Tuesday, May 28, 2013

David Harvey - Rebel Cities

Subtitled "From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution", David Harvey's Rebel Cities has been a big seller. In part this is because it has captured a sense of city-wide resistance in the aftermath of the global Occupy! movement.

However having seen the book around a lot I was very disappointed. Mostly because I found it superficial, but partly because I don't think that Harvey's central argument is particularly new, or convincing. Harvey is a Marxist geographer and one of his central theories is that cities have been central to both the development of capitalism and its continued existence. They are the places were production was centralised, bringing together millions of workers and their networks in factories. Cities have "arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product." But for Harvey, the cities are also an important sink where the surplus generated by capitalism can be absorbed, the market for the products of the system and the necessary escape valve for the capitalists who must constantly produce more and more.

None of the this particularly surprising, though Harvey has a tendency to portray it as a newly discovered theory that should make us all gasp with surprise. From this analysis, Harvey then develops the ideas of those who called, and continue to call, for a "right to the city". For Harvey this is more than simply the right to work, or access to public services, open spaces or clean water. This is about having a collective right on the exercise of collective power over urbanisation, a "shaping power over the process of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way."

To support this argument, Harvey argues that there have been many attempts in the past by city dwellers to fight for this sort of control - the Paris Commune of 1871 for instance, Red Bologna, Petrograd in the early years of the Russian Revolution and so on. More recently he points in some detail to the experience of city wide resistance in the Bolivian city of El Alto. Writing about the Commune he says that "the dispossessed rose up seeking to reclaim the city they had lost."

On this I felt that Harvey was trying to shoehorn a thesis onto existing facts. In none of these examples did the city dwellers rise up with the intention of redrawing their own cities. In fact, they begin with very specific instances of struggle, based around a single issue or workplace. They generalise through the process of struggle and revolution and ultimately, the logic of these struggles is to challenge the state for power. All revolution is about the clash of powers and it should be no surprise then that in particular cities that have a concentration of workers, workplaces, or organisations this can and does lead to questions about the lives of people as a whole. When workers councils organise struggle, this leads to questions of transport and food dsitrbution as well as times and locations of strikes and protests.

Nonetheless, the city is central to capitalism. As Harvey rightly points out, recent economic crises are tied to the boom and bust cycle linked to the housing and property markets. He eloquently points to the way that cities are constantly redrawn, as low income households are pushed out in favour of richer people, "clearances for land value", citing examples from around the globe that show how the very nature of working class communities, with their diversity and culture makes them attractive, but they are destroyed when the community is forced out. Sometimes the city redesign is in response to the threat of revolution, as in the rebuilding of Paris by Haussmann.

Harvey finishes by asking "how does one organise a city" in the sense of resistance? He offers a number of suggestions, none of which are particularly controversial. Rightly he argues against the notion that resistance and social organisation can be simply horizontal with no hierarchy. He points to the problems that this would lead to for social organisation on a planet of 7 billion people. He also shows how the best city wide resistance movements are ones that often have democratic decision processes to elect a group to represent wider forces. But Harvey seems to think that the existing left has it wrong.

"urbanization is itself produced. Thousands of workers are engaged in its production ,and their work is productive of value and of surplus value. Why not, focus on the city rather than the factory as the prime site of surplus value production?"

Because the left only relate to specific workplaces, or have an outdated view of workers based on a utopian idea of factories that comes from Marx and Engels we are making enormous mistakes says Harvey. There is some truth in this. The working class is constantly changing. But to argue that the left in (say) Britain should ignore specific workplaces in favour of city wide structures would have meant missing out on some key struggles over the last few years. For instance, in Manchester where I lived, in 2011 there was a growing wave of public sector strikes. Should the left have simple begun by calling for city wide action, or did we have to begin where individual workers were? Reality meant leafleting and paper selling at council offices, schools, libraries, fire stations and the like. A general rhetorical call for city wide action would have bypassed the very individuals who made that sort of action possible.

Ultimately Harvey's book is disappointing, but it is not useless by anymeans. There are some fascinating ideas here and a useful recap of how cities are at the heart of the modern economy. There is a brilliant critique of the "tragedy of the commons" thesis in relation to urban life and some very good facts on the way that the booms and busts have been linked to urban development. Sadly I felt that much more was needed and was left feeling that Harvey's genuine call for the revolutionary transformation of our cities and spaces was lacking in a serious strategy that could change the world.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Aida Aleksia - Why We're Not Benefit Scroungers: Life with chronic illness or disability in modern Britain

The current UK coalition government is engaged in a war on the poorest and most vulnerable people in British society. There is no other way of describing the "reforms" that are being introduced that will further impoverish and scapegoat people who rely on already meagre state benefits.

One of the worst aspects of government policy is the changes towards those who are disabled or chronically ill. Aida Aleksia's new book is an attempt to understand what these changes mean but also to give readers a sense of what it is like to be disabled or ill in modern Britain. It is not an easy read. In part, the collected case studies in the second half of the book, paint a frightening picture of life for those who are ill or disabled. But also hard is the way that Aleksia brings out the way that benefit changes are going to make life much much harder for those who often have little support in the first place.

The author begins with some statistics that highlight some of the problems:

"Poverty amongst disabled people is common. Almost half of households with a disabled member are in the bottom 40% of the income distribution.... Moreover, 29% of disabled households are in poverty, compared to 17% for non-disabled households. In London, 73% of households with one disabled adult do not reach the minimum income standard."

Aleksia then points out, that income measures are not enough to cover true scale of poverty for disabled households  because "they don not acknowledge the additional costs incurred by disabled people because of their disabilities."

Here is the crux of the problem. Much of the benefits given to the disabled, or ill, are to help cover the extra costs that occur. They are not an alternative income, but are supposed to help the recipients work, or lead improved lives. One of the recurring themes of Aleksia' book is that disabled people want to work, but are often unable to. Either because employers cannot cope with their disability, or because the difficulties of travel etc.

This contrasts with government rhetoric. Surveys that show public perception is that benefit recipients are scroungers, or cheats, something that flows directly from Minister's speeches and tabloid headlines. In order to save money, the government has decided to cut the benefits bill, yet this is actually a tiny amount of money, and this perhaps betrays their real motives.

Aleksia points out, "the government has decided to cut 20% from the DLA [Disabled Living Allowance] bill; DLA comprises a mere 8% of the overall bill, and estimates by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicate that DLA payments are [already] inadequate."

In addition "high rejection rates, high appeal rates, high overturn rates at appeal and low fraud suggest that the current system is weighted towards reducing fraud."

In other words, the government is more concerned with tackling fraud (even though studies show this is at a low level - of the £12.6 billion in DLA payments in 2004/05 only 0.5% was due to fraud) than with providing for the needs of the ill and disabled.

Both the current and previous governments have also pushed privatisation. This means that the front line support for the disabled and administration of the benefits system is done by organisations whose driving force is the maximisation of profits. One example of this is the college for autistic adults mentioned in one of the case studies. In this college, teaching staff were made redundant and then had to reapply for their old posts on a 30% reduced salary. The manager who made this decision had previously run a dog food factory and had been hired for his financial experience, not his understanding of the needs of autistic adults.

More seriously is the question of Atos Healthcare. Atos is a IT company that runs the Work Capability Assessments for the Employment and Support allowance. Atos has been under immense fire for its procedures, using non-healthcare staff to make decisions that have dramatic effects on peoples lives for instance. Aleksia details both the awful process that someone going to Atos has to go through, as well as the wider issues. One major issue is that the decisions made by Atos are based on a computer program that has a set of very rigid questions. The person interviewing the client will also have to make gross generalisations. One example is that a claimant may be asked if they watch a particular TV programme. If they say yes, this might be interpreted as saying that the claimant is well enough to work at for that length of time. This ignores both the differences of sitting on a sofa in front of a TV and at an office desk. It also ignores the reality that even watching TV can be a difficult and challenging activity for someone who is ill.

I am not sure I agree with Aleksia's conclusion though that "Atos should not be pilloried for carrying out work as asked by the government". Her own examples demonstrate that part of the problem with the company is that in its desire to make money, it cuts corners and uses procedures that are inappropriate. The Citizen's Advice Bureaux reports on "rushed assessments, assumptions being made without exploration, inaccurate recording and poor recognition of mental health problems." Hence it is right that Atos has been targeted by protesters, though this must be part of a general campaign against government policy.

Aleksia argues that the problem for many disabled people is not a lack of desire to be part of wider society, or work, but social barriers that prevent them doing so. This contrasts with a "medical model" that starts with the disability, rather than the changes that could help someone. This might range from specialised equipment or improved facilities on public transport, to increased awareness of disability issues in the workplace. The individual stories in the second half of the book bring home this very clearly.

This is an extremely useful and readable book. The author deliberately avoids discussing why the British government is attacking disability benefits in the way it is. I think this is the old question of "divide and rule". By persuading the wider population that the benefit system is clogged up with scroungers and cheats, they can both reduce their welfare bill and turn us against each other. As the figures themselves show this is less about economics and more about politics. Aleksia's book is a very useful tool in overturning those perceptions and arming activists with the facts and figures they need to counter government claims. It is also a useful discussion on how modern society treats the disabled and what disability actually is.

I did notice one glaring error. The NHS did not begin as claimed, under a Conservative government led by Churchill, rather it was the post-war Labour government. Churchill did not return to office until 1951. It's unfortunate that this error is very early on in the book, as the rest of the facts, figures and quotes are heavily referenced and backed up by detailed research. So I have no hesitation in recommending this book as a weapon in the ongoing fight for social justice.

You can read exerpts from "Why We're Not Benefit Scroungers" on the author's website here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Barbara Tuchman - The Zimmermann Telegram

When the US President Woodrow Wilson delivered his "war message" to Congress on April 2 1917, he was taking his country into a war that had already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Europeans. He was also making a startling personal political reverse. Only three months before, he had declared that to take the United States into war would be a "crime against civilisation". Indeed he had spent much of the previous years trying to help broker a peace, without victory between the European powers.

What caused this reversal? Wilson himself seemed committed to peace. He was narrowly re-elected, in part because of his slogan "he kept us out of the war" and there was a substantial anti-war population in the country. One of the key factors that changed his mind was the Zimmermann Telegram. The story of the interception and decoding of this message forms the core of Barbara Tuchman's history of the US entry into World War One.

Zimmermann was the German Foreign Minister. An able and intelligent politician he, like many German's believed that the entry of the US into the war would be a bitter blow to their hopes. But he also believed, that the potential for unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied shipping, as well as vessels belonging to neutral powers who were supplying their enemies would bring the war to a rapid end. Their was some reality to this. By 1917, Britain and France were suffering the effects of years of naval blockade and the  warfare on the Western Front. The trick for Germany was to engage in this unrestricted conflict and delay or prevent the United States coming into the war on the side of the Allies.

To do this, Zimmermann hoped to bring Mexico and Japan into a war against America. Today this seems fanciful, but then, there were real indications that it might have been possible. Tuchman documents many examples during the preceding years of popular belief that Japanese soldiers were training in Mexico and that Germany was funding Mexican revolutionaries. Not all of these were rumours, some were rooted in reality, and it was not an impossible belief that overtures to the Mexicans might lead to a war that would occupy America's time.

The reality is, of course, that Mexico was unlikely to ever engage in a serious war with the United States, even if in recipient of Germany support. The German's however thought their was, though their initial dreams of an uprising by American-Germans against war with the mother country were quickly dropped.

The Zimmerman telegram then, pandered to the prejudices of both sides. When it was first revealed to an incredulous American public it sent shock waves through the population. When Zimmerman admitted that it was real, the country was set on course for war.

Tuchman points out though, that the Telegram was not the only trigger. If it hadn't been that telegram, she says, Germany would have done something else. Nor did the telegram turn Wilson from pacifist to pro-war overnight. Wilson was moving in that direction because of the pressures of global politics and the realities of German militarism. Interestingly, Tuchman points out, that a final key factor was the February Revolution in Russia. The end of Tsarism meant that for Wilson, the arch-democrat, the war could now be portrayed as a war in defence of democracy. Whatever the interests of America Imperialism, Wilson's particular liberal consciousness was comforted.

Sadly The Zimmermann Telegram is a somewhat disappointing book. Tuchman's other works, that I've reviewed, particularly her Guns of August and her history of fourteenth century Europe are excellent works of popular history. Zimmermann on the other hand feels like a plodding diplomatic history of the entry of America into World War One. A top down history that leaves the reader lacking in a real sense of the mood in the majority of the United States. While the stories of spying in Mexico and the interception of telegrams is exciting in parts, the book is probably aimed more at an American readership trying to understand a key point in their country's history, rather than the general reader.

Related Reviews

Tuchman - The Guns of August
Tuchman - A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Tuchman - The Proud Tower: A Portrait of Europe Before the War

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

William Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

In 1839 a British Army of over 20,000 British and Indian troops invaded the area that we now call Afghanistan. Less than two years later they were so badly defeated that only one soldier made it back to safety. A handful of other English troops survived in captivity and a few hundreds of Indian troops made it home. Thousands of others were killed in the disastrous retreat from Kabul, sold into slavery or killed after being taken prisoner. This story of the First Afghan War is not completely forgotten, several excellent books have been written about it, in particular Patrick Macrory's Signal Catastrophe which I reviewed here. William Dalrymple's book is however important because it was written in a time when western troops were once again precariously based in Kabul, an occupation that, towards the end was becoming as unsustainable as that of 1842. The parallels that Dalrymple draws out are frightening, but what makes Dalrymple's book so interesting is that it is the first account of this war that draws heavily on nineteenth century Afghan sources.

Dalrymple spent some time in Afghanistan writing the book, and in his afterword describes visiting on of the historic sites and seeing an American patrol blown up by an IED. It is not surprising that the comparison between the two wars was at the forefront of his mind.

Dalrymple begins his history with a detailed account of the politics of Afghanistan. This is important, because the British invaded the country in order to impose their favoured monarch on the throne. Without understanding the complex relationships between different tribes and families in the country, it is difficult to comprehend just why the British got it so wrong with their choices. What Dalrymple also brings out though, is that the arrogance and internal rivalry of the British camp led them to ignore those British agents, such as Sekunder Burnes who did have a good grasp of the political situation. In making these mistakes, as with several others over the next few years, there is not a little bit of upper-class arrogance against those who have better knowledge but come from the lower orders.

Even before the invasion, many were suggesting it was doomed to failure. Mountstuart Elphinstone said, "if you send 27,000 men and can feed them, I have no doubt you will take Canahar and Cabul and set up Shuja [the monarch]... but for maintaining him in a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans, I own it seems to me hopeless."

So why did they do it. Then, as in 2001, the issue was geo-politics. In the late 1830s there was a real feel (though based on limited evidence) that Russia was likely to turn Afghanistan into a power-base that would threaten British interests in India. Even when Russia backed down from any interest in the country, the British still went ahead, stretching the local economy, their supply lines and their luck.

Almost as soon as the British had arrived in Kabul, they faced resistance. Dalrymple's descriptions portray it very much as a popular movement to get then occupiers out. This wasn't a few terrorists, but a popular rebellion, and quickly the British learned not to leave their heavily guarded camps.

"The first acts of resistance to the British... Two officers of the 16th Lancers who had gone off fishing along the banks of the Arghandab were set upon by a crowd of Durranis as they made their way home; one was stabbed and later died.... Two hundred camp followers who attempted to make their way back to India 'were betrayed, disarmed and butchered to a man'."

But the nature of the occupation itself encouraged this resistance. Dalrymple documents a rape by a British soldier of a young girl, the lack of punishment in the face of the grieving relatives turned many against the occupation. Interestingly, the question of women was a big issue for the Afghan people. That the British effectively used the women of Kabul as prostitutes, taking wives and assaulting others was a great insult to the Muslim population. More importantly, that leading British officers like Burnes had numerous affairs with married women shocked the wider population, and led directly to him being the first victim of the uprising when it occurred. Dalrymple notes that contemporary Afghan sources make "consistent complaint" that the "British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went".

Nonetheless, the British could have probably consolidated their position had they no behaved in such an ill-judged and arrogant way. They appear to have had a belief in the superiority of British military might that bordered on madness. Building their military base in Kabul "overlooked by the fortifications of several Afghan  nobles", as one contemporary observer wrote, "it must always remain a wonder that any government, any officer, or set of officers, who had either science of experience in the field, should in a half conquered country fix their forces in so extraordinary and injudicious a position."

When the fighting started the British were trapped. In part this was military, their soldiers were picked off from a distance, from heavily protected Afghan snipers. In part through, it was through appalling levels of military mismanagement. The British officers seemed utterly unable to make decisive decisions. Lady Sale describes at one point how she and others watched as a British square stood isolated on a hillside, picked off one by one as the officer seemed unable to beat a retreat. One more example should suffice:

"although the forts contained all the British food supplies that had been gathered for the long Afghan winter, neither Elphinstone nor Macnaughten sent any troops, or even further supplies of ammunition to aid the defenders of either outpost, although both centres of resistance were less than a mile and a half from the cantonment where 5,000 armed sepoys were idly waiting orders."

Bad leadership, cowardice and military stupidity dogged the army. Dalrymple points out that several of the first Indian regiments to mutiny in 1857 were the ones whose British officers had deserted them in 1842. More importantly, when the army did finally decide to retreat, it did so in such a disorganised and ill-managed way, that massacre was almost entirely inevitable.

The destruction of the British army led to the destruction of Kabul. Not being known for their subtlety the British sent the "Army of Retribution" to Kabul which massacred men, women and children all the way back to the capital. On their arrival, they destroyed the market, one of the architectural wonders of Asia and butchered the population who remained, despite them being some of the few who had some loyalty to the British.

The invasion cost more than 40,000 lives and ended the East India Company. It cost something like £50 billion in today's money, which pushed the Indian economy to the point of collapse. The Indian army was left damaged and "alienated", helping sow the seeds of future revolt and Afghanistan remained out of bounds to future British interests.

Both Macrory and William Dalrymple's books make the point that in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, the names of the British military leaders are better remembered by the Afghan people than by the British. In part this is because the Afghan population remember their victories, but it is also because the First Afghan War highlighted the appalling realities of British Imperial rule. It demonstrated that the military leadership was inept and incompetent, more interested in balls and hunting, than understanding the people who it ruled.

William Dalrymple has produced a stunning piece of history, lavishly illustrated, brilliantly written and for the first time, giving voice to the people of Afghanistan who suffered a brutal occupation and dealt the world's most powerful empire an enormous defeat. It would not be the first time, and for anyone wanting to understand why neither the Red Army or NATO could win, this is an excellent starting place.

Related Reviews

Macrory - Signal Catastrophe: The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul

Friday, May 17, 2013

M. Lewin - Russian Peasants & Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization

Moshe Lewin's 1968 book is a classic study of a crucial period in Soviet history. It provided ammunition for socialists at the time who argued that the Soviet Union was no longer socialist. The collectivisation of the peasants bringing farms and families together into larger "collective" farms (Kolkhoz) was one outcome that many Marxists believed would happen to the backward rural communities of non-industrial countries in the aftermath of the revolution. Lewin argues, in short, that what took place in the Soviet Union was an attempt by Stalin to accelerate the process in the interests of developing the countries economic base. The consequences of this were appalling. Lewin argues that around 10 million people were deported from their homes, often wrongly accused of being richer, "capitalist" peasants, known as Kulaks who were out to destroy the socialist regime.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the first time that a workers' movement had taken power. But Russia was not the industrialised country that most Marxists had imagined the first successful revolution would take place in. The defeat of further international revolutions, in particularly the one in Germany in 1919-1923, left Russia isolated. This enabled the growth of a bureaucracy who had their own class interests in society, and began to form a new ruling class. Russia was an immensely underdeveloped country from an industrial point of view.

Lewin points out that in 1928, the beginning of the crucial period for the peasantry in Russia, the peasantry was still 80 percent of the population. Despite attempts by the Bolsheviks to improve things, a 1930 report pointed out that in the "eleventh year since Lenin's decree on the wiping-out of illiteracy, we have still covered very little ground". What that meant in raw numbers was 61 million peasants between the ages of twelve and thirty-five who were semi, or totally illiterate. At this time, 5.5 million peasant holdings were still farmed using wooden ploughs.

The revolution had relied on an alliance between the workers of Russia and the mass of the peasants. But while the peasants had much to gain from the revolution, their longer-term interests differed. The centrality of the land question for the Bolsheviks was enough to win the support of the peasantry, but Soviet power was an essentially urban phenomena. Once the workers' had taken power, the peasantry would only remain loyal to the revolution if they benefited from it.

The invasion of Russia by imperialist powers in the aftermath of the Revolution had further destroyed the countryside and left the country in crisis. In emergency situation the Bolsheviks were forced to appropriate food from the countryside, which helped to undermine the coalition between the workers and peasantry who had made the revolution. Much of the early chapters of Lewin's book is a comprehensive study of both the nature of Russian peasant society and the complex dynamics that took place between town and country in the years before and after the revolution.

In the years following Lenin's death and the retreat of the possiblity of world revolution, the question of the peasantry loomed large for the Soviet government. Part of the problem was that the existing peasantry continued to live much in the old way. They had their own class interests, which were not necessarily in the interest of wider society. The Soviet regime, particularly once Stalin had moved Soviet policy towards building "Socialism in one country", needed enormous quantities of food. This required the development of the farming areas, increased technologies and crucially, in the eyes of many Soviet economists, larger farms. But this contrasted with the needs of the peasants, who, liked peasants the world over, began from the needs of their families. Thus the poorest farmers and agricultural labourers the Batraks: 

"aspired, like every other peasant, to become an independent farmer, to have more land and more implements with which to cultivate it. He would perhaps of been prepared to join an agricultural collective, the regime at that time not being in the least interested in collectivisation. Nor did anyone think of providing the batraks with more land and implements."

The governments' policies often recognised rural poverty, but offered very little to the poorest and certainly was in no position to systematically offer technology to the peasantry. Those incentives that were offered tended to benefit the middle and richer peasants. As a result, rather than encouraging collective farming, the financial contributions meant to encourage co-operatives tended to "reinforce the general trend towards individual farming".

The problem of the underdeveloped countryside grew for the Soviet regime. As Lewin points out;

"The rural sector was undoubtedly the weakest and most vulnerable point in the Soviet system. In this sector the greatest dangers lay in wait for the regime, and it was in this sector that the boldest policies and the most unremitting efforts were called for. And yet this was the very sector in which the fewest forces were deployed and to which the Party gave least attention.".

Nigel Harris has described the Soviet regime at this point has having the character of an "urban beach head in the countryside" this apt description reflects' Lewin's thoughts;

"The Party was fundamentally an urban one and it failed to learn from its experience during the NEP period, how to come to terms with countryside, how to devise more suitable instruments of administration and how to formulate an original policy which would serve the aims of socialism and the specific character and needs of the peasantry."

This indecision and lack of clarity in part was a result of the different ideological trends within the Soviet government. This is why the future of the peasantry in part depends on the crucial years of 1928 and 1929, the story of which form the core of Lewin's book. These years have three crucial parts. The first two are the defeat, in turn of the Left inside the Communist Party and then the Right, by Stalin. Lewin's description of Stalin's manoeuvres and his alliances that allowed this to happen form several fascinating chapters. Because much of these debates were tied up with Soviet economic policy, events in the countryside were an enormous part of these factional battles.

The third part was the economic crisis and the near famine situation that developed in 1928/9. The growth of Soviet cities put increased pressure on the peasants to provide more food. Towards the end of 1927 it became clear that there would be shortages, which led to the "procurement crisis" when the Soviet regime had to force the peasantry to sell food, often at a loss. Increasingly this took place forcibly, with peasants being fined and imprisoned if they didn't provide food. Interestingly, Lewin makes the point that the idea of using force against the peasantry was "unthinkable" to everyone on all sides of the debates amongst the leadership. What happened is that the need to do this, and the understanding that the peasantry would have to be forcibly reconfigured grew gradually out of the experience, and the propaganda that Stalin used against the peasantry.

Indeed, quite late on, there was no serious talk about collectivisation in rural areas. In 1925, Trotsky spoke of "the gradual transition to collective agriculture", indeed the "left" believed that "private farming would continue to be the dominant form in the countryside for a long time to come". In the aftermath of 1929 however, with the defeat of his rivals and the entrenchment of the cult of Stalin, the head of the bureaucracy began to understand that he might accelerate the process.

Lewin traces the evolution of Stalin's thought in great detail. He too, initially did not believe in collectivisation other than as a gradual process, requiring the "gradual application of socialist principles in agriculture". However by 1928, Stalin was talking about the peasantry as a class apart, even a "capitalist class" and in fear of future crises hampering the development of the Soviet Union's industrial base, Stalin began to find ways to accelerate the process of rural development, aiming to create industrialised agriculture.

A major part of preparing the country for this, in particular the Communist cadres that would be needed to drive this through. This meant the growing demonisation of the Kulaks as a class enemy of the Soviet regime in the countryside. From 1929 onwards a war was waged against the Kulaks, which often caught up many others in its wake. For some this was an opportunity to settle old scores, for others a chance to obtain the wealth of the richer peasants, for others simply a lack of understanding of the make up of the peasantry. The increased violence that was used, ultimately led to the deportation and deaths of millions.

Lewin asks, rhetorically, whether there was an alternative. Russia had to develop its agricultural base, but could this have happened without the "liquidation of the Kulaks as a class" and the forcible collectivisation of the population? Leaving aside the question of whether or not "socialism in one country" is possible, Lewin argues that there was an alternative. In fact, he points out that the agricultural part of the first "five year plan" that was authored eventually in 1929 was its most "realistic" part. The real problem was, for Lewin, the regime's failure "to pursue a policy aimed at increasing agricultural output among the small peasant farmers by the use of direct aid and co-operative methods".

The excesses of the period of collectivisation in 1929/1930 led even Stalin to realise he had gone to far, to quick. Yet the process began again later in the autumn of 1930. By this point, the Soviet's ruling elite had no longer any interest in developing society in the interest of the masses of people. Now their ambition was simply the strengthening of the economy so that the country could compete on an international level with the imperialist powers. Stalin had shown himself prepared to sacrifice millions of people in the interests of the new bureaucratic class.

Lewin's book is a powerful indictment of Stalin and Russia in the aftermath of the defeat of the international revolution. It is not an easy read, Lewin concentrates on the economics and politics of the period, often relying of dry Soviet documents and reports. While this builds a powerful case, the book lacks the voice of those who were the biggest victims of Stalin's policies. This isn't really a surprise, those who were "liquidated", deported or lost their livelihoods were in no position to leave records for future historians. As a result the dry statistics in this book cover decades of suffering. Lewin however has written a book designed not to discredit socialism, but rather to prove that the Stalinist regime had nothing to do with the struggle for a better world. In the 21st century, questions of farming, agriculture and the peasantry remain key issues for revolutionaries. Lewin's book, though aimed at a bygone era, has much to teach us for our future struggles.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Barry Unsworth - Losing Nelson

I have to admit to being left feeling very uncomfortable by Losing Nelson. In part this is the subject matter - the novel tells the story of a man moving from obsessive behaviour to madness. But it is also to do with the way the story finishes, something that I won't reveal in this review.

In some ways, the central character of Losing Nelson, Charles Cleasby is no different to countless other obsessive hobbyists. While others collect train numbers and learn minute details about steam engines, meeting in the back rooms of pubs to talk with other enthusiasts. Unusually though, Charles is obsessed with Admiral Nelson. The obsession has its roots in Charles' difficult childhood, when finding himself gifted at chess Charles is a little to triumphant when defeating one of his Dad's friends. His father, disapprovingly introduces Charles to a picture of Nelson, a proper hero.

As he grows and finds himself more and more at odds with the world, Charles identifies further with the Admiral. Increasingly, especially after his Dad's death, he lives his life on a Nelson timetable. Marking the anniversaries of his great battles with naval re-enactments on a pool table in the basement. Not only does Charles observe every complex manoeuvres of the ships, but he's also built the accurate models with which he recreates the battles. Then he toasts the admiral's genius and brilliance at the end of the day.

Unsurprisingly, Charles is also writing a book about his hero. But he has reached an impasse. The impasse is a now forgotten, but central moment of Nelson's life, when in the aftermath of the defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson is involved in the bloody suppression of a rebellion in Naples. Charles finds this so out of character that he cannot explain what happened. Despite being able to quote Nelson's letters verbatim, or having an encyclopedic knowledge of Nelson's life, Charles simply cannot understand why his "angel" behaved like this. Even worse, as Charles becomes more and more obsessed with Nelson, he frequently thinks he is the Admiral and Barry Unsworth does a brilliant task of blurring this distinction, as Charles' internal monologue switches from "he" to "me", "I" to "us". There is one particularly uncomfortable moment when Charles fantasises about Nelson and Lady Hamilton, or rather Lady Hamilton and "I".

The one anchor in Charles' reality is the woman he has hired to type his manuscript. Miss Lilly knows little about Nelson, but she asks difficult questions, ones that challenge yet further Charles' heroic images. Miss Lilly pulls Charles back into the real world, he takes Lilly and her son to visit HMS Victory in Portsmouth and the reader sees the potential for Charles to break from his obsessions. Yet the forces pulling him the other way, the ones that are so tied up with his own personal relations and difficulties are very powerful and it is unclear until the very last few pages quite what will happen.

Barry Unsworth's novel is full of brilliant detail. Charles' obsessive knowledge of the period mean that the author can provide us with brilliantly powerful accounts of the bloody battles, as well as recreating the atmosphere that followed Nelson around. Crowds would cheer him, Royalty dined with him, and everyone commented on his doomed marriage and affair with Emma Hamilton. Within this, Unsworth uses Mrs Lilly to cast a disapproving modern liberal commentary on events, while Charles struggles to cope with an imperfect hero.

The book is, as I said, uncomfortable. His descriptions of Charles' mental anguish and his questionable sanity are carefully but sympathetically done. The ending then, is brutal, and for the reader unsatisfactory, though strangely, and with hindsight, it was probably inevitable.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

E H Carr - What is History?

In his obituary of E H Carr in the magazine Socialist Review the British Marxist Duncan Hallas wrote that "The death of an eighty year old academic and former Foreign Office official who never, at any stage in his long life, had any connections with the working class movement, would not normally be worthy of remark in this journal." Yet, he concluded about Carr's monumental history of Russia that the

"significance of Carr is that he made it impossible for anyone who can read English, and who is not incorrigibly idle or idiotic, to believe in either the bourgeois or the Stalinist myths about the outcome of the Russian revolution. And that is a good deal."


That someone like Hallas would heap such praise on E H Carr is testament to the importance of Carr's writings. Most people will not read Carr's 14 volume history of the Russian Revolution's rise and fall. Far more will encounter Carr's little book What is History?  This is a series of speeches that he gave at Cambridge University that tackle some of the trends that appeared in historical writing and some of those who argued that history was some sort of neutral subject removed from time and space.

Carr puts his position at the start of the book:

"'What is history?' our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live."

Historians cannot, Carr argues, remove themselves from their particular beliefs, prejudices, politics or historical context and this means that when we read their history we need to view it with that in mind. To give one example, Carr writes of the historian Grote, a radical banker writing in the 1840s about ancient Greece and Rome:

"It may not be fanciful to suggest that Grote's neglect of the problem of slavery in Athens reflected the failure of the group to which he belonged to face the problem of the new English factory working class."

Carr also rails against those who believe there is "no 'objective; historical truth".

"In place of the theory that history has no meaning, we are offered here the theory of an infinity of meanings, none any more right than any other - which comes to much the same thing. The second theory is surely as untenable as the first. It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on a different shape from different angles of vision, it has objectively no shape at al or an infinity of shapes."

Over the course of his speeches, Carr marshalls an impressive list of examples and quotes from extensive reading. As an example of the selective process that history writing can take, he discusses Gustav Stresemann, Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic who kept enormous quantities of papers documenting his historically important role. On his death these were published in 3 large volumes, but the selection process filtered out to concentrate on Stresemann's work relating to the West, rather than Russia and the East. Hence for readers (and future historians) Stresemann's papers implied that he worked more closely on matter's pertaining to relations with France and England, when in reality the opposite was true.

Later these volumes were condensed still further, a distillation of the selection, further hastening the process. So far so interesting, but Carr takes this further pointing out that the records themselves were not an objective truth, they were Stresemann's own version of what had happened in innumerable meetings. They "do not tell us what happened, but only what Stresemann thought had happened, or what he wanted others to think, or perhaps what he wanted himself to think". The process of selection was begun, not by historians but by the participant himself.

Students of history should of course already understand this, but Carr's brilliance is to put the story in the context of wider debates about the nature of history as science and subject. As he concludes the first speech with, "My first answer therefore to the question 'What is history?' is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

Carr challenges those who believe history is the work of accident, or simple causality. A typically amusing comment illustrates that those who hold these views often do so because of their historical place:

"In a group of nation which is riding in the rough, not on the crest, of historical events, theories that stress the role of chance or accident in history will be found to prevail. The view that examination results are all a lottery will always be popular among those who have been placed in the third class."

He also discusses the role of "great men" arguing that:

"The great man is always representative either of existing forces or of forces which he helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority. But the higher degree of creativity may perhaps be assigned to those great men who, like Cromwell or Lenin, helped to mould the forces which carried them to greatness, rather than those who, like Napoleon or Bismark, rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces."

Astute readers will notice that Carr does two things here. Firstly his discussion of the role of individuals in history is close to what Marxists might argue, and secondly he discusses Lenin and Cromwell. Carr, as Duncan Hallas understood, was no revolutionary, in fact he was the opposite. Nor was he are Marxist, but he did value and understand Marx (and others like Lenin and Trotsky). The speeches here are liberally sprinkled with quotes from Marx (to an extent that contemporary historians would probably blush at) and Carr is clearly conversant with the writings of these three revolutionaries. His own vision of history as a process of constant change has a lot in common with Marx:

"History is a process of struggle, in which results, whether we judge them good or bad, are achieved by some groups directly or indirectly... at the expense of others."

Marx and Engels put it that "history was the history of class struggle" and the use of the more ambiguous word "groups" in Carr's quote reflects his disagreement with Marx, that class is the major division in society. Nor was Carr writing history to understand the past in order to change the future, in fact, if anything, he thought that such an aim was impossible.

The length of this review will no doubt, alert you to the fact that I was absolutely charmed by Carr's writing. That said, my enthusiasm for this book is about more than its charm. Marxists and others will be able to pick holes in Carr's arguments, but no serious student of history (of any political persuasion) can afford to ignore the ideas and arguments herein. This is a stimulating and enjoyable book that will make every reader think through their own ideas. It is to be recommended.

Related Review

Perry - Marxism and History 
Harman - Marxism and History

Saturday, May 04, 2013

John Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy

One of the myths about Karl Marx's work is that it is impenetrable  Certainly there are academics who have made a career from raising Marx's ideas to such a rarified level that they are impossible to understand by ordinary workers. In fact, some of Marx's writings are brilliantly clear, aimed at inspiring and educating workers, I think in particular of the Communist Manifesto or his account of the Paris Commune The Civil War in France.

That said, some of Marx's writings are harder than others. This is not because Marx was trying to encourage rarefied university discussion, but because the ideas he was grappling with were themselves complex. Marx built on the work of earlier philosophers, in particular Hegel and thus his early writings in particular are grappling with the language and concepts of more difficult writers and theorists.

Nonetheless, as John Molyneux has set out to show in this remarkably accessible book, the core philosophical ideas of Karl Marx are easy to understand. Molyneux has written this book explicitly to "a new generation of activists" who are new to the subject.

The book then begins by giving an overview of Marx's core ideas and probably unusually for a book on his philosophy, Molyneux also gives us a brief overview of Marx's economic and historical thought. In part this is because, as the author points out, Marx's ideas have to be taken as a whole, not as arguments that are separated from each other. More importantly though, this is because for Marx's ideas to really be a weapon in the struggle, they have to relate to the reality of activists lives, and an abstract discussion about dialectics that doesn't attempt to relate it to the real world, is worthless. Molyneux quotes Leon Trotsky on precisely this point, referring to revolutionary organisations and the Russian Revolution in October 1917:

"Bolshevism is not a doctrine (i.e. not merely a doctrine) but a system of revolutionary training for the proletarian uprising. What is the Bolshevisation of Communist Parties? It is giving them such a training and effecting such a selection of the leading staff, as would prevent them from drifting when the hour for their October strikes. 'That is the whole Hegel, and the wisdom of books and the meaning of all philosophy...'"

One of the great strengths of Molyneux's book is that he defends Marx from many of his critics. But by explaining why Marx's theory of history (for instance) cannot simply be reduced down to saying that only the economic base of society matters, Molyneux also draws out the very rich set of ideas that Marx had. For instance, the chapter on alienation brilliantly demonstrates how working people's lives are distorted by the treadmill of capitalism. This is something that effects everyone, but some have lives that mean they can escape, while the majority of us suffer. Marx writes:

"The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence... Within this antithesis the private property owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian the destructive side."

This speaks directly to the experience of people today, who can watch the bankers award themselves with enormous bonuses, while the rest of us face the impact of the economic crisis that they caused.

Molyneux constantly tries to ground Marx in reality. A very important chapter on Marx's materialism makes the point that philosophy must be grounded in reality, quoting Marx again "In practice man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking". To demonstrate this, Molyneux looks at two examples, the first is the  European Reformation, which mainstream history implies is a conflict between groups of people with differing religious ideas. Marxism instead, writes Molyneux, "sees the Reformation as fundamentally the ideological expression of the class struggle between the rising bourgeoisie and the old feudal aristocracy and of the transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production."

One of the aspects to Marx's thought that is often considered particularly difficult is dialectics. Molyneux explains that Marx "was the first dialectical materialist  This signifies for Marx, while historical development was driven by material forces and interests rather than ideas, the process of change was not smooth, gradual, mechanical or automatic." Molyneux explains dialectics as being fundamentally about change and the process of change. He shows how change, particularly social change, is a constant part of life. but dialectics is more than a theory of change. He continues, "dialectics... is a logic, a science of the forms of thought, designed to go beyond the limits of formal logic. Its is the logic of change, development and evolution." This might sound confusing, but Molyneux breaks down Marx's ideas on dialectics into easily manageable chunks.  This explanation rescues dialectics from the mechanical explanation often given by some writers in the past, and shows how dialectics is a brilliant thought tool to understand the world around us.

Despite being a short book of only 200 pages, this is one of the best introductions to Marx's ideas I have ever read. This is precisely because it is rooted in an attempt to make Marx's ideas accessible to activists and in turn, make them better activists. The chapter on dialectics for instance, is probably the single best explanation of the central concepts that I have ever read and a generation of students and campaigners will probably thank the author. The book ends with a short explanations of some of those who followed Marx, whose ideas have been  influential. The chapter on Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser, three thinkers who each tried to develop Marx further will be particularly useful for those of us who didn't encounter their ideas at university and often here them quoted. But Molyneux cautions:

"it is a vindication of one of the central themes of this book, namely the relationship between Marxist theory, revolutionary practice and working class struggle, that of our three major figures - Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser - the most useful philosophical contribution came from Gramsci, the revolutionary who had the closest involvement with actual workers in struggle, and the weakest from Althusser, who was most isolated and confined to the ivory tower."

In its own way, this sort book should make its own contribution to those struggles and arm a new generation of activists to think and develop revolutionary ideas and practice.

Watch John Molyneux speak on his book at the launch in 2012 here.

Related Reviews

Molyneux - Marxism and the Party
Molyneux - Will the Revolution be Televised?: A Marxist Analysis of the Media
Molyneux - Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism