Monday, March 30, 2015

Thomas Keneally - The People's Train

This fictionalised account of the life of Russian Revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev is one of the best portrayals I have read of the experiences of those taking part in the Russian Revolution. Renamed Artem Samsurov, the novel covers much of his incredible life. Imprisoned for his roll in the 1905 uprising, Artem escapes and travels across Russia in disguise, into China and eventually finds his way to Australia. Australia is viewed by many as a workers' paradise, because workers' parties are in government. But Artem quickly discovers the reality is different. Artem quickly gets to organising the Russian emigre community, building unions and discussing politics. The Australian police quickly try to suppress the socialists, and Artem experiences an Australian prison - his time in Russian prisons serving him well. When the Russian Revolution breaks out in February 1917, Artem returns, quickly being elevated to the ranks of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The final part of the book, dealing with the turbulent times running up to the October insurrection are through the eyes of Artem's friend and comrade Paddy Dykes, an Australian union journalist who reports on what he sees.

Keneally's novel is a detailed and faithful account of events, as well as the politics of the Russian socialist movement. Pitching the novel like this however implies it is some sort of dry historical tome. But the opposite is the case. Keneally's writing is brilliantly clear, his characters beautifully portrayed and their discussion of politics is less about Marxist pedantry, than their attempts to understand, and explain the world. Few novels have got to the heart of what motivated Russian revolutionaries to risk life or imprisonment. When Artem discusses Lenin, he can't imagine him being motivated by romance, rather a dedication to the cause. But all the characters here are actually motivated to fight revolution, because of their intense love for people and their desire for a better world. Indeed, the love stories at the heart of the book are very much an exploration of the way powerful and intense events bring individuals together, for good or bad, and how they must sometimes be put to one side for the sake of a bigger cause. The novel ends with the seizure of the Winter Palace and the muddied confusion of actual revolution. The insurrection itself is not the clean, romantic ideal, but is uneven and on-occasion unpleasant. I do hope that Keneally writes the promised sequel - Artem, or Fyodor's post revolutionary life was shaped by the rise of Stalin and the defeat of internationalism. It will be fascinating to see whether Keneally does this period as much justice as he with his portrayal of Russian revolutionaries and life before 1917.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Frederick Taylor - Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945

After reading this detailed, balanced and incredibly well written account of the destruction of Dresden in 1945, I am left with no doubt in my mind that those who ordered the attack committed a war crime. Taylor's eyewitness accounts and his historical research bring home the full horror of the firestorm that engulfed the hitherto untouched city, leaving tens of thousands dead, thousands more injured and homeless, with relatively little military impact. I don't think I will ever forget reading about the hundreds of civilians who died after climbing into a reservoir of water to escape the flames. The hastily built tank had been made to supply water for potential firefighter operations, and didn't include any steps to leave. After treading water for hours these people must have drowned horribly in the most appalling of circumstances.

Because of stories like these, and rumors of other atrocities by the Allies during the attack on Dresden it has always been a political hot potato. Figures of casualties, sometimes as high as 450,000 have been given, which has ultimately meant that February 13 1945 came to symbolize the very worst of the Allies. Two groups seem to have been most responsible for this. The first is the far-right and the neo-Nazis. Unsurprisingly Hitler's regime made huge propaganda out of the Dresden raid. But since the end of the Second World War the far-right has used Dresden to suggest that the Allies were as bad as, if not worse than the Nazi dictatorship. The attack on Dresden was Germany's own Holocaust they suggest.

As the Cold War continued, the Eastern Bloc too encouraged a view of the attack as symbolizing the viciousness of the US and British, prepared to murder thousands of civilians in a pointless attack.

As a result, Taylor's book has to tread through much myth and falsehood. As with the debate about whether or not US planes strafed civilians shows, memory is often little help to understanding what took place. A number of eyewitnesses say that US planes committed these war-crimes, but Taylor makes it clear, drawing on several detailed studies, that this didn't take place. This is an unpopular position in Germany today, and historians have drawn tremendous fire for even suggesting that such recollections are inaccurate.

Taylor puts the Dresden attack into historical context. Firstly he gives us Dresden's fascinating history, though I am not sure he needed to go as far back as the Roman era. In part this is to show just what was lost historically and culturally in the attack. But also it is to challenge those who argue that Dresden was not a military city. By the Second World War the city was an important transport hub (even more so when the Russian's broke through Poland and were closer to Germany) and a center for the manufacture of important components for weapons (such as optics).

The author also traces the history of air-bombing. Again this helps to put the attack in context. In particular Taylor examines the strategies of Britain's Bomber Command during the war. Here the key issue is the Chief of the Air Staff, Arthur Harris' insistence that Germany could be defeated through massive destruction of towns to undermine the country's ability to wage war. As a strategy this was clearly failing, and Taylor makes it clear the limits to the bombing (in particular inaccuracy, and the ease at which industry and transport recovered). Harris doggedly held onto his strategy as the war progressed. But by the time of Dresden, it is clear that massive destruction of cities could no longer be justified as a valid way of waging the air war, if it ever was. Of far more importance was destroying Germany's dwindling oil stocks, something that was widely accepted by the military hierarchy but dismissed by Harris.

That said Harris is not the only one responsible. Others helped selected targets, and Taylor makes it clear that Churchill himself approved a renewed offensive against urban targets, even though the Prime Minister rapidly distanced himself from the attack on Dresden.

But Taylor makes it clear that Dresden was not unique. For many of us, it feels unique, precisely because it has been such a political football. Taylor's comprehensive analysis suggests are far lower casualty figure than other headline numbers, he concludes
The fairest estimate seems, therefore, to lie between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand. This makes the loss of life in the city less than the total for Hamburg (although Hamburg possessed at least twice Dresden's population), and as a proportion of the total population, less than that for towns such as Pforzheim or Darmstadt.
This is not to downplay what took place in Dresden, but to show that it was part of a much larger, and more systematic destruction of German cities that targeted the civilian population. We remember Dresden because of the firestorm, but Taylor makes the point repeatedly that this was a particular set of circumstances, and barely a few weeks later the Allies might well have done the same to Berlin, as they did in Hamburg. In fact their bombing strategy was deliberately designed to create destruction and slaughter through firestorms. In Dresden the fascist authorities are also to blame. Their lack of shelters, lack of experience and their deliberate attempts to suggest that Dresden would not be attacked resulted in thousands of deaths. The bravery of ordinary German's in the circumstances reflected everything positive about humanity, in complete contrast to the barbarity of the city's government.

There is much more in this excellent book including a history of the Jewish community in Dresden, and accounts by those who survived. Taylor also demolishes the inaccuracies of writers such as the right-winger David Irving who has written extensively on the Dresden attack.

In clarifying what actually took place on February 13 1945, and why, Frederick Taylor has in no way diminished the suffering of Dresdeners. What he has done is to put it into context of the "total war" of both the Allies and the Axis powers. The lessons are there for all of us.

Related Reviews

Kershaw - The End
Moorhouse - Berlin at War

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anne Alexander & Mostafa Bassiouny - Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers & the Egyptian Revolution

The overriding image that many people have of the Egyptian Revolution that began on January 25 2011 is of the thousands of people gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square. This "Republic of Dreams" was indeed for many commentators the Egyptian Revolution. While Tahrir Square was inspiring, "uniting Muslim and Christian, secular and Islamist activists against Mubarak's regime", it is only part of the story, and in fact, not the most important part.

This important recent book discusses the crucial role of Egypt's enormous and powerful working class during the Revolution. Mubarak's fall came, not through the masses in the squares of the major cities, but through the strike wave that spread early in the revolution. That is not to belittle the mass demonstrations. Without those mass actions there would likely have been no strikes, but putting the workers at centre stage enables us to both understand the dynamics of the revolution, as well as the successes, so far, of the counter-revolution.

Anne Alexander and Mostafa Bassiouny lay out the 20th century history of Egypt, describing the growth of the working class and its victories and defeats. This history is important - the process that brought Mubarak to power, also helped shape a workers' movement that was effectively an appendage of the state. While there have been enormous changes to Egypt's industry and its working class, and the neoliberal era has seen many of these, industry remains central to the economy. The authors write that
the last thirty years have demonstrated that the industrial working class remains central to the strategy of accumulation pursued by the Egyptian ruling class in the neoliberal era. It is a working class that has been restructured, and suffered some heavy defeats in the process, but not a class that is in the process of disappearing.
It is also a class that has seen significant victories and, in the early years of the 21st century in reaction to the changes imposed by neoliberalism, as well as wider political questions such as the anti-war and pro-Palestinian movements began to flex its muscles. The authors note, for instance, the way that neoliberal "reforms" impacted on education helped to shape radical demands by teachers during and after the revolution.
Ministry of Education newly qualified teachers have found it difficult to obtain permanent contracts. Tens of thousands are employed in hourly paid work as supply teachers, or teach classes in public schools for no pay at all, in order to be allowed the chance to compete in giving private lessons to the same children after... fee-paying lessons are largely institutionalised and essentially compulsory... with the school administration and the Ministry of Education taking a cut of the profits.. the example of the teachers' strikes since the revolution - which consistently linked demands to improve teachers' pay and conditions to calls for the banning of private lessons- demonstrates that this process is not an insurmountable obstacle to collective action... in the process of taking collective action, the teachers transformed themselves from agents of the market into a powerful force leading the fight for an education system for all.
The fact that the existing unions were an extension of the state bureaucracy meant that as workers' struggles grew, new, independent unions sprang up. Often these were lead by activists who wanted new forms of organisation, free of the limits imposed by the state, lead by the rank and file with a leadership held accountable to the membership. The authors trace the growth of these important unions, noting however the difficulties in sustaining these models of work-place and industrial organisation when struggle subsided, or under the impact of the counter-revolution, or even the actions of the international NGO and union movement which helped to impose a western model on the movement.

"The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions supports the demands
of the people's revolution and calls for a general strike of Egyptian workers,"
Photo by 
www.arabawy.org
The revolutionary process frequently led to those "drawn into the orbit of the workers' movement, adopting forms of collective action and organisation", such as fishermen, hospital doctors, tourist Nile boat operators and even mosque imams. One notable emergent union group, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions formed in Tahrir Square, and the authors note that while "they formed only a small fraction of the huge crowds, activists from the tax collectors' union, with their banners and trademark blue baseball caps, were very visibly an organisation in the midst of a sea of individual protesters."

As the revolution subsided, the lack of independent political organisations of the working class meant that reformists of various shades were able to move to the revolution's head. The authors note the process by which this happened, and how revolutionary demands were first used and sidelined. In particular, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood is discussed in detail. Vague suggestions by Morsi that the MB would "improve the conditions of workers and peasants" led to a number of promises. But as the authors point out,
Careful reading of the policies of Morsi's 'Renaissance Project' revealed a different goal: the articulation of a neoliberal programme clothed in the rhetoric of reform.
It is this that brought the workers movement and wider revolutionary activists back into conflict with Morsi and his government. A key question was Tathir, the cleansing of the old system of Mubarak's corrupt bureaucrats and followers. Tathir from below in workplaces - the sacking of a Mubarak era manager, or the changing work place conditions, or temporary workers' control opened up an opportunity for workers to see themselves differently and to see a new way of organising the system. The authors give a number of impressive and inspiring examples of when and where this process began. But there was an emerging and growing contradiction, fueled by the lack of mass revolutionary, working class leadership
Participation in the revolution transformed millions of ordinary people from passive victims of history to its makers, but they state they confronted on 25 January 2011 remained essentially intact. Meanwhile the legitimacy of the largest former Islamist opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, had already been badly damaged by the failure to achieve meaningful political and social reforms.. .This deepening contradiction helps to explain why on 3 July 2013, the Armed Forces under the leadership of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi... was able to intervene decisively and turn the Muslim Brotherhood's crisis in the face of an explosion of popular anger to the advantage of the core institutions of Mubarak's state.
The revolution in Egypt has been setback. But the authors are also clear that it is not over. One of the most important gains has been that hundreds of thousands of people have engaged in a political and social process which has changed them. This echoes the experiences of those in some of history's greatest revolutionary movements. Like Russia in 1917 or Paris in 1871, the authors note that one of the most important experiences for Egyptians has been the way in a minority of workplaces workers experienced direct democratic control,
"Its organic expression in workplace struggles has largely been based on the idea that workers' leaders should be elected delegates, not representatives; it fuses executive and legislative authority and breaches the separation between political and social struggles enforced by bourgeois democracy"
The revolutionary movement in Egypt will rise again. A generation of workers learnt invaluable lessons between 2011 and 2013. But one lesson that we can all learn, is that revolutionary organisation must be built today. Alexander and Bassiouny finish with the importance of that organisation in Egypt, but for activists everywhere, the building of socialist organisation must remain an immediate task if we are to build on the movements that will continue to arise as capitalism tries to make ordinary people pay the price of bosses greed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Gregory Benford & Larry Niven - Bowl of Heaven

Larry Niven's Ringworld was the original Big Dumb Object of science fiction. In that eponymous novel his characters explored a giant ring around a sum, encountering a variety of aliens species (some lethal, and some not) and, rather oddly in some of the sequels, offering to shag them.

Bowl of Heaven has a similar premise, if not the shagging. Perhaps under the influence of his fellow author Niven has curtailed his penchant for sex (Rishathra as Niven chose to call the practice) with aliens and instead their combined talents concentrate on the descriptions of the Bowl, the Big Dumb Object of Bowl of Heaven.

The spacecraft Sunseeker leaves Earth bound for a planet, oddly named Glory, in an attempt to colonise it. On their voyage they encounter the giant flying bowl. The bowl, with a surface area of millions of planets, travels along with its' sun towards Glory as well. Short of supplies, due to some unexplained gravity anomaly, the crew of the Sunseeker are forced to explore the Bowl. In doing so they encounter some unusually dangerous creatures who run the Bowl, apparently as a sort of intergalactic zoo. These bird-people don't Rishathra with aliens, but are obsessed with hunting and eating them.

The bird people are so intelligent they have created an enormous space-faring bowl which moves along with its own star. They have captured, genetically modified, and dominated countless species on their voyage. Yet they are outwitted by a small group of plucky earthmen and women, who use their intelligence and guile (and their unique brains) to outmanouevure the nasty aliens.

Frankly this novel is fairly terrible. I suspect that when I was fourteen I would have lapped it up. But almost thirty years later I wonder what the point is? The tragedy is that I will read the sequel, or part two as they publishers should title it, as volume one nearly finishes mid-sentence, if only to find out how the aliens stop their giant flying bowl when it gets to another solar system. But I'll be damned if I'll pay for the next book. Is there any good new science fiction out there? Or is it all just rehashed ideas from the bad end of the 1960s.

Its terrible, but frankly its not Larry Niven's worst. Gregory Benford should find someone else to co-author his next.

I don't award stars on this blog. But if I did, I'd give this one star.

Related Reviews

Niven - Destiny's Road
Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Ringworld's Children
Niven - Ringworld

Monday, March 02, 2015

Juliet Barker - Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt has been much mythologised by the English. Part of the fault is Shakespeare's who used it to create an image of Henry V as a heroic, brave and above all, patriotic king. But there are others too, not least Churchill, who according to Juliet Barker, urged Laurence Olivier to make a film of Shakespeare's play to prepare the English people for the Normandy invasion. The removal from that version of the plot against Henry help create a sense of a unified country going to war against France in everyone's interest.

With her typical attention to detail and scholarship Juliet Barker restores the real story of Agincourt. Here are knights with armour rusted from a long march in the rain, trying to avoid engaging the French to early. Here are bodies stripped naked on the battlefield as victorious English soldiers took anything of value from them, before the local peasantry removed what remained. Here are also the English army who suffered so badly from dysentery that they cut their trousers off to improve matters before the battle, and Henry's massacre of French prisoners in the aftermath of the battle when thinking a French trumpet call meant counter attack was imminent.

In my reading of Barker's story, the English come across as incredibly lucky. On two major points popular knowledge matches with historical evidence. The English were lucky in their leader. Henry V was a brave, clever and experienced leader who was able to win his army's hearts and minds. He was also a clever strategist. Secondly the importance of the English longbow was a deciding factor. But Barker also emphasises the weaknesses of their opponents. The French were clearly too confident that their numerical strength would carry the day for them. This also caused a crisis of leadership as all the knights wanted to be in the thick of it. Few, if any, were prepared to stand back and lead. At a key point the French failed to take advantage of their battle field position and allowed the English to move forward, protecting their flanks from the French cavalry and bringing their enemies into bow-range. The heavy over-night rain might have rusted the English armour, and threatened the strength of their bow-strings. But it turned the field into a quagmire that disadvantaged the French mounted knights tremendously. Over-all Barker seems to imply that on a different day, in different weather, and with a slightly less self-obsessed French leadership, English history books would remember Agincourt as the day that the King was killed or captured. English pluck and genius played its role, but so did luck and the enemies' mistakes.

But the strength of Barker's book is not actually just in her description of the battle. The historical context she gives helps explain not just Henry's invasion, but the subsequent English occupation of France. A period she covers extremely well in her later book, Conquest. But she also shows the way that Henry's meticulous planning, his well planned mobilisation and the enormous scale of the invasion made this invasion very much a national event. Through their financial contributions, their involvement in the invading army, and their support for Henry's war the population were buying into the war in a very real way. The tremendous popular support meant that Henry's victory celebrations were both lavish and enormous, as ordinary people joined with him to celebrate and give thanks to god. But this also helps to explain why, when Henry's son Henry VI failed to maintain English possessions in France, the population grew enormously discontented.

Like all of Barker's books this is a well researched, but eminently readable account of a battle that had both a enormous historical impact and helped shape an English consciousness. Both at the time, and in later centuries. While historians and politicians may overlook Henry's more unsavory aspects, Barker isn't afraid of drawing them out. In doing so, she shows that Agincourt very nearly wasn't the English victory we were all taught at school, and that what we were told by our history teachers was only half the story.

Related Reviews

Barker - Conquest
Barker - England Arise!
Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History