Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds - The Medusa Chronicles

Bloody terrible.

This novel is intended as a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, extending his classic tale A Meeting With Medusa. But it combines Clarke's inability to portray characters as anything other than cliched wooden extras from a bad 1950 film with a terrible plot-line that fizzles out in an unbelievable ending.

Don't bother, even if you are an enormous fan of these authors' other works.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Martin Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm

While seemingly a rather specialised topic, Martin Green's history of the neolithic, bronze and iron ages as understood through studies of the pre-history of his farm in Cranborne Chase contains a wealth of information. The Chase, an area roughly north-east of Blanford Forum in Dorset contains hundreds of locations of archaeological interest. Many of these are part of what should be understood as a cultural landscape, with sites frequently placed in relation to others.

Green is a farmer, but he has an immense skill and knowledge as an archaeologist and decades of work has led him to make some extremely significant finds. While some of the locations mentioned in this book such as the two iron age forts at Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill are well know (and well worth visiting) many others are either less well visited, or simply exist as crop marks or excavations.

I was inspired enough by Green's account of Knowlton Henge to visit. As the author explains this ruined 12th century Norman church was built in the midst of a large Neolithic henge. It does not take much expertise to understand the way the Christian church was trying to usurp "pagan" traditions here.

The book is full of fascinating details; from the explanation of archaeological method (including a chapter by Dr. Michael Allen on the links between snails and archaeological investigations) to the way modern science allows us to follow the travels of individuals thousands of years ago through the study of their bones. It is also extremely well illustrated.

This isn't a book for the casual reader, but for someone exploring the pre-history of Dorset its invaluable.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

S.A. Smith - Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928

S.A. Smith's Red Petrograd is one of the best books I've ever read in the Russian Revolution, so I had high expectations of this one. Sadly I was disappointed, even though there is much that I found of interest in it, and even for people like myself who have read widely on the subject there is significantly new material.

This review is not the place to rehearse the story of the Revolution itself. Following a useful discussion of Russian history. Smith moves to the story of 1917. Given the criticisms of the October Revolution by the right, it's worth quoting Smith's conclusions about events:
The seizure of power is often presented as a conspiratorial coup against a democratic government. It certainly had the elements of a coup, but it was a coup much advertised, and the government it overthrew had not been democratically elected. It is noteworthy how few military officers were willing to come to the aid of the government... The coup would certainly not have taken place had it not been for Lenin; and thanks to the decision of the moderate socialists to postpone the Second Congress, hi plan to present the latter with a fait accompli was achieved. But the execution of the insurrection was entirely Trotsky's work, cleverly disguised as a defensive operation to preserve the garrison and the Petrograd Soviet against the 'counter-revolutionary' design of the Provisional Government. in the last analysis, however, the Provisional Government had expired even before the Bolsheviks finished it off.
Following this, Smith looks at how the Bolsheviks' attempted to build on their success, and the various aspects of the consequences. There are useful discussions of how the Bolshevik's support for the right to self determination played out. Thirteen new states were created out of Russia between October 1917 and December 1918, for instance. But Smith also highlights how this went wrong - for instance the way that the Bolshevik's had to keep Ukraine by military not political means. There are also some fascinating sections on the way the Bolsheviks related to Muslims, invited to "order their national life 'freely and without hindrance'" in November 1917.

All of this is excellent material and there are some fine stories and quotes from the period. But the problem is Smith's framing of the material. Smith rightly sees the economic and political damage caused by the Civil War as a key turning point for the Revolution. While he notes that both sides committed "terror", he does acknowledge that the motivations were very different and that Red Terror was often in response to the brutal reality of the Whites.

But I think Smith underestimates the impact of the Civil War one the base of the Bolshevik's and their strategies. For instance, when discussing the Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks, Smith highlights the context, but neglects to point out that the Kronstadt sailors were not the same force that had been a bastion of the Revolution. They were much depleted by the Civil War and other political roles and had been watered down by an influx of new recruits. Smith's argument makes it looks like a key revolutionary force had changed sides, when this was not the case.

More problematic is the continuity that Smith places on the Bolsheviks before the seizure of power and long afterwards. There are two aspects to this. Firstly Smith frequently discusses the Bolsheviks before the Revolution (or in its early stages) and the strategy perused by Stalin as though it were the same organisation. Secondly I think he places the "Great Break", the rupture between Stalin's strategy and the old Bolshevik revolutionary strategy much too late. He argues that this was in 1928, but it is clear by then, that the policy being pursued by Stalin was already very different.
The Bolsheviks, who had so resoundingly rejected Russia's heritage in favour of proletarian internationalism, found that the greater the distance they travelled from October, the more they were hemmed in by these deep structuring forces. They did not become wholly captive to those forces, nor did revolutionary energies exhaust themselves, as Stalin's revolution from above' demonstrated, but in many areas the more utopian ideals of the early years were gradually abandoned and a new synthesis of revolutionary and traditional culture crystallised... It came about... because the Bolsheviks were transformed from a party of insurrection into a party of state builders.
But this confusing argument suggests a continuity between 1917 and the 1930s, which is inaccurate. The reality was there was a massive break, that required the liquidation of the old Bolshevik party and Stalin rebuilding a new one in his own image.

Smith effectively argues that it was the nature of Lenin and the Bolshevik organisation he crafted that led to the centralisation of power. "Lenin had ruled by virtue of his charisma, rather than his formal, position and he bequeathed a structure of weak but bloated institutions that relied for direction on a strong leader". There is some truth to this, but it is not the whole story and while Smith doesn't ignore the other problems he down plays them. Thus while he does acknowledge the strategy of international revolution that the Bolsheviks hoped would solve their problems, he doesn't underline that this was actually quite realistic. In fact there is little mention here of the German Revolution, nor the other revolutions that shook Europe post 1918. Oddly there is precious little on the Comintern, before or after Stalin, except a few brief discussions.

Smith is also prone to some sweeping statements that undermine some of his better analysis. Stalin, he notes, "had read Machiavelli". So what? I suspect most intellectual Marxists of the period had. Lenin's great work State and Revolution is dismissed as having "utopian flights of fancy" in which a "cook or housekeeper could learn to run public affairs". It wasn't that much of a flight of fancy given that Soviets were being set up across Russia in their hundreds and supported by millions of workers and peasants while Lenin wrote it.

Ultimately I was left disappointed by the book. It has much of interest, but at times feels like a crude assault on Bolshevism (and Lenin in particular - hence an unreferenced quote saying Lenin described avant-guard art as "absurd and perverted"). The author concludes by arguing that the importance of the Revolution was not in its actuality (he suggests the Great Break was more important than the Revolution that preceded it), nor in the hope that workers in power would led to an end to inequality and exploitation. He argues that the Revolution's answers to these problems were "flawed".

Smith clearly sees capitalism as leading to war and environmental destruction, but dismisses the only political organisation that has created a fundamentally different workers state, arguing that their revolution "wrought calamity". Yet the reality was the calamity was a consequence of the counter-revolution that strangled the revolution and the failure of international revolution to break the chains that bound Russia in isolation.

That said, Smith can, and does celebrate what the revolution meant for ordinary people and millions of others around the globe. I can agree with him about how 1917 lifted people, and taught them to look further afield, before the revolution was defeated and drowned in blood. One example from Smith's book will suffice.
Yet the campaign to liquidate illiteracy awoke a thirst for knowledge on the part of newly literate readers. A poor peasant sent a letter to the Peasant Newspaper: 'Send me a list of books published on the following subjects because I am interested in everything: chemistry, science, technology, the planets, the sun, the earth, the planet Mars, world maps, books on aviation, the number of planes we posses, the number of enemies the Socialist Republic has, books on comets, stars, water, the earth and sky'.
Related Reviews

Lenin - Will the Bolsheviks Maintain State Power?
Serge - Year One of the Russian Revolution
Smith - Red Petrograd
Cliff - The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star: Trotsky 1927-1940
Lewin - Russian Peasants and Soviet Power

Friday, May 05, 2017

Carl J. Griffin - The Rural War: Captain Swing and the Politics of Protest

This is the most recent serious book on the Captain Swing movement. Its author is keen to present it as the definitive work that surpasses two other earlier book lengths treatments. These are the Hammond's Village Labourer and Hobsbawm and Rudé's Captain Swing. Griffin's certainty of his works' improvement on its predecessors irked me somewhat as I don't think it's fair to say that neither book offers students of rural class struggle something.

However it is true, as Griffin can say, that both of them missed crucial parts of the struggle and his work does highlight how the Swing movement was brother more intense, and more extensive than hitherto understood. Of Hobsbawm and Rudé he writes that they "seriously underestimate the level of reported disturbances".

Griffin also attempts to introduce other missing aspects of the history of the period, including the role of women, of which more shortly.

This review will not repeat an account of the Swing movement itself, but essentially this was a movement of popular outrage at rural economic conditions. The origins of these problems were simple enough - wages were low, jobs were scarce and farming was now for profit. But the situation was made worse because the standard system of poor relief was so inadequate. Old traditions however remained. Griffin notes that rural workers believed that "public relief was a right" and that "field labour [w]as a right". He argues that this "fostered a 'culture of xenophobia'," (the quote is from the historian Keith Snell) against non-indigent and migrant workers. In the context of rural England in the 1830s this meant attacks on Irish migrant labourers. Certainly this aspect was neglected in earlier histories and is an interesting fact that helps understand some of the dynamics of the period.

Griffin also argues, and I think this is an extremely important point, that Swing was not a "bolt from blue" as Hobsbawm and Rudé suggested, instead it was an intensification of events. Attacks on migrant labourers, as well as earlier attacks on machines, riots, protests and threatening letters, are part of the Swing "prehistory". Griffin also highlights how the movement continued after 1830 arguing that the repression didn't simply destroy Swing, but changed its form. For instance there are a number of cases when labourers who had won a pay rise from local farmers protested and burnt down targets again when the increases were removed.

Swing took place in the context of economic downturn. But it also took place at a time of enormous political upheaval. The 1830 French Revolution drew some support from rural workers and there were cases of the French tricolour being waved at protests. Another factor was the struggle for Parliamentary Reform and Griffin is particularly useful at understanding the interplay between that and Swing itself.

But its the sections on gender politics and the Swing movement that Griffin clearly feels are some of the most significant developments on earlier work. Here he argues that the role of the male agricultural labourer was being challenged. Their labour, he says, was about a family wage and this was being undermined. Women themselves took part, on occasion in protests during Swing and "even if men were trying to reassert their economic and household-political primacy, women clearly too had much to gain from Swing and therefore might support their husbands and brothers".

Clearly there is likely some truth to these factors, though a lack of evidence is a problem. I find Griffin's discussion of the sexual nature of machine breaking more problematic. He quotes George Youens, a labourer arrested for destroying a threshing machine at Elham, remembering that some of the gang shouted "Kill Her - More Oil". Griffin argues "Threshing machines became proxies for female bodies, something they as men should control, dominate and discipline... the allusion in the quote is in all probability to sex. Not only wasa 'woman' going to be 'killed', but the machine-breakers also were going to rape 'her'."

From a "misogynistic perspective" writes Griffin, the "machine's rhythmic action combined with the fact that it had to be 'served' through 'entry' meant that it was not unlike the objectified sexualised female body."

Personally I feel that is somewhat contrived. That's not to say that gender politics did not play a role in the Swing movement - as with Rebecca and a host of other rural movements, symbolic cross-dressing was part of some of the actions. But this over-sexualised interpretation of the Swing movement doesn't seem to fit with the evidence that Griffin has. He asserts that "gender politics in the Kentish machine-breaking heartlands shows the ingrained nature of sexual violence towards women" that sexual violence against women was an "integral part of labouring life", but I'm sceptical that the evidence proves this (Griffin highlights five cases). Even if true it seems a big leap to suggest that machine-breaking was a "reassertion, as psychological as much as it was public, of male power". I suspect that the vast majority of those engaged in machine-breaking did not approach the action from this point of view, but rather because they wanted better conditions for them and their families. If this is because their traditional roles were being challenged then we must understand that this is how class struggle takes place - in the context of the ideas "inherited from the past" and "not in circumstances of our choosing".

However Griffin is right to explore the role of women (and gender politics) in rural movements like Swing, a role that is usually ignored or dismissed. While I was not convinced by his conclusions here, the question of how women joined in the struggles for social and economic justice in the early years of capitalism are of great importance.

In conclusion I found Griffin's book very useful, developing early history a great deal; expanding the coverage of the struggles and asking some important questions of both the historical material and previous historians. Anyone studying Captain Swing will gain a lot from reading this.

Related Reviews

Hobsbawm and Rudé - Captain Swing
Hammond and Hammond - The Village Labourer