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. 
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.


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