Saturday, July 30, 2022

Harry Harrison - Make Room! Make Room!

Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! is perhaps best known for the Hollywood film Soylent Green that was loosely based on it. The book itself is a political tract dressed up as a science fiction novel, but it is a decent novel - even if the underlying politics are wrong, and the there's a constant tension throughout between Harrison's liberal politics and the right-wing Malthusian agenda underlying the book.

Make Room! Make Room! is a pastiche of a noir detective novel set in New York in 1999. In this future the world is massively overcrowded. New York itself is home to 35 million people and its essential infrastructure cracks under the strain. We hear horrific reports of what is happening elsewhere in the world - Russia and China are in perpetual war in order to keep down numbers for instance. In New York, impoverished people queue for hours for water and soylent steaks [Soy Lentil], unless the water fails because farmers have blown up the pipes. The city is never far from a riot, and life has little value if murder can bring a welfare card or access to other resources.

The book begins with corruption - a wealthy gangster is killed by an impoverished youth. The city fathers think its another mafioso trying to muscle in on their own territory so they pressure the police to find the killer. Andy Rusch is the policeman first on the scene he quickly falls for Shirl, the dead gangsters lover. Together they get a brief glimpse of a better life as they enjoy the remaining fruits of the gangster's wealth, before they move back to Andy's tiny apartment which he shares with the elderly veteran Sol. 

In the narrative Sol plays the role of political commentator - the sort that Robert Heinlein loved to place in his own works. Sol, with the benefit of age, extols on how life was, until people wouldn't stop having children. Medicine, he argues, lead to death control which meant that the world population grew and grew, until the overcrowded planet collapsed. No-one, he tells Shirl, can have any other explanation, neatly ignoring all those economists, political theorists and activists who have argued that there is another explanation. Sol (presumably Harrison's alter-ego) joins a demonstration defending a government bill designed to limit population, at a protest between opposing camps he is injured and dies. In the aftermath of this Shirl leaves Andy, unable to cope with the arrival of a new family taking up the room, and Andy finds the killer, only to find that his seniors in the police ignore this achievement as it's no longer important.

The book does not end as the movie famously does. Though it does finish on a note of despair - Shirl at least has temporarily improved her position, but for the rest life will continue to be very grim. As the new millennium dawns the world population is growing uncontrollably. It's a dire warning, and Harrison opens the book hoping for his two (remember population replacement levels are considered to be about 1.6 children per woman) children's sake that the book proves to be a "work of fiction".

It is of course a "work of fiction" because the predictions inside did not come true. It is also fictional because it is based on incorrect economics. I have written elsewhere on why Malthusian arguments linking population and environmental disasters are incorrect. I hope readers will look at that article before filling up the comment box below with feverish typing. In short, I argue that there are (and were when Harrison was writing) two basic problems with Malthusian politics. Firstly, the driving force of hunger, unemployment and ecological collapse is the capitalist system of production - because it is based on uncontrolled accumulation for profit. The second reason is that the predictions have never matched reality. World population is now reaching a plateau and will likely level off, and then decline in the coming decades. Population growth cannot be directly linked to ecological disaster, as it is mostly happening in countries that have the least population. 

But, in another sense, Harrison's book is prophetic, because the world he depicts is happening. Food and water shortages, unemployment, low pay, poverty are a reality, and enormous numbers of people are suffering and coming into conflict with the system. The cause of that is not overpopulation, but capitalism. We only need look at the way the environmental crisis is dovetailing with economic and social fractures in society to threaten enormous horror. In this sense the book is fascinating, because what Harrison does well is to give his detective novel the backdrop of a society going through a massive social crisis. In Make Room! Make Room! the politicians have no solutions, and live isolated lives of plenty while they use the forces of the state to repress the masses. The people, on the other hand, face a choice - either a personal struggle for existence through crime, or mass revolt. Riots and protests do, as a result, make for key plot points.

The problem is that while Harrison had liberal politics, and indeed the book does demonstrate a certain amount of what we might call class politics - there's a humorous aside where Sol describes the "last Tory" in England being shot trying to stop his grouse woods being ploughed under for food - the basis for the book is utterly reactionary. This is given away by Harrison's "suggestions for reading" at the end of the book (something unusual in a work of science fiction) which includes writings by reactionary overpopulation theorists like William Vogt and Robert Malthus.

Despite the reactionary politics behind it Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting read. Its origins lie in the growing concern over environmental degradation in the 1960s, yet its starting point is a politics that utterly fails to grasp the real problem with society. Nonetheless Harrison writes a good story, and there is far more to the novel than the film it spawned would suggest. It's just a shame that Harrison didn't find any more radical works to read.

Related Reviews

Harry Harrison Novels

Reviews related to population theory

Monday, July 25, 2022

Terry Irving - The Fatal Lure of Politics: The life and thought of Vere Gordon Childe

If you spend much time in the history sections of secondhand bookshops, two books frequently appear - Vere Gordon Childe's Man Makes Himself and his What Happened in History. Both books were enormous bestsellers. In them Childe gives a materialist account of human history, culture and social change. As Terry Irving explains, Childe "was an intellectual who had committed himself to the idea of historical progress and the role of revolutions in history". Childe's books were a popularisation of his ideas, and were extremely popular among non-specialists. But Childe was also committed to the idea of revolutionary social change in his own lifetime. Irving's biography is the first substantial attempt to link Childe's revolutionary socialist and radical politics to his life in the world of archaeology.

Chile was born in 1892. His early life was marked by a world on the brink of imperialist war and growing class struggle, a "pivotal period in Australian politics". While he was at university in Sydney in 1913 a major strike broke out. The strike itself ended quickly, but it shaped Childe's lifelong political thinking. In 1923 he published a book called How Labour Governs, a study of the limitations of Australian Labour in government. In it he would refer to Labor's Premier, Jim McGowen, a lifelong trade unionist calling on the public to "scab" on the 1913 strike. This contrast between the class struggle and parliamentary politics deeply affected Childe, who was by now involved in all the campus radicalism. Childe went to Oxford University in Britain where, despite the conservative nature of the university, its staff and student body, Childe was shaped by a radical milieu. While few Oxford students were Marxists, there was certainly much discussion of Hegel and radicalism, pacifist politics and debates about freedom, democracy and idealism. Childe returned to Australia a more convinced socialist even if he was not yet clear what that meant. 

One of the great strengths of Irving's book is that he places Childe's politics in the context of wider political events. He remarks, "when Childe returned to Sydney he was philosophically a Marxist and therefore a revolutionary. Revolution, however, when applied to Marxist political practice in the early twentieth century, was a capacious term". Irving notes how Marxist (and socialist politics generally) in the period were pulled by different political trends - the reformist ideas of German social democracy and the revolutionary politics as exemplified by Lenin's Bolsheviks. But while Childe was scornful of the "parliamentary road", he was simultaneously unconvinced by Leninism. As Irving writes:
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?
These were questions that would shape Childe's politics intellectually and practically. Reading Irving it becomes clear that in fact Childe never succeeded in squaring the circle of his rejection of Bolshevik style revolutionary practice and his understanding of the limitations of parliamentarianism. In part this comes from Childe's own lack of surety about his own role as an intellectual. Irving quotes an interesting letter written by Childe in 1918:
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.
From this one gets a sense that Childe saw "revolution" at that time as a failure, the consequence of enlightened intellectuals being unable to direct the radical movement to a peaceful transition. But it also reflects a naive understanding of how radical change could be won. This I think reflects Childe's reading of Marxism, from which he failed to gain an understanding of the capitalist state. He was unable to grasp that a "non-violent" transition to socialism was not possible because of the state and thus failed to see the importance of Bolshevik strategy. This limitation also made it through to his theories of historical change, and I'll return to that shortly.

Firstly however it is important to explain that Irving wasn't rejecting class struggle, or militant politics. Indeed, as Irving emphasises, quite the opposite. On arriving back in Sydney Childe "welcomes the growing radicalism of the working class" and is shocked by the violence of the capitalists in return. It is a moment of personal development where, as Irving says, Childe "imagines middle-class socialists and pacifists as missionaries to the ruling class, explaining the inevitable victory of the 'world of labour'." The role of the intellectual as a "mediator" in the class struggle is clearly significant to Childe. Childe himself tried to play such a role during struggles, writing to the press to protest the treatment of political prisoners and the violence of government repression in the aftermath of the September 1918 red flag riots.

But it is clear that Childe was taking an idealistic position on the class struggle. While understanding the limits of parliamentarianism, Childe's rejection of revolution essentially forces him into a reformist position. It is notable, for instance, that Childe didn't attend the 1919 celebrations of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He never joined the Communist Party in Australia or later in England, but such nuances were lost on his critics and political opponents (and the Secret Services) who denounced him as a Communist revolutionary. 

In Childe's How Labor Governs he sets out to examine the limitations of reformism. It focuses, as Irving says, on "the likelihood of a labour party governing in the interest of the working class". He started from "an understanding of capitalism's class dynamics and their expression in the system of liberal representative government". As such How Labor Governs was one of the first attempts by a Marxist to grapple with the nature of reformism through studying the reality of Labour in government. Rosa Luxembourg had explored the economic basis of reformism in her book Reform or Revolution, but few other Marxists had the experience to develop these ideas. The lack of parliamentary politics and legal trade unionism in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1917 meant that the Communist International didn't really comprehend the political problems associated with parliamentarianism and trade union bureaucracy. As such Childe's book was of great importance. 

Childe shows how a reformist strategy cannot work, and how the workers' representatives can end up sucked into the system itself, more interested in "keeping his seat and scoring political points than of carrying out the idea that he was sent in to give effect to". But Childe is ambiguous on the political consequences of his own insights. In fact, Childe focuses on a syndicalist approach that sees industrial trade unionism as leading towards social change. Irving explains the "practical nature" of Childe's socialism in a revealing section:
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.
Here we can see how Childe has broken with Labourism as a strategy, has a clear belief and desire for an "alteration in the social structure" but has no real clarity on what this means other than workers' making their own democracy and the nationalisation of industry. Childe clearly saw the class struggle as a vehicle for this change, but failed to see that class struggle on its own will not bring revolutionary change. The movement will have to defeat the state itself. Essentially Childe was hoping for peaceful change, even though he could clearly see that would not happen through parliament. Indeed Childe could be damning about this: "the Labour platform can give the workers no real improvement in position under capitalism, it offers them no escape from capitalism".

Irving argues that the framework outlined in the quote above is echoed in Childe's first breakthrough work on prehistory that appeared at a similar time, The Dawn of European Civilisation. In this work Childe argued for a "materialist concept of progress, and of history as a story of progress, a process created by practical activity, by human labour". 

When I first read Childe's What Happened in History I was enthused by this materialist approach, but dismayed by his framing. He essentially says that human history was, and would be, a process of gradual upward development. But because Childe cannot grasp the role of the state as an instrument of class rule that arises out of the unavoidable struggle between exploiter and exploited he fails to see that positive historical progress is not inevitable. The state is a break on progress, and can - as Childe must have seen in the archaeological record - lead to civilisations stagnating or disappearing. In the capitalist epoch it is a barrier to the development of socialism which must be "smashed". Childe, however, sees the state as neutral in this struggle. He was very much the "neo Hegelian" he described himself as. It is an ambiguity that Childe was never able to shake off. As Irving says about Childe's vision of socialist democracy:
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.
Irving cautions that despite the limitations in Childe's approach we shouldn't see Lenin as a "bold revolutionary and Childe as a cautious dabbler in working-class politics". He argues that Childe had "a growing affinity with Lenin's revolutionary perspective". This is probably fair, but Childe did not take the next step which would have been to become an open partisan for revolutionary politics inside the fledgling Communist Parties of the 1920s. 

That said it is important to defend Childe. He was an intellectual dedicated to a vision of socialism and trying to understand the type of organisation and movements needed to achieve a socialist society. Despite his later success as a populariser of archaeology and Marxist history, his career was badly damaged by the principled positions he took, and there is no doubt he understood the consequences of his sacrifices. It is sad then that the recognition he has today is mostly around his historical work, which is sanitised and divorced from his politics - the very thing that he devoted his life to.

Terry Irving's book is then a very important contribution for several reasons. He rescues Childe the revolutionary and ties this to Childe the archaeologist. He also takes the reader on a journey through the political and intellectual milieu that shaped Childe, in particular the class struggle of the early 20th century. By placing Childe's near forgotten book How Labor Governs at the heart of the story Irving will also show a new generation of intellectuals and activists the limitations of parliamentary politics and that there are radically different ways of approaching the question of social transformation. 

On a personal note I was privileged to finish reading The Fatal Lure of Politics the day before a visit to Skara Brae, a neolithic site in Orkney where Childe made some of his most important excavations. While the museum there makes no comment on Childe's politics it was personally moving to see his work and put it in the context of his hope for a better, socialist, future. It is very much in this spirit that Terry Irving has written this political biography and I hope many socialists and archaeologists pick it up.

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Sunday, July 24, 2022

Peter E. Hamilton - Pandora's Star

There really ought to be warnings on these books. 1144 pages long and it turns out it's only part one! Despite the disappointment at the lack of closure (I had hoped this would be a nice holiday read) I quite enjoyed Pandora's Star. The book is set in the Commonwealth, a centralised capitalist economy spread over dozens of stars, with Earth at its centre. The Commonwealth is linked by wormholes, and spaceships have pretty much become outdated technology, until an astronomer sees a double star wink out. The speed of the disappearance is unusual - as though the star has been turned off. It's enough of a mystery, and implies a highly developed technology unknown to the Commonwealth, that a spaceship is built to visit. 

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

Eric Newby - The Last Grain Race

In 1938 the four-masted sailing ship Moshulu left Belfast to sail to Australia. Early the next year it returned home to England, its cargo holds full, the first of half a dozen ships racing in the Last Grain Race. For decades sailing ships had travelled between England and Australia, racing to bring their cargo home before anyone else to commander the best prices. But 1938/1939 would see the end of an era, as World War Two and oil powered cargo craft transformed the terrain of trade on the sea.

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.

Related Reviews

Newby - Love and War in the Apennines
Slocum - Sailing Alone Around the World
Philbrick - The Heart of the Sea

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Anne Alexander - 'Revolution is the Choice of the People': Crisis & Revolt in the Middle East & North Africa

Anne Alexander has been analysing and writing on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for many years. As a socialist and trade unionist she has been instrumental in building solidarity with the revolutions that swept the region from 2011 and, more recently, with uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria and the Sudanese Revolution. As such she is uniquely placed to analyse the rebellions, and I've been looking forward to this book for some time.

'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.

Related Reviews

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

Brian Aldiss - Billion Year Spree

Brian Aldiss' Billion Year Spree was one of the first popular histories of science fiction written by a science fiction writer. It was later updated and renamed Trillion Year Spree, but due to a strange youthful compulsion to read all the Corgi SF Collector's Library editions I'm reviewing the earlier edition here.

Aldiss' begins his book with an original insight, crediting Mary Shelley as the first SF writer for her classic work Frankenstein. Unusual, and remarkably progressive, for the early 1970s when Aldiss first wrote this, the effect is slightly spoiled by the author failing to even give Mary Shelley her name in the introduction, referring to her only as the poet's wife. He recovers from this slip, and credits Frankenstein as being the first SF novel, defined in Aldiss words as "the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) and s characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould." I remain unsure of the importance of the Gothic to the genre, but the "search for a definition of humanity" works well as a working definition of SF. It also gives Shelley her due credit.

Aldiss then takes us on a quick journey through early works of "SF" and their influences, including Poe, H.G. Wells and a number of Victorian fantasists. These summaries are interesting and insightful, though I often felt that Aldiss skirted interesting digressions. For instance nothing is mentioned of H.P. Lovecraft's racism which would surely have given an interesting context. Despite the inclusion of Mary Shelley early on, there are few references to female writers until the 20th century, and then with a few honourable exceptions (especially Ursula Le Guin) they are given only cursory reference.

I also felt that there wasn't enough due regard given to none European and North American writers. No mention of the Soviet Union's Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and only passing mention of Stanisław Lem. I would have liked an account of  Alexander Bogdanov though I do note it wasn't published in English until 1984. Part of the reason for highlighting these omissions is that the whole book feels dominated by a European narrative. Indeed Aldiss himself notes this when he points out that there are clear parallels in Victorian fiction and that of the early 20th century when travellers eye the world (or the universe) in distinctly colonial ways. John Carter's adventures on Mars being a classic example of this.

Which brings me to other omissions. I was disappointed that Aldiss failed to address wider social and political context. What about SF's discussions of questions like war, gender, sexuality, LGBT+ issues and so on? Books that talk about some of these issues are mentioned, but not the subjects themselves. Aldiss tends to see the 1960s in terms of music and culture, rather than rebellion and war. He also tends to focus on the big names - Heinlein, Asimov etc. Perhaps this is all made good in the updated version. As a result I found this book disappointing, though it's well written and relatively authoritative. It did leave me with plenty of "further reading" though.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Minnie Vaid - Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines

In September 2014 the Indian space programme successfully put a spacecraft in Mars orbit. It was an amazing achievement, and there were two principle reactions. Firstly the cost. Putting Mangalyaan in orbit was priced at $74 million USD. While this figure was far cheaper than a similar US mission there were those that argued it was too costly for a country with such levels of poverty. Defenders of the mission pointed out that the cost was less than the $100 million USD spent on the Gravity film staring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Few commentators also called for the Indian government to check its spending on weapons, or pointed out the high levels of poverty in the United States. Nonetheless the cost were enormous. But the scientific and technological benefits were demonstrated by the second response which was to celebrate the role of female engineers within the Indian programme and their centrality to the Mars mission.

Globally women "make up on 28.8 per cent of those employed in scientific research and development" and "there are only 12 per cent female members in sixty-nine science academies worldwide". Such gender disparities make the centrality of women to the Mangalyaan mission even more remarkable. Minnie Vaid's new book explores the paths those women took to reach their position, the roles that they play as scientists and the barriers they experience towards advancement. All the women interviewed clearly see themselves as crucial in terms of expanding the profile of women in science and encouraging young people, and particularly young women, to take up sciences. 

Vaid notes the barriers. Women are expected to take up the "lion's share" of domestic work, bringing up children etc, and as a result "many women scientists limit themselves to less challenging positions, stopping short of jockeying for higher posts". There are hints at other barriers, including sexism and harassment at work and the prejudices of male workers and managers. Clearly however many barriers are being broken down, though I was struck how many of the women still took on the "double burden" at home of the lions share of domestic and childrearing work. That's not to say that their partners did not cook or care for children - far from it - but that their was a pressure on these women to be seen as good parents as well as brilliant scientists in a way that was clearly not true for their male counterparts. 

There remains however, a long way to go. "There are two Indias" explains Vaid:
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.
What struck me about many of the scientists quoted, and indeed their wider families, is that they frame their involvement in the programme in very nationalistic terms. It is notable, for instance, the pride with which the scientists are seen by within India. This is often directed in terms of taking India forward - several women interviewed remarked that wider family took on domestic and childcare tasks  for the good of the national space programme and India's national image. This celebration of the national achievement smacked of the nationalism around the US and Soviet space programmes and the "race" to beat the other, rather than a collective achievement. In the context of Modi's nationalistic politics it was notable that there was only one Muslim and one Christian female scientist interviewed. Also notable was that all the scientists clearly practiced their religion. This meant that while the book had some fascinating insights into wider Indian culture and politics, they aren't explored in great depth. 

Nor were questions of gender equality explored further. It was interesting to see that several women had to, on occasion, bring young children to work - and this was facilitated by the organisation. It would have been interesting and exciting to hear that women were demanding free workplace creches and other reforms as a result. The women often worked extraordinarily long hours, with no extra pay, especially at times of launch or critical mission moments. I was disappointed to see that no one challenged these sacrifices and demanding more compensation - working in a prestigious institution should never mean allowing exploitation to go unchallenged - no matter how often managers make the tea. The fascinating insights into women in the Indian space programme posed many questions, but sadly the opportunity became mostly an opportunity to celebrate achievements rather than highlight further economic and political improvements that might be gained.

India's space programme is clearly going places and will be worth watching. This book offers a fascinating account of its most prominent aspect - the central role of women scientists. Readers will gain a new appreciation of the hard work and gains to be achieved from such science, but might feel that there could have been further exploration of the barriers and limitations.

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Monday, July 04, 2022

John McNeill - Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental history of the Twentieth Century

John McNeill begins his environmental history of the twentieth century by pointing out that environmental change is "as old as the planet itself", and that humans have always altered the world around us, but that "there has never been anything like the twentieth century". He is absolutely right. In the pages that follow he explores in detail how every aspect of the world's biosphere, from its atmosphere to the ocean depths saw massive change as a result of human activity through the last century. Unusually for an environmental history, he also considers things like urban sprawl, road building and other constructions that have also had an impact - not just the "natural" world. 

The book describes well the environmental situation in the late 1990s. With a growth in ecological problems being stored up and growing concerns for the future. It is historically interesting to note that the author seemed far less concerned with climate change than we might expect. Even though the situation is far worse now than McNeill imagines, the book has a huge power to shock. There are appalling, and amazing, figures about how bad things were in the early 20th century, especially when discussing the shocking impact of deaths from air pollution and smog in cities.

However the flaw in McNeill's book is often his failure to explore how economic differences shaped changes. Take this passage about how soil erosion took place with the "frontier expansion of Europe [into the Americas] and the integration of world agricultural markets". McNeil says that "most of those who arrived in the Americas, "were peasants" from Northern Europe who had a specific approach to farming, incompatible with American soils that were not so resistant to erosion as those in Europe. He concludes, "had the conquerors and colonizers of the modern world come from a different environment, one that did not invite negligence of soil conservation, then this second pulse would have been faint".

But this is to ignore the context of European agriculture and how, and why, it was transposed to the Americas. What drives the 20th century's systematic soil erosion in the Americas was farming for profit, not the origin of the European settlers. Their practices might have initially been unsustainable, but the longer term problem was the reason for the agriculture itself.

While McNeill's book suffers from such approaches at times, he's not always this simplistic. A few pages later he writes about southern Africa where
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. 
This is a much clearer explanation, though I still feel it tends to downplay the economic in favour of a cultural explanation. Why did deforestation become needed - it wasn't a cultural requirement, it was an economic imperative.

McNeill lacks a clear framework on what drives ecological destruction in the twentieth century. On occasion he blames the economic system, or "a rogue mammal's economic activity". Often falls back on the old canard of population growth as the driving factor. Lacking a clear explanation that sites environmental damage in the context of economic production, and changing economic systems, he reaches odd, and unpleasant, conclusions. For instance:
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.
Of this shocking paragraph McNeill footnotes "I prefer the latter calculus intellectually, although I am offended by its heartlessness". McNeill tends to see economic activity more in terms of individual consumption: "When groups of consumers, through the magic of markets, were presented with the opportunity to buy something hitherto unavailable, they often did so." That said, McNeill does describe the way that economic integration (by which he means the attachment of ecologies to global markets) lead to the destruction of the environment and local communities. But he doesn't really explain why this happens.

More useful I think is the framework that Ian Angus has outlined in his book Facing the Anthropocene, which locates a "great acceleration" in ecological damage post World War Two, related to the way that US capitalism, dominated by fossil fuel interests enforced a particular economic model on the globe. McNeill's book fails to come close even though he describes the morbid consequences of the processes extremely well. What is missing from McNeill's book is any understanding of capitalism. He understands economic "activity" is a problem, especially the energy system, but without framing this within capitalism's drive to accumulate he pulls his punches and goes all over the place in his argument.

I suspect that if I had read Something New Under the Sun when it was first published in 2000, I would have found it more interesting and useful. In the light of the growth of left ecological writing since then it felt outdated. Nonetheless careful readers will material of interest even if the book is somewhat dated.

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