Thursday, July 31, 2014

Andro Linklater - Owning the Earth

Throughout history we have come up with a multitude of different approaches to land. From the hunter-gatherer communities for whom ownership" meant little but the temporary use of a area of land, to modern land-grabs where multinationals purchase hundreds of thousands of acres for speculation against rising food prices.

Andro Linklater's important book looks at the history of land ownership. He argues, following the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, that land ownership creates the potential for individual freedoms in a society. For Linklater, the particular way that capitalism developed in England with "private property" in land being opened up wider than the aristocracy helped direct some countries down a path that had innate freedoms enshrined in their very DNA.

While Linklater's book is readable and covers a vast arena of topics, I felt it didn't really explain either the current land situation, or alternatives to capitalist landownership. Nor did it particularly dwell on the potential for the redistribution of land, from the bottom up.

This is a shortened piece because I wrote an extended review for the International Socialist Journal. You can read my full review online here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dave Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A socialist history of the First World War

As we mark the centenary of the start of the First World War there are any number of books that tell us the slaughter was inevitable, justified, or simply a terrible mistake. Dave Sherry's Empire and Revolution is one of the few that argues exactly the opposite. Sherry argues that the war should not have happened, because the mass socialist parties that existed in Europe prior to the war had the power to prevent it. He points out that the war had its roots in the very nature of capitalism. Most importantly, he says that the war ended not because of military victory, or because of the economic superiority of one side or the other. Rather, through mutiny, rebellion, strikes and revolution, ordinary people in all the belligerent nations, in uniform or in the workplace, had made it impossible for the ruling classes to continue the war.

Firstly the betrayal. The start of World War One was no great surprise. All the left political organisations knew it was on the horizon. Sherry even quotes Frederich Engels back in 1887 predicting a European war in which "Eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts".

In countless meetings of trade unions, and socialist groups, workers passed anti-war motions. International conferences and national bodies declared for general strikes in the event of war. Yet when it came to it, the vast majority of "official" socialism decided to back their nation state. The greatest betrayal was the German SPD, but our own Labour Party bares its own weight of responsibility. As Dave Sherry writes, despite being allied with the despotic Russian Tsar, the British Labour Party argued it was a war for democracy (even though there was a greater franchise in Germany that in Britain).

"Ramsay MacDonald was a pacifist and when he voiced doubts about the conflict he was deposed by the patriotic trade union bureaucracy and replaced by Arthur Henderson. In 1915 Henderson was rewarded with a cabinet post... It was Henderson who arranged the 1915 Treasury Agreement, by which the unions abandoned many of their defences, including the right to strike."

Ben Tillet, the famous, dockers' leader even toured the country encouraging recruitment, "In a strike I am for my class, right or wrong; in a war I am for my country, right or wrong".

Sherry argues that the support for the war among the populations of the different country was varied. Initially there was euphoria among some, though this didn't tend to be in the working class districts. Many workers were encouraged by the bosses to join up, others joined up because they would get no unemployment relief if they didn't, "Want and Hunger are, unfortunately... the invisible recruiting sergeants of a great portion of our army" wrote the UKs National Service League.

Once the scale of the slaughter became apparent and shortages begun to bite, many immediately protested. One of the great strengths of Sherry's book is that he brings out how the anti-war movement great, often in parallel, in many different countries. In Russia, Germany, Italy, Britain, France and Austria, within a few years of the war starting, there were protests, strikes and mass meetings against hunger, housing shortages, rents, low pay as well as enlistment. Far from all being in it together, the majority of people were suffering badly, and as the killing continued, the anger grew.

Few commentators at the moment dare to remember that it was the Revolution in Russia that brought the war to an end of the Eastern Front. Sherry tells us the story of how Lenin's Bolsheviks went from being a small, but politically clear group, to a mass working class party through their anti-war agitation and their involvement in the movements during the war. But he also details the mass strikes that erupted in Vienna, Glasgow and countless other places, and crucially, Sherry devotes a section to the German situation.

In 1917-1918 "more than two million soldiers deserted in what one German researcher in the 1920s called 'the hidden military strike'." This was accompanied by growing unrest on the home front, strikes and mutinies. It was the rank and file in the army who "built 10,000 revolutionary soldiers' councils" who helped the the First World War.

But this book is more than the story of how the old left failed to prevent the war and a new, revolutionary left, brought it to an end. Dave Sherry also discusses the revolt in the trenches, the role of Empire and the colonial experience. While I felt this section could have been developed further, Sherry does make it clear that the war was not only fought by the capitalist nations with the aim of expanding colonies and empires, but also required the use of those colonies to continue. By 1918, for instance, one million Indian troops were serving in the "major" theatres of the war. Sherry quotes the historian Robert Holland who points out that this meant, "The true worth of the Indian army to Britain lay in its reserve role that allowed British troops to be diverted to France from East Africa, Palestine and Egypt."

When troops from the Caribbean arrived in France they experienced racism, being forced to work as ancillaries and support troops. When they returned home they became part of mass anti-colonial movements. The best socialists understood that the war was being fought to subjugate the people of the world into the various Empires. Indeed, in the aftermath of the conflict, Britain added millions of square miles to its territories.

Sherry concludes the book by arguing that learning the true history of the war is not just to celebrate those who opposed it. But to learn the lessons of their victories and defeats to build a movement against the capitalist system that breeds war, racism and imperialism. He contrasts how in February 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia at 20,000 cadres. In Germany, the revolution that lost, there were barely 3000 revolutionaries, ones who "had no united organisation, no tradition of working within a common discipline, no way of arriving at an agreed strategy or tactics". Dave Sherry's book then is important for learning the truth about what happened between 1914 and 1918. But it is also an essential tool in trying to build socialist organisation today.

Related Reviews

Sherry - John Maclean: Red Clydesider
Zurbrugg - Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War
Sherry - Occupy! A Short History of Workers' Occupations

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gregory N. Flemming - At the Point of a Cutlass

At the heart of this book is the near unbelievable story of the "capture, bold escape and lonely exile of Philip Ashton". It is an amazing story of pirates and castaways, but around it, Gregory N. Flemming has woven the fascinating story of the Golden Age of Piracy, as well as conflicts between Spain and England, the slave trade, the radical preaching tradition and buried treasure. It's a book that is both historically informative and an entertaining read, and one that puts paid to many myths that have developed about piracy.

Philip Ashton was a cod fisherman who was captured by the Pirate Edward Low in June 1722 off Nova Scotia. Low was to gain infamy because of his successful piracy career and because of his violence. This was such that eventually his own crew rebelled against him, but not before Low had captured many vessels, run the Royal Navy a merry chase, and murdered many men. As Marcus Rediker has argued, pirates in the Golden Age were both attempting to escape the violence of the Atlantic shipping industry and enriching themselves. Surprisingly though, they tended to organise in far more democratic ways than existing ships. Rather than the rigid hierarchy of merchant or naval vessels, pirate crews elected and deselected their captains, a fate that was to eventually befall Low.

This view of piracy is the backdrop to Flemming's book. It helps to explain why, when Philip Ashton refused to sign the ships' articles (effectively signing up to a life of piracy) Edward Low was so angry with him. For Ashton signing up, might mean escaping the threat of violence from the pirates, but would mean the end of a rope if their ship was captured.

The pirate, Edward Low
Ashton eventually escapes by marooning himself on an island. With no clothes, tools or weapons he barely survives, until a rather improbable episode with a passing Scotsman gives him the tools to live on. Ashton survives two years on the island, eventually meeting a group of logging workers fleeing the violence of the Spanish - English conflict. Then, in yet another awful coincidence, Ashton is nearly captured by some of the same pirates he escaped from years before. Eventually Ashton makes it home, where an unusual local minister writes down his story. In the puritanical world of north-eastern America, novels are frowned upon, but stories that suggest the positive input of a benevolent god quickly become bestsellers. Because of this, while Ashton himself returns to a quiet life of fishing (though Flemming wonders how he felt every time a large ship appeared on the horizon) his story lives on, inspiring many, even on the other-side of the ocean. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, appears to have read and drawn inspiration from it.

The story of piracy, sea battles and the castaway alone would make this an enjoyable and recommended read. What really adds to the story is the historical background. At times Gregory Flemming has perhaps included a little too much detail. That said, the book paints an detailed picture of the Americas, whose Atlantic coasts were crisscrossed by networks of trade - slaves, fish, furs and wood. This creates a political and economic battleground for the European powers within which piracy flourishes (and is at times actively encouraged). But we also see the beginnings of the United States as an economic power in its own right.

Such conditions - the danger, violence, poverty and potential riches - meant that piracy would inevitably arise. Sometimes that meant that men like Edward Low with his taste for killing and torture would also exist. But without the lives of men like Philip Ashton, who daily risked their lives for a boat load of cod, Low could not have existed and nor could the wider Atlantic economy. Gregory Flemming's book is an excellent introduction to the subject and the period, which is both entertaining and illuminating.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh and Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - Villains of all Nations

Friday, July 18, 2014

Norman Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium

Any study of the medieval European period finds that peasant rebellions and uprisings, far from being uncommon, are actually part of the fabric of a society dominated by feudal relations and class antagonisms. Some of these uprisings relate directly to the oppression of medieval society. Rich against poor, landowner against serf. Many of these used religious imagery and language to inform and inspire the rebellions, perhaps best illustrated by the speeches and role of John Ball in the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England.

Other events however took a different form. These millenarian movements are documented in great detail in Norman Cohn's classic book, and his extensive scholarship has found a wealth of fascinating movements throughout Europe that have often surprising parallels across the continent. Christian millenarianism, in Cohn's words, refers "to the belief held by some Christians, on the authority of the Book of Revelation that after his Second Coming Christ would establish a messianic kingdom on earth and would reign over it for a thousand years."

But Cohn makes the point that in these millenarian movements could rarely be separated from wider circumstances. Thus, millenarian sects or movements always portrayed their salvation as being remarkably down to earth. Collective, in the sense that the messianic kingdom would be enjoyed collectively, on earth rather than heaven and imminent. As Cohn explains,

"The world of millenarian exaltation and the world of social unrest.. did not coincide but did overlap. It often happened that certain segments of the poor were captured by some millenarian prophet. Then the usual desire of the poor to improve the material conditions of their lives became transfused with phantasies of a world reborn into innocence through a final apocalyptic massacre."

This is why, sometimes, but not always, these movements were violent, destroying and massacring their opponents. A frequent theme is for millenarian sects to believe that since they were the saved, they could treat the unsaved as the source of wealth and food for their survival. Frequently this meant targeting the established church, for, as Cohn explains, the Church had its own interests too. It was

"a powerful and prosperous institution, functioning according to a well-established routine; and the men responsible for governing it had no wish to see Christians clinging to out-dated and inappropriate dreams of a new earthly paradise."

But there was a contradiction, for

"In Christian apocalyptic the old phantasy of divine election was preserved and revitalised; it was the body of literature inaugurated by the Book of Revelation which encouraged Christians to see themselves as the Chosen People of the Lord - chosen both to prepare the way for and to inherit the Millennium. And this idea had such enormous attraction that no official condemnation could prevent it from recurring again and again to the minds of the unprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented and the unbalanced."

The reality of feudal exploitation and oppression coincided with a ideology that meant,

"For medieval people the stupendous drama of the Last Days was not a phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfillment."

Notably though, Cohn does not see all peasants as being necessarily susceptible to the charms of such millenarian movements. He argues that the "messiahs" tended to gain support and flourish,

"not amongst the poor and oppressed as such, but amongst the poor and oppressed whose traditional way of life has broken down and who have lost faith in their traditional values."

Particularly from the end of the 11th century, Medieval Europe was frequently the subject of great religious dissent. Society was also struck by the disorienting effects of war, climate change and political crises. In addition, population pressure, the beginnings of industrialisation and the growth of urban areas were also making their impact felt. Providing fertile ground for millenarian movements. It is these movements that Cohn explores in fascinating detail.

Such a variety of movements and sects are described in this book, it would be impossible to cover them all in this review. One or two mentions will have to suffice. The 1251 "Crusades of the Shepherds" which began at Easter when three men began to preach a Crusade in Picardy and within days their preaching had reached far beyond France. One of them was Jacob, a renegade monk, who (in common with many similar movements) claimed to have a letter from the Virgin Mary which called on shepherds to make a crusade. Hundreds flocked to the call, and thousands more joined them. A contemporary estimate (that is likely to be exaggerated) suggests 60,000. The army went on the march

"It was divided into fifty companies; these marched separately, armed with pitchforks, hatchets, daggers, pikes carried aloft as they entered towns and villages, oso as to intimidate the authorities. When they ran short of provisions they took what they needed by force; but much was given freely for.. people revered the Pastoureaux as holy men."

According to contemporary reports, it was precisely because the Pastoureaux had a habit of "killing and despoiling" priests that they had much popular support. The movement however over-reached itself. At the town of Bourges, Jacob preached against the Jews, and his army pillaged houses, raping and plundered the churches. Despite having earlier gained the trust and support of the French Queen Mother, she now realised her mistake and the movement was outlawed. This caused a crisis within the ranks and allowed local forces to smash Jacobs followers. Some escaped and one even made it to England were he continued to preach and gathered a following of hundreds of peasants and shepherds around Shoreham until troops sent by Henry III led to the movements final destruction.

One of the interesting aspects to the movements discussed here, is the parallels. For instance, in 1381 a movement in northern France took the form of a popular uprising in a number of towns. Here, "the first objective of these people was always the tax-farmer's office, where they destroyed the files, looted the coffers and murdered the tax-farmers; their next, the Jewish quarter, where they also murdered and looted their fill." Anyone who has read about the 1381 English Uprising will note that the first target of the Rebels over the Channel was to burn records of taxes and serfdom and immigrant labourers from Flanders were also massacred.

Another theme is the way that many movements broke apart traditional notions of sexuality. Take the "Free Spirit" movement. It's doctrine was that the person who has "become God" must use all things,

"You shall ordered all created beings to serve you according to your will, for the glory of God.. You shall bear all things up to God. If you want to use all created beings, you have the right to do so; for every creature that you use, you drive up into its Origin."

One expression of this, says Cohn, was a "promiscuous and mystically coloured eroticism." Women were created to be used by the "Brethren of the Free Spirit. Indeed by such intimacy a women became chaster than before, so that if she had previously lost her virginity she now regained it."

While many movements (Cohn suggests the Ranters of the English Revolution and the 'Swabian heretics in the 13th century") had views that said sexual intercourse could never be sinful, it is not hard to see in the views of the Free Spirit adepts above an excuse for rape and violence against women. That said we must be careful not to fall for the propaganda of the enemies of these movements, who often claimed that heretics were engaged in orgies, or other shocking and sinful behaviour, in order to discredit them.

Hans Böhm
Precisely because they began with the desire to break free of earth-bound restrictions many of these movements would discard old ideas and men and women would free themselves of many ideological and legal chains.

In 1476 another mass movement developed around a shepherd Böhm. His vision was of a world turned upsidedown. One Abbot commented on Böhm's movement that,

"What would the layman like better than to see clergy and priesthood robbed of all their privileges and rights, their tithes and revenues? For the common people is by nature hungry for novelties and ever eager to shake off its master's yoke"  

Böhm was eventually executed, though he was remembered almost religiously by his followers, some of whom kept the earth from the stake at which he had been burnt as a relic. Böhm had tried to lead a radical, perhaps revolutionary movement. Many of other movements looked to the day of judgement, perhaps expecting it would be started by their own actions - both of violence and prayer.

Frequently those at the heart of these events would be so convinced of their divine inspiration that their actions led to their own deaths and the destruction of their followers. But it would be wrong to suggest that this means these self-declared messiahs were insane. Whether it was the small scale sects, or the mass followings of Thomas Müntzer or the extraordinary tale of Jan Bockelson and the Münster Rebellion, their ideas and preaching inspired tens of thousands and frequently shook the medieval world to its foundations. These radicals could not have built the new world of which they dreamed, but their existence exposes the contradictions at the heart of medieval society and proves once again that ordinary people have always dreamed of, and struggled for, a better world.

Related Reviews

Hilton - Bond Men Made Free - Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381
O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Lindsay and Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Terry Pratchett - Dodger

Terry Pratchett's Dodger is a wry look at the London of Charles Dickens. Indeed, Dickens himself is a central character, as is the great chronicler of Victorian London, Henry Mayhew. Given how both these authors showed the dirty underbelly of the capital, it is no surprise that Pratchett's book too looks at life for the poorest of society.

Dodger himself spends his life underground, hunting the sewers for items of value that have been flushed down the drains and toilets of the world above. Its a life of poverty, violence and tragedy. Around this Pratchett weaves a wider story of how Dodger saves the life of a damsel in distress, while wooing the elite of Victorian London with his luck, charm and a lucky bit of rewriting of history by the newspapers. There's a great Jewish character, Solomon, who Dodger lives with, having saved him from a racist attack, who appears to know a radical named Karl (though one who hails from Russia, as opposed to Germany).

Dodger is a fun novel, it is not Pratchett's greatest, but it is aimed at young adults. Fans will enjoy it, though the younger ones will like the jokes about dirt and sewers far more than the older reader who will enjoy hunting out the Dickens references and Benjamin Disraeli exploring a sewer system with Joseph Bazalgette.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Geoffrey Parker - Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the 17th Century

Any review of this extensive book must begin by acknowledging the immense amount of scholarship that has gone into it. Even without the index, notes and bibliography, there are 700 pages of dense text that covers an enormous amount of history. From almost every area of the world, Geoffrey Park has assembled vast amounts of data from primary and secondary sources to tell a history of a period of great change in human history. Using this material, Parker argues,"that the 1640s saw more rebellions and revolutions than any comparable period in human history". For Parker, the "General Crisis" of the 17th century was very different to other eras. The wars, revolutions, rebellions, famines, hunger and death is a consequence of both climate change (in this case, the little ice age) and general crisis in human society. By putting climate at the heart of the story, Parker is distinguishing himself from those historians who would try and remove human history from a wider context. And climate certainly was dramatic during the period under consideration.

"The seventeenth century experienced extremes of weather seldom witnessed before and never (so far) since: the only known occasion on which the Bosporus froze over (1620-1); the only time that floods in Mecca destroyed part of the Kaaba (1630); the coldest winder ever recorded in Scandinavia (1641); and so on."

As Parker points out, the consequences were profound for humans - hundreds of thousands of whom died. And many more suffered greatly,

"Infanticide and suicide in China rose to unequalled levels; far fewer European women married, and others did so only in their thirties; many Frenchmen, their growth stunted by famine and cold, were of shorter stature than any others on record."

Much of Parker's story concerns rebellion. Climate change in the 17th century, as in the 21st, means the destruction of crops, the failure of harvest and the movement of refugees. But what Parker brings out is the enormous unprecedented scale of this. The author illustrates the situation well, linking rebellion and war to the wider climatic changes. Sometimes though, the links are somewhat arbitrary. When discussing the aristocratic plots in Spain against the monarchy, Parker writes

"These events - the first aristocratic plots in Castile for 150 years - took place amid another spate of climatic disasters. In spring 1641 a prolonged drought threatened the harvests of Castile; and in August 1642 a tornado struck the city of Burgos with such force that it destroyed the nave of the cathedral."

The following years saw floods and heavy rains.

Climate and weather certainly do play their role in human history, both on the long scale and with their short-term events. But they are not the only factor and certainly are not always the key factor. The Marxist Chris Harman pointed out that climate change will play a role, in particular by intensifying fault lines in existing society. Parker seems to agree with this, at least in places, for instance noting that the Spanish Hapsburg's tended to worsen the impact of climatic changes through government policies that increased "sovereign debt" and foreign policies that failed to protect the interests of the majority of the population.

During Philip IV's reign in Spain, the country

"suffered extreme weather without parallel in other periods, particularly in 1630-2 and 1640-3; but more than any other seventeenth-century ruler, Philip intensified the impact of climate change by disastrous policy choices."

All this is enormously interesting, and Parker's detailed research illuminates a whole variety of people and places. By emphasising the role of climate and environmental factors we can see similar trends in widely different parts of the globe at the same time. Parker demonstrates how, unlike Philip IV, some countries were able to ride out the climatic crisis through government practice that marshalled resources and directed spending. Its notable that these tended to be countries in the Far East. Parker doesn't fail to neglect parts of the world were there are few written records from the period, notably Australia and South America, relying on the "natural archive" to try and understand what happened to populations there.

Parker should also be applauded for highlighting the role of ordinary people, whose role in the armies, the peasantry and indeed the rebellions of the era helped shape the wider history. For readers schooled in one area of history to see how widespread war and revolution were in the 17th century is particularly illuminating.

However, and its a big however, despite its detailed use of facts, I think Geoffrey Parkers' book fails to explain the real historical dynamic in the 17th century. While Parker doesn't see the climate as simplistically causing war and revolution, he does see it as one factor creating "stress" within society. So when writing about the causes of the English Civil War, Parker points to the fact that the country was a "composite state" and had a "lower political 'boiling point'" meaning that "upheaval tended to arise sooner at times of stress."

"Composite states," writes Parker, "required particularly sensitive handling when a ruler embarked on war, especially at a time of adverse climate."

The problem with this analysis is that it essentially sees European history as static in the 17th century. In reality, the 17th century, particularly in Europe, but also in China, Japan and elsewhere, was going through enormous changes. This was a period of transition, where the old feudal order no longer worked as capitalist relations were developing. Across Europe, particularly in England and north-western Europe, whole areas were volatile - not because they were composite states, but because different factions in society were struggling to shape society and the future of it. Climate and environment play their role of course. Hungry people may well be more likely to rebel. Those suffering cold and failed crops are more likely to rise up against unjust rulers and listen to the words of radicals.

But this isn't automatic. What makes the 17th century special, is that the development of capitalist relations was at both the top of society and the bottom creating enormous tensions. The English Civil War wasn't caused by a "composite state" unable to react to stress in society, it was caused by the unsolvable contradiction between the old feudal order trying to maintain its power and those who wanted to see a new social order. Parkers' failure to note this means that his book becomes little more than a series of descriptions of different societies and the potential for climate to intersect with other changes to cause war, famine or rebellion. It is notable, for instance, that in a book of near 700 pages in text, the word "capitalism" doesn't make an appearance.

Parkers' book is in no way useless. No student of history could fail to find a great deal material of interest here, and the authors grasp of the sources, the figures and the scale of the 17th century crisis makes fascinating reading. Ultimately though, the sheer quantity of material obscures the wider points that Geoffrey Parker is making, and I was certainly left unsatisfied by the work.

Related Reviews

Fagan - Floods, Famines and Emperors
Fagan - The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilisation

Saturday, July 05, 2014

C.V. Wedgwood - The Trial of Charles I

Having read of C.V. Wedgwood's glittering academic career in an obituary I was expecting to find this history of Charles I's trial and execution a tiresome lecture on the evils of the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil War. Wedgwood clearly hailed from the establishment and I wondered if this might show through in her history. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a readable and careful history which tries to understand the varying social forces that existed during the English Civil War, in order to understand the reasons that Charles I was put to death.

While Wedgwood's sympathies lie with the monarch, he is in no way absolved in her writing. Her inability to adequately explain the dynamic of this particular part of the conflict between Parliament and King, is not to do with lack of historical research, but is rooted in a lack of appreciation of the revolutionary nature of the period.

The trial and execution of Charles I for treason was an exceptional event. It had far reaching implications, as Wedgwood points out

"Since then, monarchs have perished by popular decree in more violent and far-reaching revolutions, and the conception of monarchy for which King Charles both lived and died has vanished from the earth. Where the institution survives to-day it does so in a form that he would not recognise."

The trial was unique.

"King Charles was brought to trial by his own people, under his title as King - an act which defied tradition and seemed to many a fearful blasphemy... Charles was never deposed. In the charge against him he is described as 'King of ENgland'... the last words of the executioner, uttered without irony, as the King laid his head on the block were 'an' it please Your Majesty.'."

This was a trial that targets not just Charles I, but the very office he held, as John Cook, Solicitor General said, the court "pronounced sentence not only against on tyrant, but against tyranny itself" and elsewhere, "He must die and monarchy must die with him".

But as Wedgwood's painstaking recreation of the trial shows, this was no easy matter. Those attempting to try the King were up against difficult legal barriers. As the King himself pointed out, "I would know by what power I am called hither.. I would know by what authority, I mean lawful.... Remember I am your King, your lawful King... I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent; I will not betray it to answer a new unlawful authority; therefore resolve me that and you shall hear more of me."

In other words, the king did not recognise the authority of the court precisely because as the King, he considered it had no authority, and indeed, legally it didn't. The last few years of war and revolution had transformed the institution. The House of Lords wasn't sitting, Parliament was a numerical shadow of its former self. Those who brought the King to trial knew this was an enormous problem. If the King refused to recognise the court, and crucially refused to declare his guilt or that he was not0guilty, the trial would have to end with the King found guilty without evidence being heard. To justify their actions, to proceed with proving that Charles was a tyrant, a man who had brought war on his own people, a traitor to his people, they needed a trial.

There is of course a contradiction. Both sides thought they had right on their side. Charles could appeal to a lack of legal precedent, to his position at the head of English society, to his role protecting the national interest. His prosecuters too, believed that they were doing right. As Wedgwood explains,

"They defied the theory of Divine Right because the saw little in the Scriptures to support and much to contradict it... They invoked the Bible to support their action, but they also declared that the authority of the People was above that of the Sovereign and attempted to show that a King, like any other man, could be tried by the Common Law of England."

If they failed in doing this, and Wedgwood's account of the trial makes it clear she thinks they did, it was because this was an impossible situation under the existing legal framework.

But the regicides did not need the existing law. This was no ordinary court, in effect it was a revolutionary tribunal. While the majority of the English population may not have wanted the king executed, the revolutionary power in the land, the Army, certainly did. This force of 40,000 troops led by Cromwell and his allies, had taken over the government of the country, and the army hated Charles. As Wedgwood points out

"The majority of the soldiers hated him, for making war on his people not once but twice, for trying to bring in foreign troops, or even the wild Irish; hated him for abandoning the Protestant cause in Europe, for persecuting godly ministers in England, for favouring Papists and encouraging the friends of his French Popish wife... More crudely, many of them hated him simply for being a King with soft white hands, fine linen and a velvet cloak who had ordered his poor subjects to be shot and cut down in battle, who had had prisoners beaten and starved and had condemned honest John Lilburne to be whipped at the cart's tail."

The Army, the most powerful authority in the land, had as its political representation, the Rump Parliament and those MPs who remained, even those who did not really want an execution were at the mercy of the interests and desires of those who held the guns. Oliver Cromwell was the political expression of that force, and he and his allies drove through the trial and the execution in the interests of this power.

Viewing the trial through the prism of contemporary law, or the English law as it stood in 1649 does not help clarify the processes taking place. Indeed, the reaction to the execution is in itself interesting because it illustrates that wider forces and interests were predominant.

While there was wide "manifestations of grief and respect for the King", this was "not indications of militant Royalism".  As Wedgewood sucintly acknowledges, the execution of Charles I

"had exactly the effect that Cromwell and his more perceptive associates had hoped. It destroyed the active centre of Royalism in England. The King had refused to conclude a peace. Peace could not be imposed without him."

For a population tired of years of war, this was enough.

Wedgwood's account of the last days and hours of Charles I is sad. But Charles spent his last hours attempting to protect the institution of the monarchy - such is clear from his last words to his children and faithful servants. He believed he was heading for heaven, and was more concerned that the monarchy would survive. Ultimately, the monarchy did return, but in a distorted and far less important way. The regicides were persecuted, imprisoned, executed or driven into exile. But, as this interesting book makes clear, they had done their work well, and the world was never the same again.

Note that this book is also published as A King Condemned and A Coffin For King Charles.

Related Reviews

Hill - God's Englishman
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown
Purkiss - The English Civil War; A People's History

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

David Harvey - Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

David Harvey is one of the foremost Marxist thinkers in the world today. His guides to Marx's Capital have been read and watched by tens of thousands. His books on Cities and the Production of Space have been influential in activist movements such as Occupy. So his latest book on the problems of Capitalism should be considered seriously by revolutionaries everywhere. This is not least because, as Harvey himself points out in the introduction, there has been a "paucity of new thinking" when it comes to solutions to capitalism's latest crisis.

Seventeen Contradictions is both an introduction to how capitalism works and an attempt to understand its latest crisis. Using Marx's dialectical method, Harvey tries to explain the crisis of capitalism by looking at the inherent contradictions of the system. As Harvey points out, Marx himself wrote that world crises are "the real concentration and forcible adjustment of all the contradictions of bourgeois economy".

Harvey isn't a dispassionate observer. His writing is filled with anger at the consequences of capitalism. While discussing the recent property market crash in the US, he explains the way a property bubble forms as individuals and companies attempt to maximise their return on investment, but points out that the consequence is that four million Americans lost their homes through foreclosure. Explaining the contradiction of housing booms he points out that the use-value of a home (the fact that a family can live and shelter in it) is less important in the capitalist economy, than its "exchange value".

"Housing provision under capitalism has moved.. from a situation in which the pursuit of use-values dominated to one where exchange values moved to the fore. In a weird reversal, the use value of housing increasingly became, first, a means of saving, and second, an instrument of speculation for consumers as well as producers, financiers... who stood to gain from boom conditions in housing markets. The provision of adequate housing use values (in the conventional consumption sense) for the mass of the population has increasingly been held hostage to these ever deepening exchange value considerations. The consequences for the provision of adequate and affordable housing for an increasing segment of the population has been disastrous."

There are many other examples of commodities under capitalism (food? water? transport?) of which similar paragraphs could be written.

However in this review I want to concentrate on a number of problems that I have with Seventeen Contradictions. I must emphasise, given the particular ability of the left to focus on perceived divisions, that this is very much in the desire to develop both Marxism and the revolutionary movement, rather than to dismiss David Harvey's important work.


Harvey explains, quite rightly, that the key source of wealth under capitalism, is the extraction of surplus value from workers. But this isn't the only source. As Harvey writes

"Bankers do not care in principle... whether their profits and excessive bonuses come from lending money to landlords who extract exorbitant rents from oppressed tenants, from merchants who price-gouge their customers, from credit card and telephone companies that bilk their users, from mortgage companies that illegally foreclose on homeowners or from manufacturers who savagely exploit their workers."

But Harvey then continues,

"While theorists on the political left, inspired by their understanding of Marx's political economy, have typically privileged the last of these forms of appropriation as in some sense more foundational than all the others, the historical evolution of capital has exhibited immense flexibility in its capacity to appropriate the common wealth in all these other myriad ways."

This means, for Harvey, that while workers may have "won significant concessions on wages through struggles fought out in labour markets and at the point of production",

"what labour wins in the domain of production is stolen back by the landlords, the merchants... the bankers... the lawyers and the commission agents." 

These groups, as well as the tax man, and the privatised fields of medical care, education, water and other public services, "form a collective site where the politics of accumulation by dispossession takes over as a primary means for the extraction of income and wealth from vulnerable populations, including the working classes."

He concludes that organising against this is

"just as important to the class struggle as is the fight against exploitation in the labour market and in the workplace. But the left, obsessed with the figure of the factory worker as the bearer of class consciousness and as the avatar of socialist ambition, fails largely to incorporate this other world of class practices into its thinking and its political strategies."

Some on the left certainly do have a romantic view of the working class - looking back to the golden age of the NUM in Britain for instance. But even though I read that paragraph as I was riding in a bus with around 50 other activists to an anti-austerity protest organised by the People's Assembly I think Harvey is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The left is right to see workers struggle as the central aspect to the revolutionary transformation of society. This isn't because of a romantic view of workers. But it is because workers have, at the point of production, a unique position within society to stop capitalism. By stopping their labour, they can turn off the profit tap, for their bosses, and ultimately the other parasites in society, be they bankers or mortgage companies. That's why the markets react badly to mass strikes. Does this mean downplaying or ignoring other struggles? Of course not. But it feels like Harvey is trying to theoretically justify an over emphasis on movements outside the workplace at the expense of working in (the sometimes harder terrain) of the working class movement. Harvey argues that he isn't doing this, rather saying that  and "over emphasis" on the role of workers has damaged a "full blooded revolutionary search for an alternative to capital".


But I think that this misunderstands the greatest contradiction of them all. As capital has developed it has created in the 21st century a truly global working class. A class that is now more numerous and more central to a global production process than at any other point in history.

Workers action will be central to the creation of an alternative to capitalism - those revolutionary organisations of workers that have historically been the basis for new workers states, workers councils, or soviets, are important precisely because they base their power on the workers at the centre of production. Masses gathered in squares, who have created their own space within capitalism, can energise millions more, but they lack the power to stop capitalism and challenge the power of the state. After all, Mubarak fell not because of Tahrir Square, but when Egyptian workers went on strike. But those workers struck because they had confidence from the mass occupations of Cairo's open spaces.

Harvey's downplaying of the role of the working class as the central agents in the transformation of society and their alienated self felt like a key flaw in this book. Much of the rest of the work is interesting. I found the chapter on "freedom" under capitalism very interesting, though I thought the chapter on the contradictions of capital's "Endless Compound Growth" much weaker. One of the problems of capitalist accumulation is its constant need to expand - Harvey rightly locates this as one of the primary sources of environmental crisis under capitalism. However his assertion that capital "necessarily grows at a compound rate" isn't justified or proved. It doesn't seem to have a basis other than Harvey's repeated assertion, and it is clear that for large periods of time capital hasn't expanded like this.

In many ways this is an optimistic book. Harvey celebrates those organising to change the system, and encourages readers to take on a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. In particular he notes that those campaigning over environmental issues must be anti-capitalist. His argument that capital creates its own eco-system is a useful one, particularly the idea that this eco-system itself is evolving and developing. Harvey thus understands that we still must fight for that alternative world, but he writes that

"The paradox is that automation and artificial intelligence now provide us with abundant means to achieve the Marxist dream of freedom beyond the realm of necessity at the same time as the laws of capital's political economy put this freedom further and further out of reach."

But paradoxically for capitalism, as Harvey points out, the system is creating more and more faultlines. While the system breeds misery and poverty it also creates its own "gravedigger" - the working class. The contradictions of a system built on the drive for profit will force those workers to fight back. The ideas in this book can help inform those future struggles, but they must be engaged with critically.

Related Reviews

Harvey - Rebel Cities
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism