Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Paul McMahon - Feeding Frenzy: The New Politics of Food

In the aftermath of the global food price crisis in the late 2000s a plethora of books were published trying to make sense of what had taken place. Food commodities were supposed to be the most stable, and with various trade protections, there should not have been massive price rises. Paul McMahon's Feeding Frenzy is one of the better books published in recent years on food politics, not least because he resolutely refuses to blame individuals as the problem. He also puts the politics of food in the context of climate change and international trade and argues that the current food system is failing hundreds of millions of people.

A key argument in this book is that population levels are not the problem when it comes to hunger. As is common in books of this ilk, McMahon gives us a whistle-stop tour of the ideas of Robert Malthus and his supporters today, who argue that "too many people" means too many mouths to feed. But even excluding land that is currently forested, or protected by national parks, McMahon tells us there are "1.3 billion hectares of grassland and open woodland suitable for agricultural expansion, a large area equivalent to 80 per cent of all crop fields today". Further, it would be entirely possible to produce even more food, if current agricultural land was used more efficiently. As McMahon points out about Africa this is isn't done because:
The unproductive state of agriculture in Africa and other poor regions is a product not of geography but of political, social and economic failures. The real reasons include poor infrastructure, dysfunctional markets, lack of knowledge and skills, limited access to finance and technology, unclear land rights, harmful regulations and tax regimes, unbalanced trade arranges, and governmental systems that do not serve the interests of the rural poor.
However McMahon understands that there is a problem here. There exists the potential to feed many more people than we currently do, and to feed everyone well who today, but that barriers are political and economic. People starve not because there isn't enough food, but because they are poor. And while we may have the potential to feed billions more, doing it in a sustainable manner is more problematic. Much of this book then is an examination of the nature of modern agriculture and his conclusions are bleak:
the modern agricultural revolution has come at a price. It has been built on cheap and abundant energy, mostly in the form of fossil fuel. Hydrocarbons mot only power the tractors on the farm, and the ships and trucks that carry food around the world, but they are a major input for the production of fertilisers and agro-chemicals.... modern farming can destroy the natural resources on which it depends. Aquifiers are pumped dry; land is poisoned by chemicals; over-ploughed soil washes away; the inappropriate use of pesticides and antibiotics breeds resistance pests and diseases. Farming.... is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions...
So what is McMahon's solution? At one point in the book I almost cheered when he wrote that he was going to defy convention and not tell the reader what their diet should be. Instead, McMahon is highly critical of the economic system that shapes modern agriculture. He argues that "free trade" is not the answer, and even quotes former US President Clinton bizarrely arguing that "food is not a commodity like others". Whether or Clinton has suddenly become a major critique of capitalist food system, I doubt, but McMahon's point remains solid. It is neo-liberal policies in agriculture, dominated by the most powerful nations and enormous corporations that are distorting the world's food system, and turning it into a highly inefficient way of feeding people. Industrial farming is not designed to feed people, but to maximise profits:
Profitability in farming is driven not by high yields but by good margins - the difference between the price a farmer gets and the costs of production. High-input, mechanised farming systems emerged during a time of cheap energy, which kept costs down.
McMahon argues that there are signs that investors are moving towards better economic systems, but frankly I think this is pie in the sky. What investors want is a return, and while it might be profitable to change things while oil prices are high, that may not be a long term strategy for them. I do agree with him when he says that "if we are going to make the transition to a sustainable and just food system this means altering the political and economic framework in which we all operate". And I certainly do agree that the start is to insist, as he does through the book, that governments must take a leading role.

But we have to go one step further. Unless we challenge the powers of the massive agricultural corporations, and unless we stop neo-liberal capital itself, we will see the profit motive destroying land and food. Reforms can limit this, but we have to put the food system and farming back into the hands of those who work the land, produce the food and distribute it. That requires a revolutionary change and while Paul McMahon's book provides much powerful fuel for this argument he pulls up short of a more radical conclusion.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and useful book for activists and people concerned about climate change and the food they eat. It deserves a read.

Related Reads

Meek - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture
Lymbery - Farmageddon
Bello - The Food Wars

Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Seán Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly

The excellent Rebel's Guide series from Bookmarks Publications continues with a timely publication of Seán Mitchell's A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly. This examines Connolly's life, his revolutionary activity and his politics.

Connolly was born in Scotland to an Irish immigrant family where, Mitchell points out, his early life in one of the poorest parts of Britain, his long monotonous, low paid work as a child and his seven years service in the British Army must have shaped Connolly's revolutionary politics. Mitchell shows that Connolly:
beyond his leading role as a labour agitator Connolly was also a self-educated revolutionary who understood the importance of ideas and theory. He was an avid reader and a prolific writer, publishing not only pamphlets and articles but also plays, poems and songs. He was one of the great popularisers of socialist ideas in the English language, but to communicate with immigrant workers in the US he taught himself rudimentary Italian, and was an avid student of Esperanto - the 'universal' language that many radicals of this time believed would one day unite workers around the globe.
Connolly spent time in the US, as an organiser for the IWW union and revolutionary activist, clashing with American socialist Daniel De Leon over how trade unionists should organise and fight.

But Connolly is most famous for his central role in the struggle to build socialist organisation in Ireland, and the struggle against British Imperialism. Here Mitchell's book is particularly good at making clear that Connolly never separated the two questions. Mitchell writes:
Connolly's Marxism led him to the understanding that the Irish National Question was a social question: 'The whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland' (Connolly, Labour in Irish History).
Unlike some in the Republican movement then, Connolly never saw the Irish bourgeoisie or landowners as allies in the fight for liberation. Mitchell explains:
The Irish bourgeoisie, according to Connolly, were not to be trusted. Even if rhetorically they supported independence, in the end they had 'a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism as against every historical attachment drawing them towards Irish patriotism' (Connolly, Labour in Irish History).... As he wrote elsewhere, 'No amount of protestations could convince intelligent workers that the class which grinds them down to industrial slavery can, at the same time, be leading them forward to national liberty' (Shan Van Vocht, August 1897).
As the centenary of the Easter Rising is marked this Easter weekend, all sorts of people that Connolly would probably have damned had he been alive today, are trying to link themselves to that historic struggle. Connolly was executed in the aftermath of the Rising, and Mitchell's book ends with a short account of the uprising, its mistakes, and Connolly's role at the centre of the fighting. Mitchell argues that the Rising had a "reasonable chance of success", and quotes Connolly to show that this was not simply a nationalist rising, but one for the Irish working class, "not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist".

The murder of Connolly by the British State will remain a testament to the brutality of the capitalists when trying to protect their wealth and system. Mitchell's book is a wonderfully concise introduction to the life and struggles of a man who was prepared to suffer poverty, personal tragedy and eventually death in the fight for a better world. This Rebel's Guide will both inspire and encourage readers to delve deeper into Connolly's writings.

Order A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly direct from the publishers here.

Related Reviews of other Rebel's Guides

Brown - Eleanor Marx
Campbell - Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System - A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Birchall - Lenin
Gonzalez - Marx
Bambery - Gramsci
Choonara - Trotsky

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter - The Long Earth

While this novel is based on an intriguing concept, millions of parallel Earth's that are subtly different (though Homo Sapiens has not evolved on any of them), it never quite came together for me. The best parts were those that dealt with the degeneration of civilisation as millions of people discovered that with the aid of a simple piece of engineering, they can move (step) to another Earth. The spirit of adventure, exploration and the desire for a better life undermine the viability of many countries. In turn the minority that cannot step let their anger and jealousy flourish.

But the rest of the story, based around a deep exploration trip into far-flung parallel Earths never grabbed me. The central story of why some of the non-Homo Sapien species were fleeing away from a particular parallel-Earth seemed flimsy, and our story's heroes spent so little time on some of the more intriguing other-worlds that I was constantly disappointed. All in all it was quite disappointing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ralf Hoffrogge - Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement

Ralf Hoffrogge's newly translated study of Richard Müller and his role in the development of the German revolutionary movement during and after the First World War is extremely important for students of this period. Hoffrogge argues that historical studies of the period have been dominated by the role of the precursors of the German Communist Party (KPD), the Spartakist League, which was led until 1919 by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The domination of the KPD on the left from the 1920s onward and then the centrality of it to the story of East Germany meant that historians had every reason to emphasis its role.

Another aspect of this, was that those revolutionaries who did not fit into the narrative, or were critical of the KPD were written out of history. Richard Müller was one of these. Müller was an able and articulate trade union militant organising within the Berlin metal workers. A lathe operator within a crucial war industry he was able, together with his comrades, to build a powerful syndicalist movement. Initially not taking a position on the war, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards rapidly became the heart of growing discontent with the progress of the First World War, leading a number of strikes and protests.

By the end of the war, with the outbreak of the Revolution in Germany, Müller was a central figure in the revolutionary movement in Berlin. So much so, that with the creation of a network of workers and soldiers councils, Müller effectively became (briefly) head of the revolutionary state. Müller was a talented individual, and Hoffrogge ably documents his central role in the heady days of revolution and the months that followed. Müller fought to strengthen the role of the workers councils in the face of domination and betrayal by the "reformist" Social Democrats.

What becomes clear while reading this excellent book, is how unprepared revolutionaries were for events. While acknowledging the very real difficulties, one of the great criticisms of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was their failure to build an independent revolutionary party in the years before the German Revolution. Hoffrogge's book makes it clear how the lack of a clear-sighted party, rooted in revolutionary politics, was lacking. The author quotes a revealing account of the Revolutionary days, when revolutionary soldiers seized a large quantity of cash:
I found Comrade Vogtherr, the secretary of our caucus in the USPD, in distress. A group of soldiers had commandeered a whole truckload of banknotes and dumped the money in the USPD caucus room. Comrade Vogtherr asked me, "What should we do with it?" We didn't know either and finally we decided to put all of the money in a safe in the central bank. My job was then to ensure that the money was transported safely. So we brought the money to the Reichsbank and I would like to say now that we were absolute idiots for giving all of that wonderful money back to the capitalists. At the time we thought that we had the power and the bank belonged to us. That was a colossal mistake. Nothing belonged to us and - as before, the capitalists had the power.
This failure of revolutionary politics was a real limit for the movement, but it was also a failing for Richard Müller. For instance, he for "fear of economic collapse, energetically opposed so-called 'wild socialisation', and not only limited the powers of workers' councils to 'audit' their employers but also failed to give them a means to actually implement even that limited power against the inevitable resistance."

In the months following the failure of the January 1919 uprising, Richard Müller spent much time detailing out how a system of workers' councils might operate. While he emphasised the role of workers, from the bottom up, he was also guilty, as the above examples show, of not really understanding the role of the capitalist state, though Muller's politics were took much from Marx and others, including Lenin.

Muller's close links to the organised working class made it hard for the Communist Party to challenge him when he was critical. Muller even went to a meeting of the Communist International were Lenin helped broker a deal to heal the growing rift between Muller and others in the leadership. Sadly the distortions on the international Communist movement caused by the victory of Stalin sealed the fate for many of the best revolutionaries of Muller's era.

In his later life, Muller drifted eventually becoming a major Berlin landlord and living until 1943. Hoffrogge shows that Muller's actions as a landlord were hardly progressive and the KPD, rather gleefully, attacked him for his behaviour. In his later life Muller appears to have abandoned his revolutionary politics, perhaps though, this reflected the defeats he had suffered as well as his occasionally limited politics.

Hoffrogge's book is a detailed examination of how individuals make a real difference. He has rescued an individual who up until now was barely a foot-note in some of the best histories of the German Revolution, and that is reason enough to read, and learn from this book.

Related Reviews

Broue - The German Revolution 1919-1923
Fernbach - Selected Writings of Paul Levi
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades
Trotksy - Lessons of October
Hippe - And Red is the Colour of Our Flag

Friday, March 18, 2016

Roddy Slorach - A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability

As I write this review the British Tory government has announced huge further attacks on welfare provision for disabled people. George Osborne's March 2016 budget will take a further £1.5 billion from Personal Independence Payments, on top of the swingeing cuts already made.

Roddy Slorach's new book, A Very Capitalist Condition, is an extremely important contribution to the Marxist analysis of oppression. It takes up many different subjects but it is accessible, aimed at activists as much as those trying to understand how Marxism can both explain the world and offer a strategy to change it. It also helps to explain the ideologies behind the attacks on the welfare of disabled people.

Slorach locates the oppression of the disabled within the wider context of capitalist society. To do this he shows the way that attitudes to those with impairments or disability's have varied under different historical societies. In some of the most fascinating chapters Slorach demonstrates that the very idea of "disability" is actually a relatively recent invention and could not have been understood by people for most of humanities past.
The earliest human societies - which comprise some 90 per cent of our history... were nomadic hunter-gatherers... These communities depended wholly on "nature's bounty"... All group members had a role. Such societies practised egalitarian sharing and participation: their immediate dependency on nature left them no option... people with impairments were not marginalised or excluded.
Things begin to change with the rise of class society, but in the earliest class societies, Slorach argues, there was no systematic exploitation or oppression:
The ambiguity towards impairment identified in early class societies, therefore can be explained by a need to appease the capriciousness of nature due to a far greater degree of dependence on its favours than appears to be the case under capitalism. The lives of people with impairments were determined by the general conditions of exploitation and oppression that obtained in these (often brutal) societies. But there is no evidence of any specific, systematic discrimination levelled at them.
But this fundamentally changes with the rise of capitalism. Beginning in the late feudal period societies begin to see individual's impairments as part of a deviation from the norm. "Madness", Slorach writes, "begins to feature more prominently in culture" and institutions are founded. All this is part of a growing tendency to see people as individuals whose ability to labour is their key function. This is seen most clearly with the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. In part this is because the nature of labour under capitalism, in particular the birth of huge factories, creates industrial injury on a huge scale. But, as Slorach explains, the key reason is that under capitalism what is important about an individual is their ability to sell their labour power so that the bosses can maximise the surplus value obtained from them.
With capitalism, the extraction of surplus value relies on the commodification of labour power, devaluing the role of impaired people's labour and leading to discrimination against them on the basis of their cost to society.
So for Marxists, societies' attitudes to those with impairments is rooted in the wider nature of production under capitalism. This has many different implications, for instance, at times of "austerity" capitalists can argue that the disabled contribute less, so they deserve less. Ideology of this sort is no doubt behind the British Tories plans to decimate welfare once again.

But its not only at times of cuts and austerity that there is systematic discrimination. Slorach points out that "The unemployment rate of disabled people of working age in the UK has remained at around 50 percent for the last 50 years."

Much of this may not seem new. But Slorach points out that there is another factor which is crucial to this debate, this is the historic struggles of disabled people themselves. These struggles have often been in conjunction with other forces in society, such as the trade union movement, but more often than not they have been struggles that have been led by those with impairments. In one fine chapter, Slorach shows how the fight for rights and work has often come from war veterans. The aftermath of World War One and its "industrialised slaughter" saw millions of men wounded and disabled. Their struggles became part of wider revolutionary movements that challenged the system.

Slorach also examined the way that Vietnam veterans in the US (and also veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) have made their demands part of wider anti-war movements, but also shaped new generations of activists who have struggled to demand new approaches to disability in society.

Of course the response is not equal. A person whose limb is amputated in the developed world will likely receive far better treatment than someone living in Sierra Leone who has be injured by a land mine. But even those former British soldiers who have received highly technological prosthetic limbs find, as Slorach notes that such equipment may not always be forthcoming, "injured service men could leave Headley Court [military rehabilitation centre] with £50,000 worth of equipment. Difficulties come later when they leave the military and the NHS does not have the budget to replace the equipment."

So the struggles of disabled people cannot be separated from wider struggles in society - the fight for proper healthcare funding, or education for everyone. But disabled people have also had to fight wider battles, and it is here that I found Slorach's book excellent. Slorach examines the fight to have disability seen in the context of wider society. In some cases this has been a battle by disabled people for the right to express themselves as they see fit. For instance, until relatively recently I was surprised to learn that sign-language was considered unacceptable and Deaf people were usually forced to try to learn to speak, often through very brutal methods. Because this method failed, "the only remaining option was to stress the sub-normality of deaf people, now seen as childlike or savage, requiring institutionalisation".

Slorach tells the amazing story of the students of a Gallaudet University in the US, a college for those with hearing impairments, who in 1988 held mass occupations when a non-deaf person was appointed president. These struggles sparked a wave of protest, and support from the trade union, movement, which eventually led to a reversal of the University's position.

Even today though, sign language is taught in many schools, it is often not an "indigenous sign language" but rather one that means "Deaf pupils are forced to learn signs 'not for the actions they want to express, but for phonetic English sounds they cannot hear". Such attitudes no doubt contribute to a education system in England were "only 36.6 percent of Deaf children in England hit national GCSE benchmarks compared to 65.3 percent of their hearing classmates".

Thus the struggle for rights continues. In an era of austerity that fight is even sharper, which is why campaigns such as Disabled People Against the Cuts have put themselves at the heart of the British anti-austerity movement, gaining wide support for their fight. But Slorach finishes by arguing that the problem isn't one of disabled people within wider human society, but how capitalism oppresses disabled people as a result of the way it organises society. The real solution, he argues, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and the forging of a socialist society. As his book shows, disabled people have played central roles in historic revolutionary movements, and for a brief period Russia in the aftermath of 1917 was able to lay out the beginnings of a completely different approach to education which demonstrates how a truly liberated society would transform how individuals were seen. The revolutionary Education Act of 1918 that Roddy Slorach mentions is worth quoting to end this review of an outstanding book:
The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We (i.e. the government) do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.
Related Reviews

Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott - Farmageddon

It is impossible to read Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat without coming to the conclusion that the world's food and agriculture system is screwed. This is a system that produces enormous quantities of food, yet sees up to a third of that wasted. It's a highly technological system requiring enormous quantities of oil, pesticides and chemicals to produce vast quantities of food; yet it's a system that fails to feed the hungry.

Opening the book at random gives the reader plenty of ammunition to argue for a different, more rational, way to produce food. Take fishing for instance. Lymbery points out that a fifth of all fish caught is used as food for other fish in fish-farming. Some of this fish also is used as feed for pigs and other animals. Our food system spends vast quantities of energy and time producing food sources to fuel other food sources.

This is most apparent with beef. Lymbery points out that if "all the cereals alone currently fed to factory-farmed animals offered directly to people instead of being converted into meat, it could feed a mind-boggling number - as many as 3 billion folk." This represents a tremendous waste of resources, but this isn't simply an incredibly inefficient way of producing food. What this food system also produces is environmental disaster, ill-health in humans and frequently stressful and unhealthy animals.

So Lymbery documents the way that mass factory farming of beef, pigs and chickens in particular helps create the conditions for outbreaks of avian or swine-flu. The way over-use of antibiotics is helping to encourage drug resilience in both animals and people. The fossil fuels that drive the tractors, keep the lights on in the massive chicken farms and produce the pesticides contribute enormously towards climate change and vast quantities of manure threaten eco-systems (particularly in seas and oceans) around the globe.

The author emphasises one thing above all else. Factory farming does not feed the world. In fact, because it sucks up other foods sources to feed animals, it actually undermines the ability to do this. In doing so it encourages (or needs) even more ridiculous solutions, such as the transportation of billions of bees vast distances to pollinate crops because the farms which use monocultural farming and high levels of pesticides have decimated local bee populations.

Lymbery is not arguing against meat eating. What he is arguing for, and demonstrates very clearly, is that meat can be produced in a healthier, more sustainable way. This requires animals to be pastured, and not farmed in an industrial way. The knock on effect will be healthier, and better tasting food. Such sustainable farming will also likely lead to people eating less meat, but given the close links between heart-disease or obesity and high dietary levels of meat this is not a bad thing.

But there is an underlying problem with Lymbery's book. He never quite gets to the bottom of why the agricultural system is like it is. He argues, for instance, that government policies have actively created the current system, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. The European Common Agricultural Policy was precisely about encouraging factory style farming. But what is missing is an analysis rooted in the profit motive of agriculture and the domination of agribusiness. This, combined with the way that a high meat diet has been sold to consumers as a mark of social status, is at the root of the problem.

For instance, Lymbery notes the shocking statistic, that 80 percent of malnourished children live in countries that produce an agricultural surplus. Why isn't that food used to feed the hungry? Interestingly Frederick Engels made a similar point in 1865. Why wasn't there enough food he asked?
Not because the limits of production—even today and with present day means—are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies but by the number of purses able to buy and to pay. Bourgeois society does not and cannot wish to produce any more. The moneyless bellies, the labour which cannot be utilised for profit and therefore cannot buy is left to the death-rate.
Ultimately people go hungry because the agricultural system is driven by profit and there isn't any profit in feeding the poor.

Lymbery does acknowledge that inequality is a significant problem. He quotes one activist, pointing out that "Soya is a business for the few and an epidemic for the masses". But the book fails to see the system as a whole as the problem. This is why I felt that Lymbery's solutions, rooted in consumer power, were inadequate. We can chose to eat better meat, or more sustainable fish, or even, reduce our individual consumption of meat, but this will not fundamentally challenge the agricultural corporations. His belief that governments act to slowly and corporations can change quickly is in part correct. But state action can force corporations to act in a way that consumer power cannot.

Ultimately though what is needed is a root and branch transformation of agriculture, based on a challenge to the system itself. That isn't pie in the sky either - there are a whole number of examples of peasant producers, particularly in South America fighting for a completely different farming. While I have my reservations about seeing this as the only route to a sustainable agriculture, it's certainly part of a solution that will ultimately require the completely transformation of farming.

These are significant criticisms, but they are made while wanting to encourage activists to read Philip Lymbery's book which is accessible, readable and interesting, as well as brilliant at exposing the failings of our food system and what that means.

Related Reviews

Brulin & Klingzell-Brulin - Food for Thought
Bello - The Food Wars
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Monday, March 07, 2016

Neil Gaiman - Stardust

A wonderful adult fairy tale that, as is Neil Gaiman's trademark, links the fantastical world of faerie to the "real" human world. Beautifully written, I particularly enjoyed the way Gaiman brought all the interconnected threads together at the end, making almost every detail matter to the eventual wrapping up of the story. A great read to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - Neverwhere
Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Smoke and Mirrors
Gaiman - Ocean at the End of the Lane

Gaiman - Anansi Boys

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Oskar Hippe - ...And Red is the Colour of Our Flag

The life of Oskar Hippe is a fascinating one for Marxists and revolutionary socialists today. As a young worker in German during World War One, he became a socialist, becoming involved in anti-war protests as early as 1916. Later he would join the Spartakist League, the organisation setup by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, but not being based in Berlin for much of the period, following his conscription in the latter stages of the war, he missed some of the key debates and battles of the early German Revolution. Nonetheless his eyewitness accounts are unique,
On the eve of 1 May 1916, my brother-in-law told me that we would not got to work the next day, since the workforce would all be joining an anti-war demonstration on the Potsdamer Platz. We went there at the specified time. Ten thousand workers had gathered in the square, and Karl Liebknecht spoke to them from the platform of the Potsdam local station. I do not know how long Liebknecht had been speaking when the police arrived. They could not do anything at first; the crowd prevented them from getting up to the platform. More and more detachments were sent in, including mounted police who rode into the crowd with enormous brutality. For a time, the demonstrators put up resistance, and many policemen were knocked off their horses. 
Along with his unit, Oskar Hippe effectively mutinied and went home were he became centrally involved in the revolutionary movements in his home area of Halle. The book describes the scale of the revolution and the impact of the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, as well as the rapid emergence of the counter-revolutionary troops of the Freikorps.

As the 1920s developed, Hippe became an important activist in the German Communist Party (KPD). He was often targeted by the right and the authorities. Frequently blacklisted for trade union activity, the period becomes dominated by the struggles within the Russian organisation. Hippe describes the failure of the 1923 movement when revolution was perhaps on the cards, but the inexperienced Communist Party sounded the retreat on orders from Moscow. From then on his narrative becomes increasingly shaped by the battle with the Stalinist wing of the KPD.

The post-revolutionary period is also marked by the growth of the fascist movement. One thing that struck me reading the autobiography was that violence, or the threat of violence, was a daily reality for socialists. The socialists responded by arming themselves and being prepared to fight back, but it is notable that this violence was very much about defending and protecting the organisation, it's activists and allowing their planned activity to continue. This wasn't fighting for the sake of fighting, but in the interests of building socialist organisation. At the end of the 1920s Hippe breaks with the Stalinist KPD, and with many others works to build a new "Trotskyist" party. For some readers this may seem like a part of the book dominated by arguments among the left, but Hippe explains that this was about trying to keep the revolutionary tradition alive in a period where the rise of fascism is a real prospect, but with a huge and powerful German working class still unbroken.

With Hitler's victory, Hippe's group is forced underground and eventually he is imprisoned, serving many years of brutality and violence. Eventually he is let out and works on the northern coast of Germany, trying to make a few contacts with workers and discussing politics with captured prisoners of war. Hippe and his comrades bravery is outstanding in this period of difficult, dangerous underground work. This is no manual for this activity, but you get a sense of the dangers and difficulties, as well as the frustrations. Interestingly Hippe and his comrades believed that Fascism could not be over-thrown by German workers, who were now to weak, but would be over-thrown by defeat in a World War. It was an accurate, if pessimistic outlook.

Hippe then faced renewed persecution under the Stalinists. Initial hopes that a new mass socialist organisation could be built after the end of the war lead to a further period of splits, internal arguments and eventually underground work. Hippe once spent years imprisoned for being a "Trotskyist counter-revolutionary", and had to watch as others, including collaborators with the Nazi regime became senior figures in the East Germany state.

At the end of the book, Hippe's hope for the revolutionary over-throw of capitalism remain undiminished. It ends in 1979, though Hippe lived long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hippe was an activist through the 1960s and early 1970s, saw the birth of a new movement and the emergence of a new left. Throughout he remained loyal to the central tenets of Marxism, and the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, believing that the overthrow of capitalism had to be the act of the entire working class.

For those interested in the history of the left, as well as the German Revolution and the International Communist Movement this is a fascinating book, perhaps marred by what seems like a clunky translation. Hippe's account is perhaps unique and its worth trying to find this book.

Related Reviews

Pierre Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923
Fernbach - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi