Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles

Bloody terrible.

This novel is intended as a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, extending his classic tale A Meeting With Medusa. But it combines Clarke's inability to portray characters as anything other than cliched wooden extras from a bad 1950 film with a terrible plot-line that fizzles out in an unbelievable ending.

Don't bother, even if you are an enormous fan of these authors' other works.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Martin Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm

While seemingly a rather specialised topic, Martin Green's history of the neolithic, bronze and iron ages as understood through studies of the pre-history of his farm in Cranborne Chase contains a wealth of information. The Chase, an area roughly north-east of Blanford Forum in Dorset contains hundreds of locations of archaeological interest. Many of these are part of what should be understood as a cultural landscape, with sites frequently placed in relation to others.

Green is a farmer, but he has an immense skill and knowledge as an archaeologist and decades of work has led him to make some extremely significant finds. While some of the locations mentioned in this book such as the two iron age forts at Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill are well know (and well worth visiting) many others are either less well visited, or simply exist as crop marks or excavations.

I was inspired enough by Green's account of Knowlton Henge to visit. As the author explains this ruined 12th century Norman church was built in the midst of a large Neolithic henge. It does not take much expertise to understand the way the Christian church was trying to usurp "pagan" traditions here.

The book is full of fascinating details; from the explanation of archaeological method (including a chapter by Dr. Michael Allen on the links between snails and archaeological investigations) to the way modern science allows us to follow the travels of individuals thousands of years ago through the study of their bones. It is also extremely well illustrated.

This isn't a book for the casual reader, but for someone exploring the pre-history of Dorset its invaluable.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

S.A. Smith - Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928

S.A. Smith's Red Petrograd is one of the best books I've ever read in the Russian Revolution, so I had high expectations of this one. Sadly I was disappointed, even though there is much that I found of interest in it, and even for people like myself who have read widely on the subject there is significantly new material.

This review is not the place to rehearse the story of the Revolution itself. Following a useful discussion of Russian history. Smith moves to the story of 1917. Given the criticisms of the October Revolution by the right, it's worth quoting Smith's conclusions about events:
The seizure of power is often presented as a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government. It certainly had the elements of a coup, but it was a coup much advertised, and the government it overthrew had not been democratically elected. It is noteworthy how few military officers were willing to come to the aid of the government... The coup would certainly not have taken place had it not been for Lenin; and thanks to the decision of the moderate socialists to postpone the Second Congress, hi plan to present the latter with a fait accompli was achieved. But the execution of the insurrection was entirely Trotsky's work, cleverly disguised as a defensive operation to preserve the garrison and the Petrograd Soviet against the 'counter-revolutionary' design of the Provisional Government. in the last analysis, however, the Provisional Government had expired even before the Bolsheviks finished it off.
Following this, Smith looks at how the Bolsheviks' attempted to build on their success, and the various aspects of the consequences. There are useful discussions of how the Bolshevik's support for the right to self determination played out. Thirteen new states were created out of Russia between October 1917 and December 1918, for instance. But Smith also highlights how this went wrong - for instance the way that the Bolshevik's had to keep Ukraine by military not political means. There are also some fascinating sections on the way the Bolsheviks related to Muslims, invited to "order their national life 'freely and without hindrance'" in November 1917.

All of this is excellent material and there are some fine stories and quotes from the period. But the problem is Smith's framing of the material. Smith rightly sees the economic and political damage caused by the Civil War as a key turning point for the Revolution. While he notes that both sides committed "terror", he does acknowledge that the motivations were very different and that Red Terror was often in response to the brutal reality of the Whites.

But I think Smith underestimates the impact of the Civil War one the base of the Bolshevik's and their strategies. For instance, when discussing the Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks, Smith highlights the context, but neglects to point out that the Kronstadt sailors were not the same force that had been a bastion of the Revolution. They were much depleted by the Civil War and other political roles and had been watered down by an influx of new recruits. Smith's argument makes it looks like a key revolutionary force had changed sides, when this was not the case.

More problematic is the continuity that Smith places on the Bolsheviks before the seizure of power and long afterwards. There are two aspects to this. Firstly Smith frequently discusses the Bolsheviks before the Revolution (or in its early stages) and the strategy perused by Stalin as though it were the same organisation. Secondly I think he places the "Great Break", the rupture between Stalin's strategy and the old Bolshevik revolutionary strategy much too late. He argues that this was in 1928, but it is clear by then, that the policy being pursued by Stalin was already very different.
The Bolsheviks, who had so resoundingly rejected Russia's heritage in favour of proletarian internationalism, found that the greater the distance they travelled from October, the more they were hemmed in by these deep structuring forces. They did not become wholly captive to those forces, nor did revolutionary energies exhaust themselves, as Stalin's revolution from above' demonstrated, but in many areas the more utopian ideals of the early years were gradually abandoned and a new synthesis of revolutionary and traditional culture crystallised... It came about... because the Bolsheviks were transformed from a party of insurrection into a party of state builders.
But this confusing argument suggests a continuity between 1917 and the 1930s, which is inaccurate. The reality was there was a massive break, that required the liquidation of the old Bolshevik party and Stalin rebuilding a new one in his own image.

Smith effectively argues that it was the nature of Lenin and the Bolshevik organisation he crafted that led to the centralisation of power. "Lenin had ruled by virtue of his charisma, rather than his formal, position and he bequeathed a structure of weak but bloated institutions that relied for direction on a strong leader". There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story and while Smith doesn't ignore the other problems he down plays them. Thus while he does acknowledge the strategy of international revolution that the Bolsheviks hoped would solve their problems, he doesn't underline that this was actually quite realistic. In fact there is little mention here of the German Revolution, nor the other revolutions that shook Europe post 1918. Oddly there is precious little on the Comintern, before or after Stalin, except a few brief discussions.

Smith is also prone to some sweeping statements that undermine some of his better analysis. Stalin, he notes, "had read Machiavelli". So what? I suspect most intellectual Marxists of the period had. Lenin's great work State and Revolution is dismissed as having "utopian flights of fancy" in which a "cook or housekeeper could learn to run public affairs". It wasn't that much of a flight of fancy given that Soviets were being set up across Russia in their hundreds and supported by millions of workers and peasants while Lenin wrote it.

Ultimately I was left disappointed by the book. It has much of interest, but at times feels like a crude assault on Bolshevism (and Lenin in particular - hence an unreferenced quote saying Lenin described avant-guard art as "absurd and perverted"). The author concludes by arguing that the importance of the Revolution was not in its actuality (he suggests the Great Break was more important than the Revolution that preceded it), nor in the hope that workers in power would led to an end to inequality and exploitation. He argues that the Revolution's answers to these problems were "flawed".

Smith clearly sees capitalism as leading to war and environmental destruction, but dismisses the only political organisation that has created a fundamentally different workers state, arguing that their revolution "wrought calamity". Yet the reality was the calamity was a consequence of the counter-revolution that strangled the revolution and the failure of international revolution to break the chains that bound Russia in isolation.

That said, Smith can, and does celebrate what the revolution meant for ordinary people and millions of others around the globe. I can agree with him about how 1917 lifted people, and taught them to look further afield, before the revolution was defeated and drowned in blood. One example from Smith's book will suffice.
Yet the campaign to liquidate illiteracy awoke a thirst for knowledge on the part of newly literate readers. A poor peasant sent a letter to the Peasant Newspaper: 'Send me a list of books published on the following subjects because I am interested in everything: chemistry, science, technology, the planets, the sun, the earth, the planet Mars, world maps, books on aviation, the number of planes we posses, the number of enemies the Socialist Republic has, books on comets, stars, water, the earth and sky'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain State Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Smith - Red Petrograd
Cliff - The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star: Trotsky 1927-1940
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power

Friday, May 05, 2017

Carl J. Griffin - The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest

This is the most recent serious book on the Captain Swing movement. Its author is keen to present it as the definitive work that surpasses two other earlier book lengths treatments. These are the Hammond's Village Labourer and Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing. Griffin's certainty of his works' improvement on its predecessors irked me somewhat as I don't think it's fair to say that neither book offers students of rural class struggle something.

However it is true, as Griffin can say, that both of them missed crucial parts of the struggle and his work does highlight how the Swing movement was brother more intense, and more extensive than hitherto understood. Of Hobsbawm and Rudé he writes that they "seriously underestimate the level of reported disturbances".

Griffin also attempts to introduce other missing aspects of the history of the period, including the role of women, of which more shortly.

This review will not repeat an account of the Swing movement itself, but essentially this was a movement of popular outrage at rural economic conditions. The origins of these problems were simple enough - wages were low, jobs were scarce and farming was now for profit. But the situation was made worse because the standard system of poor relief was so inadequate. Old traditions however remained. Griffin notes that rural workers believed that "public relief was a right" and that "field labour [w]as a right". He argues that this "fostered a 'culture of xenophobia'," (the quote is from the historian Keith Snell) against non-indigent and migrant workers. In the context of rural England in the 1830s this meant attacks on Irish migrant labourers. Certainly this aspect was neglected in earlier histories and is an interesting fact that helps understand some of the dynamics of the period.

Griffin also argues, and I think this is an extremely important point, that Swing was not a "bolt from blue" as Hobsbawm and Rudé suggested, instead it was an intensification of events. Attacks on migrant labourers, as well as earlier attacks on machines, riots, protests and threatening letters, are part of the Swing "prehistory". Griffin also highlights how the movement continued after 1830 arguing that the repression didn't simply destroy Swing, but changed its form. For instance there are a number of cases when labourers who had won a pay rise from local farmers protested and burnt down targets again when the increases were removed.

Swing took place in the context of economic downturn. But it also took place at a time of enormous political upheaval. The 1830 French Revolution drew some support from rural workers and there were cases of the French tricolour being waved at protests. Another factor was the struggle for Parliamentary Reform and Griffin is particularly useful at understanding the interplay between that and Swing itself.

But its the sections on gender politics and the Swing movement that Griffin clearly feels are some of the most significant developments on earlier work. Here he argues that the role of the male agricultural labourer was being challenged. Their labour, he says, was about a family wage and this was being undermined. Women themselves took part, on occasion in protests during Swing and "even if men were trying to reassert their economic and household-political primacy, women clearly too had much to gain from Swing and therefore might support their husbands and brothers".

Clearly there is likely some truth to these factors, though a lack of evidence is a problem. I find Griffin's discussion of the sexual nature of machine breaking more problematic. He quotes George Youens, a labourer arrested for destroying a threshing machine at Elham, remembering that some of the gang shouted "Kill Her - More Oil". Griffin argues "Threshing machines became proxies for female bodies, something they as men should control, dominate and discipline... the allusion in the quote is in all probability to sex. Not only wasa 'woman' going to be 'killed', but the machine-breakers also were going to rape 'her'."

From a "misogynistic perspective" writes Griffin, the "machine's rhythmic action combined with the fact that it had to be 'served' through 'entry' meant that it was not unlike the objectified sexualised female body."

Personally I feel that is somewhat contrived. That's not to say that gender politics did not play a role in the Swing movement - as with Rebecca and a host of other rural movements, symbolic cross-dressing was part of some of the actions. But this over-sexualised interpretation of the Swing movement doesn't seem to fit with the evidence that Griffin has. He asserts that "gender politics in the Kentish machine-breaking heartlands shows the ingrained nature of sexual violence towards women" that sexual violence against women was an "integral part of labouring life", but I'm sceptical that the evidence proves this (Griffin highlights five cases). Even if true it seems a big leap to suggest that machine-breaking was a "reassertion, as psychological as much as it was public, of male power". I suspect that the vast majority of those engaged in machine-breaking did not approach the action from this point of view, but rather because they wanted better conditions for them and their families. If this is because their traditional roles were being challenged then we must understand that this is how class struggle takes place - in the context of the ideas "inherited from the past" and "not in circumstances of our choosing".

However Griffin is right to explore the role of women (and gender politics) in rural movements like Swing, a role that is usually ignored or dismissed. While I was not convinced by his conclusions here, the question of how women joined in the struggles for social and economic justice in the early years of capitalism are of great importance.

In conclusion I found Griffin's book very useful, developing early history a great deal; expanding the coverage of the struggles and asking some important questions of both the historical material and previous historians. Anyone studying Captain Swing will gain a lot from reading this.

Related Reviews

Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing
Hammond and Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, April 30, 2017

E.J. Hobsbawm & George Rudé - Captain Swing

Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing is one of those books that dominates a particular historical field. Their examination of the 1830 Captain Swing movement was the first attempt to systematically understand the causes of that agrarian revolt and the nature of the movement itself. Written in the late 1960s it was the first real full length account of Swing. Prior to that, only the Hammonds in their book The Village Labourer had paid particular attention to Swing, and Hobsbawm and Rudé are critical of them for underestimating the scale and importance of Swing.

Later historians, in turn, have criticised these two authors, while celebrating the first foray proper historical study into Swing. Carl Griffin's more recent book is possibly the most detailed attempt to surpass Hobsbawm and Rudé, and I'll review that on this blog soon.

Nonetheless those attempting to understand the dynamics of rural capitalism, the nascent workers movement and class struggle in 19th century England should read Captain Swing if only because the two authors bring a sensitivity and eloquence to the history that is seldom seen in writing about this period.

The authors argue that the Swing movement, the largest "machine breaking episode in English history" is rooted in the proletarianisation that takes place in rural England as a result of the changes taking place to agrarian communities. The most obvious change is enclosure, which sets the scene for a transformation of rural society from one geared towards production for immediate use and need, to one where peasant producers become transformed into labourers. Swing is mostly remembered for its machine breaking, particularly the destruction of threshing machines, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage was done. But it was also characterised by different phases of destruction - the burning of hay ricks and other property, the sending of letters, the breaking of machines and mass meetings of labourers demanding higher wages and work.

But Swing is more than an economic response to hard times. Its roots in the changing social relations, and decades of failure to address rural poverty, in the context of continental revolution and growing Reform movements in England, make it potentially explosive. Rural poverty was significant. The Speenhamland system which was supposed to help alleviate poverty had been a "millstone" for forty years, Instead of helping the poor, it actively encouraged farmers to pay labourers low wages, placing burdens on the parish that had to subsidise the difference in pay. When Swing explodes then, we see a cross-class alliance between workers and some farmers who both understand that the existing system is wrong. The authors point to a number of occasions when local authorities effectively support the movement, as they see the need to transform the status quo. In particular a large number of farmers allow their machines to be broken without opposition (in some cases doing it on behalf of the labourers) because they can then ask the labourers to also oppose the tithes that they are paying to the parish. In many cases then, wage rises are won, and these are effectively paid for by a reduction in monies to the local parish.

We should be careful though. The authors do not suggest that this is a revolutionary movement - though a few individuals wanted that, and some of the slogans suggest that labourers recognised the nature of their oppression and wanted much larger change. In fact, Hobsbawm and Rudé argue that there was "no subversion of social order" during Swing, rather a desire for a better "regulation" of rural society. But even these limited changes could not be allowed. The government reacted with ferocity and the aftermath of Swing saw the greatest ever repression on a workers' movement in England. 19 men were executed. Nearly 700 were transported and in total almost 2000 workers faced trial.

Hobsbawm and Rudé spend some time exploring what happened to those deported and this is an interesting, if not particularly relevant chapter to the study of the movement. More interesting is the appendix which analyses why threshing machines were being introduced in such vast numbers. The benefits to individual farmers in terms of money saved was minimal, which might explain the acquiescence by many in the face of rioters. But it seems the greatest benefit was that it allowed crops to be taken to the market quicker after harvest. At a time of big price fluctuations this could mean the difference between big profits or breaking even. However once the machines had become common, the benefit was no longer viable for the farmer and the labourers might well be better.

In conclusion there is no doubt that later historians built upon the pioneering work of these two authors. But this book gets across the nature of Swing - a mass movement of workers who wanted to fight for a living wage in the face of government indifference. Their struggles were partially successful, but the nature of their struggle - direct action and mass militant struggle - meant that their fight had been sidelined from the history books in favour of the much more palatable (for the trade union leadership at least) tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Captain Swing was rescued by Hobsbawm and Rudé and any study of the period begins with their memorable work.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

J.L. Hammond & Barbara Hammond - The Skilled Labourer: 1760-1832

The Hammonds begin their account of the changes to "skilled labourers" in this period by saying it reads "like a civil war". With similar themes to those covered in the first volume of their historical trilogy, they argue that the period saw a profound transformation in social relations between worker and boss:
The industrial changes that occurred at this time destroyed this social economy with its margin of freedom and choice for the worker. To the upper-class observer those changes seemed to promise a great saving of human labour. To the worker they seemed to threaten a great degradation of human life.
This is a profound statement that few in the bosses class would have agreed with at the time, and less so today. Much of the remainder of the book is an exploration of what "change" meant for different groups of workers in urban areas across England and how those workers resisted those changes. At the core of this is an exploration of how and why machinery was introduced. The Hammonds point out that the boss never introduced labour saving machinery in order to "increase leisure". Rather "if one machine could do ten men's work, there was all the more reason for not allowing so valuable an instrument to be idle a moment longer than was necessary... the machine was an argument for lengthening rather than shortening the working day."

The two most famous examples of resistance to the introduction of such machinery in England at the time were the Captain Swing movement and Luddism. Captain Swing's destruction of threshing machinery and the associated burning of buildings and other agricultural targets is covered in the Hammond's earlier work, The Village Labourer. Luddism is covered in detail in several chapters of this book. Since I've reviewed a number of books on this subject recently I won't cover that ground here again, suffice to say that the Hammonds place Luddism in a much wider context - the campaigns for a minimum wage, early trade union consciousness among urban workers and wider battles such as food riots. The scale of these struggles is fascinating, and even for a reader like myself with a good grasp of English radical history, there were many episodes that I was not aware of.

In part the context of this is the massive growth of industry and the working class. Taking just cotton workers, one of the major planks of English industry, the Hammonds point out that in 1774 there were about 30,000 persons "round Manchester" employed in cotton. By 1831 there were 833,000 across Great Britain. Similar growth in other industries meant that by the 1830s there were enormous numbers of workers who were engaged in a constant struggle over time, wages and working conditions. There was a corresponding transformation of the old, traditional crafts. So the cotton industry grew, but it was also transformed.
In 1760 cotton was carded and spun by hand in the spinsters' own houses, and woven at hand-looms in the weavers' houses. By 1830 hand-spinning was dead, and all the processes previous to weaving were carried on by complicated machinery in factories, whilst wearing was partly done in factories, by power-looms worked by girls, but partly still by hand-loom weavers in their own houses.
These changes were not automatic, and the struggles by the workers in those industries to protect their rights and conditions against "industrialisation" were ones that brought together thousands of people and required the use of the law, the yeomanry and networks of spies to ensure that "progress" could take place. Sometimes the struggles were successful, such as the Spittafields silk-weavers who get a fascinating chapter in this book. Mostly though the workers were destroyed and the "great degradation" took place.

Understanding the nature of capitalism is one thing. Seeing the alternative is another. The Hammonds were Fabian socialists, and the indistinct nature of Fabian socialism means that their conclusion rails against capitalism and its "inevitable" civil war - but offers little alternative. But this is a work of history that focuses on the forgotten struggles of ordinary working people. While in places it is dated, and other authors have surpassed the historical research, this is one of the books that 20th and 21st century English Social History rests upon. It should be read for that reason, but also to celebrate those who tried to make sure that the world wasn't simply about profit before everything else.

Related Reviews

Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer
Beckert - Empire of Cotton
Reid - The Land of Lost Content

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Neil Gaiman - Norse Mythology

When I was about 10 my grandfather gave me a huge book of world mythology. Many of the accounts inside gave me real insights into the culture and religion of my classmates who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. But I was always most taken by the Norse myths. For a young boy these were fantastically dramatic - full of fighting, quests, drama, love and bravery.

So for me, Neil Gaiman's retelling of the myths is a return to much loved stories. And he does it extremely well. The tales aren't overly written - they're bare of details, but designed to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Readers of Gaiman's other books might be disappointed by this, as was I initially, as I was used to his incredible descriptions of fantastic places. But once you realise that these myths are told as they would be round a camp fire, perhaps by a viking bard reading them to a group of listeners, then you can understand why they work so well.

Those new to the myths, will almost certainly find something they recognise, if only the names of the gods which have recently been reused by the Marvel comic and film franchise. But these characters are different to their movie portrayals. Here for instance Loki develops from an annoying trickster to a vicious psychopath.

North Mythology is an enjoyable retelling of some classic tales. Neil Gaiman's storytelling skills fit the material admirably and its well worth reliving these ancient quests and battles as he tells them.

Related Reviews

Gaiman - American Gods
Gaiman - Neverwhere
Gaiman - Ocean at the End of the Lane
Gaiman - Stardust
Gaiman - Smoke and Mirrors
Gaiman - Anansi Boys

Thursday, April 20, 2017

John Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: Volume 2

The first volume of John Romer's history of Ancient Egypt is a brilliant examination of the rise of the Egyptian state from hunter-gatherer communities. So I was excited to read the follow up volume some four years later. Here Romer looks at more familiar periods, yet unlike the first volume this history covers the period when there are written records, on the monuments, tombs and papyrus remains. Some of these will be familiar to students of the period, but to the casual reader they offer fascinating insights into the lives of people in the pharaonic state.

It is sobering to realise that much of the grand building work of the Eygptians was done with the simplest of bronze age tools. That they could erect enormous Pyramids and build elaborate tombs, filling them with materials from around the Middle East, is because of the enormous surplus of grain that the Nile could provide. This enabled the Pharaohs to employ large numbers of workers, as well as build major trade networks. Both of these aspects are themes of Romer's books and its fascinating to see how we can trace these networks that stretch hundreds of miles away from the Nile.

But what is central to Romer's history is the Egyptian state and how its very nature was shaped by the world it arose from. Take his description of the workers that produced the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was
a vast product of the labours of large numbers of those small gangs who cuts its stones with integrity and care and set them as straight and true as the irrigation ditches in the Nile fields.
Those small-sized gangs, were working in state-wide coordinating and under a consistent and masterful direction. So whilst the rural nature of that workforce is apparent in the qualities of each and every stone they laid, so the firm and subtle manner of the pharaonic administration is equally apparent in the Great Pyramid's astonishing accuracy and consistency over long years of construction. This... had been a state whose culture had not been founded on brute force or notions of national boundaries, but whose identify had flowed outwards from the royal residence, the courtly rituals, its building yards and craftsmen's workshops.
In other words, this was a state that was very different from that imagined by film-makers in Hollywood which transferred the ideals of 20th century capitalism back three or four thousand years. Romer spends much of this book examining how we have viewed ancient Egypt through the lens of contemporary thought, and the book deals, to a certain extent on how our understanding has been transformed as Egyptology has itself been shaped and re-shaped.

One part of this, as noted in the quote above, is that Romer points out that the Ancient Egyptians had no concept of "Egypt". Nations meant nothing. So while this was a class society, based on exploitation, it wasn't a class society in the way we think of capitalism or European feudalism.

Writing about the military imagery on the tomb of Ankhtifi, a governor, nobleman and senior figure overseeing farming and religion under King Neferkare (approx 2200 BCE) Romer noes that
Rather than the generals leading conquering armies up and down the valley of the Nile... these images and texts are more likely to record the exploits of little bands of local militia patrolling the various regions of the lower Nile, maintaining, in the absence of central state control, the ancient pharaonic virtue of good order for their local populace.... the fearful links between war, nationhood and sovereignty..were not yet forged; those very concepts.. had no existence in that distant past. There are as many donkeys as soldiers drawn on the walls of Ankhtifi's tomb chapel... where fine food, civic welfare and the good life are presented as their owners' ambitions and accomplishments.
In other words, Ancient Egyptian society cannot be understood in terms of contemporary social relationships or culture. It has to be understood in its own context. This might seem obvious, but Romer shows how countless historians and archaeologists have made this mistake in the past, and continue to do so.

It is particularly important to understand this when looking at the things that the ancient Egyptians revered. For instance, they are know for their luxurious grave goods, expensive jewellery and so on.

Yet, this was "a society without money, in which nothing was counted as explicitly economic or political" and "the prime purpose of the acquisition of such goods was not to gain prestige or possessions in the modern manner".

To explain this, Romer looks at a treasure trove found buried  full of goods that had been imported from far away. The chests of treasure are
best seen as holding goods brought from regions far outside the orbit of the state and buried seed-like in the house of a court god, between the seen and unseen world - an act that had beautifully expressed a concept which is explicitly stated in later texts, that the domain of pharaoh encompasses all earthly things.
While Egypt was a class society, its rulers maintained their rule and their position by performing a real function for the mass of society - keeping things on track, organised and balanced. The production of material goods had real benefits for a minority, but this was not the driving force of society as a whole.

John Romer focuses on the nature of the Egyptian state, so those looking for a history of daily life in Ancient Egypt won't really find it here. Nor is this quite as readable as the first volume as there is much less of a historical narrative. Nevertheless together with volume one, this is an essential read that puts other works on the period in a very real context. I hope it isn't four years before the final volume arrives.

Related Reviews

Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid
Romer - Ancient Lives: The Story of Pharaohs' Tombmakers

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Robert Leckie - Helmet for my Pillow

Having recently read Ian W. Toll's excellent histories of World War Two in the Pacific, I decided to seek out some of the personal accounts that he uses as material for his accounts. One of these is this classic book by Robert Leckie, which forms some of the source material for the TV series Pacific.

Viewers of that will recognise many of the scenes from the Leckie's account. Leckie begins with his training for the Marine Corp and then their deployment on Guadalcanal. Understanding exactly what was taking place is difficult without the wider military context, because Leckie writes from his position as an individual soldier, and rarely gives any wider context.

As a result this, like I imagine the conflict itself, is a claustrophobic experience, focusing on individuals. Leckies' comrades come and go, the action is limited to particular foxholes and patrols. Unusually the author is not afraid of describing personal weaknesses, fear and cowardice by him or others. His first "kill" involves shooting someone in the back and he describes the way that his comrades have to kill the injured enemy in cold-blood for fear of bobby traps and suicide bombs. One comrade, Souvenirs, removes gold teeth from the Japanese dead, until his own death on Peleliu. Leckie is forthright about how the war, and the stress of waiting for battle to begin preyed on the mental health of him and his comrades.

I was also struck by Leckies' insubordination - he, along with others, go AWOL during their recuperation period in Melbourne, an event that is as riotous and drunken as described in Toll's The Conquering Tide. Drink plays a big part of this escape following Guadalcanal, but not as much as sex does, and Leckie's descriptions of his own encounters with women in Melbourne are very different to those portrayed in the TV dramatisation. Not least because it proves that women were as forward as men in the 1940s. Sex clearly didn't begin in the 1960s.

The book after Leckie's experiences during the Battle of Peleliu. This was a brutal experience that involved heavy casualties and brutal sustained conflict between soldiers low on water, food and ammunition. Unsurprisingly Leckie is transformed by his experiences. Indeed his final meditation on the nuclear attacks on Japan poignantly makes it clear how he feels about war. This is certainly not a John Wayne's film full of heroism and clean deaths, but dirty, brutal, real and tremendously sad.

Related Reviews

Toll - Pacific Crucible
Toll - Conquering Tide
Jones - Thin Red Line
Turkel - The Good War

Monday, April 10, 2017

Philip Lymbery - Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were

Philip Lymbery's Dead Zone is a highly readable, if frightening examination of the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, and particularly biodiversity. Lymbery's style is part travel-book, part autobiography and part ecological critique. There's a lot in it, and this review cannot hope to highlight all of the fascinating content - my copy is covered in pencil markings just from a single read.But I want to try and explore what Lymbery rightly highlights as a major ecological crisis, and add a few additional thoughts.

The first thing to note is the breadth of Lymbery's coverage. From the impact of palm plantations on elephants in Asia, to the decline of Barn Owls, Nightingales and other birds in the UK, to the dead zones in the Mexican Gulf and the way that the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy has decimated Eastern European farming, this is a bleak picture.

One of the themes of Lymbery's book is that industrial farming is offered as a solution to "feeding the hungry" yet what it does in practice is to cause wider environmental destruction through highly technological, mono-cultural agriculture. The impact of this is enormous, not just on biodiversity but also on human health and climate change. A major aspect of the problem for Lymbery, is that meat production (whether its beef or chicken) is concentrated in factory farms, and while this uses smaller spaces, it requires food to be grown for the animals. Discussing palm oil, Lymbery explains:
The worry is that palm kernel helps drive more factory farming; as a readily available feed source, it tempts farmers to take animals off grass and into confinement feeding. It's a particular concern in relation to cattle, for which a greater proportion of the diet can be made up of palm that for other types of livestock... we have a vicious circle. The increasing availability of palm-kernel meal as feed drives industrial animal farming. In turn, factory farming drives demand for more cheap feed like palm kernel. Vast tracts of land are being lost to monocultures producing fodder for animals, rather than food for people.
Industrial farming like this requires vast quantities of pesticides and fertiliser, which in turn has as a knock on effect causing further pollution and a major impact on bio-diversity.

Lymbery is a keen bird-watcher based in the UK, so some of the most emotive chapters are those that look at the way bird life has declined in the country as a result of the increase use of chemicals. The over-reliance on chemicals leads to pollution of water-ways and, in the case of the many areas of ocean, huge dead-zones devoid of life. But sometimes the smaller scale impact is as shocking - Lymbery notes that the once prevalent water vole has declined to a "staggering" extent of 90 per cent in the last forty years a loss on a par with the black rhino in East Africa. Similar stories about creatures as varied as jaguars, penguins and butterflies come throughout the book.

The impact of agriculture on biodiversity has also decimated bee populations. In his first book Farmageddon Lymbery noted the way that bees are central to farming, and hence to human society. He also highlighted how they were now the subject of a massive industry that moved them around the United States to pollinate crops, and how the chemical heavy agriculture threatened them with extinction. Here he notes that it is possible to move away from such methods and quickly allow bees and other animals to return, even within the confines of the current system.

In fact, one of the strengths of Lymbery's book is that it argues that agriculture can feed the world easily and doesn't have to be done on the basis of highly industrialised practices.
we already produce enough food for twice the human population today: more than enough for everyone both now and in the foreseeable future. The trouble is that much of it is wasted. 
and
The suggestion that increased production will safeguard future generations from the hunger and malnutrition that already ravages parts of the world seems highly questionable. Particularly when hunger today is primarily a result of distributional problems, yet is relentlessly trotted out by food producers and policymakers who have too many vested interests, or simply don't ask if the suggestion bears scrutiny.
This is important. There is a narrative within sections of the environmental movement that the only way to feed the world is for individuals to switch to meat free, or vegan diets. I've argued elsewhere that this is based on mis-understanding the science and the economic system. Lymbery argues that we should eat less, but better meat and he also notes that just because food is vegan, doesn't make it good for the environment. Maize, for instance, is particularly blamed for pollution and is a 'needy crop, requiring relatively high inputs of pesticides and fertilisers. During heavy rain, water runs off the surface... causing rivers to become polluted and at greater risk of flooding." Once again, Lymbery notes how different farming practices can help solve these problems.

Brexit

Lymbery has some good examples from both the developed, and the developing world, of how alternative agriculture can reduce the appalling impact that modern farming has on the environment. In the context of current debates about Brexit, he also notes the way that bodies such as the European Union institutionalise the move towards high-intensity farming. In fact, one of the most powerful sections when he looks at how Poland's agriculture has been transformed. Since entry into the EU it has changed from a more sustainable model to a neo-liberal system with huge impacts on the environment, higher prices, worsening animal welfare and big changes to rural communities. He recounts one story of how, during negotiations for Poland's entry into the EU one negotiator declared that 'old-fashioned Polish farms would need to modernise so that they could compete on the global market... To do this it will be necessary to shift around one million farmers off the land.' As one Polish farmer explains to Lymbery "Now the best Polish food is illegal."

Such examinations of the modern food system provide important ammunition to those fighting for a sustainable agriculture that can feed the world. But I don't think Lymbery goes far enough in his critique. For instance, I don't think he quite gets across how a few tiny multinationals hold the agricultural system in their control. That's not to say that Lymbery doesn't get the scale of the problem, he notes at one point "a steady stream of soya trucks passing along the road... Sadly it will take more than the indomitable spirit of tribal warriors to stop the spread of Brazil's soya juggernaut."

But in the face of examples like this, to argue that "though our food choices three times a day, we can support the best animal welfare and bring landscapes to life" is an inadequate response.

As I said, many of Lymbery's examples of how farming has been turned back into a more sustainable practice are inspiring. But as I read them, I was struck that they seemed to be the consequence of enlightened individuals. What was lacking was any strategy to force change upon the multinationals and big-Agriculture.

The problem is the structure of farming under capitalism. People go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, and because it is not profitable to feed those with no money. That's the system that needs to be broken and progressive movements will have to incorporate a new vision for agriculture into its struggles in order to do this. In part mean arguing for the type of changes that Lymbery has so eloquently explained in the face of the enormous environmental tragedy that he highlights. But it will also mean a radical struggle by those producers and workers in the fields and the factories to wrest power from the corporations.

Together with his earlier book Farmageddon, Dead Zone is an important read for activists. I've highlighted what I see as some weaknesses, but I don't hesitate to recommend it to people wanting to learn more about capitalist farming and how its helping to lay the basis for global environmental crisis.

Please support radical bookselling and publishing by buying Dead Zone from Bookmarks.

Related Reviews

Lymbery - Farmageddon
GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery
McMahon - Feeding Frenzy

Graham-Leigh - A Diet of Austerity
Bello - Food Wars

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

V.I. Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?

Written just a few days before the October Revolution of 1917 when the Provisional Government was finally evicted from office and Soviet Power became the sole ruling body across Russia, this is a powerful and fascinating read. Lenin writes polemically with the confidence and authority that comes from being the leader of a mass revolutionary organisation numbering more than 250,000 members and supported by millions more ordinary workers, peasants and soldiers.

In the opening pages Lenin tackles those from the left and right who argue that a Soviet government cannot work and that workers are not able to run society. He answers these arguments clearly, in a language that's not marred by academic phrase-mongering but is designed to win over ordinary people to his argument. Lenin is persuasive and at times funny, but most importantly he's also urgent. The time for argument is over, now is the time for action. In part this reflects an argument with those to the right of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet majority, but it is also a polemic with those who are vacillating within the Bolshevik party itself.

Despite it's short length, there is much here of interest. Such as Lenin's suggestions about how a socialist society could function, and how it might, for instance, deal with problems such as the lack of technical skills:
The rich must receive from the union of workers or clerks which is most nearly related to their sphere of activity and employment book, They must receive weekly, or at any other regular periods, a certificate from this union that they are doing their work conscientiously - without this they will not get their bread card or food products in general. We need good organisers in the banking business and in the work of unifying various concerns (in these matters the capitalists have more experience and work is done more easily with experienced people)... We shall give all such workers work in accordance with their strength and ability.
What shines through from his writing is an absolute faith in the ability of ordinary people to make the revolution and to run society.
The most important thing is to instil in the oppressed and labouring masses confidence in their own power, to show them by actual practice that they can and must themselves undertake regular, most strict, orderly, organised distribution of bread... milk, clothing, dwellings and so on, in the interests of the poorest.... an honest, courageous, universal first move to hand over the management of the country to the proletariat and semi-proletariat will cause such an unheard of revolutionary enthusiasm in the masses, will multiply so many times the popular forces in the struggle... that much that seemed impossible to our narrow old bureaucratic forces will become practicable for the million-numbered masses, beginning to work for themselves and not for the capitalist, not for a boss or official and not under compulsion of the stick.
Lenin defends the need for revolution, not simply to sweep away the old, corrupt, imperialist order, but also to allow the full liberation of working people. If you've only read Lenin's theoretical writings, this is a revealing book - a revolutionary leader, in the midst of mass revolution talking to ordinary people about how they can change the world. Its definitely one to read, or re-read in the centenary year of 1917.

Related Reviews

Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

Cliff - All Power to the Soviets, Lenin 1914-1917
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

Friday, March 31, 2017

Liu Cixin - Death's End

Any review of Liu Cixin's Death's End has to simultaneously be a review of the whole of his trilogy. These are three interconnected works that rely on each other, despite their self-contained stories. The trilogy deals with humanity's first contact, but it is a first contact in a deeply hostile universe. The three books look then at how humanity through hundreds of years goes through various crises that result from the different aspects of knowing alien life is real, meeting them, discovering that they are threatening, and finally, not impotent.

Liu Cixin is adept and thinking outside the box of 21st century society to imagine how humans might deal with such threats in the future. He's a little overly optimistic in thinking that transnational institutions such as the UN might play this role - and at times his belief in human society working collectively towards a particular technological goal, through the medium of maximising profits feels more utopian than ambitions of light-speed travel.

That said, the author creates a believable future history that spans three remarkably different books. Unlike some SF authors who have written "future history", such as Isaac Asimov, Liu Cixin manages to describe huge social changes and people well. In fact, one of my disappointments was that the reader invests a lot of emotional time in the different individuals at the heart of each book, only to find them playing peripheral roles in the sequels.

Death's End is a fitting finale. It reminded me of Joe Haldeman's Forever War were hibernation is used by the central characters as a form of time travel - allowing them to wait until particular events happen, or technologies develop. As in Haldeman's work, there is great delight for the reader in the as each new era gives the characters social problems as they adapt to changing social norms. In Death's End Liu Cixin uses gender as a way of describing the characteristics of different epochs of humanity. People take on more feminised aspects and styles when society is more confident and expanding; as it becomes desperate and warlike the fashion is toward the more rugged male image of our own times. I'm not sure its a great analogy, but it does create a sense of a changing, evolving society.

Cheng Xin the woman at the centre of this novel, begins as a failure. Her initial role, to protect humanity, is disastrous because the aliens are not convinced she is prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to defend Earth and its solar system. This is a kill or be killed universe and humans have yet to understand the nuances of this. As time develops she becomes a much more nuanced enemy. Through her, we follow humanity's emergence onto the galactic stage into the midst of a very hostile audience.

Death's End is pessimistic - both in terms of its portrayal of the wider universe and humanity's ability to collective respond to situations. In Cixin's view, humans are all to prone to seize on the next hope, or plunge into despair. A particular scene when a false alarm creates a panicked attempt to evacuate Earth is very well described and might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which different parts of the world will react to climate change.

This trilogy will become a 21st century classic and deserves to be read far beyond the confines of a SF&F audience. The author has a tremendous grasp of history, literature and science and has created a terrifying future. Each book has its different style and emphasis, and they are very much individual works tied together with a single narrative. You could do a lot worse than spending a week locked indoors with these three books.

Related Reviews

Cixin Liu - The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu - The Dark Forest

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Reid - Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt 1812

This is a far more accessible and better written than the previous book I reviewed on this subject, Malcolm Thomis' The Luddites. It also benefits from better analysis of events and people. That said they are quite different books - Robert Reid is writing for a wider, more popular audience who might not know the history of the period, and as such he links the story of the Luddites to historical figures (such as the Bronte family). Reid also focuses his narrative on events in Yorkshire, though he does not ignore Luddite activity elsewhere.

Reid argues that the ruling class responded badly to the Luddites. He suggests, as other commentators have done, that they were very slow to awake to the scale of the rebellion and when they finally did so, where prone to see it as a Revolutionary situation, fueled by their angst caused by the French Revolution and, to a great extent, by their over-reliance on spies who frankly told their masters the stories they wanted to hear.

That said, Reid does not ignore the extent of the Luddite movement, nor does he pretend that there was no motivation behind it. Reid is excellent at explaining precisely what angered the Luddites about particular machines, and the scale of poverty, unemployment and hunger. Reid is also good an analysing the influence of the Reform movement on the situation. He notes that figures such as the Reform parliamentarian Francis Burdett inspired the radicals who had enormous illusions in them. Despite some fear from senior members of the government however,

Burdett had no interest in leading a radical movement, and in this disappointed thousands of working people in London and elsewhere. Reid also notes that the different geographical strands of the movement tended to reinforce each other, though contact between them was limited. Events in the South inspired action in the North and vice-versa, though rumours of massive armies ready to march on the capital were just the products of hope, or lies spread by spies.

Like most other commentators Reid locates the Luddite rising within the development of capitalism, and the transition to production for profit. One brilliant proof of this is when he quotes a prosecutor at one of the Luddite trials using Adam Smith's "economic argument in favour of machinery" as part of the prosecution. No further evidence might be needed.

I was less convinced by Reid's argument about the "law of technology" which he suggests will inevitably lead to unemployment. Reid was writing in the aftermath of the Great British Miners' Strike, so he is right in a sense. But the problem is not technology, but the economic system that puts technology at the service of profit. Reid is wrong when he argues "the most realistic solutions to problems created by technology are likely themselves to be technological". Instead the answer has to be a change to the political system that puts technology at the service of people.

That said, Reid is firmly on the side of those who fought back and continued to do so. His book powerfully demonstrates the extent to which a ruling class will use "Fear, and Fear alone" as General Maitland promised, to hold down workers fighting for their livelihoods. Most Luddites did not believe in fundamental change, but a few did draw that conclusion. They were the precursors of those that would try to build radical organisation to try and bring that about.

As a footnote, I wanted to mention the slight oddity that this book is endorsed on the back by both the Revolutionary Socialist Paul Foot and the appalling right-wing, racist Tory Enoch Powell. Given Foot's critique of Powell, its a strange combination.

Related Reviews

Thomis - The Luddites
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Malcolm I. Thomis - The Luddites: Machine-Breaking in Regency England

Destruction of property - the burning of ricks, maiming or killing of animals, the breaking of machinery or the burning of buildings - was long a part of the resistance by rural labourers in the late 18th and early 19th century. Today the practice is most commonly associated with the movement known as the Luddites which peaked in 1812, and has wrongly become associated with an irrational hatred of technological advance.

The movements known collectively as the Luddites were a mass expression of anger and frustration at an economic system that provided little for the majority of the population. They cannot be understood without looking at the wider transformations that had taken place in English society over the preceding century or so - the development of capitalism which had transformed rural communities from, effectively peasant societies dominated by collective and communal production, to ones were the selling of wage labour had become the norm.

This transition to a market economy had created a system were it was possible to starve in the midst of plenty, where the pursuit of profits meant that food was taken away from the hungry, who could not afford to pay and sold were profits were possible. In particular, in the context of the Luddites, the introduction of machinery, to expand and accelerate production was creating unemployment and undermining the highly skilled labour of sections of the workforce. In the context of the growth of the factory system, which broke the more traditional relations between master and skilled labourer, and concentrated relatively unskilled workers in massive workplaces, workers could legitimately feel they were being sacrificed in the pursuit of wealth and that their skills which produced high quality products were being discarded. Hence the rebellion, which destroyed machinery and targeted the worst of those capitalists who were seen to drive forward this oppression.

Thomis' book is intended as a general over-view of the rebellion and its causes, and an attempt to understand events. Unfortunately it is a pedestrian read, which I think fails to really grasp the nature of events. Despite arguing that Luddism wasn't simply an economic movement, Thomis ends up suggesting that "Luddism came to an end... not because of the success of the authorities in rounding up its leaders but because of a substantial improvement in the conditions which originally gave rise to Luddism".

This is a somewhat conservative conclusion. Firstly it under-estimates the political crisis that the movement gave rise too. Luddism took place in the context of war with Napoleonic France and raised the terrifying spectre of revolution at home. The assassination of Prime Minster Percival Spencer in the midst of the events was unrelated, but the authorities clearly felt that it was the mark of things to come for the ruling classes. The repression that they unleashed - effectively introducing martial law, and using violent, summary military justice against protesting workers - certainly helped knock back the Luddite movement. Thomis rightly highlights that the Luddites lacked any real national network of organisation that hampered their ability to co-ordinate, and this meant that repression had an immediate effect. Secondly the improvements cannot have been that substantial as unemployment and resistance was to be part and parcel of life for both rural and urban workers over the following decades.

Thomis argues that "the greatest confusion, for both contemporaries and historians, has arisen from the difficulty involved in separating Luddism from the various political reform movements that were going on concurrently". This seems a very mechanical approach. Individual Luddites may not have been members of reform movements, but their frustrations (and their rebellion) was driven by many of the same concerns that would fuel the wider demand for reform in the early 19th century. To separate these issues is to argue that the economic and political are separate, which might fit Thomis' agenda as the author, but not the reality of the times.

Ultimately I found this a disappointing book. It has its uses, not least as a pointer to other material and containing a very useful set of time-lines. But its not the definitive book on Luddism that the author seems to think it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Anatole France - The Gods Will Have Blood

The title of Anatole France's 1912 novel of the French Revolution reflects a common theme for discussion of that historical event. Reading the book in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution its easy to spot some parallels with commentators on 1917. The idea that revolutions devour their children is a common one for those seeking to defend the status quo, and Anatole France was certainly not the first author to use it. But France was unusual in this - he was a supporter of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the French Communist Party.

The problem really is that in this novel France focuses not on the great events of the French Revolution, but on the role of an individual within it. A young, idealistic and extremely naive Evariste Gamelin is the books' central figure. An unquestioning supporter of Marat and Robespierre, Gamelin is swept up within the Revolution. He falls as passionately in love with Elodie Blaise a woman whom he knows through his artistic work, as he does with the ideals of 1792.

The very real threat to Revolutionary France transforms itself into seeing enemies everywhere. As various groups within the new state struggle for power, and to protect the gains of the Revolution, violence becomes a daily occurrence. Gamelin becomes a revolutionary magistrate, tasked with defending France from its enemies and offering justice to those in front of him. His decent into bloodlust is partly a result of the normality of violence, and from a need to appease his peers. Strangely it seems also to create an erotic lust in Elodie. Eventually, and inevitably, Gamelin becomes a victim of the state violence, just as his heroes Marat and Robespierre did before him.

Oddly the novel's story is the least satisfying part. The strength is the individuals portrayed within it. The old, defeated aristocrats hoping for a revival of their fortunes, prepared to comprimise in any way to defend themselves. The corrupt magistrates, prepared to rape the relatives of their victims on the false promise of freedom. The idealistic individuals inspired by the Revolution and depressed by its reality.

What is lacking however, is a sense of the masses who stormed the Bastille and who joined the Revolutionary armies. Here they are a backdrop to the story of naive Gamelin who rose and fell with the revolution. The masses who made the revolution feel thin and shadowy. Perhaps this is why I was left unsatisfied by France's novel, for all the author's talent.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

First published in 1968, John le Carré's novel A Small Town in Germany is one of the tightest spy thrillers I've ever read. Very little happens - most of the action is in the claustrophobic corridors of the British Embassy in Bonn, or in the homes of the diplomats who live in the towns nearby. Bonn is the "Small Town" in Germany of the title, but it's also a small town in that everyone knows everyone's business and, at least in diplomatic circles, is trying to get one over everyone else.

Leo Harting is a minor British embassy official who vanishes. He's managed to worm his way into being almost indispensable to the embassy's work, and suddenly he's gone, along with a host of very secret files. This would be frightening to the establishment at any time, but Germany in le Carré's novel is reaching a crisis point. The political upheaval of 1968 has led to a radical, right-wing politician Klaus Karfeld pushing for power, and he's doing it in the context of tense political negotiations by the British to become part of the Common Market.

Playing on German's concerns about Britain's close-links to the United States and their alleged failure to support Germany's post-war transition, Karfeld is creating such big waves that Britain's entry to the Common Market looks threatened, and a closer alignment with the Eastern bloc is on the cards for Germany.

Alan Turner is sent to Bonn to find Harting. He's crass, quick to anger and will stop at nothing to get the job done. His brisk, working class background and reputation as a bruiser, quickly winds up the Embassy officials who look like they'd rather not have the Harting question fixed. Turner is no James Bond. His style is a bullying interrogation of individuals, regardless of rank, and he is more likely to slap a female witness, rather than seduce them. He's not nice, but neither is anyone else in this world of spies - they are, after all, the tools of the British state.

Le Carre's writing is tight. Not a word is wasted on flowery descriptions, yet the grim, grey streets of post-war Bonn are brilliantly portrayed. The upper-class prejudices and pomposity of the senior embassy staff harks back to an era when Britain was a super-power, yet is now being exposed as a second-rate has-been.

Reading this in Bonn made the novel even better. But reading it at a time when the European Union, the capitalist club that arose from the Common Market, is reeling from political crisis; as right-wing politicians threaten political stability across the continent, gave A Small Town in Germany an extra sharpness. The political establishment had little room for manoeuvre in the fictional Bonn of the 1960s. I'm not sure they are in a much better position today.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

J.L. Hammond & Barbara Hammond - The Village Labourer: 1760-1832

J.L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond's trilogy of books, collectively titled The Labourer looms large over any English historical studies of the period from the mid part of the 18th century to the early years of the 19th century. This was a period of tremendous economic and political change, covering the mass of Parliamentary enclosures, the industrial revolution and the great battles for Reform.

The first volume The Village Labourer, deals with the impact of enclosure on village life and some of the rural resistance that took place. In isolation from the other works it feels like it is missing some parts, so the narrative skips the Luddite rebellion and moves directly to the Machine-Breakers of the 1830s. Confusing, until you realise that Luddism is dealt with in a later book. Much of The Village Labourer deals with the question of enclosure, some detailed appendices list the parliamentary reports and discussions about specific occurrences and are very interesting to read.

This part of the Hammonds' work is possible the part that receives heaviest scrutiny, some of which is dealt with by the authors in an updated introduction, but can be boiled down to the criticism that the Hammonds generalised far too much from a few examples and painted a portrayal of the violent consequences of enclosure that far exceeded reality. I think the authors defend themselves well enough, but should readers want to read more on the debates they might be interested in Michael Turners' Parliamentary Enclosures which summarises the criticisms of the Hammonds and the counter-arguments, and reaches the conclusion that the Hammonds were not too far from the mark as has been suggested, if not for their original reasons.

That said, the Hammonds do describe a reality. At the beginning of the period discussed the rural labourer and farmer were little more than peasants, in no way free to farm their strips of lands as they would like, reliant on a historical right to use the common and waste land that was associated with the farming of strips and suffering under the whim of the lord of the manor. By the end of the period,
The effect on the cottager can best be described by saying that before enclosure the cottager was a labourer with land, after enclosure he was a labourer without land. The economic basis of his independence was destroyed In the first place he lost a great many rights for which he received no compensation...
Cottagers were a slightly better off group of villagers than many, but the consequences were the same. Enclosure of land deprived the community of the rights that enabled them to survive. The Hammonds quote a contemporary in Norfolk who explains
I was informed that a gentleman of Lynn had brought that township and the next adjoining to it: that he had thrown the one into three, and the other into four farms; which before enclosure were in about twenty farms: and upon my further enquiring what was becoming of the farmers who were turned out, the answer was that some of them were dead and the rest were become labourers.
This neatly sums up the main point of the Hammonds argument, that enclosure was a economic process that the wealthy used to consolidate their land and property in the rural areas and the consequences were disastrous for large numbers of people who ended up becoming wage labourers in either rural or urban areas. The lose of rights such as access to common land, the right to collect firewood and gleaning were disastrous. The Hammonds have plenty of tragic stories to move the reader, but consider some of the economic points they make. Gleaning, the right to collect the grains that had been missed during the harvest, could for some families represent six or seven weeks wages. A staggering amount of income that lost that would have meant the difference between life and death to many. In consequence,
the labourer who now lived on wages alone earned wages of a lower purchasing power than the wages which he had formerly supplemented by his own produce... the normal labourer even with constant employment, was no longer solvent.
This obviously created a very real problem of poverty and hunger in the rural areas and two responses to this are dealt with by the Hammonds in the remainder of the book. One of these was the Speenhamland system eventually adopted by the government across the country. This created a minimum scale of wages linked to the price of bread which was supposed to be supplemented by the parish if wages dropped too low. In reality, the new capitalist farmers simply lowered wages and were subsidised by the community. Rather tongue in check, the Hammonds conclude that the
Speenhamland system was a safety value in two ways,. The farmers got cheap labour, and the labourers got a maintenance, and it was hoped thus to reconcile both classes to high rents and the great social splendour of their rulers. There was no encroachment on the surplus profits of agriculture, and landlords and tithe-owners basked in the sunshine of prosperity.
The other response was the resistance of the poor. The authors argue that the first sign of this response was the rioting of 1816, though I think its fair to say that the Luddite machine-breaking of 1811 onwards cannot be separated from the general economic conditions. Even though this was not rural rebellion, it was by workers still very close to rural communities. None the less, the riots and the renewed rebellion of the 1830s were part of a resistance to a system that ended up benefiting only the wealthy. There was also other resistance, as the poor tried to find ways to survive in the workhouse and get more from the parish. But these, by and large, were difficult and painful years for the bulk of the rural population.

The Swing protests of 1831 shook the government, in a period of general agitation for Reform. The putting down of the rebellion and the appalling sentences meted out to those found guilty of protest form the latter part of The Village Labourer. Over a century since the book was written and nearly 200 years since the events themselves, the accounts of teenagers transported to Australia, the execution of men guilty of only protesting to protect their livelihoods and the cruelty of a court system that preached liberty, but prevented the poor having a voice, has the power to shock. Evidence about distress caused by low wages or unemployment was consistently ruled out of order, as though rural riots could be explained without these factors.

The defeat of the Last Labourers Revolt was a turning point for the English economy. But it wasn't the end of resistance to the system, it was, in many ways the beginning. The Hammonds' book deserves reading today, in part because of its excellent approach to history, but in the main because they describe in detail the origins of the modern British economy - the result of a protracted class war that was won by the rich and powerful, who created a new world in their interests.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Cixin Liu - The Dark Forest

Volume two of Cixin Liu's science-fiction trilogy is a brilliant follow up to his earlier Three Body Problem. In fact, that first novel, excellent though it is, serves in my opinion merely as an introduction to this far sharper story.

Readers of my review, or the first book will recall that humanity is faced with an existential threat - an alien invasion force, travelling at sub-light speeds is heading for Earth with the complete destruction of humanity as its explicit intention.

At the heart of this book is a study of how people react to the potential threat. Earth is limited by the restrictions the alien Trisolarans have placed on its scientific and technological development. Rather brilliantly, Liu's aliens are not simply humans with different exteriors as so much science-fiction has it. Instead they are completely alien, so much so they give humanity a single advantage because they cannot conceive of communicating anything other than their thoughts. So the human ability to think one thing and say another, is incomprehensible to the aliens.

With this in mind (ha ha) the United Nations conceives of the wall-facer plan, a group of brilliant individuals who are to come up with strategies to defeat the alien invasion, without letting the enemy know their plans. The story of the wall-facers is the core of this novel, the backdrop though is almost as fascinating. This is how the threat of alien destruction changes the wider social atmosphere on Earth. Despair, economic crisis, over-reliance on technology and faith in the military all take their toll.

Unlike many trilogies, this second volume is deeply satisfying in its own right. I eagerly await book three.

Related Review

Cixin Liu - The Three Body Problem

Friday, February 24, 2017

Victor Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

Victor Serge is one of the most important figures to come out of the Russian Revolution. A Belgian/French anarchist he was already immersed in revolutionary politics long before the 1917 revolution, and traveled to Russia in 1919 to see events for himself. Once there he quickly aligned himself with the Bolsheviks and proceeded to both document the revolution and serve as one of its leading figures. A brilliant author his novels and non-fiction are powerful arguments of the need for Revolution, as well as defenses of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks.

Year One of the Russian Revolution is a history of the early years after the revolutionary year of 1917. Serge begins with historical context to the Revolution stressing the importance of the earlier 1905 revolution and Lenin's Bolshevik organisation to the eventual successful seizure of power in October 1917. Serge careful documents the historical development of Russia - the role of the peasantry and their changing circumstances, the industrial development of the major cities of Petrograd and Moscow (often with massive French loans) and then, the collapse of the Russian economy during World War One.

There is a good over-view of 1917 itself, but those looking for a detailed account of this must look elsewhere. That said it is worth noting that one of Serge's central arguments is that the seizure of power in 1917 was not a coup by a minority of revolutionaries, but a movement that was supported by the vast majority of workers and peasants.

But the bulk of the book is a historical account of what takes place in the immediate aftermath of the seizure of power and the start of the counter-revolutionary civil war. The demand for peace is the central question, but a separate peace with Germany provokes the anger of Russia's former allies. Germany itself uses the opportunity to try and seize vast areas of land to obtain more food for its own military forces. In addition, the absolute hatred of the ruling classes for the revolution forms the basis for the begins of the Imperialist assault on Revolutionary Russia itself.

Serge really brings to life the debates of the era. The struggles within the Bolshevik leadership about how best to bring peace, as the likes of Lenin and Trotsky thrash out a strategy to best defend the fledging workers power, are amazing to read, and one can only feel the tragedy of knowing that Russia was to become even more isolated with the failure of the German Revolution. On a slightly less serious note, the account of Trotsky besting the rhetoric of the German generals at Brest-Litovsk are hilarious.

As it became clearer and clearer that the Revolutionary leadership was not going to collapse, the old ruling classes, together with their friends abroad became more and more prepared, in the words of Serge to "view democratic illusions more and more as a watered down variety of Bolshevism. It was waiting for its own moment."

Serge fills this book with little known bits of history. Writing in Russia in the late 1920s he would have had access to sources that few other historians can have read. Despite having read extensively about the period, I have never read of the events in Finland when counter-revolutionary forces decimated a new government installed on the back of a movement by workers in that country. While relatively radical, in that workers were intended to have real input into production and politicians were more accountable than in any other democratic country, this did not stop the whole of the left being smashed by the counter-revolutionary forces. Men, women and children were murdered in the name of re-establishing "order".

Such realities were to form the basis of the counter-revolution and the blood baths that followed the white armies and the imperialist invasions. Serge quotes Leon Trotsky defending the violence that revolutionaries resorted to in defence of their state,
Now that workers are being charged with committing cruelties in the civil war, we must reply, instructed by our experience: the only unpardonable sin whic hthe Russian working class can commit at this moment is that of indulgence towards its class enemies. We are fighting for the sake of the greatest good of mankind, for the sake of the regeneration of mankind, to drag it out of the darkness, out of slavery.
Repeatedly Serge emphasies the violence of the counter-revolution, which purely numerically, had far more enemies that the revolutionaries, and spilt far more blood. Indeed, Serge bemoans the softness of the revolution, which in its early months frequently let its enemies off, despite the most awful counter-revolutionary actions. Only to see them reappear at the head of invading armies months and years later, slaughtering men, women and children. Indeed, "terror" was not the immediate response of the revolutionary leaders, as Serge points out:
The Moscow Junkers who massacred the workers in the Kremlin arsenal [October 1917] were simply disarmed. It took ten months of bloodier and bloodier struggles, of plots, sabotage, famine, assassinations; it took foreign intervention, the White terror in Helsinki, Samara, Baku and the Ukraine; it took the blood of Lenin before the revolution decided finally to let the axe fall! This in a country where over a whole century the masses had been brought up by the autocracy in the school of persecutions, flogging, hangings and shootings!
Reading this during the centenary year of the Russian Revolution I was struck by the contrast between "official" accounts of the Revolution which focus on the "terror" of the Bolsheviks while neglecting the historic context or the violence with which the ruling class tried to regain its lost wealth and power. Serge's book is more than a brilliant history of the Revolution, it is a polemic that reminds us that the ruling class will not give up their position without a bloody struggle. If we want a socialist world, where people are not put before profits, than we will need to learn the lessons of history and be prepared for the violence with which their side will defend their privilege.

The tragedy was that Stalin's rise to power destroyed that vision. Genuine revolutionaries like Victor Serge lost their lives, or fled into exile. When Serge was arrested his unpublished follow up manuscript Year Two of the Russian Revolution was confiscated. We can only hope it remains as yet undiscovered in some former Stalinist vault.

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, I'm reading, or re-reading, some of the classic works about 1917 - click on the 1917 tag to find these reviews, together with earlier ones published on this blog.

Related Reviews

Serge - Memoirs of a Revoltuionary 1901 - 1941
Serge - Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia 1919-1921
Serge - Conquered City
Smith - Red Petrograd

Cliff - All Power to the Soviets

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Cixin Liu - The Three-Body Problem

This is a startlingly original piece of science fiction, which is as fascinating in its look at the history of 20th century China as it is with its story of the beginnings of an alien invasion, by a superior technology. Cixin Liu cleverly interweaves the historical backdrop to the contemporary story with that of a virtual reality 'game' designed to win converts to an understanding of what the aliens have done to human society.

Beginning in the 1960s, the story focuses on Ye Wenjie's work at the Red Coast station. A place she thinks is designed to track and destroy imperialist space-craft. Instead, the highest levels of the Chinese government are concerned that attempts to communicate with aliens will initially come from the capitalists, not the puveyors of peace and socialism represented by the Chinese state. Socialist readers may well smile at this, but the denunciation of the deviate socialism of the Soviet Union by the characters in the book certainly evokes certain Maoist political propaganda. Ye Wenjie manages to communicate with an alien society, and despite a warning not too from a dissident alien, she directs the civilisation to Earth.

But faster than light travel is not available, and the aliens know that they could arrive at an Earth with better technology than they have, so they devise a cunning plan to undermine Earth technology. To encourage science to be feared, and scientists themselves to go insane. Its into this world that the character at the centre of the story, a nanotech scientist, Wang Miao is plunged when the united secret services and military forces of the world conspire to try and find out what is happening.

The novel is original, and highly enjoyable. At times some of the characters felt a bit thin, and the dialogue a little wooden. I don't know whether that is the writing, or the difficulties of translating Chinese into English. There are certainly lots of footnotes to explain the history, the translation and cultural differences which I actually found added to the novel. Despite this limitation the story builds up to a satisfying climax and I look forward very much to the follow up volumes.