Sunday, December 30, 2018

Hannah Holleman - Dust Bowls of Empire: Imperialism, Environmental Politics & the Injustice of 'Green' Capitalism

The "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s was an iconic moment in American history. As a result of what one historian called "the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself [the] task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth" tens of thousands of people fled their homes, usually losing their entire livelihoods in the process. Images of dried out landscapes, dead crops and enormous dust storms that blanket the area in a fine dirt are memorials to the greatest environmental disaster in United States history.

Today scientists are revisiting the 1930s Dust Bowl to try and understand its causes and what events might teach us about 21st century environmental crisis. Hannah Holleman writes that there are "clear parallels between the social and ecological crises of the 1930s and those we confront today".

But, as Hannah Holleman explains in this excellent new book, the traditional view of the Dust Bowl as America's greatest ecological crisis is only part of the story. In this telling, the Dust Bowl came out of nowhere, and was eventually fixed by benevolent government investment. Attractive though this might seem, what is missing is the context - the colonial expansion of white Europeans into the American West and the displacement and massacre of the indigenous peoples and capitalist agriculture that, in its drive for profits, destroyed the very basis of farming - the soil, and its workers. Sadly too many people, scientists and radicals included, believe the myth.

Holleman emphasises that the Dust Bowl did not come from nowhere. For decades before scientists, farmers, governments and politicians understood desertification as a global problem. The "new imperialism" of the 1800s and early 1900s, was "violently transform[ing] societies and the land, entrenching the ecological rift of capitalism on a global scale and the related patterns of unequal ecological exchange that persist to this day."

The British Empire was the best, but far from the only example of this. In 1914, a British government committee on South Africa noted a "general consciousness of the gravity of the problems presented by soil erosion in almost every country where recent settlement or the growth of the population had led to an intensification of agriculture." [my emphasis]. Writing about Ceylon, another official pointed out that the removal of the forest to create space for tea, meant "little or no provision was made at the time to retain in situ the fine soil of the original forest... the loss of soil has been enormous". The capitalist agriculture imposed on the world (and the American West) stripped nutrients from the soil, removed natural barriers against erosion and destroyed farming practises that replenished the earth.

The transformation of global agriculture in the interests of capitalism in Europe (and later in the US) created the first global ecological crisis. Holleman quotes Fred Magdoff who writes, "more and more of the world was drawn upon as primary producers for the industrialised nations." Traditional agriculture, industry and society was destroyed in the pursuit of food and resources for the capitalist world; and the populations were displaced, impoverished and when they resisted, killed. Holleman continues:
International commentators wrote of North America's wasteful exploitation of the land and compared it to similar problematic practises in Europe, Britain, their colonies, and elsewhere. Westward expansion of the erosion problem in North America was made possible by government policy, financing from the imperial urban centres, technological change and military conquest.
Underpinning this was a racist ideology that saw those of white European descent as having a historic civilising mission. Theodore Roosevelt, US President from 1901 to 1909 and a man who would go on to play a significant role in early conservationism, wrote in 1869, "The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman. The rude, fierce settler who drove the savage from the land lays all civilised mankind under a debt."

Picture from Monthly Review article by Hannah Holleman
"No Empires, No Dustbowls"
This "'white man's burden' version of environmentalism" dominated the response to the Dust Bowl. As Holleman points out, it prevented "the possibility of change of the kind and on the scale necessary". In echoes of contemporary neo-liberal politicians, emergency relief was condemned. President Hoover argued that the "federal government should not be required to provide anything or intervene to ease the people's suffering". President Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 offering assistance to the distressed regions, but the New Deal was based on protecting the status quo - it discriminated against black people, protected the profits of big business and did nothing to challenge agricultural practices that had caused the Dust Bowl in the first place.

In 2013 a UN FAO study on the state of global soils concluded that "the over-whelming conclusion... is that the majority of the world's soils are in only fair, poor, or very poor condition." Today's solutions are much the same as the US government offered in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl - technology, neo-liberal loans and an intensification of agriculture. In this context, Holleman argues, simply arguing for a new New Deal, is not enough. US radicals who do so ignore the wider context to ecological crisis - a racialised capitalism that destroys people and land in the interests of profit. Instead, what we need is a new, radical social environmentalism that breaks from the interests of the one percent. As Holleman writes:
The Dust Bowl did not arise because there was a lack of awareness of the issue or the technical means to address it. Like dust-bowlification today, the ultimate source of the crisis was social, not technological, thus requiring massive social change to address.
Healing the metabolic rift in the 21st century requires a new, revolutionary environmentalism. This must be informed by a clear knowledge of what took place in the past, and Hannah Holleman's wonderful new book is exactly the sort of historical analysis we need. Everyone who cares about the agriculture, the environment and social-injustice should read it.

Related Reviews

Clutterbuck - Bittersweet Brexit

James C. Scott - Against the Grain
Holt-Giménez - A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Beckert - Empire of Cotton

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Hans Koning - Columbus: His Enterprise - Exploding the Myth

Every American child in second or third grade learns about the brave sailor, son of a Genoese weaver, who convinced the King and Queen of Spain to let him sail west. Fighting the elements and a crew who thought the earth was flat, he persisted, and with his three little ships discovered America.
Thus Hans Koning neatly summarises the Columbus myth in his opening paragraph. It's a summary that fits pretty much with what I, on the other side of the Atlantic, learnt about the explorer in my own school days. Koning then spends the rest of this short book explaining why this summary is deliberately wrong. He draws on Columbus' own writings, other contemporaries and those of various historians to show that Columbus' "Enterprise" was far from a benevolent voyage of discovery - instead it was a violent quest for plunder.

Koning begins, not with Columbus, but with the geo-political context of the competing Europe states of the 15th century. Portugal, a poor nation in the far west, was desperate to find wealth to allow it to compete on an equal footing with its neighbour Castile (modern Spain). Wealth was known to exist in vast quantities in the far-East - India and China in particular. It made its way to Europe via the Italian middle-men from the Middle East. The King of Portugal was beginning to send out exploratory quests down the coast of Africa to find a sea route to India. Columbus' big idea was to head West and when the Portuguese monarch failed to support him, he asked the Spaniards.

Promising them extreme wealth he eventually kitted out the tiny fleet that made it to the Caribbean. There they were universally welcomed by the indigenous people who showered them with gifts and friendship. But Columbus saw them very differently:
All the men looked young... They were well built, with good boides and hansome features. Their hair is coarse, like horse's hair, and short... They have the same color as the Canary Islanders, as they are at the same latitude. They do not bear arms, and do not known them , for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... They would make fine servants... I believe they could easily be made Christians.
But as Koning explains, they were destined to "not even live as slaves; they were to die". In their desire for gold the indigenous people that Columbus were to find were forced to provide vast quantities of gold, despite the land barely containing any. Those who dissented were killed, and those who failed to deliver lost their limbs as a warning to others. Mass rebellion failed and so mass suicide followed. In Hispaniola, Koning writes:
In 1515 there were not more than ten thousand Indians left alive; twenty-five years later, the entire nation had vanished from the earth. Not one Indian on the island had ever been converted to what Columbus called 'our Holy Faith.'
In all of this, Columbus is far from the pious leader he is supposed to have been. He is happy to use violence to achieve his aim; he sees the native population of the lands he finds as little more than slaves who will find him the supposed wealth of the Indies. He does not object to the rape of the women by his sailors - in fact he tries to aid this by taking on board female slaves for his men to use on their voyage. Nor is he particularly nice to his own men - he cheats the first man to spy land out of a massive reward by pulling rank, and he lies to them about their location so they don't turn against the trip. Despite this, he ends up amply rewarded by the Spanish, though few of his predictions have come true. The wealth of the Americas does begin to pour into Spain - in terms of gold, slaves and natural resources - but it comes from other voyagers and admirals.

Today many countries celebrate Columbus Day on the anniversary of his arrival in America. Hans Koning's short, but excellent book, is an excellent explanation of why this day is actually a celebration of genocide, rape and the violent appropriation of natural resources. The myth of Columbus exists to justify the colonial conquest and ongoing imperialism. The legacy of this, the underdevelopment of countries, poverty and lack of resources, is still felt today.

Related Reviews

Fernández-Armesto - 1492: The Year Our World Began
Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth
Cronon - Changes in the Land
Galeano - Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History
Galeano - Open Veins of Latin America

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Emma Newman - Before Mars

This cracking novel begins with the arrival of Anna Kurbin on Mars. While she is a qualified geologist arriving at humanity's only base on the Red Planet, it quickly becomes clear that she is really there to paint her unique canvases so that the ultra rich owner of GavCorp, the multinational (multi-planet?) organisation that runs the base, can get even richer.

Initially Kurbin thinks she might be going mad, an after effect of the long journey, when she discovers a note that she appears to have left herself in her new quarters. This note warns her about the base psychiatrist. How did it get there? Quickly Kurbin begins to find other discrepancies in the behaviour of the personnel on the base - a human footprint in a unexplored part of Mars? That's much stranger than meeting Man Friday.

This is a very tightly written thriller that hooked me from the start. While dealing with greedy multinational corporations, the lies that their avatars tell, and Kurbin's search for truth, it also has a nice interplay of geopolitics, the personal crises that will take place as people leave the planet and musings on motherhood, gender and relationships among isolated groups of people.

A highly enjoyable, and very original piece of science fiction, with a brilliant plot-twist of an ending, set in a future world where corporations put profits before the interest of the inhabitants of two planets.

Related Reviews

Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker
Haldeman - All My Sins Remembered
Aldiss - Non-Stop
Morrow - Is this the Way the World Ends?
Stephenson - Snow Crash

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Henry Heller - The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective

How did capitalism arise? It is a question that has been often discussed, and the debate between Marxists has been fierce. The post-war period saw a intensity of this discussion with figures like Rodney Hilton and others contributing their positions, and in the aftermath of 1968 the development of a new, revolutionary, left that broke with Stalinism, allowed the debate to flourish without the hindrance of a line that stemmed from the political outlook of the official Communist movement. A new generation of scholars, and some longer-standing figures, argued through what became known as the transition debate.

Henry Heller's remarkable book is, perhaps, the best summary of the debate I have read. It is not neutral - Heller is critical of many of those who have written from a Marxist and non-Marxist point of view on the transition from feudalism to capitalism - particularly Robert Brenner and his followers. Heller argues that to understand the transition the historian has to look at a variety of different aspects of society and place them in a unified context. Thus, writing about EP Thompson, he says:
[Thompson] like other British Marxist historians, gave license to an approach privileging the study of workers, plebeians and peasants. This was understandable given the previous neglect of the role of the people in history. But this opened the way to an approach which ignored the study of the political and economic opposition between workers and peasants on the on hand, and landlords and capitalists on the other, in favour of a one-sided preoccupation with the lower orders. The relationship between opposed classes must be the focus of any serious study of the origins and dynamics of capitalism. Moreover, class conflict is always resolved a the level of political struggle and the control of the state... It is the dynamic of class struggle which must be the focal point of a Marxist approach to history.
Heller looks at a much wider context to the development of capitalism than many others - his sections on Japan for instance, are fascinating, though I'd have liked a lot more about China, Asia and elsewhere. More importantly in the context of his engagement with Brenner and others, he firmly argues that it is not enough to discuss the development of capitalism through a study of English history. He uses studies of Italy, Germany and France to illustrate how capitalism began to develop, but failed to break through unlike in Holland and England. This, he writes, is because
The key difference between these countries, where the development of capitalism was arrested or limited, and England and Holland lay in the balance of power between capital, the state and feudal power. Italy failed to consolidate a territorial state because of the too great strength of merchant capital, while in Germany and France feudalism proved too strong. 
The failure of capitalism to break through had a number factors, but when it did break through in England and Holland, precisely because those economies were not separated out globally, it had an impact elsewhere, hampering its development still further. In this context Heller quotes Perry Anderson's criticism of Brenner as a "'capitalism in one country' approach". Heller repeatedly returns to this theme, noting for instance, that:
At the beginning of modern times [the non-unified] Germany and Italy were as much nations as France and England and both witnessed the development of capitalist classes. But the failure to construct national territorial states in the former countries aborted for the time being their capitalist futures. The lack of such a state deprived merchants and entrepreneurs of the protection necessary to gain control of foreign markets and territories, blocked the further development of national markets and arrested the maturation of their bourgeoisie.
Heller notes the special case of France, where the weak bourgeoisie was unable to overthrow the nobility, and the state, despite some "fostering" the development of the bourgeois "to a certain extent", but eventually continued to protect the interests of the old nobility, badly hampered the development of capitalism. He concludes that in France, "capitalism was forced onto the defensive until the eighteenth century". This can be contrasted with those countries where the state began to play the role of a "political bridge between feudalism and capitalism". There the state was able to "provide an arena for the generalisation and integration of capitalist relations of production". Thus the breakdown of the old feudal order was accompanied by the state facilitating commodity production through the creation and protection of markets internally and overseas.

Heller's focus on the world beyond England does not mean he neglects debates about the development of capitalism in England. One particularly important aspect about his argument is his discussion of "agrarian capitalism", much favoured by Brenner and his followers (such as Ellen Meiksins' Wood). Heller favourably quotes Brain Manning's approach which emphasised the interaction between town and country, farming and manufacture, agriculture and industry. In my view this is critical to understand the influence of this interaction if one is to see how capitalism could rapidly take off in England after the Civil War. Brenner, according to Heller, is unwilling to accept this because he rejects the idea of bourgeois revolution. In contrast, Heller highlights historians like Manning who show the way that the Civil War was a victory based on the "mobilisation of the middle sort of people", which "marginalised" the old order of landowners and aristocrats. This in turn creates a new state favourable to the development of capitalism. As Heller summarises:
As a result of revolution, the state was restructured in each case to enhance the further accumulation of capital at home and abroad, and to advance the social and political ambitions of the bourgeoisie. By transforming the state from a feudal to a capitalist institution, the revolutions in Holland, England and France, helped to consolidate capitalism as a system. In taking this view we have challenged the view of Brenner and the Political Marxists, who would deny the significance and even the existence of these bourgeois and capitalist revolutions.
Heller develops this focus on to the state with a study of Lenin's analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia, noting that it can lead to the development of capitalism from above as well as below.

I don't have time here to fully explore the other, linked, themes of Heller's book. One important argument that is worth highlighting here is his close study of the question of euro-centrism in relation to Marxist accounts of the development of capitalism. He absolves Marx of this crime, by noting how Marx emphasised capitalism as a system that grew based on the systematic exploitation of the rest of the world. He also notes the limitations of many "political Marxists" on this question. Heller's treatment of slavery and its importance in the development of capitalism is particularly noteworthy here. The consequences of the breakthrough of capitalism in western Europe were appalling for millions of people, it also hampered the development of capitalism elsewhere.

In his conclusion Heller re-emphasises the importance of his twin track approach - the coming together of social forces that could win revolutionary change, and a state that could encourage and develop capitalism:
Capitalist farmers, a group whose economic ambitions were evident in the late medieval period, together with well-to-do craftspeople followed a revolutionary path by reorganising production in both agriculture and industry from the sixteenth century onward. Led by these same proto-capitalist elements, petty producers and wage workers provided the shock troops of the early modern social and political revolutions.
He continues:
I have underscored the role of the sate in nurturing capitalism at its beginnings, overseeing its development through mercantilism and through combined and uneven development and then being itself transformed by revolution. Throughout I have insisted on tits role in totalising capitalist relations: generalising, maintaining and integrating capitalist relations right through society.
Henry Heller's book is a must read for those Marxists trying to understand how capitalism came to dominate the world and what this means in the 21st century. It is worth mentioning that in his engagement with other Marxists on this question he does highlight the work of Chris Harman who is often neglected as he wasn't an academic. Heller pays Harman the highest of tributes in his book, and it is worth noting that sometimes the best work on this subject comes from authors who were actively engaged in the building of political organisations to try and change the world.

Heller shows how the development of capitalist forces were initially progressive, but have now come to be fetters on the further development of society - and as we face global environmental chaos and economic crisis, his conclusion that we need to transform society again cannot be ignored. His book is important ammunition in understanding both the history of capitalism and the ideas that can be part of the fight for socialism.

Related Reviews

Callinicos - Making History
Perry - Marxism and History
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology
Harman - Marxism and History
Dimmock - The Origin of Capitalism in England 1400 - 1600

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Alan Stern & David Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

The arrival of the New Horizon space probe at Pluto in July 2015 was the scientific highlight of the decade. It made headlines across the world, and through social media was followed avidly by millions of people. Despite expectations that Pluto and its moon Charon would be rocky, crater ridden bodies it turned out that they both had a wealth of surface features, with stunning geological formations, huge ice mountains, and shiny plains. The images became some of the most shared pictures on the internet - one of them is the backdrop to the PC that I'm writing this review on now - and continue to inspire and enthuse.

But the New Horizon's mission almost didn't happen. In fact, as this fascinating study shows, it had an extremely long gestation period. The trip to Pluto took just over nine years - but the roots of the mission began much earlier in the 1980s in the aftermath of the Voyager probes to the outer-solar system. The Voyager missions that both visited Jupiter and Saturn with one craft going on to Uranus and Neptune through the 1980s. In their own time they were as inspiring to scientists and the public as New Horizons was to be. But Pluto, at that time still designated as a planet, was not on either of the Voyager's itineraries. For some young aerospace engineers and scientists, this was a challenge and they set about convincing NASA that a visit to Pluto was worth the money, time and resources.
Pluto and one of its moons, Charon. Credit: NASA
With hindsight it is easy to say that New Horizons was well worth the cost. But that was certainly not the case. Alan Stern, one of the authors of this book drove the project forward and it details the ups and downs of the project. Despite proving time and again that a trip to Pluto was worth it in terms of science and value for money, politicians and NASA bureaucracy repeatedly conspired to try and cancel it. Any public sector project suffers from lack of resources and the whims of politicians who can end programmes with a pen stroke, but spaceflight is on a much larger scale.

As the 1980s became the 1990s and then the 2000s, successive US governments and NASA administrators blew hot and cold on the Pluto project and so when the programme finally got the it was a race against time to ensure that the engineering and technology could be in place for a very tight launch schedule. Due to their different orbits Pluto is currently moving away from Earth and any delay made the complex manoeuvres through the solar system harder. In addition Pluto was moving away from the sun and if scientists wanted to study it's atmosphere they'd have to get a probe there earlier rather than later.

I was also struck by the limitations imposed on the selection process through the way that NASA outsources projects to private companies, and secondary institutions, all of whom are in competition for contracts. A good chunk of the story tells how Stern put together a team at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) to make a Pluto proposal against their competitors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The story of the competitive edge highlights different technological solutions to the problem of getting a package of scientific instruments to Pluto, but in my view also the limitations of this sort of selection process.

Three different manufacturers made the rocket stages and spacecraft propulsion systems and while some 2,500 women and men worked on the New Horizons mission, many were from different companies and institutions:
This workforce stretched far beyond SwRI [Southwest Research Institute] and APL, with more than a hundred participating companies and universities, plus NASA, and other government agencies in the mix. Major subcontracts under APL, SwRI or NASA included Ball Aerospace, which built the "Ralph" camera spectrometer instrument; JPL which provided the Deep Space Network... Lockheed Martin, Boeing... Aerojet... [etc]
Each of these added extra costs, bureaucracy and personal to the project. This is the limitations of doing huge science projects based on a system dominated by private multinationals.

Artists impression of New Horizons at Pluto. Credit: NASA
Given the enormous amount of time (nearly 15 years) that it took to get a Pluto mission into space before the decade long flight, it is no surprise that the crew were enormously emotional at their success. The final sections of this book that deal with the preparations and arrival at Pluto read like an adventure story, particularly when the team have to solve a major critical problem a few days before arrival. The authors give a real sense of the enormous challenges posed by such a project and the marvellous skills of the women and men who made it a success. I was particularly fascinated by the descriptions of how the spacecraft was able to do its observations while travelling at near 30,000 miles and hour through the Pluto system.

Despite the seemingly niche subject matter this is a book that tells an amazing story. It's well written, at places exciting, and always fascinating even when discussing NASA's bureaucracy. As I write this, New Horizons is a couple of weeks away from its next mission target and reading this has given me new insights into what that involves. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting an insight into the work that takes place behind the science missions, but one thing saddened me too. New Horizons demonstrated exactly what humanity can achieve given the resources, but this book showed how all too often achievements like this never get off the drawing board. New Horizons cost approximately $720 million over ten years of flight. The Iraq war cost the US over $1 trillion. One day humanity will decide what its real priorities are.

Related Reviews

Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon

Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy
Sobel - Galileo's Daughter
Gleick - Isaac Newton
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Holmes - The Age of Wonder

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Poul Anderson - Mirkheim

Poul Anderson was a prolific US science fiction author whose career spanned the post-war period. He published dozens of books, stories and articles and had an interesting personal background - born of Scandenavian parents and growing up in the USA, he moved to Denmark with his mother after his father died then returned to a farm in the American mid-west at the outbreak of war. Like his contemporary Robert Heinlein, Anderson's politics were right-wing libertarian and they certainly shine forth in Mirkheim.

On one level this is a story with quite a lot of potential. It contains a number of characters that Anderson repeatedly used in some of his novels, but is not part of any extended story arc. It deals with the imperial machinations of various galactic powers as a planet, Mikheim, is discovered. Mirkheim, for reasons that are rather ponderously explained in the introduction, is a source of very rare metals which are not easily obtainable despite the huge size of the galaxy. The planet quickly becomes the centre of a confrontation between various galactic trading blocs that are centred on particular planetary (human and alien) systems.

This confrontation threatens all out war and the central characters of the novel are in a race against time to stop the non-human threats and ensure that free trade is allowed across the galaxy. War is bad for trade, and intergalactic capitalism cannot allow it to happen so the agents of the Polesotechnic League (yes really) are sent out to sort out the problem. Anderson is quite happy to use the novel's conclusion to set out his own views on government and state. Nicholas van Rijn, one of the key characters in the book, who appears to be some sort of trader, freebooter and head of a galaxy spanning financial, trading empire sets out the problem:
The League was once a free association of entrepreneurs what offered goods and services but did not force them on nobody. It is not private outfits what fights wars and operates concentration camps, it is governments, because governments i those organisations what claims the right to kill whoever will not do what they say.

The idea that companies do not force products on others will be news to many, as will the idea that governments aren't acting in the interest of corporations at home. But such are the limitations of libertarianism. Does this matter? Well it shouldn't. Decently written political novels can be enjoyed by those who don't agree with them politically. The problem with Mirkheim is that the whole story appears to be a setup to enable Anderson to get on his soapbox. A problem that is also closely associated with Robert Heinlein. In addition, while van Rijn's accent and awkward sentence construction is a reflection of his Dutch origins - the rest of the book is full of convoluted writing, over-written descriptions and strange language. The introduction is also painfully long and boring. I won't be reading it again, and I'll probably give the rest of Anderson's books a miss on the strength of this.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein - Starship Troopers
Scalzi - Old Man's War

Friday, December 14, 2018

Shirin Hirsch - In the Shadow of Enoch Powell: Race, Locality & Resistance

The 50th anniversary of 1968 has led me to read a number of books marking that year's great struggles. But not everything that took place was progressive. In the UK an infamous speech by a leading Tory MP, Enoch Powell quickly became known by its most famous idiom, "Rivers of Blood" after Powell's prediction that Britain would be engulfed in racial conflict caused by immigration.

Powell's speech has long since become a rallying cry of the far right in Britain. Just a few weeks before I read Shirin Hirsch's new book a fascists poured red dye into a fountain in Bristol and played Powell's words over a speaker system. That they were immediately countered by a strong anti-racist response is, in part, a result of events that began in 1968.

Since his death in 1998 many people have tried to rehabilitate Enoch Powell. They note his military career, his devotion to the British Empire and his supposedly principled positions on many issues. Mainstream obituary writers tended to gloss over his racism, suggesting that it was a one-off, or some eccentric view that rarely got heard. But Powell was a racist, and his racism was rooted in his belief in the supremacy of the British nation and the progressive nature of its Empire. Hirsch shows Powell's rhetoric was not simply the speech of a isolated racist, rather they reflected wider social circumstances.

For Powell the Empire was a source of wealth for the Britain, and its people were merely resources. As Minister of Health he recruited oversees workers to work in the NHS, yet in the early 1960s as the post-war boom turned to decline, Powell turned on those he had championed. He looked at America and was terrified by the Civil Rights movement.

Powell was also ambitious. In 1965 he'd stood for the Tory leadership and been defeated so, as Hirsch explains,

Powell's shift towards a new anti-immigrant politics was made within this context of individual ambition as well as national crisis. In the late 1960s British capitalism was forced to cut real living standards, being to increase unemployment and raise rents and prices. David Widgery recalled how a real fear had begun to spread within ruling class circles that the rule of law was no longer guaranteed.... Powell's speech was born out of this class conflict.
Yet one of the contradictions of this was that Powell, the arch capitalist, found his words had a real resonance with large sections, of the working class. Hirsch says:
For Powell's new racism to resonate with working class lives, his words had also to speak to the fears and disillusionment with established politics which had emerged in 1968, connecting with new material anxieties within sections of the working class who had lost faith in the succession of leaders who betrayed their trust.

The impact of Powell's speech was immediate. He'd released the text early to ensure that there was maximum coverage and quickly it made headlines across the country. Powell was sacked, probably to his great pleasure, and sections of workers took action (most notably a big strike by dockers in the East of London). In Wolverhampton where Powell was MP quotes from local black residents speak of their fear in the aftermath as racists grew in confidence.

Hirsch's book is a close study of Wolverhampton at the time of Powell's speech. He was a master of rhetoric and his speech portrayed a white British culture being destroyed by immigrant outsiders. Hirsch notes that immigrant in this context was code for black, as Powell was not concerned with the Polish or Italian immigrants to the city. Hirsch also points out that in the aftermath of Powell's speech, as racism rose, the black community of Wolverhampton was ignored by the media who descended on the city, and one of the great things about her book is that she gives a voice to some of them.

Most of the response locally was pro-Powell. Despite some critical statements from local figures and trade unionists, there was nothing that could "provide a direction for how to challenge the racism taking hold... however, new forms of resistance were taking place in Wolverhampton, actions and ways of living that challenged Powell's words not yet in a direct form, but instead taking place on an everyday level."

In the context of the wider radicalisation of 1968, left-wingers, anti-racists and campaigners challenged Powell's racism. But Hirsch argues that Wolverhampton's black population was central too the growth of the movement against Powell and racism in general. She shows how the city's history of struggle which had seen black and Asian people engaged in important fights over their own rights, helped shape a response. The wider context mattered too. It was also notable that black people took inspiration from international struggles (particularly the Civil Rights movement in the US) and mobilised themselves. Hirsch writes:

Blackness then became a way of resisting Powell's racial impositions, drawing guidance and inspiration from the politics of Black Power in the United States... The [newly formed] Black People's Alliance went on to organise a [London] demonstration of 4,000 people a few months later... An effigy of Enoch Powell taken from a coffin was set alight with chants of 'Disembowel Enoch Powell'.

Hirsch describes how Wolverhampton's black and Asian communities were placing themselves at the heart of new movements that both challenged racism but also fought for the right to be a conscious part of the working class. These movements took time to make themselves heard. The 1970s were simultaneously a period of growth for the far-right and fascists, but also eventually became a period of a mass anti-racist movement that involved Black and White people fighting together to turn the tide of racism.

Today we desperately need a mass anti-racist movement. I was struck while reading Hirsch's book at the close similarities between Powell and some far-right figures today. Powell was very much a creature of the capitalist class, but he also was skilled at "carefully positioning himself as at odds with government policy, standing up for the little, local man against the pro-migration liberal establishment reigning in London." Readers can make their own parallels with contemporary racists.

The racist forces that were encouraged and called into being by Powell's racist speech were eventually turned back. But the anti-racist movements did not appear automatically, rather they had to be consciously built and Shirin Hirsch's book is a fantastic study of what took place in Wolverhampton which was at the epicentre of the racist storm. As such her book isn't simply of academic interest - it is a tool to help understand how we can turn the tide again today. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Dresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol
Aspden - The Hounding of David Oluwale
Henderson - Life on the Track

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Walter Rodney - The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World

Walter Rodney was a leading revolutionary intellectual of anti-colonial and revolutionary movements in Africa and the Caribbean. Born in 1942, by the 1960s he was a leading radical voice in the emerging Black Power movements. His academic work in Jamaica's University of the West Indies was marked by attempts to relate to wider audiences than students and when the authorities banned him from ever returning to the country, riots exploded as thousands demonstrated in his support. Following this Rodney returned to Tanzania where he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam. This book is the first publication of Rodney's writings about the Russian Revolution based on a series of lectures he gave in Tanzania which attempted to understand the 1917 events through the experience of post-colonial Africa.

The first thing that should be said is that the editors and publishers have done a brilliant job in producing this book. It's clear from the introduction that this is the result of years of work in archives and the editors, together with Rodney's family, should be applauded to making this work available. Because the work remained unfinished in the form that Rodney would have liked due to his assassination in 1980 there are of course omissions. But it is clear that the author wanted this book to be available to a wide audience. Thankfully that is now possible.

The book begins with an over-view of the Russian Revolution and most importantly the economic and political context for 1917. Rodney also provides a detailed commentary on the historiography of the Russian Revolution, highlighting for instance, where authors who are critical of events are often linked to political forces (such as the Hoover Institution for War and Peace) hostile to the Soviet Union and radical movements in general. Rodney quotes one hostile account by Harold Fisher, which said that the Soviet "Communist movement...threatens our liberties and those of other free people". Rodney continues:
The reader would need to ask whether he or she is included in Fisher's collective "our," and whether he or she wants to be included, bearing in mind that the "free people" to whom he refers include the oppressed masses of Spain, Portugal, Greece and Latin America, plus (in 1955) all the colonised and exploited people of Africa and Asia and all the oppressed black people within in the United States! 
Rodney here notes that the "views of the Russian Revolution" are often shaped by prevailing political discourse and ignore some of the very factors that made the Revolution possible. But he is also writing about the Revolution in order to strengthen the anti-colonial movements of what today we would call the Global South. These movements took place in the context of historical colonial exploitation or in underdeveloped economies, economies that Rodney argues had been depleted of their wealth, resources and population by Western capitalism. So Rodney is keen to highlight the parallels between Russian in 1917 - with a huge peasantry and relatively small, but powerful working class - and countries like Tanzania where he was working. So this book, far more than most on the Russian Revolution, studies the peasantry. But Rodney does not ignore the central role of the working class. In fact, he follows Trotsky and celebrates the leadership of those workers:
Yet he [Trotsky] attacks the theory of a spontaneous and impersonal revolution as a liberal fiction... Both sides had been preparing for it for years. The fact that one cannot discover the identity of the leaders makes the revolution nameless, but not impersonal. The outbreak must be seen in the context of the generally propagandised condition of the workers, hence the 'conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin [Trotsky's words].
Reading this I got a real sense of Rodney trying to understand the Russian Revolution for the purpose of emulating its movements. The chapter, "On the 'Inevitability' of the Russian Revolution" is clearly about teaching a Marxist understanding of social movements - arising out of historical contradictions, but being rooted in a concrete situation . Thus for Rodney the revolution of February 1917 was "made possible" because of the "long-term forces that had been operating within feudalism" but it wasn't inevitable.

All this said there are some aspects to the book I disagreed with. Firstly I noted a few errors - Rodney writes that Trotsky returned to Russia at the outbreak of war, but he actually arrived back in 1917 just before Lenin. Rodney (or perhaps the editors) gets confused about the date of writing and publication of Trotsky's seminal History of the Russian Revolution. In writing that it was written during discussions at Brest-Litovsk the author/editors are confusing this with the earlier and shorter History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, which Trotsky wrote as a polemic for German soldiers and was published much earlier. This is important as the later multi-volume book was part of Trotsky's arguments about the legacy of the Revolution. These errors should be corrected for any second edition.

More importantly in Rodney's defence of the Revolution he fails to accept that there was a break between events of 1917, the early 1920s and the Soviet Union in the late 1920s onward. He sees continuity when it is essential to see the break. Rodney defends Stalin (though not completely) arguing that his errors were not the result of personal behaviour but that of the whole organisation, and dismisses Trotsky's criticisms of Stalin as being more about "personal character assassination". At times this leads to real problems of analysis. Rodney writes, for instance, that "By 1936, Stalin was the only one left in Russia from that original group [Bolshevik Old Guard]." He omits to mention that Stalin had had most of the Old Bolsheviks executed or imprisoned. For Rodney "Socialism in One Country" was not the invention of Stalin, but the reality of Russia's isolation. But this is to misunderstand what Stalin was doing - his industrialisation programmes were a conscious turn away from the strategy of international revolution that Lenin and the Bolsheviks promoted. This meant that on Stalin's orders the Communist International, which was intended as being a tool to encourage international revolution, became a tool for Russia foreign policy. Thus Rodney is wrong to write:
The failure of revolutions to take place in Western Europe was a function of imperialism, which strengthened their bourgeoisie and disarmed the workers. Stalin and The Russian Communist party and the Comintern had no control over that.
In fact the opposite is true. It Rodney's eagerness to defend the Revolution from its critics, he ends up ignoring many of the problems of the Soviet Union under Stalin and his heirs. This is not to say that Rodney thinks Stalin a saint - far from it. But he does not acknowledge that the Soviet Union of the 1930s was not the revolutionary nation of the early 1920s. He does come close though:
Caught up in contradictions with capitalist powers, the Soviet Union has to strengthen its state apparatus. And in doing so, it is behaving so much like a capitalist state that it is demanding from China land areas once held by the former Tsarist state and it is invading other countries, as in Czechoslovakia.
I think there are two reasons for these errors. First is that Rodney follows Lenin in arguing that there is a labour aristocracy in the West, bought off by the benefits of Imperialism. Ironically however he then ignores that these workers were the ones that triggered the revolutionary movements in Germany and were the core of the Revolution in Russia. Secondly I think Rodney is reacting against the role of US Imperialism in the Global South. It is not surprising in any way that a revolutionary would hate the legacy of colonialism and the new Imperialism that was being deployed in Africa, Asia and Latin America by the United States. But Rodney fails then to see that the role of the Soviet Union has become Imperialist too.

While noting these disagreements, I also have to agree with Walter Rodney's family members who write in their acknowledgements that "This book provides an 'African Perspective' for understanding the Russian Revolution... Readers are reminded that this work needs to be examined in the context of the world as it existed at that time and in the context of who Rodney was at that time, a twenty-eight year old enigmatic historian and scholar-activist, engaging, learning and earning his stripes". Had he not been assassinated there is no doubt that Rodney would have continued to be part of the growing movements in Africa and elsewhere against Imperialism and Colonialism. This book, in its final form, would have been developed and built upon, and while it has its problems it is also a fascinating study of 1917 from a different perspective to that which we normally get in Europe. I do hope it gets a wide readership and sparks further debates on what we can do in the 21st century to liberate humanity from the insanity of capitalism.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution
Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and Festival of the Oppressed
Smith - Russia in Revolution
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Baku - Congress of the Peoples' of the East

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Michael Rosen - Workers' Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

How do socialists raise awareness among workers about their ideas? It's a question that has bedevilled generations of radicals and activists. Today the Internet has transformed the way that left-organisations try to connect with and influence their target audience, and while there remains, in my opinion, a crucial place for socialist publications - books, pamphlets and newspapers - the nature of these has changed a great deal.

One important difference is that today's socialist publications rarely publish fiction or poetry. But as this fascinating collection of stories from the late 19th and early 20th century shows this was very different in the past. Michael Rosen is a well-known children's author, socialist writer and an academic specialising in education and literature. He has examined hundreds of old publications to show how the use of fiction was a fundamental part of socialist education. These take a number of forms, as Rosen explains:
The main body of these [fictional works] involved a recycling of the traditional literary forms like the fairy tale, the fable, the parable, the allegory and the moral tale. Along with these we find a few examples of the mystery tale. The home for most of this output was in the newspapers, magazines and journals of socialist groups and parties.
It is not difficult to imagine the short stories here published alongside reports of strikes, appeals for solidarity and analysis of the contemporary world. The stories often assume knowledge of particular stories - fairy tales like Jack in the Beanstalk, or Alice in Wonderland. More importantly I think they assume an understanding of the tropes of these story forms - giants for instance are often common characters. One thing I found fascinating is that these stories were not necessarily aimed at children, or even adults with limited education. They were intended to be read, enjoyed and, crucially in my opinion, they probably lent themselves to be retold. It is easy to imagine these tales being read, told and retold at work or in the pub. They also reflect a common belief among the socialist movement that radical change was about education and these stories were a contribution to that.

The use of metaphor and allegory is common, and sometimes read a little crudely. For instance, the left MP Keir Hardie wrote a story Jack Clearhead: A Fairy Tale for Crusaders, and to be Read by them to their Fathers and Mothers, in 1894. It tells the story of the Dullheads who become the slaves of the Sharpheads who own all the resources. The hero of the tale Jack, meets a good fairy who gives him a sword with which to fight for justice. To make the sword's magic work he must chant the rhyme: "Sword, sword fight for me. I belong to the ILP." The reference to the Independent Labour Party must have felt a little forced even in 1894!

But this doesn't always make for a bad tale. I enjoyed the 1907 story Happy Valley which told of a world that was "still beautiful" where "instead of ugly factory chimneys belching forth hideous smoke, fair gardens and orchards made the air sweet and fragrant, and the sun shone golden on the corn". To this idyll comes the giant Monopoly and his two dwarf assistants Capital and Competition. Between then they transform the land into a capitalist nightmare of pollution, hunger and poverty, until the hero, a young man called Fairplay is able to lead a group of followers "after them the women and children" and an army of fairies to kill the giant and drive off Competition. Capital however turns out to be a beautiful princess cursed to be ugly until freed. Fairplay and Capital marry and "worked for the people, and were happy ever after".

It is interesting that many of these stories reference back to an time of a rural idyll, ruined by the coming of industry and capitalism. It reminded me of the way that some radical thinkers use an imagined, or semi-imagined past as a way of encouraging radicalism in the present. Recently I read George Rudé writing about English protest movements in the 18th century:
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'.
Not all the stories are such clear radical versions of fairy tales. Some of them employ metaphor brilliantly. The Peasants' and the Parasites is a lovely story of the literal backbreaking work of the lower classes supporting the ruling classes - the landowners, the church and the lawyers. Others are less obviously telling a moral story or making a political point such as When Death Crossed the Threshold a 1903 story about a family whose mother is dying and the figures of Life and Death intervene.

It also interests me that some of these stories are clearly influenced by new styles of fiction. At least two use forms that were to be come relatively common in Science Fiction. Readers of Arthur C. Clarke's famous short-story Report on Planet Three will find a socialist parallel in the 1909 story A Martian's Visit to Earth which has an alien reporting back on colonial England. Similarly the 1911 imagining of a  future socialist world in The May-Day Festival in the Year 1970 reminded me of Marge Piercy's classic Woman on the Edge of Time, and of course was itself clearly influenced by William Morris' News From Nowhere.

While reading these stories two further things struck me. Firstly there is an air of innocence to them. Capitalism is full of poverty, hunger, unemployment and cruelty - but war is a distant thing. These stories are all written before the First World War and the mass murder of working people in the trenches. Similar stories written in the post-war period would have talked much more about mass bloodshed in the name of capital. Secondly, and perhaps related to this, the question of reform or revolution is not an issue. For many of these writers the transition to socialism involves the removal of a few bad kings or monsters - the question of how that change might take place in the real world is mostly absent.

This is a fascinating and remarkable book that tells us a great deal about the early Socialist movement in Britain. Today these tales might seem dated and often simple. But they represent earnest efforts to communicate the basic ideas of socialism by writers who felt that changing the world was an absolute necessity. Socialists today might be operating in different circumstances but the need for radical change has never been more apparent. This fantastic book is a reminder that we build on the work of thousands of others who often tried innovative and unusual ideas to put their ideas across.