Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Thomis - The Luddites
Zmolek - Rethinking the Industrial Revolution

Saturday, March 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Anatole France - The Gods Will Have Blood

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Cixin Liu - The Dark Forest

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

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

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

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

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

Related Review

Cixin Liu - The Three Body Problem

Friday, February 24, 2017

Victor Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

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

Cliff - All Power to the Soviets