Friday, November 25, 2022

Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter & Aaron Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism

The Future of Degrowth is an engaging work that deserves study by socialists and Marxists. I wasn't convinced by some of the authors' core arguments - not around degrowth itself - but over their strategy for change. 

My extended review of this book was commissioned for Socialist Worker's Long Reads - you can read it here.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Ernest Belfort Bax - The Peasants War in Germany

This is the second volume of E. Belfort Bax's three volume history of the social side of the German Reformation. I've already reviewed the first volume on German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, and in that review I noted Bax's misogynist views that stood him outside the socialist movement on many questions of his time. Volume two suffers from some of the problems of the first book - it is dated in information and style, Bax writes long, occasionally pompous, sentences and meanders about his subject. That said, the book is actually a straight forward account based on German sources of the Peasant War and remains a good general introduction to the subject.

At the same time as reading Bax's book I was also reading Peter Blickle's much more recent account The Revolution of 1525, which I will review shortly. Bax, like Blickle, identifies the origins of the Peasant War in the great crises of the early 16th century, and the ongoing oppression of the peasantry. Bax reproduces the famous Twelve Articles produced by the peasantry, an extraordinary series of demands which were in several cases accepted either in whole or in part by the lords and town councils whom the revolutionary masses presented them too. 

The Articles essentially turned the world of 16th century Germany upside-down, abolishing serfdom, demanding the ending of various oppressive acts by lords and calling for a much more communal social and economic life. Bax however sees them as "moderate" and "exclusively agrarian in character" dealing with the "grievances of the peasant against his lord, lay or ecclesiastic, but had nothing to say on the social problems and the ideas of political reconstruction agitating the mind of the landless proletarian or the impoverished handicraftsman within the walls of the towns."

In contrast we might look at Blicke's argument. Blicke is no socialist, but he understands the revolutionary nature of the Twelve Articles in contrast to Bax's crude dismissal. Blick writes: 
the Twelve Articles collected and focused the grievances of individual Upper Swabian villages, and multiple reprintings made the crisis of the agrarian order clear top peasants of the whole empire. To understand the articles in terms of the local economic, social and political background is actually to lay bare the basic causes of the revolution of the common man.... By basing their demands on the Bible, the Twelve Articles constructed an alternate framework and thus pointed a way out of the late medieval crisis, which had become a social and political crisis as well as an agrarian one.
For Blicke, the "common man's revolution" was against the old order and for a "godly order" based on mutual solidarity and common ownership. By contrast Bax sees the movement as being (following Lasalle) "in the main reactionary, harking back as it did to the old village community with its primitive communistic basis, an institution which was destined to pass away in the natural course of economic development... necessarily doomed to be gradually superseded by those individualistic rights of property that form the essential condition of the modern capitalist world." 

Bax's position seems to me to be a crude application of the Marxist understanding of history. Bax believes that the feudal society would inevitably be replaced by a capitalist society, a process which would see the "old village community" disappear. Anyone appearing to defend this, was inevitably reactionary. But this is to misunderstand what was happening in 1525 and the Marxist method itself. Engels himself, writing on the Peasant War emphasised how for the Peasants to win "the movement could have been brought to a successful conclusion only by an alliance of all the opposition parties, mainly the nobility and the peasants." 

In this context we cannot simply see the peasant's movement in terms of the peasants alone, but Bax judges the peasants' demands in isolation. This said, Bax also makes the mistake in assuming that the peasant demands are reactionary, and look backward. Blicke, in contrast, emphasises the transformative society that they encapsulated, but it is a society that cannot be realised because it is in direct contradiction to the interests of the existing ruling class. 

Some Marxist writers have noted how Marx and Engels speculated that communal Russian peasant society in the 19th century might form the basis for a transition to socialism. No doubt had the German peasantry been able to win, such ideas might have been discussed by Marxists about them. Instead Bax views the peasants' radical demands in a wholly negative light, dismissing their utopia as reactionary. 

Bax is on much stronger ground when he describes the battles of the peasantry, looking in turn at how these played out during the Peasant War in different parts of Germany. His sympathies are with the struggles of the peasantry and is horrified by the counter-revolutionary slaughter, writing that the violence of the peasantry should not "blind us in any way to the intrinsic righteousness of the popular demands". 

Blicke has noted that the struggles did lead in a number of cases, to some radical success, with  German serfdom nopt surviving the uprising. Bax however argues that the war "with some exceptions" saw a "riveting of the peasant's chains and an increase of his burdens". He returns at the end to his earlier them to argue that "the peasant programme was out of the line of natural social progress and that the war itself was carried on from the beginning in a manner that rendered success well-nigh impossible". As such Bax misses the wider social and economic implications of the revolutionary movement.

While Bax's book has its interesting points and, in particular, his account of the peasant struggles remains valid, his analysis is too crude and undialectical to offer a real understanding of the social and economic process of the Peasant War. Future readers should take this in account and combine a reading of Bax's book with other engagements with the subject.

Related Reviews

Friday, November 18, 2022

James M. Cain - Double Indemnity


There is, in many ways, very little that can be said about James M. Cain's Double Indemnity that I didn't already say about his The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both are tight novels, language and description parred back to the raw basics, leaving the reader feeling like they've been dragged through the story. It is no surprise that both novels made for famous films, they feel ready made for the scripts.

But both books also have a similar story, seeing a relatively straight male figure brought to their knees by a femme fatale. In Postman Frank Chambers brings it on himself, his desire for Cora, a married woman, meaning he is willing to commit the ultimate crime. In Double Indemnity Walter Huff throws his settled life and successful career away after being seduced by the beautiful Phyllis Nirdlinger. Unlike Cora, Phyllis is a serial schemer, confident that she can manipulate Walter to commit a crime that she can benefit. Walter puts together the perfect crime and is only foiled because his friend smells a rat immediately.

Like Postman, Double Indemnity's title has a dual meaning. In this case it refers to both the insurance scam that Walter and Phyllis are hoping to pull off, and the double cross that Walter experiences. Unlike Postman though the characters in Double Indemnity experience a kind of redemption, as they realise that their plans have come undone and they cannot escape. The ending is, however, different to the film but, after reading it twice, I found it more satisfactory. 

Most people will know Double Indemnity for Barbara Stanwyck's famous depiction of Phyllis. I'd encourage fans of the film to pick up this tight little thriller. It is well worth the read.

Related Reviews

Cain - The Postman Always Rings Twice

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Robert Jordan - The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time 2)

In reviewing the first Wheel of Time book I dismissed it as a warmed up version of Lord of the Rings. Book two, The Great Hunt, demonstrates Robert Jordan's attempt to break free of the genre. Here he fleshes out many of the characters and gives two groups of heroes - women and men - separate story arcs. It is refreshing because it means that the women are not simply cyphers and have their own struggles, and the men aren't the only heroes. Unfortunately both groups constantly moan the fact the others are missing and constantly fail to understand the bigger picture (tm).

The bigger picture is a big theme in The Great Hunt. The reader has it, and so do some of the Aes Sedai, the powerful magical women whose organisation is one of the great powers in Jordon's fantasy world. In book one our band of plucky heroes (tm) were guided from their backwater village to the heart of the world by one of the Aes Sedai - Moiraine Damodred. By book two we can begin to understand that Moiraine is a good magical person. She is one of the few with the bigger picture and uses this to manipulate characters towards various goals. Unfortunately she is loathe to explain the bigger picture to any of those who might be on her side if she told them what the hell was going on.

As such, the reader knows that Rand al'Thor is likely the Dragon Reborn (don't ask) but Rand al'Thor doesn't really know what that means, even when he is given a massive banner with The Dragon Reborn written on it. Rand blunders through things, not understanding his magical powers and trying to spend quiet time with his lover from the small village, who is being trained to be a magical person.

Despairing of it all Moiraine sends Rand on a quest to find a horn. If the horn is blown it will make volume three happen, and Rand sets out with excitement and quickly finds the horn, but then leaves it in his bedroom while pinning after a beautiful woman. Rand's ability to have his face turned by a pretty face is one of the most infuriating things about his character, though it is decidedly unusual for the fantasy genre. Normally heroes are really loyal. But as in volume one Rand, and his companions, repeatedly fail to ask anyone what the hell is going on. So they make mistakes, blunder into traps and loose magical horns.

There are various people trying to hamper things, enemies of Moiraine who might be termed bad magical persons and a Dark Lord that torments Rand's dreams and challenges him to a duel. Luckily, by the end, Rand's band of heroes have found the horn and its is blown in time to scare off the Dark Lord and ensure volume three is published. Rand wakes, at the end of the book, denying what everyone knows is true - that he is the hero - and finds many of his companions have gone off questing. Rand is upset by this because he is the hero and no one else should have motivation or quests other than him. But the beautiful woman appears again while Rand's is asleep and makes it clear that others have to look after Rand until he gets over himself.

Look. The book is a collection of fantasy tropes that I should have read when I was fourteen and would have loved it. However it remains compelling and made for a good read while I was on an rather long return journey. I bet I read the following volumes because they are there and I now have the bigger picture

Related Reviews

Jordan - Eye of the World (volume one)

John Dickson Carr - The Hollow Man

I discovered John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man quite by chance on a random bookshelf in a completely disorganised second hand bookshop. I am very glad I did. Carr's work is that of classic detective stories, updated for the 20th century, but with an occasional remarkably unique spin. 

The Hollow Man is known for being on the of the great locked room mysteries. The main character, an eccentric academic Professor Charles Grimaud, is approached by a stranger who warns him about his dangerous brother. Grimaud seems to shrub off the threat, but then commits a number of strange acts - buying and displaying a strange painting and waiting for the killer in his room. Grimaud is murdered in a literal locked room and there are no signs of his killers' escape. Another murder ten takes place in the middle of a street, the undisturbed snow seeming to prove that the killer cannot even have been there.

The police and Carr's hero, Dr. Fell, arrive at the scene of the first crime within minutes - yet only Fell appears not to be baffled. Fell is an intriguing character in himself. Clearly modelled on Sherlock Holmes, he is a polyglot who keeps his private life private. Yet he is also unusually described - a massively overweight character, with a gift for making witnesses talk, and an infuriating way (at least to the police) of not explaining anything he thinks as they career from place to place investigating and finding evidence.

But The Hollow Man will stand out not for this mystery - which is extremely fun and satisfyingly complex - but for its exposition of the whole theory of locked rooms mysteries. Chapter seventeen is nothing less than a lecture by Fell on the theory of locked rooms mysteries. "I will not lecture on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the 'hermetically sealed chamber'." Fell tells his fellow investigators... and to ensure the reader knows exactly what is happening Fell tells his audience that this must be done because "we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not". Having smashed the fourth wall, Fell continues by telling us (and his other fictional characters) all his theories of how such crimes can be committed and then solving the one that he is a character in. 

Locked room mysteries are, like magic tricks, inherently disappointing. When you understand them, they immediately lose something. Fell tells the reader exactly this, "the effect is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also. When we see that it isn't wizardry, we call it tomfoolery." But the genius of this tale is that the reader doesn't feel fooled or tricked. The solution is, of course, simultaneously obvious and fantastically complex. There are plenty of red herrings littering the landscape to through the reader off as well.

In short, this is a brilliant piece of crime fiction that turns the tropes on their head, places the reader in the story in a very unusual way, and serves up a complex locked room mystery with a rather neat solution. I must admit to being rather taken by both John Dickson Carr and his Dr. Fell. I look forward to others in this numerous series.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan - Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow is at the heart of Orkney, an enormous natural harbour today curiously devoid of ships. Yet in both World Wars it was the base of Britain's main naval fleet - the location from where many ships set out to fight the German Navy at Jutland in 1916 and the home base for ships that fought the Bismark and escorted the Russia convoys. Most importantly it was home to tens of thousands of servicemen and women in both World Wars, troops from the navy, airforce and army who looked after the guns, fuelled the aircraft and above all crewed and maintained hundreds of ships.

Malcolm Brown & Patricia Meehan's brilliant oral history of Scapa Flow tells their story. It arose out of a strange set of circumstances - the BBC made a programme about Scapa Flow, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy who served there. The authors placed an ad in the Radio Times asking for reminiscences and were inundated with replies. Realising they had too much material for one programme, they used much of the remainder in writing this book.

So the history here is told mostly in the voices of the women and men who served in this lonely part of Orkney. Some of the stories are horrible - the accounts of the tragedies of HMS Vanguard in World War One and HMS Royal Oak in the second - are awful. Hundreds of lives lost in a moment. One gets a real sense of how these tragedies shocked those who witnessed them or those who cleared up afterward. One sailor remembered how a diver had seen the bodies of dead men still in their bunks after the sinking of the Royal Oak. Other tragedies such as the sinking of HMS Hampshire and the death of hundreds of sailors, plus the unlamented Lord Kitchener (architect of much slaughter) are also closely associated with Scapa Flow.

The Flow today is filled with wrecks and a favourite location for divers. Many of these are German ships, whose crews took them there for surrender after World War One. The scuttling of the ships was a memorable and shocking event, but I was struck by the accounts here that tell of how badly the German sailors were treated by the British authorities - lacking food, entertainment or much else. It was interesting to hear of a passing reference to a Sailors' Council in the German fleet at Orkney - not least because the crews had been part of the mutiny that began the German Revolution in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. Sadly this did not spread to the British!

But actually one thing you get from these accounts is how dull and monotonous life in Scapa was. Not a few correspondents bemoan that they are not on active service, but standing guard in appalling weather waiting for action, that by and large never came. It is interesting that in both wars caution on the part of the British Naval command essentially left many warships and their crews languishing in Scapa Flow. Boredom, games, drink and loneliness characterise many accounts. Some of these are tragic, like the men who killed themselves from depression. Others are sad, such as the two guardsmen left for weeks alone who desperately tried to stretch out the weekly visits by the men who brought them supplies.

There is no doubt, with hindsight, that those in Orkney during both wars had a relatively good deal - they would probably survive. But the boredom brought with it its own difficulties and while the correspondents often remember the islands and their people fondly, they mostly remember how dull it was. Readers looking for exciting accounts of battle will not find it here. What readers will find is an insight into the war away from the frontlines, boredom and loneliness, with occasional moments of terror and tragedy. As such this excellent oral history is probably of much greater interest that you might expect.

Related Reviews

Terkel - 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War Two
Lund and Ludlam – Trawlers Go to War
Lund & Ludlam - PQ17: Convoy to Hell
Wickham-Jones - Orkney: A Historical Guide