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.

My review of On Fire was published in Socialist Worker in December 2019. You can read it here.

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