Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Bob Scribner & Gerhard Benecke - The German Peasant War 1525: New Viewpoints

This collection of essays stands out among the plethora of books to come out of the 450th anniversary of the German Peasant War in 1975. As I have noted in other reviews of books on this topic, there was very much a dividing line between historians of East and West around interpretations of events of 1524/5. This centred on the usefulness or not of the Marxist framework and in particular the interpretation of Friedrich Engels, which gave rise to the thesis that 1525 saw an "early bourgeois revolution". 

At the time there was a lack of accessibility to historian's work from East of the Berlin Wall. This collection provided a small sample among work from Western historians. The editors are careful though to argue that the collection should not "be judged by the standard of whether it contributes any definitive judgements on the Peasant War... rather we wish it to stimulate discussion on its relation to wider problems of historiography." Their introduction is also a useful overview of contemporary scholarship on the Peasant War.

What of the collection itself. All of the essays in it contain useful nuggets. Some of them cover rarer aspects of the period. Heide Wunder's article on The Mentality of Rebellious Peasants takes as its case study events in Samland. Then part of Germany and now part of the greater Russia, it was the most separate part of the rebellion in time and space. Sadly the author includes little detail of the struggle in this location, preferring to focus on the interaction between Prussian peasant, German peasant and local nobles. That said it is an interesting engagement.

Several essays stand out for their discussion of specifics of the War. I was much taken by Siegfried Hoyer's account of Arms and Military organisation of the Peasants. One fascinating aspect to this was the way that the rebels organised rotations to ensure that some peasants could return home to work on the land/harvest etc, but it was in turn a weakness. As Hoyer explains:
This system was dictated by the role of each peasant in production, and so probably could not be avoided. There is no doubt that individuals could gain little military experience by this short-term rotation. This defect, grounded in the historical situation, was first overcome during the later bourgeois revolutions, when the mass of the popular armies were composed of the urban classes.
Another excellent study by Siegfried Hoyer looks in detail at a neglected (and anonymous) pamphlet that he describes as one of the "very few" from the "left wing of the movement": To the Assembly of common peasantry who have angrily and defiantly risen up in Upper Germany and many other places. Continuing the tradition of Reformation and Peasant War pamphlets having very long titles, this one is a defence of the right to rebel and an argument for the rebellion. Sadly it is not printed here, but extracts can be found in Tom Scott and Bob Scribner's collection of documents. Hoyer concludes that the pamphlet is not revolutionary as its author "polemicised against a fundamental overthrow of feudal property", but that the demands place the pamphlet close to the most radical thinkers. Peter Blickle discusses his "Common Man" thesis of revolution. Heiko Oberman offers a interesting discussion of how the War has been interpreted, even in its immediate aftermath, though he points out that the description "War" is an "overdramatisation that distorts our historical perspective and tends to isolate the events of 1525". He concludes:
The main thrust of present research is oriented towards economic and social history, hence providing an insight into a large number of elements that go into the making of history. Yet this should not tempt us to permit biblical ideas, Christian apocalyptic ferment and the horizon of religious expectation on the part of the rebels to be relegated to the background, since it is only through these means that the birth and spread of the Peasants War are to be understood.
It's a nuanced view and one that these articles taken together do justice to, even if the various authors tend to come down on one specific emphasis or the other. By including "Marxist" historians from the former Eastern bloc in the collection, those of us who class themselves as Marxists today have an opportunity to engage with how those thinkers approached historical questions. This is epitomised perhaps by Max Steinmetz's Theses on the Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany, which tries (only part successfully) to frame the War in Marxist terms. He quotes from Lenin, Stalin and Engels to bolster his theses, and makes some interesting points: 

An increasingly sharpening of class conflict was the necessary outcome of this ever more apparent clash between the development of the material forces of production within society and the traditional relations of production, which had long since become shackles of productive forces, rather than forms of their development. 

He also notes that the "second serfdom" in Germany helped enable capitalist development, despite hampering the development of a class of wage labourers as happened in England. While this can come across as dogmatic, Steinmetz does not ignore the ideological context of the Reformation, meaning that while his contribution reads somewhat stilted as a list of "theses" it can encourage further thought about the Bourgeois Revolution in the context of the 16th century. Certainly a collection of essays to be read and inspire further debate.

Related Reviews

Friday, June 23, 2023

David Grann - Killers of the Flower Moon

Soon to be a major film release, Killers of the Flower Moon is a remarkable journalistic investigation into the serial killing of Native American people in the 1920s. The Osage people in Oklahoma had been given reservation lands, but the later discovery of oil made them the richest people per capita anywhere in the world. 

The Osage wealth was enormous, and pictures of Osage families with cars, fancy clothing and so on, angered and bemused, in equal measure, White America. Native Americans were not supposed to be well off, never mind extraordinary rich. However their wealth was not their own. The US government ensured that Osage's were appointed Guardians who controlled whether or not the Osage could spend, and being in control of such wealth made them rich too. It is clear that a whole industry arose to leech off the Osage - shopkeepers sold goods and enormously inflated prices, a not particularly hidden criminal underground ensured that Guardianships fell into the hands of a small number of people, and, most shockingly, white people got themselves embedded into Osage families through marriage.

Chad E. Pearson's recent book Capital's Terrorists looked at the centrality of violence to ruling class attempts to maximise profits in the United States in the 19th century. This easy recourse to violence is also clear in the Osage case, because what takes place is the systematic murder of individual Osage people in order to concentrate wealth into the hands of particular family members through inheritance. These people, who happened to be married to whites, could then be stripped of their wealth.

As the number of brutal murders grew, it became clear that most law enforcement officials were too corrupt to identify the killers. Which is why the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) became involved. J.Edgar Hoover was keen to ensure that the BoI recovered from earlier problems - including corruption of its own - and threw resources and agents into solving the Oklahoma murders. There is no doubt that the agents involved were dedicated and principled individuals, particularly Tom White. Grann details the investigations and the difficulties the agents had in getting convictions.

This is not the place to discuss the convictions. Readers will likely want to learn that as they read the book. Grann writes well and the book is a compelling true life "whodunnit". But I did want to briefly note problems with it.

The book lacks context. In particular there is no real discussion of the genocidal policies of the United States government against Native American people. This is the background that enables us to understand why whole communities could treat the Osage as they did - to the brutal violent conclusion. Secondly, there is a tendency to depict the US government itself and particularly the FBI as the arbitrators of freedom, law and democracy. There's no doubt that some agents, White for instance, did their best to solve the crimes and stand up for the Osage people's rights. But the FBI, and certainly not Hoover, were and are not the defenders of freedom that they are portrayed at here. Hoover's record, for instance, in overseeing the persecution of left-wingers etc is well known and was a central part of the FBI's role.

David Grann's book essentially treats the killings as a violent detective Western. As such it is an enjoyable read. But it doesn't really get to the heart of the story that he draws out, which is about a country predicated on racism and violence. Telling this story gives an insight into another great crime, but doesn't really tell us anything about why.

Related Reviews

Estes - Our History is the Future
Pearson - Capital's Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen & Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Cronon - Changes in the Land
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada

Monday, June 19, 2023

Terry Pratchett - Thief of Time

Thief of Time is Terry Pratchett's 26th Discworld novel, and unfortunately I think it is one of the weaker of the books from the mid part of the stories. It is a Death novel, though Death is not in it a great deal, playing more of a side-character to the main arc. This is one of the reasons I feel the story is a little shallow and bity.

Thief of Time is the story of how the Auditors are defeated. These grey men like things simple and ordered. They like to count and tally. They're like the ultimately dangerous accountants. They heat the chaos and unpredictability of human life. Their plan to destroy life involves creating a clock that will enable the end of the universe - being built, inevitably, in Ankh Morpak. 

Opposed to this is Lu-Tze and his apprentice from the History Monks, whose job is to keep history in roughly the right order. They take time from one thing to another to ensure it all balances out, as everyone is always borrowing, stealing, forgetting and wasting time. Even the lesser of Pratchett's novels have some brilliant moments and he excels himself here with one fantastic pun - the spinning devices that the monks store time on are called procrastinators.

Lu-Tze's James Bond like adventure to save the universe doesn't quite work - the best part of the story is how the Auditors sabotage themselves by becoming slightly human and indulging in a few of our quirks. Thief of Time didn't work for me this time - perhaps it has dated far more than other Discworld books, though it has its moments and if you like Pratchett's other books it shouldn't be skipped.

Related Reviews

Pratchett - Snuff
Pratchett - Moving Pictures
Pratchett - Unseen Academicals
Pratchett - Wintersmith

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Roland Boer - Criticism of Earth: On Marxism and Theology

I initially picked up Roland Boer's Criticism of Earth because I wanted to read what he said in it about Martin Luther and the Reformation, or perhaps rather what Marx and Engels said about this subject. However I quickly found myself pulled into the whole work which is a painstaking study of what theology (not just religion) meant for Marx and Engels.

This study is very detailed. Several of the early footnotes are mindboggling lists of the times Marx or Engels referenced the Bible in their works. This is, however, more than just Marxology for the sake of it. Boer is making an argument that both Marx and Engels were so seeped in the Bible that their use and reference of it was almost natural - a touchstone for both of them, albeit for different reasons. It was also because, as he points out, the "context in which Marx and Engels began their critical explorations" was theology:

Due to the proverbial tardiness of German economics and politics, as well as the Lutheran doctrine of sola scriptura [by scripture alone] and the long history of struggles between Protestants and Roman Catholics, the debates over reason, secularism and politics took place on the territory of theology and the Bible.

Boer illustrates one example of this, through a discussion of an exchange of letters between a young Marx and his friends as he begins to break from established interpretations of the Bible, and then his own religious background. It was to lead Marx into trouble, his polemics against the Church, was part of "breaking open the seamless connection between theology and the ruling class" and within these arguments the Bible itself was to provide plenty of material for Marx's polemics. Interestingly, Boer argues that "despite Marx's ability to claim such [biblical] symbols for the poor, or even to note the appeal of religion to the poor, he usually does not see that resistance of the poor is often couched in biblical language."

Boer shows however that religion for Marx was more than simply a selection of quotes to use against the ruling class. In a fascinating chapter on the question of "idols, fetishes and graven images", Boer concludes that for Marx,

There is a material reality to the illusion of the fetish, a point that emerges from Marx's dialectical effort to show that he fetishes of commodities, wealth, labour power, interest, rent, wages, profit and so on, are both materially grounded and illusory, mysterious and concrete. These fetishes and the powers they hold are all to real, yet the way we understand them is problematic, for they are inverted and appear perfectly natural.

While this is interesting and exposes some fascinating aspects to Marx's thought process, I wasn't completely convinced of the approach as a tool for understanding Marx. Boer seems to be arguing that what people (and indeed Marx) take from religion is a set of ideas constantly in tension with their surroundings that match their own reality.

Since one can argue (as Engels would) that these revolutionary movements use religious language as a way of expressing distinctly political purposes. But then the question must be: why this language and not another. Or rather, out of a range of possible languages why does theology remain on the agenda? Quite simply, theology as doctrine, as a system of thought, is torn with such tensions as well. I do not mean the proverbial paradoxes of theology that remain intellectual affairs, but the way in which those paradoxes arise form and articulate political and economic tensions.

Boer illustrates this with a discussion of the Letters of Paul. These allow "radical challenges to vested interest and power" for some readers because they argue that man [sic] gets justice through grace, not the law. There are many such examples, and Boer knows his Bible very well indeed. But I remained unconvinced as it seems to me more natural that those entering into criticism of their existence will reach for the examples and language they know best. 

Whether you agree or not with all of Boer's writing here, there is plenty of material to get to grips with, some lively discussions, plenty of humour and some interesting personal reflection from the author. Boer's conclusion in "revelation and revolution" however is worth quoting, along with the Engels he clearly celebrates:

Engels observes: 'But all this shows only, that these good people are not the best Christians, although they style themselves so; because if they were they would know the bible better, and find that, if some few passages of the bible may be favourable to Communism, the general spirit of its doctrines is, nevertheless, totally opposed to it, as well as to every rational measure'. For my purposes [Boer says], this is a crucial observation, since it marks Engels's recognition of political ambivalence in both the practice of Christianity and in the Bible. Oppression may be the dominant theme, but every now and then another, revolutionary line emerges.

Related Reviews

Barton - A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths
Siegel - The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Wilson - The People and the Book: The Revolutionary Impact of the English Bible 1380-1611
Foster, Clark & York - Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism, From Antiquity to the Present
Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars

Saturday, June 10, 2023

David Pilling - The Growth Delusion

I am currently looking at the concept of "degrowth" and what it means for movements engaged in the struggle against capitalism's destruction of the natural world. So I was pleased to come across David Pilling's 2019 book The Growth Delusion recently. Pilling is Africa editor for the Financial Times, and thus may not be immediately considered an ally of the socialist and radical movements that I am part of, nonetheless his book offers some fascinating information that can arm that struggle. 

That said, Pilling is also clear that "the aim of the book is not to declare war on growth" and he knows that "some will fault it for that". I am not sure that we can declare "war" on growth like this, as I'm not sure that's a helpful process. In fact I think that with these words Pilling is essentially saying he is not going to oppose capitalism - though his book contains a myriad of examples of how the capitalist system - and its inherent growth - do not help the mass of the population or the environment.

Much of the first part of the book is a study of Gross Domestic Production, the statistics that economists use to understand economies and growth. He notes the limitations of this approach, which reduce complex economic activity to pure numbers, creating snapshots of activities and simultaneously ignoring key activities. Pilling writes:

If GDP were a person, it would be indifferent, blind even, to morality. It measures production of whatever kind, good or bad. GDP likes pollution, particularly if you have to spend money clearing it up. It likes crime because it is fond of large police forces and repairing broken windows. GDP likes Hurricane Katrina and is quit OK with wars. It likes to measure the build-up to conflict in guns, planes and warheads, then it likes to count all the effort in reconstructing shattered cities from the smouldering ruins... GDP is mercenary. It doesn't deign to count transactions where no money changes hands. It doesn't like housework... and it shuns all volunteer activities.

Capitalists using GDP as a measure of economic activity is fascinating in itself because it essentially ignores the things that it doesn't care about. Domestic labour, which is predominantly done by women, doesn't figure - though paying for childcare would. Similarly those activities that are so important to us as people are ignored. If I pay someone to decorate my house it contributes to GDP. If I invite friends around, order pizza and they collectively do the decorating, GDP doesn't care. Our lives are fulfilled by the process, but capitalism fails to benefit.

But GDP doesn't just fail as a measure in the personal, or community, regard. It also fails as a measure of economies because it is "biased in favour of private over public provision". Pilling points out that the larger the public sector/welfare state of a country, the more we fail to grasp the size of the economy by using measures like GDP.

But the most useful parts of the book are those that are directly pertinent to the debate on growth/degrowth. These are the parts that demonstrate that growth (however it is measured) doesn't benefit everyone. There are some staggering statistics that compare growth rates in various countries with average wages or other measures of inequality. They prove, time and again, that growth is something that benefits the capitalist economy, and the already rich. As Pilling notes:

In wealthy countries the share of national income paid to workers fell from around 55 percent in 19i70 to below 50 percent at the height of the 2007 financial bubble. An expanding economy has not, in other words, primarily benefited the workers who produced all that growth, rather the owners of capital. 

Later he concludes that "the fact that an economy is growing tells you nothing about what is happening to the distribution of wealth".

What is the alternative to this? Pilling's answers mostly rely on arguing that we need to get away from the concept of growth as being the only way of improving the economy, and use different measurements to understand what is happening within a particular country's economy. There is of course some truth in this, but the reality is that growth is locked into capitalism as a system, and while we can improve this or that aspect of it through reforms, expanding public services and not worrying what this does to GDP, we have also to look to how we improve the lot of ordinary people. Here we must look to the power of those that "create the growth" in Pilling's words. Workers striking for better wages, conditions and public services do so against a system that is driven by the growth imperative. They can wrest a bigger piece of the pie from the capitalists. Ultimately, as a Marxist I would also argue that in doing this workers can begin the process of shattering the capitalist system and creating a world were GDP makes no sense at all. Pilling's probably would not agree with this, but his book certainly has some insights that can help our side confront this unequal system.

Related Reviews

Kallis, Paulson, D'Alisa & Demaria - The Case for Degrowth
Hickel - Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World
Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Saito - Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

N.K.Jemisin - The Obelisk Gate

Having quite enjoyed the first book of this trilogy, The Fifth Season, I struggled with the second volume. The book follows the first's non-linear story line, jumping back to events that take place right at the start of the first book and then following up with events immediately after the end of that book. 

Much of the book takes place during the Season that began near the end of volume one. This catastrophic era sees the Earth plunged into a chaotic, freezing time when for centuries humanity will have to survive on stored foods, meagre resources and, eventually, cannibalism. Jemisin sets up the ecological context well - there are some great bits about how plants and animals change to adapt to the new conditions, and we see how humans try to survive too. Our hero, the orogene Essum, breaks off her quest to find her missing daughter Nassun. Essum finds shelter in an underground Commune, and quickly finds the society riven by factional disagreements and a simmering fear of magical users like herself. 

Nassun has travelled with her father who also hates orogenes, but hopes in his daughter's case to find a way to cure her. She makes it to a different form of shelter, a commune where people like her are trained in their powers. 

Inevitably with middle volumes of trilogies there is an element of the author setting up plots to tie up in the final book. The book ends, after a decent enough climatic battle, with Nassun and Essum learning of each other's survival. But the best part of the book is actually the bleak world created for the context. Jemisin explores how the crisis raises internal tensions in the communes and external threats create an atmosphere of lynch mobs which seek to scapegoat the magic users.

But I found that this was not enough to hold my attention. The book felt plodding and I didn't care much for any of the characters. The world building of the first volume left me still confused about events and people, but after a while I found myself slightly bored. It probably needed a more immersed reader (that's my fault not the authors!) and the pluses (strong female and black characters being an important one) were not enough to pull me in.

Related Reviews

Jemisin - The Fifth Season

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Kallis, Paulson, D'Alisa & Demaria - The Case for Degrowth

The Case for Degrowth is an attempt at an engaging and straightforward, no nonsense, guide to "degrowth" for the environmentalist and left movements. Unfortunately, among the plethora of books about degrowth that have been published recently, it is the least convincing and offers little that is new to the reader. As a first look at degrowth it would probably be of use, particularly for readers who want something accessible, but even here I think it is limited because it doesn't offer a believable strategy for challenging capitalism.

In the preface the authors highlight that the book has come together in its final stages during the Covid pandemic and the reality of Covid shines through the book - not just because it is another demonstration of the failure of a capitalist system, but because Covid also offered a myriad of examples of how people around the world offered support, solidarity and community organising to protect themselves and their health. The authors then make the case for degrowth which they say means:

facing the fundamental challenge of managing political economies without growth during and after the pandemic: how to demobilise parts of the capitalist economy while securing the provisioning of basic goods and services, experimenting with resource-light ways of enjoying ourselves and finding positive meanings in life. 


takes organising and a confluence of alliances and circumstances to ensure that it won't be the environment and workers who pay the bill [for degrowth] but those who profited most from the growth that preceded this disaster.

I will return to these words later in this review, as I think they are indicative of the problem with the book's approach. Capitalism is a system based on endless growth. This growth arises out of the two great rifts in capitalist society - that between the exploiters and exploited and the competition between the capitalists themselves. The exploitation of labour by the capitalists results in surplus value, which the capitalists must reinvest in their production process, because they need to constantly stay ahead of their competitors. This drive for growth sees the constant accumulation of wealth: "Moses and the Prophets" as Marx said. I emphasise this, because it is also the understanding of growth used by the authors of this piece:

Unlike other human economies, capitalist ones depend on growth. In order to thrive amid market competition, those who have money must invest it, make more money, and expand production. Capitalism without growth is plausible; in a stagnant, even shrinking, economy, some companies and individuals could continue to profit. But this is hardly a desirable or stable scenario. 

Thus capitalism is a system based on growth, and the problem for activists is that the system itself organises to protect this ambition. Challenges to the capitalist desire for accumulation either within sectors (eg attempts to reduce the fossil fuel industry), across the whole thing - eg by the revolutionary transformation of society or even to reduce profits (such as by increasing taxes) are met by resistance. The capitalist state is not a neutral force, rather it is a set of institutions and organisations dedicated to protecting the interests of the capitalists. Thus the challenge for degrowth proponents is not demonstrating the threat from a system based on endless growth, or evening winning the argument (as the authors here do well) that we need to degrow parts of the economy. It is actually that we have to show how we can build social forces that can win the changes we need while defeating the counter-forces that protect capitalism. 

The strategy outlined by the authors here is essentially to create spaces of communal relations that are not based on growth and by doing so win wider and wider parts of the economy to a degrowth principle. But the capitalists do not like growth simply because they are greedy. They are compelled to do so, because of the nature of their system. Take the example of Allende's reforming government in Chile in 1973. There mild reforms provoked Chile's capitalists to support a military coup against the regime. The mild reforms on offer threatened very little of Chile's growth, but they were enough of a danger to see General Pinochet, with the tacit backing of the CIA and Margaret Thatcher, slaughter Allende and thousands of his supporters and introduce a neoliberal regime designed to maximise growth in the interests of the rich. How do the authors' propose to deal with such threats - we are not really offered strategies. Instead we are told to "demobilise parts of the economy" by building networks of solidarity and communal living - I've nothing against that. But it will not be enough to defeat capitalism and its destruction of our world. In fact the vision offered here feels distinctly Utopian:

As collective bodies and minds change, the personal becomes political. An individual's voluntary shift from a weekend spent shopping abroad to one picking olives with friends in a community grove, from an evening watching TV to one playing with neighborhood children, may not directly slow the global growth machine, nor revert climate change. However, new habits alter the ways we develop human potential day by day, thereby influencing environments through which family, neighbors, students, colleagues and others continually develop their potentials. Producing new kinds of people and relationships is fundamental to any cultural transformation and great transition.

Socialists argue for revolution not for the sake of revolution, but because a socialist society will be based on networks of workplace and community democratic organisations that will arise out of the struggle itself. In doing so, those mass revolutionary movements create the social and economic forces that are capable of defeating the capitalist state. The authors' recognise that the strategy of degrowth they outline is not necessarily attratcive to those with the least. They quote Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos, "In parts of Africa, Latin American and many other regions of the Global South, including poor and marginalised communities in Northern countries, the term degrowth is not appealing and does not match people's demands." 

This is because those with very little urgently need more - and that requires a strategy of working out how to rest wealth and power from the rich and equally distribute and control it democratically. That can only come from mass movements based on the power of organised workers. This essentially is the argument I put in my book Socialism or Extinction. Arguing for revolutionary may seem hard work - but it is the concrete strategy needed to defeat capitalism and create a sustainable, just world.

Related Reviews

Hickel - Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World
Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Schmelzer, Vetter & Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism