Sunday, August 31, 2014

Leslie Thomas - This Time Next Week

The death of Leslie Thomas' parents in the early part of the Second World War meant that he and his brother were wrenched from their lives in Newport and entered into the world of the Barnado's homes. The author himself left his sick brother in the back of an ambulance, being told that he would see him the next morning. 18 months later he ran away from the home to find his brother spending days walking the 60 miles to find him. His brother had only just been informed of his mother's death. Presumably the institutions didn't prioritizes it. The young boy had thought he'd been abandoned when his mother didn't reply to his letters and his brother never got them.

Despite this bureaucratic ineptitude (and occasionally because of it), Thomas' life in the home is by terms achingly funny and beautifully poignant. The cast of characters, many of them in no position to teach a class of self confident boys reads, are remembered in brief little snatches of commentary. Thomas' writings brilliantly portray the men and women, who clearly had made immense sacrifices themselves to look after the orphans. The boys, as boys do, let no chance go to waste. One master, with the innocent surname Allcock, instantly earns the nickname "no balls". A piece of schoolboy genius from which few teachers could recover.

I love this book in part for its wonderful writing, but also because it meant a lot to my father. Reading it brings some wonderful, and some sad memories. So forgive me if this review doesn't go on further.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rosa Luxemburg - The Junius Pamphlet

Rosa Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet was written between February and April 1915 while the author was imprisoned for her anti-war agitation. It was smuggled out, but not published, Luxemburg finding it on her desk when she was released in January 1916. The pamphlet is an extraordinarily powerful work. It begins by describing how quickly the scene has been transformed, from the wild joy and celebration at the outbreak of war, to the sullen acceptance at the slaughter in the trenches a few months later. And as the soldiers die in their thousands, companies make fortunes from providing the food, clothing and weapons for the war "while profits are springing, like weeds, from the fields of the dead".

But this is much more than an anti-war pamphlet in which Rosa Luxemburg does two things. She tries to explain the origins of the war, describing in detail the Imperialist system but also why German Social Democracy, the most powerful and developed socialist organisation of workers in the world surrendered so readily at the outbreak of hostilities.

Luxemburg warns that the world has changed, there is no return to the pre-war situation for socialists and revolutionaries. Interestingly, this is very similar to Lenin's position taken around the Zimmerwald conferences.

"It is a foolish delusion to believe that we need to only live through the war, as a rabbit hides under the bush to await the end of a thunderstorm, to trot merrily off in his old accustomed gait when all is over. The world war has changed the condition of our struggle, and has changed us most of all."

Luxemburg traces the origins of the war in the development of capitalism. Much like Lenin and Bukharin used the outbreak of the war to clarify their understanding of Imperialism, Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet explains the logic of imperialism through analysing Germany's historic development. In particular she notes the importance of "two naval bills" which promote a different era of politics, a "change from Bismarckian continental policies to 'Welt Politik'." She notes that once the decision was made to build and expand a German navy, war was inevitable, "The naval bill of December 11, 1899 was a declaration of war by Germany, which England answered on August 4, 1914."

But Luxemburg's analsysis is more than a simple argument that Germany was competing with England for markets and resources,

"It should be noted that this fight for naval supremacy had nothing in common with the economic rivalry for the world market.... Side by side with England, one nation after another had stepped into the world market, capitalism developed automatically, and with gigantic strides, into world economy."

Britain and Germany were, Luxemburg argues, interdependent, but

"When Germany unfolded its banner of naval power and world policies it announced the desire for new and far reaching conquest in the world by German imperialism... Naval building and military armaments becmae the glorious business of Germany industry, opening up a boundless prospect for further operations by trust and bank capital in the whole wide world."

Luxemburg analyses this linking up between state and capital through he study of Turkey in which Germany had poured large amounts of investment into in the later half of the 19th century. The German banks loaning money to build harbours and railways, tying Turkey's exports into German companies and forcing the countryside to pay rent for the privilege of this development, since industry was not advanced enough to pay the debt.

Luxemburg's understanding of the development of late capitalism rested on the way that the advanced capitalist nations required the under-developed world to absorb surplus value. It's a position that has been critiqued since by other Marxists. However it is not a major flaw in this work which seeks to try and understand the origins of the world war within a clash of states fighting to carve up the world in the interests of their home-grown capital.

The second half of this book is a polemic deployed against the arguments of German social democracy in their support for the war. Luxemburg tackles these positions powerfully, showing how the leaders of the socialist left use half-remembered quotes from Marx and Engels to argue that their was a duty to fight Tsarist Russia. But in doing so, they undermine and set back the growing Russian working class movement. The world of Imperialism is very different from the world of 19th century Europe when Russia could be considered the prison house of nations.

The betrayal of German socialist movement (and indeed that of most of Europe) still has the power to shock. Knowing now what we know of the Somme, Verdun and the rest of the slaughter is to view the betrayal with hindsight. But even in the first weeks of the war, Luxemburg understood how rotten German socialism had become. Take this quote from a newspaper of the German SPD. Note that this was an organisation that still claimed the inheritance of Marx and Engels.

“As for us, we are convinced that our labour unionists can do more than deal out blows. Modern mass armies have by no means simplified the work of their generals. It is practically impossible to move forward large troop divisions in close marching order under the deadly fire of modern artillery. Ranks must be carefully widened, must be more accurately controlled. Modern warfare requires discipline and clearness of vision not only in the divisions but in every individual soldier. The war will show how vastly human material has been improved by the educational work of the labour unions, how well their activity will serve the nation in these times of awful stress. The Russian and the French soldier may be capable of marvellous deeds of bravery. But in cool, collected consideration none will surpass the German labour unionists. Then too, many of our organised workers know the ways and byways of the borderland as well as they know their own pockets, and not a few of them are accomplished linguists. The Prussian advance in 1866 has been termed a schoolmasters’ victory. This will be a victory of labour union leaders”

It is no surprise then, that the Junius Pamphlet ends with a call for revolution. Though Luxemburg, unlike Lenin, avoids calling for the defeat of her own ruling class. Instead calling for neither victory nor defeat. While the difference is slight, it perhaps reflects the different emphasis of the two revolutionaries, as well as their different experience of reformist socialist organisation. Luxemburg writes that

"For war as such, whatever its military outcome may be, is the greatest conceivable defeat of the cause of the European proletariat. The overthrow of war and the speedy forcing of peace, but the international revolutionary action of the proletariat, alone can bring it to the only possible victory."

While praising the book, Lenin critiqued a number of aspects of the Junius Pamphlet in a review which all readers of the booklet should also read. In particular he noted that "Junius" (he wasn't aware of the real identity of the author) abandons internationalism in favour of a "national programme" when suggesting how revolutionaries should have acted in 1914. Lenin argues that the problem is that the author hasn't broken completely from the old organisation.

"Junius has not completely rid himself of the “environment” of the German Social-Democrats, even the Lefts, who are afraid of a split, who are afraid to follow revolutionary slogans to their logical conclusions. This is a mistaken fear, and the Left Social-Democrats of Germany must and will rid themselves of it. They will do so in the course of the struggle against the social-chauvinists."

This meant that "Junius" panders to their politics.

"Secondly, Junius apparently wanted to achieve something in the nature of the Menshevik “theory of stages,” of sad memory; he wanted to begin to carry out the revolutionary programme from the end that is “more suitable,” “more popular” and more acceptable to the petty-bourgeoisie. It is something like the plan “to outwit history,” to outwit the philistines. He seems to say: surely, nobody would oppose a better way of defending the real fatherland; that real fatherland is the Great German Republic, and the best defence is a militia, a permanent parliament, etc. Once it was accepted, that programme would automatically lead to the next stage-to the socialist revolution."

In other words, Lenin thought that "Junius" was influenced by the very pressures that had set the SPD down the road of supporting the war in the first place, i.e. the concerns about being pushed outside of the legal methods of operating for socialists, fear of losing parliamentary influence etc.

Lenin's had of course spotted Luxemburg's greatest mistake. For all her brilliance, she hadn't yet broken with the errors of the old SPD. - though she was on that road with the call for a "New International". Lenin finishes his review with this point.

"Probably, it was reasoning of this kind that consciously or semi-consciously determined Junius’ tactics. Needless to say, such reasoning is fallacious, Junius’ pamphlet conjures up in our mind the picture of a lone man who has no comrades in an illegal organisation accustomed to thinking out revolutionary slogans to their conclusion and systematically educating the masses in their spirit. But this shortcoming—it would be a grave error to forget this-is not Junius’ personal failing, but the result of the weakness of all the German Lefts, who have become entangled in the vile net of Kautskyist hypocrisy, pedantry and “friendliness” towards the opportunists. Junius’ adherents have managed in spite of their isolation to begin the publication of illegal leaflets and to start the war against Kautskyism. They will succeed in going further along the right road."

In the Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy included with the Junius Pamphlet and adopted by Luxemburg and her comrades, the revolutionaries understand that the key task was to fight for the overthrow of capitalism. Their opportunity would come in November 1918 with the outbreak of the German Revolution.

Related Reviews

Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Luxemburg - The Mass Strike
Sherry - Empire and Revolution: a Socialist History of World War One
Nation - War on War
Campbell - A Rebels' Guide to Rosa Luxemburg

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

R. Craig Nation - War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left and the Origins of Communist Internationalism

Most of this book deals with the machinations of a tiny number of socialists during World War One. The anti-war socialists who gathered in the Swiss village of Zimmerwald on September 5th 1915 represented few others. Many years afterwards in his autobiography Leon Trotsky joked that "half a century after the formation of the First International it was still possible to fit all the internationalists in Europe into four coaches."

Before the outbreak of World War One, the international socialist movement, united in the Second International, had promised strikes, mass opposition and rebellion against the war. Instead they almost completely capitulated and supported their nation states. Overnight, the Second International turned into a toothless beast. Most of its constituent groups supported their own ruling class' role in the slaughter of the trenches. Those individual members who didn't were in no way united in how their opposition to the conflict should manifest itself. There were those that supported a defensive war, those who wanted to issue the simple demand for "peace" and those, like Lenin, who argued that the war needed to be turned into "a civil war" that could overthrow capitalism.

Nation's book is tremendously important, because he shows how Lenin's political clarity and firmness of action was able to create a very small, but important, Zimmerwald Left. Lenin hoped that this would become the basis for a new, revolutionary, Third International. The author explains,

"Lenin's response to the crisis stood out for its forcefulness and consistency. The Bolsheviks were not a sect, and with a unified organization, emigre cadres dispersed throughout the European continent, and a foreign bureau in neutral Switzerland at the nerve center of what would become the socialist antiwar movement, they were well placed to serve as a goad to radical elements elsewhere."

Lenin and his closest allies believed that the war would lead to revolution. His orientation on the Zimmerwald movement through 1915 and until the Russian Revolution was because he saw the importance of a clear revolutionary vision.

"The war's origins were perceived to lie in the contradictions of advanced capitalism. What was unfolding was not a contest for culture or democracy, but a predatory war of imperialism. The International's surrender to nationalism was considered to be a direct consequence of revisionism; at issue was not merely a tactical choice, but the long-term orientation of the socialist labor movement. Internationalism was essential to the meaning of socialism and its premises demanded that the war be opposed by rejecting the Burgfrieden [a truce between the left and the ruling class for the duration of the war] and supporting popular protest actions. Most important, the struggle against the war must be linked to the restoration of an authentically revolutionary Marxism".

Lenin's opponents in the Zimmerwald movement saw it differently. They hoped for a negotiated piece and saw the conference as an opportunity to rebuild what had been lost, to return to the pre-war comfort of the Second International. A secondary aim from the moderates "was to neutralize the extreme left". This obviously contrasted with the aim of Lenin and his supporters who were "outspoken in demanding a clean break with the compromised past."

The major difference was the attitude to the demand for peace. This, for the majority of those involved in Zimmerwald, had to be the key demand. The central organising figure, the Swiss socialist Robert Grimm wrote to a leading Russian Menshevik in May 1915, "Nothing can be achieved through the official parties [but a] conference of opposition elements naturally does not mean a split. In my opinion it should concern itself only with the establishment of a tactical line for the struggle against the war."

Grimm and the majority socialists betrayed their hesitancy by rejecting calls for "mass actions". In this they were following the right-wing of the movement who were fearful of undermining their nation states' ability to fight the war. Instead, abstract demands for peace, where the key demand. Grimm called for the participation of "all parties or factions" that "support the renewal or continuation of the class struggle, oppose the Burgfrieden, and are ready to take up the struggle for peace." Responding to this, Zinoviev, a close ally of Lenin insisted that "theoretical clarity is more important than the question of peace".

This sounds strange, after all, peace surely was the aim of the anti-war left in the midst of the carnage of World War One? But Lenin, Zinoviev and their allies were looking forwards. Their analysis was that the war would lead to revolution, and the demand for peace was a abstract slogan that could mean anything to anyone. What they wanted was an end to war, and this meant the end of capitalism. This meant turning the imperial war into a revolutionary war of the oppressed classes against the ruling class. On this point turned all the debates at Zimmerwald. The left lost all the votes, but Lenin created in the process a Zimmerwald Left that was able to become the nucleus of a larger force in the struggles to come.

Nation explains the Zimmerwald process and the follow up conference at Kiental meant that,

"The revolutionary left, though still an isolated minority was infused with new confidence. In a number of cases pressures led to outright schisms and the creation of independent Zimmerwaldist or left radical parties. In France the minoritaires were on the verge of winning control of the part from Within. The Zimmerwald Left seldom entered directly into the disintegration of traditional organizations, but its arguments were influential. In every significant national movement a left radical faction aligned with Lenin's position had come into being well prior to the fall of the czar."

These small groups were to become the essential basis for the Third International when it was launched in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, as well as, in some cases, the revolutionary struggles that gripped Europe in the same period. Again Nation explains,

"International communism did not spring from the 'accident' of revolution, nor was it ever a simple extension of the Bolsheviks' fight to seize and maintain state power. Its roots lay in the left opposition's reaction to the socialist collapse of 1914 and the international movement of protest against the war that followed."

"As the self-declared precursor of the third International, the Zimmerwald Left accomplished several meaningful; steps forward... it established a political identify and made itself a part of the landscape on the international left... By 1917 Lenin could claim to speak for a small but dynamic tendency with the capacity to grow."

That said, the groups were small and in some of the key battles were to prove hopelessly inadequate. This book is an excellent explanation of the importance the Zimmerwald process and Lenin's theoretical and organisational contribution to this. Indeed the author celebrates the clarity of thought of Lenin in understanding both the needs of the revolutionary movement and the potential for revolution. When revolution broke out in 1917 in Russia, Zimmerwald did not become irrelevant. The book shows how the organisation played an important role in spreading the message of revolution, as well as giving the Bolsheviks' an opportunity (both before and after October) of getting their message out to the rest of the world. 

This is an important study and for readers trying to understand the dynamics of the opposition to World War One I would suggest it is an essential read. But it is not without fault.

Firstly I think the author underestimates the scale of revolution at the end of World War One. He writes that in April 1917 it was still possible for Lenin "to consider the arrival of the European revolution as imminent" but that by the time of Brest-Litovsk this expectation had to be abandoned. This might be fair, but it misses the point that within months revolution had broken out in Germany and mass movements, Soviets and workers' councils were erected in many different countries. Yet Nation dismisses the German Revolution in barely a couple of pages, suggesting it ended in January 1919 without noting that it wasn't completely defeated until 1923, and, as a number of authors have shown, the revolutionary movement on occasion came close to victory.

Secondly I think Nation has a simplistic understanding of the politics of the revolutionaries. It is simply not true to suggest that "International communism was built upon the conviction, enunciated by Gerrard Winstanley centuries before and by Leonhard Frank in his passionate antiwar novel Man is Good during 1918, that war was only the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man." The politics of the Third International rested on the work of Marx and Engels, in particular the idea that "the emancipation of the working class had to be the act of the working class".

In his short summary of the work of the Third International, Nation again betrays his ignorance. For instance he doesn't see how the Comintern attempted to develop new ways of relating to the ebb and flow of revolutionary struggle, in particular, the theory of the United Front. For Nation the Third International was simply an international group modeled on Lenin's Bolsheviks that could centrally steer the constituent parties. Here, and elsewhere, Nation fails to clearly explain the break that took place between the revolutionary movement of the Bolsheviks and later Communist Parties from the Stalin era onward.

From Wikipedia: Coloured lithography of the Hotel
"Beau Séjour" in Zimmerwald, where the delegates lived.
Finally the author attempts in a postscript chapter to link the revolutionary movements of the early 21st century to the state of the Communist Parties of the world in 1989 when the book was first published. Hindsight is of course always very clear, and I doubt this book would have been written in the same way after the Berlin Wall had come down.

But Nation fails to grasp the rupture that took place between the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and the first few years of the Third International with the politics of Stalin and Socialism in One Country. In places the author comes close to suggesting that this began with Lenin. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks certainly had "no choice" but to work to ensure the survival of the Russian Revolution in the face of the failure of the German Revolution, this was far from a decision to "to coexist with the capitalist world system".

Finally Nation dismisses Lenin's ideas of revolutionary organisation in the modern world and instead suggests that what is really important today is Lenin's "priority accorded to the 'utopian' ideals of visionary internationalism and of socialism itself as ethical norms, sources of motivation and standards for political conduct." Given what Lenin's Bolsheviks achieved this seems a rather limited ambition.

These conclusions are a shame, because Nation's book is mostly an excellent introduction to the Lenin's method, based on his Marxist politics. The summary of Lenin's actions, the historical importance of Zimmerwald and the Zimmerwald Left and the writings of Lenin during this period are ones that revolutionaries today can learn much from and Nation does an excellent job of explaining them. I would suggest that readers don't bother with the final postscript, but enjoy the in depth study of a period that the author, rightly, considers to be central to the shaping of the 20th century world and modern revolutionary movement.

Related Reviews

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A socialist history of World War One
Zurbrugg - Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War
Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade
Cliff - All Power to the Soviets

Monday, August 18, 2014

James Gleick - Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton's copious papers began to appear at auction houses in the early 20th century. By 1936 when interest had waned somewhat, a trunk went up for sale at Sotheby's containing manuscripts with some 3 million of Newton's words. John Maynard Keynes bought much of them, and helped to uncover an Isaac Newton that few had guessed at in the 2 hundred odd years since his death. The documents inside helped expose Newton "the alchemist; the heretical theologian" rather than the rational, mechanical scientist of tradition.

The great strength of James Gleick's short biography is that it helps us understand the whole Newton. Both the man who hide away from the world, jealously guarding his knowledge and discovery, almost fearing to publish, but who made enormous breakthroughs in mathematics and physics and the Newton who spent much of his life trying to work out how to turn base metal into gold; rigorously studied the Bible to convince himself that the question of the theological Trinity was a "fraud" and engaged in long protracted polemics and feuds with other great thinkers.

Indeed, Gleick's description of Newton's approach to theological questions demonstrates Newton's scientific method. Newton "compared the Scriptures in the new English translation [of the Bible] and in the ancient languages; he collected Bibles in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. He sought out and mastered the writings of the early fathers of the church." Newton tested his ideas, searched for evidence and examined it until he could come to his own conclusions. In this case, his conclusion was heretical, without a special dispensation from the king he would never have been able to take his mathematics seat at Cambridge because Newton couldn't bring himself to take the holy orders required. When he got the dispensation, he didn't move on, rather he "perfected his heresy through decade of his life and millions of words."

Newton wanted to understand the universe, and god was part of that. As Gleick explains, "if we could decipher the prophecies and the messages, we would know a God of order, not chaos; of laws, not confusion. Newton plumbed both nature and history to find out God's plan. He rarely attended church."

Gleick's book looks at this aspect of Newton's life but doesn't neglect the more well known parts. His invention of calculus, which he hide from the world for decades, until his feud with Liebniz. His work on tides, which apparently he did from first principles, without ever seeing the sea. His discoveries in optics, and most of all, his work on gravitational attraction. Newton wrote millions of words on these topics, from his earliest years he was an obsessive list maker, note taker, writer and doodler. His brain seems to have been on fire constantly. His fame came late. But when it did, Newton seized it, protected it and fought those who challenged him. Newton ended up very rich, heirless and world renowned even if, for much of his life, words or notation did not yet exist for the ideas he was inventing and the thoughts he was having.

Yet for all its strength, this book didn't feel adequate. I enjoyed reading it, in fact this is the second time I've done so. James Gleick peppers the book with literary quotes, poetry and Newton's own words. But it is too short, and I didn't feel like I'd got to understand Newton, merely that I'd been introduced to him and his ideas and I needed a deeper, longer biography. Nevertheless this is an excellent place to start.

Related Reviews

Sobel - Galileo's Daughter
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Alastair Dunn - The Peasants' Revolt: England's failed revolution of 1381

Having reviewed a number of books on the 1381 uprising (see links below), I won't spend time in this review detailing much detail of the actual Peasants' Revolt. Suffice to say, that Alastair Dunn's book is one of the best introductions to the uprising that I've read.

Dunn begins with a succinct analysis of the causes of the revolt and the nature of medieval society. This is a society which entirely rests of the hard labour of the peasantry, both free and unfree. Population increases, climate change, dropping soil fertility and most of all, the greed of the ruling class was increasing poverty and causing growing anger. Following repeated manifestations of the Black Death from 1348 had ravaged the population, Dunn tells us that by 1381 the "English peasantry had endured almost a century of instability in its living standards, and an existence that was, at best ,precarious, and at worth, verging on starvation."

The loss of almost fifty percent of the population during the epidemics of 1348 and after led, almost immediately, to some peasants challenging the new economic reality. The ruling class responded to those attempting to increase their remittance, or break with their lords, by introducing laws to cap pay levels and maintain serfdom. Dunn suggests that thousands were hit by the Statute of Labourers (1349) breeding further discontent.

Dunn's narrative of the revolt follows the usual descriptions that I've mentioned elsewhere. But he is at pains to judge the original source material, sifting through the conflicting contemporary accounts and biased descriptions since from those repeating others' stories.

For Dunn the revolt was "predominantly, a revolt of the poorer elements of rural and urban society against lordship and privilege... but it is equally clear that the 1381 Rising was also used as a vehicle for the perpetuation of pre-existing conflicts, and commercial and jurisdictional rivalries, especially in urban communities." Hence Dunn says that the rising and capture of London had less to do with the arrival of the peasant armies from the surroundings and he emphasises the importance of the London population in, for instance, the destruction of John of Gaunts' Savoy palace. Dunn also points to studies that show that those involved in the uprising were often not the "unfree", but frequently "men who had served in the offices of village government".

A study of 954 Essex rebels whose names have come down to us, finds that of the 283 whose occupations we know, only 5 were unfree. It may be, of course, that those who jobs were not listed were more likely to be unfree peasants, but this doesn't contradict the idea of the involvement of those who had "a degree of literacy and numeracy". The imposition of the Poll Tax and the Statute of Labourers, had, as Dunn points out, the effect of undermining those local "village elites", who then joined the rebellion about their own social superiors. We should also acknowledge, a point made by Rodney Hilton, that those who rebelled were predominately those who identified with the mass of the population, and worked the land in one form or the other.

Dunn's book gives an excellent sense of the Uprising as a national event, with outbreaks as far apart as Scarborough and Gloucester as well as the well known events of Kent, Essex and East Anglia. He also shows how the revolt led to the ruling class, riven as it was by antagonism and rivalries, coming together to fight the lower orders. But as with other accounts what shines through is the determination of the ordinary people to fight for a better world. In the midst of the uprising, in places like St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, the rebels reorganised the land that they felt had been taken unjustly from them, walking out the new boundaries, taking down fences and dykes. In the words of a later period, this really was a time when "The World Turned Upside Down".

Finally, Dunn puts the rebellion well in the context of the aftermath. Once the uprising was ended, the ruling class rivalries broke out again, leading eventually to the deposing of Richard II. But he also outlines the ways that the English ruling class maneuvered to try and maintain serfdom, and he explains why they failed. Serfdom in England wasn't ended by decree, but "disappeared through prolonged immersion in the solvent of economic change."

The Peasants Revolt continues to inspire. Alastair Dunn's book is an excellent introduction to why we should celebrate and study it further.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free

Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381
Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Marc Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence

Marc Bloch's classic work of history is one of the great studies of the medieval period. It is not a bedside book, this is a work that requires study and some knowledge of the periods in question, as well as the source material. Nonetheless, even for the non-specialist like myself, there is much to be gained from finishing it, not least an appreciation for Marc Bloch's immense breadth of understanding of the period and his knowledge of the source material. One of the problems for the student of "medieval history" is that it is not really a single period, feudalism was not a stagnant period, as Bloch writes

"It would, moreover, be a grave mistake to treat 'feudal civilization' as being all of one piece chronologically. Engendered no doubt or made possible by the cessation of the last invasions, but first manifesting themselves some generations later, a series of very profound and very widespread changes occurred towards the middle of the eleventh century. No definite break with the past occurred, but the change of direction which, despite inevitable variations in time according to the countries or the phenomena considered, affected in turn all the graphs of social activity."

This is further complicated in that there is a great variety of relationships, social organisation, even distribution of villages as well as different methods of farming across Europe in the period that we usually think of as having a lord living in a central manor ruling over hundreds of serfs on the surrounding land. This was

"an ordering of the scheme of human relations quite different from anything we know today. There was scarcely any remote little place which had not some contacts intermittently though that sort of continuous yet irregular 'Brownian movement' which affected the whole of society. On the other hand, between two inhabited centres quite close to each other the connections were much rarer, the isolation of their inhabitants infinitely greater than would be the case in our own day."

This first volume however is not a description of feudal life, in all its forms and organisation. It is an attempt to understand how the feudal mode of production came about. How the relations between small groups of people in the 10th and 11th centuries developed into the lord and peasant organisation of later centuries.

One major change that Bloch notes in "the man of AD 1200" over his ancestors was that "he was more self-conscious". He was more aware of wider questions, "all at once problems which formerly had been discussed only by a handful of learned men became topics of the day... human affairs were newly emerging as subjects for reflection." In part, this was the result of 'reform' movements among churchmen. But it was also a result of legal codes being worked out more methodically. Every person had to know their place, and their relations with others, in order to ensure that wealth and land were in the hands of those who were supposed to have them. As Bloch writes

"A period of exceptional movement, an age of obscure and profound gestation, is therefore succeeded, from the second half of the twelfth century, by an era in which society tends to organise human relations more strictly to establish more clear-cut divisions between the classes, to obliterate a great many local variations and finally to allow change only at a slower rate."

Bloch breaks this process down. Firstly he examines the customs that existed before the 12th century, the relations between groups of individuals that initially manifest themselves as protection in exchange for support. These ties develop into more complex relationships

"On the one hand, there was the urgent quest for a protector; on the other, there were usurpations of authority, often by violent means. And as notions of weakness and strength are always relative, in many cases the same man occupied a dual role - as a dependent of a more powerful man and a protector of humbler ones. Thus there began to built up a vast system of personal relations whose intersecting threads ran from one level of the social structure to another."

Marc Bloch
Some of those who sought a protector, "became simply slaves, thereby binding their descendants as well as themselves", but not always, as "to be surrounded with dependents who enjoyed the judicial and military privileges characteristic of free men was, for a chief, in many respects more advantageous than to command only a horde of slaves."

But the development of "classic vassalage" is also mirrored by the development of relations of obligations among those at the top of society. The ruler, lord or king, had to bind close to him those who would support him and maintain his own position. This has its origins in those individuals who fought militarily for a single leader, sharing the spoils of war. As the feudal period develops, these figures then, through the donation of fiefs, are bound to the central figure while also creating wider structures of relations among others, particularly those that work the land.

"The vassal of later times no longer condescended to work with his hands. He was therefore obliged to live on the labour of someone else. When he received an estate, he would expect to find on it tenants who were subject, on the one hand, to the payment of rents and on the other, to labour services which would permit the cultivation of the portion of land generally reserved for direct farming by the master."

Bloch points out that the fief was often land, which produced wealth, but was not permanently owned, it ended when the relationship between the two individuals ended. Either by death, or perhaps by betrayal or promotion. Bloch even shows that individuals could owe allegiance to multiple lords and there are some unusual cases described when two lords went to war, about how the confusion was sorted out.

"From the ninth century onwards, vassalage was regarded as uniting two lives, and consequently it was considered that the 'benefit' or fief was held by the vassal till either his own death or that of his lord"

Ultimately, this relationship grew into the structure that was to dominate the majority of the medieval period,

"In the whole of Europe, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the military fief... was transformed into what was to all intents and purposes an hereditary estate. Further more, being regarded as indivisible, it was in many countries transmitted only from eldest son to eldest son."

Much of the book concentrates on changes and developments at the top of society. This is a reflection of the material that has come down to us, rather than any neglect on the part of the author. What is impressive about this book is the authors attention to detail, and his ability to compare and contrast social systems in countries with very different histories. In his conclusion, Bloch argues that the manor, the institution that we think most of when we consider feudalism, has no unique place in the period. It had existed before feudalism, and was to continue to exist afterwards. But

"in the new conditions of life which arose from approximately the ninth century onwards, this ancient method of social organisation was destined not only to extend its grip over a much larger proportion of the population, but also to consolidate to a remarkable degree its own internal structure.... the manor was first and foremost a community of dependents who were by turns protected, commanded and oppressed by their lord to whom many of them were bound by a sort of hereditary link... When the relationships truly characteristic of feudalism fell into decay the manor lived on, but with different characteristics; it became more territorial, more purely economic."

Thus Bloch draws a continuous line from the post Roman, pre-feudal world towards the post-medieval era. His examination of social relations, economic changes and the growth of a stronger state sets the scene for the development of a later capitalist order. His book is a brilliant examination of the world on which the modern world rests and this makes this an essential read for students of the feudal era and the period of transition to capitalism.

Final note: Marc Bloch was an impressive individual. He eventually died as a result of his activity as a member of the French resistance, shot by a fascist firing squad. His writing while complex is also fluid, eloquent and readable, as I hope the quotes above demonstrate. As a result I feel an obligation to mention the translator, L A Manyon who has done an extremely impressive job of creating a very readable English version.

Related Reviews and Reading

In praise of Marc Bloch's Feudal Society by Jonathan Jarrett

Cohn - In Pursuit of the Millennium
Hilton - Bondmen Made Free
Lacey & Danziger - The Year 1000
Ziegler - The Black Death

Monday, August 04, 2014

Karen Maitland - The Owl Killers

The medieval period is not a common setting for novels, and when used, novels tend to concentrate on the lives of the ruling classes, kings, queens and their battles. Karen Maitland's The Owl Killers however focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of a single village in Norfolk. Maitland has an eye for period detail and the novel is extremely readable, and an excellent insight into peasant life in the early 14th century.

At the focus of the novel is a Beguine - a female only religious commune whose inhabitants have control over their own lives and money, a free space to practice religion and charity, work and help wider society. Beguines were setup on the continent from the 13th century onward, and Maitland imagines what happens when a group of women from one in Bruges attempt to setup in England.

The England in which they arrive is far from idyllic. The women are shocked by the reality of peasant life, perhaps having been hidden from the reality of it in the economically prosperous city of Bruges. The peasants are trapped by their obligations to both church and lord. Their lives are hard; taxes and tithes are high. Their lord isn't particularly benevolent, and his heir is viciously nasty. For these local rulers the peasants are a source of wealth, labour and entertainment. Rape is common, violence frequent. Religion plays an important and central role, though local customs and religious belief have created a secret society of Owl Men, who promise to protect the village in times of scarcity in exchange for yet more monies.

One fantastically drawn character is Father Ulfrid. Ulfrid is triply trapped. Forced out of the big city for unacceptable crime, he is stuck in the village and hates the small minded, superstitious people who he now preaches too. But he is also trapped by the contradiction of his faith and his social position. His role as priest means he is the sharp point of the church that collects the heavy tithes owed by the peasantry. Thus he is on one hand an instrument of exploitation and with the other the person who should be helping the peasants deal with the reality of their lives. Initially a sympathetic figure, Ulfrid rapidly becomes more obnoxious as he sees the women of the beguine as the solution to his problems.

Maitland writes a complex story, using multiple view points and basing it around the crisis that ensues as heavy rains and disease cause disease and famine. There is little redemption here, the novel's concentration on reality makes a happy ending unlikely - peasants, after all, did die in their hundreds from hunger and oppression.

Sadly Maitland's turn towards the supernatural at the end did the story no favours at all. Those who have read the book will probably agree that it was unnecessary. The monstrous Owl Man who haunts the villagers' fears is a clear metaphor for the violent rule of the local lord, it didn't need to be made real.

That annoyance aside, this is an immensely enjoyable novel that gives the reader a real sense of the crisis inherent in 14th century England. A time when hunger was driving the peasants to question the role of their rulers, the Church's greed was creating the beginnings of religious controversy and questioning and the countryside simmered with tension and violence.

Related Reviews

Maitland - Company of Liars
Maitland - The Plague Charmer