Saturday, May 27, 2023

Janos Bak (ed) - The German Peasant War of 1525

This book originated as a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies marking the 450th anniversary of the German Peasant War of 1525. This edition was republished in 2013 and, despite the expense, remains an important collection of essays offering insight into 1525. Many of the authors were outstanding figures in historical studies of the period, and their work repays reading.

In his introduction to the book, František Graus notes the importance of the 1525 rebellion as an example of a late medieval rebellion in response to the "agrarian crisis". A feature of these later revolts was that the peasantry began to understand that their "servile status was not... the result of 'divine will'," which meant the peasants' demands went "beyond fighting for the special grievances of their particular communities and start a struggle for a new order established according to God's will and justice". 

Such demands are, of course, reflected in the famous "Twelve Articles" that were produced during the rebellion, which as Henry J. Cohn argues in his piece on the Peasants of Swabia, would have seen a "fundamental shift in economic power and social status in favour of the lower orders and at the expense of the lords" had they been won. But Cohn notes the way these, and similar, demands ran through the German Peasantry. Hundreds of local grievances were "generalised" as the Twelve Articles, but they were demanded from hundreds of local villages assemblies and meetings. The process by which these written demands were generated is shown in some of the documents that Cohn translates for this collection - reports that show the gathering of peasants in secret, their networking and their election of leaflets. Reading these brings a medieval peasant revolt to life, showing the process that took place and perhaps reminding one of how activists continue to organise today below the radar of management and oppressive regimes. These original documents are real gems, but as Cohn argues the problem was that these natural networks of rebellious peasants did not break out into the sort of organisation that could seriously win their demands:

The sense of class solidarity among peasants which these and similar documents exhibited did not usually extend beyond the province in which they originated; nor did peasant unity and organisation prove sufficient in the end to overcome the superior military resources and the greater degree of cooperation which prevailed among the members of the Swabian League and other German rulers.

Adolf Laube provides a fascinating study of "precursor" revolts to 1525, again arguing that with the start of the 16th century the "antifeudal movement became revolutionary". Peter Blickle's article on the background to the Twelve Articles shows how this manifested itself through specific demands. He emphasises how "revolutionary" demands like the abolition of serfdom were extremely popular and that "90 percent of peasants whose complaints are known to us singled it out", and he concludes with the revolutionary nature of the demands:

The Twelve Articles indicate a fundamental crisis in the system of reference between peasant and lord. Feudalism of this mould became obviously petrified, unresponsive, rigid; in brief, it was unable to solve the problems otherwise than at the expense of the peasants. The peasants believed that the Twelve Articles might at least defuse this crisis. They even expected to overcome feudalism with the help of the Gospel and Divine Justice, which promised them an entirely open, fresh start for building a new society and authority.

In marking the anniversary of the revolt in 1975/6 the Journal of Peasant Studies could not ignore two other aspects of the epoch. The first was the extensive debate that had taken place about the nature of the Peasants War, and its context. This was shaped fundamentally by the existence of the two German nations. In East Germany, in the Soviet sphere of influence and ideologically (if not socially and economically) committed to a "Communism" allegedly standing in the tradition of Marx and Engels, the understanding of 1525 was fundamentally shaped by a dogmatic adherence to the outline presented by Engels in his own work. Here, the idea that 1525 was an "early" bourgeois revolution dominated historiography. In the West, historians tended to completely dismiss this approach. Several essays are centred on this discussion and while the context is the antagonistic relationships between West and East, reading them today offers some insights. East German historian Ernst Engelberg's article is a bad-tempered and dogmatic response to criticism. Gunter Vogler's on the other hand is a more nuanced response to criticisms of a Marxist approach.

A second aspect to the studies are the exploration of how peasant revolts of the 20th century compared to those of the 16th century. Unfortunately I found these less useful, as they had dated a great deal, though the article exploring parallels between the driving forces of 1525, as explored by Engels, and "capitalist" developments in Iran was definitely interesting, showing how "land reform" was pushing revolt. These are probably articles for the more specialist historian, though they do demonstrate that Engels' approach to 1525 retains lasting value. The collection itself remains a insightful and indispensible book for those writing histories for the 500th anniversary.

Related Reviews

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Suzanne Heywood - Wavewalker: Breaking Free

In 1975, when Suzanne Heywood was six, her parents announced that they were going to follow in the path of Captain Cook's third voyage and travel around the world by sailing boat. To Suzanne and her younger brother this was a bolt from the blue. It would be, her father said, a three year trip. The youngsters thought it was a tremendous adventure. The idea of a young family making such an epic journey captured the minds of many. Journalists and camera crews followed preparations, and the ship, Wavewalker, was sent off by an appropriately large group of the great and the good, and many curious onlookers.

The youngsters found it thrilling, but quickly things began to be a lot more confused. In the eyes of Suzanne, her father was a brilliant explorer, a worthy person to follow Captain Cook. But problems began to develop. Inevitably, the trips was not as easy as expected. Tensions developed among those on board, and as days, became weeks and then months, things were not quite so clear.

Wavewalker is a fascinating book, because it uses the medium of Heywood's memoires to explore something far beyond the voyage itself. The three years, became four, then five. Eventually Wavewalker and Heywood's family spent a decade sailing 47,000 miles. The reminiscences are often what you might expect from such a voyage. Suzanne remembers whales, adventure and exotic ports. But when, in the Indian ocean in the midst of an enormous storm, a giant wave smashed into Wavewalker and badly injured Suzanne, we begin to see the real tensions in the project.

For this book is not really about Wavewalker's voyage. It is really about how the obsessions of adults impact upon their children. Suzanne's father could not see beyond the voyage. Her mother, despite her professed hatred of sailing, could not break from him. Suzanne has recreated the experiences from her own diaries, recollections and interviews with the crew that come and go. She also has her father's logbooks and own writings, that paint a different picture - one of family unity and enjoyment. But, Suzanne increasingly, and desperately, wants to return home, but her parents won't allow anything to get in the way of their dreams. They see the voyage as a the best education young children could have. The intergenerational tensions become simmering hatred.  

The readers follow Suzanne as she becomes forced increasingly to rely on her own devices. Self reliant and wary of forming friendships because these are only ever temporary - it is not hard to see that Suzanne is actually depressed, and suffering enormously. She is desperate to learn, yet her parents see education as a irrelevant to the voyage. Her mother, in particular, blocks Suzanne - playing loud music while the girl studies, mocking her and only supporting her father's goals. 

This leads to some shocking moments. When Suzanne is having emergency surgery on a remote island for injuries sustained in the storm, her mother can barely be with her. Eventually, as a teenager, Suzanne is left in charge of her brother, while her parents voyage onward. Later we learn that her mother has told her father, that either Suzanne leaves the ship or she does. Suzanne is left to fend for herself, in a situation that frankly is shocking. Eventually she phones Childline, the counsellor telling her "None of this is your fault... You’re coping with far more than is fair."

What is shocking about Suzanne's account is her parent's seeming lack on interest in their children's own needs. They seemed to see them as extensions of their own selves - sharing interests, beliefs and so on. Suzanne is expected to take on the traditional female roles of kitchen work, while her brother works on deck. When she asks questions about religion, beginning to develop her own ideas about the world, her father mocks her as the "token Christian" rather than engaging with her and encouraging her to think. 

Suzanne shines through however as a independent, brave and clever girl. As she grows older on the endless voyage, she fights for space to learn and educate. In the most deplorable of circumstances she passes exams via correspondence courses, having to beg her parents to make sure she gets to the exams. While she never gets the dress she craves - her parents essentially take her money - she does eventually break free and get to university.

This book is very unlike those I would normally read, and this review is not easy to write. I got it after reading Suzanne Heywood's article in the Guardian, a selection of extracts, because the book spoke to me about relationships and family. While I cannot claim to have shared her experiences, I felt that Suzanne spoke to me about some of what I have experienced in my own life. Reading Wavewalker was then a deeply moving personal experience as well as a sad insight into another's life. 

When her family learn that Suzanne is writing this book, they react with shock and anger. It is clear that the tensions and fissures within the family that were created in the 1970s and 1980s are never resolved, because her parents can never admit their failure. Wavewalker then, is a on one level a tragic tail of parental failure. But on the other it is a tremendous story of a young woman who refused to give up on her dream, and overcame incredible odds to do that. My heart was with her on every page, though my mind was often elsewhere. 

Monday, May 22, 2023

Christina Thompson - Sea People

The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on Earth. It huge area is larger than the planet's entire landmass, and its possible to look at the Pacific on a globe and almost imagine a planet completely devoid of land. Yet zooming in from such a view, it quickly becomes apparent that this massive area of water has land, tiny volcanic islands that poke out of the water, sometimes separated by thousands of kilometres. When Europeans first arrived at these islands they were amazed to find most of them inhabited. To the European's this seemed amazing. The islanders had what seemed to be very rudimentary boats. How could this have taken place? 

Christina Thompson's book is a history of the "Polynesian Triangle", an

area of ten million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean defined by the three points of Hawai'i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a "portmanteau biota" of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. 

Without compasses, sextants or maps, they colonized the Ocean and did so in a remarkably short period of time., creating what was "until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world".

The Europeans, of course, could not believe the Polynesian's did this on their own, and a significant part of the book is the story of how Europeans misunderstood the history of the Pacific. Believing that navigation over such distances was impossible without European technology, those that came after Captain Cook, came up with a variety of ideas about what happened. These ranged from the racist - that the Polynesians were actually descendants of white tribes, to the improbable - the Polynesians were actually South American. Much discussion took place about how the navigation took place - whether it was accidental (as most people believed until very recently) or planned.

In exploring the European approach to the Polynesians, Thompson draws out the real story - which is an incredible account of brilliant exploration, genius navigation and completely different ways of understanding the world. She shows how different understanding of the relations between currents, waves, land and water, allowed the first navigators to move around the Ocean with incredible accuracy, and how this was proved by some startlingly brilliant experimental voyages in the 1970s and 1980s. These trips both proved the impossible possible and gave new renewed identities to the Polynesians themselves, rescuing their own history from the condescending ideas of many European scientists. There are fascinating accounts of archaeology, navigation and oral history - and I was particularly struck by Thompson's brilliant account of Cook's relationship to the Tahitian Tupaia who produced a famous chart. Thompson shows how this is actually an incredible accurate map of the Pacific, but one almost incomprehensible to a 17th century European sailor.

I picked up Sea People on a whim in a bookshop and I am very glad I did. It seems like it might be a specialist topic, but its a brilliant exploration of the different "ways of seeing" that different human cultures develop, and how such knowledge has been lost because of the way European colonialism remade everything in its own image. I highly recommend it. As Thompson points out, there are still questions about the origin of the Polynesians, it is "unlikely that we will ever know how some of the remotest archipelagos were initially discovered or how many canoes were lost in the course of this long and arduous colonising process", but

To the extent that this history has been disentangled... it has been thanks to input of radically different kinds. At one end of the spectrum are the mathematical models: the computer simulations, chemical analyses, statistical inferences - science with all its promise of objectivity and its period lapses into error. At the other, the stories and songs passed from memory to memory: the layered, subtle, difficult oral traditions, endlessly open to interpretation, but unique in their capacity to speak to us, more or less directly, out of a pre-contact Polynesian past.

Related Reviews

Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science
Cushman - Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History
Moorehead - The Fatal Impact
Hunt & Lipo - The Statues that Walked: Unravelling the Mystery of Easter Island

Friday, May 19, 2023

N.K.Jemisin - The Fifth Season

This innovative fantasy novel is far from the "high fantasy" and world-building of the Tolkien clones that proliferate in this genre. It is set on a highly active geological planet, where humans live constantly in fear of the end of their age, as giant earth movements wreck their civilisations. Knowledge, passed down from eons before, warns them of their history and urges them to prepare for the end of a season, when things go to hell and everyone is left to fend for themselves, particularly those outside the Communes. The orogenes however, are hated humans who can control the earth, using its energy to move, change and direct power. Their ability to use this power, and lack of control unless highly trained, makes them feared by other humans - but their powers to stop tremors makes them necessary.

The Fifth Season takes some getting into, but once the reader gets their head around the non-linear plot and the various seasons and reference points, there's a lot here. The central story, of an orogene struggling to find and hide themselves in a hateful and dangerous world, is well plotted to show off the author's worldbuilding. Looking forward to the second volume.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Ian Angus - The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism

In his latest book, Ian Angus answers a question that apologists for the capitalist system would like to pretend does not exist. How is it that humans came to live in a world were a tiny minority own and control huge amounts of wealth, and the vast majority of us have to work for them? Angus writes that "even sharp critics of injustice and inequality rarely question the division between owners and workers, employers and employees". Yet almost every aspect of our world is defined by such inequality. About 50 percent of England is owned by one percent of the population. A staggering inequality for a country supposedly defined by its "green and pleasant land". Indeed it is England were Angus' history is mostly focused, for here it was that the process went "furthest" according to Marx. But the transformation of society that saw the total destruction of "the traditional economy" was neither automatic nor benign. Rather:

wage-labour has only become universal in the past few hundred years - and the change was forced on us by 'the most merciless barbarism, and under the stimulus of the most infamous, the most sordid, the most petty and the most odious of passions'.

The quote here comes from Marx, and Angus skilfully uses Marx's theoretical framework to explore the development of capitalism's system of unrestrained accumulation based on exploitation. Marx was well aware that pre-capitalist society took a myriad of different forms, and Angus shows how England (and indeed the British Isles in general) saw a number of different ways of organising agricultural production. The peasantry, under the respective lords, farmed land in ways that were much more communal and depended, in significant part, on the use of communal land. These commons were used according to democratic and egalitarian principles, sharing fields and carefully managing access to essential resources.

The developing capitalist interests however saw the commons as a barrier to further profit. The destruction of the commons, the key theme of this book, took place not out of individual malice, but out of the logic of capital. The need, by the capitalists to expand into every available space and to transform the very world into their own image. Land, animals, wood, forests and space itself was converted into a commodity that could be bought and sold. Fields were engrossed, land was enclosed, commons were privatised. The peasants who lived from the land, were expelled or turned into wage labourers - their old traditions and histories erased. As Angus says, "The twin transformations of original expropriation - stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers - were well underway". These people became a new social group:

A new class of wage-labourers was born in England when 'great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and right-less proletarians.'

The quote is, again, from Marx, whose book Capital is filled with rage at what happened to the peasantry. Angus continues by highlighting the sweep of this process:

It was sudden for those who lost their land, but the social transformation took centuries. In the early 1700s, two hundred years after Thomas More condemned enclosures and depopulation in Utopia, about a third of England and almost all of Scotland was still unenclosed, and most people still lived and worked on the land. it took another great wave of assaults on commons and commoners, after 1750, to complete the transition to industrial capitalism... Looking back, that transition appears inevitable but it did not seem so to commoners at the time... some argued eloquently for a commons-based alternative to both feudalism and capitalism.

Contrary to what some followers of Marx tell us, he did not believe that this process was inevitable or indeed desirable. Marx took inspiration from contemporary movements to protect the commons in his own time, but he was also aware of historic struggles. A great strength of Angus' book is his celebration of these forgotten struggles. One key event is Kett's Rebellion of 1549, about which I have written elsewhere. But Angus also notes other struggles, such as the great battles between poachers and gamekeepers - representing resistance to the idea that game should be a commodity, private property for the sole use of the local landowner. A significant chapter also looks at the work of Gerrard Winstanley whose writings during the English Revolution raised the possibility of a new way of ordering society - though interestingly Angus frames' Winstanley's vision not as a future Utopia, but as a transitional society to it.

Angus' conclusions about the laws introduced to protect private property make an important point:

The very existence of the Bloody Code refutes the common claim that capitalism triumphed because it better reflected the dictates of human nature than previous social orders. The poor were not easily reconciled to a system that expelled them from the land. England's ruling class tried to terrorise them into submission.

This terror and the process of destruction of the commons was not limited to England. Angus demonstrates how the colonial project for English capitalism arose directly from the processes begun in the English countryside. The slave trade, the destruction of commons in the Americas, Africa and Asia were part of a process that subverted the world into the interests of English capital. These sections are among the book's most insightful and moving, dealing as they do with the destruction of entire peoples and their worlds. 

Angus also gives several important theoretical insights. He notes, for instance, how apologists for capitalism can argue that the process was painful and violent, but it was necessary. They suggest that enclosure was important because it was only in this way that crop yields could rise to the levels needed to support industrial capitalism. Angus shows the wealth of evidence that this is incorrect and that yields were not significantly improved. But he also makes an important point that peasants themselves were innovative and clever - far from the dumb backward looking yokels of legend. Common field farming was not "inherently conservative" it was actually dynamic and incredibly successful. But such propaganda was important to the landowning class who wanted theoretical justification for their actions. It is notable that similar points are frequently made today. We are told that large scale industrial farming is the only way to feed the world. But such farming invariably has lower yields, is more polluting and highly vulnerable to environmental disaster. Then, as now, the "claim that peasants resisted improved methods reflects anti-peasant prejudice, not the real activity of working farmers".

The skilful linking of historical processes to contemporary political and ecological struggles is a great strength of Angus' book. This is not specifically a work of history, but rather a framing of the current ecological crisis within the wider historic development of capitalism and the destruction of the commons. For Angus it is capitalism's transformation of the commons that is emblematic of the system's method of operation. But looking backward can only tell us so much, the alternative has to be a new way of organising society based on the creation of a new society with the idea of common, democratic ownership at its heart. As Angus writes, "Today's movements of the oppressed and dispossessed to steal back the commons offer real hope that capitalism's five-century war against the commons can be defeated and reversed in our time." It is an inspiring vision and Ian Angus' War Against the Commons is a brilliant account that ought to be read by every activist who wants to see an end to capitalism and "another world".

I am looking forward to speaking with Ian Angus via Zoom for the London launch of The War Against the Commons at Marxism 2023. More information on the whole event here.

Related Reviews

Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Angus & Butler - Too Many People? Population, Immigration & the Environmental Crisis

Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change
Wood - The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England
Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Thompson - Customs in Common
Linebaugh - Stop Thief!
Sharpe - In Contempt of All Authority
Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Daniel Kehlmann - Tyll

The medieval German legend of the eponymous trickster Till Eulenspiegel features a jester whose adventures see him trick everyone, often in a scatological way, and escape with the skin of his teeth. In David Kehlmann's retelling, Tyll in brought forward to the Thirty Years war and sees the titular character take part in a series of episodic escapes through Germany, as society degenerates, the economy collapses and giant armies ravage people and land.

We begin with Tyll's background, his formative time as a child, when his thoughtful father, a man who loves books and knowledge, is accused of witchcraft. Tyll flees with his friend Nele, becoming an accomplished performer and trickster. Tyll's story, and that of his companions, is woven around the complex interlocking account of the Thirty Years War, in particular that of the King and Queen of Bohemia. Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James IV and I of England and Scotland, is seeking to regain her, and her husband's lost position. Tyll's position as court jester allows him to tell the truth to power, before fleeing the chaos.

Tyll is a fascinating, well written book. But I don't think it works as a novel. The narrative jumps back and forth, and events are contextualised enough. It is not always clear why Tyll finds himself in particular situations. It also requires a passing acquaintance with the dynamics of the Thirty Years War, and the bizarre (it really is bizarre) story of Elizabeth Stuart. That said the book is funny and well written - but not the straightforward novel I was expecting.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Alex Callinicos - The New Age of Catastrophe

The title of Alex Callinicos' book The New Age of Catastrophe echoes Eric Hobsbawm who described the years between 1914 to 1950, containing as they did two world wars, economic crisis and the Holocaust, as the "Age of Catastrophe". Callinicos argues that we are in a comparable period, which confronts us "with a crisis of civilisation" where "the forms of living that were made possible by the development of industrial capitalism... and that became increasingly generalised in the twentieth century are no longer viable". In fact they are "hurtling us towards societal collapse."

This capitalist drive towards collapse has a number of different manifestations - economic, imperialist, environmental and disease - each of which is rooted in the system and all of them linked together. Indeed, what makes Callinicos' book so useful is that he shows how these apparently singular disasters are woven into the fabric of the system, and simultaneously how the nature of the system itself amplifies and extenuates the disaster. For instance, writing about Covid, Callinicos says:

The pandemic thus has seen a brutal struggle between life and profits. So the chances of dying from a virus that emerged in the context of the globalisation of industrial capitalism are shaped by the prevailing class structures. Capitalism features on both sides of the equation. Humankind stands before the rest of nature fractured by social antagonism. And, as we have seen in the grossly unequal allocation of vaccines, this is even more true on a global scale than it is within individual societies.

Callinicos deploys this analysis in three excellent sections looking at the economic, military and environmental crises. In these he draws on a lifetime of Marxist theoretical work and revolutionary activity, and demonstrates an enviable ability to summarise the subjects. The chapter on environmental crises focuses mostly on climate change, and Callinicos draws on the theoretical work of writers like John Bellamy Foster, Mike Davis and Andreas Malm. But he shows how this crisis, arising out of the specific development of capitalism develops along similar lines to that of the Covid example above. In locating the climate crisis as a systemic one Callinicos also makes it clear that solutions are, essentially non-solutions if they do not challenge the system that drives the problem. His conclusion is thus that a strategy to deal with climate change that relies on market mechanisms or technological deployment is "purest folly". This conclusion is echoed by a point he makes about Covid:

By offering an individualised solution, the vaccination programmes shift our attention from the need to transform our relationship with nature and to invest in better transport and healthcare; and in this way, paradoxically, they feed the anti-vax campaigns of the far right.

Mention here of the far right brings me to another key insight of The New Age of Catastrophe - Callinicos' analysis of the fascist and far-right movements. These sections are incredibly insightful, and develop an excellent earlier article on the global far right. But it is the section on the United States that I found most illuminating (and frightening). Here Callinicos describes a far-right which has largely been successful in "directing the anger generated by the ills of the neoliberal era, at least in certain sections of the population... onto a cosmopolitan elite and... onto migrants and refugees." He shows how fascist movements have grown within and from right populist movements. Often, as in the case of the United States with Trump, or Brazil with Bolsanaro, there is a interaction between the fascists movements and the populist leaderships. In the United States this has gone furthest, with the storming of the Capitol being emblematic of this (though there was a similar event in Brazil recently, presumably after the book had gone to print). Perhaps controversially, Callinicos argues that the United States is the "weak link" where fundamental social, economic and political fractures have created a cauldron for the growth of far-right policies and were most of the left has become subordinate to the Democratic Party machine. It is, Callinicos argues, possible to imagine a "violent implosion" of US society.

In the face of these threats, and the very real way that war, climate change and economic crisis will heighten the possibility of social crisis, Callinicos argues a revolutionary strategy. Here he puts a classical Marxist position of the working class as the agent of revolutionary change, and the potential for the creation out of this of a society based on the common ownership of the means of production, where production itself is planned through mass participatory democracy. But Callinicos argues this through a discussion of two "terrains of struggle" that do not immediately call to mind the organised working class - gender and race. Here he says that the contestations over these could "contribute to the formation of a new working-class subject of emancipation". These sections are excellent, and Callinicos provides an excellent summary of the movements for trans rights, Black Lives Matter and women's rights. He concludes, in a section worth quoting at length, that the convergence between movements against oppression and exploitation could lead to a "new kind of workers movement" which goes beyond narrow economic issues:

Given its nature in the twenty-first century, the working class would have to give the different oppressions that weigh down on people - especially those arising from gender, 'race', sexual orientation, and disability - a strategic importance that they have lacked in the past... This would be not merely a moral stand but a matter of self-interest, of practical necessity. This necessity is underlined by the way in which the development of globalised production networks creates an interdependence between workers in the South and in the North... In unexpected ways, the world working class, which Marx and Engels address at the end of the Communist Manifesto, could thus begin to emerge as a collective agent in this age of catastrophe.

It is a hopeful outlook as it does not offer readers any illusion that the system will fix itself, or that far-right movements will simply collapse. Instead Callinicos shows how existing movements can become the part of the revolutionary process that might create a new socialist society. But at the same time, Callinicos makes it clear - there are no shortcuts to building those movements, and there are perils and divisions. Readers however will find The New Age of Catastrophe an indispensable aid to navigate the terrain of reaction and revolution. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Callinicos - An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto
Callinicos - Imperialism and Global Political Economy
Callinicos - Making History
Callinicos and Simons: The Great Strike: The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and its Lessons
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Callinicos, Kouvelakis, Pradella (eds) - Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Martin Treu - Katherine von Bora: Luther's Wife

Short biographies of Martin Luther are other famous Reformation figures are ubiquitous in the museums and shops of Lutherstadt-Wittenberg. Martin Treu's brief biography of Katherine von Bora is the only one of Martin Luther's wife and felt worth a read. It is unfortunate that I have to refer to Katherine as Martin Luther's wife, but as the author points out in the introduction we know almost nothing about her except through her role in Luther's life. In fact he points out that we know much more about her, and indeed have several portraits of her, simply because of her marriage. This is not, for instance true, of Katherine Melanchthon or Walburga Bugenhagen, the wives of Luther's contemporary Reformers. Treu goes further an cautions that we have to also be careful that we do not assume that because we know something about von Bora, her life was "typical of a woman's role at the beginning of the 16th century". 

We do know the basic outline of von Bora's early life. She was in a convent from an early age, but then fled this alongside several other nuns when they got information about the Reformation. Martin Luther married von Bora latish in his life, and it seems their life together was loving and close. Luther took care to try and protect von Bora and his children after his death, though his attempt to leave all his possessions to his wife was illegal at the time.

During their time together we know that von Bora was an energetic and careful manager of the household. She actively attempted to extend the families financial security by buying land and property and renting out rooms to students. From Luther's famous "Table Talks" we occasionally hear her voice, and it seems she "participated to a considerable extent" in Luther's theological work. Luther clearly kept her informed when away on progress on issues through regular, loving, letters. Repeated denials from Luther that Katherine was involved in sermons and writings, imply many "suspected the opposite". But scant as evidence is for von Bora's life, the biography tends to fill in gaps from Luther's own life. For instance we read how Luther treated the children - I would be interested to know how many similar Luther biographies include this information. 

Perhaps most interesting is Treu's argument that the relationship between Luther and von Bora reflected the Biblical role of women as outlined by the story of Martha and Mary in the gospel of St. Luke. In this story, Jesus visits the two women and Martha "saw her responsibility only in making the external circumstances pleasant" for Jesus, while Mary sat quietly "at the feet of the master and listening attentively". Treu argues that both aspects "are bound together in Katherine's life". He argues that it was in these roles that Luther predominately understood and saw his wife. Nevertheless von Bora was clearly a strong, independent and active participant in public life. It is also clear that she was centrally involved in ensuring that her family grew into one of the wealthiest in the town.

Luther's death was a massive blow to this. Von Bora and her children suffered greatly in the chaos of the Thirty Years Wars and the loss of their powerful and wealthy backers. They were forced to flew Wittenberg twice, and von Bora latter years were marked by infirmity and ill health following the trials of the period. Treu remarks that the fates of her and her children were representatives of the convulsions that shook Europe following the Reformation era.

This short biography is an interesting read, particular as a guide to the family's life in Wittenberg. It suffers from the lack of evidence and source material, a problem that is not that of the author. 

Related Reviews

Stanford - Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident
Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Friday, May 05, 2023

Roy Pascal - The Social Basis of the German Reformation

The Social Basis of the German Reformation was Roy Pascal's first book as he embarked on a significant career as a historian of Germany. 1933 was a good time to become a historian of that country, and Pascal followed up this work with a number of other books on Modern Germany and the Nazi dictatorship. Pascal is, perhaps, best known to the left because he was the first translator into English of Marx and Engels' German Ideology. Pascal was a follower, at the time, of the Communist Party, and the Social Basis was an attempt to study the Reformation from a Marxist point of view. As such Pascal places much importance on the economic context to the changes, though the book is also essentially a political biography of Martin Luther.

Pascal opens with the religious context for Martin Luther's life, and argues that:

In the final form of his theology… Luther identified the certainty of salvation with faith. Both were sheer gifts of God, unconnected with any mental faculties. Thus, while in the first stage of his thought he humbled man to the most despairing helplessness, he now exalted the individual far higher than former theologians had done, making him free of outward observance and intellectual discipline.

Pascal captures both the development of Luther's ideas and the difference to how others had understood Christianity. But the context was important. Pascal argues that Luther was reflecting the ideology and interests of a new class of people - the petty bourgeois. Thus his ideas were the “most profound expression” of the breakdown and reforming of the “mediaeval” political system. Pascal continues:

By asserting that grace was an irrational quality, which could not be reduced to intellectual terms and whose presence could be detected by the recipient alone, he broke down the medieval relationship between the individual and the Church. But at the same time his doctrine of the evilness of man's will bound the individual irrevocably within the existing social order. 

This theme of humans trapped by their social order becomes a theme for Pascal, who argues that there were two consequences. By isolating the religious experience in the individual, Luther took away the raison d’etre of the Church, and so made the breakdown of the Church possible. But crucially, Luther, as a representative of a new class, feared the movements that he had unleashed. Luther’s “first step backward” from this “revolutionary programme” [over child baptism] because he “feared the class of men who advanced this theory… feared the two consequent application of his theories because it would lead to the destruction of any system”.

Luther thus, as many writers have noted, saw obedience to the social order as the other side of the coin of his programme to reform the Church. His apparent about turn as he condemned the Peasants' War and urged the ruling class to massacre the revolting peasants is the direct consequence of this. Pascal argues that Luther was not a "conscious agent of the petty bourgeoisie" and instead was motivated primarily by spiritual interests. But that "he was intellectually identified with the outlook of his class, considered its values as absolute and final, and was ready to sacrifice everything to them, in the present and in the future".  There was, for Luther, what Pascal calls a "consistency of class interests". 

Is this accurate? Firstly it is refreshing to note the approach Pascal takes. Too many biographers separate Luther and the Reformation from class and economic considerations. Even where they do note political and economic context, there's a tendency to ignore class. So Pascal is worth reading because he bends the stick in the other direction. However I do think that Pascal has a tendency towards economic determinism here which fits with the cruder politics of the Communist Party in the 1930s - even though Pascal himself denies this in the last pages. Nonetheless, Pascal does identify the way the "peculiar structure of the Empire" shaped a particular type of struggle that linked the interests of the Princes and the "middle class" towards "re-moulding" society. But I think he goes too far, not least because he tends to identify classes/groups in 16th century Germany with their 20th century counterparts. Can one really talk of an "urban proletariat" in the 1520s? What does "middle class" mean in this context?

Nonetheless, given the failure of too many historians of the Reformation to try and grapple with class, it is refreshing to read Pascal. In conclusion he hopes that the book does provide "a clue to the meaning of the immense fermentation which was the Reformation". I would suggest that it offers much more than this, even if there are problems with his analysis.

Related Reviews

Stanford - Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident
Roper - Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700