Monday, December 30, 2013

Ian Knight - Zulu Rising

I suspect that most people's knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu wars consists of watching the film Zulu. In that movie, a heroic band of white-British soldiers hold off the Zulu hordes at Rorke's Drift and prove, through their valiant winning of multiple Victoria Crosses, that they were made of British pluck.

Ian Knight's book fills a enormous gap in the literature of military writings on the Victorian era. Unlike many celebration's of British colonialism, he retells the appalling story of the Anglo-Zulu war through the eyes of both sides in the conflict. There are many military histories of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Few of them are sympathetic with the Zulus. Fewer still locate the root of the enormous defeat the British had at Isandlwana in the personal ambitions of British colonial leaders, isolated from London, who thought they could win a quick victory over a backward people.

Knight begins with a history of the Zulu people. Their origins lie in the Nguni people of eastern Africa and Knight tells us fascinating details of the development of their culture. In this difficult terrain, the Zulu's developed an economy centred on cattle, with a complex network of different tribes that paid homage to a central king.

By the 18th century, these tribes were beginning to encounter white Europeans, often shipwrecked on the dangerous coasts. As the 18th century became the 19th, European interest in East Africa increased, particularly with the discovery of resources such as diamonds.

The Anglo-Zulu war has its origin in colonial incursions into Zulu land. Knight makes it clear that local authorities, desperate to create the basis for a quick war against the Zulu, convinced those back in London to build up their military forces. But not enough. Acting with little more than their own authority, men like Anthony Durnford and Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zulu nation and incurred the wrath of Cetshwayo the Zulu King.

Knight is no romantic. He is completely aware that in the long run, the Zulus stood little chance against the might of the British industrial economy. But this first military campaign suffered from many colonial prejudices. Not for the first time did British red-coats pay with their lives, because General's assumed that the natives would run away in the face of British guns and bayonets.

The actions of the British commander Lord Chelmsford read like a text-book example of how not to invade hostile territory. He split his forces, and badly under-estimated the scale of his opponent. With columns scattered country-wide, few experienced soldiers, long-supply chains over inhospitable terrain, and racist attitudes to the enemy a military defeat of some sort was inevitable. But the scale of the disaster had more to do with the enormous size of Cethswayo's kingdom and the number of Zulu troops prepared to muster to defend their land and people. So skilled were these troops, and so over-confident the British that the Zulus were able to bring 28,000 troops within 8 kilometres of the poorly defended British camp at Isandlwana.

Knight's book is partly social history, hence his emphasis on the history of the Zulu nation and the background of the British troops and officers. Yet it is also military history. Unusually his detailed explanations of, for instance, how a soldier actually fired a Martini-Henri rifle only serve to detail the true horror of the British defeat. Knowing exactly how hot the gun's barrel got after a few shots, and how this could cause the weapon to jam, means that the reader understands how quickly the British got themselves into trouble in the face of such over-whelming odds. Knight has dug out large numbers of eyewitness accounts, from British and Zulu veterans and the stories of the last moments of the massacre, with red-coats fighting with pocket-knives against heavily armed Zulu warriors, are very hard to read.

But Isandlwana was a unique set of circumstances. The entirely different outcome at Rorke's Drift demonstrated that British tactics, in a heavily defended area, with disciplined troops, could defeat enormous odds. The Zulu people just didn't have the weapons to defeat British guns. That said though one does have to wonder at the intelligence of any commander who took rockets out into the plains of Natal to try and defeat a mobile force.

Knight captures the prejudices and mistakes made by the colonial authorities, lays to rest many of the forgotten aspects of the conflicts (the central role played by native forces in the British armies) and demonstrates how British policies (particularly after the defeat) helped lay the basis for many of the problems that came after. This is no sanitised account of military action, but a bloodily realistic description of the front line of Empire.

Sadly the book is slightly over-written, I felt a decent editor could have cut 50 to 100 of the 700 pages. That sad though, the work is immensely readable and recommended.

Related Reviews

Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried; A People's History of the British Empire
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A S Jasper - A Hoxton Childhood

A S Jasper's memories of life in Hoxton in East London, in the first two decades of the twentieth century portray a life of poverty and suffering. Jasper's working class family suffered doubly; from the limits of East London's economy and a father who's semi-legal income mostly made its way behind the bars of the myriad of local pubs.

So this is a autobiography of a childhood blighted by poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and violence. The violence of individuals who took out their suffering on those around them, together with the violence of a system that turned people on the street for falling behind on their rent, or because their labour was no longer needed.

Unfortunately while Jasper's tale is illuminating in the reality of life for the majority of those living in East London, unlike other similar accounts, we learn little about social life. There certainly is no sense of the collective acts of resistance that marked out East London life, or the workers' organisations such as their left parties and trade unions. Perhaps this is because Jasper is remembering the earliest years of his life, but East London did have its share of struggles in the years described.

The arrival of World War One brings with it death and destruction. The fear of German Zeppelin raids and friends and family who joined up. Some, like Jasper's brother-in-law couldn't stand the army and got out as soon as they could desert. Others never returned. Leaving young families to fend for themselves.

Those interested in the lives of ordinary people will find this book interesting, but lacking in substance. Certainly nobody could believe that Eastenders between 1900 and 1920 lived a happy, but poor existence. In a postscript written in the 1960s, Jasper hopes that his readers will be thankful that these times of poverty are past. Sadly, as the economic crisis continues, and British governments pursue their austerity programmes, the safety net helping those in poverty, low pay and unemployment is getting thin. We can hope we avoid such times again, but its not automatic. Let's hope for some resistance before following generations have to live like Jasper's friends and family.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hilary Mantel - Bring up the Bodies

The second volume of Hilary Mantel's novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell carries on the dramatic story of the reign of Henry VIII. The first novel describes Cromwell's rise, from humble origins to the heights of power in the English court. Henry VIII is of course known for his wives, and Cromwell's role in securing the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn is a masterpiece of intrigue and political manoeuvring. At the heart of this volume is the dramatic change that occurs as Henry loses interest in Anne as a result of her failure to produce a male heir, and his growing interest in her successor, Jane Seymour.

Thomas Cromwell's role, balancing the forces ranged behind each of the women in this epic tale, is in reality the balance of some of the most powerful families in England. One struggling to hold on to power and remaining linked to the King, but terrified of being dragged down by the fallen angel; the others scheming to use the new found interest of the King to increase their power and wealth. As with the first volume, Mantel skilfully demonstrates the way that women in the Tudor aristocracy were merely pawns in a game of power. Few male aristocrats love their wives, preferring to sleep with prostitutes or other men's wives and hoping their own will produce a heir as quickly as possible. Cromwell himself is at the height of his powers, but the cracks are beginning to show.

Mantel's prose is sharp and to the point. Bring up the Bodies is a novel of dialogue and impressions, but ever so often the raw emotion of events breaks through. In her postscript, Mantel points out, that much of the story of Anne Boleyn's trial and her execution remains obscure. The impotence of Henry's victims in the face of the power of his court is tragic, so is their violent end. Mantel is not trying to write history through fiction. She's telling a story that links to the past, powered by real events, but driven by our ability to emphasis with characters from the past. Oddly, given the subject matter, this story of the Tudor Court, grabs the reader and doesn't let go.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ronald Syme - The Roman Revolution

First published in 1939 this classic study of the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome still contains a wealth of scholarship for contemporary readers. The central thesis for Syme's is that a political revolution occurred which transformed the Roman city state into a Imperial nation, capable of fully developing its Empire and utilising the resources of the subjugated nations.

Like a more recent biographer of the first emperor, Syme's considers Augustus a revolutionary, helping to drive through the changes needed in Rome's political structures (notably the Senate) to allow the new Rome to prosper. As Syme's explains, the old order was unsuited to running the new Empire;

"The constitution served the purposes of generals or of demagogues well enough. When Pompeius returned from the East, he lacked the desire as well as the pretext to march on Rome; and Caesar did not conquer Gaul in the design of invading Italy with a great army to establish a military autocracy. Their ambitions and their rivalries might have been tolerated in a small city-state or in a Rome that was merely the head of an Italian confederation. In the capital of the world they were anachronistic and ruinous. To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 BC the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political."

Caesar's victory began as "the triumph of a faction in civil war" but he was no social revolutionary. Despite wanting to curb some of the interests of the aristocracy, he was unable or unwilling to drive through the changes that many wanted to see. Augustus then, can in part be seen as a Bonapartist figure who, in the chaos following Caesar's death, was able to defeat all comers and then drive through the political changes needed to cement the regime in place. These changes began with a war on the old aristocracy, a "regular vendetta against the rich, whether dim, inactive senators or pacific knights". Thus the "foundations of the new order were cemented with the blood of citizens and buttressed with a despotism that made men recall the Dictatorship of Caesar as an age of gold." This may have been a revolution, but it was not one that radically transformed the social structure of Rome, nor that emancipated anyone from the lower echelons of Roman society. In fact, Augustus like those who preceded and followed him, claimed to be restoring things to an earlier Utopia. Those who fell at the battle of Philippi; the confrontation that ended the hopes of Caesar's assassins and ensured that Augustus and Antonious would be the sole figures vying for power, was "fought for a principle, a tradition and a class - narrow, imperfect and out-worn, but for all that, the soul and spirit of Rome."

Syme's analysis has much going for it. His book though suffers in part from the sheer scale of his material. With hundreds of references, quotes from original Latin sources, and enormous detail of the interlocking political alliances, this is almost impossible for the lay-person to follow. Syme's is more interested in the 100s of different senators and the long family trees of those in Augustus' circles, than with the lives of the majority of the population. Those more familiar with Roman history of the period might be surprised at how little mention there is of significant events (such as the death of Cleopatra).

Bigger problems are caused by Syme's refusal to translate any Latin quotes, which are sprinkled liberally through the text. One can only hope that modern readers have new editions which editors have not assumed that those interested have had a classical education.

Finally, Syme's is very much of his time. References to "Marches on Rome" and the importance of Rome having a strong leader to restore social stability smack very much of the late 1930s. That said, this doesn't read as an apology for dictatorship or contemporary fascism, but a scholarly attempt to grapple with enormous social change. A clearer understanding of the period can come from reading it, but those interested would be well advised to develop their knowledge of Roman history somewhat before attempting it.

Related Reading

Holland - Rubicon
Everitt - The First Emperor
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christian Høgsbjerg - Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade & Castaway

Subtitled Seamen's Organiser, Socialist and Militant Pan-Africanist this short new biography of Chris Braithwaite (known as Chris Jones) rescues a forgotten hero of the working class movement from relative obscurity. It is also a useful introduction to the politics of a period that saw the international Communist movement move from being a tribune of the oppressed peoples of the world, to an apologist for Stalin's Russia.

Braithwaite was born in Barbados. A seaman, he was widely travelled and after a time in New York he ended up, as so many inhabitants of British colonies did, in East London. There he rapidly became involved in the emerging movements that sought to organise seamen and the docks. In particular, Braithwaite tried to organise black seamen, who not only suffered the racism of the employers, but also that of their colleagues and on occasion, the Natonal Union of Seamen. His writings continually try to both organise workers, and build unity. In the appendices to this book, Høgsbjerg has collected a few of Jones' writings aimed at seamen, which give a flavour of this work. Here is Braithwaite/Jones writing in 1938:

"In the last issue of International African Opinion I appealed to ever colonial seaman to get into touch with the International African Service Bureau, which is willing to take up their grievances... I again repeat this appeal, and at the same time urge coloured seamen to take a greater interest in their union activities. For only through their organised might will they be able to mobilise the support of the white workers on their behalf."

Braithwaite, like many other radicals, became attracted to the Communist Party because of its principled anti-imperialism. Once the abandoned that position, Braithwaite, like many others, broke with Communism. But unlike many, Braithwaite didn't lose his radical socialism, speaking on platforms of the ILP and continuing to write for various journals. One memorable part of this book is a description of a meeting hosted to highlight the abuses in French Colonial Africa. This was the period of the "Popular Front" and Communist members at the time were being instructed to stop criticism of a government that their French party supported. As Communists heckled and accused the speaker who represented nationalist movements of Algeria, Tunisia and other French colonies, Braithwaite's powerful voice roared above the noise, "I'm with you, Boy" he encouraged the speaker.

The decline of maritime industry in Britain has no doubt helped lead to activists like Chris Braithwaite being forgotten. Alongside other recent works, such as the republishing of Madge Dresser's book on the Bristol Bus Boycott, Hassan Mahamdallie's pamphlet on Black British Rebels and the excellent, Say it Loud!, this book rescues those black activists who were often at the heart of working class struggles in Britain, fighting racism and winning workers to united action.

Related Reviews

Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Dresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Marcus Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Two events occurred while reading this book made me ruminate on the endless fascination that we have for pirates. The first was the coincidence of reading  Treasure Island at the same time. A book that perhaps invented many of the cliches, yet is so much part of popular consciousness that I felt I knew it by heart despite never having read it. Secondly was being asked by a fellow train passenger for this book's ISBN because in his words, he loved sea novels and wanted to know the real history.

Oddly the real history is very different to that portrayed by R. L. Stevenson, or countless other pirate films, books and plays. As Rediker himself points out,

"Traditional explanations of why people turned to piracy have emphasized greed, and there is certainly truth to this. Many who worked the pirate ship wanted money, which as dispossessed proletarians they desperately needed to live. But the struggle for money is more complex than simple greed, as pirates themselves made clear. Money meant simply getting a living... It meant subsistence for poor families... It meant escaping the brutalities of life at sea 'as long as they lived'... They were now 'Gentlemen of ffortune'."

Pirate ships were, in the main, organised very differently to naval or merchant vessels. By and large instead of a near dictatorial, violent hierarchy, pirates organised more democratically. They elected their captains and unelected them if they behaved incorrectly (perhaps by displaying cowardice in the face of the enemy). They redistributed wealth, and frequently displayed kindness and honour towards captives. They were brutal in battle, but this is no surprise, they were treated violently by their previous captains and were unlikely to escape death if captured. Indeed the violence on non-pirate ships is a singularly important factor leading many to rebel, or join pirate crews.

The new social order on-board pirate ships that Rediker describes has its roots in necessity. A new crew in open rebellion requires self organisation. But Rediker suggests that the closeness of the radical events of the English Civil War meant that "when sailors encountered the deadly conditions of life at sea in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they had an alternative social order within living memory."

This acute understanding of the realities of life was never far from the minds of the buccaneers. Pirate captain Charles Bellamy lectured a captured captain thus:

"damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery; but damn ye altogether: Damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numskuls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when their is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage."

Pirates organised themselves in egalitarian and democratic ways. They saw themselves as "honest men" trying to win justice for ordinary sailors. But this could not be left to stand. There were significant numbers of pirates and the various nation states organised to stop the destruction of commerce. This "cleansing of the ocean" meant the destruction of the pirates, but their popular acclaim inspired many tales and legends. Some of those have come down to us today, but the truth is far more inspiring and Marcus Rediker's fine history rescues it from Davy Jones' Locker.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra

Friday, December 13, 2013

Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin - The Dialectical Biologist

At first glance, some might think this is an extremely odd title for a book. After all, dialectics is essentially a philosophical term and biology is, well, science. But the author's purpose in bringing together these essays is more to argue that a dialectical approach to science, both in terms of scientific research and practice, as well as understanding the position of science in society, benefits immensely from a dialectical method. Indeed, science, they argue, is better when practiced dialectically.

So what does that mean? Firstly the authors begin from a radical position. "We believe that science, in all its sense, is a social process that both causes and is caused by social organisation." This is very different to the majority of other scientists, who often, as the authors argue, separate out specific points of science from wider contexts, social and indeed scientific. Some of the problems with this approach are outlined in this quote from the authors, pointing out the dangers in looking at only on aspect of an organisms biology:

"The mammalian ear is obviously an organ of hearing, but it has other properties as well. For acoustic reasons it is a thin organ with a large surface area, the blood vessels cannot be deep, so heat is very readily lost. In fact, desert mammals often have extraordinarily large ears that serve as organs of temperature regulation. In this case a physical by-product of the evolution of an organ had properties that themselves became the objects of [evolutionary] selection under the special conditions of the desert."

By only looking at one aspect of a scientific question, one can miss wider questions. A similar problem can occur when trying to understand organisms outside of wider environments. While this approach can be useful, isolating particular aspects of behaviour or biology to illuminate others,

"it eventually becomes an obstacle to further understanding; the division of the world into mutually exclusive categories may be logically satisfying, but in scientific activity no nontrivial classifications seem to be really mutually exclusive. Eventually their interpenetration becomes a primary concern of further research."

So, in terms of understanding organisms in the wider world;

"'Environment' cannot be understood merely as surroundings, not matter how dynamically. It is also way of life; the activity of the organism sets the stage for its own evolution."

The benefit of this book is the authors root such statements in clear examples, so,

"To understand the evolution of the sea lion from a primitive carnivore ancestor, we must support that at first the water was only a marginal habitat... A slight evolution of the animal to meet these demands made the aquatic environment a more significant part of the energetic expenditure of the proto-sea lion, so a shift in selective forces operated instantaneously on the shape of its limbs. Each change in the animal made the environment more aquatic, and each induced change in the environment led to further evolution of the animal."

The dialectical interaction between different aspects of the natural world here is merely one aspect of the book. Other sections look at the way that science within capitalist society is shaped by and shapes wider economic questions which in turn shape scientific and research needs. There is a particularly useful chapter here on agriculture.

Though is book is dated in parts, due to the data for some chapters stemming from the 1970s or 80s. The general political arguments hold sway and it should remain required reading for those interested in science and society. Interestingly the authors display an excellent sense of humour and the inclusion of work by Isidore Nabi, a fake scientist created to expose problems of mechanical scientific approaches are a welcome break from the more difficult chapters.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - The Point Is To Change It
Carson - Silent Spring

Monday, December 09, 2013

Jim Crace - Harvest

The enclosures that took place in England were part of a process of the development of productive forces in the countryside. In medieval times, they were often about local lords consolidating wealth. From the English Civil War onward, the destruction of common land and its associated rights, and the enclosure of farmland was explicitly about constructing capitalistic economic relationships in the countryside.

But writing something like the above paragraph hides so much. It ignores the violence used against those who formerly worked the land. It does not include the displacement of families, or the way that former labourers were pushed into new jobs in dirty, dangerous factories. It misses out the pain and anguish of turning land from grain to sheep.

Jim Crace's brilliant novel Harvest does. Telescoping the changes that take place in a small, remote English farm into a short week, Crace captures the transformation that enclosure imposed upon the poorest in England.

One morning, at the end of harvest, the village awakes to fire. The signal fire set by new arrivals in the area, and a fire in the Master's dove cote. The impact of both these events forms a backdrop to the wider changes, initially represented by Mr. Quill who is engaged in drawing maps of the village. The villagers cannot comprehend the way the land is transformed into coloured boxes on a piece of paper.

Few can understand the radical transformation that is about to take place. The kindly local Master wants none of it. But it turns out that he is not the real owner. By dint of the laws of inheritance his brother in law arrives, desperate to transform the village's economic outlook. Turning the families into shepherds, and the others? Well he'll build a church to preach charity. The outlook of this proto-capitalist is epitomized by his disbelief that the Master won't turn a beloved horse that has died into grease. Any opportunity for profit seems to be his mantra.

Jim Crace's village is timeless. But it is no pre-capitalist Utopia. The villagers struggle hard in the fields, finding relief in alcohol and sex. They dream of stopping work, but love and know their lands better than anyone else. They fear illness and injury and are sharply aware that even a small cut can prevent them contributing to the collective labour. While suffering is well known here, violence isn't, which makes the shock of the new even harder to deal with.

Brilliantly written, in clear, sharp prose, this is a wonderful novel of life in a changing countryside. It feels like a small glimpse into what happened in a thousand different villages, in a hundred different areas of the British Isles. The appalling reality of "primitive accumulation" brought to life.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Anthony Everitt - The First Emperor: Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome

The fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome remains the central story that underpins all attempts to understand later-day Roman history.

Anthony Everitt's biography has at its heart the individual who personifies the historical transformation. Octavian, the man who became Caesar Augustus, was adopted posthumously by his great uncle, Julius Caesar. His adopted name gave him enormous gravitas in the years immediately following Caesar's murder, as did the enormous wealth that came with it. But Octavian was not an outsider to wealth and privileged. This was no upstart from the fields, or slave made good, Octavian was a Roman, and he fought to ensure the continuation of Rome.

The story of Octavian and his transformation into Augustus brings into play many of the great figures of Roman history. There is of course Julius Caesar, and Augustus' great rival, Mark Anthony. There is also Cleopatra, and to a lesser extent other wives and mistresses. Everitt also introduces many of the poets who were part of Augustus' circle. Though occasionally I felt lack of material meant that Everitt strays a little from his topic, delighting, on occasion, in salubrious detail. (Did we really need that Horace poem on his wet dream)?

That aside this is a useful and readable account of the period. A nice summary of Anthony and Cleopatra; the stories of Augustus' limitations as a military commander and the genius of those (Agrippa in particular) who laid the basis for Rome's Empire.

Whether named Octavian or Augustus, the subject of this biography is far from the fair minded ruler that some later Emperors claimed to wish to emulate. He was ruthless and violent. Whether or not he had Cleopatra murdered as some suggest, he certainly made sure her heirs were killed. Octavian was given "a personality makeover" even while alive. Stories were spread to convince the rest of the world that "the young revolutionary whose career had been founded on illegality and violence a respectable, conservative pedigree."

At the core of this book is this notion of revolution. To what extent did Augustus revolutionise Rome? There is no doubt that both Augustus and the other two members of his Triumvir engaged in a vicious, brutal fight to ensure they gained power. The destruction of much of the old Roman ruling class and the absorption of their wealth and land into the new Roman state seems, on the surface, revolutionary. Yet there seems more continuity in other respects. Roman remained a society based on slavery, and its political institutions, at least at a senate and regional level seemed very similar. And there was little between Augustus and his main rival Anthony, as Everitt comments, the "choice was simply between two kinds of autocracy: tidy and efficient, or laid-back and rowdy."

The Marxist historian of Rome, Neil Faulkner, has a different analysis. Rather than the revolutionary Augustus, he sees a stabilising force:

"Caesar’s brief rule in 45 to 44 BC was also ‘absolutist’-it was, in effect, that of a military dictator governing against the opposition of much of the ruling class but with strong popular backing. Caesarism was a form of what Marxists call ‘Bonapartism’. It arises when a clash of class forces produces chronic instability but no clear outcome-when there is no revolutionary class able to seize power for itself and remodel society in its own image. In such circumstances, revolutionary leadership can be ‘deflected’-it may devolve on ‘strongmen’ who lift themselves above the warring factions, building support by promising popular reform and a restoration of order, and maintaining power by balancing between evenly matched class forces. Caesar, the imperialist warlord and popular reformer, provided ‘deflected’ leadership to the Roman Revolution, and, once in power, ‘Bonapartist’ leadership to the fractured Roman state. His immediate successor, Octavian-Augustus (30 BC to AD 14), who became the first emperor, led a conservative reaction which largely restored the unity of a Roman ruling class that was now purged, enlarged and more open to recruitment from below. It was this that distinguished Caesar from Augustus, not that one was a democrat and the other an absolutist."

The "Roman Revolution" had begun some years earlier and Augustus was, in large part, consolidating earlier change. But it was less a revolution and more, in Faulkner's words, of "a struggle between aristocratic factions over the future of empire". By strengthening the Roman state, expanding and developing it, Augustus was making it into the system that could govern most of the known world. In this context Augustus was less of a revolutionary and more the figure who ensured that change became permanent.

It might be suggested that this is a minor part of Everitt's book. But it does get to the heart of who Augustus was. While much of the biography is readable and fascinating and an excellent introduction to Roman history, I felt the core argument lacked strength and undermined the viability of the whole work. That said, this is a complicated period that has challenged all those who have tried to understand those turbulent Roman years. While I don't agree with all of Everitt's conclusions, his book is an excellent introduction and will give readers a useful over-view of the subject.

Related Reviews

Symes - The Roman Revolution
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar 
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Holland - Rubicon 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer - Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying

The discovery of forgotten transcripts of the conversations of German POW's in the Second World War, is a remarkable opportunity for scholars of the period to try and better understand the motives and ideas of Germany's combat troops. This accessible book gives the reader an insight into much of the material, from ordinary soldiers to Generals, Sailors and Aircrew, to members of the SS. It also enables the authors to discuss some of the age old questions concerning the Nazi regime. To what extent did the Germany Army know about the Holocaust? Why did they fight on and on, when defeat was inevitable? To what extent were ordinary soldiers committed Nazis?

While understanding that the authors have had to pick and choose from among vast quantities of data, often to illustrate a specific point, readers will still be shocked by much of the contents of the conversations. Allied forces didn't transcribe everything the POWs said, concentrating on material that would have helped the war aims, or possibly be used in post-war war crimes trials. So among all the debates on military strategy, or the oneupmanship by soldiers discussing their personal role, we find that knowledge of war crimes among the Wehrmacht was remarkably common. Partly this was based on personal experience. One solider, identified  describes an event he witnessed in Poland.

"I wanted to take some photographs... and I knew an SS-leader there quite well and I was talking to him about this and that when he said 'Would you like to photograph a shooting?' I said, 'No the very idea is repugnant to me', 'Well I mean, it makes no different to us, they are always shot in the morning, but if you like we still have some and we can shoot them in the afternoon sometime.'"

The authors comment that;

"Regardless of whether individual soldiers found those acts right or wrong or simply surreal, the Holocaust was not a central part of their world in the way it has been ascribed to them.... Knowledge that mass murders were taking place was widespread. It could hardly have been otherwise. But what did that knowledge have to do with the world of war the soldiers were charged with?"

There is some truth in this. From the transcripts it is clear that soldiers often saw the mass killings as something that involved others, and as the quote above suggests, found it morally repugnant, it was something that was linked to the war they were part of. However I think it is wrong to conclude as the authors do, that this makes the actions of German troops in World War Two identical to other soldiers "just doing their job" in other conflicts. True there are similarities. One description of the destruction of an entire Russian village in order to kill some partisans, with the use of grenades to burn homes down, reads eerily like depictions of US troops actions in Vietnam.

The particularly extreme violence of the Eastern Front, with its backdrop of racist ideology, the struggle for "living space" and eight years of Nazi rule back home created an atmosphere were mass murder, violence and the murder of prisoners could become common place. There are of course similarities to massacres and executions in other conflicts, as well as by other forces (Allied included) in the Second World War. But it is noticeable, for instance, that in Vietnam, the conflict that the authors draw most parallels, large numbers of American GIs refused to fight, and engaged in open rebellion. That was not a feature of German forces in World War Two.

There is much in here for those trying to understand World War Two. Much of it is difficult. The chapter on sexual violence and mass rape, and the attitudes of some soldiers to female Jews is particularly difficult. As are the accounts of the murder of civilians. Not all of these can be blamed simply on the dehumanising, brutalising reality of war. Its noticeable, for instance, that one airman who celebrates the bombing and machine gunning of refugees is describing his actions on day three of the conflict.

While finding the book fascinating, I was not always convinced by the over-view offered by the authors, but I do recommend the book for those trying to understand both World War Two and the particular nature of Fascism.

Related Reviews

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Brian Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660

The English Civil War is a contested period of history. For many, it was simply a falling out amongst the English ruling classes, for others a religious conflict. But most agree that the Civil War was not a class struggle, let alone a Revolutionary period. Brian Manning argues against this. His book, is a short but detailed examination of the different social forces active in the early to mid 17th century and the class struggles at the heart of the English Civil War. It was a contradictory period at times. The lines of conflict didn't simply break down into rich on one side and poor on the other, as Manning points out:

"The parliamentarian party was suffused with anti-aristocratic feelings even through it was led by aristocrats, and indeed partly against their leadership. These feelings distinguished those of the 'middle sort' who became parliamentarians from those who remained neutral or joined the royalists."

Manning understands however that as the English Civil War unfolded, ideas were transformed. Those in the Royalist party were trying to protect the status quo, those opposing them were fighting for a different sort of society, but what that society would be, was open to interpretation. Much of this interpretation took place through religious ideas. The "Bible provided most of the idioms and images by which people tried to understand the world in which they lived" and "the most accessible materials for constructing an alternative world-view".

On both sides, Manning argued, popular movements developed in support. But these ideas developed and were shaped by all sorts of factors. "Class antagonism between 'the people' and the aristocracy surfaced in certain areas, especially clothmaking regions, but by no means everywhere." But the process by which the Civil War takes on a class nature rests on the middle sort of people. The middle sort where based "in the class of independent small producers", some of whom "were rising into capitalist employers and others were declining into wage-earning employees".

Thus the Civil War takes on a revolutionary form as the expression of the struggle for different class interests. Those who began the struggle against the King started by demanding restrictions on his ability to raise and spend money, as well as some say in the use of the country's wealth. They ended up changing the structure of society to make it easier for their classes to operate.

It is too simple to see the struggle as the masses against the rich. Manning's emphasis on the revolutionary role of the army, which "in order to become a fully revolutionary force... needed an ideology, [offered] by the Levellers" is important. But this wasn't revolution for those at the very bottom of society. Struggles against enclosures, the reclaiming of land and the redistribution of common land were opposed by both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Indeed the "unfinished revolution" which failed to completely transform English society meant that after the Civil War had ended, "the mass of the population still consisted of peasants and most of them were not radicalised by the revolution."

Manning points out that this might not have been the case:

"Had radicals given leadership directly in the localities to discontented peasants it is possible that a revolutionary agrarian movement might have developed and destroyed the economic power of the aristocracy." 

But the few peasant movements that did arise tended to do so against both sides to protect their resources from the marauding armies.

Brian Manning's book is an excellent introduction to the class nature of the struggles of the English Civil War. It highlights that the war was more than a military conflict, it was one that had its roots in the changing nature of English society - the emergence of capitalism in the face of the old feudal order. It's detailed analysis of the class nature of the two opposing parties, their political and economic interests, as well as the role of the church is one that all students of the English Revolution must read, even if they don't accept it.

Related Reviews

Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution

Monday, November 18, 2013

Madge Dresser - Black and White on the Buses: The 1963 Colour Bar Dispute in Bristol

Recently I took part in a demonstration in Liverpool organised by the trade union movement. It as organised by Unite, and was a protest against fascism. Over the years I've been on any number of anti-racist protests that have been put on, or supported by trade unions. In fact, it's probably true, that if an anti-racist group in Britain wanted to find support for a campaign, protest or event, they would approach the union movement and almost guarantee a sympathetic hearing.

This hasn't always been the case. In fact, it took years of campaigning by union members to make the trade union movement into the anti-racist force that it is today. One small part of that struggle was the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. The campaign is brilliantly recounted in this pamphlet by Madge Dresser, originally published in the 1980s and republished now for the 50th anniversary.

In the post-war years Bristol had been a destination for many West Indian immigrants. As one participant points out, that was entirely fair, given that Bristol historically had grown wealthy on the slave trade. These immigrants experienced many forms of racism, from being bared from accommodation, to physical violence, or prevented entering particular venues. Specifically, they were also prevented as working as crews on Bristol's extensive bus fleet. Even in times of labour shortages, highly skilled and employable workers were blocked from taking these jobs. The bar seems to have been implemented by the company because sections of the white bus crews had voted in their TGWU branch to strike if non-white labour was taken on.

Inspired by the bus boycotts of the US Civil Rights movement, the local population, supported by friendly MPs such as a young Tony Benn and the cricket star turned politician, Learie Constantine, organised a boycott. Black and white people supported them, the local newspapers were filled with letters for and against the boycott and students marched in protest. Eventually the company gave in and took on its first non-white conductor, a Sikh, closely followed by several Afro-Caribbean workers. The battle against racism on the buses wasn't over, but a major stride forward had been taken. Madge Dresser takes up the question of whether the bus workers were simply trying to protect their jobs, or were they racist. The TGWU denied later that the union had supported the boycott, but there are a number of quotes here showing that many of the white workers did accept racist ideas. This was not surprising in the context of anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians in the early 1960s.

The re-issue of this pamphlet couldn't come at a more important time. The struggles of the past can inspire and educate us, but they can also teach us that we shouldn't take anything for granted. Given today's virulent racism towards sections of the population from politicians and the media, we cannot assume that working class organisations will remain immune to this. But we can always remember that united anti-racist struggle can knock back racist ideas and break the hold of racism.

The Bristol Bus Boycott could easily become a forgotten part of the struggle for equality in Britain. Luckily Bookmarks Publications, along with a number of Bristol trade unions and anti-racist groups have republished this pamphlet, together with a new introduction by the author and some interesting contemporary pictures. It is a classic piece of social history and deserves to be widely read.

An anniversary meeting took place recently. Afterwards several of the organisers of the boycott spoke to Socialist Worker. You can read the fascinating interviews here.

Related Reviews

Fryer - Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain
Richardson - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight against Racism
Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Richard Holmes - The Age of Wonder

The end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th saw an explosion in scientific and technological development. It is during this period that the foundation for modern science was laid.

Richard Holmes' book is an extraordinarily enjoyable and informative exploration of this time. He tells the story of the "Age of Wonder" through the interlocking lives of several great scientists. Framing the story is the life of Joseph Banks, who in 1796 arrived in Tahiti, a young biologist setting out to explore those "utopian" islands. What Banks found there, apart from the love and passions of a young man, helped put start him on a lifetime of encouraging exploration and science wherever he could.

Banks was one of the most important presidents of the Royal Society. During his time, he encouraged many young scientists, finding funding, introducing them to each other and sharing knowledge, expertise and on occasion equipment. Through Banks, we are introduced to many of the other great scientists of the time. Humphry Davy who radically transformed safety in coalmines and made many discoveries in the fields of chemistry and physics. William and Caroline Herschel who transformed astronomy, not simply through their discoveries, but also through their methods of systematic observation, their invention and manufacture of new equipment and their scientific theories. Holmes also tells us about the technological "fads" that followed on the back of new discoveries - the first balloon flyers and the sudden thirst for African exploration.

But this is more than the story of inventions and scientific endeavor. Holmes interweaves the stories of these scientists with changing cultural and social ideas. Here, for instance, he shows how William Hershel's "nebulae hypothesis" for the formation of stars, was developed further by Pierre Laplace. Laplace extended this hypothesis to the formation of the solar system in a 1799 book.

"In effect he reasoned that the sun had slowly condensed out of a nebulous cloud of stardust, and then spun off our entire planetary system, just as in a thousand other star systems. THere was no special act of Creation. In this way he was able to give a purely materialist account of the creation of the earth, the moon and all the planets. No divine intervention or Genesis was required, nor was it visible anywhere else in the universe."

Science was challenging some of society's most fundamental ideas. Sometimes the scientific revolution was allied with, or came close to political revolution. Humphry Davy told an audience at one of his amazingly popular lectures, after demonstrating primitive electrical experiments, that they witnessing;

"a new influence... which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only animal organs".

This was revolutionary science, but Davy stopped short of political revolutionary conclusions;

"The guardians of civilization and of refinement, the most powerful and respected members of society, are daily growing more attentive to the realities of life, and, giving up many of the unnecessary enjoyments in consequence of the desire to be useful, are becoming the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community."

Despite his revolutionary science, Davy wanted no significant change from the status quo, "the unequal division of property and of labour...are the sources of power in civilized life, and its moving causes, and even its very soul". Not for the Royal Society would their be any taste of the French Revolution, for this was a period when science was being bent towards the pursuit of industry, and if the scientists thought that would bring a better and more rational society, that that was good. Davy's lamp undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of miners across Europe. It also helped the mine owners continue to exploit their workers in the most appalling of conditions.

But this is not a just a tale of science and industry. The book is littered with quotations from poets and authors. Davy's enthusiasm for electricity, helped inspire Mary Shelley to write her most famous novel. But other scientists, like Herschel, inspired the other Shelley. In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley explores "Herschel's new cosmology and Davy's chemistry";

Then see those million worlds which burn and roll
Around us; their inhabitants beheld
My sphere'ed light wane in wide heaven

There is much in this wonderful book to inspire further thought and reading. I was particularly struck by the brother and sister astronomers, William and Caroline Herschel. The later became the first woman paid to study science, their lives are fascinating and their discoveries immense. I hope to read more, particularly about Caroline who had to struggle against her own upbringing, as well as a society that didn't take kindly to women playing male roles.

If I have one criticism, it is that Richard Holmes doesn't locate the changing scientific world more clearly in a changing economic and social world. Capitalism was spreading rapidly through the world as demonstrated by the chapter on African exploration. It needed science and technology to further the accumulation of capital, to both understand the world, and tame it. The explosion of scientific and technological development in the period covered by this book has its roots in the scientific revolution that began with Newton and the early scientists. But a maturer capitalism needed a more systematic and professional science that could solve its technological problems and help the bosses make more money.

Nonetheless, this is a minor absence in a book that deserves to be widely read, by those who are interested in the biography and history of early scientists, as well as those trying to understand the origins of the modern world. Highly recommended.

Related Reviews

 Jardine - Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Christian Wolmar - Blood, Iron & Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World

Christian Wolmar is an unashamed railway enthusiast. He's a partisan of the idea that railways should be an absolutely central part of a cleaner, more efficient, better future. And in an era of increasing oil prices, climate change and congestion blighting our cities, who can blame him.

This recent book is an attempt at a social history of the railways. Because it covers some of the ground that his earlier works have, it is patchy in places. For instance he glosses over the early years of the British railroads, while dwelling on the influence that Britain had, through its colonial interests, in the growth of railway systems on every continent. Wolmar says this is not a book for "rivet counters", but a book aimed at the general reader who has an interest in world history, transport and wider social development. Does it work?

There is no doubt that Wolmar crams a lot in. The sheer scale of his story means that much of it passes in the form of anecdotes that leave the reader wanting more. Why did the first Italian railway offer discounts to ladies who didn't wear hats, for instance? On a grander scale Wolmar praises the role of the railways in developing industry and a more modern economy. They were the "most important invention of the second millennium" he argues, that brought the

"Industrial Revolution from a few hot spots to large parts of the world. They were a democratizing force too, allowing people to travel in an unprecedented way, opening up their eyes to the world... relieved many of tedious and hard labour, and spread economic development everywhere."

Taken on its own, this would seem a naive view. But Wolmar is a good enough historian to understand that there are also negatives. The railways contributed to "environmental degradation" (though arguably less than the motor vehicle ever has) and were used to "put down rebellions and wage war" as well as helping make the Holocaust possible.

The problem for me though, is the importance of the railways to human history, cannot be reduced to a simple balance sheet of pros and cons. One has to understand them within the context of wider social systems. In particular, the need for capitalism to make profits and the existence of class divisions in society. Wolmar gets some of this, telling the reader sad stories of class divisions of Indian railways at the time of the British Empire for instance. But this is not enough.

Railways played a particular role in the early development of industrial capitalism, precisely because they allowed a small number of people to move enormous quantities of materials and consequently make bigger profits. Wolmar shows how this was usually only possible with massive state subsidies. Once the railways existed, they had further impacts - transforming the diets of the urban masses, or changing crops that were grown. Notably many railways were set up to move freight, but quickly found people were more profitable. Wolmar's book highlights these questions, but fails in my opinion to integrate them into a more general narrative. Consequently his book reads more as a succession of interesting stories, rather than a more detailed analysis of the role of railways in the development of modern society. Occasionally this drifts close to the realm of the "rivet counter", listing gauges and track speeds so on occasion my eyes glazed over.

There are some striking omissions. Some serious work has analysed the role of the railways during the famines that struck India in the 19th century. Mike Davis' extraordinary book, Late Victorian Holocausts shows how these were the consequences of the priorities of British capitalism. He also argues that railways, while designed to feed the hungry through free market principles, actually had the opposite effect. Sadly this is missing from Wolmar's book. I also feel that the role of the railways in the Holocaust deserved more than a paragraph.

Ultimately these criticisms centre on the nature of social history. In order to write such a history, the historian must integrate their subject with wider historical change, not simply list anecdotes. A social history of the railways that mentions the Russian Revolution means doing more than mentioning Lenin taking a sealed train through Germany. What of the growth of the rail unions? The workers councils on the railways? Trotsky's train from which he led the Red Army? The role of rail workers in mass strikes?

That said while Wolmar mentions on a number of occasions (far more than many other writers might) the role of workers in building the railways and keeping them running, he occasionally mentions their strikes too. But I think he underplays the significant role that the railways have played in working class struggle precisely because they are a central feature of industrial capitalism and bring together large numbers of organised workers. The railways helped keep all sides fighting in World War One. But they also spread the Russian and German revolutions around those countries. The strikes of railway workers from South America to Asia have often provided a catalyst to wider social struggles - consider the novel Gods Bits of Wood for inspiration here.

Wolmar's books are always interesting, and he is on the right side of the struggle for better, more environmentally friendly public transport. But sadly this book bites off far more than it can chew and feels inadequate.

Related Reviews

Wolmar - Fire and Steam: How the Railways Transformed Britain
Wolmar - The Subterranean Railway

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Marcus Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery & Freedom

Marcus Rediker has been at the forefront of historians writing social histories of the Atlantic. In recent years he has turned his attention to the history of the slave trade. His previous book The Slave Ship is an excellent examination of that appalling period, and its links with the emergence of capitalism. Rediker's new book looks at one particular aspect of slavery's history, the inspiring rebellion on board the slave ship Amistad.

It is the fascinating story of how one group of slaves rose up, killed their captors and attempted to make it back to their homes in Africa. The story of the Amistad uprising is fairly well known. But there must have been countless other attempts at rebellion, few of which were successful. So the story that Rediker tells is important because it allows us to learn from the slaves in their own words, but also understand the attitudes towards them. In particular the growing abolitionist movement in North America.

During their rebellion, the slaves didn't indiscriminately kill their former captors. They killed those who had brutalised them, taunted and tortured them. The other traders feared for their lives, but were treated with surprising humanity:

"The rebels... locked Ruiz and Montes in irons, many unused sets of which they suddenly had a their disposal. When the slaveholders complained of their chains, Cinque howled in righteous fury: "You say irons good enough for nigger slave; and if they good enough for slave, they are good enough for Spaniards, too." Ruiz and Montes were likewise allowed little to drink,k, likely the same half teacupful of water twice a day that not long ago had been the portion of the Africans. Again they complained of their treatment and again Cinque pointed out the contradictions: "You say water enough for nigger slave; so water enough for Spainards." The object lesson continued for two days, in order to give Ruiz and Montes "a taste oif their own cruelty toward the slaves,"... thereafter the chains were removed and they were given food and water in same proportions as everyone else."

The Amistrad eventually arrived in North America, where a long period of imprisonment and trial began for the Africans. The trial raised all sorts of questions - of property, slavery and freedoms. The struggle of the Africans now meshed with that of the Abolitionist movement who saw an opportunity to strengthen the struggle against slavery. Firstly that meant finding those who could speak to the Africans in their own language. This meant trawling the docks to find freed Africans who could interpret. But the abolitionists who built the campaign to free the slaves, also tought them English and religion in their prison cells. Tantalising, Rediker while quoting the slaves' letters and discussions, suggests that their liberal quoting from the Bible may have been more a tactical maneuver on their part than any real conversion. "All that can be said with certainty is that the Amistad Africans understood the importance of Christianity within the worldview of the abolitionists and acted to accommodate it, within the larger context of their main objective: to go home."

Rediker also traces the cultural and social impact of the struggle to free the Amistad Africans. Poetry, plays, pamphlets and paintings were produced in great numbers. Many of these artworks were designed to progress the struggle, and after they were freed by the US courts the Africans toured the United States to raise money for their trip home. But this art often caused a dilemma for the abolitionist movement. The high point of the struggle was the uprising against the Amistad's crew - a bloody violent moment. Yet the abolitionists were describing the Africans as "hapless victims... cast upon our shores". The narrative didn't fit the abolitionist views, who hated slavery, but still saw African people as victims, unable to struggle for themselves.

Rediker points out that the "movement in support of the Amistad Africans and the abolitionist movement were never identical". Indeed, the movement to support the struggle, and the return home raised money from many different sources. Most frequently tiny donations from ordinary working people. It is notable that the Africans visited factories and workplaces to raise money, as well as theatres and churches. The desire for freedom expressed by the uprising by the slaves, clearly chimed with large sections of the American population.

Ultimately many of the Amistad Africans made it back. Some had died during the passage across the Atlantic. Some had been sold into slavery in Cuba, others died in the rebellion or in jail in the United States. Those that made it home did so because they were prepared to risk their lives for their own freedom and that of their comrades. Their successful struggle inspired many and Rediker finishes the tale of another slave, Madison Washington, who had escaped to Canada but returned to the South to try and rescue his wife.

Captured and sold back into slavery he remembered seeing a painting of Cinque, the leader of the Amistad Africans, who had lead the revolt. Together with 18 others Washinton led his own uprising on a domestic slave ship and forced it to slave to the Bahamas were slavery had been abolished.

There "they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and ensuring their victory." So Washington and his comrades too escaped. Thus the struggle of the Amistad rebels inspired others to fight for their freedom, but it also helped shape and generate the anti-slavery movement still further. And this book is a fitting tribute to those rebels, putting them back in their place as people who shaped their own destiny, not simply helpless figures in the abolitionist campaign.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra