Saturday, July 30, 2022
Monday, July 25, 2022
Childe dismissed the orthodox Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist understanding of revolution as 'alluringly vague as far as its initial stages are concerned. But what was the alternative? While he was in Australia he was not impressed by the Bolshevik example. Rather, as he was drawn into the anti-war movement, he discovered the militancy of the industrial unionists, and Labor's experience of government. He was no longer in Britain where everything to him seemed so bloody because of the Labour Party's 'loyalty' to parliament and constitutionalism. In Australia, the militancy of the 'industrialists' had swept many thousands of workers into a mass strike. Was it possible that forming the Labor party might provide a non-violent but still revolutionary transition to socialism?
When in England I was I'm afraid inclined to be impatient with a certain vacillation of the intellectual liberals. Now I can appreciate the enormous service such a class renders when I see the deplorable results of its absence. In many ways I am delighted with the growing radicalism of the Labor Party and the Trade Union Movement here [in Australia], but I would infinitely prefer reconciliation and compromise to revolution. If the latter is forced upon the Labor Movement it will be entirely due to the unscrupulousness and bigotry of the professional and educated classes.
One of the themes of [Childe's] intervention in the debate about the One Big Union was to caution the industrialists against relying on alluring but vague ideas about revolution. Instead he insisted on the value of practising collective self-management in state enterprises, even if it were only in the quarries at Bombo, a hamlet one the South Coast of New South Wales. Now we can grasp his idea of progress. This politics of revolutionary practice entailed an idea of progress that was not evolutionary, something emerging out of the preceding history of liberal self-government, as it was to the intellectuals of official labour. The idea of progress had to be taken away from them and reimagined as the creation of new values by a self-acting workers' movement, as a revolutionary and history making 'alteration in the social structure'. This was the view of progress that his four years in the Australian socialist movement reinforced, and which in time underlay his archaeological theorising.
For Childe, proletarian democracy described something elemental: the desire for self-government of the working class. In this respect Childe was not at odds with Lenin. His framing idea, however, did not have the Leninist aim of protecting and extending the proletarian revolution. Rather... Childe frames the problem of proletarian democracy as one of developing a form of representation that would protect its integrity within the existing bourgeois parliament.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Turns out the stars have been enclosed in a massive force field. When it's penetrated humanity encounters a highly expansive and extremely dangerous alien race.
Most of the book deals with the build up to the arrival at the double stars and the interplay between various factions in the Commonwealth. There are various forces - the capitalists who want to protect their interests, the radicals who think that capitalism must be overthrown and there is a faction that believes there's an alien influencing humanity to open up Pandora's Star.
Most interesting, for this reader, were the revolutionaries. At least one of whom tells a brilliant story about how the capitalist food companies dump excess food into the wormholes to keep up the price. A story I've heard a few times in socialist meetings myself - though with the wormholes replaced by grain ships on the ocean.
It's all rather fun. But it is about 500 pages too long. Hamilton is given to extended descriptions of locations and a large number of minor characters, many of whom could have been dispensed with to make the novel tighter. Perhaps the target audience wants 1000 page blockbusters though. Hamilton can, however, do character development. I was struck by one character, Mellanie, who goes from being a minor character who is the sex interest of a major corporate boss, to being central to the plot at the end. He also writes decent female lead characters, even if there are slightly too many instances of sexy women using their sexuality to manipulate others. But Pandora's Star is cleverer than the average space opera, and I'll probably read the sequel for closure. Though I hear it is over 1200 pages!
Thursday, July 21, 2022
Moshulu's voyage would now be a footnote in the history of capitalist trade had it not been that one of its crew was the 18 year old Eric Newby, who would go on to have a famous career as a author and travel-writer. Nearly twenty years later Newby reconstructed the voyage from his diary and photographs and the result is this classic book.
Newby arrives on board the ship a complete newbee. His knowledge of sailing is limited to the exaggerated stories told to him by family friends and novels. The bullying mate sends him to the very top of the main mast on his first day onboard in Belfast docks to test his capability. Newby survives, but the experience at the dock side is very different to the reality he'll experience 20 metres in the sky during a gale.
The next challenge is the crew. The sailors mostly hail from Sweden and Finland, bitter rivals and the atmosphere of the 1930s is dominated by nationalistic sentiment. The crew argue, fight and drink together, though they're all committed to the voyage. Newby has to prove himself - as a drinker, as a fighter as a seaman before he is accepted by the majority of the others. Some of them never to accept this "Englander", though they all seem to tolerate him - not least because they can get the youngest to do the dirty jobs.
Life above decks is often dangerous. Below decks is dangerous, dirty and violent. The sailors are obsessed with food, food which is barely edible on occasion. The bedbugs, dirt and smells combine to make Newby regret his life choices. And yet, as with any group of workers in difficult conditions, relying on each other in perilous circumstances, the sailors knit together as their collective experiences solidify them into a crew that Newby himself is part of. By the return trip Newby is better prepared, experienced and almost as tough as the others. Leaving the ship in England is a poignant moment. He won't return - the outbreak of war sees to that. But he will never forget the experience. This classic of social history is much more than the "true adventure" story it is now marketed as, its a funny and insightful account of the hardships of those who crewed sailing ships - very badly paid for a very dangerous job.
Wednesday, July 13, 2022
Anne Alexander - 'Revolution is the Choice of the People': Crisis & Revolt in the Middle East & North Africa
'Revolution is the Choice of the People' is simultaneously a study of the underlying causes of rebellion in the MENA regions and a celebration of those revolutions. Some of the most inspiring sections are those were Alexander discusses the events of the revolutions, particularly that of Egypt in 2011. But this book is far more than a historical account. It is an unparalleled contemporary Marxist discussion of revolution in the modern world and deserves to be widely read by radicals.
Alexander summarises the importance of the revolutions:
The revolutionary wave which swept the Middle East in 2011 showed the potential for a region united horizontally through the ties of social class which connected the fates of the impoverished majority with each other and pitted them against the kings, generals and big businessmen who rule. It demonstrated the possibility of a future where ordinary people could liberate themselves from all kids of oppression, whether on grounds of gender or religious belief. This promise was both explicitly written into the demands of popular protests and strikes, which raised anti-sectarian slogans and implicit in the mass participation of women and oppressed religious groups.
She emphasises the role of the organised working class, showing that where they were central to revolutions in 2011, the revolutionary process went furthest. This is also true of the more recent "second wave" rebellions in countries like Algeria and Sudan where strike action has proved decisive at key points.
The revolutions of 2011 had contemporary triggers, but some of the most valuable sections of Alexander's book are where she locates the revolutions in the context of the regions' history. Both the colonial past, and the imperialist present - which means that in addition to the impact of European colonialism, US and Soviet imperialism, Alexander also discusses the regional forces that shape economic and political context. Her sections on the role of Israel in the context of US Imperialism and how this shapes the Palestinian resistance are particularly insightful.
The more recent economic context centres on the "neoliberal turn" in the region, which say, she argues, a shift in the role of the state "towards a focus on its role as facilitation and organisation of capital accumulation and a relative reduction in direct production or provision of services". This helped create the conditions of revolt by undermining the support structures of the masses and forcing groups of workers into confrontation with the state and employers. The close links between the state, big business and the military in many countries helped this process - and framed the ruling class response to rebellion.
The direct impact of this is obvious in Egypt and Sudan where, following the initial successes of the revolution in removing dictators, the military quickly moved to position itself as a key part of the state in a "transitionary" period. In both countries the military waited to consolidate its position, before trying to enact a counter-revolution. In Egypt that process has been bloody success for the Generals, but in Sudan it has been partially blocked by the revolution - though as I write this the situation is in flux. Alexander underlines the "Faustian bargain between civilian opposition leaders and the military." She continues:
Despite the difference in their political ideologies, Islamists in Egypt and the heterogenous mixture of "technocrats", representatives of "traditional" Islamic Parties and reformist movements making up the civilian FFC [Forces, Freedom and Change] component of the Sudanese Transitional Government found themselves facing versions of the same problem. The generals had no intention of relinquishing their dominant role in the state.
The question of the State then becomes of supreme importance. Alexander explores how even radical reformist movements in the MENA region have failed to understand the role of the state and thus led movements into traps placed by the counter-revolutionaries. She shows how theories of change based on "non violence", including those argued by Western academics like Erica Chenoweth, fail in their aim of bringing democratic change because they do not aim to defeat the state machine.
Returning to the classical Marxist tradition Alexander shows how the ideas developed by Marx and Engels and then developed by Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionaries, are directly applicable to the MENA revolutions. This is not to say that the ideas of those thinkers can simply be transferred without development. Alexander points out, for instance, that in the MENA region military institutions have "acted as direct agents of capital accumulation" with an enormous involvement of military officers in capitalist enterprises. She explains that this is distinct, but complementary to the "classic role played by military institutions in capitalist states as indirect agents of capital accumulation, as mapped out by Frederick Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Liebknecht". A great strength of Alexander's book is how she develops classical Marxism to understand contemporary capitalism in the region.
In addition to her writing on the contemporary revolutionary struggle, there is much in this book of wider interest. In addition to the aforementioned sections on Palestine, the sections on Syria are also important, as part of a fascinating discussion about "workers' power". Alexander contrasts the different revolutions, showing how self-organisation of workers - organisation that poses the potential to become the basis for an alternative workers' state to the capitalist state - developed, or didn't develop. There were small beginnings of this process in Egypt, and the revolution in Sudan has thrown up thousands of Resistance Committees. In Syria the process was limited by the military response of the regime, which transformed the revolution into open warfare, as well as the self imposed limitations of areas which were often run through cross-class organisation, rather than being based on workers' control.
Here we return to the question of workers. In her discussion on neoliberalism, Alexander makes a point which is frequently forgotten. Neoliberalism is "still capitalism" and "capitalism needs workers". The fact that the MENA region has a huge and powerful working class meant that workers' revolt was always a possibility. The Egyptian revolution in particular went furthest in 2011 because its workers' had seen a succession of major revolts over the preceding decades that had created networks of activists who understood how to organise. The centrality of workers to capitalist production gives them enormous strategic power. As Alexander concludes:
As we have seen, the presence of organised workers engaged in mass strikes often proved decisive in shaking loose the grip of authoritarianism enough to open a period of political reforms or at least creating conditions for ordinary people to take some of their democratic rights to assemble and organise by storm. Conversely, the absence of the organised working class from the field of battle with the regimes generally correlated with the early militarisation of the counter-revolution and a rapid descent into civil war.
In too many cases, workers were used as a stage army to win concessions at particular moments of struggle. Instead, Marxists see workers' as the force for change, a force that can create the basis for a new state based on workers' control. Crucial to victory, however, will be the presence of organised revolutionaries. As Alexander shows, even small numbers of revolutionaries can make a difference. Yet their forces were too small to be decisive in 2011. Socialists in Sudan today are having similar arguments. This book is, in no small part, a contribution to developing socialist organisation today.
As I finished reading 'Revolution is the Choice of the People' rebellion exploded in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished working people stormed the presidential palace and overthrew the President. Even in the few days since it has become clear that the analysis that Alexander makes in her book is of crucial importance for millions of people around the world today. Capitalism can only offer economic crisis, ecological disaster and war. Anne Alexander's marvellous book is an inspirational look at how we have fought in the past, and how we can win today. Every socialist should read it.
Alexander & Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution
Ayeb & Bush - Food Insecurity & Revolution in the Middle East & North Africa
Shenker - The Egyptians: A Radical Story
El-Mahdi & Marfleet - Egypt: The Moment of Change
Gonzalez & Barekat - Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring
Berridge, Lynch, Makawi & De Waal - Sudan's Unfinished Democracy: The Promise & Betrayal of a People's Revolution
Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Aldiss - Non-Stop
Aldiss - Greybeard
Sunday, July 10, 2022
In the first we rank 131 out of 188 in the Human Development Index and 108 out of 144 in the Global Gender Gap Index. That is a women in India earns less than a quarter of the annual income earned by a man, while her share of unpaid household work and child care is 66 per cent - to the 12 per cent share of a man... in the second India, girls want to become space scientists, fly on a rocket to Mars and participate in human space programmes. In a recent survey... a whopping 70 per cent girls said they wanted to pursue higher studies and had a specific career in mind.
Monday, July 04, 2022
accelerated soil erosion derived from a complex mix of social forces, not least the politics of settler societies. White settlement, culture and inappropriate technique played a role: plows and furrows invited erosion far more than cultivation by hoe had done. In Basutoland at least, successful missionaries converted Africans from their animist beliefs and inadvertently removed cultural constraints on tree cutting, promoting deforestation and erosion. Moreover, the incentives and pressures of cash cropping mattered.
death from air pollution and death from war, while ultimately perhaps equivalent, are from the social and economic point of view quite different matters. In the twentieth century, war killed people mainly in the prime of life; air pollution killed the sick, the elderly, and the very young. If one esteems all individuals equally, then the toll from air pollution may be reckoned as equivalent to the toll from the world wars. But if one considers instead that the elderly have already made what contribution to society they are likely to make, and that the very young - having had little invested in them - are very easily replaced, the calculus changes.
Dawson - Extinction: A Radical History