Monday, September 08, 2014

Mike Ingram - Bosworth 1485

The Battle of Bosworth brought the Wars of the Roses to an end, and installed Henry VII as King of England. For such a momentous event, the battle was itself quite short, involving relatively small numbers of troops (Ingram estimates based on contemporary sources and the known size of the armies, that Richard III had between 10,000 and 15,000 men on the day). Contemporary accounts differ widely on how many casualties there were, but contemporary accounts differ on almost all aspects of the battle. One suggest that Richard III's army lost 1000 men and only 100 from Henry's. Another says 300 on each side, and a final one gives the total dead as 10,000.

These big differences are typical of what we have in the records of the battle. So in this short work, Mike Ingram balances informed speculation with archaeological evidence from recent excavations of the battle field. Amazingly, for such a significant battle, we've only recently learnt were it actually was.

The significance of Bosworth can only be understood with a grounding in the history leading to the War of the Roses. This is less because of the conflicts of the different factions and more because it helps the reader understand why particular lords and nobles lined up on each side of the battle lines.

Ingram also tells us a lot about medieval warfare. Bosworth took place at a time when firearms and cannon were beginning to come into their own, but were still cumbersome. Archers still dominated, but new technologies were coming to the fore. I was surprised to find out that even troops following a particular noble would rarely have the same outfits. No uniforms here, just an emblem and a banner to rally around.

The battle itself was violent and bloody. Medieval warfare was, and Ingram's explanations of how particularly weapons were used might induce winches. A hammer to incapacitate a knight, damaging armoured joints so he couldn't move, then flip the weapon over and use the sharp axe to finish the job.

Given the numbers on the field, Henry should have lost the battle. But Ingram suggests that he masterfully used the terrain and the position of the sun, to give him the maximum advantage. Marshy ground lessened the impact of Richard's artillery, and most importantly for Henry, the troops of the lords Stanley eventually were deployed in his favour at a crucial point in the fight.

The outcome, Richard's death and Henry's crowning on the battle field led to a new era in British royal history. The dead were buried nearby, and the wounded mostly died of gangrene and other infections a few days later. Richard's noble followers were mostly killed at Bosworth and those that remained quickly gave in to the new order, or were executed. Henry VII backdated his declaration of being king to the day before the battle in order to charge his opponents with treason. History rewritten in the process of being made. The spoils of war included a set of Richard's tapestries for William Stanley. He didn't enjoy them for very long, because he eventually turned against Henry and was executed for treason during on the of the final hurrahs of the Yorkist cause, a failed rebellion in 1495. The rather inglorious end to the Wars of the Roses is very well summed up in this excellent short introduction to the battle, which is nicely illustrated and filled with information for someone interested in history, or a visitor to the battlefield.

Related Reviews

Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Trevor Royle - The Wars of the Roses

Radicals often bemoan the way history is all to often the history of great men (and occasional great women). The contribution of ordinary people in making the world and changing it is omitted in a version of history that sees only those individuals at the top of society as being important. Kings, queens, generals and politicians are recorded, but those of the lower orders ignored.

This is not to say, however, that such individuals are unimportant. The dynastic conflicts of the War of the Roses helped shape British history, even if these were not conflicts about fundamental change. The various clashes were precisely those of individuals who wanted to take power or strengthen their position. The key position was, of course, King of England and during the Wars, a surprising number of individuals held this role. Trevor Royle's book is a history of that conflict. The Wars of the Roses dominated England for near 100 years and thousands of people lost their lives, usually because their lord or landowner needed them to join up and fight in his interest.

For readers who know nothing of this period, some of it will be surprising. I was quite taken, for instance, at the number of sieges and military clashes between lords over local disputes - for land, debts or other questions of wealth and power. Others might be surprised to find how fluid England itself was. At different times, "England" consisted of large parts of Normandy, with other bits regularly being given to or taken from Scotland.

But the key question here is the dynastic conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Royle roots the story in over a hundred years of earlier history, beginning with the 1300s and the Hundred Years War between France and England, with complicated questions of who governed the country arising mostly from Henry VI's usurping of the monarch in 1399. Ordinary people are rarely mentioned. They don't figure in this history, unless they are soldiers, or part of the occasional 'rebellions' that occur as one lord tries to force out another.

By the time England descends into protracted civil war, there is little political or economic basis to the conflict. In fact, at times, different kings are seen (in the manner of 1066 and All That) as being good or bad. A good king might be one that didn't raise taxes, a  bad one was one that spent freely. Usually though, few nobles who challenged the King dared to do this by accusing him of malpractice. Instead it was his retinue who were targeted as being greedy, irresponsible or practitioners of witchcraft. Trevor Royle writes of one famous monarch,

"In most respects Richard III conformed to the class from which he sprang, he exploited the hereditary principle to get what he wanted and then acted ruthlessly in his own interests and in building up his territorial power, but, shorn of valid support as he was, his violence of mind and action mean that when he fell he fell mightily."

Royle's book makes it clear that none of these kings, despite their rhetoric, had any real interest in governing England to improve it for all. They ruthlessly exploited their position for wealth and power, promoting their family and friends, executing, murdering and imprisoning anyone who stood in their way. At times, Royle's descriptions of how individuals change with the accession of a new King is almost comic - some people leaving the Tower, others being locked up - as though they were on a roundabout.

Warwick, the King Maker, who made shameless
maneuvering into an art form, leaving 1000s
dead on the battlefields.
For those with little heads for dates and the names of kings and rich nobles, Trevor Royle does an excellent job of telling you the complex and interwoven story. Given the number of times people changed loyalties, even in the midst of battle, this isn't always an easy task. That the English nobility seem to only like a handful of names for their children doesn't help with the clarity either. But Royle tells a complex story well.

The battles e describes, were rarely glorious. They were bloody, dirty and ruthless with the losing nobility being executed on their knees in the mud at the end. The battle that put an end to the dynastic struggle, at Bosworth in 1485, was hardly a great affair. While it left Richard III dead and Henry VII as the first Tudor king, this important conflict was little more than the latest in a long line of fights. Royle sums it up well when he points out it was a

"fitting end for a war which had done so much damage and had dominated English life for almost a century: the panoply of kingship reduced to the crown being retrieved from a bush and placed on the victor's head on a battle field whose exact location is not known to this day."

Of such inglorious events legends are made. One might reflect on what this says of the Monarchy in general.

Related Reviews

Ingram - Bosworth 1485

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

J.L.Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150-1500

This study of medieval England is far from a dry academic text. It is a detailed examination of an economic system that evolved over an extended period, exhibited extensive regional variations and was at times incredibly dynamic. The author, J.L.Bolton, covers a great deal of ground. Within the first thirty pages there is a description of the debate on the origins of open field farming systems, its links to manorialism, a discussion on which parts of England open field farming dominated and where it didn't (and the reasons for the variations), and the distribution of villeinage (unfree labour). There is even a passing mention of Cornish tin-miners and their position in the medieval hierarchy. All in the first thirty pages.

The greatest achievement of the book though, is the way that Bolton gets across the idea of an evolving, dynamic economic system. Bolton's medieval world is far from the unchanging economy that we sometimes imagine when thinking of this period. One key aspect to this is population which influences all sorts of other areas of the economy - the amount of land being farmed, the type and amount of exports, and the wage levels for instance. The conventional story, of population crash during the Black Death, followed by stagnation and wage rises linked to the undermining of serfdom isn't far from the mark. But Bolton suggests a slightly more complex scenario. He suggests that the Plague initially had few economic consequences. The countryside was full, and there were plenty of people to fill up vacant plots of land. It was, Bolton says, not until much later that changes become apparent,

"Real signs of economic change as a result of plague come only gradually and are not generally evident until the mid-1370s. Then prices began to fall, wages to rise, landlords began again to lease demesnes, holdings began to fall permanently vacant. As with the Great Famines of 1315-25, one disaster does not lead to demographic downturn. But a whole series of disasters will have a cumulative effect... Plague was now endemic..." 

For Bolton the plague accelerated existing economic trends, and acted as a brake on the recovery of the population to its former level. For recover it should have. "Fewer people meant more per capita wealth, an improved standard of living for the survivors. Land was now readily available, food was cheap, real wages high, a better diet with greater consumption of meat and dairy products was now possible.... But the population did not rise. All the indirect evidence suggests that after the major fall int the third quarter of the 14th century, the population remained at best static, at worst slowly declining until the last decades of the 15th century."
 
What this meant in the fields, so to speak, was interesting. "Wages moved with prices until the late 1370s", but after that the general trend of wages was up and grain downwards. Now this is a work of economic history, but Bolton doesn't neglect the reality of his figures. Take the wealth of the rich.

"royal revenue inclusive of taxation ran at about £60-100,000 per annum in the later part of the century... At the very top, a great earldom like that of Lancaster... had a yearly income of about £10,000. This was in a class by itself... Clare of Gloucester or Bigod of Norfolk drew £3-4,000 a year... whilst the 'average' earl would have had a net income of about £1,600. The archbishop of Canterbury's estates provided him with an average income of £2,128 in the thirteenth century."

Bolton points out that £20-£40 per annum, was enough to support a thirteenth century knight in comfort. To the ordinary peasant, the man or woman who created all this wealth, these were astronomical sums. Even an average earl had wealth beyond the dreams of the masses. And, as Bolton points, out conditions for the peasantry progressively got worse over the period. These were the "most exploitable" and exploited they were. Medieval lords became experts at finding the most efficient ways of getting money from the lowest orders.

"Population pressure was pushing up the value of land, to the obvious advantage of those who held it. This can be seen in two main ways, from the rising level of entry fines and of rents for free land. Rents from customary land in the form of money payments were hard to vary. Custom protected them. Services could be increased by redefinition of subdivision... but what the lord wanted was usually more money, not more labour. He could however, commute services and demand high payments for so doing, but this could produce resistance. A better way was to exploit the only truly flexible element in customary payments, the entry fine [money paid to take over a holding]."

These rose significantly. The quoted averages on Winchester manors was 24s. 4d a virgate between 1277 and 1348, compared to 1s to 1s. 8d in 1219. An enormous increase.

Image of happy peasants eating. The reality was often destitution
As a result of this exploitation, the peasant, Bolton points out was usually on the edge of destitution. So far I have concentrated on the peasant aspect to the medieval economy. Bolton does not neglect other important areas such as the growth and development of industry in England - particularly mining, fishing and cloth making - all significant contributors to various regional economies and national trade. Nor does Bolton neglect the rise (and sometimes fall) of towns and cities. Bolton looks at the many reasons why English industry barely developed, and indeed stagnated in places. The one industry that seems to be the exception to the rule was masonry, which "experienced two centuries of almost unbroken boom" - not surprising given the preponderance of medieval projects building cathedrals, castles and churches. Cloth, like other industries was very labour intensive, to produce a cloth of half length (12 x 1.5 - 2 yards) required 15 persons for a week. So wage costs were a significant factor in how the industry developed over time.

"By the late thirteenth century England was exporting some 30,000 sacks of wool per annum to Flanders. In return... Flanders seems to have sent back large quantities of finished cloth... More cheaply produced Flemish cloth was swamping the home market and to survive the English manufacturer had to try in all ways possible to cut costs. The simplest way was to use the cheap, unregulated labour increasingly available in the countryside."

But the biggest problem was the lack of capital. Which Bolton suggests was because of the English merchants and manufacturers had no access to home based banking systems, relying on loans and capital from overseas bankers, particularly those from Italy. This meant "the majority of English trade was not in English hands". Consequently,

"From the English point of view the economy had to operate within the constraints of inadequate access to capital. Consequently neither trade nor industry could offer a major alternative source of employment to the growing mass of peasants living on the brink of subsistence. At the very mist perhaps 10 per cent of population were engaged in non-agrarian occupations."

But things changed. In particular, by the 15th century there was a significant improvement in agriculture. While there "were poor men still, disease was rife, starvation possible, yet compared with the thirteenth century the fifteenth was one of quiet prosperity for the mass of the people."  Unfortunately though, this was actually the result of shortages of labour. Once the population began to grow, the position of the peasantry "became precarious" again.

By the end of the 15th century, England does not seem to be a country that has the potential to be a world power. Bolton sums it up well. Apart from the cloth industry, there was no industry of any size.

"No large-scale mining or metal working complexes emerged to rival those in other areas in Europe. There seemed to be a shortage of English shipping and the most profitable markets for English exports were served by alien merchants. Indeed, compared not only with modern industrialized countries but also in relation to the standards of the 'developed' countries of that time - Italy, the Low Countries and South Germany - England was an underdeveloped country. It had not broken out of the medieval straitjacket."


To break out would require major political, social and economic upheavals in the following centuries. Bolton's book is an excellent backdrop to understanding the economic situation before the 1600s fundamentally transformed things. Bolton describes the general picture as well as the developments and changes that are taking place below the surface. But this book is most useful for its detailed examination of the economic dynamics in the context of wider political and social forces. This book is a must read for anyone getting to grips with England in between the 12th and 16th centuries. It is one that I will reference countless times.

Related Reviews

Bloch - Feudal Society: The Growth of Ties of Dependence
Lacey and Danziger - The Year 1000
Ziegler - The Black Death

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Leslie Thomas - This Time Next Week

The death of Leslie Thomas' parents in the early part of the Second World War meant that he and his brother were wrenched from their lives in Newport and entered into the world of the Barnado's homes. The author himself left his sick brother in the back of an ambulance, being told that he would see him the next morning. 18 months later he ran away from the home to find his brother spending days walking the 60 miles to find him. His brother had only just been informed of his mother's death. Presumably the institutions didn't prioritizes it. The young boy had thought he'd been abandoned when his mother didn't reply to his letters and his brother never got them.

Despite this bureaucratic ineptitude (and occasionally because of it), Thomas' life in the home is by terms achingly funny and beautifully poignant. The cast of characters, many of them in no position to teach a class of self confident boys reads, are remembered in brief little snatches of commentary. Thomas' writings brilliantly portray the men and women, who clearly had made immense sacrifices themselves to look after the orphans. The boys, as boys do, let no chance go to waste. One master, with the innocent surname Allcock, instantly earns the nickname "no balls". A piece of schoolboy genius from which few teachers could recover.

I love this book in part for its wonderful writing, but also because it meant a lot to my father. Reading it brings some wonderful, and some sad memories. So forgive me if this review doesn't go on further.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rosa Luxemburg - The Junius Pamphlet

Rosa Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet was written between February and April 1915 while the author was imprisoned for her anti-war agitation. It was smuggled out, but not published, Luxemburg finding it on her desk when she was released in January 1916. The pamphlet is an extraordinarily powerful work. It begins by describing how quickly the scene has been transformed, from the wild joy and celebration at the outbreak of war, to the sullen acceptance at the slaughter in the trenches a few months later. And as the soldiers die in their thousands, companies make fortunes from providing the food, clothing and weapons for the war "while profits are springing, like weeds, from the fields of the dead".

But this is much more than an anti-war pamphlet in which Rosa Luxemburg does two things. She tries to explain the origins of the war, describing in detail the Imperialist system but also why German Social Democracy, the most powerful and developed socialist organisation of workers in the world surrendered so readily at the outbreak of hostilities.

Luxemburg warns that the world has changed, there is no return to the pre-war situation for socialists and revolutionaries. Interestingly, this is very similar to Lenin's position taken around the Zimmerwald conferences.

"It is a foolish delusion to believe that we need to only live through the war, as a rabbit hides under the bush to await the end of a thunderstorm, to trot merrily off in his old accustomed gait when all is over. The world war has changed the condition of our struggle, and has changed us most of all."

Luxemburg traces the origins of the war in the development of capitalism. Much like Lenin and Bukharin used the outbreak of the war to clarify their understanding of Imperialism, Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet explains the logic of imperialism through analysing Germany's historic development. In particular she notes the importance of "two naval bills" which promote a different era of politics, a "change from Bismarckian continental policies to 'Welt Politik'." She notes that once the decision was made to build and expand a German navy, war was inevitable, "The naval bill of December 11, 1899 was a declaration of war by Germany, which England answered on August 4, 1914."

But Luxemburg's analsysis is more than a simple argument that Germany was competing with England for markets and resources,

"It should be noted that this fight for naval supremacy had nothing in common with the economic rivalry for the world market.... Side by side with England, one nation after another had stepped into the world market, capitalism developed automatically, and with gigantic strides, into world economy."

Britain and Germany were, Luxemburg argues, interdependent, but

"When Germany unfolded its banner of naval power and world policies it announced the desire for new and far reaching conquest in the world by German imperialism... Naval building and military armaments becmae the glorious business of Germany industry, opening up a boundless prospect for further operations by trust and bank capital in the whole wide world."

Luxemburg analyses this linking up between state and capital through he study of Turkey in which Germany had poured large amounts of investment into in the later half of the 19th century. The German banks loaning money to build harbours and railways, tying Turkey's exports into German companies and forcing the countryside to pay rent for the privilege of this development, since industry was not advanced enough to pay the debt.

Luxemburg's understanding of the development of late capitalism rested on the way that the advanced capitalist nations required the under-developed world to absorb surplus value. It's a position that has been critiqued since by other Marxists. However it is not a major flaw in this work which seeks to try and understand the origins of the world war within a clash of states fighting to carve up the world in the interests of their home-grown capital.

The second half of this book is a polemic deployed against the arguments of German social democracy in their support for the war. Luxemburg tackles these positions powerfully, showing how the leaders of the socialist left use half-remembered quotes from Marx and Engels to argue that their was a duty to fight Tsarist Russia. But in doing so, they undermine and set back the growing Russian working class movement. The world of Imperialism is very different from the world of 19th century Europe when Russia could be considered the prison house of nations.

The betrayal of German socialist movement (and indeed that of most of Europe) still has the power to shock. Knowing now what we know of the Somme, Verdun and the rest of the slaughter is to view the betrayal with hindsight. But even in the first weeks of the war, Luxemburg understood how rotten German socialism had become. Take this quote from a newspaper of the German SPD. Note that this was an organisation that still claimed the inheritance of Marx and Engels.

“As for us, we are convinced that our labour unionists can do more than deal out blows. Modern mass armies have by no means simplified the work of their generals. It is practically impossible to move forward large troop divisions in close marching order under the deadly fire of modern artillery. Ranks must be carefully widened, must be more accurately controlled. Modern warfare requires discipline and clearness of vision not only in the divisions but in every individual soldier. The war will show how vastly human material has been improved by the educational work of the labour unions, how well their activity will serve the nation in these times of awful stress. The Russian and the French soldier may be capable of marvellous deeds of bravery. But in cool, collected consideration none will surpass the German labour unionists. Then too, many of our organised workers know the ways and byways of the borderland as well as they know their own pockets, and not a few of them are accomplished linguists. The Prussian advance in 1866 has been termed a schoolmasters’ victory. This will be a victory of labour union leaders”

It is no surprise then, that the Junius Pamphlet ends with a call for revolution. Though Luxemburg, unlike Lenin, avoids calling for the defeat of her own ruling class. Instead calling for neither victory nor defeat. While the difference is slight, it perhaps reflects the different emphasis of the two revolutionaries, as well as their different experience of reformist socialist organisation. Luxemburg writes that

"For war as such, whatever its military outcome may be, is the greatest conceivable defeat of the cause of the European proletariat. The overthrow of war and the speedy forcing of peace, but the international revolutionary action of the proletariat, alone can bring it to the only possible victory."

While praising the book, Lenin critiqued a number of aspects of the Junius Pamphlet in a review which all readers of the booklet should also read. In particular he noted that "Junius" (he wasn't aware of the real identity of the author) abandons internationalism in favour of a "national programme" when suggesting how revolutionaries should have acted in 1914. Lenin argues that the problem is that the author hasn't broken completely from the old organisation.

"Junius has not completely rid himself of the “environment” of the German Social-Democrats, even the Lefts, who are afraid of a split, who are afraid to follow revolutionary slogans to their logical conclusions. This is a mistaken fear, and the Left Social-Democrats of Germany must and will rid themselves of it. They will do so in the course of the struggle against the social-chauvinists."

This meant that "Junius" panders to their politics.

"Secondly, Junius apparently wanted to achieve something in the nature of the Menshevik “theory of stages,” of sad memory; he wanted to begin to carry out the revolutionary programme from the end that is “more suitable,” “more popular” and more acceptable to the petty-bourgeoisie. It is something like the plan “to outwit history,” to outwit the philistines. He seems to say: surely, nobody would oppose a better way of defending the real fatherland; that real fatherland is the Great German Republic, and the best defence is a militia, a permanent parliament, etc. Once it was accepted, that programme would automatically lead to the next stage-to the socialist revolution."

In other words, Lenin thought that "Junius" was influenced by the very pressures that had set the SPD down the road of supporting the war in the first place, i.e. the concerns about being pushed outside of the legal methods of operating for socialists, fear of losing parliamentary influence etc.

Lenin's had of course spotted Luxemburg's greatest mistake. For all her brilliance, she hadn't yet broken with the errors of the old SPD. - though she was on that road with the call for a "New International". Lenin finishes his review with this point.

"Probably, it was reasoning of this kind that consciously or semi-consciously determined Junius’ tactics. Needless to say, such reasoning is fallacious, Junius’ pamphlet conjures up in our mind the picture of a lone man who has no comrades in an illegal organisation accustomed to thinking out revolutionary slogans to their conclusion and systematically educating the masses in their spirit. But this shortcoming—it would be a grave error to forget this-is not Junius’ personal failing, but the result of the weakness of all the German Lefts, who have become entangled in the vile net of Kautskyist hypocrisy, pedantry and “friendliness” towards the opportunists. Junius’ adherents have managed in spite of their isolation to begin the publication of illegal leaflets and to start the war against Kautskyism. They will succeed in going further along the right road."

In the Theses on the Tasks of International Social Democracy included with the Junius Pamphlet and adopted by Luxemburg and her comrades, the revolutionaries understand that the key task was to fight for the overthrow of capitalism. Their opportunity would come in November 1918 with the outbreak of the German Revolution.

Related Reviews

Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Luxemburg - The Mass Strike
Sherry - Empire and Revolution: a Socialist History of World War One
Nation - War on War
Campbell - A Rebels' Guide to Rosa Luxemburg

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

R. Craig Nation - War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left and the Origins of Communist Internationalism

Most of this book deals with the machinations of a tiny number of socialists during World War One. The anti-war socialists who gathered in the Swiss village of Zimmerwald on September 5th 1915 represented few others. Many years afterwards in his autobiography Leon Trotsky joked that "half a century after the formation of the First International it was still possible to fit all the internationalists in Europe into four coaches."

Before the outbreak of World War One, the international socialist movement, united in the Second International, had promised strikes, mass opposition and rebellion against the war. Instead they almost completely capitulated and supported their nation states. Overnight, the Second International turned into a toothless beast. Most of its constituent groups supported their own ruling class' role in the slaughter of the trenches. Those individual members who didn't were in no way united in how their opposition to the conflict should manifest itself. There were those that supported a defensive war, those who wanted to issue the simple demand for "peace" and those, like Lenin, who argued that the war needed to be turned into "a civil war" that could overthrow capitalism.

Nation's book is tremendously important, because he shows how Lenin's political clarity and firmness of action was able to create a very small, but important, Zimmerwald Left. Lenin hoped that this would become the basis for a new, revolutionary, Third International. The author explains,

"Lenin's response to the crisis stood out for its forcefulness and consistency. The Bolsheviks were not a sect, and with a unified organization, emigre cadres dispersed throughout the European continent, and a foreign bureau in neutral Switzerland at the nerve center of what would become the socialist antiwar movement, they were well placed to serve as a goad to radical elements elsewhere."

Lenin and his closest allies believed that the war would lead to revolution. His orientation on the Zimmerwald movement through 1915 and until the Russian Revolution was because he saw the importance of a clear revolutionary vision.

"The war's origins were perceived to lie in the contradictions of advanced capitalism. What was unfolding was not a contest for culture or democracy, but a predatory war of imperialism. The International's surrender to nationalism was considered to be a direct consequence of revisionism; at issue was not merely a tactical choice, but the long-term orientation of the socialist labor movement. Internationalism was essential to the meaning of socialism and its premises demanded that the war be opposed by rejecting the Burgfrieden [a truce between the left and the ruling class for the duration of the war] and supporting popular protest actions. Most important, the struggle against the war must be linked to the restoration of an authentically revolutionary Marxism".

Lenin's opponents in the Zimmerwald movement saw it differently. They hoped for a negotiated piece and saw the conference as an opportunity to rebuild what had been lost, to return to the pre-war comfort of the Second International. A secondary aim from the moderates "was to neutralize the extreme left". This obviously contrasted with the aim of Lenin and his supporters who were "outspoken in demanding a clean break with the compromised past."

The major difference was the attitude to the demand for peace. This, for the majority of those involved in Zimmerwald, had to be the key demand. The central organising figure, the Swiss socialist Robert Grimm wrote to a leading Russian Menshevik in May 1915, "Nothing can be achieved through the official parties [but a] conference of opposition elements naturally does not mean a split. In my opinion it should concern itself only with the establishment of a tactical line for the struggle against the war."

Grimm and the majority socialists betrayed their hesitancy by rejecting calls for "mass actions". In this they were following the right-wing of the movement who were fearful of undermining their nation states' ability to fight the war. Instead, abstract demands for peace, where the key demand. Grimm called for the participation of "all parties or factions" that "support the renewal or continuation of the class struggle, oppose the Burgfrieden, and are ready to take up the struggle for peace." Responding to this, Zinoviev, a close ally of Lenin insisted that "theoretical clarity is more important than the question of peace".

This sounds strange, after all, peace surely was the aim of the anti-war left in the midst of the carnage of World War One? But Lenin, Zinoviev and their allies were looking forwards. Their analysis was that the war would lead to revolution, and the demand for peace was a abstract slogan that could mean anything to anyone. What they wanted was an end to war, and this meant the end of capitalism. This meant turning the imperial war into a revolutionary war of the oppressed classes against the ruling class. On this point turned all the debates at Zimmerwald. The left lost all the votes, but Lenin created in the process a Zimmerwald Left that was able to become the nucleus of a larger force in the struggles to come.

Nation explains the Zimmerwald process and the follow up conference at Kiental meant that,

"The revolutionary left, though still an isolated minority was infused with new confidence. In a number of cases pressures led to outright schisms and the creation of independent Zimmerwaldist or left radical parties. In France the minoritaires were on the verge of winning control of the part from Within. The Zimmerwald Left seldom entered directly into the disintegration of traditional organizations, but its arguments were influential. In every significant national movement a left radical faction aligned with Lenin's position had come into being well prior to the fall of the czar."

These small groups were to become the essential basis for the Third International when it was launched in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, as well as, in some cases, the revolutionary struggles that gripped Europe in the same period. Again Nation explains,

"International communism did not spring from the 'accident' of revolution, nor was it ever a simple extension of the Bolsheviks' fight to seize and maintain state power. Its roots lay in the left opposition's reaction to the socialist collapse of 1914 and the international movement of protest against the war that followed."

"As the self-declared precursor of the third International, the Zimmerwald Left accomplished several meaningful; steps forward... it established a political identify and made itself a part of the landscape on the international left... By 1917 Lenin could claim to speak for a small but dynamic tendency with the capacity to grow."


That said, the groups were small and in some of the key battles were to prove hopelessly inadequate. This book is an excellent explanation of the importance the Zimmerwald process and Lenin's theoretical and organisational contribution to this. Indeed the author celebrates the clarity of thought of Lenin in understanding both the needs of the revolutionary movement and the potential for revolution. When revolution broke out in 1917 in Russia, Zimmerwald did not become irrelevant. The book shows how the organisation played an important role in spreading the message of revolution, as well as giving the Bolsheviks' an opportunity (both before and after October) of getting their message out to the rest of the world. 

This is an important study and for readers trying to understand the dynamics of the opposition to World War One I would suggest it is an essential read. But it is not without fault.

Firstly I think the author underestimates the scale of revolution at the end of World War One. He writes that in April 1917 it was still possible for Lenin "to consider the arrival of the European revolution as imminent" but that by the time of Brest-Litovsk this expectation had to be abandoned. This might be fair, but it misses the point that within months revolution had broken out in Germany and mass movements, Soviets and workers' councils were erected in many different countries. Yet Nation dismisses the German Revolution in barely a couple of pages, suggesting it ended in January 1919 without noting that it wasn't completely defeated until 1923, and, as a number of authors have shown, the revolutionary movement on occasion came close to victory.

Secondly I think Nation has a simplistic understanding of the politics of the revolutionaries. It is simply not true to suggest that "International communism was built upon the conviction, enunciated by Gerrard Winstanley centuries before and by Leonhard Frank in his passionate antiwar novel Man is Good during 1918, that war was only the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man." The politics of the Third International rested on the work of Marx and Engels, in particular the idea that "the emancipation of the working class had to be the act of the working class".

In his short summary of the work of the Third International, Nation again betrays his ignorance. For instance he doesn't see how the Comintern attempted to develop new ways of relating to the ebb and flow of revolutionary struggle, in particular, the theory of the United Front. For Nation the Third International was simply an international group modeled on Lenin's Bolsheviks that could centrally steer the constituent parties. Here, and elsewhere, Nation fails to clearly explain the break that took place between the revolutionary movement of the Bolsheviks and later Communist Parties from the Stalin era onward.

From Wikipedia: Coloured lithography of the Hotel
"Beau Séjour" in Zimmerwald, where the delegates lived.
Finally the author attempts in a postscript chapter to link the revolutionary movements of the early 21st century to the state of the Communist Parties of the world in 1989 when the book was first published. Hindsight is of course always very clear, and I doubt this book would have been written in the same way after the Berlin Wall had come down.

But Nation fails to grasp the rupture that took place between the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and the first few years of the Third International with the politics of Stalin and Socialism in One Country. In places the author comes close to suggesting that this began with Lenin. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks certainly had "no choice" but to work to ensure the survival of the Russian Revolution in the face of the failure of the German Revolution, this was far from a decision to "to coexist with the capitalist world system".

Finally Nation dismisses Lenin's ideas of revolutionary organisation in the modern world and instead suggests that what is really important today is Lenin's "priority accorded to the 'utopian' ideals of visionary internationalism and of socialism itself as ethical norms, sources of motivation and standards for political conduct." Given what Lenin's Bolsheviks achieved this seems a rather limited ambition.

These conclusions are a shame, because Nation's book is mostly an excellent introduction to the Lenin's method, based on his Marxist politics. The summary of Lenin's actions, the historical importance of Zimmerwald and the Zimmerwald Left and the writings of Lenin during this period are ones that revolutionaries today can learn much from and Nation does an excellent job of explaining them. I would suggest that readers don't bother with the final postscript, but enjoy the in depth study of a period that the author, rightly, considers to be central to the shaping of the 20th century world and modern revolutionary movement.

Related Reviews

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A socialist history of World War One
Zurbrugg - Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War
Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade
Cliff - All Power to the Soviets

Monday, August 18, 2014

James Gleick - Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton's copious papers began to appear at auction houses in the early 20th century. By 1936 when interest had waned somewhat, a trunk went up for sale at Sotheby's containing manuscripts with some 3 million of Newton's words. John Maynard Keynes bought much of them, and helped to uncover an Isaac Newton that few had guessed at in the 2 hundred odd years since his death. The documents inside helped expose Newton "the alchemist; the heretical theologian" rather than the rational, mechanical scientist of tradition.

The great strength of James Gleick's short biography is that it helps us understand the whole Newton. Both the man who hide away from the world, jealously guarding his knowledge and discovery, almost fearing to publish, but who made enormous breakthroughs in mathematics and physics and the Newton who spent much of his life trying to work out how to turn base metal into gold; rigorously studied the Bible to convince himself that the question of the theological Trinity was a "fraud" and engaged in long protracted polemics and feuds with other great thinkers.

Indeed, Gleick's description of Newton's approach to theological questions demonstrates Newton's scientific method. Newton "compared the Scriptures in the new English translation [of the Bible] and in the ancient languages; he collected Bibles in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. He sought out and mastered the writings of the early fathers of the church." Newton tested his ideas, searched for evidence and examined it until he could come to his own conclusions. In this case, his conclusion was heretical, without a special dispensation from the king he would never have been able to take his mathematics seat at Cambridge because Newton couldn't bring himself to take the holy orders required. When he got the dispensation, he didn't move on, rather he "perfected his heresy through decade of his life and millions of words."

Newton wanted to understand the universe, and god was part of that. As Gleick explains, "if we could decipher the prophecies and the messages, we would know a God of order, not chaos; of laws, not confusion. Newton plumbed both nature and history to find out God's plan. He rarely attended church."

Gleick's book looks at this aspect of Newton's life but doesn't neglect the more well known parts. His invention of calculus, which he hide from the world for decades, until his feud with Liebniz. His work on tides, which apparently he did from first principles, without ever seeing the sea. His discoveries in optics, and most of all, his work on gravitational attraction. Newton wrote millions of words on these topics, from his earliest years he was an obsessive list maker, note taker, writer and doodler. His brain seems to have been on fire constantly. His fame came late. But when it did, Newton seized it, protected it and fought those who challenged him. Newton ended up very rich, heirless and world renowned even if, for much of his life, words or notation did not yet exist for the ideas he was inventing and the thoughts he was having.

Yet for all its strength, this book didn't feel adequate. I enjoyed reading it, in fact this is the second time I've done so. James Gleick peppers the book with literary quotes, poetry and Newton's own words. But it is too short, and I didn't feel like I'd got to understand Newton, merely that I'd been introduced to him and his ideas and I needed a deeper, longer biography. Nevertheless this is an excellent place to start.

Related Reviews

Sobel - Galileo's Daughter
Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Alastair Dunn - The Peasants' Revolt: England's failed revolution of 1381

Having reviewed a number of books on the 1381 uprising (see links below), I won't spend time in this review detailing much detail of the actual Peasants' Revolt. Suffice to say, that Alastair Dunn's book is one of the best introductions to the uprising that I've read.

Dunn begins with a succinct analysis of the causes of the revolt and the nature of medieval society. This is a society which entirely rests of the hard labour of the peasantry, both free and unfree. Population increases, climate change, dropping soil fertility and most of all, the greed of the ruling class was increasing poverty and causing growing anger. Following repeated manifestations of the Black Death from 1348 had ravaged the population, Dunn tells us that by 1381 the "English peasantry had endured almost a century of instability in its living standards, and an existence that was, at best ,precarious, and at worth, verging on starvation."

The loss of almost fifty percent of the population during the epidemics of 1348 and after led, almost immediately, to some peasants challenging the new economic reality. The ruling class responded to those attempting to increase their remittance, or break with their lords, by introducing laws to cap pay levels and maintain serfdom. Dunn suggests that thousands were hit by the Statute of Labourers (1349) breeding further discontent.

Dunn's narrative of the revolt follows the usual descriptions that I've mentioned elsewhere. But he is at pains to judge the original source material, sifting through the conflicting contemporary accounts and biased descriptions since from those repeating others' stories.

For Dunn the revolt was "predominantly, a revolt of the poorer elements of rural and urban society against lordship and privilege... but it is equally clear that the 1381 Rising was also used as a vehicle for the perpetuation of pre-existing conflicts, and commercial and jurisdictional rivalries, especially in urban communities." Hence Dunn says that the rising and capture of London had less to do with the arrival of the peasant armies from the surroundings and he emphasises the importance of the London population in, for instance, the destruction of John of Gaunts' Savoy palace. Dunn also points to studies that show that those involved in the uprising were often not the "unfree", but frequently "men who had served in the offices of village government".

A study of 954 Essex rebels whose names have come down to us, finds that of the 283 whose occupations we know, only 5 were unfree. It may be, of course, that those who jobs were not listed were more likely to be unfree peasants, but this doesn't contradict the idea of the involvement of those who had "a degree of literacy and numeracy". The imposition of the Poll Tax and the Statute of Labourers, had, as Dunn points out, the effect of undermining those local "village elites", who then joined the rebellion about their own social superiors. We should also acknowledge, a point made by Rodney Hilton, that those who rebelled were predominately those who identified with the mass of the population, and worked the land in one form or the other.

Dunn's book gives an excellent sense of the Uprising as a national event, with outbreaks as far apart as Scarborough and Gloucester as well as the well known events of Kent, Essex and East Anglia. He also shows how the revolt led to the ruling class, riven as it was by antagonism and rivalries, coming together to fight the lower orders. But as with other accounts what shines through is the determination of the ordinary people to fight for a better world. In the midst of the uprising, in places like St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, the rebels reorganised the land that they felt had been taken unjustly from them, walking out the new boundaries, taking down fences and dykes. In the words of a later period, this really was a time when "The World Turned Upside Down".

Finally, Dunn puts the rebellion well in the context of the aftermath. Once the uprising was ended, the ruling class rivalries broke out again, leading eventually to the deposing of Richard II. But he also outlines the ways that the English ruling class maneuvered to try and maintain serfdom, and he explains why they failed. Serfdom in England wasn't ended by decree, but "disappeared through prolonged immersion in the solvent of economic change."

The Peasants Revolt continues to inspire. Alastair Dunn's book is an excellent introduction to why we should celebrate and study it further.

Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span
Hilton - Bond Men Made Free

Lindsay & Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381
Cohn - The Pursuit of the Millennium