Thursday, October 14, 2021

Susanna Clarke - Piranesi

This is a short, unusual and compelling work by the author of the very successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi opens with her titular character in the maze like House. Piranesi worships the House, a network of rooms, decorated with different statues and sometimes open to the elements. The maze-like structure is periodically flooded and contains numerous statues which Piranesi has woven into a mythical like explanation for the house and his role. He fills his time fishing for food, exploring and respectively looking after the skeletal remains of other individuals. He knows that the House experiences periodic floods from different times and can predict the height of tides accurately. Piranesi was an 18th Century Italian architect who drew multiple designs for imaginary, fantastical prisons - they give a sense of the purpose of the House - simultaneously a trap and an alternate, escapist reality. Though in my imagination the House is more like one of those old text adventures, each room discrete and decorated uniquely, with a few exits - N,S,E and Up or Down.

He also has at least one other companion, a friendly character who appears at regular intervals in different clothing. Piranesi holds this Other in high esteem - he is trying to understand the House but is unwilling to spend much time there, or travel far. On occasion the Other brings him gifts - new shoes for instance. 

To the reader there is some clear overlap with our own world. The Other's gifts and outfits for instance. Piranesi also seems to have some knowledge of a time and place before the House, which helps him invent an explanation for what the House is. But the reader learns at the same time as Piranesi what is happening and what the House is.

The story is very compelling - I finished it almost in a single setting, as I rushed to the end to work out what was going on. The ending is remarkable and quite shocking, though Clarke gradually allows the real world to break through into the House (and Piranesi's) reality. Highly enjoyable, I think this will repay repeated readings.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Nicola Chester - On Gallows Down: Enclosure, Defiance & the Cuckoo's Return

Browsing the nature sections in bookshops often find brings me to despair. On the one hand it is lovely to see so many books about the natural world. They celebrate ecology and landscapes. But simultaneously they feel inauthentic. Too many writers, perhaps hunting for that unique selling point, break down the natural world into its component parts. We find books about species, geographical features and particular places - yet these are disconnected from a wider ecological web. In particular they frequently ignore a key element - people. Human labour  has shaped the landscape - ploughed, cut, planted, dug and burnt. We have also struggled, fought, trespassed on the land - to defend jobs and pay, to protect landscapes and woods. But all to often where people do appear in contemporary nature writing they tend to be middle class - interlopers in the countryside, visitors or more often landowners. Nature for them is an add on - seen on a walk, a break or through glass.

Which is why Nicola Chester's book On Gallows Down is quite simply one of the best works of nature writing I have ever read. An account of her life in the landscape that she grew up in near Newbury it tells how as a youngster she develops an affinity for the outside, exploring paths, streams, woods and fields. Finding, listening, touching and enjoying everything. But this childhood is disturbed by external forces. Her teenage years are spent watching the Women's Peace Camps at Greenham Common, a public landscape that is very publicly taken from the community. Later she joins the activists trying to stop the Newbury Bypass, a road extension that eats up the land she loves so much. After the defeat of the protesters she writes: 

I walk footpaths that, in my mind, still cross hayfields; bridlepaths that skirt, uninterrupted, the heathland search for the piece of the water meadows; and cannot process, for an unsettling heartbeat, the chain-link fence, the concrete bridge, the motorway embankment. It is a like a shard of glass gone from a mirror.

It reminded me of a passage written by the great historian of the English Landscape William Hoskins, who described how the development of capitalism rapidly transformed the English countryside:

A villager who had played in the open fields as a boy, or watched the sheep in the common pastures, would have lived to see the modern landscape of his parish completed and matured, the roads all made, the hedgerow trees full grown, and new farmhouses built out in the fields where none had ever been before. Everything was different: hardly a landmark of the old parish would have remained.

Chester understands that the countryside she loves and enjoys is being constantly changed, and the forces that transform it are rarely acting in the interest of those who work, or walk, the fields. But this is no abstract activist tract. The book is full of her love for the countryside and all its inhabitants. Her breath-taking night-time encounters with badgers, foxes and owls made me yearn to be there to share in these delights. The book is full of elegant descriptions of bird calls (who knew that fieldfares sound like the "chack" of a washing machine dial), insect behaviour (don't look up videos of Sexton beetles if you are squeamish) or how to propagate mistletoe. 

But Chester's talent isn't just her ability to write evocatively about the countryside. It also stems from a viewpoint likely unique in contemporary nature writing - that of a working class family labouring on the land. Some of the most moving chapters are those that talk about the poverty of rural life, the tied cottages that mean eviction can come a few weeks after angering a landowner, the lack of privacy or the lack of amenities and shops. But they also show community - the other families that will stand alongside one another to protect a wood, or form a reading group or discuss lawnmower prices in a pub.

While Chester sees the landscape shaped by human action, "Heathland is an almost accidental man-made environment", it also constantly evokes the past. That includes her own history at Greenham and Newbury, but also older history. There are Neolithic barrows that dot the landscape, a gibbet that still stands on the hill, warning contemporary transgressors and the class struggle. Those connections where drawn out by her reading, which:

connected me with who had gone before, real or imagined. From then on, every landscape became a narrative one, full of stories that could also be my stories. I cross-referenced, read between the (contour) lines and meandered down paths in sentences and paragraphs so that place became as much a figurative and imaginative landscape as a real one.

But, and it's a big but, "this was no pastoral idyll either". This recognition distinguishes Chester's book from much of the middle class lifestylism that swamps the bookstores. The landowners can send tree cutters into the backyard on a whim, they can order a community's' beloved forest chopped down, cut jobs or wages. Their friends in government can order roads built or deploy nuclear weapons on common land. Chester's anger at these big and small insults shines through:

On coming in for an inspection one day, he [the estate manager] asked me not to leave 'those clothes drying on the radiators, you'll damage my walls.' I had absolutely no rights or grounds to protest about the tree. I didn't own it. The men had the right to enter the garden of my home without asking, and chop it down.

Running through On Gallows Down is a sense that Chester struggles to find somewhere to belong. She loves the countryside, but never quite makes roots. She is moved too frequently, her landscapes are changed too often. But most importantly, the land is never hers. I don't mean that in an ownership way. Chester doesn't want to parcel up and hedge off a chunk of land for the sole use of her family. But the land has been taken away from the community, despite all those fights to keep it in common. In this sense, On Gallows Down is the story of the English countryside, the landscape that was, and ought, to be there for everyone to enjoy and work, but is now mostly the preserve of big landowners, second homers and poorly paid, badly housed workers. No wonder that Chester identifies with Captain Swing's nameless adherents or the anti-enclosure rioters.

But there are new battles. Chester fights to save biodiversity, but finds her hopes and optimism crushed by uncaring powers. She knows she has to take the fight elsewhere and writing offers her a way to do this. For one fearful paragraph I thought the author would join all those others in writing, and nothing else. But, 

To a greater or lesser extent, writing about nature had always dealt with loss. But now it had long passed the point of being imperative. It is impossible to write with integrity about nature without protesting and resisting and waving a desperate red flag.

It is a glorious sentiment. As we prepare to protest for Climate Justice during the COP26 conference, we know what we are against, but we must also remember what we are for. We need a world where nature is not something that is simply acted on in the short term interest of profit, but a constant of our lives. In this remarkable book Nicola Chester shows us the real countryside - a place of love and work, of struggle and hope, of despair and happiness. She urges us to fight for it, as an integral part of making real our dreams of a better world.

Related Reads

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Hudson - A Shepherd's Life
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Harrison - All Among the Barley
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Archer - A Distant Scene
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Attack - John Clare: Voice of Freedom

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Brian Manning - The Far Left in the English Revolution: 1640 - 1660

Brian Manning explains in the introduction to this short book that it is an attempt to remedy an omission. At the time of the Revolution, he says, it was common to "make a tripartite division of society" into the gentry, the middling sort and the poor. The roles of the first two have been amply discussed, but the poor have been "largely neglected". Manning explores the role of this section of society by looking at those who "attempted to speak for the poor", which he admits begs the question of "how far they reflected attitudes and aspiration". 

Manning is at pains to show how the Revolution was a period when different forces vied for position, but influenced and shaped wider political movements. So he says

It was from amongst the class of independent small producers that the main driving force of the revolution probably came, and amongst whom the radical certainly found their chief strength. But revolutions commonly begin with alliances between diverse social groups against an existing regime, and as the revolution develops the different and conflicting interests of these groups emerge.

We certainly see this with the far left. The Levellers, for instance, whom Manning discusses in details, emerge as the radical edge of Cromwell's coalition, but eventually become opposed to his class, and are destroyed by Cromwell in turn. Manning continues:

it was with the progress of the revolution that class differences and class conflicts emerged, shaping the course and the outcome of the revolution.
But in exploring the exact nature of the classes involved in the revolution, Manning draws out real tensions. 

It is a decisive factor in the English Revolution that the 'middle sort' was divided between elements that favoured developments which we see now as facilitating the growth of capitalism and elements hostile towards those developments. The revolution was a crucial phase in crystallising a proto-bourgeoisie and a proto-proletariat.

Within these mass movements and the political ferment that arose, the ideas of small groups and radical individuals could take significant hold. Manning explores some of these, though sadly this book is short so this is necessarily done briefly. Manning looks at the Levellers and the Diggers, showing how their ideas arose in, sometimes, contradictory ways. Opposing the rise of capitalism and the same time as hating the old feudal order. In some areas where wage labour was coming to dominate production, eg large farms, "an approach t consciousness of themselves as a distinct class... created a potential for class conflict in those areas where capitalism was taking control".

Frequently drawing on the work of Marxists, Manning demonstrates the importance of Marxism for understanding these dialectical conflicts. Explaining the way that revolutionaries used religious ideas, Manning quotes Engels: "Each of the different classes uses its own appropriate religion". But then he continues by criticising Engels' chosen language, saying it "missed the close integration of class interests and class struggles with religious language and religious beliefs".

Returning to Manning's far-left and revolutionaries, he makes some interesting points about the nature of their radicalism. Talking about the Leveller William Thompson and the Digger Gerrard Winstanley he writes that they

were both typical of the revolutionaries of their time in that they thought the publishing of a manifesto and the example of action by a small group would precipitate a mass movement. But neither was backed by any widespread or nationwide organisation for promoting their ideas, attaching supporters and mobilising mass actions, and in the circumstances of the time that was probably impossible... the Levellers had no clear conception of a revolutionary seizure of power and taking control of the government.

Manning continues however by pointing out that had they taken control the Levellers would have had "to maintain a strong central government backed by armed force". Which is why the one other factor that must not be ignored is the army. Manning describes the army as having a "microcosm" of the "class conflict in society at large at the time of the English Revolution". This was why their had to be a clamping down on radical ideas for fear of losing control of the armed force that would have allowed radicals to maintain power, just as it enabled Cromwell to maintain control.

Manning nots an additional problem of the English Revolution. The development of capitalism was transforming social and economic relations in the countryside. Crucially this was seeing the beginnings of a mass process of enclosure. Manning argues that the struggles of the peasants, whom he emphasises were the majority of the English population, against enclosure were "disconnected from the revolution". The peasants would rise against anyone enclosing land - Royalist or Parliamentarian. But as a class they "lacked the political consciousness to rise in a new revolution" and "relapsed from the parliamentarian cause or rebounded into royalism". Manning concludes by arguing that while the English Revolution placed a revolution against capitalism and feudalism on the agenda, the emerging proletariat was not strong or distinct enough to take that forward. It was however powerful and radical enough to scare the bourgeoise who allowed the "return to political power of the old ruling class" within a new capitalist society, in order to keep down the masses.

While a short work of barely 130 pages, this is a remarkable read. A lucid account of the social forces at the bottom of English society and their radical wings, who were trying to understand the present and shape the future. Manning uses the tools and key concepts of Marxism to understand the social basis of the Revolution and the dynamic of the social forces within society. Its a breath-taking work of history, and those interested in the period, or radical ideas in general or those who want to see how Marxism can be used as a powerful tool to explore history, should grab this book.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War

Thursday, September 30, 2021

First on the Moon - A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin

Rushed out in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, this book is a detailed account of the flight and its background mostly written by Life journalists who were close to the astronauts and, in some cases, living with the astronaut families before and during the mission. For a book that clearly was intended to benefit from the intense interest in the mission its actually a surprisingly in-depth account. The book centres on the personalities of the astronauts, in turn telling their stories and those of their families. There's a strong emphasis on the themes that might be associated with America - the white-picket fence lives of the families, their faith and their part in recent US history - from the Korean War to the test pilots.

I was surprised to find myself rather interested in these aspects to the astronauts. It helped illuminate their post-Nasa careers, for instance. In the past I'd been surprised that none of the three Apollo 11 astronauts wanted to return to space after their return from the moon. It turns out that this was in no small part because they did not want to commit themselves to such an intense period of training again. But it was also because they wanted a normal family life. In fact the "normality" of family life shines through with several of the young children being utterly unimpressed with Daddy being on, or near, the moon. Instead they were more excited by pets, visiting friends or new toys. The astronauts themselves come across as highly trained and excelling at their jobs. I had not realised that Aldrin had been involved in pathbreaking university research in orbital mechanics.

But the book excels at the description of the mission itself. Large chunks are devoted to "quotes" from radio transmissions between the Apollo CSM and Houston. These are cleverly interspersed with the background information, which gives the sense of a count-down to the epic moment of the first moonwalk.  Further background to the colossal effort is given by shorter accounts about technical and engineering staff. While there is little acknowledgement of wider political and economic issues, there is a brief reference to one black employee, Herman Clark, of Grumman who was a quality control inspect for the Apollo 11 lunar module, who makes reference to the lack of racist attitudes among his staff, which he attributed to his willingness to stand up for his colleagues: "The people who work on that project, on the LM, take pride in it. The guys there are not there to fight a racial problem. If you've got a problem, take it out of here." This chimes with other material I've read from NASA in the 1960s - racism wasn't necessarily challenged - it was supposed to be taken outside. There's also a tantalising reference to a strike by maids at the accommodation provided for the astronauts.

The book makes clear the sheer scale of the Apollo enterprise. Kennedy and Nixon both fretted about the costs, though the authors argue that there was a much greater benefit to the US economy from the huge amount of money being used in development, research etc. There's also fairly standard material arguing that there would be enormous benefits to the world from further space exploration. It's hard now to imagine the impact landing on the moon had. In First on the Moon you get a real sense of the whole world watching enthralled, though there was at least some cynicism out there. After all the US government could spend billions on Armstrong's first step but housing and healthcare was lacking for the poorest in the world.

Nonetheless the book does demonstrate very well the achievements that humanity could rise to if the worlds' resources and labour was used in a positive way, unrestricted by the limits of capitalism. Which is why the epilogue by Arthur C. Clarke reads some hollow 50 years after Apollo 11. Clarke argues for an "outward urge" that sees a technological continuity from Apollo's first mission to bases on the moon, Mars and elsewhere. He imagines no budget cuts, no lack of political interest and no shortage of cash. In fact, the future for Clarke is very rosy. Few of his predictions turn out to be accurate - though he gives an interesting description of the internet, long before it became true. Most of the missions he talks about were chopped - including latter Apollo missions, which would have seemed shocking at the time of writing. Nixon wanted to squash Apollo 17 fearing it might go wrong during his election campaign, after budgets had already gone for Apollo 18 and onward. Clarke's essay is remarkable for his enthusiastic belief in abstract progress separated out from wider economic and political questions.

First on the Moon gives a real sense of the euphoria of early space exploration and the technological and scientific marvels of Apollo. I was also left with a sense of sadness. Apollo was a remarkable achievement - a monument to what humans can do. But the fact that fifty years later its not happened is not a failure of vision or science - its because capitalism had no need of these sorts of missions after the Space Race had been won. Imagine what we could do if we had a society that wasn't motivated by such interests? First on the Moon gives a glimpse of the wonder of space travel - future generations, likely in a much more rational society - will have to take us further. 

Related Reviews

Wolfe - The Right Stuff
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Shetterly - Hidden Figures

Alexandra Kollontai - Writings from the Struggle: Selected & Translated by Cathy Porter

Alexandra Kollontai was a fascinating revolutionary. Born into a wealthy Russian liberal family, she came to embrace revolutionary Marxism and was active in both the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. During the Russian Revolution she was a leading Bolshevik agitator, active on their Central Committee, and became a trusted figure in the immediate post 1917 Soviet government. Never afraid to raise her differences of opinion and go her own way she did, on occasion, disagree fundamentally with Lenin and this led to a rift between them. A distinguished old Bolshevik, she survived Stalin's purges and murders of former comrades and served the Soviet Union as a diplomat - which perhaps explains her survival.

Cathy Porter's biography of Kollontai, recently updated and reissued - remains the single best account of her life. Now Porter has released this collection of articles and extracts by Kollontai, and they are a breathtaking insight into her ideas and the early socialist movement. Kollontai wrote leaflets, pamphlets and articles that agitated for socialist ideas - in Russia and in German exile. There are many different examples here, which showcase Kollontai's talents. But she also wrote on subjects that were rarely discussed within the socialist movement - sexuality, love and interpersonal relations. 

I enjoyed Porter's editing here, because she weaves Kollontai's work into the story of her life. Each piece is part of the wider narrative and I found it made them more accessible. All of the chosen pieces by Kollontai are fascinating, though several stand out. As someone with an interest in the German left, I was fascinated to read Kollontai's diary-like account of the outbreak of World War One and the capitulation of the German revolutionary left to its nationalist government. 

I rush to the party headquarters to ask how soon the International can be convened. Haase, the leader of the socialist group in the Reichstag, is there on his own. "Are you joking?" he says. "War is inevitable. People have gone mad, there's nothing we can do!" At the Women's Bureau, I ask Luise Zietz of the party Executive what instructions they have received... She looks at me coldly. "We've protested and demonstrated, but we must do our duty when our country is in danger," she says, and I look her in the eye and realise I am not longer a comrade but a Russian...  

With the help of Karl Leibneckt, she and her son and other Russian socialists are able to leave Germany. In Leibneckt and Rosa Luxembourg, and soon Lenin, her despair quickly turns to anger and agitation. Meeting Luxemburg a month after war broke out Kollontai describes Luxemburg's outlook: "She hasn't lost touch with the workers, and says most are against the war. Her clearsightedness is heartening, and her merciless sarcasm puts much in its proper place."

During the war Kollontai writes some of her most powerful and influential articles. A 1916 pamphlet "Who Needs the War" is read by an estimated 7 million German and Russian soldiers. Reading it in this collection its lost none of its anger and power. In fact its the enduring nature of her writing that makes much of it so exciting to read today. Kollontai's 1906 pamphlet "Who are the Social Democrats and What do they Stand For" is a brilliant introduction to revolutionary politics. It was reprinted in the midst of the Russian Revolution and used internationally to explain the politics of the Bolsheviks. Some of it could be reused today in many parts of the world to put the case for socialism, with little or no changes:

Under the capitalist system, factories produce ever greater quantities of goods in the fight for profits. Then as industries gain new world markets, nations are drawn into wars with each other to steal more colonies from which to extract unimaginable wealth. Each major capitalist power seeks a world monopoly for its goods. Imperialist wars for markets and colonies will continue so long as the capitalist system exists. And the deadlier these wars are, the more clearly workers will see that they must take the economy into their hands if humanity is to survive. The day is fast approaching when these capitalist crises and imperialist wars will force us to choose whether we perish, or we overthrow the bourgeoisie to step over the threshold into socialism.

Later she continues on the power of the working class:

As the proletariat grows larger, industry is run by ever fewer capitalists. Most workers have never so much as glimpsed their employers. Modern production methods are making the gentlemen entrepreneurs' role in the factories increasingly irrelevant, and most are run now by foremen, managers and engineers. The less spiders there are, the easier to destroy their webs. If the bosses should all drop dead one fine day, the world would barely notice. Whereas when workers decide to strike, life comes to a stop, as happened in 1905, when strikers brought the autocracy to its knees.

But Cathy Porter shows that Kollontai was more than a polemicist. In fact she is a deeply thoughtful and original thinker. Her writings on sex and relationships were often too much even for the revolutionaries, as they saw them as a distraction. Though Kollontai saw them more in the context of winning women to the revolutionary movement by talking about the sort of future that they might have under a socialist society. This is a future where women have been liberated from the drudgery of life through the socialisation of child care and food preparation. Kollontai was attacked by some who thought that the "Bolsheviks would take away their children", but this is crude and far from Kollontai's real ideas. Two pieces in this collection illustrate this well, one an essay from 1913 "The New Woman". Porter explains the significance, "people's longing for more fulfilling sexual relationships could only be realised when they were free from the alienation born of capitalist property relations." The New Woman piece explores this by examining in detail the changing way that women were depicted in Russian literature and then contrasting this with the reality of working class life.

A second example is a short story Three Generations published in the aftermath of 1917. In it she depicts the contrasting experiences of two women from the revolution, a woman and her daughter, the latter of whom is enjoying multiple sexual encounters with different partners. Her mother is perplexed. Innovatively Kollontai places herself in the story, and the reader can see this both as a description of life after 1917 in a rapidly changing world and one were Kollontai is also working through the meaning of 1917 for working class women. It's a fascinating and thoughtful conclusion to a collection of essays that everyone interested in revolutionary thought should read. Cathy Porter's work in putting this together should be celebrated and I highly recommend the book.

Related Reviews 

Porter - Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography
Davis - A Rebel's Guide to Alexandra Kollontai
Allen - Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Dirk Reinhardt - The Edelweiss Pirates: Teenage Rebels in Nazi Germany

Picking up The Edelweiss Pirates in the bookshop I was fooled by the subtitle into thinking it was a work of non-fiction. I had always wanted to know more about this resistance movement, having heard their exciting name many years ago. Had I realised in the shop that this was a Young Adult novel I probably would not have purchased it - in which case I would have missed out on an exciting and evocative book.

Edelweiss Pirates was the name chosen by a diverse group of youngsters in western Germany during World War Two. As the author explains in a informative historical note at the end of the book, the Pirates did not necessarily begin as anti-Nazi resistors, but just young people who rejected authority and wanted, as young people do, to have freedom to be themselves. History hasn't been kind to the Pirates. Historians and politicians dismissed their anti-fascist credentials until recently, when the discovery of more records and research has shown how the youngsters organised as they found themselves increasingly in confrontation with the Nazi state.

The novel follows the discovery of an old man's diary by a youngster who befriends him. The diary tells the story of a group of Pirates in Ehrenfeld, near Cologne. Today these Edelweiss Pirates have been recognised officially as the brave resistance fighters that they were, and Reinhardt tells their story by conflating events into his account of a small group.

Josef Gerlach leaves the Hitler Youth and falls in with a group of rebellious youngsters he meets hanging around in he blacked out streets of wartime Germany. Quickly the Pirates are challenged by the Hitler Youth, whom they beat off in violent street fights. As the Pirates become increasingly involved in anti-fascist activity, the Nazi machine tries to curtail them. Josef and his friends have a few lucky escapes, but are eventually caught and badly tortured by the Gestapo. As the war continues, they refuse to join the army and conceal themselves in the ruins of their town. Now their resistance is tied up with the day to day struggle to stay alive.

Writing for a YA audience Reinhardt does well to include the wider story of Nazi Germany in the book. Depicting events through the eyes of a somewhat naive youngster means that we share Josef's shock at learning about the Holocaust and the reality of Nazi rule. However for younger readers that might not know the context there is an excellent introduction by Michael Rosen who explains events, and a glossary of terms at the back (alongside Reinhardt's historical note). It's also important to acknowledge Rachel Ward's brilliant translation as well.

This is an emotional book. The reality of the war, and Nazi Germany, mean that Reinhardt has to tell an unpleasant story. But that makes the book feel even more real, especially as we learn that much of it is based on historical events. The framing story - Josef as an old man, and the young narrator reading his diary - helps us think through how history and stories are told and remembered. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and found it deeply moving and wish that when had been a youngster I'd had a chance to read it, as it helps dispel the "all Germans were Nazis" slur that was often thrown at me.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Boll - And Where Were You, Adam?

Saturday, September 25, 2021

V.I. Lenin - The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907

In the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution revolutionary socialists engaged in major debates about the nature of the Revolution and its politics. A significant discussion took place around the nature of agrarian change. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, argued that because Social Democrats had the wrong position on the agrarian question they were unable to lead the peasant masses during the 1905 Revolution, and significantly undermined the whole movement. This short book is Lenin's exploration of the debates within Social Democracy (by which he means the broad revolutionary movement) and his polemical response. Unfortunately for the movement, all but one copy of the book was destroyed by the Tsarist censor and the text available today was only published in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, because of the continued significance of agrarian discussions.

He is very clear on the importance of discussions about agrarian change. Arguing that there are two "streams" of agrarian evolution - that of Peasant and Landlord farming - Lenin says

The conflict of interests between the peasants and the landlords which runs like a scarlet thread through the whole history of Post-Reform Russia and constitutes the most important economic basis of our revolution, is a struggle for one or the other type of bourgeois agrarian evolution. Only by clearly understanding the difference between these two types and the bourgeois character of both, can we correctly explain the agrarian question in the Russian revolution and grasp the class significance of the various agrarian programmes put forward by the different parties.

The "pivot" Lenin argues is the "feudal latifundia", these will either eliminated in a revolutionary manner by peasant farmers or they will be gradually transformed into Junker estates".

In making his argument Lenin deploys an incredible array of arguments. He begins with a historical overview of the agrarian question, then summarises Marx's discussions on surplus value, rent and agriculture and, following this, critiques the multiple positions within the Russian political system, including his own comrades. In particularly he challenges leading Marxist intellectuals like Kautsky and Plekhanov, as well as a number of others whom he has less time for. 

Given the urgency of the issue it might seem strange that Lenin (and indeed other Marxists) devoted such time and space to complex discussions around Marxist concepts like differential and absolute rent from land. The importance however lies in the implications of theoretical conclusions for revolutionary practice. Lenin chastises other social democrats for ignoring the Marxist concept of absolute rent (crudely the rent accrued as a result of monopoly ownership of land). Lenin points out that 

The repudiation of absolute rent is the repudiation of the economic significance of private land ownership under capitalism. Whoever claims that only differential rent exists, inevitably arrives at the conclusion that it makes not the slightest different to the conditions of capitalist farming and of capitalist development whether the land belongs to the state or to private persons.

The significance of these debates lies in the wider discussions within the Marxist movement about the nature of revolution at the time in Russia. Almost everyone, Lenin included, believed that the coming Russian Revolution would be Bourgeois, and usher in capitalism. This, following a crude stagiest argument, would then lead to a future socialist revolution. Unlike most others though, Lenin though that the working class and peasantry needed to play a much more central and dynamic role in the revolution, pushing forward their own independent demands to strengthen the fight for socialism in the future.

For Lenin then, nationalisation of the land was not an abstract demand, but one that would both allow the peasantry and workers' movements to develop and to give them independence from the capitalist class.

The proletariat can and must support the militant bourgeoisie when the latter wages a really revolutionary struggle against feudalism. But it is not for the proletariat to support the bourgeoisie when the latter is becoming quiescent. If it is certain that a victorious bourgeois revolution in Russia is impossible without the nationalisation of the land, then it is still more certain that a subsequent turn towards the division of the land is impossible without a certain amount of “restoration”, without the peasantry (or rather, from the point of view of the presumed relations: farmers) turning towards counter revolution. The proletariat will uphold the revolutionary tradition against all such strivings and will not assist them.

Lenin's position then is not to ignore the two possible evolutionary routes for agrarian society under Russian capitalism. Instead he argues that the workers' movement cannot be "indifferent" to "one or other" outcomes:  

In fighting for a favourable outcome of the revolution we must spread among the masses a very clear understanding of what keeping to the landlord path of agrarian evolution means, what incalculable hardships (arising not from capitalism, but from the inadequate development of capitalism) it has in store for all the toiling masses. On the other hand, we must also explain the petty-bourgeois nature of the peasant revolution, and the fallacy of placing any “socialist” hopes in it.

As with much of Lenin's writing, his work on the Agrarian Programme, must be understood in the context of the moment when it was written and the debates he was having inside the revolutionary socialist movement. But reading this book today is far more than a history lesson. Russia in 1907 was a tremendously unequal society, as Lenin himself showed, "ten and a half million peasant households in European Russia own 75,000,000 dessiatins (1.09 hectares) of land. Thirty thousand... landlords each own over 500 dessiatins - altogether 70,000,000 dessiatins."

Such rural inequalities remain in many parts of the world today, and Lenin's arguments about the relationship of the workers' movements and socialists to the "peasant revolution" remain crucially important for building revolutionary Marxist organisation in the 21st century. This book thus repays reading, especially given contemporary debates about agriculture and the environment.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography
Kautsky - The Agrarian Question - Volume 1

Friday, September 24, 2021

Philip Kerr - The One from the Other

This is the first of the "later" Bernie Gunther novels, detective "noir" set in Germany from the 1930s onward. This one opens with Gunther running his wife's hotel on the outskirts of Dachau after the war. After his wife's death he sells up and returns to being a detective, this time in Munich. His cases are mostly finding missing persons - there are plenty of those in Germany after 1945. A beautiful woman hires Gunther to find her former husband, now a wanted Nazi war criminal, so that she can prove him dead in order to remarry. Gunther is drawn into a the circles protecting former Nazis trying to escape to South America, and finds himself in the midst of a complicated scheme involving a lot of money, murder and the CIA.

By the time of this novel Gunther is tired and broken. The death of his wife and his entrapment by nefarious characters seem to wear him down dramatically. By the end of the book there's precious little wisecracking, though there's still a lot of cynicism.

But the story is too convoluted and too unlikely. From the prologue, where Gunther finds himself in Palestine with Adolf Eichmann, onward, I found myself rolling my eyes at how unlikely it all seemed. Philip Marlowe's cases may have been moved forward on occasion by unlikely coincidences, but Gunther's life seems to be determined by some of the most unlikely of events ever. Kerr's attempts to link Gunther to just about every person in Nazi Germany are increasingly annoying, but this plot is simply too over the top to be able to suspend belief.

Related Reviews

Kerr - March Violets
Kerr - The Pale Criminal
Kerr - A German Requiem

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Ursula K. LeGuin - The Left Hand of Darkness

It has been many years since I read this classic by Ursula K. LeGuin. Many comrades recommended her work to me, usually The Dispossessed, with its juxtaposition of two worlds - one Communist, one Capitalist. However at the time I enjoyed The Left Hand of Darkness more, and rereading it today I am struck by how LeGuin's combination of story and world-building creates a wonderful experience.

First published in 1969 at the height of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, LeGuin's book plays around with concepts of gender, sex and family. The very different lives that she depicts here are placed in the context of a story of first contact, with the hero visiting the planet of Winter (known to its inhabitants as Gethen) as an envoy for a confederation of dozens of planets. Winter is, as the name suggests, almost permanently ice-bound. It's inhabitants have never discovered flight or many other technological marvels, and the Envoy describes it as being in a process of very gradual and slow change. Winter is dominated by two rival powers, both of whom are almost feudal in organistation. The envoy rapidly finds himself as a pawn in a planetary power struggle.

But it is the gender aspects to Winter that make the story refreshingly interesting. On Winter inhabitants are all of one gender - male. They enter a brief "female" period when they can have children. In addition to the envoy's trials in understanding the culture, he has also to navigate sexual and gender differences. Tellingly Winter's inhabitants often see "females" as the envoy describes them, as "perverts", because they are permanently in a state when sexual reproduction is possible. A good example LeGuin's ability to invert points of view to expose underlying hypocrisies.

Scattered through the novel are chapters that tell stories from the mythological past of Winter, and reports from earlier explorers and anthropologists. They serve to world-build but also make wider points, as one "scientific" report about the inhabitants of Winter explains,

When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the pattered or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire patter of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?

These, and other, questions are thrown up into the air by LeGuin's story. That said the novel is framed around the envoy's story, which includes a gripping survival journey across the frozen lands of Winter. This is more than just a fictional exploration of gender or a fine science fiction tale, it's a great combination of both.

That said the book felt a little dated.In the 1960s and 1970s it provoked great debates about gender politics, and vestiges of that remain, as well as a cracking story. Today as the transgender liberation movement has exploded, SF&F often (though not frequently enough) explores gender and sexuality, and compared to some recent examples TLHOD felt a little old-fashioned. I was struck that despite depicting a future society, the worlds that LeGuin's hero visits from have made little break with the gender roles. Indeed when the envoy speaks about women to the male inhabitants of Winter he does so in misogynistic terms. As the "scientific report" quoted above suggests the envoy comes from a culture that is as shaped by sexual politics as Winter, and not in a positive way. In fact, to be honest, he comes from our society. Given LeGuin's radical politics I was surprised that she didn't use the opportunity to depict a more positive world. 

Nonetheless this is a famous and clever take on the debates about gender and society. Reading it today I could see how it must have been enormously influential, and I suspect continues to do so today. I hope contemporary LGBT+ liberation movements continue to explore these themes in equally exciting ways.

Related Reviews

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky - Hard to be a God

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Nicholas Orme - Going to Church in Medieval England

Despite my avowed atheism, I find churches fascinating. Travelling in the countryside I find myself drawn to the churches that usually form the centrepiece of villages. They are historical records, and while today they rarely have the congregations that they had in the past, they remain links to the distant past. Their memorials, burial stones, records and, frequently, their very structures are testament to the lives of people who lived nearby and worshipped there. When I wrote about the history of rebellion in the countryside in my book Kill all the Gentlemen I frequently noted how churches formed the basis of rebellion - as places to meet, to debate and sometimes as sparks of rebellion. The history of the Reformation in particular was, I argued, a process of change that sometimes drew people into direct conflict with their rulers.

So I was tremendously excited to receive Nicholas Orme's new book Going to Church in Medieval England. It is nothing less than a deep exploration of the custom and practice of religious worship in the period leading up to the Reformation. Orme begins with the parish, the geographical structure that forms the basis for the local Church's influence and the component part of the wider Church's structure. The basis for its taxes and its congregation. He emphasises that a church and its parish "were more than a religious unit... being also a social one", the social unit "might precede the church, if the church was built to serve an existing estate and community". The parish had a wider social impact though "Congregations understood themselves as different from those in parishes next door, and sought to equal or surpass in their own buildings what others had in theirs". 

From the parish, Orme moves on to the staff of the church, their roles, their backgrounds and training and their knowledge. Then we explore the buildings themselves. What did they look like? Why are they usually certain shapes? How and why did those shapes change? Why were certain things in special places. We learn some surprising things - originally there were no seats and the seating that was eventually introduced were an example of the congregation shaping the church, not the other way around. People needed somewhere to sit, though the seats themselves frequently became cause for confrontation and disorder. Who should sit where?

Which brings Orme to the congregation. Most people went to church, but not all went all the time and for many their attendance fit around their wider lives. Orme shows how different aspects of the Church's calendar were designed in part of try and encourage attendance, though there was official recognition that some people might not be able to attend services that were otherwise compulsory - shepherds or fishermen couldn't miss their work, even on a Sabbath. Orme is adept at drawing out real experiences from a wide variety of sources. Take his description of children in church. Once they reached adolescence (12 for girls, 14 for boys) attendance in church became required but,
Notwithstanding this exemption, some children certainly came to church or were brought there... Parents took small children with them because they could not be left at home. The author of Piers Plowman used the simile 'as chaste as a child that in church weepeth'. Noisy or restless young children in church sometimes caused annoyance, as they do today. A visitation of Lincoln diocese in 1519 heard complaints... that 'children there make a noise indecently, so it is hard to hear divine service', while at Kimpton, Hertfordshire, infants 'laugh, cry and clamour'. Some adults might event condone the noise like Thomas Leyk of Gosberton, Lincolnshire who 'impeded the service with an infant'. Other parents left their toddlers at home, either from embarrassment or in order to escape for an hour, a practice which came to light when it led to fatal accidents.
This a good example of Orme's style and attention to detail, and in fact the best part of the book is when it explores the real people who worshiped in the churches and how their religious lives interacted with their actual lives. Orme approaches this in two specific ways. Firstly he shows the relations between the church and the seasons, the way services change in different times of the year - most obviously Easter and Christmas, though these were very different festivals. Secondly he links the church to the lives of its congregations - its presence at their births, marriages and death.

Orme doesn't pretend that everyone went to church all the time and some people never did. He also doesn't portray the church as perfect or its clergy as unfailing. People are punished, or behave badly - people gossip in church or show off hunting birds or flirt with the opposite sex. But this is very much a church "for life and death".

I loved reading this book. But I did feel it had somethings missing. I don't think the book got to the heart of what its congregation thought. Orme meticulously documents how the church functioned - what the priest did, and when. He takes us through how services changed and how their meaning changed. But I wanted to know a little more about what people actually thought. Did they really believe that God was present? How did they feel when the priest spoke words of Latin they didn't understand? What did they really think about the religion they were said to believe in? Of course this is difficult even when discussing practice, as Orme acknowledges :
The services that accompanied the life cycle may be well understood, thanks to late-medieval copies of the manual with their detailed prescriptions for baptism, churching, marriage and burial. Yet here too there is a disparity between what the Uses prescribe and what probably happened. More, sometimes less, took place than they describe on days such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter Day and St Nicholas Day. The services of the life cycle must also be envisage in a context of popular observances that have left much less in the record, such as church decoration, procession...and feasting and gift-giving afterwards. 
We don't even really know how long services took, as clocks only came into use after 1400.

I was particularly disappointed that Orme didn't discuss some significant events like the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 or the Prayerbook Rebellion of 1549. This is not solely because these are subjects of great interest to myself, but because they are events closely linked to religious, economic and social changes. These movements give great insights into how people viewed their church and religion. Sadly Orme only mentions 1549 in passing and wider peasant revolts are dismissed in a few words. 

Orme's book certainly draws out how religion played a dual role in peoples lives. As part of the structure of rule by the upper-classes and as support and solace for people through their lives. For instance, Orme shows how class divisions played a role within the church space, as well as in the wider social context of the church. I was frequently left wondering whether the book could have explored this further though. At times I felt Orme portrayed the medieval church as essentially benevolent, with congregations happily following their local priest. I'd have liked more on dissent - and not just religious dissent. What happened when people refused to pay their tithes? Did people disagree with sermons? Did the congregation round on a few badly behaved attendees?

On the other hand this is a remarkably detailed book, and, it must be added - a beautifully produced one. There are lavish full colour pictures, plans of buildings and a lovely cover reproduction of a painting by Simon Bening from ~1550 showing peasants (and their dogs) trooping to a church (though readers ought to note it depicts a Flemish scene). Those wanting to understand what happened in a English church and how people worshipped will get a great deal out of this enjoyable work. Perhaps there's more to say about what they thought too - but that may well be another book.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Rachel Carson - The Sea Around Us

Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us is nothing less than a complete history of the oceans and an study of the sea's human and non-human ecology. Part of her sea "trilogy" it was first published in 1951 and became a bestseller, cementing her place as an author and leading scientist. Today Carson is mostly remembered, rightly, for her wonderful work of ecology Silent Spring. But it was in these earlier books that she first demonstrated the talent she had for describing complex scientific concepts for the lay person, and let me emphasis the beauty and clarity of Carson's writing in The Sea Around Us.

The Sea Around Us begins with the history of the oceans, then looks at the way the sea is, from top to bottom. For an audience mostly unfamiliar with the deeps, then only just being explored by deep sea explorers, it is an insight into an unknown world. We learn about some of the creatures that live in the deepest parts of the oceans and how their habitats are shaped by the upper reaches of the oceans. Carson also explains the tides, the waves and the currents - and there's a lovely illustration of the Gulf Stream.

Interestingly for the contemporary reader Carson also includes some material on changes caused by melting ice caps and warming oceans. She doesn't ascribe them to global warming - no one did then. But she does consider what these changes might mean. She sees them as part of wider cycles of the Earth's systems. 

Unfortunately for the reader today, there are significant problems with the book. It seems incredible today that when Carson was writing significant parts of geological science were not known. So she lacks any knowledge of plate tectonics, so cannot adequately explain the history of the oceans. 

It would be churlish to dismiss the book for science that came after Carson's time, and its important to say that there is a great deal of interest here. So the book is far more than a historical curiosity. Modern editions often have an introduction updating Carson's work and the interested reader would do well to hunt these down. Most of all I enjoyed reading The Sea Around Us because it is such a wonderful example of how scientific writing need not be dull, or weighted down with figures, but can be poetic and accessible. I'm not surprised it was such a bestseller, and readers today will still get much from it.

Related Reviews

Carson - Silent Spring
Carson - Under the Sea Wind

Friday, September 10, 2021

Terry Pratchett - Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is the tenth of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels and the first of the so called "Industrial Revolution" works. It still retains a little of chaos and uncertainty in world building that characterises Pratchett's early Discworld. The main characters don't reoccur in other works, and other - more mainstream characters like the Wizards, form the background and are mostly played for comic purposes.

But Moving Pictures is an excellent early example of what Pratchett came to do so well. To take an aspect of our world, and transport it into comic fantasy. But because it is more free than the later works which were tightly bound into the framework that evolved over 41 books, Pratchett is able to play fast and lose with the story. The puns come fast and furiously, and all are glorious. These jokes and asides betray a deep knowledge of film history and the making of movies.

The story centres on Holy Wood. A dark place were ancient species lurk, held back by powerful magic. When the protection fails, dangerous ideas enter into the heads of the Discworld locals. Suddenly they want to tell moving stories on an illuminated screen, and lead the mesmerised viewers too a horrific fate.

The lead characters, Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel are clearly meant to be Rudolph Valentino and Ginger Rogers, though there is at least one reference to Marilyn Monroe. Victor rescues Theda, over and over again until they are "stars" before anyone knows the reference. Moving Pictures introduces at least one important Discworld character Gaspode the talking dog, and CMOT Dibbler has his biggest role in the series here. He is also the cause of the biggest running joke in the book. Though there is a bit of Pratchett genius in his reversal of the traditional telling of King Kong.

Moving Pictures is unusual in another way. The ending isn't particularly happy. We, the reader seeped in Hollywood romance, expect Victor and Theda to have a happy ending, but that's not quite so clear. In fact the ending is a little underwhelming, but fits the darker mood of the overall book. The book also does well to critique the greed and exploitation of Hollywood, not least through some rather clever references to real life figures.

It has been many years since I read this Pratchett and I actually picked it up after reading a history of more recent movie making shenanigans. I enjoyed it this time round, though it doesn't have the same returning power as some of Pratchett's more mature works. Nonetheless its clever and packed full of laughs from a period when Discworld was less industrial and more magical.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Snuff
Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Making Money
Pratchett - Wintersmith
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Colour of Magic

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

James Marriott & Terry Macalister - Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation

James Marriott and Terry Macalister's new book Crude Britannia could be described as the post-war history of the relationship between the British state and BP and Shell. It is, at times, a strikingly close relationship. The authors quote James Bamberg who wrote in his history of British Petroleum [BP] that during World War Two, British government control of the company expanded so far that "the seam between the company [BP], other oil firms and the government seemed scarcely to exist at all".  

But to just describe Crude Britannia as a history of Britain and oil is inadequate. It is much more than this. The book traces the changing relationship between companies like BP and Shell and the British state, through a discussion of the rise and fall of the oil industry on the British isle in the post-war period. It does this through a unique combination of travelogue and interviews - an exploration of the physical remnants of Britain's oil infrastructure and a discussion with the men and women who worked in it, governed it and the minority who enjoyed the benefits of its immense profits.

In the post-war period the UK went from a "coal state to oil state". The authors argue that "without cheap coal there would have been no modern London" but after World War Two the capital was transformed into an oil city. Wartime pipelines were expanded and extended to fuel the needs of Heathrow and Gatwick, New Towns were built "focused on motorways". The close relationship between oil multinationals and country was exposed again in this period - "Basildon was part financed by Mobil and Shell" for instance. Britain's infrastructure was restructured in the interests of oil company profits and this primarily meant the car. As the authors comment, "London was emulating the interstate highways of the US and the autobahns of Nazi Germany where mass ownership of cars was seen as the road to national advance."

Roads are the most visible legacy of this period. But less obviously the oil companies constructed enormous oil infrastructure that is out of sight of the majority of the population. Refineries, terminals and pipelines were needed to take crude oil deliveries, transform it to fuel, plastic and other commodities, and transport it around the country. Such building work was not just about the infrastructure that could maximise profit, is was also a response to wider global political instability.

The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which became BP, responded to Iranian nationalisation of oil infrastructure in the 1950s, by choosing to site a new refinery on the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary instead of Iran. It was an explicit decision to ensure the company could "ride out any future loss of overseas refining capacity it made it possible for the company to demand, and enforce, an embargo on Iranian crude and refined products and thus put immense pressure on the Iranian state. Grain [Island] was a weapon in the economic war which underpinned the covert war and helped fell the democratic government of the largest state in the Middle East". Not for the first or last time did oil interests, mix with UK government foreign policy in ways that undermined democracy and maximised profits as well as "income to the Exchequer in London".

The oil terminals, refineries and other infrastructure had to be staffed by workers. The authors travel around the UK exploring old sites and abandoned buildings, while interviewing former and current members of staff. Occasionally these are harrowing stories of communities which have lost their main employer and now face economic stagnation and unemployed. More often they are interviews with older men who remember with great fondness working for companies like BP and Shell, and the benefits it had on their lives.

Less positive is the record of these companies outside of the UK. Several chapters look at what happened in places were the oil was extracted, in particularly the appalling experiences of the Ogoni people whose land in the Niger Delta was devastated through the extraction of oil and who saw many of their activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, killed or tortured for their protests against the oil company responsible. 

The authors ties these stories closely together with the way oil companies used their base in the UK to further their interests. But they also address the way those companies tried to also to shape government policy. Central to this story is North Sea oil. The authors explain how North Sea oil provided a "laboratory" for Thatcherism, but also how the oil companies fought the British government over how the oil should be extracted. As the authors say:

It was Britain's misfortune to find oil at a time when the UK's oil companies, losing control of sovereign states in the Arab World and imbibing a corporate philosophy from America, were determined to fight hard to ensure that North Sea oil should be extracted by private capital and that the companies should be evermore independent from the state. There's a tendency to blame successive UK governments for the failure to spend the treasure of oil wisely, such as by setting up a sovereign wealth fund, but this story ignores the fact that the corporations fought a determined war against such measures by the state.

The complex relationship between state and private company is brought out time and again through the book. Thatcher's government finally broke the formal link between the UK government and BP by selling off their shares. BP, Shell and others might also try to move beyond their national base as well, but they aren't able to do this entirely, and they still rely on the UK government at various times. One example of this is the way that BP leant on the British government to lobby the US government for them in the aftermath of the massive Gulf oil spill.

Today the story of Britain and oil is particularly important today because of climate change. The authors discuss the way that big-oil tried to undermine action on climate change. But they also show how BP's much vaunted attempts to move "Beyond Petroleum" ground into the dust. Fundamentally this was because the company could not maintain the level of profits that its share-holders wanted. 

The authors report a conversation with Simon Henry, Shell's chief financial officer, after the company's 2013 AGM. Henry tells them, and an indigenous environmental campaigner, that "the world's population is growing and energy demand will grow with it, we have to help meet that demand and that is why we need to explore for resources in the Arctic". The authors describe the "fundamentally contrasting views of the world" of the oil executive and the environmental campaigner. Its a contrast that does not bode well for the future.

Later, while discussing these issues with the CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, he raises the "energy transition" and how Shell needs "certainty" of government policy. The authors comment:

We have a flash of understanding of a future conflict between democracy and tackling climate change. And remember that in its century-long history Shell has worked in hundreds of countries and political systems, many of which were effectively one-party states. The company's task is always the same, return on capital, the nature of the state it works in comes second.

For those of us who don't put profits before people, it's a worrying reality. Despite van Beurden's promises to the authors about energy transitions and putting Shell's money where its mouth is, they say:

It seems the company is hedging its bets or heading in two different directs at once. Building a future around the core means of generating profit through carbon, plus a small amount of renewables investment on the side.

They go on to note that Shell's zero carbon target is "far below" the demands of many other institutions and organisations of 2030 as a target for zero carbon.

What becomes clear by the end of the book is that since World War Two the oil companies have gone through a series of changes. While the UK no longer has the huge infrastructure that the corporations like Shell and BP built in the 1950s, they do retain a lasting importance and centrality to the British economy. Attempts to move away from their core source of profits have proved limited and the behaviour of the oil companies over the last 70 years has demonstrated that their have always adapted and changed in order to maximise their profits from their core industry - fossil fuels.

I picked up Crude Britannia expecting it to be a lengthy polemic about oil and climate change. I was surprised to find that it is much more than this - a deeply human story of how oil companies have shaped and continue to shape our lives under British capitalism. For those of us committed for fighting for a sustainable future the book shows the tasks we face. Excellently written, accessible and full of interesting anecdote, interview and commentary (as well as some superb maps of oil infrastructure) I highly recommend socialists, trade unionists and environmental activists in the UK read it.

Related Reviews

Marriott & Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London
Hughes & James Marriott - All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan
Nikiforuk - The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Klare - Blood and Oil: How America's Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us
Huber - Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom & the Force of Capital
Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Malm - Fossil Capital
St. Clair & Frank - The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink
Commoner - The Poverty of Power: Energy & the economic crisis

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Tom Wolfe - The Right Stuff

When I was a space-obsessed teenager in the 1980s I loved The Right Stuff film. I watched it multiple times glorying in the realistic portrayal of the space and the US test pilot programmes. During one of 2020/2021's lockdowns I rewatched it and found it as breath-taking as I remembered. But this time I was taken by the story itself - not just the bravery of the men but also the links between the space programme and politics. This is, of course, not a new story, but it was done well in the context of the film.

So I was determined to read Tom Wolfe's book on which the film was based. Wolfe's The Right Stuff is a classic of the genre, alongside Norman Mailer's account of Apollo 11, both read today more as literature than as historic records. Wolfe's book takes an unusual angle. It focuses on the Mercury programme, the US's panicked response to the Soviet Union's success in space. An attempt to put the first person in space and make sure he [it was always a 'he'] was America. In this the programme failed and the early US rocket launches were marred by failure and humiliation.

Wolfe however focuses on the individuals, and particular the rivalry between the test pilots who were considered to be actually flying their high-velocity, high altitude planes and the astronauts who were simply passengers. It's a compelling tale and Wolfe tells it extremely well - his lyrical prose is filled with call-backs to earlier comments as his central theme of "the Right Stuff" holds the book together. Wolfe's concept of the Right Stuff is worth dwelling on. He describes it as an essential feature of the pilots at the top of the military tree - the test pilots who survive the elimination process of recruitment, promotion and the dangers of flying. It is more than chance, skill or style - though all of these have their role. It's an ethos that is supposedly inherent to the pilot, something jealously guarded and only those who know, know.

It's also bollocks. Wolfe demonstrates plainly that the pilots who had the Right Stuff had it because they had skills, didn't die accidently and made it through a vigorous training programme that sorted precisely for men life them. But these few men did manage to create an aura around them - of power, bravery and machismo that caught the attention of the press and public. In Wolfe's telling it also led to intense rivalry between the space and test pilots, particularly among the later who considered the astronauts lacking in the Stuff. The astronauts, by contrast, were desperate to prove themselves - doing so, eventually with Wally Schirra's flight where his skills saved the mission and proved the essential role of the astronaut.

The fascinating thing about the US and Soviet space programmes (and indeed the military side of things) was that the most visible men were literarily at the top of an enormous pyramid of people and machines. Wolfe's telling of the story focuses on a handful of these men, and sidelines (deliberately so) the role of almost everyone else. A handful of figures get to stand in for these - the male and female doctors who are given comic roles to highlight the seriousness of the astronauts are a classic example. The reduction of the space programme to a few brave individuals who supposedly have the "Right Stuff" obscures a much more fascinating story. That's not to say there isn't stuff of interest - the book reads like a dream and Wolfe shows how the astronauts were pawns in a larger game, but charmingly unable to cope well with fame and fortune that followed. 

I enjoyed The Right Stuff. But ultimately it felt like Wolfe set out to write a parable, not a history and it tells only a partial story. That said it gives a flavour of the excitement of the early space programme - but only hinting at a bigger story.

Related Reviews

Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race
Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon
Stern & Grinspoon - Chasing New Horizons

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Peter Linebaugh - Red Round Globe Hot Burning

Going on the title alone a casual browser in a bookshop might assume that Peter Linebaugh's latest work is a book about climate change. The phrase is actually one from the poet William Blake, and while the book is not devoted to environmental destruction, it provides a neat link between this subject and wider discussions about the transformation of humanity's relationship to the world around us during the rise of capitalism.

The long subtitle of the book draws out many of Linebaugh's themes: "A tale at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class and of Kate and Ned Despard". Most of us who have encountered the story of Kate and Colonel Edward Despard will have done so as a result of E P Thompson's pathbreaking book The Making of the English Working Class. Their story was told further, in more detail and in a somewhat different way by Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's book The Many Headed Hydra. In this latest book Linebaugh open's with his quest to learn more about Catherine "Kate" Despard, and to try and locate her burial place. Kate (Linebaugh insists on using familiar names for the Despards, an attempt to make them closer for the reader) Despard was a creole woman from the Carribean, who married Edward and returned with him to London where they became part of a radical plot to overthrow the government.

Readers who have read the two books mentioned earlier will know some of the biography of the Despards. Those who don't know the story will not find a straightforward historical account in Red Round Globe Hot Burning. In fact Linebaugh encourages readers who want this to seek out other works. What he does instead is to develop a revolutionary narrative that links the story of the Despards to the swirling changes taking place on the burning globe in the 18th and early 19th century. In doing so he answers a question that many people must have asked around 21 February 1803 when Edward Despard was executed - how did a man who had been part of Britain's colonial project become such an ardent critic of the state?

The answer lies in the way that capitalism was transferring the world. As Linebaugh's subtitle suggests, race, class, enclosure and terrorism were part of the new world order. Despard's role as the colonial administrator in present day Belize no doubt led him to see slavery and violence at first hand, but as an Irishman he would have already known the reality of colonial rule. The racism and raw class power on the western edge of the Atlantic opened the eyes of many to the nature of capitalism, but Linebaugh highlights another, neglected, factor - the resistance of ordinary people.

There are two aspects. One are the repeated revolts of the slaves and the resistance of indigenous peoples' to the exploitation, destruction and violence of the capitalist colonisers. This culminated in the Haitian Revolution, an "historic fury" that culminated 12 years after its start in August 1791, "in the abolition of slavery and the independence of Haiti". Linebaugh tells us that "labor was most intensely exploited, enslaved and immiserated in Haiti and Ireland" providing further links between Catherine and Edward's journey to revolution. But the other aspect to the resistance is the the fight to stop the enclosure of the commons. We are used to understanding this in terms of the class struggle over common land in England, a key feature of the primitive accumulation that Marx argues was needed to kick start capitalist accumulation.

But Linebaugh argues that there is a wider enclosure of commons that shaped the politics of the Despards and many others. The first is that represented by the classical enclosures of England, "Common right... [the] power of direct, mutual appropriation, in contrast to the exclusivity of private property". The second is the "ideal commons", the "Land of Coackaigne" or other utopian visions "not restricted to the commons of property; they described general conditions of mutuality and happiness for all". Finally there is the "commons observed", "neither real nor wholly imaginary" a "European name whose referent was to the indigenous people in contrast to European settlers". In other words the generalisation, extrapolation of the "primitive communism" seen among American indigenous peoples and reported back to others. 

Linebaugh argues that "Ned and Kate experienced all three kinds of commons... They were not alone. People with experience in all three began to encounter one another during the 1790s." These encounters, produced Linebaugh says "revolutionary promise". They inspired, angered and motivated not just those who were oppressed and exploited but anyone who might look around and see injustice. Such people included Ned and Kate. The route of Edward to execution then was one travelled by many others, but he was, by no means the lone revolutionary beloved of government propaganda. He was part of a wide movement and Kate was his equal comrade. Their last hours together were spent composing his gallows' speech, agonising over the words as any writer might do at a much less stressful juncture. They were words that inspired and brought terror to the Sherriff overseeing the judicial murder.

Linebaugh's book is challenging. Its structure does not follow an easy narrative. He jumps from place to place - Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa and London. To explore his arguments he focuses in detail on obscure moments. There are many asides (sometimes many pages long) - from life in Ireland, to the minting of coins, to military sieges in South America and the enclosures in London. His language is lyrical, poetic and full of allusion and references. But this does not make the book any less scholarly or revolutionary.

It certainly was not the easiest of Linebaugh's books to read. Nonetheless it is compelling and rewarding. It reminds us that the current "Red Round Globe Hot Burning" was foreseen and resisted. Our hope for the future lies in rekindling that revolutionary burning as an answer to the capitalist destruction that Edward and Catherine Despard fought so hard against on two continents.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh - The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day
Linebaugh - Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance
Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Hay, Linebaugh, Rule, Thompson and Winslow - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh and Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Daniel Bensaïd - The Dispossessed

This book collects a long essay by French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd on the nature of property and ownership with several famous articles by Karl Marx from 1842. Marx's pieces examine the debates in the Prussian parliament about the ownership and theft of wood from trees in private estates. It's a study of the way capitalism transformed property relations and how Marx's response to these events shaped his own ideas. It comes with a framing essay by the translator Robert Nichols.

I've been asked to review this book in detail for a journal and I'll post a link to that review here when it is published.

Frederik Pohl - Gateway

Frederik Pohl is a remarkable novel, but there was a fatal problem with it that I will mention in this review. This is, essentially, a spoiler, so stop reading here if you don't want to know a key plot element.

In the distant future the solar system has been colonised, but one most of the inner planets working people struggle to survive in appalling conditions of over-population, low wages, synthetic food and very low income. Robinette Broadhead is a miner, but has dreams of escaping and one day wins the lottery. With his cash he buys a trip to Gateway and signs up to be an explorer using the alien spacecraft there. Years before humanity discovered this hollowed out asteroid which contained hundreds of alien craft. The technology was barely understood, yet using the spacecraft could take their crews to far-off stars, solar systems or even outside the galaxy. At these destinations there might, and the emphasis is on might, be technology that could make the crew richer and the company that runs Gateway even richer.

But some of these destinations are lethal - perhaps the edge of a supernova or black hole, or they might need travel time in excess of the air and provisions that people like Robinette could take with them. Essentially its a gamble, but in the overcrowded, poor future, its the only way to make real wealth for those from a lowly background. So Gateway attracts those who are desperate, or hoping to turn a small amount of money into extreme wealth. 

Gateway is tightly controlled. Air, water, food costs money and potential crew must pay their bills or risk being kicked off the asteroid. Despite this, the unknowns about the flights keep Robinette from flying until he can no longer put it off. 

Gateway is a carefully constructed novel. Alternate chapters look at Robinette's interaction with his electronic shrink, trying to come to terms with some disaster that takes place, we understand, during his time flying from Gateway. The other chapters follow Robinette's adventures, his love life, partying and life on Gateway. Between these alternating stories we find extracts from Gateway's rule book and workers' contracts, small ads and reports from other missions. Some of these are automated as they describe the destruction of crews.

Its an excellent premise for a science fiction novel and Frederik Pohl brings to two parts of the story together very elegantly. But something soured the whole book for me which was when Robinette beats up his girlfriend. She leaves him, but then returns and professes her love. Its an unpleasant moment in an otherwise interesting novel. It's unclear why the author put the scene into the book as later it seems as though it never took place. I don't recollect any other science fiction of a similar era, or even by Pohl that has similar scenes and it left me feeling extremely unhappy with how the author seemed to be portraying women.

The strange moment distracted from a fascinating concept. Pohl was of the left - he'd been a Communist Party organiser in his youth, and his anti-corporate politics comes through in this, as in other science fiction classics written by him alone and in collaboration with others. Gateway is certainly a classic - though its gender politics date it a great deal. The concept of Gateway the asteroid, the unknowns that pepper the story and the interesting structure to the book make it a compelling read. This must be a key reason it spawned several sequels. Though, as I say, I was left feeling extremely discomforted by Pohl's insertion of a violent assault by his male character on his partner.

Related Reviews

Pohl & Kornbluth - Wolfbane
Clarke & Pohl - The Last Theorem