Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Rosamond Faith - The Moral Economy of the Countryside: Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England

In this exciting new book Rosamond Faith sets out to answer an important, but often neglected question - why did peasants in the middle ages allow themselves to be exploited? If you pick up almost any book on the early feudal period you'll find whole sections that explain how the majority of the population was some form of peasant, and to a greater or lesser extent, they were obligated to give over a section of their produce to the lord, or labour on his lands for a set number of days a month. But, the oft ignored question, is why did they accept this as the status quo? As Faith points out "appropriation was not economically reciprocal: peasants do not need landowners in the same way that wage workers need employers".

In explaining this conundrum Faith utilises the concept of a "moral economy", a phrase most closely associated with the Marxist historian EP Thompson and developed by other thinkers like James C Scott, and she looks at the great transition that takes place in England after 1066 when a "new landowning elite, to whom these traditional constraints were unfamiliar, and who consciously set the relationship between lords and peasants on a new footing." The "traditional constraints" were the strict rules about when and were landlords could extract peasant labour for their own interests. Much of the book looks at what these rules were, and how they were transformed after 1066.

Faith puts an emphasis on feudalism having two aspects. One, which she links to the Marxist point of view, is one of economic structure. The other as a "set of legal concepts relating to holding land 'in fee' from a superior lord". While I don't think a Marxist framework precludes this second aspect, it is important (and it's worth highlighting) why Faith has such an emphasis. After the Conquest:
People came to write and think about these changes in terms of the formal relationships of the 'fee', of heritable land granted in return for service. Feudal tenure imposed the language of feodum, the 'fee' throughout rural society: even peasants had now to become accustomed to 'thinking feudally' and it took the efforts of skilled lawyer to devise ways in which peasant tenures could be differentiated from those of feudal tenures in general. Feudal language served lords well, of course, and much better than it served peasants, but it was not initially simply the language of oppression but a way of thinking about the entire social order.
This last point is crucial. What we see in the transition after 1066 is the construction of a new social order built on the smashing apart of the old order. But the new order had to reflect aspects of the old order for it to be legitimate in the eyes of those who were to be ruled. Before 1066 Faith argues that society in England was analogous the Scottish clan system which survived until much more recent times. This was a society where an "invisible network of obligations" existed.
These obligations "of the people of the scir to support its head, both materially with food and their armed support in war or out raiding, of the members of the warband to die defending their leader.... Lordship, then, was a very diverse form of authority exercised over land and people, and the area over which it was exercised was both an economic and a political entity.
But lordship wasn't a one way relationship. Faith calls it a "personal bond", and one where "the personal connection between two men, could be paired with the economic connection between landholder and tenant while stilling retaining its distinct identity: the earls granted leases to men who remained 'their men'....The link was a personal one - the willingness to fight could have had a good deal to do with this - and it was possible for a man to break this important bond by agreement".

Here is one of the key points. The link, relationship need not be permanent before 1066. It would be "broken by agreement". This "commendation" was the "antithesis of the "relationship intimately connected with landholding" that characterised the post-1066 period. Thus the willingness to partake in the relationship was because everyone involved felt they received something from the relation - including, as Faith emphasises, justice. The lord was responsible, not for providing courts or even rulings, but for ensuring that justice happened and those who did not have a lord had to find one or risk the whole system failing.

This is not to say that England, pre-conquest, was a society free of exploitation and oppression. But that there was, rather, a by-in to the system on behalf of the mass of the population that allowed the system to function. This should be emphasised because many peasant movements of the feudal era (and indeed later) used the idea of the "Norman Yoke" to symbolise the sense of a pre-existing society of universal freedom. While there is some truth, there is much more Utopianism about this vision of England before the Normans.

The Norman Conquest changed things forcefully, though it was presented "in terms of continuity". But we should not underestimate the transformation that took place. Before 1066 there was "no Old English law when it came to disciplining the peasantry", and the law of villeinage was introduced to correct this. But the key question was the introduction of the "concept of tenure" to England to bring the laws into alignment with Norman legal systems. This was "something new: legal rules to govern a lord's relations with people who owed him work". Post 1066 the relationship between individuals - between a free man and a lord, for instance, was superseded by the tenurial relationship between ruled and ruler, mediated through the land the latter owned.

What is so interesting about this book is the way it demonstrates that social relationships cannot be separated from wider political and economic relations, and that changing those relationships is not easy. It would be wrong to call the Norman Conquest a revolution - but it did revolutionise England's legal systems, and that in turn, transformed relations between people. These were most obviously those between individuals of different classes (and classes as a whole) but also, ultimately, between all individuals. Interestingly, just as other such changes latter in history required force to ensure they were adopted, the Normans had to use violence to weaken the old order and ensure they could introduce new laws. As the historian Marc Bloch wrote in his study of the transition:
No definite break with the past occurred, but the change of direction which, despite inevitable variations in time according to the countries or the phenomena considered, affected in turn all the graphs of social activity.
Faith argues that this had much further ramifications:
Ironically, it may have been only when the manor became fully effective as an economic unit with the resumption of demesne farming late in the 12th century that peasants would become capable of activating as a political community. In summoning their tenants from their own farms to work on their lord's land, landowners handed them a powerful and potentially subversive weapon... Collective action for a lord could evoke the possibility of collective action on their own behalf.
In struggling against their exploitation, the peasantry would have been inspired by a memory of things being different in the past. But they also used the situations created by the new system to their advantage when they could. Rosamond Faith's excellent book shows precisely how the arrival of the Norman's transformed England, and what that meant for ordinary people. It is a brilliant introduction to the period and one that I highly recommend as it puts the lives of ordinary people at the heart of history.

Related Reviews

Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Thompson - Customs in Common

Hilton - Bondmen made Free
Cohn - In Pursuit of the Millennium
Harman - Marxism and History
Gorgut - Poor Man's Heaven: The Land of Cokaygne and other Utopian Visions

Monday, December 02, 2019

Seth Donnelly - The Lie of Global Prosperity: How Neoliberals Distort Data to Mask Poverty & Exploitation

The end of 2019 has seen a growing "global revolt" in countries as varied as Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Ecuador, Catalonia and Lebanon. Driving those protests are a myriad of concerns, but one issue that dominates is the question of growing inequality, driven by neoliberal policies. Seth Donnelly's new book is not about these revolts, but is an explanation of the dynamics that have driven the impoverishment of the Global South and how the ruling class seeks to justify things.

The first part of the book looks at the "Lie of Global Prosperity". Donnelly begins with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 2000 - policies that set the ambition of drastically reducing inequality is spheres like hunger, poverty, education, child mortality and so on. The UN claims that this strategy has been universally successful, though as Donnelly points out:
It is ironic that the OECD member countries should take it upon themselves to design a campaign against global poverty, since it is their own neoliberal policies and financial asphyxiation of the Third World that has led to so much poverty, hunger and disease in the first place... most solutions proposed for meeting the MDGs are actually geared toward extending and maintaining the same unfair global order.
The reality is that the rich nations would have to pay a "small portion" of their wealth to eradicate inequality. Certainly the money spent by the United States on weapons alone would transform the lives of billions of people if used on health, education and sustainable agriculture. So claims to success in meeting the MDGs are, as Donnelly says, based "entirely on who is telling the story". Ideologically the United Nations are committed to free-market, neoliberal capitalism - and their argument for solving inequality rests very much on the idea that a "rising tide raises all boats". The problem for the capitalists is that this doesn't work, and so they've had to fiddle the figures. Donnelly explains:
The World Bank uses PPP [Purchasing Power Parity] to set the international poverty line... the original dollar-a-day line, set in 1995 using PPPs from 1985 was updated to $1.08 in 1993 with PPS from that year, and then was kicked up to $1.,25 with the publication of new PPPs in 2005. To date, the Bank;'s latest revision is $1.90 per day and is based on the 2011 PPP rates. Contrary to appearances, this new, nominally, larger figure does not mean that the Bank raised the poverty threshold; in fact, setting it at $1.90 per day actually lowered the threshold, conveniently erasing 100 million poor people overnight.
There is an accounting trick that means the World Bank and other institutions have effectively redefined poverty levels and a rate that reduces numbers of people classed as being in poverty. There are other tricks too that Donnelly details - essentially economists base their rates on commodity prices that may or may not be comparable between different countries in the Global South and the much richer North. Other mathematical tricks write out of history vast numbers of poor people. One example is from India. In 2007, the World Bank used a $1.25 PPP to place the "extreme poverty" rate at just above 30 percent. An Indian state run Commission calculated that 77 percent (836 miillion people) lived in poverty. Their level for the poverty line was 50 cents (20 rupees).

Of course, even this is a distortion because 20 rupees itself is relatively arbitrary. Is someone on 21 rupees actually much better off? Such sleight of hands mask the true horror of 21st century capitalism - that "71 percent of the world's population is in the low income category, with most living in severe poverty".

It's not just poverty of course. Donnelly shows how the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation changed the definition of hunger to be based on "fewer calories" and "created an illusion of progress" while millions of hunger and undernourished people disappear from official graphs and powerpoints.

The second half of the book is Donnelly's examination of the nature of capitalism and imperialism. It's a good account of how neoliberal policies have deregulated and dismantled institutional protections that fed, clothed and housed millions of people. He shows how the rich countries (primarily the US) have used their economic and military power to make sure that the global capitalist system channels wealth in their direction, while outsourcing production to lower cost areas. Imperialism is often used as short-hand for military intervention by powerful economies against weaker ones, but it is, as Donnelly shows, much more complex - economic leverage helps shape the world as much as the US army, navy and airforce. Donnelly writes that:
In essence the old imperialist system - in which the core countries extracted raw materialism, minerals and primary commodities from the periphery and then manufactured them into final products within the core country itself - has given way to a new, more complex system.
I'm slightly sceptical that this is a completely new Imperialist system. I think the world economy has always been complex, and we must not forget that global Imperialism isn't simply about rich nations versus poorer ones - there is competition between, say, member states of the EU and the US over differing interests even while US interests shapes the wider picture. This means that changes (such as emerging economies, or revolts in the global south) can change the bigger picture. As Alex Callinicos has written:
The combined impact of continuing slow growth in the core of the system and of a shifting global distribution of economic power is likely to create significant centrifugal pressures on the major blocs of capital that, it should never be forgotten, are in competition with each other. Maintaining both the political cohesion of the advanced capitalist world and US hegemony over it is not an automatic effect of a self-equilibrating system It requires a continue creative political effort on the part of the US, and in particular the successful pursuit of divide and rule strategies at the western and eastern ends of the Eurasian landmass where the two zones of advanced capitalism outside North America are to be found.

Such pressures are clearly behind some of the current political ruptures between the US and its traditional allies.

But Donnelly emphasises that "neoliberalism is a variant of global capitalism... a symptom of a bigger problem." This "problem" is global capitalism and to "struggle against neoliberalism without confronting global capitalism, or to struggle against capitalism without confronting twenty-first century imperialism is to tilt at windmills".

This is an extremely important point and hopefully the growing global revolt with move beyond fighting aspects of capitalism into confronting the system as a whole. Capitalism in the 21st century doesn't simply mean poverty and hunger, but the threat of complete ecological breakdown. Seth Donnelly's important book helps explain why, as well as the lies the capitalists tell to pretend things are okay.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism
Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Éric Vuillard - The Order of the Day

The parallels between the rise of the far-right in Europe in the 1930s and today, with far-right and fascist figures and organisations gaining positions of influence and power across the world, has been noted by many different writers in many different forms. Éric Vuillard's short novel, brilliantly translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, avoids drawing any too obvious links with the author concluding near the end that "we never fall twice into the same abyss". Rather he allows the reader to draw their own conclusions as he tells the story of how Hitler gained power and was able to annex Austria and Czechoslovakia with barely a murmur of protest from the international community.

The story is told through descriptions of that most of bureaucratic and mundane of events, the meeting. One meeting is that between various senior German industrialists who meet Hitler to discuss supporting him in the crucial election of 1933. There's the meeting between Kurt Schuschnigg and various senior figures in the Hitler government who browbeat Schuschnigg into accepting German entry to Austria and there is the less formal meeting of senior figures in the Chamberlain government as Ribbentrop says farewell to British diplomacy before war breaks out.

Vuillard tells these stories well, with an eye to emphasising details that are seemingly inconsequential but really demonstrate the power of the fascist regime - though he never lets us forget the power and interests that led to Hitler's success. Of the 24 industrialists at that fateful meeting he writes, that they stand "affectless, like twenty-four calculating machines at the gates of Hell."

The story is told well, and is clearly intended as a warning for our times. But I was unsatisfied. This is a history of the rise of Hitler though the eyes of industrialists, bigwigs, politicians and diplomats. There's no sense of the ordinary person, and definitely not a sense that Hitler could have been stopped. What of those who battled the Nazi thugs in the streets? What about those heroic anti-fascists in Vienna that fought to stop the rise of Schuschnigg's predecessors and their austrofascist politics?

"We never fall twice into the same abyss" writes Vuillard. But continues, "but we always fall the say way in a mixture of riducle and dread. We so desperately want not to fall that we grapple for a handhold, screaming". But the lessons of the 1930s are that we don't have to fall. There's no inevitability to our defeat. Our predecessors stopped Moseley in the East End. They stopped the fascists in France in 1934 and they almost stopped them in Germany. That's the lesson we have to cling to. For liberals today, gripped by fear at the rise of the right, we ought to be reminding them that history doesn't automatically repeat. Our side has agency too. Our side can win. That Éric Vuillard's book fails to do this undermines his otherwise powerful reminder from history.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Chris Harman - Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83

I was motivated to re-read Class Struggles in Eastern Europe by two anniversaries. The first was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall - the emblematic event of the great transformations that shook Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. The second date was the tenth anniversary of the death of Chris Harman himself, a socialist and revolutionary who dedicated his life to the struggle for socialism from below.

It is this second aspect of Harman's life - the belief that socialism was the "emancipation of the working class, by the working class" which shapes this book. Harman, like others in the International Socialist tradition, argued that the states of Eastern Europe were not "socialist" or "communist" but "state capitalist", something he argues here was not simply a arbitrary name but a "definition, in the full meaning of the word". He continues:
The term 'state capitalism' captures the essence of the East European societies because it locates within them a dynamic which determines their historical development - the dynamic of competitive accumulation.
It is the competitive accumulation, caused by East European economies' competition with the "capitalist" western economies and lead by a bureaucratic class which drove the attacks on living standards, wages, freedoms and democratic rights, which encouraged the struggles described in the book. As Harman explains:
Without the drive to accumulate, there is no explanation as to why a motley collection of planners, managers, party leaders, generals and police chiefs come to form a solid phalanx, united under a single discipline in opposition to the demands of the rest of society.
Harman writes that there are two general myths that covered how people viewed the Eastern bloc (before 1989). The first, from some on the left, was the idea that these were socialist societies of one form or the other. The second, more generally from the right and their media mouthpieces, was the idea that these societies were frozen in time, lacking freedom where dissent was ruthlessly held down by near unstoppable security forces.

Yet, as the book shows, Eastern Europe from the imposition of bureaucratic rule was shaped by class struggle. Strikes, protests, occupations and insurrection were relatively common as ordinary workers and peasants fought for more rights and better living conditions. Class Struggles in Eastern Europe begins with a short history of the development of the Eastern Europe regimes. These arose, not from the mass struggles of workers and peasants, but from military imposition by Russia, and it was the Soviet Union that initially shaped (or reshaped) industrial economies in it's own interest - "[Russia] matched the Marshall Plan's consolidation of western capitalism in one half of Europe with their own form of consolidation in the other half".

The reality of "competitive accumulation" for Eastern Europe was regular, cyclical crisis. Over the decades covered, repeated attempts by governments to focus investment or cut wages failed to solve underlying economic problems - exactly like capitalist governments and companies cannot fix their own economies. The crises led to splits in the ruling class as different sections of the East European ruling classes, while united in their desire to maintain the system and continue to exploit workers, argued about different strategies. It was these splits that time and again gave workers' movements the opportunity to break through. As Harman writes about the East German workers uprising in 1953:
The SED leadership later complained that functionaries had 'fallen in to panic, had slipped into positions of capitulationism and opportunism in relation to the enemies of the party'. But the confusion of the functionaries was not an accident. It was the inevitable consequence of the splits at the top of East German and Russian society. And these splits were no accident: they flowed from the inner economic dynamic of state capitalist society, as the examples of Poland and Hungary three years alter were to show even more dramatically.
Or, writing about Czechsolavika in 1968:
The first strikes broke out at a time when the whole apparatus of bureaucratic control was in turmoil. This was reflected in the attitude of local bureaucrats to the strikes. One automatic reaction was to condemn the strikes out of hand ... But some sections of the bureaucracy saw possible benefit to themselves in the strikes. Junior managers often regarded them as a lever to remove more senior Novotnyite officials or to gain a degree of autonomy for the plant they controlled.
Of the "class struggles" described in the book many will be known already to readers. Two events stand out above the others. The first is the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the second the experience of Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. The Hungarian Revolution deserves to listed alongside other great working class revolutions. Today it is usually remembered for the brutal intervention of Russian tanks, but 1956 was marked by all the elements of previous revolutions - mass strikes, demonstrations and workplace occupations and, crucially, the creation of workers councils which in the words of the British Communist Party's Peter Fryer, "bore a striking resemblance to the workers peasants and soldiers councils which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and in February 1917". But tragically, as Harman shows, there was a lack of any revolutionary minority that could argue for the seizure of power during the period of "dual power". In fact the leadership of the Hungarian workers' councils consciously avoided 'political decisions' leaving the existing state together with the armed might of the Russian military to retake the whole political space.

In Poland, there was no intervention from Russia,
precisely because of the depth and radical nature of the Polish movement compared to that in Czechoslovakia. They viewed a Russian military takeover of Poland as a very hazardous undertaking indeed. Poland was a much larger country with a much larger working class than Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Its population had historic traditions of armed resistance to invasions.
Yet the movement in Poland also failed to break through and was defeated, with its activists arrested, imprisoned and sometimes killed. In this case, while individuals were drawing revolutionary conclusions during the height of Solidarity's workers' revolt. There was also no political party capable of linking together the struggles and challenging the vacillations of reformist leaders like Lech Walesa who were terrified of radical action from below.

Writing about Hungary in 1956, but with words that are applicable to all the struggles he writes about here, Harman argues that:
The real significance of the Hungarian revolution does not rest in any attempt at a crude balance sheet, with workers' deaths on one side and economic gains on the other. It is to be found elsewhere. The myth that 'totalitarian', state capitalist societies are immutable, with their populations brainwashed into acquiescence, was smashed once and for all. Hungary proved that the Stalinist monolith itself bred forces that could tear it asunder.
The last part of the book is a discussion of why, in both east and west, accumulation leads to crisis and, often workers resistance. Harman lays out an argument that any relief for the rulers of the Eastern bloc would only be short. In 1989 the Iron Curtain collapsed in a few months as ruling classes were no longer able to solve the contradictions of their society and prevent reform or revolution. But if Harman's arguments about State Capitalism seem less important today, his wider theme - the need for activists to come together in revolutionary parties in order that the next struggle is victorious - remains utterly crucial. Class Struggles in Eastern Europe is a brilliant explanation of the importance of revolutionary organisation, through these forgotten accounts of workers' struggle.

Related Reviews

Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx
Harman - The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Binns, Cliff & Harman - Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism
Harman - Marxism and History
Dent - Hungary 1930 and the forgotten history of a mass protest
Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy

Monday, November 25, 2019

Glenn Frankel - The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend

The Searchers is an iconic Western which, in many ways, has come to exemplify the myth of the West itself. A land of huge open spaces, of dangerous environments, of heroic loners and violent, savages. Having read Glenn Frankel's book on the film High Noon which looks at its making in the context of the anti-Communist witchhunts, I was intrigued to see how Frankel examined this very different film.

But Frankel doesn't begin with the film, instead he starts with the history which formed the basis for the myth. In 1836, a Commanche band attacked Fort Parker in Texas killing five or so defenders and capturing five others. Four of these were ransomed over the coming months and years, but Cynthia Ann Parker, who was about 10 when kidnapped spent the next 24 years with the Commanche tribe, eventually marrying a chieftan and having a couple of children. During that time, various people tried to find her, and there were many rumours of her being alive.

The story of Cynthia Ann Parker became the material of legend, but was itself a doubly tragic one. Stolen from her family at a young age, she then became closely integrated with the Commanche community, and was forcibly removed from them as well, in fact only surviving an attack because she was white. Returning to "white society" she remained an outsider and never saw her two sons again. One of her sons, Quanah Parker, became a famed (though unelected) Native American Commanche chief, who became a wealthy rancher and link between Commanche and White communities.

One key aspect of the story of Cynthia and Quanah that is drawn out by Frankel and exists in the movie too (though much less explicitly) is racism towards Native Americans, a racism so explicit that white women who were captured and raped, or even willingly bore children, would be considered beyond the pale to white communities. In the film this shown through John Wayne's character who wants to rescue his kidnapped relative, but only narrowly avoids executing her when he finally finds her - a plan he had had all along. Similar themes are alluded to in another John Ford Western Stagecoach, when as the travellers face capture, a white soldier prepares to kill the woman travelling in the coach.

Racist attitudes to Native Americans pervaded the making of The Searchers and many other films. Interestingly, director John Ford, clearly thought of himself as a benevolent friend of the Navaho who provided the extras for many of the scenes in The Searchers and his other films. Ford paid them relatively well and provided other assistance, for instance leaving the sets up at the end so they could be used for material. Yet the portrayal of Native Americans in this Ford film is extremely problematic - they are savage rapists and must be subdued by the avenging searchers. Frankel portrays a transformation in attitudes to the Native Americas over the period covered - Alan LeMay who wrote the novel the screenplay was based on - himself went through a transition from sympathetic narrator to a more racist portrayal of the Commanche in The Searchers.

But the film remains emblematic, and part of the reason for that must be its racist portrayal of the Native Americas. Ford might have liked to pretend that this wasn't there (and at it's most explicit it's actually played for laughs - witness the scenes with one character's accidental native bride). But it is there and pervades the film through and through.

While I didn't get as much from this book as I did from Frankel's book on High Noon, I did enjoy it, though the material on the actual history of Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker is much more interesting than that on the making of the film. The figures of John Wayne and John Ford loom large over the production but are less interesting than the victims of McCarthyism behind High Noon.

Related Reviews

Frankel - High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Julian Rathbone - The Last English King

Walt, the last surviving bodyguard of King Harold, roams Europe in the aftermath of William the Bastard's invasion of England in 1066. As he does so, mourning the fact that he survived and failed to die defending his monarch, he joins a growing band of travellers whose interwoven tales explore the background the death of the "last English king".

Brilliant evocative of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse world, this is by far the best Julian Rathbone novels I've read. Unashamedly he uses anachronism to illuminate the story, or at least make the reader chuckle, but behind the story and the humour is an exploration of a version of feudal society - one were the peasantry supported their lords through thick and thin, because they would provide when times were hard. It is,  modern retelling of the myth of the Norman Yoke, the idea that before the Normans there was a mythical past were the land and people were one.

There's elements of the Canterbury Tales here of course, and as Walt and his companions exchanges stories, and we learn more about the world beyond England's coastline, we are drawn into a continent on the cusp of great change - Muslim armies threaten the Christian kingdoms, traders and explorers bring news of wider places and ideas are in foment.

But the myth of England before the Conquest is matched for Walt, by the reality of his own life before the Battle. His post-traumatic feelings are gradually, though never-completely, healed as he and his companions make their way towards the Holy Land. Historians no doubt will find much of fault here. Was King Edward the Confessor really gay? Was William really an insane, near idiotic, psychopath? It doesn't really matter, because the story is an highly enjoyable account of a key year of transition in English history, centred on Walt but telling a much more traumatic tale. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Rathbone - A Very English Agent
Rathbone - The Mutiny

Monday, November 18, 2019

Philip Parker - The Northmen's Fury

Say the word "Viking" and most people in Britain will immediately think of raids. murder and pillaging, and possibly, remembering back to their school history lessons, 1066. To be honest, for a few hundred years after around 800 CE that was pretty much what most people who lived in Northern Europe would have thought too, before they ran for the hills. Picking up Philip Parker's book before a recent trip to Denmark I was looking to find out a bit more than the superficial depiction of the Vikings as raiders and explorers.

The vikings burst onto the scene with their raid on the abbey at Lindisfarne in North Eastern England. But this is a particularly English understanding, because the Vikings had clearly been around much longer. But rapidly, viking influence grew and by the ninth century covered almost all of Scandinavia, large parts of the British Isles, bits of Ireland, Iceland and the Baltic coast. By the time of peak Viking expansion they had spread into Russia, reached Constantinople, and were semi permanently in parts of the Mediterranean. They had also reached Greenland and the Americas - trying to maintain and create mini-versions of Viking society back in Scandinavia.

It's a phenomenal expansion, and understanding how it happened ought to be a core part of any history of the Vikings. So I was disappointed to find that Parker's book didn't really get to the heart of an explanation. His account focused very much on the raids and colonies, but often became little more than a list of kings and battles. Any historian of the period will be limited by the material available and Parker uses the material there is well - but this tends to focus on kings and battles. But I would have liked a little more on the organisation of viking societies, the economic base of their economy (in particular I felt their agriculture was neglected) and social relations. It was notable that most of the book was about viking men - and women tended to just have roles as wives (or occasionally fighters).

The most interesting bits of the book were the accounts of exploratory missions and the far flung settlements in Greenland, the Americas and Asia. These were incredible voyages and involved masterful pieces of navigation and combat. In particular I learnt that the Viking presence in Vinland (probably Newfoundland) was much bigger than I had previously understood. They clearly also visited for supplies (especially firewood) extremely regularly from Iceland and Greenland.

So I did get a lot out of the book, but I was left unsatisfied by it and would have liked much more on the functioning of viking society, which would help illuminate the reasons behind the raiding; as well as the decline of viking society - for instance, an deeper engagement with those, like Jared Diamond, who argues that the end of the Vikings in Greenland was singularly due to their failure to adapt to the local environment.

Related Reviews

Rodger - The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649
Diamond - Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
McAnany & Yoffee - Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire
Gaiman - Norse Mythology

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Peter Ackerman & Jack Duvall - A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict

In this wide-ranging history authors Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall attempt to demonstrate that nonviolent strategies are the most successful and viable way of bringing about social change. Unfortunately their argument is limited by their understanding of social change and because they fail to get to the heart of what capitalism is.

The book covers a lot of 20th century territory. It begins with the 1905 Russian Revolution which, rather surprisingly for those in the Marxist and revolutionary socialist traditions, turns out to have be considered one of the earliest examples of a successful nonviolent movement. Figures like Gandhi and Tolstoy considered it a success because it did not degenerate into violence and introduced the first democratic victories under the Tsar.

Right at the start of the book then we already see the limitations of Ackerman and Duvall's philosophy. Firstly the 1905 Revolution was hardly a success for democracy. The limited enfranchisement that the Tsar granted was very much a toothless parliament, utterly unable to make any major changes that could benefit the mass of the population. Further though, the Revolution itself was limited by its failure to engage in a more forceful confrontation with the ruling class - a point that Trotsky makes in his own account 1905. Most importantly though, their account fails to acknowledge that one of the significant developments of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was the creation of workers' councils, in particular the Petrograd Soviet. These organs of bottom up democracy formed the basis for new ways of organising society, yet the authors fail to elaborate on what this might have meant for radical change.

Their account of 1905 demonstrates how the authors are, much like Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan's more recent theoretical book Why Civil Resistance Workers, limited by their belief that Bourgeois democracy is the highest achievable ambition for social movements fighting oppression and dictatorship.

Other chapters - whether discussing the 1923 German protests against the French Occupation of the Ruhr, the First Palestinian Intifada and the Anti-Apartheid movements (as well as many more) have many interesting accounts of the struggle, but fail to get to grips with key issues - in particular the nature of the capitalist state.

There is also, and this is replicated in contemporary debates about violence in social movements, a tendency to create a false polarisation between violence and nonviolence. In fact, many of the movements illustrated show their is an interplay, and on occasion there is a grudging acknowledgement that at times violence played a part in the successful outcomes - one example is the South African struggle against Apartheid, where the authors show that the violent attacks on police and collaborators meant that state authorities were cautious about entering many black areas.

The authors appear to be motivated by a desire to discredit revolutionary politics in the Marxist tradition, through their understanding of this is extremely crude - limited to suggesting that Lenin and Trotsky favoured violence simply because they thought revolutions had to be violent. In fact both Lenin and Trotsky understood that the nature of the capitalist state meant that it would have to be violently overthrown and a new state, capable of physically resisting counter-revolution created.

Finally the authors also create a false argument when they look at what makes movements successful. Highlighting strikes, stayaways, sit-ins and mass protest movements they seem to think these are somehow dismissed by other revolutionaries. In fact, it is precisely because workers have collective power to change society that socialists constantly emphasise the need for more strikes and mass protests. Sometimes I got the feeling that the authors believed that only they understood this.

While it's been influential, I suspect that many people who have read A Force More Powerful found it interesting, but not particularly useful in arguing a course forward. Readers might want to look at some of the literature that comes out of the revolutionary Marxist tradition if they want a better understanding of what can make social movements successful.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - 1905
Luxemburg - The Mass Strike

Chenoweth & Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Naomi Klein - On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein's latest book, despite it being an updated collection of essays, is possibly her best. Punchy, polemical, insightful and angry. I highly recommend you read it.

I won't write more as I have been asked to review On Fire for another publication and I will link that here when it is published.

Related Reviews

Klein - The Shock Doctrine
Klein - This Changes Everything

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Duff Hart-Davis - Our Land At War: A Portrait of Rural Britain 1939-1945

The Second World War was a transformative period for British rural society. The restrictions of wartime production, the expansion of agriculture, the massive increase in the use of mechanised vehicles for ploughing and transport began the transition to an industrialised landscape in the 1950s. There were tremendous social changes too - as women worked the land and forests in huge numbers - and agriculture communities lost population to the armed forces and war industries.

So it was with interest that I picked up Duff Hart-Davis' book on rural Britain during the World War Two. But it is with great disappointment that I finished it. The book is constructed with a series of chapters looking at different aspects of the author's topic. Unfortunately these chapters are marred by two problems for those interested in agricultural history. Firstly most of the content is in the form of interesting (and entertaining) anecdote, and secondly many of the chapters and contents are only loosely connected to the topic.

For instance there are about 15 pages devoted to the Women's Land Army and about ten to the (often neglected) Women's Forestry Service and the Forestry Commission. But more devoted to the impact of the war on sports (is what happened to Lords' cricket ground anything to do with the rural experience at all?) and hunting. The experience of women working in fields and forests was fundamental to the social changes that took place during the war, yet is reduced here to a mere handful of pages. Similar comments could be made about many other chapters. Do we really need to know about the debates about whether Churchill should join the Navy's flagship during D-Day? Or the experience of animals at London Zoo? Or the details of V1 bombs landing on London? Almost a chapter of information on code-breaking at Bletchly Park is included apparently solely because the stately home was in the countryside.

All of these are interesting, but are extremely peripheral to the subject matter, and are often only included because of a tenuous link (V1s and V2s did land on fields sometimes...) Even when more anecdotes would have been illuminating we learn precious little - for instance there must be much more to say about the role of prisoners of war in the countryside than the handful of pages here.

It must be said that many of the anecdotes and short stories are highly entertaining, but give us barely a snapshot into wider experiences. While Hard-Davis does acknowledge that there is a major transformation going on, he tends to see this in a romanticised way - a golden era of old ways disappearing never to be returned. In fact romanticism pervades the whole book - lots of young boys exploring crashed bombers while out blackberrying.

Yet we learn nothing really about how the War changed agriculture. Did those years improve lives? Did they ultimately make Britain more or less dependent on imported food? What happened to wages, housing and living conditions?

If you want another highly romanticised view of life in wartime based on a few amusing anecdotes then this will while away a few hours. Otherwise avoid - you'd be better reading the chapters in Angus Calder's The People's War devoted to the countryside and Alun Howkin's excellent book The Death of Rural England.

Related Reviews

Calder - The People's War
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Kynaston - Austerity Britain 1945 - 1951
Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Tash Aw - We, the Survivors

Tash Aw's novel We, the Survivors is not an easy read. It deals with the consequences of economics and history for ordinary people. In this case the poverty stricken workers and peasants of Malaysia. Looming large over the individuals that we get to know in intimate detail is inequality - the wealth of Kuala Lumpur, whose glittering towers are a beacon to young people who dream of getting a little bit of the wealth that they see on the soap operas and in the expensive cars that drive past them.

The story centres on Ah Hock, who at the start of the novel is a not particularly attractive older man who is unable to work due to an injury he received in prison while serving a sentence for murder. His case attracts some notoriety, and a wealthy young idealistic graduate, Su-Min, decides that Hock's story can make her famous, as well as exposing the corruption and inequality in Malaysian society.

Hock tells his story to her, while gleaning nuggets of information from her about Su-Min's own, alien, life. Hock's life has been one of regular movement as he or his family have looked for work or shelter. His one experience of stability, when his mother and him work a small plot of land and grow food and breed fish for the market, is ruined as eventually the annual floods become to much and swallow the land. Dark murmurings about "climate change" are heard from the local villagers. Hock looks back on this teenage experience of intense labour with pleasure, remembering acting out the fantasies of his idols. But it's also the point he learns his mother isn't all powerful anymore, and there's a poignant story of him getting her a hearing aid via his friend Keong, who gets it with money from crime.

Hock, and many of those he lives and works with aren't, to paraphrase Marx living in circumstances of their own choosing. Their industries are made or broken on the whims of the international capitalist markets. The fishing community Hock is part of finds their prospects rise as newly middle class communities look for local seafood, but simultaneously the water is poisoned by pollution and plastic. As Hock muses:
Some politician in America decides that they can't buy Malaysian rubber gloves; suddenly ten factories in  the area have to shut down. The Europeans want to save the fucking planet so they ban the use of pal oil in food; within a month the entire port is on its knees. Life continues, but you feel it slipping quietly away, and you worry that it'll never return. And because of that fear, you feel caught in a suspended state. On the outside, life seems normal, but inside it's drawn to a standstill.
It's the fear that ultimately leads to the incident that means that Hock ends up in prison. His friend Keong has followed the path from small time criminal to minor gangster in charge of getting slave labour for unscrupulous businessmen. The victims are refugees and the dispossessed, many from Rohingya, but Keong sees them only as workers suitable, or more likely unsuitable, for profitable labour.

Suddenly the workers that Hock manages can't work due to Cholera, and the enterprise that he manages, a fish farm that needs careful maintenance is threatened with collapse. Hock desperately reaches out to Keong for replacement labour to save the farm, and his own livelihood. Hock faces the risk of losing everything - his home, life and partner, but this time in his 40s and unable to work like the young man he was. This is the real angst in the novel - the fear that everything that Hock has achieved, or hoped to do, will suddenly unravel and there's nothing that he can do, and it's partly why almost everyone in the book is a victim too.

Cleverly using Hock's interviews with Su-Min as a way of going back and forth through his life, Tash Aw avoids We, the Survivor's being just an expose of poverty. Rather it's an thoughtful discussion on how our lives are shaped by forces outside of our control, and how its the choices of politicians and big business as well as the gang-masters and exploitative bosses, that shape our destinies. There are hints at wider, collective solutions - the mass protest marches against corruption that Su-Min joins, but by and large there's no real hope for those at the bottom of the pile. It is not a cheerful book, but its powerful and brilliantly constructed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Giorgos Kallis - Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

This short, readable and stimulating book begins with the author overturning perceived knowledge about the 18th century economist Robert Malthus. Malthus is best know for his extended work An Essay on the Principle of Population, an influential book that has rarely been read by those who claim to extend his ideas. Giorgos Kallis argues that it is important to understand what Malthus was really arguing for, because it is a key statement of a central tenet of modern economics, the idea of limits. In his introduction Kallis says that he aims to "reclaim, refine and defend the notion of limits" and proceeds to do just this with a critical examination of the way that limits have been understood by economists and environmentalists since Malthus' time.

Kallis writes:
Malthus and other early priests of capitalism constructed a picture whereby unlimited human wants clash with a limited world. Scarcity and growth became an inseparable pair, with limits spurring efforts for growth. My thesis is that it is only when we begin to accept the world as abundant that we can contemplate limiting our wants and delimiting a safe space for our freedom.
How does Malthus fit into this? As I've argued elsewhere, and as Kallis points out, Malthus was writing from a particular position in society. In the aftermath of the French Revolution Malthus was aiming to prove that the Utopian dreams of revolutionaries everywhere were doomed to failure. His argument, crudely, was that it would be impossible to provide for everyone's needs equally because nature is "naturally limited". As Kallis explains:
Malthus conceives of a world that is naturally limited because the needs of our bodies are naturally unlimited. Here is a conception of nature that lies at the heart of modern economics and, to an extent, environmentalism.
Paradoxically, given how he is remembered, Kallis says that Malthus "did not claim that population growth must be limited". Instead, Malthus was a "prophet of growth" arguing that a happy nation is one where "population grows". Helping the poor for Malthus was undesirable because it gave them, according to Kallis, access to "leisure" that they did not deserve as they had not worked for it. I don't particularly disagree with this reading of Malthus, though I do feel the author doesn't quite get to the heart of the contempt that Malthus had for the poor. To quote Malthus himself:
With regard to illegitimate children.. they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance... The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to society, as others will immediately supply its place.
He continues later:
We cannot, in the nature of things, assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children.
It is no wonder then, that Friedrich Engels argued that Malthus' ideas had become the "pet theory for the genuine English bourgeois... since it is the most specious excuse for them."

Unfortunately modern environmentalism has become dominated by the bourgeois explanation for the state of the world. The 1960s saw a number of environmental writers, such as Paul Ehrlich, who "retained the idea of a limited world that would clash with exponential growth." Unlike Malthus though, the limits Ehrlich and friends were concerned with were natural resources, food, drinking water and so on, rather than the nature of people to over-procreate. This Kallis contrasts with the views of some societies that saw natural resources, such as the Yaka people who see the forests they live in as abundant, because their "social relations... do not spur conquest and depletion".

Here Kallis turns the idea of limits on its head. Instead of being real physical things fixed in nature and physics, limits are the product of particular cultural and social approaches and understandings. He says:
The limit resides in the subject and the intention, not in nature, which is indifferent to our intentions. And it is our intentions that should be limited. A mature, autonomous civilisation would be aware that nature is not a strict mother who imposes limits and tells us what we have to do. But this doesn't mean we can do whatever pleases us... It is our actions that have consequences that we might or might not like, and which we have to limit with an eye to the consequences of not doing so.
Kallis isn't setting out a precise approach to limits - indeed he asks rhetorically later, "do I want limits to everything?... clean energy or education?" What he is trying to get the reader to do is to approach the question from a different direction and that is one that arises out of understanding the limits imposed by the nature of society itself. Capitalism is, he points out is one were there is "accumulation-economic growth without limit". And this is, what needs to be limited.

Such an understanding of capitalism is at the core of Marxist ecological critiques of capitalism. Kallis argues the problem is the accumulation of money in the hands of the few - which is true enough, but the deeper problem is that the accumulation of wealth, for the sake of accumulation arises out of the nature of production under capitalism, particularly the system of competing blocks of capital. So it is right to demand more (unlimited?) democracy and limits on the accumulation of money etc, but we also have to demand an end to the system.

Given the similarities between Kallis' arguments and some bits of Marx and Engels, I was surprised to see his brief discussion on socialism. Here Kallis summarises Marx and Engels as saying that socialism would be a better system at "setting and sharing limits" and that they followed this up by arguing that "socialism can somehow develop production more rationally than capitalism... Socialism, on this view would supersede the land, resource,or population limits faced by capitalism because it would be rational and superior technologically."

Kallis points out that if such a system simply wanted to satisfy needs "similar to capitalism" then it doesn't matter as it would be as destructive. But this is a simplification of Marx and Engels' work in understanding how and why capitalism destroys the environment and their solution. But the two Communists had a vision of a completely different relationship between humans and the world around them under Communism than under capitalism. The metabolic rift that takes place under capitalism, would need to be healed through the conscious rational management of the metabolic relationship between society and nature. Marx noted that people who develop
their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this, their real existence, their thinking and the productions of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.
In building a new world, people will thus transform their understanding of the world and their place within it, and create a new way of approaching society and nature. Revolutionary transformation will create a new, revolutionary, consciousness that is more than simply workers control of factories.

One of the problems with trying to comprehend the nature of the limits we require in the face of environmental catastrophe, is that the current system is so destructive that it obscures what might be. In order to have a rational discussion about the limits (or none) that society needs or must impose, we have to clear away capitalism.

There are important discussions to be had about the type of environmental politics and ecological economics that we need. Kallis points out that history will continue whatever we do, though I'd add that humans might not be there to partake in it. But if humanity is to have a future we need radical thinking, and Giorgos Kallis' book offers us a thought-provoking approach to an age old debate.

Related Reviews

Malthus - An Essay on the Principle of Population
Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb
Ehrlich - The Population Bomb
Dorling - Population 10 Billion
Foster - Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature
Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy

Gavin Maxwell - Ring of Bright Water

I've always thought fondly of Ring of Bright Water, a book that had a pride of place on my father's bookshelf and a film that I vaguely remember being on the Saturday afternoon schedules every few months. So when I recently discovered it on a pile of cheap paperbacks in a second hand book shop I decided, for the sake of Dad's memory, if nothing else to have a read. Repeated failures recently to see otters in the wild on a Scottish holiday may also have encouraged me.

The book was not what I had expected at all. I had always imagined Gavin Maxwell as being a strange lonely figure living in remote Scotland with only local otters for company. While he does live in remote Scotland - a location that gives us some fascinating descriptions of post-War life among crofters and the fishing community, he travels widely through the book and neither of the two otters he befriends come from Scotland. The first was actually a rare otter from Iraq's marshland and Maxwell gives his name to the species, the second from West Africa found by a family that Maxwell meets while still in mourning for his first otter that is killed in a tragic accident.

Much of the book is Maxwell's musings on the nature of otters and their suitability as pets. Maxwell's an unusual character himself. While staying in London he frequently walks the otters on a leash to Harrods to do shopping. He also is (or was an avid hunter). The book has, as a result, some laugh out loud comic moments and the occasional bit where today's reader might think, well thank god the past is a different country.

Actually the most interesting bits don't have otters in them at all, but discuss the wildlife, ecology and society of the small area of Scotland that Maxwell lives in, when he isn't travelling the world or shopping in Harrods. It's beautiful and you really get a sense of how the last fifty years have seen a complete sea change in local flora and fauna. Interesting though this is, I doubt I'll be looking for the sequels, though Maxwell's recently republished account of his time running a business hunting Basking Sharks for oil is on my list.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Mike Gonzalez - In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui

The recent radical "pink" governments in Latin America are part of a long history of revolutionary politics in that region. However discussion of that history in Europe usually neglects, or ignores, the rich and important revolutionary ideas that have developed there. So I was very pleased to see that Mike Gonzalez has published the first English language biography of one of Latin America's most important and original activists and thinkers, José Carlos Mariátegui.

In his short life (1894 - 1930: he died when he was just 35) Mariátegui proved himself a brilliant political organiser, writer and thinker. Gonzalez explains that Mariátegui was
A Marxist in thought and practice; his ideas evolved and grew in a specific time and place, and responded to the political demands of both. The evolution of his ideas began in Peru in the conditions of semicolonial society still stamping at the threshold of modern capitalism. But... Peru was not one world but two; in the encounter between indigenous Peru and criollo [people of Spanish descent] Peru, he found new challenges and the human and historical material for a creative new vision of how revolutionary change could occur in Latin America.
Mariátegui lived during a formative period for Peruvian capitalism, but also for world socialism. An extended trip to Europe in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the mass struggles that shook the country he spent much of his time in, Italy, turned Mariátegui into a Marxist. But his Marxism was not dogmatic. Influenced by the revolutionary ideas swirling around the debates during the formation of the Italian Communist Party, Mariátegui returns to Peru convinced that Marxism can explain both the historical development of the country and offer a strategy for the millions of oppressed and exploited.

In Peru four fifths of the population was indigenous and an important question for Mariátegui was their role in the movement. Gonzalez argues that "their consciousness was certainly formed by the their location in the economic system, but not only that" and for Mariátegui the key question was whether this "would separate them from the rest of the movement, or include them, enriching and diversifying the movement."

Today, in many parts of the world, big social movements are developing around the ecological crisis and the way it is driven by capitalism. Indigenous people, in places like Canada, North America, Latin America and Australasia, are playing a key role in these movements, not simply as activists, but with sets of ideas that Gonzalez describes (in the context of Latin America) as territorio, a "notion beyond geography, which embraces history, philosophy, cultural forms and practices and theidea of enduring collective ownership". In particular, for Mariátegui, there were a set of ideas and social forms that arose in Peru in Inca society which carried through into modern society, and were socialist in nature.

Much of this book looks at the development of Mariátegui's own ideas and his life of activism. One central idea for Mariátegui is the concept of "myth" which one thinker quoted by Gonzalez describes as the "anticipatory consciousness of a class, or... its most advanced sector... at a given moment in time and which glimpses or senses... a new reality and struggles for its realisation."

This controversial idea was not Mariátegui's originally, but he develops it into a concept closely linked to his views on the "revolutionary subject". Here Mariátegui arrives at a "broader perception of that subject in which other social layers [than the working class] and classes could identify with, and participate in the social revolution impelled by the labouring classes". Gonzalez's notes that this concept might be seen as analogous with Hardt and Negri's "multitude" but that is an inadequate comparison. Certainly Mariátegui understood the central role of the working class as being in a unique position to transform society, which is why he spent so much time as a trade union and socialist organiser. Gonzalez writes:
Mariátegui was very clear that the Peruvian working class was not in a position to create soviets - it was too small... in a phase of disorganisation and demoralisation. Yet the general conclusion he did draw was that a socialist revolution, however far into the future it may occur, must at all costs avoid the emergence of a bureaucratic layer acting on behalf of and against the general interests of the class. The possibility of a socialist transformation would hang on the existence of a driving narrative with the emotional power to bind together the collective will - in other words, a myth.
The use of the word myth, and Mariátegui's broader comments on the "revolutionary subject", allowed many to dismiss his ideas as non-Marxist. In fact Mariátegui had a much deeper and dialectical Marxism than many of those who attacked him. It is noteworthy, for instance, that unlike some radical thinkers, Mariátegui was not Utopian about indigenous people or their historical societies. Mariátegui wrote "Modern communism is a very different thing from Inca communism... Each is the product of a very different historical epoch... In out time autocracy and communism are incompatible, but that was not the case in primitive societies. Today's new order cannot renounce any part of the moral progress that modern society has made."

 José Carlos Mariátegui
In other words, a socialist transformation of society is not a turn back to some historical idyll, but one that builds on all the developments of history. Mariátegui's Marxism did not fit with those rigid dogmatic idealists who took over the Communist International in the wake of the isolation of the Russian Revolution. They attacked him for refusing to help form a Communist Party in Peru at a time Mariátegui felt was unripe. Crudely applying Marxist concepts to Peruvian history didn't work and went against everything Mariátegui argued Marxism was:
Marxism, which many people talk about but few know or, more importantly understand, is a fundamentally dialectical method that is, a method that rests integrally on reality, on the facts. It is not, as some people wrongly suppose, a body of rigid principles and their consequences, identical for every historical age and all social latitudes. Marx pulled his method from the very guts of history. Marxism in every country, in every people, operates and acts in the ambience, in the environment, neglecting not of its modalities.
The tragedy is that Mariátegui's life, cut short by illness, meant that he was not able to develop and build on his revolutionary ideas. It is tempting to speculate about what might have been had Mariátegui lived longer, or had access to more writings of Marx and Engels or those of contemporary revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. Stalinist writers tried to destroy Mariátegui's legacy for his failure to commit to the formation of the Peruvian Communist Party, though it is clear from Gonzalez's book that for Mariátegui, this was not a failure to understand the need for revolutionary organisation, but rather a complex strategical question.

With this in mind, and with the urgent need for the rebuilding of revolutionary organisation in Latin America and across the globe, it is excellent that Mike Gonzalez has produced this accessible and fascinating guide to the life and ideas of José Carlos Mariátegui, one of Latin Americas' great, and sadly neglected, revolutionaries.

Related Reviews

Gonzalez - The Ebb of the Pink Tide
Gonzalez - Rebel's Guide To Marx
Gonzalez - Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution
Sader - The New Mole

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Leon Trotsky - Terrorism and Communism

It is fair to say that Terrorism and Communism is not one of Leon Trotsky's greatest works. That stems to my mind from the conditions in which it was written. First published in 1920 it was written in the during the hellish fighting that marked the Civil War in Russia. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 counter-revolutionary White Armies of former Tsarist loyalists and Imperial troops from a dozen nations invaded Russia to attempt to destroy the Revolution.

Trotsky wrote Terrorism and Communism in part as he led the fight of the Red Army against the Whites. The tension, stress and heart-ache come through on every page of this polemic as he counters those socialists, in particular Karl Kautsky the leading German socialist and former revolutionary, who are effectively siding with the counter-revolutionary armies.

Kaustky argued that the Bolshevik's were wrong to seize power, that the new society was undemocratic, and that the masses in Russia were incapable of running society. His alternative view was that Russian society should have had time to develop it's economy and its democracy and experience a latter transition to socialism. Trotsky dismisses Kautsky as Utopian. The capitalist class aren't willing to give up their wealth, and in fact had engaged in a murderous war to protect it.
As for the bourgeoisie of the victorious countries, it has become inflated with arrogance, and is more than ever ready to defend its social position with the help of the bestial methods which guaranteed its victory. We have seen that the bourgeoisie is incapable of organizing the division of the booty amongst its own ranks without war and destruction. Can it, without a fight, abandon its booty altogether? The experience of the last five years leaves no doubt whatsoever on this score: if even previously it was absolutely utopian to expect that the expropriation of the propertied classes – thanks to “democracy” – would take place imperceptibly and painlessly, without insurrections, armed conflicts, attempts at counterrevolution, and severe repression, the state of affairs we have inherited from the imperialist war predetermines, doubly and trebly, the tense character of the civil war and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Kautsky himself was no longer the socialist leader he once was,
The imperialist war, which killed every form of vagueness and brought mankind face to face with the most fundamental questions, exposed all the political bankruptcy of Kautsky. He immediately became confused beyond all hope of extrication, in the most simple question of voting the War Credits. All his writings after that period represent variations of one and the same theme: “I and my muddle.” The Russian Revolution finally slew Kautsky. By all his previous development he was placed in a hostile attitude towards the November victory of the proletariat. This unavoidably threw him into the camp of the counter-revolution. He lost the last traces of historical instinct. His further writings have become more and more like the yellow literature of the bourgeois market.
Much of the book is a defence of Marxism and the revolutionary practice of Bolshevism in the face of Kautsky's criticism. There's an intriguing chapter on Marx and the Paris Commune where Trotsky shows precisely how Kautsky had abandoned his Marxism.

But for me the most interesting parts were those were Trotsky, speaking as a leading figure in the Revolution defends the practices of the Revolutionary government. For instance, he defends something that Kautsky is unable to contemplate - compulsory labour. Here is Trotsky:
The very principle of compulsory labour service is for the Communist quite unquestionable. “He who works not, neither shall he eat.” And as all must eat, all are obliged to work. Compulsory labour service is sketched in our Constitution and in our Labour Code. But hitherto it has always remained a mere principle. Its application has always had an accidental, impartial, episodic character. Only now, when along the whole line we have reached the question of the economic re-birth of the country, have problems of compulsory labour service arisen before us in the most concrete way possible. The only solution of economic difficulties that is correct from the point of view both of principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labour power – an almost inexhaustible reservoir – and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilisation, and utilisation.

Trotsky shows how compulsory labour isn't the draconian forced labour that Kautsky and others imply, but it is a system that does direct labour and on occasion, has to use compulsion. But, he points out, this is in the context of the great urgency caused by the economic destruction of Russia by the counter-revolutionary forces. What is interesting, and Trotsky emphasises the point, is that by and large workers (especially former soldiers) tend to be willing participants in the process - this is, of course, because they are part of an entirely new social formation. It's this latter point that Kautsky is unable to grasp - that something fundamental had changed in Russia after 1917 and that the old ways of doing things no longer fitted.

My edition of the book (Verso 2017) contains a useful, if idiosyncratic foreword by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek argues that while it is easy to crudely argue that this book demonstrates a continuum from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin, in fact Trotsky's method in the book (and Bolshevik practice) is the exact opposite. Žižek makes a note about the "democracy" that Kautsky is obsessed with.
In such dynamic times where the situation is 'open' and extremely unstable, the role of the Communists is not to passively 'reflect' the opinion of the majority, but to instigate the working classes to mobilise their forces and thus to create a new majority.
It's precisely this dynamic that Kautsky cannot grasp, which ends up with him in the Bourgeois camp.

Sadly this isn't Trotsky's best work, in part because it is so polemical and it is very much of the moment. Trotsky is writing at the lowest moment of the counter-revolution and the Revolutionary government is, at times, close to being destroyed. Trotsky's arguments reflect that situation.

That's not to say however that the book is not worth reading. On the contrary, for those attempting to understand the fate of the Russian Revolution, this is powerful argument from one of the leading Bolsheviks in defence of the Revolution whose faith in the revolutionary masses remained undiminished.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1
Cliff - Revolution Besieged

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Diarmaid MacCulloch - Thomas Cromwell: A Life

I have long anticipated Diarmaid MacCulloch new biography of Thomas Cromwell and there is no doubt that it is a masterpiece of research and writing. It is no easy read, not least because its' great length and weight preclude taking it with you on the bus. But it is rewarding, insightful and almost certainly one of the most definitive biographies of any figure in the reign of Henry VIII.

MacCulloch, it must be acknowledged, is an absolute master of the material. Cromwell's archive of letters is a rich source of information about the day to day activity of the man who became Henry VII's chief adviser. As MacCulloch points out though the archive is deficient in one crucial regard - the vast majority of Cromwell's own letters are missing, presumed destroyed when he fell from grace and material that might be incriminating to him, or those around him, was spirited away to prevent others sharing his fate. We must instead rely on the letters he received from others, for all the limitations that brings.

It is a major problem. Because, for all the detail about the life of Cromwell, there is a very large Cromwell-shaped hole in the biography. All too often this becomes an account of what happened, and how Cromwell made it happen, but lacking any personal detail of Cromwell - his motivations, his thoughts, his plans. On occasion we do get a glimpse, usually when a letter survives, or some other source gives us a glimpse into Cromwell's mood. A classic example is of course, the event that was the immediate cause of Cromwell's fall - his breaking of the King's great secret about his impotence with Anne of Cleaves. Here we feel Cromwell's alarm about the future.

Most importantly we lack any great insight into Cromwell's motivation for driving through change. His rise to power in the early 1530s is, it must be said, surprising. Cromwell didn't come from the sort of family that would have led him to be assigned key administrative roles in Henry's government. MacCulloch himself describes the sudden rise to the corridors of power as "furtive". Implying, though not deliberately, that Cromwell slunk into the inner reaches of the court through subterfuge. Once in a position of power Cromwell lost no time in using his roles to enact change, and to gather more wealth and power himself. For instance, he became known as the "hammer of the weirs" for his systematic destruction of barriers on the rivers. Cromwell even prepared a legislation for the February 1536 Parliament that would have banned any weir or water-mill anywhere in the realm, though this was never passed. This, together with Cromwell's better known work in preventing unnecessary enclosures of land seems surprising given the way enclosure forms such a central part of post-Tudor agrarian history. It must be understood, however, in the context of the government's desire to protect the status-quo - in this case, feudal relations. As MacCulloch explains:
Tudor people were more ready to judge problems in terms of morality than economics. Just like enclosure for sheep-farming, the matter of weirs took on moral dimensions: it demonstrated human greed and selfishness, which threatened to damage a frail social fabric by endangering food supplies. In Tudor society, famine still loomed, with all its capacity to poison human relations and cause very public suffering, let alone riot and rebellion; the moral outrage was not some academic debate. Weirs had been the subject of moral outrage long before Cromwell's years of power, when he was just a boy living in a Thames-side village... there was repeated agitation in the Parliaments of Henry VII about them.
Such economic and social context to Cromwell's behaviour is important in understanding his role. But it is less obvious in MacCulloch's account of later aspects of Cromwell's role. For instance, his role in driving forward the Reformation, which is clearly a very personal project.

MacCulloch digs out a series of expeditions to one of the continents centres of Protestantism, Zurich by people aligned to Cromwell. These mutual exchanges facilitated the development of the "crystallising identity of that form of Protestantism later called Reformed". The detail doesn't matter here, though its worth noting that MacCulloch sees this part of Cromwell's life as "perhaps the most important story in Cromwell's career." I just want to note his further comment that "Cromwell was deliberately laying foundation for a Protestant future". Yet nowhere are do we get any sense of why Cromwell was doing this. This is not to doubt reality. Cromwell did peruse this as a very personal project.

In the sections on the 1536/7 Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of Grace, rebellions against the King that shook the North of England and involved tens of thousands, MacCulloch demonstrates just how much those rebels blamed Cromwell personally. Having studied these rebellions myself I'm not sure I'd appreciated quite the extent to which they targeted the King's minister. Though it is also worth noting that MacCulloch writes that these rebellions were not simply about rejection of reform in religion; but had other causes too.

It is this lack of clarity about the motivations of Cromwell and other principal figures in the machinations at Court that means the downfall of Cromwell becomes simply about different factions taking sides over Reform. Again why they took those positions is much less clear and so it ends up feeling like Cromwell was the victim of personal dislikes. MacCulloch notes the longstanding feuds between Cromwell and his enemies, but other than personal choices about religion I felt the book had little to really explain these events. Of course you can try and explain these faction fights in simple terms of the desire for wealth and power (and Cromwell was certainly guilty of that!). But that's just superficial.

This limitation is also, I would argue, present in another recent block-buster of a tome about the English Reformation, Peter Marshall's Heretics and Believers and certainly in MacCulloch's earlier book on the European Reformation. I won't rehearse my arguments further, but I think any biography of Thomas Cromwell must try and clarify his motivations and sadly I think that MacCulloch doesn't quite get to the heart of it here, though he is far better than most, particularly in his look at Henry's foreign policy.

Henry VII once said to the French ambassador of Cromwell  that he "was a good manager, but not fit to meddle in the concerns of kings". There is no doubt that Cromwell was a "good manager", but he did meddle in the concerns of his king a great deal, and he was very good at it. When he came unstuck in late 1539 he likely did so because he failed to appreciate the way his personal enemies had mobilised against him. But Cromwell had engaged in a deeply personal project of Reform, one that had a profound impact on England's subsequent history. It is thus noteworthy that, at his execution, Cromwell made no attempt to deny, back-track or beg forgiveness. He was, in his own way, dying for his beliefs, and it is fair to say that this biography gives him his due.

Related Reviews

MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700
Fletcher & MacCulloch - Tudor Rebellions
Wilson - The People and the Book
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation
Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy - Voices of Morebath