Friday, November 30, 2018

Thomas Mullen - Lightning Men

I didn't realise until I was quite some way into Lightning Men that this is actually a sequel to an earlier novel. Had I understood that I might not have picked it up, and I would have missed out on a really excellent book. Luckily it is a standalone book, but I warn you reading this first will spoil the earlier book.

Lightning Men is set in Atlanta in 1950. America is on the cusp of enormous upheaval. The Civil Rights movement is beginning to bubble under the surface and the post-war boom is starting to wane. Change has already begun. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two police officers in downtown Atlanta. Their beats are restricted and the assistance they get from the rest of the force is somewhat limited - because, alongside a handful of others, they are the city's first black police officers. Patrolling the black areas of Atlanta they see their share of crime, abuse and violence. They also have to be wary of how they are treated by their supposed colleagues, all of whom are racist, to a greater or lesser extent, and not a few of whom ride with the Ku Klux Klan.

The novel obviously takes up questions of racism and segregation. But it also deals with class. A central plot-line is Bogg's upcoming marriage. Bogg's father is a well known and well off preacher, and his parents don't approve of Bogg's fiance, a single-mother from a much lower class. But class is also present in the changes affecting the city itself, as middle class black families begin to spread out into white areas, fed up of the destitution and lack of decent housing in the slums.

Different forces try and deal with these changes - the KKK and other Nazi groups manoeuvre to protect the white areas, but even racists want to make money and the changes in the neighbourhood offer riches to some. Combine this with various criminal gangs who want to sell drugs to the poor, and not a few corrupt police, and you've got a dangerous mix.

Over the course of the novel Boggs and his colleagues have to deal with a series of seemingly unconnected events, and Boggs learns that he actually knows very little about his fiance's background. Thomas Mullen brilliantly describes Boggs' holier-than-thou arrogance, rooted in his wealthier background when compared to his wife. One of the highlights of the development of Boggs' character is that bit when you realise that the policeman is actually quite prejudiced himself. That said his prejudice is nothing compared to the majority of his force, so to make the story work Mullen introduces a couple of less prejudiced officers. I suspect reality was a lot different.

The brings it all neatly together, perhaps a little too neatly as pretty much all the good guys win, and the policemen return to the beat confident that the world is a little less horrible. But the real greatness of the book is the way that Mullen portrays Atlanta - the fear of the KKK, the violence and racism of the white police, and the deep-seated racial prejudice of white people in the face of black families moving to their area. I really enjoyed this and plan to return to Thomas Mullen's work in the future.

C.J. Sansom - Dissolution

When C.J. Sansom's most recent book Tombland was announced I was inundated with recommendations from fans of his Shardlake series as it focuses on the Kett rebellions of 1549. Never having read any of this author I decided to begin at the beginning, and find out what the fuss was about.

Dissolution is the first in the series. It is set during a brief lull (following the Northern Rebellions) in the dissolution of the monasteries that has begun as part of Henry VIII's Reformation. Shardlake is an investigator sent to the monastery at Scarnsea on the South Coast, to look into the murder of one of Thomas Cromwell's agents. The agent has been looking into the monastery, in part it seems, to find evidence that could allow Cromwell to shut it down and confiscate its land and wealth.

Shardlake is caught up in a complex plot, a series of murders and violent attacks that lead him to suspect a number of the monks in turn. Because the monastery is isolated and cut off from the local population, the mystery has the feel of a locked room detective. The mystery itself is enjoyable and keeps the reader guessing right until the end - and cleverly Sansom manages to tie the solution into the wider changes taking place in English society. The threat from Cromwell and Henry hangs heavy over the monastery's inhabitants who worry about their futures and attempt to ingratiate themselves with the regime.

It's this aspect to the story that really made this into a page turner for me. Sansom describes the historical context brilliantly and the detail of life in a monastery and London in the 1530s is superb. It would have been much easier for the author to write a murder story randomly set in the 16th century. Much harder is to tie this into the political and social context and then make these links part of the fabric of the tale, indeed he also tackles subjects like sexuality, disability and gender in subtle and clever ways. To say more would spoil it for future readers, but I look forward to reading the other Shardlake books before reaching Tombland.

Related Reviews

Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
MacCulloch - Reformation
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Costas Lapavitsas - The Left Case Against the EU

Much of the debate around Brexit in the UK has been dominated by the idea that essentially the right-wing voted against the European Union and the left supported the institution. This is in sharp contrast to the debate when Britain joined the EU when the majority of the left opposed entry to the Common Market. In this important new book Costas Lapavitsas demonstrates the real role of the EU. For left-wingers, he argues, the EU is not to be celebrated. It is a capitalist instrument and is particularly geared towards imposing a neo-liberal agenda on its constituent countries. As he writes:
The EU and the EMU [European Monetary Union] are not a neutral set of governing bodies, institutions, and practices that could potentially serve any socio-political forces, parties, or governments, with any political agenda, depending on their relative strength. Rather, they are structured in the interests of capital and against labour. They have also gradually become geared to serving the economic advantages, and there by the international agenda, of a particular dominant class, above all, German industrial export capitalists.
He continues a few pages later,
EU member states are also capitalist states, and class relations are fundamental to their make-up as well as to their interactions. The resilience of the nation state in Europe is linked to maintaining the balance of class relations in each country, thus requiring command over the structures of judicial, military, administrative and other power. Class relations mark the interactions of each member state with the union but also among member states, determining the interests that are to be defending and promoted. 
In other words, two factors dominate policy of the EU - the class struggle within the nation state and the competition between states. Lapavitsas spends a good deal of this book showing how this works in practice, his emphasis, as the first of the two quotes above suggests, being the role of German capitalism within the EU. Lapavitsas argues it is because German capital has been able to hold down wages of workers at home that enables it to be the dominant economy within the EU. Germany was able to take advantage of the post-1989 East European economies (particularly their low wages) as a source of workers and markets. This, combined with what Lapavitsas calls the "defeat" of German Labour in the 1990s, means that the country had a competitive advantage over the rest of the Euozone.

It also meant that when the Euro was setup Germany was the natural economy to "anchor" the currency to. This had fatal consequences: "The core of the EMU is also riven with profound instability owing to the persistent gap in competitiveness between Germany... and France and Italy." Lapavitsas continues:
By 2017, Germany had imposed its will on the EMU and the EU, pacifying the crisis within the confines of the EU. The dysfunctional regime of the euro was actually hardened, thus solidifying the advantages of German industrial exporting capital, particularly as Germany has refused even to consider changing its domestic politices. German exporting capital continued to earn enormous trading surpluses within the EU and across the world. Austerity and neoliberalism became the credo of the EU, while democratic rights suffered. Capital won at every major turn, while labour paid the price.
Two events demonstrate the real role of the EU. One was the way that the EU, together with other international institutions such as the IMF used the 2008 economic crisis to harden their neo-liberal policies, attack wages, destroy public services and impose harsh austerity on the Eurozone. The second is the refugee crisis that erupted in 2016. The EU "dealt with refugees and migrants as if they were a matter of security, rather than people displaced through wars, some of which were partly caused by EU countries." As Lapavitsas points out the Mediterranean was turned into a "killing field". EU institutions and rules encouraged and facilitated nation states from helping refugees pushing the blame elsewhere and trapping thousands in camps on the fringes of the economy.

The role of the EU in economic crisis is best demonstrated through the experience of Greece. Lapavitsas argues that the Greek crisis had long term causes, many of which are rooted in the economic configuration of Europe, with Greece subordinated to other economies. But during the crisis, "not a single economic or social decision could be made by the Greek state without the agreement of the Troika. Greek sovereignty drained away dramatically." Ultimately the Greek ruling class made its peace with the EU, and agreed to appalling austerity measures that destroyed the lives of millions of working class Greeks.

Lapavitsas focuses on the role of the radical left party Syriza elected with a mandate to fight austerity, and how they capitulated to the Troika within a very short space of time. The problem, he argues, is that the row about the role of the EU was conducted within the party, not on the streets. In other words, the power to challenge the anti-democratic EU was not in clever arguments, but to counter-pose workers' power to the EU's economic power. The EU, with absolute hostility to left-wing ideas refused to bend an inch. So Syriza gave up.

Lapavitsas develops from this point an argument that the Left cannot implement policies "against austerity and in favour of working people" while trying to stay inside the EMU. The EU will not let that happen and indeed its whole structure is created with the aim of preventing such breaks with its direction of travel. A lesson for a potential Labour government is precisely that it is not possible to do this and the EU must be confronted.

Unfortunately, despite his clarity on the impossibility of reforming the EU, in his final section on a radical left alternative, Lapavitsas turns to a sort of left nationalism. While arguing a case for reform (nationalisation of the banks) etc, he suggests that in Britain Labour, post-Brexit, could offer a radical new approach - breaking from the EU and negotiating trade deals that favour the majority.

This is all very well and good, but I think Lapavitsas' treatment neglects the way that even outside the EU the ruling class will mobilise to protect its interests. The capitalist state needs to be challenged through working class power, otherwise it will use force to prevent fundamental change. But he is right to argue that the breaking up of the EU would be a massive blow against the forces of capital, that the working class can take advantage of. This is not to say that there aren't massive problems - the political scene is dominated by the right-wing, and thus the left has to build major anti-racist movements and ensure that the right to freedom of movement is not abandoned. The project for the left cannot be to "recoup popular and national sovereignty" - this is to fight on the terrain of the right - but a struggle for a socialist world.

Nonetheless, this is an important book. It exposes the reality of the EU in an accessible and fresh style. Because it focuses on Greece it was missing further analysis of the EU's role in Ireland, Portugal and Spain. But the left lacks an understanding of what the EU is and who it serves and Costas Lapavitsas's book is an important contribution to finding clarity.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit
Roberts - The Long Depression

Monday, November 26, 2018

George Rudé - Ideology and Popular Protest

Despite its short length this is a detailed and powerful argument that studies how ideas in pre-capitalist protest movements developed. It begins with a closely argued discussion, from a Marxist point of view, of the idea of class consciousness. George Rudé begins with Marx and Engels, showing how they saw ideas arising out of concrete circumstances and then changing through the experience of a changing world and class struggle. Rudé then continues by looking at other Marxist thinkers who have developed these ideas, particularly the Hungarian Marxist György Lukács and the Italian Antonio Gramsci.

But the main argument of the book argues that Marxist theory of the ideology of working-class protest leaves "little room for the struggles of peasants and urban shopkeepers and artisans" in both present day or pre-industrial societies. This is not surprising says Rudé - Marxism developed its ideas in an attempt to understand the "struggle between the two major contending classes in modern industrial society" and this is not strictly applicable to other classes. The remainder of the book is an attempt to develop a "new theory" that works for these groups in capitalism and previous societies.

Rudé argues for a "Popular ideology" which is contrasted to "class consciousness" a "fusion" of two parts,
of which only one is the peculiar property of the 'popular' classes and the other is superimposed by a process of transmission and adoption from outside. Of these, the first is what I [Rudé] call the 'inherent' traditional; element - a sort of 'mother's milk' ideology, based on direct experience, oral tradition or folk-memory and not learning by listening to sermons or speeches or reading books.... the second element is the stock of ideas and beliefs that are 'derived' or borrowed from others, often taking the form of a more structure system of ideas, political or religious...
In my own work on peasant struggles, it is clear that these definitions have a real basis. There are numerous examples of peasant struggles that have been based on perceived "rights" that are rooted in the distant past, popular belief or have semi-legality. These interact with the beliefs received from outside - whether in church or law courts - and often take on new meanings, forming the basis for struggle - collective or individual. Later Rudé argues that whether the "resultant mixture" took on "militant and revolutionary" forms or their opposite, "depended less on the nature of the recipients or of the 'inherent' beliefs from which they started than on the nature of the 'derived' beliefs compounded by the circumstances then prevailing and what E.P. Thompson has called the 'sharp jostle of experience'." In other words, a third element is the ground upon which ideas arrive - the living circumstances of people. Not every group of people who heard a radical preacher like John Ball or read Thomas Paine would necessarily take it and turn towards radical action.

Rudé then examines a number of situations to show how his ideas hold up to reality. These include useful summaries of the English Peasants Revolt of 1381, the German Peasant Wars of 1525 and other rebellions, including the French Revolution and 20th century experiences of agrarian struggles in Latin America. When writing about riot and protest in England in the 18th century, Rudé concludes that the ideology of these "pre-industrial" protests
corresponded broadly to what has been said before: overwhelmingly 'inherent' traditional and apolitical in the case of food riots, strikes and rural p[rotest of every kind; and only touched by the 'derived' ideology of the bourgeoisie - political and forward looking - in the case of the London riots... But the forward-looking elements was still skin-deep even in such riots, and popular protests... still looked to the past; or, in EP Thompson's phrase, the 'plebian cluture'... 'is rebellious, but rebellious in defence of custom'.
This sense of rebellion in defence of tradition or past (invented or otherwise) is extremely useful, and Rudé argues, holds over into more contemporary industrial (he argues until Robert Owen), but is inadequate. In these times, the "ideology of the common people" has had to be "reinforced by an injection of 'derived' ideas, or those of generalised ideas based on the memory of past struggles, to which Marx and Engels... quite simply gave the name of 'theory'." Here Rudé is arguing that the workers' movement has been weakened where it lacks socialist theory. In this regard, I think he is too reliant on a particularly interpretation of Lenin's writings in What is to be Done arguing that socialist theory has to be imposed from outside; an interpretation that has been challenged recently. Despite this criticism, this is a valuable book from which I gained a great deal of insight and I recommend it to those working on peasant questions and struggles today.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Customs in Common
Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing

Thursday, November 15, 2018

James Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

James Rebanks' book is a remarkable study of agricultural life in the Lake District in the North West of England. This is no romantic view of a countryside that is idyllic and constantly summer. Rather this is a warts and all account, that emphasises the hard work, the financial hardships (individual poverty) and the struggle to keep going. I've always through that workers describing their own work are often far more eloquent than they are given credit for, and this is no exception. Its a beautifully written book and the author is not afraid of showing his own limitations, together with his successes. Most of all however, this book challenges those who see the countryside as a place to escape the towns and cities that is unchanged from a distant past. Instead Rebanks shows how the countryside has been transformed, shaped and managed by generation after generation of farming communities.

One of the themes that I've tried to draw out in my own writings on the countryside is precisely this sense of the landscape as resulting out of millenia of human labour, and indeed class struggle. Rebanks himself speculates comments sheep farming in the region would have had many similarities to contemporary Lake District farming.

But another aspect to farming that I've always been struck by is its inherently collective nature. Rebank's book begins with a description of the gathering of sheep from the fells. It requires coordination on many levels - the organisation of the different farmers who come together to bring the animals off the unfenced common land; co-ordination between shepherd and dog and finally co-ordination with nearby communities when sheep become mixed together. This account of sheep gathering on "the greatest concentration of common land in Western Europe" left me near breathless in its description of the joint work of Shepherd and sheepdog. But I was also taken aback by the sense of a community collectively working - an individual shepherd simply couldn't survive here.

This community stretches back into time and Rebanks is very aware of his own position. He writes, rather movingly:
There is a thrill in the timelessness up there... I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time... I am only one of the current grazers on our fell (and one of the smaller and more recently established ones at that), a small link in a very long chain. Perhaps, in a hundred years' time, no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains. They won't know my name. But that doesn't matter. if they stand on that fell and do the stings we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those that came before a debt for getting it this far.

Rebanks highlights the continuity with the past that shapes the hillsides he works and continues to make and remark the artificial landscape, but on a smaller scale he shows through his relationships with his grandfather, father and children a different continuity here. These personal sections are part and parcel of Rebanks' relationship with the land, the community and the farm and they are difficult to read in places, as all honest accounts of family are, but they also tell the tale of how farming communities and farmers have survived and struggled over the centuries. The same communities meet at the same fairs as their ancestors did centuries before. Old men can remember the genetic origins of sheep going back decades, and their knowledge is crucial to 21st century farming.

There is continuity, but there is also change. Rebanks herds sheep with 4x4 vehicles and waterproof clothing that must have transformed the experience of shepherding in the depths of winter. But shepherding still has to be done in the winter, and no technology has yet been invented that can protect a sheep and its lamb in all situations - there will always have to be men and women who go out to find lost herds and rescue newborn animals.

James Rebanks begins his book with his frustrations at those who don't understand the Lake District like he and his family do. Those tourists and poets who simply see beauty or relaxation. By the end of it he understands their point of view too, but wants to make them understand what the Lake District and agricultural communities are - living, developing and growing parts of society that play a crucial role in our economy and have deep historical roots. I am glad that his book has become a surprise bestseller, because it will contribute enormously to an understanding of British farming that can only bear fruit for the future.

Related ReviewsArch - From Ploughtail to Parliament
Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour
Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Hasback - A History of the English Agricultural Labourer
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Leo R. Jary - Kett 1549: Rewriting the Rebellion

Cover of Jary's book on Kett's Rebellion
One of the best known agrarian rebellions in England is Kett's Rebellion of 1549. Centred around Norwich, it was part of a year of rebellion that shook the ruling class, and culminated in the fall of the duke of Somerset, Lord Protector for the young Edward VI. All too often the rebellion named after its principle leader, Robert Kett, is isolated from the wider rebellions that took place in that year. In 1549 there were two major risings, Kett's in Norfolk, and the so called Prayerbook Rebellion in the West Country. But there were also numerous rebel camps throughout the country, and many of these were put down with force.

Leo R. Jary's new study of Kett's Rebellion is not a re-telling of the event, rather it is a study that seeks to read between the lines of contemporary chronicles and argue that the rebellion was a much bigger, and more serious confrontation than has previously been argued. Rightly Jary argues that "History is written by the victor" and that contemporary accounts of Kett's Rebellion "all refute and belittle the good intentions of Kett, the honourable purpose of the rebel cause, and the solidarity of the rebel army".

As Andy Wood has clearly shown in his book The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Modern England Kett's Rebellion was seized upon by the establishment in the aftermath and used as an illustration of the perils of ordinary people trying to make change. In doing so the ruling class highlighted events in Norfolk at the expense of a wider tale of national revolt.

Jary seeks to correct the historic accounts and transform our view of the rebellion. A central part of this argument is that the final confrontation between Kett's forces and the royalist army under Warwick was a much larger pitched battle than the overwhelming defeat usually suggested.

I've little reason to doubt much of Jary's arguments here. In places he is a little guilty of conjecture. For instance he writes "I believe that Kett's chief gunner Miles understood that [it was dangerous to place his cannon on the rebel flanks] and placed most of his guns well to the rear of his rebels lines." But these are points made by a writer with knowledge and experience of working for the Ministry of Defence so any conjecture is made with serious considerations.

In my mind the most important contribution of the book is to make a strong argument for the real location of "Dussindale" the scene of the final confrontation between the rebels and royalist forces. This, argues Jary, was much closer to the walls of Norwich than is suggested by contemporary accounts, and Jary uses his detailed local knowledge to make a very specific case. It has always slightly bothered me that Kett would have marched away from the strategic position he occupied, and Jary shows why this is unlikely.

It is for this reason that I suspect this short book will be widely read - and because of the author's detailed local knowledge (and the maps and walking guides in the book) the book should particularly sell well to visitors to Norwich.

I was less convinced though by the author's focus on Norwich. 1549 can only be understood as a year of rebellion during times of economic and political turmoil. This explains Somerset's defeat and the late arrival of royalist troops in Norwich. I'm also sceptical of the idea of communications between centres of rebellion in an organised way. More importantly by focusing on Norwich, Jary neglects that Kett had a strategy of expanding across Norfolk to strengthen his position - militarily and politically. The attempts to capture Yarmouth and the other subsidiary rebel camps in the region aren't mentioned, yet they show how Kett's rebels had a much wider strategy and were acting from a position of strength. There is also an over-emphasis on the military aspects of the revolt and readers  would benefit for more on motivations of the rebels.

Despite these reservations I really enjoyed this little book. The publisher and author must be congratulated for producing a beautifully designed book with lovely maps and line drawings. It makes a fine addition to the literature on the Rebellion and deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in the subject.

Related Reviews

Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Fletcher and MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549
Land - Kett's Rebellion
Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry

Monday, November 05, 2018

Paolo Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker

There seem to be no shortage these days of novels set in a future dystopian world ruined by environmental disaster. Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker stands out for me because it captures the lives of those who are at the bottom of the pile in a ruined world. Evoking the men and women who are ship-breakers in India today, dismantling vessels for scrap and materials, this book begins among the impoverished communities of the United States, similarly breaking up old ships (usually oil tankers) so the raw materials can be sold at vast profits by corporations.

Nailer is one of these workers, a young boy about to grow to large for his job of crawling through the dark passages of the wrecks and removing cable. His future is uncertain, and in addition, his father is a violent drug addict who abuses Nailer. Bacigalupi sets up his world well. Nailer stands on the shore gazing at the beautiful, wealthy clippers that move on the horizon, traders and pleasure craft that he cannot imagine. His world is poor, violent and frightening. Exposed to the brutal "city killer" storms that are one legacy of the warmed world.

Everyone Nailer knows is hoping for their lucky break - the chance to escape poverty. But for most that doesn't happen. Nailer's chance comes when a clipper and its wealthy passenger are wrecked nearby and Nailer has to return her to her family.

I didn't realise, when I picked this up from the library, that it was a young adult novel. It is still enjoyable but clearly aimed at a youthful audience, who will appreciate the pace and tension, as well as the brilliantly drawn relationships between the young characters. I also appreciated that many of the main characters are female and black, something that's unusual in novels, but also reflects the reality of those who currently live and will live on the fringes of an economy destroyed by climate change. There are some odd moments - for instance this future world appears to have lost all its radio and telephone communications ability - but this is a clever and thoughtful book that depicts a future far different from the shiny technological utopia climate denying politicians often promise.

Related Reviews

Robinson - New York 2140

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Joseph Arch - From Ploughtail to Parliament: An Autobiography

Autobiographies are strange texts. As an account of the author's own life they are supposed to be an accurate description of what took place, but they are really the account that the author would like to pass on to posterity. Joseph Arch's account of his life as an agricultural labourer, then trade unionist and finally MP is fascinating for its detail. But it is also of interest for what has been left out, or downplayed. As such I highly recommend it is read in conjunction with Pamela Horn's biography and commentary by Alun Howkins. While self-serving in places it is an very interesting insight into the ideas and activities that dominated rural trade unionism in the 1870s by someone who was at the heart of that struggle.

As we approach the centenary of Arch's death it is worth reflecting on the sweep of his life. He was born in 1826 in the village of Barford, and the early chapters of his autobiography are fascinating for their detail of the lives of agricultural labourers. Life for the Arch family, as for almost every labourer, was marked by dire poverty. Arch's family were slightly better off as they owned the freehold to their cottage as a result of his Grandfather saving £30 over many years in an old sock. Most labourers did not have this security and risked losing their homes if they challenged the farmer or landowner. This was to give Arch enormous security in later life as he became a thorn in the local establishment's side and then a leading trade unionist.

Arch's early memories contain a great deal of class difference and struggle. He remembers peering through a crack in the Church door to see his father waiting for Communion in a separate queue to the local gentry and farmers who get seen first. At school his poor clothes are a source of conflict, “sons of the wheelwrights, the master tailor and the tradesmen… peacocky youngsters would cheek the lads in smock-frocks and many a stand-up fight we used to have – regular pitched battles of smock-frock against cloth-coat they were, in which smock-frock held his own right well.”

His mother challenges the parson's wife who wants to impose a particular haircut on Arch's sisters - and they never receive charity again from the vicarage. More seriously Arch's father refuses to sign a pro-Corn Law petition got up by the farmers and is out of work for 18 weeks.

Arch's family was not unusual, and it is no wonder that in the late 1860s and early 1870s trade unionism begins to take off in a serious way in the English countryside. Arch by that point is a skilled worker and preacher for the Primitive Methodists, he is also a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and he is called upon to help set up a local trade union by workers in the nearby village of Wellsbourne in Warwickshire. Once convinced that this is a real attempt, Arch takes to this with enormous enthusiasm and the union rapidly grows in strength.

Reading the autobiography you get the impression that Arch was the only driver of the union. Other biographies and histories show that actually there were numbers of unions being setup at the same time, and many of these merged to form a national union (though significant sections did not). Arch speaks in hundreds of villages building the union and driving it forward, but so do many others. A great weakness of the book is that neglects what is taking place in the world beyond Arch's immediate influence. A second weakness is that Arch is utterly unable to acknowledge mistakes or defeats. The union strike wave that takes place in the 1870s after the union is founded is defeated by a lock-out in the Eastern Counties. The union, and Arch, take a pretty miserable attitude to the final outcome but this is omitted from Arch's account.

In his introduction to my edition, Alun Howkins points out that Arch is also selective about who appears in his book and also doesn't go into the detail of the major rows that took place. Nor does he acknowledge that the union he put so much energy into declines and collapses in the 1880s. The book was published before Arch's parliamentary career was over, but it is selective about his time in Parliament - in fact it was a tremendously difficult time for him. Arch rarely spoke in Parliament and didn't speak at all for the last 6 years! But Arch still portrays himself as a major fighter for the labourers cause.

From other sources one gets the impression that Arch the MP was completely out of his depth. The first agricultural labourer in Parliament was cut off from his base and support and surrounded by wealth and privileged. In fact Arch clearly loved the company of the famous - he was enormously enamoured of Gladstone, and because his constituency covered the Norfolk estates of Sandringham he vowed to be an MP for labourers and the Prince of Wales.

Arch was a contradictory figure in many ways. A brilliant trade unionist but at times he was also remarkably conservative, but then could be very radical - supporting Home Rule and opposing British colonialism in South Africa and Afghanistan. He hated the ideas of socialism, preferring to imagine a countryside free of class conflict where everyone had their place, but the labourers had a decent wage and a small amount of land. But nonetheless for thousands of agricultural labourers and their families Arch helped them have a sense of a better world. The victories won by the union were significant, if not long lasting, but they proved that agricultural workers could organise and could win. And for all his faults Joseph Arch never gave up his belief in the power of organised workers - and nor should we.

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle!
Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Jeffery - The Village in Revolt
Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Friday, November 02, 2018

Michael D. Yates - Can the Working Class Change the World?

I started reading this book the day that news arrived from Brazil that the extreme right-wing Jair Bolsonaro had been elected President. It made me reflect how the failure of left-projects that fail to challenge the capitalist state can open the door to right-wing and fascist politicians that will decimate the working classes and their institutions.

To start at the end, in his conclusion, Michael D. Yates notes that the "working class must change the world. There really no choice." This short book is thus dedicated to not only explaining why the working class has the power to change the world, but showing that there are no other forces in society that can bring about fundamental change. In a world where the far-right is on the ascendancy and we are threatened by economic crisis and environmental catastrophe the lessons are obvious to all.

Yates returns to the core of Marx's ideas to show the central role of the working class under capitalism. Capitalism requires workers to make profits - they create the surplus value that the bosses need to make their profits and to keep the system growing. But Yates also shows how the bosses need to continually attack workers in order to maximise their profits in a competitive system. This means a continual fight over working conditions, wages and our societies. The system, Yates points out systematically destroys those who labour for it:
[This] takes the form of an assault on the body and mind of the labourer, relentless and unending. Throughout the history of capitalism and in every country, most workers have been and are rendered at least partially incapacitated after a lifetime of toil.
Capitalism doesn't simply destroy the worker, or the peasant, but also ravages the planet in its quest for profits:
Land, water, even air, are made into commodities that can be bought and sold, again creating new arenas for accumulation. The social costs of capital's abuse of nature is typically borne by workers and peasants. They live where air pollution is worst, where the soil has been most degraded. They drink contaminated water... When floods, hurricanes and droughts, caused and exacerbated by capitalist-induced global warming, descend upon humanity the least of us suffer the most.
The question remains then, why does the mass of the population accept this state of affairs? A tiny minority live on the backs of the masses - so why does capitalism survive? Yates shows how capitalism has a number of ways of protecting its interests. Firstly the use of brute force - the police and army - to undermine protest, strikes and revolution. Secondly Yates puts great emphasis on the role of education in creating a pliable workforce that accepts the status quo and is ready to work for capital. Thirdly there are all sorts of in built aspects to capitalism that turn worker against worker, undermining the unity that is required to beat the bosses. Yates writes:
A racial and patriarchal capitalism generated fundamental splits in the working class, and these have been among the most critical impediments to class unity. Objectively , a working class exist, but this does not mean that its members are conscious of their capacity to disrupt production and the system itself.
While I agree with Yates' argument here, I thought it could have been developed further. One Marxist who isn't mentioned is the Italian Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci showed how workers have contradictory consciousness - they can hold both backward and progressive ideas at the same time. Because capitalism brings workers together and forces them into a class struggle, the backward ideas are constantly challenged and progressive ideas can develop further. In a recent strike by 8000 Glasgow care workers, almost all of whom are women, 400 male rubbish collectors refused to cross their picket lines. Many, if not most, of those men would have held sexist ideas, but they did not break the strike because they understood the need for class unity - in doing so they would also have found their own ideas about women challenged.

Yates points out how capitalism stokes racism and misogyny etc to divide workers, but it also creates the conditions when they can be over-come, particularly if workers are organised in trade unions and political parties that challenge these ideas systematically.

In this framework I also slightly disagree with Yates' comments on migration which he seemed to suggest (in the context of the collapse of the Eastern European regimes) weakens the working class. Yates writes:
The exodus [from the former Eastern Bloc] of people seeking employment wherever they might find it provided cheap labour in the Global North. Thus, the working classes everywhere were weakened.

The danger here is to blame migrants for driving down wages, when it is precisely the capitalists, through the mechanisms that Yates' highlights that use division to undermine working class unity. But recent years in the UK have also shown that despite very high levels of racism towards refugees and migrants from the press and politicians, large numbers of people have shown solidarity - either joining protests or, in far greater numbers, giving to refugee charities.

Yates is writing mainly from a US perspectives so readers in Europe and elsewhere will find that some of his discussions are specific to the US situation, though there are many parallels. I cannot but agree with his calls to improve democracy within the trade union movement, or to increase the amount of education the unions have for their members against homophobia, sexism and racism; as well as the history of the movement.

But sometimes I think there are too many generalisations. For instance, Yates says that "unions have proven unable to reverse the impact of neo-liberalism". But I would phrase this differently, and argue that in most countries (I'm especially thinking of here in the UK) the union movement hasn't fought the type of battle that could have ended neo-liberalism or even austerity. I'm thinking of the swift calling off of the 2011 public sector strikes that could easily have put the British government on the back foot over austerity, but were undermined by a section of the union leadership.

And while I agree that social democracy (reformism) has been severely weakened, I don't think Yates is right to say that "Social Democracy has been thoroughly defeated in Great Britain". In fact quite the opposite. Corbyn's election and the massive growth of the Labour Party has seen a huge resurgence in reformist ideas and the rebirth of Labour as a vehicle for social democracy - something that provides big challenges for those of us in the Marxist left outside the Party.

I do think that there is a missing section though which is crucially linked to the question of working class power - which is the need for independent, Marxist, revolution organisation based in the working class. Yates ably shows that workers simply fighting will not lead to the defeat of capitalism - in fact capital can cope with even significant resistance (not the large number of general strikes in Greece for instance). The working class needs clear, principled political leadership - not in a vanguard sense, but in the sense of the best militants being grouped together to try and shape a struggle against the system. I still think that the lessons of the Bolshevik party in Russia in the early 20th century are key to understanding this role.

If this review seems like a list of criticisms, that's because I've focused on sections that I have differences with. There are many other stimulating and positive aspects to this short book. For instance I was struck how it, unlike many others of its type, discusses the crucial role of the peasantry and landless workers, and does not neglect the question of the environment. I didn't always initially agree with what Yates wrote about the former Soviet bloc, China or Cuba, but I found his arguments interesting and informative. I also got a great deal out of the US perspective - particularly Yates comments on struggles against oppression such as Black Lives Matter. At a time when radical left-wing ideas are needed more than ever, a book with the title Can the Working Class Change the World? will undoubtedly get a big readership and I hope that those readers are stimulated as much as I was to think through these important questions.

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Molyneux - The Point is to Change It