Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pamela Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside

Pamela Horn is a prolific social historian whose recent work has been associated very much with the lives of the wealthy and their households. Her earlier work was much more focused on the poor and working classes, and the transformation of life in the countryside. Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside is an excellent and accessible account of life for working people in the countryside and is highly recommended for anyone trying to get a sense of what that life was like.

This was certainly no bucolic existence. Horn demonstrates time and again that life in the countryside was dominated by poverty, hardwork, poor housing and rigid social class hierarchies. Agricultural labourers were often trapped in relationships that made it hard from them to break free of individual farmers. Take the Dorset farmer, John Butler, who in the 1860s,
normally paid his workers once a month only, but in the interim several of them bought wood, bacon, eggs and butter from him, and then had the relevant sum,s deducted from their earnings at the end of the month. A similar policy was adopted in the 1880s and 1890s by workers employed by Mr Hyatt at Snowshill House Farm in Gloucestershire.
In January 1880, "William Ireland, a labourer ostensibly earning 12s. a week, 'left £1 for pig, 4 bushels barley 14s.' and as a consequence secured only 15s. in cash."

Such economic woes were closely tied to a village hierarchy which placed the agricultural labourer and their family at the very bottom. This began in childhood were school was very much a place were education was limited to what the farmers thought the children should know. In fact there was a general sense from the higher classes that too much education was a bad thing as it led to labourers leaving the countryside. But class position was firmly part of the curriculum.

a log book entry at Holbeton, Devon, for 1867 reads: 'Spoke to the children about making obeisance to their Superiors.' Soon even the dullest or most defiant youngsters realised where their duty lay and outwardly conformed o the standard expected of them. But inwardly they may have shared the doubts of Arthur Tweedy of Kirby Fleetham in Yorkshire, who remembered asking his father why he should say 'Sir' to the squire or 'anyone else who thought himself a step above' the farm labourers. His father's reply was: '"Sir", my boy, is only the nickname for a fool.'

The Victorian era was one where the final transformation of the English countryside in the interest of capitalism took place. As Horn concludes:
The very structure of rural society was itself changing, with the decline in the numbers of rural craftsmen and the massive outflow of labourers from the land during the second half on the nineteenth century. By 1900 country dwellers were a minority of England an Wales... In the new century these trends were to be intensified, especially as the ravages of World War I undermined still further the traditional values of the old deferential rural society.
A decent chapter summarising the growth and decline of the agricultural trade union movement provides a good overview of the struggles of the rural working class. Horn concludes, probably correctly, that while the movement did win wage rises, the gains on the political front - such as the establishment of parish councils, and independent political organisation were limited. It was "the village tradesmen, farmers and smallholders who, like Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, felt able to take advantage of the new opportunities to exercise democratic rights, rather than the agricultural workers".

Horn focuses mostly on the lives of ordinary people and how these changed. There are plenty of anecdotes and first hand accounts, of everything from the nature of work to the fairs, education, health and crime. I don't think the book gives as much of a sense of the great transformative processes taking place as G.E.Mingay's book Rural Life in Victorian England. But together these are good summaries of the lives of rural communities as England entered the 20th century.

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sharon Duggal - The Handsworth Times

I wasn't old enough to really understand the Handsworth Riots when they took place in 1981. Living in Balsall Heath in Birmingham we were a relatively long way from events, but me and my school-mates certainly took notice. Even eight and nine year olds like us understood that something big was happening.

Sharon Duggal's The Handsworth Times is a study of what the riots meant to a small section of the Handsworth community. The novel centres on the Agarwals, whose youngest son Billy is killed by an ambulance during the rioting. Billy's death leads to the family's downward spiral as father Mukesh, a factory worker immigrant from India, turns to alcohol to cop with the pain. Usha, his wife, obsessively cleans the house to try and cope, and their three daughters struggle to deal with the tragedy and the unravelling of their lives.

The backdrop to all of these is Thatcherism, economic crisis and the rise in racism. The community faces all of these, and the Nazi National Front who turn up to sow further division. As Mukesh and millions of workers like him lose their jobs, it is up to ordinary people to try and stand up for justice and equality.

This isn't an easy novel to read. The story is as painful as the backdrop. Duggal brings to life the reality of unemployment, poor, overcrowded housing, racism and family tensions. In their different ways, each daughter finds a way of dealing with the tragedy, and at least one of them gets to kick a Nazi in the bollocks. Duggal's novel is well observed, full of black comedy and understanding of what it meant to be young, Asian and working class in 1980s Birmingham. If I've one criticism its that Duggal tries a little too hard with period detail. While I enjoyed the multiple references to songs, food and locations at times it was a little overwhelming.

I'm sure that many of the followers of this blog will enjoy this story of community resistance and resilience.

Monday, June 22, 2020

G.E.Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England

The nineteenth century saw unprecedented change in the countryside. The period of Queen Victoria's rule saw the consolidation of industry and empire, and in the countryside the completion of a process that had begun when capitalism had emerged triumphant from the old feudal order. Enclosure, engrossment and the destruction of common property saw its conclusion in this period, but these processes had really only laid the basis for what took place in these years of change. This is the period when the old traditions died out alongside the old working practices and the rural working population declined from its 1851 peak. As G.E.Mingay makes clear in the introduction to his classic account of the period:
Quiet little country places, which once were disturbed only by the blacksmith's hammerings or the rumble of wagons, now resounded with the clamour of dozens of little nailers' forges or the thud and click of cottage handlooms and stocking frames.. almost overnight, the village's character was changed, and those who knew nothing but farming found themselves outnumbered by factory hands, whose own rural origins rapidly disappeared without trace.
The book documents these changes, but does it through an examination of the different groups that made up village life - the landowning squires, the tenant farmers, the agricultural labourers and the professionals; parson, land-agent, doctor and blacksmith. The period in question saw these groups and the relationships between them fundamentally transformed. One key aspect to this was the way that the growing international economy meant that landowners and farmers had to change their practises, a process accelerated by the great depression of the 1870s. Gentlemen farmers and landowners began to die out. Mingay quotes Rider Haggard:
Today there was a new type of farmer, who, as a rule, began life as a grocer, a village smith or a shoemaker. This person lives on about 10s a week and goes to a sale to buy and old wagon for 50s... On an 800 acre holding he employs about four hands, and sometimes not so many, and is unprofitable to the landlord, the tradesman, and the labourer alike. But after a fashion, he makes farming pay.
Mingay adds
With the depression came a breakdown of the old relationship between landlord and tenant. The landlord saw old tenants... throw up leases and depart... The old tenants, for their part, saw that the landlords were powerless to halt the economic decline of farming, and were even unable to offer much in the way of new investment in buildings or help with the expense of converting arable land to grass.
This was a period when a "new kind of farmer... strictly economical and severely business-like" arose, making the depression "a true watershed in the country's farming history".

If the old landowning class and the tenant farmers were being transformed, the agricultural labourers were beginning to see a transformation in their own lives. Readers might detect a tendency for Mingay to see the squirearchy in its most benevolent clothing. But he certainly doesn't hid the poverty and terrible living conditions of the agricultural labourers. Their low incomes, appalling housing, lack of access to education, running water, interior toilets and so on, is detailed in horrible detail. So to are their struggles - the burning of hay ricks and the early trade union movements.

Many, usually those not directly connected to the countryside, saw the solution as being about land.
There was great discussion, much controversy, a few plans, but little action. What did the labourer need to tie him to is village? Clearly he needed better wages, better housing, better conditions - though ti was disputed how bad these really were. Above all he needed land. Look at the continent. There was still a stable and numerous peasantry, having a large share of the soil, and responsible for a large share of its product. Land was the key. It would give the labourer a stake in the country, something to work for, something to stay for. And so came the Smallholdings Acts.
But this wasn't enough. Allotments, smallholdings and the like gave the labourer a bit of extra food. But it couldn't stop poverty. Thus the exodus from the country continued, particularly when industrialisation sucked in more workers. The markets in the local town, and ease of travel by railways, meant that rural workers got a taste for town life. The process was accelerated by the trend towards mechanised farming, the use of technology, chemicals and steam. As a result villages themselves changed, becoming "dormitories and satellites" of the towns which exploded in size.

Traditions, skills and knowledge that had lasted for centuries disappeared too:
The decline in village trades and crafts was perhaps less remarked upon by contemporaries because it was gradual,.. and because at its height it was overshadowed by the great depression in farming itself. But it was much more than a spin-off of the farmers' decline. It was... one of the long-term consequences which flowed from the transformation of Britain into a industrialised and urbanised society. As such, it has not attracted much attention from historians. But it was, nevertheless, highly significant in the rural content, for the going of the miller and the maltster, the dying out of the packman and pedlar and the eventual disappearance of the saddler, wheelwright and blacksmith make their own conspicuous contribution to the decay of the old country life.
But Mingay is no romantic, bemoaning the decline of a traditional life. He understands that these changes are part of a process that arose, in large part, outside of any influence the rural population could have brought to bear. What passed, in large part, was an old hierarchy that was based upon the brutal exploitation of a huge class of agricultural worker. This population had seen its old social relations broken, but the changes that came with Britain's industrialisation accelerated and finalised what was a long term decline.

Drawing heavily on eyewitness accounts this is a fine book indeed. Well written, sympathetic and focusing on the lives of men and women - from squire to reforming farmer, agricultural labourer to blacksmith - its a highly readable account for anyone trying to understand what the history of the countryside really is.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919
Jeffery - The Village in Revolt
Arch - From Ploughtail to Parliament: An Autobiography
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage

Bell - Men and the Fields

Friday, June 19, 2020

M.K. Ashby - Joseph Ashby of Tysoe: 1859-1919

This is one of the classic historical accounts of life in an agricultural community during Queen Victoria's reign. Part biography, part autobiography and part historical study the book focuses on the author's father Joseph Ashby, though it begins with her grandmother Elizabeth and covers some of the experiences of her and her siblings. As such its an unusual book, rich in period detail, which links personal anecdote with historical records.

The book is well known enough that Joseph Ashby's memories are often quoted in other books about the period. Pamela Horn, for instance, uses Ashby's recollections of his time at school in her book on Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside. On occasion I've seen Joseph Ashby described as an agricultural trade unionist, which I don't think is an apt description. He certainly was someone who was influenced to agricultural trade unionism and saw its great importance in alleviating the poverty of the rural working class. That's not to say he wasn't an activist. He tramped the villages and communities preaching, recording, writing and campaigning for the Liberal Party and was asked, towards the end of his life, to stand as a MP.

Ashby's life in Tysoe is mirrored somewhat by Joseph Arch. In his early life Ashby recalls going to hear a speech by Arch a few weeks after his Warwickshire based agricultural trade union had been launched. Its a wonderful description which I wish I'd had access to when I wrote about Arch's life for the centenary of his death, or for the chapter in Kill all the Gentlemen about agricultural trade unionism. Ashby's eye for detail brings to life what a meeting would have been like - from the intimidating presence of the farmers, to the men collecting names at a table for the union.

Its impossible to separate the life of Joseph Ashby from the time he was living in. Its a period that saw the complete transformation of rural England. By the end of Ashby's life England's economy was well at truely industrial, cars sped through the countryside and the age of the horse was over. Machines had transformed farming and the age of the Workhouse was ended. It was also a time of struggle and reform. Tysoe seems to have mostly escaped the struggles of the union movement - though there were plenty of local politics to be involved in. Ashby, as mentioned, as a Liberal activist. At one time he also travelled around in a horse-drawn van recruiting campaigning for land reform for the "Land Restoration League" a movement "touched by Christian socialism". This time was primarily used by Joseph to make a survey of villages, some of which was used by the German academic Wilhelm Hasbech in his study of the English Agricultural Labourer. The van trip is fascinating, again for the insights into local conditions. In some villages they are given short shift by the local landowners, made to drive on. In others they are welcomed. Trade union branches are setup, sometimes with a sympathetic local clergyman taking up the reigns of the secretary until someone else steps forward.

The clergy play a big role in the book. The Tysoe vicar for much of Joseph's life is a pompous right-winger whose patronising attitudes are very much geared towards maintaining the status quo. Joseph himself breaks with the Church and begins to explore Methodism as a result of the vicar's attacks on the trade union movement. Like Arch, Ashby becomes a chapel preacher and like Arch travels the countryside to speak on Sundays giving him a network of contacts and friends around Warwickshire.

Ashby's mother, Elizabeth, is a fascinating character. Its explicitly written that Joseph's father was the owner of the country house she went to work in as a maid. Becoming pregnant she was sent away and, in a rather moving passage, only appears to have given up hope of connecting Joseph back to his rightful place when he becomes involved in the trade union movement. She seems a formidable woman, surviving the abandonment by Joseph's father, and the death of her first husband to bring up several children and help them to adulthood. She instils in them a love of books and writing. Joseph becomes both an author and a voracious reader. Something that means he doesn't end up labouring in the fields, but is able to earn a living as a surveyor. Eventually Joseph and his wife Hannah own a relatively decent farm, before moving away from the Tysoe area to a 200 acre farm in their last years.

Many readers will enjoy the book for it's description of a rural childhood, or the anecdotes about the history and persons of Tysoe. These are very enjoyable, but there is much more here too - particularly the sense of the changing countryside both economically and politically. Ashby is central to the first local Parish council, which he (and other local radicals) see as a vehicle for bringing about real change. M.K. Ashby reflects this when she concludes:
As I wrote this study I came to feel that he and his mother Elizabeth were the product of a very different community from their contemporary Tysoe, the ill-balanced and wretched village of the early nineteenth century, or the anaemic one of Queen Victoria's later years. They seemed to have come out of a more vigorous community - one still possessed of that first of the things of the spirit - responsibility. It seemed to me that during their time their village was struggling back to an accustomed balance, imperfect but basic.
There's some truth in this of course. But Tysoe was not unique, even if it did have its differences to other villages. The period written about, in fact the whole book, is defined by the gnawing poverty of most peoples lives. Joseph is relatively privileged, but not massively so. By the end of his life his community was suffering less, in part due to the massive changes that had taken place in wider society. The author sees the transformation as arising in large part from the 1832 Reform Act that led to the Poor Laws and the transformation of local authority. It is a sentiment that Joseph would no doubt have agreed with, but it is only half the story. Like Joseph Arch, Ashby never broke from Liberalism, which likely left him remote from the emerging 20th century struggles.

This said this is a really interesting account of rural life and its not surprising that EP Thompson describes it as a classic. Anyone interesting in local Warwickshire history or the struggles of agricultural communities will find it full of fascinating and forgotten material.

Related Reviews

Arch - From Ploughtail to Parliament: An Autobiography
Horn - Joseph Arch
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle!
Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Jeffery - The Village in Revolt

Howkins - The Death of Rural England

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Charlie Jane Anders - The City in the Middle of the Night

This is a really radical, innovative and interesting science fiction novel, one that stands out of a field that is seeing a resurgence in radical works that bring issues of gender, sexuality, class, racism and class back into the genre.

January is a tidally locked planet, which means that only a thin strip of it is inhabitable between hemispheres that are either frozen solid or boiling hot. On this planet, nature shapes the liveable biosphere in a very restrictive way. Our two main protagonists, Sophie and Bianca grow up in Xiosphant. Here life is as tightly regulated by the city-state. Outside life, indeed even life indoors, is strictly governed by a time cycle that determines when windows shutters open and close. Workers labour to earn one of a dozen currencies that give them access to food and shelter. Its not a worker's paradise, but it has allowed the human colonists of January to survive many generations since they lost contact with their orbiting mothership.

The second city, Argelo, is an other extreme. It's anarchic, free and without constraint. Where Xiosphant locks down personal life in the collective interest Argelo's inhabitants dance and party their way through life. Or so it seems initially. In reality, both cities are havens of poverty and social unrest, except that their masters have learnt to regulate them completely.

Its difficult to read Charlie Jane Anders' novel without drawing comparisons with Ursula K. Le Guin's Dispossessed. There two planets in close proximity exemplified capitalist and anarchist societies, the latter suffering from shortages that made any genuine freedom near impossible. But Anders takes this trope and develops it much further. Sophie and Bianca are young, idealistic, student rebels - Sophie from a working class background and Bianca, with whom she is besotted politically and personally is an upper-class success story, destined for greatness. Except, Bianca is plotting the overthrow of Xiosphant's society - her student rebel group wants to shatter the rigid structures and reopen historic links with Argelo. The rebellion is doomed, and the two rebels flee to Argelo.

If that were all, it would be a mildly interesting story. But several other factors turn this into a classic. The first are the natives. The Gelet are a hidden telepathic communal society who welcome Sophie into their group. Everyone else dismisses the Gelet as dangerous animals and their meat is hunted to supplement limited resources. Its easy to see parallels with how European colonists viewed the indigenous peoples in our own history. Sophie alone understands that the Gelet are part of the solution to the problems caused by January's erratic biosphere. But in the struggle between Xiosphant and Argelo such seemingly abstract issues matter little.

The second factor that is worth noting is the way the novel treats interpersonal relations. Sophie and Bianca's friendship, which initially seemed to about to tip into romance, is deftly handled. Their estrangement and eventual opposition develops through the book. Bianca's horror at her realisation that her former friend has feelings is painful from the reader's (Sophie's) perspective. Around the disaster that is Sophie-Bianca are a number of other wonderfully drawn characters, adventurers, mercenaries, and alien(s) who interact and shape, support the main characters. The wide cast of characters is important to the book, but also contributes to its general atmosphere in more subtle ways. I was quite a way through before I worked out that one of the most things that made this such a refreshing read was that the main characters were all female.

I said at the start that this is a radical work. Its also fair to say that its politically nuanced. The environmental forces that threaten Xiosphant and Argelo are easy metaphors for our own environmental crisis. The ruling classes of the cities look to technological solutions (as well as military ones) that mirror our own society's hope that green-tech will provide the answers. On January just as one Earth, these tend to make things worse. The real parallels is much less obvious and its lies in the way that the answers to the crises (social and environmental) are already there. On January it is the Gelet who have a vision of a new world, but it is hidden because the majority of humans cannot see past their prejudiced understanding of January's ecology. Again there are many parallels for our own times.

As I write this review I learnt that The City in the Middle of the Night is on the list for 2020's Arthur C. Clarke award. It certainly is a strong contender that deserves a wide readership.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Norman Geras - Marx & Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend

It is fascinating to read a book whose author I know mostly for being one of those socialists who'd moved so far from their politics that they ended up supporting Tony Blair's war on Iraq. Yet in the past Geras had been linked to the International Marxist Group. His earlier politics led him to write several useful books including this short essay on Marx's views on human nature. The "legend" that the subtitle refers to is the idea, common on the left in the past, that Marx rejected the idea of human nature. If the reader can penetrate the extremely specific approach to the subject, Geras offers some very useful insights. He begins by arguing that
Marx - like everyone else - did reject certain ideas of human nature; but je also regarded some as being true. It is important to discriminate the sort that he rejected from the sort he did not. More important still is to try to discriminate such of these ideas as are indeed true from such of them as are false. Neither purpose is served by talk of the dismissal of all conceptions of human nature. 
The author's style, as exemplified in the quote here, gives the reader some sense of what to expect. This is not a book that begins from the real world, but from the pages of Marx's writings, in particular a very specific paragraph, the sixth of Marx's theses on Feuerbach. Let's remind ourselves of what Marx said.
Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence, is consequently compelled:
1. To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract – isolated – human individual.
2. Essence, therefore, can be comprehended only as “genus”, as an internal, dumb generality which naturally unites the many individuals.
It is then a very specific exploration of what Marx meant here. Geras says, for instance, writing about the final sentence of the above that, for Marx "Feuerbach is mistaken not because he views man in terms of 'inner', 'general', 'species' (or 'natural') characteristic but because he views him exclusively in those terms. He is wrong for a one-sidedness of perspective rather than wrong tout court... Feuerbach, Marx wrote, 'refers too much to nature and too little to politics.'"

Geras argues that Marx had a more dynamic approach. He say human nature as a thing that was shaped by circumstances.
If diversity in the character of human beings is in large measure set down by Marx to historical variation in their social relations of production, the very fact that they entertain this sort of relations, the fact that they produce and that they have a history, he explains in turn by some of their general and constant, intrinsic, constitutional characteristics; in short by their human nature. This concept is therefore indispensable to his historical theory.
So what is human nature? This is a harder question to answer from Geras book, because Geras is more concerned with proving (as he writes in his final sentence) that the sixth theses "does not show that Marx rejected the idea of human nature... He was right not to do so." This exercise in logic might be useful academically, particularly in the context of a general academic debate around the issue. But it doesn't help the reader who is trying to get to grips with Marx in order to change the world.

In fact, as the earlier quote suggests, Marx's concept of human nature, arises out of his understanding of how all human societies rest upon the natural world. We, in a myriad of different ways, have always laboured to change nature in order to satisfy our needs - most important of all, food, water and shelter. The societies we have created to do that in turn shape us, transforming our nature and relationships. We might think that human nature is to be greedy, violent or competitive. But those traits arise from the type of society we live in today. Time and again, even under capitalism, we have seen situations where what is supposed to be "human nature" is broken down as the nature of society is challenged collectively.

Unfortunately, Geras' defence of Marx's approach is lost in a jumble of self-referential arguments. There is nothing here (in fact Geras explicitly rejects this approach) that looks at anthropological studies or attempts to expand on Marx's historical materialist approach with examples from real human history. The argument is proved theoretically by Geras, but few are any wiser.

Related Reviews

Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective
Marx & Engels - The German Ideology
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy

Friday, June 12, 2020

Margot Lee Shetterly - Hidden Figures

By coincidence I started reading Hidden Figures as the recent Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the United States and rapidly spread globally. Those demonstrations quickly went from anger at the murder of George Floyd to generalising about contemporary racism and the history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and many other injustices. I decided to read Hidden Figures after seeing the  2016 film of the same name. I'm glad I decided to as while the film is inspiring and entertaining, out of necessity, misses much detail and compresses a longer timescale and the experience of many women into a short story.

Margot Lee Shetterly is the daughter of a black NASA engineer. She grew up knowing the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the early NASA space programme. The women cranked out calculations, checked equations, researched solutions and helped run simulations of aerodynamics, trajectories and much else. They were known as "computers" and they were all women, and most of them were black at a time when few women of any colour were employed in workplaces. Their names and crucial roles were almost forgotten until Shetterly's book was published and they started to gain limited recognition - though Katherine Johnson who is one of the focuses of this book eventually got a Presidential Medal. But there were many more. Shetterly writes that she "can put the names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research".

The movie implies that the story begins with the US space programme, but actually the story of the black women "computers"  begins during World War Two when a desperate need for labour meant the US government reached out to employ women.

Interestingly the film portrays the success of the women as being solely down to their personal force of will. But Shetterly's book makes it clear that they were able to do this in the context of wider social movements. In particularly the famous occasion when black trade unionist, socialist and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph threatened to march on Washington with 100,000s of black activists if the government did not employ black workers in war industries. The opening that was won allowed the computers to be employed at Langley for the NACA initially on aircraft and later space vehicles.

This is not to decry the struggle by the women as individuals. They challenged racism and sexism, as well as the limitations that resulted from their own backgrounds. Women in general and black women in particular were not expected to have jobs like these. At best some one like Katherine Johnson who went on to play a particularly important role at NASA might be teachers. Johnson, for instance, went to do Mathematics at university, having to hide her marriage and quitting when she got pregnant. The War, then the Space Race however sucked her and thousands of others into the machine. While there were hundreds of women like Johnson, Shetterly builds her book around Johnson and two other key figures, Dorothy Vaughan (the first black woman to manage staff at the NACA) and Mary Jackson who was the first engineer. Other women's stories are told, with similar tales of overcoming racism, poverty and inequality, but it is these three key figures who tell the story of the women computers and the roles they play at NASA.

The book is inspiring, and it demonstrates that collective and individual struggles often go hand in hand. It also showed the way that racism and sexism reduces everyone - one of the women fights to be allowed to study at a white only college. On arrival she is dismayed to see that the school is as dilapidated as the black schools she already knows. The white women at NACA and NASA have to fight sexism, even as some of them are expressing racism to their black colleagues who are fighting a double burden. Shetterly points out that many people had no idea that women worked at NASA, never mind black women in such crucial roles. That said Hidden Figures also shows that many people didn't accept racism, and that black and white people worked and often relaxed together in NASA's social events. However mixing outside work was less common. Housing was segregated and black families in particularly found it hard to get places to live.

The hopeful conclusion, which rightly shows that the lives of individuals like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, laid the ground for other black women to play their role in the space programme, seems inadequate when we look at the death of George Floyd, or the way that racism means that black people are more likely to be unemployed or die from Covid-19. I also found the book difficult to read in places, as it skipped back and forth in time, or between the different viewpoints of characters. That said this is a must read for people interested in the struggle against racism and inequality, the space race and science in general.

Related Reviews

Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising
Winterburn - The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

John Williams - Butcher's Crossing

The myth of the West, a place of adventure and endless empty space, held a grip on the imagination in the 19th century as much as it does today. John William's Butcher's Crossing is the story of what happens to a wealthy young East Coast man who leave leaves Harvard and travels to the eponymous town to find adventure and himself. Using his own wealth to outfit a buffalo expedition, despite warnings against the hazardous nature of the trip, Will Andrews leaves behind his comfort zone and heads out into the wilderness. His companions are relics from a different era. His mentor Miller is a grizzled buffalo hunter who remembers the herds so big that they looked like smoke. He claims to know of a secret valley where buffalo still roam in vast numbers. His companions, other than Will, are sceptical, but they're being paid so they tag along.

The story is quite simple. The plains are in a process of change. Miller can't find the way because landmarks have come and gone. The roads are well travelled and there's the occasional building. The travellers come across rotting piles of bones from previous hunts. It begins to look like its a wasted quest. But the party does eventually reach the valley and there begins a mass hunt - on a scale that sickens Will, but rapidly teaches him new work. He has to learn to skin an animal that moments earlier had been standing proud in the grass. Now its reduced to skin, bone, guts and pieces of meat. The men eat the livers raw to ward off disease. Will learns fast.

Williams excels in telling the details of the hunt. The skinning, the shooting, the cooking, the hard, hard labour. I don't know if the author ever went buffallo hunting, but he certainly gives the impression he knows what its like. Its unlikely that he nearly died of dehydration in the desert, or froze through a long winter in the wilderness but again the reader feels like he did.

Its a western, but of a different calibre to those about gunfights and wars against the Native Americans. This is about the plains as a space were men and women eek out a living, but were the vicissitudes of the market matter even hundreds of miles from a spot on the map called Butcher's Crossing. Its a raw and powerful story that will stay with me a long time.

Related Reads

Williams - Stoner

Friday, June 05, 2020

Ian Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis

If the first volume of Ian Kershaw's biography of Adolf Hitler teaches us how he could have been stopped, then the second tells us the consequences of failing to do that. The book begins in 1936 as Hitler is consolidating his own position and that of the Nazi regime. But the majority of the book deals with Hitler's obsessive preparations for war and the history of Hitler's roll in World War Two. Here one thing is clear. For Hitler wanted war. His adjutant Fritz Wiedemann recalled Hitler saying in 1938, "every generation must at one time have experienced war". As food shortages, hard work, low wages and, in particular, labour shortages began to take their toll in the late 1930s Hitler saw "war as panacea. Whatever the difficulties, they would be - and could only be - resolved by war." When finally made to comment on the anger among German farmers about the shortage of labour, he answered that their complaints would be dealt with after the war.

This obsession with war arose directly out of Hitler's worldview. The German people needed to be strengthened through the experience of conflict at the same time as restoring the country to its proper position in Europe. War eventually came in 1939. Hitler was surprised that Britain and France stood by Poland, as he'd been convinced by their actions of Czechoslovakia that they would back down. His disappointment that Germany hadn't been able to seize Czechoslovakia by force was now matched by excitement at the potential victories.

The machinations over the Ruhr, Austria and Czechoslovakia need not detain us her, but it is worth noting that Kerhsaw makes it very clear that, through their inaction, the British and French governments had allowed Hitler to strengthen his power base by proving he was able to regain national pride and territory as he had promised. Among most ordinary Germans, even including sections of the left who had bitterly opposed the fascists, Hitler's star was rising. This was taking place against the backdrop of intensifying repression of Jews and other minorities, but Hitler's successes in the international field helped his regime get away with increasing violence internally.

In war Nazism came into its own. It's worth quoting Kershaw on this:
The war now brought the circumstances and opportunities for the dramatic radicalisation of Nazism's ideological crusade. Long-term goals seemed almost overnight to become attainable policy objectives. Persecution which had targeted usually disliked social minorities was now directed at an entire conquered and subjugated people. The Jews, a tiny proportion of the German population, were not only far more numerous in Poland, but were despised by many within their native land and were now the lowest of the low in the eyes of the brutal occupiers of the country.
As before the war, Hitler set the tone for the escalating barbarism, approved of it, and sanctioned it. But his own actions provide an inadequate explanation of such escalation. The accelerated disintegration of any semblance of collective government, the undermining of legality by an ever encroaching and ever-expanding police executive, and the power ambitions of an increasingly autonomous SS leadership all played important parts. These processes had developed between 1933 and 1939 in the Reich itself. They were now, once the occupation of Poland opened up new vistas, to acquire a new momentum altogether. 
He continues:
The key area was Poland. The ideological radicalisation which took place there in the eighteen months following the German invasion was an essential precursor to the plans which unfolded in spring 1941 as preparation for the war which Hitler knew at some time he would fight: the war against Bolshevik Russia.
In volume one Kershaw introduced the concept of "working towards Hitler" as an explanation for how diverse parts of the Nazi state (in Germany and occupied areas) made the Holocaust and other aspects of Nazi ideology real. But Kershaw doesn't intend this to mean that Hitler was somehow unaware of what was transpiring. Some readers might hope that Kershaw has found some lost document detailing Hitler's thoughts or instructions about, say, Auschwitz. This is to misunderstand what the Nazi regime was and how Hitler operated.

Hitler provided a "general license for barbarianism" but others acted on it. In the case of the euthanasia of disabled people in Germany before the war started, Kershaw points out that Hitler "hand-picked" trusted Nazi "old-fighters" - "They knew what was expected of them. Regular and precise directives were not necessary".

Lack of evidence of Hitler's direct knowledge of the Holocaust arises in part because of his keenness "to conceal the traces of his involvement in the murder of the Jews". That said,
compared with the first years of the war when he had neither in public nor - to go from Goebbels's diary accounts - in private made much mention of the Jews, Hitler did now, in the months when their fate was being determined, refer to them on numerous occasions. Invariably, whether in public speeches or during comments in his late-night monologues in his East Prussian HQ, his remarks were confined to generalities - but with the occasion menacing allusion to what was happening. 
In fact, Kershaw has  assembled lots of comments, fragments and texts which make it clear that Hitler was aware of plenty of details of what was happening. Eg, in October 1941 Hitler said of the Jews "Don't anyone tell me we can't send them into the marshes". This reference refers to attempts to "drown Jewish women by driving them into the Pripet marshes". Goebbels, in his diary, referred to "the most brutal means" being used against the Jews. Later he wrote "A judgement is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved" and continued "the Fuhrer is the unswerving champion and spokesman of a radical solution".

While Hitler created the framework for Nazi followers to drive forward the Holocaust in horrific ways, he was very much culpable in what happened. As Kershaw concludes:

Hitler's role had been decisive and indispensable in the road to the 'Final Solution'. Had he not come to power in 1933 and a national-conservative government, perhaps a military dictatorship, had gained power instead. Discriminatory legislation against Jews would in all probability still have been introduced in Germany. But without Hitler, and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a programme to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews of Europe would have been unthinkable.

Hitler was, by the start of World War Two, convinced of his own infallibility. He never lost this belief, even as the tide turned and military forces advanced over Germany's territorial gains and then the country itself. Everyone else, the Jews, his generals, the German people, became objects for Hitler's scapegoating. Kershaw details the inability of Hitler to accept criticism, to trust generals and to understand the need to tactical decisions such as strategic retreats. It is notable here that Hitler's actions are very much linked into his world view. This is not simply about his inability to trust others, but a world view that saw the German people as being superior to everyone else. His paranoia arises out of his belief that defeat in World War One was not military, but the consequence of others.

But the Nazi state Hitler created was also culpable. It's breathtaking that as Germany's defeat becomes inevitable and as their power is reduced to almost zero, Hitler's various underlings remain dedicated to strengthening their own positions, however ludicrous it might be. The figure of Hitler within this remains constant and unbelievably powerful right to the end.

The book finishes with the defeat and suicide of Hitler. Amid the shattered ruins of Berlin, with the deaths of tens of millions of people arising out of the war and Holocaust, the conclusion has to be "never again". That said, how do the books stand up?

The first volume dealt with the rise of Hitler to power and the second with the war and Holocaust. But it strikes me that while these work as biography they don't entirely match up to Hitler's life. In his own review, Alex Callinicos writes:
[German historian Joachim] Fest argues that Hitler's political career can be divided into three phases. In the first, which lasted till the late 1920s, he was simply a fascist demagogue, in rebellion against a society that offered him no place, and in pursuit of the barbarous utopia of a racially pure German empire. Then, as power beckoned, Hitler developed a more realistic side--first carefully courting the German economic and military elites, and then, once in power, manoeuvring with great success to win control of most of Europe by diplomatic and military means. The final phase began as failure became plain--after the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1942-43. Hitler then relapsed into the racist fantasist of his youth, progressively ignoring the realities of power.

I think this fits well with what Kershaw describes. Hitler's obsession in the bunker with models of how Germany could be rebuilt and his obsessive return to stories about the early days of the Nazi party illustrate the point. It explains why Hitler put himself into supreme command of the army and why he refused to allow tactical retreat, or entertain the idea of negotiations with the Allies. At the end Hitler feels abandoned by everyone, including the German people. He had placed himself at the centre of the Nazi state, and when that collapsed, he blamed everyone else. Retreating into personal fantasy, he abandons the people themselves - it is striking (even to Goebbels) that as the fortunes of war turn Hitler, the arch-propagandist, refuses to speak in person, or by radio, to the German people. 

So while the two volume approach works as books, it doesn't quite work in terms of Hitler's life. I also felt the subtitles of the books, Hubris and Nemesis, imply an inevitability to the fall of Hitler. But Kershaw's whole story shows that there was no inevitability to anything that took place. Had things been slightly different Hitler might never have achieved power, but had other things been slightly different he might well have defeated the Soviet Union. The strength of Kershaw's books is that he places events in their historical context and there were many factors that shaped what took place.

But these criticisms are minor compared to the brilliance of Ian Kerhsaw's work. They are not easy reads - because of their scope and the material covered. But they are important works. As we struggle today against fascism and racism in all its forms, the lessons from history remain crucial. Ian Kershaw's work remains essential in our understanding of the past, in order to shape the future.

Related Reviews

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Ian Kershaw - Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris

Why read a two volume, nearly two thousand page biography of one of the 20th century's most appalling dictators? The answer lies in who Adolf Hitler was. He was a dictator, but he was also, as Ian Kershaw's biography ably shows, a shrewd organiser who was able to build a movement that could take power and install a fascist leader. Thus, understanding Hitler is in no small part of importance for trying to stop this reoccurring.

The two volume format works well for two clear phases in Hitler's life. Whether these are the only two phases I will return to in my discussion of volume two. But certainly the first half consisting of Hitler's youth, army service followed by the route to power neatly fits a first book. The longer second book focuses almost entirely on World War Two. But the two books cannot really be separated. This is not simply because they tell the story of a single life. But because the ideas that Hitler developed early were at the core of his thought and action for his whole life. These included but weren't limited to extreme antisemitism, nationalism, a pathological hatred of the left, belief in a "stab in the back" of Germany following World War One, and the desire for a strong, dictatorial leadership for Germany. To his dying day he clung to this fascist "worldview". In fact, key, flawed, decisions made between 1939 and 1945 arose directly from the Nazi ideas that Hitler developed in his 20s and 30s.

But I get ahead of myself. Readers picking up Kerhsaw's book for information on Hitler's personal life will find them sorely missing. But this is not the fault of the biographer. Hitler had very little personal life. Even in his early life he comes across as lazy, quick to blame others for his own failings, unable to make friends and obsessed with his own intelligence. It's easy to draw parallels between this characteristics and Hitler's later behaviour. To do so would be massively over simplifying things. Instead Kershaw shows how Hitler's world-view and the fascist movements he helped create arose out of two key things. Firstly the long tradition of far-right, nationalistic and antisemitic organisation that existed in Austria and German. Hitler's early engagement with these ideas and the organisations that preceded him, gave him a quick entry to fascist organisation. Of most important though was World War One. As Kershaw says:
On the eve of the First World War, Germany was certainly a state with some unattractive features - among them those of the unbalanced character sitting on the Imperial throne. But nothing in its development predetermined the path to the Third Reich. What happened under Hitler was not presaged in Imperial Germany. It is unimaginable without the experience of the First World War and what followed it.
What followed was economic crisis and revolution. In a hospital in 1918 Hitler watched the revolutionary events with horror. Kershaw says that his "entire political activist was driven by the trauma of 1918- aimed at expunging the defeat and revolution which betrayed all that he had believed in, and eliminating those he helped responsible."

While we know Hitler as the beer-hall agitator, he (and others on the right) discovered Hitler's speaking talents working for the Reichswehr (the German counter-revolutionary defence force) that organised against the left in the aftermath of World War One. It was this that "turned Hitler into a propagandist". Here he developed the ideas that would crystallise into the Nazi worldview. Kerhsaw:
At first Hitler's antisemitic tirades were invariable linked to anti-capitalism and attacks on 'Jewish' war profiteers and racketeers, whom he blamed for exploiting the German people and causing the loss of the war and the German war dead... There was no link with Marxism or Bolshevism at this stage. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed Hitler's antisemitism was not prompted by his anti-Bolshevism; it long predated it.
This combination of antisemitism and anti-capitalism allowed Hitler to appeal to layers of the masses who had been left devastated by the economic crisis following World War One. Rather than blaming the capitalist system itself though, Hitler's antisemitism played on the racist conspiratorial view that it was the Jews who had caused economic crisis and allowed Germany's defeat. But for Hitler ideology was not an abstract question. It mattered little that his ideas held little internal coherence, they were important because they were tools to mobilise people. The people could be shaped into a movement that would lead to the fascist seizure of power.

It is worth noting Kershaw's point that the iddea of Hitler as Fuhrer of Germany (and indeed the Nazi party) did not originate fully formed in his head in 1918. It arose out of the experience of the struggle to build Nazi organisation and Hitler's increasing obsession with his own self importance.

Much of Kerhsaw's book charts the rise to power of the Nazis. Here the book is full of detail. From small details about the organisation of the early Nazi party, including Hitler's seizure of the leadership to the Beerhall Putsch that temporarily set his movement back. The final section details the machinations of Hitler in the last years of the Weimar Republic, the massive election campaigns, the innovative use of propaganda and the hard nosed negotiations that eventually got him chosen as Chancellor.

In part Hitler was able to achieve this because of the close links he began to increasingly make between Jews and Marxism. Kershaw explains that in court for his role in the Putsch, Hitler used the platform to declare that [Kershaw's words] "The Nazi movement knew only one enemy... the mortal enemy of the whole of mankind: Marxism. There was no mention of the Jews." As Kershaw explains "Marxism and the Jew were synonymous in Hitler's mind". It is this that is key to understanding why many in the German ruling class were prepared to give Hitler power.

But on the eve of success Hitler nearly failed. What Kershaw does brilliantly is to place the story of the rise of the Nazis into wider contexts. Hitler was lucky as well as being a shrewd organiser of the mass fascist party. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Nazis increased their vote share extraordinarily rapidly rising on the back of economic and political crisis, using antisemitism and anticommunist hysteria to attract large sections of the population. But the party was, on occasion, internally divided and crisis prone. In the last election before his victory, the Nazi vote was declining and Hitler faced a crisis in the organisation that nearly split it. Had this happened, Kershaw argues, Hitler would not have come to power.

The point, though I don't think that Kershaw makes enough of it, is that Hitler could have been stopped right up until the last moment. The near splitting of the Nazi party during the Strasser crisis, was a sign that had united organisation existed that was prepared to challenge the Nazis on the streets, on the ballot and in the workplace existed, it could have broken Hitler. Certainly the experience since 1945 has been that were mass anti-fascist movements been able to pressure emerging fascist movements through counter-protest and propaganda, the splits that follow often set the Nazis back many years.

Kershaw concludes:
Democracy surrendered without a fight.... In the final drama, the agrarians and the army were more influential than big business in engineering Hitler's takeover. But big business, also, politically myopic and self-serving, had significantly contributed tot he undermining of democracy which was the necessary prelude to Hitler's success. The masses, too, had played their part in democracy's downfall... Democracy was in a far from healthy state when the Depression struck Germany. And in the course of the Depression, the masses deserted democracy in their droves... The working class was cowed and broken by the Depression, its organisations enfeebled and powerless. But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximise their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organised labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome.
The working class was broken. But its political parties still retained the loyalty of millions of voters. Had the Communists and Social Democrats united to stop Hitler, the story might have been very different. The ruling class certainly didn't think Hitler would last long. But they were, in many cases sympathetic to his ideas. It was a frightening combination.

The great strength of this volume is that Ian Kershaw places the rise of Hitler in the context of the historical moments. Those readers expecting to learn that the origin of the Holocaust and World War Two lay in some combination of Hitler's personality or the nature of German people will be disappointing. But understanding Hitler as both a product of his times and someone who shaped the situation through the mass Nazi party is much more useful.

Hitler could have been stopped. That's the conclusion that should be drawn from this book. The story doesn't end in volume one though in 1933. It shows the consolidation of power through his destruction of his own enemies (real and perceived) in the Night of the Long Knives, the defeat of the left and the trade unions, and the emergence of the Nazi state. It also show how the steps towards the Holocaust began. Here the development of trhe Fuhrer state on the back of a network of millions of members of the Nazi party allowed for a myriad of small bureacrats and activists to "work towards the Fuhrer". These individuals had no specific instructions, but they too lived inside Hitler's worldview and worked towards the implementation of those ideas. In volume two we see precisely what that meant for millions of Jews, disabled people, gays and lesbians and leftists, as well as the populations of Europe.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis
Kershaw - To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Kershaw - The End
Mazower - Hitler's Empire
Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth
Browning - The Origins of the Final Solution
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism