Wednesday, January 28, 2015

David Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History

If one theme dominates David Green's history of the Hundred Years War above all others, it is change. Changes to the lives of those who fought the battles, or ploughed their fields; changes to religious institutions and battlefield tactics, changes to the perception of women in society, or concepts of chivalry. This isn't surprising, after all this was a conflict that lasted generations and involved a succession of monarchs on both sides of the Channel. It was also an enormously brutal war, marked by massacre on both sides and savage tactics.

Today we mostly remember the battles of Agincourt or Crechy. But the war began with a series of raids by English armies, designed to deprive the enemy of resources, human and material, and demoralise the population. In these chevauchée
the chivalry of England... attacked those least able to defend themselves in order to undermine the legitimacy of the French monarchy economically and symbolically. And yet this was considered chivalrous behaviour. At its heart chivalry was a military code concerned with war... So, in 1346, in a display of often pitiless chivalry, the English laid waste to Cherbourg, Harfleur and much of the Normandy coast. Caen fell, and there, in proper chivalric fashion, a number of eminent (and valuable) French noblemen were taken captive and held for ransom...
David Green reminds us of the human factor.
The Black Prince, therefore, built himself a chivalric reputation on the ashes of peasant houses; he gained renown by burning the property of those least able to defend themselves and by taking valuable prisoners.
But as the war progressed, the very basis of this chivalry was undermined. The longbow put the masses in a position of domination on the battle field, and the introduction of artillery eventually meant that the lucrative trade in prisoner's ransoms became less worthwhile. Anonymous death from the skies had arrived, much to the disgust of those who saw the role of the knight as matching some near religious ideal. By the time the war ended, Green notes, that "chivalric individuality had been transformed... into an ideal of collective service in defence of the nation".

Indeed the war did a great deal to stimulate the rise of national identify in France. By its end, "Frenchmen and Englishmen, collectively, thought of themselves differently, and as very different from each other". Part of the reason for this was that the ruling classes on both sides had to develop justifications for the ongoing conflict. For instance, the English had to demonstrate that they had a right to rule France. This in turn meant they had to shed some of their historic identification with France - English became the language of court, rather than French.

More importantly, at the bottom of society there was an identification with the aims of the conflict and the military investment in it. The 1450 rebellion of Jack Cade had many of its roots in the unwillingness and inability of Henry VI to defend his territory in Normandy. That a major rebellion could take place, in part, over the failure of a government to prosecute a war successfully seems a shock to us today, especially when contrasted to the events in 1381 when revolt was about the very nature of medieval society. But Green argues that this contradiction has its roots, not in the domination of reactionary ideas among the masses, but in a growing identification of ordinary people with the national interest.

That is not to say that the peasantry enjoyed the war. The people of Kent were constantly struggling as a result of the armies that marched through their lands or were quartered in their villages. The "dreadful time" for the peasantry was particularly true for those in France who suffered battle, famine and the horrors of becoming a refugee as various armies ravaged their lands.

As a contemporary account complained
no one could get any ploughing or sowing done anywhere... Then most of the labourers stopped working in despair, abandoned their wives and children, and said to each other: What shall we do? Let it all go to the devil, what do we care what becomes of us? We may as well do the worst we can instead of the best. We'd be better off working for Saracens than for Christians, so let's do all the damage we can... It's our rulers who are the traitors, it's because of them we must ... escape to the woods like strayed animals.
Green also notes that the war also saw a positive change in the fortunes for some of those at the bottom of society. Alongside the war, famine, plague and agricultural crisis had thinned the population and the peasantry's "scarcity in a new world made them valuable." While such changes might have been hard to see from the position of the peasant, the world historic impact was enormous as wage labour came to dominate over feudal obligations.

But a great strength of David Green's book is that while he highlights the importance of these outward changes, he doesn't ignore the more subtle, and often more fundamental, changes taking place within the fabric of society. One aspect of this is the way that recruitment for armies became more professional. The old feudal role of the lord bringing his armed retinue with him to war, was diminishing to be replaced by a system of indenture - "soldiering had become a job of work for the common man, not simply a feudal obligation".

The role of women during the Hundred Years War challenged perceptions of the times. The most obvious of these is the way that Joan of Arc took on a leading military role. But Green documents the less well know women who took leading roles, such as the mistresses of kings who played the game of politics and often paid with their lives, or reputation. Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, being described by Thomas Walsingham as a "shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth".

Other women were encouraged to play their part in the war effort. Edward III wrote to three aristocratic women in 1335, urging them to "gather trusted advisers together in London to 'treat and ordain on the safe custody and secure defence of our realm and people, and on resisting and driving out the [French] foreigners' who Edward believed were massing troops and ships for an invasion."

More actively, Jeanne, wife of Jean, future duke of Brittany led the defense of her town,
riding through the streets urging the townsfolk to take up arms, encouraging women to 'cut short their kirtles [gowns]' and carry 'stones and pots full of chalk to the walls', so that they might be thrown down on their enemies. The countess then rode out armed at the head of 300 horsemen to charge the French camp before setting it on fire and returning to Hennebont to defend it from another assault.
But there were other, less positive aspectr, reflecting the violence at the heart of the conflict. Rape was a weapon of the Hundred Years War and "assaults on the body politic of ones enemy might easily become equated with an assault on their physical bodies." An English Statute of 1275 even "downgraded" rape from a felony to a trespass.
no longer to be punished with loss of life or limb but by a fine or imprisonment. The crime also became closely associated with abduction, and in legal terms the concern shifted away from the women affected directly and focused on the implications of rape for families - chiefly aristocratic families.... Consequently in England in the later Middle Ages rape became a crime as much against a a man (husband, father, and so on) as it was against a woman. Within the context of the Hundred Years War English authorities might, tacitly, have viewed rape as an attack on property".
David Green's book is a comprehensive study of the impacts of the Hundred Years War. It is, however, not an introduction, despite the populist title. Those looking for a narrative history of the conflict will be disappointed by the summary of the war which is inadequate for a thorough appreciation of the remainder of this excellent book. Nonetheless this is an excellent read which will interest and stimulate readers who want to learn more about this important period.

Related Reviews

Barker - Conquest
Royle - The Wars of the Roses
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150 - 1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Saturday, January 24, 2015

John Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham is perhaps best known for his book The Day of the Triffids. But equally popular when first published in 1953 was another disaster story, The Kraken Wakes. I would venture to suggest that it is a far superior novel, and indeed, when re-reading in the context of climate change, the story takes on new meanings and resonances in the 21st century.

Told through the eyes of two journalists with the English Broadcasting Corporation, ("No, the EBC, not the BBC") Mike and Phyllis Watson, this is the story of a growing crisis that follows the arrival of aliens which descend to the depths of the oceans. Clearly preferring the high-pressure environment of the deepest parts of the sea, we can speculate that the aliens originate from Jupiter or Saturn. What is less clear is why they choose to attack the humans living far above them. Nonetheless, the story centers on the growing problems as sea-going transport becomes difficult, then dangerous and finally impossible, and more worryingly, as sea-levels rapidly rise.

Because the narrators were chanced to witness the initial arrival of the aliens, they rapidly become experts, and along with outspoken and doom-laden Professor Bocker, they manage to either have knowledge or experience of much of the major incidents as civilisation slowly collapses.

But what is far more important than the actual story is the background to events. This is a firmly 1950s world, where the Soviet Union vies with the West in an often irrational anti-capitalist tug of war. American's dropping nukes on aliens at the bottom of the ocean is of course interpreted as imperialist aggression, and the USSR's own shipping losses are carefully hidden from world-view. I don't know much about John Wyndham, I suspect his politics were liberal, but he places his tongue firmly in cheek when discussing the insanity of cold war politics faced with an existential crisis, not least because there is an equally dangerous arms race taking place with unknown forces at the bottom of the sea.

More interesting are those at the bottom of society, who react in various ways to the growing crisis. As the water's rise, Londoners travel to the Embankment to watch the sandbags being laid, then gawp in horror as the water breaks through. But it seems all unreal. The EBC and BBC compete for the best material, remaining in London as water levels rise, and occupying the top floor of rented skyscrapers, from which the journalists watch each other through binoculars. A hint of a more commercial media future is mentioned as Mike Watson points out that even though civilisation barely exists anymore, the EBC gets low rent on its building in return for the occasional mention of the owner, when reporting from abandoned London.

As ships become to dangerous to use, unemployed dockers and sailors protest, strike and riot. The airline workers, now in boom time, come out in solidarity and the collapse of civilisation is accompanied by open revolt. But others react differently. The workers building the EBC's "fortress" shrug their shoulders and the improbability of the end of the world, and enjoy the over-time pay. Several characters complain that the government wants them to fight off attacks from the sea, but won't distribute arms. One publican pointing out that it was exactly the same with the Home Guard in the last war.

Eventually those fleeing the coastlines are shot at and turned away from communities that have erected fences and barbed wire to protect their food and property. The analogy with climate refugees fleeing New Orleans or Bangladesh is unintentional but it leaves the reader uncomfortable.

The struggle of a few scientists and journalists to alert the world to an apparent threat, one that is initially dismissed with laughter, then scepticism, and finally concern over the cost of action, also seems all to real. Its as if John Wyndham had a time machine and could look forward a future when politicians ignore scientific advice, or prioritise the interests of big business. The British Marxist, Chris Harman, once argued that climate change would exacerbate existing fissures in capitalism. Wyndham's novel shows very much what that might mean in reality as a sea-levels rise far rapidly than they are at the moment.

Wyndham would have had no idea about the threat from a warming world. Indeed in the 1950s, a far bigger fear was of a cooling world leading to an new ice-age, which is probably why icebergs loom large in the story. I found the ending over-optimistic, not least because it placed a faith in science and technology largely missing from the rest of the novel.

But because the alien threat leads to rapidly rising water levels, in a world dominated by imperialist conflict and class tension, the 21st century reader finds themselves with a book that aptly describes their own world.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - Web

Friday, January 16, 2015

David A. Corbin - Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars

The struggle of workers to be in unions, or to have the right to form unions, has never been an easy one. Employers through the ages have fought tooth and nail to prevent the trade union movement getting a foothold. While unionisation means safer workplaces, higher pay and better conditions for workers, it also means lower profits for the shareholders.

But in few places could the struggle to unionise be quite so violent as in West Virginia in the early 20th century. Here the coal companies could make enormous profits, and as late comers to the table, they didn't have the same agreements with the mine workers.
Due to the favorable conditions of West Virginia as a coal-producing state, the proximity to the Great lakes coal markets, unusually thick veins, and the hilly topography that made the mining easier , and its rapid growth in production, West Virginia was a threat to the organised fields of the neighboring states. It was characterized as a 'pistol pointed at the heart of the industrialised government in the coal industry.' The operators, realizing that unionization meant not only parting with their absolute power as employers but also having their natural competitive advantages pared off in favor of the older fields, vehemently resisted.
What this meant in practice, was violent repression of any attempt to unionise and the establishment of company towns which severely restricted the lives of miners. Here people lived in homes owned by the mine companies, ate food at prices set by the companies, sent letters via company post-officers, drank in company bars and were observed and policed by detective agencies paid by the company.

Inevitably the struggle to build the union involved violence. Guns were a mainstay of life, and shootouts were not uncommon. The Matewan massacre took place when detectives shot down the Matewan mayor who was trying to maintain a semblance of legal order. Seven detectives died as miners shot back at them, while the miners lost two men as well. The sequel too this was equally horrific, as Sid Hatfield the police chief sympathetic to the miners, was due to speak in court. He was assassinated with his deputy on the stairs of the court, in front of their wives. Their deaths detailed in extraordinary detail in the accounts in this book. But alongside their deaths was a growing political and economic movement.

At the heart of the Mine Wars was the Battle of Blair Mountain when up to 10,000 coal-miners marched to protest the conditions and fight for the right to unionise. The army was sent in, but not before the coal-owners had bombed the miners from four aircraft. The troops were sent to maintain order and separate the two sides, but in reality the state intervention served the interests of the mine-owners more than the miners. Indeed, the union itself undermined the miners' own organisation, telling them to return home.

The story of the Mine Wars is shocking. This book is mostly documentary evidence of the period. It includes newspaper stories, interviews and accounts of events, particularly those leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain. There are some famous figures - the elderly, and extremely inspiring Mother Jones, who refused to die until the mines had been unionised, and was imprisoned and kicked out of towns for standing up and speaking. There are also painful accounts of the poverty and life in company towns, as well as the transcripts of the congressional hearings called to examine claims of violence and massacre.

Unfortunately, while all this material is fascinating, it is difficult to follow for readers like me who do not have prior knowledge of the period. The book could really have done with a longer, framing essay to give the history and a better time-line of events. Despite these limitations I found the book fascinating. In particular it is always inspiring to hear the words of ordinary people, even if they are describing the violence of company thugs. The book also points the finger of blame, and we can read the confessions of the company spies, union traitors and gunmen who took money to help defeat their fellow workers - their names shall live on in infamy. This book will be invaluable as a supplement to those who already know something about the period, but it also has much for those who like oral and social history.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Juliet Barker - Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

I once heard the veteran British Marxist Chris Harman point out, that despite Bourgeois rhetoric, nation-states were flexible things. The example he used was that for large parts of the 15th century quite significant sections of what we now call France was considered to be part of England. Conquest gives the history of this extraordinary period of English expansion and a detailed account of why it collapsed.

The English Kingdom of France began with the military invasion of France by Henry V. The battle of Agincourt is possibly the most well known part of this history, at least to the English. It led to a period of English military supremacy that culminated in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Under this treaty, Henry V married the daughter of Charles VI of France and it was agreed that Henry's heirs would become joint kings of France and England. The dauphin, Charles VII, was disinherited and it was he who, following the unexpected deaths of Henry V and Charles VI, led the French campaign to reclaim the lands ceded to the English.

Henry V's heir, Henry VI was only nine-months and his uncles ruled England and France in his name until he was old enough to rule as king. Juliet Barker is scathing about Henry VI's ability to rule, and indeed, his rule was marked by ineptitude and inexperience, bother from the king and from those around him. As Barker points out the 1431 "coronation of Henry VI should have been a triumphant moment in the history of the English kingdom of France... Yet the whole episode was somehow shabby, rushed and unsatisfactory. At almost every stage of the proceedings the English manage to cause offence to their French subjects."

Juliet Barker is damning on Henry VI's failings
Henry lacked any real political ability.... he never acquired the independence, judgement and decisiveness of thought that medieval kingship demanded. He had little understanding of the deviousness of others, his naivety frequently leading him to accept what he was told at face value, to the detriment of himself and his country. Her was easily influenced, susceptible to flattery, profligate with his gits and overly lenient in the administration of justice.... Henry showed no aptitude for, or even interest in, military affairs: despite the desperate plight of his French kingdom, he was said to have been the first English king who never commanded an army against a foreign enemy.
It is very clear that Henry VI's failures of military and political leadership contributed to the collapse of his French kingdom. Even before Henry's coronation, the French were making gains. Joan of Arc (who plays a relatively minor part in this particular history) was part of this, but Barker argues that her role was a calculated, but minor part of the Dauphin's campaign to regain his territory. The chapters on Joan of Arc are some of the most interesting. Barker demonstrates how her talents were clearly able to motivate and inspire the French population, but the ruling class was much more cynical about using her and actually sidelined her at times when her desire to press forward was actually mistaken militarily. Joan of Arc's later canonisation has more to do with more modern French nationalism, rather than her importance in the Hundred Years War.

Despite popular culture's portrayal of medieval military engagements, historians often tell us how rare sieges were of castles. This is particularly true of castles of the British Isles. But Barker's history is packed full of sieges, pitched battles and the capture and destruction of various strong points. Notably, betrayal frequently played a role in these defeats. Often defenders were happy to let the enemy in, sometimes out of nationalism, others because of gold. But massive military sieges were a significant and central part of the war.

The war involved enormous armies and cost an absolute fortune. The equivalent of millions of pounds of contemporary money was spent on armies and payments to those who ran the English occupation. Ordinary soldiers however frequently went without pay, and mutiny and desertion were common. It didn't help that Henry VI was extremely poor at money management, preferring to spend lavishly on his friends. At one point Henry VI's "annual income of £5000 (£2.63m) fell far short of what he spent: his household alone cost him £24,000 (£12.6m) a year".

The eventual English defeat in France was not just Henry's fault. Though he had a central responsibility in allowing it to happen. There were other guilty parties at the top of English society, who preferred to line their own pockets, than defend the wider kingdom. Interestingly, Juliet Barker finishes by linking the defeat in France and Henry VI's wider political failings (including popular dislike of his wife) to wider social discontent. The rebellion of Jack Cade that broke out in 1450 was a significant manifestation of this.

Like Juliet Barker's other books, this is a sometimes overly detailed work of history. But it is readable, entertaining and an excellent introduction to a forgotten period of English history.

Related Reviews

Barker - England Arise! The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381
Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Karen Maitland - Company of Liars

Having thoroughly enjoyed Karen Maitland's novel The Owl Killers I thought I'd try her earlier book, Company of Liars, set during the Plague. Once again Maitland concentrates on the ordinary people of medieval England, in this case a group of travellers trying to escape the Plague, and their own pasts. Each member of the party brings their story to the group, but, as the title suggests, its not necessarily clear how true that story is.

Maitland brilliantly portrays a society permanently on the edge. The vast majority of people struggling to get by, constantly under the threat of failing crops, hard taxes, and poverty. None of her characters are peasants, but they are all tied to the land in the sense that their existence is very much on a day to day basis. As they travel, the food they can buy, beg, borrow or steal becomes increasingly important, particularly as crops fail from the combination of bad weather and the decimation of the peasantry through disease.

Maitland says that she is particularly fascinated by the links between myth and reality in medieval England. The novel's narrator is carefully drawn. They speak with the knowledge of a medieval person for whom werewolves, spirits, magic and religion are part of life. Thus while the story presents enough evidence for the reader to rationally explain some of the more unusual happenings, the characters themselves can never be sure. Here to, the complexities of medieval Christianity are laid bare - the multiple interpretations of biblical passages, the behaviour of monks and nuns, the contradictions between the needs of society and a strict understanding of religious doctrine.

Knowing what took place during the Plague years, and the lack of comprehension of anyone about how to avoid or deal with the disaster makes the novel poignant. But Maitland doesn't mistake lack of scientific knowledge for ignorance. Her medieval characters are extremely knowledgeable about the world around them. Where and how to get food from the woods and countryside, about healing herbs and so on. Society itself is complex with traditions, customs and work described brilliantly.

As with Owl Killers I thought the novels ending let the rest of the story down. But nonetheless this is an excellent work of historical fiction which vividly brings to life a very different society and the struggle of ordinary people to survive.

Related Reviews

Maitland - The Owl Killers

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Paul Burkett - Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective

Marx and Nature is a challenging, but very important book for all those concerned with developing and acting on the ecological insights in Marxist theory. Its republication is long over-due, but should offer new readers the opportunity to grapple with Paul Burkett's analysis, and build on the ideas here. It has a new foreword by John Bellamy Foster which locates the book in the wider debates that have arisen among Marxist thinkers since its publication.

In Marx and Nature Paul Burkett takes up a number of arguments that are made regarding Marx's ecological thinking. A common criticism, that Marxism is "Promethean" in its vision of the development of the forces of production is challenged very effectively here. Burkett notes though, it is not just anti-Marxists who make this criticism, but it also occurs from among Marxists too. Burkett quotes Michael Lowy for instance, suggesting that

"There is a tendency in Marx... to consider the development of the forces of production as the principal vector of progress, to adopt a fairly uncritical attitude toward industrial civilisation, particularly its destructive relationship to nature."

Burkett effectively challenges this view through the book. He does this by returning to the very core of Marx's ideas, and showing how, at almost every stage of Marx's intellectual development, the question of human relationships to nature is key.

The first part of this is a recognition that Marx treats "society and nature in terms of historically specific class-differentiated relations between people and necessary conditions of human production." In other words, the relationships that exist between humans and nature, that are essential to the continued existence of society, vary through history. But with the development of capitalism, this relationship takes a particularly unusual form.

"The commodity, value, and capital, for example, become dominant forms of human production only with capitalism's extreme social separation of the direct human producers from necessary conditions of production." 

Burkett points out though, that this analysis isn't limited to hitherto existing societies, but "extends to Marx's vision of the new productive forces developed under communism".

An absolutely central part of this, for Marx, Burkett explains, is the role played by nature in the production process. For Marx, both nature and labour "contribute to the production of wealth or use-values... Labor can only produce wealth 'by effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature'." [Burkett quotes here from Marx's 1861-1863 Economic Manuscript].

As Burkett reiterates,

"All Marx suggests is that the significance of unappropriated natural wealth as potential use value hinges on its eventual combination with human labor, even if this is only the labor of primary appropriation."

The significance of Marx's (and Burkett's) repetition of this point, is that the production process, and the creation of surplus value (the production of exchange-values) under capitalism, is inherently linked with the interaction of nature. Thus any development by Marx, based on this understanding, must inherently have an ecological component. Natural variations themselves have an impact on the production of surplus labour:

"The fewer the number of natural wants imperatively calling for satisfaction, and the greater the natural fertility of the soil and the favourableness of the climate, so much less is the labour-time necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the producer." [Marx Capital I]

The strength of Marx's argument helps explain another common criticism of Marx, which is that he viewed Nature as somehow unlimited, particularly his use of the phrase "free appropriation". Burkett explains that here, Marx is not talking as though Nature is somehow a free gift to humans, but he is explaining it in terms of the production process, Burkett writes:

"when Marx speaks of capital's 'free appropriation' of natural and social conditions, this is not meant to imply that such conditions are costless or infinite from a total, society-wider standpoint. Rather, capitalistic free appropriation only means that no wage labour is required to produce certain conditions serving as material or social vehicles of value production and accumulation. Thus free appropriation certainly does not imply that the conditions being appropriated have no opportunity cost or alternative use from a social point of view... That something can be freely appropriated in the sense that it is 'directly' or 'spontaneously provided by nature' as Marx puts it, in no way implies that it is not scarce or valuable from a social (and farsighted) perspective."

Nor did Marx ignore the potential for environmental crisis. In fact, Burkett argues, Marx considers two types of such crises. The first are crises caused by "imbalances between capital's material requirements and the natural conditions of raw materials production" and secondly, perhaps more pertinently to current environmental problems, what Burkett describes as "a more general crisis in the quality of human-social development stemming from the disturbances in the circulation of matter and life forces that are generated by capitalism's industrial division of town and country."

Thus for Marx, the centrality of nature to the productive process lays the potential roots for both economic crisis and wider environmental crisis. I was less convinced of Burkett's location of natural shortages as one cause of economic crisis, as I was by the fact that the very nature of capitalism, based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation, leads to unrestricted environmental degradation. The separation of town and country, the historic development of a system which seeks to relocate natural resources in the production of commodities for exchange, was for Marx and Engels a key explanation of the roots of environmental crisis under capitalism. The undermining of that separation was also a key part of their vision for a sustainable economy that would see the rational control of human metabolism of nature as a central part of production.

There is much else of interest here. I was particularly taken by Burkett's discussion of "Marx's Working-Day Analysis" in which he shows how the objectification of nature, also leads to the destruction of human individuality and creativity. In examining how Marx considered issues such as the struggle for the ten-hour day, Burkett concludes,

"Marx does insist... that significant progress towards a sustainable utilization of society's life-forces and the use of such progress as a launching pad for further struggles depend on the incursion of explicitly social decision-making into areas previously reserved for capital and the market. This imperative for 'general political action' stems from the fact that capital requires the forces of human and extra-human nature only as conditions of monetary accumulation, whereas workers, life society as a whole, obviously have a more holistic interest in natural conditions as conditions of present and future human development."

The conclusions of Burkett's analysis is the put the working class back at the heart of radical change. This is particularly important because it is this class that has the power to create a sustainable society, precisely because it is their control and organisation of production which will lead to a human interaction with nature that is both sustainable and in the best interest of the long term development of humans.

Environmental critics of Marx (particularly those from the left) often seem to have wished that Marx had talked more about nature or at least considered the natural impact of society more generally. Burkett shows that both Marx and Engels did precisely this, but not in the easily accessible way that some people seem to want. In fact, the ecological core to Marx and Engels' thinking is of much greater significance than some might have thought. That Marx and Engels were products of their time is a truism - they could not have foreseen climate change for instance. Though they did understand that a fully developed world capitalism might make fundamental changes to the planet's environment.

What Burkett has done is to show that nature is a fundamental part of Marx's nuanced and detailed critique of capitalism and his vision for a better world. Marx and Nature is not an easy book - readers will need some familiarity with Marx's works and ideas, but it repays reading. In a time when many are critiquing capitalism's relationship with the environment, but few are offering a revolutionary alternative, Marx and Nature, shows the necessity for a Marxist understanding of the world to be part of the struggle for a sustainable world.

Related Reviews

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Smith - Uneven Development
Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

John Merriman - Massacre: The Life & Death of the Paris Commune of 1871

The 1871 Paris Commune represented a new stage in working class struggle. For the first time ordinary people had taken control of a city and attempted to govern it in their interests, rather than those of the rich. The Commune inspired many, including Karl Marx, who wrote:

"When the Paris Commune took the management of the revolution in its own hands; when plain working men for the first time dared to infringe upon the governmental privilege of their “natural superiors,” and, under circumstances of unexampled difficulty, performed it at salaries the highest of which barely amounted to one-fifth of what, according to high scientific authority, is the minimum required for a secretary to a certain metropolitan school-board – the old world writhed in convulsions of rage at the sight of the Red Flag, the symbol of the Republic of Labor, floating over the Hôtel de Ville."

It is because of this "rage" that the Commune had to be smashed and its participants wiped from the face of the earth.

John Merriman's new book on the Commune concentrates on the suppression of this radical experiment in workers' democracy. I was disappointed by how little of his book looks at the Commune and its radical attempts to build democracy, to experiment with new forms of organisation and to try to implement socialist ideas. Merriman also fails to understand the significance of the Commune for those future socialists, like Karl Marx, who took from it a greater understanding of the role of the state in class society, and the need to smash it and build a new worker's state.

That said, Merriman does give us a sense of some of the heights to which the Communards aspired:

"The Commune gave women in the Union des Pemmes, which included at least 1,000 and perhaps as many as 2,000 women, unprecedented public responsibilities, but the response was not all positive... Yet without question women made essential contributions to the Commune, denouncing the clergy at club gathering, encouraging the military defence of Paris, and caring for wounded Communard fighters."

As Merriman himself shows later, they also played a central role in the military defence of the city, paying with their lives for this crime against bourgeois femininity.

"In addition to reorganising Paris's workers, the Commune also endeavoured to improve their working conditions. The abolition of night baking by a decree... was one such concrete social measure in the interest of labour taken by the Commune."

Merriman notes also that there were limitations to what could be achieved. After all the Commune was triumphant in only one city, and that had taken the revolutionary leadership by surprise. Without time to condense into a unified political leadership, there were divisions and disagreements. He points out, "it is not surprising that no full-fledged attempt to transform the economy took place".

But most of Merriman's book concentrates on the violent repression of the Communards. The bourgeois classes by and large fled the city to Versailles, taking with them all sorts of rumours and myths about what was taking place in the city. What shines through is the terror of the ruling class in the face of workers uprisings, their fear of international revolution and their hatred of those at the bottom of society. Merriman has mined the memoirs, police records, diaries and books of the time to bring us the authentic voice of the Commune, and its enemies, and it is terrifying.

The largest failing of the Commune was perhaps its failure to organise a proper military defence of the city. Spreading the Revolution may well have been possible had the city been able to resist the thousands of enemy troops. But once the soldiers entered the city, and the artilary was pounding it, there it was only a matter of time before defeat would take place. Yet the military strategy was inadequate, despite the mass involvement of Parisian workers in the defence of their city.

And the revenge was brutal. The army of Thiers swept through, massacring men, women and children. No pleading was enough. The insane propoganda of Communard women armed with petrol bombs meant that everyone was seen as the enemy. Having grey hair was enough to have you targetted as a revolutionary from 1848, having dirty hands meant you must have fired a gun or built a barricade. Looking askance at a soldier was enough to led to summary execution. Merriman dwells on this in excruiciating detail, not to glorfy the violence, but because he is trying to show the scale of the violence and its rabid nature. A couple of examples will suffice,

"The Versaillais often killed Communard insurgents they discovered, regardless of whether the fighters put up any resistance. On rue Sint-Honore, line soldiers found 30 national guardsmen hiding in a print shop. They had thrown away their weapons and hurriedly put on work clothes, but that would not save them. The soldiers took them... and shot them in the enormous ditch in front of what was left of the barricade. Nearby... troops came upon six men and a young woman in National Guard uniforms hiding in barrels. They were thrown into a ditch and killed."

But wearing a uniform or having a gun wasn't the only reason to be killed. Being Polish, or having a unusual surname, or the wrong accent, or a left wing newspaper in the house was enough.

"Three women were gunned down because the Versaillais came across several pairs of National Guardsman's trousers in their apartment. A furrier on rue des Partyrs allegedly was summarily executed because he had invite Pyat to his apartment six months earlier. When the man's wife protested he was also killed. On place du Trone, soldiers saw light in an upper apartment and went up to find two elderly men drinking tea. They were shot for no reason... Social class did them in."

There was barely any attempt at trial or justice, summary executions were the way that "order" was restored to Paris. As many as 17,000 died like this, but some "estimates have reached as high as 35,000". Certainly a census the next year suggested that tens of thousands of workers had died or fled the city, half of the 1866 shoemakers were not to be found, 10,000 of 30,000 tailors were missing, 6,000 of 20,000 cabinent makers gone, and so on.

The bourgeois revelled in the violence. Le Figaro cheered the "General enterprise of sweeping Paris clean", the New York Herald called for "no cessation of summary judgment and summary execution... Root them out, destroy them utterly, M. Thiers, if you would save France. No mistaken humanity."

Which such voices against them, the isolated Communards had no chance. Indeed that they only killed 66 or 68 hostages seems of little matter to the right-wingers determined to protect their property and their political system.

Merriman's book is not easy. At times I was near tears at the counter-revolutionary brutality. But it is an important work that demonstrates the extent to which a ruling class will be prepared to kill those who threaten its existence. The Paris Commune remains an inspiration because it teaches us that workers can take power and govern their lives. But it also teachs us that we cannot half make a revolution, we must overthrow the capitalists and smash their state. Least they will take the revenge they did on the Communards.

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