Thursday, July 18, 2024

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Redskins

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels are not particularly fashionable these days. They are very dated in places, not particularly because of Flashman's offensive beliefs, but more so, I suspect because of Fraser's politics. Had Fraser lived longer, there's no doubt he would have written more of the Flashman series, and fans would have gobbled them up. But Fraser's rightwing ideas do not sit well with a new generation coming to terms with colonialism and the legacy of the British Empire.

So why pick up the unpleasantly named Flashman and the Redskins? I re-read this for deeply personal reasons. I first read the book in the late 1980s when I was besotted with Flashman's cowardly run through history. As a teenager the title character's racism and misogyny did not distract me. I was there for the adventure and escapism. This book in particular has a personal importance as it was one of the reads that led me into a lifelong interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At the books climax, Flashman finds himself, through ill-luck, and misogyny, at the Greasy Grass wearing a dinner jacket. A close acquatinance of Custer's he fails to get them to retreat and only luck saves him.

Fraser's telling of the battle closely follows many accounts, and he is unearring accurate in details. As fans of Flashman will know, Fraser seeks out historical accounts where a suitable anonymous person is present at some historical juncture and inserts Flashman there. But it is Fraser's romatic retelling of the Bighorn and his own visit there which inserted the Montana battlefield into my subconcious. Nearly forty years later I too was able to visit the Greasy Grass.

But what of the novel? It is in two parts, one telling Flashman's experiences as a Forty-Niner, travelling with a wagon train to Santa Fe, two waggons full of prostitutes and slaves for a brothel with his (third?) concurant wife. There's plenty of unpleasantness here. Flashman uses racist terms, sells slaves and enjoys bigamy and adultery. He sneers at (and fears) the Native Americans and hates anyone who isn't of European extraction (though it doesn't stop him having sex with them). 

But what shines through is two fold. The first is Fraser's unscruipilous attention to detail, drawing heavily on contemporary eyewitness accounts he is able to paint a very realistic picture of life on the Plains and the North West frontieer. The second thing is Fraser's own remarkable duality when it comes to the oppressed and the victim. He has his main character decry them at every opportunity, yet he also avoids romantacising the Native Americans (though Flashman's wife certainly does this) instead recognising that they have a particular way of life that suited the Plains and was destroyed by the European settlers. But while it's wrong to place the beliefs of a character in the mouth of an author, it is  also hard not to see Fraser as agreeing that the Natives were violent and uncivilised. It makes for an contradictory read.

Part two of the book deals with Flashman's return to America in the 1870s, his presence at the failed attempt by the US government to buy the Black Hills and then at key moments in the preparations for the military encursion into Sioux terrority that led to the defeat at the Bighorn. Again, Fraser's research is exempliary. His footnotes are full of references that I really want to follow up for background on events, and Flashman's presence fits well into the real history.

Here is Western history in its gory, violent, racist detail - Flashman is present at a scalp hunt by White militia as they hunt Apache men, women and children for scalps. Its unpleasant, but the problem is that it is played merely as a way to get Flashman from one sticky situation into another. Fraser doesn't avoid the unpleasantness, but it does not detain him. I have noted elsewhere that Fraser's Flashman liberally uses the N word. Fraser might think this is reflective of the language of the times, but its not something that appears in contemporary accounts such as this one of the Indian Rising of 1857.

Given Fraser's worldview then, it is notable that his comupance in this novel, is closely related to his racist, philandering, sexist and arrogant behaviour. Flashman is suitably hoist by his petard. It makes for a satisfying ending. But should you, dear follower, read the book? I would argue that for all its attention to historical accuracy, its not a book that stands up well. Those of use who read it for nostalgic reasons are one thing. But if you are new to Flashman, the language, framework and ideas are likely to cause offence. While Fraser mentions many genuine heroes through the book, his anti-hero is the centre of the novel and it leaves far to bitter a taste in the mouth. When I was a teenager I wanted Flashman to escape. Now I hate him. A transition that you can follow through the various reviews below.

Related Reviews

Fraser - Flashman
Fraser - Flashman on the March
Fraser - Flashman in the Great Game
Fraser - Flashman and the Tiger
Fraser - Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Fraser - Quartered Safe Out Here

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Jeanne O'Neill & Riga Winthrop - Fort Connah: A Page in Montana's History

Cover of the Fort Connah book
Fort Connah is likely the oldest standing building in Montana in the United States, but has an importance far beyond its age and architecture. It was one of the original “forts” constructed by the Hudson Bay Company to assist in the extraction of millions of furs from North America through trade with furtrappers and Native Americans. While called a fort, the building had no military value, and was not garrisoned - it was living accomodation and storage for the McDonald family who lived and ran the trading post.

I was determined to visit Fort Connah earlier this year following my reading of James Hunters’ book Glencoe and the Indians. While on a visit, when we had been shown around by very kind and friendly members of the Connah restoration society, I picked up this short book by Jeanne O’Neill and Riga Winthrop. 

The book was published in 2002 when restoration of the Fort was still in the early stages. For those who know the history the book offers little new information. It is really a short introduction to the sigificance of Fort Connah to Montana’s history. As such it deservers a wider readership as I certainly felt that the site was little known, even to locals.

O’Neil and Winthrop locate their history very much in colonial development of the region. The fur industry, they write, “was just the beginning of a history of rape and plunder, of a cycle of boom and bust”. In fact the determining history of Fort Connah was not events on the ground, but wider economic and political contexts, which the authors do due justice too.

Fort Connah in May 2024
Fort Connah in May 2024
The book is short and typical of the peculiarly American local history publication that proliferates in locally in the States. It gives great insights into niche areas, normally only of interest to locals, and in the case of Fort Connah those with the surname McDonald. For, as Hunter’s work has shown, the influence of Scottish migrants on Flathead was significant. Angus McDonald who is buried near the Fort along with his Native American wife Catherine, where the head of a new tribe of locals who have come to play an important role in local history since the end of the 1800s. Angus was, it must be argued, not a genocidal immigrant and clearly, from this account at least, cared deeply for the indigenous  people and their knowledge. O’Neill and Winthrop repeat accounts of him telling Native American history while sharing a drink with visitors. Angus’ life - from Scotland to fur-trapper, Fort manager and then cattle farmer - forms the backbone to this story. But the book does cover more. SOme of this is a little peripheral, but adds to the flavour.

This book is perhaps somewhat specialised, but ought to be read by those heading to Flathead for their holidays. It is an good general introduction to a history of the area that deserves to be better known and would help ensure that Fort Connah and it’s intriguing history is preserved even further.  

Related Reviews

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Scott H. Hendrix - Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction

This Very Short Introduction to Martin Luther's life and ideas is a step above the previous one I read on the Reformation. It is a readable, concise and surprising detailed account of Luther, in just over 100 pages. It is particularly good in understanding how Luther's work can be understood and misunderstood because of the complexity of Luther's own approach:

Luther's hermeneutical principles were flexible, a mixture of things that modern interpreters tend to keep searate: what a text could have meant in the past and what it could or should mean today. Sometimes [Luther] would apply a biblical statement literally to his 16th-century classroom or congregation, and other times he would dismiss a passage because it belonged to yesterday and had no direct relevance for today.

But, Hendrix adds, that Luther "lived in the world of the Bible". This is something that can be hard to grasp - Luther's worldview and his experience was the Bible. But Luther was also shaped by wider politicals and society. This is perhaps where the Introduction is less helpful. Here we should not fault the author too much. Hendrix does note that "like other reforms, Martin Luther failed to find in the Bibe many features of the piety practised by believers around him". Like other theologians, Luther could not find everything in the Bible he needed to respond to world events, and here he responded as a man of his class and material interests should. I think, principly of Luther's reponse to the Peasant War, which was no doubt fuelled by the Reformation, but was simultanously rejected by Luther.

This "real politik" from Luther, meant he saw in the Princes and Nobles, not threats to the people, or corrupt hypocrits, but as Hendrix suggestions, potential allies. For instance, "the consolidation and expansion of the German Reformation resulted from steadfast cooperation between evangelical rulers and theologians, because the threat of suppression, stemming from Emperor Charles and his Catholic advisers, was noth political and religious."

The danger is that we can end up seeing the Reformation (and Luther) simply as a set of ideas to be implemented and for people to be won to, rather than as a process that arises, in part, from the material circumstances of society.

So while this is an excellent introduction to Luther, read is alongside other biographies and accounts of the period to grasp Luther's full impact and place within German society.

Related Reviews

Marshall - The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction
Shaw – Ancient Egypt: A Very Short introduction

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Peter Marshall - The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction

Peter Marshall is the author of a number of significant and important works on the Reformation, including his book on the English Reformation which I recommended a few years ago. This, one of the excellent Very Short Introduction series, is a straightforward introduction which covers the main events and in the broadest way. Readers who know Reformation history will no doubt find their particular interests or favourite bits are covered, but superficially, but it is a good broad overview of events.

Marshall is good on some consequences of the Reformation. For instance he explores sexuality and society, including the position of women. He argues the Reformation "reinforced patriarchy", because it reasserted the role of the family, the "Protestant social institution par excellence, the building-block of the Christian community". Consequently he argues that the Reformation left women in a diminished position, offering "women on the dual package of marriage and motherhood".

The problem is that Marshall doesn't really offer much deeper analysis. He opens (and indeed finishes) by saying that the Reformation created the world we live in today. Which is a bit obvious really. But what created the Reformation? Here he rejects those "Marxists, as well as subscribers to treny sociaological and literary theories" who want to "deconstruct" the real "political, class-based or economic motivations" behind the Reformation. Here he suggests that "any approach which beings with a rigid... distinction between the religious and the secular is unlikely to get us very far". But Marxism didn't do this. In fact, it notes that social and economic changes were precisely what created the tensions that allowed Luther's ideas to get a mass holding.

In fact I suggest that Marshall is wrong to imply that Marxists have only seen the Reformation and the German Peasant War as being "secular". 

By avoiding the wider social drivers behind the Reformation, Marshall ends up suggesting that it was the ideas that drove events forward. This is, of course, partly true. But the ideas got a resonance because of their context.

While I was frustrated with this aspect of this short book, it is a valuable book in terms of how it summarises the evens of the Reformation and the ideas at its core. In particular Marshall is very sharp on what happens in areas outside of Germany, and the religious consequences (in terms of religious organisations) of the Reformation. If you need a quick introduction this is good, but it is limited. 

Related Reviews

Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation

Monday, July 08, 2024

C.L. Moore - Northwest of Earth

Imagine a space smuggler whose adventures rarely bring wealth and fortune, whose luck is proverbial, yet often leaves him in situations even more dangerous, whose roguish good looks attract many women whose good looks hide their danger, and a man who is handy with a blaster. You know who I'm describing of course? No. It's not Han Solo, but C.L.Moore's strangely named Northwest of Earth. C.L.Moore was one of the pen names of Catherine Lucille Moore, whose work was extremely popular in the 1930s. Interestingly she didn't use a pseudnym to hide her gender, but rather to protect her in her main employment.

Northwest of Earth is a collection first published in 1954 containing most of the stories about Northwest Smith. Nearly a century after they were first printed it is a fascinating read. Eschewing any contemporary knowledge of the solar system, she populates Mars, Venus and the other planets with steamy jungles, deserts filled with civilisation and moons and other planets filled with weird and wonderful people. The solar system is filled with civilisations, all of whom are human, but all with their distinct characteristics. The spaceports are filled with smugglers, criminals, dodgy bars and sex workers. And beautiful women.

The latter are, of course, a staple of the science fiction genre. Heroic spacemen blast the baddies/aliens and get the "girl". "Tell me," says one character to Smith "do you have such girls on Earth". Except in Moore's stories it is usually the woman who leads Northwest down a dangerous path. Almost invariably when he meets a female from Mars, Venus or anywhere else she is asking him to accomplish a dangerous task, and often lying through her teeth. It is a neat inversion and Moore deserves a little more credit for her female characters.

Because this isn't really science-fiction. This is Weird fiction. There is much of Lovecraftian work here, tentacles, and dark, dank, misty places. A touch of magic and scary scenarios. C.L. Moore's solar system isn't filled with shiny spacecraft, but with weird tentacled things and slide and slither. Invariably Northwest gets away, usually firing his flame or ray gun (the technology varies from story to story) and cuts his way out.

So these are unusual stories, and the language takes a bit of getting used to. In fact, Moore shares a tendancy to overwrite a little and sometimes the stories' language betrays their origin in pulp magazines. One story, Dust of Gods, has the opening line: "'Pass the whisky, MW' said Yarol the Venusian persuasively."

The modern "Masterwork" edition would be improved by an introduction that tells the reader more about the context and CL Moore's life and work. But all in all these are fun examples of a nearly forgotten genre, by a woman writer who is mostly ignored today, but who was writing intriguing tales that turned the genre(s) upsidedown. Worth digging out.

Related Reviews

Monday, July 01, 2024

Corinne Fowler - Our Island Stories: Country walks through colonial Britain

Having thoroughly enjoyed Corinne Fowler's previous book Green Unpleasant Land I was very pleased to pick up this, her most recent book. It takes a look at the close links between the British countryside, colonial history and class struggle. Unusally, as the subtitle suggests, it is constructed around ten walks, in landscapes as varied as the Western Isles of Scotland, the Lake District and North Wales. On each journey Fowler is accompanied by a historian, artist or writer who adds their own perspective to the events and landscape, often in deeply personal ways.

I was expecting much of the book to focus on the way that Britain's wealthy had benefited from slavery. Fowler has been central to the investigations that have highlighted the extensive links between National Trust properties and slavery. So I expected that much of the book would focus on how the wealth from slavery had been used to construct huge country houses and large estates. This is, of course, true. Fowler writes about the Conservative MP Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, whose "massive portfolio of property still includes the Drax Hall estate on Barbados, which, founded by the Draxes in the 1650s, still cultivates sugar cane today. His planatations, historically, were worked by enslaved people." Drax, like many other landowners, owes the family wealth to the labour, blood and sweat of enslaved people.

Important though these insights into our countryside are, this is not all there is to Fowler's book. I was repeatedly struck by a more dynamic relationship between colonialism and the landscape. This is, perhaps, best shown by the walk Fowler takes us on around the town of Dolgellau in North Wales. Now principally known as a base from which visitors can explore Snowdonia, it once was at the epicentre of a global trade in wool. Dolgellau's wool was "distinctive" and often called "Welsh plains". It was a "cheap, coarse and durable... strong fabic" and "at the height of production, 718,000 yards of webs were produced almost entirely for export with around eighteen mills operating in and around Dolgellau."

The nature of Welsh Plain cloth made it idea for clothing enslaved people in the Americas and the West Indies. Fowler quotes the historian Marian Gwyn, "who found that in 1806 just three plantations in Clarendon, Jamacia ordered over 8 miles of fabric; 15 percent of this was woollen and from north Wales". The brutal reality of this is brought home to the reader as Fowler quotes from various advertisments from the 1700s which aim to identify and recapture escaped slaves. These frequently note that slaves escaped wearing Welsh wool.

As the example of Welsh Wool demonstrates, Fowler's book explores much more than the flow of  wealth from slavery into the hands of wealthy merchants and bankers in Britain. It also shows how that money was used to transform Britain's landscape, its people and its economy, in order to squeeze more wealth out of the slave trade. Dolgellau's growth was driven by the money the local economy made from manufacturing wool for the slave trade: "Around 1690, Welsh plains clothed 97,000 enslaved people in the Caribbean and North America.. by the mid-eighteenth century - the period when Dolgellau's smart houses started going up - this number grew to just under 2 million yards for some 279,000 enslaved people."

Thus the slave trade, in terms of the development of the town, is literarily written into the landscape if we look for the expansion of housing and development. It is also written there in terms of the transformation of the local economy and, as Fowler further develops her argument in later chapters through the enclosure of land and the transformation of the peasantry.

For the slave commodities made and sold from Britain like wool, iron, or copper required labour. They also required the creation of a new proletariat, and the destruction of historic ways of organising the rural economy. For many landowners the wealth they got from slavery drove these processes forward, impoverishing local workers, destroying traditional agriculture and manufacturing and concentrating workers in bigger and bigger industrial concerns. As Fowler points out, the wealth from slavery did not "trickle down" to the employees in Britain, instead if was concentrated in the hands of the already rich, and allowed them to exploit workers more:

Transatlantic slavery permeated the lives of rural working people: sheep-shearers, wool-carders, spinners and weavers. Not that these people were made rich by slavery: on the contrary, their lives were often harse. The money was bing made by people far higher up the economic ladder: landowners with sheep-grazing pasture, wool-merchants, slave-traders and their backers.

In fact I would go further. The wealth from slavery allowed the destruction of older economic relations, to the detriment of the population. British workers ended up sicker, poorer and dying earlier as a result of the industrialisation bring by the slave trade.

These workers, even in times of great hardship, often spoke out against slavery. Fowler describes the Lancashire cotton workers whose struggle to support the North in the US Civil War was born out of opposition to slavery. She also notes the rebellions and revolutions of the slaves themselves who fought their masters and occasionally, such as with the Haitian revolution, won.

The final aspect of this book that is worth noting is the personal stories of Fowler's walking companions. Their knowledge of the history of colonialism adds greatly to Fowler's work, as does their art and poetry. But it is perhaps most interesting regarding the modern countryside. Repeatedly her Black and Asian friends tell her about their own negative experience of such walks. Feeling like and outsider, experiencing racism or, for instance, never seeing someone like them working or living in the country. 

Part of challenging that racism has to come from a real recognition that the British countryside was never a pastoral idyll. The history and landscapes of rural Britain have been shaped by capitalism, class struggle and colonialism. As Corinne Fowler's wonderful work shows, slavery, imperialism and colonialism are written into the very countryside, into the shapes of small rural towns, and into the history of the people who lived there. For those of us who love the country, and who want to know its history, this is an indespensible work.

Related Reviews

Fowler - Green Unpleasant Land
Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Groves - Sharpen the Sickle
Blackburn - The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery & Freedom

Friday, June 28, 2024

Gregory F. Michno - Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat

One of the notable things about visiting the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn today is how it has been changed, under pressure from Native Americans, to incorporate their viewpoints and history into the memorial. While the location is dominated by an overt US militarism, there are multiple, moving testimonies and memorials to the Native American casualties. The story is told from the viewpoint of the victors as well as the victims.

Pursuing this approach to the battle I was pleased to pick up Gregory Michno's book Lakota Noon, whose subtitle indicates that it looks at the Indian narrative, something distinctly lacking from most accounts of the battle. The book is, it must be said, a boon to anyone who wants to do this and it would have been an excellent read prior to the battle. Michno has not just gathered many different indigenous accounts together, he has arranged them in a novel way. Rather than reading different accounts, from different viewpoints at one time, he has collected the parts of peoples' accounts together at the estimated times that they happened. Thus we can read differing points of view from the moment of Reno's attack, or during the chaos of the final moments of Custer's defeat. 

The accounts are often shocking. Rarely do we read the actuality of conflict, and this was violent, hand to hand fighting, and the accounts by the Native Americans do not diminish that. But these are not just the reminiscances of arrogant victors, rather they are from soldiers who understood that they were fighting a great and significant battle. For many of them it was to be the most important milestone in their lives, their Lakota Noon. Thus we also also learn about Native American beliefs, their preparations for war, their understanding of US Cavalry tactics, and above all, their praise for the brave men they defeated. 

There are some fascinating things among these accounts. One is that of the role of women. One Native American, Antelope, spent significant time on the day close to the action as she searched for a relative. Antelope "had seen other battles and had always liked to watch the men fighting, though she had been teased about it, for not many women followed the warriors to battle". Another example is that of Chief Gall, who recollected his personal experience of losing non-combatant relatives to the US cavalry, "his lodge was vacant. He extended his search around the point of timber a short distance o the south. There he finally found his family. Dead. His two wives and his three children, killed." Another account by Rain in the Face, recollected that a woman Moving Robe, whose brother had been killed was among the fighters. "Behold, there is among us a young woman! Let no young man hide behind her garment" shouted Rain in the Face to inspire the other warriors.

But mostly readers will want to learn the accounts of the battle by Native Americans, like Low Dog:

They came on us like a thunderbolt... The Indians retreated at first but managed to rally and make a charge of their own. Low Dog called to his men, "This is a good day to die: follow me." They massed their warriors. So that no man should fall back, every man whipped another man's horse as they rushed the soldiers. The bluecoats dismounted to fire, but did not shoot well. While firing, they had been holding their horse's reins with one arm. The frrightened horses piulled them all around and many of their shots went high in the air and did the Indians no harm. Nevertheless, the white warriors stood their ground bravely, and none made an attempt to get away.

But there are problems with the book. One of the largest was that the Native American accounts are not direct quotes. Michno acknowledges the problems of the sources - they are biased, sometimes recorded many decades after the battle, often contradictory and frequently have grown in the telling. Memory plays its tricks, but so does the reality of a confusing, scary, noisy and smoke obscurred battle field. Disappointingly though, Michno's narratives are not direct quotes, but are his rewriting of the various testimonies in order to make a readable account. This makes things clearer for the reader, but its not the  collection of eyewitness voices I expected.

Michno presents the book as being a final word in understanding what happened. Rightly, he argues, it has been near impossible to know what actually happened to Custer's direct command on the day. By piecing together the Native American accounts, together with a close analysis of the battlefield site, he hopes that he has presented a definitive history of the day. He is dismissive, sometimes to the point of pomposity of some other historians. But by and large his arguments about events on the day are persuassive, as does his unpicking of the conflicting and sometimes extremely unclear accounts of different Native Americans. He points out, probably accurately, that the famous charge by Crazy Horse likely never happened.

Michno is keen to tackle what he sees as the political correctness of recent scholarship of the battle. In fact the book is really an attempt to state a particular viewpoint of the battle using definitive studies and eyewitness accounts, in order to defend a particular historical approach. This is, I think, most notable when considering the Reno-Benteen fight and defense. After Reno is driven off, the battle recentred on Custer's attack. This is not surprising. The Native Americans had to regroup to drive off the bigger threat to their village. But the Reno-Benteen command did make a stand, and faced many hours horrificaly besieged. Michno provides no eyewitness accounts to this. Perhaps there are none. In which case it would have been useful to know. Or perhaps Michno thinks that because Cavalry troops from these events survived, then there's no need to give accounts (though this does not prevent him giving them about earlier parts of the battle). I suspect the real reason is that Michno is focused on other events because the purpose of his book is actually to polemicise about the significance of Custer's final defeat for latter day accounts of the Indian Wars.

This is especially visible in his critiques of those who argue there was "no last stand" in the sense that the battle did not have a definitive ending, rather pettering out into smaller and smaller clusters of killing. These he says are often motivated by a "those more concerned with officious moralising than with finding historical truths". For instance, he bemoans one author whose book contains multiple references (Michno gives them all!) to "genocide, greed and injustice". 

The problem with Michno's approach here is that it is difficult to write a genuine history of Native America and its encounter with the US government without acknowleding the "genocide, greed and injustice" that was directed at them from the earliest days of European colonialism in the Americas. Indeed, the books concluding focus on the reality of a "last stand" is less about actual events and more about defeating "revisionist interpreations and political correctness". 

The problem of course is that the last stand can mean different things to different people. Those who enjoyed the historically laughable They died with their boots on at the cinema in 1941 and since have a different understanding of the heroism of that day to that of the Native American eyewitnesses here. Indedd they would also probably not agree with Michno himself who is not dismissing the Native Americans as savages. 

The point is not the battle, but the context - culturally and historically. Endless debates about about cartridge numbers from battlefield archaeology cannot overcome the wider historical backdrop which is far more important to understanding the aftermath of the Lakota Noon.

Those interested in the battle should read Lakota Noon, if only for the eyewitness accounts and the discussion about events on 25-26 June 1876. For those wanting a subtle study of the context, there are other, better books, polemical in their own way.

Related Reviews

Hämäläinen - Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Estes - Our History is the Future

Donovan - A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Cozzens - The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Alastair Reynolds - Machine Vendetta

Machine Vendetta is the final novel of the Prefect trilogy, a series of hard science-fiction novels by Alastair Reynolds. It is set in the Yellowstone system, among the glitter-band, thousands of orbitals with hundreds of thousands of people. The system is government by a voting system where inhabitants constantly vote, usually automatically, on decisions that manage the system. The Panoply is the police force, a non-lethal police force who are supposed to be under the democratic control of the people of Yellowstone, but in reality act more as a benevolent dictatorship at times.

Machine Vendetta is part three of a trilogy, but the stories are closely linked. As such much of the background to this volume is not explained and instead readers have to return to earlier works. The book begins as a sort of "detectives in space" as Prefect Tom Dreyfus investigates the unusual behavior of his former protege prefect Ingvar Tench which has led to her death.

What starts as a sort of police procedural in space, albeit from a number of different perspectives, rapidly becomes a system spanning thriller, as the Prefects and Dreyfus confront a powerful enemy that threatens the whole of Yellowstone. 

All of Reynolds' novels carry the reader along, but unusually this felt a little shallow to me. Some of the big ideas are not really explored very well, and on a couple of occasions I felt characters were simply brought on to advance the plot, rather than being developed into fully fledged personas. Still it's a fun read that Reynolds' fans will love.

Related Reviews

Reynolds - Eversion
Reynolds – Redemption Ark
Reynolds - House of Suns
Reynolds - Revenger
Reynolds - Inhibitor Phase
Reynolds - Blue Remembered Earth
Reynolds - The Prefect
Reynolds - Zima Blue
Reynolds - Terminal World
Reynolds - Pushing Ice
Reynolds - Slow Bullets

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Thomas Kaufmann - The Saved and the Damned

When Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses against the Church he began a process that was to have far reaching implications. It would have far reaching implications, which went beyond the split between what became the Catholic and Protestant Churches. These implications, religious, social, economic and political would drive struggle, civil war and revolution across Europe and extend into the colonies. Karl Marx famously noted that the Reformation "began in the brain of the monk". It is, on one level a curious statement. After all, Marx's whole life was dedicated to an approach that said that pure ideas did not exist, but are shaped by the economic contexts. Luther however was not abstracted from society, and his criticisms of the Church were closely related to wider economic and political issues. The selling of indulgences, the main target of his Theses was merely represented the tip of much deeper issues.

Thomas Kaufmann's new history of the Reformation, The Saved and the Damned, is an excellent introduction to the period. Particular in "what happened". Much of the work focuses on the German Reformation. In part this has to do with Kaufmann, as the book was originally published in German. But it is also because the Reformation started in Germany and had its most explosive period there. This is not a book of detail, it is a sweeping history which starts from the premise that "the diverging fates of the Reformation in the countries of Europe were fundamnetally connected with the diverse political, ecclesiastical, cultural and social conditions".

But to really understand the Reformation we need something deeper. After all people had made criticisms of the Church beforehand and certainly there were many intellectuals on a par with Luther who were getting an audience. Why did Luther's Theses explode across Europe ("the whole of Christendom in four weeks")? Was it simply their clarity? The Printing Press? Luther's oratory? All of these were important, but mattered was that Europe was in a social crisis, and the Theses landed in the midst of this crisis and encouraged it. For the German Peasants it was a reason to rebel. For people like Thomas Münzter it began them on a path that would lead to revolution. For thousands of others it opened a door to wider criticisms of religion and the role of the Church. Issues of individual freedom, power and wealth. Kaufmann is write to argue that Luther was the "central figure, of the Reformation" without whom it would not have happened. But we cannot ignore the deeper changes.

Here we have to look at what else was changing, and tragically, despite his scholarship on the Reformation, Kauffmann all but ignores the deeper changes in European society, principly the first developments towards merchant capitalism, and the transition from feudalism to capitalist society. Here the Peasant War is informative. Because while many peasants began their critique of society by picking up a pitchfork and a copy of a Luther pamphlet, their criticisms were mostly about economic issues. Principly the right to control their land, their community and their church. While these frequently harked back to an imaginary past, they also reflect how feudal society was moving towards a more capitalist organisation. Increasingly production was for the market, not community use. Wage labour was becoming normal, and the profits of big institutions like the Fugger bank were driving discontent by concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. 

Kaufmann reacts to these simply by discussion the Weberian idea that "there is a causal connection ebtween the religious mentality of Reformed Protestanism... and a capitalistic economic disposition". This, Kaufmann thinks is overestimated. In fact he returns several times to this:

The commonly held opinion that 'Calvinism' had an affinity primarily with the nbourgeoisie hardly accounts for the complex social and political mechanisms by which its influence spread in the second half of the century of the Reformation.

Again this misses the point. Protestantism becomes the language of the bourgeoise, not because they need it to be capitalists, but because it fits the logic of how they see the world. In turn they shape protestantism in a particular way (directly opposite to how the rebellious masses understood it). Kaufmann fails to grasp that the bourgeois revolution does not begin with a set of end goals that represent the establishment of capitalism. It is why Oliver Cromwell could say "We declared our intentions to preserve monarchy" in January 1648 and "I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it." by December of that year.

For Kaufmann the Reformation happens, and then has consequence. For instance Kaufmann he notes that the Reformation encouraged capitalist development because of things like the "drastic reduction in holidays". More importantly, as Kaufmann note the Reformation encouraged ideas of individalism. But in his writing these are the key deciding factors, rather than part of a dialectical relationship between society and religion.

So in terms of analysis, Kaufmann offers very little insight, except generalisations:

The Reformation in its multifarious manifestations influenced, encouraged and accelerated the developments leading to what is now called the modern West in many different ways. Nevertheless, the Reformation did not produce modern Western civilisation, neither by itself nor as a major influence, any more than any other factor. The Western modern world is the results of a very complex process of transformation - certainly one which would have taken a different course if the Reformation had not happened.

This is inadequate. What we really needed is to recognise that Europe was changing, and the Reformation was both an expression of that, and a factor shaping the change. The small, gradual processes of economic change in the towns and in rural production were driving much wider economic changes. But they aren't analysed here. It is why another Marxist reviewer commented that "Only the examination of the ways in which people reproduce their lives, enter social relations to that end, and by so doing create their whole society, can ideology in all its conflictual manifestations be understood."

This means that The Saved and the Damned feels rarified. It's history floats above the economic base, detached from wider society. This is not to condemn the book's scholarship. It is, in fact, an exemplary and recommended history of what took place across Europe in those turbulent years, and indeed, what that has meant for the Christian Church since. While it suffers from some annoying proofreading errors and a couple of extra paragraphs that were clearly intended as captions for unused pictures, I've no hesitation recommending it as a read. But I think many readers will come away wanting much more.

Related Reviews

Blickle - Communal Reformation: The Quest for Salvation in Sixteenth Century Germany
Lortz - The Reformation in Germany: Volume 1
Marshall - Heretics & Believers: A History of the English Reformation
Duffy - The Stripping of the Altars
MacCulloch - Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700

Friday, June 14, 2024

Ernest Belfort Bax - The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists

This is the third volume of Belfort Bax's trilogy of books on the "social side of the Reformation in Germany". As I have already mentioned Bax was an unusual and troublesome socialist in the second half of the ninetheenth century and the early years of the twentieth. In particular he was unusual for being on the left and rejecting feminism and women's suffrage. This is worth repeating at the start of this review because it has some relevance to the subject matter.

The third book deals with what I would describe as the final act of the radical Reformation in Germany, the rise of the Anabaptist movement and the siege of Münster. In 1534 a growing and confident anabaptist movement took control of this important town in North-West Germany, and after expelling many opponents they set about constructing, from the top town, a form of communal living. Bax's book tells the story of the Anabaptists, linking their evolution to the most radical thinkers of the Reformation and the most radical aspects of the German Peasant War

Despite extreme hostility and a military siege, Anabaptist Münster survived for almost 18 months. During these months there were some notable experiments involving communal living, such as collective kitchens and the redistribution of property and wealth. While this was a top down movement, it seems that it was met, at least in the early stages with support from most of those who remained. However as the siege continued, deprivation and violence against the town saw cracks develop and eventually one John of Leiden declared himself king. He lived in opulence, while around him their was hunger and desperation. Eventually refugees let the enemy in, and Anabaptist Münster was destroyed in the most violent of revenge. With hundreds, perhaps thousands killed.

Bax's book is itself a relatively easy read that covers most of the main sources then known and tells the story of the Anabaptists and Münster well. His sympathies are clear, declaring Münster to be a "genuine attempt to carry out logically, principles of the Gospel-teaching and the idea of a return to a supposed primitive Christianity." But there are two aspects that I felt worth exploring further. 

The first relates to one of the significant changes implemented by the Anabaptists in Münster later on. This is the question of polygamy. Because many of the men had fled the siege, leaving behind their wives to oversee businesses and wealth, there were something like three women to every man in the town. John of Leiden implemented polygamy (really polygyny) and took sixteen wives. Bax argues that the polygamy introduced was "unique in the history of medieval socio-religious movements" because it was not "a community of wives or free love", but retained the sacred nature of marriage. While Bax is right to charge conventional historians with "hypocrisy" over this, he fails really to explore whether or not this was something that the "women" of Münster wanted. Certainly they could not take multiple husbands. The problem was that "no woman, old or young, should remain outside the marital relation". In other words it was enforced polygyny. It was, in no way, liberating for the women - even if it might have provided some security. I suggest that Bax's anti-feminism is central to his account of the women of Münster. His politics are, using the language of today, distinctly sexist or misogynist.

The second problem is that Bax attempts to draw very close parallels between the siege of Münster and later revolutionary movements. There are, of course, similarities between Münster and the Paris Commune. Bax was writing in the aftermath of that great revolution, but it is wrong to draw too many parallels. What distinguishes the Paris Commune was its mass participatory democracy and workers' power. This was not part of Münster's experience, which was rather more a top down process of reform. Nonetheless the parallels are interesting, as is the counter-revolutionary violence used in both Paris and Münster 350 years earlier. Bax does, of course, know this. But he cannot help himself with his analogies. Despite this, his conclusions are useful:

The dream of the impoverished townsman of a millennial kingdom, based on medieval domestic communism and animated by the ideasl of the small artificer of the time, was in itself as hopeless as the corresponding dream of the peasant ten years before, which also aimed at harking back to an idealised form of a condition of a things that had passed away. The lines of social development were moving in quite another direction.

Bax is right to point out that this was the communism of distribution, not of production, which would not become possible until the working class developed and capitalist production developed. 

Does Bax's work have any relevance today? All three books are dated and suffer as a result. Bax's flawed politics and his crude parallels between medieval and modern struggles are frustrating and lead to errors of judgement. Bax's anti-feminism also means that he dismisses and ignores the role of women, and seriously misjudges events in Münster. Writing from the general left, he does have some insights. He notes, for instance, 

The conventional historian, in his conventional hatred of the old militant Anabaptism with its communisitc tendencies, and writing as he does in the interest of the possessing classes of his own day, has been found not ashamed to condone, or even to justify, this fiendish and atrocious crime perpetrated by the dominant classes of a bygone age.

I suspect that few people will read Bax today. I'm not sure I would encourage them, as there are other, more useful histories available, though tragically too few by genuine Marxists.

Related Reviews

Bax - The Peasants War in Germany
Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages

Monday, June 10, 2024

Dee Brown - Showdown at Little Big Horn

I knew of Dee Brown as a historian of Native American peoples. His most famous book is, of course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Some years ago I also read his excellent account of the Fetterman Massacre. When I recently visited the site of the Little Big Horn battle, fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime, I came away with quite a few souvenirs and several books. Among them was this short work by Brown, which I bought on the basis of the author.

I was surprised to find out that it was not an explicity work of history. Rather it is a fictionalised account of the lead up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn based on testimonials, memoirs and contemporary accounts. After overcoming my surprise, and learning that Dee Brown was also a novelist, I dived in.

The book itself is interesting, but perhaps a little dated. For those not versed in the story of the Little Big Horn it might serve as a good starting point, but the nature of the novel means that it doesn't give any real context. Read a decent history of the Battle and its location within the wider project to destroy the Native Americans in Montana territory first if you want to appreciate the material that Brown uses.

He begins with some relatively minor characters. The journalist Mark Kellogg, who produced a diary and sent regular reports Eastward as Custer's troops travelled. These form the basis of a surprisingly detailed account, as Kellogg wrote almost to the end. Of course Brown has to embellish things with descriptions and context, but it works well. Not all the characters are Europeans. Sitting Bull is one of the more well known historical individuals given a chapter here, but so are less well known ones, such as Bobtail Horse who, with three other Native Americans are said to have held off Custer's troops charge down the Deep Ravine.

Oddly for Dee Brown, the book devolved into sentimentality at the end, with the final viewpoint being that of Comanche, Captain Keogh's horse. The sentimentallity lies mostly of course, with the US Cavalry who lacking any other hero on that field commissioned the horse second in command of the Seventh Cavalry. The irony was not lost on anyone.

Showdown at Little Big Horn is not a particularly great work. Younger readers might find it more interesting, but it lacks Dee Brown's historical knowledge, while retaining his desire to give the Native American people a voice.

Related Reviews

Brown - The Fetterman Massacre
Donovan - A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Hämäläinen - Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Estes - Our History is the Future
Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Tommy Orange - Wandering Stars

***Spoilers for both of Tommy Orange's books***

Tommy Orange's second novel Wandering Stars is closely linked to his first, There, There. Unfortunately I had not read the first one before starting Wandering Stars, and I missed out by doing so. Such are the consequences of me not keeping up with new writers. There, There finishes, with a mass shooting, and this forms the centre point of Wandering Stars, but not in terms of events, but as a pivot point for some of the central characters. This is a book about Native America, specifically the lives of working class, poor, Native Americans in urban areas - in this case, Oakland, California.

The book swirls around complex issues about poverty, drugs, guns and Native American identity. It's brilliantly told, not least because it starts in 1864 with the Sand Creek massacre, telling the generational story of a family of Native Americans who descend from one survivor. In doing so it tells how Native American children were wrested from their families and put in dire "boarding schools" to have the Indian civilised out of them, how they were imprisoned and how they fought to keep their identity and their humanity in the face of racism, government indifference and local authority repression. Orange, and his characters, repeatedly make the point that contemporary conditions for Native Americas are rooted in history.

One of the themes of the books is the importance of generational links and ties. The fact these are broken, or not readily known to key characters is crucial. The contemporary characters, who are the focus of the latter half of the book, and whose mother died from a drug related suicide, often feel out of context, lacking roots - despite their close family. Family itself takes on a wider meaning - it is much less about those who are your parents, and more about those who care for you.

After the shooting that leaves Orvil Red Feather with a bullet fragment in his body and an addiction to painkillers, his wider family, including his brothers Loother and Lony, protect and try to survive. They swirl around him, and his daze is not just drug addiction, it is the awareness that this is it. That the American health care system cannot properly care for them all, that there are no real jobs and that school is a meaningless place that trains you to "fly a desk". The schools might no longer force you to cut your hair, stop speaking your language and no longer wear traditional clothes, but they suck the life from you in every other way.

There's a kind of hope at the end of Wandering Stars, one that rests not with magical solutions, but with the solidarity of family and community that keeps people going. Its not the societal fix - nor the restitution that Native American communities desperately need from a capitalist system that still divides and rules, and drives people into poverty. But its a kind of individual hope. Tommy Orange peppers the book with references to Settler Colonialism and injustice. It reminded me that these sores are real, lasting and ongoing. The politics isn't a crude afterthought, but a living thread running through these all too real stories.

If my reading of Wandering Stars was undermined by not having read There, There, I would caution that it's probably not necessary, but likely to add meat to the novel. In a world coming to terms with Settler Colonialism and learning how to fight it, Tommy Orange is a welcome voice.

Related Reviews 

Doig - Bucking the Sun

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Ivan Doig - Bucking the Sun

Having read Ivan Doig's beautiful memoir about growing up in rural Montana before I visited that state recently, I was keen to read one of his novels. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be very easy to find Doig's books in Montana's second hand bookshops. He remains, after all, one of the state's most celebrated writers. His books are often set around key moments in Montana's history, and tell stories imbued with historical accuracy.

Bucking the Sun is one of a series of books by Doig set in the north of the state. It is focused on the extended Duff family, homesteaders who have struggled to earn a living from the dry prairie soil, and who are kicked off their land. A New Deal project to build the enormous Fort Peck Dam will flood their farm and the book opens with the government man giving the Duff patriarch the news. The Duffs become New Deal workers on the huge project, which, by coincidence is managed by their son, a leading dam architect. If this conincidence is a little to unbelievable for the reader, it is worth suspending disbelief at this point, as the novel has a lot to offer, despite the contrived set up.

The book opens however with an aging, retired and right-wing sheriff who is thinking back on his career in a old people's home. One unsolved case still bugs him, a case in which two naked bodies were found in a car at the bottom of the Fort Peck resivoir. These entangled lovers were both Duffs, but as the opening chapter concludes, neither was married to the other.

The novel builds up to a climax were the identities of the two Duffs is finally revealed. As the family works on the dam, encouraged and helped along by the senior position of their eldest son, we see their lives, loves and laughs along the way. We also see the hardship of the New Deal work, and the difficulties of life in the West, as the Dam rises, so do the shanty towns around it - a new Wild West. 

Doig's put a lot of research into the book - there is a great deal here about what happened that seems historically accurate. But I found the other things telling. The way women get opportunities from the New Deal that give them a level of independence. The lives and work of sex workers at the time. Yet for me, most fascinating, is the radical history that links the struggles of factory workers in the First World War in Scotland, to the strikes and protests of 1930s America. I don't know what Doig's politics were, but the sympathy here with strikers, underdogs, protesters, sabetours and Communists are apparent. His knowledge of politics is enough to include passing reference to Trotskyists, that will please other leftie readers like myself.

Ultimately the story here is in the telling. To a certain extent I was disappointed with the ending - in fact I wasn't really that interested. If Doig hadn't inserted chapters with the Sheriff's flashbacks, I would have forgotten all about the opening mystery. What I was really invested in was the thing that all the other characters were obsessed with - the building of Fort Peck Dam itself. In fact, I might try and see it, should I ever return.

Related Reviews

Doig - This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind

Monday, May 27, 2024

Gerald Horne - The Dawning of the Apocalypse

Gerald Horne's earlier book The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism described the horrors that arose from European colonialism in the Americas. The policies of genocide that saw millions die and suffer from war, slavery and disease. But how did this come about, and in particular, how did the political ideology that justified it arise?

The Dawning of the Apocalypse tells this story. In it Horne argues that it was the struggle between the European powers, mediated by the fight against the Ottoman that gave the impetus for settler colonialism to flourish. The importance of this, as Horne says, lies in the fact that "the contemporary United States remains ensconced in the shadow of the original colonisers". The original discovery and opening up of the route to the Americas came from the adventurers and slavers of Portugal and Spain, but "the genocide that was visited pon the indigenous of North America was a rolling process, with the republican knockout blow facilitated mightily by the preceding blows inflicted by Madrid". Spain might not have won out in the Americas, but she opened up the space for Britain to do the next stage of the dirty work. 

Much of this book explores why Spain did not build on the earlier arrival of her explorers, slavers and troops in Americas. Much of this is to do with how Spain struggled with her great rivals, the Ottomans, around the Mediteranean and in North Africa. But Horne argues the biggest issue was that Spain had a different ideological approach to colonialism. 

Post 1492, Spain was on the march but exposed a glaring weakness when it at times allowed religious sectarianism to trump racist solidarity. England filled the breach when it turned this paradigm on its head and did not allow the conversion of Africans to Protestantism to prevent their being enslaved, and eventually invited the presume Catholid foe to join the brutal colonising of what became Maryland.

In other words England was able to construct a racist ideology, of whiteness, that allowed them to proceed in North American and drive through their own agenda in a more efficient, brutal and successful way that Spain could. Horne also argued that Spain's war on the Muslims, meant that they failed to develop new technological and scientific ideas that, in England's hands, provided extra tools and understanding to exploit the Americas. Spain's war with the Ottomans sucked resources out that prevented her building on their first place in the Americas. But, Horne argues, it was on the question of racism that Spain's ship floundered.

By sticking stubbornly to religiosity in an age of colonialism moving steadily toward the Pan-European "whiteness" that became London's specialty, Spain was determined to fall behind, though even when Madrid emulated London, they flubbed. Even after Alcazar, the local elite in Havana sought to expel the free Negro popluation but was blocked by higher powers. Religious intensity sat alonside solonialism uneasily, a system that tended to advantage racist intensity.

Later Horne writes:

I would say that religious secatrianism and Inquisition mandatges hampered the ability of Madrid to pursue what turned out to be the wining course executed by London, which was Pan-Europeanism and "whiteness" broadnening the base of settler colonialism - increasing the number of 'backwoods settlers' - racialiszing and deeming inferior those not deemd to be 'white' and moving aggressively on two fronts: seizing land and enslaving willy-nilly.

The problem I had with Horne's thesis is that I didn't feel he adequately explained how "whiteness" was constructed. It is certainly true that racial justifications for slavery helped create modern racism. But what of the "whiteness" behind London's strategy over Madrid? This is less clear from Horne's book and I wasn't able to find an explanation. I felt that Horne's earlier points - that Spain fell behind London for a number of reasons such as spending vast resources on fighting the Ottomans and not adequately developing its technological base, hinted at the way that England was developed further because it was able to unleash capital accumulation in a way that Spain could not. In other words, Spain was held back by its semi-feudal social organisation far longer than England. That's why England was able to eventually catch up and supercede Spain. In fact, one cold argue that "whiteness", or at least racism, was more a product of capitalism than anything else. Perhaps Spain would have got there eventually.

Nonetheless, Horne conclusion is right:

By 1700, Spanish armed forces were no more than 63,000' France's about 342,000; and said one source, "Britain was not far behind." The immediate furture was to belong to the United States, which, sharpening the effective tool that was 'whiteness' developed a population base that made these cited figures seem puny by comparison.

The backdrop to this - the indigenous struggles against colonialism, the battles against racism and slavery and the rebellion of the oppressed that Gerald Horne so able places at the heart of this book - were not enough to prevent the establishment of the racist, settler colonial power in Washington. The world has long had to pay the price.

Related Reviews

Gerald Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism

Friday, May 24, 2024

Duncan Hallas - The Great Revolutions

Duncan Hallas was a leading activist and Trotskyist in post-war Britain. He was part of the networks that became the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers' Party. While I only met him a few times as a much younger activist, even today longer standing comrades talk about him as a great agitator. He was, by all accounts, a tremendous speaker and writer, with a depth of knowledge and experience that allowed him to put across complex ideas in accessible ways. There are many on the left today who'd benefit from learning Hallas' ability to talk to workers.

The Great Revolutions is a new book made up of a series of articles that Hallas wrote for Socialist Worker in 1973. Then the British working class was on a high, having just defeated a Tory government the previous year and many activists thought that the high levels of struggle would continue under Labour. Sadly this was not to happen. But these levels of struggle no doubt led to the editors commissioning Hallas to write this series of pieces on "Great Revolutions", stretching from the English Civil War and the American Revolution, through the French Revolution, 1848, the Paris Commune and finally the Russian Revolutions.

These are short, agitational pieces designed to educate readers in the basics of events. But don't let brevity imply simplicity. Hallas' ability to get across complex events in the minimum of words and without academic fluff is definitely on display here. In fact, what is on display, is nothing short of a brilliant grasp of the Marxist method. Hallas shows how different class forces rise and fall in relation to wider social, economic and politic situations. This is particularly obvious in the discussion of the French Revolution, when Hallas clearly explains how different forces are able at different points during the Revolution to impose their ideas, but that it takes struggle from below to push the process forward. Hallas writes about the American Revolution thus:

The developing capitalist class in America, for that was what the revolutionary leaders represented was not oppressed by a semi-feudal monarchy. That had been destroyed in Britain in the seventeenth century revolutions. It was oppressed by the 'colonial system' operated in the interests of British capitalists.

This approach allows Hallas to explore, albeit briefly, why the revolution could be labelled as being about freedom, while oppressing so many others. Why it was led by slave traders yet waved the flag of liberty. The interplay between revolution in American and then the French Revolution is fascinating and Hallas shows how the ideas developed across the Atlantic.

While the book is brilliant and is a wonderful grand sweep of revolutionary history, I did have a couple of gripes. I thought it notable that Hallas, in his discussion of the Americas, did not reference the Native Americans or their struggles. He notes that one of the reasons the poor masses supported the revolution was that they were "prevented from getting land of their own". But he doesn't mention that getting this land would lead to genocide by the American state, nor does he have space to mention how the Native Americans were used as a military pawn by the British against the colonial forces. Simiarly I thought that the omission of the Haitian Revolution was strange. Its impact on the French Revolution, on the battle against slavery and ideologically in terms of notions of freedom was immense, and it warranted inclusion. 

These absences noted, there's still an immense amount to learn here. Credit is certainly due to those who were reading through back issues of revolutionary newspapers, found these articles and decided to get them published. I'm finish by noting Hallas' masterful two part discussion of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 which ought to be read by every young socialist in 2024. Let's hope this book gets into their hands.

Related Reviews

Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Marcus Rediker - The Fearless Benjamin Lay

Of all the people who resisted slavery and fought for its end, Benjamin Lay is perhaps one of the most fascinating and tenacious. Born in 1682, in Essex, he was shaped by an earlier generation's radical religious ideas - Ideas born from the English Revolution. As a Quaker, a labourer and eventually a sailor, he was also shaped by the the radical Atlantic; the politics that arose from the three cornered slave trade between the Africa, the Americas and Europe. This created enormous suffering, but also radical struggle. Within this, Lay ideas developed. His Quakerism gave Lay a enormous dislike of suffering, and a firm eglitarianism. But a trip to the West Indies opened his ideas to the brutal reality of slavery and from then onward Lay, and his partner in struggle his wife Sarah Smith Lay, become radical abolitionists.

Marcus Rediker's book The Fearless Benjamin Lay is aptly titled. Lay was certainly fearless. Repeatedly he punctured the cosy reality of Quaker meeting houses, exposing the hypocrisy of the rich slaveowners who lived a life of luxury while decrying injustice elsewhere. Today it seems inconceivable that Quakers and others could condone slavery, but in his lifetime Lay was denounced and mocked as being mentally ill for his suggestion that slavery should be abolished. It is important to note that Lay went much further than most of his contemporaries, calling not just for the abolition of all slavery, but demanding that fellow Quakers should refuse to have anything to do with it as part of a struggle to destroy the trade.

As Rediker points out Lay was an early proponent of activists tactics that we would today call boycotts and divestment. He refused to drink tea, use sugar, or sit at the table if a slave was serving. These were bold and radical statements for a man of his era. Later he would become vegetarian and his lifestyle changed to reduce as much as possible the suffering of other creatures. His egalitarian ideas were not abstract, but rooted in a personal and political struggle against injustice. 

When Marcus Rediker's book was first published few had heard of Benjamin Lay. During his lifetime he was, however, well known. In part this was a result of his political activism, not least his public theatre. The book opens with an inspiring, and hilarious, account of how Lay disrupted a Quaker meeting by drawing a sword from under his cloak and puncturing a book within which was hidden a bladder of fruit juice. The red juice sprayed all over his slaveowning audience, covering them in metaphorical blood. 

As a result of this struggle Lay became very well known, despite, after his wife's death, living a life as a hermit. On his deathbed he heard news that his struggle against slavery within the Quakers had borne fruit. During the later part of his life, and immediately after his death he was known and celebrated by a growing number of people who opposed slavery. But his life and struggles quickly faded into obscurity. 

Rediker's book unearths much that had been lost of Lay's life and introduced a new generation to his ideas. Lay had been kicked out of numerous Quaker meetings, and its satisfying to know from the introduction to this, the second edition, that recently various groups of Quakers have apologised for this mistake. Rediker traces these internal struggles in details, sometimes losing the reader in the detail. But they are important, not simply for historical reasons. But also because they were important to Lay, who always framed his wordly view through the religion that meant so much to him. Nonetheless, he wasn't held in a straightjacket by those ideas, but used them to demand and fight for change from the very organisation he was part of. 

Reading the book, and noting how Lay's opponents denounced him as "mad". I was reminded that revolutionaries who dream and fight for a different future, are often described thus. No doubt Lay's disability, personal lifestyle and activity fuelled these slurs. But reading Rediker's account of Lay's struggles I was reminded of the quote by the Irish revolutionary James Connolly, who said "The only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce." How true that was of Benjamin Lay.

Marcus Rediker's books on the revolutionary Atlantic are crucial reading for everyone who is trying to understand how modern capitalism was born from blood and violence, and what that means to us today. But they also celebrate the struggles against that violence, and the fight for a better world. Benjamin Lay is restored through this work to his rightful place among in the list of brave individuals who refused to back down.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker and Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra


Monday, May 13, 2024

Howard Zinn - A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a remarkable book in several senses. The first is it's scope, by which I don't just mean the breadth of US history from 1492 to the late 1990s. What's more remarkable is Zinn's ability to cover the breadth of the historical moment, capturing events at the "top" of society and the interaction with the mass of people at the bottom. The second is its radicalism. Zinn's personal radicalism is well attested (and shines through the book), but Zinn's approach to history itself is radical, and nearly unique in terms of books that have become must reads for those grappling with the long view of US history. As Zinn writes of the struggles that are central to his book:

I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should... emphasise new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people shows their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

Zinn's history is more than a recounting of events, with a special emphasis on history from below, or forgotten struggles. These are there, of course, and Zinn manages to tell these stories with verve, even within the limitations of brevity imposed by the nature of the book. But Zinn's book does more than this because he discusses what was needed for movements to win. For instance he acknowledges the limitations of the trade union leadership, or movements that repeatedly allow themselves to be sucked into the Democratic party at its cycle of elections.

A review of Zinn's book could focus on many different aspects. The opening chapters look at the genocidal policies of European settlers and subsequent US governments against the indigenous people. These are powerful, and Zinn explores the nature of those societies far more than most histories of this ilk. He discusses their different approaches to nature, resources, land and each other. From here Zinn looks at the early settler colonial society and slavery - and emphasises that the modern United States is built on violence and bloodshed

But reading history is always coloured by the present, and while it would be tempting to review this book by simply regurgitating Zinn's history in an even shorter format, I wanted to dwell a little on one particular aspect of history which Zinn was intimately connected to - the Vietnam era. This is, of course, interesting and informative. But it has its contemporary relevance with the current wave of pro-Palestine movements in US (and internationally) colleges. The movement bears striking resemblances to the US movement against the war in Vietnam. It is centred on colleges and educational institutions, but has moved out further. The anti-war feeling of the 1960s was, as Zinn painstakingly shows, more predominant among poor and working class people. There are hints of this today, no doubt for the same reasons as in the 1960s. People are sceptical of the role of governments, and angry at the use of resources for war that might be better spent on health, education and wages.  

But the radicalism of the anti-Vietnam war movement has its parallels with radicalism today - and the processes that Zinn highlighted - growing discontent with the establishment, hopes for alternative politics and a rapid growth in anti-capitalist ideas - have only developed further since he wrote this book. The reason for this, he points out, is the role of social movements as well as the inability of capitalism to deliver for ordinary people. When Zinn finished this book the radicalism and mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s had died away. He finished it with hope though, because he expected new movements to arise due to the contradictions of US capitalism. Those movements did develop in the early 2000s with the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, though too many US socialists abandoned the struggle in that period.

But Zinn's warnings from history - particularly the ability of the system to protect itself from radicalism by using the Democratic Party remain important today. Writing about the Jimmy Carter era Zinn shows how limited his policies were, yet the Democrats were able to position themselves as the alternative, simply by promising a few changes and bringing the leading figures into the Democratic space. Zinn uses an absolutely superb speech by Malcolm X about the Civil Rights March on Washington to illustrate this. The speech is too long to quote here, but Malcolm X finishes by showing how Kennedy's co-option of the movement meant the radicalism of the march was diluted and everyone left "by sundown". As we face an election between Biden and Trump this year, we'll here the siren voices saying that US activists must hold their noses and campaign for Biden to stop Trump. But Zinn shows why this strategy is a disaster. Activists in the US would do well to read the sections of this book on the post-1960s Democrat/Republican consensus again, if only to remind themselves of the pitfalls we face.

It is, of course, possible to nitpick. Every reader of A People's History of the United States will doubtless find something that is missed, or not done justice - that's the nature of such a sweeping history. I do think though that were Zinn writing today he would have included much more on the Native American history in the 15th to 19th centuries, even while acknowledging that he really does do justice to the history after this era, and especially the struggles by Native Americans in the 1970s. I would also suggest that Zinn might have done more about the single issue radicalism of the 1960s - there's very little here on the LGBT+ movement, though Zinn does mention it. It seems odd to this reader that he does not mention Stonewall. Again though, the fact he does talk about these struggles must have been a major breakthrough for a mainstream US history book - and the sections on women's struggles, feminism and the changing US family are fantastic. The ending chapters of the book focus on what Zinn calls the "coming revolt of the guards". Here he suggests that the crisis of US capitalism would force those whose previous roles involved protecting the system - such as university professors - into conflict with it. While he perhaps over-estimates the importance of this, he would no doubt be pleased to see the number of these people who have engaged in struggles recently. 

All in all this really is an indispensable book, a book for activists today, a book for your US travels and a book that illuminates how we got into this disaster, and how we might get out of them. Read it.

Related Reviews

Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Blackburn - The American Crucible

Tyer - Opportunity, Montana
Johnson - River of Dark Dreams: Slavery & Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
Punke - Fire and Brimstone