Sunday, May 15, 2022

Riley Black - The Last Days of the Dinosaurs

The odd thing about dinosaurs is that they are defined by their absence. As children we learn about these enormous creatures that no longer exists, and perhaps our fascination with them stems from their extinction. Like mythical dragons they do not exist, but at the same time dinosaurs are not dragons - they did once roam the Earth, and then they were gone. 

But the strange thing is that while dinosaurs are known by extinction, we discuss the actual extinction very little. What usually matters for enthusiasts is dinosaur life. Museums don't have dioramas depicting mass death - we see replica dinosaur standing in landscapes. But the manner of extinction does matter, not least because we are living through an era of extinction ourselves. So Riley Black's book is unique because it looks precisely at the end of the dinosaurs - the moment of transition from Cretaceous to Paleocene. What exactly happened when that asteroid hit? 

While this is a book seeped in science Black tells the story as a narrative. She begins with a typical dinosaur diorama in Hell's Creek (now in Montana) reconstructed from fossil evidence. In an opening chapter we follow a Triceratops which dies of old age, and see how scavenging animals wait patiently for a Tyrannosaurus rex to break open the tough armoured hide so they can feast too. It is a scene drawn from Black's own experiences in Yellowstone Park watching birds wait for a grizzly to open up a dead bison. 

Each chapter tells similar stories, introducing the reader to a variety of dinosaurs and animals, following them through the extinction, then exploring what Hell Creek looked like a day, a month, a year, one thousand years and one hundred thousand years after impact. It is a sobering read. I was struck by how quickly extinction took place - most of the dinosaurs on Earth were dead in the 24 hours after impact, killed by a infra-red pulse that raised temperatures so high that they simply could not survive. I was also struck by how lucky humans are - the evolutionary space created by the extinction gave mammals the space to evolve. But had events taken slight different turns - asteroid impact at a slightly different angle - dinosaurs might have survived. Or indeed the impact been so great that only bacteria survived and life began, so to speak, again. We would not be here.

It is a grim story, that Black tells well. In parts it is a horror story, "there is no dawn on the first day of the Paleocene" writes Black. We can imagine the suffering and pain that billions of creatures felt in the previous 24 hours, and we can imagine just how difficult life will be for the survivors. This is not the gradual dying off of previous "extinctions" or even that accelerated extinction that we're seeing today. This was a light going out.

While Black's book did make me draw connections with today, oddly they weren't just about extinction. What I was repeatedly struck by was the way their descriptions of dinosaur ecology made me think about ecological relationships today. Black makes you think what a herd of massive dinosaurs does to the environment around them as they stomp through:

When ever-hungry Edmontosaurus and Ankylosaurus mowed down plants with their mouths, they shaped what would become of the forest. Young, juicy plants were always the best delicacy, so these dinosaurs often cropped off young plants before the could take hold. These megaherbivores kept the meadows and open ground clear, just as Triceratops did when they'd rub their horns against trees to the point of toppling some over. Soil  was packed, seeds were scattered ,carcasses were left behind to nourish the soil... And vast quantities of dung... Dinosaurs did not merely inhabit the world as if it were a ready-made diorama. Dinosaurs literally made the world their own.

What is true of dinosaurs is also true of the world today. Species make their own nature, shape their own ecology which in turn shapes them. Similarly, Black shows how evolution fits the context in which it takes place. There is no preordained path, rather "each evolutionary happenstance opened up new possibilities, biodiversity generating itself through interaction". Not all the animals that survived made it. Not all the lineages developed and not all the ecological niches were filled.

While fresh, readable and packed with information this is a book that is rooted in contemporary science. I read each "narrative" chapter and then the corresponding section of the appendix where Black tells us precisely what bit of science backs up the descriptions they've made, and indeed the places were they've had to extrapolate or make educated guesses. I suggest that if you read it you do likewise.

This remarkably accessible book is well worth a read. Riley Black's Last Days of the Dinosaurs is very likely to be my science book of the year, and I hope that others grab hold of it. While the central events of the story are 66 million years ago, the connections I made were very contemporary. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Kolbert - The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Gould - Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History
Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind
Fortey - Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared
Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Maddox - Reading the Rocks
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 3: The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'

The third volume of Hal Draper's work on Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution is a different beast to the first two. Those were broad, but detailed works, taking up Marx's big themes - classes and the state - and showing how Marx's ideas developed and were applied differently at various points in his life. Book three starts from a specific, but important, concept of Marx's and explores how it was understood, how it was attacked and what it really meant. In other words this book is different because it moves from the broad picture to a zoom in on a very narrow aspect of Marx and Engels' thought.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' is a phrase that is oft repeated and usually misunderstood. Frequently in fact it is deliberately misunderstood, guided in part by some on the left who have been keen to misuse it. Draper identifies fifteen loci or occurrences of the phrase in the works of Marx and Engels. Of these, only eight were specific usages by Marx, and several of those were in works not intended for publication. Draper notes two distinct periods of the phrase's usage - the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions and during and following the Paris Commune of 1871.

The timing is important because they correspond with Marx and Engels thinking through the revolutionary process and the sort of change that could bring in a socialist society. If readers haven't read the first two volumes they will miss some key insights that underpin Draper's argument. In particular the concept of a workers' state as a transition to a stateless Communism. 

Draper quotes Engels on this very point:

in order to arrive at this [disappearance of the state - Draper] and the other, far more important ends of the social revolution of the future, the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State and with this aid stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society. This is stated already in the Communist Manifesto.

The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' then is Marx and Engels term for this period when the newly triumphant workers' state uses its power to defend itself from attackers. Lenin famously used these concepts in State and Revolution on the eve of the workers' seizure of power in Russia in 1917 to understand the process the movement was embarking upon. Even in Marx and Engels' time the lessons of counter-revolution were obvious, hence the timing of their use of the phrase. Russia after 1917 also demonstrates to a new generation that the capitalists will waste little energy in trying to destroy any fledgling workers' power.

So why does the phrase Dictatorship of the Proletariat get such hostility? Clearly it is because of the modern meaning of dictatorship. Though it is also clear that the nature of Stalinist Russia and the Eastern bloc after 1945 have helped create the idea that socialism is synonymous with dictatorship, or single person rule. Draper begins then, with an overview of how the meaning of dictatorship has changed. He shows how, in language that would have been familiar to Marx and Engels, in ancient times dictatorship meant a brief, transitory period. He quotes R.M. MacIver (not a Marxist) who explained that: 

The original Marxist doctrine of the 'dictatorship of the people' [sic] had in it something akin to the Roman idea. It was to be a temporary and exceptional form of government to prepare the way for the inauguration of a new dictatorless - in fact, stateless - order.

Of course, the nuances of this are immaterial to those who want to paint socialism as a top down, dictatorial repressive regime. It is also immaterial to those who to argue that societies like these stood in the tradition of Marx and Engels, when exactly the opposite was true. 

Draper then takes us through a detailed examination of everyone who has critiqued Marx and Engels on these points, and to emphasis his point, he critiques those that Marx opposed but was lumped together with. In particular he shows how Marx was repeatedly tarred by with the brush of the French socialist Louis Blanqui, whose revolutionary strategy emphasised action by small groups of heroic individuals substituting for the masses. Draper shows how Marx's politics were exactly the opposite of Blanqui, and indeed demonstrates conclusively that Marx had no contact with him, and could not be said to have been influenced, or worked in a secret organisation with Blanqui. Casual readers may well find themselves frustrated by these sections as Draper deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx's life and work to prove an accusation false. Indeed its a similar method to the earlier books were Draper proved some aspect of Marx's theoretical work. But here it feels abstract and over the top.

I lauded the first two volumes of Hal Draper's Marx's Theory of Revolution. I am less enthused by this volume because it focuses on an important aspect of Marx's thought, but is too focused on the minutiae. The sections, for instance, on the Paris Commune are excellent and it would have been more useful and illustrative to have expanded these. As usual though the book sparks with Draper's wit and knowledge and there is much to be had. But reader beware this is very much a book in a series, those jumping in at volume III will find themselves rudderless and unprepared.


Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy
Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Marco Polo - The Travels

Marco Polo's Travels wasn't actually the book I expected. It isn't the travel account I'd expected it to be, rather its a description of people and places. Nor do you find out much about what happened to Marco Polo himself, beyond a brief overview at the start and some potted references. However, despite the repetition ("the people here are all idolaters, using paper money and subject to the Great Khan") and the comments that mark it out as an oral account ("you must know..."), as well as the nagging suspicion that Marco Polo didn't actually go to all these places (his description of a Giraffe is unlike any I've ever seen) there is a lot here of interest.

Firstly, particularly in the sections on what we would now call the Middle East and China, there are some fascinating accounts of different cultural norms. Polo is particularly interested in religion-noting about almost every place he visits how many people are Muslim, Jewish, Christian or "idolaters". He notes the tensions and conflicts between the faiths, which usually seem to arise from the ruler's personal interests. But he also notes that some places are remarkably tolerant when compared to modern times.

The Tartars do not care what god is worshipped in their territories. So long as all their subjects are loyal and obedient to the Khan and accordingly pay the tribute... you may do as you please about your soul. They object to your speaking ill of their souls or intermeddling with their practices. But concerning God and your own soul do what you will, whether you be Jew or page, Saracen or Christian, who live among the Tartars. 

Also of interest are Polo's comments on marriage in the different cultures he visits. On occasion, I suspect Polo is simply writing for an audience with salacious interests. In the province of Pem, he tells us, "when a woman's husband leaves her to go on a journey of more than twenty days, then, as soon as he has left, she takes another husband... and the men, wherever they go, take wives in the same way". While he clearly exaggerates at times, its also clear that many local rulers take hundreds of wives. Polo never says what the women think of this, and glosses over how they are treated - though is clear women are often simply taken from their families and communities by a local lord for sex.

Its difficult to know what to conclude about The Travels. Is it a travelogue? If so its clearly untrue, exaggerated or unclear in places. Nor is it history, though some of it clearly can be attested to by other records. It perhaps is of greatest interest to those looking for what's there in passing, rather than detailed accounts - the general treatment by Polo of relations between men and women, his lack of racism - while faithfully recording the colour of peoples' skin and his clear desire to tell his readers (and listeners) all the marvellous things he has seen. 

My edition is a 1982 Penguin, based on a 1958 translation by R.E.Latham. It would benefit perhaps, from a more modern translation, and a more detailed commentary.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Berridge, Lynch, Makawi & De Waal - Sudan's Unfinished Democracy: The Promise & Betrayal of a People's Revolution

The Sudanese Revolution began at the end of December 2018 as a cost of living crisis and growing economic problems saw street protests that developed into demands for the President Omar al-Bashir to step down. There have been many twists and turns in the revolution since then, including violent repression by the military regime that stepped in after Bashir's fall in 2019. The revolution has been marked by mass protests and strikes and, significantly, the growth of democratic revolutionary organisational bodies - known as resistance committees - that have taken on the task of organising the movement. The revolutionary process, in my opinion, has not ended - in recent weeks we have seen the re-emergence of mass protests - and the Sudanese Revolution could well become a significant working class revolutionary event of the 21st century.

Sudan's Unfinished Democracy is perhaps the first book length treatment of the Sudanese Revolution. It's authors are activists, journalists and academics with an extensive acquaintance with Sudanese politics. It is, for any reservations that I will express, undoubtedly an important work that ought to be read by anyone trying to understand events in Sudan. 

Recent Sudanese politics have been dominated by the 30 year rule of Omar al-Bashir. Bashir was a ruthless President, whose policies led to the mass killings in Darfur, and the departure of Southern Sudan from the north. A great strength of this book is to guide the reader through the myriad of individuals and overlapping political interests that form the backdrop to Bashir's reign. This also helps understand some of the military and paramilitary forces and organisations that continue to shape Sudanese politics. Usefully the authors root this recent history in the wider context of colonial rule.

The other strength of the book is its exploration of the background to the organisations that formed the backbone of the revolutionary movement. In this we must be slightly careful. Groups like the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) have deep roots in the country's politics, though their role in kickstarting the revolution was minimal. Activists and groups within the SPA however had played an important role in keeping anti-government protest alive, even if their immediate role in the December 2018 revolution was small. The authors argue that the SPA is a complex assemblage, "a mapping of the revolutionary associations would look like a tangled yarn ball", but it was key to the development of further revolutionary groups and particularly the resistance committees. Of these, the authors write: "Personal ties made them work: individuals' networks were used to bring protestors on to the streets when called, and to support them on march days".

The SPA was, out of necessity, secret. In fact the authors argue it made a virtue out of its anonymity and lack of leaders, "a faceless organisation". But this caused problems. When the revolution overthrew Bashir, the SPA was called in to negotiate with the government, but had no clear politics and no clear leadership with whom the military could negotiate. The lack of leaders and the lack of clear politics meant that the military was able to out manoeuvre the SPA, "the longer the talks went on the weaker the civilians became". 

A key moment in the revolution was the establishment of a self-organised mass protest sit-in outside the Sudanese military headquarters. This involved hundreds of thousands and likely, in its participation, democracy and self-organisation, surpassed the achievements of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. The sit-in is a touchstone for the authors who see in it not just a revolutionary protest movement but an alternative model of Sudanese society. As such, the author's argue the sit-in posed an enormous threat to military rule. Its democracy, they say, was a direct challenge to 30 years of Sudanese government. The involvement of minority groups from different regions of Sudan and women in central roles had to end. Over time the military delayed negotiations and eroded the sit-in, helping to undermine the revolution's main strength. Eventually they were to unleash brutal force against it, breaking up the protest with killing and rape. There is no doubt that the sit-in was important and a massive challenge to the military's political framework, and could not be tolerated beyond the first months of the revolution.

But I think the focus on the sit-in misses more important revolutionary dynamics. The attack on the sit-in takes place after a general strike, a strike called by the SPA to try and drive negotiations forward (the slogan was for "full victory" to the revolution). It was a military response not just to the sit-in, but also to the growing power of the revolution as expressed by the mass strikes. This was the army's attempt to break the stalemate, just as the general strike had been the SPA's attempt. A follow up strike was quickly called off as the military entered negotiations and the SPA signed an agreement for Civilian and Military power-sharing in August 2019. This was a disaster and set the scene for the military coup that followed.

All of these twists and turns are described well by the authors and readers trying to get to grips with the politics of the Sudanese Revolution should study them. But I think that the framework used by the authors is inadequate. One particular gripe I have is that there seems to be a downplaying of workers' strikes in this account of the revolution. This means that the authors' do not see an alternative power to the military within the revolution. For them, the revolution is the sit-in. Of this they write:

This was a moment of Utopian revolution in Sudan, an inspiring promise that a different world was possible. For a few weeks, in one place, the fog of politics cleared enough for a remarkable congregation of Sudanese to create a space for a festival of a popular republic. It was euphoric: a generation’s worth of ideals and aspirations released in an explosion of pride, protest and patriotism. It was a moment and a place where everything that divided Sudanese citizens was set aside, when citizenship and participation took on a heightened sense... The sit-in coalesced around an egalitarian system of solidarity that stood in stark contradiction to the hierarchies and deal-making that still dominated the world outside its barricades. Anyone with human feelings was inspired. There was a democratic Sudan and it lasted 53 days - between the challenge to a dictator and a massacre. 

The destruction of the sit-in, for the authors, was the end of the revolution. But that's inadequate - the revolution is not yet over. The question is where is the power to take it forward by challenging the military and offering a vision of a new way of organising Sudanese society. This has to be about the coming together of popular democracy from below, in the form of the resistance committees AND the power of workers at the point of production. 

The authors' repeatedly dismiss revolutionary socialist politics, though they tend to associate this with the politics of Communist Parties. As such I think they miss the insights that the Russian Revolution might offer. There, for instance, the strength of workers' councils and Soviets during the period of Dual Power in 1917, was enough to break rank and file soldiers from the generals. A similar dynamic was seen as the start of the Sudanese Revolution, but the failure to develop this alternative power within society meant that the military could regroup.

The military spent the period after the fall of Bashir consolidating its power over the Sudanese state. The authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy emphasise the power of non-violence to bring down the dictator, but offer no roadmap for going forward with this. But that's because the strategy they advocate cannot challenge the power of the state. In particular their neglect of workers' struggles means they cannot envisage this power developing, hence the pessimistic conclusions quoted above. The question for revolutionaries in Sudan today is not just how they can win, but where the revolution is going. Is it simply trying to achieve the sort of pro-market democracy that Western powers would like? Or is it going in the direction of a more radical reshaping of society from the ground up?

The Sudanese Revolution has not ended, though its next direction is not yet clear. But one thing we can say is that the last three years has seen enormous bravery and élan on the part of ordinary Sudanese people. For all my criticisms of their book, the authors' of Sudan's Unfinished Democracy certainly understand and celebrate this. Which is why it is a book that can help us all understand what is happening in this unfinished revolution.

Related Reviews

Ayeb & Bush - Food Insecurity & Revolution in the Middle East & North Africa
Alexander & Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution
El-Mahdi & Marfleet - Egypt: The Moment of Change
Ziegler - Omdurman

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes

Having read the first volume of Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, I immediately started out on the second. Partly this was out of sheer joy! Draper is a treat to read, combining clarity with humour and, above all, a cleverly structured argument. The first volume dealt with the theory of the State. The second is much more broad, looking at the Politics of Social Classes, which means, in part examining what Marx meant by class and, indeed, politics. The volume opens with a discussion of what Marx meant by revolution. Draper points out that the word has become a "mere synonym for change". But Marx understood that revolution was a fundamental transformation, a struggle of class against class, for a new order.

Social revolution means that the new class in power does not limit itself to change within the framework of the old social system, but tends to put its new state power into basic conflict with the former ruling strata. And the conflict must be resolved more or less quickly in favour of the new or the old; the new political power must proceed to revolutionise the socioeconomic foundation, or else it will be destroyed by the rooted power of the latter. IN either case, by revolution or counterrevolution, congruence will eventually be re-established between the political and socioeconomic foundation.

Here the reader will of course think back to Draper's first volume on the state and Marx's explanation of the state protecting the interests of the ruling class and the status quo, and indeed they might look forward to the core politics of the second which deals with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which deals with how a workers' state can protect itself as it emerges and faces the challenges from the old order. Draper emphasises the transformative nature of revoution for Marx. These are words that ought to be read by many who see "revolutionary" change being simply about electing radical politicians to bring radical policies from above. Draper:

From Marx's standpoint, what made his theory revolutionary was that it looked to a literal overturning: not simply an overthrow, the deposition of established power, but a turning-over of the social corpus itself, as "the lowest stratum of our present society" stirs, heaves up, with "the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air," as the Manifesto pictured it vividly. This is the revolution; the revolution is not he adoption of a certain social schema. It was only the revolution of the exploited majority that could do this, in Marx's view; therefore the revolution from below had to be a proletarian revolution, and the proletarian ascendency to power had to be a revolution from below.

Developing this thesis through the volume (and honestly I could have quoted page after page of Draper in this review) the author takes us through Marx's concepts of class and his explanation of various classes - from the proletariat, to specifics of the working class, the bourgeoise, as well as groups like intellectuals. The chapter on the latter has plenty of entertaining quotes that can be used against academic Marxists who feel that their ivory tower places them above the struggle itself. I won't do them, but readers (especially academic Marxists) ought to read them. I must also highlight the appendix on beards and hair, "Marxism and Pilosity" for those readers craving these insights.

There is much here of practical interest to the socialist activist. For instance there is an insightful discussion of Marx's thoughts on the trade unions and how socialists should relate to them. There's a massive discussion of the peasantry and chapters on two groups - intellectuals and the lumpen proletariat - whose roles have been endlessly dissected by Marxists. Draper presents Marx's thoughts with clarity. 

But Draper constantly returns to his central theme - the revolutionary project at the core of Marx's ideas:

Only a movement of the immense majority, in its own interests, could be a movement of self-emancipation. This moves out of the sphere of charity versus self-help, to become a basic determinant of the nature of socialism.

Draper illustrates this with a deep discussion of Marx and Engels' thoughts on the 1848 revolution, in particular their discussion of what has come to be termed "permanent revolution". There is a linguistic discussion too - for those who've struggled with the meaning of "permanent" in this context. But it's Draper's discussion of the contradictory and cowardly role of the German bourgeoisie in 1848/9 that is so useful in this context. It is simultaneously a clear discussion of Marx's ideas and a brilliant application of the Marxist method itself. 

Reading Draper is an immersion in Marx and Engels' thought that shows how Marxism developed over time, responding to the actuality of revolution, and the tasks and challenges the movement faced. The sections on 1848 in this volume are particularly useful showing how their thought changes and then, once they have understood that the bourgeoise is not going to play its early role, how they seize this idea themselves to arm the workers' movement. As with volume one, and I suspect volume three, this comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Alastair Reynolds - Inhibitor Phase

The latest of Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels is much less of a galaxy spanning story than some of his other works. Here we are closely focused on the story of Miguel de Ruyter. At the beginning he is the head of a small human colony, hiding deep inside a remote planet. An alien technology, the Wolves, has destroyed most of humanity's galactic civilisation, just as they previously destroyed other galactic societies. Their motivation is unknown and humans survive in isolated pockets. Ruyter has worked to protect his small group hoping that somehow they can survive long enough for the Wolves to be defeated.

His vigil is interrupted by the arrival of a humanoid, Glass, who comes to pull Miguel back into the galactic war that he had deliberately forgotten. Glass turns out to be a conjoiner, an augmented human who needs Miguel because his long dead brother has the key to a super-weapon that can defeat the Wolves. Gradually Miguel learns who he is as, together with Glass, they travel the galaxy finding allies and equipment to get the secrets they need.

It's a complex novel, but brilliantly constructed. The pace is well crafted with the reader learning Miguel's real history interspersed with a growing realisation with what that history meant. I also liked the way that Miguel's feud with Glass is set out, his frustration at her behaviour dragging him away from home, combined by their mutual need to stand together brings a nice counterpoint to the wider story. 

Fans of Reynolds' will find many concepts and species return in Inhibitor Phase, though things may have developed further. While there is a slight tendency for deus ex machina on the part of the author I tend to think that the reader is very much along for the ride in such a wide ranging story. Just hang on is my advice.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - Revenger
Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Galactic North
Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Redemption Ark
Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Pushing Ice
Reynolds - Century Rain

Monday, April 11, 2022

Pat Devine - Democracy and Economic Planning

The question of how a society that rationally uses resources in the interest of the "associated producers" is one that is being asked with increased urgency given the ecological crisis that humanity faces. For revolutionary socialists the answer has always been "democratic planning" of the economy. But how this might work is a subject of intense debate. Pat Devine's book Democracy and Economic Planning has been mentioned by a number of Marxist writers in this context and his proposal of "negotiated coordination" is a clear and logical response to those who argue that economies cannot work with out some for of market, or profit motive.

Devine's argument is clear:

The case for planning is that it enables the conscious shaping of economic activity, in accordance with individually and collectively determined needs, and it overcomes the instability that is an endemic empirical characteristic of market-based economies. So far, neither historical experience nor the state of theory gives any reasons to suppose that market-based economies can be managed or regulated effectively enough to achieve these objectives.

Devine opens the book by exploring how and why capitalist and "statist" economies fail to deliver what people and the environment need. Devine classes the former USSR and Eastern European economies as "statist" rather than my preferred term of "State Capitalist" though its clear that there is some overlap. However Devine certainly doesn't see these societies as socialist arguing that like the capitalist countries they failed to deliver for ordinary people. First published in 1989 the book bears the hallmarks of being written in the period when the State Capitalist regimes collapsed and people were urgently looking for other models. As such his demolition of the "third way" of "Market Socialism" as practised in Yugoslavia is very useful. 

For many people "planning" brings to mind the top-down, "command" economies of Eastern Europe. Devine shows why this model doesn't work, and argues that instead "what is needed is a form of democratic planning combining centrally taken decisions where necessary with decentralised decision-making wherever possible." In arguing against the free-market (i,e. a system were economic decisions are based on maximising profit of companies etc) Devine makes it clear he doesn't reject "market-exchange".  For such a system to work would require the conscious transformation of those engaged in the planning, at every level in society. As Devine says:

Participation in the detailed construction of the social interest, taking account of the interests of all involved, is a central part of the process through which people cease to be objects, to be manipulated by administrative command or economic incentives, and become self-activating subjects who do what they do because they think it is right... narrow self-interest gives way to a broader self-interest, in which people's own interests are redefined to include the interest of others.

It is this aspect to the vision of a democratic planned economy which means that bourgeois economists cannot comprehend it working, because they cannot imagine people at every level of society being part of a collectively organised and decided rational approach to the economy. While a national framework of what is needed would need to be agreed - crucially not by an unelected and unaccountable group - it would be done through a process of debate, discussion and information input from all levels and sectors of society. Such a "broad allocation of resources" would "reflect social priorities":

The result would be a pattern of specific claims on resources, that is, a distribution of purchasing power or demand, that had been shaped by overall social priorities and yet reflected group and individual preferences. Demand would be from government and functional social bodies for social consumption and investment, from government bodies, but channelled through negotiated coordination bodies and production units, for major economic investment; from production units for minor new investment, as agreed by their negotiated coordination bodies and from individuals and households for personal consumption.

In other words, demand is set by individuals and "production units" and planned for by continuous negotiation by different sections of the economies. Democratic decision making is done through a network of nation, regional and local bodies which are "democratically elected in a context of political party pluralism... vested with ultimate political power". Devine proposes a relatively straightforward set of structures that could negotiate and debate decisions about national or regional frameworks while other, more localised bodies, work out details and respond to needs. He argues that these debates might reflect the interests of different political parties - pointing out that actually they would be political issues - and this undermines the idea that party politics would disappear in a "communist" society.

Devine's book is a detailed and convincing argument. It is not without fault. Firstly the book suffers from a dry academic style and is not as accessible as it ought to be. Secondly, and certainly more importantly, Devine has no real model for how such a society might come about - making a few hand wavy arguments about it being the result of struggles that place the improved democratisation of society at their heart. This is disappointing, and perhaps reflects the authors own rejection of what he calls the "fundamentalist" Marxist movement (i.e. the non-Stalinist, classical tradition). Perhaps Devine did not, or does not, see revolution as possible, but the classical Marxist tradition sees such institutions that could form the basis of a democratic planned economy as arising out of the struggle itself. This is the biggest gap in the book, and while it might make the book more palatable for some audiences for those of us struggling for a more rational society, its a major ommission.

Pat Devine's book has much food for thought, but his arguments become utopian as they are abstracted from the revolutionary movements that could make them real. Nonetheless there are stimulating and profound insights into what is wrong and what could be right.   



Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray - History of the Paris Commune

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray was a participant in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871. He is popularly supposed to have been "the last man on the barricades" and while not a leading figure in the revolution, he was very much at its heart as a fighter. Escaping France he went into exile in London where he began work on his History of the Paris Commune, drawing on contemporary reports, personal experiences and the recollections of exiles. Working with Karl Marx the book was translated into English by Marx's daughter Eleanor, with whom Lissagaray became engaged. 

The book then is remarkable in the sense that it is an eyewitness account of a revolution, and has close links to two of the worlds' great revolutionaries. But what of the book itself? The book begins with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which gave birth to the Commune, but events are probably hard to follow for the reader who knows little of that period of French history. Writing in the aftermath of the Commune, when details were fresh, but political battles were being waged over the interpretation of events, Lissagaray gives a vast amount of detail about figures from the French left. Those unaccustomed to this might find it easier to read an introductory account first before delving into Lissagaray.

But readers should delve into this book. Despite the difficulties with detail, its a fascinating and impassioned account of revolution. Lissagaray is enthusiastic about the people who made the revolution and critical of those elected to lead it, whom he says spent too much time talking and not enough deciding. Clearly there were mistakes made during the Commune's brief lifetime and Lissagaray is open about them. But he always begins from the revolution itself, "for the tenth time since 1789 the workmen put France upon the right track". Lissagaray also devotes two chapters to the short-lived Communes outside of Paris, that are rarely discussed in books about 1871. These lasted barely a few days, their short lifetimes being in part due to the lack of industrial development and hence sizeable proletariat outside Paris, the weaknesses of the left and the failure of the Commune to make it clear to the wider country what it was doing. 

These failures know doubt helped condemn the Commune, though not as much as the failure by the revolution to immediately take on the military force of the old government at Versailles. As Lissagaray says the French bourgeoisie "seeing this Paris capable of engendering a new world, her heart swelled with the best blood of France, had but one thought - to bleed Paris." And bleed it they did. 

The brutal assault on Paris which Lissagaray played a role in resisting was followed by the most violent and bestial repression. Lissagaray quotes official figures that suggest that 17,000 people were summarily executed in the "bloody week" following the storming of the city. Thousands more died, were deported, tortured and imprisoned in the most sickening of conditions. Much of the final part of Lissagaray's book is an account of these tragedies and the violence of the French government. No doubt this is in part a contribution to the political debates taking place, but also an political act to drum up support for the exiles and prisoners. 

The ruling class wanted to drown Paris in blood to teach the workers' a lesson. Never again should they threaten the rightful place of the bourgeois class. But despite the massacre, and contrary to the hopes of capitalists everywhere, the Paris Commune remains an inspirational moment in working class history, from which we even the greatest revolutionaries could learn. Despite some accessibility issues, Lissagaray's book is a superb history that all radicals should read.

Related Reviews

Abidor - Voices of the Paris Commune
Marx - The Civil War in France
Lenin - The State and Revolution
Merriman - Massacre: The Life & Death of the Paris Commune of 1871
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy

Monday, April 04, 2022

V.I.Lenin - The State and Revolution

Lenin's State and Revolution is a remarkable work. It is likely the only book of Marxist theory that was written during a revolution that deals with the fundamental political questions of that revolution. It was written while Lenin was in temporary exile in Finland having fled a temporary burst of anti-Bolshevik reaction on the part of the Provisional Government in the late Summer of 1917. It bears the hallmark of intense engagement with Marx's writing on the State and the pressure of revolutionary organising.

As the title suggests the key question of the book is the state and Lenin looks at Marx's writings on two revolutionary moments - the 1848 revolution and the Paris Commune to understand the tasks of the revolutionary movement in 1917. My Penguin edition has a sneering introduction by the historian Robert Service who mocks Lenin's politics and writing in State and Revolution. Service claims that no one would have read and understood S&R in 1917 as it required an engagement with classical Marxist texts that few would have even heard about. What Service doesn't comprehend is that Lenin is clearly writing the book in order to clarify his own ideas, in order to win them within the Bolshevik party. 

As such Lenin repeatedly tackles the key question of the role of the state from different directions. He begins with Marx and Engels assertion that the state is the "product of the irreconcilability of class contradictions" and "arises where, when and to the extent that class contradictions objectively cannot be reconciled". This leads him into a critique those in the Russian Revolution who think that classes can be reconciled by the state itself, and in turn to Karl Kautsky's "distortion of Marxism" which denies that "the state is an organ of class rule." 

Lenin's discussions on the Paris Commune cannot be reduced simply to understanding the role of the state and emphasising Marx's argument that the state must be smashed. He also explores it fo context on what a workers' state must do - i.e. be "not a parliamentary but a working institution", tackling the parliamentarians who would get elected but leave the real business of the state to others, "behind the scenes" without accountability or control. Lenin writes:

The Commune replaces the venal and rotten parliamentarianism of bourgeois society with institutions in which freedom of opinion and discussion do not degenerate into deception, for the parliamentarians themselves have to work, have to execute their own laws, have to test their results in real life and to answer directly to their electors. Representative institutions remain, but parliamentarianism does not exist here as a special system, as the division of labour between the legislative and the executive, as a privileged position for the deputies. We cannot imagine democracy, even proletarian democracy, without representative institutions, be we can and must imagine democracy without parliamentarianism if our criticisms of bourgeois society are not mere empty words for us, if the aspiration to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie is our serious and sincere desire.

Since the state is a antagonistic institution of class rule, the workers' state is the same. Suppressing the old ruling class and the capitalists, in the interest of the majority of society (workers and peasants in the case of Russia). Here Lenin argues for the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" - the idea that in the aftermath of revolution, the reality of the socialist state is one that oppresses the counter-revolutionary minority - the old capitalist class. This concept is one that Service finds particularly repugnant. But for Marx, and Lenin, the state must whither away alongside the class antagonisms themselves. Only then can people live and become "accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse... without compulsion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state."

Lenin's polemic, at it's heart, is a powerful working through of the Marxist theory of the state written in the midst of revolution. It is easy to bemoan what is missing - the chapters on the "Russian experience" of 1905 and 1917 were never written and one can only imagine how they might have been useful to generations of revolutionaries since 1917. But don't let this prevent you reading it - there is so much here that can guide us today. Recently I read an interview with two Sudanese socialists grappling with the same concepts that were posed to Lenin in 1917 by the actuality of revolution. In their interview they both quoted liberally from State and Revolution. No greater tribute to this work can be made.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Lenin - The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907

Marx - The Civil War in France


Sunday, April 03, 2022

Nicholas Monsarrat - The Ship that Died of Shame

The Ship that Died of Shame is a collection of stories by popular author Nicholas Monsarrat who famously wrote sea based novels that often reflected his experiences on anti-submarine ships in the North Atlantic during WWII. These stories are somewhat different, seemingly being a relatively random selection of topics, but I was struck that many of them reflected the post-war experience of men whose life highlight had been their wartime experiences and were unable to deal with civilian reality. The titular story is exactly that - two men shared a close, if occasionally uncomfortable, bond at sea in World War II on a fast launch used to defend the Channel. A few years after the war's end, the captain is looking at the dregs of a drink in a dive bar frequented by former naval personal recounting the same stories, when his former officer finds him out. He's found their old ship, and would he like to do a bit of lucrative smuggling. 

Some of the other stories are remarkably short, designed perhaps for magazines rather than book collections. They are often wry, poking fun at the wealthy such as the account of a tax exiled film star who can't set foot in Britain for fear of a large government bill. The most interesting story is Licensed to Kill is set in South Africa when a former commando meets an old comrade who goes by the nike-name Murderer Martin. You can imagine it doesn't go well.

I'm a big fan of Monsarrat's novels and personal reminisces of life at sea. But this collection doesn't quite hit the sport. The stories felt dated, rather than timeless like his class The Cruel Sea. But there is a sense of loss at the heart of many of them, which perhaps tells the reader much about the 1950s.

Related Reviews

Monsarrat - Three Corvettes
Monsarrat - The Cruel Sea

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Mitchell Abidor - Voices of the Paris Commune

In March 1871 the workers of Paris seized control of their city and declared the Paris Commune. It was an event that through its radical, democratic organisation directly challenged capitalist society, likely prevented a return of the French monarchy and transformed how revolutionaries understood state power and the nature of a workers' state. Writing for the fortieth anniversary, Lenin wrote that the "cause of the Commune is the social revolution, the cause of the complete political and economic emancipation of the toilers. It is the cause of the proletariat of the whole world. And in this sense it is immortal.

Remarkably we have many accounts of the Paris Commune, from participants, observers and supporters and its opponents. Mitchell Abidor's short volume contains such "voices" in an attempt to give a flavour of events. Unfortunately while I found the collection interesting it was hampered, in my view, by an emphasis on the legacy of the Commune and some of the internecine debates within the revolution. A large chunk is devoted to the debates among the elected leadership about the Committee for Public Safety, which a section of delegates saw as a massive concession to undemocratic and authoritarian practice. The discussion takes a form of reprints from the Commune's journal and as such is difficult for non-experts to follow unless they have a grounding in the debates. I felt this needed far more from the editor to explain context and personalities. 

The second part of the booklet reports extensively from the inquiry into the Commune and as such focuses on the legacy of the Commune and the activity of the participants. Again this skews things towards internal debates (which are of course important) such as what to do with hostages etc. Disappointingly most of the respondents discuss the failings of the Commune and its leadership - not seizing the bank, not marching on Versailles. This has the effect of making the Commune feel dry and top down - I'd have welcomed more quotes that gave a sense of the revolutionary zeal at the bottom of society. There is also a surprising level of cynicism, or perhaps disappointment, from more than a few voices as they look back on events. Perhaps that's a reflection of the appalling counter-revolutionary violence inflicted on the Commune in its final weeks, violence that had the effect of bringing together the different factions in the defence of the revolution. As one member of the Commune, J. Martelet, is quoted here as saying, "We found ourselves side by side during the terrible Bloody Week, majority and minority, fighting with the same ardor until the final day of the fight, defending together with the same faith the rights of the working people."

Related Reviews

Merriman - Massacre: The Life & Death of the Paris Commune of 1871
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy
Marx – The Civil War In France
Greene - Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution
Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Andreas Malm & the Zetkin Collective - White Skin, Black Fuel

As regular readers of this blog will be aware I think that Andreas Malm, even where I disagree with key points of his argument, is one of the most stimulating Marxist authors on environmental politics. So it was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to this new publication "one the dangers of fossil fascism" that Malm has co-authored with the network the Zetkin Collective, a group of scholars and activists "working on the political ecology of the far right".

The book does multiple things. It opens with a study of the far-right and fascist movements and looks at their "anti-climate politics" and asks "what would it mean to live in a oworld both hotter and further to the right" than it is today. It argues that the far-right's fixation with anti-climate views is closely tied to its anti-immigration perspective and the way that developing capitalism associated technology (and particularly fossil fuel technologies) with white supremacy. The authors argue in the introduction:

[The book] traces lineages of resurfacing ideas and contends that white skin and black fuel have been coupled for long time - indeed, machines powered by fossil fuels were infused with racism from the very first moment of their global deployment. The European incubator for skin and fuel was an empire... It is out contention that one cannot understand recent developments [of the far right] or their possible continuation and aggravation, without such a longer view.

Much of the first part of White Skin, Black Fuel is a study of the reality of far-right politics. This links various aspects of conspiracy theory (white replacement) and Islamic takeover, with wider hatreds of immigrants and Muslims with anti-scientific and views that can only be described as pro-fossil fuel industry on climate change. The discussion of the specifics of these ideas are detailed and for anti-fascist readers they are at times depressing - detailing the extent to which they have become mainstream. Shockingly the growth of the far right and the mainstreaming of their arguments around climate and immigration have pulled the centre left towards them. The authors note, for instance, that in Denmark, the social democrats "came close to another line of reasoning: in a warming world, it is even more imperative to patrol borders and send people home" as a result of the growth of the far-right.

Quite why the far-right deny climate change is superficially difficult to explain. Climate denial goes deep into their core politics, and there is a particular animosity to wind turbines. Indeed the authors note that there is a "striking similaritiy to the hatred of minarets, mosques and calls to prayers". However its not just climate denial and dislike of renewable energy. The book shows how there is a general "defence of fossil capital" by the far-right. Part of the explanation for this lies, the authors contend, in the way that fascism in the 1920s and 1930s evolved out of a modernist view that celebrated technology and the speed of cars and aircraft. It need not detain us here, but there are some fascinating sections on how the Mussolini and Hitler regime courted and enjoyed the automobile and aircraft industries. We should mention Henry Ford in passing too. Bringing it back to the modern day, and discussing the Hungarian government, the book comments:

The climate policies of one of the most notorious far-right governments in Europe were.. primarily geared to fossil capital in general. They were as yet rarely couched in terms of denial, but rather hidden in official indifference to the issue, paired with the all-consuming passion.

Similar ideas are exhibited by far-right politicians in Poland and Germany. For the Hungarian government, electoral success meant "protecting the car industry, resisting emissions cuts, ignoring climate change, vilifying Muslims and Jews and eventually falling in line with denial: the early twenty-first century European far right in power."

Part of the reason behind far-right denial is the way that they articulate liberal climate policies as being about attacking ordinary people: an excuse for taxes, or taking away the person freedom to drive a car. In my opinion, and shared I think by the authors, the need to articulate the frustrations of the disenfranchised middle class by fascists and the far-right means they can use green politics (as pushed by the mainstream) as an attack on ordinary people and, in turn, give them something to rail against.

The consequences of such an approach are horrific:

most of the forces we have inspected have associated the struggle against climate change with black and other non white people - it's for them, not us: 'Let them drown' is here not a faint, undefined propensity: it is the policy. The choice of apocalypse - the real threat to the world is their presence among us - aggravates it further. But the far right would scarcely be able to advance this message if it did not have a wider indifference to work on and, as it were, mobilise. We can reformulate this as a a general hypothesis: the anti-climate politics of the far right is now a phenomenon of such rank that it must stand on the shoulders of a much wider and broader set of relations of the kind that we normally refer to as 'racism'.

Essentially, as the far right see the world, white people are good, intelligent, technologically developed and black people are backward and primitive. This racism dovetails with a capitalist fossil fuel worldview that suggests that the world can be remade in the interests of white people and that black people are a barrier to this. They explore the evolution of this world view through a fascinating discussion of the centrality of steam to the colonial project particularly of Britain.

The authors' conclude:

The far right tends to cultivate a 'producerist' notion of white people as generators of wealth and non-whites as parasites: it works hand in glove with unswerving loyalty to the productive forces (literally) in question.... the relation between the contemporary far right, energy, climate and nature cannot be understood in abstraction from the history of modern racism and how it has related to these things. And steam was only just the beginning.

There's a final, fascinating, discussion on why fascism is on the rise today. The authors point out that classical Marxism understands fascism as a reaction to revolutionary force or potentiality. But this is not "actual" today. They suggest that it is precisely the weakness of revolutionary politics that opens the door to fascism by not being able to articulate an alternative to the chaos of capitalism. Its an interesting argument which I will have to think further on. But it does seem to fit some reality. The world of 21st century capitalism feels out of control - war in Ukraine, climate crisis, economic disaster. Few movements are articulating a progressive alternative. In the face of this chaos, fascism is offering people to blame and giving a confidence to sections of society feeling the blows of capital. White Skin, Black Fuel offers few cheering moments, but its analysis will help arm those trying to understand the far-right in order to offer an alternative.

Related Reviews

Sparrow - Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch Massacre
Hultgren - Border Walls Gone Green: Nature & Anti-Immigrant Politics in America
Wendling - Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business

Reviews of works by Andreas Malm

Malm - The Progress of This Storm: Nature & Society in a Warming World
Malm - Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century
Malm - Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming
Malm - How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Tade Thompson - Far from the Light of Heaven

In his afterword to Far from the Light of Heaven Tade Thompson tells us he was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's classic lock-room story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Thompson reasons that space was the ultimate lock-in environment and the novel is what flowed from that insight. The book begins strongly, with Michelle "Shell" Campion taking command of her first mission, the sleeper ship Ragtime. Ragtime arrives in orbit around its destination and Shell discovers that several dozen of the sleeping passengers have been murdered and the ship AI is behaving strangely. Alert the authorities to this they send up Rasheed Fin, a detective who proceeds to try and unravel the gruesome killings as the ship begins to fail around them. As his investigation proceeds, Fin finds that there are several people missing from the passenger manifest and Ragtime begins behaving very strangely indeed.

It's a great set up, but the novel feels incomplete. I found that Thompson introduced plot elements that seemed conjured out of thin air and didn't feel they fitted the universe he was building. The solution to the locked-in aspect of the mystery sees fairly obvious from early on, and I mostly read the book intrigued to find out how the author brought it all together. Unfortunately the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. All in all I was disappointed with Far from the Light of Heaven having hoped for more from the intriguing premise.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Georg Lukács - Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought

Georg Lukács was a remarkable Marxist thinker. As with so many others, the impact of the Russian Revolution turned him towards revolutionary Marxism. While his most influential work is History and Class Consciousness, this little book on Lenin demonstrates Lukács' engagement with revolutionary activism though a short and intense study of Lenin's ideas. Written in 1924 in the aftermath of Lenin's death it carries the mark of that era upon it. Reading it today it feels like a early defence of the revolutionary tradition that would be destroyed by Stalinism, though the rise of the Soviet Union's bureaucracy was in its early stages in that year.

The book begins with a definitive statement: "Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution" and proceeds to argue that understanding this is central to Lenin's theory and practice. Lukács explains that the central point for Lenin, and by extension, for all those who would follow in his footsteps, was the "actuality of revolution", the fact that revolution was a possibility in the capitalist epoch. So,

Like Marx, Lenin never generalised from parochially Russian experiences limited in time and space. He did however, with the perception of genius, immediately recognise the fundamental problem of our time - the approaching revolution - at the time and place of its first appearance. From then on he understood and explained all events, Russian as well as international, from this perspective - from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution.

This did not mean, as it's sometimes crudely understood, that Lenin (or Marx) thought the "revolution and its aims as being readily realizable at any given moment", rather it was the "actuality" that was a "touchstone for evaluating all questions of the day". In fact every question "became a fundamental problem of the revolution".

It's this political framework that helps explain why so many people see Lenin as "single minded". His devotion to revolutionary politics arose out of his understanding of the way that capitalism presented revolution as an actuality, and in particular the conditions towards the end of the First World War emphasised, this reality. Lukács points out that the "legend" of Lenin as a master political tactician is really the story of Lenin, the "theorist who consistently developed the Marxist dialectic".

Reading Lenin: A study on the unity of his thought during Russia's invasion of Ukraine also produced some other insights. Lukács notes, for instance, that "Imperialist war... creates allies for the proletariat everywhere provided it takes up a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie". Lukács continues, in a quote that could well be watchwords for today, with imperialist clashes making World War Three a distinct possibility:

But if it remains unconscious of its position and the tasks confronting it, the war forces the proletariat to disastrous self-emasculation in the wake of the bourgeoisie. Imperialist war creates a world situation in which the proletariat can become the real leader of all the oppressed and exploited, and in which its struggle for liberation can become the signal and signpost for the liberation of all those under the capitalist yoke. At the same time, however, it creates a world situation in which millions and millions of proletarians must murder each other with the most refined cruelty in order to strengthen and extend the monopoly of their exploiters. Which of these two fates is to be that of the proletariat depends upon its insight into its own historical situation – upon its class-consciousness? For ‘men make their own history’, although ‘not in circumstances chosen by themselves but in circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’. So the choice is not whether the proletariat will or will not struggle, but in whose interest it should struggle: its own or that of the bourgeoisie. The question history places before the proletariat is not to choose between war and peace, but between imperialist war and war against this war: civil war.

Lukács concludes with two interrelated points. Firstly, the actuality of revolution makes a particular theoretical idea concrete for the proletariat. This is the question of the state. It becomes the key task for the proletarian movement to advance towards the revolution's fulfillment, just as for "opportunists of all shades" that the "real enemy" is the "proletarian revolution itself". Secondly Lukács emphasises the importance of revolutionary organisation, which must be, through its recognition of the actuality of revolution, an organisation single-mindedly committed to preparing the working class "intellectually and materially, theoretically and organizationally" for the revolution.

Lukács' book is of course polemic. Written in a unique moment of history. In his 1967 postscript, he himself points out that the first sentence "demonstrates the prejudices of the time" but crucially Lukács re-emphasises the central point about his short book:

For Lenin as a Marxist 'the concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not an opposite of 'pure' theory, but - on the contrary - it is the culmination of genuine theory, its consummation - the point where it breaks into practice'.

Thus Marxism is not a matter simply for the academic lecture hall, the library, or the conference paper - rather they are a tool for helping human liberation. As the climate crisis, nuclear war and economic crisis threaten the lives of millions, capitalism ought to be put to rest. The brilliance of Georg Lukács' short book is not just in the celebration of Lenin's ideas and practice but also in articulating the method that can hasten our liberation in the face of capitalist disaster.

Georg Lukács' Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought is available to read online here.

Related Reviews

Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography
Lenin - Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Lenin - The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Aliya Whiteley - Skyward Inn

Skyward Inn opens in the pub of an unassuming, low technology village in Devon sometime in the future. It's clear that something has happened to Earth which means that the inhabitants of the village and the pub's drinkers are reduced to a barter economy. Highly localised the village is cut off, and there are ominous warnings about quarantine. The pub is run by a resident alien from the planet Qita. The barmaid is a returned explorer who was one of the first to visit the planet as humanity arrived to share knowledge and resources. A few years later Qita has its share of Earth mining plants and its not clear who is sharing what, and how willingly.

The reader gradually becomes aware that something is happening. What that something is, is slightly obscured by the adolescent behaviour of one of the main characters, and opaque references from other characters. 

So this is a book very much of two halves. The opening half is so slow and the characters unappealing, that I almost gave up on several occasions. The latter half of the book picks up, as we learn that the aliens that humanity have encountered are up to something. Our adolescent runs away and goes to Qita, though the timelines are confusing and the reader needs to keep a close eye on what's happening. Back at home, and on Qita, though at different and the same time, sudden changes take place that transform the people of Devon, Earth and the Qitan's too.

It's an intriguing setup, that reminded me a little of John Wyndham's Chrysalids and its certainly unsettling in that way that science fiction which tries to push boundaries beyond human frameworks should be. But its all too disjointed and there are some big questions left unanswered. The ending felt a little forced and I remained confused about what was going on. The last couple of pages were a mystery. Avoid it if you like your novels more literal.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Hal Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 1: State & Bureaucracy

Reviewing Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution is no easy task. There are five volumes, several of which near 800 pages in length. Draper begins the first volume by quoting Engels' famous statement that Marx was, "before else a revolutionist" and that the books are so titled in order to draw out this fundamental aspect to Marx's work. Draper says, "writing to an old friend, Marx had had occasion to express his contempt for the philistines who 'consider people like you and me immature fools who all this time have not been cured of their revolutionary fantasises.'"

It is this Marx, "the political man", that Draper says is the subject of his volumes. But Draper imposes boundaries on his own work. He "resists" the "temptation to follow questions farther than Marx and Engels" did themselves by exploring what subsequent Marxists had to say. Doing this avoids extending the work too far, but Draper could simply not be definitive and there inevitably would be a risk that his work would be dismissed by those arguing over the interpretation of Marx through later events rather than their actual ideas.

As an opening work volume one begins where Marx began, with his early Hegelian ideas and Marx's break with Hegel. Marx did this, as Draper forensically shows, through an engagement with several key struggles taking place at the time. In particular the struggle for democracy, which led Marx to examine issues like private property, economics and so on. The "embarrassment" of "material interests" that Marx refers to. Draper writes that:

Marx was the first socialist figure to come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for the consistent extension of democratic control from below. He was the first figure in the socialist movement who, in a personal sense, came through the bourgeois-democratic movement: through it to its farthest bounds, and then out by its farthest end. In this sense he was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy with the struggle for a socialist transformation.

At this point it's worth noting that Draper's book does not attempt to avoid using the words of Marx (and Engels). Draper is trying to show the development of Marx's thought as it took place, and rather than relying on choice quotes isolated from broader context he frequently uses Marx's own words, often in lengthy quotations. And so it ought to be with Draper, because this is an extremely lucid and quotable exploration of Marxism.

Much of volume one focuses on the question of the democratic struggle, and how Marx develops this into a socialist view. It means that Draper explores some complex issues that might not be necessarily known to those who've engaged primarily with Marx's mature, published work. There is, for instance, a fascinating discussion of Marx's writing on the issue of Jewish emancipation, and a brilliant appendix that explores Marx's thoughts in his work the On the Jewish Question. Draper shows how for Marx the emancipation of Jewish people was not about debates about religion, but rather debates about democracy and society in general. In Draper's words:

The point of the Jewish question in 1843, then, was to get away from controversary over religion in general or the Jews in particular, and to establish that religion was a private matter with relation to the state, thereby emancipating the state from the religious question. The political emancipation of the Jews was a means to general political emancipation.

It's an analysis that shows how Marx rose above the more parochial questions of the radical movements he was engaged with and fitted these issues into wider struggles and understandings of society and history.

As the title of volume one State and Bureaucracy indicates, much of the book is concerned with Marx's theory of the state. Here Draper again delivers a more nuanced exploration of Marx's ideas than we usually get. For instance he notes that the state itself is more than just a directly, violent, coercive body. But one that also uses less direct means of coercion to protect its interests. Marx linked the state to the class nature of society, and Draper shows how Marx explained the state in the context of historical change and the rise of class society. As such there are some lengthy discussions about Asiatic means of Production etc, and what Marx and Engels thought and wrote. Some of these are quite opaque to the general reader, but they build up a consistent framework for Marx's ideas.

It ought to be noted that a great success of the book is that it bases itself on the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of the works of Marx and Engels. There are numerous references to obscure letters or lesser texts and even a short appendix on Marx's early poetry. Draper doesn't do this for completeness or because he is showing off, but because the poetry demonstrates how Marx's ideas matured. That said, most readers will be amazed at the range of sources used and Draper's knowledge of his source material.

Reading volume one I was struck by how valuable and insightful a book this is. Draper's desire not to expand on Marx is valid. But it is impossible not to read Draper and think how Marx's work applies to events, institutions and political and economic questions today. That Hal Draper has made such a massive work so accessible is a testament to his own clarity as a Marxist. I certainly look forward to reading subsequent volumes and seeing how he builds on this excellent first book.

Related Reviews

Draper - Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution Volume 2: The Politics of Social Classes
Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life
Liebknecht - Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs
Löwy - The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Julian Rathbone - Kings of Albion

It's the fifteenth century. A group of princes and their followers travel to a country far from civilisation, in a quest for riches, power and to rescue a captured friend. They travel to this distant land through foreign places teeming with strange, irrational and heretical ways. When they arrive they find the country in the midst of bloody civil war, with kings and princes whose behaviour and barbaric customs, food and music sicken the very souls of the travellers.

We are of course travelling from the civilised country of Vijayanagara in southern India, whose wealth, power and cultural achievements are legendary, and visiting the barbaric backwater of England. Our travels tell their tale through many mediums, gathered together by the Mah-Lo. His main informant is the trader Ali ben Quatar Mayeen who guided the princes into this hell hole via the Middle East and Europe.

Julian Rathbone's novels are noted for their humour and their not occasional anachronisms. He peppers the text with in jokes and cultural references, our travellers learn about football, learned characters allude to insights offered by Darwin and Newton, and above all we find out the truth between some key historical moments during the War of the Roses. But Rathbone's novel, despite being fully tongue in cheek, are more than just entertainment. He makes a several serious points about how the West always saw the East as backward, while the opposite was clearly true. His characters, particularly Ali and his English clerical friend Peter, discuss deep philosophical ideas, giving a reader a sense of the great ideological crises that would soon sweep Europe - though these feel (and are) out of time for the period.  

I was particularly taken by the character of Uma, a follower of the Indian god Kali, who travels with the band, going on her own adventures with a hedonistic approach to life and death. As she seduces Eddie Plantangant, she drags our tourists deep into the intrigues of the Wars of the Roses, but in her own explorations of England learns much more about how the ordinary people of the country live than her more high ranking followers.

Rathbone is clearly trying to reverse a Rider Haggard type travelogue (consider the name of his main character, for instance). The book works more as an intriguing, comic, account of travel rather than an adventure. Though it kept me gripped until the end.

Related Reviews

Rathbone - The Mutiny
Rathbone - The Last English King
Rathbone - A Very English Agent

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Alex Callinicos - An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto

Re-reading Alex Callinicos' An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto nearly twenty years after first publication I was struck by two things. The first is how much it feels like an account of my own political development. Having joined the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1990s it was, to a certain extent, the anti-capitalist movement which erupted onto the political scene following the Battle of Seattle in 1999 that was fundamental in shaping me as a political activist. Like many others I went on from the anti-capitalist movement into organising the anti-war movement. It is ironic that after seeing a one of the leading figures of that movement become leader of the opposition, his successor, Keir Starmer, is currently working hard to destroy that legacy.

Secondly however, I was struck by the parallels between the political debates within the anti-capitalist movement and today's climate movement. Callinicos writes that his book comes from the "revolutionary Marxist tradition" and that many in the anti-capitalist movement might uncomfortable with that. He continues though that he offers the arguments in it "as a contribution to debate within the movement and in the hope of persuading more people that another world is indeed possible". The same could be said if it was presented to many radical environmental activists today.

Callinicos opens his contribution with a discussion of how capitalism destroys the planet. Today I would hope that few socialist authors would ignore the ecological crisis, but in 2003 this was much less common. Callinicos' arguments, which located the climate and environmental crises within the capitalist system of accumulation, feel as important as ever. He shows that it is the very nature of exploitation within capitalism which makes it so destructive to people and planet. Again, with an eye to contemporary debates about the war in Ukraine, Callinicos continues to show how this system then drives imperialist conflict.

For those who took part in the various manifestations of the anti-capitalist movement - protests, social forums and so on - it is easy to forget the swirl of ideas that ran through them. Callinicos notes that the nature of the movement itself was contested - was it against capitalism? Against globalisation? To what extent were the various demands (the eradication of "third world" debt, solidarity with migrants etc) a united movement or the temporary coming together of different strands? The section that looks at "varieties of anti-capitalism" is useful because it reminds us that debates around localism, autonomism, reformism and top down change haven't gone away. Indeed the climate crisis has amplified them. 

Callinicos' fraternal, but powerful, critique of the ideas of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are particularly important today. Hardt's "appeal... to the novelty of 'network movements', the idea that political disagreements will somehow spontaneously resolve themselves thanks to the logic of the struggle" is reminiscent of the "beyond politics" and "movement of movements" approach taken by some in the leadership of Extinction Rebellion. Callinicos notes that these ideas were not new in the early 2000s, but "prevalent during the Second International" up to the First World War. 

But perhaps the most important section of An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto is that on "imagining other worlds". Here Callinicos takes quite a theoretical critique of the market to show how a future world based on "justice, efficiency, democracy and sustainability" requires a break from an notion of capitalist organisation. In particular he argues hard that for democratic, socialist, planning of the economy. Callinicos argues that the "planning" which took place in the Soviet Union was neither democratic nor socialist, and instead:

As a first approximation, by socialist planning I mean an economic system where the allocation and use of resources are determined collectively on the basic of democratic decision-making procedures central to which is the majority principle...
But his vision of a democratically planned economy is nuanced, taking up complex organisational issues which link concepts like "individual rights" to wider collective interests:
A planned socialist economy is democratic but that does not mean it would always rely on the majority principle. There are many cases in which other decision procedures are appropriate: part of the point of the concept of individual rights is to identify those areas where individuals should be able to exclude all others from participating in decisions that primarily concern them. For example... one of the achievements of capitalism has been to establish that individuals have the exclusive right to decide what sort of work they should undertake... It seems to me that a socialist economic system in general would respect and indeed extend this right.

Back in 2003 anyone putting these arguments would have also had to answer the closely related question of "how do we get there?" The same is true today, and Callinicos argues that while we need a revolution to create such as society, a revolution based on the working class, he also is mindful of the way the anti-capitalist movement threw up immediate demands that needed to be fought for. Some of these can be brought together as "transitional demands", which are "reforms that emerge from the realities of existing struggles but whose implementation in the current context would challenge capitalist economic relations". Today the demand for "millions of climate jobs" would fit this framework. Workers fighting for climate jobs and a just transition today are part of both wining real reforms and challenging capitalism.

Twenty years after first publication An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto pays re-reading but not just for historic interest. While some of it is of course a little dated and some specifics have changed, it remains a model for how to approach the multi-faceted, but radical social movements that we are seeing in the 2020s - from Black Lives Matter to the Climate Strikes. 

Related Reviews

Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Callinicos - Making History
Callinicos and Simons: The Great Strike: The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Callinicos, Kouvelakis, Pradella (eds) - Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism