A Counterfire reviews round-up for 2013 of books we missed in the last year or so
Terry Pratchett, Dodger (Doubleday 2012), 356pp.
Christmas is now associated with Charles Dickens more than perhaps with any other writer, so Terry Pratchett’s take on Dickens’ London seems particularly appropriate seasonal reading. A ‘fantasy based on a reality’, it’s an engagingly-told tour of Victorian London, starring a galaxy of its major stars: Henry Mayhew, Joseph Bazalgette, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Tenniel and of course Charles Dickens.
The eponymous star, a teenaged tosher (scavenger in the sewers) is here the ‘real life’ inspiration for the character of the Artful Dodger in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and like Oliver Twist, Dodger takes on the poverty and squalor that thousands of ordinary Londoners faced every day. In other hands this could have been a mere Dickens pastiche, but Pratchett adds a modern understanding of issues like that of the ex-soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, wounded mentally and physically, and trying to scratch a living on the streets. It’s all done in Pratchett’s usual witty style, but while it’s a fun read, it’s a fun read with an odd aftertaste.
As is often the case with Pratchett when he’s making a serious point, it isn’t entirely clear what he is saying. On the one hand, the conditions of the poor in London are clearly shown to be disgraceful, and Pratchett adds to this a clear criticism of those whose aristocratic position placed them effectively above the law. On the other hand, it’s noticeable that the particular aristocrat here is foreign, while domestic Tory politicians like Disraeli and Robert Peel get a rather easy ride. While Pratchett in his afterword pays tribute to the work of social reformers writing fiction or non-fiction, his main character has no truck with any sort of collective action to improve the lot of the poor. He is, as Mayhew says to him on their first meeting ‘a brand plucking himself from the burning’ (p.83) and gets himself into a happy ending by his own efforts.
This is not unsatisfactory as a conclusion to the story, although it’s not the most realistic part of the book, but it does smack rather of the ‘bootstraps’ arguments of right-wingers, who see it as poor people’s responsibility to save themselves individually from exploitation. It may be that this is what Pratchett really thinks, but it sits oddly with, for example, the cameo appearance of a young Karl Marx, in the memory of Dodger’s landlord, Solomon, as ‘a rather hairy young man who told me that one day all that sort of thing [specifically, governments shooting their people] would be swept away … Occasionally, I mmm wonder what happened to young Karl’ (p.116). I suspect that it’s more that Pratchett is suffering from the same problem faced by many socially-conscious but non-revolutionary Victorian writers: that having described the conditions faced by their impoverished characters, they had no way of getting them out of it. Dickens found Oliver unknown, wealthy relatives; Elizabeth Gaskell sent hers for a new start in Canada. Pratchett sends Dodger out of semi-reality into fantasy, which is also an ending, but not an answer.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books 2012), xv, 302pp.
This is an account of a tour through what Hedges calls ‘the sacrifice zones’ in the US: the places which have suffered the most from inequality and exploitation, and have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. Over two years, 2009-2011, they visited impoverished Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the dying town of Camden, New Jersey, with its ‘Transitional Park’ tent city, West Virginia ex-coal miners, living with the health effects of a life spent in the mines, amid appalling environmental devastation by practises like ‘mountain shaving’. Finally they visited illegal migrant workers in Florida, before concluding with Occupy Wall Street.
Every economic crisis needs works bearing witness to it, and while this isn’t quite The Grapes of Wrath, as a record of just how bad things have got in the parts of the US we don’t tend to hear about, it is very valuable. What brings it alive are Joe Sacco’s illustrations (the pictures of Camden are particularly effective) and the sections where he tells the stories of some of the people they meet in cartoon form. Sacco is a gifted cartoonist, as anyone who has read his previous work on Palestine can attest, and these are the most hard-hitting parts of the book. It is only a shame that there aren’t more of them.
The finale in Liberty Square with Occupy provides a note of hope in contrast to the oppression and exploitation catalogued in the earlier chapters, and enables Hedges to emphasise that ‘the mighty can fall’. He is absolutely right in this. His analysis of the issues facing the Occupy movement may be arguable in places but the decision to end with it saves the book from a common error; that is, identifying exploitation inherent to the system but concluding that minor changes will fix it. In Days of Revolt, it is clear that tweaking the system which has done this to the people of Pine Ridge, Camden and West Virginia can only get you so far. It must be overthrown.
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (Verso paperback April 2014), 295pp.
The Invention of the Land of Israel
Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Land of Israel is a companion volume to his earlier The Invention of the Jewish People (2009). It continues his project to de-mystify the nationalist concepts justifying the present construction of the Israeli state; the notion of an ethnically coherent Jewish ‘nation’ and, in this book, a historical ‘homeland’. The response to the first book, Sand notes in a closing acknowledgment, was predictably hostile: ‘The major claim of all my detractors was that everything I presented was already known and had already been written by them, and, at the same time, that none of it was correct’ (p.283). The project might seem at first glance deeply iconoclastic, but, as Sand argues particularly in the first book, all he is trying to do is to apply to Jewish nationalism the same sceptical examination that other national stories have received, largely with acceptance from the academic historical consensus.
Whatever the controversies, these are both marvellously fascinating books, as Sand takes the reader through thousands of years of history, bringing to bear up-to-date scholarship on familiar and unfamiliar episodes alike. The biblical and ancient histories of Canaan, Palestine, the kingdoms of Israel and Judea take up much of The Invention of The Land of Israel, and Sand shows that the historical kingdom of Israel never had very much to do with the monotheistic Jewish religion, which itself was a much later creation of the late fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Modern nationalist ideas do not fit into the conceptualisations that can be found in the ancient Jewish texts, which did not actually use the phrase or the notion of a ‘Land of Israel’ (Eretz Israel). In fact, the monotheistic religion spread only slowly beyond intellectual circles to the ordinary peasants of Palestine. At the same time, Judaism spread well beyond Palestine early on, and was a thriving, and proselytizing, religion around the Mediterranean as the Roman Empire grew. Indeed:
‘The local population that began to espouse a belief in a singular God was never uprooted from its home but simply changed the nature of its faith. It was not a question of a unique people being scattered around the world but a dynamic new religion spreading and acquiring new believers. The masses of converts and their descendants longed passionately and with great mental fortitude for the holy place from which redemption was supposed to come, but they never seriously considered moving there and never did so’ (p.256).
One reflection that might arise from Sand’s account is the way the actual story of ancient Judaism also recalls the weakness of the standard narrative about Christianity in the Roman world. This tends to treat it separately from the existence of a huge and widespread population of adherents to Judaism throughout the Empire, and as if Christianity is distinguishable because it attempted to acquire new believers. This was in fact a point of similarity. It appears that Judaism was an organic, if somewhat oppositional, religion within the general Roman civilisation, and Christianity merely a minor, and rather lax, version of the original, which took centuries to outgrow its Jewish context.
Be that as it may, Sand takes the story of Judaism and the concept of Israel through from the ancient world, through the medieval period, which he accomplishes deftly, and into the modern era. The main targets for sceptical investigation are the inventions with which the Zionist movement justified the creation of contemporary state of Israel, which cannot, in fact, draw any sort of meaningful continuity with those ancient Biblical communities that seem so familiar from modern nationalist misinterpretations.
Russian Revolutionary Posters
David King, Russian Revolutionary Posters: From Civil War to Socialist Realism, From Bolshevism to the end of Stalinism (Tate Publishing 2013), 144pp.
David King’s collection of Soviet-era posters is a revelation, particularly when seen against the mainstream presentation of Russian revolutionary art as a dreary, totalitarian wasteland of tasteless and schematic propaganda images. Starting with posters from the early stage of the civil war, the vibrancy and variety of styles and ideas together really do give an impression of the popular mobilisation of energy and purpose unleashed by the revolution. Some posters are heroic, some cartoon-like; some reach for nineteenth-century styles, while others are confidently modernist, but the collection shows the early success in creating good art for political purposes. This was, of course, not sustained, as the revolution decayed in the course of the 1920s, and humanism and experiment gave way to the more predictable iconography of ‘socialist realism’.
There is still the occasional spark of life in some of the later posters, but largely the Stalinist era specimens show a mixture of the sort of disturbing totemic imagery that one would expect, as well as cloying and sentimental depictions of ordinary citizens. The decay of the revolution can almost be tracked by the re-appearance of patriarchal, shall we say, gender conceptions. The World War Two posters contain plenty of predictable clichés exhorting young men to fight to defend female-themed representations of a land threatened with Nazi violence. Some of these though do show something different, perhaps an echo of the original revolution, not least the cover picture, which seems to have an honest urgency to the figure of a real, living woman, rather than the usual idealised or sentimentalised dream figure. The humanism of this image, created by Nina Vatolina, seems to escape from the standard gender narrative, and was surely created in spite of the Stalinist regime, resting on the remaining legacy of the October revolution. In any case, the first half of the book, at least, contains a fascinating record of the hope and possibility unleashed in 1917.
A Marxist History of the World
Neil Faulkner, A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals (Pluto 2013), x, 342pp.
If you have already read Neil Faulkner’s History of the World by instalments on Counterfire, it is nevertheless well worthwhile reading it through again, as a more concentrated experience, to appreciate its sustained narrative exploration of world history. This really is a tremendous achievement, even if another member of Counterfire is saying so, but it is one rooted in the strength of the Marxist method in making the whole span of human history meaningful. Histories of the world are not uncommon projects, but they are very rarely satisfactory in the result. One recent example used geography as an organising principle; Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Civilisations (Pan 2001). In attempting, not always successfully, to avoid geographical determinism, the Oxford don ends by assembling something of a whimsical collection of historical anecdotes with a liberal pessimistic conclusion on humanity’s potential for change or development. This result was pre-ordained by the theoretical perspective adopted at the start. He claims that a ‘lifetime’ of studying history ‘has left me convinced that it happens at random, within limits allowed by a mixture of willpower and material exigency. Or else it happens chaotically, by way of untraceable causes and untrackable effects’ (p.xi). This is a statement of despair at the possibility of the rational pursuit of history as a means of human enlightenment, and underlines the bankruptcy of a certain purely ‘empirical’ approach to history.
Marxism has been accused of trying to fit the messiness of history into a fixed theory, but in fact, Marxism is a methodology, a set of tools for analysing the otherwise bewildering variety of histories, and does not pre-ordain answers, but provides a way of making sense of that variation, and seeing it as a totality. History becomes something more than a pessimistic litany of human malice, woe and foolishness, damning us to a future of more of the same. Instead it becomes possible to see the potentialities for meaningful and positive change, and for different ways of organising society, in the conflicts, defeats and transformations of the past. Neil Faulkner’s concise and eminently readable world history does this in a way that opens history up as a field of human knowledge which can prepare us for making the world a better place.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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