Timelines by John Rees provides a political history of modern empire and its opponents that challenges the gaps and silences of standard narratives, argues Marienna Pope-Weidemann
John Rees, Timelines: A political history of the modern world (Routledge 2012), 212pp.
Charting the political history of modern empire in two hundred pages is an ambitious project, but John Rees’ concise adaptation of the Timelines series, broadcast on the Islam Channel, is an admirable attempt. By highlighting the ‘flashpoints and fissures’ of imperial politics, Rees provides (if not an exhaustive account), an insight into the method in the madness of empire: its conflicts, its crises, and the critical role of its opponents. And like all good political histories, it reads like an international eulogy for the ‘democratic values’ of great powers.
The book is not written in strict chronological order. At times this results in some repetition, but patience is this respect will be well rewarded. It enables Timelines to give an artfully three-dimensional illustration of the history it covers. History viewed in this way, from the seat of power and from the streets, is always the most educational. The scope of the book is admittedly limited and attention focused on the ‘key points’ most will remember from school. However, Timelines is a far more uncompromising account, and therefore ideal for filling in the yawning gaps left by the school syllabus.
Part One, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, explores how industrial development changed and magnified imperial rivalry in Europe. The First World War embroiled civilians to an unprecedented degree, from both within the great powers and their colonies. Rees illustrates the centrality of socialist and communist revolutions in ending this spectacularly destructive war, first in Russia in 1917, and then in Germany the following year (something we never discussed in class).
Rees then examines the rise of fascism, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Depression, focusing on the Spanish Civil War when ‘millions of Spanish workers took the destiny of society into their own hands. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers from across Europe rushed to their aid. There has never been anything like it, before or since’ (p.34).
The failure of European states to unite against fascism, and the eventual defeat of the Spanish Republic, opened the door to the Second World War. For the European ruling class, Hitler was a bulwark against the socialist revolution whose strength had already been demonstrated in Russia, Germany and Spain. Britain’s appeasement of Hitler had its roots in this fear, the economic interests of the British Empire and the memory of what had passed in the First World War, when ‘in every European country labour militancy and Radical Left politics were giving voice to the discontent’ (p.27).
Timelines moves on to discuss the Cold War bipolarity that characterised the following decades, ending with the US establishing ‘military alliances with 50 states and… 1.5 million troops stationed overseas in 117 countries’ (p.55). As the British Empire staggered, the establishment of NATO was met in 1955 with its Eastern equivalent, the Warsaw Pact. Meanwhile, the non-aligned movement among developing nations, alongside the rise of the New Left in industrial countries, posed a crisis of legitimacy for the capitalist elite far beyond the military threat of the USSR.
This ideological and economic rivalry surfaced in armed conflict between the great powers through proxy wars. Afghanistan has been such a flashpoint, explored in Part Two, Empire and After. Rees illustrates the critical importance of the nation’s bloody colonial past, and dependence on financial and military aid. Again under Western occupation (with the Taliban still controlling 80% of the country) life expectancy has fallen, the rich-poor gulf is yawning and infant mortality is one of the highest in the world. Thus it comes as no surprise ‘that Afghans have never tolerated the occupation of their country. Occupying powers may have lost many lives and much money in Afghanistan, but they have never subdued its people’ (p.87).
Part Two slows the pace a little. It presents case-studies of various countries, discussing the struggles, ballots and battles of the Iranian revolution, Palestine, Ireland’s ‘troubles’ and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In an increasingly Orwellian capitalist system, the right to independence has been predicated on promises of obedience. From CIA-sponsored coups and rigged elections to false-flag operations and broken international agreements, these chapters explore some of the greatest obstacles to self-determination for ordinary people. Starting to turn to the consequences of this, the final chapter gives a short history of immigration in Britain. It illustrates the role of government and media complicity in generating and echoing anti-immigrant prejudice, especially during economic crises. ‘Desperate people seek desperate remedies. Some will try to lash out at those nearest to them because they cannot reach their oppressors or do not understand the cause of their difficulties lie further afield’ (p.143).
In Part Three, The Rulers and the Ruled, the underlying economics of all this comes to the fore. It begins with reflections on the first great market crash, the South Sea Bubble of the 1720s, as well as the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like the current crisis, both exhibit a familiar pattern: risky practice and non-productive profiteering create bubbles and recessions, followed by limited reprimands for the guilty parties without meaningful reform, and then a prompt return to ‘business as usual’. At the heart of this analysis is the damage caused by market deregulation, the perpetual repression of wages and the ‘blindness’ of a market system in which externalities and social consequences are secondary at best.
The final chapters cover some of the central social conflicts of the twentieth century, arguing that: ‘the exploited and oppressed in the Capitalist system almost never experience the system as economic exploitation pure and simply… The task of the Left is to explain why these issues are rooted in the need of the Capitalist class to ensure continued exploitation and to relate these struggles to one another’ (pp.5-6).
Part Three achieves just that. One chapter scrutinises the political and economic limitations of the Civil Rights Movement, another, the international mass mobilisations of 1968, and another the populist movements which have underpinned Chavez’s Venezuela. What Rees observes in reference to South Africa’s fight against apartheid is applicable to them all: that ‘liberation can only be complete when economic power as well as political power lies in the hands of the majority’ (p.166). Indeed it was this fundamental truth that drove the revolutions in Germany and Eastern Europe against the Soviet Union, as ordinary people struggled to achieve ‘the economic security that they had known in the East combined with the political freedom they thought existed in the West’ (p.179).
These twin themes, the struggle for self-determination and economic democracy, are by no means limited to people living under totalitarian regimes. Part Three also turns to the more recent political history of Britain. Rees points out that the first real blow to the welfare state came three years before Thatcher’s rise, when Callaghan’s Labour government ran to the IMF for our first national bailout. The terms of the loan committed the government to ‘wage controls and cuts in public services, and that meant that Labour had to attack its own supporters in the Trade Unions. This it did, in a way that no Tory Government could have done’ (p.168).
This was a time of overt class conflict in British society. Thatcher’s government was characterised by more vehement attacks on trade unions. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and employment fell as much as champagne imports rose (pp.171-2). Saving her administration with some good old-fashioned jingoistic patriotism during the Falklands War, Thatcher returned for a second term.
The Thatcher Era also saw mass mobilisation on the left. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the miners’ strike of 1984 was the longest in European history. Then government overreached. The introduction of the Poll Tax triggered historic riots, curfews and mass disobedience as workers were pushed to breaking point. A few months later, Thatcher was gone, but the Labour Party (in any meaningful sense of the term) was gone too, and her neoliberal agenda has been in office ever since.
Nonetheless, the post-war welfare era had already transformed European society in one particularly revolutionary way: the expansion of higher education transformed and in many ways created student politics. Their activism has helped shape the ‘flashpoints and fissures’ of political history ever since. They instigated the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; spearheaded the Iranian revolution; played a critical role in the Civil Rights Movement; and triggered a general strike in France in 1968, battling police from the barricades for the streets of Paris. The enduring lesson is this: ‘It is easier for students than it is for others to begin a struggle, but it is harder for them to finish one successfully unless they find allies among wider layers of working people’ (p.193).
The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen student protests rise again to their 1970s level and the march against the Iraq War on 15th February 2003 was the largest international day of protest in history. Anti-capitalist discourse has elbowed its way back into the mainstream, aided in no small measure by the collapse of the global economy. Like the Great Depression did, it exposed underlying exploitation and injustice to a harsher light. And with the so-called War on Terror entering its second decade, and workers forced to foot the bill for another systemic crisis of the system that exploits them, we are at another flashpoint today. ‘In all cases, failure by the governing classes in response to these issues produced two characteristic reactions: some became demoralised and cynical, but millions of others became engaged and active, determined to change what their leaders seemed incapable of changing’ (p.200).
The student revolt of 2010 marked the beginning of mass resistance to a new wave of neoliberal austerity in Britain today. The Trade Union demonstration scheduled for 20 October offers an opportunity to widen the struggle that must not be missed. Timelines provides an engaging illustration of the wider historical context, and in juxtaposing the injustices of the capitalist state with the popular power of those who have opposed them, it also points the way forward.
Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.
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