Tuesday, April 22, 2014

AW Zurbrugg - Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War

This fascinating collection of writings and speeches is the perfect antidote to those that want to downplay the anti-war feelings that existed during World War One. It is also an excellent resource for those studying the anti-war movements, the socialist and anarchist opposition and the developing rebellions and revolutions against the slaughter. In making this material available, Merlin Press have down us all an immense favour. The editors commentary is also very useful, providing background and sources for further study.

Much of the book is taken up by extracts of speeches and writings. Some of these, like Rosa Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet will be familiar. Others, like the words of Scottish socialist John Maclean or various European Anarchists and pacifists will be less well known. Some of the material is translated and published in English for the first time. All of them are interesting, some because they demonstrate the clarity of thought amongst those who opposed the imperial war and others because they illuminate the hopes and fears of the ruling class. Here's an extract from a South African newspaper, fearing what would happen to colonial troops if they were used against Germany,

"If the Indians are used against the Germans it means they will return to India disabused of the respect they should bear for the white race. The Empire must uphold the principle that a coloured man must not raise his hand against a white man if there is to be any law or order in either India, Africa or any part of the Empire... it will mean the natives will secure pictures of whites being chased by coloured men and who knows what harm such pictures may do?"

or words from the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau:

"I would prefer that ten Blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman - although I immensely respect those brave blacks, but I think that enough Frenchmen are killed anyway and that we should sacrifice as few as possible."

Many of the extracts deal with those revolutionaries, socialist and anarchist trying to understand why the majority of the left movements ended up supporting their own ruling class, despite the enormous desire amongst working people before war broke out for peace. Frank Bohn, an American socialist gets to the heart of the problem when he declared

"With a vast majority it has been a matter of salary, of the commonest sort of economic determinism... This whole crowd began life as poor, hopeless lawyers or school teachers... who would no more think of losing their position in life than they would of going into the streets naked."

He continues that within the Germany socialist party, there were (of 900,000 members),

"perhaps one hundred thousand [who] were really socialists. If these had stood alone, with a press and a leadership devoted to revolutionary ideals, there would have been no war."

But revolts and opposition grew and the best part of this collection are the speeches of those who organised and built that opposition. In Russia, the working class overthrew its governments and monarchy and created the first workers' state. In Germany revolution and mutiny brought down the Kaiser and put an end to war. Elsewhere, in Glasgow, Sheffield, Dublin and a myriad of other places, the struggle reached new heights. Sadly, they didn't break through to victory, but those taking part recognised, as James Connolly did that,

"The carnival of murder on the continent will be remembered as a nightmare in the future, will not have the slightest effect in deciding for good the fate of our homes, our wages our hours, our conditions. But the victories of labour in Ireland will be as footholds, secure and firm in the upward climb of our class to the fullness and enjoyment of all that labour creates, and organised society can provide. Truly, labour alone in these days is fighting the real war for civilisation."

Related Reviews

Sherry - John Maclean: Red Clydesider

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rodney Hilton - Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381

In his introduction to this classic historical work, Rodney Hilton makes the point that a precondition of the existence of peasantry "as a class of small-scale agricultural producers has always been the existence of other classes... who live off the surplus produce of peasant labour." Inevitably then, class struggle, and peasant revolts have been a key part of the history of the peasantry. Looking at Medieval Europe, a were there was a "basic similarity of social structure in the rural communities, Hilton sees some broad patterns of revolt, much of which is determined by the particular nature of the exploitation of serfs. As Hilton points out:

"The earliest elements in peasant protest were the direct consequence of the peasants' attempts to devote as much as possible of the family's labour to the cultivation of the holding, and to keep for the disposal of the family as much as possible of the product of that labour."

In other words, peasants struggled to maximise their share of the product of their own labour, and to try and avoid obligations to the lords beyond the absolutely necessity. However what is striking about the wider peasant movements discussed here, both in England and Europe, is the way that often peasants raised wider demands which challenged the nature of the feudal system.

To see this most clearly, Hilton examines in detail the events of the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381. The roots of this revolt, as discussed elsewhere, are complex. One key factor was the growing tendency for those in rural communities to demand increased wages, as a result of labour shortages following the decimation of the Black Death. This was recognised by the authorities who attempted, through various legislation, to limit wage rises and punish those calling for more. Hilton concludes that "it was serfdom and those things which flowed from the rights of lords over tenants which bulked largest in [peasant] grievances."

When the 1381 rising exploded, whole areas were quickly taken over by ordinary peasants. Hilton argues that the revolt wasn't simply that of peasants, but was a "cross section" of rural society, involving relative numbers of all parts of society. The peasants, well off and poor, were united as a class, and there is a remarkable similarity in what took place in numerous different villages and towns across England. Records that listed peasant obligations and taxes were usually the first targets, as were often those local landowners, abbots and other members of the governing classes who were particularly seen as enemies of the people. The rising was violent, but that reflects the violent nature of serfdom. The revolt though, seen through the demands of the peasants themselves in negotiation with the King was very much a revolt against serfdom as a system. The peasants demanded better access to the Commons, improved rights to hunt and use open land, but much more too.

Hilton contrasts the demands of Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt with those of Piers Plowman in Langland's famous work. According to Hilton, Pier's wants to maintain the status quo, but with better commitments from the ruling classes:

"I'll sweat and toil for us both as long as I live, and gladly do any job you want. But you must promise in return to guard over holy church and protect me from the thieves and wasters who ruin the world."

John Ball, the priest of the rebellion, however demanded far more revolution than these reformist demands.

"matters goeth not well to pass in England nor shall do till everything be common and that there be no villeins nor gentlemen but that we may be all united together and that the lords be no greater masters than we be."

One contemporary report says that Ball goes on to demand a transformed world. To obtain equality and justice required

"killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors... so at last they would obtain peace and security, if, when the great ones had been removed, they maintained among themselves equality of liberty and nobility as well as of dignity and power."

That's not to say the rebels didn't want immediate gains too, as well as a "world turned upside down". But the demand for freedom from serfdom "was the one most persistently presented when the rebels were directly negotiating with the king and his advisers."

That said, Hilton concludes that the peasantry was not a force in medieval Europe that could destroy the landed aristocracy. The force developing that could (and would), was the bourgeoisie. Hilton continues that "the leading social force in medieval peasant movements, even the most radical, seems to have been those elements most in contact with the market, those who in suitable circumstances would become capitalist farmers."

It is no surprise that Hilton's book seems to be one of the most referenced and quoted books in other works on the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. It is an excellent resource, carefully argued and backed by scrupulous research and evidence. It is a must for anyone trying to understand the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the social clashes that took place in the medieval era.

Related Reviews

Lindsay and Groves - The Peasant's Revolt 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Mortimer - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dick Gregory - N*****

Until I picked up this old autobiography, I knew nothing abut Dick Gregory. Today he is relatively well known in the United States for his comedy, his social activism and his long record. Gregory's autobiography, written with the US sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, is an insightful look at the life of someone growing up black in 1950s America, and the early years of the Civil Rights moment.

The book is poignant. At times Gregory's descriptions of his childhood, the family's poverty and his mother's desparate hard work to try and keep the family alive will bring tears to your eyes. But Gregory also describes the sheer normality of vicious racism that went along with this. As a young man, Gregory was an accomplished runner. Such is the reality of racism in the US in that period, that it is actually atheletics that brings him into contact with the Civil Rights movement. He is angered that his running record isn't recorded in the local newspaper, because it was a race for blacks. He joins a protest march, and quickly becomes a key figure.

In the army, Gregory learns that he is an accomplished comedian. Youtube has a few of his early stand-up routines, sand 50 years later they sometimes still work. In his biography he describes how he combined an act that didn't ignore racism, at the same time as learning how to deal with it. Gregory's early efforts in showbiz cost him money and friends, but he does eventually break through. With fame though, comes responsibility, and as a prominant black figure, he eventually gets pulled into the Civil Rights movement as a leading figure. Despite being followed by the media everywhere, the police still brutally beat him (away from the cameras) and Gregory gets pulled further into activism.

For those who've read about the Civil Rights movement, Gregory's slightly oblique look at the struggle will be fascinating. He's not really a leading figure, though a key part of it. But he describes the March on Washington, and the murder of school girls in Alabama with passion - these are not remote incidents, but ones that he sees pulling more people into the struggle. Gregory has his own tragedies. Since this is autobiography, at times he over-emphasises his own importance, but mostly he inspires because he is honest - about his fears, about his guilt and about why he gets motivated. At the end of the book Gregory writes with hope:
You didn't die a slave for nothing, Momma. You brought us up. You and all those Negro mothers who gave their kids the strength to go on, to take that thimble to the well while the whites were taking buckets. Those of us who weren't destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. N*****.
Sadly, we still have a long way to go. But people like Gregory were a key part of starting the Civil Rights movement. He remains active today, and his story should continue to inspire a new generation. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dave Sherry - John Maclean: Red Clydesider

The UK's commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War One has so far mostly focused on the same old tired stereotypes of a country united behind the flag. This short book by Scottish socialist Dave Sherry however tells a very different story. It looks at the life of one of the most important revolutionary socialists of the early 20th century, and through his story demonstrates that there was often a very different mood amongst workers during World War One.

John Maclean is almost forgotten today. He died, tragically young, at 44. His life undoubtably shortened by the prison sentences for seditious behaviour. Maclean was not one to deny the charge. Facing five years hard labour in May 1918, in one of his most famous speeches from the prison dock, Maclean famously declared:

"I am not here as the accused - I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot... in 15 years time from the close of this war we are into the next war - if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation... That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world and retain the world."

Maclean was a threat to the British establishment because he was one of the acknowledged leaders of some of the country's most powerful workers. Those employed in the enormous factories of Glasgow adopted Maclean as one of their own. A school-teacher until he was sacked for his anti-war agitation, Glasgow's workers organised a levy to ensure that he could be paid to continue organising.

Dave Sherry illustrates how, cut off from the continental revolutionary movement by the war, Maclean was able to develop a clear internationalist understanding of the conflict. Sherry points out that "like Lenin", Maclean saw the conflict as "a struggle between the great powers for land and markets." In Maclean's words,

"Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is out business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism."

However Sherry also explains, that despite Maclean's brilliance, and the loyalty he had from thousands of workers, he lacked the political organisation that Lenin had. At various times the class struggle in Glasgow ebbed and flowed during the war. At certain times the movement reached near revolutionary peaks, but the government, through repression and the use of the union bureaucracy were able to damp down the militancy.

Maclean on trial in 1918
Though Maclean understood that the movement needed to link political and economic struggles, too often the unions were able to divert the strikes down sectional paths. This was not to deny though the significance of the struggle. Both during the war, when Glasgow ignited mass strike waves that spread through British factories, and afterwards when during 1919 Glasgow was in such upheaval that tanks and warships were deployed to prevent revolution. The sections of this book that give a taste of these struggles are nothing short of inspiring.

This weakness of Maclean's; his lack of an understanding of the need to build political organisation was bought into sharp relief when he refused to join the fledgling British Communist Party. Sherry argues that this was very much to with he hostility to some individuals who did join, rather than an inherent (and early) belief in the need for Scottish independence. Maclean was a revolutionary internationalist, who's life work was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. At a time when the Scottish are discussing the future of the union, Maclean's belief in the revolutionary potential of ordinary workers has never been so important. As Dave Sherry concludes in his new introduction, "the break up of the UK would be a small victory for the world working class and, as John Maclean argued 90 years ago, that is something to fight for."

Related Reviews

Sherry - Occupy! A Short History of Workers' Occupations

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Philip Lindsay & Reg Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381

The cowardly murder of Wat Tyler 15 June 1381
Philip Lindsay and Reg Groves' 1950 history of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt is a classic of narrative history. Their story is filled with the words of the ordinary people who rebelled against serfdom, injustice, poverty and for a better world. Their words continue to inspire today. Here for instance, is part of the "hedge priest" John Ball's speech on June 13, 1381 at Blackheath on the edge of London, as 30,000 rebels gathered ready to capture the city.

"Now to Englishmen is the opportunity given, if they choose to take it, of casting off the yoke they have borne so long, of winning the freedom they have always wanted. Wherefore, let us take good courage and behave like the wise husbandman of scripture, who gathered the wheat into his barn but uprooted and burned the tares that had half-choked the good grain. Now the tares of England are her oppressive rulers and the time of harvest has come."
Unlike many historians, Lindsay and Groves see the Peasants' Revolt as being a highly organised, planned insurrection. Despite a lack of evidence, the authors argue, persuasively, that without significant networks, the rebels could not have achieved what they did. They cite, for instance, the rhyming letters sent out by John Ball, which suggest a prearranged plan, and of course, letters sent, must have a destination - perhaps individuals known and trusted in advance.

However organised the rebels were, they certainly had grievances. The over-view of life in Medieval England is one of backbreaking work, vicious exploitation, poverty and hunger. At the same time though, some in England did very well, not least the church, which took a tenth of everyone's possessions. This is no doubt why, the radical preachings of priests like John Ball could get such a hearing. But it was also the experience of many peasants that the church was at the heart of their oppression. The population of St. Albans rose in rebellion on many occasions, 1381 being merely the latest and greatest. They ensured that the Abbot gave back the lands his monastery had stolen, restored the peasants rights to fish and hunt game, even as they threw down hedges and fences. In most villages touched by the rebellion, records of legal decisions and papers that formed the basis for serfdom were also burnt. Lindsay and Groves write

"From the earliest days of the rising, the commoners had declared themselves for 'King Richard and the True Commons'. They swore to this oath of allegiance and they made all whom they met swear to it. In this simple, plain statement is the full purpose of the revolt, for it carried with it a complete destruction of the existing feudal order."

These were "Zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers". In his second meeting with King Richard, the leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, made the rebels' demands even clearer, all "warrens, as well as fisheries as in parks and woods, should be common to all; so that throughout the realm, in the waters, ponds, fisheries, woods and forests, poor as well as rich might take venison, and hunt the hare in the fields."

He also demanded the end of the bishoprics, save one, and the beheading of the traitorous advisers to Richard. The rebels believed that Richard was surrounded by corrupt ministers, and envisaged a future were serfdom was abolished, with local county government, ruled over by a king selected by the people themselves.

Sadly the rebels' misunderstood the unity of the ruling class. The cowardly murder of Tyler was only the beginning of a counter-revolution that was to lead to thousands of deaths across the country as the feudal order reasserted itself. "Serfs you were and serfs you will be" declared Richard. But many refused to give up without a fight. Leader Grindcobbe said at St. Albans, facing certain death declared:

"Fellow citizens, whom now a scanty liberty has relieved from long oppression, stand while you can stand, and fear nothing for my punishment since I would die in the cause of the liberty we have gained, if it is now my fate to die, thinking myself happy to be able to finish my life by such a martyrdom."
The defeat of the Peasants' Revolt and the torture and murder of most of its leaders however did not end rebellion. Feudalism did appear to continue, but the Revolt was only one of a long line of rebellions, local and national. Within fifty years, the Serfs had "more or less" won their freedom, but perhaps the greatest legacy of the Peasants' Revolt is twofold. The ruling class never again forgot the threat they faced from ordinary people organising, and the stories, poems and speeches of John Ball, Wat Tyler and the others inspired future generations.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Peter Linebaugh - Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance

Peter Linebaugh has been one of those historians who over the last few decades has rescued the history of some of the most marginalised and forgotten people. In particular he has looked at those who were side-lined or lost their livelihoods (not to mention lives) in the earliest days of capitalism. In this volume of essays, Linebaugh examines the way that as capitalism developed, there was an associated transformation in the way that the majority of the population could live and work on the land. In particular, this 
frequently meant the destruction of common rights, the enclosure of common land and the creation of new laws to criminalise old activities. Linebaugh notes, for instance, that alongside enclosure (the "historical antonym and nemesis of the commons") there was a "massive prison construction program".

That capitalism destroys old customs to improve the ability of a small group of individuals to better make themselves wealthy should be no surprise. Linebaugh quotes no less a figure that J.S.Mill, "a world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature with every foot of land brought into cultivation... and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow." to aptly capture those who thought that nature would be utilised in the interest of society, controlled, shaped and driven in the interest of commerce and social improvement.

But the rights that people had. To collect fallen wood, or hunt rabbits, or glean the fields after harvest, were not granted from on high. They had been fought for an won by generations of peasants. Their removal thus was brutal. But it was also resisted. From Wat Tyler, to the "Luddites", Peasant Revolts and the Iroquois, people resisted losing their lands and rights. It was a losing battle, but it was a struggle that helped shaped a vision of a different world, as well as opening eyes to the nature of the system.

Two chapters in this collection deal with those who learnt from these struggles and envisaged a world with a new "commune". One is on Marx, whose early radical journalism was in part a reaction to his anger at new laws that criminalised the right of peasants to collect wood. The second is on the socialist William Morris, whose writings are sometimes dismissed as overly romantic socialism, harking back to a time that never existed. But Linebaugh however, in a essay that serves as an introduction to E.P. Thompson's biography of Morris, sees Morris as a socialist who saw the world, not as an abstract nature, but one that should be used and enjoyed for the benefit of all. He quotes Morris,

"The Communist asserts in the first place that the resources of nature, mainly the land and those other things which can only be used for the reproduction of wealth and which are the effect of social work, should not be own in severalty, but by the whole community for the benefit of the whole."

Morris' activism, his tireless speaking tours and writing thus become an extension of this vision. Not an abstract dream, but an object to struggle for.

On occasion, Linebaugh comes close to romanticizing the past himself. But he understands that the struggle to protect the Commons was that of the poorest fighting for what little they had. That struggle was brutal, but so were their lives. He recounts the story of a "Mr. Samuels" who "lost his hand to a mechanical coconut shredder" and so his friends and fellow villagers burnt the "pumping station" in revenge.

Linebaugh sees such struggles as in a continuum with today's battles to prevent further erosion of our rights. For this author, the struggle for a new commons, is as important as the fight to protect what we have and had.

Peter Linebaugh's writing is filled with passion, forgotten histories, and literary quotes. Here are Shelley and Wordsworth, Frankenstein's monster and the words of miners, peasants and all those men and women who've struggled at the bottom of the society.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Linebaugh & Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

Friday, April 04, 2014

Alex Callinicos - Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory

At the outset, I should say that this is a challenging book. It deals with debates and polemics within the academic world of social theory that most casual readers will not be aware of. As such, even for those of us who have read a good deal of Marxist theory, it can be in places inaccessible.

That said, for those who persevere there is a great deal within this book that repays those who do read it. In particular, the trenchant and clear defence of Marxist approaches to history, historical change and the role of workers in making revolution are very important.

Callinicos begins with an overview of various social theorists, and their roots in wider philosophical writings. While some of these thinkers may be unknown to the reader, others, like Foucault are oft-quoted and rarely understood. Callinicos does an excellent job in drawing out their ideas and examining them through the Marxist lens. One of the core parts to this section, is the debate on "human nature". Callinicos puts it thus:

"Central to Marx's account of human labour is its redirective character, namely the fact that human beings' ability to consciously to reflect on their activity allows them to modify and improve on prevailing productive techniques. Rather than being tied to the fixed repertoire of behaviour characteristic of other species, human productive activity is distinguished by its flexibility, by the indefinite variety of ways in which human beings may meet their needs by virtue of their cognitive capacities."

Here we have a got example of Callinicos' approach in the book. Rather than looking for fixed points of human behaviour, he sees a dynamically changing world where humans interact with each other, and with nature to create the world they inhabit. The historically changing social world is itself a reflection of wider forces:

"To specify the character of a mode of production is to give an account of the specific combination of the forces and relations of production it involves."

This simple enough sounding statement has produced an enormous amount of literature and debate. Callinicos examines the varying understandings of these in detail, challenging both the work of academics like G.A Cohen, but also the writings of revolutionary socialists like Chris Harman. Students of historical materialism, as a concept, will find these sections invaluable.

The process of change between "modes of production" is a second theme for Callinicos. He points out that "instead of exploring the differentia specifica of particular modes of production, analytical Marxists tend to focus on what they see as Marx's views of the universal mechanisms of historical change." However, such universals do not necessarily exist. For instance, the roles of (say) the bourgeoisie during bourgeois revolutions is very different from that of workers in proletarian revolutions. Callinicos points out that that the former are not self-conscious actors, but come to the forefront through a process of "molecular" change and frequently a "compromise" with the old order.

The final section of the book deals with the role of "agents" in historical change. It thus looks at debates that consider whether individuals have a collective interest in change, through, the "prisoner's dilemma" and whether social revolution is "rational" from the point of view of individual workers. It is in this section that Callinicos' is very clear. This is not least, because the author is linked to a network of organised socialists trying to create change. Refreshingly, the book's defence of the need for working class revolution, breaks with the academic debates that Callinicos has ably intervened in. Philosopher's have merely tried to understand the world, the point is, of course, to change it.

Related Reviews

Callinicos and Simons - The Great Strike
Perry - Marxism and History
Harman - Marxism and History
Hughes - Ecology and Historical Materialism
Carr - What is History?