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

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Claire North - The Gameshouse

The Gameshouse is based around an intriguing premise. The titular building is host to many different games - ones of chance like cards, ones of skill like chess and higher games, of increasing complexity, played on boards that range in size from cities to nations or even the entire world. The aim of the game might be to overthrow a king, or place a particular "piece" on a throne. The prize might be money, power and influence, or it might be something more fundamental - your health, your partner or a few years of your life. One player loses his name, another his memories. A few of the players seem to become immortal and its indicates that the Gameshouse has always been there and has entrances in many parts of the world simultaneously.

Few players ever make it to the top, those that do, build up networks of pieces and assets that they can call on. Losers who owe them debts incurred in earlier games. In more complex games the players can call on these, and the challenge is often to neutralise your opponents pieces before they can deploy them. The Gameshouse has existed through history and on occasion the gamemaster is challenged for supremacy. During these games the house shuts down and the world is racked by violent convulsions as players fight for control.

It is an intriguing book, and Claire North utilises her talents for unusual ideas well. Based on three novelettes, the first covers a minor skirmish in the 17th century for control of Venice. The second is a game of hide and seek through the forests of Thailand in the 1930s. Its a gripping tale of near misses and careful use of resources. Sadly the finale, which brings the first two parts together is disappointing. Much of it is essentially a game of hide and seek - though this time global in scope - as one player challenges for control of the gameshouse, using several centuries of resources to fight his battles.

Unfortunately while I enjoyed the story, it felt rather fake. Perhaps this is because the idea of historical forces being the whim of individual gamers didn't really work, especially as I read it in the week that machinations between Russia and Nato had led to war in Ukraine. That said there are some clever ideas and some entertaining moments - a game of battleships that turns out to use real vessels, a game of risk that doesn't use a board. Unfortunately the central premise didn't hold it together for me.

Related Reviews

North - Touch
North - The End of the Day
North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August