Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Emir Sader - The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left

Over the last decade and a half or so Latin America has, along with the Arab Revolutions, been one area of hope for those of us who hope to see radical change. A succession of mass movements and left wing governments have offered, and continue (in some cases) to offer hope. Certainly leaders like Evo Morales in Boliva and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela have inspired millions. The mass movements of rural workers, landless peasants as well as the urban working class have brought down governments and shaken the complacency of important people in Washington.

Emir Sader's recent book is an attempt to grapple with the changing movements in South America and offer some direction forwards. Unfortunately the book is somewhat mechanical in its approach to historical change and while it acknowledges the problems of some of those governments (such as that of the Workers' Party in Brazil) which have failed to deliver much of the people's hopes, Sader tends to argue that better a slightly progressive bulwark against neoliberalism than none at all. Even if this means capitulating to the wider problems of the capitalist system.

Sader begins by locating the story of South America in a wider Marxist history. In particular, as the title of his book implies, he concentrates on Marx's "Old Mole" of history, the revolution that emerges, then disappears only to reappear somewhere else. But Sader's vision of what the revolutionary mole is varies through history. Beginning with the post-World War One revolutions in Russia and Europe he then locates a follow up appearance in Cuba.While the Cuban revolution certainly had popular support and defeated a vile regime it was not the same mass movement that had been seen elsewhere.

This becomes even more apparent when Sader describes where the "mole" appears next. With the defeat of guerrilla movements in South America and the death of Che Guevara, Sader tells us that "the mole responded by promoting institutional governments - that of Velasco Alvarado in Peru in 1969, that of Allende in 1970". While these were progressive challenges to the system they were also very much within the system. Certainly not what Karl Marx imaged when he hoped that Old Mole would burrow up into the daylight again.

This is not to say Sader is on the wrong side. He absolutely understands the way that Imperialism and capitalist forces have attempted to smash those governments and movements (from Chile to Nicaragua) that have threatened their interests. But because he also sees the later Soviet Union as progressive (at one point he describes Stalin as one of the "new leaders of the revolution") and the collapse of the Eastern European regimes from 1989 onward as a defeat for the socialist cause, he cannot help but see the problems of the left as being a crisis of legitimacy, rather than a failing of strategy.

As a result of the defeat of the Soviet Union, Sader tells us that the Washington neo-liberal agenda has run rampant. But "neoliberalism's biggest achievements were not in the economic field, where most of its promise had lain, but in the social and ideological fields." By this Sader means the destruction of public services, weakened unions, increased unemployment and an more atomised workforce. "The majority of Latin Americans can no longer organise, have no recourse to justice and no public identity" he claims. Yet this flies in the face of the reality that large sections of the Latin American population have always faced these problems and have resisted and continue to do so.

For Sader, neoliberalism rather than capitalism is the problem. "Latin America was the laboratory of neoliberalism" he tells rightly us;

"Here it was born, here it spread and here it took on its most radical forms. As a result, the continent suffered a neoliberal hangover and became the weakest link in this chain, with a proliferation of governments elected on the back of opposition to neoliberalism, contrary to the tendency elsewhere in the world."

The problem with this analysis is that it increasingly sees the key task for the left as being to encourage those governments that challenge neoliberalism rather than building a wider movement against capitalism. This is not to say that Sader ignores mass movements, on the contrary he champions them, but he does not see them as key.

Why is this? Sader is clearly of the revolutionary left, but in his critiques of what he calls the "ultra left" he seems to have given up on the task of revolutionary change. Part of this comes I think from his weak politics. His obsession with a world-wide defeat for the working class as a result of the end of the "bipolar" world in the early 1990s. More worryingly he seems to misunderstand the role of the state. Classical Marxism as well as the work of subsequent revolutionaries like Lenin, saw the State not as a mediating force between the classes, but as an instrument of class rule. Sader however sees the State as something that can be appropriated by governments as weapon against neoliberalism.

"it could also be a state that has been refounded by governments that seek to break out of neoliberalism, developing new structures of power. The state is, therefore, a space in dispute."

He continues:

"All the more reason, therefore, for the presence of the state in the fight against neoliberalism."

The problem with this analysis is that it leaves the movement and the anti-neoliberal governments Sader looks to weak in the face of the forces of capitalist power. Sader is well aware of what took place in 1973 in Chile when the CIA and Pinochet smashed a left wing government to protect their wider class interests. But he doesn't seem to have learnt his lesson. While rightly critiquing those like John Holloway for not acknowledging the need to "challenge for power" Sader has failed to give any real line of march for the wider left movements in South America that could begin to seriously challenge the system. As a result The New Mole makes some interesting points and is a useful, short summary of the radical history of South America, but it needs to be read critically and challenged.

Related Reviews

Sader & Silverstein - Without Fear of Being Happy: Lula, the Workers Party and Brazil

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rachel Hewitt - Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

For those readers outside of the UK, the phrase "Ordnance Survey" will probably mean very little. But for millions of Britons over the years, the Survey has represented the maps and charts that we have used to find our way around the country. In particular, hikers, ramblers and climbers will know the garish pink covered maps that, in amazing detail, show the locations of windmills, ancient remains, monuments and public telephones, as well as mountains, roads and waterways.

It is easy to take this for granted, after all it is no surprise that nations have maps of themselves. From this point of view a history of the Ordnance Survey (and wider attempts to map the British Isles) might seem only of interest to a specialist readership. Yet Rachel Hewitt's book contains much of interest to those interested in the development of modern Britain, science and social history.

Hewitt begins with the failed Jacobite rebellion of the mid 1700s. The defeat of Charles Stuart at the Battle of Culloden led to "loyalist" troops hunting down the last of the rebels. They were hampered by a complete lack of maps. In fact, large areas of Scotland were not only very difficult terrain, they were also completely unknown to anyone but the locals.

For a developing nation this was an enormous problem. In addition to the military consequences the nation state also needed to know what it had in terms of resources, people and places. From these early beginnings the modern Ordnance Survey was born.

Hewitt ably traces the story of those early mapping exhibitions. The small groups of men who travelled though inhospitable terrain, measuring, drawing and noting the names of landmarks. Their equipment was rudimentary and their skills were new. Many of the earlier maps are closer to pictorial representations than the symbolic maps we know today. The accounts of the progress of the surveyors are fascinating.

A few individuals struggled to get national recognition, and eventually government realised the importance of the task. Yet it took almost a century before the first, full Ordnance Survey map of the country was finished.

Why did this take so long? It is illuminating that there was a full map of Ireland produced long before the whole of the England, Scotland and Wales. The South Coast was mapped repeatedly long before the mountains of Scotland. The reason for this disparity has everything to do with the needs of the growing British State. The South Coast was important because it was the most likely site of French invasion and understanding the location of strategic sites was crucial for the military. Ireland was Britain's first colony and the government needed to know its resources, people and places in detail. It is noteworthy that the "Great Trigonometrical Survey of India" was begun in 1817 and was well advanced by the mid-1840s, yet the final map in the first series of the British Isles (south west Northumberland) wasn't released until  1870.

One of the weaknesses of Hewitt's book is that she doesn't draw more of this out. In fact it is merely one element in an interesting story for the author, rather than a central theme of the story of British mapping. This is a shame because the story of the Ordnance Survey is one that illuminates the development of British capitalism. Capitalism brought together a particular method of organising production, one that needed incredible amounts of natural resources and people, as well as being incredibly dynamic in terms of scientific and technological development. All these elements are brought out in the story of the technological and social developments of the Ordnance Survey, yet they feel tacked on to Hewitt's history.

This is not to say that Rachel Hewitt's book is not a worthwhile read. She has collected an immense amount of forgotten history and tells a great story. It is one that interweaves William Wordsworth's poetry with the story of the determination of the distance between observatories in London and Paris. It mixes technological genius with stories of men camping for weeks on mountain tops in the hope of a clear day. Sadly this detail sometimes obscures the far greater story beneath.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carolyn Ives Gilman - Ison of the Isles

Ison of the Isles is the sequel to the marvellously original novel Isles of the Forsaken which I reviewed a few weeks ago. It is such a direct sequel that it really reads as part two of a single volume and the publisher might want to consider re-issuing the two books in this format in the future.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Forsaken told the story of the colonial ambitions of the Innings in the Forsaken Islands. Their military interventions and the threat to the lives and culture of the people of these Islands leads to an initial uprising, led by a former naval commander, Harg. This uprising rapidly becomes a revolution against colonial rule, one that in this sequel is being bloodily suppressed by the Inning naval forces. Massacres and violent attacks on towns are leading to enormous numbers of refugees and growing calls for action.

The problem is that the only real option that is apparent to the islanders is military and despite Harg's strategic genius there is no way he can defeat the overwhelming military force being deployed against him. This means that the islanders' only option is to turn to their cultural and religious beliefs to save them. They look for a traditional leader, the Ison, who can lead them. The Ison however has to go through a ritual that will transform him, and the only person who can do that is a Lashnura woman Spaeth, who has the magical abilities but not the experience.

At the heart of this novel, as in its prequel, is the clash between the new rationality represented by the "developed" or "modern" nation of the Innings as contrasted to the "old" beliefs of the Forsaken islanders. As I argued in reviewing the first novel, when in our own history colonial powers have encountered people they want to control, these clashes are not simply cultural - they are rooted in the economic and political nature of the respective societies.

In Ison as in the earlier book the difference is that these forces are very real indeed (at least for the Islanders). Spaeth is able to encourage her gods to use their powers over storm and sea to try and sink the Inning naval ships. Unfortunately, in a brilliant illustration of the central theme of the novels, the captain of the Inning flagship is able to make a lightening conductor to protect his vessel from the vengeful gods. The captain's rationality appears to tame the extremes of nature, but in reality he unknowingly defeats a god.

Carolyn Ives Gilman has clearly built on her understanding of the beliefs of the native peoples of the Americas to create this wonderful fantasy. However she takes this further. There is a darkly humorous part of the book were one of the Islanders is convinced to marry an Inning. The ritual means nothing to her. She cannot comprehend the idea of being a virgin at marriage, or how important monogamy is to the Inning, nor the idea of having a single partner for life.

I also enjoyed the way that different revolutionary strategies are played out. There are those that want to try and defeat the colonials at their own game, but the Islanders' technology and economic system isn't yet strong enough, nor can they win in the courtroom which is rigged against them. The problem for the author is that there is no real solution.

This is a military conflict that the Innings are going to win despite the heroism and the tactics of the Islanders' soldiers. The Forsaken Islands will not be entirely subdued and ultimately, as in the real world, the colonies will rebel and kick out the oppressor. This contradiction means that the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfying. That said this is an enjoyable read about a fantasy world of magic and warfare that mirrors the clash between oppressed and oppressor in our own history. I look forward to Ms Gilman's future writing.

Related Reviews

Gilman - Isles of the Forsaken

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Leon Trotsky - 1905

Lenin described the revolution in Russia in 1905 as the "great dress rehearsal  for the revolution of 1917 which seized power. As a result, the 1905 revolution is often hidden by the shadow of the events twelve years later. Yet for those trying to understand the dynamics of the revolutionary process, there is much to learn from 1905 (as the Bolsheviks themselves understood).

Leon Trotsky was a central figure in this revolution. His book on 1905 is not an attempt at a historical over-view. It doesn't tell the whole story what was a year of revolution - in fact he begins with the massacre of January 9th, when Tsarist troops fired on a crowd who can marched to the palace to raise a number of wide ranging demands for reform. Then he skips to the events of October, barely touching at the surface of what were many months of strikes, protests and intervention from the Tsarist state.

October 1905 was important because it was then that the great body that represented the working people of St. Petersburg - the Soviet of Workers Deputies was formed. Much of 1905 is spent analysising this body, which Trotsky was to chair during a brief period at the end of the year, before the state arrested the leadership. From Trotsky, we get a real sense of the activity of the Soviet, as well as the way that it represented an alternate centre of power to the existing bourgeois state.

"The Soviet's premises were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kinds - mostly workers, domestic servants, shop assistants, peasants, soldiers, and sailors. Some had an absolutely phantasmoagorical idea of the Soviet's power and its methods.... Applications and petitions arrived from remote parts of the country. After the Novembers strike the inhabitants of one district of a Polish province sent a telegram of thanks to the Soviet. An old Cossack from Poltava province complained of unjust treatment by the Prices Repnin who had exploited him as a clerk for 28 years and then dismissed him without cause; the old man was asking the Soviet to negotiate with the Princes' on his behalf. The envelope containing this curious petition was addressed simply to The Workers' Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal service."

The Soviet was also a body of action, it tried to co-ordinate and develop the workers struggles across the city and the country, launching a strike wave to demand an eight hour day, but encouraging workers to implement this in their workplaces in the face of management opposition. This was incredibly successful and in the fifty odd days of its existence, workers made many gains that had been denied to them by the repressive regime. As Trotsky writes:

"By the pressure of strikes the Soviet won the freedom of the press. It organised regular street patrols to ensure the safety of citizens. To a greater or lesser extent, it took the postal and telegraph services and the railways into its hands. it intervened authoritatively in economic disputes between workers and capitalists. It made an attempt to introduce the eight-hour working day by direct revolutionary pressure. Paralysing the activity of the autocratic state by means of the insurrectionary strike, it introduced its own free democratic order into the life of the labouring urban population."

Trotsky's book contains much else of interest - the role of the mass strike wave in revolutionary periods and the way that the masses can attempt to win over the army for instance. However the revolution was defeated, in part because sections of the army remained loyal and in part because of the weaknesses of the under-developed Russian working class. Much of the processes that would shape the 1917 revolution existed in embryo in 1905 - the alliance between workers and peasants for instance.

The defeat of the revolution led to prosecutions. The task for the Russian ruling class though was difficult, because "they had to represent the Soviet as a conspiratorial organisation which, under pressure from a group of energetic revolutionaries, controlled the terrorized masses."

Of course this was very much the wrong way, but the Tsar and his ministers could hardly acknowledge the fact that enormous numbers of workers and peasants had supported a body that had become an alternate to their government.

The edition of 1905 that I read (Wellred publications 2005) contains a lot of useful material. Trotsky uses it to expound his theories of Combined and Uneven Development and Permanent Revolution, arguing long before Lenin that a working class revolution was possible in Tsarist Russia. In later articles and footnotes he points out that his criticisms of the Bolsheviks were no longer valid as they had, in the process of 1917, moved to share his position. Additional material includes Trotsky's account of the trial of the Deputies of the Soviet and his speech in the court room, in which he displays his eloquence, political analysis and rhetoric. It also includes an account of the deputies journey into Siberian exile and an exciting description of his escape on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and a drunken Siberian driver. Sadly this edition is marred by a very bad layout, plenty of typographical errors and spelling mistakes and a couple of duplicated paragraphs. It makes the reading process much harder and would encourage potential readers to search out an alternative edition.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky: Towards October 1879 - 1917

Cliff - Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917 - 1923

Trotsky - An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Friday, February 01, 2013

John Romer - A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid

The very idea of Ancient Egypt conjures up some obvious images; the pyramids and Sphinx in Giza, frescoes and carvings showing boats plying the Nile or impressive statues and grave goods. This is not surprising, as these monuments are both impressive and photogenic. Yet they make up only a small part of Egypt's ancient history, a culmination of thousands of years of life near the Nile and the history of the area continued long after the pyramids were built into the era of classical Greece and Rome.

John Romer's earlier books have looked at particularly aspects of ancient Egypt. In particularly I was impressed by his exploration of the daily life of a section of Egypt's more ordinary population, the tomb builders who worked in the Valley of the Kings. That book Ancient Lives included a detailed description of some extended strike action by the workers. But Romer's latest book takes on a far larger task, an account of the whole history of Ancient Egypt. He is well qualified to do this having spent many years excavating and studying the period and this, the first volume of two, is a wonderful book that will set the standards for writing about Egypt for a long time.

Romer begins his tale with the earliest of people who live in the area that we now think of as Egypt. We know a little about the hunter-gatherer nomads who lived in the area, but the real story begins with the farming communities that hunted, grew food and fished on the northern shores of the Faiyum Oasis, a few hundred miles west of modern Cairo. The climate then was different and one of the factors that shaped the eventual growth of the ancient population was a changing environment that helped force the earliest farmers to the banks of the Nile. The arid conditions of the Egyptian desert preserve the legacy of these farmers from perhaps 7000 years ago. When excavated their grain bins were found to not only to contain grain, so well preserved that curators tried to germinate them later, but also the tools and reed baskets had also survived. Thus begins the story of a people who transformed the Nile region using the most rudimentary of tools, yet produced stunning buildings, tombs and artworks. The pyramids after all, were made with bronze age technology.

At the heart of John Romers' story though, is the tale of the growth of the Egyptian State. It took many centuries before what we know as ancient Egypt came to exist. Romer takes pains to explain the neolithic revolution that led to farming becoming the dominant mode of production along the Nile. But he also argues that the particular nature of the Nile, the extreme fertility of the soil meant that those farmers could support a large non-agricultural work force at a very early point in history. Here-in lies the secret of the rapid growth of the Egyptian state, but also its ability to mobilise and sustain large numbers of workers in its monument building phase. During the building of the Great Pyramid, Romer estimates that a tenth of the working population were not working on the fields, but were engaged in building or providing the networks of exchange to support the pyramid builders.

Romer sees the development of this state as central to the development of the wider Egyptian world. While discussing King Narmer, the earliest Pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt, Romer writes that:

"the formation of Narmer's state had provided the foundations of a truly orignal order for [a] society that would last for millennia and which, as Pharaoh's Egypt, became a wonder of the ancient world.... a commonly used term like 'kingdom' appears to be appropriate. Yet the Pharaonic state stands at the beginning of all that. It was created from the ground up, without the benefit of an exemplar and, indeed, without the aid of writing or the presence of a national faith."

In this development of the state, the King or Pharaoh comes to represent the very state itself. Indeed,

"when ancient Egyptian scribes referred to Pharaoh's kingdom in non-literary texts, they used terms like 'residence' - that is the royal residence - to denote the controlling centre of the networks of trade and traffic, tithing and taxing, that operated in the regions of the lower Nile."

Kings like Narmer were often portrayed as warlike and violent. Early Egyptian history certainly was violent, many of the kings of this period, including Narmer, where buried with hundreds of murdered people around them. They are often depicted in the act of vanquishing an enemy, yet much of the migration and spread of the people northwards from the sites where the early Egyptian state developed was marked by peaceful co-existence with those who had come from the Levant. Extensive trade networks developed and cultural ideas, such as design of buildings and farming were taken up and shared by communities from different areas. I liked for instance that in the midst of one enormous Naqqadrian cemetery lies a grave of an individual buried in a traditional way from the Middle East.

All this could only be supported by the agricultural produce from the Nile, and the earliest technological innovations were the irrigation channels and pools built along the banks to trap the annual flood. Such methods are still used in other parts of Africa and one reason we know something about ancient farming patterns is that they lasted until very recent times. The ancient state was never far from the farming and the water that allowed the desert kingdom to flourish. This is why on a giant mace head, archaeologists have found an image of "a man... wearing what would become the White Crown of Upper Egypt, in the act of opening a water channel with the stroke of a farmer's adze... it is improbable that this unique object.... does not reflect something of the age in which it had been made."

In the language of Historical Materialism, the immense surplus that could be obtained from agricultural on the banks of the Nile (sometimes two or three crops a year) meant that the forces of production developed rapidly. Within a few centuries of the early Naqqadrian state and the rule of Narmer, the enormous pyramids were being built. This required a complex and developed state to organise the networks of trade and distribution of food, as well as the movement of stone and metal from quarries and mines. Egypt then as an agricultural state and Romer argues convincingly that the ancient cities were not places as we might imagine them today, but places of residence of the state's workers. Those who oversaw the production process.

Towards the end of the book, Romer laments  that we know very little about these ancient people.

"Our real knowledge of these ancient people hardly extends beyond their pyramids, their tomb chapels and names and titularies. We know nothing, for example, of those who carried [Queen] Hetep-heres in her palanquin, and though we possess her very intestines, we know nothing of the woman or the queen at all."

It is for this reason that much of the this book is dominated by discussions of architecture, pottery or stonework. Yet this is never boring, Romer has tried to draw out a history of people based on what they did to shape the world around them in order to survive. As he aptly points out, the images they have left are less a depiction of what is taking place and more a depiction of the state itself. As the ancient Egyptian state matured, its monuments and buildings also evolved. The very act of building the enormous pyramids also shaped the state and created the conditions of further building works. Our vision of ancient Egypt is thus in turn a reflection of what the ancient state itself did. As Romer concludes, "the greater part of what survives from early Egypt is exactly what those ancient people took pains to store and thus preserve within the dryness of the desert."

John Romers' book is a unique and magnificent read. It is accessible and well written, though if I have one minor criticism it is that the pictures seem old and of low-quality, a few higher resolution images of the objects being described would have been welcome. But this is a minor complaint about what is an essentially materialist account of the rise of the ancient Egyptian state. I recommend it, and look forward to the companion volume with great anticipation.

Related Reviews

John Romer - Ancient Lives; The Story of the Pharaohs' Tombmakers
Shaw - Ancient Egypt - A Very Short Introduction
Verner - The Pyramids: Their Archaeology and History
Kurth - The Temple of Edfu - A guide by an Ancient Egyptian Priest