Book: Politics of the Judiciary, by J. A. G. Griffith (1997)

I can’t help but feel ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it has a number of flaws, some of which were unavoidable, but which were disappointing either way. On the other hand, the subject matter is significant enough to make it worthwhile reading despite its flaws, particularly for law students, since it examines how a lot of the abstract principles taught in the first year are put into practice in ways that might not be expect.

The first, unavoidable, flaw, is simply chronological; the first edition was published in 1977, the last in 1997. The changes that must have occurred between those editions are clear: there’s detailed discussion of judicial review procedures only introduced in 1977, not to mention extensive discussion of the Thatcher and Major governments. However, with the most recent edition ending just before the 1997 general election, it feels like there must now be as much missing from the book as there would have been if one read the first edition in 1997. Mention is made, for example, of the debate around incorporating the European Convention of Human Rights into English law, which of course happened just a year and a half later with the Human Rights Act 1998. This alone could probably have doubled the length of the book. Besides that, there is a lot that could potentially have been written about Labour’s anti-terrorism legislation, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about devolution, about the Good Friday Agreement. As I said, it’s unavoidable; the author died in May 2010, and can hardly be blamed for not writing a new edition on the Blair years while into his 80s.

The other flaw is that, for much of the book, it feels like more of just a list of facts than an analysis. Of course, it doesn’t take much on the part of the reader to start noticing patterns, but there are also contradictory results; it’s hard to know whether these disprove the author’s theory, whether there’s some well-defined exception to the general rule, or whether the theory is simply subtler than one might first have assumed. It’s not until the last chapter that, reviewing all the previous chapters, the data points are developed into a more explicit theory; and, particular since so much of this final chapter is referring back to cases discussed earlier, I can’t help but wonder if more explicit development of the theory throughout the book might have made it clearer.

The theory itself is, in the end, quite straightforward: the senior judiciary was, in 1994, overwhelmingly (95%) male, entirely white, primarily public-school-educated (80%) and Oxbridge-educated (87%), and averaging over 50 years old; when it is required to make decisions in the public interest, it does so on an understanding of the public interest that would not necessarily be recognized by those not falling into one or more of those categories. It’s something that would be uncontroversial to progressives of various kinds; however, it does have some subtleties. If one merely understands the judiciary as “conservative”, it doesn’t explain conflicts between the judiciary and the Thatcher/Major governments, or indeed within the judiciary itself (e.g., between the Court of Appeals and House of Lords). Distinctions thus need to be drawn between ‘conservatism’ as a policy of maintaining the status quo and ‘Conservatism’ as the policy of the Conservative Party, as well as a ‘conservative’ versus ‘creative’ model of judicial reasoning and statutory interpretation. For Griffith, there is little correlation between political positions and particular forms of reasoning: a conservative judge can often interpret a statute creatively; what matters in each instance is the underlying class interest in maintaining the status quo.

For me, the most useful part of the book was this demonstration of inconsistency, and what underlies it. Even the most conservative judges (at least in the UK) have long since ceased to pretend that they are merely ‘discovering’ the law rather than creating new law by applying it in new ways and new situations. However, the principles by which this is done are contradictory, and in particular the situations in which one or another principle ought to be used are left unclear; when is a literal reading, even an absurd one, valid, and when is it permissible to attempt to understand the broader intent of Parliament rather than their literal words? Griffith makes clear that these contradictions are not arbitrary, but that there is no objective choice between these principles, which are instead applied in a more-or-less opportunistic way to promote the judge’s understanding of the public interest

Book: Small Wars, Faraway Places, by Michael Burleigh (2013)

In short: this is a dreadful book.

There is, of course, no such thing as an unbiased work of history, and the most biased authors are generally those who think they’re unbiased but are instead just blind to their own preconceptions. Burleigh, despite (or because of) his claim to have ‘little ideological and even less nostalgic investment in the events described’, displays a deep-seated antipathy for anyone who could remotely be described as left-wing. While it’s true that he’s not outright defending imperialism, those who opposed imperialism are, in his portrayal, either pathetic figures worthy of nothing but contempt, or comic-book villains worthy of both contempt and demonization.

His usual method, it seems, is to describe atrocities committed by both sides in the hope that this constitutes balance. It does not: those perpetrated by imperialists, and by the right in general, are described dispassionately, while those committed by the left are always presented in more emotive terms. Thus he reports calmly that thousands of South Korean police, assisted by US forces, rounded up and murdered suspected Communists in Pyongyang; but the reverse is committed by the North Korean ‘secret police’ (a term never used of equivalent bodies in democracies). Stalin becomes, inexplicably, ‘Generalissimo Stalin’, although his military rank was never (so far as I’m aware) more than honorary (in the same way as Queen Elizabeth is commander-in-chief of the British armed forces); presumably it’s mere oversight that stops him according Eisenhower (an actual general) the same title. He talks with disdain of the “mindless nationalism” that is supposedly unique to China and North Korea, a claim so stupid it’s hardly worth pointing out the counterexamples. Mere paragraphs after reporting that women suspected of being nationalist supporters in Algeria were routinely raped by interrogators, he complains that “the liberal press ignored [Algerian] nationalist barbarity”; French nationalists in Algeria killed 14,000 people in a single year, 80% of whom were Muslim, but it’s the Algerian independence movement whom he describes as having ‘death squads’.

Coinciding with these double standards is a constant assumption of bad faith on the part of any and every left-wing movement. He disparages the Americans for their supposed monolithic view of Communism; yet he suffers from the same weakness, continually contrasting “nationalists” with genuine desire for independence with “communists” who always have some ulterior motive. Reporting on the Viet Minh’s literacy campaign, for example, he suggests that the reason behind it is that “one needed to read to understand their propaganda.” Indeed, on the occasions when it does become impossible to accuse a left-wing revolution of being incited by Moscow (or perhaps Beijing), Burleigh is shocked that they are able to think for themselves. This cognitive dissonance extends to being able to cite the CIA’s finding that 80% of South Vietnamese citizens would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, that the Viet Cong won support “through a genuine understanding of their concerns and by simple but effective measures”, and yet still consider them brutal terrorists and support for them as fundamentally inexplicable. Americans in the Philippines apparently simultaneously wanted to prevent electoral fraud and ‘ensure a favourable outcome’ (using $500,000 of CIA funds). In Iran, Mossadeq is presented as a comic figure (with vaguely racist undertones), but more concerningly, one who brought about his own demise by failing to abandon the policies that upset British and American oil interests (MI6 and CIA interference is, presumably, a force of nature in these circumstances, which can’t be avoided except by doing what they want). In Malaya, Burleigh consistently refers to the independence movement by the British propaganda term CTs (“communist terrorists”), even in sections predating the introduction of this term in practice (i.e., both biased and anachronistic).

It was clear within a few chapters that I wasn’t going to agree with the author’s politics, but it soon became impossible to even trust it as a factual description of events, since he’s incapable of separating fact from opinion; for example, when discussing the post-war British economy, it’s stated without question that full employment was ‘suffocating’ and unhealthy, as if this were no more controversial a claim than stating that the earth is round and that gravity makes things fall downwards. On the contrary: it’s nothing if not a political claim, and Burleigh is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.

As the book progresses he makes even less effort to hide his politics: British ‘Special Branch’ police are ‘heroes’, both in Malaya and in Northern Ireland (a conflict which is otherwise outside of the scope of this book); he classifies French colonists in Algeria as being unfairly demonized by the black-and-white thinking of the left, along with (among others) the apartheid regime in South Africa. By this point he’s ceased to pretend to be apolitical: all his political complaints are specifically directed at straw leftists (yet, without a trace of irony, dismisses as ‘ahistorical advocacy’ works that might suggest that imperialism was bad, or that imperialists can be blamed for it).

I only read as far as I did out of sheer annoyance, and even that got boring towards the end. I skimmed the last few chapters; Castro, like Mao, is presented as a comic-book villain who apparently had no motivation except for a desire for power; in Mao’s case, this interpretation is based on the flimsiest of sources, whereas by the time the book reached Castro I’d long lost faith that the book could be trusted.

Don’t bother reading this book. Try Odd Arne Westad instead, who can at least make criticisms of the USSR grounded in something like reality.

Addendum: I got so caught up in addressing the content of the book that I completely overlooked the failings of form. Burleigh is attempting to address a period of 20 years, over most of the world, involving multiple empires each fighting multiple overlapping colonial wars. As he rightly points out, this presents a problem in terms of structuring the book in order to be readable. Unfortunately, I don’t think his solution succeeds. He attempts to address each conflict in more-or-less individual chapters, and then orders the chapters roughly chronologically; however, this doesn’t avoid the significant overlap  between chapters, such that we encounter individual participants late in their career towards the end of one chapter, and then a few chapters later they’re introduced at an earlier stage of their career. He also tries to make some sort of point in the introduction about a geographic logic to the structure; I don’t see it. This is, perhaps, not really Burleigh’s fault, but a natural result of the source material. A stricter chronological ordering would have meant confusing leaps back and forth between multiple theatres; a stronger geographical focus would have meant even greater confusion of the chronology. Either way, the result is a confusing structure.

Thoughts on Atheism, Religion, and Equality

In the last couple of days, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has resigned over what he felt to be a conflict between his religious beliefs and his leadership position. There’s been plenty of speculation on the precise nature of this conflict, especially in light of his previous insistence that his personal religious beliefs did not impact on his liberal principles, and anyway he din’t believe that homosexuality was a sin. I must admit that I’m inclined towards scepticism regarding Farron, but that’s not really want prompted me to write this.

Instead, what I’m concerned with here is the tone of some comments on a ‘humanist’ page on Facebook, which for me summed up a tendency within the atheist community: that of dismissing deities as ‘sky fairies’ and insisting that the most important thing is to ‘mock’ religious believers.1

The problem is, this really misses the point. The gist of the article they were commenting on was that ‘the problem is not religion itself, but the way individual politicians interpret it’. Plenty of religious people (even religious politicians) have found no conflict between their faith and support for gay rights (indeed, plenty of LGBT people are religious themselves). The problem (suggests the article) is not religion in general, but Farron’s views in particular.

However, for many atheists (including prominent names like Richard Dawkins), this level of nuance is incomprehensible. There’s no variation between religious practitioners; there’s no scope for differing beliefs within or between religions; and there’s no scope for understanding the social context in which religion exists. Dawkins, for example, has been vocally dismissive of the study of theology, purporting to believe that to even study religion is to assert the existence of God. This is nonsense, of course; to study religion no more requires belief in God than to study modern literature requires belief in Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins, and Dawkins’ opinions are undoubtably within the realms of theology. (Dawkins has since gone even further, to dismiss much of the humanities and social sciences in general; it’s hardly a stretch, at this point, to suggest that he’s simply opposed to any body of knowledge that suggests he might not be the foremost authority on all the world’s problems.)

This kind of atheism misses the wood for the trees. Dawkins and his ilk claim to be deeply concerned by the impact of religion on society, but focus instead on the truth value of the proposition that ‘God exists’, apparently assuming that all of these negative impacts will simply disappear in a puff of logic. Marx wrote in 1842 that he ‘desired there to be less trifling with the label “atheism” (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man)’; for him, the non-existence of God was not in doubt, but equally, asserting this didn’t address any significant social questions.

Here’s a thought experiment: if God really did unquestionably, irrefutably exist, would homophobia be justified? One would hope that most atheists would say no (and, of course, many religious people already do say no). But in that case, why precisely does the existence of God matter? Religious people are far from exclusively homophobic, and homophobic people are certainly not exclusively religious.

A while back, I wondered if Dawkins-style atheists and religious fundamentalists had in common with each other a literal interpretation of holy texts, while more mainstream religious believers are more flexible in their faith. Since then I’ve realized this is untrue; religious fundamentalists don’t have an interpretation that is somehow ‘more correct’ than others (ISIS’ attacks on civilians during Ramadan comes to mind, or Christian extremists’ tendency to ignore the ‘plank in their own eye’). These atheists (or anti-theists, perhaps) have a similar tendency, though: to find, from their position of ignorance, the most negative interpretations of the texts, and to assume that this is the only valid one, that those believers who favour other interpretations are somehow ‘doing it wrong’. One could almost believe that they’d rather all religious people were ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church; ‘moderate’2 religious people pose too much of a challenge to their black-and-white worldview wherein all atheists are good and intelligent and all ‘theists’ are bad and stupid.

As far as Tim Farron goes: it’s hard to support a belief that Christians are discriminated against in this country. As far as I can tell, each of the Prime Ministers we’ve had in the last ten years has been quite openly Christian, while Tony Blair was less so during his time in office but famously converted to Catholicism afterwards; I can’t find out what John Major believed in, but Thatcher was certainly religious, as was (to a greater or lesser extent) almost every Prime Minister before that. What seems to have damaged Farron is not so much his openness about his faith, but his failure to convince the party and the electorate that he isn’t a homophobe (even if he really isn’t). As Labour’s Emily Thornberry said on BBC Question Time last night, “you cannot aspire to be Prime Minister of this country … and think a substantial minority of this country, by their very sexuality, are in some way immoral”; I would add that a clarification that “we are all sinners” does not do much to improve this position.

  1. Full disclosure: I used to be this kind of atheist, although I hope I’m better now.
  2. Although I’m not entirely comfortable with the implied judgement of words like ‘moderate’.

Book: Capitalism & Slavery, by Eric Williams (1944)

This has been on my “to read” list for a couple of years now, ever since coming across it in a British Empire seminar, and I finally picked it up for my dissertation.

It’s pretty much a seminal, though not uncontroversial, work on the history of the slave trade and industrial revolution, and how the latter built upon the former; and, in particular, how the abolition of the slave trade was not purely humanitarian but itself economically motivated.

He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependent industries right back to the seventeenth century, detailing the economic reasoning behind it at each stage; why certain industries found slave labour profitable (generally those which were both labour-intensive and land-intensive, like sugar and cotton), and why, as industrial and geopolitical developments occurred over the course of the eighteenth century, the political power of the West Indian plantation owners was reduced. I was particularly interested in some of the ideological motivations, both for the development of slavery itself and for the abolition, and how these hid the material reasons behind both of these processes.

At the beginning of the slave trade he details how the concept of racism (other authors might argue, even the concept of race) was secondary to economic concerns; racism only developed as a justification when it became clear that the African slave trade was a profitable source of labour. Towards its end, he gives many examples of double standards applied against British versus non-British slave labour; campaigns against slave-produced sugar, for example, were not (in most cases, at least until decades later) accompanied by those against slave-produced cotton. On another level, he also discusses the contempt many anti-slavery campaigners had for the working class (and, conversely, the contempt some working-class activists had for Africans) — ‘Saint’ William Wilberforce, he says, ‘was familiar with everything that went on in the hold of a slave ship, but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft’.

He doesn’t go into much, if any, detail about the period after abolition; I’ve heard the claim that ex-slaveowners used the capital (or the compensation) to invest in developing industry in Britain, but there’s little here to support or refute that, nor much about ongoing British dependence on slavery post-1833.

An interesting, though disappointing, aspect was the section on slaves’ own struggles against slavery. This was mostly detailed in the final chapter, an addition to the thesis which formed the original basis for the work, but failed to go into much depth; other books are likely to be better on the topic (C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins comes to mind).

An aside: a little while ago I spotted, on Goodreads, a new edition re-titled “British Capitalism and British Slavery”, with the claim that this “more aptly captures Williams’s work”. This seemed suspicious from the outset: an attempt to limit the scope and thus absolve non-British capitalism of complicity in slavery. Capitalism even by the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a global phenomenon, and British industry depended on (and defended) slavery in America decades after it was abolished in the Empire. The conclusion confirms this feeling, explicitly arguing against titling the book “British Capitalism”. This is expanded on in the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, which quotes from letters between Williams and the (American) publisher in which he specifically opposes any title that would limit its scope to Britain and the British West Indies. Retitling the book posthumously, against the author’s explicit wishes, seems deceitful; giving the book a title which the text of the book itself argues against just seems incompetent.

Commodity Fetishism and Technological Solutions

A common observation among my group of friends is that “you can’t apply a technological solution to a social problem”; broadly speaking, that if a problem is fundamentally caused by human behaviour, technology can provide, at best, a temporary fix, until humans modify their behaviour to bypass the solution. Technology can’t, in many (perhaps not all) cases, address the fundamental causes of problems. And yet, somehow, it’s a recurring theme; a lot of security-related technology seems to fall into this category, for example.

Completely unrelated to all this, or so I thought, I’ve been trying to get my head around Karl Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish:

As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

(Capital, vol. 1, p. 165, Penguin edition; emphasis mine.)

What I understand him to be arguing, in short, is that (in capitalist societies) people tend to see the value of a commodity as being, somehow, a property of that commodity or based on a relationship with other commodities (e.g., money), when in fact it’s a result of the relationships between the people who own commodities.

So I started to wonder if this could apply much more broadly; isn’t (for example) the Thatcherite–Reaganite refrain of There Is No Alternative rooted in the same assumptions? That is, it’s based in the assumption (or the assertion) that economic conditions are an unchangeable fact, the result of unquestionable laws of nature (a relationship between things) and not a result of decisions made by human beings who benefit from this state of affairs rather than the alternative, and who can impose this state of affairs  on others (a relationship between people).

You can see this at work in any discussion of the markets, which are (we are expected to believe) mystical forces uncontrolled by human desire, rather than some thousands of people around the world acting in their own interests; one memory of this that stands out in my mind was the days of discussion between the 2010 general election and the subsequent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The markets are unhappy. No mention of the people behind the markets, the people who wanted the best outcome for their own investments at the expense of other possible outcomes; simply an angry god, beyond human understanding or control, that must be appeased at all costs.

That seems to me to be what we’re seeing (perhaps at a more abstract level) with the current general election. Labour is unelectable because that’s the way things are. The Conservatives (or, “Theresa May’s Team”, as I hear they’re rebranding themselves) are strong and stable leaders because that’s the way things are. These assumptions appear to be entrenched even within the Labour Party, whose right wing insists that Corbyn will be (or already is) a failure because he fails to accept this framing. They’re reflected both in governmental economic policy (which can’t consider anything but cutting taxes and reducing expenditure: there is no alternative) and the priorities of every company attempting to use new technology to ‘solve’ a problem rooted in socioeconomic conditions (AI being the latest buzzword, but not the first).

Too often I think the first problem faced by the left is simply accepting the framing of problems that’s defined for us by the right, rather than redefining it in our own terms and with our own priorities. More and more, I’m starting to realize that this framing influences more aspects of society than just politics (and, after all, it’s to be expected; the separation of ‘politics’ from society and the economy is artificial). Dozens of startups spring up with a ‘clever’ algorithm or app to ‘solve’ problems facing employers or landlords (for example); the problems are simultaneously assumed to be unavoidable facts of life that are, nevertheless, fixable with a monthly or yearly subscription. This is doubly incorrect; on the one hand, the problems exist only because of the current socioeconomic structures, as a result of human actions that shape and are shaped by those structures; on the other, they’re unsolvable as long as those structures exist.

Of course, I don’t entirely know where I’m going with this; I don’t even know if my interpretation of Marx here is at all relevant, and I certainly don’t know how socialists might be able, in practice, to push back against the illusion that right-wing economic dogma is a law of nature. But asking the correct questions might be a starting point.

Book: Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert (2014)

I got the impression, when reading this, that Beckert may have simply wanted to write a history of capitalism; on the other hand, perhaps cotton really was the original subject, and the sheer scale of its impact on capitalism came later. Either way, this really is about more than just cotton, and gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism developed from simple trade networks into an all-encompassing system of production and control; it also gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism and imperialism grew up together, intertwined, and how commercial interests influenced national policy. Globalization, and corporate lobbying, are far from new phenomena.

I read this as part of my research for a dissertation on the nineteenth-century British cotton industry, so I tended to skim over the sections on manufacturing in other countries, as well as the final chapters past 1900. Nevertheless, the British cotton industry and its relation to cotton farming in India, America, and Egypt are a major theme of this book, as well as the ways in which industrial capitalism really depended on violence and slavery (what Beckert calls “war capitalism” and Marx called primitive accumulation).

It’s extremely well-referenced, covering a wide range of academic literature and primary sources on the nineteenth century (at least), one of the things which made it so useful. I may have picked this up in a normal bookshop but it’s really an academic work; despite that, it’s pretty readable by the standards of mainstream non-fiction. As for the reviews on Goodreads that accuse it of Marxist bias — I see no sign of it. If you think that a history of capitalism is going to be entirely positive about capitalism, then, of course, the truth seems like bias. (Indeed, if anything, the author might have benefitted from more Marxism, not less; it would have simplified the analysis a little, and avoided reinventing categories like “war capitalism”.)

Revolutionary Art

Recently the Guardian published an article about a (then-upcoming) exhibition on post-Revolution Russian art at the Royal Academy, specifically referring to it as “brutal propaganda” and worrying that our admiration of it “sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history”. Unfortunately, the author seems deeply confused not only about what the exhibition represented but about his own opinions. This may, of course, be a reflection of the hazards of reviewing something that you haven’t seen yet.

To give him his due, Jones is particularly concerned with arguing that art should be placed in its proper social and political context; I agree, especially with art that had such a political and social motivation as some Soviet art did.

And yet, after visiting the exhibition, nobody could fairly claim that it failed to give the political context of the art — nor is it possible to say that the Royal Academy understates the “brutality” of the Soviet government, not only under Stalin but (as Jones is at pains to point out) under Lenin too.

From my perspective, the exhibition goes too far to the opposite extreme; the historical background on the wall of every room misses no opportunity to criticize the Bolsheviks, but in doing so completely fails to explain why anybody might have been motivated to create art for or about them. As pointed out on Twitter, for example, it’s not difficult to figure out why the Lithuanian Jewish graphic designer El Lissitzky, several of whose works feature in the exhibition, might have found it difficult to mourn the downfall of the Russian monarchy and the deeply anti-semitic Russian Orthodox church that supported it, nor why he might have felt positively about a government that took the risk of anti-semitic violence seriously. For Jones, though, putting Lissitzky’s in historical context means identifying them as “calls to merciless violence”: a partial contextualization that is perhaps even more misleading than a total lack of context would be.

More broadly, this is a mindset that does not allow any reason to support revolution, even revolution against a cruel and arbitrary autocratic monarchy and the backwards social conditions it perpetuated. Lenin and other leaders, it is taken for granted, planned from the outset a dictatorship for their own benefit; anyone who might have supported them from outside a position of power was merely misguided, and their motivations need no further explanation. After all, how could anybody seriously have imagined, as Lissitzky did in the late 1920s, a world in which ordinary people might have modern, spacious homes?

Of course, Jones could hardly be said to be an objective reviewer; on the one hand, he claims that we should “never stop looking at the art of the Russian avant garde”; on the other, he compares it to an exhibition of Nazi-era German art, to which there would “rightly be an outcry”. And, yet, a few years back he was arguing that “brutal regimes and empires have long contributed to a legacy of eye-popping realism” in the context of the Spanish Inquisition. I wonder what changed?

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.3

Notes on Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition. Previously: chapter 2.

This chapter and the previous one really interrelate, to the extent that I’m almost not sure it made sense to separate them. On one hand, it makes a sort of intuitive sense to dedicate each of the first three chapters to native Americans, black people, and white people, and their respective interactions with the white ruling class. But in reality, these were not separate historical processes that can be examined in isolation; each influenced the others to a significant extent, and it’s only in this chapter about “poor whites” that we really get a full picture of the situation of native Americans and black people (both slave and free).

In itself the chapter details the situation of white servants, rural tenant farmers, and urban artisans. In particular it shows how the development of capitalist land ownership and trade in England (and its colonies in Ireland) helped to instigate migration to the Americas which was in turn exploited for profit first by ship-owners then by colonial landowners. It goes on to note that although even at this early stage there was a dream of class mobility and equality, only the earliest indentured servants had significant financial success after gaining their freedom; later migrants remained relatively poor. Particularly significant in this chapter, though, is the examination of the ways in which class conflict (i.e., between rich and poor whites) is defused by the process of racialization. Racial distinctions were entrenched, argues Zinn, in order to heighten the perception by poor whites that they had interests in common with the white ruling class — i.e., that the white landowner was not an exploiter but a protector of their common interests. This meant, for example, that the poorer farmers further away from coastal regions could act as a “buffer” against the native peoples, and look to the governments for protection rather than with resentment; it also meant that white farmers and servants could be counted on for assistance against potential slave revolts, rather than (as had earlier been the case) becoming part of the rebellion themselves.

We also see in this chapter (and with some foreshadowing of the next chapter) more of Zinn’s idea (not unfounded) that nationalism and liberal ideals serve to mask internal conflicts, both as a historical process (i.e., that contemporaries used ideas of an American nation to attempt to build unity against a common enemy) and one reflected in the historiography (he is critical of “the emphasis, in traditional histories, on the external struggle against England [and] the unity of colonists in the Revolution”).

However it’s at this point of the book that some of its flaws start to become apparent. After all, what is a history of the United States of America before 1776? A history of the thirteen colonies that would then go on to declare their independence? This seems to exclude, for no objective reason that I can see, the colonies in what would become Canada, for example; is their situation significantly different, thus leading to their later divergence? Or is that merely historical accident? It has also overlooked (after the beginning of the first chapter, at least) the non-British colonies in North America, even ones which (like Florida) would soon become part of the United States, and while New York for example is discussed at length (especially in the urban context) there’s very little discussion of whether the Dutch colonial authorities had been much different from the British.

Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch.2

Notes on Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line. Previously: chapter 1. Next: chapter 3.

When I originally read this chapter a few years back, it struck me for two reasons: firstly, it was the first time I’d seen an attempt to explain how the slave trade came about; secondly, because it went further than that and identified the slave trade as being the origin of modern racism. In reading again, the causative process is more clearly identifiable: the use of slave labour grew out of economic pressures (to increase productivity while minimizing cost in the colonies), and over the next several decades the system was increasingly institutionalized through the passage of legislation that denied Africans and African-Americans equal rights, while granting increasing privileges to lower-class whites.

It’s that latter process that I found most fascinating: rather than racism having been the result of some inherent human bias, early black slaves and white indentured servants seemed to find that their situations, while not identical (Zinn gets into the specific situation of indentured servants in the next chapter) were close enough that their interests aligned with each other against the employer/enslaver. The solution that was found to this problem, to prevent black and white people working together for their common interests, was to undermine those interests, for example by punishing “fraternization” and, for example, by rewarding white servants with their freedom for informing the authorities of rebellion.

One thing that stands out in this chapter is that by focusing on the history of America and what happens in the Americas, important context can be lost. Although Zinn does note that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in fact began before Europeans reached the Americas, not much thought is given to why this might be the case. I’m currently also reading Empire of Cotton, which looks at the international history of the cotton industry and argues that the enslavement of West Africans was prompted, in part, by the importance of West Africa as a market for cotton fabric being exported from India by Europeans. There is, of course, only so much international history that can reasonably be covered in a book on US history, but it seems to me that so many of the significant events and processes that directed the course of American history are, really, international.

Overall, on the second reading, this chapter felt a little lightweight; on subsequently reading chapter 3 (on poor whites) it seems like a lot of the internal social pressures are described better there, and with equal relevance for the relationship between white and black people as between rich and poor whites.

Book: A History of Modern Russia, by Robert Service (2003)

The original edition of this book covered up until the 1990s. This is a review of the second edition, extended up to 2002; there’s also a third edition up to 2009.

Service’s biggest problem boils down to his lack of self-awareness. He has a number of unexamined assumptions about what constitutes a correct way of managing an economy and a government, and thus applies these without justification. Of course, there are plenty of things to criticize the USSR for, but, for example, while the arbitrary nature of the legal system might be something most people would agree is bad, on the other hand one might reasonable wonder if there are not valid debates to be had over the size of the state sector of the economy (Service repeatedly refers to it as “hypertrophied”). To take another example, in the conclusion he presents ‘free’ elections as held in the 1990s as being an unquestionably positive step, even while admitting that, in practice, these elections where deeply flawed. One might wonder why a flawed democratic process that pretends to be “liberal” is fundamentally better than, or even any different to, a flawed democratic process that does not. Perhaps what one pretends to be is more important than what one actually does?

Another tendency that irritates me is his constant assumption that, unlike all the Soviet leaders and officials discussed in the book, he (Service) has interpreted Lenin (and, to a lesser extent Marx) correctly.

All in all, this is not the worst history of the Soviet Union. While his liberal and anti-communist sympathies are clear throughout, Service for the most part refrains from moralizing and rejects the most exaggerated nonsense claims that have been made about the scale of the USSR’s problems; for example, he recognizes that the famines of the 1930s were not somehow orchestrated by Stalin. (He also avoids the self-importance of Figes, who seemed to think he was doing Soviet leaders a favour by accusing them of only mass-murder, rather than genocide, and that the biggest flaw of post-Soviet leaders has been not to run the country as he would have.) He’s also better on the Cold War than some other histories have been, and so while Carr (for example) is better on the early years of the Soviet Union (1917–27), Service is the best I’ve read on Stalin and the post-Stalin period (which admittedly isn’t saying much). The post-Soviet era is covered increasingly briefly, with Putin’s election in 1999 being almost the final event of note despite the book claiming to cover up to 2002; it also suffers, to be fair, from the most significant parts of Putin’s leadership having taken place after this edition was published (and so I’ll give the third edition the benefit of the doubt in this regard).