Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dick Gregory - N*****

Until I picked up this old autobiography, I knew nothing abut Dick Gregory. Today he is relatively well known in the United States for his comedy, his social activism and his long record. Gregory's autobiography, written with the US sports journalist Robert Lipsyte, is an insightful look at the life of someone growing up black in 1950s America, and the early years of the Civil Rights moment.

The book is poignant. At times Gregory's descriptions of his childhood, the family's poverty and his mother's desparate hard work to try and keep the family alive will bring tears to your eyes. But Gregory also describes the sheer normality of vicious racism that went along with this. As a young man, Gregory was an accomplished runner. Such is the reality of racism in the US in that period, that it is actually atheletics that brings him into contact with the Civil Rights movement. He is angered that his running record isn't recorded in the local newspaper, because it was a race for blacks. He joins a protest march, and quickly becomes a key figure.

In the army, Gregory learns that he is an accomplished comedian. Youtube has a few of his early stand-up routines, sand 50 years later they sometimes still work. In his biography he describes how he combined an act that didn't ignore racism, at the same time as learning how to deal with it. Gregory's early efforts in showbiz cost him money and friends, but he does eventually break through. With fame though, comes responsibility, and as a prominant black figure, he eventually gets pulled into the Civil Rights movement as a leading figure. Despite being followed by the media everywhere, the police still brutally beat him (away from the cameras) and Gregory gets pulled further into activism.

For those who've read about the Civil Rights movement, Gregory's slightly oblique look at the struggle will be facinating. He's not really a leading figure, though a key part of it. But he describes the March on Washington, and the murder of school girls in Alabama with passion - these are not remote incidents, but ones that he sees as pulling more people into the struggle. Gregory has his own tragedies. Since this is autobiography, at times he seems to over-emphasise his own importance, but mostly he inspires because he is honest - about his fears, about his guilt and about why he gets motivated. At the end of the book Gregory writes with hope:

You didn't die a slave for nothing, Momma. You brought us up. You and all those Negro mothers who gave their kids the strength to go on, to take that thimble to the well while the whites were taking buckets. Those of us who weren't destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. N*****.

Sadly, we still have a long way to go. But people like Gregory were a key part of starting the Civil Rights movement. He remains active today, and his story should continue to inspire a new generation.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dave Sherry - John Maclean: Red Clydesider

The UK's commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War One has so far mostly focused on the same old tired stereotypes of a country united behind the flag. This short book by Scottish socialist Dave Sherry however tells a very different story. It looks at the life of one of the most important revolutionary socialists of the early 20th century, and through his story demonstrates that there was often a very different mood amongst workers during World War One.

John Maclean is almost forgotten today. He died, tragically young, at 44. His life undoubtably shortened by the prison sentences for seditious behaviour. Maclean was not one to deny the charge. Facing five years hard labour in May 1918, in one of his most famous speeches from the prison dock, Maclean famously declared:

"I am not here as the accused - I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot... in 15 years time from the close of this war we are into the next war - if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation... That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world and retain the world."

Maclean was a threat to the British establishment because he was one of the acknowledged leaders of some of the country's most powerful workers. Those employed in the enormous factories of Glasgow adopted Maclean as one of their own. A school-teacher until he was sacked for his anti-war agitation, Glasgow's workers organised a levy to ensure that he could be paid to continue organising.

Dave Sherry illustrates how, cut off from the continental revolutionary movement by the war, Maclean was able to develop a clear internationalist understanding of the conflict. Sherry points out that "like Lenin", Maclean saw the conflict as "a struggle between the great powers for land and markets." In Maclean's words,

"Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is out business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism."

However Sherry also explains, that despite Maclean's brilliance, and the loyalty he had from thousands of workers, he lacked the political organisation that Lenin had. At various times the class struggle in Glasgow ebbed and flowed during the war. At certain times the movement reached near revolutionary peaks, but the government, through repression and the use of the union bureaucracy were able to damp down the militancy.

Maclean on trial in 1918
Though Maclean understood that the movement needed to link political and economic struggles, too often the unions were able to divert the strikes down sectional paths. This was not to deny though the significance of the struggle. Both during the war, when Glasgow ignited mass strike waves that spread through British factories, and afterwards when during 1919 Glasgow was in such upheaval that tanks and warships were deployed to prevent revolution. The sections of this book that give a taste of these struggles are nothing short of inspiring.

This weakness of Maclean's; his lack of an understanding of the need to build political organisation was bought into sharp relief when he refused to join the fledgling British Communist Party. Sherry argues that this was very much to with he hostility to some individuals who did join, rather than an inherent (and early) belief in the need for Scottish independence. Maclean was a revolutionary internationalist, who's life work was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. At a time when the Scottish are discussing the future of the union, Maclean's belief in the revolutionary potential of ordinary workers has never been so important. As Dave Sherry concludes in his new introduction, "the break up of the UK would be a small victory for the world working class and, as John Maclean argued 90 years ago, that is something to fight for."

Related Reviews

Sherry - Occupy! A Short History of Workers' Occupations

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Philip Lindsay & Reg Groves - The Peasants' Revolt 1381

The cowardly murder of Wat Tyler 15 June 1381
Philip Lindsay and Reg Groves' 1950 history of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt is a classic of narrative history. Their story is filled with the words of the ordinary people who rebelled against serfdom, injustice, poverty and for a better world. Their words continue to inspire today. Here for instance, is part of the "hedge priest" John Ball's speech on June 13, 1381 at Blackheath on the edge of London, as 30,000 rebels gathered ready to capture the city.

"Now to Englishmen is the opportunity given, if they choose to take it, of casting off the yoke they have borne so long, of winning the freedom they have always wanted. Wherefore, let us take good courage and behave like the wise husbandman of scripture, who gathered the wheat into his barn but uprooted and burned the tares that had half-choked the good grain. Now the tares of England are her oppressive rulers and the time of harvest has come."
Unlike many historians, Lindsay and Groves see the Peasants' Revolt as being a highly organised, planned insurrection. Despite a lack of evidence, the authors argue, persuasively, that without significant networks, the rebels could not have achieved what they did. They cite, for instance, the rhyming letters sent out by John Ball, which suggest a prearranged plan, and of course, letters sent, must have a destination - perhaps individuals known and trusted in advance.

However organised the rebels were, they certainly had grievances. The over-view of life in Medieval England is one of backbreaking work, vicious exploitation, poverty and hunger. At the same time though, some in England did very well, not least the church, which took a tenth of everyone's possessions. This is no doubt why, the radical preachings of priests like John Ball could get such a hearing. But it was also the experience of many peasants that the church was at the heart of their oppression. The population of St. Albans rose in rebellion on many occasions, 1381 being merely the latest and greatest. They ensured that the Abbot gave back the lands his monastery had stolen, restored the peasants rights to fish and hunt game, even as they threw down hedges and fences. In most villages touched by the rebellion, records of legal decisions and papers that formed the basis for serfdom were also burnt. Lindsay and Groves write

"From the earliest days of the rising, the commoners had declared themselves for 'King Richard and the True Commons'. They swore to this oath of allegiance and they made all whom they met swear to it. In this simple, plain statement is the full purpose of the revolt, for it carried with it a complete destruction of the existing feudal order."

These were "Zealots for truth and justice, not thieves and robbers". In his second meeting with King Richard, the leader of the revolt, Wat Tyler, made the rebels' demands even clearer, all "warrens, as well as fisheries as in parks and woods, should be common to all; so that throughout the realm, in the waters, ponds, fisheries, woods and forests, poor as well as rich might take venison, and hunt the hare in the fields."

He also demanded the end of the bishoprics, save one, and the beheading of the traitorous advisers to Richard. The rebels believed that Richard was surrounded by corrupt ministers, and envisaged a future were serfdom was abolished, with local county government, ruled over by a king selected by the people themselves.

Sadly the rebels' misunderstood the unity of the ruling class. The cowardly murder of Tyler was only the beginning of a counter-revolution that was to lead to thousands of deaths across the country as the feudal order reasserted itself. "Serfs you were and serfs you will be" declared Richard. But many refused to give up without a fight. Leader Grindcobbe said at St. Albans, facing certain death declared:

"Fellow citizens, whom now a scanty liberty has relieved from long oppression, stand while you can stand, and fear nothing for my punishment since I would die in the cause of the liberty we have gained, if it is now my fate to die, thinking myself happy to be able to finish my life by such a martyrdom."
The defeat of the Peasants' Revolt and the torture and murder of most of its leaders however did not end rebellion. Feudalism did appear to continue, but the Revolt was only one of a long line of rebellions, local and national. Within fifty years, the Serfs had "more or less" won their freedom, but perhaps the greatest legacy of the Peasants' Revolt is twofold. The ruling class never again forgot the threat they faced from ordinary people organising, and the stories, poems and speeches of John Ball, Wat Tyler and the others inspired future generations.


Related Reviews

O'Brien - When Adam Delved and Eve Span

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Peter Linebaugh - Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance

Peter Linebaugh has been one of those historians who over the last few decades has rescued the history of some of the most marginalised and forgotten people. In particular he has looked at those who were side-lined or lost their livelihoods (not to mention lives) in the earliest days of capitalism. In this volume of essays, Linebaugh examines the way that as capitalism developed, there was an associated transformation in the way that the majority of the population could live and work on the land. In particular, this 
frequently meant the destruction of common rights, the enclosure of common land and the creation of new laws to criminalise old activities. Linebaugh notes, for instance, that alongside enclosure (the "historical antonym and nemesis of the commons") there was a "massive prison construction program".

That capitalism destroys old customs to improve the ability of a small group of individuals to better make themselves wealthy should be no surprise. Linebaugh quotes no less a figure that J.S.Mill, "a world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature with every foot of land brought into cultivation... and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow." to aptly capture those who thought that nature would be utilised in the interest of society, controlled, shaped and driven in the interest of commerce and social improvement.

But the rights that people had. To collect fallen wood, or hunt rabbits, or glean the fields after harvest, were not granted from on high. They had been fought for an won by generations of peasants. Their removal thus was brutal. But it was also resisted. From Wat Tyler, to the "Luddites", Peasant Revolts and the Iroquois, people resisted losing their lands and rights. It was a losing battle, but it was a struggle that helped shaped a vision of a different world, as well as opening eyes to the nature of the system.

Two chapters in this collection deal with those who learnt from these struggles and envisaged a world with a new "commune". One is on Marx, whose early radical journalism was in part a reaction to his anger at new laws that criminalised the right of peasants to collect wood. The second is on the socialist William Morris, whose writings are sometimes dismissed as overly romantic socialism, harking back to a time that never existed. But Linebaugh however, in a essay that serves as an introduction to E.P. Thompson's biography of Morris, sees Morris as a socialist who saw the world, not as an abstract nature, but one that should be used and enjoyed for the benefit of all. He quotes Morris,

"The Communist asserts in the first place that the resources of nature, mainly the land and those other things which can only be used for the reproduction of wealth and which are the effect of social work, should not be own in severalty, but by the whole community for the benefit of the whole."

Morris' activism, his tireless speaking tours and writing thus become an extension of this vision. Not an abstract dream, but an object to struggle for.

On occasion, Linebaugh comes close to romanticizing the past himself. But he understands that the struggle to protect the Commons was that of the poorest fighting for what little they had. That struggle was brutal, but so were their lives. He recounts the story of a "Mr. Samuels" who "lost his hand to a mechanical coconut shredder" and so his friends and fellow villagers burnt the "pumping station" in revenge.

Linebaugh sees such struggles as in a continuum with today's battles to prevent further erosion of our rights. For this author, the struggle for a new commons, is as important as the fight to protect what we have and had.

Peter Linebaugh's writing is filled with passion, forgotten histories, and literary quotes. Here are Shelley and Wordsworth, Frankenstein's monster and the words of miners, peasants and all those men and women who've struggled at the bottom of the society.

Related Reviews

Linebaugh - The Magna Carta Manifesto
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Linebaugh & Rediker - The Many Headed Hydra

Friday, April 04, 2014

Alex Callinicos - Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory

At the outset, I should say that this is a challenging book. It deals with debates and polemics within the academic world of social theory that most casual readers will not be aware of. As such, even for those of us who have read a good deal of Marxist theory, it can be in places inaccessible.

That said, for those who persevere there is a great deal within this book that repays those who do read it. In particular, the trenchant and clear defence of Marxist approaches to history, historical change and the role of workers in making revolution are very important.

Callinicos begins with an overview of various social theorists, and their roots in wider philosophical writings. While some of these thinkers may be unknown to the reader, others, like Foucault are oft-quoted and rarely understood. Callinicos does an excellent job in drawing out their ideas and examining them through the Marxist lens. One of the core parts to this section, is the debate on "human nature". Callinicos puts it thus:

"Central to Marx's account of human labour is its redirective character, namely the fact that human beings' ability to consciously to reflect on their activity allows them to modify and improve on prevailing productive techniques. Rather than being tied to the fixed repertoire of behaviour characteristic of other species, human productive activity is distinguished by its flexibility, by the indefinite variety of ways in which human beings may meet their needs by virtue of their cognitive capacities."

Here we have a got example of Callinicos' approach in the book. Rather than looking for fixed points of human behaviour, he sees a dynamically changing world where humans interact with each other, and with nature to create the world they inhabit. The historically changing social world is itself a reflection of wider forces:

"To specify the character of a mode of production is to give an account of the specific combination of the forces and relations of production it involves."

This simple enough sounding statement has produced an enormous amount of literature and debate. Callinicos examines the varying understandings of these in detail, challenging both the work of academics like G.A Cohen, but also the writings of revolutionary socialists like Chris Harman. Students of historical materialism, as a concept, will find these sections invaluable.

The process of change between "modes of production" is a second theme for Callinicos. He points out that "instead of exploring the differentia specifica of particular modes of production, analytical Marxists tend to focus on what they see as Marx's views of the universal mechanisms of historical change." However, such universals do not necessarily exist. For instance, the roles of (say) the bourgeoisie during bourgeois revolutions is very different from that of workers in proletarian revolutions. Callinicos points out that that the former are not self-conscious actors, but come to the forefront through a process of "molecular" change and frequently a "compromise" with the old order.

The final section of the book deals with the role of "agents" in historical change. It thus looks at debates that consider whether individuals have a collective interest in change, through, the "prisoner's dilemma" and whether social revolution is "rational" from the point of view of individual workers. It is in this section that Callinicos' is very clear. This is not least, because the author is linked to a network of organised socialists trying to create change. Refreshingly, the book's defence of the need for working class revolution, breaks with the academic debates that Callinicos has ably intervened in. Philosopher's have merely tried to understand the world, the point is, of course, to change it.

Related Reviews

Callinicos and Simons - The Great Strike
Perry - Marxism and History
Harman - Marxism and History
Hughes - Ecology and Historical Materialism
Carr - What is History?

Monday, March 31, 2014

James Heartfield - Unpatriotic History of the Second World War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Related Reviews

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Steven Rose - The 21st-Century Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This contrasts with Rose's understanding;

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Levins & Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist