Friday, December 31, 2010

Elaheh Rostami-Povey - Iran's Influence


Despite the rhetoric you hear from many of the leading politicians of the western world, and even from sections of the more liberal establishment, Iran is not the monolithic Islamic state that they would have us believe.

Elaheh Rostami-Povey's multi-layered book explores in detail the country's history, its part in the wider economic, political and cultural history of the Middle East as well as the role of various political forces, religions and external influences in shaping it, to give us a rounded and useful understanding of the country today.

Quite rightly, Rostami-Povey argues that no country is monolithic. In particular she demonstrates that despite the view of some, the Islamic regime that consolidated its power following the 1979 revolution against the Shah, was one that had immense popular support, and hence helped introduce a huge variety of popular reforms that made a real difference to the lives of ordinary people in Iran.

Again, contrary to the view that today's Iran is a conservative country dominated by those who would restrict women to wear full body coverings and stone those who commit adultery, she shows an Iran were there are competing political and ideological forces, many of whom are lead by women and trying to resist the further strengthening of conservative forces.

But in terms of the forces shaping modern Iran, the biggest factors are external - the existence of Israel and its continued assault on the Palestinians and the US's imperialist ventures in the region. This has a historical importance because the 1979 revolution against the Shah was as much against his role in supporting Israel and backing Western interests as against his internal repression. The support for the regime post 1979 hence also stems from the perception of it as anti-Imperialist and anti-Zionist.

This causes problems for those inside Iran who want to change the country. The pro-democracy movement that burst onto the streets of Iran in 2009 following the election there, is often viewed with suspicion because of the Wests support for it. Even though those involved are very clear that they reject the vision the West (particularly the US) has for the Middle East, the actions of the US etc in the Middle East have the effect of strengthening the conservative position in Iran. The real threat of US attack leads to a strengthening of the existing government.

Rostami-Povey is particularly strong on two aspects of the history of Iran and the region - firstly the role of women in the various anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and pro-democracy movements that exist today and have existed in the past. This is essential because often we are presented an image that all Islamists are against women's participation in society, and this is clearly untrue even in Iran.

She is also very strong when she writes about how other forces in the Middle East are influenced by Iran's anti-imperialism and its political support, but don't necessarily follow its line or instructions. Most importantly the role of Hezbollah and Hamas in resisting Israel in Lebanon and Palestine. Both these movements enjoy Iran's support, but economically they are far more dependent on international and local donations from those impressed by their ability to stand up to the Zionists and to provide the basic needs for the people whose lives have been destroyed by war and imperialism. Rostami-Povey is particularly impressive when she traces the way in which Hezbollah for instance has be so central to providing basic healthcare and food, that it receives the support of people (rich and poor) from across the religious spectrum, including substantial numbers of non-Muslims.

Rostami-Povey is firmly on the side of those who want to see more democracy, more rights for women, more involvement of minorities and less sectarianism. She shows how the simple demonisation of Iran will make this worse, as in the past when the destruction of secular, nationalist and leftist movements by the US helped to create the Taliban and Al-Qqaeda. In her conclusion she says

"The impact of sending more ships and missiles to the Persian Gulf by Obama has been negative for the democracy movement in Iran, as the conservatives within the regime have used the pressure from outside as an additional protect to clamp down even more fiercly. In this context, history is repeating itself: the West in the past destroyed the secular and nationalist movements that were fighting for democracy and independence in Iran and the wider region; now they are destroying the Islamist modernists through the constant threat of military intervention."

The wider support for Iran across the Middle East comes because it is seen precisely as a country that has stood up to the US and western intervention. Iran's own history shows however, that the ordinary people of the wider Middle East are the force best positioned to overthrow dictators and right-wing leaders. Rostami-Povey also shows how these people want solutions that mean those from different cultures, religions and communities can live together. To do this means changing the power relations in the Middle East and that means uniting against oppression and foreign intervention.

For those wanting to get a good understanding of the current situation in the Middle East, this is an essential read. Sadly the price of £18.99 for a 264 page book (including references and index) will put many off. I hope that should it get republished, the publishers will consider that such high prices limit readership.

Related Reviews

Marshall - Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Iran
Rose - The Myths of Zionism

A useful short introduction to the current political situation in Iran can be found in this article here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tim O'Brien - If I Die In A Combat Zone

This Vietnam memoir follows Tim O'Brien from his basic training to his time on the front line in Vietnam. It finishes with his time in a safer post, behind the lines working in the administration. By the time he got there, he'd seen several friends killed and injured and dodged sniper fire in the places that became infamous for the massacre at Mai Lai.

While the storyline has become a fairly standard structure for the Vietnam film or novel (or indeed many other war stories), here it works because of the authors brutal honesty. He documents his plans to run to Sweden - researched in detail and planned in depth, because of his terror at going. He talks about the ineptness of one of his commanders and he admits to barely seeing the enemy during his tour of duty.

The power of the book, apart from its honesty, is the way in which we see reflected the greater struggles that take place. Hindsight gives us a particular set of images when we hear the name Mai Lai, but for Tim as he moved around there it was simply another place.

Definitely one of the classics that came out of that war, it'll help clarify the fears and emotions of those soldiers who went to Vietnam but also fueled the struggles against the war and against Imperialism.

Related Reviews

Marlantes - Matterhorn

Friday, December 24, 2010

Jules Verne - Five Weeks in a Balloon

Jules Verne was rather a prolific writer. Many of his novels have gone down in history as representing the hopes for a technological future. One in which nothing was beyond the realms of human achievement so long as the technology could be invented. In doing this he created incredible adventures, often populated with tremendous machines and larger than life heroes.

Five Weeks in a Balloon was Verne's first novel. It's rather more sedate then some of the others, and the specific nature of the voyage described inside means that the story line is mostly a collection of experiences of observations from a hot air balloon as it crosses the African continent. Verne was writing in the era of Livingstone and Stanley and other great explorers. Africa was one of the few places that Europeans hadn't quite got their heads around yet. Important discoveries remained - the exact route of the Nile, the origin of other cities and what places like Timbuktu were really like. It was fertile ground for an adventure novel, and by placing his explorers in a balloon, Verne doesn't have to explore in great detail what life was really like on the ground below.

Though the Africa Verne does describe is very much that of the Victorian fantasy. Africa is populated by savages and cannibals and all sort of other prejudices against the people who live there. Here is Verne describing a battle between two tribes that the balloon passes over;

"The mutual massacre continued with axe and assegai. As soon as an enemy fell... his adversary would at once cut off his head. The women, mingling with the tumult, picked up these bleeding heads and piled them up at either end of the battlefield, often fighting among themselves for possession of the hideous trophy".

Here we have combined the vision of the African as a savage, so savage that African women actually take to the battlefield and fight over the human remains. Why might they do this? Verne continues;

"The chief of one of these savage armies was distinguishable by his athletic build.. once he hurled away his blood-stained assegai, threw himself upon a wounded man, cut of his arm with a single blow, picked it up and, raising it to his mouth, bit into it with his teeth".

Such cannibal behaviour is too much for our heroes, who shoot the chief with a rifle from their vantage point above the battle.

The heroes themselves are cut from singular cloth. The organiser and chief explorer, Dr. Fergusson, who invents the new type of balloon capable of making the trip and is destined for scientific greatness, is the archetypal hero. So much so, that as a boy he "never appears to have known fear, quickly displayed a bright intelligence, an inquiring mind, a remarkable propensity for scientific work. In addition he displayed unusual skill in getting out of difficulties. Nothing ever perplexed him, not even the handling of his first fork, with which children are not as a rule very successful."

With such children in their midst, how could Europeans fail to bend the rest of their world to their will?

The storyline itself is mostly the observations from the balloon. One of the travellers, Fergusson's manservant, displays ample self knowledge when he sacrifices himself to avoid the balloon being destroyed. But Fergusson, ever the Victorian gentleman, rescues his servant in reward for his selfishness. Rescue features again later, when a European explorer is rescued from the hands of a murderous tribe.

Verne puts moral codes at the heart of the story. The servant who always knows his place and will do whatever his master wants. The loyal friends who never give up searching for their lost companions, the difficult choices faced by those who find great wealth in the desert, but can't carry it in an over-laden balloon.

The novel itself probably found a great audience on it's first publication, catering to the mass audience that was fascinated by newspaper tales of exploration. It should be read today, chiefly for it's insights into the moral codes and prejudices of Victorian society.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hassan Mahamdallie - Crossing The River Of Fire: The Socialism Of William Morris

One of the central arguments of Hassan Mahamdallie's introduction to the life and politics of William Morris, is that all to often he is reduced to an artist, a poet, or simply a lover of nice things. Even when Morris' politics are considered, they are described as a strange mix of abstract socialism with a hoped for return to some sort of medieval utopia. This no doubt lies behind Tony Blair's declaration that William Morris had been a "inspiration" while he was a student. Morris' socialism isn't seen as being challenging today, indeed it can be used to give a red veneer to those who want to be on the right, but need to look left.

Hassan Mahamdallie smashes this nonsense. For him, William Morris was a dedicated revolutionist who spent his life fighting for a better world and dreaming of a time when the workers would seize power. In perhaps his most famous work, News from Nowhere, one of Morris' characters describes the social change that lead to the creation of the future socialist society. "Did the change... come peacefully?" he is asked;

"Peacefully?"..."What peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the 19th century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it."

Mahamdallie traces William Morris' development as a political activist and Marxist. From his earliest days in the radical movements, his disillusionment with the parliamentary activity he saw around him and the formation of the Socialist League that Morris remained loyal to for most of his life. Morris spent much of his life touring the country, lecturing, speaking and inspiring workers. News from Nowhere was apparently written on the train to and from meetings. He published huge numbers of articles in the League's newspaper Commonweal, even when the newspaper was no longer representative of Morris' own socialist ideas.

One of the best parts of this short book is the section where the author looks at Morris' environmental outlook. Many have argued that Marx and his followers have shown little interest in this subject, but as John Bellamy Foster writes, William Morris' ecology is very much "in the spirit of Marx". Morris understood that people's "alienation from the earth" was the "ultimate foundation/pre-condition for capitalism".

It's for this reason that the sections of his writings that mention the natural world - especially News from Nowhere - are so important - the belief that socialism wouldn't simply be an economic change, but would involve a fundamental change in human relationships with the natural world.

Morris wasn't without fault. Many of his errors and in particular his sectarianism towards parliamentary struggles and the Leagues refusal to be involved in many of the mass industrial struggles stem from the weaknesses of the earliest socialist movements in Britain. But Mahamdallie points out that rather than Morris stepping back from revolution towards the end of his life, his Marxist understanding was developing and growing.

Unfortunately it was too late for Morris to be part of those later struggles that shaped the early part of the 20th Century. His death in 1893 was the occasion for outpourings of grief from the working class movement. But already his socialism was being denigrated and denied in the obituaries. The simpler and easier story of Morris the Middle Class wallpaper designer was being written. Hassan Mahamdallie's book rescues the far greater and more inspiring story of the all-round socialist who wanted to see beauty and art for everyone, in a society that was free of oppression and exploitation.

Related Reviews

Behrman -  Shostakovich: Socialism, Stalin & Symphonies

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chris Harman - Marxism and History

These two essays from Chris Harman form one of the clearest and most accessible introductions to the question of history in Marxist thought that it's possible to find. The first essay deals with the oft confused concepts of Base and Superstructure that Karl Marx refers to in one of his articles. The base - the economic organisation at the bottom of different societies allows the creation of a superstructure - the political, legal and cultural structures at the top of society. Different, or changing societies, organised along different economic lines allow different types of superstructures. Both of these react back and forth of each other, depending on the changing balance of forces in society.

Harman makes the point, that what is important for Marxists is how societies change - how do we move from one historical epoch, or mode of production to another. How does feudalism change to form capitalism for instance? Harman picks apart Marx's theory of history, to look at how the economic forces of production produce "relations of production", between people and between classes. But the forces of production rarely remain static in society. Things change - new tools are invented, new methods of organising production or agriculture, and these in turn create new relations of production. These develop and grow and produce new interests in society that may clash with the existing order, producing a period of social revolution.

Into this mix, Marx puts class struggle. Historical change is driven by class struggle at periods when the development of productive forces have made other change possible. He explores this in greater depth in the second essay which is a detailed look at the process of change from feudalism to capitalism. Harman is both taking on those particular Marxists, such as Robert Brenner who have, in his view, over simplified the argument or misunderstood the processes at work.

What's fascinating about both works, is that Harman picks from a deep knowledge of history to give many concrete examples to back up his explanations (something he does on an even greater scale with his fabulous "People's History of the World"). This has the effect of illuminating what are, in actual fact, slightly obscure academic debates.

But for Harman, these debates are crucial. The first essay in particular concludes with a look at how revolutionary processes happen and the role of ideology and political organisation. For Marxists, the question isn't simply to study history for the sake of it, but to understand history to learn from it, in order to strengthen our ability to change the world today.

Related Reviews

Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sheila Rowbotham - Hidden from History

This is no doubt one of the classic books of working class history. First published in the early 1970s though, it's groundbreaking aspect was too look at the "hidden history" of the struggle of women for equality and rights, in the context of the broader working class struggles and movement.

As such it takes on some uncomfortable truths. Despite the fact that at least on the surface the labour movement in the UK (and one hopes much wider afield) supports the notion of women's equality, the right for women to play a full role within the labour movement and wider society, as well as equal pay, maternity rights and access to childcare etc, this wasn't always true. Indeed, it's not always true now.

Rowbotham shows how early pioneers of the notion of women's rights didn't always meet with a friendly reception from their male contemporaries. Often for instance, this was from organised workers who were worried that women would undermine male pay levels or workplace organisation.

But also it was true within personal relationships - Rowbotham shows how women often found their socialist partners would, once married, revert to the same expectations of the role of women in the family as their bourgeois contemporaries.

But the author doesn't try to find some natural antagonism between men and women, she places such relations firmly in the context of a system that saw both the need to divide and rule, and to place the burden of raising the next generation of workers on the woman.

The struggle for the right to vote for women forms the backdrop to most of the book, though the turning point comes with the first world war, with women entering the workplaces in large numbers for the first time. Even though this ended to a certain extent with the return of peace, the fact that women had taken on jobs seen as being exclusively male fundamentally shifted social attitudes. This even survived the mass unemployment of the 1930s. Further struggles were ahead, ones that weren't simply about economic equality, though these were important. But struggles over childcare, the right to abortion and access to contraception were ones that eventually became those of the whole movement.

Rowbotham's book finishes in the 1930s. The later struggles are no less important, and this early work of hers has made me keen to search out her more recent work.

Related Reviews

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Barbara W. Tuchman - The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890 - 1914

The "Proud Tower" of Barbara Tuchman's title belongs to Edgar Allan Poe and from it "Death looks gigantically down". Any writing about the period covered in this work is of course coloured by the knowledge that it ends with the slaughter of the First World War.

Tuchman's history of the "world before the war" however is often at great pains to avoid discussing this. She wants to understand the period without its ending. Though she cannot but help herself occasionally, mentioning for instance, without comment, that a follow up to the Hague peace conference is scheduled to take place in 1916.

And because of this position it is hard at first to understand the author's theme. The first chapters (all of which originate as separate essays) seem at first to be simply about individuals - British "patricians" in the first, leading Anarchists in the second are followed by chapters on the political establishment of the United States and so on. But gradually what is exposed is a world in intense crisis - ripe it would seem for explosion or rift. So the chapter on Britain paints a portrait of a political world dominated by the old aristocratic order, heavy with tradition, individuals who are self-interested, bored by politics and economics. These Patricians increasingly clashing with a newer order, more professional men with wider interests.

This crisis at the top of society is best explored in Tuchman's chapter on the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier is wrongly accused of being a German spy. Despite a lack of evidence, lies and forgeries from the military high-command result in a prosecution that rapidly becomes a cause celebre. France is riven by a huge debate, engulfing everyone. This much we know. But what Tuchman argues is that the affair, and the eventual release and pardon of Dreyfus marks the end of an era for France. The older order, a France dominated by an aristocratic military is no more, the world changes and new forces come on to the scene.

This sense of social crisis is nicely summed up in her chapter on Germany, which deals in depth with cultural changes in music and the arts, "A restlessness fermenting under the superabundant materialism was producing in artists a desire to shock; to rip and slash the thick quilt of bourgeois comfort."

The problem with the book isn't with the writing or the history. Well researched, and eminently readable, Tuchman has a fantastic prose that brings to life the characters she describes. Often her brief portraits can both capture and skewer an individual.  Lord Salisbury the British Prime Minister "cared nothing for sport and little for people. His aloofness was enhanced by shortsightedness so intense that he once failed to recognize a member of his own Cabinet, and once, his own butler". Tuchman does not fail to point out Salisbury's hatred of the lower orders and his fear of popular democracy.

The problem comes because Tuchman starts with the individuals. Any attempt to give a narrative to the history other than the most simplistic one of a society in crisis, is thus lost. Even though the build up to war, the growing economic and industrial power of the future belligerents and the potential for international clashes are there through out the book, Tuchman doesn't put this at the heart of the story, so the reader is left high and dry when trying to understand why war began in August 1914.

The problem becomes worse when you look at what is missing. Tuchman doesn't deal with the world beyond Europe and North America much - with barely a mention of South America, Asia or Africa, except as the arenas for Great Power clashes. And while the mass of the population is referred to obliquely (in terms of numbers of votes for instance) they don't really enter the story except very occasionally. Tuchman is only interested in the majority when they have some impact upon on the few individuals she is discussing.

This becomes almost distressing in her two chapters on the radicals. We are again treated to a long list of pen portraits of famous Anarchists and Socialists, some of which are frankly insulting - Rosa Luxemburg is described as "not good-looking". Yet the radical ideas of these individuals exist in a vacuum for Tuchman - there is no sense that some of these individuals commanded mass organisations, with the allegiance of millions of workers.

It is true to an extent that the leading members of the Social Democratic parties in the early 20th Century did become detached from those of the mass of workers. But to believe that millions of working people did not oppose the coming war, even if they felt unable to act against it, flies in the face of the evidence that she herself quotes.

Of course, this doesn't mean the book is without value. There is much to learn from Tuchman's wide reading and accessible language. Some obscure but fascinating moments in western history are brought out that illuminate the wider period. The chapter on Dreyfus is a fantastic summary of that complex and eventful time. The chapter that deals with Richard Strauss' radical and challenging music which caused shock and debate across Europe in a way that seems incredible today is fascinating, especially if you want to understand later developments in music, and the hopes for the international peace conferences convened by the great powers seem naive with hindsight, but clearly carried the aspirations of millions.

Tuchman writes wonderful history. But it is history from above even if she didn't want it to be. Her works illuminate some of the darkest times of human history and are best seen I think as giving a framework for the wider study of the historical forces that shaped our modern world.

Philip Pullman - The Ruby In The Smoke

The sheer brilliance of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series for young adults has unjustly hidden his excellent other works. His series of novels about Sally Lockhart, that begins with The Ruby in the Smoke, contains no fantasy, though at times they are fantastical and amazing. Ruby is at times a deeply disconcerting novel, even for the adult reader. The plot begins with Sally trying to find out about her missing father, by enquiring at his former place of work. Anonymous letters and brief allusions, as well as the sudden death of one of her fathers colleagues when she mentions an unknown phrase, spur her to dig deeper into a growing mystery.

This is a novel for young adults. So the structure and plot is not as complex as adults might expect. It is however deeply descriptive and for those who know East London, it certainly feels real. Indeed I wouldn't have been surprised if Pullman had tramped the streets of London to get the descriptions right. There are shocks, and Pullman doesn't hide any of the nastiness of Victorian poverty. In fact he highlights it, partly I think to underline the horrible future that Sally faces, should she fail in her adventure.

As in so many other novels aimed at this age group, most of the people who Sally meets are kind, and she falls on her feet many times. Though at one point late in her adventure, the expected rescue is nothing of the kind. Sally travels back and forth across London, eventually facing down her evil enemy, who is a brilliantly realised nemesis aimed particularly to frighten, or at least un-nerve younger readers.

Pullman has created a brilliantly realised world. It evokes a time of poverty, hunger and unemployment, when women were expected to know their place, but were people were already questioning the social setup. Later novels in the series develop this further, exposing and challenging other aspects of Victorian society (anti-Semitism for instance).

In many ways Ruby is a precurssor to the Dark Materials, not by content but by structure and emotion. It's a great read for an adult, it'd be amazing for younger readers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paul Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux's rail journeys are never less than epic. In this trip from the early 1970s, he leaves London one day, famously stating that he has "seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it". He evokes a desire to see the remote and unusual, to meet new people and explore a world that isn't yours.

But, increasingly I found that Theroux's descriptions were less those of an awe inspired traveller conveying the excitement of new places and more those of a cynic, coloured by not a little with belief in western superiority.

But the journey itself is amazing, London, Paris, Milan to Belgrade is epic enough. But then on to Ankara, Teheran, skipping Afghanistan by plane, he visits India from top to bottom, Burma, and Thailand (using planes to travel between countries) then a fascinating journey on a vanished railway through a Vietnam still torn by war. Plane to Japan allows Theroux to riff rather to much on the strangeness he perceives in the Japanese, finally he takes the long road home, the Trans Siberian Express through a northern USSR, strangely open and inviting to Western visitors.

But it is Theroux's style that is painful. His wonderful descriptions often lapse into some comment that seems deliberately designed to denigrate an entire people:
The Japanese are marvellous packagers of merchandise. These souvenirs are crammed in  the plastic shopping bags that form the basis of the Japanese traveller's luggage. And there are other parcels, for the nobori-san, not trusting the food on Japanese National Railways, brings his own lunch pail. When he wakes, he rummages at his feet and discovers a sealed tin of rice and fish that, without stretching or rising from his padded armchair, he eats, blowing and smacking.
When not dismissing entire cultures, there are moments of genuine passion and interest. I was taken by the number of times that Vietnamese women offered Theroux their young blond haired children, one of the legacy's of the US's ongoing presence in the country. But all in all, this enormous journey cannot really be comprehended in such a short trip. Towards the end of his journey in Japan, Theroux himself becomes exhausted by the changing places and times, entering a brief depression fueled by alcohol, he meditates on how aimless it seems. But that is not surprising, train travel is inevitably punctuated by destinations, but if your business is travel, the destinations become less important and a book written about them, will have the feel of a disjointed collection of anecdotes. Which is, perhaps, a fitting summary of these early writings.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Riding the Red Rooster (China)
Theroux - Dark Star Safari (Africa)
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express (The Americas)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Margaret Dewar - The Quiet Revolutionary

People make history but the people who do so are often forgotten. Everyone learns the names of generals or kings in history, or even those of dictators. But their soldiers, subjects and victims remain anonymous.

Margaret Dewar played barely a small role in history, yet her life charts some of the greatest events of the 20th century. If it wasn't for this autobiography, she would literally remain a footnote in a book. Yet her life was shaped by the forces of history and her documentation of them is worthy of re-reading. Born early in the 20th century in Russia, she came of a well to do German family. The first chapters are a fascinating story of a forgotten life in rural Russia - the warm memories of Christmas and Easter, the old traditions that seem quaint, yet have resonances today.

But there were great events on the horizon. Margaret lives through the Russian Revolution, moving to Moscow in the aftermath of the Civil War that was launched against the early Soviet power. Her recollections of hunger and rationing are her chief memories of those times. But she wasn't particularly political, though discussions about contemporary events were part of her life. She was more interested in music and learning the piano. What is fascinating are how the little events of life illuminate the wider situation - how trains would delay for days, or passengers would have to get off to cut firewood for fuel.

Seeking a better life, her stepfather flies with his family to Berlin in the early 1920s. With the hindsight we have, this is folly, but it must have seen an opportunity to good to miss, given their German nationality. Of course Germany in those years was seething with revolutionary struggle and the growth of counter-revolutionary fascist forces. Again concentrating on her dancing and music, most events are a backdrop, yet Margaret cannot avoid the politics - she comes across the Communist Party and becomes an activist. Admitting to finding it hard, she finds herself leading meetings and demonstrations.

Those of us active in left wing politics will recognise much of what she describes of those years - the meetings and debates, though she paints a picture of an organisation already stale with the grip of Stalinism. Members rarely read anything beyond official communist papers for instance and she doesn't feel she really can understand what is going on in the world, limited as her view is by the constraints of the needs of the party. There doesn't seem anything in the way of independent thought and action, rather the slavish following of a line. She and her comrades learn by rote to argue against Leon Trotsky's politics, even though none have them have read a word by him.

With the coming to power of Hitler the Communist Party melts away almost overnight. Margaret by then has visited Russia again as part of a delegation and has started to see through some of the rose-tinted images that have been painted. Eventually, questioned by the Gestapo, she flees overland (skiing some of the way) to the Czech Republic where she becomes deeper involved Trotskyist movement. From then, she travels to France and eventually Britain, meeting and marrying the Trotskyist activist Hugo Dewar (who wrote a history of the British Communist Party that I reviewed here). For the rest of her long life she and him work tirelessly to rebuild revolutionary organisation, becoming involved in the organisation that eventually becomes today's SWP.

Margaret Dewar's life is fascinating, not least because of the people she met - Clara Zetkin and Jan Frankel (Trotsky's secretary) for instance. But also for her descriptions of radical organisations and underground work. But mostly it is inspiring because it is the story of an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary events who continues to struggle for a better world for her whole life.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go

First published in 1971, this novel must rapidly have become a classic of the Science Fiction genre. Despite some rather clunky dialogue in places, the author has created a strange, fantastical world that allows him to explore a multitude of ideas and experiences. It's also believable, which give the world's nature might sound strange, but the characters and places work well and hang together.

So what is this world? There isn't really a way of telling from the story itself. It is a planet that is encircled from top to bottom by a river, along the banks of which every human being that has ever lived is regenerated simultaneously at some unknown point in the future. Naked with only a small pot that allows them to create food from mysterious artifacts, the humans find themselves reincarnated with a variety of people from different eras. Our hero, the famous writer, explorer and adverntuer, Richard Burton is reincarnated with a rather prim woman from the 19th Century, a Neanderthal, a collector (and Burton obsessive) and an alien who in Burton's future has destroyed most of humanity. Their travels mean they meet people from every era of human existence, all united in their arrival on a world with limited resources.

The story of exploration has been detailed elsewhere - though I'd recommend exploring the book. More interestingly for the purposes of this review is the way that Farmer explores topics such as anti-semitism. Richard Burton's alleged anti-semitic writings are mentioned, though Burton is angered to be described like this. But anti-semitism in the era that comes after the Nazi holocaust evokes a stronger response than it might have done in the past.

When people die on this new planet, they are again reincarnated, naked and whole in a random location. Burton discovers then that you can explore this world by suicide. But are you the same person if you do this, everytime you awake. Your memories indicate your are, but you clearer are different physically. Burton meets and travels with the Nazi Goering, from Burton's own future. Goering himself dies multiple times, often, and rather gratifyingly at the hands of people who understand his historical role. But Goering changes. Never seeming to give up on his past, he at least recognises that he is destroyed and repents of sorts.

So we have a planetary setup that allows the author to explore multiple ideas - add in the obiligitary 1970s sex and drugs and the stage is set for some interesting tales and explorations.

There are some annoying bits. The writing can, as I said, clunk. The author places himself into the novel as a collector and potential biographer of Burton. Their reincarnated proxmity may be coincidence, though it makes the novel work. Yet the author has such an autobiographical knowledge of Burton and other contemporaries (reminding them in places as what they did on such-and-such a day, or where they trained or married) that you can't help but feel jared by such obvious plot devices.

Nevertheless, this is fun and different. I'll hunt down the sequels.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tony Cliff - Trotsky, The Sword of the Revolution, 1917 - 1923

This, the second part of Tony Cliff's four volume biography of  Leon Trotsky deals with the period that would be most disputed perhaps by Joseph Stalin and his followers at home and abroad. This is the aftermath of the October revolution - the workers and soldiers have seized power in Russia. Soviet power is a reality across a huge swathe of the globe. The seizure of power itself had be masterminded in many ways by Trotsky, and the book starts with the discussions that took place immediately - how to form a government and so on.

But the meat of this book deals with the fallout of the revolution. Russia was an immensely backward nation, dominated by a peasantry which had only recently broken from its serfdom. The working class, though powerful, was small. It had lead a mass revolution that had the loyalty and backing of the majority of the population, but no-body believed that Soviet Russia, alone could survive.

Of course, the seizure of power by the working class wasn't something that could be allowed to go unchecked - almost immediately the foreign nations intervened. Invading armies from those nations that had being battering each other months before in the trenches of World War One, were turned on the new revolutionary nation.

Trotsky was, perhaps after Lenin, one of the most well known and respected revolutionaries. He was at the heart of the debates, and indeed the action that took place in the aftermath of October 1917. He wasn't always right, and despite the authors obvious respect for Trotsky, he isn't afraid to criticise and disagree. This is most obvious with the political battles that took place immediately after Lenin's death when Trotsky could and should have moved to isolate and remove Stalin and his clique from power. This is what he had agreed he would do with Lenin, and Cliff sees Trotsky as betraying that agreement;

"That Trotsky was later very embarrassed by his behaviour at the Twelfth Congress is clear from the fact that no reference at all to the congress can be found in his autobiography, while four pages are devoted to describing duck hunting in precisely the place where a description of the congress would be expected."

Perhaps the most important and inspiring parts of the book are those that deal with Trotsky's forging of the Red Army. One of the central planks of the revolution had been the desire for peace. To have to create a new army from scratch, when the old Tsarist one had melted away during the revolutionary year of 1917 was difficult enough. To inspire and lead this army to defeat first the counter-revolutionary "white" armies and then the invading imperialist ones, was nothing short of miraculous.

But because the army was motivated by more than conscription or mercenary interests, it was far better than its opponents. Time and again they won battles (at least once with Trotsky leading on horseback) they should have lost. As Cliff says, "The Red Army men knew what they were fighting for, and believed in it passionately". Something that couldn't be said of those they were fighting.

But the gradual degeneration of working class power is always there in this story. The Red Army is part of this. The most able workers, the best communists joined the civil war, undermining the very heart of Bolshevik power in the factories of Petrograd and Moscow. Alongside this, the growing bureaucracy starts to become a force for itself. Interestingly, Cliff argues that Trotsky's success in forming the Red Army helped to undermine himself as it created a bloc of individuals who had their own interests and ideas. Debates on tactics helped this process:

"The strong influence of guerrillaism among the party cadres led to the formation of a Military Opposition, which continued throughout the civil war and which later became the core of the Stalinist faction."

Trotsky's preoccupation with the civil war, meant that he was absent for some of the most important post-revolution debates, though an enormous outpouring of writings from the period show that he was constantly thinking, reading and writing. The debates on the role of Trade Unions, military strategy, international questions are important, and show that even as the revolution declined the spirit of discussion and debate still existed at its core.

But it is with the final fight with Stalin that the book ends. Trotsky comes across as naive about the factional fight that he must fight. He is Lenin's favoured successor, yet seems unwilling to use this to defeat Stalin. Yet I was left with the feeling that even had Trotsky won this factional battle there would seem to have been little that could have been done to turn the tide of revolutionary degeneration. Russia was isolated, the expected international revolution hadn't occurred. Industry was decimated, and the working class tired, exhausted and far reduced.

Cliff understands though that hindsight is important and sums up by arguing;

"Lack of theoretical and political clarity led Trotsky to make a number of concessions and compromises, above all to Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to become his new allies in the United Opposition of 1926-7. Nothing was more alien to Trotsky’s character than hesitation and fudging. When by 1927 he grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, and called Stalin ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’, he became completely uncompromising."

When the next stage of the fight was on, Trotsky carried the flame of international socialism and helped to keep it alive. That he had played such a central role in the revolution was something that Stalin tried to write from history, yet couldn't quite destroy.

If you can't get hold of a copy of this volume second hand, you can find it at the Marxist Internet Archive here.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October. Volume one of this biography.
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Karl Marlantes - Matterhorn

America's imperialist adventure in Vietnam shaped the world we live in today in many ways. The injustice of the most powerful nation in the world bombing one of the poorest "back to the stone age" led to a radical questioning of the status quo, and put anti-imperialism at the heart of the radical movements of 1968 and beyond.

But the internal dynamics of the American system shaped the conflict, which in turn shaped the experience back at home. The racist nature of American society, combined with the rigid class divide between rich and poor was even more acute in the jungles of Vietnam.

Karl Marlantes' book on Vietnam has rightly become a huge bestseller. On one level, the story is identical to a million other Vietnam war novels and films. A young, inexperienced, arrogant young Lieutenant, Mellas, reaches Vietnam, determined that his military experience (and his natural leadership skills learnt at a good college) will stand him well for a political career post war. Leading a company of 200 men in Vietnam would look good on his resume. There's a great little moment in the novel when one of the other soldiers, a black marine, asks what a resume is. Then laughs at the notion that a bit of paper would help you get a job.

This gulf between worlds is quickly overcome for Mellas and the other newbies on the front line. Living in soaking wet foxholes, constantly plagued by leeches, enemy fire and a shortage of food, while being expected to follow the most insane of orders quickly teaches you something about your own army, and your fellow troops. But the Gulf between officers and grunts isn't easily overcome, particularly when those officers rarely leave the home comforts of their command sites, way behind the lines.

The racial tensions, exacerbated by military policy, stupidity and racism from the top link in with the differences between leaders and led to create a toxic mix for the marines. Soldiers quickly question their orders, conflicts develop between their instinct for self-preservation and their training that almost forces them to follow commands. While assaulting a hill they themselves had reinforced only weeks before, Mellas' force looses many of its men. Believing they are poorely led cowards, the Colonel behind the lines orders them to assault a different hill, with barely a moment to recover their losses. The novel builds to a climax were all the contradictions, tensions and racism come together rather explosively.

One noticeable thing about the book is how little the other side figures. Vietnam exists merely as a backdrop to the story. The enemy are anonymous figures, barely seen close up. What the war is in aid of isn't mentioned ("Show we were the gold is... or the oil" complains one marine"). This is a novel about internal relations, external ones are almost, and ironically, unimportant.

The fact that Marlantes book is a best seller no doubt has something to do with the war that the Vietnam war has impacted on the US psyche. But it must also be because there are some enormous parallels between that unwinable conflict and more contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The tensions that existed amongst the soldiers in Vietnam are no-doubt there in the Middle East today, though on a much smaller scale. The incredible racial and class differences that dominate US society remain as much of a problem for the establishment today, as they were in the 1960s.

If I was part of the US establishment, I'd be very worried indeed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Berger - Pig Earth

I dug this book out, purely on the basis of a review written over at Pechorin's Journal. I concour with everything written there, and in some ways I feel that his comments make my own review superflucous.

Pig Earth is a strange novel. Don't pick it up if you're looking for a nice, simply linear narrative. It's a story, but it's also polemic and poetry. The opening chapter is a Marxist explanation of the role of the peasantry - their social-economic position and their historic position in society. It's useful, and frames what follows well.

The remainder of the book can be viewed as a collection of linked vignettes - linked often by poetry - but more often by characters and places. At the core of the story though, is the struggle for identity. The developing 20th century, the wars it brings to a small peasant village in the French Alps and the changes that result from mechanisation challenge the fundamentals of life for a people who've worked the land for centuries. In some this inspires madness - in others frustrations and resistance - like the farmer who losses his cool and kidnaps the government inspectors.

But the changing world has an inevitability about it, that means an aging peasant population and constant references to the younger people who have left, who won't carry on the old traditions, or even the very farms themselves. Berger's style is beautiful - though I found the poems less interesting than the prose - the last chapter has an air of magical realism, which jarred with the preceeding chapters for me - but that's what happens when you expect a nice, linear tale.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Philip Ziegler - The Black Death

The Black Death decimated the population of the medieval world. The epidemic that hit Europe in the 1340s can be argued to have fundamentally changed the world. While on the surface, the social relations that government the peasant dominated societies were similar before and after, beneath the surface, changes that had started before the plague hit, were being accelerated.

Ziegler's book is an excellent narrative history. In trying to understand how the Black Death changed and shaped the world, he begins by looking at its impact as it proceeded through Europe. The plague had raged with "unparalleled fury" in the East. Rumours reached the major European seaports of a depopulated India, but "it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that the plague might one day strike at Europe". But the Europe wasn't isolated anymore. Trading ships travelled the oceans of the globe and with their cargos, they carried the pests that brought the plague. With grim inevitability, the disease arrived.

The first place to be hit was the great centre of European overseas trade - the port of Genoa in Italy. The disease then spread rapidly westwards, the impact was similar in most European nations. This shouldn't be surprising, there was very little difference between the nations of Europe in those period. while the scale of the suffering sometimes varied, the ineffectual responses were very similar. Religious figures blamed the sins of the people and urged more prayer - though sometimes they were honest enough (at least in private) to admit that this would have little effect. The role of religion is important - not least because it shaped the only real world view that existed in medieval Europe. But also because the church represented the only bureaucracy that could give effective records for the impact of the plague. Statistics for the numbers of deaths in various towns and villages come from church records, but more importantly figures for the numbers of replacement churchmen allow the modern scholar to extrapolate the impact of the disease.

This is important, not least because the medieval chroniclers are renowned for their inaccuracy when it comes to figures. Medieval writings describe deaths of tens of thousands in cities that could not possibly have had these populations. (Similar problems exist in the descriptions of contemporary battles - sizes of armies and casualties routinely don't match reality).

Zieglar settles on a figure that says that approximately a third of Europe's population died. The plague didn't have equal impacts - the rich suffered proportionately less, though no one was spared. Occasionally, in an attempt to find blame, frightened populations massacred those they thought had incurred God's wrath - the Jewish pogroms of the time are well documented and often seemed to have, at least the tacit support of the local establishment.

There were other interesting by-products of the plague, and the inability of the medieval mind to come to terms with what was happening - the Flagellant movement of religious people, who travelled from towns to cities on the continent, whipping themselves in front of crowds being one of these.

The scale of the death was truly shocking - Ziegler points out that "even the front-line infantry man [in the First World War] had a better chance of surviving the war than the medieval peasant the plague." But Ziegler argues that contrary to some schools of thought, the shock to the social system that was the Black Death wasn't enough to usher in the changes that lead to the Peasants Revolt in the early 1380s. Instead he argues, that the Black Death encouraged the social processes - such as the increased numbers of peasants selling their labour - to occur. The shortage of labour after the plague had passed allowed, at least initially, wages to rise.

But the Black Death did shake the medieval world. It helped change the way many viewed the world. As Ziegler says, "The Black Death did not cause the Reformation, it did not stimulate doubts about the doctrine of the Transubstantiation; but did it not cause a state of mind in which doctrines were more easily doubted and in which the Reformation was much more immediately possible?"

Because the Black Death had not spared anyone, because the church had been proved ineffectual, some of the most important pillars of society were undermined. As Ziegler concludes, the world was never quite the same again.

Related Reviews

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Giles Ji Ungpakorn - Thailand's Crisis and the Fight for Democracy

The violent street demonstrations that took place in Thailand earlier this year didn't get the coverage in the Western media that they deserved. Partly this is a typical lack of interest from the mainstream for the struggles of ordinary people. It is also, perhaps, because broadcasters considered the internal politics of this country were maybe considered too complex for audiences here to comprehend.

But the truth of the matter is that once again state repression in Thailand led the the massacre of ordinary people who were trying to fight for democracy. Giles Ji Ungpakorn himself is a victim of this - living in exile in the UK because he was deemed to have insulted the King of Thailand - the crime of Lèse majesté.

In this context, Ungpakorn's book is tremendously useful. He gives us a excellent understanding to the ongoing crisis in Thailand and argues for a way forward for the movements struggling for change. Ungpakorn doesn't hide his politics. He is a revolutionary socialist, and a Red Shirt. This is important, because some on the left have argued that the street battles within Thailand have been simply about movements mobilised by representatives of two different sides of the capitalist class. The Red Shirts, in this simplistic analysis, represent followers of the former billionaire Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a coup by the military. The Yellow Shirts, represent the supporters of the new regime.

Ungpakorn argues this analysis is simplistic. Thaksin was able to mobilise large numbers of the urban and rural poor, because his method of government was to invest in projects that directly improved the lives of the poorest. Not that Thaksin is a socialist. The strength of Ungpakorn's analysis is to argue that Thaksin is no friend of the poor - he is a rich man, intent on making himself wealthier. But his economic plan was too much for much of the rest of the rich and powerful in Thailand who hate the idea of any wealth being redirected to the lower orders.

For the author then, the Red Shirts aren't a movement that is simply about restoring a different capitalist back to power, even though many of them may have started this way. This is a movement that is increasingly consciously fighting for democracy, because it is against the military. It is a movement that is self organised - with networks of radio stations and websites and a movement that has faced the most brutal of repression. The Yellow Shirts are for Ungpakorn a fascist movement, intent on breaking the struggle for democracy. Operating almost as a wing of the military, their gangs are about intimidating and smashing opposition on the streets.

Ungpakorn doesn't avoid criticising the Red Shirts either. Despite a significant working class in Thailand, they have failed to really mobilise amongst workers and the weak Thai trade movement. The Red Shirts haven't for instance, opened up their struggle against wider oppressions in Thai society - occasionally using anti-gay slogans in some cities. But this isn't unsurprising in a country were the left is almost non-existent, and what left organisations there are, have been influenced by politics of Maoism, which distorted the ideas of Marxism in favour of armed struggle from the jungle.

One of the most surprising things for me, was the way that the NGOs of Thailand have sided with the new military junta. Ungpakorn describes them as GNGOs. Governmental Non-Governmental Organisations, the pun is the point - they receive large amounts of funding from the regime and thus remain uncritical. They also have failed the test of any progressive - how do you relate to mass movements of self organised people struggling for democracy.

Ungpakorn argues that the struggle must continue. He finishes his book with a platform for further struggle - calling for the Red Shirt movement to develop, expand and get rid of the "dinosaurs of Thai society, the Yellow Shirted Royalists". As a revolutionary socialist, Ungpakorn sees the struggle for democracy as part of the struggle for socialism. There is a short term goal and a longer term struggle as well. But socialists cannot abstain from the struggles in the here and now, we must be part of those movements to strengthen the larger battle.

It seems to me, that there are echoes in Thai society today with the arguments and debates that took place amongst revolutionary socialists in Russia in the early 20th Century - the concepts of Permanent Revolution developed by Trotsky and then adopted by Lenin for instance. There is no doubt though, that the contradiction of Thai society - a extremely wealthy King, backed by the greediest of businessmen and military leaders, surrounded by a mass of the poorest peasants, workers and unemployed - is one that has always proved unstable. The future battles will deserve the solidarity of workers around the globe, Ungpakorn's book is essential reading to understand what is happening, and a true weapon for those taking part in the struggle.

Related Reading

Giles Ji Ungpakorn's 'blog with writings on the situation in Thailand is here (English) and here (Thai).

Ungpakorn wrote a number of articles during the most recent crisis in Thailand for the international left press, this article is a useful starting point. His "Red Siam" manifesto can be read here.

You can purchase Ungpakorn's book here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Roland Chambers - The Last Englishman, The double life of Arthur Ransome

Those who know Arthur Ransome as the writer of the excellent childrens novels in the Swallows and Amazon's series are often amazed to learn that he had a rather more exciting life than you might imagine from someone whose most famous works concentrate on sailing, fishing and camping.

In reality, Ransome's life was dominated by much bigger events, which is why only a few chapters towards the end of this excellent book deal with the later stages of his life when he became famous as the author of children's novels. The vast bulk of the book deals with his times in Russia - particularly the period of the Russian revolution.

Ransome travelled to Russia looking for, it might be said, himself. Escaping from a marriage and a fatherhood that he clearly loathed, he arrived into a country seething with political discontent. He was there, to locate and translate Russian fairy tales. He found himself caught up in the greatest working class revolution that has ever taken place. Ransome was clearly bowled over by events. He was inspired and fascinated by the involvement of ordinary people in the organs of democracy - the Soviets.

One of the strengths of this book, is that the author quotes at length Ransome's reportage from Russia. It gives both a sense of the period and the man himself.

"It is impossible for people who have not lived here to known with what joy we write of the new Russian Government. Only those who know how things were but a week ago can understand the enthusiasm of us who have seen the miracle take place before our eyes." he wrote on the front page of the Daily News in the aftermath of the February revolution which overthrew the Tsar.

Ransome was an unlikely supporter of revolution. As Chambers puts it, "in terms of his family background and education, he belong to the class which dominated and was protected by the Provisional Government [i.e. that which was in opposition to Soviet power throughout 1917]"

Ransome certainly wasn't a revolutionary, though he was a socialist when he went to Russia. His politics seemed to be those of the Fabian movement in the British Labour Party which certainly was no friend of Bolshevism. But he found himself utterly convinced by the realities of revolutionary power - a power that I think explains his enthusiasm far more than Chambers' argument that Ransome's failure at Rugby. Rather than having some sort of chip on his shoulder, I think that Ransome's excitement had more to do with the fact he was prepared to make an honest assessment of the revolution's highs.

Later this changed - in his excitement and desire to bring the truth about Russia to a wider audience, Ransome tended to gloss over some aspects of it. I don't think this is because Ransome was blind to reality - more that he understood that the revolution had to be defended and fought for. This enthusiasm and lack of criticism meant that he was viewed with distrust and suspicion in the higher echelons of the British establishment.

Media discussion of Ransome in Russia often centres on whether he was a British Spy or not. The problem is, that I don't think it is as black and white as this. Ransome clearly did intelligence work for the British government - he also propagandised and helped the Bolsheviks. Lenin clearly saw him as someone valuable enough to trust with writing accounts for the western media. But for all his enthusiasm for revolution, I don't think that Ransome really broke with capitalism - perhaps he saw the new democracy but could conveniently believe that things were different back home.

Becoming personal friends with leading Bolsheviks, marrying Trotsky's secretary and propagandising for the revolution was one thing. But his final return to Britain meant an abrupt end to his experiments with socialism. On one occasion he was shadowed by the police and interviewed. Chambers reports Ransome's answer to the question "what are your politics?" as "fishing". Ransome never finished his history of the Russian revolution, though his two books on Russia remain important works for those interested in studying the reality of the events of 1917 and afterwards. The police noted with relief that he didn't (despite lots of invitations) speak at socialist or radical meetings about his experiences - something that Ransome's friend and colleague, Morgan Phillips Price certainly was happy too.

Oddly enough, I finished this book not liking Ransome as a person. His revolutionary excitement for the idea of workers taking power, never seems matched with his own relationships. His abandonment of revolutionary politics may be due in part for his concerns for his new wife's family under Stalin, but Chambers portrays him as a man who was only really after personal stability - the right wife, the perfect boat, the best home and a career that would see him lauded for something, anything. His relationship with his daughter is arrogant and uncaring, his lack of emotional engagement with the death on the Western Front of his brother is odd from a man who seemed to put such emphasis on sibling relationships in his novels.

Ransome's fame eventually brought him wealth and some sort of happiness. But this later stage of his life is the least interesting part of this great biography. The importance of which is that it puts Ransome's strange and contradictory life squarely into the context of a changing world, shaped by the great struggles of the early 20th century - war and revolution.

Related Reviews

Hardyment - Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk
Ransome - We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea
Ransome - Peter Duck
Cliff - All Power To The Soviets

Monday, October 04, 2010

CLR James - Beyond A Boundary

Rare is the detailed book on sport written by an avowed Marxist. Still less are books about, cricket, perhaps seen as the most establishment of sports - at least here in the UK. But the central tenet of CLR James book is summed up with the famous line, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know" - you can't understand the sport, without understanding its context.

In this sense, the book is a very interesting piece of work. The descriptions of James' childhood, with cricket a central part of his life are fascinating in and of themselves. But the way in which he shows the sport as being part and parcel of shaping a cultural identity is also fascinating. As is the descriptions of race and class that flow from this. The battle that CLR James was part of, to make a black man the captain of the West Indies cricket team sums up the way that colonial people's had to struggle every inch of the way for their own right to nationhood.

But if I am honest, I was disappointed with James' take on sport. For someone who sees the importance of sport's cultural, political and historical context, I think he becomes inflexible with his own ideas. He dismisses out of hand the way that "Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports". He misses of course that it can do that, and it can be an instrument of their anger and radicalism. Trotsky was writing in particular of the effect of football on the working class in Britain - the use of sport here was a concious attempt by the ruling class to divert people's attention from their own suffering. But move several thousands of miles away and the situation is reversed. Part of the problem is no doubt James' own experiences, and perhaps his own political break with Trotsky.

But the problem gets worse I think when James begins to draw links between sports and culture. He writes that the "spontaneous outburst of thousands at a fierce hook or a dazzling slip-catch, the ripple of reognition at a long-awaited leg-glance, are as genuine and deeply felt expressions of artistic emotion as any I know".

Now of course, people enjoy watching good sportsman ship (though they are as likely to cheer a lucky shot or a badly played one, if their team gets some more runs), but I think that James is projecting his own deep love for the game of cricket onto others here. Particularly when he goes on to describe the lines made by cricketers limbs almost as an art form.

But James is better than this. Here he sums up the difference between what the sport means for different peoples (and I think, in part contradicts his earlier sentiments).

"West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hope if the islands. English people... have a conception of themselves breathed from birth. Drake and mighty Nelson, Shakespeare, Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the few who did so much for so many, the success of parliamentary democracy those and such of those constitue a national tradition. Underdeveloped countries have to go back centuries to rebuild one. We of th West Indies have none at all, none that we know of. To such people the three W's, Ram and Val wrecking English batting, help to fill a huge gap in their consciousness and in their needs."

Leaving aside the decidedidly dodgy idea that parliamentary democracy is a success for everyone, it is a useful summing up the role of the sport in the development of West Indian cultural identity. James' understanding of class and how racism was used to divide and rule makes his take on sport particularly interesting, but his attempts to put cricket at the heart or on a par with everything else, culturally, historically and politically felt simplistic and unsatisfying to me.

Related Reviews

James - The Black Jacobins

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joshua Slocum - Sailing Alone Around the World

In his introduction to this famous traveller's tale, Arthur Ransome says that "A school library without this book is incomplete. It should be part of the education of every English or American boy". Times, of course, change, and Joshua Slocum's feat is almost forgotten.

There is no doubt though, that he inspired and excited the world when he became the first to sail single handed around the world. The story itself is a somewhat stilted yarn - it's full of descriptions of ropes, sails and wind directions. No doubt, the school boys that Ransome refers to, might have understood it all, but it can be a bit confusing for the land based reader today.

The voyage itself is not only an incredible feat - it also marks the passing of a world that no longer exists. The customs and legalities of foreign ports open for trade. It is a time when sail is being eclipsed by steam, and when foreign ports were as unique as alien planets. Slocum visits some amazing places - the place where Alexander Selkirk (inspiration for Robinson Crusoe) was marooned being one. Slocum claims that Selkirk lived in a particular cave, though recent research doesn't back that up. He also meets the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson who appears to live on an island in the middle of nowhere, and takes her on a sailing trip.

By it's very nature, Slocum's story is a long trip, punctuated by brief visits to ports and islands. At many of the places, he is feted by the local establishment, who arrange speaking events and take him on tours. Through this, he funds the further voyage. There are no big name sponsors here. No newspapers or advertising to keep his trip going. Slocum survives from resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers.

There are some odd moments - pirates and robbers occasionally, beaten off by a couple of quick shots, or some tacks scattered on the ship's deck at night. Armchair sailors the world over will enjoy this tale, perhaps mostly from historical interest. Though it may well inspire, it's doubtful that it should be put at the heart of youngster's education today.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tony Cliff - All Power to the Soviets, Lenin 1914 - 1917

The second volume of Tony Cliff's biography of Lenin contains perhaps the most important political and historical period for socialist activists. The first volume of the three part series dealt with the early years of the Bolshevik party and Lenin's role in building it up to the point when the First World War broke out. This part has, in my experience been widely read, discussed and debated through by the revolutionaries who stand in the tradition that Tony Cliff founded.

But both the remaining volumes also have much to offer activists and students of the Russian Revolution. The period under question begins with the activity of the Bolsheviks with the outbreak of the First World War. It ends with, as Cliff points out, Lenin speaking to the Congress of Soviets the day after the uprising had taken power and declaring "We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order."

The period is interesting, not least for the amazing events that took place. By the time 1917 had arrived, Russian military hopes were being dashed by a combination of military ineptitude, rebellion and mutiny. Conditions at the front were appalling, hunger, lack of equipment and a brutal military regime combined to make a situation ripe for rebellion. Conditions in the cities, villages and towns were hardly better. Something that revolutionaries were quick to build upon.

The twists and turns of the final year before the uprising takes up most of the detail of this volume. Contrary to the perceived idea of a simple Bolshevik coup, Cliff paints a picture of a working class and peasantry increasingly moving of it's own interest towards revolution. The Bolsheviks fight to put themselves at the heart of the movement, though in the initial stages, when the February revolution overthrew the Tsar, the Bolsheviks were taken by surprise.

Through patient argument, principled slogans and activity and often sheer bravery, the Bolsheviks gradually become the acknowledged leaders of the revolutionary movement. At various points during 1917, the Bolsheviks go on the defensive. During the "July Days", the working class of Petrograd, the largest and most important industrial city, move instinctively towards revolution. Lenin argues hard, against most of his party and its leadership that the time is not right. The Bolsheviks see a collapse in support and are repressed even further, though their subsequent practice in the face of a far-right attempted coup, makes their principles clear to the great mass of the workers.

On this and in other moments, Cliff makes an important point. Far from being the monolithic organisation that the Bolsheviks are often described as, there was much internal disagreement and debate. Lenin was often in a minority and took time to win his comrades around. At other points, Lenin was wrong, despite the Stalinist myth of his infallibility. Even more importantly, Lenin never simply used his own standing within the organisation to win a political position. He frequently refers back to the rank and file, or the experiences of other workers to deal with a changing situation and win the leadership of the organisation to a new direction or new slogans.

I was also interested, as I suspect many revolutionary socialists will be, at how the internal organisation of the Bolsheviks worked. Being an underground, illegal group for most of their existence, there are some differences for those organising in the UK today, for instance. But there are similarities. Not least the way that revolutionaries must constantly change tack to relate to changing political circumstances.

But also of interest is the lack of organisation. Groups of Bolsheviks outside the main cities, frequently complain of lack of material and direction from the centre. The Central Committee seems at times to be at odds with each other, certainly, Cliff points out, that they occasionally took decisions that they seemed to forget. Perhaps as a result of the illegality, the CC often didn't have full meetings - the meeting that decided to go for the insurrection had only slightly over half of its members present.

This is a fascinating work for students of revolutionary history. At times, it lauds it's central character a little too much. But this is because its real subject is the creation of a revolutionary organisation capable of leading the working class to power. There is little her about Lenin himself - what he liked to eat or what music he preferred. If you want that information, I'd recommend Krupskaya's book. For Cliff, Lenin is utterly inseparable from the revolutionary struggle. His experiences are the experiences of the movement, and there is much here to learn from.

Related Reading

Krupskaya - Memories of Lenin
Cliff - Revolution Besieged, Lenin 1917 - 1923
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin

Friday, September 17, 2010

Peter Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy

It's a statement of the obvious, but revolutions change things. Most obviously a successful revolution changes the political and economic setup. But even unsuccessful revolutions throw life into turmoil. All that seems certain becomes uncertain; "All that is solid, melts into air" as Marx put it.

But revolutions also change people. They change the people who take part, turning them into leaders, writers and agitators - giving them the confidence to take up arms, or break open a police station. And finally they change the onlookers.

At the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Peter Fryer was an onlooker. He had, for some 14 years been a member of the British Communist Party. For years he'd been a proud journalist working "at less than a labourer's wage" on the CPGB's newspaper, The Daily Worker. Sent to Hungary to report on the events of the revolution, what he saw turned his world upside down.

Fryer almost certainly didn't have a rose tinted view of East European socialism. But he in no way expected the response that the Soviet regime inflicted upon the Hungarian people. More importantly, Fryer was inspired by the experience of a people in the midst of revolution. As he put it, "Here was a revolution, to be studied not in the pages of Marx, Engels and Lenin, valuable though these pages may be, but happening here in real life before the eyes of the world. A flesh and blood revolution with all its shortcoming and contradictions and problems - the problems of life itself."

In his travels, Fryer documents the revolutionary processes that mark working class uprisings time and again. The election of organising groups to run workplaces, cities and farms. The collective discussions and debates that take time, but are the true trappings of real democracy. The suppression of the enemies of people - sometimes, in the case of Hungary, the hanging of the secret police. We hear of the release of the thousands of people imprisoned by the former regime and the freeing up of ordinary men and women, held dormant for years. There is a lovely section where Fryer describes the explosion of independent newspapers - with one editor playing host to queues of young people coming in with their stories, poems, articles and writings.

Of course this was short lived. The Soviet invasion was a brutal suppression of these hopes. But the workers councils and committees didn't vanish. The people fought on, despite the overwhelming odds. Having tasted freedom, it takes much to give it up.

Fryer's dispatches were censored and then ignored by the Daily Worker. Such vivid descriptions of workers and peasants rising up and taking control, was far too much for an organisation and newspaper dedicated to believe that Russia and its client states ruled already in the name of the workers. His estrangement from the CPGB didn't mean he abandoned revolutionary socialism. His own experience in Hungary could only bring a greater desire to see a revolutionary transformation of society, but he learnt that that needed to take place in the East, as much as the West.

Further Reading

Chris Harman's "Class Struggles in Eastern Europe" goes much deeper into the background to the various risings against Soviet rule.

Mike Haynes' ISJ article "Hungary; workers' councils against Russian tanks" marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution. It's worth reading here.

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