Monday, December 28, 2009

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children


Sometimes I need to listen to people around me before reading books. I've liked much of Charles Stross' earlier work, as it pushes new boundaries in Science Fiction, deals with different concepts and updates some of the science behind the fiction. It is also often funny and entertaining, even if it doesn't have the most in depth characters and plots.

Saturn's Children is a break from this. It would be wrong to describe this as awful. It's far far worse than that. Take a look at the cover description;

"Freya Nakamachi-47 has some major existential issues. She's the perfect concubine, designed to please her human masters - hardwired to become aroused at the mere sight of a human male".

A friend pointed out to me that this was merely some sort of adolescent masturbation fantasy. "Oh no", I said, "Stross is far better than that. He likes to set up plot lines like this and play with the ideas and stereotypes".

The one original idea at the heart of this novel - that our "perfect concubine" is living in a universe were every human being has died out - is a good one. How would an automated society function with out humans in it? Sadly however it isn't an exciting enough idea to support the deep and meaningful questions that Stross would like. "What does it mean to be free?" is a meaningless question when the reader just doesn't care for the characters and is drowned in a seemingly endless series of inter-planetary trips that seem to simply to show that Stross understands the distances between planets.

Here in lies the real problem. The best ideas in the world are meaningless if the reader struggles to remember who is who amongst all the characters. The fact that they are all robots and most of them are identical models of other robots makes it even harder to follow.

The sad thing to note is, that Robert Heinlein did it all before. Apparently this novel is a "homage" to Heinlein, but where does homage end and pale imitation begin? Heinlein's novel Friday is about a robot super courier who can carry important items in a cavity within her abdomen. Unusually for Heinlein he didn't try and turn that novel into an adolescent masturbation fantasy. Sadly for Stross that's about all Saturn's Children has going for it.

Related Reviews

Stross - The Atrocity Archives
Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Deborah Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters


At the start of the 19th century, the world was a very young place. God had created the planet a few thousand years previously and placed, according to the book of Genesis, everything on it in a few days. Less than a hundred years later, the natural world and its history had been expanded to include tens of thousands of creatures not mentioned in the Bible, a history spanning at hundreds of thousands of years and the very basis of much that was held as true had been turned upsidedown. It was, in every sense a ideological revolution.

Deborah Cadbury takes us through the amazing individuals that broke down the barriers of a rigid religious based society and strove for a new way of looking at the world. It shouldn't be underestimated what a suffocating atmosphere Victorian atmosphere must have had on this process. At one point in her tale, Cadbury describes a chance meeting between William Buckland, one of the countries greatest scientists with a women in a carriage. Both of them happen to be reading a new book by the French scientist Georges Cuvier, one of the world's most eminent scholars of fossils and geology. There is no one to introduce the two and Buckland has to overcome the social stigma of talking to a female stranger, despite their obvious mutual interests.

The characters at the centre of this fascinating tale of how the past gradually became unravelled make for great reading. But what is really interesting is the way many of them break with their past. Gideon Mantell for instance, the son of a lowly shoemaker, who never went to university, fights to break free of his social position to establish himself as one of the greatest scientists of his time. Despite opposition from his "betters" he is eventually recognised, though much of his hopes are dashed along the way.

We also read of the way that stereotypes are being broken. The stuffy, aristocratic atmosphere of the Royal Society being challenged merely by the existence of women like Mary Anning, fossil collector extraoridinare who despite not coming from the "easier classes", "contributed by her talents and her untiring researches... to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians and other forms of gigantic life."

Scientific was no longer the realm of the rich man who could pursue his researches as part of his life of leisure. It was time for the professional, dedicated scientist who could devote his or her life to the study of the world around them.

The discovery of the great fossils, their identification as extinct animals and the growing understanding of the scale and age of their remains is a story too long for this review. But it is one worth studying as it illuminates just how with the expansion of commerce and industry at the beginning of the 19th century, a new way of viewing the world was needed.

The individuals who fought and argued just how this vision was laid out were not necessarily motivated by trying to expand that viewpoint. Often they were trying to defend the old order. But ultimately they all contributed in part to breaking down the barriers. The rest, as they say is history.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tony Cliff - Revolution Besieged


Recent reading has made me think about how it was that the hopes of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 became the distorted caricature of socialism that was Stalinist Russia. Revolution Besieged is actually the third and fourth volumes of Tony Cliff's political biography of Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks and hence the effective leader of the Russian Revolution.

This part of the biography is perhaps the most important. Many activists in the International Socialist Tradition will have read part one of the trilogy, Building the Party. That book deals with the importance and necessity of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, viewed through the lens of Lenin's early life and his single-mindedness about turning the Bolshevik party into a mass organisation of the working class.

But this volume is perhaps neglected slightly. It's importance is two-fold. Firstly it examines in great detail the problems inherited by Lenin and the Bolsheviks once they had taken power. Russia with its backward economy and its domination by the peasantry was hardly the ideal place to build socialism in the midst of its powerful capitalist competitors. Cliff then examines what the revolutionaries attempted to do to strengthen their economy and entrench working class power. But it also shows how they tried to spread revolution, supporting revolutionaries elsewhere and trying to help others learn the lessons of the Russian experience. This is the second important strand of the book, because Cliff doesn't avoid criticism of the mistakes made in this period.

In particular, he tries to demonstrate that because the Russian revolutionaries had such a huge amount of respect for having taken power, often their advice was accepted without criticism by local socialist organisations. This led to a number of mistakes, most importantly perhaps, the German Revolution of 1923 was undermined by an over-reliance of the German Communist Party on the advice of the Russians.

Cliff though understands that this isn't necessarily the fault of the Bolsheviks. Lenin had created a revolutionary organisation that had, over a period of decades put itself at the heart of working class struggles. It had made mistakes, but had learnt from them. Bolshevik activists were respected by other workers. Revolutionaries across Europe couldn't simply create such experience out of thin air.

While this isn't a difficult work to follow, it is dense. There is a huge amount of history and politics to cover here. Some important aspects of post-revolutionary Russia are dealt with in short chapters that urge further reading. The debate over the New Economic Policy, the temporary re-introduction of capitalist processes to try and stimulate the economy following the increased isolation of the revolution is clear, but I was left feeling I needed to know more. Cliff isn't hiding anything here, but using a broad brush to paint a picture.



At one point the author asks rhetorically (about a particular point of the German Revolution) what place it has in a biography of Lenin, given that Lenin had no input on the debates. The answer he himself gives is that the "catastrophe in Germany in 1923 was the most important item on the balance sheet of Lenin's Comintern". The Comintern was the international body created following the Russian revolution to spread revolution internationally and cannot be separated from Lenin's life work - the commitment to international socialism.

There are many tragedies in this biography. The greatest are outlined in the final chapters as Lenin lies dying and Stalin manoeuvres to take personal power. One interesting aspect that Cliff highlights is the growing awareness of Lenin of this process, though it must be emphasised that Lenin is by this stage increasingly unable to intervene. However Cliff also highlights the seeds of some of the worst aspects of Stalin's distortion of socialism. We see the leaders of the Comintern labelling the Social Democrats in Germany as fascists and an increasing desire to downplay international revolutionary activity in place of the interests of Russia. Again, this shouldn't be over-emphasised, but Cliff clearly shows that by the time of Lenin's death the stage was set for a greater tragedy.

But Cliff also shows that there were many other seeds in the Russian Revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought with everything they had to create international socialism. The mistakes they made, as well as their successes provide many lessons for revolutionaries today. Tony Cliff's masterful writing has made these accessible to socialists today, and for that reason alone, though there are many more, this book is worth reading.

Monday, December 07, 2009

David Watkin - The Roman Forum


I started this volume of the excellent Wonders of the World series prepared to dislike it. Perhaps I shouldn't read press releases, but when I read that David Watkin's book "celebrates the Forum as it should be seen - etched in the haunting engravings of Piranesi", my heart sank.

The Roman Forum is, for most people, the heart of Rome. It is the place you can go and feel like you're wandering down the Roman streets like the ancients did. This isn't new of course, Watkins shows us how countless tourists have done just that for centuries.

So I was skeptical about a book that seems to imply that the Forum as it is today was somehow wrong and should be appreciated through a return to romantic etchings from centuries ago. Indeed I thought, how can you discuss objectively such a historical setting, if your starting point is that only a particular artist can portray it correctly.

I have to admit that I was wrong. At least partly. What Watkin has done is very clever. He's exposed the myth that is the Forum and laid the basis for a different way of looking at the remains. Firstly he makes the point that little of what we see is real. Much of the most famous monuments, such as the famous Temple of the Vestal Virgins (pictured) are modern reconstructions, using only small amounts of the original materials. In the case of the Arch of Titus, little remains of the original (with the exception of the famous panels) and it is, according to Watkins "largely a nineteenth-century monument". Piranesi's etchings are important, because they are one of the best visualations of what these ruins looked like before various figures through history destroyed, damaged and rebuilt the area in an attempt to recreate it.


Secondly he shows how even quite recent archaeological practice has destroyed many buildings and remains of great importance in the rush to show the real Forum. This is an interesting and important debate. When you take a historical area like the Roman Forum, at what point should it be preserved? Do we want to see the Roman Forum of 2000 years ago? Or the Forum 500 years ago? The Forum has been lived in for thousands of years. The more modern buildings built in the 13th or 14th Centuries are as much a part of its history as those of Julius Caesar.

This is what the visitor won't see. I think the point that Watkin is making is that visitors are sold an illusion. The idea that the Forum has been frozen in time and they can see it as it was at the height of the Roman Empire. Of course, the Forum changed constantly, particularly in Roman times. Buildings were added, extended and destroyed and Watkin takes us through this history to try and illuminate what we see when we stand there.

So I admit that my first impressions of this book were incorrect. But there are problems with it. Firstly, this is not a history book. It is a book of architectural history that leaves the social and human history of the place out. This is a shame, because the Forum is, above all, a social place. But it can be frustrating for the lay reader. If you don't have a background in architecture and just want to understand more of what you are seeing, what is the non-specialist to make of sentences like this one, describing the Basilica of Maxentius;

"the whole of the north aisle with its central apse and its three arched exedrae with giant coffered barrel vaults which served to buttress the central groin-vaulted nave".

Rare is it that I have to resort quite so often to the dictionary to make it through whole paragraphs. This is a shame, because the rest of the Wonders of the World series that I've read have been tremendously accessible and open to the ordinary reader and this one feels just a little too pompous in places.

What this book does well is make the reader think about the history of places like the Forum differently. How we excavate and display history is important. How we preserve it and interpret it is subject to ongoing debate. So it's an interesting book to take with you to Rome, if only to feel sad has been lost.

Oh, and if you really want to walk down Roman streets visit Ostia Antica. It's a short train journey from Rome. Absolutely deserted and has a fantastic little restaurant in the middle.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Raj Patel - Stuffed and Starved


This is a superb book. Rarely do I come away from reading a non-fiction book feeling as satisfied as I did when I closed Stuffed and Starved.

Raj Patel has produced an amazing investigation of the problems with the world's food system. Starting from the very bottom - the men and women who produce the world's food, he shows us a system that has become dominated by multinational interests, profiteering and ruthless capitalist actions. The consequences are impoverisment, soaring suicide rates amongst farmers, unemployment and food that is geared to maximising profit, rather than improving diets.

We see the ruthlessness of the seed companies, forcing and tricking farmers into using GM seeds. We see the power of the supermarkets determining what must be grown, despite what is best for the farmer. And finally we see how this comes together in a world food system that creates hunger in the midst of plenty, and simultaneously obesity on a mass scale.

Patel is rightly cynical about the multinationals being able to solve these contradictions. He points out how supermarkets for instance rebrand themselves to appeal to an era when more and more people are worried about what's "behind the label". Yet in a system where the problem is agribuisness as a whole Patel doesn't believe that this sort of reorientation of the food giants helps.

"To turn agribusinesses loose on organic food is to legitimate their rule, to concede that no kind of food system is possible without their participation, just as to choose between high-pericide farmaing or GM farming is to admit that, either way, the pesticide companies are a part of our food system. But there have always been alternatives."

It's when Patel is looking at the alternatives that things become really interesting. He discusses various food co-operatives, or shops aimed at bringing local, cheap, healthy food to communities. Pointing out that when people to have access to decent food it is very popular. (He also makes the point, having discussed how supermarkets destroy such local shops, that were supermarkets don't exist at all, were there is no easy access to food, obesity shoots through the roof as people survive on a fast food, high fat, high sugar diet).

But at the heart of Patel's argument is that its a lack of control over the food production process that is the fundamental problem. He shows how things improve once people start to take control of their lives - the MST in South America, creating collective farms based on solidarity for instance - but what is true in rural societies is also true of those of us living in towns.

"If the quality of food we eat is shaped by work and play, by the neighbourhoods we live in, the jobs we can get and the time we spend travelling between them, then we might want to consider poor diets as a symptom of a systemic lack of control over our spaces and lives."

Such a conclusion can only serve to underline the argument that if we are truely to improve our lives, then fundamental social change must be part of the solution.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vasily Grossman - Life and Fate


Few countries have a history that really allows for novels on an epic scale. France is of course one, with its revolutions and Commune, dictators and dynasties. Russia is another. Partly for similar reasons, but more importantly I would argue, because it is in Russia, more than any other that the fate of entire nations was bound up in the actions of ordinary people.

Life and Fate is an truly epic novel - my edition is just over 870 pages long. I'd go so far as to say it's one of the greatest ever written. In some ways it is a simple story, dealing with the changing fortunes of war. But the battle at the heart of this story - the Siege of Stalingrad - is the most epic of engagements and history depended on its outcome.

Life and Fate has a cast of hundreds. Some come and disappear rapidly, as is the nature of war. Some mark time, and their tale illuminates some great aspect of Russian history. Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum is one. A physicist of enormous talent, his Jewish background and his enthusiasm for Einstein's science no longer plays well in the growing anti-semitism that Grossman has characterising the later years of the Second World War in Russia. Shtrum faces professional and personal destruction as he refuses to give in to his tormentors. He is saved by the intervention of Stalin. Not from any magnanimity, but from the state's growing realisation that nuclear power will determine the next stage of the world's history.

But Shtrum's part in this novel isn't simply there to show how the changing world impacts individuals. His love for a colleagues wife, despite his own wife's support and love demonstrates that in the midst of the darkest hours, what we are as individuals never disappears. At a time when millions of men and women are dying nameless deaths, Grossman creates a cast of ordinary men and women fearful for their lives, their loved ones and their future.

The darkest moments in the novel deal with the Holocaust. We are taken along on a forced march, as Jews from a Ghetto are taken to Auschwitz. Separate from the main characters paths, but inseparable, the deaths are heart rending, forming the backdrop to the war in the East. Underscoring the peculiarly viscous conflict in Russia, the chapters that deal with the Holocaust serve also to show how Fascism didn't arrive simply with the idea to gas six million Jews. But how this was the inevitable outcome of the bureaucratic state based as it was, on vicious anti-Semitism.

There's much more to the novel. The stories of the men and women trapped under siege in Stalingrad are fascinating. Here in the intense, dirty conflict, barriers break down. Ranks become less important than fighting as a cohesive unit. Old Bolsheviks clash with superiors who hate the idea of a non-hierarchical army. Tensions and rivalries led to denunciations and accusations. Perhaps this isn't surprising but the way that Soviet society is opened up and exposed is incredible.

Of course, as in any war, the suffering and pain is horrific despite the ideals that people fight for. Here the novel really comes into its own. This little brief description of the situation of some of the German troops as they starve following their encirclement by the Russians.
The talk turned to food and everyone grew more animated. First they discussed the best way of getting rid of the smell of sweat in boiled horsemeat. Some said you just needed to scoop the black scum off the top of the boiling water. Others said it was important to simmer the broth very gently; still others said you should only use the meat from the hind-quarters and put it straight into the boiling water while it was still frozen.
Here we have the extraordinary made ordinary. Soldiers who had several months previously been at the forefront of a seemingly unstoppable forward march, reduced to scrabbling around for food.

Some reviews I've read - including the awful analysis of the novel that passes for its Wikipedia page - have this as an anti-communist novel. I think it's the opposite. Certainly it does nothing to defend Stalin or the state he created. But it is a celebration of ordinary people. A celebration of people's ability to survive the worst that they can imagine and come out fighting. It is a celebration of solidarity and survival and in its description of the ideals of the Old Bolsheviks, as well as the defeat of Hitler by millions of ordinary Russians, its a reaffirmation of the ability of the nameless masses to change the world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Clive Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct, Why Neanderthals died out and we survived


Why the world is dominated by us and not Neanderthals, is a surprisingly complex question. Traditionally, we've been given an image of Neanderthals as lumbering idiots, not capable of withstanding the superior brain power and agility of our own ancestors. The reality is of course, far more complex.

The fossil records doesn't show any evidence that Neanderthals were ruthlessly displaced by our ancestors. What it does show, is that Neanderthal society was surprisingly complex, lasted (in the case of a small group in Gibraltar) as recently as 28,000 years ago. These were tool makers and hunters, not the stupid brutes portrayed in countless cartoons.

This is a fascinating look at our own peculiar history - how we developed, how tools transformed our ability to survive, but also occasionally limited our ability to adapt. The surprising role of climate change in getting us to were we are now is clearly explained.

Finlayson looks at why the Neanderthals went extinct and we didn't. There is every evidence that our ancestors and Neanderthals lived close together at the same time, though no evidence that they interbreed. Certainly they would have encountered each other while hunting or moving to different scavenging grounds.

So what happened to the Neanderthals? At a time of extremely primitive technology, environmental changes would have forced great changes upon human societies. In particular, the favoured hunting grounds of the Neanderthals, where areas where small tree coverage allowed for "ambush hunting". A colder climate forced the trees back, reducing areas available for hunting.

Alternate periods of warming and cooling would repeatedly isolate and then reunite populations. Obviously, some populations might not survive the changes, and the process would gradually reduce the overall population.

Luck has played a great hand in our own evolution. While some populations of our ancestors would have died out, a combination of luck, further developed bodies and the development of better technologies, as well as a wider global spread helped us survive.

Ruminating further on what survival means, Finlayson sees worrying parallels with today's changing planet. However he also points out, that it is all too easy to think that we are were we are today, because we are the product of "successful genes". Our genes are successful, only in the sense that we have made it to this point. "There were many highly successful lineages that went extinct because their luck ran out - the Neanderthals and other populations of proto-Ancestors among them".

More of the branches of our ancestral tree vanished than survived. It is only a small fraction of human existence on the planet since the development of agriculture, the point that fundamentally changed us. In that time, Finlayson argues we've lost contact with our biological heritage. There is a mismatch he argues, between our current methods of organising our lives, and the biology that evolved over millions of years.

In a sense I agree. This is close to the argument that Marxists put about a "metabolic rift" - that we have become alienated from the natural world that we are utterly dependent on. But there is a danger with Finlayson's argument - that we are simply the products of our biology. We have a unique ability to transform the world around us. At the moment, the present society we have created threatens to undermine the very ecology that is the basis for life on this planet. But we do also have in our power to transform our way of organising society and avoiding the fate of the Neanderthals.

Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice, A Global Human History

Buy it here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Francis Pryor - Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons


In the simplistic view of British History, there was a brief period around 2000 years ago of stability, civilisation and prosperity with the arrival of the Romans. Either side of these few centuries was chaos, poverty and war.

In particular, the departure of the Roman's we are led to believe led to the collapse of civilisation followed by the brutal arrival of the Anglo Saxons. These Saxon's pushed aside the natives and established themselves as the new British. From such noble stock are the current denizens of this island descended.

Francis Pryor's book, which might loosely form the middle part of a trilogy, sets out to argue that this view of history is nonsense. Partly his argument is common sense. Why, with the departure of the Roman's would people simply abandon the towns and cities they had lived in, and disappear back into an earlier mode of existence?

Instead, Pryor argues persuasively that reality was very different. Firstly he explains that the Roman invasion actually impacted very little on the vast bulk of the population. Most people continued to farm as they had done, with perhaps better goods or more variety of items being available in the local market. This is explained in terms of the archaeological record by the continuity that the remains show. There aren't a series of breaks as the Roman's arrive and then leave in most places. Even in the new towns, there is often continuity between pre-Roman and Roman buildings.

A similar process takes place as the Roman's leave. Most places are left relatively undisturbed with minor changes - in particular coins vanish as the Roman market disappears. Bartering would have returned. The most common archaeological remains - pots - revert to simpler and local designs.

It should be pointed out that these aren't just Francis Pryor's ideas. He quotes numerous other archaeologists to back up his case and builds an extensive case. Here he summarises a fellow archaeologist, Dr. Richard Reece;

"He [Reece] sees no evidence for chaos or social collapse, because communities were resuming a pattern of life that had not died out and that was already well-established prior to the Roman interlude."

Following the Roman departure, there simply wasn't an Anglo-Saxon invasion. Certainly there was an Anglo-Saxon influence. But this wasn't out of the ordinary. There must have been trading networks, as well as other contacts between people living on the British Islands and the Continent for thousands of years. Pryor shows that the evidence for an Anglo-Saxon invasion is more in the minds of chroniclers and their more modern followers, than in the archaeological record.

There are numerous examples. Perhaps the most interesting is that from a farming point of view there is a great continuation of farming methods from before Roman times to more recent eras. A series of invasions by a new people, that displaced the earlier inhabitants, would have led to a change in the pollen records. Instead, either any invaders immediately learnt traditional methods of crop growing, or they didn't exist.

Pryor's is a easy to follow account. Despite the book's subtitle, there is little in here about King Arthur. The evidence for this individual is very limited. More likely King Arthur was a propaganda figure, invented for the interests of a particular elite - elements of his story tie in with much longer established myths and traditions and it's not uncommon for those trying to establish legitimacy to add existing legends to their own newer tales.

Francis Pryor's version of British history is less exciting that the one that we are used too. There are less invasions and populations often stay in one place, quietly farming for dozens of generations. Yet it is clearly a more believable history - one which puts ordinary people at the heart of things for the last two thousand years.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages

Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Bellamy Foster - The Ecological Revolution, Making Peace with the Planet


No one has done more than John Bellamy Foster over recent years to reassert an ecological aspect to Karl Marx's thought. In a series of books, Foster has explored the ecological core of Marx's thought and used this to develop a devastating critique of capitalism and its relationship to the natural world.

In an earlier work Marx's Ecology, Foster explored the origins of Marx's materialism to argue that Marxism had far more to offer the ecological movement than many would give credit for. Further books, The Vulnerable Planet and Ecology Against Capitalism have developed these arguments further.

This latest book, is perhaps best seen as the coming together of much of Foster's previous work. It summarises much of his earlier work and adds some new material. Foster shows how both Marx and Engels were enthused by leading scientists of the day, in particular, the German soil chemist, Justus von Liebig, who were developing a critique of industrial agriculture.

At the time there was a growing crisis in agriculture, due to the removal of essential nutrients as food was taken to the towns and cities. Marx took this starting point and using the concept of species metabolism, came up the theory of "metabolic rift". For Marx, human metabolism was human Labour. Hence Capitalism, by increasingly separats human society from nature, through a process of production that alienates and isolates the worker. This creates a "rift" between society and what helps make us human - our ability to shape the natural world. This rift, could only be healed by creating a new world based on a sustainable relationship with the environment.

This idea that capitalism, through it's methods of organising production, it's short term, irrational, un-planned nature, is what is destroying the planet is a thread that runs through the book. For Foster, what is important is that this understanding can help shape the types of movement that can create and alternative to capitalism.

There are some problems. The book's origin in other works means that it needed better editing. Several quotations are repeated verbatim, as are several key ideas (notably the explanation of Liebig's importance to Marx, which we read about at least five times).

This is minor though, a more important criticism, is that Foster ignores the opportunity to present a more rounded argument about what a democratically planned economy might look like. In the face of those who argue planning isn't possible, or can only end up like the bureaucratic East European states, it is a major opposition.

Foster instead offers us some isolated "islands of hope" - localised practices in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia which he suggests show the potential for sustainable society. He himself recognises that these islands exist in a hostile sea - a capitalist world that only organises production for profit. So in a way this argument is undermined by the rest of the book.

These criticisms aside, Foster's reassertion of the centrality of revolutionary change in order to save the planet is one that must not be lost on a new generation of socialist activists, engaging and building an environmental movement for the 21st Century.

Related Reviews

Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth

Further resources

There is an audio file of John Bellamy Foster discussing the 21st Century Environmental Revolution at Marxism 2008 available here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Antoine de Saint Exupéry - Wind, Sand and Stars


This memoir by one of France's most important writers recounts a series of disjointed episodes from his life as an aviator. Flying mail across the Andes and the Sahara, he discusses comradeship, fear and excitement and ruminates on what makes us human.

It's a beautiful poetic work. Pick it up at random and there will be the most elegant description or piece of philosophical prose. Here's a paragraph that jumped out at me for instance

"To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our comrades. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world."


The climax of the book, is the story of a plane crash that he and his co-pilot survive in the Sahara and their miraculous escape. It's mirrored by an earlier story of the crash in the Andes of one of his closest friends. In both stories, indeed, running through the whole work is the concept of comradeship. Clearly for this writer, as demonstrated in the quote above, what makes us human is our bonds with others.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was writing at a time when to be a pilot was to be an adventurer. When aeroplanes still made people stand and stare. When the opening up of mail routes transformed continents.

To fly then was to rely utterly on a few close comrades and your own internal strength. This experience wasn't just an adventure for the author, it was a life-affirming action, something that shaped his life. The book reflects this passion, making it a powerful and emotional read.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Heinrich Böll - And Where Were You, Adam?


Watching the average war film, playing the most popular "first person shooters" that are set in the Second World War, or even watching the History Channel, you could be forgiven for imagining that warfare was a constant piece of action.

The reality is of course, that war is more likely to be long periods of absolute boredom, punctuated by short periods of absolute terror.

This is the first of Heinrich Böll's novel that I've read. It is a incredibly short work, that took a while to get into. Partly because there isn't really a plot. The story is really about the collapse of an entire army, and how that affects various individuals. In this case, the army collapsing is the German one under the pressures of the Russian advance.

Some try to follow their orders, even when it is utterly impractical and suicidal. Perhaps they believe that the normality of life that they have experienced, occupying relative backwaters in Hungary and Romania will return. Others panic, or sit calmly waiting for the arrival of the enemy. Others desperately try to escape or find loved ones.

Heinrich Böll was in the German infantry, though he resisted joining for many years. He was in no way a supporter of Hitler, and his observations of army life would lead us to believe that many in the army weren't. The novel works as a sequence of "acts". We meet different characters who are linked by chance or accident, some survive some are killed. Some we don't know about. The Holocaust accounts for a number, a particularly horrific SS Captain, carrying out his orders to the end, finalyl kills the remaining Jews in his camp as he realises that they are really as human as he is.

There is a touching naivety to much of the stories. Many of the characters have no experience of the war, only to have it arrive out of the blue, bringing death and horror with it. The woman who runs a small guest house, who sees a army lorry once a month, does well after soldiers are billetted with her, only to see her dreams shattered in the face of the oncoming Russians.

In the end, we are left with the sheer pointlessness of many of the deaths in war. Innocents caught in the cross-fire, but a cross-fire that is the result of officers ordering shots and troops pulling triggers. Written in the aftermath of the German defeat, by a German soldier, this is nothing but an argument against future wars. How little we seem to have learnt.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Robert O. Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism


With the BNP getting two members elected to the European Parliament in Britain and various other Fascist organisations doing well in countries as diverse as Hungary, Austria and France, there is a great importance in analysing and understanding these movements in order to prevent the recurrence of what Victor Serge called "The Midnight of the Century".

Robert Paxton's work is a well researched, readable and excellent introduction to the debates around Fascism. His explicit reason for doing this, is to understand Fascism, so that it can be stopped.

It needs to be made clear right at the start of this review, that while Paxton clearly doesn't describe himself as a Marxist, many of his arguments and positions share similarities with the analysis that Marxists like Leon Trotsky developed.

Paxton does not believe that Fascism is simply a more virulent strand of racism. Nor does he think it is a more violent right-wing movement than others. Paxton understands that Fascism comes at an explicit time in history and has an explicit historical role.

"Although precursors [of Fascism] can be identified before 1914.... adequate space was not available for fascism until after World War 1 and the Bolshevik Revolution. Fascist movements could first reach full development only in the out wash from those two tidal waves".

For Paxton, Fascism has a clear purpose, it is "a mass movement directed against the Left".

The strength of the Fascist's ability to destroy the organisations of the left and the working class rely on their ability to mobilise large numbers of people. Paxton argues then, that Fascism also requires "mass politics". He develops his theory of Fascism in much the same way that Trotsky does. In various countries, at various moments, the ruling class see Fascists as the only organisations powerful enough to protect their system from threats to it's integrity - revolution for instance. This is particularly obvious with Germany and Italy were powerful working class movements threatened capitalism, or at least the ability of capitalists to exploit workers as they wanted.

Having said this, the author doesn't believe that Fascism was somehow automatic.

"There was nothing inevitable about the arrival of either Mussolini and Hitler in office".

The economic and political crises of the 1920s and 1930s didn't only impact Germany and Italy in those decades, they hit the whole world. So why was Fascism successful in Italy and then Germany, but not say, in Britain, where groups like Moseley's BUF were getting significant support?

There are a number of reasons for this. In some countries the ruling class managed to rescue capitalism and undermine working class resistance without resorting to the armed thugs of Fascist organisations. In other countries, the Fascists failed, for various subjective reasons, to be able to portray themselves as viable. In some countries, the Fascists were defeated.

Here I think that Paxton under values the way that in some countries Fascists were physically defeated. The battle of Cable Street in 1936 stopped the BUF in its tracks, breaking its ability to take to the streets to attack Jews and Communists. Yet this gets only a single mention in the book with no analysis of the decline of the BUF afterwards. Similarly in France a mass united anti-fascist movement confronted and broke the French fascist organisations in 1934. Again, barely a mention of these mass movements.

Similarly, in more recent times, Paxton fails to mention the success of (say) the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in stopping the National Front in Britain in the 1970s. Or even, the huge protests against Le Pen and Haider that have taken place at various points. Again, by ignoring this opposition, we are left with the image of unstoppable movements in Europe with no obvious explanation as to why there isn't a linear rise of the right. This is not to say that every anti-fascist movement has been successful, but it is important to acknowledge that in every country, the majority of people are opposed to the Fascists.

Additionally, by not mentioning anti-fascist movements Paxton overplays the importance of specific conditions in countries to make or break fascism at an early stage. He is in danger then, or getting to a situation where he might argue that nothing can be done. Recent history in Britain, has shown that it is possible for anti-fascist mobilisations to serious set-back fascists on the streets.

However this is a criticism of this book that is very much in a spirit of dialogue. Paxton's explanation of the nature of Fascism, his historical examples of Fascism in action and his description of how Fascism worked in power are extremely interesting and useful.

For anyone concerned about the far-right today, this is a very important book. But reading it is only one stage of stopping a repeat of the Holocaust. Getting out and being part of confronting, arguing against and stopping Fascists today is the next stage. Go here for more information on how to do that.

Buy this book at Bookmarks.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Joe Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World, Rubber, Empire and the obsessions of Henry Wickham


Imagine a world without rubber. Cars would have to run on wooden tires. Engines would leak oil and petrol through badly fitting pipes. Electrical lights would rely on power that came through live wires. Undersea communications cables would be impossible without the insulation and contraception would be a lot more risky.

In the later part of the 19th and early 20th century, countries across the world started to realise that rubber, which came from a variety of different trees, dispersed across the rain forests of Southern America was a vital economic resource. As the decades progressed, the development of the automobile industry as well as the vehicles for the modern military machine made rubber a strategic resource worth millions of pounds a year.

The vast majority of the world's rubber came from Brazil. The trees didn't grow in plantations, they were isolated within the almost impenetrable forests. When seeds were removed from the trees, they tended to go rancid before they could be planted in other countries. This natural monopoly of rubber allowed an economic boom for some planters in South America. By the early parts of the 1900s, the city Manaus min Amazonia was a town to rival some of the great capitals of the world. Trams threaded through streets carved from the rain forests, the world's great singers and dancers risked malaria to perform in the giant Opera house and fortunes were being made.

It also was a major headache for the heads of industry in countries like Britain and America.

The British Empire had always believed that the natural world was something to be exploited in its own interests. Kew Gardens was redesigned as a place to examine and exploit the fauna of the world. Explorers and adventurers brought thousands of seedlings to the institute so that they could be examined for possible benefits to the Empire. Kew's first great success was getting Quinine out of South America, making the British conquest of India and Africa easier in the face of malaria.

Suddenly though, the Empire was reliant on another nation. Brazil was rapidly developing as a powerful nation in South America. Kew was the instrument which British capitalism needed to get it's own source of rubber. A variety of adventurers were sent on the long trek to South America to source seeds of the rubber tree. It's at this point that Henry Wickham enters the scene.

Up until he was called upon by the Empire, Wickham was a fairly insignificant figure. Born into a humble family that had had a rich past, he was determined to make his fortune. His life is marked out more by the failed enterprises he set up in countries from Amazonia to Australia than his successes. On the spot in South America, with knowledge of the rubber tree and its life cycle, he was able, in 1876 to get tens of thousands of rubber seeds back to Kew. These formed the basis of the rubber plantations in the Malay Peninsula which would eventually undermine the Brazilian source. Leading to the collapse of places like Manuas.

That's one side of the story. The tale of how capitalism and the British Empire could exploit and rob other nations and the natural world to fulfill its own interest. But this excellent biography has a second fascinating tale. It is the story of how individuals like Henry Wickham buy into the dream of Empire for personal glory, welath and international fame.

Wickham became famous long after his triumph in stealing the seeds. He was, like so many civil servants merely a tool, forgotten by the bureaucracy after he had ceased to be useful. His advice on the planting of the rubber trees was ignored. His letters to the people at the head of Kew Gardens go from triumph to pleading as he is forgotten. When he receives a letter asking him to secure some seeds his personality changes overnight. From failed rubber plantation owner to servant of the Empire in a matter of moments. He doesn't realise that Kew has many others trying to do the same - that he is merely a name on a list. He now becomes prepared to sacrifice everything for the Empire.

Having dragged his extended family to South America he leaves those still alive to suffer and escapes to London as soon as he can. Then with his reward in hand he drags his long suffering wife on another fruitless attempt to settle in Australia. Failure after failure follow him. His wife, unusually perhaps for those Victorian times, leaves him. A letter he writes personally to Queen Victoria asking for recognition for his services leads to him being publically deserted by the Empire he had risked everything for.

Henry Wickham's story is a fascinating one. He is one of those who gave everything in the service of the British Empire. He doesn't sacrifice everything, unlike the tribesmen who are tortured and killed in order to produce the rubber for the car industry. He doesn't loose his life as so many other did in the attempt to rebuild the world in the British image. But the image of him, tired and lonely at the end of his life, reliant on money from the American rubber industry speaks volumes for the way Empires exploit the world and their own people.

Related Reviews

Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Victor Serge - Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901 - 1941


Victor Serge's life was a unique one. His experience of the highs and lows of revolutionary struggle across the globe is one shared by few people. Almost uniquely amongst the famous names to come to global prominence after the Russian Revolution, he actually started his revolutionary life as an anarchist. The early chapters of his memoirs detail the forgotten moments of struggle in Western Europe as he, together with many anarchists who eventually lost their lives and liberties to a brutal state, campaign and struggle against an oppressive system.

But for most readers the real meat of this work of personal history are Serge's experiences of the Russian Revolution. His first taste of the revolution comes following a period of imprisonment in France. The cafes of Paris towards the end of the first world war become centres of debate, discussion and polemic as radicals of all hue's attempt to grapple with the meaning of the Bolshevik lead insurrection.

Determined to see the revolution as a first step in the liberation of humanity, Serge crosses Europe with other exiles and emigres to Russia. When he reaches Petrograd in 1919, Serge is shocked how the city has been emaciated by the ravages of war - both World and Civil.

"We were entering a world frozen to death" he writes, then later "At the reception centre we were issued with basic rations of black bread and dried fish".

The isolation of the revolution and the backwardness of Russia were the twin problems for the Russian workers. The revolutionary leadership had argued that an isolated revolution would never survive and they waited in hope for further revolutions in Europe to save Russia. Serge and those returning with him were constantly bombarded with questions about the state of the struggle in the West.

"They were surer of it then we were, and our doubts made them momentarily suspicious of us. All they asked us was whether Europe would soon be kindled".

Serge grasped quickly, that whatever his differences with the Bolsheviks, they were genuine revolutionaries. The seizure of power in October 1917 wasn't simply an act of bravado, it was at that moment a historical necessity, or the counter revolutionary forces would have drowned the Russian working class in blood. But Serge couldn't quite come to terms with all the acts of the Bolsheviks since taking power. The Checka for instance, the secret police force created to help battle the counter-revolutionary forces took on a life of its own, Serge believed that this meant a layer of bureaucrats were coming to prominence who would destroy the essence of the revolution.

Despite this, and other misgivings, Serge took on a central role in the Communist International - the organisation created to help build revolutionary movements across the world. Present at some of it's most important meetings we have brilliant eyewitness accounts of the debates and discussions, with Serge's own criticisms and arguments thrown in. Serge had a wealth of experience and his understanding of the situation in France for instance, with its reformist parties and trade union groupings was much better than those of the Russians who hadn't grappled with these social forces.

One of the great strengths of these memoirs are the pen portraits of individuals Serge meets over the years. Many of them, like Maxim Gorky, are famous in their own right. Others are simple the individual workers and peasants who made the revolution their own. Serge constantly grapples, questions and debates. That he could do this was a great strength of the revolution and he argues for instance, that the gradual suppression of these rights were one of the issues which helped isolate and undermine the revolution from within. No doubt there is some truth in this, but Serge is painfully aware that there is little other choice in a country ravaged by famine, war and crisis but to try and defend the purity of the revolution from its internal enemies.

It's Serge's great fame as an international author that saves him from the rising Stalinist bureaucracy that kills so many of the revolutions great minds. So many of his portraits of those who played a leading role in the revolution, or strived to make the situation work end with "committed suicide in 1930" or "disappeared in 1931". By this point Stalin had consolidated his power and no longer looked to spreading revolution, instead opting to compete with the capitalist powers on their terms.

After being released from captivity, Serge eventually ends up, like Trotsky in South America. His writings from there document the rise of fascism and the defeat of the European working class. But his last chapters carry with them a great hope for the future battles against capitalism. Despite being labelled as counter-revolutionary by the Communist Parties, he hopes that his own experience and that of his "fighting generation" will have "some small power to illuminate the way forward". These final words are very true and all of Serge's works deserve to be re-read as a new generation of people seek to challenge capitalism once again.

Related Reviews

Serge - Conquered City
Serge - Revolution in Danger

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joseph Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism, A Guide to Marxist Political Economy


Economics is one of those subjects that those who are proficient in it, often like to pretend is beyond the understanding of most mortals. Unfortunately, recent economic news, the reactions to failing banks and the inability of governments around the world to protect ordinary people from the effects of recession, would prove that most Economists know little about economics.

There is a secondary, but related myth. That Marxist economics is even more difficult to comprehend. Marx had some interesting insights we are told, but they don't really explain what capitalism is about.

Joseph Choonara's excellent new book is a fantastic introduction to Marx's economics. Starting from the fundamental basics of economics, Choonara builds up a picture of a complete economic system. In doing this, he helps even those with little grounding in economics understand precisely what is wrong with the system we live in, and why, once again we are living through an era of economic crisis.

For Marx, capitalism is different to other, pre-existing class systems because of the nature of the basic exploitation at the heart of the system. Capitalists employ workers, who are paid less than they generate in value for their boss. As Choonara explains;

"The secret of surplus value, is the secret of the capitalist system. The world around us is based on pumping surplus value out of one billion or so wage workers."


Choonara goes on to show how, the need of the capitalists to constantly accumulate more and more value, in blind competition with the other capitalism leads to an anarchic and chaotic system. What is good for the individual capitalists is bad for the system as a whole. Unlike pre-existing economic systems, the surplus value that is generated from the exploitation of the workers is pumped back into the system - further investment in raw materials or new machinery. This allows the successful capitalist to improve is production process, stealing a march on his rivals.

But this also has the effect, of driving down the general profit rate in society - making it harder for the capitalist to accumulate more. The system as a whole finds it harder to use up what it is creating and overproduction of goods is one consequence. We arrive at a situation then, were economically capitalism produces huge numbers of products that are needed by millions of people, but these people are unable to afford to use them. A contemporary example would be the glut of flats and houses on the market in the UK today, at the same time as more and more families live in overcrowded or temporary housing.

Choonara goes one to demonstrate how this localised crisis of profit rates mean that "the least efficient capitalists are driven under", but this has a snowball effect on the system as a whole - leading to a generalised economic crisis.

But as capitalism has aged, it has become increasingly based on bigger and bigger blocks of capital. Companies have swallowed their competitors up (The revenue of the top 100 corporations in the world is now over $10 trillion, bigger than the GDP of the 174 poorest nations) and these means that the knock on effect of a single failure is far greater than in the past. Witness the desperate attempts by contemporary governments to keep banks and multi-nationals afloat.

This is a detailed and well written book. The centrality of the economic situation to political discourse at the moment makes this a must read for any radical trying to understand the ins and outs of the system. It should also be on the reading list for every economics student in the country, clearing away the confusions that a myriad of mainstream commentators have spread about Marxism.

But this book is also a weapon in the struggle for a better world. Choonara hasn't ignored the other aspects of Marx's thought. Economics isn't something outside the political struggle, but something that influences and is influenced by the wider picture. And by reasserting the central exploitation at the heart of capitalism, the author has put the exploited back at the heart of changing the world. Capitalism has created it's own Gravediggers. This book shows both the urgency of getting rid of this outdated economic system and points the way forward for doing just that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Liddiard - Castles in Context; Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500


I know little about "Castle Studies" apart from a fascination with these historic buildings and many visits to castle sites in the UK.

Robert Liddiard is a self-proclaimed revisionist. He believes that the "castle story" as it has been told for generations, fundamentally misses the point. Rather than being predominately military sites, the centres of great sieges and battles, Liddiard argues that the castle played a much more symbolic role, albeit reinforced by a contemporary perception that these huge buildings were backed up by military and economic power.

The author makes a compelling argument. Using dozens of examples of many castles from across the UK, he shows firstly how the castles raised by William in the aftermath of the Norman conquest were about "legitimising the succession of a new elite". Interestingly, centuries later, local lords would design new castles in the style of Norman keeps to help legitimise their own authority with reference to earlier symbols of authority.

Liddiard demonstrates the relative rarity of sieges and attacks on castles, going on to show how when these did take place, their rarely took the form of the huge sieges beloved of many novels and films. Instead castle warfare could well have been a highly choreographed affair, based on notions of chivalry, far removed from modern visions of battle. Many castles, were actually badly designed from a military point of view,

"At Beaumaris, for example, the most 'perfect' example of medieval military science, there was provision for a maximum of eleven separate households; to contemporaries it may have appeared more like a palace,rather than a tool of war".


This story is true of many other sites, Liddiard goes on to point out that what was often more important was the siting of the castle for visual impact. Frequently sites were chosen not for defensive purpose, but rather for the sense of power, domination and economic muscle they would have portrayed. Castle builders may well have constructed elaborate routes of approach to the castle, leading visitors past symbols of wealth (such as dovecotes or deer parks) past fortifications designed to emphasise military muscle, and on into a central area were they may well have witnessed the Lord or King sitting in his grandeur.

We also learn how the surrounding area would have been planned. Liddiard shows how we are used to thinking of palaces and manor houses having elaborate planned gardens, but many medieval castles may have been designed similarly. Lakes, deer parks, fish ponds and the like would have been visible - places like Kenilworth near Birmingham show this well, with huge artificial lakes. Okehampton Castle in Devon apparently has a strong military side, visible to people passing on the road to the North, but on the South it is more domestic, with "elaborate fenestration, window seats in upper chambers and a low curtain wall, all of which ensured a view of the park".

Liddiard paints a much more complex picture of the medieval world. One in which military muscle was less important than many history books imply. He also asks some questions which aren't easily answered. How were castles viewed by the majority of the population outside the walls for instance?

As an interesting aside, the author makes reference to the selective destruction of "specific landscape features" by the rebels during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Backing up his argument that the castle imagery was more important to medieval society as it's military muscle. That this "resonated" across the whole of society is an interesting adjunct to the ideas of Mark O'Brien's book on the Peasant's Revolt that I discussed in my previous review on this website.

Liddiard has written a well researched and well argued book that is of great interest to everyone, and deserves a far wider reading than those involved in "Castle Studies". Partly this is because it illuminates all those old buildings that we like to visit. More importantly though, because it allows a glimpse into the mindsets of those living in Medieval times.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mark O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span, A History of the Peasents Revolt of 1381


The title of this book, refers to the famous couplet that raised the question of class relations in society in a way that made sense to the ordinary people of the medieval ages.

"When Adam Delved and Eve Span, Who was then, the Gentleman?".


Mark O'Brien's inspiring history shows exactly how and why such a piece of rhyme could capture the ideas of the 14th century peasant and inspire many tens of thousands of them to rebellion. The 1381 Peasants Revolt sent shock waves through the English class system. It led to many of the worst criminals of the aristocracy loosing their heads and fundamentally changed the relations between rich and poor.

Mark O'Brien paints a fascinating picture of an England on the cusp of change. The Black Death had decimated the population of Europe and for the first time, a shortage of manpower was allowing hitherto unalterable class relations to be challenged. Previously a local Lord held his population in an iron fist. Peasants rarely left the local land, the ideas in their heads dominated by a religious orthodoxy that had a place for everyone in Gods kingdom, ruled over by a rigid class system with the king at the top. But this was falling apart. The labour shortage meant that for the first time, labourers could move around and demand higher wages. Undermining the basis of the Lord's local power.

Simultaneously, the power of the church itself was also being undermined. Internal arguments in the church nationally and internationally, meant questioning of religious doctrine. And finally, the needs of the ruling class to make others pay for it's ongoing wars created a situation were the ordinary English peasant had had enough.

O'Brien depicts the spread of the revolt not simply as a spontaneous uprising against the collection of the Poll Tax, but as a growing, developing, organised movement that involved tens of thousands of people. The rebels didn't indiscriminately loot and murder. They targeted the buildings, individuals and documents that they saw as propping up an unequal society. They were organised - the revolts leaders sent letters and messages to villages across the country, co-ordinating, organising and inspiring further revolt. And they were armed. The peasant armies that besieged London, were tens of thousands in number, armed with the weapons that many highly trained soldiers had brought with them from the wars with France.

The revolt was incredibly successful. London was captured and the King and his closest advisors besieged in the Tower of London. The King was forced to negotiate with the peasants as equals, something from which the country's rulers would never quite recover.

O'Brien shows how the rebel's ideas developed and grew. Starting of rebelling against the hated taxes, by the end they were demanding freedoms that were unthinkable months before. The abolition of the churches property - the redistribution of wealth and land and so on.

Despite the trickery of the King who murdered the rebel leaders and massacred their way around the country to regain power, England was fundamentally changed. Peasants could look their rulers in the eye, knowing that they too were human. Mark O'Brien's short book packs in a huge amount and gives a different version of medieval history - one to inspire us today at the great potential for rebellion amongst those who would be ignored by Kings and rulers. Ignored at their peril.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - Perish the Privileged Orders, A socialist history of the Chartist movement

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Paul Theroux - Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China


I've reviewed several other of Paul Theroux's travel writings elsewhere and one of the things that has struck me time and again, is that he tends to have a somewhat condescending attitude to the people he meets. I remarked on this in my review of his book about his travels through America "The Old Patagonian Express" and re-reading that review after finishing his book about travelling through China, I was struck by the similarities.

This book documents Paul Theroux's second visit to China. This is China in a period of immense change, with millions of people attempting to come to terms with the recent past and the future. He travels from London, by train of course, with a collection of odd-balls and people who seem to be deliberately chosen to annoy him. As an aside, I have to admit to a slight unease with the way that Theroux hides who and what he is. Perhaps he feels that if people know that he is writing about his travel experiences then they won't behave naturally - though you could also argue it's unfair to air people's dirty laundry in public without their consent.

Passing through Eastern Europe just as Chernobyl explodes the travelogue almost becomes a metaphor for the failure of the Stalinist version of socialism. But he avoids this because he has a better understanding of ordinary people and a realisation that the country he comes from has limited moral standing (Reagen had just bombed Tripoli as he sets off).

But the bulk of the book is Theroux cris-crossing China. He avoids the tourist sites in the main, having seen them before, trying to concentrate on the little known destinations accessible by train. Along the way he meets dozens of people, with very similar stories.

China at the time was recovering from the decade long social experiment that was Mao's "Cultural Revolution". This period of social and economic upheaval was an attempt by the ruling class of China to reassert ideological and political power, by sweeping away what were deemed "liberal bourgeois" who were trying to bring back capitalism. In practice this meant the persecution of anyone who displayed any interest or favour for any cultural ideals that didn't fit into the strictest (and most totalitarian) definition of socialist ideas. English teachers were hounded for teaching Shakespeare, professors were forced to work in the fields, religious buildings were razed to the ground and the monks forced to work for the revolution.

Such activities, urged on by political cadres galvanised many thousands into frenzied work, but a decade later the period was whispered about and referred to obliquely. Theroux tries to get to the bottom of what happened and how ordinary people feel about it. He meets a few who stand by what was done, perhaps believing there was only the odd excess. The majority seem to think that the whole affair was a giant mistake.

Perversely, the reaction to the Cultural Revolution amongst people seems to have had the opposite effect to what Mao would have wanted. Everywhere he goes, Theroux encounters people desperate to make a fortune. The opening up of the economy to the free market is everywhere and despite official statements to the contrary it's clear that there is a rising capitalist class who are doing very well for themselves, alongside an ever impovrished class of workers and peasents.

Paul Theroux isn't a socialist, so he can't explain what happened in China - that this wasn't a genuine working class led revolution and Mao didn't rule in the interests of ordinary people. But despite his condascending tone, his simple descriptive style and his lack of presumption about people and places makes this another fascinating read.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Dark Star Safari
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tim Flannery - The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples


The relationship between humans, the societies that they create and the natural world around them is something that fascinates me. Of particular fascination is the way that the most modern human society, capitalism, is inherently anti-nature.

All societies have a history. Capitalism is merely the latest stage of human history. However there is also a non-human history too – this is the history of the world that we live in, its flora and fauna, its geology and geography.

What Tim Flannery has done in “The Eternal Frontier” is to take one great continent – and look at the history of the place as a whole. In many ways this is unique. 65
million years ago, what became North America was pretty much ripped apart as a giant object impacted in what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The nuclear winter caused by the dust and smoke created wiped out something like 80% of all species, including of course the giant reptiles that had dominated until then. This opened the way for the rise of the mammals.

Flannery documents brilliantly the evolution of plant and animal life post impact. He describes the few living fossils that remain, left over from before. But mostly he concentrates on the evolution of the new.

The book comes into its own when Flannery describes the arrival of humans. The relative isolation of the American continent didn’t stop plants and animals going back and forth, though that was rare and limited.

But it was only recently that humans arrived there. They arrived in a land dominated by giant creatures that had not learnt to fear the hunting ability of humans.

Flannery describes the role that these hunters played in the extinction of the mega-fauna – the mammoths in particular. He very much sides with the “black hole” theory of extinction – dozens of species were wiped out to fill the hole in the face of the hunters. This contrasts with those who argue that only climate change was responsible for the decimation of the animal populations.
To back up this argument, Flannery points out that not all previous changes in climate caused such specific extinctions, and he presents us with the evidence of mass culls and hunts by ancient peoples.

We then follow the rise of agriculture and the city states that often developed around this new practice of creating food. Flannery shows how in the American context, these were often short lived, but nevertheless, by the time of the arrival of the first Europeans the population of the American continent was something like 30 million people.

With this new immigration, everything changed. The mad rush to exploit the wealth of this new continent had a devastating effect on the native population. But the exploitation of the natural resources was just as devastating. The obvious example of this is the Buffalo which went from a population of between 30 and 60 million to a few hundred in a couple of decades.

Flannery doesn’t pretend that there was some sort of wonderful Utopia before the arrival of Europeans. The native Indians are often portrayed as living in balance with the natural world. Flannery argues that this is rarely the case, though clearly the Indian societies had a far better understanding of how to husband animals than those who took their place.

But the ability of capitalism to find ways of exploiting the natural world for profit and to create the infrastructure to maximize this exploitation is far greater than any previous human society.

The Clovis Hunters might have forced the mammoths into extinction, but they couldn’t fundamentally alter whole eco-systems. In the few centuries since Europeans arrived in the “New World”, Flannery argues that the American continent has been re-shaped and changed beyond recognition.

The last chapter of this book then is an appeal for a more sustainable way of living that both preserves the natural world but also understands how to exploit nature without permanently destroying. It’s a noble hope, though whether capitalism can do this is very much open to question.

Related Reviews

Flannery - The Weather Makers

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Terry Pratchett - Making Money


Rarely do I come away from reading a Terry Pratchett novel feeling disappointed. Sadly, this most recent Discworld story left me with the sense that the author was writting almost to a template. This is a shame, because the previous book that features the central character, Moist Von Lipwig was really rather good, full of excellent observations and amusing moments.

Of course, Pratchett at his worst is still an entertaining read and I am certainly not trying to put anyone off, but as I have argued before, I feel that Pratchett has got to the stage of the Discworld series were he is reduced to asking "What aspect of modern human society haven't I parodied yet?" and then inserting it into a book. So the previous Von Lipwig tale was the story of how the outmoded and haunted Ankh-Morpak Postal Service got a makeover, while our hero saved the city from some demonic dangers. This time the story is how the outmoded Mint gets a makeover, while Von Lipwig saves the city. In the process he invents paper money and demolishes the gold standard (though I have to say that I thought the alternate Golem Standard was a fabulous rummination on the Labour Theory of Value).

Sadly I fear that the next in the Von Lipwig tales, in which our hero takes over the Tax service for the city, will bring more of the same.

Still, it is an entertaining read, just not up in the stratospheric heights of some of the other Discworld novels. The truth is that if you liked the previous ones, you'll read this. If you've never read Pratchett, don't start here, and if you hate him, you'll never read it anyway!

Related Reviews

Pratchett - The Colour of Magic
Pratchett - Thud
Pratchett - Going Postal
Pratchett - Wintersmith

Friday, July 03, 2009

Robert Heinlein - Starship Troopers


Robert Heinlein was never afraid of using his novels as a political vehicle. Often however they had other things going for them. Whatever the politics that informed Stranger in a Strange Land for instance, it is a very good commentary on organised religion, amongst other ideas.

Starship Troopers doesn't have this. Its one dimensional characters use the backdrop of a interstellar war against a ruthless insectoid race who are difficult to distinguish (read Russian/Chinese communists) to expouse their own ill thought out ideas.

Human society we are told, until the near future would be fatally flawed. We've grown soft by refusing to deal with inherent problems in society, failing to punish people adequeatly and bringing things near to collapse. Luckily there is a solution, and luckily for the reader its a military one. Only those prepared to commit themselves to the military can have a say in how society is run, because only they have proved themselves worthy.

Unfortunately, Heinlein doesn't have the wit to weave these dubious morals into the story line, hiding the more obvious right-wing libertarian propaganda behind a clever plot. Instead we get lectures from the characters - whether they are our hero's teachers, or the letters they write to him as he waits in gigantic battleships ready to fight the alien hordes. Our hero has run away to join the military, escaping his rich, over-protective father who would rather he took on the family business and has endured the trials of combat school.

While training to be the ultimate killing machine, war breaks out. Though rather unbelievably our hero tells us that the cadets weren't really aware of the war starting. This seems unlikely given the highly militarised society and environment they are in. The evil insects destroy Buenos Aires and our hero's mother. So the scene is set for the coming conflict, which seems to involve pitching large numbers of troops into stupidly dangerous situations were they are easy prey for the bugs.

Later on, when Heinlein has realised he can no longer give us his cod philosophy through the medium of flashbacks to our hero's school days, our square-jawed character bumps into Dad on a troop transport. Guess what! Dad has realised his son was right all along and joined up to fight the alien peril. He's even managed to wrangle a position on his son's own spaceship.

Hero son goes away to officer school and becomes an officer, despite being bad at mathematics. The point about mathematics becomes something of a stick that Heinlein uses to beat us with as it gets mentioned over and over again. Despite his ineptitude at sums, our hero can still be a superb officer. Do you get the point Dear Reader? Schooling doesn't help us in the fight to make our society better, and it certainly doesn't help us kill communists. I mean Bugs.

At officer school, various senior officers lecture him in their version of Heinlein's worldview and then more fighting happens with Dad and Son, side-by-side, fighting for the soft civilians back home, who don't know what war is really like. Even though millions have died. Civilians are, you see, not too bright.

Starship Troopers isn't a manifesto. It's a sort of anti-manifesto. A list of things that Heinlein doesn't like - communal societies, juvenile delinquents, Buenos Aires perhaps - it does list some of the things he does like, war, guns and the military in the main.

Oddly enough for a Heinlein novel, the hero doesn't appear to want to try and sleep with his mother. Though he does get closer to his father as the story progresses. Sadly, Heinlein doesn't explore this relationship any further and the novel sort of peters out, which is a bonus really, because it could have been hundreds more pages long and life really is too short.

Related Reviews

Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ronald L. Meek (ed) - Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb


I've written elsewhere about the Reverend Malthus' views on population. His basic theory - that population will always, inevitably outstrip available food supplies has become a mantra for anyone who wants to argue that there are too many people on the planet. In the context of the problem of climate change, this has become an argument that the world doesn't have enough resources to support the population, and if we are to save the planet - the number of humans will have to decrease.

Some of Malthus' earliest and most ferocious critics were Marx and Engels. This book collects together most of their writings on Malthus and related issues with a couple of useful framing essays.

The basic premise of the editor, and indeed the basic argument of Marxists against Malthus and his followers is that "without destroying capitalism, neither a Green Revolution nor population control will put food into the mouths of those who cannot afford it".

In response to the question "why are people hungry?" Marx and Engels preferred to ask "Why is not enough produced?" The answer they argued is to do with the priorities of production under capitalism - production of food or any other commodity is for profit, not for need. If people couldn't afford food, then they wouldn't eat. In Engels' words "the pressure of population is not upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment."

This is why you have starvation in the midst of plenty. Both Marx and Engels took great pains to argue the problems with Malthusian theory. Their starting point though, was utter contempt and hatred for the man. Both repeated argued that he was a plagiarist, but their real anger was because he was a "shameless sycophant of the ruling classes".

Malthus wrote his first editions of his work on population in the aftermath of the Great French Revolution. This seismic event had raised in the heads of millions of people, the idea of a more equal, just and free society. Everywhere the ruling classes trembled. Malthus wrote his argument as an explicit attack on those who believed that such a free society was possible. It is a polemic that argues that humans, particularly the "lower orders" are too stupid, to inclined to have more and more children, to lazy to allow a better society to live. But he also believed class division was inevitable and that without it, society would collapse.

Marx and Engels understood this well. They also believed that despite his plagiarism, Malthus had some useful insights into the way the world of economics worked. But for them this was Malthus justifying his position, as, they argued, a supporter of the old landed aristocracy against the new industrial bourgeois. Malthus' work had immediate consequences - the first of these was the hated workhouse system, a system that offered relief only in the must grudging way. As Marx put it;

"in the workhouses charity is ingeniously combined with the revenge of the bourgeoisie upon the poor who appeal to its charity."

For people like Malthus the poor exist because of the inherent laziness of a layer of the lower orders. For Marx and Engels, the poor existed because capitalism found it both useful to have a reserve army of labour ready for economic boom times and because the capitalists profits meant driving down wages and laying workers off. The state had a duty to protect the poor, but Malthusians argued that by doing this you were simply increasing the problem. Overpopulation was inevitable so why bother helping those who couldn't survive anyway?

Throughout their attacks on Malthus and his followers Marx and Engels return to the point that without the revolutionary transformation of society; without the creation of a new world were production is planned in the interest of need, not profit there would continue to be people who starve in the midst of plenty. There would also be those, like Malthus, who try to find pseudo-scientific arguments for why this is inevitable, presumably to make the bitter pill of their own culpability easier to swallow.

Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, edited by Ronald L. Meek with a foreword by Steve Weissman, is long out of print. Selections from it can be found online here. The introduction is useful, though any author who uncritically quotes Stalin on production should be read critically themselves. The collection contains a variety of works from Marx and Engels, including some of their letters, Engels' Condition of the Working Class and Anti-During, Marx's Theories of Surplus Value and Capital.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iain Fenlon - Piazza San Marco


The heart of Venice, the Piazza San Marco is properly considered one of the most beautiful centres of a city anywhere. Its history is inseparable from the history of Venice - it is here that city leaders met, invading armies occupied, rebellions focused and visitors - pilgrims at first and tourists in more recent times - have gathered in their millions.

For the author though, there is a dangerous tendency to see the Piazza simply as a lovely square surrounded by individual buildings - the Doges' Palace, the Basilica of San Marco and the Campanile tower for instance. Rather, he argues, we should see them as a collective whole that has evolved over time, to encapsulate Venice as a place with a history.

This history is surprisingly complex, though mostly it centers on Venice's unique geographical position that allowed its merchants to become fat on the wealth generated from being a maritime power near the juncture of the West and the East. Its Churches brought in wealth by becoming the focus for pilgrimages to see the extensive collection of relics. Today less than 60,000 people live in the city. The millions of tourists are served by a visiting population, unable to afford to live in the city, but their dollars or Euros are no less sucked up by the city.



In some ways, Venice is remarkably artificial. No more so than in the constant worry that it will sink beneath the lagoon if left to nature. But its history is also unnatural. To justify their wealth and power, the city's rulers had to invent a host of traditions and myths to explain the city. Many of these lasted centuries, even now receiving an echo in tourist guides.

Fenlon shows how the city's decline in the Napoleonic era led to its re-discovery by modern artists and writers, for whom Venice came to symbolise some mythical romantic ideal. The city being "raised from the spoils of the teeming Orient" wrote Disraeli. But for others the city symbolised decadence and decay, perhaps most artfully visualised in Visconti's film of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.

Today Venice is the ultimate tourist trap. Its history seems oddly remote and immaterial, a backdrop to a ornate decorations and art collections. Iain Fenlon has done a service to bring it to life for the casual reader and for those who would like to visit the city and have some idea of whence it came.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum