Saturday, October 29, 2022

Jeff Sparrow - Provocations: New and Selected Writings

In the introduction to this volume of his selected writings, Australian socialist Jeff Sparrow quotes the bushranger Ned Kelly. Kelly had written an 8000 word statement justifying his actions, and as he handed it over he said "This is a little bit of my life; I will give it to you". As Sparrow points out, every writer knows what he meant. This collection certainly showcases the breadth of Sparrow's work. Sparrow is one of the foremost Australian radical writers, and I have reviewed several of his books elsewhere on his blog. But perhaps he is best know for this regular articles, published in a wide range of journals and websites, that discuss politics, history and current events with a distinctly Australian flavour.

Sparrow explains that he is one of a "handful" of socialists that gets to regularly write in the mainstream media. While some of these essays are explicitly political, others show how the best radical writers can  draw out deeper political insights whatever the subject they are dissecting. 

The opening essay tells the story of the Pacific Islanders who were kidnapped ("blackbirded") into indentured slavery on Queensland's sugar plantations. While they weren't slaves in the sense of those Africans forcible moved to the Americas, they were nevertheless brutally treated. Sparrow shows that rather than this being an aberration for Australia's past, the contemporary debates around the issue highlighted some uncomfortable facts about Australia's colonial regime. When the US Civil War broke out, "many Europeans in Australia sympathised with the Confederates" and some expected war between the US and Australia. Sparrow explains, "Queenslanders dreamed of building a 'second Louisiana'. They could, they thought, capitalise on the disruption of the international cotton and sugar trades, if only the could establish a viable local crop."

Getting a viable crop meant getting a workforce and the English workers who arrived wouldn't work in the hot and unpleasant conditions. So "blackbirding" began and between 1863 and 1904 "62,000 South Sea Islanders were transported to Australia. The capitalists who drove this process did so by relying on the "techniques and personnel" of slavery. Yet, as Sparrow explains, they were simultaneously quick to declare their hostility to slavery to "legitimate a generalised racism, which they then presented as a foundation of a new state". The story of the Pacific Islanders in Queensland and their forcible relocation back to their Islands when the practice was banned, once again underlies the racist roots of the current Australian state.

The second essay in the collection explores another aspect of Australian culture - the bushranger, and again deconstructs the traditional accounts. In this case Sparrow explores how "Captain Moonlite", the bushranger Andrew George Scott may well have been in a gay relationship with James Nesbit, one of his gang. Scott hoped that after his execution his body would be buried alongside Nesbit's. This did not happen until an extended campaign by locals to get the body reinterred. We can never know if Scott and Nesbit were gay in the sense we mean today. But as Sparrow points out that is not the point - they exhibited a closeness and friendship that goes against the traditional masculinity normally associated with men of the outback, hinting at a different historical story that challenges contemporary cultural depictions of bushrangers.

Some of the essays here take up contemporary politics. For instance, the brutal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by the Australian government and the resistance against this. Other essays explore culture and change on a much more general level. I was fascinated by Sparrow's articles exploring children's books, particular Enid Blyton and Captain W.E. Jones. I hadn't realised that I craved a socialist exploration of the Biggles stories as much as I did.

Sparrow writes regularly about environmental and ecological issues. Several essays here take up these themes, again with a distinctly Australian angle. There's a fascinating discussion on the nature of extinction where Sparrow looks at the obsession that there is with finding a "thylacine" an extinct carnivorous marsupial, which ends up being as much and exploration of the people who hope to find one alive, as it does with the tragic loss of the animal itself. 

Sparrow is particularly good at getting people to open up. In the case of the "Queer Bushranger" he discusses LGBT+ issues with one of the local women who campaigned to have Scott reinterred. It's fair to say she doesn't share much of Sparrow's left politics, but he gets her to open up a little about the reality of small town life and what that might mean for gay people. Another example is the man who takes part in war re-enactments, arguing that these are more popular as people seek meaning in "atomised and fractured" neoliberal states.

Reviewing in detail the breadth of essays here would take far to long and would spoil them for other readers. But as a taster I can tell you there are chapters on socialist cycling clubs, the immigrant experience and racism, the strange trend of rewriting classic novels as Zombie horror stories, and gun control. Some of these are deeply serious essays, but they are all shaped by Sparrow's deeply human politics - and on occasion his ready wit.

The essay I wanted to finally mention though was one that moved and shocked me a great deal. It was the story of the tragedy of the 1628 wreck of the Batavia, a horrific incident that saw hundreds of shipwrecked mariners and merchants descend into barbaric behaviour as they ran short of food and rations. I was ignorant of the affair, and Sparrow tells the story through a report of modern archaeology and places it in the context of early capitalism. Sparrow concludes by saying that the story from 400 years ago "illuminated the stories we tell about ourselves today". It is also a comment that is true of all the essays in this book - I encourage you to read it.

Related Reviews

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

James D. Fisher - The Enclosure of Knowledge: Books, Power & Agrarian Capitalism in Britain, 1660-1800

A really interesting study of how the development of capitalism saw the consolidation and enclosure of knowledge as well as land as a fundamental part of the process of transformation of power relations in the countryside. Fisher explores this by studying how knowledge became concentrated in the hands of the rising capitalist class in the form of books. Despite its price, this is a accessible book which sheds new light on the process whereby the English peasantry was destroyed in the name of agrarian capitalism.

I have been asked to review this book for another publication and will link that here when it is published.

Article on the book by the author.

Monday, October 24, 2022

James M. Cain - Postman Always Rings Twice

*** Spoilers ***
Apparently James M. Cain hated that his novel was described as "hard-boiled", yet it is difficult to come up with a better adjective. When published in 1934 it caused outrage for its sex and brutal violence, and today it feels no less raw, though we lack the outrage. 

Frank Chambers, a young drifter, arrives at a gas station and diner, where he tries to scam the owner out of a meal. The owner, a Greek immigrant called Nick Papadakis runs the place with is beautiful wife Cora. Nick gives Frank a job, and quickly Frank and Cora begin an affair. The pair plan to murder Nick and take over the diner, but Nick survives the attempt without any memories of it taking place. A second attempt is successful and Cora is put on trial for murder. A clever lawyer manages to get the pair off, by playing the insurance companies off against the judge but in the aftermath Cora and Frank fall out. A reconciliation after Cora discovers she is pregnant is abruptly ended as Frank crashes his car, killing Cora and putting Frank on trial for murder. The coincidences have piled up, and the innocent (in this case) Frank is eventually executed - the text of the novel forming his final thoughts before his death.

The novel hits the reader hard. Cain's clipped prose encourages the tension. With the exception of the innocent, and naive, Nick, most of the characters are grotesque - from the murderers to the prosecutors, and the lawyer everyone is out to grab a bigger slice of the pie. Frank and Cora's lawyer is particularly neatly drawn in this regard - he refuses a huge payment as he knows that the case itself has made his career. The ending too is shocking, by depicting the execution of Frank for a crime he didn't commit the reader is tempted to feel he is absolved of his crimes. But he is not, in anyway, an innocent.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is very much about fate. Everyone has two chances here - Nick survives a murder, only to be killed a few weeks later. Frank and Cora avoid the execution block, blackmail but then get their comeuppance. Even the legal system gets its chance for a second try,

The Postman Always Rings Twice is perhaps watched more than it is read. This is a shame as the novel is powerful and the work is itself a lesson in how writers can put a lot into a few words. You can see why the film industry adored it.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Ernest Belfort Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages

Belfort Bax was perhaps one of the most unusual people that British socialism produced. Today he is mostly remembered (if at all) for being an early "men's rights advocate" campaigning for the "legal rights of men" and opposing women's rights. He wrote The Legal Subjection of Men in 1908 and The Fraud of Feminism in 1913 which tells you all you need to know. 

At the end of the 19th century though Bax wrote a trilogy of books about Germany during the Reformation, an attempt to understand the trajectory of German history between then end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. This first volume is very much a scene setter, describing German society at the time and detailing various events around the time of the early Reformation. 

Whatever Bax's faults, he had a detailed knowledge of German history, events and culture. For instance there are several detailed chapters on social and religious revolts and literature of the Reformation. In these he details some relatively unknown events, books and people for an English speaking audience. Of these the revolts section is perhaps most useful, as Bax shows how the Peasant War (which he deals with in a separate volume) arose out of a ferment of rebellion. While some of the events and things he discusses are interesting, Bax's analysis tends to be very dated. He writes, for instance, of the famous peasants' symbol the Bundschuh, an image of a typical peasant's leather that was often placed on banners, that this showed, "The strange and almost totemistic superstition that the mediaeval mind attached to symbolism". 

A sense of Bax's overbearing writing style is given by the rest of this sentence, "The strange and almost totemistic superstition that the mediaeval mind attached to symbolism is here evincd by the paramount importance acquired by the question of banner." At times I found myself reading and re-reading sentences in an attempt to grasp the core argument. 

Bax rightly argues that a "great man" theory of history cannot explain the Reformation. So he tends to underplay Martin Luther's contribution, placing the Reformation in the context of a period of revolt and religious upheaval. Instead he tends to portray the Reformation more as an economic revolt against the Catholic Church. Indeed he argues that the "end of the Middle Ages" was marked by a enormous decline in the economic conditions of the lower peasantry which contributed to their discontent and revolt. Oddly, at times, Bax comes across almost as an apologist for the old feudal order, writing of how well off the peasantry were. In the second half of the fifteenth century when, Bax says, the "Duke of Saxony wore grey hats which cost him four groschen", a day labourer in the Northern Rhineland could "in addition to his keep earn in a week a quarter of rye, ten pounds of pork, six large cans of milk and two bundles of firewood" and "in the course of five weeks be able to buy six ells of linen, a pair of shoes and a bag for his tools".  Perhaps a day labourer could earn this, but was this really true of the whole peasantry and working classes?

Bax argues that the opening of the world market transformed the mediaeval town and "began that evolution of the town whose ultimate outcome was to entirely change the central idea on which the urban organisation was based". For an alleged socialist it seems odd that Bax seems wary of using phrases like "capitalist relations" and he over emphasises the importance of state relations in the town - laws and taxes and so on - rather than the changing system of production as drivers of economic change. Bax sees the period from the end of feudalism to the 18th century in Germany as a "transitional Europe", "slowly but surely [giving] place to the newer order". 

Ultimately this is a very old book. First published in 1894 few readers today would take it as the definitive academic history that Bax was writing. His excursions into seemingly unrelated cultural accounts or the in-depth retelling of German folklore tales are characteristic of a very different style of writing. 

Nonetheless I found it useful as Bax highlighted some interesting events and revolts that aren't already known. His writing style can be frustrating, but the book itself is relatively light. I'll read the remaining two books for completeness and for his pointers to other events. But I'd be wary of basing any historical conclusions on any of Bax's assertions.

Related Reviews

Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
Hawes - The Shortest History of Germany
Vuillard - The War of the Poor
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany
Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Brian Aldiss - Earthworks

Unfortunately this is not one of Brian Aldiss' stronger writings. Earthworks begins with an interesting concept, Knowle Noland, is captain of a giant nuclear powered freighter moving sand from the coast of Africa to replace the eroded, unfertile, earth of the rest of the world. Africa is now a global power and the rest of the world overpopulated and fallen into ecological mess. These themes will be familiar to readers of science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s as the genre related to the dominant environmental ideas and tried to extrapolate to the future. Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room being a more famous example.

But where Harrison's tale was a gripping "noir" detective style commentary on the political argument, Earthworks fails to hold the reader. There are some interesting ideas, Noland's ship encounters a dead body on a gravity harness floating away from the coastline. Searching the body Noland discovers some love letters and becomes infatuated with their female author. He reflects on his time in a punishment work camp, and how he went to live with the travellers, nomadic people who have slipped through society's cracks.

In revenge against the leader who imprisoned then released him, Noland runs the ship aground. It's rather an inexplicable action, as it has to be said, are most of what he does in the rest of the novel. There follows a convoluted series of battles, chases and arguments between various characters until Noland finds, and promptly falls in love with, the author of the love letters. He then becomes entangled in her revolutionary movement. 

Little of it makes sense. None of it is worth reading. Earthworks is a footnote to Aldiss' far better work. Read that instead.

Related Reviews

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

Friday, October 14, 2022

John Barton - A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths

Reviewing a history of the Bible might seem strange on a blog written by a Marxist, a historical materialist and thus an atheist. But John Barton's History of the Bible is a remarkable work. I was drawn to it because I am studying the Reformation and wanted to understand better how the Bible, as a work that is central to the Christian and Jewish faiths, came to be what it is. In particular I wanted to understand how figures like Martin Luther could spend so much time dissecting and constructing the Bible. 

Barton's book dwells on these subjects, but it does much more too. It places the Bible in its historical context, both in terms of the origins of different sections and the way it has been built through the centuries into the form(s) that it is known today. Barton writes in his introduction that the "Bible is... already the record of a dialogue among authors and transmitters of tradition, and contains commentary in many of its books on many others.

Barton says that his book is an attempt to "describe the present consensus [on the Bible] where there is one, to discuss reasonable options in areas of dispute, and to indicate those where we might try harder." But he cautions that the book
also makes an argument: that the Bible does not 'map' directly onto religious faith and practice, whether Jewish or Christian. I will propose that though the Bible - seen as a collection of religious texts - is irreplaceable for many reasons, Christianity is not in essence a scriptural religion, focused on a book seen as a single, holy work. Judaism, similarly, though it greatly reveres the Hebrew Bible, is also not so Bible-centred as is widely thought... [The Bible] is a mêlée of materials, few of which directly address the question of what is to be believed. The history of the Bible is thus the story of the interplay between the religion and the book  neither mapping exactly onto the other.
For a religious person like Barton (an Anglican Priest as well as an eminent biblical scholar) its a remarkably honest statement that challenges those who assert the Bible is a single work that contains everything required by the Christian religion.

Barton shows how the book originates in a particular time and place, he shows how it relates to the actual history of the areas covered by the early chapters of the Old Testament (not very accurately to be honest). He says, "where [the Bible] tells a historical story, it is not always accurate - partly because it contains legends, and partly because its account of history is governed by a commitments to various interests." Later he continues:
The [historical books] are important as a way of establishing the identity of the people of [ancient] Israel, rather than as archival material: they are national literature. The historical books often contribute to our understanding of the history of the nation through the insight they give into how events and social movements were understood in the time when they were written, rather than by providing reliable information about the history of the time they purport to describe.
Writing about the New Testament he shows how different sections have been added, changed and developed from each other and how the NT refers and relates to the OT. He discusses how the Bible has changed over time with different sections being emphasised, removed or added and why it is such a mix of poetry, history and biography. He also discusses how translation has changed and developed what we understand as the Bible today and where different interests have shaped what has been emphasised and discarded. For the believer it might be a difficult read - Barton is not afraid if highlighting inconsistencies. For the non-believer interested in history and culture it is fascinating.

In the hands of a less talented writer this could all be very dull, but Barton's style is engaging and his willingness to be honest about the contents of the Bible are refreshing. This is no polemic and nor is it an attempt at religious conversion. On the contrary, at times it feels like Barton is emphasising inconsistency to put the reader of religious interpretation. For instance he describes "textual variation", the existence of multiple differing versions of the same text in the oldest source materials. This, he says, shows is that the Bible cannot be a definitive source for religious argument, "What the existence of textual variation rules out, it seems to me, is appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings as if they were legal rulings, since for that a precise text would be essential".

The use of the Bible has always been shaped by the interests of the time. The New Testament can only, according to Barton, "be seen through successive, and different lenses". The construction of the "rule of faith" meant selecting specific aspects of the story of Jesus (such as the bodily ascension of Jesus) and emphasising these, over other aspects of Jesus's story. Why did the ascension of Jesus, which is only mentioned twice in the New Testament, become considered more important than other aspects of Jesus' story that are referred to much more frequently in the gospels? Barton argues that it is because these were "issues for the second-century Church, which therefore read the New Testament in their light". So the NT "becomes an answer to questions that are not exactly those its authors originally raised".

For Barton the importance of the Reformation is that it was about individuals being "free to make anything they chose of the text". The Reformation, he argues, did not arise solely with Luther, but had its precursors in various earlier movements. But once it took place the Reformation 
introduced a new idea into the interpretation of the Bible: the possibility of criticizing the Church's teaching in the light of what the Bible appeared to be saying - and, in Luther's case, even of criticizing parts of the Bible itself in the light of what he took to be its overall drift. This was a revolutionary idea, which would feed into the premium on independent though that would come to characterize the European Enlightenment. For the first time it opened up a gap between the Bible and the faith which hermeneutical ingenuity could not bridge.
This is no doubt true and the final section of Barton's book extends this discussion into modern times, looking at how the Bible has faired in post-Enlightenment times.

It does, however, hint at what I felt was missing from the book. This takes the form of two related issues. Firstly Barton does not address what seems to me to be a key fundamental point - why do people believe? Perhaps more specifically, why did they chose to change their beliefs? What was happening two thousand years ago that meant people broke with the Jewish faith (and Roman religions) and developed Christianity. This also applies in later periods. Why did the Reformation happen when it did? What was it about society in Germany in the early 1500s that provided fertile ground for radical critiques of the Bible? This matters not just for the ideas in Luther's head, but to explain why these ideas were then taken up by tens of thousands of people.

Perhaps it is unfair to critique Barton for not placing his biblical history on materialist grounds. But it seems to me that you cannot fully explain the Bible without to the way that ideas change when material circumstances change. Developing political, social and economic contexts needed new ways of understanding the world - sometimes this meant the rise of new religious ideas and other times the  reformation of religion. Marx argued that religion was the "heart" in the "heartless world" and the "opium of the people". The "heart" was, for Marx, the ability of religion to explain the world and sometimes inspire people to change it. Approaching religion with this framework helps explain why much of what Barton details in his book, took place.

Nevertheless, John Barton's book is a remarkably interesting, accessible and fascinating book about the Bible which - however much us Marxists might be frustrated - remains incredibly important to millions of people. Surprisingly perhaps, I highly recommend it.

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Sunday, October 09, 2022

Melissa Harrison - At Hawthorn Time

Melissa Harrison's All Among the Barley was one of my great reads of 2019. She carefully inverted the fantasy of a the rural idyll, showing that the place that many people nostalgically long for never existed except in the fevered imaginations of some deeply unpleasant people. At Hawthorn Time is about how the countryside is today, for those that live in it and those who aspire to live there - especially those who buy into the fantasy during their urban lives.

At Hawthorn Time is also about change, in particular the way that the agricultural economy is changing.  Change is, of course, inevitable and one of the dangers about writing about the countryside is there can be a tendency to suggest that change is recent, and the countryside was exactly the same until very recently. Yet what the book is really about is how the British countryside and its agriculture has been destroyed by external forces, leaving its population high and dry.

At times it reminded me of Alun Howkins' book The Death of Rural England which details how the late 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rural economy squeezed by the overlapping interests of capital and British towns and cities. Harrison's novel is linked together by the story of Jack, a former environmental campaigner who has protested nuclear weapons and road building, but now finds himself tramping along the forgotten (and sometimes vanished) paths and highways of the countryside. Frequently arrested for trespassing he is often dismissed as "mad" or a criminal, yet he is the last of a breed of rural workers whose labour held together the seasonal harvests, ploughing and planting. Without those like him, who knew the land and walked from place to place, agriculture would not have survived. He has been replaced by cheap labour from Eastern Europe, ironically something else about to vanish from the countryside. Jack is very much the essence of the working countryside - but also those part of the countryside that strove to protect and defend it from simply being tied into the profit machine.

Jack's walking brings him to Lodeshill, a place where he has worked over many years, and knows some of its darker history. Lodeshill is where Howard and Kitty live, retirement refugees from the city. Kitty fulfilling a lives ambition, and Howard dragged there against his better judgement. For both of them the countryside forms a backdrop to the final collapse of their marriage, and for both of them its a refuge of sorts - Kitty through her art and Howard through is cynical abstention from village life. The two of them also represent the change coming to Lodeshill as the older economy vanishes. Second homes, the price of land and high rents combine to squeeze out older communities and local labour all but vanishes as young people look to the bright urban life. 

The best rural novels are those that reject a bucolic fantasy and place their story in the context of the real countryside. Unemployment, poverty, hard work and class struggle are not alien to the countryside, but just as in towns and cities, they are part of everyday life. What Harrison's novel does however is to make these realities the story itself, the strands of the book drawing different aspects of this reality together through the stories of individual characters.

In Stella Gibbons' dark comedy Cold Comfort Farm she hints at the darkness below the surface of the countryside with her brief mention of "something nasty in the woodshed". Harrison's novel is very different. It wears the darkness openly - we know the unpleasant way the book will end from the first page. But the real darkness addressed by At Hawthorn Time is less what happens to Jack and all the other inhabitants of Lodeshill as individuals. They are all victims of faceless economic change, which they are powerless to resist. The darkness comes from that uncertainty and from what is lost. 

When Jack encounters the elderly James, a former ploughman who is now suffering from dementia and has wandered away from home, he reflects on the old man's life, a "unique landscape of memories, parts of it sunlit and open, parts shadowy and unvisited, all of which would soon be... lost". The countryside has always changed, communities, agricultural practices, buildings and crops are never permanent. What Melissa Harrison's wonderful novel does is to remind us of how much has been destroyed and what happens to those who are left behind.

Related Reviews

Harrison - All Among the Barley
Chester - On Gallows Down
Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Lyndal Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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