Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Chris Wickham - Medieval Europe

In hindsight Chris Wickham's Medieval Europe was probably not an ideal choice for holiday reading. Despite being relatively short at 250 odd pages (excluding notes) it is dense and cannot really be described as a popular history of the period. Despite this, I recommend it for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of the medieval period and what this meant for the population of Europe as well as the legacy for the modern world.

Wickham is concerned with the way the economic base of society creates a large political superstructure. His approach echoes Marx (who he quotes in the introductory chapter) but probably shouldn't be described as "Marxist", perhaps a more structuralist approach.
Medieval political communities based their coherence and their succeeds on the control of land... The reason is simple: all pre-industrial societies are based on agricultural wealth above all. There was nothing which one could call a factory in the middle ages, or for a long time afterwards... Most people, over four fifths of the population in the early middle ages,.. .were peasants: that is to say, they worked directly on the land as subsistence cultivators... Agricultural products were most of what was produced by human labour in the middle ages, and for that reason the control of these, ad by extension the land that produced them, was central.
While this is Wickham's starting point he understands that human societies are full of variety and complexity, so his book tends to explore each area of Europe at his different time periods and discuss the differences and similarities. The problem for the non-expert reader is that there is an enormous amount of detail. Despite importance Wickham gives to the economic base of society, he explores what this means in detailed studies of the top of society. Thus we get a vast amount of information about particular kingdoms, individuals, religious institutions, alliances and interactions between all these groups. At times its bewildering, and for this reader, I was left more with generalisations than with detailed recollections.

That criticism aside there are some great sections which readers will find useful. The story of the importance of Constantinople, and its eventual eclipse (remarkably late in European history) or the rise of Charlemagne's empire. Though I challenge anyone other than the expert to remember all the German princes, or the machinations of the Italian city states. Give the grand sweep of history and the size of the continent, some readers will know doubt be disappointed that their favourite bits only receive a short mention. Despite ten page references to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt in England, the substantive account only has a dozen lines or so.

But what matters to Wickham is the dynamism of the Medieval Period. His wealth of data allows him to explore the changes taking place:
This is the background for understanding Europe's political histories after 1350... Whether kings and other rulers still relied on the wealth coming from their own lands ('the domain', as historians of this period often call it), or could develop taxation on a scale large enough to pay for bigger or more permanent armies and denser infrastructures of government, thus has crucial implications for the comparative history of politics. Put simply, rulers who did not develop strong fiscal systems by now could do less, both inside their polities and outside them, than rulers who did, even though they often tried to behave in the same way.
This is essentially about the importance of the growth of what we might call the beginnings of the nation state, or at least the pretensions towards a strong state in some region. A dozen or so pages after the above  quote, Wickham notes that
What links almost all the rulers we have looked at.. is their preparedness, as soon as they had enough money to get an army together... to attack not only their neighbours but also on occasion realms quite some way away, for military glory and hoped-fro permanent territorial control. Hard gained resources were spent above all on displays of power, the rich courts and ambitious building which mark the post-1350 period, but an army was the biggest.. display of power of all, and using it to fight someone was the logical next step. The military machine underlying early modern political and fiscal development has its beginnings in this period.
After 1350 we see land still being the basis of wealth and power, but the raising of tax is now shaping "communities of taxpayers" which meant that "Rulers were thus stronger, but so were the communities of the ruled". Thus we see after this period a public arena that allows for both the development of new methods of production and for sharper conflicts between classes. Thus the "feudal revolution" that had transformed the earlier feudal world eventually gave rise to a much more confrontational public sphere, within which the class struggle could play out.

But this sphere was conditioned by the changing economic and political world. Developments of trade, technology, manufacturing and so on would eventually lead to a new way of organising society, but are rooted in the evolving medieval period. Wickham's book emphasises the dynamism of medieval society, and this is its primary focus. I should mention that Wickham doesn't ignore other aspects of these societies - the role of gender, developments in reading, writing, education etc. But the task he has here, and its an admirable one, is to understanding a broad historical sweep. For all the challenges his style gives the reader, there is much here of interest.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Making a Living in the Medieval Ages
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150-1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Katrina Navickas - Protest & the Politics of Space & Place 1789-1848

Katrina Navickas' book is an interesting and refreshing look at the protest movements that took place during a crucial period in the development of the modern British capitalist state. Its notable that her period begins with the year of the outbreak of the French Revolution and ends with the year of European revolutions. There was nothing in the British Isles on that scale, but these events influenced and found their echo in protest and reform movements here. As the title suggests Navickas uses the concept of space to analyse these movements, but she notes that this method has its limitations. In her introduction she writes:
Describing politics as being conducted within multiple public spheres or a dichotomy of public versus private risks making the term methodologically useless. This is not to reject it completely... much of the debate over the politics of space covered the meaning of the word 'public'. The working classes used instruments of the public sphere - newspapers, pamphlets and political debates - to declare their opinions and rights...
She continues "contests over the body politic and its spaces were contests between classes". Much of the book looks at particular struggles and how their participants and leaders attempted to develop and build their movements within contested arenas. This might mean the struggle for the right to meet, or protest - and here there are many echoes with contemporary times where the increasing privatisation of public spaces can limit places where activists can demonstrate. Thus the struggle for the right to protest in a park or square might also take the form of legal challenges, or mass protests designed to win the right for the future. But they also meant struggles over how spaces were seen by communities (and the authorities) how they were used and how they were defended from encroachment by hostile interests.

Thus the struggle for space is more than a question of future rights, it can also encompass tradition and custom. Navickas writes that "Custom established what rights were attached to inhabitants of a locality... and thereby defined the particular culture of that locality" and notes EP Thompson's "emphasis on custom as an interface that set patrician against plebeian". Her discussion of struggles against enclosure, or common rights are just two of such examples. But Navickas goes on to note that this struggle in the period she covers, takes place in the context of "global processes of free trade political economy, trading and manufacturing practices" which means that "mass collective action" emerges. To put it slightly cruder, the development of a global capitalist system required the entrenchment of particular capitalist values within in society, but these in turn created mass movements that resisted those changes, or attempted to shape things in their own interest.

In her studies of these processes Navickas has uncovered and highlighted some fascinating aspects of radical history. She discusses, for instance, the use of pubs and taverns as places for radicals to meet, and how the authorities would try and restrict this. She examines the way that particular spaces (such as St. Ann's Square in Manchester) become symbolic of particular struggles, in this case the "royalists" movements as opposed to the radicals. And she also looks at how particular events engender some spaces with highly symbolic meaning. Her classic example of this is the way St. Peters Square becomes a place that every radical movement wants to associate itself with in the years following the Peterloo Massacre.

Readers who are based in Manchester will find much of this particularly interesting because Navickas focuses her study on northern cities and some of the detailed studies are of historic radical movements in this city. I was particularly struck by two maps that give a real sense of the intersection between different movements and time periods. One of these is a map of routes taken by radical and "loyal and patriotic" protest marches and parades around Manchester. This shows how the radicals deliberately copied the patriots in their roots in an attempt to gain legitimacy by association as well as taking their spaces.

The second is a map of Ancoats which juxtaposes the homes of individuals who signed radical petitions with known meeting places. Navickas shows how we can trace different radical traditions through the overlapping of meeting places, neighbours and marches to build up a sense of a working class community developing traditions of struggle that are more than simply protests, strikes or marches taking place in different years.

While Navickas' approach has its uses I found it sometimes a little frustrating. Part of the problem is that I don't think that the oppressed can easily (if at all) "reclaim a space" for their use while capitalist relations remain. An example of this is Navickas' discussion of how the "defeat of the bill of pains and penalties against [Queen] Caroline" was celebrated by the loyalists and authorities. She argues that the "rest of the population took the opportunity to reclaim the use of the streets for political symbolism in support of Caroline". These "highlight ritualised movements created a 'contested topography of political authority'. In the urban areas, support for Caroline was clearly marked out in light against the dark of entrenched loyalism".

The problem is, of course, that the morning after the streets are still owned and controlled by the British state (or its local representatives). Any "reclaiming of the streets" by the masses is out of necessity a temporary thing whose longest standing outcome is the confidence of the movement. The temporary nature of space won can lead to the movement becoming solely about carving out its own spaces, rather than challenging the system. Navikas herself notes that this does take place with attempts to create permanent trade union buildings, mechanics institutes and the like. It is, essentially a type of reformism, and could be counterpoised to revolutionary attempts to permanently change things.

That said, there is much of interest here. From Navikas' discussion of urban spaces and working class communities and movements to her analysis of rural struggles such as Captain Swing. Readable and fascinating, Katrina Navickas book might be particularly of interest to modern day activists and historians in the North (particularly Manchester) but I expect it will also become a much studied book for social historians trying to understand the historic struggles that have shaped, quite literally, the world we live and struggle in today.

Related Reviews

Griffin - The Rural War
Hammond & Hammond - The Skilled Labourer
Reid - The Land of Lost Content
Harvey - Spaces of Global Capitalism
Harvey - Rebel Cities

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John le Carré - A Murder of Quality

In hindsight it is strange to read a John le Carré novel where George Smiley is taken out of the espionage circles he normally inhabits and plunged into a different sort of environment. But this was only the second book to feature Smiley and perhaps le Carré didn't know where things would go. But reading this over fifty years after its publication fans do not need to fear, it's a classic Smiley story and well worth picking up.

There are two networks that make this story work. One of them is the group of individuals Smiley knows from his work during World War Two. It is because of this that Ailsa Brimley contacts him. She edits a small circulation Christian newspaper and has received a disturbing letter from a subscriber, Stella Rode who claims her husband, a teacher at the prestigous Carne public school, is going to kill her. She asks Smiley to take the letter to the local police after finding out that Stella has actually been killed.

The second network is that of the old boys at Carne and the staff and students of the school itself. This is a school for the highest echelons of the British ruling class, and le Carré wastes no time in letting the snobbery show itself. One of Carne's masters tells it like it is:
When I look back on my thirty years at Carne, I realise I have achieved rather less than a road sweeper... I used to regard a road sweeper as a person inferior to myself. Now, I rather doubt it. Something is dirty, he makes it clean, and the state of the world is advanced. But I-what have I done? Entrenched a ruling class which is distinguished by neither talent, culture, not wit; kept alive for one more generation the distinctions of a dead age.
In order to solve the riddle, Smiley is the only one who can get into Carne. Not in a physical sense. But in a class sense. The local police know they can't find out what really happened because they're used to being met in the kitchen and offered a cup of tea. Smiley can meet the suspects on their own turf, in chapel, in their drawing rooms, at dinner parties and in the school itself.

Like all of le Carré's books this is tightly written. Descriptions are sparse, and tensions high. While the outcome of the detection is satisfying enough, the real story is the rigid prejudices of the British ruling class and their school system. For this reason alone while it is a novel first published in 1962 it has much to say about 2017.

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

Friday, July 28, 2017

Becky Chambers - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Various reviewers have described The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet as a "joy" or "delightful". It is certainly entertaining and inoffensive, but I was disappointed that the author didn't use her material to produce a more challenging story. Set on a dilapidated spacecraft called the Wayfarer the crew of which are tunnelers that drill the interplanetary routes that allow faster than light travel. At the start of the novel Rosemary Harper joins the crew as a lowly administrator. She has a past that she is trying to hide, something that is shared by most of the crew, like almost all science fiction set on dilapidated spacecraft.  Through Rosemary's eyes we are introduced to the various species that inhabit the galaxy and the bureaucratic system that manages their societies.

Becky Chambers uses the various aliens that crew the Wayfarer and the planets they visit to explore questions of gender, family and sexuality. These are fairly benign to be honest. Most of the individuals/groups they meet are relatively inoffensive and its only when the ship embarks on their real mission that the crew encounter real danger. Wider conflict and danger is hinted at, mostly through the interaction between the Wayfarers captain and his lover Pei, an alien who crews a ship that takes on more military engagements.

At times the novel feels like Star Trek as each chapter gives the crew a minor problem to solve and allows one of the individuals stories to be told. It is all entertaining, well written and, as I said, inoffensive.

Disappointingly, the encounters that the crew and its individuals have, both with the aliens they meet and among themselves, aren't used as deeply as they might have been. Rather than challenging contemporary ideas of family, sexuality and relationships, they end up with a rather tired trope that "family is those who we live and love". Its all a little disappointing given the potential to do something radical with the very alien groups that the author describes.

The novel only really picks up speed in the very last section, and the final "twist" again allows Chambers to approach some deeper questions about what it is to be "intelligent" and "conscious". But again this is done relatively lightly and left me feeling a little disappointed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has been very successful, making the difficult transition from self-publishing to mainstream press and the sequel is already out. I expect that it will do similarly well. If you like straightforward science fiction it is worth a read, but there are other places to go if you want something more meaty.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Leckie - Ancillary Justice

Monday, July 24, 2017

Charles Forsdick & Christian Høgsbjerg - Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions

Toussaint Louverture remains an inspirational figure to those who want to challenge oppression and exploitation. Perhaps only Che Guevara is a better known representation of anti-colonial revolution. Louverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which overthrew French colonial slavery, fought off an English invasion trying to capture the colony and then, with the decline of the French Revolution, defeated a Napoleonic invasion intent on restoring slavery. Louverture played a crucial part, inspiring, leading and organising the masses in their military struggle, creating a social movement that could defeat their colonial oppressors and go further to declare independence.

Forsdick and Høgsbjerg's new book should become an essential introduction to the life and politics of Louverture because it places his actions in the context of the wider Revolutionary era. It is accessible and will enable to the reader to get to grips with other classic works such as CLR James' Black Jacobins.

The authors note how the ideas of the French Revolution with its talk of liberty, fraternity and equality, went deep into the heart of the revolutionary movement. They gave inspiration, but it also meant that events on Haiti would have global implications.
One executed insurgent was found to have 'in one of his pockets pamphlets printed in France, filled with commonplaces about the Rights of Man and the Sacred Revolution'. If the enslaved themselves had not risen up against slavery, in what constituted the largest slave revolt in modern history, then as Dubois notes, 'the French Revolution would have probably run its course, like the American Revolution, without destroying the massive violation of human rights at the heart of the nation's existence'.
But as the authors explain, it was not enough for the enslaved masses to rise, they had to also take the revolution forward through numerous twists and turns, to win victory. This required revolutionary leadership, and Louverture was able to provide this. He was not alone and the tensions between him and other military and revolutionary commanders are neatly explained here. But there is no doubt that without Louverture the revolution would not have gone as far as it did.

That said, this is no hagiography and Louverture was no perfect, flawless leader. Louverture did not play a role in the initial uprising, something he was keen to avoid discussing. But he was able, at crucial moments, to seize the time and drive the movement forward; inspiring and leading from the front in some of the most brutal conflict imaginable often against over-whelming enemies. The ill equipped and outnumbered black armies were able to defeat some of the best trained colonial troops that France and Britain could send. That they did so is testament to the desire of the masses to fight for liberty and freedom, and the leadership of Louverture and others. While the authors focus on Louverture, they never forget the role of thousands of ordinary people in winning their revolution.

On 18 My 1797 Louverture declared:
Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the impresscriptible and inalienable rights of free men... We see only to bring to men the liberty that [God] has given them, and that other men have taken from them.
But what was that liberty? In reality it meant the creation of capitalist relations in the former slave plantations. The revolution had led to economic collapse, and Louverture was able to turn this around relatively quickly, even bringing back former plantation slavers to oversee the new agriculture. But the slaves who had overthrown their masters did not take kindly to their new wage slavery and Louverture found himself crossing the country to put down strikes and riots against the new conditions. Capitalists constantly want to extract the maximum from their workers and the contradiction of the Haitian Revolution was that the class who had made the revolution now found themselves in new servitude.

The French revolutionary Étienne Polverel who was sent to Saint Domingue, encapsulated this new world order:
You can lay claim to the products of this land only through agriculture. And I have told you that the portion assigned to you in the revenues of the land will be given to you only in compensation for your work... Before, you had no share in the profits of the plantations. Today each of you will have his share in these profits in proportion to his work.
Despite their central role in the Revolution women were given a secondary position, wages were unequal. Louverture was complicit in this "Work is necessary, it is a virtue. It is the general good of the state. Every lazy and errant man will be arrested to be punished by the law. But service is also conditional and will be paid a just wage."  In other words Louverture led a movement to overthrow slavery, but it was not to build a world of freedom. That said, the revolution itself created a very different world. There's a fascinating quotation from a British officer who sees "the usual subordination's of society... entirely disregarded, and that he was to witness for the first time a real system of equality."

The "Age of Revolution" that the masses of Saint Domingue were fighting in, was not one for freedom and true economic equality, it was to establish a new capitalist order. This is the contradiction that Louverture faced and one that, whether he liked it or not, he had to enforce at the risk of shattering the revolutionary unity that had overthrown slavery.

This biography is an important one because it understands that the Haitian Revolution was not the work of an individual, nor was it isolated from wider political and economic developments. Its impact was enormous and the final chapter is a fascinating discussion of the lasting impact of Louverture and the Revolution. This is not a long book, but it contains a wealth of material and argument that everyone interested in the struggle for social justice will learn from. I highly recommend it.

Related Reviews

Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite
Blackburn - The American Cruicble: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Bell - All Souls Rising
James - Black Jacobins
Jaures - The French Revolution
McGarr & Callinicos - The Great French Revolution

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill - Serial Killer

Its been quite a long time since I've read a novel quite this weird. And I mean weird in a good way. Crime fiction about serial killers can easily fall into cliche, instead Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's new novel Serial Killer creates a whole new set of cliches to be emulated by authors for years to come.

Both authors have been at the heart of some of the most adventurous, challenging and fascinating graphic and comic writing of the British post-war period. Mills is well described as the "Godfather of British Comics" on the back of this book. O'Neill has played a similar central role in the graphics novel industry. So their first collaborative novel ought to be something special and it's certainly different.

Given the background of the authors readers will not be surprised to find that the slightly alternative reality Britain that it is set in focuses on Dave Maudling, a comic book writer of some skill, whose work for a series of unsavoury publishing houses has given him a jaundiced view of the world. The off the wall titles he and his colleagues work on, such as the Caning Commando, The Spanker and Feral Meryl are all glorious spoofs of the sort of comic that abounded in the late 1970s. Mill himself was responsible for one of the greatest war comics of all time, Charley's War, but the spoofs here are of those second rate comics that saw every German as a Nazi and each Japanese soldier as a yellow-eyed maniac who'd run at the first sign of some British steel.

Maudling's mother is murdered during his childhood. She then visits Dave in the 1970s and enlists his help in finding her killer. At the same time, Dave is also trying to become a killer himself. He enacts revenge on the world that has left him embittered and alone by trying to encourage children to kill each other by inserting dangerous ideas into the most popular comics. One of the clever things about this book is it shows how the casual violence, sexism, racism and homophobia of the post-war period helped shape a generation of men whose lives were causally violent, sexist, racist and homophobic.

Dave's sexual obsession with fur, his bizarre home life and his inability to function properly around other people is the backdrop to what seems to be at least a temporary descent into madness. That said, everyone in the 1970s seems mad from this distance and the larger than life lunatics that inhabit Mill's and O'Neill's world only serve to highlight how far we have come, and how much further we have to go.

One particular aspect to this is the way that the authors highlight precisely how bad workplace sexism and homophobia was before social movements helped make it quite so unacceptable. In fact those that cry today about political correctness might do well to reflect on precisely why it was the women's  and gay liberation movements became so radical. Sadly Maudling has a lot to learn in this regard.

It is difficult to review this book without giving away too much of the novel. If you love the comic genre, like a lot of knowing references to the 1960s and 1970s (not just to comics either), hated those terrible comics they made girls read about boarding schools and aren't phased by novels that mingle the living dead with sexually ambiguous characters, then this is definitely for you. At times it's laugh out loud funny, at others its quite perplexing. You'll either like it a lot, or never get past chapter two.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomena: Comics and Contemporary Society

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reg Groves - Sharpen the Sickle! The History of the Farm Workers' Union

This lively account of the history of British agricultural trade unionism is written by one the UK left's most interesting characters. Reg Groves was a Communist who wrote briefly for the Daily Worker but ended up breaking with them and becoming influenced by Trotskyism. Eventually he became well known as a Christian socialist, remaining true to the socialist cause for his whole life he made links with Trotskyists from the new left in the 1970s.

He wrote, or jointly authored, a number of popular histories of radical movements. I reviewed his book (jointly written with Philip Lindsay) on the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 previously on this blog. They are all aimed at a mass audience and are often entertaining reading. A note of caution though, Groves on occasion is a little lose his historical accuracy and books of his like Sharpen the Sickle! have no footnotes, so those reading them for research might want to have other sources to hand.

Nonetheless Sharpen the Sickle! is a powerful read. It begins with early attempts at trade unionism in the countryside, briefly touching on the Tolpuddle Martyrs before discussing the struggle by Joseph Arch to found and maintain a national union in the early 1870s. Groves is found of focusing on key individuals in the movement - reflecting a close connection with many of them. But the doesn't ignore the forgotten rank and file, and indeed, where possible he celebrates some of the smallest struggles in order to put rural trade unionism into context.

The defeat of Arch's union in the mid 1870s, led to a difficult period economically and organisationally for the agricultural worker. The late 1890s saw a brief revival in fortunes, but it wasn't until the 20th century that trade unionism was back on the agenda. Once again it arose out of the absolute poverty of the countryside and despite the braking role of the liberal politicians that helped found the new unions, workers quickly moved into battle. In addition to the intransigence of the farmers, agricultural workers face a number of issues that make it harder to organise - seasonal and temporary labour; (at the time) tied cottages and so on. But Groves shows how the union was able to over come these and build a mass base.

The 1920s brought economic decline and collapse in wages after the UK government abandoned its support for agricultural post World War One. But the workers fought back with a major strike in East Anglia in 1923 that helped to stem the losses. It seems that agricultural unions played little or no role in the General Strike that closely followed this, at least according to Groves' account. The 1930s were the "lean years" and the union fought a rearguard action through the Labour Party to try and gain better conditions for the workforce. Labour in the 1920 and 30s played a dirty role in betraying the hopes of its working class base, and agricultural workers suffered more than most. The final chapters then are Groves' account of the small gains they did make and the impact of World War Two.

Interestingly, Groves' radical politics come out at the end when he comments on the limitations of agricultural trade unionism in the context of capitalist farming, echoing Marx's writings on the metabolic rift.
But it would be wrong to leave the impression that the NUAW [National Union of Agricultural Workers] as a whole has yet expressed its final opinion on the future of Britain's agriculture. So far, it strives against capitalist agriculture only to get better conditions for its members, it seeks adjustment rather than drastic change. This, however, puts the NUAW in a halting place, a half-way house, untenable in modern conditions. Not only does this leave the status of the farm worker unchanged; it also leaves untouched the fundamental unsoundness of present-day agriculture. For capitalist industry and agriculture broke the essential social and individual relationship between man, his work and community life, and the land, which was the basis of the oldest subsistence farming. The freeing of land and labour from exploitation and destruction is only possible if it purposes to restore men's co-operative relationship with the soil.
Related Reviews

Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381
Horn - Joseph Arch
Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fred Archer - A Distant Scene

Fred Archer was a celebrated author and farmer who documented the lives of the people of the small village of Ashton in the Vale of Evesham. This, his first book, sparked a large number of others until his death in 1999. Born in 1916 the backdrop to Archers' life was the enormous changes that overtook the English countryside between the wars and in particular after World War Two. His books are somewhat whimsical - they deal mostly with the personalities of the village and how Archer remembers them. As such its easy to read the books as accounts of old-fashioned sayings, humour and advice; or to focus on Archers' complaints about the decline of rural skills, the replacement of horses by engines, and the wider social changes in the village.

The danger is, of course, that the reader ends up romanticising of the countryside and the lives of those that live there. 20th century rural life was much better for the working population of the countryside. But it was still a life dominated by low pay and poverty. Reading between the lines of Archers' book you get a sense of a strict hierarchical life, and on occasion you get hints of the poverty behind the characters. Archer himself was a hardworking man who turned his hand to all of the agricultural labour there was. Readers looking for descriptions of how haymaking proceeded or the art of ploughing with horses, will find plenty of that here.

There are the occasional hints of wider subjects. For instance, Archer recalls (probably in the late 1920s) older labourers reminiscing about the arrival of Joseph Arch to speak to them, from the back of a waggon, about the need for a trade union - this would likely have been between 1872 to 1875. These moments left a lasting impression on communities dominated by poverty and long hours of work.

I was also struck by the chapter detailing the workers who came from Birmingham and other towns and cities to pick peas every year. These weren't itinerant labourers, though those did exist, but workers from the industrial towns whose "holiday" in the sun was a weak picking peas and drinking in the local pub.

Archer himself was from a better off family, his dad working closely with Mr. Carter, the big farmer. In fact Archer refers on occasion to going away on holiday, which must have been remarkably unusual for the majority. A Distant Scene then is worth reading, not just for its humour and carefully written descriptions. But also because it portrays a wider agricultural community in transition.

Related Reviews

Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields

Monday, July 10, 2017

R.S. Attack - John Clare: Voice of Freedom

The poet John Clare (1793-1864) was a remarkable figure. Coming from a poor labouring family in Northamptonshire where, despite his families poverty he had a limited education and then continued to teach himself. Fascinated by poetry at a young age he briefly became celebrated in his own time, but it was only decades after his death that his true worth was understood. Much of his life was spent working low paid agricultural jobs or unemployed and financial concerns were a constant worry - like the majority of the English population at this time.

In this short biography, R.S. Attack describes Clare as "one of England's foremost nature poets" and a "self educated genius", but the main thrust of her book is to locate Clare at the heart of the social changes taking place in the English countryside during his lifetime. Clare was fascinated by the natural world and the people of the small rural community he lived in. When, later in his life, he was forced to move to a new home funded by one of his patrons, he described the process as "flitting" and it clearly contributed to his mental health issues. But Clare was unable to separate his poetry about people, nature and places from what was happening to the countryside and its communities.

Ah, cruel foes with plenty blest
So ankering after more
To lay the greens and pastures waste
Which profited before
Poor greedy souls – what would they have
Beyond their plenty given?
Will riches keep 'em from the grave?
Or buy them rest in heaven?

These changes were the enclosures of the common lands that the labouring population of the countryside relied on. Their destruction led to impoverishment on an enormous scale. The disposed populations became rootless and homeless, often ending up in the cities as factory fodder, or poverty stricken reliant on temporary and low paid work.

It is this that drives Clare's poetry and gives him his emotion. Yet it was this side of him, Attack argues, that was deliberately kept out of public view. His political poems (though as Attack points out, Clare did not seem himself as "political") where never published. His non-political poems were sometimes very popular, partly because Clare was seen as unusual - the "peasant poet". Despite this popularity Clare rarely received any money, and relied on a number of wealthy patrons.

Clare's popularity dropped and he was never able to regain his earlier success, though his poetry went from strength to strength. Ironically, as Attack argues, had Clare's political poetry been published it would likely have found a receptive audience in the highly charged atmosphere of the 1830s. The struggle for reforms was growing, as were the early battles of the agricultural trade union movements. In about 1827, Clare wrote by way of introduction to his poem The Parish what motivated him:
This poem was begun & finished under the pressure of heavy distress with embittered feelings under state of anxiety & oppression almost amounting to slavery - when the prosperity of one class was founded on the adversity & distress of the other - The haughty demand by the master to his labourer was work for the little I chuse to alow you & go to the parish for the rest - or starve - to decline working under such advantages was next to offending a magistrate & no opportunity was lost in marking the insult by some unqualified oppression. 
Clare is thus the voice of those whose lives were destroyed by enclosure, but also those that remained working in the  countryside. Paid poverty wages, exploited and downtrodden by the employers and authorities. Clare's own parents were only saved from the workhouse by the benevolance of publishers and friends. He worried constantly about rent arrears and poverty, and this probably was part of the decline in his mental health. Clare spent the last 23 years of his life in an asylum, though he seems to have a relatively comfortable life there. During this period he wrote some of his best poetry, though it was also his least political.

Clare's life reminds me a little of his contemporary poet Percy Shelley. They were hardly of the same class, though they shared a radicalism, and neither's radical poetry was really to see the light of day until long after they had died. Shelley's radicalism went much further than Clare's. But today Clare's poetry deserves recognition again. Not just for the beauty of his words, but because, as the author points out, the "consequences of the enclosure movement" remain with us, and there is still a battle for justice and equality to be won.

Related Reviews

Foot - Red Shelley

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Amber Spyglass

The first two books of the Dark Materials trilogy are great novels. But really they simply are setting the scene for the brilliant climax that is The Amber Spyglass. In this final book, Pullman ties together all the many plot strands into one great ending; teaches the reader a great deal about Milton's Paradise Lost (even if they don't really want to learn it), confuses the hell out of anyone who thinks they know about good and evil and lets the reader explore every possible emotion.

The scope of Pullman's novel is nothing less than the final battle for heaven; though Pullman is candid enough to ensure that heaven in this context isn't what everyone thinks it is. That he does this in a book aimed at young adults, without patronising them is brilliant. That he simultaneously is able to describe the sheer embarrassing, awfulness of puberty, the agonising pain of first love and the appalling reality of betrayal is genius. The characters are wonderful to. Let's hear it for Mary Malone, the former nun turned particle physicist. How's that for a progressive role model?

Our two, flawed heroes are joined by almost all the characters from the first two books as nearly everyone in Pullman's universe takes sides as they prepare for the final conflict. At the same time, Will and Lyra are growing closer and learning precisely how important they both are to the war's outcome. We meet some new characters and are rejoined by some old ones, which helps to give this book, a much longer one that the first two, the feeling of an epic tale. But most readers I suspect will remember not the great set pieces but the intimate moments between the two main characters. The scene where Will and Lyra share a tent and each pretends to sleep as they think about each other and share their company is a beautifully, tender moment of literature. The book has many more.

The ending hits the reader like a hammer. Its impact was in no way lessened by the fact I'd read it before. In fact, it's probably even more emotional the second or third time. Rightly the trilogy has been lauded a great deal. Anticipation is high for the sequels. But read, or re-read these books before the follow ups arrive. They're books with great depth that have much to say about the eternal themes of war, love and betrayal.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Subtle Knife
Pullman - Northern Lights
Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

Ragnar Jónasson - Snow Blind

There is no polite way to say this, but Ragnar Jónasson's novel is terrible. It is badly written, has a contrived plot and a jumble of identikit characters. Set in a small former Icelandic fishing port, the novel is supposed to evoke intense claustrophobia. Instead it left me feeling that the author had come up with a list of cliches about remote northern locations and was ticking them off one by one.

But the real problem is not the writing, editing or language. The problem is that the story is too weak and the mystery is completely unbelievable. The hero Ari Thór Arason is a rookie policeman at his first job. Like almost every other rookie policeman his relationship is on the rocks which the reader knows because Ari agonises over it a great deal. He ends up in one of civilisation's backwaters just in time for a sudden death and a near death.

These are the first such events in years, so Ari's timing is extraordinary. Not surprisingly Ari is the only one who is suspicious that the town's most famous, and wealthy, son is the person who dies, in the midst of preparing for a play that has caused quite a bit of friction among contemporaries. It wouldn't be fair to go into what is wrong with the other victim, suffice to say that modern police forces can usually work this out even when they don't have access to fancy forensic laboratories.

I suspect that the reason that Jónasson's book got published was that bleak Icelandic detective fiction is the in thing at the moment and the publishers saw a chance to grab a share of the cash. Judging by the reviews and the number of readers they're probably pleased with the outcome. I am just happy I did not give them any more money.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Dave Sherry - Russia 1917: Workers' Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed

I've already reviewed Dave Sherry's new book on the Russian Revolution for Socialist Worker, and I hope you'll read that in conjunction with these additional comments. Having read Sherry's book for a second time I wanted to add a few more thoughts.

As the centenary progresses, more and more books are being published. But Sherry's book is by far the best I've read. In part this is because he puts great emphasis on the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But it is also because he gets across the grand sweep of events - the way in which the Revolution was a process, where things happened and peoples ideas changed. Political organisations that failed to grasp this, were unable to adapt to new circumstances lost their ability to shape things as their support vanished. Take this summary of the February events:
For the Mensheviks, years of mechanical adherence to the orthodox formula, that Russian socialism would have to wait until capitalism was fully developed and assumed complete political power, blinded them to the developing situation. Their attempt to half the revolution... left the Mensheviks into supporting the new capitalist government... The paradoxical character of the February Revolution, a bourgeois' revolution undertaken by workers and soldiers, brutally exposed the social weakness of the bourgeoisie, once the crutch of the Tsarist state had been knocked out from under it.
In a sense the Revolution fed itself. As workers and peasants collectively began to understand their immense power. The "act of ridding Russia of its monarchy gave people a sense of how society can be changed, and when the Provisional government refused to stop the war, it failed to stop the momentum for revolutionary change."

Sherry explains this process well, and shows how the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, were able to both shape and learn from the movement. This wasn't inevitable and the party almost made the same mistake as the Mensheviks in the post-February period. Sherry shows that Lenin's arrival in Russia in April led to a row that redirected the Bolshevik organisation towards workers' revolution. But crucially this could only happen because the Party was so rooted in working class organisations and struggles. It was the reality of revolution as experienced by the working class, principally in Petrograd, that meant Lenin's instincts were accepted by the bulk of the Bolshevik Party.

Towards the end of the book, after summarising the numerous revolutions and mass working class actions that have taken place world wide since 1917, Sherry reminds us that only the Russian Revolution in 1917 led on to a workers' state, albeit briefly. As he writes:
Without Lenin and the Bolsheviks it is inconceivable that a coalition of workers, soldiers and peasants would have taken power in 1917. The absence of revolutionary leadership and such a bold socialist workers' party in all the other revolutionary upheavals that have challenged capitalism through the last 100 years, explains why 1917 is unique. Times change but we can still learn from the past. That is why it is such a tragedy that Lenin's real legacy has been hidden or distorted by what passes for bourgeois scholarship.
And there has never been such a need for such revolutionary organisation. The Russian Revolution matters not because of historical curiosity, but because "it provides an alternative view of what is possible when society polarises and socialists organise to offer hope and unity in place of fear and division". If you only read one book on 1917 it should be this one, because these lessons are crucial today for a new generation of socialists. As Dave Sherry concludes:
Across the world there is a revolt against the people at the top of society - the one percent. It can go left or right and it is the job of all of us who want a better, safer world to shape it and pull it in a socialist direction.
Related Reviews on 1917

Smith - Russia in Revolution
Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Cliff - Lenin: All Power to the Soviets
Smith - Red Petrograd
Trotsky - Lessons of October


Related Reviews of books by Dave Sherry

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A Socialist History of the First World War
Sherry - John Maclean
Sherry - Occupy!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ian Angus - A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism

This new collection of essays from one of the world's leading Marxist environmentalists is an important contribution to discussions about how we can fight for a sustainable world, one where, as Ian Angus says quoting Marx, we live as "a society of good ancestors". More than this however the book is an important reassertion of how to approach questions of science and politics that strengthen our ability to understand the world and change it.

In the first two chapters on Marx and Engels, Angus shows the importance of the approach that they developed. He writes, "If our political analysis and program doesn't have a firm basis in the natural sciences, our efforts to change the world will be in vain". Both Marx and Engels had a keen interest in the natural sciences, and they used this scientific knowledge to develop their own understanding of the world and their "historical materialist" approach. Angus points out that understanding this is important in part because some political authors argue that Engels was the one interested in science and Marx had a less concrete approach.

The first essay here, detailing the friendship between Marx and Engels and Carl Schorlemmer the "Red Chemist" demonstrates this very clearly. Schorlemmer was a convinced Communist, and one of the leading scientific figures of his time. Marx and Engels' friendship with him was one of mutual political understanding and "intellectual exchange". Engels shared the proofs of Capital with Schorlemmer, and Marx stayed with him, quizzing him on scientific questions. This is not just of academic interest. Schorlemmer was able to aid Marx's understanding of key scientific principles that allowed Marx to develop his understanding of the relationship between capitalism and nature, and the origins of the metabolic rift. This underlines Angus' point that "An understanding of Earth System science is necessary for preventing environmental crises, but it is not sufficient". He continues:
Marx and Engels used the term “scientific socialism” not to suggest that it was comparable to chemistry or physics, but as a contrast to the utopian socialisms of the early nineteenth century, which were based on abstract moralism, not on systematic study of capitalism and its material context. For them, there was no wall between social and natural science.
The second essay, on Marx, Engels and Darwin develops this still further. In it Angus explains how the often misunderstood comment by Marx about Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, that it "contains the basis in natural history for our view" is not a crude attempt to jump on the Darwin bandwagon, nor a simplistic suggestion that there is struggle in the natural world, like the class struggle in human society. Rather, Marx was saying that because Darwin had developed a materialist explanation for how organisms changed he had, in Angus' words done "for the understanding of nature what Marx and Engels had done for human society." Darwin's book "completed" historical materialism.

In both these essays' Angus shows how Marxists must root their political analysis in scientific reality. In the rest of the book he demonstrates how to do this. One example will suffice. In an important chapter critiquing the ideas of Jason Moore, Angus points out that Moore's misunderstanding of the work of Anthropocene scientists leads him to fail to offer a strategy to change things. Angus quotes Moore saying that anthropogenic global warming is “a colossal fabrication”. Moore doesn't do this from a climate denial perspective, he is well aware that we are in an environmental crisis, but his claim is just as dangerous:
Like his [Moore's] claims that Anthropocene science is wrong, dangerous, and a tool of the bourgeoisie, such comments attempt to delegitimise Anthropocene science, to warn the left against listening to ideologically suspect scientists.
Moore does this, Angus argues because of the separation between science and humanities and an academic system that rewards controversy. What ever the reason, Angus argues that the consequences are worrying:
If we reject Anthropocene science and deny the new epoch’s world-historic importance, we will do lasting damage to both science and radical politics, and undermine our ability to carry through the radical social and geophysical transformations that are so desperately needed in our time.
What is needed is a renewed synthesis between science and the humanities, using the insights offered by both to better understand a strategy for action. Doing this properly can, as many of these essays show, offer brilliant insights into what sort of action is needed. Angus does this particularly well in his polemic here against those who misuse the idea of Environmental Catastrophism. Angus shows that those who argue that talking about the dangers of climate change undermine the ability to act on climate change are making another dangerous mistake. They can end up disarming activists, or giving them strategies that make little or no difference. Instead, what is needed is the "building mass environmental campaigns" that can relate to the majority of the population, based in scientific realities.

Here in the UK, for instance, we've tried to do this, by arguing for the trade union movement to adopt the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. This recognises the need to reduce UK emissions by 90 percent and then shows how this is possible through the creation of jobs that reduce emissions and a transition away from the fossil fuel economy.

Angus points out that socialists have to learn to relate to these movements to bring about the change we need and that this can be part of the root towards fundamental social change. As he says, if we can't stop an oil pipeline, we won't overthrow capitalism. Ultimately though, that is what is required. In Angus' words "we have to create a society based not on having more things, but living better. Not quantitative growth but qualitative change." I would have liked further discussion from Ian Angus on how this might happen, but this doesn't undermine what is an important book that deserves to be widely read and debated by people from across the left, not just those who already describe themselves as Marxists.

Ian Angus will be launching A Redder Shade of Green at the Marxism 2017 Festival in London. He will also be speaking on his earlier book Facing the Anthropocene. More information at www.marxismfestival.org.uk

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life

Foster - Marx's Ecology
Burkett - Marxism and Nature
Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jonathan Martineau - Time, Capitalism and Alienation

The way that humans have understood and related to the universe around them has varied dramatically throughout history. One aspect to this, is the question of time. One of the points that Jonathan Martineau makes in this interesting book, is that we tend to think of our modern time system as being the only way of understanding, measuring and experiencing time. Other societies, specifically non-capitalist ones, often have dramatically different ways of experiencing time. In his famous studies of the Nuer people, the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard noted, for instance, that those Nilotic cattle farmers had more time in the mornings when they were busiest with their animals.

Martineau's book is an attempt to understand how the modern, capitalist understanding of time arose. He begins by reasserting the Marxist argument that humans are the "animal" that can only differentiate itself in the midst of society. In other words their life experience is a collective one and their understanding of the world around them arises out of their social organisation. Thus, for Martineau, "Time is...a socially mediated relation between humans and their world. This social mediation is shaped by the social organisation of production and labour, and shapes it in return." [19] Time cannot be separated from the interacting relationship between society and nature.
Time being both natural and social means that 'social time'; cannot be thought of without reference to the conditioning determinations brought about by natural phenomena, just as the latter cannot be properly conceptualised and addressed without a recognition of their always already socially mediated character. Natural phenomena such as celestial movements and atomic pulses are socially standardised continua of change...Humans socially mediate natural processes and cycles of change in the sense that they alter, funnel, use, coordinate, divert, channel, exploit or conserve them, in order to survive and reproduce.
Under capitalism, time, its measurement, use and experience becomes subordinated to the needs of capital. Time itself becomes a commodity in the sense that "labour time" is the method by which capitalists extract value from workers. Time is "fetishised" because [Martineau quotes Norbert Elias] "the social standardisation of individuals in terms of socially institutionalised time is anchored more firmly and deeply in their consciences the more complex and differentiated societies become". So children are taught "clock time" as their schooling, experiencing their days through time-tables and dinner breaks, before home-time.

Clock time, arises Martineau argues, before capitalism as the needs of production begin to require more coordination and management. But it is under capitalism that clock-time reaches its "hegemonic position", and then Martineau argues, this requires industrial capitalism to ensure its fully accepted. I was reminded, while reading this, of Tony Cliff's oft repeated story. He described a wealthy Arabic businessman arriving in a factory town to purchase equipment. When the factory hooter sounds and the workers stream into work, the buyer is entranced. "Never mind the machinery, how much for the hooter".

Cliff was making a joke, but its an important point. Key to Martineau's work is an understanding that capitalism could only make clock-time hegemonic through winning a class struggle. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the examinations of how this took place - the breaking of the historic traditions of working people, the subordination of them to the rhythms of the clock. Martineau contrasts these with the historically different and specific ways that pre-capitalist societies understood and used time to fit with their economic systems. For feudal peasants day-light hours lengthened and shortened with the changing length of day. If day break marks the beginning of the twelve hours, noon the centre and sun set the end, then these hours are of variable length. Today a variable length hour sounds absurd. To a peasant in the fields its the obvious way to mark time between starting and ending labour.

But clock-time arises before capitalism, but with the need for workers to sell their labour power. Its the way that capitalism helps to quantitise that labour, and this is the key point of Martineau's book. But just as commodities have a "dual" character in capitalism, so does time. Martineau develops the thesis of Moishe Postone that argues the "distinction between abstract and concrete time rests on their definition as independent and dependent variables. 'Abstract time', for Postone, is thus 'uniform, continuous, homogeneous, 'empty' time, [and] is independent of events', while concrete times are 'functions of events: they are referred to and understood through natural cycles and the periodicities of human life as well as particular tasks or processes'."

Theory aside, once the time becomes accepted, the struggle over it is changed. Martineau utilises a famous analysis of time and capitalism by E.P. Thompson and quotes the historian on how this takes place:
The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-term committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time and a half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only to well.
This of course begs the question of how might a new society, one formed through the revolutionary over-throw of the old order, understand time. As Martineau concludes, this might "lead to a reclaiming of history and historical time by those who make it."

Clearly this is an interesting book, but I feel obliged  to make one strong critical point. It is a real shame that the publishers did not translate all the quotes from French to English. Not all of us are bilingual, and having key quotes in French and roughly translating them in the footnotes is bad enough. But having some quotes completely untranslated is a serious mistake.

That said, and leaving aside the academic style which makes some of the book rather dull, there is still much of interest here, particularly for those trying to understand how human society has transformed itself through history.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Philip Pullman - The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy moves from a slightly foreboding children's fantasy to a truly dark, frightening story. The story moves rapidly between worlds; initially we encounter Will in our own Earth, then we move to the world Lyra has escaped too, but this is haunted by phantoms that prey on adults and children on the cusp of puberty.

Despite its familiarity, Will's world is a dark one too. His mother has some form of delusional illness, and as it becomes clear that the family is being targeted because his absent father had found some secret information, Will's life suddenly becomes terribly uncertain. Putting his mother in a place of safety Will accidentally finds his way to Lyra's world and receives a powerful tool that allows him to travel between worlds.

Back in Will's Oxford, scientist Mary Malone is on the verge of discovering that her Earth is actually linked to all the others, and that the object of her studies - dark matter, Dust, is a clue to how everything hangs together. This in turn makes her the target of unknown forces and she too escapes into an alternative space.

The rest of the novel which further illuminates the relationship of these key individuals too each other and the wider battle that is taking place, a battle in a war that transcends the different universes.

As in most trilogies, book two is a bridge between the beginning of a novel and the climax. But Pullman expertly uses this to flesh out the universe. While setting it in a dark fantasy universe, the novel is particularly effective because it plays on the fears of every child - the lose of ones parents, fear of the unknown and, in particular, the unfathomable conspiracies of adults. There's a particularly clever approach by creating monsters that only attack adults, and children growing into adulthood. A memorable scene has these otherwise invisible creatures clustering around a unknowing boy who is on the verge of becoming a man. In a few weeks they'll destroy him, but in the meantime he runs and plays with the others.

It is no wonder that Pullman's Dark Materials have become classics. They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, and leave every reader yearning for more. The Subtle Knife lays the basis for the most powerful of the trilogy and its impossible not to immediately reach for The Amber Spyglass as soon as this is finished.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Northern Lights

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Pamela Horn - Joseph Arch

The life of Joseph Arch, agricultural labourer, Methodist preacher, trade union leader and liberal MP, is a fascinating one that Pamela Horn tells with her usual readable and engaging style. Horn notes that Arch was prone to over emphasise his own importance, particularly in terms of the founding and development of the National Agricultural Labourers Union that he helped found. So it is useful that Horn provides a good account of the pre-history of rural trade unionism, and the struggles of agricultural labourers.

The NALU and rural trade unionism in general was a central part of Arch's life. These arose out of necessity - the appalling poverty of rural life, in particular the low wages of agricultural workers. Horn had two strategies for dealing with this. The first was trade unionism, so that workers could come together to struggle for higher wages, particularly through strikes. Secondly, the extension of the voting franchise to male agricultural workers. There were some secondary strategies, one of which was emigration, particularly the United States and Canada. The other was migration within the United Kingdom, usually to urban industry.

Arch was sceptical of socialism as outlined by the Webbs in the late 19th century, but his politics were generally on the left. Like his hero, Gladstone, he was a champion of Irish Home Rule, even when this put him at odds with his core supporters. He was, like most at the time, however more backward about issues such as the women workers, believing they should remain in the family home. He never abandoned the trade union cause, though late in his life he became extremely cynical about workers, feeling they had abandoned him. When Arch was elected an MP he was frequently extremely poor, as MPs were not paid and he had no independent income save a small, irregular wage from the union.

But the main story here is that of the NALU. This rose rapidly, growing on the major outbreak of class struggle - the Revolt of the Fields, that is forever associated with Joseph Arch's leadership. The union grew rapidly and quickly took on a national importance. It's newspaper was read by tens of thousands, even being sold by WH Smiths in the train stations. The NALU won some initial wage rises, though it was part of some bitter strikes. Arch however was prone to personal feuds and sectarianism, both of which helped undermine his position. He was frequently accussed of living a high-life at the expense of his poverty stricken union members. There was some truth to this, particularly as Arch clearly loved being in the lime-light - he was also, in later years, very pleased with the friendship of the Prince of Wales.

The NALU declined with membership falling from a peak of around 86,000 in 1874 to 1,100 in 1894. The decline hurt Arch enormously, though he clearly had no strategy for turning this around other than exorting labourers to join. The decline of the union is clearly related to the decline in class struggle, alongside slight improvements in the economic situation.

Arch's career in parliament was relatively lacklustre. During his first period in office he made an excellent maiden speech (reproduced by Horn) on the condition of the agricultural labourer. Yet in his latter years following his second election, he was remarkably quiet, speaking on only a few occasions. Despite his earlier temperance, Arch became known for heavy drinking in London, and though he clearly loved the limelight and the acquaintance of famous figures, he remained relatively tied to his roots. Only ever appearing in his famous brown suit. Following retirement, Arch lived on a small income from a fund setup by his liberal friends. He was able, probably unlike most of those who had been his union members, to survive to a ripe old age, and his death was in 1919, by which time the English countryside had been transformed once again.

Arch's story is of interest because he, almost by accident, found himself at the head of a mass movement. To his credit he threw his enormous energy and talents into building and strengthening the union movement in difficult conditions. Horn celebrates this, while acknowledging the weaknesses of Arch's personality and politics. We should remember him as a pioneer from whose life we can learn much.

Related Reviews

Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Francis Parkman, Jr. - The Oregon Trail

This fascinating account of North America in the mid 19th century is a description of Francis Parkman's expedition into lands remote from the eastern "settlements". Parkman initially accompanies the settlers' heading west towards Oregon, and his accounts are fascinating insights into how the settlers viewed the world, and how they themselves were seen. It's notable, in this description how Parkman sees the settlers as only being interested in personal gain:
Yankee curiosity was nothing to theirs. They demanded our names, where we came from, where we were going and what was our business. The last query was particularly embarrassing; since travelling in that country, or indeed any where, from any other motive than gain, was an idea of which they took no cognisance. Yet they were fine-looking fellows, with an air of frankness, generosity and even courtesy, having come from one of the least barbarous of the frontier counties.
That said, he is scornful of them at times:
On visiting the encampment we were at once struck with the extraordinary perplexity and indecision that prevailed among the emigrants. They seemed like men totally out of their element; bewildered and amazed, like a troop of schoolboys lost in the woods.
Parkman's trek did actually have a purpose. It was, in part, simply about a young man with money wanted to see the wilderness. At the same time, it was the opportunity to hunt as many animals as possible, particularly buffalo.  Ironically, he, like many of his contemporaries shared a belief that these animals were so numerous that they could be killed without consequence - "Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species".

But it for Parkman's commentary on the Native Americans which this book shall likely be chiefly remembered. Parkman went to live with one of the tribes he encountered for a number of months. He rode with them, ate with them, hunted with them and watched their preparations for war. His accounts are frequently sympathetic, though he essentially sees them as a backward, savage race with childlike simplicity. The Native Americans, are, in Parkman's eyes untrustworthy, bloodthirsty, and prone to robbery. He also understood that things were changing:
These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilisation. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with, and wore the same rude garments of skins.
Great changes are at hand... With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must also be broken and scattered.The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abased by whisky and overawed by military posts.
There's no doubt that Parkman sees this as a good thing. White civilisation was to be emulated and aspired too - its reality was to be contrasted with the barbarism of Native American life. Sadly, while Parkman's book is full of interesting observation about Native American life in this period and with the tribes he encounters, its tempered by his racism and white supremacy. So read this book for the descriptions and the account of a country in the process of huge transformation, but do so knowing that opinions like Parkman's would help destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people, and the environment they depended on.

Related Reviews

McLynn - Wagons West
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Cronon - Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Joyce Marlow - The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Joyce Marlow's history of The Tolpuddle Martyrs is a classic of its period. It tells the story of the Martyrs well, allowing for occasional bits of speculation by the author. The problem for those writing about the Martyrs is two-fold. Firstly there have been numerous books, plays and articles. Secondly the material itself is relatively thin.

The primary source for most authors are the pamphlets written by George Loveless and four of the other martyrs. Loveless was the key figure in the Martyrs' case, a principled and quietly heroic individual, he wrote a short, very readable, memoir of his role.

Unfortunately this is brief and while detailed in places, Marlow is right to point out that being written in hindsight we cannot necessarily take it always at face value. That said, she puts it to good use and frames a much more detailed account around it. Marlow's additional sources, mostly including contemporary newspapers and legal records help fill out the story.

Like other authors she sees the persecution of the Tolpuddle labourers as very much about an attempt to drive the nascent agricultural union movement underground. Unlike most other writers of the period she also understands that the union movement saw in the Tolpuddle case the opportunity for self promotion. The six men were safe for the union movements' leaders. They weren't violent, they didn't burn down threshing machines and the solidarity movement that grew up to demand their return was the very model of how to campaign within the system.

This is not to downplay the movement. In fact, one of the strengths of Marlow's book is that she has great detail of the solidarity campaign itself. This involved mass protest, systematic petitioning (at least 800,000 people signed one or other of the numerous petitions presented to parliament), hundreds of meetings and the use of public protest alongside of agitation within parliament.

Once free, the Martyrs became symbols of the need for trade unionism, though Marlow points out that in agriculture the government was successful in undermining the union movement. It was forty years before Joseph Arch's agricultural worker's union was the become the site for new battles with the landowners and the bosses.

Marlow's book is an easy read. It's very dated by today's standards, and in places the language would be considered quite inappropriate for a left wing author. But there is plenty of material here, and some useful background reading and history.

Related Reviews

Norman - George Loveless
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hammond & Hammond - The Village Labourer

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights

Ahead of Philip Pullman releasing the companion books to the His Dark Materials trilogy I've been re-reading the original novels, ones that I last read nearly 15 years back and have held a special place in my heart since then. As Heraclitus famously said, you cannot stand in the same river twice. And the same is true of favourite novels. They might be enjoyed just as much, but the context is never the same. Reading Northern Lights in 2017 I am reminded of the power of Pullman's writing. Given he is addressing a young person's audience he never patronises his reader, assuming that they are just as capable of understanding big concepts as any adult.

As a result, the books are powerful meditations on what it is to be human. Lyra, the major character in Northern Lights comes from a wealthy, closeted community. Her understanding of the real world is filtered by a privileged ability to dip in and out of other peoples lives. But always able to return to the safety of her life in one of Oxford's colleges. Thus readers can identify with her adventures exploring the roofs and cellars of the crumbling buildings, but identify more closely with her playmates. Which makes the shock of what happens to them even more striking.

Oxford here, is not of course, our Oxford. Rather its a different world where people's personalities are extended outside their bodies into animal familiers. These daemons think and act independantly, but act very much as a part of the person. While initially these seem like an amusing fantasy element to a slightly steampunk alternative universe, daemons increasingly become central to the books.

Enveloping all of this is the wider social structure. The suffocating influence of the church across science and society is unravelled not through Pullman explaining it all in a clunky chapter giving the background to the novel, but through Lyra's eyes as her understanding of the world is gradually undermined by reality. Its possible to see the Dark Materials novels as a kind of alternative story of the Reformation and Renaissance, as the old religious ideas are confronted and challenged by new technologies and science. As this takes place the whole of society is shaken. The genius of the novel is that this is the backdrop, and Lyra's adventures are the front stage. If you haven't read these books, throw yourself in, whatever your age, before Pullman's follow ups become the publishing event of the year.

Related Reviews

Pullman - The Ruby in the Smoke

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz - The Shock of the Anthropocene

I found The Shock of the Anthropocene a very interesting book that has a lot to say about the multiple environmental crises that we are currently facing. But simultaneously I was left deeply unsatisfied by it, in particular its critique of the Marxist approach to the Anthropocene, and its lack of a clear strategy for solving the problem. That said, it has a lot to offer the careful reader.

It begins, like all writing on the environment must, by setting out precisely how bad the contemporary ecological crises are. Human society, the authors argue, is transforming the environment in a way that is utterly detrimental our ability to continue to live in the way we do. The authors argue that human's are not separate from nature, but part of it, and have transformed global ecology fundamentally. For instance, they point out that "Ninety per cent of photosynthesis on Earth occurs in 'anthropogenic biomes', that is, ecological ensembles modified by human beings."

It is with this approach that the authors begin their critique of contemporary Anthropocene science. They argue that discussion of the Anthropocene, reflects a "contemporary ideology of an ecological modernisation and a 'green economy' that internalises in markets and policies the values of the 'services' supplied by nature". They are scathing about the inability of this market driven approach to the natural world to deal with ecological crisis, pointing out that "the International Union for Conservation of Nature now presents nature as 'the largest company on Earth'."

Much of the early part of the book is a useful discussion of how this approach to nature developed. It is, in part, rooted in a enlightenment view of humanity sat neatly above a natural world ready and ripe for exploitation. But it is, for these authors, a result of the way that the modern economy was shaped by the interests of the Cold War, and particularly the United States.

They show how after World War Two, the concepts of ecosystems and machines, games theory and complex systems theory were used to try and break down the "Cartesian analystic reductionism" that had characterised scientific approaches to nature previously. Here they critique one famous guru of this approach James Lovelock, showing that his ideas arose out of the intellectual cradle of the US imperialist machine:
Lovelock...was in reality a pure product of the scientific-military-industrial complex of the Cold War. After collaborating with NASA, he worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War on detecting human presence under forest cover. His post-democratic conception of planetary government, his apology for nuclear power and his systemic view of the planet as a self-regulated system are the legacy of a world-view born from the Second World War and the Cold War.
The Cold War, the authors argue, shaped a way of viewing the world as a "natural world ... completely enclosed in a man-made container" (the quote is from Marshall McLuhan) and as a result, arrives at a position where, the "dominant narrative of the Anthropocene presents an abstract humanity uniformly involved... uniformly to blame".  Further, the authors argue that
The grand narrative of the Anthropocene places anthropos, humanity, into two categories: on the one hand, the uninformed mass of the world population, who have become a geological agent without realising it, and on the other, a small elite of scientists who reveal the dramatic and uncertain future of the planet.
Counter to this, the authors offer an alternative explanation of the origin of the Anthropocene, rooted in the particular developmental path taken by capitalism which has placed fossil fuels at its core. The authors quote Andreas Malm's work on several occasions, and their analysis, particularly of the post-Second World War Great Acceleration is similar to that taken by other authors such as Ian Angus.

However, Angus' own study of Anthropocene science and scientists shows that actually scientists do not by and large accept a narrative of all humans are "uniformly to blame" nor do they believe that the mass of humanity is uniformed or unconcerned about the environment. So the authors attempt to set their own work up as an alternative to the flawed approach of the scientists (and other environmental thinkers) is based on an incorrect reading of the scientific material.

My final criticism of the book is that the approach explicitly rejects Marxism as not being applicable to understanding the current dynamics of capitalism. The authors argue that the driving force of capitalism is consumption, and not accumulation. Which means that they lose vital analytical tools to explain the current inability of capitalism to respond to the climate crisis. They rightly understand that the Second World War was the "decisive break" that meant energy use leapt forward, but they highlight this only to emphasis that it laid the basis for "mass-consumption society".

Mass consumption is, of course, a major issue for the environmental impact of modern capitalism. But it isn't the cause. The cause is the drive to maximise profits, which in turn is based on the need to constantly expand production. So, the authors can reject "the great universals of 'capital' or the 'human species', " without seeing that Marx offered an analysis that put these in their historical context. Turning to Systems Theory, the authors hope that they can find a new way to understand the "ecologized history of capitalism". Unfortunately this leaves them unable to offer any alternative to the current system.

An example of their flaws is their discussion of militarism and the environment. For instance when they argue that "The 'scorched earth' practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries... the Boer War, the second Sino-Japanese War.. the German Operation Alberich of 1917... Stalin's destruction of Soviet resources (etc) should be analysed as environmental phenomena." The problem is that these are imperialist phenomena, which, given the nature of capitalism, inevitably has an environmental consequence - the two are dialectically linked, and its a mistake to separate them. In fact, separating them out means the authors commit precisely the reductionist error that they complain about others making.

This is a harsh critique of Bonneuil and Fressoz's book, so it is worth noting that I found much of interest in its pages. I was, for instance, fascinated by their material on the role of the military machine in shaping a particular approach to the environment, as is the parallel discussion of the importance of the rise of the motor car. Originally published in France the book inevitably has material from that country's environmental and industrial history that is new to me, and shows a close parallel to the historical developments of the UK.

In conclusion then, while the authors' approach is flawed by their simplistic critique of Marxism and their lack of clarity on the approach of Anthropocene scientists, there is material of interest here. However I'd recommend potential readers read Ian Angus' Facing the Anthropocene and Andreas Malm's Fossil Capitalism first, to better appreciate the context.

Related Reviews

Malm - Fossil Capitalism
Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics