that had organised the march were desperately trying to avoid radical rhetoric from their own speakers that might undermine the, essentially passive, message of the march.

King is most famous for his strategy of passive resistance, of non-violent action. Many people at the time, and since criticised this approach for being unrealistic in the face of the powers of the street. There is of course truth in this, but Younge makes the point that for all ones criticisms of King, one cannot discount Martin Luther King. To do that would be "to effectively dismiss the most prominent and popular proponent of civil rights."

King himself stood for far more than civil rights. Younge notes, for instance, that he was a leader that also wanted government intervention to help the poor, who attacked the US government for their violence, and who, towards the end of his life was beginning to look to wider social struggles. Young quotes one current congressman, who knew King arguing that "[King's] speech four years later at the the Riverside Church in New York, in which he condemned the war in Vietnam and talked about the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, was by far the best speech of his life in terms of sheer tone and substance."

It is fascinating and perhaps futile, to speculate about who King might have become had he not been assassinated. Younge avoids this, and looks instead at King's legacy, or more importantly, the US today. A country still riven by class differences, poverty, war and racism. A country that has twice elected a black President, but a country where in 2004 there were more Black men without the vote than in 1870, the year Black males got a vote. Black male life expectancy in Washington DC is lower than that in the Gaza strip, and years of Obama's leadership have meant worsening conditions for those at the bottom of US society, particularly black people.

Ultimately, King's speech was about a dream. It's power at the time lay in its "nebulous" demands as much as its rhetoric. As such it could be opened to "interpretations that are not only varied but arguable contradictory" says Younge. A veteran civil rights activist quoted points out that the speech was "easily digestible by a white audience and more palatable to them, as opposed to his antiwar speeches and critiques of capitalism". That said, King was part of a movement that began a struggle which did make an enormous difference. Others, often with more radical methods, strategies and ideas, were to follow.

Younge muses on what makes great speeches, and indeed whose speeches are actually heard:

"The speeches we believe to be most decisive can only come from those speeches we have heard about. Those given by a poor woman in Swahili, Kurdish or Quechua are far less likely to make it through the filter of race, sex, class and language than those given by wealthy white men in English, French or Spanish."

Sadly, as this indicates, the struggle that King gave his life for remains to be won. Fifty years after he outlined his "dream", a dream that remains inspiring and powerful, millions of people still have lives blighted by poverty, racism, war and unemployment.

King's struggle, and hence this book, began a discussion of what sort of movement is needed to change things. It's a powerful book, which perhaps leaves too many such questions unanswered. Nonetheless it is an excellent start for further debate.

Related Reviews

Richardson (editor) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

Sunday, September 22, 2013

John Marriott - Beyond the Tower: A History of East London

When I lived in East London, I always felt it was one of those urban areas where events of historical importance seemed to have taken place on every street corner. I lived in Poplar, and there were murals, monuments and plaques everywhere. East London was the place of the Match Girls, George Lansbury, Jack the Ripper, Dock Strikes and the battles against the fascists in the 1930s and the 1990s.

John Marriott's new history of the area then is a must read for anyone who lives or works in the area. It is also a must read for anyone trying to understand the wider social development of London, and particular the lives and struggles of the ordinary inhabitants.

The poverty and grim lives of many of East London's inhabitants, led the area to be seen almost as a foreign country. In particular, Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel Murders led the press to paint a picture of "outcast London", but those who lived, worked and organised in the area knew that the reality was very different. Yes there was immense poverty, but the tabloid like descriptions of violence and poverty served to sell newspapers, but not educate readers to realities. Some, like William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, saw in East London,a foreign country;

"As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilisation, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies?"

But Clara Grant, a teacher in a charity school in Bow, argued:

"novelists and journalists demand vice and squalor when they come down to write us up. The expect evil and seem horribly disappointed if they discover we are not black at all, but only grey... a rich man, wishing to help our work, induced a big daily paper to send down a journalist... He said, 'it won't do. You're not black enough.' I pointed out that I could not very well work up a murder or two, or put every child in rags and bare feet to rouse interest."

Real life in East London was very different to the squalor depicted in the popular press. There was immense unemployment, something that has bedeviled the area since the early days of capitalism and continues today. But alongside the big employers, the Docks, the factories and the like, there have also been numerous smaller trades. The textile industry, in various forms, from the days of Huguenot immigrants to the sweatshops of the 1970s has been a central part of the local economy. One of the great strengths of this book is the way that Marriott demonstrates both continuity with the past, and the change. East London's industry is one part of this.

But at the heart of this book is struggle. The struggle of ordinary people to try and improve their lives. Some of this is criminal. Marriott deals with the criminal gangs of the 40s, 50s and 1960s. But some of it is more collective. Drawing on several books that I've already reviewed on this blog, Marriott looks at the history of the East End's Anarchists, Jewish Radicals and socialist movements. He sees them as mainly peripheral to wider politics, and downplays some of the larger achievements of the struggles in the area. For instance, Marriott argues that the Match Girls strike had far less of an impact than many have argued, "that it inspired the wave of industrial struggle that followed is unconvincing" he writes.

Certainly though, Marriott doesn't ignore these struggles, though he tends to imply that industrial militancy on the Docks or in the gas workers strikes of the late 1800s, had only shortlived impacts. Though he certainly acknowledges their importance in shaping the workers movement of the 20th century. Similarly, Marriott argues that the great anti-fascist mobilisation at Cable Street had little impact in stopping the BUF. That is probably true, but only if you ignore the wider impact of the mass protest, both in terms of the larger population and the people of East London themselves. That tens of thousands took to the streets is of more consequence than the fact that the police stopped the march. The march could not have proceeded, and the decision of the police was one made to prevent a far more bloody outcome.

Those who know more about such individual instances might find Marriott's book frustrating in places. Certainly however, I think it gives an excellent overview of the history of this important centre of the working class. Marriott doesn't give an inch to any criticisms of immigrants, arguing that they have played a central and important role in the areas economy, and the struggles of its people. The book finishes with the looming 2012 Olympics. The author doesn't see much benefit accruing from this international gala of corporate sponsorship for ordinary people. But that's in tone with the history of the area. Working people pushed aside and exploited by larger forces. Those changes, and the resistance, make this an interesting read that will bring to life much forgotten history.

Related Reviews

Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals
Fishman - East End 1888
Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red
Branson - Poplarism 1919 - 1925
Wise - The Blackest Streets

Friday, September 20, 2013

Stephen King - Song of Susannah


Spoiler Alert

With this, volume six of the Dark Tower series, Stephen King's epic series begins to draw to a close. Sadly this novel felt to me very much like a filler. It bridges the gap between the set-piece fun of the previous book, Wolves of the Calla and the finale. That novel was heavily influenced by classic Western themes, right down to a classic, if unusual shoot-out at the end.

Song of Susannah picks up immediately after the end of Wolves. Susannah is trapped in her own body by a former demon and is heavily pregnant with a child that will be the nemisis of Roland. The ka-tet of heroes follow her, but are split up, travelling through time, space and possibly universes to reach modern New York and Maine in 1977. You don't need to be an enormous Stephen King fan to know that Maine is the site of many of his novels, indeed he lives there himself. Rather unusually, King then becomes a key figure in the tale, not particularly as protaganist, but as the driving force of the books. An author influenced by his characters. At first I found this rather annoying and self-indulgent, but as the book reached its end, I quite liked the drawing together of all the threads of King's novels and universes.

Sadly, as a whole, I didn't feel the novel worked as well as the earlier books - it is more of a setup for the series' climax. Certainly King does have the talent to bring it all together, but whether he actually can achieve that rather difficult task remains, for me, to be seen.

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

David Fernbach (ed) - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi

In recent years there has been renewed interest in the work of the German revolutionary socialist, Paul Levi. In part this has been inspired by the publication in English of Pierre Broue's classic book on the German Revolution, which emphasised the role that Levi played in the early years of the German Communist Party. Following the murders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibneickt, Paul Levi took on the difficult task of guiding the fledgling party in its early years.

Building mass revolutionary organisation during a revolution is not an easy task. The revolutionary wave that swept Germany at the end of World War One dragged millions of workers into action. Levi's task then, was to try and shape the rapidly growing Communist Party into the type of organisation that could lead a revolution.

The first few articles in this selected works, deal with Levi's writings and speeches in this early period. His address to the founding conference of the Communist Party (KPD) is a polemic designed to win an argument that KPD members needed to involve themselves in the elections to the German Parliament. On this question, and others, Levi was trying to challenge the ultra-left instincts of the new, young communists. Levi lost the argument and the KPD abstained. But millions of workers didn't and the KPD found themselves isolated in the debates around the election.

That said, the KPD grew rapidly, benefiting in part from its links with revolutionary Russia. Nonetheless, the lack of theoretical clarity meant that the KPD's leadership made some serious tactical errors. Paul Levi was the most able of the leaders and his articles are often critical looks at strategy and tactics, trying to learn lessons and teach the party.

Most famously the KPD attempted to force a revolutionary situation in Germany in March of 1921, the so called "March Action". This was a dismal failure and the KPD lost tens of thousands of supporters and many people were killed. Using the unemployed to try and force strikes, KPD members invaded work places, blew up railcars and tried to provoke a revolution that didn't fit with the experience of the majority of German workers.

Paul Levi, who by this point was no longer on the party's central bodies, wrote a long polemical critique of the Action. When published, his pamphlet led to his expulsion for breaking party discipline. It seems fairly clear to me though, that by this point, Levi had decided the KPD was broken beyond repair. His critique is a brilliant defence of the role of revolutionary socialist organisation and roots of the KPD's mistakes. This, and his speech in his defence to the KPD's CC are must reads for anyone trying to understand what took place in Germany in the early 1920s.

Comrades no doubt might argue whether or not he was justified in his actions. But famously Lenin quipped, that while Levi had lost his head, "at least he had a head to lose". But it is clear from these writings that Levi rapidly lost much of what made him such a brilliant leader. In the aftermath of his expulsion and his creation of a new, small left organisation, Levi argued that the KPD was no longer reformable. Part of the blame for this, he argued lay in the decline of the Russian Revolution and the resultant rot in the Communist International. What marks out Levi from others who drew these conclusions, was that Levi was doing this as early as 1921, long before the battles for the future of the Comintern or the Soviet Union had been decided. Levi's intervention in support of (say) Leon Trotsky could have been crucial. Instead he appears to have abandoned them.

Paul Levi
So, contained in these writings are two pieces that Levi writes at this time, one an introduction to a piece by Rosa Luxemburg on Russia, the other a very critical introduction to Trotsky's In Defence of October. Levi critiques the Russian Bolsheviks for their actions post October. But in the latter of these essays, and in other pieces, he clearly fails to see that Trotsky's polemic that is part of an argument about the way forward for the Soviets. Indeed in critiquing Trotsky, Levi ends up siding with those in the Bolshevik leadership who had done most to damage the Germany party.

Having written a brilliant defence of the Democratic Centralist method pioneered by Lenin in 1919, Levi is reduced to criticising the Bolsheviks for a method that meant the "stations of its development... were resolutions and splits on account of resolutions". Levi ignores the decades of brilliant underground work that the Russian Revolutionaries undertook, in order to blur the reasons for the very creation of the Bolshevik party on very specific principles of organisation.

Similarly he attacks Trotsky for writing long polemics on (eg) the Anglo Russian agreements or the revolution in China. Clearly Trotsky does this for fun. Levi seems to miss that both of these arguments went to the heart of Trotsky's battle with Stalin over the direction of Russian policy. Was the Russian party going to look outwards to Revolution, or inwards to Socialism in One Country?

Ultimately I found this a frustrating collection. Some of the articles are very important and will help socialists understand the German revolutionary process and the mistakes of the KPD. However the picture they paint of Levi himself is confused. In the immediate post-war period he comes across as a brilliant revolutionary, striving for revolutionary clarity and a party capable of leading a revolution. His 1919 polemic is a particularly brilliant example of this - it meant the forcing out of a section of the party that was influenced by anarchism and syndicalism. The resultant renewed clarity of ideas meant the KPD recruited thousands of new members within months on a much clearer basis.

But quickly after he leaves the KPD he comes across as a much more liberal socialist (an able one at that) whose polemics against the Russian Revolution seem more about a sectarian assault on the KPD than developing revolutionary clarity.

Sadly this book is also marred by an awful introduction, which, while an excellent outline of the life and times of Paul Levi, has several problems. Not least of these is that the author of the introduction tries to recast Levi as the living embodiment of Rosa Luxemburg's ideas. I think this is unfair on both Levi and Luxemburg, who were both brilliant individuals capable of making judgments based on concrete situations, rather than having some innate set of ideas that remained unchanged over years. Speculation whether Luxemburg would have taken the same decisions as Levi at key points is not particularly useful in clarifying the historical process in my view.

More worryingly, the introduction appears to lay the blame for the failure of the German Revolution and the rise of Fascism on "Leninism". But the KPD of the late 1920s and early 1930s was a long way away from Leninism - it had become, as Broue points out well, a tool of Stalin's foreign policy. It was no longer a revolutionary organisation that was struggling to end capitalism. It's weaknesses flowed from this position, not from a Leninism that was far from its own practise. Indeed in the earlier 1919 article, Levi clearly models his vision of the KPD in part on the Bolsheviks' own practise.

These criticisms aside, few of Paul Levi's writings have been available to the English reader and this book makes some of his key writings (particularly his critique of the March Action) available. This is something that should be welcomed by socialists and historians everywhere. But the book needs to be read in conjunction with a decent history of the German Revolution - Pierre Broue's brilliant work would be ideal, or Chris Harman's Lost Revolution.

Related Reviews

Broue - The German Revolution 1919 - 1923
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades

Monday, September 09, 2013

Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall

Those who follow my reviews regularly might find Wolf Hall an odd choice of novel. After all, what interest could a revolutionary socialist have in a sprawling story about the machinations of the Tudor ruling class?

Apart from Hilary Mantel's wonderful writing, the answer is best summed up by Karl Marx's description of the ruling classes as a "band of warring brothers". In her tale of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, against the backdrop of Henry VIII's infatuation with Anne Boleyn, what Mantel does brilliantly is show the way that those at the top of Tudor society are in a constant fight for power and wealth at the same time as they try to present a united front to the rest of society. The jockeying for position, the way courtiers fall in and out of favour, the fear that they might upset the king, or someone close to him is the meat and drink of this novel. Those who are able to play the game can achieve power and wealth far beyond the dreams of most. Ruling class women, whether Queens or Ladies in Waiting are prized for their ability to produce heirs. Wolf Hall is not some romantic novel, it feels brutally real. There is little marriage for love here, only for alliances and male children.

Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is done brilliantly. He's less the terrifying bully many of us know from the history books, more a thoughtful, intelligent schemer whose photographic memory and intellect is utilised to control and direct from afar. At times he appears to be more an observer on great events. But if his rise to power on the coat tails of Cardinal Worsley, followed by a quick jump of ship might reminds one of a less than average liberal democrat MP it is carefully timed, designed to maximise personal gain.

Mantel's Cromwell is haunted by his own demons - his violent father and his lowly upbringing, as well as the deaths of his beloved wife and children. These are some of the best passages, the ones that make the reader love Cromwell, and side with him even as he rises to the top of the Tudor dunghill.

The Tudor England in Wolf Hall is a grim and dirty place. Descriptions aren't detailed; this is a novel of dialogue and impressions. But Mantel doesn't neglect those at the bottom of society. The majority of the inhabitants of Medieval England aren't a backdrop to the story of the rich, they are a constant presence. A mob that the rulers fear and worry about, who might rebel, or side with the Queen against the King, or stone a bishop.

This 700 page novel never feels overwritten or difficult despite the massive cast of characters and complex plot. Mantel's use of language and humour is beautiful, though her characters seldom are. Her writing deserved the awards and I have no hesitation in recommending it, as well as looking forward to part two.

Related Reviews

Mantel - Bring Up the Bodies
Mantel - A Place of Greater Safety

Monday, September 02, 2013

Felipe Fernández-Armesto - 1492: The Year Our World Began

The arrival of Columbus in the New World in 1492 is often seen as the date which changed history. But had  it been possible to have some sort of global over-view in the later half of the 15th century, few people would have bet that the rather uncouth, unlucky and insignificant admiral would have been the first to discover the Americas. Indeed, few would have put any money on the Spanish state doing it, or even anyone in Europe. Back in the 1490s, as this fascinating history shows, Europe was an economic, technological and scientific backwater compared to some parts of the world.

The years around 1492 had a whole series of "turning points" for world history and this overview of them demonstrates that the world may well have turned out remarkably different. It is also a useful book to demonstrate that European superiority has few historical roots, and violent conquest was the chief mechanism that made sure that Europeans dominated world politics for the next few centuries.

So this book covers some fascinating history. The period marks the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, that helped transform a whole number of countries. The point when Russia stopped being a group of fractious states and headed off down the road of becoming an Empire. A period when a whole series of sub-Saharan countries were at the peak of their prosperity and influence. 

The country that seemed most likely to dominate the future world back in 1492 was China. Her wealth was internationally famed. Travellers and traders did their best to get there and Europe found herself marginalised by local trade in the Indian Ocean. These "seas of milk and butter" linked the world's richest economies but were self contained, forcing European traders to either travel around Africa or find new ports.

China's explorers should have reached America first. Admiral He had made a number of voyages around the Indian ocean, creating Chinese trading sites and bringing embassies. He also brought back giraffes and other strange animals for the Chinese nobility to gawp at. Fernández-Armesto comments that: 

"An age of expansion did begin, but the phenomenon was of an expanding world not, as some historians say, of European expansion. The world did not simply wait for European outreach to transform it as if touched by a magic wand. Other societies were already working magic of their own, turning states into empires and cultures into civilisations. Some of the most dynamic and rapidly expanding societies of the fifteenth century were in the Americas, south-west and northern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, in terms of territorial expansion and military effectiveness... some African and American empires outclassed any state in western Europe."

But Europe did come out on top. Not because of inherent genius or superiority, but because other countries did not turn outwards, or turned in on themselves or succumbed to invasion, war or collapse. China recalled its enormous ships and never found the Americas. But because Europe did;

"The incorporation of the Americas - the resources, the opportunities - would turn Europe from a poor and marginal region into a nursery of potential global hegemonies. It might not have happened that way."

That's one factor. But to do it required guns, germs and steel. Indeed, the author makes the point that it was only the systematic and brutal conquest of the Canary islands by Spain that gave Columbus a launching off point that would allow him to utilise the Atlantic currents and reach America. 

While I don't agree with all of the author's historical analysis (or his historical approach), I found this a very useful introduction to non-European history. To places that have been forgotten or written out of history. A useful book that should prompt further thought and study.