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.

Related Reviews

Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Raw Spirit
Banks - Matter
Banks - Dead Air
Banks - Hydrogen Sonata

Banks - Whit

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.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
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Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Martin - Death of the Big Men and Rise of the Big Shots