Sunday, February 28, 2016

Diarmaid MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700

Diarmaid MacCulloch's Reformation is an impressive and monumental achievement. It's massive size reflects the scope of the material covered - over two centuries of detailed history of countries from Ireland in the west, to Poland, Lithuania and Transylvania in the east. As well as Spain, Scandinavia and Italy. The book even touches on the impact of the Reformation for those who lived in the Americas and those who emigrated there (as well as the slaves who were brought there).

For MacCulloch the history of the Reformation is very much one of ideas. It's the changing attitude to the Church and its activities that drives the Reformation, but the Reformation in turn drives all sorts of other social, political and economic processes. He writes:
The old Church was immensely strong, and that strength could only have been overcome by the explosive power of an idea. The idea proved to be a new statement of Augustine's ideas on salvation. That is why there is so much description of apparently abstract thought in my account of the Reformation... Monarchs, priests, nuns, merchants, farmers, labourers were seized by ideas which tore through their experiences and memories and made them behave in new ways... Social or political history cannot do without theology in understanding the sixteenth century.
It is of course true to say that you cannot understand this period of history without understanding the ideological changes, and the ideas themselves. But I fear that MacCulloch reduces history down to "the idea" without really getting to grips with the thorny question of why it was in the 16th century such diverse groups of society would accept them and drive the change onward.

Of course, some of this was about the role of individuals. MacCulloch highlights the contribution of men like Luther:
He spoke at so many different levels: he debated with scholars, shouted from the pulpit, wrote vigorous German and sang his message in German hymns and songs. Perhaps the hymns were the most persuasive to the wavering because they were the least polemical. Luther's impact was naturally greatest on his fellow German speakers, but it was much wider than that in the 1520s. It was not just he impact of print, vital through it was: the Reformation was a matter of the spoken and sung (some might say, the ranted) word, as much as the word on paper.
But here again, MacCulloch fails to explain why these words had such power. I believe this is why a materialist historical analysis is so important, because it can show how the new ideas fitted more closely with a changing economic world - one based increasingly on trade and manufacturing for the accumulation of wealth. The beginning, in other words, of the capitalist era.

This isn't to say that MacCulloch's work is not without value. It is a detailed history and it's 700+ pages are packed full of history that repays study. The idea of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation as Europe spanning movements that transformed the whole world eventually works well in this format. MacCulloch's historical knowledge is as clear when writing about 16th century Poland as events in England, Scotland and Ireland a century before or after. MacCulloch is also an entertaining writer, and his account is full of details of the lives of ordinary people as well as the rulers. Indeed the final chapters are an examination of the way that the Reformation changed people's lives in such important matters as marriage, love and sex.

On occasion MacCulloch's historical method lets him down. It is a simplistic analysis that links the violence of "twentieth-century Belfast, Mostar or... Rwanda" with the St Bartholomew's massacres in Rouen and Antwerp. Reducing these conflicts simply to "hatreds" between different religions is inadequate.

But MacCulloch is right to point to the importance of these changing ideas. As were the ruling classes of the 16th and 17th century. MacCulloch quotes one of Charles I's generals, WIlliam Cavendish, "The Bible in English under every weaver's and chambermaid's arm hath done much harm... for controversy is a civil war with the pen which pulls out the sword soon afterwards."

While there are many criticism's to be made of this work of history, it has much that will repay the reader, particularly those trying to get a sense of the sweeping changes that took place in Europe in this period, ones that had profound impacts on the people of the whole globe.

Related Reviews

Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Wilson - The People and the Book
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Monday, February 22, 2016

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels - The German Ideology

Reading The German Ideology I am once again reminded about how clear the writing of Marx and Engels can be. That said, it's always useful to have a good guide, and this student edition from Lawrence and Wishart, has an excellent introduction by C.J.Arthur which puts The German Ideology into the context of the developing ideas of Marx and Engels, as well as the debates taking place at the time.

The German Ideology was written as a polemic, and explores Marx and Engels vigorous debates with various other philospohers. This is why the introduction is important, because most of these philosophers have been forgotten to history, except as the recipient of the authors' critique and wit. To cut down the amount of this, C.J.Arthur has edited the work to bring out the key selections from this important work, and these are fantastic to read.

The German Ideology is where Marx and Engels first set down the ideas that will eventually become the body of thought known as Historical Materialism. Arthur describes it as the "first recognizably 'Marxist' work". He quotes Engels saying with hindsight that it "consists of an exposition of the materialist conception of history which proves only how incomplete our knowledge of economic history still was at the time".

The authors begin by challenging the "Young Hegelian" view of the world, an idealistic one where "the relationships of men, all their doings, their chains and their limitations are products of their consciousness". Famously, Marx and Engels challenge this, with their materialism.
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from aniumals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life.
This core idea runs through the whole work, that humans are shaped by the society that they build. Marx and Engels explore how this develops with a brief, and somewhat simplistic survey of history, inverting the Hegelians,
The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.... Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc - real, active men, as they are conditions by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms.
And to reiterate their criticisms, Marx and Engels continue,
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to eartth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.
In other words, human ideas evolve out of the real world, they aren't created randomly, or arise out of some general truth. In my own work on ecology and human history, I've often noted how the approaches to nature and the surrounding world are radically different depending on the way in which socieities are organised. Capitalism has a particular relationship to nature, because for capitalist production, nature is seen as a resource; part of the productive process geared towards accumulation. This contrasts with nature as conceived of by hunter-gatherer communities for instance. Nature is also central to the historical materialist account in The German Ideology. Marx and Engels put it at the heart of their analysis of human history, in contrast to the philosophers they critique who see it as eternal, unchanging and passive.

Marx and Engels are full of damnation for the limits of German Philosophy. They write at one point, that "across the Rhine...history has stopped happening".

While the authors would go on to clarify and develop their ideas, the book has some excellent expositions of their ideas. Here for instance, is the culmination of a summary of their understanding of the process of historical change, which might be seen also as the basis for later Marxists' theories of Permanent Revolution.
Thus all collisions in history have their origin, according to our view, in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse. Incidentally, to lead to collisions in a country, this contradiction need not necessarily have reached its extreme limit in this particular country. The competition with industrially more advanced countries, brought about by the expansion of international intercourse, is sufficient to produce a similar contradiction in countries with a backward industry (e.g. the latent proletariat in Germany brought into view by view by the competition of English industry). [Form of Intercourse would eventually be clarified to Social Relations] 
For the general reader trying to get a handle on the essential ideas of Marx and Engels this might not be the best starting point. But for the reader with a good grounding in Marx's ideas and a decent edition (this one also has some useful and relevant supplementary material) this is a rewarding work.

Related Reviews

Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Marx - The Civil War in France
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Perry - Marxism and History
Carr - What is History?
Harman - Marxism and History

Monday, February 15, 2016

Spencer Dimmock - The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400 - 1600

The debate on the origins of capitalism, more specifically, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, is one that remains crucially important for understanding the nature of the present system, and its dynamics. While superficially an abstract discussion, understanding the transition has, for many Marxists been central to a wider understand of the process of historical change.

Spencer Dimmock's book challenges many of the cherished ideas of Marxists who hold this point of view, and this ought to have been an important contribution to the debate. Unfortunately it is marred by its ill-tempered polemic, it's dismissive approach to many of those the author disagrees with, and its hagiographic defense of the Marxist who is most central to Dimmock's own ideas, Robert Brenner.

This is a shame as there is much of interest in The Origin of Capitalism in England particularly the detailed use of sources in the second part to emphasise crucial parts of Dimmock's arguments. There are also important critiques of non-Marxists and what might loosely be termed, critics of Brenner from the right, which may well be of use to those trying to get to grips with non-Marxist history writing. Yet time and again I found myself putting down the book out of frustration at the author's style.

Dimmock, as does other political Marxists like Brenner, directly challenge some of the central arguments of those they call the orthodox Marxists. Here, for instance, is Dimmock's assertion that
There was no growth of a bourgeois class in direct opposition to old feudal lordship drive by commercial expansion and growth of the productive forces which then defeated the latter in the 'bourgeois revolution' of the mid and late seventeenth century, as has often been contended. Instead feudal lord-ship became 'bourgeois' itself... English lords were as responsible for breaking the remaining extra-economic prerogatives of monarchy and its allies as the 'bourgeoisie' that grew up in the shell of the estate system.
Leaving aside that Dimmock asserts there was "no growth of a bourgeois class" and then refers to the bourgeois "allies" who clearly had grown from something, this passage strikes me as an example of an error of approach by the author. Keen to dismiss orthodox Marxism for a teleological approach, I think he misunderstands the nature of that approach itself. To take one example, Marx never really suggested that there was an automatic process of transition from feudalism to capitalism. I was struck for instance, that in his polemic against writers such as Chris Harman, Dimmock failed to note that Harman highlights in several of his pieces the way that capitalism failed to develop out of "feudal" societies. It's far from a teleological method. Take Harman's rather more nuanced approach in his piece The Rise of Capitalism which unfortunately if not discussed by Dimmock.

On occasion Dimmock also deploys some straw men. He argues for instance "When historians speak of capitalism being driven from below, they must recognise that the majority of the commons in both towns and countryside were opposed to capitalism." He is clearly right here. It's an argument that is echoed by Michael Andrew Žmolek in his recent book Rethinking the Industrial Revolution. But the danger here is that Dimmock is implying that everyone (other than himself, Brenner and a few other political Marxists) argues this. In fact most Marxists wouldn't suggest that this is how the transition to capitalism came about. The idea of developing productive forces causing the further development of people within feudalism with an interest in overthrowing feudalism and creating a society more open to their own interests does not imply that there (I caricature) groups of people who sat down and planned the transition with a blue print of the sort of society that they wanted. Indeed most of those who ended up leading (say) the English Revolution certainly did not begin by wanting to chop off the King's head. They were lead to that position by the nature of the War itself and the extent to which the old order was vigorously defended.

At root I think there are two problems with Dimmock's book. One is a misunderstanding of Historical Materialism itself which he seems to see rather mechanically. For instance, here is Dimmock's summary of HM:
in all class societies the direct producers will, where possible, always aim to increase their wealth by seeking gains from trade through changes in productive organisation, in other words by specialisng production in response to price changes for particular commodities.
This is not at all the version of historical materialism I get from reading Chris Harman or even The German Ideology. In fact, it implies a type of inherent greed to human nature which seems distant from what Marx actually described.

Secondly, and perhaps more fascinatingly, Dimmock appears to have in his sights the project for the revolutionary transformation of society. One of his core arguments is that orthodox Marxists have a particular understanding of the transition to capitalism because they want to replicate this in the transition to socialism. Here is not the space to tackle what I see as Dimmock's  mistaken understanding of how that process would take place, but it is worth noting his own vision of that change.
if due to a chronic crisis of capitalism, wage workers no longer had the option of seeking capitalist employment, concessions born out of necessity in industrial and agrarian production may be drawn from big business and the sate in the form of co-operative, non-market ventures, following perhaps the election of a party given a mandate for necessary radical change.
This vision of radical change coming through the voluntary giving of concessions by corporations in midst of economic crisis is in direct opposition to Marx's own ideas which saw the state as being a tool of the ruling classes to maintain their power. Such concessions would surly have already been made if capitalism had such a benevolent core. As we know from history, the system is quite happy to have reserve armies of hungry and unemployed, being motivated by their profits. Dimmock has this utopian vision of change because he rejects what he believes are the necessarily violent tendencies of orthodox Marxists, whom he accuses, most unfairly, of believing the violence and suffering of the transition to capitalism was necessary for the eventual installation of socialism. This view may have been true of those who followed Stalinist distortions of Marxists, but is manifestly not true of those whom Dimmock is polemicising against here.

These inherent weaknesses in Dimmock's book prevent me encouraging potential readers to buy it. There is much to be learnt from the debate between Robert Brenner and his critics, but I don't think that this is the book that will illuminate the differences.

Related Reviews

Harman - Marxism and History
Žmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Anthony Fletcher & Diarmaid MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions

Any student of the Tudor and Early Modern periods is likely to know Anthony Fletcher and Diarmaid MacCulloch's Tudor Rebellions well. You don't need to read much about the 1549 rebellions, the Pilgrimage of Grace or indeed general histories of the period without seeing it referenced.

Despite being a "standard textbook" of the subject, the book is neither dry nor lacking in stimulating analysis. It also contains very useful translations of contemporary documents, particularly useful because material relating to the rebellions is often difficult to access. This review pertains to the extensively revised fifth edition, produced 36 years after its first edition.

The authors' highlight the very different society that was England in the early Tudor period. Much less urban than the rest of Europe, towns were usually populated by only 6,000 to 8,000 people. This, the authors suggest, meant that "personal and political relationships were inextricably confused". They continue that
Expressions of class hatred are mostly isolated outbursts of rage by individuals... Even in time of rebellion the fundamental assumptions of Tudor society persisted: the commons expected the gentry to give the lead. If the gentry closed the gates of their parks and retired to their manor houses the commons went and sought them out. They persuaded or intimidated them into taking their side.
This in fact leads to the somewhat perplexing examples of the way in which the hostile gentry were often won over to lead peasant rebellions, before switching allegiance back to the king and government (or, in some cases, failing to prove their true nature and facing a traitor's death). The Pilgrimage of Grace is a notable case in point, and Fletcher and MacCulloch examine it in detail.

Much of the book is dominated by accounts and analysis of various rebellions, their causes, paths and consequences. Almost all of these are what might be termed rebellion from below - rebellion by the lower orders against one or more aspects of royal or government policy. It is notable the way that the ruling class in the period was extremely wary of upsetting the lower classes, and responses to rebellion often took, at least initially, the form of attempts to mollify or offer concessions. Brutal violence was however never far away. Indeed, the authors note that violence was actually a necessary part of the legal process
The processes of English common law actually encouraged formalised acts of violence, such as symbolic trespass on land, in order to get a legal case started, while in order to get a grievance into the most effective court in the land, [the] Star Chamber, it was absolutely necessary to construct a riot, which might be collusive between the two sides just as much as a random piece of angry violence.
But this pales into insignificance when we consider the violent retribution and punishment that the ruling class imposed on rebels in the aftermath of rebellions such as the Pilgrimage of Grace, the 1549 Western Uprising and Kett's Rebellion.

Forms of rebellion, such as the camps set up in 1549, the "camping time" also had their origins in traditional forms of social organising. The authors note, for instance, simularities between these rebel camps and the "meetings of the assizes" that regularly took place in village life. Tradition hung heavily over rebellion as much as it did over normal life, and there where places, such as St. Keverne in Cornwall, that definitely had a tradition of rebellion through out the Tudor period.

That said though, the ruling class lived in fear of rebellion. When it broke out, they often assumed it was the work of outside agitators, or individuals with particular axes to grind. In reality, causes were much more complex. Many of those engaged in rebellion in 1549 felt that they were doing so inspired by, or with the support of the Lord Protector, who had set himself against the interests of the larger landowners. Repeatedly the demands of rebel camps throughout the period begin by pledging loyalty to the crown, and demand action against corrupt ministers.

I've mostly considered the rebellions of the rural populations here. The turbulent politics of the Tudor period meant that there were other rebellions, particularly in the aftermath of Henry VIII's rule. These reflected the different interests of sections of the ruling classes. I've alluded to the difference in opinion over relations with the rural population and the question of enclosure during the minority of Edward IV. Other rebellions took place as the Catholic and Protestant sections of the ruling class vied for power particularly following Edward IV's early death. The Reformation hangs heavy over the entire period, the Western Rebellion in 1549 particularly being inspired against the introduction of the new prayer book.

But the authors note that the end of the Tudor period and after saw less rebellion from below. This they attribute to the way in which during Elizabeth's rule those who were most likely to lead rebellions, "the yeomen leadership" were "becoming closer to the gentry than to the class below". Their wealth was increasing, and they were more inclined to use lawcourts rather than riots. This can only be associated with the growth of a new section of society who were motivated by capitalist interests. So while the old peasant rebellions might be passing into history, there was a growth of rebellion against enclosure and engrossement, and ultimately there would be a rebellion of a new class against the whole order. Much of this is after the period of this fascinating book, but is very much informed by the history of the Tudor period, and Fletcher and MacCulloch's book is an important introduction to this.

Related Reviews

Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Politics of the 1530s
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

Duffy - Voices of Morebath
Wilson - The People and the book
Land - Kett's Rebellion
Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549

Friday, February 05, 2016

Paul McAuley - Something Coming Through

Reading Something Coming Through delighted me in many ways. Not least because it reminded me that there is new, interesting and challenging science fiction out there - the trick is, of course, to find it. Part science fiction novel, part detective-noir and very tightly written, this is a surprisingly left-wing novel that with tongue firmly in cheek, challenges the reader's expectations.

Firstly there is the protagonist. Few science fiction and detective works have a female hero, and Chloe Millar is one for the 21st century. Paul McAuley avoids the twin stereotypes of female lead characters - she's neither incompetent, nor superbly energetic and trained in twelve types of martial art. Just an ordinary woman, trying to do her day job, plunged into incomprehensible situations.

Secondly there's the circumstances. I understand that McAuley's set a number of short stories in this universe where the alien Jackaroo have appeared to humanity and given them fifteen worlds and a regular shuttle service to colonise them. These fifteen worlds have the archaeological remains of dozens of forgotten and extinct species and clearly the Jackaroo are keen to have humanity as their latest acquisition. They're delightfully enigmatic, and Earth has benefited (or at least had the chance to benefit) from alien technology. McAuley manages to seamlessly insert this into his descriptions of a not too distant London.

But London, in McAuley's near future is not what it could be. Trafalgar Square was obliterated by a nuclear weapon a few years before the story, and the world and its people have fallen victim to climate change and pollution. We learn in passing of the climate refugees living in shanty towns in Norfolk having fled a flooded Netherlands. We also learn of the rogue alien plants that clog up the rivers and oceans. Not all alien imports are beneficial.

All this would make for a great setting. But McAuley alternates Earth's story with tale of a detective Vic Gayle out on one of the Jackaroo planets. Gayle is hunting a murderer, linked to illegal trading in alien artifacts. The brave-new world is anything but, Earth's colonists have brought with them everything from McDonalds to corrupt politicians. The juxtaposition of this world with that of Earth is brilliantly done, and McAuley brings the two strands of the story together neatly.

There's much else to enjoy here. I particularly liked the right-wing, anti-alien politician, clearly modeled on a contemporary UKIPer, who has pulled the future Tories to the right, and campaigns against the negative influence of the Jackaroo on British culture. It all seems frighteningly real.