Thursday, August 30, 2012

George Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments


Early in the 1800s, just after the French Revolution, Benjamin Thompson who was know as Count Rumford created an ingenious experiment to help demonstrate that heat was work. Having noticed that the boring of cannon generated heat;

"he submerged a cannon in water and harnessed two horses to turn the bit. The water go hotter and hotter until after two and a half hours if came to a boil 'merely by the strength of a horse, without either fire, light, combustion, or chemical decomposition."

Important though this experiment was (it helped disabuse the idea that material contained something called "caloric" that was released, creating heat) it isn't one of the ten most beautiful experiments within this book. However George Johnson uses it to illustrate the many stages that science goes through before reaching a moment of a scientific breakthrough happens. In fact, one of the strengths of this book is the way it demonstrates that genius rarely develops in isolation. Scientists, no matter how brilliant, build on the work of others. Even if that work is incorrect it is a useful base on which to build greater understanding.

Perhaps the best chapter in this book is the first in which Johnson examines Galileo's work with an inclined plane. This simple experiment allowed the scientist to demonstrate the nature of acceleration. Here Galileo combines flashes of insight with wonderful innovation. In order to measure the rate of acceleration, he came up with bells to ring, mechanisms to pour water and possibly needed the singing of songs. Galileo was building on the work of earlier scientists, but his genius was to do so critically. Pushing aside the accepted science that had been handed down Aristotle, this work of Galileo's was according to Johnson his "strongest claim to greatness... long before his troubles with the Vatican."

Some argue it didn't actually take place but was more of a thought experiment. But in a piece of research almost as brilliant as some of the other examples of science in this book, Johnson describes the work of one Stillman Drake who painstakingly recreated tables of numbers from Galileo's mass of papers to show that the original scientist had indeed repeatedly performed the experiment, scratching out errors and playing with the numbers until he reached his final result.

It is probably a result of the nature of particular science that most of the experiments in here are physics based. Indeed of the two biological chapters, one on William Harvey's work on the heart and blood circulation seems to me to barely qualify as an experiment. The other, Pavlov's work with dog's instinctive behaviour and conditional responses is  a series of extended experiments that build up a case gradually. This chapter is particularly interesting as Pavlov's work is oft quoted but little understood.

Any book of this type is in a sense arbitrary. Who can say what a beautiful experiment is, and why it is more beautiful than another? But there is some interesting stuff here. I am not convinced that the experiments chosen (most of which are from the nineteenth and twentieth century) are more beautiful than modern science. Johnson argues that contemporary work is dominated by work with multiple scientists but I don't think this makes it any less inspiring or exciting. Beautiful experiments don't all have to involve a lone scientist hanging wires from ceilings and bolting brass instruments to tables.

More problematic is Johnson's style. Unfortunately in places brevity leads to confusion. Very occasionally Johnson's descriptions are very unclear. His one paragraph description of Fizeau's experimental calculation of the speed of light left me confused (and I'm university qualified in physics!) and I had to resort to youtube to get an inkling of what he meant.

Still this mildly diverting book will interest those who want to understand the scientific process without feeling they've got to learn too much science. Hopefully it will encourage further reading on some of these topics and possibly stimulate a few future experimenteers.

Related Reviews

Sobel - Galileo's Daughter

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Philip José Farmer - The Magic Labyrinth

Volume four of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series begins with a short author's forward, "Now ends the Riverworld series, all loose ends tied together into a sword-resisting Gordian knot, all the human mysteries revealed, the millions of miles of The River and the many years of quests and The Quest completed."

Its a short, neatly worded foreword that is only undermined by the fact that it is entirely a lie. The Magic Labyrinth was clearly intended to be the last in the series tying up the loose ends, but after rambling on for almost five hundred pages, Farmer clearly had no idea how to finish it. It finishes, rather abruptly (and slightly bewilderingly for those of us who had taken the foreword literally) and the reader must get hold of the final volume.

At the centre of the book is a climatic and rather well written battle between two enormous riverboats that have been questing along The River. The Riverworld is a place of resurrection, were every human ever to reach adulthood awakens. On the Riverworld, at least initially, those who die are resurrected elsewhere on the enormous planet. That is until the resurrections fail.

Farmer's heroes are well-known historical figures. Richard Burton with his lover Alice Liddel. Mark Twain and King John of England are just some that make an appearance in this volume. Their quest is very much to find the purpose of the Riverworld. If we are honest, finding out Farmer's explanation for the almighty conundrum is the reason most readers will have stuck with him until book four. Sadly few will be reading this for Farmer's prose (which is stilted) or his philosophical meanderings. His ruminations on the nature of "self" form an important part of the story, but need not have taken up page after page of monologue. Despite the wealth of material he has to work with, Farmer often fails to flesh out his characters and has a tendency to drop them of a cliff at a moments notice for no apparent reason. I am sceptical that the final book in this series will be an improvement (which is a shame as volumes one and two had great promise).

Related Reviews

Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Farmer - The Fabulous Riverboat
Farmer - The Dark Design

Monday, August 27, 2012

Norman Stone - The Eastern Front 1914-1917

Here in western Europe we are apt to forget that both World Wars took place over a vast expanse of the globe. In particular World War One is often discussed in terms of the great battles at The Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele. Of the numerous books devoted to World War One that I've seen in English almost none of them deal with the enormous conflict that took place on the Eastern Front as Russia clashed with Germany and Austro-Hungary.

 Norman Stone's book then is very important as it is one of the few that look in any detail at the events that took place in the east during World War One. However its significance is far more than this, because these events helped shape the one of the great events of modern history, the Russian Revolution.

Stone's history is mostly a military one. In places his detailed reconstruction of events, with explanations of the different movements of regiments, divisions and armies is almost tiresome. For those not versed in military tactics some of the descriptions of the preparations for battle and the engagements themselves will be impossible to follow. Nonetheless there are sections of great fascination and insight. 

One of Stone's themes is that the shape of the war, on a macro and micro scale was determined by wider changes taking place within Russia. While I don't think that Stone is close to being a Marxist politically, his understanding of the social and economic tensions within Russian society would be close to some of those on the left who have analysed Russian history.

In analysing why the Revolution took place, Stone writes:

"This economic chaos was frequently ascribed quite simply to backwardness: Russia was not advanced enough to stand the strain of a war... But economic backwardness did not alone make for revolution, as the examples of Romania or Bulgaria showed... The economic chaos came more from a contest between old and new in the Russian economy."

This battle between "old and new" shaped more than the economy. It shaped different attitudes to the way that military production took place - the Tsar wanted production through state factories, but emerging capitalists wanted to make profits. As a result goods cost more and more as profits boomed during wartime. More importantly however, the old and new played out in the military leadership. 

As with elsewhere in World War One almost no-one understood in August 1914 the way that the war would play out. Russian commanders as with their counter-parts in the west and the central powers imagined a brief conflict. In fact, in Russia early conflicts were fought much in the way of battles of the 19th century. Stone recounts one engagement between Russian cavalry and their enemy taking place as though the 20th century hadn't happened. The Austro-Hungarian horsemen in this conflict being almost unable to ride as they'd taken their dress saddles in order to look good as they rode. A detachment of infantry broke the sabre duel up with rifle fire and presumably the commanders were dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

The Russian army was beset more than most by backward looking and incompetent military leadership. Many of the generals were Tsarist appointees and even when they failed they were frequently promoted due to friends at court. Their leadership was often further undermined because of personal feuds or communications failure. In one conflict in 1915 the fortress at Libau was evacuated by Russian troops in the face of a German threat. As the Russians left, cutting the telegraph cables, a second Russian army was sent in to defend the base. In the confusion, the Germans occupied.

The chaos described by Stone is not of course limited to Russia. Austro-Hungary in particular had its own share of idiotic and unprepared commanders. The tragedy of course, is that this lack of leadership lead to enormous casualties. When the commanders got it right (in terms of military organisation) they often were younger men, with different ideas and experiences. Interestingly Stone notes that many of the most successful commanders were to take their experiences into the Red Army in 1919 and help Trotsky to defeat the Whites during the Civil War that followed the Revolution.

Much of the blame for failures by the Russian army were put at the feet of the Russian economy. Failed military campaigns were often blamed on the lack of shells for the artillery. Stone argues that this was not the case, and convincingly shows the way that failure was more to do with the inept leadership and bad military organisation. He also argues though, that while "virtually all sectors of the economy grew.... their growth was not even and a series of bottle-necks threw the economy into chaos as it encountered them. The Tsarist regime had little idea as to how such crisis might be surmounted, and in any case they provoked the final crisis of an already badly-strained society."

Stone's book is not without faults. Though some are not of his making. Written in 1975 it suffers from lack of access to the Russian archives and could well do with an update. However, Stone underplays the role of the revolutionary movement in helping to shape the revolutionary movement. His analysis rightly doesn't put the success of the revolutionary solely on the base of military and economic crisis, but he does say that the Bolsheviks had limited support amongst the front-line troops. For him the revolution was more a result of the particular way the crisis played out and the way that Lenin was able to offer hope to the masses of Russian society. But this is contradicted by the example of Germany where a revolutionary situation arose in a similar way, but the lack of mass revolutionary socialist organisations did not lead to the establishment of soviet power.

Stone's book nonetheless is not meant to be a serious examination of the Russian Revolution, but a study of a near forgotten part of World War One. In this it succeeds admirably and socialists will gain much from reading it, as a background to a deeper understanding of the events of 1917.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - The Guns of August

Friday, August 24, 2012

Roger Hutchinson - The Soap Man: Lewis, Harris & Lord Leverhulme

Part history and part biography, The Soap Man is an impressive account of the clash of two modes of production. Lord Leverhulme the industrialist of Port Sunlight fame was a classic example of the capitalist who believed that organised correctly and benevolently the system could bring happiness, wealth and employment for all.

Having made his fortune creating a model (or so he thought) community near Liverpool whose workers toiled in his soap factories, Leverhulme's gaze turned elsewhere. In 1918 he bought the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The act of purchase wasn't simply about owning the land. The old semi-feudal laws that still existed in the Isles meant that Leverhulme effectively became the owner of everything on the Island, towns, roads, people. The new Laird was determined that Lewis would be remodelled in the image of Port Sunlight. He dreamed of technology and capitalism reinventing the Island, creating enormous amounts of wealth and dragging the people of Lewis out of the dark ages.

Roger Hutchinson speculates that Leverhulme wasn't so much the benevolent capitalist as a clear thinking man of money who recognised, at least in part, that the gigantic turmoil that had shaken Russia at the end of World War One would have its echo even in far flung bits of Britain. His desire to improve the lot of the workers, was less about helping them and more about stemming the tide of revolution. But he also viewed the islands with pounds signs in his eyes. In Leverhulme's vision the old crofting way of life should be destroyed so that the true wealth of the island, as a source of wood, a base for fishing and growing industrial quantities of fruit, could make him even wealthier. There would, naturally be a trickle down effect and the people of the island would benefit, as would the thousands of other workers that would stream into the cities and towns that would spring up on the beautiful island.

The problem was, that the people of the island, in particular the returning soldiers and sailors wanted nothing more than a piece of land to call there own. The 1886 Crofters Act had indeed promised them this and offered, for the first time, in a bleak and difficult history, security of tenure that their ancestors could only have imagined. Free from eviction they would be free to farm as they wanted.

Leverhulme couldn't see this. To him, these were backward people, living the lives of savages and this needed to be uprooted. To the crofters and their representatives, who initially welcomed him with open arms. his schemes were interesting, but not for them. They wanted land. Hutchinson has unearthed some extraordinary accounts of the clash between the people and their landlord.

The seen is early in the morning, a large group of people, Leverhulme is at the centre. He speaks in English through an interpretater. Most of the assembled group only speak Gailec. Many of them had taken part in raids only the day before to seize land for their families.

Speaking through an interpretor to a crowd of crofters, Leverhulme derides their way of life:

"The fact is, your fishing is presently carried on is a hit or miss. I want to make it a hit every time. How can I do that? Well everytime you now put to sea you blindly hope to strike a shoal of herrings. Sometimes you do. Oftener you don't. But there shoals are there if you only know the spot. and that is were I can help you. I am prepared to supply a fleet of airplans and observers who will scan the sea in cricles around the island. An observer from one of these planes cannot fail to notice a shoal o herrings over which he passes. Immeiately he sends a wireless message.... the boats are headed for that spot and next morning they steam back to port loaded with herrings......"

Alan Martin "a prominent raider" who had been organising the occupation of land. spoke next. In Gaelic, for a long time. Leverhulme's translator explained the speech, which finished like this.

"This will not do. This honey mouthed man would have us believe black is white and white is black. We are not concerned with his fancy dreams that may or may not come true. What we want is the land and the question I put to him now is; will you give us the land?"


To which Leverhulme answers, "No. I am not prepared to give you the land."

A former serviceman, MacLeod spoke next at length, his speech finished like this:

"Lord Leverhulme, you have bought this island. But you have not bought us. We refuse to be the bondslaves of any man. We want to live our own lives in our own way, poor in material things it may be, but at least it will be clear of the fear of the factory bell; it will be free and independent"


 Here, summed up is the clash between two modes of production. On the one hand a way of life that brings little riches, but has existed for hundreds of years, that provides for the needs of people and would give happiness. On the other is the desire to exploit the natural resources of Lewis in the interest of making money. Leverhulme's cannot understand why the crofters won't accept his changes, because he viewed 20th century capitalism as the pinnacle of human achievement.

At one point, he refuses his personal piper holiday leave, because the man wanted to go home to his croft and plant potatoes. He explained that with his wage labour on the estate he could buy all the potatoes he wanted. When the farmer went home unofficially to do his work, Leverhulme sacked him. A further example of this is the response of a few crofters who were taken to Port Sunlight to see the bright opportunities offered by capitalism. While polite to Leverhulme during their visit on their return they described Port Sunlight as having "nothing but slavery there".

Leverhulme was seeing the world through rose tinted glasses. The fishing off Lewis was not as good as he imagined. The opportunities to grow soft fruits like raspberries for export was limited by the prevailing weather on Lewis. But Leverhulme was a man used to getting his way; nature could be bent by modern technology and economics.

Leverhulme may be portrayed as a kindly philanthropist. But in reality he was a ruthless capitalist. He was also unused to resistance and the refusal of the Islanders to accept his schemes. Their continued occupation of the lands, their anger at his behaviour and their natural cynicism towards landlords frustrated Leverhulme. But so did the British Government, who found Leverhulme's semi-feudal behaviour an embarrassment. As economic crisis arrived and Leverhulmes plans became even more untenable. He gradually withdrew from the islands and the crofters gradually got their way.

Today, Hutchinson tells us, the islands are owned by a myriad of landlords. But there are many memorials to those who occupied land and refused to let the dream die. Their hope that they could obtain "security of their children's children at peace on the soil of thei island" was to a certain extent realised.

This short book is a wonderful piece of history well deserved of its accolades. There is probably no better guide to the history of Lewis and Harris and visitors to the Outer Hebridies could do far worse than read this on their travels. As a record of a unique period of Scottish social history it deserves a wider readership.

Related Reviews

Richards - The Highland Clearances

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Andrew Nikiforuk - Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

Capitalism is a fossil fuel system. For historical as well as economic and physical reasons fossil fuels have fuelled the system's accumulation of wealth. However none of these resources are infinite and as oil in particular becomes increasingly difficult to extract the question of how to fuel the system becomes more and more important. So important is oil, that as one expert points out in this book, a super-tanker must arrive at a US port every four hours.

One solution not discussed in this book is a rapid and immediate shift to renewable energy. A number of studies have been done that demonstrate that this is both viable and possible. I won't rehearse these arguments here but direct interested readers to this article.

Another answer (one favoured by the fossil fuel companies themselves) is to find alternate sources of fossil fuels. Andrew Nikiforuk's important book examines one of the most controversial (and I would argue dangerous) sources of the new "extreme energy" - the tar sands. In particular he concentrates on the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

His story is one that brings together current environmental disaster, with government mismanagement, corporate greed, corruption, destruction on an enormous scale and future climate change. It is not an easy read because it is a horrific example of the way that corporations place their short-term profits ahead of people and planet. But more than this, it is a demonstration of the way that the system itself is geared towards encouraging this. Rather than being a restraining block on the corporate destruction of the environment in Alberta, local and national government has enthusiastically assisted. Sadly this isn't simply a result of particularly bad Canadian politicians (though they clearly are). Nikiforuk demonstrates the way that oil rich nations historically have followed the same path, one that gradually reduces restraints on fossil fuel companies at the same time as simultaneously undermining democratic rights.

This is one of those books that are hard to review because you feel obliged to get across dozens of facts to the casual reader. My copy is crisscrossed with pencil marks because I felt every salient point needed to be noted and remembered. For this reason I encourage people to buy or borrow the book as my review cannot do justice. But I want to use a few examples.

Firstly the tar sands are an enormous reservoir of fossil fuel. Readers in the UK or Europe may have no idea of the scale. Nikiforuk points out that the "megaproject will eventually destroy or industrialize a forest the size of Florida". The attraction of the tar sands to the oil companies has brought enormous investment (some $200 billion so far). The high cost in part lies in the remoteness of the locations, in part because of the difficulty of extracting usable oil from the tar sands themselves.

Two tons of earth have to be dug out of the ground to make a single barrel of bitumen. Extracting it requires lots of energy and lots of water. In fact, for every barrel of bitumen companies need to use three of fresh water. Needless to say the water is rarely if ever left clean enough to be used again. As rivers dry up poisonous tailings pools surround mining areas, killing plants and animals and threatening to leak into water systems. The scale of this is unbelievable, Nikiforuk quotes one ecologist pointing out that a century ago, all water in Alberta was drinkable but now "all water is non-potable and must be chemically treated" (p79)

The companies involved like to tell the world that this will not destroy the planet. But it is already doing so and not simply because of deforestation and polluted streams. "Each barrel of bitumen produces three times as much greenhouse gas as a barrel of conventional oil". One company (Imperial Oil) wanted to produce four open-pit mines which would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than 800,000 cars. Unsurprisingly Canada's emissions of greenhouse gases in 2004 were up, 51% on 1990. No wonder Canada felt obliged to pull out of the Kyoto treaty.

It gets worse. The area being destroyed by the tar sands extraction is one of the world's most important "sinks" for carbon dioxide. As Nikiforuk points out, "excavating one of Canada's best carbon sinks and weather stabilizers to produce a product with three times the carbon footprint of conventional oil may be an example of global freak economics.

Freak economics it certainly is. Tar sands can in no way prevent peak oil. At best it can slow down the decline very briefly. But even then few in Canada are seeing the benefit. The main beneficiary is the US which gets the oil it needs and frequently does so with subsidisation from Canadian tax dollars. Rarely however do those tax dollars come from the oil companies themselves, who, as the author points out, have lived a life of ease through handouts and deals that mean little of the profits they make from the destroying the country feed back into government coffers.

There is much more to this book. The impact on human health for instance, the appalling destruction of life that takes place when oil towns flourish and cast aside men and women through drink, drugs and workplace accidents or the cancers that arise from the pollution. Nikiforuk is particularly good on demonstrating the way that the Canadian government has become implicit in the tar sands exploitation, as well as the lies that are used to demonstration that tar sands are not destructive, and good for the economy.

Having lauded this book enough I want to make a few criticisms. The first of these is the lack of detailed footnotes. While there is an extensive bibliography the author and publishers have chosen not to footnote the text.This means that we cannot be sure of the source of any of the figures quoted (including the ones I've used in this review). This is a shame because as is made clear in the afterword the book has come under criticism from those in the oil industry and government and with material like this one needs to be confident of sources.

Secondly and far more importantly, Nikiforuk does not argue that the bitumen needs to be left in the ground. I think that this is a crucial position that environmentalists, radicals and activists must take with regard to extreme energy. If we are to stop runaway climate change we cannot burn this oil. We have to find alternate ways of fuelling our economy. The risk is summed up by James Hansen who pointed out in the NY Times that;

"Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now."

Hansen argues that it would be "game over" if the tar sands are extracted. Nikiforuk instead argues that there need to be caps on production from the tar sands and a gradual wind down of the use of fuel from the tar sands. "If North America's cars and trucks are still running on bitumen in 2030, both Canada and the United States will have failed as modern states" he says.

I'd argue that if that's the case in 2030 millions of people will already have died. Andrew Nikiforuk probably argues like this because he feels it is pragmatic, that people want to find a way out that works within the context of the system he has so ably critiqued. Unfortunately everything that he has written demonstrates how unlikely it is that the oil barons and their friends in government are to willingly enact such changes, without significant popular mobilisations against them.

The problem I think lies with Nikiforuk's location of the problem. He understand that the system is wrong. But the blame partly lies, he argues, with consumers who use the fuel. As he says "Every Canadian who drives a car is part of this political emergency. And every Canadian can be part of the solution". Later he repeats this line of thought; "Every time I fill up my tank I'm supporting the First Law of Petropolitics and its corrupt morality....I'm spending my children's inheritance... I'm subsidizing the drug trade... I'm exterminating woodland caribou... etc".

Given the scale of the problem and the power of those corporations and governments who have created this mess I'd argue that Nikiforuk is wrong here. North American car and lorry drivers use their vehicles because the system they live in has destroyed public transport infrastructure in the interest of the automobile industry. They are the victims of the system not part of the problem. Nikiforuk is right that car drivers (alongside the majority of other people in Canada) are part of the solution. But that solution lies in a fundamental reshaping of the economy in the interest of people and planet, not the oil companies. Sadly Nikiforuk has made no attempt to demonstrate how Canada could use renewable energy, nor how (for instance) emissions could be reduced by the improvement of public transport. The lack of this alternative undermines the confidence readers might have in the potential alternatives.

If I had one final critique of the book, it would be that it needs to be more anti-capitalist. Few books have for me demonstrated so well the way that the system itself is the problem environmentally, a system that binds state and capital close together in the quest to accumulate wealth. I think many readers of Tar Sands will come away agreeing with this and I would argue that the logical conclusion of Nikiforuk's book is that we need to overthrow that system. It is disappointing that his conclusions are less radical.

That said this is a book that should be read by every Canadian. But it should also be read widely everywhere else as the vast majority of us have no idea of the scale of tar sands destruction. Here in the UK we have our own version of extreme energy - fracking. I'd venture that many of the trends that Nikiforuk highlights will be mirrored in that appalling industry. His book is an insight into the destructive power of the oil industry and the worrying future for all of us if those companies, big and small, aren't stopped.

Related Reviews

Rogers - Green Gone Wrong
Monbiot - Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning
Flannery - The Weather Makers
Bellamy Foster - The Ecological Revolution

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Neil Gaiman - Smoke and Mirrors

Regular readers of the blog will know that I've recently fallen in love with the novels of Neil Gaiman. I certainly rank American Gods as one of the best works of fantasy I have ever read. Having exhausted Gaiman's novels I recently picked up this collection of short stories and was very interested with how he would handle the genre. Gaiman's novels tend to be large. Their complex characters and story lines needing time to develop. This might mean that short stories wouldn't work so well.

Reviewing collections of short stories is difficult. Its hard enough to mention stories without giving away the tale and a few duff stories in a collection can obscure some real gems. I have to say that the stories in this book are good with some absolute crackers and a couple of stinkers. And too much poetry. However all the stories (with the exception of the poetry) are fun and some are very original indeed. I particularly liked the story of the old lady who finds the Holy Grail in a second-hand shop (a metaphor for where I found the book I suppose). I also liked the story of the troll who waits under a bridge for a boy to return. At different stages of the boys life as he grows older, he finds the troll and bargains for his life.

Several of the stories rely heavily on other authors. Shoggoth's Old Peculiar is the story of an American tourist discovering the lack of joys in English seaside towns. Without giving too much away, fans of HP Lovecraft will get it faster than most. The stories are very English. One of the best is the tale of a English writer sucked into the bizarre world of Hollywood, which has a lovely touching ending. Rather oddly, Gaiman places himself in some of the stories, or at least a character based on him. Some people might find this a bit strange and I didn't really like it. Smoke and Mirrors is probably not the best place to start with if you want to read Neil Gaiman. But if you like the fantasy genre and aren't put off by the short-story format, you'll probably find something in here for you. Though skip the poetry.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Neverwhere
Gaiman - Anasai Boys

Friday, August 10, 2012

Theodore Plievier - Stalingrad

After reading Stalingrad it seems inadequate to describe the battle in the way so many military histories do. While it was "the turning point of the war" and "Germany's greatest defeat" this ignores the immense waste of human life, the incredible suffering, the brutality, the bravery and the pointlessness of the battle. Stalingrad is not an easy book to read. In part because Plievier spares the reader nothing in his descriptions of war and the consequences of war. But the novel, like its sequel, Berlin does not follow a normal narrative. Plievier's prose is powerful, florid and complicated at times. It is a shame that he's forgotton today as his books repay reading.

Plievier was no veteran of World War Two though his story is fascinating. As a young sailor He'd taken part in the Wilhelmshaven mutiny that had detonated the German Revolution and ended World War One. After the rise of Hitler he fled, eventually ending up in Russia. From there he wrote about World War II and the interviews he made with German soldiers and his experiences on the front line formed the documentary basis for his classic trilogy of World War II.

Stalingrad is the first of three novels. It depicts the battle from the Germany point of view, focusing on a few individuals who experience the war in very different ways. Ultimately the destruction and violence degrades and destroys them. One of the soldiers, Gnotke, is a member of a punishment troop given the most dangerous tasks. Him and his comrades lose their minds as they constantly bury the dead in the face of withering fire.

Little of the book is devoted to narrative. Most of the story is a series of experiences, vividly painted, as the end of the Sixth Army approaches. Large parts deal with the appalling casualties, the wounded and their suffering as they wait for treatment, for water, for painkillers. None of these are forthcoming and Plievier's account of the suffering of the few doctors who operate on wounded men without bandages, morphine or hope is truly awful.

One of the themes of the book is the failure of the German High Command who can only order the besieged troops to continue fighting till the last bullet. As the Germany Army faces its first significant defeat, the leadership is unable to follow the most logical military tactics. The Nazi command doesn't allow for rational decisions. For Hitler and his cronies defeat at Stalingrad can only be the fault of the army in the field rather than illogical and impossible aims and ambitions. The men who freeze to death in Russia and the senior Officers who are near mad with blind faith in their Fuhrer are the victims.

The book concludes with the appalling march of the tens of thousands of German POWs into Russia's interior. Few returned. Plievier draws parallels with the Nazi death marches of Jews and concentration camp inmates as one of the POWs was a guard on such a march. This soldier believes that what is happening to him and the German Army are retribution for the acts of the regime and his own personal crimes. In a sense this is correct, but it is only a foreshadow of what is to come.

Related Reviews

Plievier - Berlin

Monday, August 06, 2012

Donny Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War

On the 3rd of September 1939, the Indian people woke up to find that they were at war. Without any consultation, Winston Churchill had declared in the House of Commons that "India has a great part to play in the world's struggle for freedom". As Donny Gluckstein points out this "freedom" did not include "independence for India's 400 million, a population that exceeded the maximum number conquered by the Third Reich."

It is common to hear that the Second World War was a war for democracy, freedom and anti-fascism that united everyone in the Allied nations against the Axis in a common struggle. One of the great themes of Gluckstein's new book is that this was not true. The motives of those leading the Allies were often very different to those of the men who did the fighting.

WWII is one of those subjects that endlessly fascinates and an enormous number of books have been written about the subject. But Donny Gluckstein's book is a breath of fresh air. His angle, which ignores a narrative approach and instead looks at individual countries is certainly different. As is his breadth of research which uses far more than the official histories. But most importantly, Gluckstein brings something new to the debate about what the Second World War was.

In particular he explores what he calls the "parallel war" at the heart of the conflict. For Gluckstein the war wasn't simply about the rulers' interests and the often differing interests of those at the bottom of society. Rather it was a war that brought together two related but different conflicts. For the American soldier fighting in a segregated regiment, the struggle against fascism and democracy meant something very different to the leaders of the US Army. An Italian partisan who had watched big business support Mussolini's attacks on wokers' organisation and living standards was not simply taking up arms against the fascists.

That different sections of society had different interests is not a surprise. But for Gluckstein, "What was unique about the Second World War was that these tensions amounted to parallel wars rather than tensions within the same war." What this meant in practise differed from country to country, but frequently the war fought by the "people" differed in aims from that fought by the leaders. In a fascinating study of the Italian Resistance Gluckstein explores the way that a desire for political and economic change was at the heart of the war from below. He quotes a leader of the Catholic Green Flame partisans;

"the age of capitalism that has produced astronomical wealth and led to unspeakable misery is in its death throes. From the final convulsions of this age a new era is being born, the era of the working classes, infinitely more just, more fraternal, more Christian".

That such sentiments appeared at the heart of the resistance movement (and similar anti-capitalist ideas informed much of the resistance fighters in countries as diverse as France, Greece, Yugoslavia and Vietnam and Indonesia) terrified the Allied leadership. Gluckstein documents how in Greece and Italy the British and US Armies moved quickly to undermine these movements, and resorted to violence. In Greece the British Army behaved with appalling barbarity against those who had helped destroy the German army there, shooting unarmed protesters (including children). In the December events of 1945 there British killed 50,000 Greeks, with two thousand casualties. Churchill declared "our troops are acting to prevent bloodshed". In Vietnam the understrength British Army was happy to get assistance from former Vichy troops and members of the Waffen SS in order to subdue the population. Dubbing the Viet Minh "obviously communists" General Gracey used force to disarm the Vietnamese who had fought bravely against fascism. Gluckstein shows that "a bizarre coalition of Allied victors and defeated Axis, Japanese jailers and jailed collaborators worked together to oust Vietnamese rule in their own country."

But it wasn't just the British. In France De Gaulle moved rapidly to sideline the resistance fighters after they had liberated Paris. In the east Gluckstein documents the appalling destruction of Warsaw as Stalin made sure his armies sat back and allowed the Nazis to destroy the Warsaw Uprising. Tens of thousands lost their lives in an attempt to liberate the city as the Russian army approached. That the Red Army failed to support a genuine revolutionary uprising is one of the great tragedies of Soviet history.

None of the leaders of the Allies emerge from this book well. Since I write from Britain where the wartime leadership of Winston Churchill has become some sort of saintly history, Gluckstein's analysis of Churchill is particular useful. Churchill made it clear from the start that this was a war for Empire which he demonstrates by giving some of Churchill's most famous quotes in their original context:

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat... for without victory there can be no survival... no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for." 

As noted earlier 400 million Indians had a very different view of what the Empire meant, which explains why many of them joined anti-British forces or hoped that the War would lead to their own freedom. One Indian politician asked "why should the liberation of one-fifth of humanity come in their way? If the [Allies] are truly fighting for the aims they profess the Indian struggle should not hinder but help them".

This is not to say that the Parallel War did not emerge in places like India. Even here different social forces had different interests. The masses of the Quit India movement and Gandhi had very different ambitions while uniting over the desire for Indian independence.

When examining Britain Gluckstein brings out the way that many ordinary people saw the war as being in the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than working people. He quotes from Mass Observations reports of factory workers who thought their bosses would be as happy under a fascist regime so long as they could make money. Nonetheless, the fight against Hitler was seen as a struggle for democracy. Though the British establishment was less happy when ordinary soldiers took this rhetoric to a logical step and formed their own parliaments and councils. This analysis builds on other histories of Britain during wartime, such as Angus Calder's monumental history The People's War which examines the war that the Second World War was a very different experience for rich and poor.

One final thing that is worth highlighting about this book is the scope of the material and how it highlights forgotten history. In Britain we are used to thinking of the conflict from a European context. In America the struggle in the Pacific is of great importance. Gluckstein's history also looks at extremely important arenas that are barely remembered - Vietnam, Indonesia and Yugoslavia to name a few. If I have one small gripe with this book it rather strangely omits a chapter on the Soviet Union, a country whose history would have been illuminated by Gluckstein's approach.

The parallel wars fought in these countries before, after and during the Second World War. Their history deserves not to be forgotten in part because of the heroism of ordinary people, fighting for a different world. But also because the particular way that World War Two played out in these countries had enormous ramifications for post-war history. The most important lesson of Donny Gluckstein's book is enormously valuable today. Whatever their rhetoric and slogans, those arguing for war rarely have the interests of ordinary people at heart.

Related Reviews - Other books by Donny Gluckstein reviewed on this 'blog

Gluckstein - The Tragedy of Bukharin
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism & Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 

Related Reviews - Other reviews on World War Two & Resistance

Calder - The People's War 
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Kershaw - The End
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Vinen - The Unfree French
Gildea - Marianne in Chains

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Jordan Goodman - The Devil and Mr. Casement

As I was reading this book, which examines the campaign to expose the horrific conditions of slaves working on rubber plantations in Peru during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I saw an account of the way that workers in China were labouring in sweatshops to produce rather pathetic toys to sell as souvenirs at the 2012 Olympic games. As Socialist Worker commentated:

"Meanwhile toys of the Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville are made in China by workers who are paid just 24p an hour. And Olympics cleaners sleep in prefab huts, with one shower for 75 people."

The conditions of those indigenous people forced to work extracting rubber from deep in the Peruvian rainforest, collecting it and bringing it to the Peruvian Amazon Company were far worse than 21st century Chinese sweatshops. But there are many similarities, not least in the attitudes of the employers who seem to think workers can be treated in horrific ways in order to turn a profit.

Despite its name the Peruvian Amazon Company was British registered, its directors were almost all upstanding members of the establishment. The company's main Peruvian entrepreneur Julio Arana is the Devil of the books' title. It was he who created an enormous "fiefdom" deep in the Amazon, far from civilisation that could extract vast quantities of rubber from the forest and generate enormous profits. In order to do this he need lots of labour. Workers who knew the forests inside out. In the early 20th century rubber was not yet grown on plantations and indigenous workers were needed who could find and tap the trees.

These workers were subject to the most horrifying violence and torture. British subjects from Barbados were employed to catch those who ran away and guns, whips and rape were all weapons to punish those who did try to escape or failed to bring in the required quantities of rubber. Jordan Goodman notes that in some cases the reward for bringing in rubber was little more than a cardboard belt, or a few trinkets. Young children were made to carry extraordinary amounts of goods on their backs. In London the men of the board of directors never questioned the source of their wealth.

But some did. Recent experience of Belgian rule in the Congo had alerted the British public to the fact that slavery and brutal colonial rule was very much still in existence. A number of newspapers and anti-slavery societies got hold of the story and pressure was brought to bear on the British government to examine allegations that a British company and subjects were involved in slavery. Roger Casement, one of the principle figures of the British diplomatic service involved in exposing events in the Congo was sent to Peru. His report was devastating and after a long, slow period of inaction, the British government eventually found the company guilty of slavery and torture.

Roger Casement, the hero of this tale is a strange character. While the book contains many fascinating individuals, heroic campaigners and principled fighters, Jordan Goodman has rightly concentrated on Casement. Casement came from a fairly well off Irish background. He easily fitted into the British diplomatic corp, but his travels around the world led him to increasingly identify with the oppressed colonial peoples. More and more he found himself linking their oppression with the experience of the Irish. Ultimately, Casement's principles meant that he became a great campaigner for Irish independence and, perhaps naively (he spent several years in Germany) during the First World War, he was part of trying to lead an uprising against British rule. Casement was stripped of his knighthood that he received for helping alert the world to events in the Congo, and executed.

Casement's transformation is fascinating. Goodman quotes him in 1907 arguing that "British rule was to be extended at all costs, because it was the best for everyone under the sun and those who opposed that extension out rightly to be 'smashed'."

Two years later he was writing from Brazil:

"It is not British honour appears to me so much as Congo men and women. British honour, so far as I am concerned, disappeared from our horizon in Ireland more than a century ago".

By the end of his trial in 1916, Casement could conclude about British rule in Ireland:

"If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel - and shall cling to my rebellion with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for men to fight and die without right that to live in such a state of right as this."

The British State could never forgive Casement. But around the world, there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands who owed their lives to his dogged fight for justice. Despite it's desire to be seen as the country of freedom, liberty and democracy, the British government dragged its heels in getting action over Peru. Casement and a handful of others helped mobilise thousands to pressure them for action and end slavery.

Today, the rotten system that exploits and oppresses people in the name of profit still remains. Indeed, worldwide, millions still labour in appalling conditions, for low pay, in sweatshops and even slavery. The struggles of individuals like Casement to highlight and end this remind us that it doesn't have to be like this. That someone like Casement could come to essential revolutionary conclusions, is an inspiration to all those struggling today against capitalism. This wonderful history deserves to be widely read and the heroes within celebrated.

Related Reviews

Jackson - The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Empire & the obsessions of Henry Wickham
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America
Mann - 1493: How Europe's Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth