Friday, July 24, 2015

Richard Holmes - Falling Upwards: How we took to the Air

Richard Holmes' eclectic and slightly random history of the early days of ballooning is one of those books that is read for enjoyment rather than a detailed history of the subject. The early balloons were very limited technically and travelling in one was often a life or death matter. In fact, as a result, ballooning was a popular spectator sport and daredevil performers (frequently women in titillating outfits) often hung from the baskets, spent whole days and nights in them, or performed tricks. The Edwardian "balloon girl" Dolly Shepherd, used to hang on a trapeze at several thousands of feet in altitude before dropping under a parachute. She had many male admirers, though working class women seemed to love her as a "portent of women's rights".

A few individuals saw the potential for scientific investigations from the new flying machines, though unsurprisingly the first real application of the balloon, other than entertainment was military. Two fascinating chapters here deal with the role of the balloon in the American Civil War and during the Prussian siege of Paris (the one that preceded the Paris Commune for my socialist readers). In the former the balloon tended to be used as an observation device, and in the case of the South, a propaganda device. During the 1870 Paris Siege however the balloons took on an enormous propaganda role as they were used to take millions of letters and messages (and the occasional politician) from the besieged city.

France seems to have had a long relationship with the balloon. Poets, scientists and writers (and often combinations of all three) rode them, and fell in love with them. One, Camille Flammarion saw the future in the balloon,
Whither sales this ship? It sails with daylight, clothed,
Towards the Future, pristine and divine; towards the Good,
Towards the shining light of Science seen afar
Writing before the Franco-Prussian war and the military role of balloons, perhaps Flammarion could be forgiven for his belief that the balloon would help bring the shining future closer. Certainly his own travels made him think that the balloon took him to a different place,
This absolute silence is truly impressive; it is the prelude tot that which reigns in the interplanetary space in the midst of which other worlds revolve. The sky here has a tint which we never saw before... Planetary space is absolutely black.
The book ends with the age of exploration, and the Swedish explorer S A Andree, whose doomed trip to try to visit the North Pole relied on scientific and technological innovation over common sense. The three travelers who perished may have inspired and excited the newspaper reading public, but the detailed account in Falling Upwards left me thinking they were publicity obsessed idiots whose faith in engineering was misplaced because it ignored the realities of the natural world.

Holmes' earlier book, The Age of Wonder was a masterful history of the era when science and literature were holding out for a new world, where technology might free human kind. It explored the scientists and their circles striving to understand the cosmos. Falling Upwards covers a similar subject and period, but sadly I found it didn't really hold together as a book and came across as a series of anecdotes not worthy of the book's subtitle, however fascinating they might be.

 Related Reviews

Holmes - Age of Wonder
Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Emma Hughes & James Marriott - All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan

Published just after the European Games took place in Baku in 2015, this little book is a enormous indictment of the Azerbaijan regime, BP and those international politicians that support the government there. The games, along with other recent events, such as the Eurovision Song Contest have little to do with culture or sport, but everything to do with sanitizing the regime to "tell the right story about Azerbaijan and its ruling family".

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyez and his family have grown enormously wealthy off the back of their country's enormous stocks of fossil fuel. The family has been central to the governance of the country going back to the Soviet era, and in the post-USSR world have worked hard to maintain their grip on wealth and power. A key part of this has been building strong links with western governments, in part to promote and encourage political support for Azerbaijan's bid for the European games.
In May 2012 he [Aliyev] met UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In the next six months he made visits to, or invited into the presidential palace, 11 European heads of state. In June... he attended the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. Finally, on 8 December 2012, the president and first lady were in Rome to hear the news that Baku had been chosen... to host the Games.
Aliyev was clear about the importance of the Games, that they were to bolster his country's "international reputation". Azerbaijan's reputation needs some improvement. There are over 100 prisoners of conscience in the country and this book details how those who speak out about human-rights abuses, expose undemocratic practices, or high levels of corruption in the state and the ruling family can find themselves in prison on trumped up charges, or bundled away in a van. Some are found dead. The investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova had a hidden camera installed in her bedroom. A tape of her having sex was published online in an attempt to smear her reputation after she had repeatedly exposed the corruption of the Aliyez family and the way that the country's elite "had grabbed and squandered the country's money".

Behind all of this lies money, and that money stems from oil. The key to this lies in the hands of BP which has, in the words of the authors "cemented" an alliance between "an autocratic family, the demands of capital, fossil fuel dependency and the strategy of a global military power". The authors also make clear that while BP makes money from this relationship, their link to Azerbaijan is crucial in supporting the company as it goes through an enormously difficult period following the ecological disaster of Deep Water Horizon. Those who lose out are the population of Azerbaijan whose country is sucked dry of its mineral wealth and whose freedom, democracy and economy is sacrificed in the name of a few rich individuals.

Despite hopes that the wealth from oil would "liberalise" the country, the opposite has taken place. As one campaigning journalist told the authors of this book,
Before the oil and gas incomes came to Azerbaijan we had more democracy and freedom. The main income from oil came in 2006 when the Baku-Tibilsi-Ceyhan pipeline started to operate. And from that time the situation started to deteriorate. We have problems with journalists, political prisoners, religious believers being arrested - if you criticise the government you can be easily interrogated and prosecuted under fabricated charges.
There is hope. The authors point out that international events like the Euro-Games have provided a platform for activists to highlight the problems, and pressurize foreign governments and corporations. The close relationship between the country and BP is also under pressure as oil prices drop and the relatively expensive oil from the region becomes less attractive. What the future holds is not yet clear, but the authors of this powerful polemic make it very clear that there are many brave activists in Azerbaijan prepared to fight for a better deal for ordinary people. This book is about giving them support and solidarity in that struggle.

Related Reviews

Marriott and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road

Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands
Klare - Blood and Oil
Heinberg - Snake Oil

Sunday, July 19, 2015

R.W. Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the politics of the 1530s

In my review of Geoffrey Moorhouse' book The Pilgrimage of Grace I sketched out the rough history  of the Lincolnshire Rebellion and the Pilgrimage that make up the subject matter of both these books. In this review of Hoyle's book I want to concentrate on the authors discussion of the nature of the rebellion itself.

Hoyle is a master of his sources. Not only has he re-examined the original material but he has a commanding understanding of it. Thus he re-examines much of the contemporary letters and accounts to try to understand the social forces that led to both uprisings. His conclusion is at odds with many historical accounts of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Traditionally it has been seen as a rebellion of the gentry, leading the commons in a conservative attempt to roll back Henry VIII's reformation, defend the monasteries and reassert traditional religious values.

However, Hoyle argues that while some of this is true, at the heart of the rebellion were wider issues that made this an uprising of the commons, in particular the rural masses. But the commons felt they needed the gentry, in part because they lacked a coherent set of demands, but also because they felt that their rebellion was about wider society and the gentry were part of that society.
In the first instance the commons were a crowd, thrilled by the excitement of being gathered together in large numbers, determined that anyone who opposed them should be intimidated into submission... but unclear about tactics. At Louth, perhaps at Horncastle, certainly at Richmond, we see a struggle for control between the original agitators responsible for calling the rebels together and the gentry whom they brought to their musters and whom, in large measure they probably mistrusted. The gentry shaped the revolt by offering it discipline. They changed the composition of the commons by insisting that only a small number drawn from each township or parish went forwards and represented the whole.
Mostly the gentry tried to hold back and disperse the rebellion, in part by delaying tactics, in part by trying to petition the king for pardons and demands that would allow the ruling class to disperse the movement. The king failed to respond in kind, and this led to a major problem for the gentry who were closely associated with the rebellions. In fact, many of the gentry lost their lives as a result of Henry VIII's paranoia. He couldn't see that the gentry were forced into a leadership position by the commons, and had actually tried to undermine the rebellion. Their professions of loyalty during and after the rebellion were rarely enough to save them.

A second key aspect to Hoyle's analysis is that he sees the Pilgrimage of Grace as being different depending on its region. The East Riding rebellion was very much associated with the demands of the Lincolnshire rebels, particularly because of the role of Robert Aske. But the revolt that took place between Ripon and Richmond, spread in the name of "Captain Poverty", "was concerned with agrarian discontents, with tenure, fines and thithes, as well as the suppression of the smaller monasteries and the defence of the church". This is absent in the risings in East Riding.

Because Henry VIII failed to grasp the independent nature of the commons within the Pilgrimage of Grace he found it increasingly difficult to subdue it. The Pilgrims wanted a "dialogue" from their Prince, the King however wanted an end to their rebellion. At the same time, Henry made a series of tactical mistakes in mustering his forces. Had either the Lincolnshire rebels or the Pilgrims challenged the Royal armies in open battle, they may well have won and Henry's position would have been extremely difficult. That the rebels were dispersed is in no small part due to the tactics of the gentry themselves who suceeded where Henry had failed. Aske in particular was able to "sweet talk" the commons into disbanding based on the concessions he felt he had won. In fact these were non-existent and the King had no intention of honouring any pledges, in particular the promise of a parliament.
He [duke of Norfolk] had struck a deal with the leadership of the Pilgrims which they found sufficiently satisfactory to persuade them to disband their movement. The deal relieved them from the threat which the commons posed to them, their families, and property. There could be general satisfaction that a device had been found which allowed the commons to return home with honour. The question which cannot really be answered is how many of the gentry were actually committed to the agreement except as a cynical exercise to disperse the Pilgrims.
Henry VIII was lucky to have such loyalists around him. Their flexibility should have been rewarded. Instead, in many cases, it lead to the executioners bloc.

Hoyle's excellent history of the Pilgrimage of Grace should be read by every student of the subject. It might be seen as revisionist for its attempt to portray the rebellion as larger, wider and more in depth that previously described, but that only serves to underlines its importance as a work of history.

Related Reviews

Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Donny Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War

This review of Fighting on all Fronts was first published in Socialist Review #404, July/August 2015

Next month is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There will be official events, which combine just the right amount of somberness with a celebration of the victory of “democracy” and “freedom” over fascism and tyranny.

But for the rulers of the Allied nations the war was never about democracy or freedom.

In his previous book, A People’s History of the Second World War, Donny Gluckstein argued that what actually took place was two parallel wars: a clash of imperialisms as well as a “People’s War”, fought by ordinary people, mobilised by anti-fascist, democratic sentiments.

Fighting on all Fronts brings together further examples from around the globe. The result is an illuminating book in which different authors highlight forgotten history.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans’s excellent chapter on the Slovak National Uprising describes how 78,000 partisans and soldiers fought fascist Slovakian forces and 48,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops.

We are normally told that the population of Japan blindly followed their leaders. But as the war progressed increasing numbers felt differently.

Sometimes this was on an individual level, like the kamikaze pilot who read Lenin’s State and Revolution secretly in the toilet, and just before his death concluded the war was imperialist. But it was also collective. Thousands of Japanese workers took part in strikes and protests during the war and workers’ mass absenteeism reached the staggering levels of 49 percent after the 1942 bombing of Tokyo.

This forgotten history is important because it challenges contemporary ideology.

Perhaps the most important example of this is Janey Stone’s moving chapter on Jewish resistance. Stone demonstrates that Jews did not just meekly go to their deaths in the gas chambers, but often fought back. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 will be familiar to many readers of Socialist Review from Marek Edelman’s book The Ghetto Fights.

Stone describes other examples such as the Minsk underground resistance, which united Jewish and non-Jewish resistance under Communist leadership. From 1941 it “ran a clandestine press and smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto... Jews and non-Jews both engaged in sabotage within Nazi factories.” Some 10,000 Jews were saved as a result.

Colonial history also affected how the war played out. In South East Asia, European powers had dominated, but other countries wanted to expand their influence. So, for the Chinese, the Second World War began many years before Hitler invaded Poland when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

Tens of millions of Chinese died, and resistance was on an enormous scale. In 1943 the Chinese Communist Red Army was supported by a militia of 7 million with another 12 million in “anti-Japanese associations”.

According to Mao Tse-tung, China’s official leadership the Kuomintang had a “line of oppressing the Chinese people and carrying on a passive resistance”, compared to the “Chinese people’s line of becoming awakened and united to wage a people’s war”.

Every chapter in this book illuminates further the central contradiction of the Second World War, but I am not convinced that this all fits neatly into the idea of “parallel wars”. Frequently the struggles influenced each other — Churchill and Roosevelt needed to talk about “freedom” to motivate the masses to fight.

Yet this rhetoric encouraged their soldiers (and the partisans listening on radios around the world) to believe that a different world was possible. As Gluckstein himself notes, “In two broad arcs stretching from Beijing through Hanoi to Jakarta and Delhi and then from Athens through Belgrade to northern Italy and Paris the masses, many of them armed, were challenging for control.”

But at times the war was even more complex. The struggle in Burma was simultaneously a battle for liberation from Japanese occupation and from pre-war British rule. This meant that the Burmese freedom fighters fought with both the British and the Japanese at different times.

But there was also a conflict within the Burmese ruling class with some wanting to return to the old colonial arrangement, others to fight for independence in which they would benefit.

Gluckstein summarises “The People’s War” as amounting to “a rejection of capitalist imperialism and imperialist capitalism”. I think the processes are more complex than this.

I was struck, for instance, by the story of the Australian troops who cheered Stalin every time he appeared in newsreels, not out of ideological conviction, but simply because it annoyed their officers.

In some parts of the world the war did lead to revolutionary moments. Elsewhere resistance movements failed to reach such heights, took the road of anti-colonial nationalism, or were suppressed by the Allies.

I don’t have to space to highlight other excellent chapters such as that on neutral Ireland, the Netherlands, or the mass struggle in the Philippines. I can only encourage readers to get hold of this book and read it.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Heartfield - An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War
Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts on Minds

Other reviews of books by Donny Gluckstein

Gluckstein - Tragedy of Bukharin
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Christopher Hill - The Century of Revolution

Christopher Hill's history of the English Revolution and its aftermath The Century of Revolution was first published in 1961. Reading it over 50 years later I was repeatedly impressed by how modern and relevant it felt. Extremely readable, accessible and surly a definitive history it ought to be read by everyone trying to understand the origins of capitalism and the revolutionary break with the past that English society took in the 17th century.

This debate remains important. Hill was arguing that the English Civil War was only the military expression of the revolutionary changes sweeping England. That there was even a revolutionary transformation is now controversial. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the generally accepted view was that a revolution had taken place in England in the 17th century, there have been attempts by a variety of right-wing academics and historians to role this back. Much of their ammunition has been used on the works of Hill and those influenced by him, in order to demonstrate the continuity of the past, and thus the present.

Hill's book is somewhat unorthodox. He dispenses with the narrative approach, breaking up the 17th century into periods, the run up to the Civil War, the period of rebellion and the Interregnum, followed by the restoration and the aftermath of the "Glorious" revolution. Each section of this is further broken down - beginning with a narrative, then looking at politics, industry, economics and so on. Its a useful method and helps to show Hill's main thesis. That there was an English Revolution and it did usher in a world were capitalism could reign.

Hill begins by noting that the Stuart monarchy actually restricted the growth of industry,
In so far as Stuart government had anything which could be described as an economic policy, it was to support the monopoly London export companies against interlopers, to slow down industrial development and control it through gilds and monopolies, to suppress middlemen.
Nonetheless, industry and trade grew. So by the beginnings of the Civil War period (indeed much earlier in London) merchants were frequently richer than the gentry. But this trade was of interest to the crown only in that it raised revenue. They had no interest in expanding trade. Thus a new class was growing, frustrated and angry at a monarchy that failed to support and encourage them. As Hill explains
So there were many economic reasons for opposing the government. Industrialists, merchants and corn-growers wanted freer trade, less government regulation, no monopolies; gentlemen wanted to escape from the burdens of wardship, feudal tenures, and forest laws; and to be given a freer hand to enclose and bring fresh land under cultivation. 
Hill quotes a Professor Stone, who notes the way that this was changing society
Economic developments were dissolving old bonds of service and obligation and creating new relationships founded on the operations of the market... The domestic and foreign policies of the Stuarts were failing to respond to these changing circumstances. 
The defeat of Charles I and the new government under Cromwell began transforming this situation completely. Industry and trade were encouraged. This is not surprising, Parliament's support was highest in areas were industry and agriculture dominated local economics, indeed one of Hill's maps makes this very clear. The social changes were significant. The first business of the new parliament in 1660 was to convert Royalist lands to freehold, encouraging the purchase and sale of this land. The importance of this was
Unconditional ownership and transmission of landed property was one essential for planned long-term capital investment in agricultural improvements. The other was that copyholders... should not win absolute rights in their holdings, particularly not an absolute right of inheritance, but could be evicted by landlords who wished to enclose or consolidate.
While Hill notes that there wasn't a social revolution in the English countryside comparable to what took place during the French Revolution, the countryside began to be altered fundamentally in order to allow a new way of organising agriculture that would conclude with the transformation of the peasantry into wage-labourers, either in the rural or urban areas. This process may have been a long, drawn out one, but as Hill says it was now "inevitable".

Hill explains all the other ways in which industry, commerce and trade were encouraged and expanded during the Interregnum. Nonetheless Hill characterises the revolution as "very incomplete". Enormous changes took place, economically, politically, religiously. But
The country had managed to get on without King, Lords, and Bishops; but it could never henceforth be ruled without the willing co-operation of those whom the House of Commons represented.... Nevertheless, an incomplete revolution. In 1644 George Wither had recommended wholesale confiscation of the lands of royalists, with the deliberate object of 'making them peasants'. But nothing of the sort occurred.... A society of the career open to the talents was not established. There was no lasting extension of redistribution of the franchise, no substantial legal reform. The transfers of property did not benefit the smaller men, and movements to defend their economic position all came to nothing. Tithes and a state Church survived; religious toleration ended (temporarily) in 1660. Dissenters were driven out of political life for a century and a half.
Those who argued for a new, democratic, world were defeated as Cromwell changed tack and consolidated the revolution in the interests of the new bourgeoisie. And despite the restoration of the monarchy there was no going back. New methods of taxation were kept by the new monarch and many laws of the Interregnum which were abolished were remade by the end of the century.

This wasn't just in the realm of economics. The 1689 Toleration Act, Hill writes, "finally killed the old conception of a single state Church... The attempt to punish 'sin' by judicial process was virtually abandoned. The laity had won its centuries long struggle against the Church courts." As Hill concludes, "in this respect too the Middle Ages were over".

Despite its relatively short length this work manages to convey the sweeping transformation of English society. The revolutionary years transformed the social, political and economic landscape, on the back of changes that had been developing for decades. But it took the revolutionary act of war, then the abolition of the monarchy to make these changes concrete. Once the changes had occurred the new class that held power could welcome back the monarch, but on a very different set of agreements to previously. The world was now open for fully fledged capitalism to develop and there was nothing that King or Queen could do to stop it.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman