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.

Related Reviews

Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red-Green Perspective
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Foster - The Ecological Revolution
Foster, Clark, York - The Ecological Rift (

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.

Related Reviews

Badayev - Bolshevik's in the Tsarist Duma
Porter - Alexandra Kollontai - A Biography
Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Serge - Revolution in Danger
Baku - Congress of the People of the East

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

James Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances

This study of the part of the Highland Clearances that took place on the Sutherland Estate in the first quarter of the 19th century makes for an important new book. James Hunter locates the Clearances, infamous for the role of Patrick Sellar and the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford (later the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland), not as part of an inevitable economic development, but as a brutal part of the class struggle in the Scottish Highlands between landowner and tenant.

As a consequence the author shows how the modern Scottish landscape, enjoyed by thousands of tourists every year, has been fundamentally shaped by this struggle. A landscape that resulted from centuries of farming, was in turn transformed by sheep farming and a later switch to grouse and deer. Thus the "natural" landscapes are not natural in the slightest, they are the result of centuries of human labour and the victory of a tiny number of landowners over thousands of farming families. The homes, schools and churches that were used by thousands of people now lie buried and forgotten with the soil itself tainted by the blood spilt during the evictions.

Hunter notes that the Clearances had their origin in the way that capitalism was transforming how landowners could make money. This meant that those who wanted to "improve" the land and make more money were
rather like settlers on some North American frontier... at the cutting edge of an increasingly commercialised civilisation's advance into a region where older forms of social organisation remained the norm.... The clash, to be sure, was a lot less violent than analogous conflicts between homesteaders and Native Americans. But the issue at stake in this Sutherland collision was the same as that posed by North America's frontier fighting: which of two incompatible ways of life was to prevail?
It would be wrong to take this analogy too far. The tenants of the Sutherland Estate were not hunter-gatherers, or even pre-industrial societies. Nonetheless their methods of farming and their social organisation were a barrier to the maximisation of profits from the land. This is not to say they were backward, primitive, lazy or perpetually poor (all accusations thrown at them by the improvers and their propagandists). In fact, one of the strengths of this book is that it demonstrates the exact opposite.

Those at the forefront of the evictions, like Patrick Sellar, used this propaganda to justify to the world what they were doing. Describing those being cleared from land their families had farmed for generations as "barbarous hordes" and "aborigines" was to justify the same sort of terror that had been deployed against Native Americans, First Nations peoples and other victims of colonialism. And terror it was. The deaths, the destruction of "homes, barns, kilns and mills" in defiance of the law, the burning of homes with people still inside, the abuse of due process and the deliberate destruction of materials so that those evicted lost even the chance of rebuilding elsewhere was nothing less than terror.

Today, the scale of the Clearances still has the power to shock. In 1819 to 1820, for instance, some 5,500 people were forced from their homes in Sutherland. In one part of the estate, between 150 and 200 distinct communities were replaced by a mere eight landholdings. Many of those evicted ended up in far inferior coastal locations were they were expected to take up industries (like fishing) of which they had no knowledge and in unsuitable locations, lacking harbours to supplement meagre incomes from the smaller and less arable new plots of land.

It is no surprise then that people fought back. The book opens with the story of a mass protest that turned away surveyors. Real or threatened protests, demonstrations and the possibility of violence clearly terrified the landowners and their representatives (though not the potential for violence against former tenants). The scandal caused by the first set of Sutherland Clearances provoked enormous criticism of the Staffords, aided by journalists and campaigners across Britain.

There's no doubt that in an era of popular anger at government and the ruling class (James Hunter notes that military force was not used on a number of occasions because the army and government were frightened of another Peterloo) there was massive sympathy for the inhabitants of Sutherland.

Because the resistance was unsuccessful, former inhabitants were spread "adrift upon the world". Hunter traces those who ended up in North America and Canada, and their struggle to survive the passage across the Atlantic and the harsh winters. Many of these families eventually thrived, and there's a poignant report from years later, of some of those who remained in Scotland wishing that their families had made the trip.

Despite the bumper profits to be obtained from sheep farming, it didn't last. The arable land that initially provided for fat animals was the result of years of careful farming. When the soil fertility dropped, so did the sheep profits and a switch to grouse and deer was the only way to maintain profits. This did little for the landscape however, which continued to be empty. As one commentator wrote in the 1840s, after travelling through the area:
All is solitude within the valley.. except where, at wide intervals, the shieling of a shepherd may be seen; but at its opening, where the hills range to the coast, the cottages for miles together lies clustered as in a hamlet. From the north of Helmsdale to the south of Port Gower, the lower slopes of the hills are covered by a labyrinth of stone fences, minute patches of corn and endless cottages. It would seem as if, for twenty miles, the long withdrawing valley had been swept of its inhabitants and the accumulated sweepings left at its mouth, just as we see the sweepings of a room sometimes left at the door. And such generally is the present state of Sutherland.
The land had been, "improved into a desert". Karl Marx, an observer from afar of the Clearances, noted that "the history of the wealth of the Sutherland family [was] the history of the ruin... of the Scotch-Gaelic population".

James Hunter ends by pointing out that the present emptiness of the Highlands is something of a strange aberration and that one day the places that had been cleared will be full of people again. While this may or may not be true one day, it is an important reminder that the countryside we take for granted is not necessarily a pristine one, but rather is in the process of constant change. The Clearances, like the Enclosures in England that cleared landscapes, destroyed communities, and transformed people into wage labourers, were part and parcel of the emergence of a system that puts people before profit. The importance of James Hunter's book is that it shows this was not inevitable, nor necessary. In doing so he rescues the stories, and frequently the names, of those who would otherwise be simply remembered as victims of the greed of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

Related Reviews

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Hutchinson - Martyrs: Glendale and the Revolution in Skye
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Richards - The Highland Clearances

Ignacio Padilla - Shadow Without A Name

This compelling, if confusing novel spans the darkest years of the twentieth century, from the beginning of the First World War, to the aftermath of the second. Its characters live in central Europe and find themselves in the middle of war, fascism and the Holocaust.

The novel begins with an attempt through a bet on a chess game, to win an identity change which will leave one person in relative safety behind the lines, and the other facing the bullets and shells in the trenches. This sets the scene for repeated changes of identity, until it becomes unclear precisely who is telling the story, about whom.

These characters become embroiled in the nascent fascist movements at the end of the First World War, and eventually rise to be at the heart of Hitler's Nazi Party and, in one case, uniquely positioned to witness the beginnings of the Final Solution. To say more would spoil a complex plot that had this reader constantly looking back to earlier chapters to try and better understand events.

Well written, compelling, shocking and innovative, this is an excellent novel from an author who tragically died far too young.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Buchanan Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England: 1586-1660

This is an important work of history which reminds us of the extensive class battles that took place between some of the poorest inhabitants of rural England and government and landlords. The book also challenges some commonplace views of English agrarian history, about the role of artisans within peasant rural communities in the period.

Sharp begins with a study of food riots between 1585-1631. This study isn't restricted just to the West of England, and again challenges some traditional views. In particular the author argues riots did not occur because of a shortage of food, rather because of poverty. This was the result of unemployment of those who worked in the textile and cloth industries. As Sharp points out, the economic backdrop to these riots meant that they tended to be more common than those that resulted simply out of failed harvests:
A depression by itself created more frequent and more severe disorders than a single bad harvest; as the exception case of the yeas 1594-1597 illustrates, more than on bad harvest was required to deplete food stocks and produce major rioting. The most serious situation was a depression during which a harvest failed: under such conditions, as in 1630, social problems were heightened to critical levels...One is led to agree with EP Thompson's conclusions about the eighteenth-century crowd: food riots were no... spasmodic outbursts of mindless rage or mere cloaks for criminal behavior, but were, rather, disciplined forms of popular action.
Sharp continues that "almost every riot involved an attempt to seize grain which was on the move" but, he argues that there was not, in these circumstances "indication of any moral economy governing the behavior of food rioters in the earlier period" when compared to eighteenth-century food riots... in other words food was taken and distributed, not sold at what was considered a fair price. Sharp notes that
Too much emphasis on the notion of a moral economy of the crowd can lead to an overly sentimental view of the life and behavior of the poor and can obscure the reality of the pain, desperation and anger they felt in times of depression and scarcity.
"Necessity hath no lawe" as one document sent to the mayor of Norwich complaining about the high price of grain and the greed of the rich has it. Partly in response to demands from the poor and partly to try and prevent further riots, the Elizabethan and then Stuart governments issued a Book of Orders on several occasions, this was an attempt to govern the sale of food at affordable prices. Restrictions on the export of grain and the brewing were also used. However the government was able to do very little to respond to the economic crises that were causing destitution. If the demand for cloth in Europe dropped there was not much more that could be done except to plead with merchants to buy more cloth and offer limited relief to the unemployed.

It is easy however to criticise the failings of Tudor and Stuart governments. Sharp notes however that while they could not produce miracles, they did seem to be able to transfer grain to areas with shortages. He concludes though that this was because "the hungry and unemployed in the economically more developed South and West who rioted and thereby gained the Crown's undivided attention". Areas that didn't riot, suffered more.

Western Rising

Rioting was also the key response to the question that takes up the bulk of Sharp's book, which is the enclosures and disafforestation of the Crown Forests in West England. In particular he looks at the Western Rising, a prolonged period of unrest and repeated riots against enclosures that took place from 1626-1632. At the time the governments thought that these riots were the work of agitators from among the more well-to-do sections of rural society. They could not believe that ordinary people would organise in the way that they did. During the Western Rising, the habit of some of the male rioters to dress in women's clothes and call themselves Lady Skimington, resulted int he government searching across the country for the Skimington responsible for the multiple outbreaks of criminal behaviour.

There was a common pattern to the rioting. Short of money, the Crown decided to parcel up the land. This they did through a process that Sharp calls "enclosure by agreement", this meant negotiation with the better off tenants and landowners and usually the provision of some land for the poorest. The poorest relying on the land for wood, resources, animals etc. This enclosure was often challenged legally, with the better off tenants trying to argue (and frequently winning) more land, based on historic use etc. Once the better sort had divided up the spoils, the rioting started. Fences were torn down, frequently on a huge scale. Those that rioted rarely overlapped with those that went to court as Sharp proves through detailed examinations of historical records. It should be no surprise that the poorest couldn't afford legal redress. Many of those who rioted had little or no land, and were engaged in the cloth industry, and, in the exceptional case of the Forest of Dean, the mining industry.
It could... be argued that there were two types of forest inhabitants, those with land who went to law to protect their rights and those with little or no land who rioted to defend their interests. The bitter irony of disafforestation was that those people most dependent on the forest as open waste either had no legal title to the rights of common they exercised and thus no valid claim to compensation, or the tenements for which they had a valid claim to common were so small that the compensation received was of the misconceptions integral to the orthodox interpretation of disafforestation is that all inhabitants in and around the forests had legal rights of common that they lost... this view simply ignores the cottagers and assumes that forests were inhabited only freeholders and substantial copyholders.
Sharp challenges other traditional views. Those who led the riots were artisans, not peasants. Their industrial labour was not a "by-employment" of people engaged predominately in agricultural work. These were people who were completely reliant on their work in the textile industries (and occasionally other work such as mining) and had yet to become part of wider, wage labour practises that were dominating elsewhere. Nor was this labour "urban". There were no urban centres near these forests. As Sharp points out, there were significant numbers of people without land. One study of the village of Brigstock in Northamptonshire near Rockingham Forest in 1596 shows that only forty percent of householders had land to farm. As Sharp concludes, "the cottagers had ceased to be peasants and had become members of a rural proletariat". This growing rural population would have an increasingly effect on the English economy. But in the period covered by this book they were the people most likely to fight back to prevent, limit or reduce enclosure of Forest lands that they needed to protect their livelihoods.

We can have no better summary of the class position of those who rioted, as that given by Thomas Yerworth, a yeoman, who said in 1631 of the rioters in Dean, "All the persons that ever he could heare of that were in the said accion were very beggerly and naughty people and such as he never saw or tooke notice of".

Sharp's book follows the story through into the Civil War period and the Restoration. Drawing links between struggles during the Wars and previously. Rarely do the population take particular sides in the Civil War, but their struggles are shaped and conditioned by the nature of that conflict and the factional political interests. There is also some overlap with the Clubmen who fought as neutrals to defend land and crops from both sides in the conflict.

In conclusion this book is an important work for those trying to understand the rural population in England in the era before capitalism and urban industry came to dominate. It combines excellent scholarship and brilliant studies of ordinary people fighting for justice and deserves a wider readership.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England 1640-1660
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For: From Food Riots to Food Banks

Hill - World Turned Upsidedown
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class