Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Chris Wickham - Medieval Europe

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

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

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

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

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John le Carré - A Murder of Quality

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

le Carré - A Small Town in Germany

Friday, July 28, 2017

Becky Chambers - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Leckie - Ancillary Justice

Monday, July 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

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

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill - Serial Killer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Dredd Phenomena: Comics and Contemporary Society

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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