Sunday, March 31, 2013

Donn Pearce - Cool Hand Luke

Warning spoilers

Many readers will be familiar with the classic film Cool Hand Luke produced in 1967 and starring Paul Newman. Few will know that it is based on a novel by Donn Pearce, first published in 1965.

The book and film follow the brutalised lives of a group of convicts working on a chain gang. The film centres mostly on Paul Newman's character, but the novel is more about the day to day life of the convicts, the back breaking work in the hot sun, clearing verges, building roads and the few pleasures that they have to look forward to - boring food, a few pornographic magazines, a weekly film and a relentlessly mundane, regimented life. Pearce himself had more than a few experiences of criminal life and imprisonment and the book's descriptions carry the ring of authenticity. Pearce is writing is powerful and lyrical. Here's his narrator describing some of his fellow prisoners:

"Ugly Red, the moonshiner; Four Eyed Joe who is doing Time for screwing his daughter; Little Greek, the sponge diver and check artist from Tarpon Springs; Big Steve the heist man; Rabbit, Coon, Possum, Gator and Eagle, all characters from the tales of Uncle Remus; Sleepy, the last of the Seven Dwarfs, whose six partners all got away when the cops arrived; Onion Head, Burr Head; Stupid Blondie, Stupider Blondie and Stupidest Blondie; Chief, the Blackfoot Indian, the con man and chronic liar whose true exploits are just fantastic enough to keep everyone guessing about the others...."

The prison system brutalises and dehumanises all these characters. The prisoners invent nicknames and make ridiculous bets to keep their spirits alive. The descriptions focus on the mundane, but also the reality of life with so many men crammed into such a small space - the smells, the defecation, the masturbation that inevitably takes place. The book fleshes out the background to Cool Hand Luke's life much more. In the film it was never really obvious why he committed the crime he did. In the book his temporary madness is a product of alcohol and mental breakdown. Pearce locates Luke's mental state very much in his experiences as a soldier in the US army, where he and his comrades murdered and raped their way across Germany. One can only speculate how much Pearce puts his own WWII experiences into this part of the tale, but certainly this picture of the US army is very much a product of the 1960s.

Ultimately this, as with the film, is a story of resistance. Luke's refusal to bow down and his repeated escapes offer hope to the other prisoners. This is not because they can copy him, but hope that the system can be beaten. Their disappointment when Luke is recaptured and his apparent resignation in the face of apathy is one of the most poignant moments in the novel.

"A gloom hung over the whole Camp, a despair, a lack of the lustiness and the gaiety of former times. We know what had happened. The Free Men's revenge for the night of July the Fourth was now complete. They had captured and chained and punished the culprits. They had broken them down in order to prove to the rest of us what would be the inevitable results of defiance. Then they had taken the greatest rebel of them all and rewarded him to show us the fruits of obedience."

But Luke surprises everyone. His temporary defeat giving way to more determined resistance, albeit a resistance that cannot be allowed to continue by the authorities. Failing to break him, they destroy him.

Ultimately Luke's story passes into convict history and prisoners talk of him in hushed tones. Luke's martyrdom has changed them all. The powers that be are not all powerful, they can be beaten. The convicts continue their awful work but they do so with "heads... ringing with the melody and the hymn called Cool Hand Luke".

The 1960s produced many novels that raged with indignation and anger. There are many that are more powerful, and more politically nuanced that Cool Hand Luke. But in my opinion few can match it in giving us the sense that resistance is never futile, that we can never bow down before the system or its paid servants.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Adrienne Mayor - The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

"The giant ogre Skiron used to throw victims off a rocky cliff near Megara until the hero Theseus threw Skiron over the precipice. After a very long period of time 'his bones were tossed between sea and earth and finally hardened into rock'." - Ovid, Metamorphoses.

"It is a matter of observation that the stature of the entire human race is becoming smaller... When a mountain in Crete was cleft by an Earthquake, a skeleton 46 cubits long was found, which some people thought must be that of Orion and others of [giant] Otus... Augustus preserved the bodies of two giants (Secundilla and Pusio) over 10 feet tall at Sallust's Gardens in Rome." - Pliny the Elder, Natural History.

I have to admit that when I first received Adrienne Mayor's book I assumed it was a work of pseudo-science, exploring perhaps some invented history of Greeks and Romans living simultaneously with extinct ancient creatures. However, despite the somewhat unusual presentation (I thought the book looked like a cheap self-published work, and several of the drawings are very amateurish and add little to the text) this turns out to be an exceedingly interesting book that rapidly convinced me of the authors' central thesis.

Mayor begins with a simple argument. In many of the areas of the ancient world around the Mediterranean fossils are easily found. In the wider areas that were influenced by the Greeks and Romans or known to them through travelers and traders, even more extensive remains are common. How did the ancient people understand these?

The two quotes above demonstrate that to a certain extent, many of the ancients had a surprisingly good grasp of how such remains might be formed. Lacking an understanding of the age of the world, they could not comprehend the timescales necessary to create fossils, but they could understand them as the remains of long dead creatures or races. Frequently the remains themselves were interpreted as human, though they were usually from mammoths or similar animals. In a lovely demonstration, Mayor rearranges the bones of a model mammoth to show how they could be altered to look like a large tall humanoid. An ogre, or an ancient hero.

In the Gobi desert remains of dinosaurs like Protoceratops are frequently found, often with eggs in their nests. Mayor shows how the shape of these dinosaurs with their curved beaks, long tales and crested skull could easily be morphed or interpreted as the classic ancient image of a griffin, with a bird like head and wings and lion's body. She then offers us evidence from ancient texts and archaeological remains to show how the ancients clearly thought that griffins did live in parts of the desert. With only a small amount of speculation Mayor adds that the legends that griffins guarded piles of gold could be understood by the flecks of the metal often found with the remains.

Some of the evidence that Mayor has produced is fairly convincing. A pottery vessel with depicting a hero fighting a monster easily resolves itself into an image of a dinosaur skull protruding from the earth. Another image of a human fighting a griffin seems unremarkable until you notice that the griffin, unlike the man, appears to be growing from the ground. A suggestion that the artist understood about bones found under the earth?

Mayor seems to know her classical sources well, and frequently lists sites were bones would have been found eroding from the ground, particularly on the Mediterranean coasts. It has to be said she builds an impressive argument.

But what did the ancients actually understand about these bones? Mayor demonstrates that many of them, including some of the most well known philosophers thought they were the remains of ancient beasts and the ogres who populated the earth before they died out at the hands of heroes like Hercules. While explaining this though, we learn that many of the ancients had a rudimentary understanding that species could evolve, change and go extinct. However while there were those in ancient times who understood these bones as remains of ancient humans or mythical creatures there were also those who saw them as being other animals. Mayor quotes a statement by Plutarch where he identifies some bones as those of a species of elephant (1,700 years before a modern scientist would make the same links). Notably though, prior to the discovery of contemporary elephants by the Greeks, these same remains were interpreted as a vanished monster known as Neades.

It is interesting to speculate whether the myths of giant humans or creatures like centaurs or griffins came first, or were they the result of people seeing fossil remains and creating myths. What it undoubtedly true though, is that in ancient times these remains were often venerated and debated as much as we would today. In fact, Mayor describes a period which is almost a "bone craze" as ancient cities and temples located remains and identified them as famous local heroes putting them on display.

What becomes clear from Mayor's fascinating book, is not simply the way that ancient people tried to understand the world around them, but also how their ideas developed and changed. Sadly we have lost much of the evidence that would enable us to understand how the bones were displayed, though tantalising comments in ancient books clearly indicate that they were gawped at by tourists much as museum visitors might today. Mayor's book seems to have spurred other writers and scientists to look at old materials and books with different eyes, for the non-expert reader however it is a stimulating and informative look, not simply at how our ancestors understood fossils but how their ideas shaped the view of their own history and myth.

Related Reviews

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Au Loong Yu - China's Rise: Strength and Fragility

There are a myriad of books and articles being written about the rise of the Chinese economy and the conditions inside the country for ordinary people. However too few of these are being written by Marxists, particularly those who understand that China is not a socialist society (despite the continued insistence from key figures in the country). More importantly, even those who do comment from a revolutionary point of view are rarely from China itself.

This makes Au Loong Yu's book very important. Based in Hong Kong he has a long record of being involved in the working class movement as well as being a key figure in left wing journals that discuss China's history. He is also from a Trotskyist background and so explicitly rejects the notion that China is a socialist society, or was in recent history. While I might quibble with some aspects of his, and his fellow collaborators, exact analysis of Chinese history, these are very much disagreements amongst friends who want to see change in China that benefits the majority of its population rather than a tiny elite. It should be noted that several of the chapters in this book are from other authors, who very much share Yu's general analysis.

In the preface to China's Rise, Yu quotes, with only a little irony, a Chinese academic who reports that "a total of 18 different names have been used to describe China's [contemporary] system, from authoritarian capitalism, commercial Leninism to Confucian capitalism". Yu himself describes it as "bureaucratic capitalism" and I think this label works well, describing as it does a country were the ruling elite have formed from the upper ranks of the only political party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However it also encapsulates the way that the lower levels of bureaucracy form part of local governing classes that overlap to a great extent with firms and companies that are the real face of China's capitalism.

Yu also points out that these officials to also gain personally from their role through their involvement in implementing the Chinese government's policies, as well as the "coercive power of the state machine". China's internal security budget is actually higher than its defence budget and involve enormous numbers, "in one county alone there are 12,093 informants which is equivalent to 3 per cent of the population" reports Yu.

All too often external commentators on China will focus on such internal repression, and while this should not be ignored, it would be dangerous to argue that this is the sole problem for Chinese workers and peasants. The real story is not just the internal repression, but the enormous growth of capitalism interests within the country. The opening up of the economy to private interests has been something of enormous interest to the world's wider governing classes. Reports in both 1997 and 2012 by the World Bank argued that China must let its state sector shrink in the interest of the private sector.

Such neo-liberal interests are not new, and have been imposed or encouraged in former "communist bloc" nations since the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989. But they hide enormous suffering and destruction.Yu points out that the CCP has strived hard to create a "favourable business environment" and this requires the "repression of working people". In a interesting chapter on the role of China's official trade union movement, Yu - the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), Bai Ruizue shows how rather than fighting for its members, the ACFTU has become a tool of the CCP in implementing Privatisation and the interests of the bureaucracy. Indeed in a number of cases the authors point out that strikes and workers occupations have been broken up physically by representatives of the ACFTU's unions.

Favourable business conditions in China mean imposing major attacks on workers. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989, the "CCP reacted by brutally suppressing the movement" and also the "complete restructuring" of the working class. Over the following 20 years, forty million state workers were laid off in a "wave of privatization and those who kept their jobs experienced downward mobility." At the same time, a new working class was formed from 250 million rural workers. These workers had even less knowledge of their rights, or traditions of organising and now form a major part of the new urban working class in China.

Alongside the destruction of state industry, the Chinese ruling class have taken away much from a large section of the population. In particular rights at work and the hope of a job for life, meaning a simmering level of anger. There is resistance. Yu argues however that often this resistance comes too late, as workers often don't hear about the privatisation of their workplaces until long into the process. More importantly, state repression and the lack of genuine, legal workers organisations makes action difficult. Thus while Yu agrees with other writers about the growing number of "mass events" such as strikes and protests, he is less confident that this demonstrates a growing movement as opposed to mostly isolated examples of fight back. The chapter on "resistance in China today" then is a small selection of stories of resistance, but they all show the potential for Chinese workers to seriously challenge the power of the state.

"The Tonghua anti-privatisation struggle... begun when workers found out about plans for Jianlong steel to [privatise] the company... on 24 July 2009 a worker who had previously been laid off hung a banner outside the main office saying "Jianlong, Get Out of Tonghua" and workers started to blockade the company to suspend production. Approximately 30,000 present and former workers and their families were involved... the action ended after 10pm that night following factory boss Chen Guojun being beaten to death during the protest. Jianlong withdrew their offer to buy out the mill... the workers anger had been specifically directed at Chen... he was seen as the representative of Jianlong and known for his tough disciplinarian style... Chen was paid 3 million Yuan in 2008, some of the company retirees were receiving as little as 200 a month".

Yu and Ruixue are particularly interested in a strike of 2011 by Pepsi workers, because for the first time there were co-ordinated protests at bottling plants in five different cities. Workers used social media to network and create a powerful movement. They also write briefly on the Wukan events, when a whole village of 13,000 people defied the government and elected their own representatives which were then officially recognised. This struggle against the privatisation of land is a particularly important one, because it also demonstrates the way that the CCP is often not seen to be the enemy. Workers often believe the problem is corruption by bureaucrats locally. Indeed one of the key figures in the Wukan struggle was a local member of the CCP who was then elected by his fellow villagers to head their committee.

Sadly there aren't enough of such stories, but Yu and his colleagues argue that if there is to be significant change in China it will have to come out of these sort of struggles from below. A useful chapter on historical resistance in China shows the extent to which the 1989 events were a massive blow to the whole working class. In the west we often think of Tianiman Square as being a student protest. But there was significant working class involvement, particularly in Beijing. Yu believes that a new generation of workers is now beginning to get confidence to fight and they are not weighed down by historical defeats.

As China's capitalism grows and develops it is mirroring what happened with the development of capitalism elsewhere. Millions of peasants are being forced from the land into the cities, enormous destruction to the environment is taking place and poverty is endemic. The Chinese ruling class is not all powerful and Yu makes a good argument that there is potential for it to be challenged. However he leaves us in no doubt that this will require an enormous struggle.

There is much of interest in this book for those trying to understand China today. The chapters on the role of Chinese liberals and Tibet are particularly useful as they illuminate from a revolutionary Marxist perspective subjects that are dominated by neo-liberal thought normally. I was less taken by the chapter on wider Chinese history as I felt that it painted to bright a picture of China under Mao and the 1949 revolution. Rather than creating a socialist society as the author seems to argue, this seemed to be more of a argument of the way that a state could provide for improvements for millions of people. The lack of any descriptions of mass workers movements, or organisations such as workers councils would support this view. Nonetheless this does not invalidate the way that the turn by the CCP towards capitalism is destroying the lives of millions of people. As I argued at the beginning, these differences however are ones that do not undermine the usefulness of this book. Ultimately it will be up to the workers and peasants of China itself to settle some of the unresolved differences.

Related Reviews

Shapiro - China's Environmental Challenges
Gittings - The Changing Face of China

Friday, March 22, 2013

Neal Stephenson - Quicksilver

The question that bugged me through the whole time I read Neal Stephenson's enormous Quicksilver, was how to review it. In part the problem is one of scope. How can a reviewer condense a 900 page novel? More importantly, when the author enjoys playing with the written form (some of the chapters here are written in the form of letters, others in the style of scripts and poetry is sprinkled throughout) it seems like the task is impossible. How to make this book sound worth reading, rather than making it look like a sprawling mammoth of a novel that is the result of a writer who didn't know when to stop?

The truth is that Neal Stephenson's novel is a work of brilliance. Despite being 900 pages in length, the writing is tight and entertaining. Suffused with humour and the occasional bit of erotica, there are moments that made me laugh loudly on the train and others that made me cringe at the pain and suffering. Stephenson has painted a brilliant picture of a world going through an enormous transformation. It is one of the best accounts I have read of the changes that took place following the English Revolution and the Rise of Capitalism and in my opinion can only be understood as an attempt to draw out the different ideas and forces in society that were being shaped and reshaped during that later half of the 17th century.

Quicksilver is written in three parts. The first deals with the beginnings of the scientific revolution. It centres on Daniel Waterhouse, a university roommate of Isaac Newton, contemporary of Robert Hooke and eventual friend of many of the most important scientists and Royal Society members of the 17th and early 18th century. The tale skips back and forth in time, but we begin to see the biography of Daniel as he helps Newton with his early experiments, encourages the savant to remember to eat and helps encourage and shape his work. Much like another of Daniels contemporaries, Samuel Pepys, we see the wider changes to society taking place, alongside the Plague and the Great Fire of London. We also encounter the wider debates and constraints in society, in particular the religious debates and disagreements, now somewhat in decline following the end of the Civil War and Cromwell's death. Much of these arguments are still important and the positions that different families took in the Civil War continue to shape the lives of those individuals.

The first third of the book then is a retelling of the story of the birth of the Scientific Method. This is summed up by Newton himself a man that Daniel helps insert knitting needles into his eye socket to observe the effects on his vision, but then seems to turn his back on "science" and retreat into alchemy. Stephenson brilliantly captures the debates and arguments taking place at this time, in the dark rooms of bars and gentleman's smoke filled rooms as ideas of religion, nature and science are all in flux, fulled by the enormously shifting world outside.

The second volume at first seems to take off in a completely tangential direction. During the siege of Vienna, Jack, a mercenary rescues Eliza a Turkish slave. Escaping the battle field, they travel across Europe in a westerly direction having adventures and learning much about the world and themselves. Gradually though, we realise that what they are also witnessing is the flip side of the scientific revolution we've followed in part one. This is the economic revolution, a world being turned upside down as new ways of commerce, trade and manufacture are taking place. We see the new stock exchanges as Eliza teaches Jack how money can be made by betting pieces of paper on potential economic outcomes. The pair spend some time with Leibniz, Newton's anti-particle, and learn about new methods for extracted silver in larger quantities that apply the lessons of both the scientific and economic revolutions. Throughout all of this Stephenson's wonderful language and humour make this the most readable of history lessons.

Here's Jack exploring the area around the Parisian docks. The early days of capitalism and the beginnings of the labour theory of value have rarely been more eloquently summed up:

"Some boats carried blocks of stone that had been cut to shape by freemasons working out in the open, somewhere upstream; these boats pulled up along special quays equipped with cranes powered by pairs of large steeped wheels in which men climbed forever without ascending, turning a gear-train that reeled in a cable that passed over a pulley at the end of a tree-sized arm....Elsewhere the same amount of labor might've made a keg of butter or a week's worth of firewood; here it was spent on raising a block several inches so that it could be carted into the city and raised by other workers, higher and height, so that Parisians could have rooms higher than they were wide..."

Stephenson's style is fairly unique. I pointed out that he enjoys playing with different forms of the written word. He also enjoys his jokes, and occasionally he likes to insert a more contemporary reference. Here's Leibniz writing from Venice:

"As I write these words.... two gondoliers who nearly collided a minute ago are screaming murderous threats at each other. This sort of thing happens all the time here. The Venetians have even given it a name: 'Canal Rage.' Some say that it is a new phenomenon... a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world."

The universe of Quicksilver is not quite our own. Stephenson has inserted some fictional characters into his history, but also some fictional places. This is not really fantasy though, it is more a trick to allow him to play with people and tales in a way that a strict work of historical fiction wouldn't. That said, he doesn't shy from the realities of history.

Capitalism, Karl Marx once wrote was born, "dripping in blood" and there's plenty of that in Quicksilver. Much of the third volume deals with the machinations of various courts as they try to gain their own power in the wake of the English Restoration and the run up to the Glorious Revolution. Enormous armies march back and force, torture, violence as well as poverty and hunger stalk the land.

The myriad of characters and story lines come together in the final section of this book as England appears, at least superficially, to be gaining a level of calm following the chaos of the years of rule by Charles II and James Stuart. We know from the earliest chapters however, that Daniel returns from his exile in the New World where he has gone to escape the Old. The story is only beginning and I look forward to continuing to read it in the second and third volumes of the trilogy.

Related Reviews

Stephenson - The Confusion
Stephenson - The System of the World

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Antony Beevor - The Second World War

Given that British bookshops groan under the weight of tomes about World War Two, readers would not be mad to wonder whether or not there is any need for a new book chronicling the war. However this new history by the author of Stalingrad and Berlin is well worth the effort of its 800 pages. Part of this is to do with Beevor himself. He has an unparallelled grasp of the historical material and he writes very well indeed. He isn't prone to the disease that afflicts many western writers when discussing the Second World War, in that he recognises that the war was not won by Britain on her own, nor even by the military and industrial might of the United States. He understands that these were important, but not so important as the role of Russia's enormous reserves of manpower and industry.

Thus, for those brought up on what might be loosely called the Daily Mail view of the world, there are some strange omissions. The Luftwaffe's Blitz on British towns and cities receives very little coverage compared to Beevor's discussion of the destruction of German towns and cities. Britain is not, after all, the centre of the world. But Beevor doesn't limit himself to a history based on relative importance of different events. He is also extremely critical of the way that the war was prosecuted. In particular, two favourites of the British view of the war, Bomber Harris and General Montgomery receive short shrift from Beevor's analysis of the war. In particular Beevor notes the limitation of Harris' strategy of defeating Germany by mass bombing of cities, as well as pointing out on a couple of occasions the way that Bomber Commands attacks often had a negative role for Allied soldiers on the ground. Take the capture of the German town of Cleve. Beevor writes that "Harris's bombers had smashed the city for once with high explosive instead of incendiaries, which made it far harder to capture because the Germans fought from the ruins."

Beevor never diminishes the heroism of the fighting men, whichever side they fought on, though he never paints either side as fighting with some angelic pureness. Beevor documents the atrocities, the massacre of prisoners of war and civilians, but points out that these were never just the Axis powers. Sadly British and American troops were also guilty of such crimes, though rarely were they disciplined for it. Indeed sometimes it was encouraged by commanders who would not, or could not deal with the prisoners.

Elsewhere, in Berlin Beevor has documented the forgotten history of the mass rapes that took place as the Russians captured German cities. But this was not limited to Germany. Russian soldiers were particularly brutal towards Japanese women in towns they captured in China. But other Allied troops from Britain and the US were certainly guilty of similar crimes in South East Asia, in part because of the brutal nature of that war.

It is the brutality of the conflict that shines through Beevors book. Almost every page tells the stories of casualties on a scale that defies comprehension. 1000 killed in a bombing raid, 2000 lost in a pointless attack or defence, 10,000 dead in a firestorm or forced march. This is the logical conclusion of total war in a time of mass industrial production. But Beevor also locates the Holocaust, with its mass murder of Jews and others in the context of the brutal genocidal war being fought on the Eastern Front. Hitler certainly wanted to eradicate the Jews, but the mass murder was the consequence of this anti-Semitic propaganda combining with a brutal war that dehumanised everyone involved in it. That said, Beevor makes it clear that many people, including leading members of the British and American governments knew about the death camps, and decided not to act on their intelligence.

We often forget that the Second World War encompassed far more that Europe and the Pacific. So Beevor includes in his grand narrative the war between China and Japan that began in 1937 and places that are often forgotten in shorter histories - Burma, Singapore or Yugoslavia for instance. In places Beevor is necessarily brief, though for those parts of the history I knew well, he often sums up a complex story accurately in a couple of paragraphs. But Beevor's tale is not always a distant over-view. By illustrating his history with more personal accounts the reality of conflict is brought home all to well. Here is one harrowing, but short description that sums up the dirty nature of hand to hand fighting in Warsaw when the Poles rose up against the German occupiers but were left high and dry by the Red Army in 1944.

"A nine-year-old was seen to climb onto a German panzer and throw grenades inside. Both Germans and Poles froze in disbelief at the sight. 'When he jumped down,' and eyewitness recorded, 'he raced off to the gate [of a tenement building] and there burst out crying.'"

One theme that runs through Beevor's book is that World War Two was important because it setup the world (and the conflicts) that would come after the defeat of Germany and Japan. The famous account of Stalin and Churchill drawing up the ratio of influence of the two powers in post-war Europe is here, as are wider discussions about the impact of the post-war agreements on the people of the Middle East and Asia.

Antony Beevor's latest book is one of the best single volume histories of World War Two that I have read. While it is limited in part by its concentration on the military side of the war (there is only a little of the social history that concerns, say, Angus Calder or the revolutionary potential of mass movements that Donny Gluckstein has recently written about) it does not ignore wider questions. The book gives a detailed overview of the conflict and provides an excellent introduction into this important, world changing war.

Related Reviews

Grossman - A Writer At War: With the Red Army 1941 - 1945 (edited by Antony Beevor)
Beevor - D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
Kershaw - The End: Germany 1944 - 1945
Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Calder - The People's War: Britain 1939 - 1945 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Henry Bernstein - Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change

Henry Bernstein's short book is a useful introduction to studies of contemporary agrarian questions. Using an explicitly Marxist approach Bernstein attempts to unravel the complexities of capitalist agriculture, from its origins in pre-capitalist modes of production to the numerous different forms it takes today.

Bernstein begins by pointing out the realities of modern farming. We are used to seeing farming as being dominated by enormous capitalist conglomerates. But this is only half the story. While in the US only 2.1% of the labour force were employed in agriculture in 2000, the industry employees around 1.3 billion people world wide. 97 percent of these are in the developing world. The vast majority of these people (some three quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas) live lives of poverty.

The author argues that this poverty is closely linked to the resistance of working people in the countryside. His book, he argues, is in part about helping such movements understand the nature of the class dynamics that shape their struggles. The issue is complex, because Bernstein argues that there is no single "class" of peasants. In this he echoes Marx's famous quote describing the mass of the French peasantry as a "a sack of potatoes". Bernstein gives one telling example of the differing interests and needs of different sections of farmers or peasants when he quotes Toby Shelley pointing out that "France prides itself on its self-sufficient peasant agriculture, yet without Moroccan field workers many farmers would struggle."

These differences within the peasantry are often, but not always, related to whether or not the peasant owns land. Indeed Bernstein's book is a useful explanation of the way, in different parts of the globe, the development of capitalism has been associated with the privatisation of land. This is further explored by looking at the destruction of existing peasant relations in the eras of colonialism and imperialism.

As a result of these developments, Bernstein writes:

"In agrarian societies before the advent of capitalism... farming was what most people did. What we call "agriculture" was then simply an aggregation, the sum total, of farmers and their activities. Farmers connected with non-farmers to some degree through the exactions of rents and taxes and through typically localized exchange but were not affected by the wider divisions of labour, process of technological change and market dynamics that came to characterize the "agricultural sector" in industrial capitalism."

Today's capitalist economy is geared to the maximisation of profits and almost no part of the agricultural world can be separated out from that. Indeed in many parts of the world capitalism has (and continues to) explicitly turn the family farmer into a wage labourer "working with other people's means of production".

Bernstein's book is short (of the order of 120 pages) but it covers a multitude of ideas and useful analysis. It is an excellent primer for discussions of wider agrarian questions but its Marxist approach makes it particularly useful for activists. The authors examination of some contemporary peasant movements (such as the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement) should be of particular interest.

Related Reviews

Bello - The Food Wars
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Christopher Hill - The World Turned Upside Down

I've seen it occasionally suggested that Christopher Hill's classic book, The World Turned Upside Down is one of the best introductions to a study of the English Revolution and Civil War. I don't agree with that, but I understand why radicals often suggest it. Hill's book is not a history of the Revolution, nor an introduction to the period. In fact, without a basic understanding of the history of the era, the reader of this work might be left a little high and dry. As the subtitle suggests, this is a more specific history, that of "radical ideas during the English Revolution" and by radical ideas Hill also means the people and organisations that spread them.

One of the reasons that it is often suggested as a introductory read is, I suspect, because it has had a profound effect on so many people. Hill's coverage is extensive and his knowledge of the source material very impressive, as the extensive footnotes indicate. But more importantly the book is important because it treats the subject matter dialectically. Ideas were not static, organisations did not remain unchanged, but they grew and developed as the English Revolution itself grew and then, with the suppression of radical ideas and organisations after 1650, they changed once again.

This helps to explain a modern conundrum. Today the Quakers are a network of pacifistic Friends, yet during parts of the 1600s they were a radical religious grouping that in turn spawned even more radical ideas. Their survival into modern times is in part because of their ability to shake off their radical origins and make themselves more acceptable into the post revolutionary landscape, indeed Hill describes one of the radical founders of Quakerism, George Fox as playing "a part only slightly greater than that of Trotsky in official Soviet histories of the Russian Revolution". An early airbrushing of history.

But the Quakers, like other groups were part and parcel of a wider radical landscape, their success was as Hill points out, a result of the defeat of more political organisations, such as the Diggers and the Levellers:

"The spread of Quakerism, emptying the churches of Anabaptists and separatists, witnessed both to the defeat of the political Levellers and to the continued existence and indeed extension of radical ideas".

This book must surly be credited with the wider recognition of the existence of such organisations. Much of the radical core of the English Revolution had been forgotten until the rediscovery of many of the writings and records in later centuries. Hill's book is excellent and explaining the stunningly radical ideas of groups such as the Diggers. He avoids the temptation to suggest they were ahead of their time, pointing out in the conclusion that many of their ideas were in advance of ours. But the Levellers and Diggers were merely the tip of a radical iceberg. There were many groups and individuals who questioned society, ideology and religion in extremely detailed ways.

The Levellers didn't want to abolish private property, though they were happy to see a blunting of the rule of the rich. Other sects did want to see private property destroyed and they also questioned everything, from the existence of heaven and hell, to the idea that marriage and divorce should not be infinitely easier, or that the Bible was not the word of god. As in any period of radicalism, more open attitudes towards sex came to the fore, but in a period of history when religion invaded every aspect of love this was shocking to the establishment (and perhaps the wider population). But the theme that returns over and again in Hill's book, is that ordinary men and women are beginning to question the world around them, the structures of society and their own roles within it.

Christopher Hill is not so mechanical a Marxist to suggest that this radicalism was only driven by economic changes, he writes:

"I have tried to stress in this book the most unusual stimuli which during the revolutionary decades produced a fantastic outburst of energy, both physical and intellectual. The civil war itself, the intellectual forcing house of the New Model Army and its Army Council, regicide, the conquest of Ireland and Scotland, the Dutch and Spanish wars, physical and social mobility, the continuous flow of pamphlets..."

This an much more contributed to an immense groundswell of ideas that men like Cromwell were first to use for their own class interests and then to bloodily suppress. Hill concludes that the "tragedy of the radicals was that they were never able to arrive at political unity during the Revolution". This means that the outcome was less in their interests than it might have been. Nonetheless the radical ideas that were defeated post 1650 did not vanish for good, but became a small and influential part of wider ideas for many decades.

Hill's book is an inspiration in the sense that it shows how men and women at different points in history have stood tall and tried to understand their world and shape it. Socialists are used to arguing this about the great revolutions of the 20th century, but it was true for centuries before 1917 and 1968. It will undoubtedly be true again.

Related Reviews

Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Purkiss - The English Civil War: A People's History