Monday, March 31, 2014

James Heartfield - Unpatriotic History of the Second World War

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. It is also the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Unlike the First World War the Second seems to have produced a constant stream of books. Much of this has discussed the war in the context of the "Good Fight" against Fascism, and for Democracy. But in recent years there have been a number of excellent histories that re-examine the war in a more critical light.

James Heartfield's Unpatriotic History is good example of this, and should be read alongside Donny Gluckstein's People's History of the Second World War. Together they comprehensibly demolish the mainstream, "victor's history".

Heartfield begins by noting that the question of labour is central to the war. The winners were those "who best mobilised their domestic workers and so best equipped their armies". The impact on the working class of this "was that more of them worked much harder, and got paid less." Consequently the war transformed the industrial landscape. "Plant created in Detroit and Dagenham, the Urals and Silesia... would lay the basis for the post war boom".

The working class was also transformed. "Between 1942 and 1945 the number of black Americans in work tripled....  One million six hundred thousand, black and white moved north." Similarly, as in the First World War, the position of women was transformed. Two million more British women were put to work. Doing this meant a transformation of the economies. State capitalism became the norm, "the free market was abandoned in order to achieve maximum efficiency in reorganizing trade".

What was the cause of the war though? It certainly wasn't a struggle for democracy, or a fight to end fascism. This was an imperialist conflict, whatever cause the politicians expounded. Churchill and Roosevelt talked of democracy, but their interests were much more base. As an American slogan put it in the pre-war period, "If goods can't cross borders, soldier's will". Indeed, western economic policies helped push Germany into conflict. Heartfield quotes economic historian Adam Tooze, "Given the isolation imposed on the European continent by the Britsh blockade only the Ukraine could provide Western Europe with the millions of tons of grain it needed to sustain its animal population".

This is not to let German Imperialism off the hook. Hitler had come to power with the backing of big business - it needed access to raw materials, markets and the rest of the world. Japan too was heavily dependent on imports and was looking for expansion. It was the British Empire and US interests that this threatened and thus war became increasingly likely. As Heartfield puts it, "the struggle over Empire was the cause of the Second World War. Those countries that tried to enlarge their empires clashed with those who were trying to defend their own."

The economic interests of big business meant that initially, some of Hitler's policies were considered fairly acceptable. As The Economist wrote in 1941;

"The which the Nazi's have found willing collaborators is not altogether surprising. Industrialists have, of course, been driven into collaboration by the need for raw materials, but there is no doubt that many of them would have been ready for it without this compulsion."

Those who governed in the West of course frequently flirted with Nazis. Churchill for instance, noted the ability of the Fascist regimes to be a bulwark against Communism. Heartfield argues that it was only when his government's imperialist interest was threatened that Churchill was prepared to go to war. The British government was also frequently unmoved by the plight of the Jews

"The whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and we should move cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that then all the Jews of the world will want us to take up similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler will take us up on such an offer...", worried Anthony Eden in March 1943 at a meeting of the British Foreign Office discussing the threat of extermination of Bulgarian Jews by the Nazis.

Sometimes I feel Heartfield overstates the case. For instance he suggests that the Second Front in Europe was only launched because Churchill and Roosevelt became worried about the potential for workers uprisings against a crumbling Nazi occupation. I'm not sure this is strictly true. By 1944 I think they were more worried about their position in a post war Europe dominated by the Red Army. Nonetheless, the resistance was significant. But it wasn't always against the Fascists. Heartfield rescues the forgotten histories of those, particularly in South East Asia, who had to fight British and US armies of occupation before, during and after the War.

Some of the most fascinating chapters (as in Gluckstein's book) are those that deal with these forgotten aspects to World War Two. History books focus our minds on Europe and Japan. Less often do we hear about Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. Nor do we hear about the brutalities of the Allies. Victor's justice means we known about the Rape of Nanking, or the Holocaust. We don't get to hear why it was that the US army rarely took Japanese POWs. (They had a no-prisoners policy) or discuss the mass bombing of German civilians.

While the book is very good, it is not without fault. I feel bound to mention that the publishers have failed in their duty to ensure the book was properly proofread... it is littered with typos, and inconsistencies in style. In addition there are a number of glaring errors; B52s were certainly not used to bomb Tokyo - that particular war-crime was committed with B29s. More surprisingly for an author in command of a wide range of sources, the author of The Tin Drum was Gunter Grass, not Heinrich Böll. This is a shame, because the editorial failings detract from an excellent book that challenges many of the most cherished myths of the Second World War.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Calder - A People's War
Calder - The Myth of the Blitz
Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War
Newsinger - Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Steven Rose - The 21st-Century Brain

How does the peculiar lump of grey matter in our head think? How does it store memories? How does it enable us to breathe and swallow, to hold things, to flinch from pain? Is our brain the same as that of a monkey? Can single celled animals learn?

All these fascinating questions are addressed by Steven Rose's enormously enjoyable 21st Century Brain. Where possible he answers in a style that mixes detailed science with accessible writing. Where we don't know, Rose tells us how close we are to finding out, but most importantly he tells us how science got to where we are today. He also is quick to point out the problems with much of the historical research into the brain, and were problems remain today.

For the dialectical scientist, the brain is not simply an unchanging lump of matter. Rose is keen to emphasize that the brain, and its functionality, is part of an evolving, changing structure that has a history. This history has shaped the physical structure of the brain, but it has also shaped how individual humans think, remember and learn. Key to this is of course evolution, and in some of the most fascinating science writing I have ever read, Rose traces the likely evolutionary development that takes us from the soup of chemicals on the very early earth, through small cellular animals and to today's complex animal brains. Studying human brains "reveals their ancestry. Their basic biochemistry was essentially fixed at the dawn of evolutionary time, with the emergence of cells." Though obviously the has been enormous evolutionary development since then.

But there is a further history, the brain doesn't arrive full-formed in a new-born baby. It develops and grows, and this process is almost as fascinating and the breathtaking story of evolution. Importantly, for Rose, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the lights of its own history." The brain itself is a "marvellous product and process, the result of aeons of evolution and for each human adult decades of development." This idea of the brain as a process is a particularly important one for Rose, who sees its working as ever-changing, developing and growing, rather than a static, fixed set of structures and material.

We might think that the brain is a collection of specialist areas. With a bit that deals with seeing, a part that controls walking, and another for memory. While this is how the brain was often thought of historically, scientific evidence doesn't bear this out. As Rose says,

"One must consider the workings of the brain not merely in terms of three dimensional spatial anatomical connectivity but in the time dimension as well. Cells that fire together bind together. Once again, the message is that brain processes depend on history as well as geography".

The book deals with the development of the brain, but also its ageing process, including disease and death. The final chapters of the book look at attempts to deal with disease or memory lose. But Rose challenges those who simply see these problems as simply ones of chemistry, looking for the perfect drug or fix. Reductionist medicine, as he calls it, that "seek the explanations of many of our troubles in the presence in our brain of such malfunctioning molecules". Such medical procedures also lead to a situation where, US researchers are apparently trying to understand the neural processes involved in choosing between Coke and Pepsi.

This contrasts with Rose's understanding;

"Evolutionary history explains how we got to have the brains we posses today. Developmental history explains how individual persons emerge; social and cultural history provide the context which constrains and shapes that development; and individual life history shaped by culture, society and technology terminates in age and ultimately death."

Rose's book is a fascinating one. He wears his politics clear, raging at those that look for genes or patterns in the brain that suggest individuals are prone to violence, or crime, but don't consider those who drop bombs on Iraq as behaving wrongly.

But it is also Rose's politics that help shape his vision of the dialectic between humans, biology and society. Indeed his book finishes on a hopeful note, precisely because his vision of medical science is not one constrained by finding the correct pill or drug, but sees our biology as part of something much wider.

Related Reviews

Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Robin Blackburn - The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Robin Blackburn's book The American Crucible is a brilliantly accessible account of the rise and fall of New World slavery. It is engaging, polemical and Blackburn is not afraid of taking on those historians he disagrees with, and who disagree with him. In doing so, the reader will learn much about contemporary debates about the historic role of slavery. Most importantly though, what becomes clear is how slavery was ended.

Blackburn begins by looking at the development of the slave economy. Slavery began with European indentured servants and attempts to enslave the indigenous people of the Americas. But in Barbados for instance, as early as 1650, African slaves outnumbered white-indentured servants. There were differences but also continuity between the slave two systems, separated by what Blackburn calls the plantation revolution. Once established slave plantations rapidly became enormously profitable. As Blackburn notes:

"The British and French slave plantations thrived. The planters of Barbados, Jamaica and Virginia, or of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Doimingue, began to produce tens of thousands of tons of sugar and millions of pounds of tobacco, responding to the new mass markets for exotic produce in north-west Europe. By 1670 the small island of Barbados was producing as much sugar as Brazil."

From the beginning, slavery was marked by vicious cruelty. Slaves on plantations died from the enormous workloads, but the planters chose to simply replace the slaves, rather than reduce the work. Violence, beatings, executions and rape were common place.

As noted above, slavery began to be enormously profitable in the Americas as the commodities it produced were suddenly in great demand in Europe. This means that a "distinctively capitalist combination of commodity production and free wage-labour in parts of north-western Europe had set the scene for something very different on the other side of the Atlantic."

Associated with the rise of slavery was a new racial order. Blackburn documents the way that racial categories were created to justify the system, as well as enabling the divide and rule that kept it going. In the English colonies, Blackburn describes these racial relations emerging in a "relatively unplanned way". But;

"When planters and their fellow white colonists adopted the rule that the children of slave mothers would themselves be slaves, they were following Iberian practice and Roman Law... The English colonial practice of the 'one drop rule' - anyone with any African ancestry was 'black' - was distinctive. The various colonial assemblies quickly adopted repressive and racialized slave legislation... Charles Mills has written of a 'racial contract' shaping the colonial social order. This was, of course, a contract within the white population. While the leading men had the main say in such regulation, the poorer whites were given a stake in a racial order which reserved the hardest toil for 'blacks'."

While capitalism and the consequent consumer appetities helped create and drive the plantation economy, the slave economy wasn't itself purely capitalist. Blackburn suggests that "Planters were not fully capitalist agents, since they only employed a small number of paid workers. Nevertheless they contributed to an expanded regime of capitalist accumulation."

While the trade was dynamic between (say) Britain and the New World, it also helped lock the slave economy in place, despite its economic limitations. Blackburn concludes that "the colonial authorities created conditions favorable to a supply of slaves, rather than to one with free labourers. This counterfactual was doomed by the lack of imagination and class blinkers of 17th century elites, not... the eternal impossibility of organising sugar cultivation without slave labour."

How did slavery end? Blackburn defends those who argue that the role of slave rebellions was key. In particularly he argues the successful slave revolt in Haiti was instrumental in this process. In part this was because of the slaves' bravery and resolution. More important was the way that revolts like that in Haiti inspired and inflamed anti-slavery movements in Europe and North America. In 1793-4 the "sans-culottes were cheering slave emancipation in Paris, and, at a Sheffield meeting called to support a wider-franchise and the 'total and unqualified abolition of Negro slavery', thousands of metal workers endorsed freedom for the slaves in order to 'avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro Brethren.'"

But the Haitian revolution also inspired African Americans to "reach" for freedom, and helped ensure that the new South American republics that achieved independence from Europe, were not based on slavery.

The final ending of New World slavery didn't simply come from slave rebellion, nor did it come because of well meaning abolitionists in Britain and North America. Both of these were important. Blackburn also argues that there was no purely economic reason to abolish slavery, which despite its limitations was still enormously profitable. There were growing outputs per slave as more "scientific" approaches to time management were used on the plantations though slavery was not as productive as other branches of the economy. Blackburn argues instead that "slavery turned out to be vulnerable in an environment dominated by the aspirations, anxities and strife of an advancing capitalism."

Capitalism required a particular idelogy of free-labour and early struggles for rights and democracy didn't sit well with the existence of the slave system. The mass rebellions and abolition movements fueled this as well. Blackburn continues:

"The class struggle of the early industrial epoch focused on the ability of the owners of an enterprise to dictate terms to their workers, as well as on the instability of the accumulation process. This standpoint could put in question the wide-spread idea - always a key prop of the slave system - that private property was sacred. Wage workers knew they were better off than chattel slaves, but they began to challenge the powers and privileges of capitalist employers, and yearned for the independence of owning a small farm or workshop.... In the wake of economic development there were artisans and craftsmen, wage workers and specialists, professionals and technicians who were moved to assert their status as independent citizens. They upheld the rights of labour and of humanity and saw the slave-holder as inimical to them."

This is not to downplay the struggles of the slaves or the work of the abolition movements, both of which Blackburn celebrates. But it is also to put the movements in the context of a changing world order, in which slavery no longer fitted with the ideological framework that was being used to keep workers in chains. This approach helps to illuminate both the way slavery developed and how it ended, whether through the laws passed by the British government, or the American Civil War together with revolution and other radical movements.

This review can only give a partial insight into Robin Blackburn's monumental work. It is a book that will set the standard for writing on the subject of slavery for years to come, and its deserves to be read widely. The author's style, clarity and choice of subject matter make this an excellent and accessible book for the non-specialist and it should be on the shelf of everyone who wants to understand slavery and the historic origins of racism and to be inspired by the fight against them.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistrad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
James - The Black Jacobins
Galeano - The Open Veins of Latin America

Interview with Robin Blackburn: What really ended slavery?