Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paul McGarr & Alex Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution

This book is actually a reprint of a special edition of the International Socialist Journal. Published near the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, it consists of two excellent essays - though the original had an extra essay by John Rees on the Algebra of Revolution which is not online. The first, by Paul McGarr is an excellent introductory account to the French Revolution. McGarr doesn't dwell in great detail on the details of the Revolution, preferring to paint a general picture that concentrates on the forces clashing within French society. Here, McGarr gives the reader a sense of the changing nature of French society and the tensions developing within it:
The French state under Loius XIV pursued vigorous 'protectionist' economic policies... designed to serve the interests of the state in its conflicts with its rivals. But they were also designed to help French trade, commerce and manufacture - and thus the bourgeoisie. Significant elements of the bourgeoisie used their wealth and influence to obtain lucrative positions within the growing bureaucracy of the absolutist state... In short the absolutist state was an adaption to, and partial incorporation of, the bourgeoisie but within a reshaped and restabilised feudal political structure.
Such tensions could not be contained indefinitely, and the author explains well how the economic changes influenced political interests, which eventually exploded into rebellion. But for the Revolution to be carried through required the direct involvement of the masses. McGarr explores the way that this took place through the networks of radical clubs and organisations which discussed, debated and took action. These clubs were numerous and frequently large. The Jacobin clubs in Marseille, for instance, in 1791, involved 2,000 people. McGarr writes
Some estimates put the numbers as high as one million at various points in the revolution... This mass political organisation and its press were the backbone of the revolution. We know more about events in Prais and in the Convention, but too often the fact that behind this stood real organisation right across the country, on a historically unprecedented scale, is forgotten.
What did this mean in practice? McGarr argues that the bourgeoisie needed to break the old order in order to push forward their class interests. But were not able to do this on their own. So they also needed the "class demands" of the peasants and urban masses to drive the revolution on.
The peasants and urban poor were not capable of forming an independent force capable of taking power in society. Only the bourgeoisie had the potential to be a new ruling class. This gave them hegemony in constructing the new order.
Their victory meant that the bourgeoisie now formed the dominant, exploiting class. McGarr argues this because he wants to demonstrate that those who argue that the political and class struggles of the French Revolution were immaterial to the changes in French society are wrong. Students of the French Revolution will find that McGarr's article is a useful short introduction to the debates within the left (and with the right) about the nature of this change.

It is in this context too, that Alex Callinicos' essay is extremely important. Luckily it is available online. Callinicos' has written extensively on the subject of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This essay, Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism is an excellent introduction to this topic, particularly in the context of the French Revolution. Though having said that, Callinicos briefly examines other changes such as Revolution's "from above" like that in Germany, the United States and Japan.

One key argument for Callinicos is over which class "led" the revolution. Here he challenges those who simply argue that bourgeois revolutions must be led by the whole bourgeois class. Clearly in the case of many revolutions this isn't the case, the gentry fought on both sides, or changed sides.
Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The emphasis should shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution to the effects of such a revolution – to the class which benefits from it. More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political transformation – a change in state power, which is the precondition for large scale capital accumulation and the establishment of the bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social forces which carry through the transformation.
It seems to me that this is the only sensible analysis. The origins of the need for revolutionary change arise behind the scenes so to speak. They are the consequences of actions by people who change their way of making wealth gradually over time, and bring within them other interests and needs. This isn't necessarily a conscious activity and does not automatically lead to conscious needs for change. Nonetheless, eventually, critical mass is arrived at and different forces in society a forced to clash. I think the English Revolution demonstrates this very clearly, as parliament gradually is forced to confront the king over more and more key economic and political questions until eventually he has to be fought. Few, if any, who took up arms in 1642 for Parliament did so imagining they would be bringing down the monarchy.

Callinicos puts it very well
Capitalism, involving...  the spread of commodity circulation, necessarily develops in a piecemeal and decentralised way within the framework of feudal political domination. It gradually subverts the old order through the infiltration of the whole network of social relationships and the accumulation of economic and political power by capitalists. The effect is both to the many capitalists to the ancien régime but also to change the nature of that régime, so that old forms conceal new, bourgeois relationships.
Or as Engels wrote (quoted by Callinicos) ‘The political order remained feudal, while society became more and more bourgeois.’

Again, as in McGarr's article, Callinicos tackles those, such as the political theorist Theda Skocpol, who argue that what took place in the English Revolution was a "political but not a social revolution". To demonstrate this, Callinicos examines the changes that take place in the role of the state. Again, these arguments should be read by anyone seeking to understand the political and social transformations taking place in England and France during the Revolutions. Key to these changes though, are the various political actors. In the French Revolution we have the peasants and urban masses, with the Jacobin revolutionaries (like Cromwell) forced to play a balancing act between the groups' differing interests. This is why the historical analysis of McGarr's piece is so important, because the revolutionary process taking place as social forces grow and develop during the Revolution are key to understanding why different groups acted in particular ways at different times. Revolutionary change was not inevitable, and as Callinicos points out, the Bourgeois revolution failed in its classic sense in countries like Germany, having to be imposed from above. Revolutions
in which the existing state apparatus was used violently to remove the obstacles to the construction of unified capitalist economies. It is essential, therefore, to consider some of the main features of these revolutions.
Finally, Callinicos notes that the contemporary changes have taken alternate forms. The Russian Revolution needed workers to lead the peasantry to victory in 1917. But in countries were this wasn't possible, various alternative revolutionary leaderships were able to play this role "often marching under ‘Marxist-Leninist’ colours but dominated by the urban petty bourgeoisie, were able to lead and organise successful peasant wars against imperialism and its allies."

Callinicos concludes,
The historical irony that movements claiming the inspiration of Marxism should do the work of capitalism, merely underlines the fundamental difference between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. Bourgeois revolutions are characterised by a disjunction of agency and outcome. A. variety of different social and political forces – Independent gentry, Jacobin lawyers, Junker and samurai bureaucrats, even ‘Marxist-Leninists’ – can carry through political transformations which radically improve the prospects for capitalist development.
This however is not enough. The revolutionary defeat of feudalism and the introduction of capitalism, was a historic progress step. But today Capitalism is a fetter on the further development of human society. Understanding the forces that led to that change, helps us better understand the nature of the beast we must destroy today. These two essays should be read by anyone seeking to turn the world upsidedown.

Related Reviews

Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution
Callinicos - Making History
Heller - The French Revolution and Historical Materialism
Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jean Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

The French Revolution was a profoundly important historical event. But just saying this can underestimate its impact. The Revolution didn't simply change the course of French, or even European history, it helped to shape the way generations of people viewed historical change. A glance at the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky will see repeated references to the Revolution and its key figures. Debates about the processes of historical change, particularly the transition from feudal society to capitalism, continue to discuss the French events, and radicals today continue to be inspired by the nameless thousands who stormed the Bastille, and at crucial moments forced reluctant politicians to embrace change.

In this context then, this important new abridgment of Jean Jaurès' classic history of the French Revolution is very welcome indeed. Jean Jaurès was a leading French socialist of the early 20th century. Assassinated for opposing the First World War, he had an enormous impact upon the French socialist movement. But he also helped to shape the study of the French Revolution with his monumental Socialist History. Spanning multiple volumes it is a work of brilliant scholarship that seeks to apply the Marxist method to the revolutionary events and its leading figures. It is also immensely readable.

Translator Mitchell Abidor has done a brilliant job in bringing Jaurès work to an English audience. His translation is superb but his selection from Jaurès is also excellent, managing to convey the full breadth of his history, without losing the author's eye for detail.

As a 20th century socialist, Jaurès was concerned with the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But he understands that there was a contradiction. The urban population may have stormed the Bastille, but
The Revolution's origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court's attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote... not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.
The role of the "people"
seemed a glorious and fearsome accident that could not be allowed to become the rule in the regular workings of a free and ordered society.
But even so, Jaurès notes that,
thanks to these valiant men there is nothing under the sun today that belongs wholly to the bourgeoisie, not even its Revolution.
Time and again, the masses, take the stage to direct and shape the direction of the Revolution. The peasants, fearful of "brigands"  and knowing
That the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched lightheartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapns they'd seized... We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system. 
This contradiction runs through Jaurès' history. The dynamic between the limitations of the new order and the desire for change of the masses at the bottom of society. But it is in Paris and the other key urban areas that we really see the revolution pushed forward. The most radical deputies are elected from these towns, and they are the ones most clued into the desires of the masses and most keen to press forward under pressure from below. As events progress, the masses become less and less passive, and their leaders, are pushed forward, or aside.

Jaurès is not afraid to critique some the heroes of the Revolution. He is skeptical of Marat, saying his "theories caused bewilderment and even scandal among the people", and noting Marat's hope that the rich might "save themselves" by "act[ing] in good faith by giving a poor a portion of their excess". But here I think Jaurès is ahead of himself. Hindsight is wonderful, and I think that the author is limited by his belief that a proletarian movement already existed within the French masses, akin to the modern working class.

As Henry Heller points out in his introductory essay, Jaurès' "moved toward socialism without breaking from the radical republican and parliamentary tradition". So his history ends up suggesting that the struggle for socialism under capitalism is the continuation of the French Revolution. As Jaurès writes
Perhaps it wasn't possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom.
But precisely because the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution that brought in capitalism, this would be impossible, unless you believed French capitalism could provide well-ordered freedom. Jaurès writes "Strong class action by the proletariat is needed in order to wrest the Revolution and democracy from all that is now outdated and retrograde in the bourgeois world view".

My second criticism is that this selection neglects the impact of the Revolution outside of Europe, in particular its role in helping to inspire revolutions in Haiti against colonialism and slavery. This is a serious ommission in my opinion, given the importance of that event in helping to end slavery itself.

One problem with the nature of any abridgment is that it must miss out stuff, both contextual and factual. So the reader new to the French Revolution may at times struggle in understanding who certain individuals were, and their motivations. While Mitchell Abidor does a heroic job in framing each selection, there are inevitable gaps which mean that some readers might want to read further on the Revolution.

While these limitations are important, they do not entirely detract from this important book. Henry Heller's useful introduction frames the book for the reader who can enjoy Jaurès writing for what it is, a celebration of the need to change the world, and the role of ordinary people in doing so.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein's recent book This Changes Everything has helped reignite the climate movement and radical discussion of the environment and its relationship to capitalism. Having enjoyed it, I have turned to an earlier book of hers to try and understand more about how Klein sees capitalism and the alternative to it. I began The Shock Doctrine expecting to disagree with her analysis of contemporary capitalism. While I did, in places, I found much to agree with in the book, and many astute and important pieces of journalism.

According to Klein the Shock Doctrine is the way that contemporary capitalism uses chaos and disaster to open up markets to privatisation and more extreme exploitation. In her words,
the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane - puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften p whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.
Using examples from 1970s Latin American to Iraq following Bush and Blair's war, to the aftermath of "natural" disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, Klein develops a series of examples that show how capitalism has become adept at utilising the aftermath of shocks to destroy public services, privatise nationalised utilities and open up whole economies to the free market.

Those driving these ideas do not do so, she suggests out of nastiness. But out of a belief that what will improve the world is more free-markets and less state intervention. She looks at the economics of individuals like Milton Friedman who "dreamed of depatterning societies, of returning them to a state of pure capitalism, cleansed of interruptions - government regulations, trade barrier and entrenched interests." Klein frequently uses the analogy of torture, and describes the way that experiments in the 1960s tried to see how humans could be "wiped clean" through sensory deprivation. Such human shocks are a metaphor for what the shock of war, or disaster, might do to societies.

I think she stretches this metaphor too far. Though the chapter on how the CIA developed its torture techniques is truly terrifying, not least because of the role that torture has played in allowing the United States to further the economic ideas of individuals like Friedman.

But we should look at some of the examples that Klein uses. Some of them are simply outrageous. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is relatively well known that the government closed all the public schools and sacked all the teachers, rehiring some on worse contracts and making them teach in new, private schools. Precisely the sort of education that Friedman advocated. What I didn't know is the extent to which right-wing think-tanks then shaped how the government responded. In part this is the way that private enterprise was deployed to "rebuild". But its not just that government money poured into the pockets of companies like Haliburton giving them contracts to do everything from build new hotels or clear up bodies, but also in the way that such ideas encouraged Bush to do things like suspend the laws about low pay in the region.

Significant sections of the book deal with the Iraq debacle. Many of us involved in the anti-war movement at the time suggested that the post-war Iraq would be built up in the interest of US companies and private enterprise, what Klein shows is far worse. The vision of Iraq was of a country wiped clean of its past, built in the image of a neo-liberal utopia, with private schools and malls vying the the oil money that a grateful population would throw.

Klein also examines some historic examples. The way that in Chile in 1973 the money men overthrew the radical socialist (popularly elected) government of Allende and replaced it with the Pinochet regime. Chile became a laboratory for neo-liberal fantasies, though the separation of economic from political meant that many of the Chicago School economists who had encouraged the opening up of Chile's economy could pretend that the "excesses" were nothing to do with them. The screams of the tortured and the tears of those who lost a loved one "disappeared" didn't reach into the ivory towers of Chicago University's economic department.

However Klein's criticism isn't simply at those who caused the horror. Pointedly she also criticises those whose solidarity work only looked at the violence and neglected the wider impact of the free-market policies imposed on the country. For Pinochet to succeed he had to destroy any potential opposition, and once that opposition had disappeared he was able to drive down wages, destroy services, and remove civil liberties. In Amnesty Internationals 92 page report on the Junta,
It offered no comment on the deepening poverty or the dramatic reversal of programs to redistribute wealth, though these were the policy centrepieces of junta rule. It carefully lists all the junta laws and decrees that violated civil liberties but named none of the economic decrees that lowered wages and increases prices, thereby violating the right to food and shelter
This is a central point of Klein's book. She understands that the violence of the "shock" cannot be separated from the violence caused by the economic and political changes that follow, nor the damage caused by the corruption that inevitably follows.

So profitable has the shock doctrine been that some right-wingers inevitably speculate on what could take place if they could control the shock and chaos. Take neo-liberal economist John Williamson. Naomi Klein quotes him
Whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform. For example, it has sometimes been suggest in Brazil that it would be worthwhile stoking up a hyperinflation so as to scare everyone into accepting those changes... Presumably no one with historical foresight would have advocated in the mid-1930s that Germany or Japan go to war in order to get the benefits of the supergrowth that followed their defeat. But could a lesser crisis have served the same function? Is it possible to conceive of a pseudo-crisis that could serve the same positive function without the cost of a real crisis?
Inevitably some suggest that some shocks are deliberate. There are plenty of sites on the internet that argue that 9/11 was an inside job to allow Bush (and by extension Haliburton etc) to get into the Middle East. Klein cautions against this, pointing out that reality doesn't need such conspiracies. The opportunity is always there.

However having said all this I want to add my own note of caution. I am slightly sceptical that the Shock Doctrine is as real as Klein suggests. There is no doubt of course, that the neo-liberal governments that have followed Reagan and Thatcher in the US and Britain have seized every opportunity to impose their vision of a privatised world on the globe. I'm not sure this is any different to what has happened in the past. I'm reminded of the way that British capital entered India, destroyed its markets and impoverished millions in order to expand the profits from its home industry (a story told brilliantly by Mike Davies), or of the way companies have always destroyed competition, used the state to conquer territory or resources or simply changed the world in their own image. Klein herself acknowledged this to a certain extent
The mantra 'September 11 changed everything' neatly disguised the fact that for free-market ideologues and the corporations whose interests they serve, the only thing that changed was the ease with which they could pursue their ambitious agenda.
Secondly I think Klein's alternative is over-simple and doesn't actually guard against the dangers she has so eloquently described. Effectively she argues for a reformist, democratic capitalism, along the lines of Allende's ambition in 1970s Chile, or more recently the radical visions of Latin American governments in Brazil and Venezuela. The problem is that these leave the beast intact. Capitalism will come back and reforms can only blunt its greed. Stopping the neo-liberals means doing more than having friendly left-wing governments. It will mean challenging the system that breeds war and economic crisis.

I also think Klein is weak on the way that "shocks" can demoralise those best placed to stop the imposition of neo-liberal policies. Her example from the UK, where Thatcher used the 1982 Falklands War to destroy the miners and introduce privatization doesn't fit the facts. The War got her elected, but it was the failure of the trade union leadership that ultimately led the miner's strike to defeat - not a shocked union membership who, on the contrary, showed enormous organisation and self-confidence. On several occasions that movement nearly brought down Thatcher, rather than it being a completely one sided victory for neo-liberalism.

Klein celebrates the role of social movements in changing the world and notes how, in places, movements have been able to stop the neo-liberal onslaught. She quotes several South African activists who, with hindsight, note that they lacked an understanding of what capitalism would do to them after the fall of apartheid. For me, this is the key lesson. We need mass anti-capitalist movements that understand the nature of capitalism and the state that protects it, in order to build a new society based on a different economics entirely.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything
Solnit - A Paradise Built in Hell