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

Ernest Dunlop Swinton - The Defence of Duffer's Drift

Despite being dated this classic military text retains much value both historically and as a work of literature. The author, later Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, was a commander in the Boer War and wrote this in order to explain basics of small unit military tactics in an easily accessible style. The book has been repeatedly reprinted and emulated, and as recently as 1989 was republished by the US Marine Corps.

The story centres on Lieutenant Backsight Forethought (BF) a new commander with no battlefield experience who commands a small force of 50 soldiers and NCOs and is ordered to prevent the Boers crossing a shallow river at "Duffer's Drift". Arriving at the drift BF fails to setup a defended base and allows the locals to enter his camp to sell milk and eggs to his men. Thus spied upon, an approaching force easily overwhelms his position with high causalities.

Following this easy defeat, BF awakens to dream the scenario again, this time remembering the lessons of his previous defeat. Six times the dream repeats and it is only on the final occasion that the Boers are defeated and BF's command is relieved.

All twenty-two of BF's lessons learnt can be read on the wikipedia page. Of most interest for those of us unlikely to command a small military force in the near future is two fold. Firstly, in defeating a experienced guerrilla army, BF is forced to deprive his enemy of their local support - imprisoning the local farmers, their families and their (black) workers. Readers should be aware that the author uses language in referring to this latter group that today is consider offensive, though I note that the Marine Corps version fails to comment on this.

Secondly, it is only by throwing the military manual away, ignoring some of his hard learnt lessons from the academy and adopting the tactics of the enemy that BF is successful.

Chiefly of interest for its historical lessons, the book is also remarkable as being an early example of that genre of fiction that focuses on the impact of small decisions and their outcome. For want of a nail...

Stephen Baxter - World Engines: Destroyer

*** Warning Spoilers ***

I picked up Stephen Baxter's latest novel World Engines: Destroyer after a very positive review in the Guardian. Sadly the book didn't live up to it's promise despite having an agreeably interesting premise.

Astronaut Reid Malenfant awakes in his own far future. His body has been in cold storage since a shuttle accident which killed his co-pilot. Malenfant's own partner Emma Stoney had also been killed exploring Mars' moon Phobos. He is awakened because, impossibly, several hundred years into their mutual futures, Earth has received a message from Stoney.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that Malenfant awakes in a future that he cannot understand and which cannot, for the most part, accept him. His brash ways are incompatible with the slow moving life of a post-scarcity, post-space age society. In fact, he is only useful really, for being willing to try and visit Phobos to find out what is happening there and because of the threat to Earth from a rogue planet.

Arriving at Phobos with a motley crew of rejects, Malenfant and his companions discover that the moon is a gateway to a whole number of different universes, each with a "jonbar hinge" that makes them subtly different. In one Russia and the US engaged in major nuclear war, in another Britain stayed out of the Second World War and let Hitler and Stalin slug it out with nuclear weapons. Characters and crews from this travel to Malenfant's timeline and visit the outer solar system to try and understand what's taking place there.

The problem is that the book really isn't up to the interesting premises. All the characters, without exception, are extremely annoying. The British crew are such caricatures that I wondered if the author had ever met anyone from Britain. Malenfant and the people from his own timeline are so annoying I kept hoping they'd be pulled slowly into a massive black hole, though it would have to be massive indeed to overcome the gravity of Malenfant's own massive ego.

From around page 300 there are indications that the only reason the next 300 or so pages exist is to set up the sequels. There are subplots that make no sense (what's the can of Cola about?) and pages upon pages of exposition about technology that are boring and unnecessary.

The most interesting stuff here receives little or no resolution - specifically the nature of Phobos. But then the publisher's wouldn't get the profits from another sequel would they?

Unless you're a major fan of Baxter's work I would avoid this.

Related Reviews

Baxter and Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles ("Bloody Terrible")
Pratchett & Baxter - The Long Earth ("Quite Disappointing")