Friday, May 25, 2018

John le Carré - The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Re-reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold ahead of getting hold of its sequel, I am struck once again how perfectly crafted le Carré's books are. In barely 200 pages the novel takes us from its famous opening scene in the dark night near the border between East and West Berlin, to a thrilling ending after an incredibly complex story. In fact, much of the story is simply people conversing, as former spy controller Alec Leamus changes sides and begins to work for the other side. Needless to say there is a deep and shocking twist, but what really makes the novel is the increasingly scary and intense atmosphere as Leamus is pulled deeper and deeper into enemy territory.

It is, of course, nearly impossible to review this book without giving away plot details. But the atmosphere for dull, grey 1960s London is worth mentioning. Beef tea, tinned chicken and cold single rooms warmed by a weak gas's not just the interrogations that are chilly. You get a real sense of Britain at the end of it's imperial greatness... it's neighborhoods are dirty, it's airports and bars grim and utilitarian. Even the drinks are bland. Everyone is tired and fed up. Even the activists of the Communist Party groups fake their paper sales figures so they can go home early.

Its a wonderful novel. It's so perfect that when they filmed it they barely seemed to change a scene. By turns punchy and shocking, and ultimately deeply tragic. This is spycraft stripped bare of any glamour - lies and counter lies, bureacracy gone mad, cowardly murders and every sentence uttered mined for information. Its not James Bond, its something far more real.

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany
le Carré - A Murder of Quality

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Michael Roberts - Marx 200: A Review of Marx’s Economics 200 years after his birth

This short, but clear and well-written book is one of the better explanations of Karl Marx's economics to come out of the publishing frenzy that marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. Michael Roberts focuses on Marx's economic work and its importance today, as well as defending Marx's approach (in particular his laws of the labour theory of value, and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall) from critics, both left and right. In doing so, Roberts demonstrates the importance of Marx's ideas to understanding capitalism in the 21st century.

I have been asked to write a fuller review for a publication and I'll post that review here when it is published. In the mean time below are links to a review of Robert's book on the Long Depression and in the same vein a highly recommended book by Chris Harman Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx.

Related Reviews

Roberts - The Long Depression
Harman - Zombie Capitalism

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Neal Stephenson - Snow Crash

Snow Crash is one of the great works of science fiction that came out in the run up to the millennium. Alongside writers like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson pushed new boundaries that saw the potential for new technologies like virtual reality, but also recognised that society limited how those technologies would be used.

Snow Crash is notable for putting virtual reality at the heart of the story, and in some ways it probably works better now than it did in 1992. 25 years ago did anyone really think that it would be possible to enter a virtual world on your computer while travelling at high-speed along a motorway?

The brilliantly named Hiro Protagonist is sacked from his job delivering pizzas right at the start of the book. He's a hacker extraordinaire and quickly becomes involved in a complicated plot involving a corporate Mafia, a computer virus that can kill in the real world, and the interests of an extraordinarily rich private church. The characters are all larger than life and many of them poke fun at particular sub-cultures. The 15 year old Y.T. who is a kourier using her skateboard to surf through traffic via grappling hooks is brilliant. But even the minor characters, like the US President that everyone ignores, are well done.

The plot races along, in fact there are several dramatic chase scenes as Hiro and Y.T. try to get to the bottom of what is happening.

Despite being published in 1992 this dark comic novel of hacking and virtual reality set against a backdrop of a disintegrated United States has aged extremely well. In part that is because Stephenson doesn't spell out in to much detail the technology of the time. Technology has a way of developing far quicker than authors imagine and too much science fiction is blighted by characters using technology that sounded futuristic when it was written, but dated five years later. In fact the most fantastic technology in Snow Crash is the wonderful adaptive wheeled skateboard that Y.T. uses; and that's because its actually unworkable.

But what really makes the novel work today is that the trends that Stephenson has bigged up for comic effect in 1992 still seem eerily real. A United States were the Mafia have achieved corporate power and Fast Food delivery has become something done by low paid couriers racing against the clock, risking death as they go, doesn't seem that far off. The coding factory that Y.T's mum works in, where managers monitor every mouse click and time taken to read an email might have seemed like a dystopian future in the 1990s, yet today it's reality for millions of workers.

Snow Crash is a classic novel that retains much of its punch over a quarter of a century after its initial publication, but in someways seems even more relevant today. It would be churlish to compare this with Stephenson's absolutely superb Baroque Cycle, as they are completely different books, so whether or not you liked those as much as I did, you should try Snow Crash.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - Quicksilver
Stephenson - The Confusion
Stephenson - The System of the World

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chris Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After

Rather like 2017, 2018 is proving to be a year of reading books associated with various anniversaries. But most importantly it is fifty years since 1968, a year of global rebellion, and Chris Harman's Fire Last Time is an excellent introduction to the period. I first read this as a student when I was a new recruit to the socialist movement and the accounts of massive student rebellion linking together with workers rising was extremely inspiring. Re-reading it today I was struck by Harman's ability to contextualise these struggles and highlight the dynamic of student and workers' revolt.

1968 saw the May events in France when the outbreak of student protest against de Gualle's government led to massive street fighting in Paris and, until then, the biggest General Strike in history. It also saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia to stop the Prague Spring, huge radicalism in the United States against the Vietnam War and an escalation in the Civil Rights movement. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and the Black Panther's became mainstream. It was also the year of student revolt (and massacre) in Mexico, and in Britain (where Harman was himself active) student radicalism, leading within a few years to workers struggle.

Within a few years, military juntas and fascist dictators in Greece, Portugal and Spain had also fallen, with movements that shared many similarities to those of 1968. Italy saw an explosion of workers struggle and in Portugal the spectre of revolution in Europe was raised for the first time since the 1920s.

Harman is brilliant at showing the dynamics of these movements, how they arose out of changes within the system but where also limited by existing organisations. In particular the role of the Communist Party in Western Europe was to limit struggle, redirect it and often to conciously protect the system in exchange for a seat at the Capitalist table. Take, for example, Harman's comments on the end of the French revolt. de Gaulle had described the situation as a choice between elections and civil war. But Harman points out that there was another way forward,
This would have meant encouraging forms of strike organisation that involved all workers, the most 'backward' as well as the most advanced, in shaping their own destinies - strike committees, regular mass meetings in the occupied plants, picketing and occupation rotas involving the widest numbers of people, delegations to other plants and to other sections of society involved int eh struggle. Everyone would then have had an opportunity to take part directly i the struggle and to discuss its political lessons. It would also have meant generalising the demands of the struggle, so that no section of workers would return to work before a settlement of the vital questions worrying other sections.
In other words, what was needed was a deepening of the struggle. No organisation existed that was willing to do this, and it wasn't certain that it would have been successful. But the Communist Party didn't try - it was to concerned with events getting out of control and threatening its own position. Instead they did the opposite - preventing student protesters meeting workers on strike for instance. The result was the defeat of the movement and de Gaulle winning the election.

1968 saw rebellion grow on a mass scale, and we get a real sense of the way that this transforms ordinary people. For example, this account, quoted by Harman, by a worker who was also a part time student, of a meeting in their factory in the midst of the Yugoslavian student movement.
I proposed the workers first familiarise themselves with the demands and problems presented by the students... The leaders of the meeting did not allow me to continue speaking. But with the loud support of the workers I climbed on a chair and read an 'appeal' to all workers written by the students... I would have to be a poet to describe the excited reaction of the workers as they learned of the students's demands.
There are countless other examples in this book, and while Harman apologises for focusing on key movements (particularly Western Europe) he does highlight many struggles that are not usually associated with 1968.

But his analysis stands out also for his ability to locate 1968 in wider contexts.
1968 was itself a product... of the way the pattern of capital accumulation on a world scale had caused a crisis of US hegemony, of the fragmentation of the Stalinist bloc, and of the fusing together of formerly submissive rural populations into powerful new groups of workers. Likewise objective economic changes had led to the creation of the vast new student populations, forced to try to learn sets of ideas which no longer made sense of a world that seemed to be cracking up.
He continues that without these changes, the
student movement along would have ended as it began, as a pressure group committed to university reform. The anti-war movement... would have been trapped in the politics of pacifist protest and moral indignation. Revulsion at the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia would merely have strengthened liberal ideas in East Europe and built Eurocommunist reformism in Western Europe. Even the strikes in France might have been experienced just as economic protests, without any great ideological significance.
This is important because it illustrates that 1968 was not a unique event but arose out of the internal contradictions of capitalism. While events will not repeat themselves, the contradictions have not gone away, and so 1968s lessons remain important. Crucial to this is the experience of the newly formed revolutionary, anti-Stalinist, socialist organisations. Harman devotes space to showing why many of these failed to grow and why others were successful. But he points out how, at key points, particularly in the aftermath of 1968 some of these groups were able to play important roles in the struggles that took place. Chris Harman devoted his life to building revolutionary socialist organisation. The First Last Time was an important contribution that helped a new generation understand that vital need. In 2018, as capitalism once again offers us war, racism, poverty and now environmental disaster, the book deserves to be read by a new generation of anti-capitalists.

The Fire Last Time has just been republished by Bookmarks Publications, with a new introduction by Joseph Choonara.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Harman - Marxism and History

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Guy Gavriel Kay - Children of Earth and Sky

Having picked up Children of Earth and Sky on a whim in the library, I was extremely taken by Guy Gavriel Kay's writing. This sweeping alternative history is well written, engaging and doesn't suffer at all from the common fantasy troops that bedevil so much writing in the genre. In fact there is very little fantasy at all - some characters can talk to dead relatives, who advise, protect and seem to operate as a sort of sixth sense. But there is are no spells, teleportation or magical swords.

It took me a while to realise, that the obligatory map at the front is a lightly concealed plan of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed the book is set mostly in what is now Croatia in the later medieval era. It deals with the clashes between city states of our Italy (principally a very thinly disguised Venice, called Seressa) and the Asharia empires to their east. While religious practice is completely different in Kay's world, the beliefs of the characters are analogous to Christian and Islam.

The characters are well rounded, believable and entertaining. I was particularly taken by Danica Gradek, a young woman archer who is determined to avenge her brother's kidnap by Asharia raiding parties. But the plot hinges on the mission of a young, and distinctly naive painter,  Pero Villani, who is travelling from Seressa to paint the Grand Khalif of the Asharias in the western style.

The author sets things up well for a thrilling denouncement, but there are several thoroughly enjoyable subplots and story arcs, as well as some brilliant characters. The lightness of the fantasy makes this more an alternative history, and I am already looking forward to returning to the author's writing.