Tuesday, February 28, 2023

James M. Stayer - The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods

The Anabaptist movement was a significant break with established Christianity that began during the Reformation. The early Anabaptists consolidated their faith in the statement known as the Schleitheim Confession made in 1527 in Switzerland. However Anabaptists of various different shades had been around for some years, sharing at root the idea that baptism has to be a conscious declaration of faith and not something imposed by another. The date of 1527 closely links the Anabaptist movement with the German Peasant War of 1524-1525 and various historians have argued for close links or no links at all between the two movements. James M. Stayer's book argues for a more nuanced position, as he explains:

Only a small minority of the participants in the Peasants' War became Anabaptists (and many early Anabaptists did not participate in the Peasants' War)... Early Anabaptism was a fringe phenomenon in a few regions of the Peasants' War. Still... the Peasants' War was a formative experience for many, if not most, of he major leaders of the original, non Melchiorite Anabaptism of the south. Although Anabaptism is not important for understanding the Peasants' War, the Peasants' War is very important for understanding Anabaptism.

Stayer's book expands on these key points. In part it is a study of the links between the Peasants' War and various individual Anabaptists - explaining their involvement and how the War shaped their beliefs. But as the title of the book suggests the key discussion point for Stayer is the question of the Anabaptist "Community of Goods" and how this plays out in the War. The Community of Goods is the belief among some sections of Anabaptists that Christians should live like the participants of the early Church, and share all wealth and belongings among themselves and with those in need. The importance of this to the Peasant War is not that such Communal beliefs were particularly common, though they were significant in later events in Munster, but rather that such radical ideas had a place both in the Reformation and the Peasant War. As Stayer puts it, "the Peasants' War was the expression of the Reformation in the countryside" and if the Reformation in the city was generating radical ideas, then they would have their echoes in rural areas.

But Stayer emphasises a second factor. The Anabaptists were suppressed by their enemies who "regarded the Anabaptists of the 1520-s as a continuance of the commoners' resistance of 1525. Certainly the nonconformist religiosity of the Anabaptists continued to deny deference to the rich, the rulers and the professionally learned".

The book opens with a very useful and interesting summary of the Peasants' War itself told via the histography of the War. Stayer engages most of the key writers on the subject, including several books that I've reviewed earlier on this blog. This is followed by a fascinating study of the "Radicalization of the Social Gospel" during the Reformation. This looks at how activists and writers like Thomas Müntzer interpreted the Bible during the War and what this meant for other religious thinkers. Stayer argues that it was the defeat of the Commoners that allowed religious radicals to further develop their ideas - hence the importance he places on the role of the War in "understanding Anabaptism":

It was only coincident with the final defeat of the commoners that an unreconciled minority trusted to God to break down the hierarchy of estates entirely, and the order of property together with it. In the historical circumstances of 1526 and afterwards they had to abandon military self-defence; but their conception of the social meaning of the law of God was not moderated by military defeat; instead it underwent a further stage of radicalisation.

This radicalisation was true of some existing religious thinkers, and of some who became Anabaptists. Stayer emphasises that "in most regions affected by the 1525 uprising, after an interval of some months or years, former peasant rebels became Anabaptists". 

The second half of the book explores how the idea of the "community of goods" played out for Anabaptists and others during the War itself. Here there's a useful discussion of Müntzer's ideas, though Stayer makes a strange analogy between Müntzer's alleged "blankness of his social imagination, once the cataclysmic destruction of the present order was concluded" which he says "reminds one of Marx". It is ironic that both enemies of Marx and some followers of Marx seem equally keen to see Marx, before Marx hidden in the Peasant War.

Such crudities aside, this section has some interesting insights into early radical thought. In particular we learn that Munster's radical experiment with the Community of Goods was not as radical as is often described.

Stayer's book is well written, intriguing and very readable. It's an excellent introduction to the subject and helped me understand the dialectic between the rural rebellion of 1525 and the wider Reformation. For students of the period there is a wealth of material in the footnotes, some great illustrations and a couple of fascinating translations of documents relating to Anabaptism in the appendices. This is a must read for those interested in the Peasant War.

Related Reviews

Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Blickle - The Revolution of 1525: The German Peasants' War from a new perspective
Baylor - The German Reformation & the Peasants' War: A Brief History with Documents
Engels - The Peasant War in Germany

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Robert Jungk - Brighter Than 1000 Suns

Before reviewing this book I feel compelled to note that it represents a personal milestone of sorts. It is likely one of the oldest, unread, books on my to be read pile. Slightly over thirty years ago I purchased it, intending to read it during my physics course at university. I never got around to it, though I wish that I had read it many years ago. The reason for this is that it is a interesting discussion about the motivations of scientists, particularly the moral dilemmas of those engaged in nuclear weapons research. In a time of heightened international tensions between Russia and the United States there's much to concern the public about nuclear weapons, and this book offers insights into the very earliest days of the Cold War.

The book opens with the intoxicating atmosphere of physics research in the first two decades of the 20th century. This would probably have been the most useful part of the book to read during my university period, because it simultaneously captures the excitement of physics and the way in which scientists develop their knowledge. The exchange of information, the excitement of research and the incredible breakthroughs that are covered are fascinating. It is particularly notable that Jungk notes the important roles of female scientists like Lise Meitner and Irène Joliot-Curie, and because this is a political and moral account of their work, we also see their personal bravery in the face of the rise of the Nazis.

The book moves on to the Hitler's victory and World War Two, which provides the first key discussion of the morals of the scientists. Because German scientists had been at the forefront of atomic research there was a real fear that Germany might get the Atom bomb. This fear led to many scientists urging the US to begin their own research into the weapon. Many brave German scientists who did not flee, refused to assist their government's atomic research, or at least slowed it. It is, of course, impossible to say how much this actually took place, and it seems clear that several scientists did assist Hitler's efforts. Historically the book is at its weakest in this section, likely because Jungk was unable to get his sources to speak, or archives were still inaccessible. I am not sure his relatively positive summary of Werner Heisenberg stands scrutiny today. Among atomic scientists the fear of a Nazi atomic bomb appears to have made their belief in the positive force of the United States in the world real. Jungk concludes:
It seems paradoxical that the German nuclear physicists, living under a sabre-rattling dictatorship, obeyed the voice of conscience and attempted to prevent the construction of atom bombs, while their professional colleagues in the democracies who had no coercion to fear, with very few exceptions concentrated their whole energies on production of the new weapon.
Many of those scientists were to find their faith in US democracy undermined by the events of the war and the first use of atomic bombs on Japan. Jungk reports a discussion between the physicist Samuel Goudsmit and a US major, with whom he was liasing between the War Department and the Manhattan Project. Goudsmit remarks, "Isn't it wonderful, that the Germans have no atom bomb? Now we won't have to use ours." The major replied, "Of course you understand, Sam, that if we have such a weapon we are going to use it". This answer shocked Goudsmit, who like many of the scientists seemed to genuinely believe that the US would not use the weapon. This, for me, is the real paradox of these scientists who dedicated their work towards making a bomb, they expected would not be used because they naively believed in the public ideals of the US. 

Jungk neatly describes the combination of shock and relief when the first nuclear weapon is used on Hiroshima. The scientists are proud their work has succeeded and relieved the war is over, but utterly shocked that the weapon had been used against a city. Jungk discusses the Franck report, a detailed discussion of the military significance and the need to avoid the use of nuclear weapons by a number of atomic scientists sent to the US President in 1944. Reading it today it seems hopelessly naïve, its authors firmly believing that the world would sit down and sensibly discussion nuclear weapons and work to avoid a proliferation of bombs. 

But to be fair to many of the scientists, their immediate response to the use of nuclear weapons was to try to awake the world to their threat and highlight the problems. Jungk credits this movement with forcing both the US and the USSR to acknowledge the scale of the threat to their citizens, and begin a discussion about the use of these weapons. It was, in a very small way, the beginning of the anti-nuclear weapon movement.

These broad outlines tell the main subject of the books, though we learn a great deal more. There's plenty of material on Robert Oppenheimer, though there are better and more recent books. In terms of autobiography only the briefest material is included, but the book offers the reader directions to follow, especially for those interested in specific scientists. The book is at its best discussing the moral quandaries of the scientists of the Manhattan Project during World War Two. In some regards the book is dated, but it does attempt to look at the  question of nuclear weapons from an explicitly moral and political individual point of view - a vantage point that is unusual for such studies. Most importantly it is a powerful reminder about why scientists cannot abstract themselves from politics and history, or even social movements. The book is very readable, and I'd recommend you don't wait thirty years to pull it off your shelf.

Related Reviews

Friday, February 24, 2023

James M. Cain - Serenade

James M. Cain is best known for his two short novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Both of these are brilliant, tightly written novels that delve deep into the underbelly of American society, so I was pleased to get this lesser known work for Christmas. 

Serenade is a very different novel. For a start it is longer than his better known works. Secondly it is much looser in terms of dialogue. Postman and Indemnity felt like the written was squeezing meaning out of every word. In Serenade there are extended discussions about music. The main character is a washed up opera singer, and this allows Cain to wax lyrical about composers, musical styles and musicians. It was a favourite subject of Cain's, and he clearly knew his material. It also helps us understand John Sharp, the washed up singer who gets a lucky break back into fame and fortune via a meeting with a Mexican-Indian prostitute.

We know Sharp because he is a man completely convinced of his own greatness, willing to take any opportunity to get back into the limelight, who falls heavily for Juana. Cain sets her up as the fall guy, the reader expects a moral lesson - where Sharp gets together with an unsuitable, non-white woman, and losses everything. That does, in a way happen, but the great surprise is that it is not Sharp's love for Juana that undoes him, but his previous love for a rich musical lover who happens to be male. 

Serenade is remarkable for a novel of its era in having gay sex, and romance, as a key plot point. It is true that the homosexual aspect is effectively used in a negative way. Sharp loses everything because he has to flee his past, and his personal narrative, and tragedy, rests on him breaking with his homosexuality and accepting his straight self. In many ways though it is Juana who is the real heroine here - standing up to the blackmailers and bullies and fighting for Sharp - though breaking from him when she has to.

Its a strange book, and readers will find some of it very difficult to stomach. There's a lot of racism and  some sexual violence - Sharp, in fact, rapes Juana early in their relationship - though he makes sure to tell himself throughout the book that it wasn't really rape as she wanted it. it makes for an unusual read, that won't be too everyone's taste and perhaps, tells us more about the times than the story itself. Cain does however write some excellent set pieces, particularly the scene when Sharp and Juana are trapped in a Mexican church in a violent thunderstorm - though there's no surprise that this was not made into a movie by Hollywood.

Related Reviews

Cain - The Postman Always Rings Twice
Cain - Double Indemnity

Leigh Bardugo - Hell Bent

Having thoroughly enjoyed Leigh Bardugo's Ninth House, I was looking forward to the sequel a great deal. Inevitably there was going to be some disappointment. Sequels are often difficult. But I was unprepared by the extent to which I felt let down. Ninth House worked because it was able to skewer the wealthy elite who attend universities like Yale. In that book Alex "Galaxy" Stern arrives on a scholarship from a poor background. She has been deemed the next guardian of Yale's magical interests - a sort of magical cop, who is there to make sure that the various Houses don't use go beyond the permitted boundaries of their use of magic. It's ok to use it to grant wealth, power and popularity, but not too go too far. 

In the first volume Alex stumbles across a complex plot involving multiple murders. At the culmination her guide, advisor and magical tutor Darlington goes missing. The book finishes with Alex, and her friend, Dawes vowing to enter Hell to get him back. Hell Bent begins almost immediately Ninth House left off. Here lies the first problem. Hell Bent assumes you remember every detail of the first book, and reads like a continuation, not a separate volume. It also means there's no real development of details and plot, and the reader is flung headlong into the action. This might not be a problem - it is a sequel after all - but Bardugo's attempts to explain it all come off badly. 

More importantly the plot - rescuing Darlington from Hell - turns the magic of Yale into a personal rescue story. What made the first book work was its expose of the nature of Yale through its magical alternative: Skewering captains of industry, rich kids and pompous academics. This volume feels like a madcap adventure and doesn't work as well. And when Bardugo does attempt to try to explore wider issues she gets it badly wrong. At one point the heroes use a magical map to find another character. The map, actually a model of Yale, turns out to have been something used to find escaped slaves by Yale's elite. The black characters are horrified, and it feels like a Black Lives Moment when a horrible reality is exposed. Yet nothing comes of it. It feels like Bardugo recognised that she had to include more such events, but didn't know how to use them effectively.

Secondly the characters never develop. Alex constantly behaves stupidly and self-sacrificing when it completely isn't required, most of the other characters feel like wooden cut outs, particularly the black Cop, who seems quite happy to break the law on remarkably flimsy evidence. Characters who are exposed to the new magical world accept it far to readily. Finally, once Darlington is rescued, everyone just carries on after a couple of bowls of soup. PTSD just happens to other people in this universe. Hell Bent is a massively disappointing sequel - the first book promised much, but Bardugo could have used her world to discuss race, class and power in a magical setting - just as she used the first book to highlight sexism and rape in universities. Instead she throws it all away and the whole book is just a setup for the inevitable third volume. Read R.F.Kuang Babel instead.

Related Reviews

Bardugo - Ninth House
R.F.Kuang - Babel

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Kohei Saito - Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism

From the late 1990s onward the ecological core to Karl Marx's work has been drawn out by writers and thinkers such as John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, Andreas Malm and Ian Angus together with many others. Kohei Saito's book Karl Marx's Ecosocialism was a further development of this which closely analysed Marx's unpublished manuscripts to explore in detail how he understood the interaction between human society and the wider world. Marx's ecological work is often summarised by the concept of "metabolic rift" - that capitalism creates a break in ecological systems as a result of how production is organised. It is a theoretical tool that has been used increasingly to understand the extent of the multiple environmental crises that humanity faces. But Marx's work was always a tool for human liberation - a guide to action - that can be used to develop strategies for confronting capitalism as part of a struggle for socialism. It is in this arena that Kohei Saito's latest book contributes its greatest theoretical insights.

In the introduction Saito argues that "Marxism now has a chance of revival if it can contribute to enriching debates and social movements by providing not only a thorough critique of the capitalist mode of production but also a concrete vision of post-capitalist society."

The book is structured into two halves. The first is a explanation and defence of ecological Marxism. Here there is some overlap with Saito's earlier work, and with that of other writers like Foster. But as he did with his earlier book Saito brings a close knowledge of Marx's unpublished writings into his discussion. While defending the Marxist ecology from its critics and exploring Marx's dialectical understanding of the nature-society metabolism, Saito also seeks to understand why Marx's ecological work remained neglected or ignored for so long.

Saito argues that the answer to this conundrum lies in two related issues. The first is the "unfinished character of [Marx's] critique of political economy" and secondly that Engels, who edited and presented Marx's posthumous work (particularly the second and third volume of Capital) lacked clarity on Marx's ideas which meant he in turn downplayed and neglected key insights from his friend and comrade. Saito says that Engels "marginalised" Marx's ecological critique.

Here Saito draws on his deep knowledge of the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA2) the project that has been publishing all of Marx's manuscripts to illustrate this. He shows how, in the last years of his life, Marx was engaged in a deep study of scientific and anthropological texts which show him grappling with how non-capitalist societies had different relationships to the natural world. In addition Marx was exploring scientific texts that further developed his own ecological understanding. Engels, he argues, neglected and "simplified" this aspect of Marx's work. According to Saito:

Despite Engels's interest in ecological issues under capitalist production, it is undeniably characterised by a philosophical and transhistorical scheme, as a result of which he ended up rejecting Liebig's concept of metabolism and remained satisfied with the 'antithesis of town and country' conceptualised in the 1840s. Furthermore, in Engels's discussion of the real of freedom as well as of pre-capitalist societies, he held a more unilateral vision of historical development based on progressive recognition of natural laws with an aid of modern natural science.

While Saito marshals some interesting arguments I felt the evidence did not completely back up this claim. Importantly I felt that with his focus on the texts, Saito neglects to develop the context of the socialist movement itself. This fundamentally shaped how Marx's ideas were used and developed - something that should not be laid at the feet of Engels. In particular Saito doesn't discuss in detail how Second International socialism, because it was essentially reformist, emphasised the promethean and gradualist aspects to Marx's thought. This is the crux of the debate within the German Social Democratic Party which Rosa Luxembourg engaged in against Bernstein. Yet this key moment in the development of Marxist theory is absent from Saito's study.

In addition, but related to this, the importance of the Soviet Union in developing "Marxism" in the 20th century cannot be under estimated. In particular the fact that the USSR wore the mantel of socialism, while maintaining an economy based on accumulation, meant that they too wanted to downplay aspects of Marx's thinking that would criticise an economic system based on endless expansion. 

Degrowth Marxism

The second half of Saito's book develops these arguments to explain Marx as a "degrowth Communist". Here Saito shows how Marx's early ideas developed and changed through his lifetime. As Saito argues this is important in part because it is the response to critics of Marx that say he was eurocentric or argued that history was inevitably progressive. Saito shows, as have other scholars such as Kevin B Anderson, that Marx's ideas on anti-colonialism, national liberation and revolution outside of Western Europe and North America developed greatly. In particular Saito argues that Marx broke from his early understanding of historical development which essentially saw the world following a similar path to capitalist development in Western Europe. As Saito says:

Marx underwent a significant theoretical shift after he brought his attention to bear on the problem of 'productive forces of capital' in his analysis of the 'real subsumption' in the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-1863. This shift made him thoroughly rethink his previous assumption about the progressive character of capitalism. He realised that productive forces do not automatically prepare the material foundation for new post-capitalist society but rather exacerbate the robbery of nature. However, due to the neglect of the concept of 'productive forces of capital';, there remains a common misunderstanding that Marx continued to naively presume a 'progressive view of history' comparable to a natural law.

Crucially, Saito argues, Marx's ideas about the crucial question of "communism" itself changed. It is "not that the paths to communism became plural but that Marx's idea of communism itself significantly changed in the 1880s as a result of his conscious reflection upon earlier theoretical flaws and the one-sidedness of historical materialism". Again Saito draws the readers attention to Marx's close scrutiny of works that explored "natural science and pre-capitalist societies" which "deepen[ed] his theory of metabolism. In this period, Marx increasingly 

attempted to comprehend the different ways of organising metabolism between humans and nature in non-Western and pre-capitalist rural communes as the source of their vitality. From the perspective of Marx's theory of metabolism, it is not sufficient to deal with his research in non-Western and pre-capitalist societies in terms of communal property, agriculture and labour... In other words, what is at stage in his research on non-Western societies is not merely the dissolution of communal property though colonial rule. it has ecological implications. In fact, with his growing interest in ecology, Marx came to see the plunder of the natural environment as a manifestation of the central contradiction of capitalism. 

What Marx gets from these studies is the possibility of "radically different ways of social organisation of metabolic interaction between humans and nature". This means that rather than the "development of the productive forces of capital as being essential to Communism, the rational management of the societies' metabolism is what matters. This leads to Saito's emphasis of Marx as a degrowth communist, because it is the growth of the productive forces that undermines the very viability of society and any sustainable world has to be based on a completely different vision.

I don't have any particular disagreement with this assessment. Saito explains it well. But again it feels to me that his textual analysis means he misses key insights. Saito writes that it was in the 1880s when Marx's vision of communism fundamentally changed. But this immediately follows one of the key moments in Marx's revolutionary activism - his work supporting the Paris Commune and analysing the event itself.

Saito points to the defeat of the Commune and says it meant the "weakening of revolutionary hope" for Western societies. But the Paris Commune did not just give Marx "hope", it gave him the first clear example of how a democratic socialist state could work. This is why it's disappointing that Marx's brilliant work The Civil War in France is not discussed in detail in Saito's book. It is in this work that Marx explores how a revolutionary Commune arises out of working class struggle, smashing the capitalist state, and creating an entirely new society. In this society, the Commune was to be "the political form of even the smallest country hamlet". Such a vision of insurgent democratic communism from below, based on a completely different organisation of the productive forces, is surely crucial to understanding Marx's vision for a sustainable communism. It is no surprise this work became central to Lenin's own vision of the sort of revolutionary praxis needed for workers' to create their own state based on mass democratic participation.

This criticism aside, I would, argue that Saito's book is a crucial read for socialists trying to understand the process that Marx went through in developing his ecological ideas. Indeed, the final section on "abundance" is an extremely important response to those who argue that Marxism has little to say about a future society. For instance, Saito writes:

Marx envisioned a society in which natural and social differences of abilities and talents among individuals do not appear as social and economic inequality but as individual uniqueness because they can be compensated and supplemented by each other... In this sense, communism does not impose conformity and uniformity upon everyone for the sake of equality, but it is about social organisation and institutionalisation that aims to demolish the capitalist tie between differences in ability and skill and economic inequality.

I was particularly taken by Saito's emphasis, which arises from his focus on the "productive forces", that "abundance" is not about the amount of technology, but is rather a "about sharing and cooperating by distributing both wealth and burdens more equality and justly among members of the society". Saito critiques "left accelerationists" whose vision of a post-capitalist society is "full automation" to provide luxury for all. But they ignore the planetary boundaries that will limit this. Instead, Saito reminds us of the inherently democratic vision of mutual cooperation at the heart of Marx's communism. This, he emphasises, arises directly out of Marx's ecology which is why this is such an important work.

Related Reviews

Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Foster & Burkett - Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique
Marx - The Civil War in France

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Mary-Jane Rubenstein - Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race

Mary-Jane Rubenstein opens her book by asking the reader to imagine a "bad dream or a mediocre sci-fi story" where Earth is becoming uninhabitable and "a wealthy fraction of humanity hitches a ride off world to live in a shopping mall under the domination of the corporation that wrecked the planet in the first place." This scenario sums up the vision that certain billionaires have for the future. While millions of people might currently be cynical about Elon Musk's ability to run any sort of complex operation following the debacle of his takeover of twitter, Musk is actually one of the leading "NewSpaceniks" who wants to "save" humanity by pushing us towards space.

Rubenstein's book Astrotopia is a fascinating study of these billionaire visions. It begs some interesting questions. The most obvious of these is why should these billionaires be able to impose their visions of humanity's future? But there are others. By what rules can they divert resources and capital to these plans? What rights do they, or anyone, have to use the mineral resources of the solar system in the interest of furthering the wealth of their class? Finally, what basis is there to their compulsion to go into space itself?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a space enthusiast and I have a particular fascination for the early space programme and Apollo missions to the moon. As a socialist and anti-capitalist I was looking forward to Rubenstein's demolition of the ideas of the NewSpaceniks, but was pleased that she develops this into a subtle critique of ongoing space programmes as being motivated by right-wing, colonialist ideologies. As she says, the astropians have a "deeply conservative nature" and "the rocket men seek more land and resources to plunder in space", despite the fact that people, communities and ecologies are under desperate threat in the here and now.

Rubenstein explores how visions of US expansion have been shaped by very similar politics to those that backed up the expansion of European colonialists across the Americas and the genocide against the indigenous people of the Americas. Donald Trump perhaps exemplifies this, and Rubenstein offers several quotes where he refers to America's history as a "frontier nation" and she paraphrases him saying "America is again being called to settle a wild new frontier and embrace its 'manifest destiny in the stars'." The concept of "manifest destiny" having been used for near 200 years to justify European colonial rule. Such language is not restricted to more recent Presidents. Rubenstein quotes Kennedy worrying in the 1960s about the space threat from the Soviets, "This does not mean that the US desires more rights in space than any other nation. But we cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first". As Rubenstein points out, Kennedy disingenuously argues for US equality in space, at the same time as insisting they'll be top dog. 

Such ideas run through the visions that Trump and the billionaires have for space today. Their vision for space is couched in the language of helping humanity, but is really about ensuring a particular vision of society - one where billionaires control everything and the rest of us toil to support them - continues. This is a space were the rocks, minerals and energy available is there to maintain an Earthly status quo, and keep us subordinate. It is, as she says "deeply conservative" not least because we know what such policies have done to indigenous peoples, ecological systems and natural resources in the past.

However I was prepared to disagree with Rubenstein's book. While we share many politics - anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism and a clear hatred of oppression - we come from a very different ideological place. She is a "professor of religion and science", has a religious background and her personal beliefs are clearly important to her. They shape her approach to this work, and I was concerned that her framing of this study as one of "religion" on the part of the billionaires would undermine her critique. But the more I read the more I appreciated the framing given that it is closely tied to the sort of ideological beliefs that have shaped US history so far. 

But the use of religion also allows Rubenstein to develop wider understandings of the relations between nature, the universe and humanity - ones that would be completely alien to the billionaire class. In exploring all this, she touches on literature, poetry and religion. I did not always agree with her, but I found it stimulating indeed. Rubenstein is an entertaining writer, and at her best when eviscerating the billionaires and their ludicrous ideas (Musk wants to drop 1000s of nukes on Mars to warm it up...!)

Given my interest in space and astronomy, I was intrigued by how she would answer the question she sets herself at the end: "Should we explore outer space?" She answers in the affirmative, but cautions: 

[Only] if we can find a way to study it without doing further damage to its ecology and our own and without escalating human violence. Yes, if we can rein in private interest enough to privilege knowledge over profit and cooperation over competition. Should we try to live there? I'm honestly not sure. But either way, we need to stop pretending that escaping Earth is going to solve our problems... because... we'll bring them all along with us one way or another.

I would argue that this cannot happen without the destruction of capitalism itself. While there remains a need to accumulate for profit's sake, the capitalists will only understand space in terms of capital. We can and must do scientific research, send probes out and use Earth's orbit to help improve peoples' lives. But exploration, permanent bases and new colonies are a distraction from the urgent work to be done - and that includes the fight against a system that would mine the moon for raw materials to make electric cars for Elon Musk's bank balance.

Related Reviews

Burgess - The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration
Shetterly - Hidden Figures

Prescod-Weinstein - The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime & Dreams Deferred
Moore - What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race

Thursday, February 09, 2023

R.F.Kuang - Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution

Babel is a truly remarkable novel. For the unwary reader it is likely to feel popular because of its initial similarity to the basic premise of Harry Potter - an unlikely child is plucked from their normality and placed in a secret, magical environment. But Babel is a much richer, more complex and far more satisfying novel that Rowling's works. For R.F. Kuang's main characters are not the children of suburban middle class, white, households. Instead they are the children of Empire - Chinese, Indian and Haitian. For in Kuang's alternative world, colonial Empires thrive on the magical powers derived from the subtle differences in translated languages. The slight alternations in meaning between two Mandarin and English words, for instance, can drive power and spells linked to those words when placed in blocks of silver.

The scholars of Babel tower in Oxford University have become rich and fat on their monopoly of this knowledge and the British Empire has become powerful and violent on the back of the power it gives them. But all is not well. The population are revolting - as magic imbued silver powers machines and eases transport. Workers are deskilled, made redundant and driven into poverty by the magic from Oxford, and they are unhappy. But there are further economic troubles on the horizon. Silver is not unlimited and China has much of it and, the power of European languages is fading. Skills are needed from speakers of the languages of Africa, China and India. Which is where our heroes come in.

Robin Swift adopts his name as a boy, because his Chinese name would be unpronounceable to the English. He is taken to Britain, saved by his father from the slums of Canton where plague has devastated almost the whole population. His father, a Babel professor, saves only Swift - he is useful, and potentially profitable. Such is the pattern of Babel and Empire.

Arriving in Oxford after years of forced education, Swift is quickly sucked into the magical realm of knowledge. His lifestyle is luxurious as Babel is fat on the profits of Empire and magic. His friends are also brilliant translators, and they are shaped into a group that will help take the Empire forward. But Swift learns the reality of things quickly - he is pulled into the revolutionary, radical Hermes organisation. A secretive network with the aim of revolution - using Babel's powers to break the British Empire.

Swift moves from naivete to assured rebellion. The powers of Babel resist, though ironically, it is academic hostility to others that proves their final undoing. But Swift, and his friends, have to take on the power of the British Empire - though in their revolution, they do not do so alone. They find allies among the oppressed and downtrodden on Britain itself.

Its a brilliant fantasy, but it is much more than that too. For written into this story is a deeper one - the racism and prejudice of 1830s (and 21st century) Oxford. The limitations of the liberal do-gooders who want to stop war through platitudes, pamphlets and petitions. The frustrations of those self-same white allies who cannot see the reality of racism even inside the privileged, rarefied atmosphere of Babel, where the Asian, Black and Brown scholars are priceless. Kuang has crafted an alternative world, but she has rooted it deep in the history the British Empire - one where the Swing rioters are deported and executed at home, where colonial "subjects" are taunted, dehumanised and mistreated at home and abroad opium is used to destroy an entire country and wars are started to ensure "free trade". Her footnotes, that blend actual history with magical explanations expertly blur the distinction between fact and fiction. It is very much a novel for the Black Lives Matter generation - rooted in part in Kuang's own experiences at the university.

Revolutionary Marxists reading the book will likely pick up on wider themes - not least the question of the state and violence. I was struck, as the book's subtitle suggests, by the clever handling of Swift's journey from activist to terrorist as he seems the impossibility of peaceful reform in the face of the Empire, and Babel's, vested interests. That Kuang places this debate within the context of wider, British, working class activism - albeit in a supporting role, is testament to the nuances of the book. It is, after all, a fantasy, and readers who are concerned about the lack of a "revolutionary party" in the book are missing the point. The rest of you should settle back and stay up all night with this remarkable depiction of the intersection of magic, language and revolution. You'll love it.

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Bardugo - Ninth House
Grossman - The Magicians
Martell - The Kingdom of Liars
Kay - Children of Earth and Sky

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Donovan Moore - What Stars Are Made Of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

It is difficult, when reviewing biographies, to separate the review of the biography from the subject. It is all too tempting just to rewrite a summary of the person being depicted and ignore the biography itself. This is particularly the case when the subject is such an extraordinary person who is almost unknown outside the field they excelled in. Such a person was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. As such the main importance of Donovan Moore's biography is that it highlights the life and contribution of this amazing scientist. But first we have to talk about the importance of Moore's subject.

Born in 1900, Payne-Gaposchkin's life straddled the greater part of the twentieth century, and exemplified some of the great changes that were to take place. From a young age she was fascinated by the world around her - botany, astronomy and science in general. But she was also a gifted student of literature and language and later in life, she peppered her science lectures with allusions and references to plays, poetry and literature. Moore's book tells the story of Payne-Gaposchkin's early life and the important influence of her parents who clearly did not hold with Victorian ideas of what a young woman should study. He is particularly strong when highlighting the barriers that Payne-Gaposchkin faced as a result of her gender.

The most important part of the book deals with Payne-Gaposchkin's break into academia. She eventually went to Cambridge were, defying expectations and open hostility from faculty and bureaucrats, she studied botany, physics and astronomy. The first of these she dropped quickly, and focused on her greatest love - astronomy. Her interest in the subject was famously begun when aged eight years old she had seen a meteor while walking with her mother. But it was really after attending a Cambridge lecture by the great astronomer  Arthur Eddington about his 1919 expedition to verify Einstein's relativity theories while viewing an eclipse, that she became hooked. She completed her studies but Cambridge would not award a degree to a woman until 1948, so Payne-Gaposchkin emigrated to the United States were she got a job at Harvard in what would become the fledgling astronomy department there.

Payne-Gaposchkin's Cambridge years are of great interest because they show the stifling nature of life at Cambridge. The heavy weight of tradition, sexism and Empire clung to the university. Payne-Gaposchkin's entrance exam to her science course was centred on a translation of a classical text from ancient Greek. Hardly a test of whether or not she understood the basics of her science subjects. But it is the appalling inequality experience by women that is most shocking to the modern reader. The rudeness, casual sexism and dismissive treatment of female students is one thing, but so is the way that they were treated by wider society. Women wanting to play tennis had to have written permission from home in order to go out without petticoats. Male students rioted against the idea that women would be awarded degrees.

Going to Harvard was Payne-Gaposchkin's way out. Getting a low paid job at the university was the result of a brilliant exam, but the university also got its money's worth. Harlow Shapley, the Director of the Harvard Observatory, ensured she was very lowly paid for decades, and Payne-Gaposchkin - for fear of losing the job - never complained publicly. But Harvard was very different to Cambridge, and this probably reflects the different places that the two countries were at. Britain was still clinging onto the remnants of its Empire, stuck in the old ways. The United States, at least, was a country powering forward economically. Its treatment of women was still unequal and misogynistic, but at least women could work at Harvard and no one seemed to care about petticoats too much. Payne-Gaposchkin ended up working on stellar spectra, work that relied on the labour of several female "computers" whose systematic work had provided the observatory with a wealth of raw data. From this Payne-Gaposchkin was able to publish a brilliant PHd thesis that overturned some key ideas of astronomy, including those of Arthur Eddington, her great hero. Payne-Gaposchkin showed how the most abundant elements in the stars, and hence the universe, where not in the same proportions as on Earth. Instead the element Hydrogen was dominant. It was too radical a conclusion and Payne-Gaposchkin had to tone down her argument at the behest of more famous (and male) scientists. But she was eventually proved right - though not accepted until male scientists had verified her conclusions.

At Harvard, Payne-Gaposchkin was a pathbreaking scientist. She also broke down many barriers for women. According to Moore, she was, "The first PHd in astronomy, the first winner of the Cannon Award, the first woman promoted to professor at Harvard... the first woman at Harvard to chair a department." 

These firsts were made in the face of opposition and resistance. She was repeatedly ignored for promotion because of her gender, though she also forced the authorities to accept her unusual behaviour. She brought her children to work during World War Two, forcing the Observatory to permit other women to do the same at a time of great shortages of labour for childcare. She lectured while pregnant, something that was considered shocking in the 1930s and 1940s. She was defiant of convention and this defiance led her to take risks and do things, such as drive across the United States with a female friend camping, that must have been shocking to many at the time.

She also exhibited great bravery, travelling to Germany and Russia in the 1930s, helping the astronomer Sergei Gaposchkin escape Nazi Germany and get a job at Harvard. They eventually married and had several children. Cecilia gained the "reputation" of being a "dangerous radical" according to her own autobiography, for the radical discussion groups she and Sergei hosted during World War Two, but it seems that her radicalism never became the organised kind. This is perhaps something she understood herself, saying at a lecture once that she found herself, "cast in the unlikely role of a thin wedge". The words were intended as a joke - Payne-Gaposchkin was almost six feet tall and chain smoked - but they were also very true. 

Payne-Gaposchkin was a "thin wedge" but this should not diminish her achievements. It was her fortitude and confidence that drove her forward, and opened up a path for many others to follow. But first and foremost she was a scientist - her love was pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. 

Donovan Moore's book is a great introduction to Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's momentous and unusual life. It is not without its faults - I felt that Moore glossed over the science that Payne-Gaposchkin was working on a little too much. The reader deserved to know more about why her breakthroughs were so important and radical. This requires some more context - the quandary over the make up of the stars (and hence the universe) was because there was no real accepted understanding of how stars worked. This would require clarity over nuclear physics, which was simply not available to the scientists that preceded Payne-Gaposchkin. In this very real sense Payne-Gaposchkin was working on cusp of enormous breakthroughs and her pioneering work helped take this knowledge forward. Sadly Moore doesn't really do this justice. I would also have liked more information on her later years - there is little here about the 1970s and her life then. I would also have valued a slightly more critical engagement with the life and work of Arthur Eddington, whose attitude to critics was problematic and, in the case of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who also fled Britain to the US) was likely shaped by racism

Nonetheless this is a fascinating, entertaining and well written account of the neglected life of one of history's greatest scientists. 

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John Dickson Carr - The Mad Hatter Mystery

I have been reading John Dickson Carr's Doctor Fell novels following my discovery of the later book The Hollow Man last year. That is considered one of the greatest "locked room" mysteries, and Carr's other works tend to work on a similar principle - a ludicrous or impossible situation is worked out by Fell who improbably refuses to divulge any information on his method until he has worked it all out. I suspect any genuine police officers who worked with Fell would have arrested him for "obstructing the course of justice" or some such misdemeanour.

Of course for the reader this is excellent as it allows them to concoct their own theories only for them to inevitably be destroyed by Fell's own explanation. The Mad Hatter Mystery is the second volume of Fell's stories, and follows this pattern closely. In fact, despite the blurb saying that the books can be "enjoyed in any order", this book does follow on relatively soon after the first story. It is better to read it in order in my opinion. Two seemingly separate sets of events are brought together in a murder. One is the repeated, and public, stealing of hats and their placements in public places. The second is the discovery and then loss, of a priceless and unknown short story by Edgar Allan Poe. 

The details of what takes place matter little, and their divulgence here might spoil the story for future readers. But I found the story incredibly complicated. There were a plethora of characters, many of whom appear to only exist to complicate the main story. The real joy in the book is the setting and the depiction of the police investigation for the murder takes place in the Tower of London and the police search takes our heroes across 1920s or 30s London. We get quite a few insights into drinkers' culture and the lives and loves of our upper-middle class characters. 

But I did not get any satisfaction from the ending. I had little invested in the characters and the central mystery of the Hats was disappointing. A few hours after reading I am not sure I can tell you what and why the murder actually took place. That might be stretching the truth a little, but the book lacked the dark overtones of the other Fell novels. 

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