Thursday, December 20, 2012

Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East

 My recent reading of The Oil Road reminded me of the fascinating radical history of the city of Baku. Formally part of Russia and now in Azerbaijan the city had at the beginning of the 20th century been a hot bed of working class action. Central to both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions Baku was one of the most important cities for the new Soviet republic.

Central to the programme of the Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution was the idea of self-determination. Right from the earliest days after the Revolution different parts of the old Russian Empire were given the right to determine their own future. This contrasted very much with the policies of the previous regimes as well as the later policies of the Stalinism.

However the Bolsheviks fought the revolution with an internationalist mindset. Lenin and the other leaders understood that an isolated Russian Revolution would face starvation and defeat. They hoped for similar revolutions to break out across the world, not least in Germany. But they also understood there was enormous potential for solidarity and revolutionary upheaval in "the East". The Congress of the Peoples of the East then was called in 1920. This was a conscious attempt by the revolutionary leadership to spread the ideas of Communism and Bolshevism through countries like Turkey, Persia, Armenia, China and elsewhere. Hundreds of delegates came from all over the Middle East and further afield. They met, listened to and debated speeches from leading Russian revolutionaries like Karl Radek and Zinoviev. They also heard from representatives of new, or growing revolutionary organisations in Europe. There was a representative from France (Rosmer), Britain and even the Dutch Communist Party.

This stenographic report is not perfect. In parts it is incomplete - I'd dearly love to read the speeches and representations from the Jewish organisations that were present as well as other speeches by the small number of women delegates. The transcripts are also limited to the main speeches, rather than the smaller meetings, caucuses and fringe events. This means much of what we read a fairly long, set piece speeches, rather than shorter discussions. This doesn't mean that they are all rhetoric. There are fascinating references to ongoing struggles in countries like Turkey and debates about the way forward.

One of the key questions for the Congress was the attitude of revolutionary socialists to what would now be called movements of national liberation. Then there were mass movements growing and developing against the colonialism of Britain and France as well as the growing role of American imperialism. For some at the conference the key question was national liberation and the development of an independent national bourgeois before the socialist revolution. This mimics debates within the Russian socialist movement itself, and the Russian delegates argue hard for the idea of "permanent revolution"; revolution that takes the struggle for national liberation immediately over into the struggle socialism. 

There is much in this book, and the translation as well as the supporting notes from the British Trotskyist Brian Pearce are indispensable. Not least because names of places and individuals are often now unknown to us. Those who have read The Oil Road will find here-in the story of the Bolshevik Commissioners who used to be buried in Baku, after their murder by British forces. The Congress itself ceremonially laid their bodies to rest in a square that was only recently destroyed.

Of interest to contemporary debates around the role of women in the Arab Revolutions are the two contributions in this book from women. Comrade Nadzhiya begins her speech with this statement:

"The women's movement beginning in the East must not be looked at from the standpoint of those frivolous feminists who are content to see woman's place in social life as that of a delicate plant or an elegant doll. This movement must be seen as a serious and necessary consequence of the revolutionary movement which is taking place throughout the world. The women of the East are not merely fighting for the right to walk in the street without wearing the chadra, as many people suppose. For the women of the East, with their high moral ideals, the question of the chadra, it can be said, is of the least importance. If the women who form half of every community are opposed to the men and do not have the same rights as they have, then it is obviously impossible for society to progress: the backwardness of Eastern societies is irrefutable proof of this."

Running through the Congress, even amongst those who are not communists and hold out different visions of how to achieve freedom is the enormous respect for the Bolsheviks and the political authority that representatives of the revolution have. This shouldn't be a surprise. The world was experiencing enormous revolts and the Russian Revolution was as yet the only successful revolution. Delegates at the Congress had every reason to believe it wouldn't be the last. They were to be disappointed. Despite the Congress electing a committee to produce publications and organise future events, this was the only meeting of the revolutionary representatives of the People of the East. With the rise of Stalin attitudes towards liberation movements and minorities in the East took an entirely different route, which possibly explains why these reports did not become public until the 1970s when Trotskyists translated and published them.

Today the reports are far more than a historical curiosity. They are a wonderful insight to a political moment, when the world was being turned upside down. They demonstrate the attitude of the Bolshevik movement to different nationalities and movements and there is much to learn. They are also full to the brim of the excitement and enthusiasm of men and women believing their time has come. The transcripts tell us every time the speeches are interrupted for cheering, the singing of the Internationale, or even someone at the back shouting out "speak up". If you want to know the immediate impact of the Russian Revolution on people around the world, you could do far worse than read this.

Related Reviews and Articles

The transcipts can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive here though the book version is published by New Park and can be obtained via socialist Bookshops like Bookmarks.

Useful article on the Bolsheviks and Islam by Dave Crouch here.

Marriot and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road

Monday, December 17, 2012

Iain M. Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata

One of the great things about Iain M. Banks' Culture novels is the way that they explore what might happen in a society that has essentially left all of it worries behind. When hunger, racism and poverty are things of the past, and war is only waged to defend society from external threat, what might people do? As a result of these thought experiments, many of Banks' characters have been great artists, sexual experimenters or musicians of note. His other characters, the ship Minds with their wonderful self-descriptive names, often seem to spend their time in abstract thought, scientific study or political machinations.

Of the later, the intervention in other civilisations is the most difficult and dangerous. Hydrogen Sonata in fact deals with the collaborative intervention in a society almost as old as the Culture. Unlike the Culture though, the Gzilt have collectively decided to 'Sublime' joining a sort of extra-dimensional group consciousness. However a few days before this happens a piece of evidence turns up that seems to indicate that much of what makes the Gzilt, well the Gzilt is based on a lie.

Culture Ships intervene to try and sort out the mess that occurs as various Gzilt government factions start bumping each other off to protect their interests. Much of the novel then is a Galactic chase as the Culture ship Mistake, Not takes the novel's heroine Vyr Cossont on a tour of planetary systems to try and find the truth out. If we're honest lots of the scenarios are the author playing around with ideas. Banks' highly advanced, post-scarcity societies like the Gzilt and Culture give their peoples the opportunity to experiment with themselves. So many of his characters have extra limbs (though in one case, an important figure has 59 of a special limb that means he needs extra hearts to keep the blood pressure up).

Banks' experiments with ideas and people like this work, precisely because the Culture works. But actually people matter little in this novel. What is really important are the ship Minds (the real force behind the Culture) and the societies themselves. Rather like many historic depictions of Utopia (William Morris' News from Nowhere springs to mind) what matters is less the story than the stage. Our wonder comes from imagining how things "might be".

That said, this is a rollickingly enjoyable adventure. Its action packed, funny and trimmed of any excess fat. A great work of escapism that makes the reader think too. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Related Reviews

Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - Matter

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Francis Pryor - The Birth of Modern Britain

Probably to the annoyance of some of my fellow socialists I've championed the work of Francis Pryor rather alot. His works of popular history have certainly made many contemporary archaeological ideas accessible to the general population and together with the Time Team program, Pryor has been part of a renewed interest in the UK towards the history of Britain.

This book is the fourth in Pryor's archaeological history of Great Britain. Pryor's personal expertise is in the ancient past, and I certainly found Britain BC the volume that deals, effectively with the history of Britain prior to the Roman invasion his most interesting. Unfortunately, the further Pryor moves from his era of expertise, the more I have found that his work disappoints. In particular, this work on "recent archaeology" misses the mark completely.

Because Pryor attempts to look at the wider picture when it comes to archaeology, his work can be particularly useful for those trying to understand the way that historical change has taken place. Rather than concentration on specific sites or archaeological finds, he tries to locate monuments or old buildings within a wider landscape and history. This is most effective when he looks at groupings of monuments in wider contexts. Most obviously, Pryor's explanation of the location of Stonehenge within a wider "ceremonial landscape" that has a history extending from long before the monument was built to centuries afterwards, means that we think about Stonehenge in a wider historical way, rather than as a building from a particular point in time.

This approach should work well when Pryor considers the modern world. After all the growth of cities, the development of modern agriculture, the invention of new techniques and technologies are, as we approach modern times, very much tide up in wider questions. The landscape, the movement of people, the developing forces of production and interests of particular classes within society. The sections in here on the birth of modern agriculture, the development of towns and cities, the archaeology of the first factories and mills to say nothing of transport networks like canals, motorways and railways would seem to fit well with this approach.

Unfortunately, Pryor's approach breaks down. In part his hatred of the word "revolution" is a problem here. Pryor doesn't like revolution. This is not because he isn't a progressive. Far from it. In this book he complains for instance about short-sited immigration controls from various British governments that scapegoat people in the interest of short-term political gain.

Rather Pryor dislikes revolution, because he believes that change is effectively evolutionary. In some senses of course he is right. Human society, history and technology does change through a process of evolution. Pryor argues for instance that the industrial revolution wasn't a revolution because it was based on the gradual development over centuries, of industrial processes, science and technology.

Yet what Pryor misunderstands is that these processes develop within wider society. The enormous social upheavels that took place in the 17th cenutry in England that led to a king having his head cut off, are ones that enabled those individuals in society geared towards developing society based on the accumulation of wealth to become the dominant ruling class. This was at the expenes of the old, feudal order. These changes are in part what makes the agriculatural revoution possible. Pryor's emphasis on evolution means that he misunderstands the enormous changes taking place, emphasising the continuity, rather than the change.

This however is only part of what makes this final volume so weak. The real problem here is the enormous mis-mash of ideas and places. Pryor deliberately avoids a narrative approach, so his history jumps back and forth in time. This isn't necessarily a problem, but the reader is left bewildered by all the different ideas. One moment Pryor is discussing railways, another he is looking at mining then pottery. This means he emphasises very much the particular changes taking place around a specific industry and those who work it, but fails to develop how this is linked to the wider developments in society.

Often the most illuminating parts of Pryor's books are were he draws on personal experience to help the reader understand an archaeological dig or a particular monument. In this book though, the reader is drowned in random, personal anecdotes. He tells us how he gets out of the car to photograph a particular view or enjoys an encounter with an attractive young woman who recognises him from television. But these rarely serve to illuminate the history he is recounting and often seem a bit tacked on. It is almost like Pryor sees himself as the key to understanding British history, rather than the evidence he is presenting us with.

Unfortunately this is a disappointing book that is best avoided, though I would suggest readers should certainly pick up other books by Pryor, particularly Britain BC and his history of the British Landscape.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain AD
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages
Pryor - Britain BC

Pryor - The Making of the British Landscape
Pryor - Seahenge
Pryor - Farmers in Prehistoric Britain

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Brian S. Roper - The History of Democracy: A Marxist Interpretation

Just what "democracy" is has varied enormously throughout history. In the developed world we are told that "our" democracy is the envy of the world, yet as this new history demonstrates, at various times in the past people have had very different and often far more expanded franchises than we have today.

Indeed modern representative democracy is actually very limited. You only have to look at the way that the 2008 economic crisis was caused by completely unaccountable people. Bankers whose actions might have consequences for millions of people were completely unaccountable to wider society. Or, as Brain Roper points out, you could examine the 2004 US election were "business contributed $1,503 million to political parties compared with $61.6 million from trade unions". More recently you might muse on the fact that almost no-one in Britain voted for a Tory-Liberal coalition, yet the inadequate election system we have produced just that.

Roper begins his survey of the history of democracy with the ancient world. He argues that ancient Greece's democracy was surprisingly advanced. In fact, "for the first and only sustained period in history the producers or labouring citizens ruled." Citizens he says, "faced no major obstacles to significant involvement in public affairs based on social position or wealth". Though children, women or slaves were of course excluded. Nonetheless, this is far in advance of the rights of many early democracies such as Britain, which only extended the franchise to women in the early 20th century. Roper is absolutely correct to argue that:

"Athenian democracy... rested on historically specific social foundations in which the peasant citizen played a central role."

I stress this because one of the important themes of Roper's book is not just that "democracy" changes through history, but that it does so based on particular historical circumstances. With the decline of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, Roper argues that democracy effectively disappeared and it was only with the revolutionary struggles against feudalism that democracy reappears. This democracy then must itself be struggled for and extended.

At the heart of Roper's book is an examination of how this process takes place. He looks in detail at three bourgeois revolutions - England, America and France to try and understand how modern states appeared and how democracy became central to them. What might be termed bourgeois democracy is a direct product of these revolutions, in particular the American Revolution. Roper examines how the victorious American bourgeoisie constructed a democratic system that both protected the status quo and limited the potential for movements from below to challenge their authority. It was a democracy that had protecting property relations at its core.

But Roper doesn't ignore another aspect to these movements, which is the way that in revolutionary struggles democracy from below appears. During the English Civil War for instance, the mass of the population that took part in the fighting began to develop its own ideas for how society should be run. The Putney Debates in 1647 were an example of representatives of different social forces within the revolution trying to lay out their own visions of how people could partake in society. The more radical elements were destroyed by Cromwell, but the episode serves to show that the democratic traditions that came out of the bourgeois revolutions were not automatic. Instead they represent different class interests.

The strongest sections of this book are those where Roper shows how revolutionary movements throw up the potential for new forms of participatory democracy in the modern world. In particular he looks at the way the Paris Commune demonstrated to revolutionaries like Marx and Engels how a socialist society might be organised, based on representatives paid the same rate and working people and accountable through recall by their electors. Roper quotes Marx's pamphlet, The Civil War in France:

"[The Commune was] a thoroughly expansive political form, while all previous forms of government had been emphatically repressive. Its true secret was this. It was essentially a working-class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour."

The second example that the author discusses is the Russian Revolution. This is important he argues, because "it showed that it was possible for the working class to take power and run society." In a few pages Roper discusses the successes of the revolution and the functioning of the soviets, the gatherings of elected representatives that both led the revolution and then began to re-organise society. He also then shows how the revolution was isolated and destroyed by the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy.

It is easy to critique democracy. After all, democracy fails to deliver economic or political justice for the majority of those within society. But such criticisms are not necessarily revolutionary. The Marxist critique outlined by Roper is important because it points the way forward, to a society where democracy is based upon an entirely different method of organising society. Under capitalism he points out, democracy can never work properly because society is based on the fundamental antagonism between two classes, the exploitation of one by the other, true democracy can only flourish when this antagonism is destroyed.

While Ropers' book is excellent there are a number of criticisms I would make. Firstly Roper concentrates very much on democracy within class society. To this end he ignores the democratic decision making processes that must have existed within pre-class societies. Hunter-gatherer communities have frequently been shown to have high levels of participation in decision making.

Secondly, Roper argues that feudal society was fundamentally undemocratic. This is absolutely right. There was a strict social hierarchy that rested on brute force. Yet within feudal society there were, on a very localised level, often some examples of democracy. Peasants in feudal villages often met annually to redistribute strips of land. Another example might be the daily "parliament" of the community on the island of St. Kilda. We should be wary of arguing that this implied there was any sort of democratic base to feudalism, but it does demonstrate that once again ordinary people did try to organise to improve their lot.

Finally Roper quite rightly argues that democracy is a product of revolutionary times and that we see the best, participatory democracy evolve during moments of revolutionary struggle. This is not just a product of this high points, but also of most working class struggles - at the lowest level, the "strike committee" is one example.

These criticisms aside, Brian S. Roper has produced a useful and interesting over-view of the history of an idea. It is one that will be useful as we try to understand the processes taking place around the world, particularly in the Arab Revolutions, as millions struggle against dictators, for democracy, freedom and social justice.

Related Reviews

Foot - The Vote
Vallance - A Radical History of Britain

Thursday, December 06, 2012

John Gittings - The Changing Face of China

Barely a day goes by without some newspaper including an article on China. China, it is said, is likely to be the next superpower, or undergo an enormous economic crash, or haul the world out of recession. But few of the columnists writing these articles have any great depth of understanding of China's history or economy.

One of the writers who does is John Gittings. For twenty years he was The Guardian's East Asia editor and his first hand knowledge of the people, places and history of China is unparallelled. Subtitled, "From Mao to Market", this 2005 book covers modern Chinese history and attempts to explain how China is now one of the foremost world economies when, only a few decades back the country was effectively isolated from the world economy, while its leaders preached socialism. The book is a useful account of modern Chinese history. At times it is overwhelming in its detail, and sometimes it has a non-linear approach to the history, so following events can be difficult. Nonetheless it is a worthwhile read if only for the sympathetic and honest account of the Chinese people.

Gittings argues that before the 1980s China was a socialist state. It is not clear what he means by socialist in this context. Marxists in the tradition I'm from have argued that China, alongside Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, was a State Capitalist economy, one were a centralised bureaucracy directed an economy, which had very little to do with a democratic socialist tradition. Nonetheless over the decades this broke down with various attempts to reform the economy. In this context, reform means open up to more capitalist dynamics, but as Gittings' points out, this was often down in the "framework of socialist thinking which always put 'politics first'."

Yet this politics had very little to do with improving the lot of ordinary people, and everything to do with protecting the interest of the more powerful. That's not to say that the state didn't improve the lives of people at various times. Gittings shows how the ability of the state to provide health care, basic services and food for people was far greater than previously. He also shows however, how disastrous political choices often led to hunger, chaos and political crisis. By 1989 though, Gittings argues, "the scene .... with agriculture effectively privatised and the profit now accepted as the dominant force throughout the economy was unimaginable at the start of the decade." Oddly, Gittings follows this up with a quote from Trotsky, who was one of the few revolutionaries in the 1930s who argued that China had taken the wrong road and was not a bastion of socialism. Gittings' confounds this by badly misquoting Marx, "from each according to his ability to each according to his work." "Need" is the correct final word from this quote.

One of the problems with Gittings' understanding of what socialism is, is that he can wedge almost anything into the definition. In fact this is precisely what the leaders of China, in the past and more recent times have also done. Here's a fascinating quote from Deng Xiaoping justifying "reforms" that were actually impoverishing millions:

"During the 'Cultural Revolution' there was a view that poor Communism was preferable to rich capitalism... The main task of socialism is to develop the productive forces, steadily improve the life of the people and keep increasing the material wealth of the society. Therefore, there can be no Communism with pauperism, or socialism with pauperism. So to get rich is no sin."

Since the existence of "rich" people, inevitably means the persistance of poor people, Deng here is trying to have his cake and eat it. However Gittings points out that despite rhetorical appeals to "socialism" or "the party" over time, such arguments become less important and a more general appeal to the concept of "the nation" is enough. In the 1990s, change could be "justified almost entirely in terms of the material interest of the Chinese people and of the global interests of the Chinese state."

This book is at its best when describing the lives of Chinese people and the enormous changes that have taken place to them and their families over the course of the last century. In 1980, Gittings points out, over 80 per cent of the population still depended on the land. But "twenty years later, an accelerating process of urbanization had transformed the relationship between town and countryside: 31 per cent of the population were urban dwellers, the number of towns rose from some 3,500 to around 20,000."

Alongside this enormous urbanisation has been the growth of unemployment and wage labour in factories. While this book is not recent enough to include material on strikes and "events" at factories like Apples, it does include a number of accounts of strikes, as well as some depressing statistics on low pay, high levels of prostitution and the crisis of HIV/AIDS in the country. The flip side of China's rush to become a "quasi capitalist" system, Gittings puts it, is the destruction of peoples' lives in the rush to make profits. Again though, Gittings' argues that this is less to do with capitalism and more to do with "the loosening of Party authority together with the spread of corruption" which "encouraged new destructive forces in society".

At the heart of the book is an account of the 1989 repression of the protesters in Tiananmen Square. This was the culmination of many years of frustration and anger at the upper echelons of the Communist Party. The CCP had been silencing dissent and reacted to Tiananmen Square with enormous violence. While the student pro-democracy movements were silenced, the 1989 events certainly helped shape policy since. Post-Tiananmen, struggles have increased. Gittings quotes figures that show that labour disputes recorded by the Ministry of Labour went from 8,150 in 1992 to 120,000 in 1999. In the 21st century this has only increased as protests grow against unemployment, low wages as well as environmental issues.

Many years back, Leon Trotsky asked, Wither China. It is still a pertinent question. Gittings' book is reportage and doesn't seek to offer an alternative to the headlong rush towards capitalism. But socialists should neither look back to China's past as some sort of great socialist paradise (though Gittings' does appear to have some nostalgia for a time when there was less unemployment). Rather we should understand that simmering away in the belly of China is an enormous working class and peasantry who's anger at what is happening to their lives is only matched by their potential to shape society in their own interests. Those who use the language of socialism to increase exploitation can only have themselves to blame when the people fight back.

Related Reviews

Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Nathaniel Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea

The story of what happened to the unfortunate crew of the whaling ship Essex has been told many times. Not least by the poor unfortunates who survived the ordeal. Nathaniel Philbrick's retelling though is the first that includes the recently discovered personal account of the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose retelling was found decades later in someones attic. It joins that of the First Mate Owen Chase who was one of the few who sailed with the Essex to meet good fortune on his return to civilisation.

Philbrick put the story of Essex's last voyage in the context of its time. Sailing out of Nantucket, the world's most important whaling port, the crew of the Essex were almost entirely white Quakers, with the exception of a few African-Americans. It is difficult to comprehend the life of those who hunted the sperm whales in the mid-19th century. The enormous risks, the danger and the appalling quality of life and the low pay is one thing. Voyages that might take two or three years. If the ship returned with her barrels full of oil there would be a bonanza for her owners and the sailors might get their percentage. But ships on occasion came back with nothing, and their crews had nothing to show for years on low rations and full of hours of work.

The life also created unusual relations between people. Sailors who were only home for a few months every few years found their wives were running the town in their absence. Indeed, Nantucket women seem to have developed a rare 19th century sense of independence.

Then I'll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me,
But every now and then I shall life to see his face,
For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace,
But when he says "Goodbye my love, I'm off across the sea,"
First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I'm free.

This independence was one reason (the other was high rates of death in childbirth) that meant that the Captain of the Essex married four times.

Philbrick is outstanding in his imaging of the life of the whalers and their town. But the core of this book is the story of how the Essex, about as far as it was possible to be from land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was destroyed by a bull Sperm whale, perhaps 85 feet in length. The crew boarded their whale boats and embarked, with low rations and lacking water, on a voyage several thousands of miles towards land. Retelling this story is not the job of this book, Philbrick does it enormously well. He walks the difficult line between reporting what we do know from surviving accounts and what might have happened, avoiding too much needless speculation. He also discusses uncomfortable truths that the survivors failed to mention - why was it that the first people to die were the African-American sailors? Was it because they were already weakened by lower rations than their white counterparts? Or was it because the Nantucket men instinctively gathered together giving less support to those from elsewhere in America.

The story of the Essex is one of horror. Starvation and dehydration destroy, but in a slow, painful way. Left with limited food, thousands of miles from land, the sailors drew lots and ate their dead comrades. Interestingly such action was less shocking to those back home than it seems to us. The seafaring community of Nantucket understood that sometimes things had to be done at sea. Philbricks retelling of this horrible episode of history is important, in part because it forms the inspiration to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The Nantucket whaling industry was peaking at the time of Essex's last voyage. But the story of her  last voyage is one of men suffering terribly in the quest to make other men, feet firmly planted on dry land very rich. Philbrick's enormously readable history is a painful reminder of the reality of the ocean.

Related Reviews

Philbrick - The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sven Lindqvist - 'Exterminate All The Brutes'

The title of Sven Lindqvist's short book comes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is the supposed solution to the task of the European countries in Africa and neatly sums up the violence at the core of colonial aspiration and imperialist aggression.

Part travelogue, part fiction and explicitly "not a contribution to historical research", Lindqvist's book is an account of the way that European colonialism and then more recently imperialism has subjugated the populations of other countries. His analysis differs from a Marxist one. He doesn't argue that the problem lies within a system of competing blocks of capital. But his story is no less painful and doesn't hide from pointing the fingers of blame and governments and individuals who were prepared to commit genocide in the interest of their nation state.

Conrad's writing of Heart of Darkness forms a fixed point for Lindqvist's account. He discusses the writings and activities that took place around the time, that would inform Conrad's account of massacre in Africa. Then he looks at the rise of racism and how Darwin's evolutionary theory was used to justify genocide. Lindqvist describes how one member of the British scientific establishment saw the future:

"Africa will be shared between England and France... Under European rule, the Africans will dig the ditches and water the deserts. It will be hard work and the Africans themselves will probably become extinct. 'We must learn to look at this result with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.'"

Such scientific distortions were all to common in the 19th century. Their influence on colonialism and slavery led to the deaths of millions and the pillage of entire continents. But Lindqvist is keen to explore the links between this historical past and more recent genocides such as the Holocaust. Lindqvist argues, that the Holocaust, in the sense of a colonial massacre of millions is far from unique. Indeed he suggests that we want to see the Holocaust as a unique act, so that we can avoid the reality of our own national history a "most comforting thought" he says. Lindqvist points out that

"Hitler.... and all the other Western people in his childhood breathed was soaked in the conviction that imperialism is a biologically necessary process, which, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races. It was a conviction which had already cost millions of human lives before Hitler provided his highly personal application."

Unfortunately I think this analysis is only partially correct. The Holocaust was unique because it was the only industrially organised genocide that lies rooted in the rise of Fascism. That said, it has links to the past and  as Lindqvist suggests other Imperial powers are certainly not innocent. Fascism is a particular aberration of capitalism, but it is more than simply a more violent version.

Once again Lindqvist exposes the bloody history of colonialism and imperialism. His book is unusual in its style, but its format doesn't detract from its content. There are few positives in Lidqvist accounts. He doesn't mention those people who stood up against slavery, colonialism, racism and genocide, often at great cost to themselves. Nonetheless this is a useful demolition of those who argue that Empire and colonialism was beneficial to the majority of the population.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Pakenham - The Scramble for Africa

Monday, December 03, 2012

James Marriott & Mika Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London

Capitalism is a fossil fuel system. Historically capitalism needed the enormous energies concentrated in coal to kick off the industrial revolution. Later the wheels of accumulation were kept turning with oil. As the Canadian activist Andrew Nikiforuk points out in his book on the Tar Sands, American society needs a oil filled supertanker to arrive at one of its ports every four hours.

Some of the world's oil comes from the Caspian Sea. Vast amounts of it flow from the off-shore oil rigs through the historic city of Baku, into Georgia, through Turkey and eventually after travelling the Mediterranean in tankers, through Europe to Germany were it is refined. The oil that flows through these pipes is extremely profitable. In September 2008 one of the rigs in the Caspian developed a gas leak and had to be shut down. Output of oil dropped by 500,000 barrels every day and the daily loss in income was $50 million dollars. This money rarely makes it into the pockets of the men and women who work the oil fields, or who live and work on the land that covers the pipeline. A little of it trickles into the coffers of some of the states that protect and helped build the pipe, but only a little. Most of it ends up in the bank accounts of BP, one of the most important components of the modern energy economy.

In this book the authors try to understand this system. They try to explain why oil is so important and why it makes companies like BP such incredible amounts of profits. In doing so they explain why different countries are prepared to invest enormous amounts in protecting the pipeline, despite receiving little benefit from doing so.

More importantly the authors also discuss what this means for us. Oil after all is one of the significant ways that humans are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As the authors eloquently put it:

"The oil industry is build on the extraction of these long-dead ecosystems, and the Oil Road is constructed to distribute ancient liquid rocks so that our one species may live beyond the limits of the ecosystems of our times."

As they travel the length of the oil pipeline - the Oil Road - the authors meet many people from BP and the wider oil industry. Many of these people are rational individuals. They see themselves as providing a service to wider humanity, keeping the wheels of society turning. Yet BP and other oil companies are not benevolent neutral organisations. As one activist in Azerbaijan puts it, "BP doesn't do anything for human rights. Especially as BP is a great cooperator with our regime... they are not helping us build our democracy. It's great that they train some journalists to write articles professionally - but this is minor compared to their support for the repression."

On many occasions as they travel the Oil Road the authors find evidence of the way that the oil industry has propped up regimes that care little for their populations. Oil money has a nasty habit of distorting people and areas. Whole cities, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, explode around the drilling rigs. Money pours out to build shiny buildings and allow a minority to purchase expensive cars.

But the money distorts whole economies. In Azerbaijan, by 2008, "97 per cent of all exports were oil-related. The remaining 3 per cent were agricultural". This is a country that spent one billion dollars building a single, show piece bridge. Yet men and women are locked up for opposing the regime. The authors document the way that the oil companies develop the infrastructure and create countries were it is good for them to do business. This includes the funding of militias and bribery of politicians.

But the Oil Road is not just contemporary. The oil fields around the Caspian have been important almost as long as capitalism has needed the black gold. The city of Baku was one of the cities that mushroomed in Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Like St. Petersberg and Moscow it was a growing, concentrated site for workers and capitalism. Its workers were at the forefront of the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and in the Oil Road there is a wonderful description of performance of the Symphony of the Factory Sirens that celebrated the fifth anniversary of the October Revolution. The 1917 revolution led to the takeover of the oil industry in Baku, as the authors point out, the first nationalisation in history of an oil industry was accomplished by the Bolsheviks.

The authors travel the Oil Road and what they find is the dirty underbelly of capitalism. Particularly outside of Europe the pipeline creates a "corridor of violence", where human rights are dismissed and people are pushed around in the interest of the multinationals. Pipes are buried underground, a few metres from their homes and fields, threatening their homes and damaging their agriculture. Few of them receive adequate compensation. As the authors explore the pipeline they find the way that the oil companies receive protection from the state. Patrolled by government forces, policemen or soldiers, employed by the state but protecting the needs of private industry. This link between the oil companies and nation states is one of the most fascinating aspects to this book. When in 1992 BP was trying to get into the crucial markets of the former Soviet Union, they were allowed to set up their offices in the British Embassy. There can be few better examples of the hand in hand behaviour of the state and capital than this.

While the travelogue style of the book can at times be a bit confusing, there is much in here of use to anti-capitalists and environmental activists. It is particularly difficult to read it without developing enormous anger against BP, a company that in 2006 caused "total emissions of 5.6 per cent of the global total" over twice that of the whole of the UK. This is a company that turns oil production on and off at the press of a button if the price of crude oil falls too low, whose products make enormous profits for a tiny minority yet balks at offering a few hundred pounds to farmers whose lands have been destroyed by the Oil Road.

If there is one criticism, I feel that the Oil Road fails to offer much of an alternative. In part this is deliberate. The authors have clearly set out (and they this very well) to expose the reality of one part of the oil industry. But if humanity is to avoid catastrophic climate change, the Oil Road will need to be both explored and an alternative found. Other campaigns have been working on this and the Oil Road is an important weapon in these arguments.

Perhaps one way of finding a solution is gathering some inspiration from the Bolsheviks and their nationalisation of the oil industry after the revolution. This is not to suggest that after the revolution greenhouse gas emissions could be tamed. Rather it is to argue that the problem today are the private companies that destroy people and planet in the interest of profits. Taking control of the means of production is as important today as it was in 1917.

The left-wing Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was dazzled by the potential for technology to liberate humanity. In the Oil Road the authors quote one of his poems:

I sat at his deathbed
He said to read him a poem
About the sun and the sea
Nuclear reactors and satellites
The greatness of humanity

The press relations departments for the companies that use the Oil Road would enjoy that poem, though they probably wouldn't be able to comprehend the words of another of Hikmet's poems also quoted:

Love clouds, machines and books
But people above all

The Oil Road is driven by the irrational desire to accumulate wealth for the sake of wealth. A more rational society would shut it down and replace it with cleaner energy. James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello's book is a very useful tool in understanding the sickness of our system and the need for us all to find an alternative.

Note: You can purchase The Oil Road from Platform for the very reasonable price of £10 and help support their combination of art, education and activism. Their shop is here.

Related Reviews