Tuesday, October 30, 2018

William A. Pelz - A People's History of the German Revolution

November 2018 marks the centenary of the start of the German Revolution. This was, as William Pelz notes in the conclusion to his book, an event of utmost significance. "Had", he writes, "the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust." It would also, we should add, have strengthened the position of Soviet Russia and most certainly prevented that revolution's isolation and degeneracy. The world would be a very different, and likely better, place.

But the German Revolution is barely remembered. Pelz notes that few of his students had ever heard of it, and Chris Harman, famously called it the "Lost Revolution". So it is welcome that this new book has been published that can rescue the events of 1918 and 1919 for a new generation of activists. It is also good that this history has been written by someone broadly sympathetic to the Revolution and the people who made it.

Pelz locates the German Revolution as a culmination of a process that begins before World War One. This is the growth of the mass German socialist party the SPD. This, Pelz argues, was revolutionary in tone yet had developed a significant base within the system. Pelz quotes historian Lynn Abrams, "A working-class family could purchase its groceries at the socialist cooperative, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, exercise at a workers' sports club, sing in the workers' choir, if necessary call on the workers Samaritan Association in the event of an accident and draw on the workers' burial fund upon the death of a family member." But Pelz shows how the SPD had helped develop a "highly politicised working class" within which a "striking six percent put forth that there most important wish was to 'settle accounts with the capitalists.'"

It was this that led them to support German involvement in the war and then to take a counter-revolutionary attitude to the anti-war and then revolutionary movements. Pelz also shows the way that the deprivations of the war and the reality of life in the trenches helped create the spark for the events that began in late 1918. He also argues, convincingly, that anti-war sentiment was very strong in the German army quite early in the conflict.

The book is called "A People's History" and Pelz highlights the role of ordinary people in making the Revolution. In particular he celebrates the central (and often downplayed) involvement of women in the movements - first during the war when they played major roles in food riots - but then during the revolution itself. Women had been sucked into the factories as the men were sent to the front and played a crucial role in overthrowing the Kaiser and ending the war. I found these sections the most interesting and people who have read other accounts of the German Revolution will find much new material here.

I did have some problems with Pelz's account. Most important of these is that Pelz repeatedly dismisses those who argue that what was central to the defeat of the Revolution was the lack of a revolutionary "Bolshevik" type party. He particularly singles out Chris Harman for this criticism. But Pelz seems to misunderstand the role of such a party. The key problem with the German Revolution, as Pelz himself acknowledges, was that at particular points no strong enough force existed outside the SPD to hold back or drive forward the movement. Even when the German Communist Party (KPD) was formed this was too immature to play such a role. Lenin's Bolsheviks' in Russia were able to play that role and thus lead an insurrection after a year of revolutionary turmoil in which they had proved themselves to the masses. The existence of such a party in Germany, built long before World War One started, could have made sure the ups and downs of 1919 helped develop the working class movement in ways that ironed out its weaknesses.

This is most clear when looking at Pelz's discussion of the January 1919 Spartakist Uprising. This clearly should not have taken place - it's failure to involve a majority of the working class simply allowed the right to accelerate their repression. Instead Pelz argues that the alternative would have been a "revolutionary committee" that could have "deposed" the government and formed a new one based on the "left-wing USPD, the KPD and revolutionary shop stewards in Berlin". That may or may not have been successful as Pelz points out, possible leading to a bloody Paris Commune or a second "socialist" revolution. But surely the reason this didn't happen was the lack of clear revolutionary leadership - and had that existed in a party - the question of a workers' government might have been moot.

Chris Harman quotes Rosa Luxemburg before she was murdered. The defeat's cause lay she said, on "the contradiction between the powerful, resolute and offensive appearance of the Berlin masses on the one hand, and the irresoluteness, timidity and indecision of the Berlin leadership on the other". Harman then continues, "With a powerful revolutionary party, the Berlin working class would probably not have walked into the trap laid by Ebert, Noske and the generals".

To be fair to Pelz, he has not set out to right a manual for Revolutionaries, but a pure work of history. But the problem is that he also knows that had the German Revolution been successful it would have likely prevented the horrors that followed in the "midnight of the century". That success would have relied on the involvement of the masses in history which Pelz celebrates. But it also required political leadership that was prepared to take it forward. So while Pelz's book has much of interest, I recommend that it is read alongside other accounts such as that by Pierre Broue or Chris Harman's work.

Related Reviews

Broué - The German Revolution 1917-1923
Reissner - Hamburg at the Barricades
Fernbach - In the Steps of Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Writings of Paul Levi
Hoffrogge - Working Class Politics in the German Revolution
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Hippe - And Red is the Colour of Our Flag

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth - Wolfbane

Many years ago, I read, and re-read, Pohl and Kornbluth's classic novel The Space Merchants. It was a remarkable novel that has stuck with me for many years. For some reason though I never moved on to other works by the pair and having finally read Wolfbane, a novel first published in 1952, I really regret that delay.

By any standards Wolfbane is a remarkable book. It is set on a vastly depopulated Earth which has been stolen from the solar system by pyramid aliens who dimly illuminate the planet with an artificial sun that gradually diminishes. The aliens live on their own planet also orbiting their miniature sun, though they are apparently ignorant of the difficult lives of those that remain on Earth. The humans that remain, descendants of those who survived the enormous crisis that followed the planet's removal from solar orbit, have succumbed to a passive existence based on tightly controlled rituals, strictly regulated social interactions and a lack of emotional engagement with others.

In this strictly controlled atmosphere many individuals appear to go insane, or rogue. Known as Wolves they are punished by execution, but they consider themselves to be far superior to the ritualised sheep. The Wolf at the centre of the novel, Glen Tropile, manages to break out of his imprisonment following his discovery. Fleeing, he in turn finds a community of wolves who are living a superior lifestyle under the alien's radar and those of the rest of humanity - here is more food, technology and a better society. But this is in turn disturbed by Glen's capture and translocation by an alien to the Pyramid's homeworld. Here Tropile leads an unusual revolution. He is reincarnated as a component part of a collective being, one of thousands that help maintain the alien planet. The rebellion that he/their lead is a remarkably written account that seems to predict future networked technologies and, perhaps, some of the cyberpunk genre.

For a novel written over 60 years ago, this is still incredibly fresh. It has interesting things to say about society, rebellion and environmental disaster, as well as an innovative plot. I'd highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Clarke & Pohl - The Last Theorem
London - The Star Rover
Haldeman - All My Sins Remembered
Aldiss - Non Stop

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Nur Masalha - Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History

The Israeli state's war against the Palestinians is a travesty that continues to anger millions of people around the globe. Every atrocity that hits the news can be guaranteed in Britain to provoke protests that call for justice for the Palestinian people. Jeremy Corbyn's ongoing support for the Palestinians has meant that the question of Zionism - the ideology behind the founding of the Israeli state in 1948 - has become a major issue for the left and the Labour Party, as right-wing enemies of Corbyn seek to undermine him by portraying opposition to Zionism as the same as Antisemitism. I reject that equation and believe that socialists must show full solidarity with the Palestinian people, combined with an absolute rejection of antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and racism.

Nur Masalha's new book is an important contribution to our understanding of the history of the region. As Masalha argues, this history is contested and differing understandings of that history have been deployed by both the British colonial powers and the Israeli state since 1948.

Masalha writes in his introduction that:
Some Arab writers and artists promoting the political and national cause of Palestine or pan-Arabism create meta-narratives to depict Palestinian national identity or Arab nationalism as being more ancient that they actually are. Moreover, until the advent of anachronistic European political Zionism at the turn of the 20th century the people of Palestine...included Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Arab Jews. Being a rendering of the Israeli Zionist/Palestinian conflict, historically speaking the binary of Arab versus Jew in Palestine is deeply misleading.
Masalha continues a few pages later to argue that "the Zionist liberal coloniser has often sought to combine 'settler-colonisation' with 'democracy' - two contradictory projects - and this tendency has in recent decade contributed to the emergence of the 'New Histories' of Israel." This new history, however, is a continuation of the process of hiding the real history of the region and Palestine itself.

The book begins with a detailed examination of the notion of "Palestine" from the bronze-age onwards. Masalha traces the origins of the term Palestine and shows, at different points, how it has been used by contemporaries to identify a place and a people. This contrasts, he argues, with ideological histories that base themselves in biblical texts, and have been used to undermine or subsume Palestinian history into an "invented tradition". For instance, Masalha explains that there is "no material history or archaeological or empirical evidence" for the 'Kingdom of David'. Nor, for instance, despite the systematic exploration and excavation of Egypt, is there any evidence for the Old Testament story of Moses "leading the 'Israelite tribes' from Egypt to 'Cana'an'." Indeed the name Cana'an is itself a "late literary construct". In contrast,
Palestine was the name used most commonly, consistently and continuously for over 1200 years throughout classical and Late Antiquity, from the highlight of classical Athenian civilisation in 500 BC until the end of the Byzantine period and the occupation of Palestine by the Muslim armies in 637-638 AD.
Despite the book's title, there is not a great deal of day-to-day history here. Instead Masalha studies the concept of Palestine, how it is discussed and understood by contemporaries. He cites many accounts, from different authors of many different backgrounds to show how Palestine has existed historically. All this is an important backdrop to the final third of the book which looks at the way that Palestine in the colonial period has been used and then denigrated. Masalha writes that the
English Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and rise of European capitalism impacted on the economy of Palestine directly and profoundly. These new forces also contributed to the reorientation of Palestine towards Europe and creation of a new political economy and statehood in mid-18th century Palestine.
But with British colonial rule came divide and rule. In contrast to the earlier, "fluid" boundaries in Jerusalem, for instance, "separating the lives of Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Muslims", Masalha quotes one historian Salim Tamari writing about Jerusalem that the "quarter system signalling the division of the Old City into confessional bounded domains was introduced and imposed retroactively on the city by British colonial regulations."

Masalha shows how it was the support by the most powerful colonial power of the time for Zionist plans that made them mainstream. This was done, Masalha argues, out of a combination of colonial and domestic interests on the part of the British.

Few British politicians cared about Jewish people or their history. Many were openly antisemitic and wanted to encourage Jews to leave Europe. Others were religious evangelicals. But all were motivated primarily by a need to strengthen Britain's imperial project. To make it work they had to create a racist myth that denied the Palestinians their history and even their existence. Lord Shaftesbury, Chairman of the Palestine Exploration Fund said, in an oft repeated phrase, that Palestine was "a country without a people" for "a people without a country". Shaftesbury was a key figure in "biblical restorationism" and politicians like him believed that a "'Jewish Palestine' would be convenient for a British protectorate there along the main route to India". The motivation by the British was not out of altruism for Jews facing pogroms and racism, but to protect their imperial interests.

The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War Two was accompanied by the systematic destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages. New settlements were created on the ruins, and Masalha describes the ways that places were renamed as part of a creation of identity. As the author writes, "this massive appropriation of Palestinian heritage provided support for the European Jewish colonisers' claim to represent an indigenous people returning to its homeland after 200 years of exile." Later Masalha argues that this creation of a historical identity is key to the contemporary ideology of the Israeli state, "the treatment of the cultural heritage of Palestine as a tool for Zionist settler purposes is central to Israeli educational policies, the Israeli biblical academy and the Israeli government's renaming projects."

Masalha clearly demonstrates the way that the history of Palestine, a history where Jews, Arabs, Christians and others lived together peacefully for long periods of time, has been ignored, erased and destroyed in the interests of the modern Israeli state. This is detailed history that restores the forgotten past in the interests of a more just future for everyone, from all backgrounds and religions, in the Middle East.

I do however want to note a couple of minor problems. Firstly the book is difficult to follow in places, primarily because there are no maps which makes it hard to understand where various places are, particularly as names change frequently. I hope the publishers amend this for the paperback. Secondly in many places Masalha has included multiple examples to prove his argument, often leading to several pages of bullet pointed comments that are tiresome to read and unnecessary.

Those criticisms aside, this is an important work of history that has great contemporary relevance. I hope it is widely read and discussed.

Related Reviews

Levi - If Not Now, When?
Rose - The Myths of Zionism

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lillian Beckwith - The Sea for Breakfast

During three wonderful childhood holidays in Scotland in the 1980s I was introduced to the enormously popular Lillian Beckwith books by my father who was a great enthusiast for them. I don't really remember much about reading them then, but retained a memory of warmth for the semi-autobiographical works. Beckwith moved to the Scottish islands as a rest cure and lived there for many years wirting a series of books about her life there. It is difficult to know exactly what is true and what isn't.

During more recent trips to Scotland I've tried to find them again, but they didn't seem to be in print, so I was pleased to find a couple recently second hand.

Unfortunately, my warm memories of them are somewhat dampened. What in the 1980s surely felt like humorous insights into isolated communities felt today, all too like the prim and snooty commentary on people whom Beckwith liked to play for laughs. While the stories are amusing, and no doubt fictionalised to a great extent, Beckwith enjoys to highlight the stupidity, daftness and simplistic logic of her characters - playing them for laughs rather than insight.

A quick glance at online reviews shows that many people read these for what they believe are insights into traditional ways of life in the Scottish Hebridean islands. Yet nothing really bad ever happens in this book. Sure there are hints at adultery, rows and peoples "simple life" is emphasised (a code for poverty in my experience), but really this is a fantasy about life in those places.

I am not surprised by reports that the community that had welcomed Lillian Beckwith into its arms was upset an angered by the books. I also doubt that she intended to cause offense, but this very much feels like middle class anthropologist going to the working class and having a very patronising smirk at their funny ways.

That's not to say there isn't stuff of interest. But this tends to be from what is said as background rather than the individual tales the author writes. I was fascinated to hear that people regularly ate Cormorant, for instance, and I was struck that the Hebridean population did not celebrate Christmas particularly and the children seemed to have invented a form of "trick or treating" long before American culture swamped western Europe.

All in all a disappointing return to a childhood classic. There's a lesson there!

Related Reviews
Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Hutchinson - The Soapman

Richards - The Highland Clearences

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Jack London - The Star Rover

From the author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, this is an unusual and fascinating science fiction novel that is now quite dated in some of its language, but is an important milestone, itself was probably influenced by works such as H.G. Well's The Time Machine.

First published in 1915 The Star Rover is an account by Darrell Standing, a professor of agriculture who is imprisoned for killing a rival for the affections of the woman he loved. In prison, a convoluted story ends up with Standing being accused of bringing in a quantity of dynamite which he supposedly plans to use for a mass breakout. The dynamite doesn't exist, but in order to torture him into confessing the dynamite's hiding place, Standing is put into isolation and subjected to increasing time in a strait-jacket. There, he learns, via communications with other inmates (made by tapping the plumbing) how to shut his body down, until he enters a trance like state. In this state he is able to travel in time and space, and experience the lives of countless other men from the stone age through medieval France and Korea to the American West.

These unconnected stories are well written historical accounts. In them, Standing experiences unusual lives - a castaway on a deserted island who survives for eight years collecting rainwater in containers carved from rock, a superb duellist, a military commander in Korea who falls from grace and spends a lifetime seeking revenge, and a young boy at the 1857 Mountain Meadow's massacre of a wagon train by the Mormons. I kept expecting these stories to be making a particular point, but they don't really come together. At the end of the novel, facing execution, Standing seems to suggest that the lesson he has learnt is that history is driven by the love of man for woman. He points to his memories of helping to invent the bow and arrow to impress his partner during stone age times and agriculture appears to have been developed for similar reasons.

The book makes it clear that these are real events. Standing learns things, from his historical and other out of body experiences that he could not have known. But all together he simply takes from his knowledge that "there is no death. Life is spirit and spirit cannot die". It's an unsatisfying end to the novel, but one that perhaps fit the early 20th century better than more modern tales - the reader can find his or her own morality tale. It is dated though. In places the language (I'm thinking particularly of the section on Korea) is quite racist by today's standards and the work is overly philosophical, as Standing meditates on life, love and society.

Towards the end, as Standing faces execution, some of London's socialist politics come through a little as he rails against the death penalty. But other than a fascination with foreign places and distant times, there's little here that gives the reader a sense that London's was a important radical activist. While it's not a great novel, it is very unusual and is undoubtedly one that will have inspired later writers. Worth getting hold of if you are interested in the development of the science-fiction genre.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Asad Haider - Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump's election made bigotry mainstream. Racists, homophobes and misogynists have been empowered by Trump's right-wing rhetoric. How the left understands and responds to this will be crucial in terms of building a united movement that can beat back the right and win real change for ordinary people, as well as protect and defend the rights of those that are under attack from the bigots. As Asad Haider's important new book shows, these battles are not confined to America and the debates are crucial for left-wingers around the globe.

But Haider begins by showing how, perhaps surprisingly, the main way that progressives have attempted to understand oppression - identity politics - has undermined their ability to build the united movements we need. Haider argues that identity politics has moved away from its original usage, as an attempt to make sure that marginalised voices and experiences were not lost to wider movements, and has become an end in itself, helping to undermine movements. He writes:
In its campus activist usage, however, 'intersectionality' appears to move in the opposite direction, retreating from the coalition-building practises of the CRC and instead generalising the condition of the plaintiff: equating political practice with the demand of restitution for an injury, inviting the construction of baroque and unnavigable intersections consisting of the litany of different identities to which a given person might belong. Those whose identity is inscribed with the most intersecting lines can claim the status of most injured, and are therefore awarded, in the juridical framework to which politics is now reduced, both discursive and institutional protection. This protected status implies neither the political subjectivity that can come from organising autonomously, nor the solidarity that is required for coalitions that can enrage in successful political action.
Here, the CRC referred to by Haider is the Combahee River Collective, a group of "black lesbian militants" in Boston, SA who in 1977 issued a statement responding to the racism and sexism in the movement which they said had "undermined" revolutionary socialism. They believed that raising questions of identity and intersectionaility would allow socialists to build stronger movements and coalitions that could be more effective.

Sadly, argues Haider, the opposite has been the case and he gives a number of examples of the ways that contemporary movements have instead become undermined by such politics. Haider points out, for instance, that the Black Lives Matter movement frequently involved groups and individuals who argued that only "black-led organisations" could organise around these issues, but the problem is that there are frequently "deep political divergences among those organisations-some of which represented the elite interests of a black bourgeoisie and explicitly sought to suppress grassroots militancy".

Against this, Haider tries to show how movements can effectively link class struggle and put anti-racism at their heart (Haider focuses on the question of race in this book, though he does not ignore other questions of oppression) including the US Communist Party in the 1930s. He also attempts to understand the retreat of left-wing politics in the context of the neoliberalism introduced by Thatcher and Reagen and followed up by many other politicians. His analysis of events in the UK draws heavily on the political theorist Stuart Hall, but I found this the least convincing part of his argument. For instance, Haider argues (along Hall's lines) that the Miners' Strike (the most damaging defeat for the British working class in the 20th century) was unwinnable from the start. But what he misses is that the Miner's almost did win on several occasions, because he neglects the role of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party. As a result, I think he almost sees the rise of neoliberalism and identity politics separated from its original class-based politics, as inevitable. That said, Haider is correct to see where it ends up, "as a result, the progressive languages of the new social movements, uprooted from their grassroots base, would be appropriated by a new ruling-class strategy."

Haider finishes his wide-ranging, short book, with an appeal for a return to a new politics of universal liberation. He takes inspiration from movements today that fight for solidarity for other groups - such as the "refugees welcome" movement in the US against Trump's Muslim bans. Despite it's short length there is a lot here, from the novels of Philip Roth to a detailed examination of the origins of racism in the Atlantic slave trade. At time I felt a little bombarded by information, but I think that this is a book that deserves a wide-readership for those of us engaged in trying to rebuild radical left politics in the 21st century.

Related Reviews

Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against RacismDresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol
Slorach - A Very Capitalism Condition
Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation

Friday, October 05, 2018

Brian W. Lavery - The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca & the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster

2018 is the 50th anniversary of 1968 and among all the mass movements and great upheavals seen in that year, there were countless other events that year that made their mark on history. One of these is the struggle of the women of Hull to improve the safety of the fishing trawlers that their husbands, fathers and sons crewed in the dangerous northern waters around Iceland. The beginning of 1968 saw three trawlers sink in one of the most powerful storms that fishers had ever seen. 58 men lost their lives and there was only one survivor.

The tragedy hit the close-knit working class community hard and in the aftermath of the sinking one woman, Lillian Bilocca, launched a petition that rapidly became a national movement demanding improved safety equipment aboard the ships. Mrs Bilocca's son was one a trawler at the time (though not one that sank) and she knew, as did many other women, that it could easily have been her son. One key demand, and it seems incredible today that it wasn't a legal requirement, was to have a qualified radio operator on board each ship. Another was against the use of "Christmas Cracker" crews - inexperienced crews sent out over the winter when more experienced crew members wanted to remain at home with their families.

Author Brian W. Lavery has a long association with Hull, and describes this book as being the result of a promise that he would "set the record straight" about Mrs Bilocca. The book begins with an account of life for fishers on the trawlers. This was an incredibly hard job;  the work required huge physical effort, long hours and often took place in appalling conditions. The ships themselves were frequently dangerous with safety equipment damaged or missing. Lavery points out that at the time ships from European fleets had better equipment and sailed with a command ship that helped look out for the smaller vessels as well as providing support. Crew members were handsomely rewarded for their dangerous work, though the real profits were made by the owners.

Venturing out in the depths of winter into appalling weather was not done out of greed on the part of the crews, but by the ship-owners knowledge that they could make a fortune from a successful return. The short-cuts, dangerous voyages and lack of equipment helped improve the profit margins, but it was the workers on the boats who paid the price. If one anecdote demonstrates this, it is that in the aftermath of the disaster as fishers who had been rescued from a Grimsby trawler were recovering in Iceland, listening to the news of the women's campaign on the radio, their skipper interrupted them.
'You are not going to believe this, lads... but they are only telling us to go back out fishing.' The men were agog but even further astonished by the skippers' next words. 'If I were you lads I wouldn't go. I'll have to get back to them with an answer. Shall I just tell them you are refusing to go? After all, we can hardly blame you.'
Not surprisingly the men said no, the first time a "company command" was refused. Nor is it a surprise that Mrs Bilocca's petition was instantly supported by thousands of locals. Together with several other outspoken women they proceeded to launch a mass campaign for safety. Brushed off by the ship-owners, and in the midst of a media storm the women took their campaign to parliament and, together with the trade union movement, were able to win promises of significant improvements.

Lillian Bilocca inspects ships for safety equipment
Mrs Bilocca found herself at the centre of a national media storm. The tragedy was just the sort of thing the national presses loved and there was a fine angle involving the grieving families and the women's campaign. Unfortunately the media was then, as now, a fickle friend, and was quite capable of turning on those it had held up a few days previously. Mrs Bilocca's working class accent and plain language was turned on her, and some sections of the media erroneously suggested that she had called for a sex strike until their men joined the campaign. Such slurs undermined the campaign and seriously upset Mrs Bilocca, as did the vicious letters sent to her accusing her of interfering in men's work and hitting the community in the pockets. Her campaign was a challenge not just to the bosses, but to many in the community itself.

Lillian Bilocca's campaign had forced the government to introduce a moratorium on fishing in the dangerous area and grant an official inquest into the disasters. Ship owners were forced to make major improvements to safety and politicians made to act. These gains were won extraordinarily quickly - and there is no doubt that this was the result of Mrs Bilocca's personal bravery and commitment. What is also clear is that while a minority of the community disliked her interference, most were of the opinion that "something had to be done" and despite the vicious threats from a small number, Mrs Bilocca's actions led to victory.

Despite the personal tragedies, and the sadness that clearly dogged Lillian Bilocca after the events (she lost her job as a result of her campaigning and never worked in the fishing industry again, having to take cleaning jobs to make ends met) this is a remarkable book that demonstrates that ordinary people can win. Lavery suggests that Lilian Bilocca and her comrades' "Headscarf Revolution" might have been a "naive" one. There is no doubt that she and the others underestimated the power of the media to make and break heroes. But struggles that explode onto the historical stage are usually led by ordinary people who have never played such a role before. In many ways it is precisely their naivety that means they are free of the chains that hold back many seasoned activists.

It is worth highlighting that this book has relevance to today's world. Lavery highlights the limitations of the official union movement in both building among fishers and winning change. The workers might have been considered impossible to organise - much like the fast food workers or other "precarious" workers of the 21st century. Fishers were home for a few days before disappearing for weeks. Yet Lillian Bilocca's campaign proved that the community and the workers could win change. Fishers were also limited by the Merchant Shipping Acts that prevented strikes (though it didn't stop the refusal mentioned above!) Secondly I was struck by how radical movements can explode out of nowhere and rapidly win real change. As one of the union officials said, it is a shame that such a tragedy had to happen before changes were made. But this book is a fitting tribute to Lillian Bilocca and her comrades who, when the time came, stood up and refused to back down.

I'd like to take this opportunity to also highlight a new album about Hull's Fishing Community by Joe Solo. Due out in January 2019 it's title track is about the disaster and is very moving.

Related Reviews

Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

David Williams - The Rebecca Riots

The Rebecca Riots are some of the most famous examples of rebellion in Welsh history. For a brief, intense period, the Welsh countryside was aflame with resistance as large groups of rebels, frequently disguised as women, destroyed toll gates, threatened the forces of law and order and made a mockery of the authorities attempts to catch the rebels. This classic book was first published in 1955 and has been reprinted regularly since. It is easy to understand why - it's a comprehensive account of the Riots that puts events into their economic and historic context, but doesn't fail to neglect the telling of a brave and remarkable story.

The book begins with a detailed look at the Welsh economic situation in the first decades of the 19th century. This was a period of intense poverty, and great transition. Wales from moving from being an agricultural economy to one dominated by industry. As with other parts of the British Isles, the development of industrial capitalism led to a transformation in social relations in the countryside. As the need to move goods and raw materials, messages and people around Wales increased, one aspect of the changing world was the need to maintain an adequate system of roads. The responsibility for this was, as David Williams explains in detail, devolved to private companies of individual investors who would pay for road upkeep through the maintenance of tolls.

These tolls had a dramatic impact upon the local population. Depending on whether a cart or a herd of animals were being moved, farmers, traders and businessmen had to pay to move their materials. These tolls were high, and due to the multiplicity of companies, could be levied multiple times for a single journey. Taking inspiration from the Bible (Genesis 24, 60) "And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them." mass protests threatened the toll companies and then smashed them down.

Williams argues however that the riots against toll gates weren't an isolated example of rage at the owners. Instead, "the Rebecca Riots were the growing pains of a new society, an example of the disturbances which so often accompany any change in the social structure." Thus the riots cannot be separated from earlier struggles against tithes, evictions and poverty. Nor can they be separated from the growing numbers of struggles over pay and conditions in the new industries, however as Williams stresses, Rebecca was led, not by the working classes, but by small farmers - though workers and agricultural labourers certainly took part in the protests. Rebecca's "success" argues Williams, led to a "general breakdown in society". But he continues by arguing that other forces also rose up. His description of these as "scum" is unfortunate and unfair. In a highly poverty stricken society of deep class polarisation it is not surprising that a small number of individuals used the opportunity of chaos to settle some scores. More interestingly the riots were also accompanied by other demands. A journalist at The Times managed to gain entrance to a secret mass meeting of Rebecca's followers and noted (via an interpreter) that
The grievances included the toll-gates, the tithe, church rates, and high rents. But Rebecca also resolved that no Englishman should be employed as a steward in Wales (for the landlords had made a practice of importing English and Scottish stewards who would be out of sympathy with their tenants. Farmers were urged not to get into debt, but, if any man endeavoured treacherously to obtain his neighbour's farm, or took a farm which had been given up because the rent was too high, 'the Lady' must be acquainted and encouraged in her exertions.
Once again, I was struck by parallels with other agrarian rebellions in the British Isles - the threats against those who took over farms vacated by others mirrors struggles in the 1820s in Ireland, and there are multiple examples of anonymous threatening letters from England and Ireland.

Williams finishes by highlighting the very real success of Rebecca. While a few individuals were punished for their involvement, some with great severity, most were not and tolls were dramatically reduced, made uniform and crucially supervised by the County. Williams notes that remarkably, "for the next thirty years, South Wales enjoyed a better general system of roads than any other party of the country". Rebecca went down in local history as an inspirational period - quite rightly. It demonstrated that ordinary people could challenge the military forces of the state through their local knowledge, numbers and experience, and that small farmers, rural and urban labourers could work together. Crucially it proved that ordinary people could change the world for the better.

Related Reviews

Jones - Before Rebecca
Donnelly - Captain Rock

Monday, October 01, 2018

Philip Pullman - La Belle Sauvage

I still remember the Christmas that I first read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series - a mad rush to the bookshop before it closed on Christmas Eve to make sure that I had the final volume before the holidays began. The trilogy is probably one of the best young adult series ever written and I shall never tire of recommending them. La Belle Sauvage is the first volume of a new trilogy - this one set a decade or so before the start of the original books and serves as both an origin story of Lyra Belacqua the hero of those stories and as a further fleshing out of the parallel Earth that they are set on.

But it is also a bloody good read. We have two new heroes and their daemons, Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, who live with his parents in their Oxford pub and Alice, a few years older than Malcolm and in her grumpy rudeness she presents a neat foil to the honest and soft spoken Malcolm. Thrown together by chance and the need to protect the baby Lyra, these two go on an epic journey and their relationship is transformed. It's an exciting adventure with some classic evil characters and organisations each trying to stop the children and capture Lyra. But I was struck by how wonderful Malcolm and Alice were written. Alice in particular is a brilliantly portrayed young woman, simultaneously confident and wary, angry and loving. Both of them are resourceful in a way that I imagine most young adult readers would like to be, and yet their mission nearly comes apart under the pressure of their enemies, the nature and the more fantastical elements of their world.

Pullman fleshes out a lot here too. For fans of the original series he answers some questions about the relationship between humans and their daemons though, to a slight extent, I thought he ret-conned a few details here and there. It is a fast passed novel though and it would be easier to miss some of Pullman's deeper musings on spirit and soul. As previously religion plays a major role, here the equivalent of the Catholic Church forming a powerful anti-democratic force in society. In some brilliantly written scenes that send a chill through the reader's spine school children are encouraged to inform on adults who don't conform to the Church's needs. Parents and teachers are sent to "reeducation camps" as a doctrine and personal settling of scores is used viciously by some of the children. This was one of several genuinely tense and frightening parts of the book.

The problem with returning to an existing fantasy world for an author is that its hard to recreate that sense of wonder and excitement the reader gets from learning about its differences and its similarities. But if La Belle Sauvage is not as brilliant as the books in the Dark Materials series, its' mostly because they were such amazing works. Again, highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Subtle Knife
Pullman - The Amber Spyglass
Pullman - Northern Lights
Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke