Friday, July 24, 2015

Richard Holmes - Falling Upwards: How we took to the Air

Richard Holmes' eclectic and slightly random history of the early days of ballooning is one of those books that is read for enjoyment rather than a detailed history of the subject. The early balloons were very limited technically and travelling in one was often a life or death matter. In fact, as a result, ballooning was a popular spectator sport and daredevil performers (frequently women in titillating outfits) often hung from the baskets, spent whole days and nights in them, or performed tricks. The Edwardian "balloon girl" Dolly Shepherd, used to hang on a trapeze at several thousands of feet in altitude before dropping under a parachute. She had many male admirers, though working class women seemed to love her as a "portent of women's rights".

A few individuals saw the potential for scientific investigations from the new flying machines, though unsurprisingly the first real application of the balloon, other than entertainment was military. Two fascinating chapters here deal with the role of the balloon in the American Civil War and during the Prussian siege of Paris (the one that preceded the Paris Commune for my socialist readers). In the former the balloon tended to be used as an observation device, and in the case of the South, a propaganda device. During the 1870 Paris Siege however the balloons took on an enormous propaganda role as they were used to take millions of letters and messages (and the occasional politician) from the besieged city.

France seems to have had a long relationship with the balloon. Poets, scientists and writers (and often combinations of all three) rode them, and fell in love with them. One, Camille Flammarion saw the future in the balloon,
Whither sales this ship? It sails with daylight, clothed,
Towards the Future, pristine and divine; towards the Good,
Towards the shining light of Science seen afar
Writing before the Franco-Prussian war and the military role of balloons, perhaps Flammarion could be forgiven for his belief that the balloon would help bring the shining future closer. Certainly his own travels made him think that the balloon took him to a different place,
This absolute silence is truly impressive; it is the prelude tot that which reigns in the interplanetary space in the midst of which other worlds revolve. The sky here has a tint which we never saw before... Planetary space is absolutely black.
The book ends with the age of exploration, and the Swedish explorer S A Andree, whose doomed trip to try to visit the North Pole relied on scientific and technological innovation over common sense. The three travelers who perished may have inspired and excited the newspaper reading public, but the detailed account in Falling Upwards left me thinking they were publicity obsessed idiots whose faith in engineering was misplaced because it ignored the realities of the natural world.

Holmes' earlier book, The Age of Wonder was a masterful history of the era when science and literature were holding out for a new world, where technology might free human kind. It explored the scientists and their circles striving to understand the cosmos. Falling Upwards covers a similar subject and period, but sadly I found it didn't really hold together as a book and came across as a series of anecdotes not worthy of the book's subtitle, however fascinating they might be.

 Related Reviews

Holmes - Age of Wonder
Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Emma Hughes & James Marriott - All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan

Published just after the European Games took place in Baku in 2015, this little book is a enormous indictment of the Azerbaijan regime, BP and those international politicians that support the government there. The games, along with other recent events, such as the Eurovision Song Contest have little to do with culture or sport, but everything to do with sanitizing the regime to "tell the right story about Azerbaijan and its ruling family".

The President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyez and his family have grown enormously wealthy off the back of their country's enormous stocks of fossil fuel. The family has been central to the governance of the country going back to the Soviet era, and in the post-USSR world have worked hard to maintain their grip on wealth and power. A key part of this has been building strong links with western governments, in part to promote and encourage political support for Azerbaijan's bid for the European games.
In May 2012 he [Aliyev] met UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In the next six months he made visits to, or invited into the presidential palace, 11 European heads of state. In June... he attended the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. Finally, on 8 December 2012, the president and first lady were in Rome to hear the news that Baku had been chosen... to host the Games.
Aliyev was clear about the importance of the Games, that they were to bolster his country's "international reputation". Azerbaijan's reputation needs some improvement. There are over 100 prisoners of conscience in the country and this book details how those who speak out about human-rights abuses, expose undemocratic practices, or high levels of corruption in the state and the ruling family can find themselves in prison on trumped up charges, or bundled away in a van. Some are found dead. The investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova had a hidden camera installed in her bedroom. A tape of her having sex was published online in an attempt to smear her reputation after she had repeatedly exposed the corruption of the Aliyez family and the way that the country's elite "had grabbed and squandered the country's money".

Behind all of this lies money, and that money stems from oil. The key to this lies in the hands of BP which has, in the words of the authors "cemented" an alliance between "an autocratic family, the demands of capital, fossil fuel dependency and the strategy of a global military power". The authors also make clear that while BP makes money from this relationship, their link to Azerbaijan is crucial in supporting the company as it goes through an enormously difficult period following the ecological disaster of Deep Water Horizon. Those who lose out are the population of Azerbaijan whose country is sucked dry of its mineral wealth and whose freedom, democracy and economy is sacrificed in the name of a few rich individuals.

Despite hopes that the wealth from oil would "liberalise" the country, the opposite has taken place. As one campaigning journalist told the authors of this book,
Before the oil and gas incomes came to Azerbaijan we had more democracy and freedom. The main income from oil came in 2006 when the Baku-Tibilsi-Ceyhan pipeline started to operate. And from that time the situation started to deteriorate. We have problems with journalists, political prisoners, religious believers being arrested - if you criticise the government you can be easily interrogated and prosecuted under fabricated charges.
There is hope. The authors point out that international events like the Euro-Games have provided a platform for activists to highlight the problems, and pressurize foreign governments and corporations. The close relationship between the country and BP is also under pressure as oil prices drop and the relatively expensive oil from the region becomes less attractive. What the future holds is not yet clear, but the authors of this powerful polemic make it very clear that there are many brave activists in Azerbaijan prepared to fight for a better deal for ordinary people. This book is about giving them support and solidarity in that struggle.

Related Reviews

Marriott and Minio-Paluello - The Oil Road

Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East
Nikiforuk - Tar Sands
Klare - Blood and Oil
Heinberg - Snake Oil

Sunday, July 19, 2015

R.W. Hoyle - The Pilgrimage of Grace and the politics of the 1530s

In my review of Geoffrey Moorhouse' book The Pilgrimage of Grace I sketched out the rough history  of the Lincolnshire Rebellion and the Pilgrimage that make up the subject matter of both these books. In this review of Hoyle's book I want to concentrate on the authors discussion of the nature of the rebellion itself.

Hoyle is a master of his sources. Not only has he re-examined the original material but he has a commanding understanding of it. Thus he re-examines much of the contemporary letters and accounts to try to understand the social forces that led to both uprisings. His conclusion is at odds with many historical accounts of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Traditionally it has been seen as a rebellion of the gentry, leading the commons in a conservative attempt to roll back Henry VIII's reformation, defend the monasteries and reassert traditional religious values.

However, Hoyle argues that while some of this is true, at the heart of the rebellion were wider issues that made this an uprising of the commons, in particular the rural masses. But the commons felt they needed the gentry, in part because they lacked a coherent set of demands, but also because they felt that their rebellion was about wider society and the gentry were part of that society.
In the first instance the commons were a crowd, thrilled by the excitement of being gathered together in large numbers, determined that anyone who opposed them should be intimidated into submission... but unclear about tactics. At Louth, perhaps at Horncastle, certainly at Richmond, we see a struggle for control between the original agitators responsible for calling the rebels together and the gentry whom they brought to their musters and whom, in large measure they probably mistrusted. The gentry shaped the revolt by offering it discipline. They changed the composition of the commons by insisting that only a small number drawn from each township or parish went forwards and represented the whole.
Mostly the gentry tried to hold back and disperse the rebellion, in part by delaying tactics, in part by trying to petition the king for pardons and demands that would allow the ruling class to disperse the movement. The king failed to respond in kind, and this led to a major problem for the gentry who were closely associated with the rebellions. In fact, many of the gentry lost their lives as a result of Henry VIII's paranoia. He couldn't see that the gentry were forced into a leadership position by the commons, and had actually tried to undermine the rebellion. Their professions of loyalty during and after the rebellion were rarely enough to save them.

A second key aspect to Hoyle's analysis is that he sees the Pilgrimage of Grace as being different depending on its region. The East Riding rebellion was very much associated with the demands of the Lincolnshire rebels, particularly because of the role of Robert Aske. But the revolt that took place between Ripon and Richmond, spread in the name of "Captain Poverty", "was concerned with agrarian discontents, with tenure, fines and thithes, as well as the suppression of the smaller monasteries and the defence of the church". This is absent in the risings in East Riding.

Because Henry VIII failed to grasp the independent nature of the commons within the Pilgrimage of Grace he found it increasingly difficult to subdue it. The Pilgrims wanted a "dialogue" from their Prince, the King however wanted an end to their rebellion. At the same time, Henry made a series of tactical mistakes in mustering his forces. Had either the Lincolnshire rebels or the Pilgrims challenged the Royal armies in open battle, they may well have won and Henry's position would have been extremely difficult. That the rebels were dispersed is in no small part due to the tactics of the gentry themselves who suceeded where Henry had failed. Aske in particular was able to "sweet talk" the commons into disbanding based on the concessions he felt he had won. In fact these were non-existent and the King had no intention of honouring any pledges, in particular the promise of a parliament.
He [duke of Norfolk] had struck a deal with the leadership of the Pilgrims which they found sufficiently satisfactory to persuade them to disband their movement. The deal relieved them from the threat which the commons posed to them, their families, and property. There could be general satisfaction that a device had been found which allowed the commons to return home with honour. The question which cannot really be answered is how many of the gentry were actually committed to the agreement except as a cynical exercise to disperse the Pilgrims.
Henry VIII was lucky to have such loyalists around him. Their flexibility should have been rewarded. Instead, in many cases, it lead to the executioners bloc.

Hoyle's excellent history of the Pilgrimage of Grace should be read by every student of the subject. It might be seen as revisionist for its attempt to portray the rebellion as larger, wider and more in depth that previously described, but that only serves to underlines its importance as a work of history.

Related Reviews

Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Donny Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War

This review of Fighting on all Fronts was first published in Socialist Review #404, July/August 2015

Next month is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There will be official events, which combine just the right amount of somberness with a celebration of the victory of “democracy” and “freedom” over fascism and tyranny.

But for the rulers of the Allied nations the war was never about democracy or freedom.

In his previous book, A People’s History of the Second World War, Donny Gluckstein argued that what actually took place was two parallel wars: a clash of imperialisms as well as a “People’s War”, fought by ordinary people, mobilised by anti-fascist, democratic sentiments.

Fighting on all Fronts brings together further examples from around the globe. The result is an illuminating book in which different authors highlight forgotten history.

Tomáš Tengely-Evans’s excellent chapter on the Slovak National Uprising describes how 78,000 partisans and soldiers fought fascist Slovakian forces and 48,000 Wehrmacht and SS troops.

We are normally told that the population of Japan blindly followed their leaders. But as the war progressed increasing numbers felt differently.

Sometimes this was on an individual level, like the kamikaze pilot who read Lenin’s State and Revolution secretly in the toilet, and just before his death concluded the war was imperialist. But it was also collective. Thousands of Japanese workers took part in strikes and protests during the war and workers’ mass absenteeism reached the staggering levels of 49 percent after the 1942 bombing of Tokyo.

This forgotten history is important because it challenges contemporary ideology.

Perhaps the most important example of this is Janey Stone’s moving chapter on Jewish resistance. Stone demonstrates that Jews did not just meekly go to their deaths in the gas chambers, but often fought back. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 will be familiar to many readers of Socialist Review from Marek Edelman’s book The Ghetto Fights.

Stone describes other examples such as the Minsk underground resistance, which united Jewish and non-Jewish resistance under Communist leadership. From 1941 it “ran a clandestine press and smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto... Jews and non-Jews both engaged in sabotage within Nazi factories.” Some 10,000 Jews were saved as a result.

Colonial history also affected how the war played out. In South East Asia, European powers had dominated, but other countries wanted to expand their influence. So, for the Chinese, the Second World War began many years before Hitler invaded Poland when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.

Tens of millions of Chinese died, and resistance was on an enormous scale. In 1943 the Chinese Communist Red Army was supported by a militia of 7 million with another 12 million in “anti-Japanese associations”.

According to Mao Tse-tung, China’s official leadership the Kuomintang had a “line of oppressing the Chinese people and carrying on a passive resistance”, compared to the “Chinese people’s line of becoming awakened and united to wage a people’s war”.

Every chapter in this book illuminates further the central contradiction of the Second World War, but I am not convinced that this all fits neatly into the idea of “parallel wars”. Frequently the struggles influenced each other — Churchill and Roosevelt needed to talk about “freedom” to motivate the masses to fight.

Yet this rhetoric encouraged their soldiers (and the partisans listening on radios around the world) to believe that a different world was possible. As Gluckstein himself notes, “In two broad arcs stretching from Beijing through Hanoi to Jakarta and Delhi and then from Athens through Belgrade to northern Italy and Paris the masses, many of them armed, were challenging for control.”

But at times the war was even more complex. The struggle in Burma was simultaneously a battle for liberation from Japanese occupation and from pre-war British rule. This meant that the Burmese freedom fighters fought with both the British and the Japanese at different times.

But there was also a conflict within the Burmese ruling class with some wanting to return to the old colonial arrangement, others to fight for independence in which they would benefit.

Gluckstein summarises “The People’s War” as amounting to “a rejection of capitalist imperialism and imperialist capitalism”. I think the processes are more complex than this.

I was struck, for instance, by the story of the Australian troops who cheered Stalin every time he appeared in newsreels, not out of ideological conviction, but simply because it annoyed their officers.

In some parts of the world the war did lead to revolutionary moments. Elsewhere resistance movements failed to reach such heights, took the road of anti-colonial nationalism, or were suppressed by the Allies.

I don’t have to space to highlight other excellent chapters such as that on neutral Ireland, the Netherlands, or the mass struggle in the Philippines. I can only encourage readers to get hold of this book and read it.

Related Reviews

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Heartfield - An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War
Challinor - The Struggle for Hearts on Minds

Other reviews of books by Donny Gluckstein

Gluckstein - Tragedy of Bukharin
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Christopher Hill - The Century of Revolution

Christopher Hill's history of the English Revolution and its aftermath The Century of Revolution was first published in 1961. Reading it over 50 years later I was repeatedly impressed by how modern and relevant it felt. Extremely readable, accessible and surly a definitive history it ought to be read by everyone trying to understand the origins of capitalism and the revolutionary break with the past that English society took in the 17th century.

This debate remains important. Hill was arguing that the English Civil War was only the military expression of the revolutionary changes sweeping England. That there was even a revolutionary transformation is now controversial. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the generally accepted view was that a revolution had taken place in England in the 17th century, there have been attempts by a variety of right-wing academics and historians to role this back. Much of their ammunition has been used on the works of Hill and those influenced by him, in order to demonstrate the continuity of the past, and thus the present.

Hill's book is somewhat unorthodox. He dispenses with the narrative approach, breaking up the 17th century into periods, the run up to the Civil War, the period of rebellion and the Interregnum, followed by the restoration and the aftermath of the "Glorious" revolution. Each section of this is further broken down - beginning with a narrative, then looking at politics, industry, economics and so on. Its a useful method and helps to show Hill's main thesis. That there was an English Revolution and it did usher in a world were capitalism could reign.

Hill begins by noting that the Stuart monarchy actually restricted the growth of industry,
In so far as Stuart government had anything which could be described as an economic policy, it was to support the monopoly London export companies against interlopers, to slow down industrial development and control it through gilds and monopolies, to suppress middlemen.
Nonetheless, industry and trade grew. So by the beginnings of the Civil War period (indeed much earlier in London) merchants were frequently richer than the gentry. But this trade was of interest to the crown only in that it raised revenue. They had no interest in expanding trade. Thus a new class was growing, frustrated and angry at a monarchy that failed to support and encourage them. As Hill explains
So there were many economic reasons for opposing the government. Industrialists, merchants and corn-growers wanted freer trade, less government regulation, no monopolies; gentlemen wanted to escape from the burdens of wardship, feudal tenures, and forest laws; and to be given a freer hand to enclose and bring fresh land under cultivation. 
Hill quotes a Professor Stone, who notes the way that this was changing society
Economic developments were dissolving old bonds of service and obligation and creating new relationships founded on the operations of the market... The domestic and foreign policies of the Stuarts were failing to respond to these changing circumstances. 
The defeat of Charles I and the new government under Cromwell began transforming this situation completely. Industry and trade were encouraged. This is not surprising, Parliament's support was highest in areas were industry and agriculture dominated local economics, indeed one of Hill's maps makes this very clear. The social changes were significant. The first business of the new parliament in 1660 was to convert Royalist lands to freehold, encouraging the purchase and sale of this land. The importance of this was
Unconditional ownership and transmission of landed property was one essential for planned long-term capital investment in agricultural improvements. The other was that copyholders... should not win absolute rights in their holdings, particularly not an absolute right of inheritance, but could be evicted by landlords who wished to enclose or consolidate.
While Hill notes that there wasn't a social revolution in the English countryside comparable to what took place during the French Revolution, the countryside began to be altered fundamentally in order to allow a new way of organising agriculture that would conclude with the transformation of the peasantry into wage-labourers, either in the rural or urban areas. This process may have been a long, drawn out one, but as Hill says it was now "inevitable".

Hill explains all the other ways in which industry, commerce and trade were encouraged and expanded during the Interregnum. Nonetheless Hill characterises the revolution as "very incomplete". Enormous changes took place, economically, politically, religiously. But
The country had managed to get on without King, Lords, and Bishops; but it could never henceforth be ruled without the willing co-operation of those whom the House of Commons represented.... Nevertheless, an incomplete revolution. In 1644 George Wither had recommended wholesale confiscation of the lands of royalists, with the deliberate object of 'making them peasants'. But nothing of the sort occurred.... A society of the career open to the talents was not established. There was no lasting extension of redistribution of the franchise, no substantial legal reform. The transfers of property did not benefit the smaller men, and movements to defend their economic position all came to nothing. Tithes and a state Church survived; religious toleration ended (temporarily) in 1660. Dissenters were driven out of political life for a century and a half.
Those who argued for a new, democratic, world were defeated as Cromwell changed tack and consolidated the revolution in the interests of the new bourgeoisie. And despite the restoration of the monarchy there was no going back. New methods of taxation were kept by the new monarch and many laws of the Interregnum which were abolished were remade by the end of the century.

This wasn't just in the realm of economics. The 1689 Toleration Act, Hill writes, "finally killed the old conception of a single state Church... The attempt to punish 'sin' by judicial process was virtually abandoned. The laity had won its centuries long struggle against the Church courts." As Hill concludes, "in this respect too the Middle Ages were over".

Despite its relatively short length this work manages to convey the sweeping transformation of English society. The revolutionary years transformed the social, political and economic landscape, on the back of changes that had been developing for decades. But it took the revolutionary act of war, then the abolition of the monarchy to make these changes concrete. Once the changes had occurred the new class that held power could welcome back the monarch, but on a very different set of agreements to previously. The world was now open for fully fledged capitalism to develop and there was nothing that King or Queen could do to stop it.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paul McGarr & Alex Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution

This book is actually a special edition of the International Socialist Journal. Published near the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, it consists of two excellent essays. The first, by Paul McGarr is an excellent introductory account to the French Revolution. McGarr doesn't dwell in great detail on the details of the Revolution, preferring to paint a general picture that concentrates on the forces clashing within French society. Here, McGarr gives the reader a sense of the changing nature of French society and the tensions developing within it:
The French state under Loius XIV pursued vigorous 'protectionist' economic policies... designed to serve the interests of the state in its conflicts with its rivals. But they were also designed to help French trade, commerce and manufacture - and thus the bourgeoisie. Significant elements of the bourgeoisie used their wealth and influence to obtain lucrative positions within the growing bureaucracy of the absolutist state... In short the absolutist state was an adaption to, and partial incorporation of, the bourgeoisie but within a reshaped and restabilised feudal political structure.
Such tensions could not be contained indefinitely, and the author explains well how the economic changes influenced political interests, which eventually exploded into rebellion. But for the Revolution to be carried through required the direct involvement of the masses. McGarr explores the way that this took place through the networks of radical clubs and organisations which discussed, debated and took action. These clubs were numerous and frequently large. The Jacobin clubs in Marseille, for instance, in 1791, involved 2,000 people. McGarr writes
Some estimates put the numbers as high as one million at various points in the revolution... This mass political organisation and its press were the backbone of the revolution. We know more about events in Prais and in the Convention, but too often the fact that behind this stood real organisation right across the country, on a historically unprecedented scale, is forgotten.
What did this mean in practice? McGarr argues that the bourgeoisie needed to break the old order in order to push forward their class interests. But were not able to do this on their own. So they also needed the "class demands" of the peasants and urban masses to drive the revolution on.
The peasants and urban poor were not capable of forming an independent force capable of taking power in society. Only the bourgeoisie had the potential to be a new ruling class. This gave them hegemony in constructing the new order.
Their victory meant that the bourgeoisie now formed the dominant, exploiting class. McGarr argues this because he wants to demonstrate that those who argue that the political and class struggles of the French Revolution were immaterial to the changes in French society are wrong. Students of the French Revolution will find that McGarr's article is a useful short introduction to the debates within the left (and with the right) about the nature of this change.

It is in this context too, that Alex Callinicos' essay is extremely important. Luckily it is available online, though sadly Paul McGarr's is not. Callinicos' has written extensively on the subject of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This essay, Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism is an excellent introduction to this topic, particularly in the context of the French Revolution. Though having said that, Callinicos briefly examines other changes such as Revolution's "from above" like that in Germany, the United States and Japan.

One key argument for Callinicos is over which class "led" the revolution. Here he challenges those who simply argue that bourgeois revolutions must be led by the whole bourgeois class. Clearly in the case of many revolutions this isn't the case, the gentry fought on both sides, or changed sides.
Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism. The emphasis should shift from the class which makes a bourgeois revolution to the effects of such a revolution – to the class which benefits from it. More specifically, a bourgeois revolution is a political transformation – a change in state power, which is the precondition for large scale capital accumulation and the establishment of the bourgeoisie as the dominant class. This definition requires, then, a political change with certain effects. It says nothing about the social forces which carry through the transformation.
It seems to me that this is the only sensible analysis. The origins of the need for revolutionary change arise behind the scenes so to speak. They are the consequences of actions by people who change their way of making wealth gradually over time, and bring within them other interests and needs. This isn't necessarily a conscious activity and does not automatically lead to conscious needs for change. Nonetheless, eventually, critical mass is arrived at and different forces in society a forced to clash. I think the English Revolution demonstrates this very clearly, as parliament gradually is forced to confront the king over more and more key economic and political questions until eventually he has to be fought. Few, if any, who took up arms in 1642 for Parliament did so imagining they would be bringing down the monarchy.

Callinicos puts it very well
Capitalism, involving...  the spread of commodity circulation, necessarily develops in a piecemeal and decentralised way within the framework of feudal political domination. It gradually subverts the old order through the infiltration of the whole network of social relationships and the accumulation of economic and political power by capitalists. The effect is both to the many capitalists to the ancien régime but also to change the nature of that régime, so that old forms conceal new, bourgeois relationships.
Or as Engels wrote (quoted by Callinicos) ‘The political order remained feudal, while society became more and more bourgeois.’

Again, as in McGarr's article, Callinicos tackles those, such as the political theorist Theda Skocpol, who argue that what took place in the English Revolution was a "political but not a social revolution". To demonstrate this, Callinicos examines the changes that take place in the role of the state. Again, these arguments should be read by anyone seeking to understand the political and social transformations taking place in England and France during the Revolutions. Key to these changes though, are the various political actors. In the French Revolution we have the peasants and urban masses, with the Jacobin revolutionaries (like Cromwell) forced to play a balancing act between the groups' differing interests. This is why the historical analysis of McGarr's piece is so important, because the revolutionary process taking place as social forces grow and develop during the Revolution are key to understanding why different groups acted in particular ways at different times. Revolutionary change was not inevitable, and as Callinicos points out, the Bourgeois revolution failed in its classic sense in countries like Germany, having to be imposed from above. Revolutions
in which the existing state apparatus was used violently to remove the obstacles to the construction of unified capitalist economies. It is essential, therefore, to consider some of the main features of these revolutions.
Finally, Callinicos notes that the contemporary changes have taken alternate forms. The Russian Revolution needed workers to lead the peasantry to victory in 1917. But in countries were this wasn't possible, various alternative revolutionary leaderships were able to play this role "often marching under ‘Marxist-Leninist’ colours but dominated by the urban petty bourgeoisie, were able to lead and organise successful peasant wars against imperialism and its allies."

Callinicos concludes,
The historical irony that movements claiming the inspiration of Marxism should do the work of capitalism, merely underlines the fundamental difference between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. Bourgeois revolutions are characterised by a disjunction of agency and outcome. A. variety of different social and political forces – Independent gentry, Jacobin lawyers, Junker and samurai bureaucrats, even ‘Marxist-Leninists’ – can carry through political transformations which radically improve the prospects for capitalist development.
This however is not enough. The revolutionary defeat of feudalism and the introduction of capitalism, was a historic progress step. But today Capitalism is a fetter on the further development of human society. Understanding the forces that led to that change, helps us better understand the nature of the beast we must destroy today. These two essays should be read by anyone seeking to turn the world upsidedown.

Related Reviews

Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution
Callinicos - Making History

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jean Jaurès - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

The French Revolution was a profoundly important historical event. But just saying this can underestimate its impact. The Revolution didn't simply change the course of French, or even European history, it helped to shape the way generations of people viewed historical change. A glance at the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky will see repeated references to the Revolution and its key figures. Debates about the processes of historical change, particularly the transition from feudal society to capitalism, continue to discuss the French events, and radicals today continue to be inspired by the nameless thousands who stormed the Bastille, and at crucial moments forced reluctant politicians to embrace change.

In this context then, this important new abridgment of Jean Jaurès' classic history of the French Revolution is very welcome indeed. Jean Jaurès was a leading French socialist of the early 20th century. Assassinated for opposing the First World War, he had an enormous impact upon the French socialist movement. But he also helped to shape the study of the French Revolution with his monumental Socialist History. Spanning multiple volumes it is a work of brilliant scholarship that seeks to apply the Marxist method to the revolutionary events and its leading figures. It is also immensely readable.

Translator Mitchell Abidor has done a brilliant job in bringing Jaurès work to an English audience. His translation is superb but his selection from Jaurès is also excellent, managing to convey the full breadth of his history, without losing the author's eye for detail.

As a 20th century socialist, Jaurès was concerned with the role of ordinary people in the Revolution. But he understands that there was a contradiction. The urban population may have stormed the Bastille, but
The Revolution's origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court's attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote... not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.
The role of the "people"
seemed a glorious and fearsome accident that could not be allowed to become the rule in the regular workings of a free and ordered society.
But even so, Jaurès notes that,
thanks to these valiant men there is nothing under the sun today that belongs wholly to the bourgeoisie, not even its Revolution.
Time and again, the masses, take the stage to direct and shape the direction of the Revolution. The peasants, fearful of "brigands"  and knowing
That the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched lightheartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapns they'd seized... We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system. 
This contradiction runs through Jaurès' history. The dynamic between the limitations of the new order and the desire for change of the masses at the bottom of society. But it is in Paris and the other key urban areas that we really see the revolution pushed forward. The most radical deputies are elected from these towns, and they are the ones most clued into the desires of the masses and most keen to press forward under pressure from below. As events progress, the masses become less and less passive, and their leaders, are pushed forward, or aside.

Jaurès is not afraid to critique some the heroes of the Revolution. He is skeptical of Marat, saying his "theories caused bewilderment and even scandal among the people", and noting Marat's hope that the rich might "save themselves" by "act[ing] in good faith by giving a poor a portion of their excess". But here I think Jaurès is ahead of himself. Hindsight is wonderful, and I think that the author is limited by his belief that a proletarian movement already existed within the French masses, akin to the modern working class.

As Henry Heller points out in his introductory essay, Jaurès' "moved toward socialism without breaking from the radical republican and parliamentary tradition". So his history ends up suggesting that the struggle for socialism under capitalism is the continuation of the French Revolution. As Jaurès writes
Perhaps it wasn't possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom.
But precisely because the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution that brought in capitalism, this would be impossible, unless you believed French capitalism could provide well-ordered freedom. Jaurès writes "Strong class action by the proletariat is needed in order to wrest the Revolution and democracy from all that is now outdated and retrograde in the bourgeois world view".

My second criticism is that this selection neglects the impact of the Revolution outside of Europe, in particular its role in helping to inspire revolutions in Haiti against colonialism and slavery. This is a serious ommission in my opinion, given the importance of that event in helping to end slavery itself.

One problem with the nature of any abridgment is that it must miss out stuff, both contextual and factual. So the reader new to the French Revolution may at times struggle in understanding who certain individuals were, and their motivations. While Mitchell Abidor does a heroic job in framing each selection, there are inevitable gaps which mean that some readers might want to read further on the Revolution.

While these limitations are important, they do not entirely detract from this important book. Henry Heller's useful introduction frames the book for the reader who can enjoy Jaurès writing for what it is, a celebration of the need to change the world, and the role of ordinary people in doing so.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein's recent book This Changes Everything has helped reignite the climate movement and radical discussion of the environment and its relationship to capitalism. Having enjoyed it, I have turned to an earlier book of hers to try and understand more about how Klein sees capitalism and the alternative to it. I began The Shock Doctrine expecting to disagree with her analysis of contemporary capitalism. While I did, in places, I found much to agree with in the book, and many astute and important pieces of journalism.

According to Klein the Shock Doctrine is the way that contemporary capitalism uses chaos and disaster to open up markets to privatisation and more extreme exploitation. In her words,
the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane - puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften p whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.
Using examples from 1970s Latin American to Iraq following Bush and Blair's war, to the aftermath of "natural" disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, Klein develops a series of examples that show how capitalism has become adept at utilising the aftermath of shocks to destroy public services, privatise nationalised utilities and open up whole economies to the free market.

Those driving these ideas do not do so, she suggests out of nastiness. But out of a belief that what will improve the world is more free-markets and less state intervention. She looks at the economics of individuals like Milton Friedman who "dreamed of depatterning societies, of returning them to a state of pure capitalism, cleansed of interruptions - government regulations, trade barrier and entrenched interests." Klein frequently uses the analogy of torture, and describes the way that experiments in the 1960s tried to see how humans could be "wiped clean" through sensory deprivation. Such human shocks are a metaphor for what the shock of war, or disaster, might do to societies.

I think she stretches this metaphor too far. Though the chapter on how the CIA developed its torture techniques is truly terrifying, not least because of the role that torture has played in allowing the United States to further the economic ideas of individuals like Friedman.

But we should look at some of the examples that Klein uses. Some of them are simply outrageous. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is relatively well known that the government closed all the public schools and sacked all the teachers, rehiring some on worse contracts and making them teach in new, private schools. Precisely the sort of education that Friedman advocated. What I didn't know is the extent to which right-wing think-tanks then shaped how the government responded. In part this is the way that private enterprise was deployed to "rebuild". But its not just that government money poured into the pockets of companies like Haliburton giving them contracts to do everything from build new hotels or clear up bodies, but also in the way that such ideas encouraged Bush to do things like suspend the laws about low pay in the region.

Significant sections of the book deal with the Iraq debacle. Many of us involved in the anti-war movement at the time suggested that the post-war Iraq would be built up in the interest of US companies and private enterprise, what Klein shows is far worse. The vision of Iraq was of a country wiped clean of its past, built in the image of a neo-liberal utopia, with private schools and malls vying the the oil money that a grateful population would throw.

Klein also examines some historic examples. The way that in Chile in 1973 the money men overthrew the radical socialist (popularly elected) government of Allende and replaced it with the Pinochet regime. Chile became a laboratory for neo-liberal fantasies, though the separation of economic from political meant that many of the Chicago School economists who had encouraged the opening up of Chile's economy could pretend that the "excesses" were nothing to do with them. The screams of the tortured and the tears of those who lost a loved one "disappeared" didn't reach into the ivory towers of Chicago University's economic department.

However Klein's criticism isn't simply at those who caused the horror. Pointedly she also criticises those whose solidarity work only looked at the violence and neglected the wider impact of the free-market policies imposed on the country. For Pinochet to succeed he had to destroy any potential opposition, and once that opposition had disappeared he was able to drive down wages, destroy services, and remove civil liberties. In Amnesty Internationals 92 page report on the Junta,
It offered no comment on the deepening poverty or the dramatic reversal of programs to redistribute wealth, though these were the policy centrepieces of junta rule. It carefully lists all the junta laws and decrees that violated civil liberties but named none of the economic decrees that lowered wages and increases prices, thereby violating the right to food and shelter
This is a central point of Klein's book. She understands that the violence of the "shock" cannot be separated from the violence caused by the economic and political changes that follow, nor the damage caused by the corruption that inevitably follows.

So profitable has the shock doctrine been that some right-wingers inevitably speculate on what could take place if they could control the shock and chaos. Take neo-liberal economist John Williamson. Naomi Klein quotes him
Whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform. For example, it has sometimes been suggest in Brazil that it would be worthwhile stoking up a hyperinflation so as to scare everyone into accepting those changes... Presumably no one with historical foresight would have advocated in the mid-1930s that Germany or Japan go to war in order to get the benefits of the supergrowth that followed their defeat. But could a lesser crisis have served the same function? Is it possible to conceive of a pseudo-crisis that could serve the same positive function without the cost of a real crisis?
Inevitably some suggest that some shocks are deliberate. There are plenty of sites on the internet that argue that 9/11 was an inside job to allow Bush (and by extension Haliburton etc) to get into the Middle East. Klein cautions against this, pointing out that reality doesn't need such conspiracies. The opportunity is always there.

However having said all this I want to add my own note of caution. I am slightly sceptical that the Shock Doctrine is as real as Klein suggests. There is no doubt of course, that the neo-liberal governments that have followed Reagan and Thatcher in the US and Britain have seized every opportunity to impose their vision of a privatised world on the globe. I'm not sure this is any different to what has happened in the past. I'm reminded of the way that British capital entered India, destroyed its markets and impoverished millions in order to expand the profits from its home industry (a story told brilliantly by Mike Davies), or of the way companies have always destroyed competition, used the state to conquer territory or resources or simply changed the world in their own image. Klein herself acknowledged this to a certain extent
The mantra 'September 11 changed everything' neatly disguised the fact that for free-market ideologues and the corporations whose interests they serve, the only thing that changed was the ease with which they could pursue their ambitious agenda.
Secondly I think Klein's alternative is over-simple and doesn't actually guard against the dangers she has so eloquently described. Effectively she argues for a reformist, democratic capitalism, along the lines of Allende's ambition in 1970s Chile, or more recently the radical visions of Latin American governments in Brazil and Venezuela. The problem is that these leave the beast intact. Capitalism will come back and reforms can only blunt its greed. Stopping the neo-liberals means doing more than having friendly left-wing governments. It will mean challenging the system that breeds war and economic crisis.

I also think Klein is weak on the way that "shocks" can demoralise those best placed to stop the imposition of neo-liberal policies. Her example from the UK, where Thatcher used the 1982 Falklands War to destroy the miners and introduce privatization doesn't fit the facts. The War got her elected, but it was the failure of the trade union leadership that ultimately led the miner's strike to defeat - not a shocked union membership who, on the contrary, showed enormous organisation and self-confidence. On several occasions that movement nearly brought down Thatcher, rather than it being a completely one sided victory for neo-liberalism.

Klein celebrates the role of social movements in changing the world and notes how, in places, movements have been able to stop the neo-liberal onslaught. She quotes several South African activists who, with hindsight, note that they lacked an understanding of what capitalism would do to them after the fall of apartheid. For me, this is the key lesson. We need mass anti-capitalist movements that understand the nature of capitalism and the state that protects it, in order to build a new society based on a different economics entirely.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything
Solnit - A Paradise Built in Hell