Saturday, March 17, 2018

Yuri Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King

This year radicals will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of 1968, a year of global rebellion. One of the key events of that year took place on 4th April when the civil rights activist Martin Luther King was assassinated by a racist. King's death provoked a wave of furious uprisings, riots and protests.

Yuri Prasad's new book looks at King's political life within the Civil Rights movement. His focus is on how King's ideas changed as the struggle developed. Prasad explains that King never really set out to be the leader he became, and with the benefit of over half a century of hindsight, we can see an element of political naivety in King's early beliefs. As Prasad writes:
King admitted that he had conceived of the fight as being for reform of the system. He thought that, faced with the realities of black rebellion and racist resistance in the South, Washington could be persuaded to act to outlaw segregation, enshrine voting rights and create the conditions in which a true 'brotherhood' could grow. 
The Civil Rights movement did win spectacular gains, and King was at the forefront of some of those key battles. But King was also in a contradictory position - between the demands for radical, immediate change, and his need to keep the liberals and the black middle classes on board with his fight. These latter two groups were terrified of revolution, of too rapid a change and certainly didn't want to have their own interests challenged.

The reality of the racist resistance to the struggle for rights and the pressure from below helped push King towards a more radical position. One of the strengths of this little book is that it reproduces some of King's on words, and included is his letter from a Birmingham jail to those who opposed the protests and insisted he show patience and confine the struggle to the courts. The letter concludes "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience".

After President Kennedy's assassination King argued that the movement had to give the new president space, and certainly the establishment thought "the battle against segregation was now reaching a conclusion". But now King buckled. Knowing he needed another victory to keep the struggle alive, he compromised and made a deal with Lyndon Johnson's administration to avoid the march on Selma becoming a confrontation with the police. Prasad quotes those involved at the time and their disgust.

The growing radical demands for "Black power" confused King, and when younger activists challenged him he felt hurt. But King was not someone to keep going in one direction simply because he had always done things in a particular way. Prasad shows King engaged with the growing radicalism and began to shift his own politics. Principally this involved his speaking out against the war in Vietnam at a time when few others had done so. This alienated many of his liberal supporters, but King was right to argue "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government". He also began to tackle wider questions of class and poverty and in a powerful speech in support of striking refuse workers in Memphis he ended by calling for a city-wide general strike if management did not give in.

This new stage to King's politics was cut short by his assassination. Precisely what would have happened had King not died can only be guessed at, but Prasad does demonstrate that King was increasingly looking to challenge racism through a challenge to capitalism. King clearly was coming to understand that you couldn't end the former without breaking the latter. This focus on the evolution of King's ideas is what makes this short book very special. I highly recommend Yuri Prasad's book as a key read for the anniversary of 1968 and for the struggles against the racist system today.

Support radical publishing and buy the book direct from Bookmarks Books here.

Related Reviews

Younge - The Speech
Richardson (ed) - Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism

My reviews of other Rebel's Guides 

Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X
Mitchell - A Rebel's Guide to James Connolly
Brown - A Rebel's Guide to Eleanor Marx
Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Orr - Sexism and the System; A Rebel's Guide to Women's Liberation
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Bambery - A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
Gonzalez - A Rebel's Guide to Marx

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Lyn Macdonald - Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres 1917

I picked up Lyn Macdonald's Passchendaele quite by chance. I was looking for a history of the battle to read prior to visiting the World War One battlefields at Ypres. My random selection turned out to be extremely fortuitous - Passchendaele is the perfect book to read to understand the slaughter that was the Third Battle of Ypres. The strength of the book lies in the powerful testaments from those who fought in the battle. These eyewitness accounts are often horrific, tragic and emotional. But they contain a wealth of detail that means that the battle isn't simply an abstract tale of regiments moving here and there, and thousands being killed or maimed, but rather a deeply personal experience.

The battle for Passchendaele takes place in the context of the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the allied lines into German captured terroritry. Straightening the line out, and then pushing onwards cost the lives of thousands and was less about defeating the enemy than making sure that trench warfare continued. By the time of the Third Battle (the earlier two were conflicts that set the scene for the later confrontation) the British High Command had an ambition of moving so far forward they would capture the channel ports from the enemy and cut off their access to submarine bases, thus aiding the cross Atlantic supply convoys. It was a laudable aim, but in the context of trench warfare, the weather and the German defences it was fantasy.

I was struck that British politicians, particularly Lloyd George understood this instinctively. Field Marshall Haig however liberally interpreted his orders and turned preparations into a major offensive. Summer weather turned into a horribly wet autumn. Flanders turned into a sea of mud. Perhaps 40,000 bodies still lie under this mud, and our guide showed us six recent graves of soldiers who'd recently been found. Veterans recalling watching friends and comrades slowly drown in mud, begging to be shot will remain with me forever.

I wrote that the accounts of eyewitnesses (both soldiers and non-combatants such as civilians and nurses) were horrific. At the beginning of the book Lyn Macdonald apologises in advance, but reminds the reader that this is all true. It's an apt point to make. Almost exactly 100 years to the day when I visited Ypres, the Germans began their Spring Offensive of 1918. In a few days of intense fighting, they wiped out the limited gains the Allies had made towards Passchendaele. Tens of thousands of men were slaughtered in an utterly pointless few years of fighting. If you do ever visit Ypres, then I'd recommend Lyn Macdonald's book, but even if you cannot go to France and Belgium then read her book. It deserves a wide readership lest we forget the true horrors of what took place between 1914 and 1918

Related Reviews

Sunday, March 04, 2018

James C. Scott - Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

This fascinating new book takes a new look at an age old question of ancient history. Precisely when, where and why did early humans move from effectively nomadic existence to a sedentary one? Why did they make this transition that would lead to the first "states"? Traditionally historians argue the key issue is agriculture, and that farming led directly to sedentary life, and then to the rise of states and civilisation.

But this book by James C. Scott argues that while there is some truth to this, reality was often more complex. Of course the "neolithic revolution" was a fundamental transformation for human society. As Scott writes:
The domestication of plants as represented ultimately by fixed-field farming.. enmeshed us in an annual set of routines that organised our work life, our settlement patterns, our social structure... The harvest itself sets in train another sequence of routines: in the case of cereal crops, cutting,m bundling, threshing, gleaning, separation of straw, winnowing chaff, sieving, drying, sorting - most of which has historically been coded as women;'s work... Once Homo sapiens took that fateful step into agriculture, our species entered an austere monastery who taskmaster consists mostly of the demanding genetic clockwork of a few plants.
None of this is particularly new,  but the key question here is "why" did this happen? Scott answers this complex question with a number of points. Firstly he shows that domestication predates sedentary life. Animals and plants were used and managed even when humans were still living nomadic hunter-gatherer lives. He also points out that a transition to agriculture actually requires a lot more work from individuals.

Sometimes Scott is guilty of coming across as though he is the first author to highlight some of these things. But authors like MArshall Sahlins and Richard Lee showed in their studies of contempoary nomadic cultures that communities were well aware that agriculture requires more work per calorie. Its something I myself wrote about in Land and Labour. But Scott does well to show how blurred the distinction between nomadism, agriculture and sedetary life is.

Scott argues points to a number of societies that made the transition back to nomadic culture from sedentary society (the Dakota and Cheyenne nation of North America is a classic example though they did this when horses became available from Spanish colonists). He also argues, and I think rightly, that many early states were vulnerable because of their reliance on agriculture - and that the historical "collapse" of these societies is less the disasters that Jared Diamond has implied and more a transition back to earlier social organisation. In this context its good to see McAnany and Yoffee's book Questioning Collapse getting recognition.

Scott's book really excels when he talks about the nature of early states. I was particularly taken by his idea of "political crops" particularly wheat, barley, rice, millet and maize. These are easy to quantify, ripen at set times and the produce can be easily measured and transported (they're also relatively light for moving in bulk). Students of Karl Marx's Labour Theory of Value might be intrigued by the following example:
Units of grain served as standards of measurement and value for trade and tribute against which the value of other commodities was calculated - including labour. The daily food ration of the lowest class of labourers in Umma, Mesopotamia, was almost exactly two litres of barley measured out in the beveled bowls that are among the most ubiquitous archaeological finds.
I was less convinced of the role that Scott attributes to coercion in the early states. He writes that "when other forms of unfree labour [in addition to slavery] such as debt bondage, forced resettlement, and corvee labour, are taken into account, the importance of coerced labour for the maintenance and expansion of the grain-labour module at the core of the state is hard to deny."

Here I think Scott is slightly guilty of over-emphasising the coercive nature of the state. Writing about Mesopotamia again he says,
The dense concentration of grain and manpower on the only soils capable of sustaining them in such numbers... maximized the possibilities of appropriate, stratification, and inequality. The state form colonizes this nucleus as its productive based, scales it up, intensifies it, and occasionally it adds infrastructure... in the interest of fattening and protecting the goose that lays the golden eggs... one can think of these forms of intensification as elite niche-construction: modifying the landscape and ecology so as to enrich the productivity of its habitat.
Rightly Scott understands that the agricultural surplus is central to the functioning of the state. But to often he sees this as arising only out of coercion by the ruling classes. In other words the mass of the population don't really want to live in a "state" and have to be forced to do so. But precisely because residents would receive benefits from a state - protection from raiding, the organisation of food distribution, maintenance and building of irrigation systems etc - they might not necessarily all have to be coerced all the time. The ruling class doesn't only have a stick at its disposal, they also can dangle carrots.

That's not to say that everyone wanted to live in an unequal society. Agriculture gives human society a surplus which can lead to a class of society and the development of a state. But crucially it doesn't always. Flannery and Marcus' marvellous book The Creation of Inequality shows that early societies, both sedentary and nomadic resisted the development of inequality in numerous innovative ways. The rise of states was not inevitable, but when it did happen it eventually led to the erosion of the majority of other forms of social organisation.

All in all there is much of interest in this book, its easy to read, it made me rethink how and why the transition to agriculture takes place, and its full of fascinating details. Scott beings together a lot of material from many different sources. My slight disagreements about emphasis are not intended to prevent anyone from getting and enjoying this book.

Related Reviews

Bellwood - The First Farmers
Martin - The Death of Big Men and the Rise of the Big Shots
Flannery and Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

McAnany and Yoffee - Questioning Collapse
Childe - What Happened in History?
Harper - The Fate of Rome

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Alastair Morgan & Peter Jukes - Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder Exposed

Private investigator Daniel Morgan was brutally murdered in 1987. Thirty years later, the case is "the most investigated murder in British history", yet despite this no one has ever been punished for their involvement in the killing. This remarkable book is the story of Daniel Morgan's family's struggle for justice. It is a book that exposes the rotten heart of the British justice system and forces the reader to confront ugly truths about our police forces.

At the heart of the story is the killing of Daniel Morgan. His brother Alastair and the rest of Daniel's family begin by trying to get justice but almost immediately they found themselves stunned by the inaction of the police and investigative failings. However it rapidly became clear that there was much more to the case, and as the family constantly put pressure on the police more and more dirt is exposed.

It is likely that Daniel was killed because he was about to expose major police corruption and collusion in criminal acts in a newspaper story. Anyone who has been paying any attention to British current affairs for the last thirty years knows that the behaviour of the police has increasingly come under scrutiny. It should come as no surprise that the justice system that failed so many people like the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four would have institutional failings. One of the formative political campaigns of my life was the struggle for justice for Stephen Lawrence, the teenager killed in a racist attack in South London. That the police were found to be institutionally racist out of that campaign was a real victory. What Daniel Morgan's case shows is that there was also deep seated corruption in sections of the force at the time and it is likely that this is the reason he was killed. This begs the question, as the authors point out, who knew in advance about this?
Yet rather than one issue of police corruption, Daniel might have uncovered many of them. Rather than the crime itself, he might have focused on the conspirators and discovered a network of corrupt police officers. The mention of a 'management committee' organising the murder and cover-up seems plausible. If there was a conspiracy to murder Daniel... then cover it up using police personnel, it would need to be carefully planned.
All the indications... suggest it was meticulously organised .The removal of incriminating evidence from all Daniel's belongings and the abortive media campaigns calling for more information suggest the conspiracy was in operation long after the murder too. Subsequent cover-ups may have escalated to hide the initial conspiracy... With the revelation of a network of corrupt police , dozens of trials could have collapsed and convictions been rendered unsafe. Senior officers may have decided then that burying the true story around Daniel was the lesser of two evils.
So the story's tentacles stretch far beyond the car park where Daniel was killed. There are multiple links to the News of the World phone hacking scandals. After the then PM Gordon Brown spoke in Parliament about the "criminality surrounding the News of the World" Alastair writes:
I was reeling. This was another example of how my brother's unsolved murder and its cover-up had spread so rapidly through so many institutions. I had warned about the dangers of leaving the corruption around Southern Investigations to fester decades before, and now another symptom of the rot was playing out"
I have deliberately avoided trying to retell Untold's story in this review. Partly this is because I would encourage readers to read it themselves, but if you would like a short summary then I recommend this Socialist Worker piece on Daniel Morgan's murder.

As a longstanding political activist I have no love of the police, nor any illusions in the British state. Yet I still found myself repeatedly shocked by Untold. Indeed this is one reason why I would encourage people to read the book, as it exposes the reality of British justice. There is no doubt, that without the dogged persistence of Daniel Morgan's family Daniel's killing would have been forgotten long ago.

If there is to be any justice for the Morgan family then it will only be the result of ongoing campaigning work. One way to help them is to read this book. Another is to visit the campaign website.

Related Reviews

Davies - Flat Earth News
Aspden - The Houding of David Oluwale
Alexander & others - Marikana

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Ben Fine & Alfredo Saad-Filho - Marx's Capital

A decade after the financial crash that marked the start of the Long Depression, capitalism has still failed to recover. Economic crisis, poverty, austerity combine with a staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals. It is no wonder then, that the ideas of Karl Marx remain of interest to many people trying to understand the capitalist system, and the two hundredth anniversary of Marx's birth is likely to encourage further interest.

Fine and Saad-Filho' guide to Marx's ideas has been in print, in various forms, since the 1970s. The text I've read is from 2004 and I understand it has been much developed since the early versions. The authors are two leading Marxists and have attempted to condense the key points of Marx's thought into this short book. I suspect it's popularity in no small part lies with its length - many of Marx's works and the guides to them are long, detailed books and this short volume offers an easy start.

The authors look at several key aspects of Marx's work - in particular his Method and the origins of his philosophy; the Labour Theory of Value, commodities; the circulation of capital and its accumulation and the role of the falling rate of profit in creating crisis. These are good introductions, and worth reading. Later chapters, particularly those on finance capital and agricultural rent are harder.

While there is much of interest here, in my opinion the book is too difficult to act as an entry to Marx's ideas. The early chapters are accessible, but by the middle of the book the authors appear to be addressing students with existing knowledge of mainstream economics. Because the book is not a guide to specific volumes of Marx's work in self-contained sections, the authors miss key sections. For instance there is no serious discussion of Marx's concept of money as a universal commodity - a key and very important section of the early chapters of Capital - It's omission makes some of the later explanations harder to understand.

Importantly the authors take up some contemporary criticisms of Marx, though readers who have not read these elsewhere will be left unsure of the arguments as the authors do not spend time in explaining Marx's opponents in detail. They also argue for the continued relevance of Marx, particularly his theory of class and the role of the state.

But there are weaknesses. I thought the section on Marxism and the environment missed some key arguments, not least even a passing reference to metabolic rift theory - despite referencing John Bellamy Foster's work. Of more concern was the author's argument that "capitalism is also capable, not least through the development of new materials and through state regulation, of tempering or even reversing at least partly such environmental degradation". This is an odd conclusion that doesn't really chime with Marx's arguments or those who have written in the field of ecological Marxism.

The section on the environment is from the author's concluding chapter on "Marxism and the Twenty First Century". They argue that the "purpose of this final chapter is to argue for the continuing salience of Marx's political economy for the study of contemporary issues". Here for me was the real problem - what is omitted is a sense of Marxism as a guide to political action, the ideological tools for the ending of capitalism and the building of a socialist society by the working masses. This felt like a retreat into an academic Marxism that explained the approach of the early chapters. So while there is much of use for those trying to get to grips with Marxism here, I'd recommend readers starting elsewhere. Some suggestions follow.

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism
Roberts - The Long Depression
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Allen - Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism
Foster - Marx's Ecology
Engels - Socialism, Utopian and Scientific

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ken Follett - The Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is, to the surprise of the experts, one of the most popular novels in the UK. Its sweeping story has been made into a TV series, and even board and computer games and spawned two sequels. The plot covers a largely unknown period of English history, the turbulent 12th century when England was engulfed in Civil War following the death of Henry I's only male heir.

Follett's book is primarily centred on the monastery and settlement at the fictional location of Kingsbridge. There's a  complex web of characters most of whom are hard not to emphasis with, and principally the story looks at those involved in building a cathedral at Kingsbridge and those trying to stop them. What makes the novel work is that the personal antagonisms of various characters, including the vile Earl William and the pious Prior Phillip is in the context of feudal relations and Civil War. William's violence and raids on settlements around his castle are a natural part of feudal society, as are the inter-generational feuds. If the novel overly relies on the ideas of good lords and bad lords, it doesn't neglect that all lords relied utterly on the peasantry to survive.

In fact I suspect that this is one of the reasons for the success of the books. Unusually Pillars of the Earth focuses on the lives and struggles of ordinary people - mostly labourers on the cathedrals, but also their partners and families. While the elite have their role in the book it's often peripheral to the main action, and there are far more detailed descriptions of the lives, labour and food of ordinary people. This is actually quite unusual in novels and works well here, particularly a book that has the hard work of the building of a cathedral at the centre of its epic tale.

There are problems of course. To me the book felt like a soap opera in places - each chapter seeming to end on a cliff hanger that was rapidly resolved by the cleverness of one or other of the "good" characters. There are also a few unlikely coincidences and plot points that don't really make sense (would a grieving husband, having just buried his wife, really jump into bed with a complete stranger a couple of hours later, especially given they were both starving in the midst of winter?) I also found the rape scenes unnecessarily detailed - I get that the author is trying to describe the brutality of a particular character, but it was simply too much. I also skipped a three page sex scene, not out of prudity, but mostly because it was utterly peripheral to the plot.

Nevertheless Follett's book is entertaining. He gives an interesting take on key events in the period and the structure of the book keeps the reader engaged. It's also rare that a novel manages to make the transition from Romanesque to Gothic religious architecture an interesting and integral part of its plot, and it shows well how ordinary people were a central part of that movement.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Mark Lause - The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots & Class Conflicts in the American West

Countless western films, novels and artworks have portrayed the "cowboy" as a lonesome figure, surviving through his wits and ability to quick draw a six shooter. The reality, as this unique book shows, is that the cowboy was a worker. Badly paid, living a life of intense physical hardship, with seasonal and often highly skilled work. They were never loners. Looking after a herd of hundreds of cows was a collective effort and cattle drives required the support of lots of men.

These conditions led to a series of strikes. Cowboys didn't wait to form unions, if they acted at the right time of the season they had enormous power to force the large cattle companies to give them massive pay rises. These strikes were strong, numerous and spread as the cowboys moved along the trail. But they had an inherent weakness - being seasonal work the workers found themselves at the mercy of the employer the next year, and many blacklisted strikers found it near impossible to work again.

This is of course a story that is never told. In an of itself it would be interesting just as the story of an unusual and forgotten episode of working class history. But Mark Lause puts the strikes in the context of the transformation of the American West and, crucially, the development of US captialism and I would argue, the modern US state. One thing that is very apparent about these strikes is how violent they were. Gunfights were common, the assasination of strikers and their leaders was frequent, and many of the classic episodes of gunfights that occur in films are often repeated here in the context of strikers, or former strikers, being hunted down by posse's that were little more than lynch mobs.

Take this example of a "militia" setup by cattle owners in Montana, after a series of strikes. The vigilantes, called "Stuart's Stranglers" after their leader hunted down former strikers who they described as "like many a rebel and anarchist westerner" and perhaps killed up to 75.
The conduct of the Stranglers proved to be notoriously brutal. At one point, they captured a mixed race boy who could fiddle and forced him to entertain them for the evening. The next day they killed him. 'His being a fiddler hadn't nothing to do with his being a horse thief," one said. [Former strikers were often labelled rustlers so they could be executed without trial].... The perpetrators included the founders of the state of Montana. Their '3-7-77' warning - said to notify targets to buy the $3 ticket to the 7am stage to take the 77-mile trip from the area-remains part of the insignia of the state's highway patrol.
Picture via Wikipedia article for 3-7-77
There is a thus a direct link between the anti-working class, racist violence unleashed on the cowboy strikes and the modern police system.

Lause however highlights another aspect to this, which is that this takes place in the context of the larger cattle firms, and their associated industries like the railroads, carving up the American West into huge, enclosed, fenced off lands. The battle between the open-range and the fence builders is the background to many a western. But as Lause points out, in those stories, the small-holders often win. In reality, big capital carved up the west and those who resisted were turfed out, or killed.

There is much more to Lause's book. But I actually found it remarkably difficult to follow in places. In part this is because much of the book dwells on aspects of US history and particularly Labour history which is completely unknown to me. His descriptions of the way that various left organisations tried to develop working class parties was at times difficult to follow. While Lause carefully deconstructs the classic image of the US west, I found the alternative a little difficult to work out, at times Lause seems to focus on events which are difficult to place in the wider narrative.

That said there is a lot in this book for people trying to understand the development of US capitalism, and those who fought against it. I loved this account about Eleanor Marx Aveling's visit to Cincinnati in 1886, "as cowboy strieks swept the West":
The local socialists took her, her husband and another European visitor to see a ground of cowboys on tour there. The comrades lingered behind after the costumed performance and introduced themselves to one of the performers. "To our great astonishment," she recalled, the cowboy "plunged at once into a denunciation of capitalists in general and of the ranch-owners in particular." "Broncho John" Sullivan assured them that many of the cowboys had "awakened to the necessity of having a league of their own" - and that a Cowboy Union or affiliates of the Knights of Labor seemed likely.
Resistance to capitalist domination is a forgotten part of the American west, and many of the famous and infamous figures beloved of books and films played a part in that story. When trying to understand 21st century America, we cannot forget the racist violence that helped entrench the state in the first place - violence against the indigenous peoples, the slaves and the working class. Lause's book is an interesting, if challenging introduction to that.

Related Reviews

Cronon - Changes in the Land
Cronon - Nature's Metropolis
Tully - Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties
Parkman - The Oregon Trail
McLynn - Wagons West