Issue 174 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Fire from Heaven
It is not often that you find a history book that reads like a novel. But David Underdown's study of the inhabitants of a Dorset town in the early 17th century does. It tells the story from contemporary documents. Characters appear large as life throughout the book. John White the preacher and William Whiteway the diarist are the zealous campaigners and reformers, while the notorious Pouncey family appear again and again in court records, and the Blachfords are ruthless businessmen.
The town of Dorchester was largely destroyed by fire in 1613. Half of all its buildings--around 170 houses--were burnt down. The fire was commemorated in the town for decades afterwards, and had a major impact on the inhabitants.
The 'fire from heaven' of the title describes not only the great disaster, but the sense of crusading zeal which dominated the town in the decades which followed.
The book describes a physical and spiritual rebuilding of the market town. 'After the great crisis of the fire came the recognition that what was needed was a total reformation of the town.' The town's views were increasingly shaped by crusading Presbyterians.
They created a strongly puritan world which extended beyond religion to a wide network of charity and 'improving' reforms. In the years between the fire and the outbreak of civil war in 1642 they established almshouses for the old and poor, a fuel house to keep the poor warm in winter, an education system and a hospital.
The charitable works were aimed at creating a more orderly and efficient society, based on religious conviction rather than simply on wealth. They were also about regulating the poor--putting them to work, stopping some of the old customs such as gathering firewood. As Underdown puts it, 'One side of the coin was reform: the promotion of religion and education, the relief of the deserving. The other side was discipline: the enforcement of personal, familial, and communal order, and the punishment of the idle and the ungodly.'
This scheme resulted in perhaps the most radically religious town in England in the 1620s and 1630s. Its Protestantism was consistently internationalist and strongly anti-Catholic. Dorchester's townspeople raised large amounts of money in support of the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War in Europe. As late as the 1650s Dorchester raised £147--a very large sum then--in support of the Protestant victims of the Piedmont massacre, the 'slaughtered saints' of Milton's poem. The two dates most celebrated were the anniversary of the fire, on 6 August, and the nationally observed Gunpowder Treason Day, 5 November.
Unfortunately for its supporters, this world could not survive. The increasing political, social and religious tensions throughout England were mirrored even in Dorchester. The poor did not like the 'godly reformation', with its punishments for missing church or drinking and swearing. And many of the better off were uncomfortable with its crusading nature.
A number of Presbyterians left the town for New England, where the town they founded, Dorchester, is now part of Boston. Those who stayed found themselves at odds with national developments in religion (the move closer to Catholicism under Archbishop Laud), foreign policy (Charles l's diplomacy with Catholic Spain) and taxation, especially Ship Money.
When the civil war came, the town was strongly against the King and for parliament. But its leading figures were much less happy with the revolution that followed and with the rule of Cromwell.
Although the book goes up to the 1680s it is less interesting on the civil war and the restoration, maybe because its leading characters were fairly moderate by the standards of the 1640s. By the 1650s the town's citizens reflect defeat, demoralisation and a loss of ideals: less money went to charity, most collections were very low, the poor no longer received free handouts. Religious reaction also gathered pace.
Underdown has done a marvellous job in recreating 17th century Dorchester, the customs, religion and cares of people of different classes. Two centuries later the novelist Thomas Hardy based his town of Casterbridge on Dorchester. By then, as Underdown says, the 'fire from heaven' had gone, and the town was described as a 'hoary place of wickedness'.
Bosnia: a short history
Many people will buy this book because it is the only readily available work on the history of Bosnia. It is full of historical detail going back more than a thousand years. But the facts are not marshalled to make sense of the horrific bloodshed of the last two years.
The first part of the book is a detailed, and often difficult to follow, account of migrations of different peoples and of wars in the medieval period. Its value is purely negative in demolishing the myths about 'a thousand years of history' put about by all sides in the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, this does not stop the author returning to some of these myths himself.
The second section of the book is more useful. It deals with the century and a half up to the establishment of the Titoist regime in 1945 and inadvertently throws light on the growth and persistence of inter-religious hatred.
This hatred goes back to the lack of success the Turkish Ottoman Empire had in modernising itself as it came under pressure from the rise of capitalism on its Western border. In its Bosnian province questions of class and religion became, to some extent, intertwined. Most of the peasant serfs were Orthodox Christians, although some were Muslim or Catholic. The landed ruling class was almost entirely Muslim. So peasant revolts against feudal exploitation could easily turn into bitter and bloody clashes between the adherents of rival religions. Orthodox peasants often looked to their co-religionists in the neighbouring state of Serbia for support.
The formation in 1918 of a unified state of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia raised brief hopes of an end to the old animosities among those from all religious backgrounds. But they were short lived. The peasants of Bosnia and Croatia rose against their landlords. There was 'a general outbreak of anarchy and peasant jacqueries in the countryside'. But 'in Bosnia it tended to be Muslims who were the victims of the attacks, since they owned most of the big estates'.
The rulers of Serbia, keen to show they were the real power in the new unified state, partially welcomed this transition from class to religious violence. As the Serbian army entered Bosnia it helped turn the attacks on Muslim landowners into the burning and pillaging of entire Muslim villages.
Far from the unified state burying the animosities, it entrenched them, with politics in Bosnia continuing to be the clash of rival religious parties.
The Second World War brought another new reversal of the religion based pecking order. German and Italian occupying forces carved out a separate Croat state--which included Bosnia. The Croatian fascists, the Ustashe, engaged in the mass slaughter of Serbs (as well as Jews and Gypsies) in both Croatia and Bosnia, killing at least 200,000 in concentration camps and reinforcing the old view among many Serbs that they could only be secure in a Great Serb state of their own.
Yet much of this bitterness of the Serbs was channelled into the Partisans, led by the Stalinist Tito (who was half Croat). Tito was able to offer a future for Yugoslavs of all religious backgrounds by combining a vigorous struggle against the Germans and the Ustashe with the promise of a radical land reform and state capitalist industrial development.
One of Malcolm's many faults is that his knee jerk anti-Communism prevents him seeing how Tito's programme could appeal in this way.
Yet it is in the final part of the book, dealing with the roots of the present conflict, that Malcolm's account really falls to pieces. He quite rightly condemns the way in which Serbian politicians, notably Milosevic, have manipulated national and religious hatreds. But he then goes on to portray them as the only villains, who have imposed war from the outside on what would otherwise have been a peaceful country. This leads him to attack any notion that what is happening in Bosnia is a 'civil war'.
But it was not only Milosevic who sought to make a political career for himself--and to preserve the position of the local industrialists--by encouraging religion based nationalist feelings. So too did Tudjman in Croatia and Izetbegovic in Bosnia. All of them were implicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in the nightmare.
Many people on the left believe that Izetbegovic's Bosnian government represented some sort of anti-communalist force. But his politics were just as much based on religious division as the others. The only difference was that, with only 40 percent of Bosnia's population Muslim and no neighbouring state to turn to, he could not hope to control all of Bosnia without doing a deal with certain Serb or Croat based politicians. Where the terrain was favourable to them--where Muslims outnumbered the Croats they lived alongside in central Bosnia--the Muslim politicians and generals were just as ready to countenance ethnic cleansing.
Izetbegovic and the Bosnian government could not break the hold of Croat and Serbian nationalism over most Bosnians from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds without offering a genuine alternative to the economic and social catastrophe of ex-Yugoslavia. But the Bosnian government cannot do this because it is based on the support of those--the industrialists and speculators--who have flourished in Sarajevo.
It was precisely for these reasons that Izetbegovic began the war allied with the Holocaust revisionist Tudjman and now, after 18 months of mutual ethnic cleansing, is once more allied with him. It is also for these reasons that the Bosnian government sees its only hope as turning its country into the frontier in a new Cold War between a Nato bloc and a Russian led bloc.
In so far as Malcolm has any strategy for solving the Balkan horror, it lies with the same approach. But it is an approach which must be rejected by the left internationally. Few things have been sadder to see than former internationalists lining up with Tudjman at the beginning of the wars in Yugoslavia and with Clinton and Kohl at the end. It shows what follows when the analysis of events does not begin with the centrality of class struggle.
Seasons in Hell
Simon and Schuster £6.99
Warfare in the former Yugoslavia has now lasted for longer than the time between Pearl Harbour and D-Day. The volume of writing on the war is immense.
Ed Vulliamy's work for the Guardian has been among the best and this book is a testimony to his skill as a newspaper war reporter.
He takes us systematically back and forth through the conflict, as only someone who has spent a huge amount of time on the ground could possibly do. His characters are not just the generals and politicians, but ordinary people. Individuals are allowed to talk, and explain how they personally have been shaped by the events.
And because this book is a close up and consistent view, it contains information about the war that only fleetingly gets into the press. Vulliamy saw the first Serbian run detention camp to come to light. He also reports on those run by the Croatian and Bosnian government forces.
He has seen two and a half years of Western diplomatic, economic and military intervention and the way it has done nothing to ease the crisis in Bosnia. These factors should help make Seasons in Hell a great book. Unfortunately it isn't.
There is no mention of the profound economic and political crisis which gripped the former Yugoslavia and set its rulers on the path to war.
Nor is there any real flavour of the other great battle which has been played out alongside the military struggle--the clash of classes.
Maybe these battles, such as the general strike which gripped Serbia just before the war started or the repeated fights by students and workers in Belgrade and Zagreb, are not there because Ed Vulliamy wasn't there to see them.
Seasons in Hell is a great account of Western failure in which 'the international community has written a new book of rules for the volatile new Europe: rules under which the motives of those perpetrating the Bosnian carnage can be tolerated and accommodated, and their achievements rewarded and recognised as the basis for new national frontiers.'
However, Vulliamy doesn't accept that Western intervention is doomed to have tragic consequences. As he says of his own book:
'There is no attempt here to be objective towards the perpetrators of Bosnia's ethnic carnage or those who appeased them. My gratitude is to the public figures who refused to be "objective" in this cynical cowardly way: Lady Thatcher, Paddy Ashdown and Michael Meacher...'
I hoped right through to the final page that this would turn out to be a piece of awkward irony. Sadly it wasn't.
Serpent's Tail £7.99
Juan Preciado returns to his mother's village in obedience to her dying wish. As he descends into the little town of Comala what he finds is not the green pleasant place of his mother's memories but a dead town full of disembodied voices.
Comala turns out to be a sort of purgatory in which a series of tormented souls live out a perpetual guilt that forbids rest or sleep.
What all of them have in common is that they were corrupted and used by the man who controlled the town--Pedro Paramo. Not only did he and his son use everyone in the village for their own ends--he also 'let Comala die' after the death of his son Miguel.
The setting for the novel is Mexico; the time is the 1940s or 1950s--it is never clear exactly when. The writer, Juan Rulfo, wrote only this and an earlier book of short stories. But Pedro Paramo is a fine novel, and quite enough to justify Rulfo's reputation.
Within the novel there are many lost worlds--Juan's mother remembered a utopian place, and the one person Pedro Paramo loves, Susana San Juan, takes refuge from him in a dream of Arcadia he cannot enter.
In 1910 Mexico experienced a revolution whose purpose was to sweep away the class to which Paramo belonged. Its central object was to redistribute land to the small farmers and take it from the great landlords.
Yet here the revolution makes only a brief appearance. The revolutionary leaders are bought off by Paramo and quickly leave. Comala is abandoned by the revolution and plucked out of the stream of history.
Forty years later (in 1955), when Rulfo wrote his novel, he could not fail to suggest the betrayal and corruption of the promises of revolution--and the poor dead souls of Comala as the victims of the process.
The novel is not a conventional narrative. It is, rather, a chorus of disparate voices from which emerges a sense of shared experience, though each of the speakers is obsessed by their own loneliness. It is a poetic, evocative song of regret, and a powerful image of the living death that is the result of isolation from the dynamic process of history.
Socialism from below
Humanities Press £39.95
Nothing has done the cause of socialism more harm than the notion that socialism equals state control.
The heyday of this idea was the period after the Second World War and it created a problem for the left. If socialism equalled the state on the Soviet model, then socialism lacked all democracy. And if the West was no longer prone to crisis because the state could regulate the economy, then socialism amounted to management of reforms.
Defence of socialism as not being identical with state control was therefore a burning necessity. It found powerful expression in the work of the American revolutionary socialist Hal Draper, whose marvellous essay 'The Two Souls of Socialism', originally written in 1966, is republished in this collection of essays.
The key distinction Draper makes in this article is between socialism from above and socialism from below.
The idea of emancipation from above, Draper points out, is an old one, born of centuries of class society and oppression. People look to a saviour from on high and the rulers preserve their power by promises of protection. Only with the arrival of the modern working class could this cycle be broken: liberation from below became for the first time a real historical possibility.
But old patterns of thought--of socialism being handed down from above--persisted in social democratic reformism and in Stalinism, not so much opposites as twins. Draper's point is that this emancipation from above is not some easier and safer route to socialism. It is not socialism at all.
The essays collected here reflect the problems of this period. There are some articles of variable quality, in which Draper is more surefooted when defending what Marx had to say but less so when applying the tradition (such as the article in which he appears to be defending free speech for fascists).
Draper's politics had one central flaw: he was clear about what the Soviet regime was not but he could not explain what it was.
Draper believed that the Stalinist regime was bureaucratic collectivist, a view he shared with other revolutionary socialists who had split from the Trotskyist movement in the early 1940s.
The analysis left a key question unanswered. Did this bureaucratic collectivism represent a new world historical trend in exploitation? Some of those who split from Trotskyism drew the conclusion that managerialism was the future (and a good thing too); others, that old style capitalism was more progressive than the new style exploitation.
Either way most believers in the theory of bureaucratic collectivism (Draper was an honourable exception) retreated rapidly from socialism. The weakness of this theory, which he clung to, is evident in one essay reprinted here on how far collectivism had gone in influencing social democracy.
Draper was better at understanding what Marx stood for than analysing where the world had got to. Nonetheless, at a time when workers' self emancipation as the core of socialism was in danger of being lost, he was a champion of that idea.
North and South
This is an interesting book which aims to look at the economic, social and political divide between the north and south of Britain.
David Smith's argument is that a divide between north and south still exists and that this divide will determine whether you have a job or how wealthy you are.
He backs up his argument by exploring the differences in wealth, wages, investment, job opportunities and house prices. Although he does admit that there are rich areas in the north and poor areas in the south, Smith also asserts that it is geography which determines a person's position in this society.
This new edition of the book has been rewritten to take account of the 1990s recession. Smith blames the recession completely on John Major. But although Smith argues that the recession has narrowed the divide, he believes it still exists.
Just looking at unemployment figures undercuts any idea of a north/south divide. For example, Cornwall in the south west of Britain has always had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and according to Smith's own 1992 figures most regions in the south east had higher unemployment rates than the north west, Yorkshire and Humberside.
There is never any mention of class differences, and no mention of the fact that since the 1980s the majority of working class people have got poorer and an elite at the top of society has got richer. Smith's answer to poverty and inequality is to provide regional aid to certain areas rather than any redistribution of the wealth which does exist.