Sunday, October 02, 2022

Lyndal Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

On October 31 1517 Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The 95 statements on that piece of paper, we are told, kickstarted the Protestant Reformation. Or so we are told. Whether Luther actually nailed anything to the door, or whether that was a latter legend created by his followers to complete a carefully managed image we will likely never know. But the story works because it seems to be very much in character for Luther, a man whom we know a great deal about. 

Lyndal Roper's biography is a detailed study of Luther's life and personal motivations. She explains that "the wealth of material that has survived on Luther is so great that we probably know more about his inner life than about that of any other sixteenth-century individual". This shouldn't be surprising. Luther was a devout man whose religious life was very much a personal experience. He found himself in contradiction to the established Church in part because of his personal experiences. So its no surprise that his own writings, recollections and those of contemporaries were filled with personal experiences. Luther's legacy however was also carefully managed - his biography written in part to continue to battles of the Reformation itself.

But Roper wants to go further than understanding Luther's inner turmoil. She wants to explain how his "theology sprang from his character", and she uses a psychoanalytic approach to do this. The first step in Luther's rebellion, argues Roper, was "rebellion against his father". Fatherhood was important to Luther, both in the religious sense whereby Luther "emphasised the whole gamut of the fatherly aspects of God's nature" to the material one where "Luther's notions of manhood and fathers were forged by the rough world of Mansfeld as well as his relationship with his father".

Roper places her stall out early. Luther's rebellion, she argues, arose very much out of a personal crisis, which Luther's father in a central role, but she also admits that this process is not clear:
It is difficult to know exactly what role the conflict with his father might have played in these struggles, but it does seem that his spiritual troubles stemmed from the relationship he was forging with a paternal God. All the crises cluster around the terror of being confronted directly with God, the Father, who is also God the judge, without any intermediary; whereas the whole purpose of the monastic life as Luther experienced it was to create a security net where the intercessions of Mary, prayers said on one's behalf and exercises to subdue the flesh all cushioned him against God' transcendent power. So if Luther's entry into the monastery was a retreat into a matriarchal world, that retreat was raising spiritual problems of its own.
What this long quote shows is the way that Roper sees Luther buffeted by experiences and striving to make sense of the world through his study of the world. But is it enough? There's no doubt that Luther had a complex relationship with his father, breaking with the families plan for him to become a lawyer in the service of their mining company, undergoing revelation and entering a monastery to the dismay of his parents. But as Roper herself notes, Luther was also "radicalised by the opposition he encountered" to the 95 theses. 

Because whatever the process that pushed Luther on a particular road, the Reformation itself did not spring fully formed out of his head. Nor was it entirely the result of Luther's own thinking, actions or Biblical readings. Luther's ideas feel on receptive ground, soil that was already in turmoil as a result of wider economic and political changes. In fact Luther was surrounded by contradiction. His Reformation was a challenge to the established order, but it was also shaped by Luther's personal politics that saw rigid hierarchy on Earth as natural itself. Writing of Luther in Wittenberg, Roper says:
Luther would have been familiar with this arrangement, for it was what he had grown up with in Mansfeld. He naturally expected power to descend from above, not legitimacy to be conferred from below. This helps explain why his Reformation would be so different from that which would emerge in the south, and why his theology of power appears so reactionary. He simply had no experience of the more democratic values of southern German communes... As conservative as Luther's politics might have been, they were also in tune with the newly emerging political realities of the time; for it was the large territories of the princes that became the mainstays of the Reformation, while the civic communes of southern Germany were entering the twilight of their power.
So Roper understands that whatever the motivation of Luther the Reformation, as a process, took place on much wider political and economic ground. To be fair to Roper, she makes it clear she is not writing a history of the German Reformation, but a biography of Luther. But the two, in many ways, are inseparable and understanding Luther helps to understand the Reformation, as well as vice-versa. That said, Luther's personal character shapes specific events during the Reformation which have far reaching implications. Roper makes the point that when Luther was confronted with the authorities he "would in the end always align himself with the authorities". Luther was not revolutionary in a political sense. In fact he was deeply conservative in this regard. This can be mostly clear seen in Luther's reaction to the 1524/5 Peasant War, an uprising during the Reformation that saw thousands of peasants challenge the princes and the regional hierarchy over a number of demands relating to property, communal ownership and wealth. Luther violently opposed the peasants, despite having set in motion some of the processes that inspired them. His sermons against the peasants were violent and he urged a swift response. Despite his condemnation of the authorities at times, there is almost a shock in how Luther responds to the rebellion. Roper writes:
Yet there was nothing surprising in his stand. It was already prefigured in his conflict with Karlstaft [a figure of the radical Reformation] from the moment that Luther decided to defeat the Wittenberg movement and support the Elector's attempt to make peace with the Diet by slowing the pace of evangelical reform. Luther had already rejected the communal Reformation, powered by popular pressure, which inspired Karlstaft. This was the Reformation that was also popular among the lower townsfolk in Allstedt, Muhlhausen and Frankenhausen, where [revolutionary] Müntzer had his most loyal and zealous supporters.  
So rather than seeing the Peasant War as a continuation of his belief, or even his beliefs taken too far, too fast, Luther saw the Peasant rising as being the "triumph of the Devil" [Roper's words]. 

Roper shows how these events pushed Luther down a particular road. Partly personal - he responded by getting married, in direct defiance of the Church, an act of rebellion and an "affirmation of his 'courage and joy'," according to Roper. But they also shaped Luther's own Reformation in a way that meant not upsetting the political applecart too much. After 1525 it seems to me that Luther is much more conservative, more willing to compromise and keen to ingratiate himself with powerful forces that can help him push his agenda while not frightening established wealth and power. The brave Luther of the first half of the book is replaced by a more conservative figure in the second.

But problems with Luther's belief don't just stem from his conservatism. He was also a virulent antisemite, and Roper powerfully attacks this aspect of Luther's beliefs. His antisemitism: 
was not a medieval relive but a development of it. Even more disturbingly, it was not incidental to his theology, a lamentable prejudice taken over from contemporary attitudes. Rather, it was integral to his though; his insistence that the true Christians - that is, the evangelicals - had become the chosen people and had displaced the Jews would become fundamental to Protest identify. It was the central plank of his understanding of the Lutherans' providential role in history, and to secure it the Jews had to be pushed aside, discredited and, if necessary, eliminated. 
I began Lyndal Roper's biography prepared to be frustrated by her insistence one psychoanalysing Luther's life. I finished it however extremely impressed. The Martin Luther she describes is a complicated figure buffeted by circumstance and inner conflict, brave enough to stand out against the established Church, but unwilling to go too far for fear of revolutionary change. Because this is a biography of Luther I was unsatisfied by Roper's explanation of the Reformation itself. Constantly I wanted to understand what motivated people to follow Luther, what was it about their circumstances that made Luther's radical critique so invited to so many people. Indeed why were some prepared to take the Reformation into their own hands and risk to their own lives. Here I think we need a more detailed look at what was changing in European society, and in particularly in Germany. Roper doesn't offer that because she remains focused on her main subject - but read together with other histories of the period her book is a brilliant account of Martin Luther's life. 

To this praise should be added a brief note that Roper's book is lavishly, indeed beautifully, illustrated and her command of the source material, her insights into Luther and his contemporary and her commentary of material such as the use of Luther's image is fascinating. There is much her for readers even if one doesn't agree entirely with her approach.

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Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart

In many ways Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is one of the most insightful novels about colonialism in Africa I've ever read. It's subtly lies in the seemingly innocuous way the process takes place - a thriving African community is brilliantly described mainly from the point of view of Okonkwo, a great warrior and wrestler, whose renown and wealth is undone by the accidently killing of a clansman. His punishment, banishment for seven years, means that he learns of the undoing of the village from afar.

In his absence white missionaries arrive, tempting some of the villagers away from their traditional practises and beliefs, alongside this the serpent voices of the missionaries are further undone by the trading post, that offers new wealth by tying the community into wider capitalist networks. The "lunatic religion" is reinforced by money "flowing into Umuofia" and with this money comes a growing feeling that there might be "method in the overwhelming madness". 

But behind the money there's a new white government and with that state comes violence. Government and justice are removed from the hands of the village elders and placed in the hands of people who know nothing of events, an abstract law replacing the complex rules that manage behaviour. When they protest the community and its village elders are collectively punished. 

Returning to this transformed world, which has seen his personal hopes and dreams destroyed, and the old order "fall apart", Okonkwo is at first disappointed that his was not the long imagined triumphant return, but this is soon replaced by anger and humiliation at what has happened to his people. His response, in many ways, is a personal redemption even if it is a hopeless gesture against the colonial powers who literarily treat it as a footnote of history.

Achebe's book is not one of violent resistance or retribution, it tells the story of how colonialism was a destructive force - both explicitly through guns and soldiers, and usurped state power, but also through the networks of commerce and religion that shattered the old order in the name of "progress".

Things Fall Apart is not a cheerful novel, nor is it patronising to the pre-colonial communities. These are portrayed as very different to European "society", but with their own internal logic, rationalities, rules and contradictions. This is not a pre-colonial utopia, but nor is it a society that sees systematic oppression and exploitation - that took the arrival of capitalism. This is one of the great novels that explores that transformation.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Monisha Rajesh - Around the World in 80 Trains

Monisha Rajesh's Around the World in 80 Trains promises the reader an account of a 45,000 mile "adventure". Her journey certainly must have been a personal adventure, crossing Canada and the United States and Russia, travelling through South East Asia, exploring China and even taking the train in North Korea and to Tibet. But sadly there's no thrill of a journey for the reader, and unfortunately Rajesh seems to spend most of the time sneering at the trains she and her partner travel on, and the people they meet.

It is hard to put into words exactly why I disliked this book so much. In part it is the framing of the book. Refreshingly Rajesh doesn't pretend to be something she isn't - she criticises those who claim not to be tourists by donning the "traveller" mantel.  She rightly points out that once you travel you are a tourist. She also celebrates the randomness of travelling by train, where "no matter how many journeys I took, or how awful the train, each one brought an element of surprise or wonder". But she has strange ideas about why other people travel, "driven by the weather, the prospect of sex or dwindling funds". 

Despite being aware of her "privilege" as a relatively well off traveller in some of the poorest parts of the world, she also displays a strange failure to understand the people around here. Writing about a fellow traveller arrested in Bangkok, she comments "the idea of wilfully committing any kind of crime in Southeast Asia never failed to baffle me". The choices made by people who commit crimes are rarely the ones they'd like to make, being closely tied to wealth and poverty. Rajesh just doesn't seem to get it and comes across as tone deaf.

At times Rajesh has interesting insights, at others she comes across as the sort of traveller that she claims she isn't - "Leaving my job, my home and my possessions had quietened the noise in my head. My immediate concerns were were to eat and where to sleep. The less I carried, the less I worried". Must be nice.

At the end I was frustrated and disappointed by this book. I didn't enjoy the authors' attitudes to most of the people she met and her commentary on the places, trains and cultures she saw seemed superficial. Unusually this travel book didn't make me want to travel. Not recommended.

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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Ulrich Mohr - Atlantis

This is an interesting, and unusual account of the war against shipping in World War Two, for two reasons. Firstly it is, unusually, from the German point of view and secondly because the voyage described was in itself unusual. The ship at the heart of the tale is the Atlantis, a surface raider along the lines of many similar craft from the First War, that distinguished itself by disguise and manipulation to sink Allied merchant vessels.

There are some great oddities - not least the ship itself. The captain brought about a load of prams so crew could dress as women pushing children about and lull the enemy into a false sense of security. But suddenly the flags would rise, the hidden batteries open and if the enemy used their wireless to warn the admiralty then gunfire would silence them. Atlantis was very successful in what she did. and at least according to the contributions from enemy captains and prisoners, she was almost unique in that she looked after captured merchant sailors.

Ulrich Mohr, his captain Admiral Bernhard Rogge and others are keen to distance themselves from any link to the Nazi regime. Quite the contrary. Mohr argues that they were sailors first and foremost with little allegiance to the fascists. Me thinks the writers protest too much - they would like to portray their adventure as a purely military event, but there's no doubt they were pleased with their successes and their rewards. At the end Mohr points to the reality of Nazi Germany - with industrialists raking in profits and "party member" getting the wives of the sailors. Yet even the condemnation of industrialists smacks of Nazi propaganda rather than genuine, left, class anger.

That said, this is a startling voyage. Atlantis and her crew were ruthlessly efficient and good at what they did, and there are some fascinating insights. Their over-Winter on the remote, Antarctic, Kerguelen Islands is fascinating. As is their "German" viewpoints on war news. I was struck by a couple of references to discipline, including the punishment of sailors of "homosexuality" activity. Of great interest were the German's own fascinating with the colonial sailors on the British ships - Indian and Chinese men - who were swiftly brought into working in the kitchens for the Germans. There's some fascinating commentary on British colonialism here for those that would like to look for it. There certainly is far more mention of the reliance of the British naval effort in World War Two and crews from the colonies in this by the "enemy" than you might find in most similar accounts by British authors.

Overall though this book offers insights into a particularly vicious sea battle whose tactics will not be seen again - though take the authors' political claims with scepticism.

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Friday, September 16, 2022

Justine Firnhaber-Baker & Dirk Schoenaers - The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt

The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt is an important tool for everyone interested in "revolt" in the Middle Ages and more generally. I deliberately put revolt in quotes here because what the word means is quite different to how contemporaries might have understood it. Conditioned as we are by modern capitalism we tend to see revolt as being "from below", a challenge to the political status quo, or the state through diverse mechanisms. 

This doesn't quite fit in the Medieval era, as revolt took on different meanings. In her introduction editor Justine Firnhaber-Baker points out that revolts "might not have been construed as such by contemporaries" and taking up a theme that several of the contributions discuss, she points out that "violence is key, for it served not only strategic goals but also as a means of communication in this highly gestural society". In the Medieval era revolts had a number of different aspects that this volume draws out through a study of numerous different periods, events and places. 

Revolts, however they were construed, terrified the Medieval ruling classes. That's one reason why they feature in numerous contemporary accounts - as dire warnings to potential rebellious group and to the lords and kings who might provoke uprisings through misgovernance. But as Firnhaber-Baker explains  studies of revolts only really began systematically with the "Age of Revolution" drawing parallels between historic events and contemporary revolutions. Similarly more recent studies have tended to follow contemporary radical events and she says that more recent "popular movements" from the anti-capitalist movements to the Arab Spring have galvanised renewed interest. As such she argues that the book "embodies a particular historiographical moment" which should provoke interest far beyond the academic authors and audiences of the book.

Consisting as it does of eighteen essays, excluding the opening and closing chapters, it would be difficult to review this book in any detail. Some of the articles cover topics with which I am familiar such as the English Rising of 1381, others cover more general topics such as Samuel Cohn's fascinating study of Women in revolt in medieval and early modern Europe. Still others cover subjects which were entirely new too me such as Hipólito Rafael Oliva Herrer's article on the War of the Communities of Castile. All of them are however readable to the non expert, even if we are likely to miss nuance.

Many of the essays grapple with problems of language, historical distance and how to use sources. Myles Lavan's article on revolt in the early Roman Empire explores how to understand the very meaning of rebellion, as well as its scale, when often all historians have about events are "10 to 20 words in one or two texts". He does so by taking apart the meanings of Latin vocabulary, and how the contemporary texts wrote about revolts. It is fascinating even for those of us who have no Latin at all! He makes a point that those of us studying revolution today will find all to familiar. Writings about rebellions are always shaped by a political framework that wants to demonise events and participants. As Lavan says, "the distortions of elitist discourse on peasant revolt... include not just the obvious rhetoric of barbarism, criminality, and immorality, which deny legitimacy to the rebels, but also more subtle tropes, such as spontaneity or hysteria, which deny them agency and rationality". Reading contemporary accounts of the 2011 London Riots would easily find you similar examples, and at least one nameless recent book on the Russian Revolution I read invariably describes the Bolsheviks as "incendiary", "brutal" or "fanatical".

Several of the articles explore deeper themes about Medieval life and the origins of social revolt. In his  piece on the 1381 English Rising Andrew Prescott makes a point that the rebellion was both broader in geographical scope and much more "multi layered" in content than is often credited. He argues that a focus on London has distorted how people understand 1381. I myself had understood the "rising" as much more widespread than London, but Prescott's article shows that it was even more geographically broad than I appreciated. He describes rebel bands criss-crossing the country, and "a concerted attempt to spread the rebellion as far as possible". All of this points to a much more complex understanding of revolt in 1381 than we might expect, as Prescott says, "Just as the structures of political power were more complex and dispersed in the Middle Ages than in modern societies, so likewise the dynamics of conflict and protest were different... and do not accord with modern assumptions." He chastises those historians who see 1381 too simply in terms of events around the capital, neglecting events in the regions. He argues that only by seeing the complexity and scale of events outside of the capital can we really understand the uprising itself. This is undoubtedly true - if we only focus on the capital, we can miss how literarily thousands of groups of rebels tried to redress injustice, challenge their local rulers and take part in mass politics. But we also have to be wary of throwing away the baby alongside the bathwater. London as the centre of state power and wealth was attractive to the rebels in the south-east because it was there they could win fundamental change. Events in London mattered for how the rebellion would play out, even if a narrow focus on London means we can miss learning much more about how the rebels saw the society they lived in. 

Justine Firnhaber-Baker draws out some further details from the economic base when writing on similar issues in her article on the Jacquerie. She discusses the meaning of the nobility and their position in society:
The reason nobles lived in fortresses was because they could physically coerce the peasants into handing over their surplus.. and the reason they could do that was because they were a warrior aristocracy who lived in fortress. This is an oversimplification of the complex and changing situation of the late medieval French nobility, but this nexus of economic, political and military privilege inherent in noblesse seems nonetheless to have been at the heart of the Jacquerie for its rank and file participants.
It was impossible for both classes to escape the reality of their situation. So when revolt did break out, whether it was the "peasants from below", groups of disaffected nobles and lords, or some combination of the two, there invariably was violence. 

This violence was considered part of the political framework of society and thus more accepted as a tool of rebellion. Several writers explore this. In particular Vincent Challet in his piece on Violence as a Political Language in French and English rebellions. Here we see examples of popular violence on many levels, "legal violence" in court, or mass protest involving "shouting and screaming" against officials. I was particularly taken by an example from Lavaur in 1357, where the populares protested by taking up arms and patrolling the streets at night and then "stood in front of the houses of the wealthiest townsmen shouting: 'Where are those damn traitors and wreckers of this place?'" The threat of violence, in this case, leading to victory for the people. That's not to say that actual violence didn't take place - many essays refer to murders, lynching, and even pitched battle - but Challet makes the point that the boundaries between the two were often blurred. 
Physical violence of the sort that might seem more objectionable to us - like murder, arson or even post-mortem mutilation - was perceived as a regular way of speaking, not only for rebels, but also for the elites and government. This may be because these violent actions were, in fact, imitations of judicial procedures: cutting royal officers' bodies into pieces was nothing more than the execution of 'traitors'... burning castles was not so far from the legal abattis demaison which is attested in the urban statues...
In other words, violent action must be understood in a social context not just in terms of the violence itself.

Before I finish I want to highlight a few other essays in passing. Some of the essays take up subjects often ignored or downplayed in histories of the period. I have already mentioned one essay specifically on the role of women, and several essays touch on this further. It is worth noting a fine essay comparing revolt in late medieval European and Islamic societies. Such societies aren't discussed often enough when we consider the period. A couple of essays bridge the period before and after the Medieval era, Phillip Haberkern looking forward to urban revolt in the Reformation, and several of the essays also discuss the complex question of elite participation in revolts from below. Interestingly, one of the great strengths of this collection is how many of the authors try to break out of the very narrow confines of particular specialities and draw links between regions, places and times.

While the book is not aimed at the casual reader, and some of the academic language is challenging, I do highly recommend it. It will, naturally, appeal first and foremost to students of Medieval revolts themselves. For this it will likely remain a gold standard for many years to come. But there is also much here for those trying to understand the politics of social movements more broadly - how they change over time and how they are shaped by their social and economic context. I might not entirely agree with Andrew Prescott's conclusions from his foray into the Arab Spring while discussing the English Rising, but it is important that some scholars are taking this approach. For all these reasons, and more, I hope that many readers will be able to get a copy of this important book and explore these diverse and fascinating essays.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

George Mackay Brown - Greenvoe

* Spoilers*

George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) was Orkney's foremost poet and novelist. By the time he published Greenvoe, his first novel, he was well known for poetry and short stories. Living relatively reclusively in Stromness his novel is soaked through with a sense of Orkney. His fictional community of Greenvoe is on the fictional island of Hellya, it stands in for a myriad of island and remoter communities. 

Greenvoe is a small fishing community. It is shot through with the class differences that are usually ignored when novelists write about Scotland. This is not an idyllic village, rather its one where rich and poor live cheek by jowl, jealousies, adulteries and disagreements fester and those higher up the wealth ladder sneer down at those below. At the top of the food chain is the laird in the "big house", his beautiful daughter visits from the Scottish mainland, triggering lust and jealousies. But there are other visitors - including the Asian travelling clothing salesman, who is met with interest, custom and poverty - while offering his own sharp commentary on Greenvoe's inhabitants. 

Much of the book deals with these characters in passing, the hard-drinking Tommy who beachcombs for a living, the ferryman Ivan Westray, described as a "ladies man" in the book's blurb but who is much nastier than that, and most interestingly Skarf, a Marxist and failed fisher who is writing a history of the island and whose prose entertains the drinkers in the hotel bar. Skarf is fascinating because through him Brown links the deep history of Orkney with contemporary events. There's continuity between the too. 

Despite Skarf's politics, I was most interested by the elderly Mrs Mckee, who is only on the island because of the irresponsible behaviour of her alcoholic son Simon, the local minister. Mrs McKee is drowned in anxiety and sorrows, reliving her past life immersed in her own petty guilts. Through her we learn of the tragic backstory to her son, but her own life - restrained by the limitations of class and wealth.

But these intricately drawn lives, woven together so skilfully by Brown, are town apart in barely a week as the secret "Black Star" project arrives on the island. Like so many Scottish people before them, the community is broken apart and scattered, for the interests of a small minority. 

Greenvoe's greatness lies in the portrait of a town in tension with itself, pulled back and forth by the petty ruptures and interests of different individuals, and their own histories, lies and prejudices. Brown demonstrates a clever eye for moralistic shopkeepers and cheating publicans. But none of his characters are innocent, they're all flawed. Their tragedy is that they're victims of circumstances not of their choosing. Skarf understands that.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

James Hawes - The Shortest History of Germany

James Hawes' The Shortest History of Germany is a bestseller. This shouldn't be a surprise. The historical trajectory of the twentieth century was fundamentally shaped by events in Germany and today the country remains a powerhouse in terms of the European economy, central to events in the wider region. German history remains of interest to the casual reader as much as the academic historian. Hawes' book promises to explain it all in short, accessible bites to the reader. Unfortunately I think the book is utterly inadequate and its conclusions leave the reader open to dangerous conclusions about what happened and why in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.

In short, Hawes argues that to understand modern German history we have to look into the distant past, and sees the fault lines of Germany society arising out of fundamental divisions that go back to the era of the Roman Empire and Charlemagne. He concludes that "Germany is the sole hope for Europe... it must now be embraced, as what it was always meant to be: a mighty land at the very heart of the West". 

Germany, Hawes argues, has always faced two ways: West and East. The western looking side has had a progressive, modern outward looking world view and the East has been the source of chaos and danger. Take the question of Hitler's victory. Hawes rightly points out that Hitler failed to get a majority of votes, but he argues that the key determining factor of this was the religious background that people had, and that was shaped by the historical development of Germany. He then argues that this is rooted in the ancient past:

In many areas within the Roman limes [borders] of 100Ad, Hitler fails to break 35%... The average here overall is well under 40%. Even with the whole state apparatus behind him... Hitler has failed to take the west and south of Germany. In fact, only two constituencies within the bounds of Otto the Great's Empire of 940AD. give Hitler a majority - and they both lie right at its eastern limits, on the western banks of the Elbe.

Correlation is, of course famously not causation. The problem with this argument however, is it basically implies that everyone east of the Elbe is always going to be right-wing. Such geographical explanations are inadequate, but Hawes dishes them out with gusto. Of East Germany he writes, it "didn't become different because of the Russian occupation of 1945-1989; the Russian occupied the place because it had always been different". Surely most readers here would pause and point out that the Russian's occupied Eastern Germany because they arrived from the East.

What Hawes fails to offer the interested reader is any explanation for events. History is, to paraphrase, "just one thing after the other". For Hawes, the Nazis arose because Hitler was able to manipulate people to accept him in the chaos that followed the first World War. But Hitler was able to do this because the chaos had been caused by the left. The new German government after World War On had "no reliable forces of its own" so it had to turn to the "Free Corps" to crush the "red rioters". Yet the revolutionary period that followed World War One was one of mass mobilisations by German working people fighting for jobs, equality and freedom - not a few rioters. Time and again Hawes blames the Communists for wanting to overthrow the "new democracy" despite that new democracy being vicious towards ordinary people as it tried to save capitalism from itself.

Hawes argues that Hitler was successful because the Nazis deliberately copied "the street fighting style and the modern-seeming politicking of the new, Lenin-inspired left". In fact, at times, it seems that Hawes' real targets are the left. Completely incorrectly he writes that "Hitler's ideas were closer to Lenin's than to any traditional European conservatism", neatly ignoring the rabid antisemitism and racism at the core of Hitler's ideas and his stated counter-revolutionary agenda. Hawes doesn't mention how the first victims of the Nazis were the left, and especially the Communist left, despite them allegedly being so "close" in ideas. In fact Hawes' characterisation of the left and the far-right is shockingly incorrect:

Both Lenin and Hitler appealed to perverted versions of that great 19th-century liberal ideology (as seen in Hegel, Marx and Darwin): the idea of progress-through-struggle-to-utopia.

Hawes' argument that Marxists believe in "progress-through-struggle-to-utopia" doesn't stand up to scrutiny, whether in the work of Marx, Lenin or German socialist thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg. It is, of course a feature of Stalinism and Second International Marxism, though Hawes only sees continuity from Lenin's era to Stalin when he should see a break and seems to celebrate the entirely pro-war Second International. But Hawes' generalisations are also worrying. He presents Hegel as "the root of all evil?" but neglects to discuss some very dangerous thinkers who were real influences on the far right - figures like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Spengler. 

This might all be of historical curiosity, but this approach mars Hawes' discussions of post-war politics. The problem is that Hawes' instinctive conservatism cannot really explain the dynamics of German history. He doesn't really offer any explanation of why the German economy tanked in the 1920s, and he seems to have no sympathy with the ordinary Germans that rebelled in vast numbers against the capitalist destruction of their jobs and livelihoods. Because he sees the Russian Revolution as a bad thing, he cannot understand its influence on a generation of radicals, even after the Stalinist counter-revolution. Indeed he can only see continuity and similarity between the right wing in German and the interests of Stalin's Soviet Union.

A book of this length is always going to take some short cuts. But Hawes fails to offer any real in-depth explanation of key events, relying on superficial generalisations. His concluding remarks about the AfD, UKIP, Brexit and Britain and Germany, feel like a crude attempt to shoehorn contemporary political prejudices into a book length framework that doesn't really work. His hope that Germany and Europe will get a "vision of a land treated as, and working  as, the very heart of the West" is misplaced precisely because it ignores the real economic and political forces that shape the terrain that German politics takes place on. The current economic crisis will place new strains and stresses on the German people, and progressives will need more nuanced historical accounts and clearer politics if they are to avoid history repeating itself.

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Charles Platt - Garbage World

Garbage World is very much a novel of two parts. First published in 1967 around the time when ecological awareness was beginning to become a mainstream political concept, the book deals with a solar system wide society that has a rubbish problem. The waste and rubbish of human production is dumped on an asteroid which is inhabited by humans who were originally there to manage the waste, but have evolved into an autonomous group of humans who view other "clean" humans with distaste. These villagers scavenge the rubbish as its dumped on their asteroid, eating thrown away food and collecting the best bits of the rubbish. Those who get the best collections of rubbish rise higher in the ranks of their society. Its a sort of cargo cult of humans living on garbage.

But the asteroid is becoming unstable and needs to be managed. A survey team arrives to warn the inhabitants but there are hidden motives. Gaylord, a younger, more impressionable anthropologist on the survey becomes pulled into Garbage World's society. Despite his almost pathological hatred of dirt he gradually gets pulled into life, including beginning a relationship with the daughter of the village head. Gaylord, to use more modern parlance, goes rogue and joins in with an act of rebellion against the outsiders.

The first half of the book works relatively well. Its a fairly amusing commentary on the attitudes of a throwaway society, perhaps mostly targeted at the consumer rich society in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s. Platt is rather humorous, though much of the humour is rather scatological. We are encouraged to laugh at the student people who revel in dirt and rubbish, as well as the overly clean, prim and proper Earthers. Of course this is spoof, so it shouldn't be taken too literarily, but I did wonder whether there was an element of the author trying to portray less technological advanced people as behaving like this.

The second half of the novel is less satisfying. It becomes a rather tame adventure story where Gaylord, his new partner and the villagers try to escape the destruction of their society. At the end everyone engages in an orgy of dirt and sex. So the book begins with a interesting premise but abandons it to engage in a rather putrid adventure. No doubt there are some that were titillated by this odd combination of dirt and sex but it did little for me. Garbage World is an interesting footnote of 1960s science fiction, but its not a classic.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Corinne Fowler - Green Unpleasant Land

In July 2021 a coincidence of time and space meant that I was able to join a Stand Up to Racism protest outside the massive estate of Richard Drax. The estate was built with a fortune made from slavery. As Corinne Fowler points out in Green Unpleasant Land, the Drax family made vast amounts of cash from sugar plantations in Barbados and used it to transform the very landscape of Dorset. They built "England's longest wall" around their estate, a wall that remains - keeping out anyone who might want to enjoy the land, or peer at the consequences of such wealth. 

For her unflinching portrayal of the reality of the English countryside, Fowler has received plenty of criticism. In a hostile article the Daily Mail quoted the former, right-wing, Tory cabinet minister Peter Lilley as saying, "Arguably, it is she who has insulted her country by her book whose very title — Green Unpleasant Land — tells us what she thinks of her fellow citizens." Typically the Daily Mail headline claims that "gardening has its roots in racial injustice". It is a click-bait title designed to trigger the sort of apoplectic rage that the Mail's core readership excel in. It is also grossly unfair for Fowler's book is nuanced and detailed about the reality of the English countryside, gardening and its portrayal in literature. In fact Green Unpleasant Land is a remarkably interesting study of the English countryside, its history and the forces that shaped (and continue to shape) the landscape many of us, including Fowler, continue to enjoy. 

The Drax wall is a useful entry point to Fowler's argument. She notes that it "provides a fitting metaphor for the link between empire overseas and enclosure at home". Far from being a idyllic place, the countryside, Fowler argues, was (is) a space of intense struggle over ownership and access. She notes the various class struggles against enclosure or for economic improvements and points out that this continues today. But despite this history, the image of a beautiful pastoral idyll continues. She says:

Industrialised farming and escalating environmental destruction ought to have made naïve visions of the countryside hard to sustain. Yet they have been sustained, and a succession of social histories, personal memoirs and political manifestos have criticised the continuing pastoral view.

In contrast she points to a whole number of books and studies that have demonstrated the exact opposite (including, full disclosure, one of my own books). In particular she looks at the close links between colonialism, racism and the countryside - which manifest both through economic issues such as land ownership and exclusion, to more overt racism directed to Black visitors. She argues that there has been a "collective amnesia about the role of empire", highlighting, for example W.G.Hoskins' classic work The Making of the English Landscape, which "makes no mention of empire".

Fowler dismisses "common misapprehensions about rural England: firstly, that it has nothing to do with colonialism and, secondly, that Black British and Asian British authors are disconnected from English rurality." She systematically examines the way that writers who have written about the countryside, or set novels within it, consider questions of colonialism and racism. There are some fascinating examples. In Walter Scott's 1814 novel Waverley, the Highlands are seen as populated by people compared by Scott to "natives of Africa and America, India and the Orient". Charlotte Brontë repeatedly hints at the "colonial connotations of Wuthering Heights". Descriptions of the moors frequently link the dirty, poverty stricken people to black faced "savages". 

Yet the colonial linkage to the countryside is not just in fiction. Fowler shows how the nature of Empire shaped the countryside too. Drax's wall is one example. The profits from slavery allowed a new landowning bourgeoise to transform the landscape. The enclosures of land and the destruction of common rights, leading to the forcible destruction of the peasantry are part of a process where the primitive accumulation of wealth overseas helped kick start the evolution of capitalism back home. That's the economic context, but there were other examples. Slaves were brought back to England from overseas, sometimes to be black servants, a particularly appalling fashion. There were also black workers, traders, gardeners and escaped slaves in the countryside. The history opf the English countryside is far blacker than the Daily Mail would like.

The global transportation of plants as transformed gardens and farms in Europe. Fowler points out the role of slaves themselves in helping select and transport these plants for botanists, farmers and gardeners to enjoy. The knowledge and labour of enslaved black people and indigenous communities was essential to choosing the plants as well as providing the food to continue with slavery. Gardening may not have had its original roots in racial injustice as the Daily Mail claims Fowler says, but it was fundamentally shaped by slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

Fowler's book is subtitled Creative Responses to Rural England's Colonial Connections. These creative responses include the poetry, novels and essays of black writers whom Fowler examines in depth. The breadth of her coverage of these is remarkable and I found it impossible not to add to my list of books to read as a result. But Fowler also adds her own creativity to the discussion by responding to the themes and arguments in the book with a short story and some poetry of her own. I found these particularly insightful, and it the fact the book brings together the non-fiction and fictional form was both unusual and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the poem about Kings Heath park in Birmingham which I know well. Her poem Green Unpleasant Land is about the response to Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. In the opening chapter of the book Fowler examines the knee-jerk response to Boyle's placing of black people in the countryside and in the poem she has a raging commentator declare:

If you're still listening, here's my message:
to all you pc hand-wringers out there:
Jerusalem will never get built
if you corrupt our heritage

The erroneous belief that the English countryside is untainted by corruption, violence, racism, colonialism or class struggle is a deep-seated one. As Fowler points out, "they" have to keep reinventing it. Why? I think it serves too purposes. By removing the real history of the countryside, it becomes a continuous reservoir that the ruling class can draw upon to challenge progressive ideas. But it also offers something to individuals - escapism, hope, a challenge to the alienation of work and urban areas. We're sold a dream of Jerusalem outside the city, because without that dream, the reality is overcrowded housing, lack of jobs, poverty and polluted streets. Corinne Fowler's Green Unpleasant Land is a challenge to that narrative. It is readable, entertaining and honest, and deserves a wide readership if we are to really build Jerusalem.

Related Reviews

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle
Rackham - The History of the Countryside
Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science
Horn - Joseph Arch

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

David G. Hartwell & Patrick N. Hayden - 21st Century Science Fiction

After several recent dives into the early history of written science-fiction (see here and here, for instance) I decided to look into more contemporary works. One of the motivations for that was to explore how modern SF considered subjects that were rarely discussed in some of the classics of the genre. Issues such as race, colonialism, class and gender. 

This collection of short stories and novellas is based, with a single exception, on authors who came to prominence in the 21st century. As such its contents are frequently far in time, and subject, from predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s. However thematically in some cases that distance is not so far. There are 34 stories in the collection, and it is gratifying to see that many of these authors are not white, male and North American or European. The genre is much more diverse than it was, though there is still progress to be made. 

In terms of subjects I found my appetite for something different sated quickly with the first story in the book Vandana Singh's Infinities which follows a Muslim mathematician on the quest to understand the infinite. Set in India at at time of pogrom and inter-religious strife it carefully links these issues with wider subjects such as love and solidarity. It was clever, moving and an excellent opening chapter. A similar, post-colonial tale was Tobias S. Buckell's Toy Planes, a brilliantly tight story of a few thousand words that deals with the first trip to space by a Caribbean spaceplane. The final words spoken by the black astronaut, "We're coming up to" felt like a declaration of intent by the author as much as the character. The story itself felt very much like a statement against the dominant forms of the genre.

Some of these themes are touched on in another interesting story by David Moles, Finisterra. Here the main characters deal with poachers hunting massive animals in the atmosphere of a gas giant, yet killing the largest of these threatens a poor community of "Savages. Refugees. Drug farmers". The themes of hunting, poaching and extinction are close to the surface, even if the story turns into a fairly standard, albeit very well written and paced, adventure story.

Several of the stories, including the aforementioned Toy Planes are very short, sometimes less than 1000 words. Several much longer novellas are included like Finisterra. These tended to not be as good as the others. I'm not a great fan of Peter Watt's novels, and while his novella The Island here was more accessible, it lacked a certain clarity on what was happening. Some of the other stories, such as Charles Stross' Rogue Farm, which deals with what happens when robotic AIs become autonomous, felt like call backs to an earlier generation of novels. That's not to say it wasn't fun - I've always liked Stross' writing. But their themes felt liked updated Asimov ideas - though far better written. Another example of this was the fascinating The Calculus Plague by Marissa Lingen which looks at how ideas might be spread virus like. People might be taught maths through contact with others, but how would capitalism actually use such technology. Lingen's story is a sobering and humorous take on that question. John Scalzi's Tale of the Wicked is a classic Asimov robot story, though the characters are more human.

There are well over thirty stories in this fine collection, all of a fine standard and my personal predilections are unlikely to be the same as other readers. Several of the stories, including Vandana Singh's were very good indeed and I particularly liked Cory Doctorow's Chicken Little an updating and riffing on a classic novel Space Merchants. David D. Levine's Tk'tk'tk stood out too - the account of a human salesman trapped on an alien planet, desperate for that last big sale to enable him to go home. Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl made waves recently for a post-climate crisis world dominated by massive corporations profiteering from genetic information. His story The Gambler collected here is a fine return to similar themes. For sheer flamboyance I loved Paul Cornell's One of Our Bastards is Missing. Its a great style that reminded me of George MacDonald Fraser though Cornell's hero is no coward. I also enjoyed and was moved by Mary Rickert's Bread and Bombs, which rang true as we watch the war in Ukraine and remember the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the treatment of those fleeing conflict.

However my favourite in the whole collection was Jo Walton's Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction, which takes the trope of a world where the Nazis won, and twists it around. It is very reminiscent of a certain book by Phillip K. Dick, but done with style and a new little twist. 

Many of these stories take up the question of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human / alive. I felt this preoccupation reflects less the technological advances of our era, and more a feeling of anxiety at the state of the world. Science fiction hasn't always been the best at dealing with such issues - preferring to offer escapism rather than explanation. This fine collection shows that this is changing and that the future of the genre is in safe hands. If you love science fiction, and particularly the short story form, I'd recommend this.

Related Reviews

Nevala-Lee - Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L Ron Hubbard & the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Brian Aldiss - The Interpreter

This is an interesting early attempt to grapple with colonialism through science fiction. First published in 1960 it turns some of the tropes of science fiction on their heard by making Earth the victim, rather than the centre of a galaxy spanning civilisation. Earth, and its people, are simply another star system putting resources and wealth into the alien civilisation that has "civilised" them. In his author's note Brian Aldiss comments that the book came because he had seen "at first hand the uneasy relationship existing between 'imperialists' and subject races in India and Indonesia". Sixty years after its first publication author's would no doubt use different language, but there's no doubt that Aldiss is trying to address big questions in a progressive way.

The Interpreter of the title is Gary Towler, the lead interpreter to the alien commander. The aliens refuse to learn Earth's language, considering the art, science and language of humanity simplistic, ugly and stupid. They laugh at Earth's art, condemn its people and strip it of resources. They've also found a layer of people to be their go between, people like Towler whose favoured positions grant them some benefits over the mass of the population, but tie them to the alien's interests.

Word of the ill treatment and corruption on Earth has reached the alien's capital and an inspector heads to the planet. The distance gives the alien commanders on the ground time to set up a better story, using a war with Earth's rebels to justify their behaviour and hiding their corrupt practices. The story focuses on Towler's attempt to convince the visiting liberal dignitary of the reality of their rule, but very little goes to plan.

It's tempting to read a great deal of anti-colonial politics into the story - there's an interesting theme about armed resistance versus passive acceptance of rule in return for improvements for instance- but I'm not sure how much Aldiss draws on real struggles against the British Empire. The ending is far to easy, bloodless and simple, though there is quite a twist. The biggest weakness is the ending which wraps things up too quickly, and leaves some of the plot unfulfilled.

Fans of early science fiction who are of a liberal bent will probably enjoy this book, because it demonstrates that mid-twentieth century science fiction had at least a few authors who were trying out big ideas and radical politics within their novels - unlike writers like Isaac Asimov who were content to pretend Empire would always be benevolent. At the very least Aldiss celebrates anti-colonial rebellion, even if the language and politics feel somewhat dated today.

Related Reviews

Aldiss - Billion Year Spree
Aldiss - Greybeard
Aldiss - Non-Stop

Monday, August 22, 2022

V. Gordon Childe - Man Makes Himself

Gordon Childe was one of the foremost popular left intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a prolific author, and his books aimed at a popular audience sold in their millions. He is perhaps best known for his archaeological work, excavating Skara Brae in Orkney and his television appearances helped cement him as a public intellectual. But Childe was also a radical. As Terry Irving has recently shown, Childe's politics were fundamental to his life, and never far from the surface. He has been described as the first Marxist archaeologist, and in Man Makes Himself, perhaps his finest popular work, he applies his understanding of Marxism to prehistoric history. First published in 1936 it was enormously, and deservedly, popular. 

Today the book is, of course, dated. Even with the changes made for later editions there have been enormous strides taken in science that have shown some of Childe's ideas to be incomplete or incorrect. In particular the advent of carbon-dating and genetic science have transformed our understanding of humanity's early past as well as helping to fix dates on events and objects that Childe could not have imagined. Why then read this book? The first reason is that Childe tries to great a grand historical narrative that shows how the history of different regions fitted into a wider development of technology and ideas in prehistoric times. As Nature wrote when Man Makes Himself was first published:
Childe has a sense of perspective in time, which has been developed to a degree exceptional even among archaeologists, who juggle with millennia; and he is little more restricted in space, for he ranges from the north of Scotland to the Valley of the Indus with a familiarity which few may emulate. He is, therefore, in a position to recommend with confidence the study of archaeology as an antidote to those modern pessimists, who are disposed to doubt the soundness of the foundations upon which the belief in ‘progress', inherited from the late nineteenth century, takes its stand. Neither ‘age’, nor century, he argues, and equally no single area marked out by geographical or national limitations, can afford material adequate for such a judgment. The impartial inquirer must survey all time, and take the whole world as his province, before he ventures to pronounce upon the trend of events in present-day civilization.
This brief comment in Nature does not mention the central ideological theme to Childe's book. He argues that humanity "progresses" through a process of revolution. Two particular revolutions form the core of prehistory - the Neolithic, agricultural revolution and the urban revolution. Childe argues that such revolutions manifest themselves as "an upward kink in the population curve" whereby economic and social revolution transforms the human economy is such away that population growth can dramatically expand. Thus dialectical change, a qualitative change leading to a quantitative change, is central to Childe's theory of history. In turn, such economic changes allow for the development of new ideas, technology and social organisation. 

The second reason that it is worthwhile reading Man Makes Himself today is Childe's approach to historical change. Here he relies on a Marxist approach that places humanity within a wider natural world. Humanity acts on the world, changes it, and is in turn changed itself. However dated the book might be on occasion, Childe's approach remains useful and instructive. Here Childe demonstrates his approach in commenting on the discovery of fire:
But in mastery of fire man was controlling a mighty physical force and a conspicuous chemical change. For the first time in history a creature of Nature was directing one of the great forces of Nature. And the exercise of power must react upon the controller. The sight of the bright flame bursting forth when a dry bough was thrust into glowing embers, the transformation of the bough into fine ashes and smoke, must have stimulated man's rudimentary brain. What these phenomena suggested to him is unknowable. But in feeding and damping down the fire, in transporting and using it, an made a revolutionary departure from the behaviours of other animals. He was asserting his humanity and making himself.
Here it is perhaps worth digressing and noting the use of gendered language. It is very notable in this quote, and the very title of the book, that Childe substituted "man" for the whole of humanity. Childe however makes it clear that he does refer to men and women when writing. Unusually for popular writers of the time, Childe is concerned with the different economic roles of women. Though, on occasion, he does make comments that are somewhat dated. For instance, in discussing the development of pottery, he writes, that "pots were generally made by women and for women, and women are particularly suspicious of radical innovations". But contrast this misogynist comment with Childe's later point:
In our hypothetical Neolithic stage there would be no specialisation of labour - at most a division of work between the sexes. And that system can still be seen at work today. Among hoe-cultivators the women generally till the fields, build up and fire the pots, spin and weave; men look after animals, hunt and fish, clear the plots for cultivation and act as carpenters, preparing their own tools and weapons. But, of course, to such a generalisation there are many exceptions: among the Yoruba, for instance, weaving is in the hands of men.
Childe is notably sympathetic to indigenous communities and women, in a way that many writings of the 1930s were not. While describing some contemporary societies as "savages" he is using language of his time, but is actually remarkably clear that their societies are not backward, but ones that have taken particular historical paths. He is extremely wary of readers seeing such societies as being modern day examples of the "stone age". Rather, he argues, they have taken a path of development that works for them.

However its the question of change itself that I wanted to draw out here. Childe's book is excellent at demonstrating how economic changes can lead to social changes. He explains how agriculture allows the creation of a food surplus which in turn allows groups of non-food producers (priests, soldiers, artists, magicians) to function. It also allows for the stratification of society into classes. This is, of course, a complex process. Childe suggests that hierarchical society arises first because a group of people (priests, magicians) exist who appear to be able to ensure that food is bountiful - their magic means the Nile floods, or crops don't fail etc. 

Childe then argues that societies become resistant to change because these superstitions make innovation difficult. He writes:
When a group are enjoying a sufficiency of food in simple comfort with spells of rest, why should they change their behaviour? They have painfully learned the tricks and dodges, the arts and crafts necessary to coax this modicum of prosperity out of Nature; why do more? Indeed, change may be dangerous... the established economy is reinforced by an appropriate ideology.
There is certainly some truth to this. Not all societies do develop - famously some hunter-gatherer communities refused to make the transition to agriculture because they understood it might mean harder, and more, work. Richard B. Lee's work with the !Kung San in the Kalahari desert has demonstrated this very well. But Childe doesn't also show how the ruling class society can itself be a barrier to development. What I mean by this, is that economic innovation and change can, because it alters the structure of society, can threaten the ruling order. Which in turn means that ruling classes will resist changes - social, political, economic and even technological - if they find that their wealth or existence is threatened.

Thus, the barriers to development are not simply because of superstitions, though the ruling class may well use religious or magical justifications, but they are also because the development of class society leads to entrenched economic interests. This is why the Marxist theory of the state remains so important, but unfortunately Childe doesn't treat it here. It also leads to another problem with Childe's book - the resultant class struggle is absent. Exploitation is mentioned as a source of surplus, and Childe points out that social development often did not benefit the mass of the producers who "formerly so fertile in invention, were reduced to the position of 'lower classes.'

Despite Childe's emphasis on material roots to society he ends up being remarkably idealistic in his understanding of historical change. Of the Egyptian ruling class, he comments, the pharaoh "may have started as a magician.. it is hardly to be expected that ruling classes with such affiliations should be patrons of rational science; they were too deeply implicated in the encouragement of hopes which experience was repeatedly showing to be illusory, but which still deterred men from pursuing the harder road of sustained and intense thinking."

Later he writes:
The superstitions man devised and the fictitious entities he imagined were presumably necessary to make him feel at home in his environment and to make life bearable. Nevertheless the pursuit of the vain hopes and illusory short-cuts suggested by magic and religious repeatedly deterred man from the harder road to the control of Nature by understanding. Magic seemed easier than science, just as torture is less trouble than the collection of evidence.
Why does this matter? Firstly it matters because there is a danger the reader will transpose such arguments to modern times. The reason that capitalism is a fetter on the further development of human society is not because of superstitions and backward ideas, but because the capitalist state and the ruling class block the transformative change we need. Secondly it is problematic because it removes human agency from the equation - people can, and did, challenge ideas and come up with new ones. And latter revolutions - the development of feudal society, or the transition from feudalism to bourgeois society, are closely linked with a development of new ideas about the world and the tensions in the economic base. Reading Irving's book recently I was struck that Childe didn't really grasp the Marxist concept of the state, and that was not just a problem in terms of his contemporary left politics (and practice) but also in his understanding of historical change.

I have dwelt here on some of the problems with Childe's book. So I want to reemphasise at the end that this is a remarkably interesting read. It is remarkably rare to find a contemporary work about prehistory that has the global span that Childe aims for. Even rarer is it for such a book to really have any sense of how historical change takes place. I have, for instance, noted that Francis Pryor's books often suffer from a complete misunderstanding of "revolution" as a process. Childe's work is exemplary on what such economic and social transformation meant. 

Childe's book also covers much ground - from developments in pottery, to the way that mathematics evolved out of the economic needs of different societies. Though some readers might find Childe's explanations of how the Egyptians and Babylonians multiplied a bit opaque!

But the greatest strength of Man Makes Himself is the authors' sense that humanity deserves to progress and that the masses will make that happen. In the conclusion he writes that the word "race" has hardly appeared. This is, he explains, because you cannot explain global developments in terms of race, otherwise you end up with preposterous arguments such as Sumerians were genetically inclined towards mathematics. Instead,
we have tried to show how certain societies in the process of adjusting themselves to their environments were led to create States and mathematical sciences by applying distinctively human faculties, common to all men... at the same time, the achievements we have sought to explain were not automatic responses to an environment, not adjustments imposed indiscriminately on all societies by forces outside of them. All the adjustments we have considered in detail were made by specific societies, each with its own distinctive history.
Such an approach is a profoundly human one, and because it is at the heart of V Gordon Childe's Man Makes Himself, it makes the book remarkably insightful and enjoyable.

Related Reviews

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Bill Dunn & Hugo Radice (eds) - 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results & Prospects

In 1906 Leon Trotsky published Results and Prospects. The article was written in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution and summarised his concept of permanent revolution. This idea was perhaps Trotsky's most important theoretical contribution to revolutionary socialism in the period running up to the 1917 Revolution. This collection of essays was published on the centenary of Trotsky's first article and contains studies of the ongoing relevance of the theory. The editors Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice summarise Trotsky's insights thus:

Trotsky rejected a 'stage's theory of revolution - that Russia would have to wait until capitalism was fully developed before socialism could be put on the agenda. Any Russian revolution had to be understood not in isolation, but as a world event both in its causes and consequences. Despite its absolute 'backwardness', competition with the West, and penetration of capital from the West, produced vast concentrations of workers capable of challenging Tsarist power. Russia alone lacked the material basis for establishing socialism, but the seizure of power by a workers' government could lead an international revolutionary process. On a world scale, the development of capitalism already provided ample economic foundations for socialism.

Reading Trotsky's theory today, the editors say, "one is struck by his potential relevance". The theory itself however, was a fundamental break from the general conception of revolutionary Marxism at the time. Even Lenin, a thinker fully capable of breaking out of the constraints of existing revolutionary theory, would not make the leap that Trotsky did in 1906 until the actuality of revolution in 1917. In his essay, Michael Löwy asks, "how was it possible for Trotsky to cut the Gordian knot of Second International Marxism"? He explains, "a careful study of the roots of Trotsky's political boldness, and of the whole theory of permanent revolution, reveals that his views were informed by a specific understanding of Marxism, an interpretation of the dialectical materialist method." Löwy argues that Trotsky's insights arose because he refused to reduce "social, political and ideological contradictions to the economic infrastructure". It clearly was a major break with Second International Marxism, though I think Löwy  goes to far in suggesting that Lenin didn't make the same leap because he did not "discover dialectics" until 1914. What I think is missing from these insights by Löwy is a sense of the way that the experience of Soviet power in 1917 shaped Lenin's views, as well as the failure of Second International Marxism when tested by the First World War.

Trotsky's theory was not widely read at the time he first wrote it, and in the aftermath of his defeat by Stalin, it was side-lined even further. One of the reasons for it, is that it is a direct challenge to the Stalinism nonsense of "socialism in one country". Daniel Bensaid's article quotes Trotsky saying that Marxism, "takes its point of departure from world economy, not as a sum of national parts but asa mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and the world market". Elsewhere Trotsky wrote (in 1927) that "The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the nation state".

Several essays look at how Trotsky's theory can be applied to specific eras and regions. A fascinating study of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 sees Kamran Matin apply the theory in really useful ways. He writes that the Constitutional Revolution

can be better understood as a 'revolution of backwardness;... that is to say, as the outcome of the process whereby the revolutionary moments in the developmental trajectory of a non-capitalist society, situated within and under constant impingement of, an increasingly capitalism-dominated international space, assume a particular character underivable from the backward society's internal dynamism alone.

He argues that a failure to understand this sort of approach has been "catastrophic" for the Iranian left. He concludes, as most other authors do, that Trotsky's theory is indispensable for Marxist praxis today. Others aren't as clear and some essays suffer from theoretical weaknesses. Neil Smith's piece argues that the central position of the nation state is being challenged in their role as the "building blocks of a global social and political economy" by institutions such as the IMF, UN and World Bank. Such arguments, common in the early 2000s, are clearly erroneous today. Again, Trotsky's understanding of the dialectical integration of nation states into a global economy is much more useful in understanding global politics and the process of international revolution.

Since this book was published in 2006 we saw the way that economic integration in the Middle East helped spread revolution through the region. We also saw the relevance of a theory of permanent revolution that could encourage workers and peasants to fight for more than simply the replacement of dictatorship with bourgeois democracy - for real economic and political control from below. This is why the conclusion of Micahel Hanagan's piece on Permanent Revolution and Ireland is disappointing as he finishes by saying that "100 years [later] Trotsky's work is still capable of suggesting research agendas and inspiring debates". 

As the revolutionary process in Sudan continues to raise challenges and arguments for those taking part, I'd argue that the importance of Trotsky's work goes far beyond the academic debate and research, but holds out a key insight into how revolution can be victorious. In an era when we face "socialism or extinction" that's the real point. Luckily the vast majority of the essays in this book understand this, and while some of the chapters seem dated in the face of more recent experience, all of them give insights into how Trotsky's Permanent Revolution may well be the revolutionary politics of the 21st century.

Related Reviews

Trotsky - The History of the Russian Revolution
Trotsky - On Britain
Trotsky - Lessons of October
Trotsky - 1905
Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe


Saturday, August 13, 2022

David Kerr Cameron - Willie Gavin, Crofter Man: Portrait of a Vanished Lifestyle

Willie Gavin, Crofter Man, is the second of David Kerr Cameron's trilogy about history and social life in the Scottish countryside. In this volume he looks at Croft farming, through the life of Willie Gavin, a anonymised croft owner from the early 20th century. Willie's life is recreated by Cameron through archival information, tombstones and the reminiscences of children and grandchildren.

Willie was an expert stonemason who became a crofter on his father's croft. Crofting was extremely hard and unrewarding, Cameron is at pains not to romanticise the lifestyle, or portray the life as some sort of rural idyll. Indeed he criticises those who see such farming as romantic in words that might be applied to those who retreat to the countryside imaging an easy rural life:

Of that rage for improvement, the birth of crofting was maybe the greatest betrayal of all; it deluded men, then trampled on their dreams. Folk took on crofts for the independence they thought they gave and doomed themselves to long disappointment. They believed they were perhaps putting a tentative first foot on the farming ladder and found instead that their position was untenably ambiguous in that new countryside and in a restructured society; they were neither masters nor hired men. Sometimes the croft's appeal lay in the deep-seated desire for a house that would be a home, settled and secure, in that new farming landscape of the tied house and the wandering cottar; the occupants found soon enough that the laird was sometimes as hard to please, and always to pay.

Gavin, perhaps, had less illusions, having seen his father's hard work. Though clearly Willie also believed things would be better. Each year the dreamed that the harvest would be his best, enough to break out of the cycle of poverty and debt. Each year it wasn't. In fact his wife was only able to break from the croft with her husband's death and the selling of his last harvest and all their possessions.

Mention of Willie's marriage brings up his wife, Jess MacKendrick. Her life is told by Cameron, alongside that of Willie. It is poignant - for Jess's life was hard - on her fell the twin burden of child rearing and home management, alongside agricultural work. She married Gavin after they met while she was working as a housemaid, and Cameron has dug out the shopping bill she had as, before their marriage, she purchased what would be needed for their home together. It's a moving list of the minutiae of daily life and the prices the merchant charged.

The twentieth century saw crofting life change - machinery for instance. Though Gavin was old fashioned and refused to use such equipment, relying on his own labour until the stroke that nearly killed him at 75 taking in the harvest in his fields. Cameron notes that this was likely Gavin's most successful harvest as he'd finally switched to a modern seed, though too late to make a real difference. 

As with Cameron's other books, he blends archival and oral history with music, poetry and song. He notes how the stories that Jess tells her children provided a continuity, and their telling "knit the generations" and passed down the "Lore of the Gavins and the MacKendricks... imprinting identity". There is a real sense of the crofting life being locked to the past, but challenged by the new. That said, the family were realtively mobile, visiting town, travelling to see relatives and so on. It would be wrong to see them as being so poor they were trapped at the croft, on the other hand the croft demanded attention constantly. 

The problems of this come out on the Sunday. As observant folk, the Gavins would not work on the Sabbath, despite the havoc this played at key moments in the agricultural calendar. Willie might, if Jess was not watching, make an adjustment to a rope - but little else.

As with all of Cameron's work, Willie Gavin, is an accomplished work of social history that will fill in gaps for those visiting Scotland, and perhaps staying in an old croft. There is no sanitisation here - we are constantly reminded that the modern Scottish landscape was made through hard work, poverty and endless labour by people like Willie Gavin and Jess MacKendrick. It is worth reading this book to remind ourselves of this.

Related Reviews

Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough: A Portrait of the Life of the Old Scottish Farmtouns

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Caroline Wickham-Jones - Orkney: A Historical Guide

This updated classic historical guide to Orkney is the perfect book to read if you are lucky enough to visit the islands. Caroline Wickham-Jones was a renowned expert historian and archaeologist who lived in Orkney, and there's a real sense of personal touch to the historical summaries and guides: "Bring a torch" she encourages the reader on occasions. 

The book is divided by time period, a short historical overview in chapters dedicated to Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age Orkney followed by the Picts, Norse and Earl eras and then 18th, 19th and contemporary history. The book covers a lot because there's a lot to see in Orkney, a place where recent history is often closely linked to ancient eras. It also means that there is a constantly stream of new things to examine in the islands, so the book benefits from a new chapter on "recent archaeological discoveries", which includes, among other things, Norse burial sites in Papa Westray and the hugely important Ness of Brodgar.

On occasion I found the book a little too compartmentalised. The fantastic Neolithic tomb of Maeshowe is described in detail, and Wickham-Jones mentions the Viking graffiti in it, but doesn't offer translations or information until the section on Norse history. A casual reader using the book as a guide book might easily miss these links. I was also surprised to see little or no discussion of enclosure, displacement or clearances relating to the sites mentioned or the history of Orkney. Given the role this played in the transformation of Orkney's farming landscape I was surprised by this.

Nonetheless this is an extremely useful book that every visitor to the islands ought to read as an introduction to the history and landscape of Orkney.

Related Reviews

Irving - The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe
Devine - The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed
Richards - The Highland Clearances
Pryor - Britain BC