Sunday, December 31, 2017

Eric Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism

There is a growing movement of people thinking about how their food is grown, what it contains and its impact on their health and the environment. Often this is tied up with an individualistic view of improving the world - the idea that you can save the world by simply choosing the best food with the least impact on the planet. Eric Holt-Giménez explains he wrote A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism precisely to argue that this approach is inadequate:
This book is intended as a political-economic tool kit for the food movement - from foodies, farmers, farm justice activists, and concerned consumers to climate justice and environmental activists. It is a basic introduction to the economic system of capitalism as seen through the lens of the food system.
In this, Holt-Giménez succeeds admirably. His book is an accessible account of how capitalism works from a Marxist perspective that is focused on the food system, from those who work in the industry, to those who grow the food and how multinational corporations and the profit motive shape the type of food that is produced and how it is grown.

One explain the author gives is the story of the fashionable superfood quinoa. This is an ancient South America staple "poor people's food" which was discovered by wealthy foodies and rapidly became transformed into an expensive export. The locals who had relied on this food for years suddenly couldn't afford it having to switch to "cheap imported bread and pastas for nourishment" and the crop's agriculture was transformed. No longer part of a "complex cropping and animal husbandry rotation system" quinoa instead was grown in huge mono-cultural fields. In turn this displaced the llamas from the grazing areas they've lived on for millennia. Thus the "quinoa boom" gives wealthy western consumers access to a healthy food stuff, but only by breaking up traditional and sustainable food systems in South America - and forcing those peasants to eat less healthily.

The central story here could be applied to thousands of examples from around the globe. In its drive to maximise profits the food corporations transform agriculture into an unsustainable, unhealthy system at the expense of those who produce the food and the planets eco-systems. Much of Holt-Giménez's book explains how this happens and why this is, and one of its strengths is that he never forgets that food is produced by human beings labouring, usually in extremely low paid, exploitative roles. I was struck that the author focused on the peasantry not just as victims of the capitalist food system - people who are impoverished, driven off their land, living in poverty or, forced to migrate in their millions in the hope of better lives - but also as the people who can remake the food system along equitable and sustainable lines.

This focus on the workers and peasants of the system means Holt-Giménez can discuss aspects of food that are seldom acknowledged by liberal foodies - including the racism and sexism at the heart of the exploitative relations between "big food" and "big agriculture" and those who work in them. There is also some useful material here on the importance of immigrant labour to the production of food and while the examples are predominately from North America the same could be said of the UK and Europe (and no doubt many other parts of the world).

Because Holt-Giménez uses a Marxist framework to explain the capitalist food system he has some real insights that might be missed by non-socialist authors. One of these is the centrality of the question of what Marxists call "socially necessary labour time". This, in short, explains how the price of manufactured commodities under capitalism is shaped by a rough average of the amount of human labour that goes into producing something. Looking at the example of organic food, Holt-Giménez points out that it should be much more expensive as it involves more human labour - despite the farmer using less expensive "external inputs" like chemical fertliser. So organic food is more expensive, not lots more expensive, because the price is determined "by the socially necessary labour time to produce a similar conventional product". Capitalist agriculture wants to drive this down, to maximise profits, but only at the expense of those working in the system.
Ever since peasants were pushed off the land and made dependent on wages, agricultural labour has been paid far less than its social value (what it costs to reproduce a farmworker's capacity to work), much less what it adds to the price... of food products.... The low cost of immigrant labour works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land... The effect of criminalizing immigrant labour is to drive down its cost while passing the vale of immigrant labour power up the food chain.
Calls to "fix a broken food system" are misplaced says  Holt-Giménez. What is needed is a radical reconstruction of the food system in terms for farmers, consumers and the planet. He concludes:
Capitalism is the silent ingredient in our food. It means that the 50 million people living in poverty in the richest country on earth - many of whom grow, harvest, process and serve our food - can't afford to be foodies because they're too busy worrying where their next meal is coming from... It is also the food manufacturers' quest for profits that pushes people to consume unhealthy junk foods high in sugar, salt, fat, artificial flavours, and other additives. If we care about people as much as we do about food, and if we really want to change the food system, we'd better become fluent in capitalism.
Holt-Giménez's book explains this system very well - from land-grabs to the centrality of fossil fuel and the persistence of the peasantry. If I have one criticism it is that I felt Holt-Giménez did not go far enough in explaining how a socialist food system, one that arose from a revolutionary movement might work. I wonder if this is because of the failures of the forced collectivisation that took place under the Soviet Union. However a truly collective, democratically organised food industry would work very differently to the Soviet disaster, and would certainly offer the change of a sustainable, equitable and healthy food system. Our vision, as Holt-Giménez points out, must be far more than a fixing of the broken system. But then I think we should try and spell it out more. I have tried in some of my own writings to explore this, and perhaps in the future we'll need a "Foodie's Guide to Socialism". That criticism aside, Eric Holt-Giménez's book is a very important guide to capitalism for those who want to eat healthier, better, more sustainable and with more regard for those who work at every level in capitalism's broken food and agricultural system.

Related Reviews

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Peter Watts - Echopraxia

Despite enjoying the first volume of this short series by Peter Watts, I found Echopraxia to be utterly incomprehensible. The story follows the adventures of a biologist Daniel Bruks who is caught up in a space mission to investigate events described in the first book, Blindsight. That novel was marked by some interesting discussions on the nature of consciousness and humanity, as well as a relatively clever first contact plot.

Echopraxia on the other hand is a constant stream of events that are impossible to understand as a story line. Things happen to characters for no apparent reason and are never explained. Characters are two dimensional cut outs that don't engage the readers sympathies. The reason for the space mission is unclear and what the characters are actually doing in space is never explained satisfactorily and in places the author inserts random bits of techno-babble seemingly to keep the reader convinced that this is actually a very clever piece of hard science fiction

The first volume is a decent piece of writing. The second is over-complicated, confusing and in places unreadable. Read the first if you like very hard science fiction and skip the second.

Related Reviews

Watts - Blindsight

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Kohei Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy

Kohei Saito's book Karl Marx's Ecosocialism is a detailed examination of the way that Marx's ideas of what we would today call ecology developed and evolved. Kohei Saito engages closely with all of Marx's work - from his published writings, his unpublished (until recently) notebooks, as well as the margin notes and comments that were made in other peoples' writings. Importantly, Kohei Saito also examines the works that Marx himself read to show how Marx was aware of, and increasingly put the question of the "metabolic interaction" between human society and nature into his critique of political economy.

Key to this is Marx's own understanding of the law of value and his theory of alienation, developed earlier in his life. In places this can be a challenging read, but it is important and very rewarding. I recently selected it as one of my reads of 2017 and hope others will engage with Kohei Saito's work.

My longer review of this important book was published in Monthly Review April 2018. You can read it here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Joanne Paul - Thomas More

Thomas More was one of England's most important philosophers. A prolific writer and thinker, his writings and ideas are often neglected today with most people knowing him for his role in Henry VIII's court and his most famous work Utopia. So Joanne Paul's new book that explores and rescues More's work is to be very much welcomed.

More's ideas were very much rooted in established ideas, as Paul explains:
More was heavily influenced by the memento mori medieval tradition, which sought to remind people of their death as a way of dissuading them from sinful living. Fore More, the fleeting nature of this life and of what it contains puts one in mind of what is eternal: notably, our equality and commonality. As we are all essentially the same before birth and after death, we should remember these lessons in our daily lives, avoiding the temptation to feel pride in worldly things; after all, our ownership of them doesn't last very long.
But More was also shaped by the changing world that he was living in. Paul points out that the "unsettled world" of the War of the Roses, the "rebellions of the 1490s" would have played their role in shaping his ideas about society. But More was also challenged in his world view by the reformation, and Paul's book makes it clear that More's response to that showed just how well-rounded and thought through More's ideas were.

Central to this was the sense of the "commonality" the collective society to which everyone belonged. More built upon other ancient thinkers to argue that the collective interest was challenged, or undermined, when individuals started to put their own interests first (pride). This meant that an individuals obsession with earthly riches, or private property, was a problem for the whole of the community as it undermined its unity.

As Paul explains, More was in favour of equality, but did not necessarily think that people were equal.
Part of his [More's] critique of the absurdity of social hierarchy was that it was based on the wrong qualities: birthright rather than merit. For More and his fellow humanists, virtue was what should distinguish people in the commonwealth. This was vera nobilitas - 'true nobility'. Inequality of social position, especially in political rule, could be justified, bit not on the grounds of any material difference between people, such as the random circumstances of birth or the artificial value placed on gold.
For such as short book, Paul does an excellent job in locating More's developing thought in the context of those thinkers around him, and those available to him - particularly the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. I would have liked to have some discussion about More's class position - it is fascinating, for instance, to note that his ideas and debates about private property come in the context of the beginnings of a new rising class of landowner - the beginnings of the bourgeoisie.

The start of a new order (already making itself felt through enclosure in agricultural areas) that put private gain before collective interest was surely a key factor shaping More's ideas. Famously More commented that "sheep... devour men". But More was explicitly not a revolutionary - in fact he despises anything that upsets the smooth workings of the system. As Paul points out, in Utopia More has one of his characters say "the active citizen ought to play his part in the stage play of politics without upsetting the performance, even though he might see through it."

It's this obsession with unity that undoes More when he comes to the Reformation. Unable to side with Henry VIII's changes precisely because he doesn't want to shatter the unity of the church, he ends up becoming an obstacle  that has to be removed. Paul summarises More's thinking:
A citizen 'cannot give his consent' to Henry's supremacy... because 'many foreign places do not affirm;' this supremacy. In other words, as he had indicated to [Thomas] Cromwell, the problem was that England was only a small part of Christendom: the power of deciding over the headship of the church lay with the general council as a representative of the whole body of Christendom.
I was left with the feeling that More was actually a man whose ideas were in advance of the political and economic development of the society he was part of.  More couldn't yet break with a feudal approach to the king and church, one that allowed the mass of the people full participation in society even though he knew it was a worthwhile aspiration.

Developing these ideas would be the task of later thinkers and activists. Having written myself on the Digger Gerrard Winstanley's vision of Utopia, I was struck, as Paul has been, on the similarities of Winstanley and More's ideas of Utopia. But I think Winstanley goes much further than More does - precisely because the society that Winstanley is living in has developed economically much further. Which is why Winstanley places so much emphasis on economic production, unlike More who focuses on ideas.

A small weakness with Paul's book is that she decouples More to a certain extent from the changing economic system he was living in and focuses on his ideas abstracted from society. The Reformation had very real economic roots and neglecting them can lead us to understand the process through individuals and not their interactions with world around them.

The final section of Paul's book looks at the legacy of More's ideas in the Early Modern and modern periods. She notes that More has been adopted by many people, with leading Marxists often claiming his as the first socialist. This I think is unfair, as More wasn't really a communist in the sense that Winstanley was a century later. But More was responding to the changing world around him, and he wanted a better commonwealth for all. So in that sense he remains important to us today. Joanne Paul's excellent and readable introduction will hopefully give a new generation reason to read and debate Thomas More.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Stripping of the Altars
MacCulloch - Reformation
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace
Winstanley - The Law of Freedom

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Miranda Kaufmann - Black Tudors: The Untold Story

In the months before I read Miranda Kaufmann there was a twitter outcry from right-wingers who objected to the portrayal of some Ancient Romans in a documentary about Roman Britain, as being dark skinned. Despite the assurances of a number of well qualified historians they seemed unable to believe this well established fact.

I suspect these same individuals would be hugely outraged to read Miranda Kaufmann's new book Black Tudors which makes it clear that during the Tudor period English people would not have been surprised by, or unused to seeing black people, particularly Africans, on their shores. Indeed, as the stories she focuses on here make clear, black and non-white people, played a large variety of different roles within Tudor society - from servants and prostitutes, to highly qualified sailors and weavers. Kaufmann begins by making a very important and clear statement about the perception of non-white people in Tudor England:
When the Black Tudors encountered Tudor Englishmen, they found a people who, though certainly xenophobic on occasion were deeply curious about the world beyond the seas. Most English men and women knew little or nothing of the world beyond their parish boundary. A 'stranger' was simply someone from outside the parish. Tudors were far more likely to judge a new acquaintance by his or her religion and social class than by where they were born or the colour of their skin, though these categories did on occasion intersect.
Furthermore, and this will surprise more than a few bigoted twitter users. The idea that black people only came to England as slaves and as a result of slavery is completely incorrect. Instead the opposite is true and one of the fascinating things is that many black people in the Tudor period appear to have come to the British Isles precisely because they understood that there were no slaves there. Racism, in the sense that we understand it today, did not exist, and people were treated (whatever their skin colour) in terms of what position they occupied, or should occupy in society.

As Kaufmann continues:
Social class governed society. Everyone, from the King... through the aristocracy, to the gentry, yeomen and husbandmen, down to the lowliest vagrant, occupied a particular place in the 'Great Chain of Being'. When Africans arrived in England as ambassadors, they were treated as such, but when they arrived aboard a captured ship, they found themselves at the bottom of the pile.
Kaufmann explores this through the stories of a few select individuals. The shortage of records from the period means that Kaufmann must at times speculate about the people she records, but the facts she has unearthed tell as fascinating story. There's Diego an escaped slave who joined the ship of Captain Drake, helped him raid the Spanish and then returned to Plymouth with him. Later he travelled on Drake's circumnavigation of the world. Diego was wounded on the trip (and eventually died) but he was not a slave. In fact Kaufmann provides evidence from witnesses that Diego had "made a contract with Francis Drake". In other words he was being paid a sailor's wage. There are plenty of stories like this about other black sailors and other black men and women who played a role in Tudor society.

But it is important to say that Kaufmann is not sentimental, nor does she pretend that colour did not matter. It's clear in the case of Anne Cobbie, a prostitute described as a "Tawny Moor with Soft Skin" that Tudor men sought her out because of her complexion and her body. Kaufmann uses the discussion of race, sex and Tudor prostitution to re-emphasise her central point though - that race was not a barrier to involvement into Tudor society. She writes:
Both African men and women were punished by the church courts for having sex outside marriage. In February 1593, Joanna Bennett of Grays Thurrock, Essex, was brought before the Church court at West Ham and charged with 'having carnal knowledge and abusing her body with a certain blackmore now dwelling in the town'. The following January one Agnes Musby did penance for 'fornication with Paul, a blackemore'... These relationships show a very physical acceptance of Africans into Tudor and early Stuart society.
Surprisingly I found that the accounts of specific individuals were more interesting for the way that the author used them to show just how many black people there were in England in the period. She shows this through discussions of Shakespeare s work, analysis of wills, baptism and marriage records and so on. The importance of this is summed up by Kaufmann:
Historians have often argued that the racialised chattel slavery that developed in Colonial America was based on a mind-set imported from England. But the experiences here show that slavery was not an inevitable result of the Anglo-African encounter. Coupled with evidence of free Africans in early Virginia, this book adds weight to the conclusion that American slavery was something that emerged in the very specific economic and social circumstances of the early colonies.
I agree with this conclusion, and the value of Kaufmann's book is precisely that it does support this argument. However what I felt the book didn't do was explain what, precisely, did lead to the racism that developed in the UK and the United States. If it did come from such "specific economic and social circumstances" how did it develop? Who pushed it and why? I think the answer lies in the way slavery and capitalism were linked - the need to justify slavery and stop the unity of black and white that would oppose the barbaric trade.

Miranda Kaufmann's book is an excellent and accessible book that demonstrates that racism and prejudice were not automatic in the encounter between Europeans and Africans. If it didn't go far enough to explain where that racism did come from, that certainly isn't enough to stop me recommending it to others.

Related Reviews

Snowden - Before Colour Prejudice
Richardson - Say it Loud
Fryer - Staying Power

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Kim Stanley Robinson - New York 2140

What will life be like for people when global warming has melted the ice caps and climate change has transformed the world's environment? The vast majority of scientists conclude that the temperature rises we can expect by the end of the current century will mean a colossal human catastrophe, unless there we radically reduce the amount of carbon emissions. These changes will mean disaster for millions of people with water shortages, heat waves, flooding, extreme weather and famine following. Millions of people will suffer and there will be a corresponding catastrophe for the Earth's flora and fauna.

Runway climate change - the result of global warming causing processes that feedback and lead to more global warming - could, in some scenarios lead to levels of warming that make Earth uninhabitable for humans. But before that takes place, there will be millions of people living, and struggling, on a hotter world.

This then is the premise for Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel. He focuses on the city of New York after two major "pulse" events have led to significant sea level rises that have destroyed much of the world's coast lines and turned cities like New York into collections of island skyscrapers. People have learnt to adapt - to sea the basement floors and build farms on the top of the towers. Many of the towers in Robinson's New York of 2140 are run by a sort of collective democratic leadership.

Capitalism still exists, and Robinson brilliantly shows how the system adapts to these changes. New financial markets are opened up with wealthy speculators betting on the way that water levels change the value of the markets. Robinson uses much of this to discuss the way that capitalism leads to economic and environmental crisis, and how governments are prepared to let ordinary people suffer in order to bail out the banks and the system.

The story follows a group of people living the Met tower - a couple of computer experts who have tried to hack the financial system to bring capitalism down, a policewoman who is trying to find out who kidnapped them, a financial speculator who is obsessed with new ways of making himself rich in the era of high water levels and various other characters including a couple of kids who find treasure worth billions. One rather lovable chatterer is Amelia who pilots a blimp and has an enormous "cloud following" of viewers who watch her nature films. These characters all gradually come to the conclusion that the system is broken and is heading for a major economic crash, and the time is right to change things.

Reading this as an environmental activist and a Marxist I had three problems with the book. At this point I should emphasis that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favourite authors, but there are major problems with this novel. Firstly the world he depicts, post climate disaster, is simply to good. This is basically early 21st century capitalism with higher sea levels and no ice-caps. You don't get any sense of how the warming that has lead to the pulse events has impacted the rest of the world. Even the stories of the Netherlands being destroyed and replaced by a floating city state seem to imply that everything is OK really. The refugees who make it to the Met come across as slightly lost migrants, rather than people who have seen their entire world collapse. In fact we hear next to nothing about what is taking place in the rest of the world. Surely there are wars, famines and disasters?

In other words, Robinson's future is too nice. There's no real sense that global warming has led to phase shift of the planet's ecological system. Things are just a little bit worse than they were. It's not a scientifically accurate picture of what could happen and it downplays the crisis we are in the midst of. In addition, Robinson's belief that technology is the solution seems naive too. New York 2140 is extremely high-tech, the environmental disaster having apparently spurred innovation to solve the problems of the world.

Secondly the economics just don't work. While reading this I was suddenly struck by the idea that this was actually not a revolutionary work (despite the mass involvement of ordinary people in a capital "strike" that puts the economy into crisis). It's a book about how Keynesian economics must replace neo-liberalism if we're to have social and ecological justice. The big, radical idea at the heart of the book is to nationalise the banks. It's inadequate in the context of Robinson's world and its not enough if we want to really challenge real-world capitalism.

The final problem I had is that the story doesn't go anywhere. There are some brilliant bits - a very well described riot in the aftermath of a huge storm, and a comic chapter about polar bears and blimps - but the story is weak and ends by getting the reader to believe that Washington really is an OK place if only you get the right people elected.

To be a little blunter, I think this is the book that Robinson wrote after reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and seeing Trump elected instead of Clinton. Klein's book is a great read in terms of understanding the scale of the environmental crisis and its roots in capitalism. But she fails to put across a revolutionary challenge and falls back on a Keynesian solution - where neo-liberalism ends and the state is more directly involved. These are laudable aims, but as a solution to exploitation, oppression and environmental crisis it is inadequate. In Robinson's homage to New York, even a highly flooded one, it underpins a very weak novel indeed. Sadly you can imagine someone reading this and concluding that climate change isn't actually that bad.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - Aurora
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Eamon Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars

This is a fascinating and comprehensive account of the impact of the English Reformation on the people of England in particular how they practised their religion and how they understood their world. Eamon Duffy is a master at mining church records for the minutiae of everyday life, as his wonderful book The Voices of Morebath showed. In The Stripping of the Altars he takes this to a new level, giving an over-view of a couple of centuries of change.

A key point that Duffy makes is that there is no "substantial gulf" between the religion of the clergy and the elite and the mass of the population. While the more well off may have had better religious books, nicer churches and so on, the actuality of how they worshipped and what they believed was near identical. Nor was this a period where the mass of the population was kept in ignorance while the ruling class had all the knowledge - one of the main arguments here is that there was wide knowledge of church doctrine. For instance, on the "eve of the Reformation" there were some 50,000 Books of Hours in circulation, many of them produced in cheap editions in continental "factories" aimed at a mass audience.

Duffy uses the phrase "traditional religion" to describe religious beliefs and practises before the Reformation. His detailed reconstruction of what this entails is fascinating. For instance, he shows how the life of rural villages was dominated by a "liturgical calendar". This had major implications for economic (agricultural) life, as there were "almost seventy days in the year when adults were obliged to fast" and numerous feast days when work was not permitted and the laity were expected to attend services. For the whole population the religious dynamic, its calendar, its sequence of religious services, the way that the church prepared its followers for life, and death, was central to how people lived. As Duffy notes, "for townsmen and countrymen alike, the rhythms of the liturgy on the eve of the Reformation remained the rhythms of life itself."

Duffy distances his analysis from those who saw within the traditional church a tendency to hold onto older, "pagan" practises. He shows how many beliefs, such as superstitions or astrology, where incorporated into religious practice. He also shows how the Protestant suppression of many aspects of traditional worship (Duffy uses a fascinating example of religious plays) helped to undermine wider knowledge of religious doctrine. Take the example of The Kalender of Shepherdes,  a book translated from French in the early 1500s. It was a "beautiful and an unmistakably lay book... an extraordinary mixture of calendrical, astrological and medical lore, together with orthodox religious instruction imaginatively presented". As Duffy points out, many clergy would have found the mix uncomfortable, but the popularity of the Kalender was in its ability to create an
assimilation into popular culture, by commercial publishers for a mass audience, of the official educational programme of the Church.... the Kalender certainly found a readership which would have considered unpalatable many more over didactic treatises, for it was common place of the time... that the people were often resistant to catechesis.
The pre-Reformation traditional religion that Duffy describes was an all encompassing explanation for the world as it was and how it would be. It's focus on death was not a morbid obsession with human mortality, but a response to a religious view that placed the afterlife as a key question for the living, and indeed often saw the dead as remaining connected to the living community. This is the importance of the question of indulgences that were exchanged for prayers etc. Some of the most fascinating aspects of Duffy's book are the chapters were he examines what death meant for people of the late Middle Ages and how it affected their everyday lives.

The second half of the book is a look at how the English Reformation played out. Here I felt the work wasn't as strong as the first half. This is not because Duffy's use of the historic material is weaker, in fact his detailed examination of what the Reformation meant in practice, in terms of changes to religious practices, the removal of feast and Saints days, changes to books and bibles and the physical alterations to religious spaces is fascinating and detailed. The weakness arises more out of Duffy's failure to see the Reformation as being linked to the changes taking place in the English economy. He does note in places the class content to the Reformation, and the way that how the Reformation proceeds is closely linked to the class interests of individuals. In places he does come close to this, so I would be wrong to completely dismiss Duffy's analysis here. For instance he writes
There can have been few if any communities in which Protestants formed anything like an actual numerical majority. The influence of the reform usually stemmed from the not always very secure social and economic prestige of its more prosperous or articulate adherents.
But this is to ignore the fact that the real influence of Protestants was making itself felt at a different level in society - some of the key figures in the English state. This is why the Reformation could proceed even though Henry VIII was a traditionalist at heart and why it could be reversed briefly under Mary's reign. When revolt did break out against the changes, such as the Prayerbook Rebellion or the Pilgrimage of Grace, what mattered for the ruling class was the mobilisation of armed bodies of men. Thus we have to see the Reformation in terms of the different class interests it represented and sadly I felt that Duffy is a little weak on this.

The Reformation took a long time. The changes that were driven through did not simply abolish the beliefs in peoples heads. The resurgence of Catholicism under Mary saw many worshippers gladly return to traditional practises. In many examples digging up the statues they'd hidden, rescuing the church cloths and candlesticks and re-writing their wills in ways that reflected their traditional beliefs. But the Reformation did eventually transform England's Church because it was closely linked to the development of a new economic system. Duffy sees the Protestant Church's success as being mostly due to the way that ordinary people responded, "By the end of the 1570s, whaever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believe d the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world."

This is true to a large extent. But England kept the Protestant faith as its official religion because its proponents where the new ruling class. For that to be cemented for good eventually required a revolution and the shattering of monarchical power for good.

Despite the weaknesses I think that Eamon Duffy's book has, I have no hesitation in recommending it anyone who wants to understand more about the Reformation and what it meant for ordinary people. It brings alive the lives and struggles of those who lived in villages across England whose world was shattered by the changes.

Related Reviews

Duffy - Voices of Morebath
MacCulloch - Reformation
Wilson - The People and the Book
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Monday, December 04, 2017

Leon Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution

I chose to re-read Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution over November 2017, exactly one hundred years since the all to brief triumph of the Revolution it discusses. Doing so allowed me to reflect on what that Revolution meant, but also how it has been portrayed, interpreted and understood since.

You don't have to read much of Trotsky's book to see how inadequate the coverage of 1917 has been for the centenary. Trotsky's work is a masterpiece of literature, powerful writing combined with a Marxist clarity that gives an unrivalled historical perspective on the events of the Revolutionary year. As a result The History of the Russian Revolution reads like a novel, in fact its very structure feels at times like a fictional account as the author builds tension towards the climatic seizure of power. The book teams with passages that are quotable, but take this section describing the situation as power decisively shifts away from the "compromisers" and towards the Bolsheviks:
Kerensky... was confidently calculating that in case of danger the Central Executive Committee, in spite of all family misunderstandings, would come to his aid in time. It was so in July and in August. Why should it not continue so? But now it is no longer July and no longer August. It is October. Cold and raw Baltic winds from the direction of Kronstadt are blowing through the squares and along the quays of Petrograd.
Junkers in long coats to their heels are patrolling the streets, drowning their anxiety in songs of triumph. The mounted police are riding up and down, prancing, their revolvers in brand-new holsters. No. The power still looks imposing enough! Or is this perhaps an optical illusion? At a corner of the Nevsky, John Reed, an American with naïve and intelligent eyes in his head, buys a brochure of Lenin’s entitled 'Will the Bolsheviks Be Able To Hold the State Power?' paying for it with one of those postage stamps which are now circulating in place of money.
These two paragraphs demonstrate a couple of things about Trotsky's book. First is the way he manages to get across a real sense of the balance of class forces and how they shift and change throughout 1917. Secondly is the way that Trotsky builds tension and drama - the raw winds blowing from the base of the revolutionary sailors at Kronstadt towards Petrograd aren't just about the weather, and secondly Trotsky's ability to build narrative tension as the crisis deepens in Russia.

But it is Trotsky's historical account that is most important. Despite portraying himself in the third person (a writer's master stroke in my opinion) Trotsky eschews any attempt at an independent historical narrative - this is polemic. But it is polemic for two reasons - the first, and most obvious is that it is designed to arm and give confidence to socialists who are trying to build revolutionary organisation and look to the Russian Revolution for inspiration.

Closely linked to this is Trotsky's battle with Stalin. The History of the Russian Revolution was written towards the end of the 1920s and finished in 1930 and comes immediately after Trotsky's defeat by Stalin and his exile. Thus the book has to be understood as reassertion of Trotsky's principle political arguments against Stalin, in particular Trotsky's argument that "socialism in one country" was impossible. Thus some of the most important sections of the book do not actually deal with 1917 but with the historical context of Russia's economic development to the revolutionary years.

Trotsky explicitly sets this out in several appendices which he hopes that a tenth or hundredth of his readers will read in addition to the main account. Trotsky was setting out on his new task of finding handfuls of supporters who could rebuild the international socialist movement. His focus on the role of the Bolsheviks' here and how they related to the mass movements on the streets is a key part of the story and his polemic.

But the majority of readers will, as Trotsky acknowledged, read this book for its unrivalled historical account of 1917. It is a long and detailed book, which seems to have penetrating insights on every page. But it's length shouldn't intimidate - Trotsky's writing is clear, passionate and at times very funny. Take his hilarious thumb nail portraits of the Russian generals who would go on to form the basis of the counter-revolutionary White Terror:
An army is always a copy of the society it serves – with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme. It is no accident that the war did not create one single distinguished military name in Russia. The high command was sufficiently characterised by one of its own members: “Much adventurism, much ignorance, much egotism, intrigue, careerism, greed, mediocrity and lack of foresight” – writes General Zalessky – “and very little knowledge, talent or desire to risk life, or even comfort and health.” Nikolai Nikolaievich, the first commander-in-chief, was distinguished only by his high stature and august rudeness. General Alexeiev, a grey mediocrity, the oldest military clerk of the army, won out through mere perseverance. Kornilov was a bold young commander whom even his admirers regarded as a bit simple; Kerensky’s War Minister, Verkhovsky, later described him as the lion heart with the brain of a sheep. Brussilov and Admiral Kolchak a little excelled the others in culture, if you will, but in nothing else. Denikin was not without character, but for the rest, a perfectly ordinary army general who had read five or six books. And after these came the Yudeniches, the Dragomirovs the Lukomskies, speaking French or not speaking it, drinking moderately or drinking hard, but amounting to absolutely nothing. First time readers might be surprised that some of the most fascinating chapters are those that deal not with the revolution but with the ruling class that was overthrown - Trotsky showing why their regime was ripe for collapse.
But ultimately this is a description of a year of revolutionary upheaval that involved millions of people in action. Trotsky never loses sight of that key fact - that the revolution was made by ordinary men and women, and he celebrates this fact at every stage. In fact by focusing on the ideas, slogans and demands of the factories and streets Trotsky is able to get to the heart of why the Bolsheviks were able to lead the working class to victory. This is a celebration of mass democracy, participation and revolutionary dynamism.

No other author does it as well as Trotsky's history and no one trying to understand 1917 can avoid reading this book. I first read this as a young socialist some 25 years ago. Re-reading it again a quarter of a century later I was struck by how fresh it felt, but also, how much of it I had retained and learnt from. Perhaps that's Trotsky's true legacy.

In the course of 2017 I've read or re-read a number of books related to the Revolutionary Year of 1917. Those reviews can be found here.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - On Britain
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Trotsky - 1905
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October