Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Stephen King - Elevation

Having thoroughly enjoyed Stephen King's most recent full length novel The Institute I was excited to see this novella in the shops. As I noted in my review of The Institute, one of King's skills is the description of life in small-town America, full of memorable detail and dark foreboding. So the fact this short novel, set in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, is based around this concept made the book even more attractive.

Unfortunately King fails to pull it off this time. There are two aspects to the story, both centred on the likeable, if dull, Scott Carey. Scott finds himself experiencing two simultaneous problems. The first is that he is losing weight rapidly. But unlike people on a diet he is experiencing no simultaneous decrease in size. Moreover, things he touches also lose their weight. At the same time Scott's lesbian neighbours, Deirdre and Missy, are experiencing the dark side of small town America. Here, the conservative minded locals, are boycotting their restaurant and silently mocking their marriage.

Scott, uses his new found weightlessness to rather unconvincingly pull the town together around the gay couple and rejuvenate their lives and business. This happens when he helps Deirdre, a former Olympic athlete, win the annual Thanksgiving run. The picture of Deirdre, her wife Missy and Scott on the finishing line is enough to convince the conservative inhabitants that gay couples aren't a bad thing.

There's nothing particularly bad about the tale. But it just doesn't work. Prejudice doesn't just vanish like this based on a pleasant photo in the newspaper. The one occasion that Scott does challenge the homophobia he is unsuccessful and warned off. For the story to work it needed a more powerful challenge to the bigots. The disease itself might be intended as a comment on contemporary politics, but it is unbelievable - and given that King can make killer cars, haunted hotels and giant alien spiders living in the sewers believable that's strange.

The weight loss, and its inevitable outcome, might work as a convoluted metaphor for Scott dying of cancer, but as a plot device it is completely unbelievable as King fails to setup Castle Rock as the sort of place were this sort of thing takes place. Clearly this is all a metaphor by King for Trump's America. But if King thinks that it is going to be this easy to knock back the bigots that he'll have a surprise. It's only a short book (in fact I was very annoyed to find some 30 pages of the already slim volume devoted to an extract from The Institute) so King fans can read it quickly without feeling they're committing to a major tome. But I guarantee most will be disappointed.

Related Reviews

King - The Institute

King - The Stand
King - Under the Dome
King - The Gunslinger
King - The Drawing of the Three
King - Wizard and Glass
King - The Wastelands
King - Wolves of the Calla
King - The Wind Through the Keyhole
King - The Dark Tower

Monday, January 27, 2020

Max Hastings - Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War

Max Hastings is not a natural ally of the left. He is, after all, a former editor of the pro-Tory newspapers the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. Yet, despite his politics, his book on the Vietnam War turns out to be both insightful and readable. Unlike some accounts of Vietnam, which overly focus on the American experience in Vietnam, Hasting understands the need for the long sweep of history to understand both the US involvement in the country and their ultimate defeat.

Hastings begins with the French. Their colonial rule of the country generated enormous discontent. Their ousting, but a popular military uprising was an incredible feat of arms for an under-armed national liberation movement. Hastings' vivid account of that most symbolic of defeats for the French, the shambles at Dien Bien Phu, leaves the reader with no other conclusion than colonial racist arrogance led the French to believe that they invincible.

Unfortunately the United States failed to learn the lesson. As American involvement in Vietnam gradually developed from simply advising and funding the enormously corrupt South Vietnamese regime to active military engagement, its representatives behaved exactly like the former colonial rulers. Hastings' writes:
In 1961, and indeed thereafter, there was an insensitivity among policy-makers about the impact that a Western military presence makes. Many harsh things may be justly be said about what communist fighters did to Vietnam, but their footprint on the ground was light as a feather by comparison with that made by the boots of the US military. The very presence of affluent Westerners, armed or unarmed, uniformed or otherwise, could not fail to exercise a polluting influence on a predominantly rural and impoverished Asian society. Like other senior Americans posted to Saigon, the CIA's Bill Colby adopted a domestic style befitting an imperial proconsul, occupying a villa with a domestic staff of six. Army enlisted men took it for granted that a Vietnamese cleaned their boots and policed their huts.
Readers will detect that Hastings' is not a fan of the Communist movement that led the struggle to oust the Americans. It's probably fair to say that, on balance, he thinks that Communist victory was a "bad thing", a failure for Western foreign policy. But that does not mean he is gung-ho for the US. In fact his sympathies lie very much with the ordinary Vietnamese who suffered appalling during French and US involvement. In this regard while celebrating (to a certain extent) the expulsion of the French, Hastings sees a fundamental break with the movement that defeated the United States. He concludes that:

The fatal error of the US was to make an almost unlimited commitment to South Vietnam, where its real strategic interest was minuscule, when the North - the enemy - was content to stake all, and faced no requirement to secure or renew popular consent. Moreover, the 1964-65 American takeover of the South, which is what took place, legitimised Vietnamese communism.

Hastings is at his best in the book when he zooms from the strategic overview of politicians like President Johnson, or Kissinger or Hồ Chí Minh and Lê Duẩn down to the level of the ordinary solider (on both sides). The anecdotes he tells of the battle fields are often horrific, and he is balanced in making sure he covers the experiences from both sides. Aspects of the conflict that are often ignored - the experience of long-range high-altitude bomber pilots, or Russian and Chinese "advisors" in North Vietnam are covered. He is also scrupulous in trying to give the reader a sense of strategic interests of both sides.

He also is not afraid to expose inconvenient truths. Discussing the enormous corruption of the South Vietnamese government, including the vast sums of money given to them by the US and their involvement in illegal buying and selling of military materiel and the laundering of money. But he notes this could not have happened without "active or passive complicity of thousands of Americans, some of the relatively exalted".

It is no surprise then that Hastings can write:
It is among the themes of this book that the foremost challenge for the allies was not to win firefights, but instead to associate itself with a credible Vietnamese political and social order. Dr Norman Wyndham a... Australian surgeon who led a volunteer medical team in a Vung Tau hospital, was a devout Christian who made himself a fluent Vietnamese-speaker. He wrote in 1967 of the local people: 'Most want a united Vietnam, but not one controlled by the communists... the feeling is growing... that anything would be better than life as it is today.'
One of my major criticisms of Hastings is that his anti-Communism colours his ability to understand the dynamic of those opposing US involvement in Vietnam at home and in the country itself. For instance, he tends to imply that the left at the time (and by extension, the anti-war movement) tended to look positively on Hồ Chí Minh and celebrate a North Vietnamese victory. Hastings does acknowledge that hindsight makes this seem more credible. But I'm also not sure that it was true at the time. Many anti-imperialists understood very clearly that the Communist government of the North was an oppressive one, even in the 1960s. But Hastings doesn't have a framework to understand Imperialism - despite knowing it is real - and so he cannot understand the celebration of anti-Imperialist movements, even if they don't make a perfect social movement. As Lenin said of the Easter Uprising in Ireland, "whoever expects a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it."

But for Hastings the biggest reason for US defeat was its methods in fighting the war.
The Vietcong exploited their own excellent local intelligence networks to eliminate enemies, often with conspicuous sadism. Yet none of the villagers assembled to witness beheadings and live burials doubted why appointed victims were killed: for opposing the revolution. By contrast, when Americans or ARVN killed civilians, while some where communist activists or sympathisers... others were not. The indiscriminate nature of American-led terror, caused by ignorance about the identities, never mind loyalties, of many of those whom its warriors killed, inflicted as much damage upon US strategic objectives as upon the moral legitimacy of its war effort.
To this we might add the high levels of racism towards the Vietnamese (even their allies) and the indiscriminate nature of warfare that involved blanket bombing and chemical weapons. As an aside Hastings downplays the scale of the impact of Agent Orange. He seems incorrect here as my understanding is that it was much worse than Hastings suggests. I hope to find further reading to clarify this.

Despite the length of the book, I thought some aspects weren't dealt with in enough detail. One key aspect to this was the anti-war movement in the west. Hastings mentions it, but doesn't go into detail and he certainly doesn't really get deep into the links between this and the growing discontent in the US military. There is nothing here about the anti-war newspapers produced by military personal, and while he covers events like the fragging of unpopular officers, he tends to imply it was more individual discontent rather than systemic, organised rebellion. Despite this he displays a subtle and sympathetic understanding of the reality of class and racial differences within the US army itself.

These points, which probably reflect Hasting's own prejudices and politics, I was very surprised by the book. It demonstrates that honest bourgeois historians can produce remarkably insightful accounts. Hastings shows how little the political leaders in the US cared for the Vietnamese, and the cynicism with which they condemned thousands to their deaths. For a book of nearly 700 pages of main text I was unusually gripped to the very end. Hastings has an ability, helped in no small part by being actually present in the briefing room and on the battle field as a junior reporter, to link the big political decisions, with the reality for the US marine, or the North Vietnamese soldier. It makes for a very useful account of what was an appalling war.

Related Reviews

Marlantes - Matterhorn
O'Brien - If I Die In A Combat Zone

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Camilla Royle - A Rebel's Guide to Engels

2020 is the bicentenary of the birth of the great revolutionary Friedrich Engels. The anniversary is likely to see numerous articles, pamphlets and books about Marx's friend and collaborator. But few of them will get across Engels' ideas and life as succinctly as Camilla Royle's latest contribution to the Rebel's Guide series.

Engels came from a wealthy bourgeois background. While the money he earned allowed him to lead the life of a relatively well off member of British society, it also enabled the Marx family to survive, Karl Marx to write and Engels' the space and time to develop his own work. As a result Royle points out that Engels was "a disappointment to his parents and a traitor to his class". It is a description Engels himself would have been proud of.

Royle's book begins with Engels' early years locating him in the milieu of those progressive German thinkers who were breaking with Hegelian philosophy as they attempted to understand the changing world around them. Engels himself fought on several barricades during various Continental revolutions and, like Marx, had to flee the authorities on several occasions. These movements shaped Engels profoundly, as did his experiences of the working classes. Royle writes:
Marx and Engels had more less independently reached the same conclusions about the importance of the working class; Engels by observing workers in England and Marx through his reporting of the revolts of the Silesian weavers, where thousands of workers took strike action and smashed machinery in protest at declining wages and living standards.
With their re-acquaintance in 1843 Marx and Engels embarked on a lifetime of collaboration. But Engels also produced some significant works independently. Most famously his The Condition of the Working Class in England. Royle also emphasises the importance of some of their joint works, showing how both thinkers contributed significantly to what would become known as Marxism. In her discussion of The German Ideology, a book which she explains Engels wrote most of the text for based on long detailed discussions with Marx. In the book the authors show how Marxism roots its understanding of human history in the relationship between humans and the natural world. It is a key point that shows how an ecological understanding of human society is central to Marxism, with important implications for Marxism as a tool to understand capitalism's environmental degradation.

I'm pleased that Royle devotes two chapters to two of Engels' lesser known works - Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature. The first is a polemical critic of the near forgotten German Utopian socialist Eugen Dühring. Royle shows how Engels attacks Dühring's ideas explaining the centrality of dialectics to Marx and Engels' work. In her comments on Engels' Dialectics of Nature Royle shows that he was trying to apply these ideas to the natural world. Sadly, given the importance of "nature" to the current class struggle, Engels' book was left unfinished. Royle criticises the way that some of Engels' book has been interpreted, particularly the infamous question of the three laws of dialectics. She argues that these laws "can be useful in demonstrating the type of philosophy dialectics is. But if they are taken too literally, they can end in an attempt to look for rules in nature, which is more complex than trivial examples about boiling water". That said, she does celebrate parts of Dialectics especially the wonderful The Part Played by Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man. This is a section that stands the test of time and I'm glad Royle highlights its importance to a new generation of readers, given the parts of it where Engels writes on the human-nature relationship.

The final part of the book looks at Engels life in the aftermath of Marx's death. Engels helped make sure that Marx's unfinished work was published - a surprisingly difficult job; and he carried on the work that had been a near constant theme of his, and Marx's life, the building of socialist organisation. Here Royle defends Engels from crude attacks that argue he abandoned revolution at the end of his life, and show him remaining committed to the revolutionary workers movement till the end. Royle concludes by pointing out that the Marxism that both Engels and Marx developed was not an "unchanging dogma, but a method, a set of tools that we can use to help make sense of the world". Understanding the world helps us change it and Camilla Royle's book is an important contribution to making sure that 200 years after his birth the ideas and activity of Friedrich Engels helps our revolutionary struggle today.

Related Reviews

Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England

Hunt - The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Carl J. Griffin & Briony McDonagh - Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500: Memory, Materiality & the Landscape

2019 was a very interesting year to be a socialist in Manchester. The bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 was marked by a plethora of events: a controversial new memorial was (finally) unveiled, walking tours, exhibitions, meetings and a major day of marches to a central rally all took place. I suspect that there were many more, smaller scale, events in schools, colleges and trade union meetings. At those events I attended I was struck by the contemporary parallels with Peterloo. Many speakers also noted this - not because they expected an imminent cavalry attack - but because there was a sense of deep discontent, poverty and inequality about Britain in 2019.

Manchester has, to a certain extent, always marked Peterloo. In a recent book Katrina Navickas has shown how the protest was a touchstone for numerous protest marches in the years and decades after 1819. Radicals and social movements sought legitimacy for their contemporary causes by associating themselves with Peterloo - by marching to St. Peters Fields or invoking the name of the massacre.

But as Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500 shows this is nothing new. Those of us who have been involved in radical and trade union politics for a while will know our movement is often more fond of celebrating past victories and defeats than it is of fighting to win new struggles. But this was very much true of the past. As Nicola Whyte says in the introduction to her chapter in the the book:
Memory has not atrophied, but rather the relationship between society and its past always takes on new forms, being wrought in the dialogical space between official and unofficial perspectives. Meanings do not merely shift with the passage of time, they are renewed through the evocation of various, multiple and unpredictable pasts.... people interpret and employ the past for diverse ends, both as a social resource and means to articulate their own life-histories.
Whyte explores these concepts by looking at Mousehold Heath, the site outside Norwich where in 1549 Robert Kett and thousands of rebels camped as part of what became known as the "Camping Time". While 1549 rebellion was part of a much larger period of rebellion Andy Wood has shown elsewhere how it was highlighted to posterity by the local establishment who wanted to use it's lessons to undermine potential future rebellions.

But Mousehold Heath was a site of protest going back to 1381 and for long after 1549. A 1589 map reproduced in the book is as much as record of past events as it is of contemporary locations and pathways. It is a "way of seeing" as Whyte explains, a "lord's view of the world...that chronicles past events and actions attaching them to physical places, and embedding a hierarchical understanding of social relations in the landscape". Even in the 21st century there were protest events on the Heath that had links back to the distant past. It is not enough to think about the impact of an event like 1549 through "oral tradition" or the records people have:
Memories do not simply reside in the mind to be evidenced in the speech patterns of local people; rather, memories are made through routine practices and experiences of being in and making landscapes. Memories of Mousehold Heath operated at the level of the everyday, remembering past generations and... the material work of day-to-day resistance. A landscape approach provides a useful methodological and conceptual framework for our understanding of the dynamic and contingent relationship between people and the material worlds in which they lived.
Such an approach is further developed in Briony McDonagh and Joshua Rodda's discussion on the Midlands Rising of 1607. This "all but forgotten" event saw a major, though relatively localised protest against enclosure in Northamptonshire. However 1607 was not an isolated event in the grander historical narrative. The authors put the rebellion in a "longer-term historical context and wider landscape setting". For them, the key question is the way that "national and local politics of land" shaped events prior to, during and after 1607. Primarily this relates to the way that the enclosure of previously open lands impacted upon those who lived and worked in the localities - thus 1607 was not a unique event, rather a peak of struggle. As the authors write:
We can read the Midlands Rising not simply as a response to an unprecedented upsurge in the scale and frequency of enclosure in the English Midlands in the decade prior to 1607, but rather the most striking movement in an ongoing surge of discontent with enclosure which had been building at least through much of the previous reign.
Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that class struggle "was [an] uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight". History is full of peaks of rebellions and revolutions, but these are really the more visible parts of a continuum. McDonagh and Rodda bring this out extremely well as part of their discussion on 1607, an event that continued to inspire and worry both the authorities and the lower orders for years afterwards. The authors highlight several examples of those who raised the spectre of 1607 as part of their struggles (and legal cases) in the aftermath.

A similar continuum of protest is discussed in Simon Sandall's account of the protests in the Forest of Dean when protesters and rebels retained memories of previous social organisation (the Mine Law Court) to justify and bolster contemporary struggles against injustices caused by the development of capitalist relations in the region. This was more than simple tradition, but an active use of tradition as a weapon in their struggle - to inspire participants and give vindication to a cause.

Ruth Mather's chapter takes a different approach looking at the hitherto mostly ignored subject of the way that protest was remembered within the homes of working class people. Visitors to the Peoples' History Museum in Manchester and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford will know that the events like Peterloo were often commemorated by the issuing and sale of "memorabilia". But this was more than simply the purchase of pictures or plates that serve as a talking point, it was part of creating a radical tradition of memory and connection to the past.

This was not just about physical objects. Mather notes Peterloo was memorialised through "radical child-rearing". This included the naming of babies after radicals (136 children received the unfortunate first name 'Henry Hunt' after Peterloo), but also the production of materials to instruct children in the history of struggle. A map produced as a teaching aid, is Mather says, "physically materialising reminders of the events of the day" to "carry forward the aims of the radicals...to sustain the movement into the next generation."

Mather's chapter, draws on the memoir of Peterloo leader Samuel Bamford. She notes that the description of his home notes with pride the items that decorate a typical working class home. I raised a smile at this because in a recent visit to Rochdale museum's exhibition on Peterloo I noted that among the exhibits were Bamford reading glasses. The use of object to venerate, remember and memorialise history continues.
Samuel Bamford glasses, among other historical objects
associated with Peterloo in Rochdale Museum (my photo).
Space precludes a detailed discussion of all the chapters in this excellent book. They all, in different ways, contribute to a wider understanding of how radical movements create spaces for memorialising that draw on the past. Rose Wallis says in her discussion of the Captain Swing movement that "the memory of popular protest was... central in shaping both the resort to protest in the present and the responses of the authorities".

The past cannot be separated from the present. Historical struggles shape the terrain that contemporary women and men fight on, and within which they try to shape the future. Radicals planning incendiary attacks in 1830, riots in the Forest of Dean or organising marches to St Peters Fields in 1819 drew on their experiences, knowledge and understanding of what had gone before to try and be victorious. Similarly the forces of the establishment and authority learn their own lessons, for their own class. But what this book also shows, is that those memories are not simply remembered from generation to generation, but are often written into the very landscape that people act upon. As Carl Griffin comments,
we might usefully understand plebeian communities, individual bodies and the landscapes in which they lived as bearing the characteristics inherited of past tragedies, something akin to a cultural form of Lamarckism,... It is all there, but it is just that in the shift from the personal to the community narrative, the archive is used selectively, past events become written in the matter of place and in the body of the community...Through remembering to remember and remembering to forget, the past was constantly folded, remade, reanimated, becoming something always new.
Understanding how the past has been interpreted and memorialised thus helps us understand the actions and motivations of later generations. Learning from protest history is more than simply empowering our contemporary struggles - it helps explain the world we are in and the movements we have. Carl Griffin and Briony McDonagh's book is a wonderful insight into these processes. The individual chapters contribute to the central theme and are also very illuminating on their specific subjects. I highly recommend this collection to those interested in the history of protest and the writing of that protest.

Note: I do feel bound to comment on the disappointingly high price of Remembering Protest in Britain since 1500. Aimed at an academic audience it was only because the publisher had a massive online sale that reduced the price by about £60 that I was able to afford to get hold of it. Sadly this will price the book out of reach of the hands of almost any ordinary activists and readers who do not have access to an academic library. It is a real shame because its contents would appeal greatly to a current generation of radicals who might want to learn from the past.

Related Reviews

Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848
Griffin - The Rural War
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the making of Early Modern England
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Poole - Peterloo: The English Uprising
Riding - Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Jeff Sparrow - Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch Massacre

This new book by Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow is an important contribution to understanding fascist movements in the 21st century. It is a short book that focuses on the Christchurch killer, a fascist activist who murdered 51 people and injured 49 more at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Person X, as he is anonymously labelled in Sparrow's book, left a detailed manifesto which was much more than the ramblings of a madman. Instead it was a carefully crafted piece of writing, that was designed to appeal to a particular set of far-right online activists and encourage further killing.

I initially picked up the book because I wanted to know more about "eco-fascism". This is the tendency for far-right activists to use concern over environmental crisis to push their own agenda. As Sparrow shows, close links between fascist ideas and nature are not new. While concern about the environment is usually seen as a left-wing cause, there has historically been a far-right strand of environmentalism. This, as Person X demonstrated, is usually tied up with ideas of over-population.

The concern of Person X and other "eco-fascists" is contradictory, and so , says Sparrow, needs to understood in what Person X "describes as his 'tactics for victory' - in particular, something he calls 'accelerationism'." Sparrow spells out what this means:
Person X's embrace of accelerationism means, above all, an advocacy of social and political breakdown as both necessary and desirable. Stability and comfort constitute, he says, major obstacles to the fascist revolution, which can only arise from the 'the great crucible of crisis'. As a result, fascists 'must destabilise and discomfort society where ever possible'. Even someone pushing for minimal changes with which fascists might agree should be considered 'useless or even damaging' far better, Person X says, to have 'radical, violent change regardless of its origins'.
So fascists can even celebrate climate change as a solution - one that will kill off many of those who they hate, and where, as one commentator points out "only the strong should survive". 

But Sparrow's book is far more than an explanation of eco-fascism or even a detailed study of Person X's motivations. He also shows how, perhaps paradoxically to the outside observer, Person X's appalling crime was actually a response to the success of the anti-fascist movements. Sparrow shows how, in the wake of Trump's victory, the fascist movement in the US was able to grow. Far-right politicians like Trump in the US, as in a host of countries post 9-11 created an atmosphere of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling, within which fascists were able to grow. The movement tried to move from "online influence" to "real-world popularity". To do this, the fascists "needed to bring their supporters out from their computers and into the streets".

At the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, USA in 2017, where fascists openly marched and chanted antisemitic and anti-Muslim slogans, a young anti-fascist activist, Heather Heyer, was killed. The violence that is never far below the surface among fascists surfaced. But in the context of 2017 caused massive revulsion. After this, fascist protests were massively outnumbered and proved unattractive for the Nazis.

A similar process took place in Australia where Person X originated. Finding it impossible to march and create the atmosphere of togetherness that the Nazis wanted, some, like Person X, looked for other strategies. Sparrow explains:
American fascism hadn't disappeared. But its key figures learned... that they couldn't convert their online support into a conventional political movement as easily as they had hoped. Such was the context in which Person X developed his own strategy for bridging the gulf between fascism's online strength and its real-world weakness. That strategy was terrorist murder.
Compared to other mass killings, Person X "injected political content into an apolitical form":
In his reshaping of rage murder - injecting a conscious political element into the already-existing massacre script - Person X hoped to set in motion a cascading sequence of atrocities, in which young men (on the fringes of the fascist movement or at least already vaguely sympathetic to far-right ideas), would individually decide to, as he put it 'stop shit-posting and make a real-life effort' with each murder inspiring murders to come.
Tragically Person X has already inspired copy-cats. Massacres like this will not provoke a fascist revolution - but that was never really Person X's plan. He hoped that such events would help spread the fascist message in a way that couldn't easily be stopped by counter-protests.

Historically we know that fascism grows during periods of political and economic crisis; it is then that the violent fantasies of the fascists can be taken up by mass movements. The task, as Sparrow explains, is to build social movements that can fracture the nascent fascist movements which people like Person X want to build. To do this means of course confronting the far-right and fascists wherever they appear - out-numbering them, exposing them and preventing them marching. But it also means providing an alternative to economic and environmental crisis. It means creating a positive message that can offer an alternative. As Sparrow concludes, "the more we offer an alternative to environmental destruction - and to the society that unleashes such destruction - the more squalid and miserable fascism seems."

Jeff Sparrow's book is an excellent, and much needed, introduction to contemporary fascism; online and in "real life". It contextualises this with a detailed explanation of historical fascist and Nazi movements, showing how fascism has evolved, while retaining links to its past. But Sparrow emphasises that fascism's ambition is to rebuild mass movements - to break out of the on-line ghetto - and that what the left does on the streets and online matters in terms of stopping it. I encourage everyone to read this, and then get involved in fighting the far-right, wherever you live.

Related Reviews

Sparrow - Crimes Against Nature
Wendling - Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Piratin - Our Flag Stays Red
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust

Friday, January 03, 2020

Ian Cameron - Red Duster, White Ensign

The battle for Malta during the Second World War was a key strategic question for the Allies and Axis powers. Malta had, for centuries, been a gateway to the rest of the Mediteranean. With Britain keen to protect its colonies and strategic assets in the Middle East and North Africa, the small island would be crucial. Initially however few, according to Ian Cameron's short history, understood this, with Winston Churchill nearly a lone figure in wanting to protect the island. Churchill would not have been motivated for his interest in the people of Malta - more the British Empire's needs.

Malta was a forgotten place for the London establishment. When the King visited the island in 1943 it was the first visit by a monarch since 1911. As Ian Cameron shows, the Maltese faced a horrific onslaught. The blitz that rained down upon the island was on a terrifying scale - far worse than that unleashed on London, though not on a par with the attacks on Berlin, Cologne or Dresden. The Maltese at least had nearly bomb proof shelters in the catacombs in the rocks. Nonetheless suffering was terrible, particularly when combined with hard rations.

The lifeline - the convoys, and the often forgotten supply trips by submarine - are the meat of the book. These were costly enterprises and the heroism of sailors from the Merchant Marine and the Navy is deservably celebrated here. Cameron tends to highlight the bravery, and like many others since the War, particularly celebrates the contribution of the civilians on the islands. Though there is precious little in the way of personal accounts, or detailed analysis of the feelings of those under fire. Cameron tends to give us the impression that everyone was supportive of the war, and hated the Germans and Italians. Is this true I wondered?

This is very much a short, readable account that focuses on the action and the famous highlights. It's worth noting that the air battles and bombing where on a scale far greater than the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, but few films or novels are set in these battles. There are enough accounts by participants even in this short book to provide source material.

Malta was, eventually relieved as the war moved further away from its location and as German arms and bases were reduced. This short, readable account gives the general story, but I felt it lacked detail on the bigger context and the experience of the civilians. Perhaps there are more recent accounts that fill this gap.

Related Reviews

Lund and Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Monsarrat - Three Corvettes

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Nick Ashton-Jones - Landscape, Wealth & Dispossession Part 2: Feudalism

Part two of Nick Ashton-Jones projected six volume study of the British Landscape and the way it has been shaped and used by various human societies. This book looks at Feudalism and the emergence of capitalism.

I've reviewed this, and the previous volume, for the Agricultural History Review, see here.