Wednesday, December 28, 2016

GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery

GRAIN is a non-profit campaigning organisation that supports small farmers, peasant movements and fights for a more socially just agricultural food system. It has been at the forefront of these movements and has produced some important studies into the nature of modern agriculture and how that impacts on farmers, communities and the wider ecological systems. As such this book is a welcome addition to the literature that is attempting to understand how modern agriculture drives climate change and is impacted by it.

Agriculture today is a prime driver of environmental destruction.
Food is the world's biggest economic sector, involving more transactions and employing more people by far than any other. These days food is prepared and distributed using enormous amounts of processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generation GHG emissions... With transportation accounting for 25 per cent of global GHG emissions, we can use the EU data to conservatively estimate that the transport of food accounts for at least six per cent of global GHG emissions.
GRAIN continue by highlighting the waste of the agricultural systems, the emissions from processing, packaging, deforestation, and way that the destruction of soil is helping driving climate change.
A wide range of scientific reports indicate that cultivated soils have lost between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of their organic matter during the 20th century, while soils under pastures and prairies have typically lost up to 50 per cent. There is not doubt these losses have provoked a serious deterioration of soil fertility and productivity, as well as worsening droughts and floods.... it can be estimate that at least 200 to 300 billion tonnes of CO2 have been released to the atmosphere due to the global destruction of soil organic matter. In other words, 25 per cent to 40 per cent of current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the destruction of soils and its organic matter.
GRAIN argue that what needs to happen is a complete transformation of the food system in a way that puts the "world's small farmers" back in the driving seat and limits the influence and power of the massive agricultural corporations that push fossil fuel intensive monoculture farming as the alternative. GRAIN writes that there are three shifts that need to occur:
The first is a shift to local markets and short-circuits of food distribution, which will cut back on transportation and the need for packaging, processing and refrigeration. The second is a reintegration of crop and animal production, to cut back on transportation, the use of chemical fertilisers and the production methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by intensive meat and dairy operations. And the third is the stopping of land clearing and deforestation...
But this is not a manifesto for "eat local". GRAIN understand that the changes needed involve the complete transformation of the food system and a struggle against the multinationals. This is not simply about individuals eating better, but requires "a structural scaling back of 'Big Food' and 'Big Retail' and those who finance them". Interestingly GRAIN also do not fall into the trap that has become all to prevalent within the environmental movement recently in arguing that everyone needs to stop eating meat to save the planet.

The scale of corporate influence is enormous. Since the 1960s, an area roughly the size of the European Union has been given over to just four crops, soybean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugarcane. But these crops are not about feeding people, they are about maximising "return on investment". In contrast, despite the pressures from corporate farming, small farmers continue to provide most of the food that people need. Partly because they are more productive when compared to monocropped giant farms, and partly because they are focused on feeding local communities, not maximising profits. GRAIN conclude:
The data shows that the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry each day.
Most of this book focuses on the way that the interests of the food multinationals is facilitated and protected by national governments and international legislation. An emphasis on the increase in free trade and removing barriers to the operation of corporations dominates legislation such as TTIP. The World Bank, the IMF and other institutions have driven policies in the last forty years that have decimated small farmers in the interests of multinationals. In several of these essays GRAIN explores how this has taken place. Excellent chapters on REDD+ and GMOs show how feeding the world and reducing emissions has become secondary to profits. Indeed, despite claims that neo-liberal policies would reduce malnutrition and ensure food security, the opposite has happened:
global supply chains make consumers more susceptible to food contamination. A small farm that produces some bad meat will have a relatively small impact. A global system built around geographically concentrated factory-sized farms does the opposite: it accumulates and magnifies risk, subjecting particular areas to industrial-style pollution and consumers globally to poisoned products.
This book covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and my copy is covered in highlights and pencil markings. In terms of a polemic against the role of corporate power in the agricultural system, and an emphasis on the importance of bottom up farming, it's one of the best I've ever read. I did feel that it was limited in an argument about what can be done. For instance, I felt that some more detailed examples of the way that, even within the limits of the capitalist system, peasant struggles for food sovereignty and over land ownership can bring real victories would have been useful. Ending corporate influence will however mean much more than a few such victories - it will mean dismantling the multinationals and the governments that support them. Campaigning against TTIP and other trade "deals" is important, but we must go further. Increasingly as capitalism leads us towards climate disaster, our movements will have to challenge the system, rather than just the symptoms. This is the logical conclusion of GRAIN's detailed work, but it isn't reflected within the book.

I wish I had had a chance to read The Great Climate Robbery when writing my own piece on Food, Agriculture and Climate Change for International Socialism. In that piece I tried to explore further how workers and peasants might struggle for a more sustainable food system. GRAIN's work underlines the importance of that struggle and I encourage people to read it.

Support independent left-wing publishing and book selling. Buy The Great Climate Robbery here.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christopher Hill - Liberty Against the Law

How did the rise of capitalism in England affect those communities whose lives were not previously dominated by the capitalist mode of production? What did the ruling class need to do to ensure that private property was protected from those who had little or none? How did people try to resist, or adapt to these changes? These are the important themes in Christopher Hill's book Liberty Against the Law.

Hill argues that for capitalism to develop the system, or rather those within the system who governed and ruled it, needed to put in place a set of laws and regulations that undermined old traditions, laws and customs which dated back to "time immemorial" and impose a new set of rules that better fitted the new order.

An infamous example of this, studied at length in a number of chapters here, was the 1723 "Black Act". This Act criminalized poaching and severely restricted the rights that the rural population had to utilize the free nature that was around them - from the hunting of deer and rabbits to the wider use of the forests. This act, Hill argues, was "part of a single policy, consequent on Parliament's victory of 1688-9, of making the world safe for English merchants and landlords to increase in wealth and so to contribute to the new power of the English state".

The victory of Parliament over the Crown was crucial as it meant that the new ruling class, dominated by the interests of merchants and landowners, could set about constructing a new order that benefited them and as Hill argues, "the most important liberty to be defended was the sanctity of private property". But while Parliament changed laws that benefited those with property, it refused to abolish those rules that hit the poor.

Parliament refused to abolish tithes; big landowners voted security of tenure for themselves by abolishing feudal tenures and the Court of Wards but specifically refused to grant similar security to copy-holders. Such changes in the law as occurred between 1641 and the early eighteenth century increased popular hostility towards it. Why should the lower classes respect laws which asserted property rights against traditional popular customs in the villages?

At the same time, the countryside was being transformed in the interest of capital and landowners. Enclosure was consolidating land into the hands of the wealthier section of the population. Peasants were being driven off their traditional lands and common rights were being destroyed. Villages were increasingly polarised. Not everything was down to economics, but all of it had a common aim, the recreation of society in the image best suited to capitalism. Acts enforced a particular type of marriage, over the relative freedom hitherto enjoyed by the rural poor. Nature was commodified, land parcelled up.

Resistance took many forms. Riot, protest, petition were all common, as were songs and ballads that denounced the new order. Radicals interpreted the bible and then fought for the right to worship in their own way. Pirates replaced the violence and terror of the Navy with the liberty and democracy of self-organised vessels. Smugglers (poor man's pirates) avoided tax and helped keep prices low for the poor. Poachers risked judicial murder to provide cheap meat for their families and communities, and on occasion, fought pitched battles with the hired thugs of capital. Hill studies all these groups and charts popular attitudes through the poetry, plays and songs of the times. It's a fascinating examination of the period, perhaps merely a century in length, when the capitalist state was created and consolidated.

Related Reviews

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

Hill - The Century of Revolution
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ian Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf

The story of the French Revolution has been the subject of countless books and articles, but the story of Gracchus Babeuf has rarely been told in the English language, so this reprint of Ian Birchall's 1997 book looking at the French revolutionary is enormously welcome.

Babeuf was, in his own words, "born in the mud" and was approaching his thirties when the Revolution broke out. In the political and economic instability of the era, Babeuf began to develop his own radical ideas. A voracious reader, Birchall explains that a key influence for Babeuf, and many other radicals at the time, was the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Babeuf began to go much further, and his ideas develop in ways that few others would take for many years. For instance Babeuf's views on women's equality which were rooted in his deep commitment to "human equality" where far ahead of other thinkers at the time:
Babeuf's belief in the equality of women, and his insistence that the differences between the sexes were rooted in education, not nature, set him apart from almost all the other thinkers of the revolutionary period... who stuck much more closely to Rousseau's belief in the subordination of women. It is not simply chance that Babeuf's considerations on women and collective farms should come in the same letter. By proposing collective production he was breaking with the model of the family as a unit of production... It was this... that enabled him to envisage the true equality of women.
Another example is Babeuf's firm and principled position on anti-Semitism, setting himself apart of many others at the time.
Time "to shake off the fanatical prejudices which for so long have made this peaceful people the unfortunate victim of persecutions by all sects".
Through his writings and his (mostly short-lived) newspapers, Babeuf began to build up a network of other radicals who were, to a greater or lesser extent, linked to his own ideas. Some of these would help to form the basis for the famous "conspiracy of the equals", a still-born attempt to take the Revolution to a new level in the aftermath of the Terror. Babeuf's vision was a world of freedom and equality, an era of "common happiness".

I was struck by the parallels with another great, and often forgotten revolutionary - Gerrard Winstanley. Both of them were revolutionaries who were developing their own independent ideas in the midst of periods of great social and political upheaval. Both were self-taught and both felt that their revolutions had stalled, or failed to go far enough. As a result, both attempted to take things further - Winstanley through a piece of direct action designed to usher in a new order; Babeuf through a conspiracy designed to transform the top of the revolution and pull the rest of the population in behind. Missing for both Winstanley and Babeuf was the "agency" that could radically change society.

Birchall points out that Babeuf was "clearly groping towards a concept of class struggle, although often he saw it merely in terms of rich and poor". Unlike Winstanley though, Babeuf did live when there was a growing section of society, the working class, who would become the force that could create a new world. But though the workers collectively weren't yet strong enough they did play a significant role in events during Babeuf's lifetime. It's noticeable, for instance, that Babeuf's writings were popular among some of the larger factories.

Because the workers were not yet a class for themselves, Babeuf did not yet have the language of class struggle that later thinkers like Marx and Engels would develop. But he clearly was groping his way towards it. There is a lovely quote from Babeuf that Birchall uses which gives us an indication of where Babeuf was heading. Among supporters of the French Republic there were two groups:
One wants the republic of a million, which was always the enemy, the dominator, the extortionist, the oppressor, the leech of the twenty-four million others; the million which has revelled for centuries in idleness, at the expense of our sweat and labour; the other party wants the republic for these twenty-four million, who have laid the foundations and cemented them with their blood, who nourish and support the fatherland, supply all its needs, and defend it and die for its safety and glory.
Elsewhere Birchall points out Babeuf was coming to view a future society that was moving away from the "Communism of Distribution" that characterised the Utopia of visionaries like Winstanley, towards a "Communism of Production" that would be closer to that of 19th and 20th century revolutionaries. As one of Babeuf's contemporaries summarised,
What do we mean by community of labour? Do we want all citizens to be tried to the same occupations? No; but we want the various tasks to be divided so as to leave not a single able-bodied person idle; we want the increase in the number of workers to guarantee public abundance, while diminishing individual effort; in return we want everyone to receive from the nation enough to satisfy their natural needs and the small number of artificial needs that all can satisfy.
Babeuf's conspiracy of the equals was stopped before it went anywhere. Birchall argues that it was much better planned and organised, and supported than many historians have given credit for. Certainly Babeuf and his co-conspirators, came close to winning the case that ultimately led to the execution of some of the revolutionaries. Sadly Babeuf is probably remembered too often for this conspiracy, in which he displayed some niavety and was the culmination act or a group of radicals who did not yet understand the ability of the working class to change the world, and themselves, but operating in a world were the working class had not developed enough.

But Babeuf deserves to be remembered for so much more. In fact, as the author points out, the tragedy is that Babeuf was executed in 1797 at only 36. Where his thinking and political activism had gone had he not been found guilty of conspiracy we can only speculate, but reading this biography one feels that it might have been quite profound. Nonetheless, as Ian Birchall's excellent book shows us, we still have much to learn from the revolutionary life of Gracchus Babeuf.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Jaures - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Andrew Charlesworth - An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900

Rebecca rioters in 1843
This short "atlas" describing rural protests is a surprisingly useful book for those trying to understand the dynamics of protest in Britain's rural areas and, in particular, how communities responded to the development of the capitalist mode of production and the changes that took place in the countryside as a result. The book is broken up into small sections, many authored by key historians of the subject. In fact many of the authors within have had other works reviewed on this book, or have written key texts on their subject I'll get around to sooner or later. Some of the links are below.

The book focuses on what are described as "direct collective action", such as mass protests, food riots, demonstrations and so on. These range from riots against high prices of food, to demonstrations against militia recruitment and turnpikes. The book covers many forgotten events (who today has heard of the Midlands Revolt of 1607, or the 1596 rising?) but sometimes is short on detail. One thing that does come across though is that despite the beliefs of the authorities at the time or often simple analysis by historians since, most rural "direct collective action" was not simply blind rage and frustration and landowners or the wealthy. Many of the protests were heavily organised attempts to protect the interests of the mass of the rural population, to fight unjust laws and pricing, or even to protest at symbols of wealth that represented the enforced changes communities were experiencing.

One of the latter examples is the sustained protests that took place from 1640 to 1740 which targeted deer parks. In part these were protests against the loss of land or access to common rights. But mostly:
Where forest communities opposed the presence of deer parks, they were resisting the social and economic repercussions of landscapes created for pleasure and social prestige. Indeed, deer parks were singled out for attack immediately before and during the Civil War partly because they were symbols of aristocratic power.
These protests often involved hundreds of individuals and lead to the loss of thousands of deer. Many of the parks never recovered.

While the book has much of interest and is a good summary of events like the Rebecca Riots or the Swing protests, I found the maps confusing and of little use - not least because they were often based on limited knowledge. That said, this is a key work for those, like myself, immersing themselves in this topic.

Related Reviews

Turner - Enclosures in Britain 1750 - 1830
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For

Monday, December 05, 2016

David Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave

This fascinating book is an attempt to answer a surprisingly complex question. Why did our Paleolithic ancestors make cave art? The beautiful images reproduced here frequently show a startling attention to detail, use of colour, the natural shape of the rocks and were often made in near complete darkness. But why was this done? David Lewis-Williams argues that this was not art in the sense that we understand it. Nor was it necessarily representational, but the art filled a social function for the communities that made the images.

Lewis-Williams begins with a fascinating history of the study of these images. I was surprised to find how important Marxism had been to this study, and the author's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, including that of famous thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss is a useful introduction to their ideas.

Lewis-Williams argues that while art varies in terms of meaning and use through history, and indeed how we perceive things such as the colour spectrum is socially determined, there is one universal for anatomically modern humans, which is that we all (and we all have) experience a the same "full spectrum of consciousness". Describing the various stages that people go through in altered consciousness states, Lewis-Williams points out that "all people experience the states characteristic of the autistic trajectory. And they experience them in terms of their own culture and value system; this is what has been called the 'domestication of trance'."

Lewis-Williams argues that this means that we can trace some universals to the images on cave-walls, and understand them in terms of how various cultures have related to states of altered consciousness. Discussing the San people who made rock painting into the modern time, as part of  shamanistic religion, he points out that
Much of the painted and engraved imagery, even that which appears relastic' is shot through with these metaphors and shows signs of having been 'processed' by the human mind as it shifted back and forth along the spectrum of consciousness. The same metaphors necessarily structured the explanations of images that San people provided. The San explained the images in their own terms, not the languages of anthropologists.
So the images made by the San people represented things that meant some thing to them collectively, which is not necessarily the same thing that we might "see" when we look at them. But because altered states, or trances, produced visions that the mind interprets in terms of how the world is understood, the images painted would be of things (or shapes) that originated in their world view.
Art, cosmos and spiritual experience coalesced. The San fused the 'abstract' experiences of altered states with the materiality of the world in which they lived.
So the paintings made in the "social space" of the caves were the result of interactions between the social ideas of the group and their world-view. Lewis-Williams argues that this meant that the images were more than images, they were insights into a spirit world, or actual embodiments of that world over-lapping with the contemporary world. He writes that a "set of animals already carried... symbolic meaning for west European anatomically modern communities. It now became important for those people to fix their images of another world, belief in which was one of the key traits that distinguished them from the Neanderthals."

Lewis-Williams argues that it was the process of doing this, creating the art, that paved the way for new social relations that "we consider fully modern". I remained unconvinced by this conclusion, as I think the "images" are more likely to represent the cultural output of a community and thus reflect social relations rather than create them. But as Lewis-Williams correctly points out, we cannot every know a correct answer when trying to understand what the images mean. His book however is a fascinating insight into the reasons that humans have created cave-art and painting through history and by hunter-gatherer communities in modern times. It is well worth a read.

Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice: A Global Human History
Stringer - The Origin of Our Species

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

J.J.Jusserand - English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages

English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages was first published in 1889. As a work of historical investigation it wouldn't pass a modern editor's test, but as a work of literature it is a marvellous read. Filled with anecdotes, songs, poetry and obscure facts this is a piece of work that allows the reader to imagine life in the Middle Ages in a way that most academic writing fails to do. How many history books include a section on "buffoons" for instance?

Its commonly believed that people in the Middle Ages rarely travelled very far. Perhaps that's true for the bulk of the population, but even those peasants tied to the land and the land owner, had to travel at least some distance. Anyone who'd been conscripted into the army would have seen some of England and possibly some of the continent. But even trips to market could mean journey's of dozens of miles. But other parts of the population, and not just the rich, travelled far. The rich might travel great distances, Jusserand notes that bridge and road upkeep was an enormous problem that had to be regularly solved out of military necessity and royal pleasure who, when hawking, "did not want to be stopped when following their birds by a broken bridge, and they would order the commonalty, whether or not it was bound to do so, to make prompt repairs in view of their coming."

That said, the state of the infrastructure was appalling:
Though there were roads, though land was burdened with service for their support, though laws from time to time recalled their obligations to the owners of the soil, though the private interest of lords and of monks, in addition to the interest of the public,m gave occasion to reparation now and then, the fate of the traveller in a snowfall or in a thaw was very precarious. Well might the Church have pity on him and include him... among the unfortunates whom she recommended to the daily prayers of pious souls.
Along these treacherous roads travelled traders and merchants, peddlers, musicians, tumblers, messengers and those fleeing justice. Each of these groups is examined in turn, Jusserand having a talent for finding references in obscure medieval accounts, laws and poetry and song. Of particular interest to me where two sections, one dealing with itinerant preachers who were often, like John Ball in the run up to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, to be found travelling the lands and were the subject of restrictions in the aftermath of the rebellion.
Men able to address a crowd scoured the country, drawing together the poor and attracting them by harangues filled with what people who suffer always like to hear... Their dress even and manner of speech are described; these malcontents have an austerer aspect, they go 'from county to county, and from town to town in certain habits under dissimulation of great holiness.'... Their real subject is not dogma, but the social question.
 The second fascinating section was the chapter on pilgrims and pilgrimages. Here we get a real sense of sheer numbers of people moving about to visit shrines and holy places, in England and abroad. Tens of thousands went to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett. But hundreds travelled to the Middle East, to Jerusalem, and again, not just the wealthy. Jusserand notes that guilds often included allowances for those going on pilgrimages to receive money and support from their funds. Pilgrims would return with outrageous tales, mementos and souvenirs. We can laugh at the distorted account of one pilgrim of what an elephant looked like, but these stories clearly reached thousands of people when the travellers returned. Reading these accounts I wondered to what extent the rest of the world was an alien place to the person in the Middle Ages? Many people would have known someone who had been abroad and returned to tell their stories. William Wey travelled twice to the Holy Land. On his final return he gave his souvenirs - a stone from Calvary, one from the Sepulchre, another from Mount Tabor and one from the hill where Christ's cross had stood - to a local church. Perhaps by this gift he was trying to make others feel part of his own travels, and give them share in the experience.

Jusserand concludes that the existence of a travelling culture like he describes ensured that England didn't see revolution like France had experienced. That's a step to far, but shouldn't divert from the enjoyment that this book will give its readers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Michael Turner - Enclosures in Britain: 1750-1830

In Capital Karl Marx denounced the enclosure of common lands as a crime: "The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people."

This robbery, the destruction of common lands in the interest of landlords, laid the basis for the capitalist economic system. Marx continued:
The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat.
For many historians of the left, such as the Hammonds and EP Thompson, this sort of analysis became the natural approach to the question of enclosure. Yet there have been a series of revisionist attempts, starting the 1940s to challenge these conclusions. This short book then, is a useful over-view of both the history of enclosure and the historiography of the subject.

Enclosure itself varied dramatically over time and geographically across the British Isles. There were two particular peaks - before 1780 and during the wars with France after the Revolution. But there was also variation in which areas were enclosed, related to the soil and the potential land use. These changes themselves had links to changing diets, the growth of urban, industrial areas and so on.

Turner argues that enclosure was a much more complex process than often understood, one that had the intention of improving agriculture and profits, but should not necessarily be understood as a deliberate attempt to capitalise agriculture. That said, at least some 19th century commentators saw things in this vein. Turner quotes the President of the Board of Agriculture, Sir John Sinclair, in 1803, "Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt, or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath, let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement".

After 1700 Turner concludes that "enclosure by agreement" was limited, "Parliamentary enclosure" becoming the most important (if not the most dominant) form of enclosure. In studying why, Turner overturns some cherished ideals. For instance he argues that the costs of enclosure where much higher than has previously been acknowledged though these costs were disproportionately higher for smaller and poorer landowners.

The understanding that costs of enclosure were higher have led, Turner argues, to a new recognition of the "social repercussions of enclosure".
In general... it looks as though there was a considerable turnover in landowning personnel. Even if there was not a decrease in the numbers of landowners, and in particular in the numbers of the smaller owner-occupiers, the epitome of the independent peasant class, nevertheless many of these owners sold up at or shortly after enclosure. They were replaced by... people from their own agricultural and social class... Small owners also had difficulty in meeting enclosure expenses and often sold up at enclosure. 
Turner concludes then, that this
brings into fresh focus the appearance of a landless labour force to fuel the fire of industrialisation, especially if enclosure improved labour productivity rather than extended labour opportunities. ... Notwithstanding the demographic revolution which was in train and creating more hands than could be gainfully employed in an improved agricultural industry, enclosure is again under scrutiny as a possible contributor to the industrial labour force.
Turner's short but wide-ranging book then points out the limitations of an earlier generation of enclosure historians, but through an examination of more contemporary studies, finds that their conclusions about the consequences of enclosure and the political/economic situation that drove enclosure, were generally correct.

This short book was published in 1984 so there have been many studies and books that have looked at this since, but this will provide a useful basis for understanding that work and the debates that have taken place on the subject. [1]

[1] A very recent examination of this subject and of Michael Turners' book is Michael Zmolek's Rethinking the Industrial Revolution p272-274, though Zmolek incorrectly cites Turners' work as being published in 1968.

Related Reviews

Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Horn - The Rural World - 1780 - 1850
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Sunday, November 13, 2016

David Underdown - Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660

The English Civil War was not simply the story of a series of sieges, set piece battles and skirmishes. It was a revolutionary conflict that split England many ways. Large numbers of books have been written exploring the way that the War and Revolution allowed an explosion of radical ideas and groups, involved the mass of the urban population in resisting the King and popular politics. Fewer however have explored the impact of those tumultuous years on the wider English population. David Underdown's classic study explores this topic and seeks to understand why it was that different areas of the population reacted in different ways.

Underdown argues that root of these different regional reactions lies in the differences between arable areas of England:
By the early seventeenth century important social differences were emerging between English pasture and arable regions. These in turn were reflected in cultural differences which help to explain the varying responses of those regions to civil war. Political attitudes are a part of culture, part of that 'historically transmitted patter of meaning embodied in symbols... by means of which men communicate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life'.
This is the basis for Underdown's argument, and I'll have more to say on this in a moment. But it is worth noting that whatever you might think about the author's thesis, his study of the cultural changes, political attitudes and social life of the population is both encyclopedic and extremely illuminating. This was a period when established ideas of religion, politics and sexual roles were being strained and even breaking. In his discussion on the increasing concern with "unruly women" shown in local court reports from 1560 to 1640, Underdown notes:
It may seem odd to place the witch in the category of independent women, the typical suspect being usually old and powerless. But wichcraft fantasies were often a response of the powerless to isolation and oppression that were both social and sexual in origin. Parallels between witchcraft and scolding were not lost on contemporaries: the chief fault of witches, Reginald Scot observed, 'is that they are scolds'. The scold who cursed a more fortunate neighbour and the witch who cast a spell were both rebelling against their assigned places in the social and gender hierarchies.... evidence suggest[s] that a perceived threat to patriarchal authority in the years around 1600 was a major feature of the 'crisis of order'.
This is just one of many fascinating insights into the changes taking place in English society during the period covered. But lets' look a little more at what Underdown argues about the differences between the two regions.
The parishes of the clothing districts were more divided and less cohesive than their counterparts in other regions - divided physically (because they were so often larger in area), divided socially (because of the influx of poor), and divided in religion (because of the frequent presence of knots of Puritan reformers)_. Their parish elites had the same preoccupations with order - with achieving a reformed, disciplined, industrious community - as their urban counterparts... And in the clothing region the elites were more often united. 
He continues later
But if we look beyond these local variations, the overall patterns of regional contrast ar clear enough. The cultures of the major regions were diverging as their social structures were diverging, during the half-century before the civil war. In the clothing parishes of the Wiltshire cheese country and in Somerset north and east of the Mendips, the those of Puritanism was coming to be shared not only the substantial middling sort, but by man of the smaller property-owners and better off craftsmen as well. They never succeeded in eliminating completely the disorderly recreation still popular among younger people and the poor, but because of the breadth of Puritanism's appeal they were more successful than their less numerous, more isolated counterparts in more traditional areas. Even the undisciplined poorer folk of the cheese country, their rituals suggest, shared some elements of the more individualistic outlook of their superiors, through they also retained highly conservative notions of how society and the family out to be ordered. In south Somerset, Blackmore Vale, the Wiltshire and Dorset downlands, a less polarized, more cohesive, somewhat more deferential form of society survived. So, inevitably, did older conceptions of good neighbourhood and community and the festive customs in which they were articulated. These cultural contrasts are essential to an understanding of popular politics...
As these long quotes suggest, Underdown is arguing that the development of new forms of agriculture and the diverging types of production between regions was shaping new ways of viewing the world and leading (at all levels in society) to different ideas, customs and culture. By the time of the Civil War, with society in general polarising (and as Underdown notes the common people 'taking sides')  these cultural differences settled out into antagonistic positions. In the more conservative areas Royalist ideas and support flourished, and in others support grew for Parliament. Underdown is careful not to suggest that this was either automatic, or completely uniform. Local differences (such as the political interests of a local landlord, the attitude of a respected clergyman or the behaviour of an invading army) made a real difference.

Strangely though Underdown argues that the different cultures of the regions, "related to different stages of social and economic development... does NOT imply a reductionist resort to economic determinism" (my emphasis). He then shows how some towns and areas which had more developed clothing industries were traditionally culturally conservative. The problem I think is that Underdown's ideas work when (in his words) areas are "viewed from a greater distance". The more focused the study becomes the more opportunity there is for localised variation. There was a constant dynamic between local ideas and national politics.

So Underdown's main thesis is not without value, but it was hard to isolate precisely what he is concluding. Ultimately though, the end of the civil war period saw the growing breakdown of collective, communal rights and the growing domination of individualistic ownership of land and property. This process was uneven, drawn out and frequently resisted. While I found it frustratingly unclear in places, Underdown provides some stimulating ideas. Alongside this is a wealth of detailed information of particular locations and struggles which will provide the reader many fascinating insights.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England
Carlin - Causes of the English Civil War
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Michael Roberts - The Long Depression

Michael Roberts' The Long Depression is an accessible and important work of Marxist political economy. I'd rank it close to Chris Harman's Zombie Capitalism for activists trying to understand the current state of the world economy and what may happen to capitalism in the coming years.

Roberts' book is an attempt to explain the economic crisis that began in 2008 with the banking crisis and has now become a "long depression". He argues that mainstream economists cannot explain it properly, because they see the capitalism economic system as a stable one that is merely subject to external shocks of various sorts. In contrast, Marxist political economy sees the system as one that is inherently unstable, subject to regular economic crisis.

At the core of his argument is a reassertion of the importance of the falling rate of profit, something Marx put as the central cause of economic crisis. Firstly Roberts argues that Marx's "law" is "logically consistent", and then shows that it fits the reality of capitalism. So:
The US rate of profit has been falling since the mid-1950s and is well below where it was in 1947. There has been a secular decline... Thus the counteracting factors cannot permanently resist the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But the US rate of profit has not moved in a straight line. In the US economy as a whole after the war, it was high but decreasing in the so-called Golden age from 1948 to 1965, Profitability kept falling also from 1965 to 1982. However, in the era of what is called 'neoliberalism,' from 1982 to 1997, US profitability rose.
Following Marx, Roberts shows how there are factors that counter the tendency of the profit rate to fall, and these are at the heart of his explanation of why the economic crisis of 2008 has become a long depression. Capital is currently unable to restore profit rates, and thus move out of depression.

Roberts demonstrates the value of Marx's approach by explaining historic slumps and depressions. He shows how the rate of profit's decline was the root cause of these, even though the actual trigger for crisis varies.
The trigger in 2008 was the huge expansion of fictitious capital that eventually collapsed when real value expansion could no longer sustain it, as the ratio of house prices to household income reached extremes. But such 'triggers' are not causes. Behind them is a general cause of crisis: the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Failing to understand this helps explain why mainstream economists have failed both in terms of their explanation of crisis but also in their ability to solve the depression. Robert systematically exposes them, in particular he is critical of "Keynesian economists" who see state investment as a solution to the situation.
For orthodox Keynesians, a slump is due to the collapse in aggregate or effective demand in the economy (as expressed in a fall of investment and consumption). this fall in investment leads to a decrease in employment and thus to less income. Effective demand is the independent variable, and incomes and employment are the dependent variables. There is not mention of profit or profitability in this schema. Investment creates profits, not vice versa.
For me, these were some of the most useful sections of  the book for they demonstrated two things. Firstly that "common sense" arguments about the way to solve the economic crisis, such as massive state investment won't work. Secondly these solutions effectively function as an ideological fig leaf for capitalism, suggesting that the system can be made to work. Roberts shows that there isn't a reformist way to patch together a system that is inherently crisis prone.

In this context Roberts also argues that the austerity policies of most capitalist governments are "not insane" as Keynesians think, they "follow from a need to drive down costs, particularly wage costs, but also taxation and interest costs, and the need to weaken the labor movement so that profits can be raised. [Austerity] is a perfectly rational policy from the point of view of capital.

So can capitalism get out of its hole? Roberts argues that it can, but doing so requires the restoration of profitability which means that huge amounts of existing capital needs to be destroyed. These solutions (just as the bank bailouts did) will benefit the system and some of the capitalists, but the majority of the population will suffer. There are likely to be many more company collapses, bankruptcies, redundancies and wage cuts (and all the social ills that accompany these) before capitalism restores its profitability. The "dead-weight" of debt remains in the system and
The current low-growth world is a reflection of the burden of still high debt levels on the cost of borrowing relative to potential return on capital and thus on growth. The job of a slump (to devalue assets, both tangible and fictitious) has not yet been achieved.
I've focused in this review on what I consider to be the key part of The Long Depression - it's systematic explanation of the cause of slump and the importance of a Marxist approach. There is much more here. Readers of Michael Robert's blog will know that the has discussed the question of robot and AI technology and whether this will lead to a rosy future or a dystopian nightmare. Again he puts the question of profitability at the heart of this, showing that a completely robotic knowledge economy in the future is impossible. The chapters that look at the economic prospects for particular countries and regions are also interesting, if sobering, accounts of the bleak future for most working people unless they fight back. In the midst of the post-Brexit discussions in the UK I also felt Roberts' discussion on the role of the EU was particularly interesting. In particular he points out that the currency union wasn't logical and only serves the interest of the two major European economic powers.
The Eurozone countries are more different from each other than countries in just about any hypothetical currency union you could propose. A currency union for Central America would make more sense. A currency union in East Asia would make more sense. A currency union that involved reconstituting the old Soviet Union or Ottoman Empire would make more sense. In fact, "a currency union of all countries on Earth than happen to reside on the fifth parallel north of the Equator would make more sense". But the currency union went ahead because of the political ambitions of France and Germany to have a Europe led by them, even after Britain refused to join.
Finally Roberts puts the economic problems of capitalism in the context of its ecological destruction. I won't rehearse his arguments as this blog has frequently discussed these. But his conclusion is a sensible place to end this review. Unless capitalism is replaced in the next fifty years, ecology destruction will be on such as scale that "economic growth will slow, natural disasters will become common, and the cost of restoration and prevention will become too much for a profit-making mode of production to handle."

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Harvey - Seventeen Contradictions and the end of Capitalism
Marx - Value, Price and Profit

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lewis H. Berens - The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth

First published in 1906 this is an important study of the ideas of one of the most important radical thinkers of the English Revolution, Gerrard Winstanley. The edition I'm reviewing here is reprinted 2007 by Merlin Press and is a very useful overview of Winstanley's life and, most importantly, his ideas.

Winstanley is best known for leading a group of activists, the Diggers, in an attempt to create a radical agrarian society by creating a "colony" of like minded people on St. George's Hill in Surrey. Less well know is that Winstanley had developed a clearly thought through vision of how a network of such colonies could form the basis for a society of equality and freedom. The execution of Charles Stuart during the English Revolution helped encourage Winstanley's thinking along this direction. Many of his writings were made in response to events on St. George's Hill and the second colony that Winstanley created nearer his home in Cobham, after they were driven away from the hill.

Berens' makes it clear that, like many radicals of the time, Winstanley had a very clear understanding of society in the 17th century which helped fuel his radical visions of a new world. He rages against the inequality and oppression of class society. In 1648 he writes:
And this is the beginning of particular interest, buying and selling the Earth from one particular hand to another, saying ‘This is mine,’ upholding this particular propriety by a law of government of his own making, and thereby restraining other fellow-creatures from seeking nourishment from their Mother Earth. So that though a man was bred up in a Land, yet he must not work for himself where he would, but for him who had bought part of the Land, or had come to it by inheritance of his deceased parents, and called it his own Land. So that he who had no Land was to work for small wages for those who called the Land theirs. Thereby some are lifted up in the chair of tyranny, and others trod under the footstool of misery, as if the Earth were made for a few, and not for all men.
Winstanley understands that wealth comes from the labour of people and the rich get richer on the backs of others;
But all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labors of other men, not by their own, which is their shame and not their nobility; for it is a more blessed thng to give than to receive. But rich men receive all they have from the laborer's hand, and what they give, they give away other men;s labors, not their own. Therefore they are not righteous actors in the Earth.
Berens' tells the story of Winstanley's life and struggles. More recent biographies have been able to make use of more sources and some of the conclusions about Winstanley that Berens' makes are probably no longer as clear cut as they were when he was writing. John Gurney argues, for instance, that links between Winstanley's ideas and Quakerism are much less clear than Beren's would have.

But the real joy in Beren's book is the writings of his subject. I was particularly struck by Winstanley's visions of agrarian Utopia. Arising out of the seizure of land by the ordinary people he imagined a world where the full fruits of the Earth would be available to all, through a system of decentralised villages. Storehouses would keep excess produce, overseen by "waiters" who would all those who need food or other goods to come and get them for free. There would be centralised government, each village required to produce a summary of its news at regular intervals which would be then distributed around the country so everyone would know what was happening. Officers would be elected and over-seers would ensure that everyone worked, though work was not intended to be excessive. While this was a patriarchal society, Winstanley also believed that people should be able to marry who they wanted and could do so easily when a couple wanted to.
When any man or woman have consented to live together in marriage, they shall acquaint all the Overseers in the Circuit therewith, and some other neighbors. And being all met together, the man shall declare with his own mouth before them all that he takes that woman to be his wife, and the woman shall say the same, and desire the Overseers to be witnesses.
Winstanley also saw a system of punishment that allowed the community to punish those who refused to take part in society, but also allowed those who broke the rules to return back to society. The death penalty was there as a final punishment for heinous crimes such as rape and murder.

Winstanley's Utopia, was an agrarian ideal. But it was based on a rational examination of the existing problems of society and communal rural life. Based on a rejection of private property his early Communism could never succeed as it meant challenging the wealth and power of those classes that the death of Charles had put in the saddle. Winstanley's pacifism meant he ultimately believed his new society could come about by simply stating clearly enough how well it could work. Unfortunately this would never convince those with wealth and power, and there was as yet no class in society powerful enough to overturn them.

But Winstanley's vision remains inspiring and his writings are entertaining and illuminating. Its excellent that this old book has been republished. Sadly in places the Merlin edition suffers from proofreading issues. These aren't significant enough to detract entirely, but are disappointing. That aside, students of radical ideas during the English Revolution will be pleased to find this available.

Related Reviews

Gurney - Gerrard Winstanley - The Digger's Life and Legacy
Hill - The World's Turned Upsidedown
Rees - The Levellers' Revolution
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Ian W. Toll - Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942

The Pacific theatre in World War Two was in every sense an imperialist conflict. Two emerging powers were vying for the region's resources and markets. An older colonial power, Britain, hung on with a self-confidence that belayed its complete lack of military preparedness.  Pacific Crucible is the story of the first year of that conflict. From Japan's brilliant and devastating attack on Pearl Harbor which sent shock-waves through the United States, to their defeat at the Battle of Midway - a victory that relied on a strong dose of luck and superb work by cryptographers, as well as enormous bravery.

Toll begins with an over-view of naval strategy. He notes that both the United States and Japan were stuck with a set of tactics that had been handed down to them from 19th century military doctrine. The concentration of naval power in large fleets that could knock out enemy forces in one huge battle. But by the 1930s this doctrine no longer fitted the situation. The role of aircraft and particularly carrier based aircraft was to transform the situation. Japan's victory at Pearl Harbor was the first indication of this, but it seems that even with this victory, Japan failed to learn the lessons and, as Midway showed, still focused on the role of their battleships.

In one revealing paragraph, Toll shows how the nature of the victory at Pearl Harbor actually encouraged this thinking for the United States, leaving the US with a smaller, faster fleet and more reliant on its carriers than ever before.

But where Toll really excels in is his understanding of how Japanese and American history shaped the conflict and how each country's leaderships' perception of each other affected their military actions. For instance, despite the rapid and deep deterioration in relationships in the run up to Pearl Harbor, the United States was completely unprepared for war. As the Japanese military machine rapidly rolled over US and British bases in a matter of weeks, it was clear that no-one expected this to happen. The Japanese were considered to be under-prepared militarily, with outdated equipment and small air-forces. Particularly for the US and the British, racist attitudes played a central role in this. Apologies for the racism quoted in the following paragraph but it's worth repeating to see how little the US understood about what was about to hit them.
In the years before the war, the Americans and British had taken comfort in a widely held conviction that Japanese air-power was not to be viewed seriously. That impression was nourished by quackish, pseudo-scientific theories proposed by 'experts' of various fields. The Japanese would always make bundling pilots, the authorities patiently explained, because they suffered from innate physiological defects. They were cross-eyed and nearsighted, possible a symptom of their 'slanted' eyes. As infants, they had been carried on the backs of their mothers, causing their heads to wobble in a way that thew off the balance in the inner ear. Japanese cultural norms emphasized conformity and obedience; therefore their young men must lack the aviator's traits of individualism and self-reliance.
This sort of racist nonsense led to the US and Britain being "hoist by their own petard", as far superior Japanese pilots, flying the wonderful Zero fighter repeatedly blew their opponents out of the sky. By contrast, the US was badly prepared. Its pilots inexperienced, it's gunners inaccurate and its technology laughable. I was struck by how often US torpedoes simply didn't work and while Toll doesn't tell the story, the failure is rooted in bureaucratic ineptitude and lack of preparedness for war.

Toll doesn't neglect the history of Japan, telling the story of the rise to power of a powerful, centralised military clique, that clearly bordered on fascism in terms of its nationalistic and expansionist tendencies. Mein Kampf edited to remove Hitlers' racism directed at Asians was a best-seller and the regime destroyed all opposition, left and liberal, shaping and preparing the population for war. The swift victories after Pearl Harbor strengthened the regime which was able to keep the vast majority of the population (and even the military) in the dark following defeats.

One thing that seems apparent is that Japan couldn't win an all out war. It probably came close to winning a negotiated settlement where they relinquished some territory in exchange for keeping other parts - a victory that would almost certainly have meant Britain, Holland and other European powers lost their Asian colonies. Had Japan won at Midway this may well have been a likely outcome.

While much of the book focuses on the war and its battles, Toll tells the story through detailed portraits of the principle leaders. This works well and we can see how the conflict is shaped by economic and political forces, but also how the attitudes of the individuals make a real difference. Admiral Yamamoto's decisions in the immediate aftermath of his loss of four carriers at Midway might have still changed the course of things in Japans favour. The competition and conflict between the US's two code-breaking teams nearly derailed their leadership in the run up to Midway.

Ian W. Toll's book is an excellent over-view.  Its also full of tiny detail that really illuminates the wider war. The word "Hawaii", for instance, was overprinted on all US bank notes on the island so that it could be declared invalid if Japan took the islands. A tiny detail that shows the US government really did think it might lose the islands completely. There are some strange omissions. Nothing is mentioned about the US men who were captured and then executed by the Japanese after Midway, and Ensign Gay one of the US pilots who was shot down and spent hours floating in the sea watching the Japanese defeat is left swimming there, without his rescue being mentioned.

Surprisingly, for a book that covers the US's political establishments response to the war, there is nothing here about the internment of Japanese-Americans and their appalling treatment during and after the war. Given Toll's evenhanded coverage of both sides of the war, this is an omission that is strange, but will perhaps be rectified in later volumes.

This is volume one of a three part history of the Pacific War, which the publishers say is the first in many decades. If the others are as insightful as this clear, detailed history, which avoids jingoism and doesn't fail to highlight the mistakes of military leaders and politicians, they will be well worth reading. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - Fighting on All Fronts
Jones - Thin Red Line
Beevor - The Second World War

Turkel - The Good War
Gluckstein - A Peoples' History of the Second World War

Friday, October 21, 2016

Iain M. Banks - Look to Windward

Re-reading some of Iain Banks' works I'm constantly reminded how much we have lost with his untimely death. His science fiction, and Look to Windward is a beautiful example, is full of experiment. Banks' loves playing around with his imagination. Everything, from sexuality and language, is up for grabs.

By setting the bulk of his stories in a society that has left the inequality and oppression of capitalism far behind, and replaced it with the joyous utopia that results from a society (the Culture) were resources are managed in the interests of all, Banks' is free to explore what things might be like. In Look to Windward Banks' even imagines the boredom of those living in a society without exploitation, conflict, poverty and oppression. What do you do, if you can do anything?

There's a lovely example of this mental experiment in Look to Windward. One eccentric individual galvanizes thousands of others to build a massive complex of pylons linked by cable-cars. There's no reason for this, though it provokes a mass movement of people in favour and against, until, well, things move on. The remaining pylons simply sit there, and decay. While life continues elsewhere.

That said, most of this novel is not about utopian life in the Culture. It's actually about those societies around the Culture, and how they interact and react to their enormously powerful neighbour. Here, as in many of Banks' writings, the shady dealings of the Culture form a key plot line. Their manipulative attempts to shape other societies; bringing them into line with The Culture's norms are, at least in the short term, unethical. And in the case of the Chelgrian this unethical interference led to a brutal civil war and millions of casualties. Revenge is in the air, and a faction in the Chelgrian's leadership put in place a mission designed to get past the Culture's unfathonable technological powers.

Its a great story. What makes the book brilliant, as opposed to simply great, is how the Culture seems to others. Its allies enjoy its benevolance and the limitless supplies of wealth and entertainment that it offers. Its enemies see it as a poisoned, corrupted, unhealthy place whose citizens grow fat and lazy on over-indulgence. Banks' plays around with the problems inherent in understanding societies based on norms very different from your own. How backward ancient Rome seems to us today, how difficult to imagine a socialist society run by the "associated producers"?

Banks' dedicates this book to the "Gulf War Veterans". New readers may well wonder at this, as the book came out before Afghanistan and Iraq were turned into the death-traps that George Bush and Tony Blair made. But Banks' point - that intervention elsewhere is never as straightforward as the politicians make out - was only reinforced by later events.

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Banks - Surface Detail
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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

John Rees - The Levellers' Revolution

This review was first published in Socialist Review 418 November 2016.

The execution of Charles I in January 1649 terrified the kings and queens of Europe. Civil wars weren’t uncommon, but never before had one become quite so revolutionary. Particularly worrying was the central involvement of ordinary people in the process and their active participation at key moments.

Present on the scaffold when Charles lost his head were two men, John Harris and Richard Rumbold. Both were radicals who had spent years as part of a movement that eventually became known as the Levellers. John Rees’s new book tells the story of the central role of the Levellers. He argues that the Levellers, whose influence was extensive, particularly within Parliament’s New Model Army and in London, were the key political force that drove forward the English Revolution.

The Levellers were not a tiny sect. Those that identified with their “party” were numerous, partly as a result of the extensive networks that leading Levellers had built up over years. Particularly important was the role of the Levellers’ publications — hundreds of pamphlets, newssheets and prints of speeches were poured out — and around these the movement built networks that became a powerful collective force.

Many of the key figures in the Levellers started out as activists in separatist churches that gathered apart from the normal parishes. These sent out “emissaries, Captaines and Souldiers everywhere to preach in corners” to spread their radical message. Repression helped to cement personal and political bonds that would become crucial to future activism. Central to the Leveller strategy was the building of this mass movement. In January 1648 supposedly 30,000 copies of a Leveller’s petition were produced and collecting names was a mass activity.

Rees argues that the Levellers became a “unique current within the English Revolution by being able to maintain a mass public presence through petitioning, printing and street demonstrations”. This required organisation and leadership. Some of these figures are well known — John Lilburne, Richard Overton — but one of the strengths of John’s book is to rescue less well known men and women and put them at the heart of the English Revolution.

Eventually however the wider alliance between the Levellers and less radical forces in the revolution broke down.

The new Republic would not have happened without their influence. But they wanted much more in terms of democracy and the reorganisation of society. But this went too far for Cromwell and his class, so Leveller organisation was repressed and broken. While John argues convincingly about the importance of the Levellers’ organisation, there is a danger that the reader sees them as a direct analogy with modern revolutionary organisations. So it’s important to note that John sees them as being closer to a contemporary political movement rather than a party; a group of people with shared political aims. Nonetheless, their methods and activities are still applied by organisations today.

This is a detailed account of one aspect of the English Revolution. Its focus on the Levellers is at the expense of the wider narrative of the revolutionary years, which means the book will not be an easy introduction to the period. But it is a significant contribution to understanding how important radical ideas were to the creation of modern parliamentary rule.

Related Reviews

Rees - Imperialism and Resistance
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown

Hill - God's Englishman
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England
Purkiss - The English Civil War: A Peoples' History
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War
Stone - The Causes of the English Revolution

Wedgwood - The King's War

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Colin Dexter - The Dead of Jericho

I was struck while reading The Dead of Jericho that Inspector Morse isn't actually a very nice bloke. In fact, he's actually a bully towards his subordinates, he's condescending towards women in particular, and men that he thinks intellectually beneath him and he's arrogant to the point of distraction. It's a surprise that he's such a popular character.

The novel follows the usual Morse pattern. An obscure murder of someone that Morse has a tenuous link with, a series of inexplicable clues, and an intellectual process that finds an absolutely mind-bogglingly complex and unlikely solution, which turns out to be wrong. Finally the novel ends with the unlikeliest of suspects being arrested and Morse feeling ever more grumpy and discontent.

Jericho isn't a bad novel. It's entertaining in places, even while the plot seems very contrived. I felt a complete lack of empathy with Morse here, and saddened by the voyeuristic pleasure that the characters and the author seemed to get out of the tragic tale of the victim at the heart of the book.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

John F. Richards - The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals

John F. Richards' book The World Hunt is actually four chapters from a larger work called The Unending Frontier. The four chapters deal with distinct subjects. The first two concern the surprisingly parallel stories of the transformation of North America and Siberia into a massive hunting ground for animals skins and fur. The third and fourth chapters look at the Atlantic cod fisheries of North America and whales and walruses in the northern oceans.

One common theme to all these accounts is the scale of the butchery that took place once particular animals became part of a wider European trading network. For instance,
the eighteenth-century export of deer skins from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana conformed to the classic pattern of market-driven raw materials exploitation. At a conservative estimate, pelts shipped by British, French and Spanish traders each year rose form 50,000 at the turn of the century, to 150,000 in the 1730s, to peak at 250,000 to 300,000 per year in the 1760s and early 1770s.
Similar, consider the hunt for whales and walruses:
Around the end of the eighteenth century, observers counted about 270 ships with twenty-two hundred Russian hunters gathered during the summer season at Spitsbergen, What their annual catch might have amounted to is impossible to estimate. We do have figures from one Russian hunting party that wintered on Spitsbergen in 1784-1785. When they returned they had tusks and hides from 300 walruses as well as oil and skins from 230 seals, 150 polar bear skins and 1,000 fox skins. They carried 300 kilograms of eiderdown. They also had killed 100 beluga whales and 1 larger whale. 
The consequences for the ecology were profound. But for the original inhabitants of Siberia and North America the result of the encounter with Europeans and their trading systems was violent and traumatic. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives from violence and disease, and many more suffered as their economies became closely fixed to European and Russian interests. Isolated hunter-gatherer communities in Siberia suddenly found themselves being required to hunt in order to pay taxes in kind to the Tsar. These changes fundamentally altered communities that had previously only hunted to provide for their needs.

In North America, native people became a cheap source of labour as proxy hunters, many of them becoming dependent on this trade through their need to purchase goods and alcohol from the Europeans. Their traditional hunting and agriculture were destroyed in the search for profitable furs and skins.
Although the Creeks adapted quickly and successfully to the new incentives of the deerskin trade, they, like other Indian hunters in the Southeast, faced a basic contradiction. Economic and political forces made it imperative that they deliver a maximal number of deer skins every year. They became market hunters linked into the world market who used muskets to avidly pursue as many deer and bear) as possible. 
Richards highlights the way that the native people's lives became dominated by market interests over in Europe. But in my opinion he fails to demonstrate how their attachment to this new global market transformed their own social relationships. This is not simply about "Indians" losing "restraints" on hunting. But how their perception of nature is transformed as their economic relationships become dominated by the market. Richards mentions the Montagnais peoples of north-eastern Canada, but may have missed Eleanor Burke-Leacock's study which showed how their involvement in the French fur trade transformed their whole lives.

In my opinion this is one of two great weaknesses of the book. The second is that Richards fails to adequately explain why the commodification of nature takes place. Why is there a sudden and insatiable desire for fur in Europe? What is the driving force that makes hundreds of ships suddenly start travelling to hunt whales at the end of the 17th century?

The missing component is an analysis of capitalism and its need to make profits. This explains, in part, why all these hunts explode at a particular point in European history - the moment when capitalistic relations are coming to dominate even in those countries like Russia that haven't left the old feudal order behind. It also helps to explain why some states put enormous resources into subsidising their whale or fishing fleets. So in the end Richards quite rightly can conclude that "the biomass of the Arctic translated into energy and profits for Europeans" but leaves the reader unclear as to why this happened. As a result of this much of Richards' book becomes lists of numbers of animals killed, ships sailed and profits made.

Charitably I would suggest that this weakness is a result of the plucking of four chapters from a larger book, and The Unending Frontier has far more analysis. I hope so, because there's much of interest here that makes me want to read the larger work.

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Martin - Death of the Big Men and Rise of the Big Shots

Friday, September 23, 2016

John Bellamy Foster & Paul Burkett - Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique

Marx and the Earth is a detailed and vigorous defence and reassertion of the classical Marxist position in regards to Marx's Ecology.

My review of this book was published in the International Socialism Journal 153, January 2017. You can read it there.

In the meantime feel free to have a look at some reviews I've written of other books by these authors.

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Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red-Green Perspective
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Barbara C. Allen - Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik

There's an old propaganda image (see below) that shows the Bolshevik leaders from 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, listing the fate of each of them under Stalin. Many are dead, and of those living when the image was made, the remainder would perish under the dictator. Some of them would admit to fantastical crimes against the Revolution in show trials. Others simply disappeared. The familiar names and faces from this image are matched by thousands of anonymous others who died in labour camps, or in front of firing squads. To protect his new order, Stalin had to both ideologically break with the old Bolshevik revolutionary ideology and destroy those who had fought for it.

Alexander Shlyapnikov was one of those Old Bolsheviks. He became a committed revolutionary as a young metalworker, working closely with Lenin, and eventually became a member of the Bolshevik organisations' central leadership. Under the Tsar Shlyapnikov became a highly respected workers leader, organising both the socialist movement and the early trade union movement. Barbara C. Allen's book is a detailed study of this revolutionary life, based in part of Shlyapnikov's autobiogrpahies and her own painstaking work in Russian archives.

Much of the book is taken with Shlyapnikov's life post-Revolution. But in fact some of the material on his early life is equally, if not more fascinating. Born into a relatively poor family of "old believers", a persecuted religious sect, Shlyapnikov's background was unusual when compared to many other Bolshevik leaders. At an early age he entered the factories and became an engineer, skills that he remained enormously proud of until the end of his life. Forced into exile in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, Shlyapnikov immersed himself in working class and trade union activities abroad. Allen argues this profoundly shaped his politics and ideas:
Shlyapnikov had become a highly skilled metal turner and fitter, a crafty and conspiratorial underground activist and a steadfast Bolshevik. As such he belonged to an exclusive group of 'conscious' Russian proleatrians. In Western Europe, however he took a path that dfiverged from that of many other radicalised Russian workers. Life and work there gave him the opportunity to observe foreign trade unions' methods of organisation. Acquisition of fluent French and proficiency in German and English facilitated his education in Western-European labour organising and radical socialism.
Shlyapnikov became a key figure for the Bolsheviks' helping organise the distribution of revolutionary materials into Tsarist Russia across the Finnish border. During the revolutionary  year of 1917 he became a central figure in the metalworkers union, which formed the basis for his support in the major debates that took place after the revolution.

The decimation of the Russian economy and population following World War One and the counter-revolutionary Civil War undermined many of the ambitions of the Revolution. Quickly it became clear that there needed to be drastic changes to defend the Revolution and save the situation. Hundreds of Bolsheviks and workers engaged in these debates throughout Russia, and Shlyapnikov placed himself at the heart of these, particularly given his position as a former industrial worker and trade unionist.
According to his proposals, reflected in major speeches, papers and published articles (1919-20), trade unions would replace state economic bodies as managers of the economy. Moreover, the CC [of the Bolsheviks] would stop interfering in the everyday affairs of local part, trade union and factory-committee organisations. He believed that the active, voluntary participation of the workers was essential for economic development and in building the new socialist society.
It would be difficult to disagree with Shlyapnikov's visions here, yet as the situation worsened through the 1920s, this idea of socialism became more and more distant. Enormous debates took place about the role of workers, trade unions and the peasantry. Shlyapnikov argued his position firmly, though it seems to me that he was guilty of a certain utopianism, or idealism when, for instance, he argued that the problem with the New Economic Programme was its focus on the peasantry. In an economy dominated by the peasantry, after the failure of European Revolution, there was always going to have to be a compromise with the peasantry for the survival of the revolution.

 Having taken an increasingly oppositional position during the debates of the early 1920s (Shlyapnikov was a key figure in the Workers' Opposition) he became a target for the increasingly repressive regime as Stalin cemented his position. In the early 1930s he was expelled from the Communist Party, despite apparently still being very much of the position that he could play a key role in developing the Russian economy and defending the revolution. In these years he certainly seemed to have been increasingly Utopian about the nature of the Soviet economy, and though he made little attempt to organise factionaly, the fact that he had been publicly outspoken in the past, meant that he was a target for Stalin's increasingly paranoid spies.

Tried, imprisoned, exiled and eventually executed, Shlyapnikov never broke from his ideals, declaring his loyalty to the idea of Soviet power at the very end of his trial. He put up with debilitating illness and saw former comrades break under the pressure, yet he never backtracked on his principles. Sadly, in the appalling, counter-revolutionary atmosphere of 1930s Russia, Shlyapnikov's "guilt" was extended to his family who all suffered into the 1950s as a result of their association with him.

Shlyapnikov is a fascinating character, and deserves a detailed biography. Sadly though, I was disappointed by this book. Despite the author's detailed knowledge of the source material, I felt that her understanding of Shlyapnikov was undermined by her lack of clarity on his politics, and those of the wider revolutionary movement. At times, her explanation of Bolshevik ideas, particularly those of Lenin, is limited. For instance, when discussing Bolshevik debates about the national question, she writes that Lenin "saw nationalism as a powerful force for bringing about revolution", a statement that is at best an extremely simplistic summary of Lenin's nuanced political position around the question.

Similarly I felt that the author lacked an understanding of the way that the economic situation was negatively transformed by the Civil War. For instance, the discussion of the Kronstadt Rising implies that those who had been so pro-revolution and supportive of the Bolsheviks during 1917 were the same as those who rose up in 1921. Yet the reality, as both Lenin and Trotsky repeatedly made clear, was that the core of the Kronstadt workers and sailors had been decimated and was dominated by the 1920s with former peasants who were no longer as seeped in revolutionary politics and experience as their predecessors. I think the fault is that the author while acknowledging that Shlyaphikov still "continued to believe in revolution" right until his death, thinks that this was naive.

Sadly, this lack of clarity about the backdrop to Shlyaphikov's life and struggles undermines what should be an excellent book. Nonetheless, for students of the Russian Revolution, the sections on Bolshevik activity in the workplaces before the Revolution and the internal debates after the revolution will be of interest. And despite some flaws, Barbara Allen's finally frees Shlyaphikov's life and politics from Stalinist distortion and lies.

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