Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Joseph J. Varga - Hell's Kitchen & the Battle for Urban Space

In the period this book considered, Hell's Kitchen, or "Manhattan's Middle West Side" was considered by many commentators to be an area of poverty, corruption, crime and unsavoury types. In reality of course it was a home to thousands of working class people who carved their own lives out of the limited opportunities that they had. Writing in 1912, a social worker sums this up;

"[Hell's Kitchen] has been known for many years as the scene of disorders, of disregard of property rights and public peace. Certain it is that in the minds of New Yorkers who live outside the district... as well as in the minds of the police... there still lingers a tendency and doubtless a liking to think and speak of the district by the name that disorders, rioting and crime won for it."

Subtitled, Class Struggle and Progressive Reform in New York City, 1894-1914, Joseph J. Varga's new book is a detailed examination of the development of this district in New York, but more importantly, an attempt to understand, using the concept of the "production of space" how that urban space was shaped and, in turn, shaped those who inhabited it.

Varga notes that one "useful approach" is to consider the different vision of land use envisaged by those who live and work in a space and those who wish to exploit it for profit, or "between those 'planning and organizing themselves to make money' though the increase of aggregate rent levels, and those striving for 'affection, community, and sheer physical survival'."

In this, perhaps its simplest form, the books' discussion on the production of space in Hell's Kitchen could be an extreme metaphor for all those urban areas being "developed" and reshaped to produce accommodation for those with money, while the mass of residents are pushed to the fringes of urban areas. However Varga takes this further. In Hell's Kitchen, the production of space

"meant different things to different people. Accounts gathered from residents show how categories such as ethnicity, class, race and gender could bring one to a sense of space, but also fragment those same categories."

So there were numerous factors shaping the space of Hell's Kitchen, and in turn shaping the population. Some of these factors were imposed on the population by changes that had taken place many years previously. For instance steam engines ran to and from the docks on the roads through Hell's Kitchen. Included in the book is a fascinating picture of a steam train running through the middle of a main road while children play on the pavements. This juxtaposition of different spaces helped to earn some of the roads nicknames such as "Abattoir Place" or "Avenue of Death". Local campaigns to change meant battling the powerful dock and railway companies and took decades, and many deaths, to win change. (As an aside it's interesting that William Cronon's excellent history of Chicago mentions similar issues.)

The docks themselves, like all workplaces, were also centres of battles for space. Several excellent chapters look at the working lives of residents, the women working in linen and textile industries, the men on the docks. These tell stories of the battle for dignity, decent wages and improved conditions, as well as standing within the wider community. One quote describing life for casual dockworkers rings earily true as tens of thousands of contemporary British workers are living on "Zero Hours Contracts".

"Daily employment for dock workers was determined by the 'shape-up' in which experienced workers gather to be called to work... based on the arrival of a laden ship... As the telegraph message announcing the imminent arrival of a ship is received, a flag of arrival is raised on the pier, and word spreads among potential workers that 'the flag is up; and a crew needed... the call to shape up beings men together in the open space in front of the pier... The men jostle for position, joke and occasionally scuffle, and await the decision on who will be called to the crew. Stevedore foremen call men based on experience, reputation or on recommendation. In certain circumstances workers pay kickbacks to hiring agents who guarantee them a working day."

Varga looks at one narrow area of a city. But he recognises that what takes place in that space cannot remain isolated from external factors - government policy for instance, or the decisions of the Rockefeller institute. He concludes that "the production of urban space, though often unduly influenced by powerful spatial coalitions, is the product of a variety of factors that often exceed the ability to control it, and is affected by numerous overlapping networks of forces that do not socially construct "reality" but produce sites for often incommensurable actions".

In other words, in a quote from Marx that Vargas is fond of paraphrasing, "Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing". That said, space itself, Varga points out, has a history, that may be independent of human interaction. Wooden piers rot, land changes, rivers alter their courses. The interaction between these internal and external elements is key to understanding how urban areas, indeed human ecology, alters over time and space.

Hell's Kitchen is not an easy read. At times the language is extremely academic and references abound to other academic studies and books that the casual reader is unlikely to have encountered. Those looking for an introduction to the social history of New York, or Hell's Kitchen itself, will have to start elsewhere. Those trying to get to grips with the application of spatial theories to urban areas through the use of historical evidence will find much of interest here.

Related Reviews

Harvey - Rebel Cities
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Smith - Uneven Development; Nature, Capital and the Production of Space

Monday, October 28, 2013

Terry Pratchett - The Wee Free Men

File:Nac Mac Feegle.jpgSomehow I had missed reading most of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels. So I was pleased to discover this, the first in the series, in a charity shop last week. While set on the Discworld, the stories seem one stage removed - Tiffany lives in Lancre, but on a part far from Pratchett's usual haunts.

Pratchett is one of those authors who does strong female characters very well. Tiffany and her iron saucepan join Susan and her poker as a threat to demons and monsters. Tiffany is just nine, and gifted with the "sight" (and second, third and fourth sights). Spotted by a witch finder (scouting for those who have magical abilities, rather than to burn them) Tiffany must undertake a trip into the magical lands to rescue her brother.

Added into the mix are the Nac Mac Feegles a clan of tiny blue pictsies whose violence is only matched by their appetite. Tiffany gradually learns that the clan have been keeping their eye on her, and on many aspects of the wider sheep ecology. The Nac Mac Feegles adopt Tiffany as their own, temporary leader, and assist her mission with customary violence and humour. This is tight, well written and funny Terry Pratchett novel, my only criticsim is that Tiffany Aching seems old beyond her nine years. Nonetheless this is a must read Discworld story, probably not the best one to start with, but certainly one to read sooner rather than later.

Related Reading

Pratchett - Wintersmith

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tony Cliff - Trotsky 1927-1940: The Darker the Night the Brighter the Star

The last thirteen years of Leon Trotsky's life, documented in this fourth volume of Tony Cliff's biography, are among some of the hardest of the Russian revolutionary's life. The book starts with Trotsky in internal exile, having been defeated by Stalin's faction. It ends with his murder in near political isolation. Having led millions of revolutionary workers, created and then led the Red Army to defeat the hostile imperialist powers in the Civil War, by the end of his life Trotsky finds himself isolated, with a few hundred followers in the newly formed Fourth International.

There is little in this book that deals with Trotsky's actual life. Cliff does document how Trotsky's family suffered. Children and grandchildren, even those with no interest in politics, are imprisoned, murdered and denied medical treatment by Stalin. In a brief passage dealing with Trotsky's personal feelings, Cliff quotes the anguished statement made by Trotsky and his wife after their son is murdered by Stalin's thugs.

But the vast majority of this book deals with the political activities and writings of Trotsky. Trotsky was a lifelong revolutionary, a committed Marxist. To attempt to write a biography of him that dealt with this period and didn't concentrate on his political activity would be impossible. In fact, in March 1935 Trotsky himself wrote:

"I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life - more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other."

What was this work? Much of it involved writing. Trotsky was prolific, producing pamphlet after article, followed by books and an endless stream of letters to his friends and comrades. Cliff argues that some of Trotsky's writings during this period are some of the finest Marxist writings ever produced. From Trotsky's extraordinary work The History of the Russian Revolution which details the transformation of the Russian economy, the growth of the revolutionary movement and the day-to-day struggles of the Bolsheviks during 1917, to his extraordinary analytically clear writings on Germany, Spain and France in the 1930s.

The chapters on France, Germany and Spain in Cliff's book are worthy of particular mention. In order to comprehend the brilliance of Trotsky's analysis, Cliff gives us a detailed overview of the situation in these three crucial countries during the 1930s. In particular Cliff details the rise of Fascism and the struggles to stop it. Trotsky's writings on Germany are among the most useful today. He argued that a United Front between the two mass left wing parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats could provide a strong enough movement to defeat Hitler's Nazis. But he also saw this method as winning masses of workers to revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, as Cliff argues, Trotsky had no forces to put this strategy into effect. The German Communists dutifully followed the Moscow line - Social Democrats were no better than the Fascists and the Communists had to resist both. The left, divided was defeated.

Cliff concludes:

"Neither the Communist Party nor the Social Democratic Party paid any heed. If Trotsky’s analysis and proposals for action had been accepted, the subsequent history of the century would have been completely different. Trotsky’s analysis of German events was particularly impressive in view of the fact that the author was removed from the scene of the events by a considerable distance. Still he managed to follow the day-to-day twists and turns. Reading Trotsky’s writings of the years 1930-33, their concreteness gives the clear impression that the author must have been living in Germany, not far away on the island of Prinkipo in Turkey."

But Trotsky wasn't always right. Tony Cliff argues that Trotsky's analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, particularly as outlined in his book The Revolution Betrayed, remains the starting point for any Marxist analysis of Stalin's Russia. But Cliff argues that Trotsky failed to understand that the bureaucracy that had arisen was a new class, with a new set of collective interests. Instead of simply being a managerial force in society, they were directing and shaping Russian society in their interests. This analysis of Russia as a degenerated workers' state was further weakened when the Red Army invaded Eastern Europe. These socialist societies were claimed, by some of Trotsky's followers after his death, as degenerated workers' states yet their had been no workers revolution to create them.

Cliff, briefly outlines his own explanation for Soviet society post 1920s, as State Capitalist. This is not, Cliff is quick to point out, to denigrate Trotsky's work, but to build on it. Cliff also critically discusses the Fourth International, the international grouping that Trotsky set up. Cliff had been a member of this, but here he tries to explain why the International didn't take off. Cliff asks if Trotsky had a choice whether he should setup the Fourth International. He rejects the approach of those who thought Trotsky could have entered a "watchtower" simply commenting on events. Instead he insists that

"if in these impossible circumstances Trotsky made some mistakes in the way the Fourth International was built – its over-ambitious structure, mistaken perspectives, including the semi-messianic spirit affecting it, let that be. Without trying to build a revolutionary party Trotsky would not have written his brilliant articles and essays at the time, analysing the situation and putting forward the strategy and tactics necessary for working class advance. Without the effort of building the revolutionary international, Trotsky’s contribution to Marxism, which kept it alive and preserved it from ossification, would not have been achieved."

But Cliff concludes that:

"struggling to build the Fourth International, which Trotsky did from 1933 onwards, was not the same as formally declaring its existence, which he did in 1938. The former was absolutely necessary, whilst the latter was almost certainly a mistake."

Volume four of this brilliant biography ends then at a difficult moment. Trotsky's death leaves a tiny number of isolated and weak revolutionary organisations dedicated to keeping the flame of Bolshevism alive. The Second World War and the Holocaust confirm the barbarity of capitalism and the continuing need for socialist revolution. Yet the revolutionary organisations that can led that struggle seem weaker than ever. Yet the great achievement of Trotsky, when many of his contemporaries gave up in the face of Stalin or were murdered on his orders, was to keep that flame alive. The last few chapters of this biography are particularly sharp, in part because they document Tony Cliffs own initial work developing Trotsky's ideas. That today we have, in however small a way, revolutionary organisations in many different countries is in large part because of the work of Leon Trotsky and those he inspired.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky 1: Towards October
Cliff - Trotsky 2: Sword of the Revolution
Cliff - Trotsky 3: Fighting the Rising Stalinist Bureaucracy

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chanie Rosenberg - Fighting Fit: A Memoir

Many members of the British Socialist Worker's Party and its sister organisations will be familiar with Chanie Rosenberg. She is one of the group's longest standing members, who helped, alongside her husband Tony Cliff, found the International Socialist tradition. In this short memoir, Chanie says that she hopes "to show that we revolutionaries are people like anyone else.. what happens between the evening meeting and the weekend paper sale?"

It is an excellent reason for writing such a book, but Chanie's life has been far from normal. She grew up in a Jewish family in racist South Africa, moved to Palestine to live on a socialist kibbutz in the 1940s but found her eyes opened to the racist nature of that state, and then began to engage in illegal, underground work agitating as part of a small Trotskyist organisation. Chanie and Tony Cliff lived in extreme poverty during these years. Moving to England things improved as Chanie was able to work as a teacher, and in doing so became central to some of the major struggles in the 1960s as teachers began to organise. Chanie played a central role in the rank and file of the teachers' union, and was blacklisted for her activity. Nonetheless she clearly, and rightly, remains proud of the victories they won.

Chanie's second great love is art. When she retired she took up sculpture, and has exhibited in the Royal Academy ("I wish the 'Royal' but could be removed, but that might need to wait for the revolution" she says). But her interest in art and culture is also reflected in her writings and articles. Included in this short volume is an illustrated reprint of Chanie's pamphlet on the Russia artist Malevich and his life and times.

Malevich and Revolution examines the evolution of the artists work, and vividly brings home the provocative, challenging nature of these "avant-garde" artists living in pre-revolutionary Russia.

"They walked the Moscow streets provocatively in fancy dress, with flowers, algebraic or other motifs pained on cheeks, or masks, and violently coloured shirts.... Malevich [wore] a red wooden spoon, the symbol of Futurism, in his lapel...They tried in this way to drag the established poets and painters our of their ivory towers... into the streets, to reconcile art and society."

Chanie Rosenberg's treatment of Malevich's work is fascinating, comparing him to another "giant" of 20th century art, Picasso, she writes that Malevich

Kasimir Malevich - The Knife Grinder (1912)
"had one important circumstance missing in Picasso's life - the actuality of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Picasso, who was a Communist, had an intellectual's orientation to the new society, but not the reality of the revolution... and this difference influenced the direction of their artistic efforts enormously."

While her discussion of Malevich's art is interesting, the way young, fledgling revolutionary society attempts to promote and develop art and artists as part of their transformation of society is equally fascinating. The Bolsheviks were keen to promote art as part of wider society, freeing artists from the need to produce art in order to live, instead living in order to produce art.

This short volume should be read by anyone with an interest in the history of revolutionary socialism, particularly that of the IS tradition. But Chanie Rosenberg's life will fascinate everyone who has an interest in ordinary people who have tried to change the world. Chanie has fought her whole life for a socialist society that will free ordinary people, economically, politically and culturally. The second half of this book is an inspiring example of how revolution can do that.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Dewar - The Quiet Revolutionary

Sunday, October 13, 2013

James Jones - The Thin Red Line

There are plenty of novels out there about the experience of the infantry soldier in World War Two. The Thin Red Line however feels very different. James Jones' novel looks at the fighting  on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal as US soldiers fought to destroy entrenched Japanese positions. Jones treats the battles, which are mostly small engagements between handfuls of men, as a highly individual experience. Different characters fight, at the same time as digging through their fears, their nerves, their hatred of their comrades, their feelings of their superiors and their drunkenness.

As a result of this approach there is no real story except the development of the battle. As we follow various individuals we see how the relationships between soldiers grow, develop or collapse. The officers in particular, some talented, many more useless, are the major factors determining how the ordinary soldier feels. As the battle progresses men are sacrificed for ambition, as well as incompetence. The fear of sudden death is matched with hope for a wound that will send the trooper back home. Sometimes the wound is too much; one of the hardest scenes in the book is the injured trooper who repeatedly screams "how will I be able to work?" when his comrades try to reassure him that his wound means he can escape from the war.

This is a classic war novel, but its excellence lies in part in the maturity with which it deals with subjects like sex (in particular a fairly frank attitude to gay sex, that must have been unusual in the early 1960s) and the reality of war. It deserves to be read alongside such classics as The Naked and the Dead.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Michael Löwy - The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx

This is an excellent piece of Marxist writing. First published in France in 1970, this 2005 edition should be on the reading list of everyone trying to understand Karl Marx's ideas and his method.

It also contains useful discussion on revolutionary organisation as envisaged by figures such as Lenin, Trotksy, Luxemburg, Lukacs and Guevara. But the bulk of the book is an attempt to analysis, using Marx's theory of Historical Materialism, the origin and development of Karl Marx's own thought. In particular his path to the idea of communist revolution.

Löwy begins by looking at Marx's ideas. He makes the point that "one must not separate Marx's theoretical work from his practical activity, the 'scientist' from the 'politician'." In particular, he strives to examine Marx's evolving ideas in the context, not just of theoretical debates, but also his experience in the world around him; particularly the arena of class struggle, and most specifically, the struggles of the developing proletariat.

Löwy points out that it is for this reason, that Marx's ideas were of his time. "Marx's doctrine could not have appeared during the peasant wars of the 16th century, not could Müntzer's doctrine have developed after the 1848 revolution." That said, there was nothing automatic about the development of these ideas, the "19th century proletariat offered many 'possibilities' besides Marxism".

Marx was not from the working class. So Löwy's discussion on why, despite this, Marx could become the most important proletarian theoretician is very useful. What matters when discussing such thinkers, Löwy says, is "not to what class he belongs... but what class he represents by his ideas."

From early in his life, Marx engaged with and in attempts to change the world. This took place at first as he tried to analyse and study the various movements taking place as various European countries tried to shake of the old vestiges of the feudal orders. At university Marx identifies with the ideas of Hegel, but he begins to break with this as his ideas clash with his experiences. As the author puts it;

"First, he obviously rejects, along with most of the Left-Hegelians, identification of the existing Prussian state with the realized rational state, and inclines towards a resolutely democratic position.... we find in his articles a virulent and radical criticism which we would look for in vain in Hegel: denunciation of particular interests and private-property owners... and pessimism regarding the possibility of making them harmonize with the general interest of the state."

But the criticism of private property owners did not automatically make Marx a communist. It did however send him down a particular route. As a newspaper editor, confronted by the class struggles of the poor, Marx begins to examine their condition. Initially his articles had as their "actual object", "peasant poverty... and not workers' poverty." But even at this early stage, Marx recognises that the poor are a "species" which "has only numerous arms with which to pluck the fruits of the earth for higher races". They are also "the only serious defender of freedom" when compared to the impotent and cowardly bourgeois.

Throughout the book Löwy demonstrates the way that Marx's ideas are evolving and changing as his study of the world as well as his experience of class struggle shapes him. For example;

"Between his break with the liberal bourgeoisie at the beginning of 1843 and this 'discovery' of the proletariat at the beginning of 1844 there lay, for Marx, a period of 'democratic-humanist' transition, a phase of ideological loss of bearings and of feeling his way which would bring him eventually to communism."

In order to understand this transition, Löwy quotes extensively from Marx's own writings. He also examines the various class struggles that influenced Marx - that of the Silesian Weavers for instance, as well as the various left wing, socialist and workers' organisations that Marx was involved in. Ultimately, Löwy helps us understand the importance of Marx's famous saying, "ThepPhilosopher's have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is to change it." This represents not just Marx's arrival at revolutionary communism, but his break with passive philosophy and his transition to an understanding of the proletariat, as subject and object of history.

Marx's revolutionary communism then means that he spends the rest of his life engaging, in various ways, in movements to overthrow capitalism and advance the interests of the working class. Key to that, is the building of workers organisation. Löwy's discussion on what that meant for Marx and Engels forms a key part of the remainder of this book, as does his analysis of other revolutionary thinkers who followed Marx.

I found this section of the book less stimulating that the first half. In part because it wasn't in depth enough to fully grasp complexities. But also because the concluding remarks on the importance of Che Guevara's theory of revolutionary organisation felt like a break with Löwy's early chapters. Here Löwy argues that guerrilla organisation can, in certain circumstance, act as a catalyst for wider revolutionary struggles. This seems to me, to go against Löwy's (and Marx's) key point, that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. Indeed, elsewhere, Löwy is keen to emphasis the way that Lenin and other revolutionaries purposely avoided seeing vanguard organisation in these terms, celebrating the "spontaneous" role of the masses at the same time as understanding that revolutionary organisation must be in a constant, dialectical relationship with those masses. Learning from, shaping and developing the struggle.

This final criticism however shouldn't lead to potential readers avoiding this book. This is an extremely interesting book that will stimulate and provide food for thought for every socialist who reads it, and hopefully improve the understanding of both Marx and Marxism.

Related Reviews

Mehring - Karl Marx: The Story of his Life
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Matthew Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Race

This is a very readable, interesting and entertaining introduction to the earliest years of the Space Race. It concentrates on Russia' development of rocket technology and the run up to the launches of the first two man made objects to orbit the Earth in late 1957.

What makes the story interesting is less the technical aspects to this enormous scientific breakthrough, but the political and social contexts of the early years of the Cold War. What is clear from Brzezinski's book is that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had any particular interest in reaching space. A few scientists and engineers, such as the former German scientist (and Nazi) Werner von Braun, did. But they were a minority within the rocket programmes and certainly did not have much influence on the politicians and political decision makers.

Russia's missile program arose as a result of their inability to compete with the military advancements of the United States. Following on from the doctrine of the Second World War, the US was banking on growing its military might based on air power. Hundreds of massive bombers could threaten the Soviet Union with nuclear annihilation through their long range. Key military and political figures in Washington hyped up the idea of the Soviet Union having a comparable air force and the US engaged in a bomber arms race faced with the threat of nuclear attack.

But this was built on lies. The USSR didn't have the bomber fleets and had no ability to build on a comparable level with the US. They could and did begin to develop nuclear missiles. These they felt would enable them to threaten the US at a much reduced cost. Khrushchev in particular needed the financial leeway to offer some improvements and reforms to Russia's population.

When Sputnik was launched, it terrified the American people and shocked the US government to the core. In hindsight, its clear that President Eisenhower came close to losing his position as the media and people sought a scapegoat for the new threat to the country. Indeed, his handling of the crisis, is a textbook example of how not to deal with the press.

By banking on bombers, the US had starved their missile programmes of cash. This meant their technology was far behind that of the Russians, even through they had the best German scientists and the majority of the Nazi rocket technology. One fascinating aspect to this, is how the US military were desperate to avoid von Braun and his colleagues even thinking about going to space - they tasked someone with the job of checking they didn't fuel the final stages of test rockets so that the scientists couldn't orbit something "accidentally".

Sputnik was laucnhed as a propaganda tool. It almost didn't happen, because as was the case in the US, those holding the purse strings were only interested in the military potential for rockets. The resultant propaganda coup (and the follow up when they launched a dog on the second rocket) stunned the Russian leadership as much as the Americans, though Khrushchev recovered faster.

The book finishes rather abruptly, with the US finally getting a much smaller satellite into space. Brzezinski implies that once the US had got over its shock, it rapidly set about the scientific and civilian conquest of space, while the Russian's languished with the death of their key rocket scientist. I felt this was a little limited, particularly given that once they had reached the moon, the US clearly decided it had won the space race and give up on serious manned space exploration. Because the US was engaged in a Cold War confrontation with Russia, money for its space programme dried up rapidly when that competition was won. The success of the US moon shots must be contrasted with the complete abandonment of the field from the mid 1970s onward. But this is a minor criticism of a very useful and interesting book on the history of the early space race which locates it in the midst of military and economic competition, rather than the desire to understand the universe.

Related Reviews

Scott & Leonov - Two Sides of the Moon