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).

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.

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.

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”.)

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).

Book: The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002)

The aim of this book is to place capitalism into historical context: a social system that was brought about by specific conditions and historical trends. Particularly, it is concerned with showing that capitalism was not simply an expression of natural human tendencies; to “truck, barter, and exchange”, as Adam Smith claimed and (according to the author) many even on the left tend to accept unquestioningly. Rather than being an opening up of opportunities, by removing ‘unnatural’ feudal restrictions, capitalism represented an imposition of market imperatives.

The central claim of the book is that capitalism arose in England not due to mercantile activity in the towns or market activity in general (both of which had existed for centuries) but due to the extension of market relations to a new context, namely, relations between agricultural landlords and tenant farmers. She describes this as part of a shift from “extra-economic” relations (the political, juridicial, and military means by which the aristocracy, for example, extracted its income from the lower classes) to economic means (rents and wage-labour based in property rights). In doing so she also examines the development of Enlightenment conceptions of rights and property that served to reinforce this tendency.

For me, the really interesting aspect of this book wasn’t the detail of the argument (although this was informative in itself) but the challenges to assumptions, the refusal to accept the naturalization of capitalism (“assuming the very thing that needed to be explained”). In particular it challenges even left-wing assumptions about the ways in which economic development occurs, rejecting an oversimplified system of stages through which all societies progress. The subject of this book is further examined in the author’s other works: The Pristine Culture of Capitalism examines the differences in development out of feudalism between England and France, and Democracy against Capitalism develops the project of historicizing capitalism, while Citizens to Lords and Liberty and Property trace the history of political thought in its social context.

Book: Altered Pasts, by Richard J. Evans (2014)

I’m planning to start writing about books I’ve read, as a starting point for writing more generally. My basic intention is not necessarily to write a review per se, but rather an explanation of why I think someone should (or perhaps shouldn’t) read a book; why I think it’s interesting or significant, and so on, rather than giving it marks out of five. So here it goes.

I came across this book while researching the concept of inevitability in historical process, via a pointer towards E. H. Carr and then a review by Owen Hatherley. It is in itself a critique of a trend in historical writing for “counterfactual” history (that is, “historical” writing about events which did not take place), which the author connects particularly with conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson. For example, some have argued that counterfactual histories allow greater understanding of events which did take place by examining those which didn’t. Evans picks apart these claims, showing that the counterfactual methodology is neither sufficient nor necessary for good historical analysis.

Evans further identifies a tendency of counterfactualists to position their work in opposition to what they see as a stifling tendency towards “determinism” (particularly associated with Marxism, or at least, with misinterpretations of Marxism). This opposition is tantamount, he suggests, to a rejection of causality altogether, if the claims are to be taken at face value. He then proceeds to show that the counterfactualists are not opposed to determinism in practice, suggesting that their opposition is in fact merely an ideological distaste for left-wing theories which minimize the importance of “great men” like Churchill; he observes a disproportionate lack of counterfactuals coming from the political left. Evans is particularly strong in critiquing counterfactuals relating to the World Wars and rise of Hitler (his own historical specialty), including a trend within the British Eurosceptic Right to use hypotheses along their lines to make ideological points about the European Union. Thus, more broadly, this book is about placing intellectual tendencies within their historical context.

After reading this, I became aware of a newly-published collection of counterfactuals relating to the Russian Revolution (Historically Inevitable?, Brenton et al., 2016), which I suspect reflects similar prejudices and assumptions — the assumption that a revolution could be averted by arresting or assassinating one individual, for example, or even the characterization (in the introduction) of the idea of the revolution as a product of historical forces as being “quaint”, rather than this being merely a basic belief in causality, that things mostly happen for reasons and not for no reason at all. It is this, fundamentally, that makes it an ideological claim, in my view: to suggest that it is outdated and even silly to believe that the Russian Revolution was caused by anything more than the whims of a handful of individuals is to dismiss any critique of economic and social conditions; ironically, a dismissal of any real alternative in the name of exploring imagined ones.


On Capital

I initially intended to write a review of Capital, but in the process of doing so it turned into something more like an attempt to explain some of the basics of Marx’s theory. So, here it is. Note that it’s based on my own fairly limited knowledge and interpretation, so it’s entirely possible I’m mistaken about any or all of it; writing/explaining is as much a learning exercise for me as anything else, as well as an attempt to improve my writing regardless of the topic.

What even is Capital? It’s often also known, even in English, by its German title, Das Kapital. It was the life’s work of Karl Marx, and only the first volume was published in his lifetime; another two were published posthumously, along with various collections of his notes and drafts.1 But still: what is it? A handbook for revolution and mass murder, as some would claim?2

It’s actually more like a literature review (hence the subtitle, A Critique of Political Economy). Marx sets out to analyze contemporary economic theory in order to expose the assumptions underlying the capitalist system. Part of how he does so is by taking their claims at face value and trying to figure out what such a world might look like. In effect he’s constructing a model and tweaking one variable at a time to see how it alters the system as a whole; in this volume, it’s production, whereas in later volumes (which I haven’t read) he looks at exchange, and so on.

He begins by defining a commodity: a thing that is produced with the intent that it be exchanged for something else (as opposed to a thing that is produced with the intent of using it). Therefore, in turn, a capitalist society is one in which the majority of production is the production of commodities, unlike for example feudalism, where although commodities might be produced, most people are producing things for their own consumption or their family’s. These first few chapters, says everyone who’s ever read it, are the hardest, as Marx talks about various seemingly-basic concepts of value in seemingly-excessive detail, building up concepts like money on top of that. In the process, he traces back the fundamental concept of ‘value’ to its source: human labour, or at least, useful labour.3 How do we figure out what’s useful? Well, it’s useful if people are willing to pay for it. Of course, you can’t know that beforehand; this is an early example of a dialectical relationship, meaning what might now be called a feedback loop — two factors that constantly influence each other and find an equilibrium. (Also one of the most overused words in Marxist political writing.) So, the basic value of an item comes from the labour that went into producing it, but you can only figure out what that value is by the social processes of exchange.

From here Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism: the habit people have of thinking in terms of relationships between objects (i.e., the belief that the value of a commodity is somehow a property of the object itself) instead of relationships between people (i.e., in terms of who produces the commodity and how their labour is valued). This in turn is sort of a fundamental metaphor for the Marxist way of looking at the world: there’s underlying societal relations, which are specific to this society at this time and place, but they’re obscured by other ideas like the belief that they’re natural and that society always has been and always must/will be this way.

After Chapter 3 things get a lot more clear, particularly because, having set out the basics, Marx is now able to use some real-world examples. In particular, Chapter 10 is significant, because it’s here that he starts getting into the concept he’s most known for — class struggle. Chapter 10, ‘The Working Day’, discusses how, during the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution,4 it was necessary to change the way people thought about time — to take people who mostly judged time by the sun (which, naturally, varied by season), and impose a mental discipline where arriving and leaving work at a particular time actually matter. This matters more than you might realize, since it’s all part of the idea that capitalism (actually, every mode of production) developed over time, through a process of conflict between differing economic interests. In Marx’s model, laid out in the preceding chapters, technological advancement happens over a period of time, changing the relationships between groups of people (in the case of capitalism, leading to the rise in importance of cities and city-based business owners, the ‘bourgeoisie’, and their workers, the ‘proletariat’). This in turn brings the newly-ascendent class into conflict with the old ruling class (the aristocracy, for example), until the ascendent class is able to win political rights for itself (in Britain marked by the increasing significance of Parliament after the seventeenth century and decreasing power of the monarch). In turn, the development of industry leads to the increased number and importance of the urban proletariat, who then come into conflict with the bourgeoisie who own the factories. Over a period of decades during the nineteenth century, this conflict took the form of a fight for increased rights in the workplace — from limiting the hours a worker could be expected to work, and the age they can be expected to start work at, to the provision of education.

That will take you to about a third of the way through. Over the rest of the book, he looks at things like technological progress and how that relates to the relationship between worker and employer, wages, unemployment (and how unemployment is actually necessary and desirable from the perspective of an employer, in order to keep their profits up), and a host of other things. Then, in the final sections, Marx attempts to show that capitalism arose not as a ‘natural’ process, but as a result of violent upheaval (land enclosures, monastery dissolutions, vagrancy laws, etc.) and in particular colonization — something that’s often forgotten amidst the claims that capitalism rewards merit and hard work.

So, as for a review? It’s really difficult to ‘review’ a book like this — on the one hand, it’s probably the most significant political text I’ve ever read; on the other, it’s not something that I’d recommend others to read without caveats, since it’s pretty tough going. It is interesting, though, and feels a lot more relevant than, for example, J S Mill; despite being 150 years old, a lot of the topics Marx addresses are still very relevant. I also can’t overlook the helpfulness of David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I read alongside Capital itself chapter by chapter; it’s very useful for giving modern examples, and for providing clarifications so that I could be reasonably certain I was along the right lines before going on to the next chapter. (He also has a series of video lectures, upon which the book was based, if that’s more your thing.) There are better (and shorter) introductions to the various aspects of Marxist theory (Value, Price, and Profit gives a decent overview of Marxist economics; Socialism: Utopian and Scientific is a good overview of Marx’s theory of history) but Capital draws them all together and goes into greater detail on everything.

  1. Actually, he apparently wanted to dedicate his life to writing about the French author Balzac, but wanted to get this Capital thing out of the way first; he never did. 
  2. Although usually the title of ‘most evil book in history’ is, for some reason, given to the Communist Manifesto, a much shorter book written twenty years earlier, during the political upheavals around 1848. It is, as its name suggests, more like a political party’s election manifesto — except the elections were actually continent-wide uprisings. 
  3. This is a refinement of an earlier theory of value, from a guy called David Ricardo; most of the refutations of Marx’s theory of value actually ignore his refinement, and refute Ricardo’s theory instead. 
  4. Incidentally Marx was one of the first to use the phrase ‘industrial revolution’.