Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Stephen K. Land - Kett's Rebellion: The Norfolk Rising of 1549

This is a good introductory book to the history and context of Kett's Rebellion, the large agrarian uprising that shook East Anglia in 1549. The author does well to contextualise the rebellion, locating it in widespread rural discontent, linked to the changes of the Reformation, but most importantly economic problems in the countryside.

Land argues that unlike the Prayerbook uprising that takes place almost simultaneously in Devon and Cornwall, "religious doctrine was not a factor" in Norfolk. Instead, he suggests that the problem was "the gradual transition which was taking place between the manorial system of local economy, in which each village was a self-sustaining agricultural unit... to a capitalist economy."

I'm not convinced by this. Not least because it suggests that the motive for rebellion was something that was to come, rather than the day to day reality of rural life. Land goes on to suggest that the uprising was inherently conservative, seeking not to displace the existing hierarchy, nor challenge the duke of Somerset, Lord Protector for the young Edward VI. However I think it's fairer to argue that what was taking place was an attempt by a section of the rural population to assert greater control over their lives, and their villages, in the face of a changing world. The 29 articles that they wrote from their camp at Mousehold Heath outside Norwich, clearly are attempts to blunt the powers of the gentry, strengthen the hand of the smaller landowners and poorest and protect traditional and common rights. To see this as simply conservative is to fail to understand that social change always takes place in the context of already existing situations, which understandably those participating want to protect if they feel they are losing rights or wealth.

This disagreement aside, Stephen K. Land's book is an excellent introduction to the rebellion. It has a detailed account of Kett's assaults on Norwich and the reason for his eventual defeat. It also rightly argues that Somerset's fall in the aftermath of the rebellion was not a direct result of the uprising, but the opportunity for those who disagreed with his agrarian policies (which might be roughly described as reformist) to do away with someone who was perceived as encouraging rebellion.

The Robert Kett that stands out from this work is less the precursor to those who fought for "rights" and "freedoms" and instead a powerful defender of the interests of those around him. Sadly Tudor society had no space for those who became an alternative source of power to the gentry and the aristocracy, no matter how much they claimed to be acting in the interests of the king and his realm. The judicial murder of Kett, his brother and other leading figures, together with the deaths of hundreds of rebels outside Norwich is the result of the Tudor state reasserting its rule. Lang's book is a good introduction, but readers will benefit from reading other works around the subject to see how more recent academics have framed the uprising differently.

Related Reviews

Wood - Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England
Caraman - The Western Rising of 1549

Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

John Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

This short book is an excellent example of how large scale historical changes can be examined through the microcosm a relatively small geographical area. White settlers profoundly transformed the areas they arrived in. Before their arrival, these areas had been the domain of various Native American tribes who had used the land in radically different ways to the Europeans. The destruction and displacement of those tribes is a key part of Tully's story. As part of doing this the Europeans completely transformed the whole landscape.

One early traveller to the region, James Smith, who was a prisoner of one of the local tribes remembered seeing "black-oak, walnut, hickory, cherry, black-ash, white-ash, water-ash, buckeye, black-locust, honey-locust,sugar-tree, elm and white-oak... [and] 'large quantities of wild apple, plum and re-and black haw trees'".

This plethora of trees, was matched by a huge variety of other flora and fauna. But a century ago, the transformation had taken place, as one quoted account puts it, the
universal forest has been so far destroyed that only broken patches remain... These are now much exposed to the sun, winds and forests, that they have lost much of their verdant and luxuriant appearance. - The same exposure to the elements has... dissipated the rich native soil; and the beautiful investments of shrubs and herbaceous plants has been destroyed by repeated browsing and cropping of domestic animals.
Those who have read William Cronon's masterful account of the changes that took place in New England with European colonisation will see many parallels. In Changes in the Land, Cronon showed that ecological changes could not be separated from the way that the Native people were also destroyed. So it was in the Cuyahoga Valley - here, as Tully shows, the desire to farm land along the lines of European agriculture meant the destruction of huge areas of woodland and the destruction of animals (such as the great rattlesnake hunts which have driven some species to near extinction).

Alongside this was the systematic defrauding, exclusion and massacre of the Native people. What was also destroyed was a way of life completely different to that of the Europeans. These were people who, in the words of Henry Lewis Morgan about the Iroquois people, "practiced communism in living". The Delaware people who lived in this part of Ohio, were egalitarian, and inclusive: "every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions". These communities were not Utopian - conflict certainly existed between some tribes - and Tully does not pretend otherwise. But their lives were completely different from those of the Europeans who came from a society obsessed with wealth creation. By contrast the Delawares, for instance, saw the whites as
Ungrateful, insatiable people, who though the Indians had given them as much land as was necessary to raise provisions for themselves and their families, and pasture for their cattle, wanted to still have more, and at last would not be contented with less than the whole country.
For European style society to triumph required the settlers to take control of the land. But they also had to destroy the Native Americans and their way of life. The "great slaughter" of animals by the settlers was matched by the destruction of the peoples who had lived their for thousands of years. In this, they faced resistance, in part because of the temporary alliance between the British and some Native American tribes. But mostly because the Native American people refused to meekly die.

It took the defeat of the British in North America for the area described by Tully to be completely opened up to European settlement. In fact, as Tully explains, one of the reasons for the revolt was that the British authorities had been preventing the "settlers' dispossession of the land and liberty of the Native American peoples". For Tully, the idea that the American Revolutionary War was just about liberty is one of the great historical myths as it helped to end the freedom of the indigenous peoples. While the British certainly didn't have a brilliant record in their treatment of the Native American population, they had helped restrict the destruction of the tribes in this region. The victory of the Revolution opened up the land and the whites moved swiftly to occupy it. As Tully explains,
Back east in the nation's capital George Washington and Thomas Jefferson advocated a softer approach. America's Manifest Destiny was to spread westward, but the Indians should be assimilated into the nation's social and economic life by accepting European doctrines of landownership and learning European methods of farming the land.
Washington and Jefferson may have hoped that this is what would happen. But they must have know that the reality would be forced eviction, fraud, violence and massacre. The details of the violence in Tully's account are deliberately shocking, as the author is writing in part to demand recognition of what took place and to recognise that, in his words, "justice demands the redress of the accumulated wrongs".

Exactly how this should happen, is as Tully points out "complex" and part of the point of his book is to teach a new generation of people of the need for justice. It is an admirable contribution, which deserves a wider readership than the Cuyahoga Valley population that it is clearly aimed at. For this reason a few maps would have been helpful. But this is a minor critique of an important book that everyone interested in history of the United States and the transformation that took place with the arrival of Europeans should read.

Related Reviews

Tully - Silvertown
Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
McMillan & Yellowhorn - First Peoples in Canada
Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Fagan - The First North Americans

Monday, December 28, 2015

Bruce Chatwin - In Patagonia

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia completely revived the market for travel books. Becoming the bible for thousands of South American backpackers inspired by his pithy and amusing accounts. Framed by the story of his attempts to obtain a replacement of his Grandmother's lost piece of brontosaurus skin, Chatwin travels back and forth across the countries of Patagonia describing the people he meets and their links with famous historical events.

Frankly though, I found the book tiresome. Chatwin has undeniable writing talent. But his emphasis seems to be on the eccentric, and particularly eccentric European immigrants. As such his account is largely devoid of stories reflecting the mass of the population but rather an obscure (and relatively dull) section of those who'd recently come to the continent.

That's not to say that this isn't interesting. The Welsh community of Chubut is fascinating, as are Chatwin's retelling of the Butch Cassidy stories and his extensive account of his Grandmother's cousin Charley Milward, the adventurous sailor who originally found the fossil remains, is also entertaining. But what about the indigenous population (who are only here as a backdrop to tales of other people). What about those who did the farming, or worked in the huge cities?

In Patagonia failed to give me any picture of what the place and its people were really like, beyond a few interesting characters, and as a result I found myself very disappointed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Michael Andrew Žmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution: Five Centuries of Transition from Agrarian to Industrial Capitalism in England

There is something about a book of this scope that almost defies reviewing. How can a reviewer do justice to a work which spans in enormous detail five centuries of history with a thorough discussion of historical work about the period?

It should be said at the outset that Žmolek's book is a superb read and is a remarkable piece of scholarship. He has a unparallelled grasp of the material, both in terms of the historical record and his understanding of contemporary analyses of the subject under discussion. This book will undoubtedly be debated and studied for many years. Disagreements there may be, but this is a fine work which packs an enormous amount into its 900 pages. For instance, Žmolek summary of the importance of the English Civil War in the transition to capitalism is one of the best I've read.

The question of the origin of capitalism is not merely of academic interest. The dynamics of the transition from feudal society to a capitalist one have much to teach us about the process of historical change. But they also shaped today's society. Žmolek's central point though, is that the process was not an inevitable one - "industrial capitalism did not arrive unopposed" [347] he writes. Nonetheless the process that led to the eventual development of industrial capitalism had deep roots. Žmolek notes that "Marx sought to explain how capitalism developed out of the action of feudal society itself". [19]

That this occurred at all is, Žmolek points out, surprising:
the amazing thing about capitalism, an economic system which promotes the regulation of production according to the dictate of the market ahead of all other forms of regulation, is that it developed out of feudalism, an economic system in which production was intensively regulated according to extra-economic rules and norms. [28]
For the transition to take place required a "protracted" class struggle. This conflict, "between direct producers and surplus appropriators both acting as economic agents seeking to reproduce themselves as they were, but culminating in the unintended consequence of general market dependence and new economic imperatives." [40]

Here we see one of Žmolek's central themes. The processes of change that took place, both in the transition from feudalism to an agrarian capitalism, and in the development of industrial capitalism, saw different classes in society battling for their own interests. In some cases, such as the struggle of the English peasantry against the loss of their lands and rights, this was a defense of what they already had. But their lordly opponents ended up in a position where they were renting access to land and were becoming "subject to new market pressures in the form of competition for leases as well as price competition". Thus the process of conflict itself was resolving a contradiction between the two classes, but generating new conflicts and contradictions in wider society.

Žmolek has to challenge those who argue there were alternate reasons for the development of capitalism and its industrial variant. In particular, he tackles the teleological argument that the development of industrialisation occurred because of the development of technology itself. In some of his most detailed chapters, Žmolek lists numerous inventions and the process of technological development to show that this was neither inevitable, nor unique to England. He shows, for instance, how various parts of the world were far ahead of Europe in scientific and technological terms but this did not lead to the development of capitalism in Asia or the Middle East.

Instead Žmolek argues that the key reason for the development of industrial capitalism was the existence and expansion of "agrarian capitalism". Between 1700 and 1750 Britain became a world power, it was able to do this because of the growth of agrarian capitalism. This was already "steering the economy in the direction of a broader capitalism" [165] by the time technologies such as steam engines, and blast furnaces arrived. One example will suffice, by 1780, English agriculture needed between two and three hundred thousands tons of iron annually to manufacture farm implements. [167] But this was not the only cause and Žmolek argues against some theorists who simply see agriculture as stimulating industrial advance.

Here he marshals all sorts of factors, such as the importance of exports, the role of taxation and improvements to agriculture itself to show how the development of industrial capitalism was a much more complicated process. Central to this was the systematic destruction of the old rural order, enclosures, clearances and the breaking of common rights together with the growth of urban areas. The artisan and the peasant were both "resisting the transformation of a labour process regulated by custom into abstract labour regulated by the market alone". [605] Workers had to be forced to accept the new way of doing things and this cleared the way for untrammelled capitalist logic and once the industrial revolution began, it fed upon itself:
the emergence of a new and capitalist economic logic in Britain, where competition uniquely compelled employers to seek ways to cut costs through innovation, provided the economic context in which the systematic application of technology to production made sense in a way that it simply did not and never had in non-capitalist societies. [813]
For Žmolek the industrial revolution was the way that capitalism was able to place manufacturing under the control of capital. But this was not an automatic process. Žmolek again points out how workers in early factories fought to retain old "customary" rights and traditions, and how this often led to brutal confrontations before labour was subordinated to capital. For much of the book, Žmolek shows how this victory was won, and the many ways that workers tried to resist the changes. He also puts an interesting argument that the workhouse was much more than simply a method of disciplining the poor, but was also the "first experiment" in organising labour in concentrated groups.

So the Industrial Revolution takes place because agrarian capitalism initiates a series of processes that lead to large scale class confrontation. It is, Žmolek concludes, thus "untenable to view capitalism as an economic system that resulted from the 'natural' evolution of European society and economy out of feudalism, fulfilling the latent potentialities of pre-capitalist commerce and industry" [839]/ But because capitalism could only come about by "suppressing" those who fought against its imposition, the process "might have resulted in have resulted in an entirely different social order". Whether or not the reader quite agrees with that particular conclusion, one thing that Žmolek proves with his important book is that capitalism is neither natural, nor inevitable. Which of course begs the question of how we replace it with system based on a more rational organisation of society.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capital
Hill - The Century of Revolution
Perry - Marxism and History
Thompson - Making of English Working Class

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Andreas Malm - Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming

I read Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital while travelling to and from Paris to participate in counter-conferences and protests at the time of the UN COP21 climate talks. It proved to be a prescient choice of reading material for a conference that produced lots of promises but was short on agreement of what to actually do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Malm's book could almost be a manual on why it is that capitalism, the fossil fuel economy whose evolution he describes, is so unable to reduce its addiction to coal, oil and gas. It is a brilliant Marxist critique of capitalism and the origins of the fossil fuel economy and should be read by every activist.

Malm begins by asking precisely this question. How is it that we  have ended up in a situation where "vested interests" can prevent action on global warming? He argues that we must re-examine the Industrial Revolution in order to understand precisely how it ended up "welding growth to fossil fuels". Much of the book then is a detailed study of the way that the Industrial Revolution took place and why the switch to fossil fuels took place. Malm argues that this means understanding power in both its senses, the power that was required to make engines work, and the power that was needed to make the workers operate those engines, or use the energy they produced.

The first power system of the Industrial Revolution was flowing water. The rivers that turned the water-wheels were sources of energy that ran huge factories. But water as an energy source has many limitations; there are limited places where mills could be built, sites which were often far from urban areas and lacked labour, and water itself is prone to change - rivers freeze, dry up, or flood - all of which can stop a mill. But despite these limitations, when the steam engine was invented, the switch to coal was not automatic, primarily because of cost. As one boss explained to a British government Factory Inquiry of 1833, "the constant supply of water is much cheaper to turn an engine with than the supply of coal".

In fact the transition to coal often took place for more complex reasons. As Malm summarises:
The transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry did not occur because water was scarce, more expensive or less technologically potent - to the contrary, steam gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful, even and efficient.
What Malm shows is that the switch to fossil fuels takes place because fossil fuels allowed capitalists to exploit workers more efficiently, at the same time as over-coming problems associated with capitalist competition. Despite the limitations of steam power (water wheels could convert 85 percent of water's energy into machine motion, compared to steam's two to four percent efficiency at the point when the transition to a fossil fuel economy got going) it became the fuel of choice, eclipsing the water fueled mills within a few years.

One example of why the transition became necessary was that for the industry to continue using water power, it required co-operation between capitalists that went against the very ethos of capitalism. In a brilliant chapter, Malm explains how engineers planned great schemes to improve and share water efficiently between mills. This required the building of enormous reservoirs, sluice gates and channels that would allow each capitalist to have water for their needs, without starving each other. But these bands of warring brothers soon fell out on who should pay for the investment. Coal, and steam engines, while costing more from a fuel point of view, required less investment and innovation. They also kept the spirit of competition alive. As Malm concludes,
Reservoirs entangled investors in too much of a scientific - and thus also cooperative - endeavour; with steam, they would not need to actively engage with the science, only receive it from others and switch it on in their private sphere. In this sense, the engine won over the wheel because it was the less advanced productive force.
But this was not the only reason steam came to be adopted. What it also offered was "a ticket to the town". Steam meant that factories could be built almost anywhere the owner wanted. No longer where mills limited to the banks of rivers, but now they could be located in the midst of urban areas where workers disciplined (to a greater or lesser extent) in factory work could be easily hired. No longer would the factory owner have to build homes, churches and schools in remote valleys. Instead the slums of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow would be the location for the mills. A writer explained, again in 1833:
The work that is done by the aid of a stream of water is generally as cheap as that which is done by steam, and sometimes much cheaper. But the invention of the steam-engine has relieved us from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situation merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed them to be placed in the centre of a population trained to industrious habits.
The ruling class dressed this up as benefiting the whole of society. Wealth, even in 1833, was supposed to trickle down, but in reality this was about profits. It had taken generations, Malm argues, to train rural workers, and still they refused to accept the discipline of the mill. In the cities, the manufacturers hoped they would find a more acquiescent workforce. This proved not to be the case, and Malm documents the struggles of workers to protect their jobs (often against the introduction of machinery) and to improve their conditions.

Interestingly what finally killed the water-mills were the Factory Acts of 1847 and 1850. These reduced the amount of hours, and which hours, workers could work. In doing so, they meant that water mills, which had such variable sources of power were doomed in competition with those running on steam power. Water power was the "crutch" that capitalism needed initially, but was then discarded.
Capitalism

By the 1870s, coal use was soaring becoming "decoupled" from population growth and taking on a life of its own. Coal was now no longer simply associated with heating homes but part of "self sustaining economic growth". The Industrial Revolution in Britain, Malm argues, was the original source of the fossil fuel economy. As early as 1850 Britain was far ahead of any other country, or region, in the production of greenhouse gases: "If global warming has a historical homeland, there can indeed be no doubt about its identity".

Malm puts the case well for why Britain developed as a fossil fuel economy. All other nations that followed had to do some in the context of Britain's development. While Malm doesn't use the phrase, this is a classic example of "combined and uneven-development". Industrial development in other countries didn't need to follow Britain's path, they could use the latest in technology and industrial practices.

The post-2000 emissions explosion is yet another example of this. Centered on China, this is an example, Malm argues. of capitalism searching around in an attempt to maximise profits. Low wages, looser controls on pollution and so on have made the capitalists move away from the developed world and locate their factories (and associated emissions) in China and countries like India.

Malm argues that emissions increases are now central to the logic of capital:
What is certain in Marx, however - an iron law of accumulation, impossible to bend or stem - is that the material volumes grow, that the technical composition rises even if the organic does not: and from an ecological perspective, this is what matters. Given that capitalist machinery has been based on the stock since the early nineteenth century, and given that increased productivity will therefore mean that each hour of labour wields a greater amount of appropriated stock, there seems to be a low of a rising fossil composition of capital. The struggle to minimise the share of human labour in relation to machinery and other matter... causes a rise in the fossil composition, which, operating over the span of capitalist history, translates into a law of a rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The vested interests have no intention of changing their behaviour. While there are profits to be made, coal and oil will be extracted from the ground. The machinery to do so has to make a return and that means production might continue for a very long time. Malm gives one example if an oil platform built in 1982 whose one million tonnes of concrete represents an enormous investment that will see a return only after many decades of use. He quotes David Harvey, "When capitalists purchase fixed capital, they are obliged to use it until its value... is fully retrieved". But from inside the environmental crisis of climate change, this obligation will doom the entire planet.

In this context, sticking plasters over the wound makes little difference. Even installing renewable energy doesn't replace fossil fuels on a like for like basis. Malm quotes a study that demonstrates for every one percent increase in renewable energy, fossil fuel generated power only decreases by 0.1 percent. The logic of capitalism is to simply expand. What needs to be done is to "pull the plug" on fossil fuels - the shutting down of the fossil fuel industry; the closure of coal mines and oil fields. It is an inherently revolutionary perspective that cannot wait till after some future revolution, but needs to be initiated today.

I've focused in this review on the intensely stimulating core of Malm's book. I do have some disagreements with his arguments, but I don't feel that these are a major distraction from his main argument. In particular I don't think that he is right to dismiss the notion of the Anthropocene as he does. Malm argues that the key problem in terms of global warming is capitalism. In this he is correct, but nevertheless I think the Anthropocene concept can be a useful one, not least because capitalism is a creation of humans. In part this is because it helps to locate the problem for activists and scientists not yet won to an anti-capitalist perspective.

My second disagreement lies with how envisage a challenge to Fossil Capital taking place. Malm argues that globalisation has enfeebled the working class. He celebrates the struggles of workers that challenged capital in the past, with an excellent discussion, for instance, of the 1842 General Strike, but concludes today that only "humans" have the "hypothetical ability" to save us from environmental disaster. But what are humans? Does that include the bosses in the oil industry, or the coal barons and the politicians in their pocket?

Despite its defeats and its weaknesses the global working class today still has enormous potential to pull the plug on the fossil fuel industry. It is men and women who dig coal, build cars, load trains and aircraft and run electricity plants. They are real individuals with enormous power. It is workers like these, and all the others throughout the economy, who remain the only force in society that can bring about fundamental change precisely because they are central to capitalist production. Malm's book expertly proves that there is no one else in society who will save us from environmental disaster - the task for all of us is to build  movements that can both challenge Fossil Capital, and destroy it.

Related Reviews

Heinberg - Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils our Future
Marriott and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Foster - Marx's Ecology

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

C.V. Wedgwood - The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Years War ran from 1618 to 1648. It was a barbaric time of famine, plague, pillage, rape and endless violence. Millions of people died, were displaced and suffered. The population of Germany, according to Wedgwood's history, declined by seven million.

This is a detailed history of a period that relatively few in the English speaking world will know much about. C.V. Wedgwood's style is easy, yet the material is complicated and readers searching for an introduction to the Thirty Years War might want to begin elsewhere. The conflict involved a vast number of different states, dragging in a bewildering variety of princes and generals, some of whom last barely a few pages before they die on the battlefield. Wedgwood does her best to keep control of the different strands of the history, and while I lost track on occasion, her narrative does the material justice.

While the War is often described as a religious war, it was much more than this. Its intensity and its length were linked to the very nature of society in Germany at the time. Hundreds of competing principalities each had a complex web of allies and obligations which meant that once war began it became impossible to prevent it spreading. It is one reason that peace negotiations went on for years before treaties became even possible.

But religion is key, and the desire by the Catholic Church and its affiliated rulers to role back the changes of the Reformation combined with wider ambitions to create a dangerous situation. As Wedgwood notes
Barely a century had passed since the Reformation, and the Catholic Church cherished the far from illusory hope of re-uniting Christendom. The attempt failed. No single cause can explain that failure, yet one stands out above all others. The fortune of the Church became fatally interwoven with that of the House of Austria, and the territorial jealousy evoked by that dynasty reacted upon the Catholic Church by dividing those who should have been her defenders.
Because land was still the dominant source of wealth in the feudal states, the acquisition of more land was a key way that lords could become richer. Germany, with its enormous number of competing states, and hostile interests further afield was a powder keg ready to explode:
The Spanish King wanted the Rhine so that his troops and money could be easily transported from north Italy to the Netherlands. The King of France, and the Dutch... wanted allies on the Rhine to stop this. The Kings of Sweden and Denmark each sought allies against the other on the Baltic coast, against the King of Poland or against the Dutch. The Pope attempted to form a Catholic party in Germany opposed to the Hapsburg Emperor, the Duke of Savoy intrigued to be elected to the imperial throne. 
 Wedgwood explains that even larger states could be fatally divided when even in "a single province as many as half a dozen smaller states might arise".  There were, she says, over three hundred potentially conflicting authorities in Germany.

When war came it was brutal. Armies in the Thirty Years War were mass professional affairs, with huge trains of civilians following them. But the soldiers were rarely loyal to a cause or a leader, only to their banners and their pay. Defeated troops regularly switched sides, and Catholic armies were made up of Protestants and vice-versa. Even national armies, with the exception of the Swedish invasion, where frequently made up of men from many different countries, fighting for money and loot rather than a larger cause. Wedgwood even notes at least one case when a Catholic army mutinied because the men were instructed to partake in the Catholic Mass.

As the war dragged on, crops failed, were destroyed or dug up and peasants and their families joined the armies as the only chance of survival. When peace came, hundreds of thousands of armed men remained in the field, posing significant problems for the authorities.

Peace came in spite of those at the top, rather than because of. Wedgwood notes that "ruling powers.... asked for peace always in a general sense: when it came to practical action they were always prepared to fight for a little longer in order to gain their own particular end- and make a more lasting peace". Such is the logic of feudalism.

But peace did come, and Wedgwood notes that the war had major social and economic impacts on Germany. Much like the aftermath of the Black Death in England in 1381, the loss of millions of peasants led to a rise in wages and a decline in prices, but in the long term Wedgwood does conclude that "social hierarchy emerged from the war as rigid as before". But the peace was "ineffectual" in solving the wider contradictions of European feudalism. Wedgwood laments that the enormous suffering of the mass of the population during the Thirty Years War was only replaced by further suffering as "religious wars" gave way to "nationalist wars". There is some truth to this. The defeat of Austria, Wedgwood argues, opened up the space for Germany to become a European power. But much wider social and political changes needed to take place before a modern Europe became finalised.

C.V. Wedgwood's book is an excellent historical work for this period. It is, on occasion, a difficult one to follow, but it does repay study. In places scholars might find source material superseded by later research, but this does not diminish the scale of Wedgwood's achievement in telling the history of a deeply catastrophic period of history.

Related Reviews

Wedgwood - The King's War 1641-1647
Wedgwood - The Trial of Charles I
Parker - Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the 17th Century

Thursday, November 19, 2015

John Tully - Silvertown

In 1889 nearly 3,000 workers at Silver's, an enormous factory in East London, in Silvertown went on strike. The men and women who walked out were inspired by the New Unionism that was sweeping the city. They'd seen mass strikes by dockers in the East End that had won major victories and they wanted improvements too.

Their twelve week strike has almost been forgotten today. Perhaps because it ended in defeat. But John Tully's important book rescues the struggle for readers today, and, perhaps surprisingly, the reader will find that we can learn much from those brave men and women.

Silver's was enormously profitable. Having made a fortune from rubber, the plant was now a central part of a world-web industry. Their products literally stretched across the globe - a key, and very profitable, part of their work was manufacturing the telegraph cables that spanned oceans. Silver's even owned the ships that laid the cables, as well as the plantations that provided some of the raw material. Even after the twelve week strike, with production badly hit, Silver's could still declare "a half yearly dividend of 5 percent, or 10 shillings a share, tax free". Its shareholders, which included some of the most important political figures in the country, could breathe a sigh of relief. Not only were the profits still rolling in, but the company had faced down New Unionism.

For the workers who made these profits possible, life in the East End was appalling. Tully quotes some figures.
In 1906, Silvertown suffered infant mortality rates of 181 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 141 per 1,000 in West Ham's central ward. Twenty to thirty years earlier, up to one-quarter of all babies in huge swathes of the East End died at birth of shortly afterward. By way of comparison, the UK's rate between 2005 and 2010 was 4.,91 deaths per 1,000 and that of war-devastated Afghanistan during the same recent period was 135.95 per 1,000..... [those for] Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were respectively, 100,15, 105.37, 106.67 and 115.81 per 1,000.
As Tully comments, behind these figures "was a universe of human pain and sorrow".  Low wages meant poverty and hunger, lack of medical care and appalling living conditions.

The strike was impressive. At the forefront of it were women workers who led the collections, walking mile after mile to collect money for the strike fund. Some of them walked so far they wore out their shoes and new ones were purchased out of funds to enable them to carry on raising solidarity.

Eleanor Marx, who played a central role in the dispute argued explicitly for the equality of women and men in the struggle. Tully quotes one account of her speaking:
"she... appealed strongly to the women. They must form unions and work in harmony with the men's trade unions. As the dock strike had taught them the lesson that skilled and unskilled labour should work together, so the present strike should teach them a further great lesson, that they could only win by men and women working in combination. The capitalist was using women to underwork men and that would be the case until women refused to undersell their brothers and husbands."
Eleanor Marx was tireless in her work in support of the Silvertown strikers. But this was matched by the enthusiastic hard work of the strikers and their families. Regular marches, protest meetings and rallies took place from Hyde Park out to Silvertown itself. Large pickets tried to stop scabs going in, and encourage those workers who remained inside to come out.

For the strikers this was the crucial problem. New Unionism is so called because it represented a break from the old craft unions. By the late 1880s, these unions were still powerful (and sometimes very wealthy). But they represented a small and distinct layer of a growing working class. The power of the union was mostly used to protect the interests of a tiny minority of skilled craftsmen, and their leaders often looked snobbishly down on the new, mass based, trade unions. The failure of a handful of engineers to join the strike meant that Silver's management were able to keep the plant running and provide work for scabs imported from outside London to undermine the strike.

One can speculate about the debates inside the Silvertown strike meetings about how to win. Tully doesn't provide us much information on what took place on a day to day basis - perhaps because none is to be had. We can guess mass pickets by the strikers weren't enough to stop the scabs going in. Perhaps solidarity action by other groups of workers would have helped shut down the plant in the face of such determined management. Certainly the government and the state were doing everything they could to intimidate, imprison and occasionally beat the strikers back to work. In the face of this, only mass solidarity action could have won - though had the engineers walked out it would have made victory much more likely. History can only judge the AES in East London as helping management win in Silvertown.

The defeat of the Silvertown strikers came with a bitterly cold winter as the strikers were starved back to work. Hundreds were victimised for their roles and some never worked again. The defeat helped pave the way for a renewed employers offensive against the workers, which together with an economic down turn helped undermine the gains of New Unionism.

John Tully has done the working class movement and labour history a real service with this detailed book on our forgotten history. Sadly it reads all to familiarly, the story of greedy bosses and shareholders and underpaid, poverty stricken workers desperate for better conditions. But there is much in this book that can teach the modern trade unionist. The Silver's workers were considered unorganisable, and yet they fought a powerful industry nearly to a standstill. From their tragic, and unnecessary defeat, we can learn lessons and be inspired to fight ourselves.

Related Reviews

Marriott - Beyond the Tower: A History of East London
Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor
Branson - Poplarism 1919-1925
Wise - The Blackest Streets
Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals 1875 - 1914

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Sturt - Revolt in the West: The Western Rebellion of 1549

Despite it's short length, John Sturt's Revolt in the West gives an excellent over-view of the events that took place in South-Western England during the 1549. This rebellion, more traditionally known as the Prayer-book Rebellion, saw thousands of peasants, rural labourers led by key figures in the gentry in open revolt against the Lord Somerset and King Edward VI's protectorate.

While noting that the rebellion was probably "the most formidable opposition to the Reformation that England saw", Sturt doesn't simply characterise the events as being just about religion. The seeds of discontent lay in much wider issues, that related to changes in land ownership, taxes as well as the events of the reformation. But even these often had economic and political overtones.

But the bulk of this book is a detailed narrative account of the rebellion and its military defeat. 1549 marked the first time in English history that European mercenaries were used against the country's own population. In part this reflected the weakness of the English ruling class at this time; as well as plans to invade Scotland. But it also reflected the fear that Somerset had that the Reformation might be set back.

The formidable uprising in the South-West brought tens of thousands of others into open rebellion. Had this army they amassed not got bogged down in the siege of Exeter, its likely they could have made it to London before Somerset could have mobilised his forces. This, combined with Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk, a second significant rising and other, more minor, rebellions in the Midlands, would have severally stretched Somerset and his forces.

Somerset failed to survive the aftermath of the 1549 rebellions, and one disappointment with Sturt's book is that he fails to discuss wider events in any detail. Nonetheless this is a useful read for those interested in  the more forgotten history of Cornwall and Devon, particularly that sort of history writing that doesn't obsess with smugglers.Visitors to the South-West may get more out of Sturt's book because he helpfully identifies many of the modern locations of events.

Related Reviews

Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549
Mudd - Cornwall in Uproar
Caraman - The Western Rising 1549

Friday, November 13, 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson - Aurora

One of the surprising things I found while reading Aurora, is that all the reviews I had read managed to not give away the central plot twist to the whole novel. So I will endeavor to do exactly the same in this brief review, limiting my comments to mostly arguing that this is an excellent novel which is somewhat of a return to form for Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction after the disappointing and confusing 2312.

Science fiction traditionally overcomes the inherent boredom of long distance space travel by inventing faster-than-light technologies. These "warp-drives" enable space-exploration, colonisation and warfare to become simply galactic expansions of what humans did on the Earth. The reality would, as Robinson points out, be much more mundane. Slow, dangerous, complex and technologically challenging travel that requires decades of time to get anywhere. Robinson doesn't just point this out, he makes a novel out of it. His spaceship, on the way to a moon around a planet around the star Tau Ceti is a gradually failing technological marvel. Bits are breaking off, the lights are failing, there's poison in the soil because the designers didn't anticipate the nuances of closed system agriculture and there's population pressure. It's a race against time for the colonists, descended from the original settlers, to make it to their new home.

Again, ignoring the central plot twist..... *whistles*.... there some really clever themes running through this book. Partly it is an ecological novel. KSR gives away some of his thinking on this early on when he uses the phrase "metabolic rift" a key concept in Marxist ecological studies. His spaceship as a closed system, where natural processes gradually overcome technology's ability to cope, is a clever, if obvious, commentary on our own planetary emergency. Secondly I liked the way that political discussion, political parties and argument were central to the process of decision making. Even if, at times, that descended a little into crude stereotypes.

This is a monumental novel. Some science-fiction fans have felt disappointed by what they see as a pessimistic approach to humanity's ability to colonise the galaxy. But they're missing a wider point that KSR is making - this is not a novel about the far future, but one about today.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Julian Rathbone - A Very English Agent

Throughout much of the 19th century the British government was fearful of revolution. In every dark corner, every working men's pub and every rural village they imagined agitators plotting the violent over-throw of their order. There was, of course, some substance to these fears. There were plenty of people who had reason to despise those at the top of society. Poverty, unemployment and underemployment, hunger and fear of the future were the reality for most working people. Which is why mass movements arose, and why localised rebellions did occur. People burnt hayricks and threshing machines to defend their jobs; attended protest meetings to demand the right to vote and have some say in politics and some, went further and plotted revolution.

The British government had a extensive network of agents. These fed back news to London, and often helped inflame the fears of the ruling classes. But these spies might also have had darker, nastier roles than simply gathering information. We only have to look at recent undercover activity by British police to know that this was likely true back in the 1800s.

Julian Rathbone's romp though the underbelly of British 19th century social history focuses on the life of one of these agents. Charlie Boylan arrested attempting to break into Parliament with a loaded gun claims that he is owed a pension and some money for services rendered to the Crown.  A hired thug, assassin and agent provocateur he helped undermine and finish off rebellious movements and uprising; and in this version of history, he did for some of history's greatest revolutionary minds. The problem is that Boylan's role was never really recorded, so know one is quite sure whether to believe him. And Boylan's role in undermining social movements and being a hired gun also meant he had some insights into the darker side of the lives of the rich and famous.

Its an enjoyable book, though Rathbone works too hard to entertain the reader with knowing puns and historical jokes. Saying that though, Rathbone knew his stuff and there is a surprising amount of forgotten history here, with the occasional cynical comment on the fate of revolution and rebellion. Lefty readers who know their history might raise the odd wry smile and have to ignore the fact that they are reading a book whose central character spent his life helping deny freedom and democracy to ordinary people. But the book might also encourage the reader to explore further the forgotten radical history of Britain, that is just as exciting as any novel can make it. That said, A Very English Agent is well written and quite amusing in places.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Flora Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford

Flora Thompson's account of her childhood and early adult years in the semi-fictionalised hamlet of Lark Rise and then the village of Candleford is considered a classic of that peculiarly English book, that celebrates the countryside of yesteryear. But unlike much of that genre, Thompson's book is has much to recommend it. Firstly it is beautifully written. More importantly, while unashamedly sentimental, Thompson is not afraid of discussing the darker aspects of rural life. In this she is shaped by her father, whose political liberalism was unusual for Lark Rise. Take for instance, a near throwaway comment by Thompson when describing the celebrations as Lark Rise's labourers complete the harvest, they sang and shouted

Harvest home! Harvest home!
Merry, merry, merry harvest home!

Thompson conments, "The joy and pleasure of the laboruerers in their task well done was pathetic, considering their very small share in the gain". Later when discussing the elaborate (and extensive) feast given by the farmer to those who'd laboruered on the harvest, a celebration that was even extended to any passing "tramp", Thompson has her father comment that
the farmer paid his men starvation wages all the year and through he made it up to them by giving that one good meal. The farmer did not thingkl so, because he did not think at all, and the men did not think either on that day; they were too busy enjoying the food and the fun.
Running through all three books collected within Lark Rise to Candleford is the sense of change running. This manifests in many ways. The death of the old vicar of Candleford and the arrival of a new man, with modern ideas and sermons. The coming and going of fashions, a little behind the larger villages and towns with their more immediate connections to the cities. New names for babies, "wages rose, prices soared and new needs multiplied". This is the coming of the modern world, though its continuities are perhaps greater than Thompson suggests. Most importantly for the author  are the changing attitudes to women and work, and as she secures her first job working in the post office, she is overseen by a woman with a very modern attitude. Had this been a major town, her mentor would have been a suffragette, and probably a socialist. As it stood she was a individual woman with advanced ideas who ran the post office and managed the village smithy.

Thompson's story is fascinating, though I was more taken by the incidently details and given small insights into rural life at the turn of the 20th century. Take this demonstration that the class struggle is sometimes hidden and sometimes open:
A new field had been thrown open for gleaning... Bob Trevor had been on the horse-rake when the field was cleared and had taken good care to leave plenty of good ears behind for the gleaners. 'If the foreman should come nosing round, he's going to tel him that the ra-ake's got a bit out of order and won't clear the stubble proper. But that corner under the two hedges is for his mother. Nobody else is to leaze there.'
Class differences run through this book. Thompson makes clear that the gentry are admired by the majority, forelocks are touched repeatedly. But the gentry are not part of village life. They are separate and keep themselves aloof. Its summed up well at the huge party thrown at a nearby country house for Queen Victoria's jubilee. The gentry show themselves, then quickly retreat from the fun and games and the ordinary labourers and their families show barely disguised relief when released from the need to mind their manners and behave properly.

There's  no open class struggle here. But its indicated... with resentment over low wages a common point. Thompson repeatedly suggests that no-one really starved because the village looked after each other, but frequently she mentions charity from the church and on occasion the workhouse.

Thompson's book is beloved no doubt because it is beautiful. Published in the midst of World War Two, its passing references to those (including her beloved younger brother) who died in the First World War must have helped its popularity. Reading it today I can't but help think that its precisely because it covers an era of enormous change in English society that it is so fascinating. Though ironically as she was writing it 75 years ago, this was precisely what Flora Thompson was noting too.

Related Reviews

Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields
Berger - Pig Earth

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ralph Miliband - Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour

The election of the socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party in September 2015 should have made every revolutionary socialist think through their understanding of that political party. For the tens of thousands of people joining, or rejoining Labour in 2015, this was a seminal moment. For years Labour had been dominated by slavishy pro-market, neo-liberal, pro-war politics, but Corbyn brought the prospect of something very new.

This is not the place to rehearse discussions on what Corbyn means for the left in Labour. There are other excellent pieces that do this. In trying to understand Corbyn, I turned to one of the "seminal texts" of the Marxist left in Britain, Ralph Miliband's pioneering study of the politics of Labour.

Miliband's book puts Labour's history into its wider context. This is the belief that change, even fundamental change, could come through a peaceful, parliamentary road. In fact, Miliband makes this a core argument, he points out that this reformist position was not something that developed later in Labour's history but was there from the start,
It did not take the Bolshevik Revolution or the Communists Party's involvement with the Third International and Russia to define the attitude of the leaders of Labour to any organisation which proclaimed its adherence to a revolutionary ideology. The attitude was defined from the earliest days of the Labour Party's existence.
In the early decades of Labour's existence there was a contradiction then. Labour's leaders would denounce capitalism and argue for socialism, but would do nothing to further the struggle on the streets towards that goal. In particular, Labour saw class struggle, strikes and protest movements as a distraction from the key work of getting Labour members elected to Parliament. Take for instance the huge battles that took place in 1919, when, in the aftermath of World War One, Britain seemed "on the brink of revolution". Miliband writes that three things were demonstrated
firstly, that a majority of Labour leaders remained as timid and cautious after the war as they had been before,. in some ways more; secondly, that a substantial segment of the organised working class was far ahead of its leadership in its willingness to challenge the Government; and thirdly, that while the Left wielded far greater influence than it had done before 1914, and could win temporary majorities at Conferences, it was not in a position to supplant the traditionalists.
The result of this timidness was that the Labour Party and the TUC pulled back from the sort of action that could have defeated the government and little was won, in fact, as Miliband notes, on the key question of the nationalisation of the mines, when the TUC and Labour decided against calling a general strike to fight for this, "it settled the issue, and much else as well, for twenty-five years".

The story of the first few Labour governments was equally bland. In Labour's first minority government, Labour was terrified of doing anything radical. Headed by Ramsey MacDonald, a man so scared of confrontation he apologised to the king for the singing of the Red Flag by MPs, and so desperate to be part of the establishment he strictly enforced dress codes and behaviour among his MPs, there was little that was likely to change.

By the time the General Strike of 1926 was betrayed by the TUC and the Labour leadership, the problem was well and truly obvious. The defeat of that strike lay not simply in an act betrayal, but something much more fundamental
But the notion of betrayal, though accurate, should not be allowed to reduce the episode to the scale of a Victorian melodrama, with the Labour leaders as the gleeful villains, planning and perpetrating an evil deed. The Labour movement was betrayed, but not because the Labour leaders were villains or cowards. It was betrayed because betrayal was the inherent and inescapable consequence of their whole philosophy of politics.
There was a fear (particularly from the union leadership) that the strike would get out of hand. More important though, "was the belief... that a challenge to the Government through the assertion of working class strength outside Parliament was wrong".

Part of the reason for this lies in the close links between Labour and the trade union leadership. The union bureaucracy, at one stage removed from its membership and the shop-floor, feels a pull on both sides. On the one hand it must articulate its members interests. But it must also feel the pressure from the bosses. The bureaucracy becomes a class in and of itself, economically and politically buffered from the working class struggles, it identifies less with the shop floor and more with managing the system. Challenging that situation means undermining its own position, making it harder to envisage.

Labour's origins from this class help create some of the conservatism within the parliamentary organisation in particular. But so does Labour's philosophy, identifying with the "national interest". During the period when a National Government, headed by the former Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was assaulting workers living standards on an enormous scale, Labour did little to challenge this, accepting the myth that such economic changes were needed for the greater good of the country. They didn't and, as Miliband notes, had Labour mobilised "effective opposition to the Government's policies, at home and abroad. The history of that terrible decade might have been different, perhaps decisively different, but for its deliberate refusal to do so."

The 1930s were low points for Labour. With his forensic examination of Labour Party policy documents and conference reports, Miliband shows how Labour systematically ignored what was taking place. From the conference reports of both the TUC and Labour in 1932, you would not know, that there were mass movements against unemployment taking place. Both organisations were not even involved in the unemployment movements, in part because they saw them as Communist Party fronts, but more so, because once again they were seen as distractions from getting Labour elected.

But today much of this is forgotten. One piece of history that isn't is the result of Attlee's government in 1945. Elected on a wave of hope after World War Two, and a rejection of Tory betrayals in the run up to the war, Labour seemed to promise much. It delivered lots too, a National Health Service, mass housing projects and the nationalisation of key industries. But even here, they pulled their punches. Miliband repeatedly notes that many of these changes were welcomed by the Tories who saw them as a necessity if British Capital was to modernise itself to compete once again on the world stage. In Labour's manifesto, published in 1945, Miliband reports,
A careful distinction was made between 'basic industries ripe and over-ripe for public ownership and management in the direct service of the nation', and 'big industries not yet ripe for public ownership'; these, however, would be required 'by constructive supervision' to further the nation's needs. And there were, thirdly, 'many smaller businesses rendering good service which can be left to go on with their useful work'.
This was hardly a major challenge to British capitalism. The manifesto might be looked upon with rose-tinted glasses from today's vantage point as both Tory and Labour governments have systematically privatised and dismantled the public sector, but as Miliband points out,"developments since, have invested it with a quasi-revolutionary aura, [but] it was, in its concrete proposals, a mild and circumspect document".

Miliband continues that
From the beginning, the nationalisation proposals... were designed to achieve the sole purpose of improving the efficiency of a capitalist economy, not marking the beginning of its wholesale transformation, and this was an aim to which many Tories, whatever they might say in the House of Commons, were easily reconciled.
Miliband's book continues the sorry tale until the 1960s. As Labour came out of the 1945 government, battered and weakened, having to use troops to cross picket lines and stepping back from any more radical proposals, further nationalisation went out of the window and the right-ward drift began. The author's account of the 1950s and 1960s were the book finishes are further dispiriting, with Labour accepting that British capital had to identify with the United States and supporting that country in Korea, and then, at least verbally, in Vietnam. In 1965, faced with a balance of payments crisis, Harold Wilson refused to devalue the pound, even though it would have provided some respite. Instead, a program of attacks on living standards were embarked upon, and in a revealing interview, Wilson explained why
There are many people overseas, including governments, marketing boards, central banks and others, who left their money in the form of sterlin balances, on the assumption that the value of sterling would be maintained. To have let them down would have been not only a betrayal of trust, it would have shaken their faith about holding any further money in the form of sterling.
Wilson here neatly sidesteps the question of the betrayal of trust of those who voted Labour hoping it would protect them from the worst of capitalism, and gives an interesting insight into a Labour PM's priorities.

Where does this leave us today? Firstly, Labour remains a reformist organisation. Its close links to the working class movement make it different to the Tories and while Corbyn clearly would like to go much further than recent Labour leaders, Miliband's book makes it clear that he is not as left as many earlier Labour figures. Corbyn is also trapped by a system, a parliamentary party that wants little to do with radical change and a parliamentary system that has, since Labour MPs first entered into it, done everything it can to foster the idea of slow, gradual activity and change.

Capitalism today is less interested in granting reforms. As crisis follows crisis, workers are always being asked to pay. Labour, despite the best intentions of Jeremy Corbyn and many of its members, remains trapped in that system. Fundamental, revolutionary change is needed more than ever. But what Corbyn has done is to create a space for the fragmented left to gain a hearing. For the first time in decades, socialism is being discussed across the country.

Those on the left outside Labour have a duty to work closely with those inside Labour to build and develop a new movement that can fight for change. Ralph Miliband' book on Labour's history will remain an essential tool in learning the lessons of the past and explaining why Labour cannot bring fundamental change. There are problems - in particular Miliband's focus on Labour means that on occasion he mentions events outside Parliament only in passing, which can be confusing for the reader. Nor does he deal in detail in this work on the question of the state and its action as a barrier to fundamental change. Finally I think Miliband doesn't explore enough about why Labour in government acts as it does. Nontheless this is an extremely important read today and one that every socialist, inside Labour and outside will benefit from reading in the coming months and years.

Related Reading

Newsinger - Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 
Molyneux - Marxism and the Party 
Luxembourg - Reform or Revolution 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Derek Wilson - The People and the Book: The Revolutionary Impact of the English Bible 1380-1611

In reading and writing about the various historical rebellions that have taken place in the British Isles in the pre-capitalist era, it is notable how important the question of religion has been. Both the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 were inseparable from the question of the Reformation.This should not be surprising. How people understand the world and how they interpret or argue for change is sometimes inseparable from their religion, particularly in periods when religion was the dominant ideology.

Derek Wilson's 1977 book is a useful history of how the English bible came to dominant English religion. Today it seems strange that there should not have been an English bible. But if the dominant ideology is religion, then it is in the interest of the ruling classes to control the distribution of that religion. In  sixteenth century England that meant the bible was rare and not available in a language that the common people might understand. In fact, Wilson quotes a study of the wills of almost 900 East Anglian clergy between 1500 and 1550 and finds that only 17 owned a bible. Back in 1407 the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that
no one henceforth on his own authority translate any text of Holy Scripture into the English or any other language... and that no book, pamphlet or tract of this kind... be read in part or in whole, publicly or privately
So the scene was set for those who wanted to understand the bible, or believed that everyone should have the opportunity to read and interpret the bible, to begin to organise. Wilson's book brings us a history of those who, often at risk of death, torture and imprisonment, struggled against the dominance of the existing church. On occasion these were mass outbreaks of rebellion, but more often they were networks of illegal, or semi-legal dissenters meeting, reading and writing pamphlets and discussing ideas. A translated bible was often central to this.
in 1428 an informant deposed against Margery Baxter of Martham, Norfolk, that she 'secretly desired her, that she and Joan her main would come secretly, in the night, to her chamber, and there she should hear her husband read the law of Christ unto them, which law was written in a book that her husband was wont to read to her by night'.
This does not mean that all religious dissenters were revolutionary. Far from it. In fact Derek Wilson makes it clear that "no Lollards were revolutionaries" when discussing those who came to follow the great religious dissenter Wycliffe. But by the reign of Henry VIII, change was coming and there was a battle on. Thomas More said that half the English population could read. Wilson argues this was an exaggeration, but that there would be few places were there wasn't someone who could read. The consequences were dangerous for the ruling class
For centuries English Christians had believed what they were told by their priests and bishops, largely because there was no other source of information... But now the battle for men's minds was on.
Growing numbers of English bibles were making their way into the country. Wilson documents the impressive network of merchants prepared to risk smuggling the version translated by Tyndale into the country. BY the late 1530s though, with Henry VIII needing to justify his position as head of the new church and undermine the link with Rome, an official translated bible was allowed.

The new availability of "god's word" meant that ordinary people could read it. Wilson describes the fascinating effects of this, as "gospellers" read allowed the bible to gathered listeners. This must have been extraordinary,
Often they chose to do this during mass, setting up a 'rival show' and sometimes drowning the mumblings of the priest in the sanctuary. William Maldon related how the poor men of Chelmsford came together on Sundays 'in the lower end of the church... to hear their reading of that glad and sweet tidings of the Gospel'
 Once unleashed this was impossible to stop. In fact Henry did try. Eventually, so concerned was he with ordinary people reading the bible, that he banned the lower orders from doing so in 1543. In what Derek Wilson argues was perhaps the first attack on a granted freedom in history, only the rich could read the bible in English. But so rooted was the new religion among ordinary people this did not long last Henry's death and Wilson shows that even with the reign of Catholic Mary and her brutal suppression of Protestantism, Church leaders did not really try and remove English bibles from Churches.

Wilson is enthusiastic about the importance of a translated bible, seeing a close link between the "spiritual freedom brought by the English bible and the political freedom won by seventeenth-century parliamentarians". And "important step on the path to democracy" he calls it. He is probably accurate in this, though he over-extends this argument from the specific story of England by saying that  there are "very few Protestant countries in which totalitarian regimes have been tolerated for any length of time".

Nonetheless the importance of the English bible cannot be underestimated. It was a right that was fought for and defended by thousands of men and women who wanted the right to interpret and understand the dominant ideology of the world themselves. This could be, and frequently was, of revolutionary significance. While I might have minor disagreements with Wilson's emphasis on how important the bible was, this is a fascinating history that highlights the role of ordinary people in shaping their own world.

Related Reviews

Siegel - The Meek and the Militant
Tawney - Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Monday, October 12, 2015

Judith Orr - Marxism and Women's Liberation

Judith Orr's new book is an answer to a conundrum. As she asks on the very first page,
Why are women, half the human race, still discriminated against?... Women on average earn around 18 percent less than men. Britain has fallen out of the top 20 countries for gender pay parity because the gap between men's and women's incomes is so wide. The latest economic crisis... has hit working class women the hardest.... The sexual freedom we though had been won in the struggles of the 1960s appears to have just given us the opportunity to be even more crudely defined as sex objects than ever before.
Explaining why it is, that in every country in the world women are systematically under-represented in public and private bodies, paid less, worked harder and objectified, leads Orr to examine the nature of our society and to explain why sexism is central to capitalist society. In doing so, she challenges those who say sexism is caused simply by the sexism of men, or that it has always existed. Marxists argue that oppression has not always existed, and in an excellent early chapter Orr looks at the way that for most of human history women have not been systematically oppressed.
today women are seen as mainly responsible for rearing the next generation in the family and looking after the sick and elderly, even though their role in society is much more than this. But this hasn't always been so. Different forms of the family may reproduce the oldest oppression but it is still a relatively modern development... for 90 percent of human history there were no hierarchies and no systematic oppression.
The importance of this analysis is, as Orr points out, that "oppression is not an inevitable product of human nature" and thus we can imagine and fight for a future without oppression too.

The emphasis on the family in the above quote is important, because the family (in all the forms it has taken) is central to the ongoing existence of women's oppression. Orr quotes from a classic piece by the British Marxist Chris Harman who explained that capitalism creates and uses the family, but it is not the sole aim of the capitalist system. "[Capitalism] has only one driving force - the exploitation of workers in order to accumulate. The family, like religion, the monarchy etc, is only of use to capitalism in so far as it helps this goal." How it helps is two fold. Firstly there is the economic question. Just the "informal" care of the sick and disabled by their family saves the British government £119 billion yearly. Orr quotes David Cameron being open about this when he said "[the family] is the best welfare state we ever had".

Then there is the ideological role of the family. This teaches us to live in small units, to be self-sufficient, to expect little from the state, and to do it for ourselves. As another Tory PM Margaret Thatcher said "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first." This also helps explain another aspect of capitalism - the way that the existence of the family helps to solidify a particular set of relationship as the norm. LGBT people are stigmatized because they are "different" to the supposedly normal family.

Yet these realities are constantly changing. Men and women struggle for changes. Laws to maintain the family are challenged. Abortion rights were won, helping to free women from the dangers of backstreet abortions, and in turn those rights were defended. LGBT people fighting together with straight people have won more rights, in the face of opposition from governments around the globe.

Another central strand to Orr's book is this emphasis on struggle. In particular she examines the mass movements that have fought for key gains for women. The struggle for the vote, the battle for abortion rights, equal pay rights and so on. In examining the Second Wave of the Women's movement, Orr makes a very important observation.
The early 1970s [in Britain] was a period of mass working class struggle. This included two national miner's strikes, a national docker's strike and more than 200 factory occupations. So although the women's movement in Britain was inspired by the Women's Liberation Movement in the US it was built in different circumstances, which included the presence of a stronger revolutionary left and a better rooted and organised labour and trade union movement. This backdrop shaped the dominant ideas and debates of the WLM in Britain. it also shaped the activity of newly politicised women. The campaigns they organised often reflected the demands and needs of working class women - equality at work, equal pay, maternity benefits.
This experience helped to make the demands of the women's movement part of those of the working class movement. That the TUC organised a mass protest, attended by tens of thousands of women and men against a Tory attack on abortion rights in 1979 was one brilliant expression of this.

Because Orr begins her explanation of women's oppression by examining the question of capitalism, a class analysis is central to her strategy for fighting for liberation. This is where Orr disagrees with many feminists, arguing that patriarchy theory misunderstands the origins of women's oppression and directs the movement down a blind alley.

This is why Orr can point to the way that at the high points of class struggle, in particular the early years of the Russian Revolution, working people won gains that showed the potential for an entirely different way of organising society. After the Russian Revolution abortion was a legal right, women played a full role in the democracy in society, child care, food and laundry was collectively organised, removing the burden from women in a society that had been incredibly backward. These achievements did not survive Stalin's rise to power, but Lenin could rightly celebrate in 1918
Take the position of women. In this field, not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power.... We really razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it was disgusting formalities,,,, laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilised countries.
Judith Orr's book ends on the possibility of Revolution to truly liberate women. It is this emphasis that makes the book so inspiring, because it doesn't simply highlight what is wrong in society, but offers a way forward. There is much more that I haven't covered in this review. For instance, Orr looks at contemporary women's movements and discusses some of the ideas that have come out of academia such as intersectionality and privilege theory. She finds these wanting, downplaying as they do the question of class. I also found the section on the question of social reproduction and the debate on wages for housework very useful.

For socialists, radicals and activists today this is a superb book. Its accessible, but takes on big and important debates and questions. It will introduce a new generation to the importance of Marxism as a tool understanding the origins of oppression and how we can fight to build a world where women's oppression is a thing of the past.

Related Reviews

Orr - Sexism and the System
Rowbotham - Hidden from History

Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Engels - Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

There's little to cheer the reader of Solzhenitsyn's account of a single day in a Soviet gulag. It's a stark, brutal tale of a daily struggle for existence that lives the reader with little hope and a grim sense of hopelessness. Solzhenitsyn's writing is tight and evocative. The detail he uses clearly draws heavily on personal experience, the rolling of a cigarette,
Eino got out a pouch embroidered with pink thread. He took from it a pinch of factory-cut tobacco, put it on Shukhov's pal, sized it up, and added a few wisps. Just enough for one roll-up, not a scrap more. Shukhov had newspaper of his own. He tore a bit off, rolled his cigarette, picked up a hot ember that had landed between the foreman's feet, took a long drag, another long drag and felt a sort of dizziness all over hi body, as though drink had gone to his head and his legs.
The casual treatment of the lack of basics, newspaper instead of rolling papers, and the concern over wisps of tobacco tells us everything we need to know about inmates lives. Shortages of tobacco products are mirrored by the constant quest for food, and more food. The central character declares the day a good one, at the end of the novel, mostly because he'd got himself a couple of extra bites of food.
All you'' get is an extra two hundred grammes of bread of an evening. Bit your life can depend on those two hundred grammes. Two-hundred-gramme portions built the Belomor Canal.
But shortages are nothing compared to the hard work in appalling conditions, and the casual violence for rule-breaking. The isolation, the physical punishment and the bullying of the guards, means making it to the end of the sentence is hard enough. But the real punch in the stomach is the realisation that this is simply one day, in thousands for Ivan Denisovich and his fellow inmates.

The power of One Day is its expose of the reality of the prison camp. Solzhenitsyn's saying little here about why those camps exist, though we get insights into the changes that have taken place in Soviet society. From revolutionary optimism, to the brutal dictatorship of the Stalin era that still uses the language of socialism to justify its rule. One Day caused a shock when first published, alerting the world to the reality of what many knew was taking place.

My edition has a terrible introduction by one John Bayley which seeks to use the novel as a denunciation of all things socialist. While Solzhenitsyn may have had that in his mind as well, this is far from a crude propaganda tract. It's an honest account of what happens when revolutions are destroyed, not an argument against changing the world.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Claire North - Touch

Touch follows Claire North's brilliant and extremely successful novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which played delightfully with time travel. This novel is a good read, with North's typically tight and breathless writing.

Here, our hero is also afflicted with an unusual problem. Instead of being doomed to repeat his life upon his death like Harry August, the individual known as Kepler can transfer his or her personality, complete with memories, between bodies at will, dependent on being able to touch skin.

At the beginning of the novel Kepler is running hard. A body he'd recently been wearing has been shot dead and Kepler only just made the transfer to the killer. We find out that Kepler's kind (for there are many) have been persecuted for centuries, considered demons or, in more enlightened times, beings that despoil or ruin those that they inhabit.

This theme of pursuit by an unknown force, with unknown motivation is a theme that readers will find familiar from Harry August. I think it works well here, but the novel is not quite as sharp and at times felt unfocused. Perhaps that was the difficultly of keeping track of precisely who was in who. Its a good read, and Claire North shows once again a flair for finding a new and unusual premise.

Related Reviews

North - The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
North - The End of the Day

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tamás Krausz - Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

In recent years there has been a intense discussion about the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Lenin. Some of this has its roots in the class struggle - the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement both threw up questions about the nature of revolutionary organisation. Others have attempted to re-examine Lenin to critique existing organisations and ideas. There have been some excellent books, articles and events debating these questions.

Tamás Krausz's important new biography must be seen as part of this debate. His work is very much an attempt to re-examine Lenin's ideas as part of a resolute defence of Lenin and his work. Krausz is clear that this is intended to take forward the revolutionary movement that can challenge and defeat capitalism.

The Lenin that comes through on these pages is far from the mechanical, doctrinal individual, whose personal single-mindedness somehow embodied the future authoritarian Stalinist state. Rather he rigorously applied the ideas of Marxism to the concrete situation, confident to update and alter his viewpoint depending on circumstances, and ever open to learning from workers. Indeed, Krausz highlights Lenin's own celebration of the importance of the workers' own spontaneity and self-organisation
Lenin considered the workers' soviet as the political arm of the uprising and an institution of the revolution. The soviets and similar popular organizations... were the product of the workers' autonomous agency. As Lenin wrote about the uprising of December 1905, 'It was not some theory, not appeals on the part of someone, or tactics invented by someone, not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led these non-party mass organs to realize the need for an uprising and transformed them into organs of an uprising.'
That said, Lenin's Marxism began with the concrete situation and ended with the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This comes through clearly throughout the book, but I found the discussion of Lenin's attitude to the National Question, particularly illuminating. Krausz says
Lenin always approached the role and character of national movements from a historical and class perspective. He did not support the struggle of each and every small country fighting the great imperialist powers. He also had a strictly imposed condition: the uprising of any class more reactionary than the bourgeoisie of the center countries is not to be supported. 
It is precisely this approach that allowed Lenin to become the leading revolutionary critic of war and capitalism during the First World War. Those who supported the war ended up siding with their own ruling class. But those who did not get the question of national liberation also failed the revolutionary movement. "Lenin considered national self-determination a fundamental issue of democracy that revolutionaries 'may not undercut!'." These debates continue to have a resonance today. Lenin, for instance, opposed the slogan of "No Borders", not because he wasn't for a world without borders, but because in the concrete situation, demanding the self-determination for oppressed countries meant the defacto creation of borders.

Another excellent chapter is on the nature of the early Soviet regime. Here Krausz describes how Lenin again saw everything through the lens of the defense of the revolution. "To Lenin, mass terror counted as the most extreme instrument of struggle against the enemy and was to be applied (and often demanded by him in vain) on a case-by-case basis". Given the way that under Stalin the Soviet Union's peasantry were forced into collectivisation, its interesting to read that
In April 1919, some peasants in certain parts of the country were going to be forced to join the collectives, rather than doing so of their own free will - a behavior categorically prohibited by Lenin in the name of the Council of People's Commissars. The peasant base formed the backbone of the Red Army, and 'Compulsory measures of any kind to make the peasants pass over to the communal working of the fields are impermissible. Non-observance of this will be punished with all the severity of revolutionary law'.
Krausz's treatment here of the Civil War and the suppression of the Constituent Assembly is refreshing - seeing Lenin (and the early Soviet state) actions through the question of the defence of Revolution. Lenin is often accused of celebrating revolutionary violence. But his approach was very different, Krausz notes how in the aftermath of the defeated 1905 revolution Lenin advocated the use of political terrorism if it took the movement forward, however, he quickly changed his mind after seeing how terrorist actions in response to counter-revolution made the situation worse.

Later, as it becomes clear that the Russian Revolution was isolated, Lenin was forced down even more pragmatic roads. Krausz explores in detail the years of War Communism and the NEP, seeing these as steps along particular routes attempting to deal with particular situations. Lenin and the leadership of the Bolsheviks had always been clear that without international revolution, the Russian Revolution would become isolated. The end of the First World War did lead to revolutionary upsurges elsewhere, and real hope in Russia that countries like Germany would overthrow capitalism, and the centre of revolution would move to Berlin. Unfortunately Krausz downplays this. His focus on Russia implies that the key moment for international revolution was the failed Red Army assault on Poland in 1919. And at times, Krausz suggests that there was limited potential for a Germany revolution and for Bolshevism to spread among western workers.
Lenin also mentions another defining trait - that a majority of the Western workers were not ready to seize power. However, he only sensed that they were subjectively ill-prepared for it, and he neither analyzed the causes nor sought the origins of this phenomenon. He understood that revolutionary Bolshevism could not penetrate the cultural traditions of the Western working masses, but he lacked a well-differentiated sociological analysis of the reasons for the inner stratifications of Western labor.
If Lenin really believed that "Bolshevism could not penetrate the cultural traditions of the Western working masses" then he gave no real sign of it in his writings. Krausz bases much of this on a description of a single visit by British workers to Russia in 1920 (though he fails to mention that in 1919 and prior to the First World War) there had been near revolutionary strike movements in Britain.

While this is a disappointing it should not be used to completely rubbish Krausz's book. The author rescues Lenin as a practical revolutionary, constantly returning to the concrete situation, analysing, listening and learning from those around him. For many decades after the Russian Revolution, we were told there was "actually existing Socialism" in Russia. Lenin would have been appalled. As Krausz points out,
Lenin stated in his last public speech that the realization of socialism was not on history's agenda yet. Now was the time of the transitional period, of creating the historical-cultural preconditions for socialism
Tamás Krausz's books deserves to become a key text for those trying to change the world. As he points out, the discontented keep running into Lenin, which is why his work is endlessly debated. This is not an abstract debate, but one that Lenin would have approved of. Here's Krausz ably summing up why
certain authors have deliberately eliminated from Lenin's legacy the essential philosophical tenets and methodology that made him who he was. For one thing, they neglect his most important practical discovery, namely his precise theoretical interpretation of Marxist dialectics, its reconstruction, and his practical application of those dialectics. Lenin understood, even on the basis of its Hegelian roots, that dialectical materialism (and epistemology) incorporates the self-movement in things, phenomena, processes, as well as the conscious human activist to transform society. Thus it is not a matter of the historical dialectic of ideas, but rather the self-movement and self-creation of history through social classes and individuals. For Lenin, epistemology was not simply a matter of getting to know reality. It did not exist for its own sake. He aimed instead to seek out the truth, the solution to contradictions within things, and the struggles that resulted. He wanted to see a radical transformation of the world so that humanity could rid itself, by its own will, of the dominant powers. Lenin gave Marx's eleventh Feuerbach thesis a new urgency: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it'. In other words, history was not an abstract whole, an object of study for him, but a tool through which the elements and tendencies to be continued or transformed could be located in the midst of 'collapse'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky

Nation - War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left and the Origins of Communist Internationalism
Cliff - Revolution Besieged
Cliff - All Power to the Soviets
Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin