Book Reviews - Black Flag #222 (2002)

Book Reviews - Black Flag #222 (2002)

Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism - Steve Wright
(Pluto Press)

Storming Heaven by Steve Wright is about the theory and the organisations of the Italian Autonomist movement, especially the evolution of operaismo (workerism) and the group Potere Operaio (Workers' Power). The Autonomist movement came out of the specific conditions of Italy in the seventies, where the recent experience of armed resistance to the Nazi occupation and after, plus very harsh living conditions for working class people during Italy's late industrialisation, meant that social struggle was more intense than anywhere else in Europe (apart from maybe Franco's Spain). The different outbreaks of insurgency were more connected than in other countries and so the squatting movement and the factory occupations for example were mutually supportive in many places. The different revolutionary groups were also more integrated into the workers' movement and less ghettoised and so the theory that they developed is some of the most interesting of those times.

The Italian uprisings of the seventies need to be better known and understood, and this book makes an important contribution, especially as it draws on a lot of original material which has never been translated. This book isn't an introduction to the events of the seventies and to get the most out of it you would need some background.

It would be nice to recommend a good introductory book at this moment but as far as I know there isn't one. A pamphlet to look out for is
Living with an Earthquake but it isn't easy to get. The book doesn't idealise any of the participants and makes fair criticism of all the groups involved but at the same time it is not a detached or dry academic exercise. It comes from a perspective of understanding the Autonomist movement, with all its mistakes, to learn for the next time.


Freedom Fighters: Anarchist Intellectuals, Workers and Soldiers in Portugal's History - Joao Freire
Black Rose Books

This book is a disappointment. It fails as a portrayal of the history of Portuguese anarchism. Rather, it is a snapshot of that movement during its peak (the 1900s to 1930s) and a somewhat unconvincing "sociological analysis" of it, backed up with copious data. Which is a shame, as a book on Portuguese anarchism is sorely needed.

However, saying that, the book does present an often fascinating picture of an anarchist movement which rooted itself in working class life and struggle. Unlike Spain, social-democracy dominated the early labour movement. The anarchists successfully undermined this and by the 1920s the main union federation was anarcho-syndicalist in nature with around 90,000 members enrolled it in. This movement had a healthy interest in theory as well as action, with unions regularly discussing not only day to day issues but also revolutionary goals such as the socialisation of industry. Needless to say, similar discussions took place in the substantial number of anarchist groups and federations that existed. What strikes the reader is that the Portuguese movement got its strength by applying its ideas in practice.

The unions and their struggles were organised in libertarian fashion by mass assemblies and bottom-up federations. The anarchist groups, like the unions, federated from below upwards, organically growing wider and wider as time went on. Both the unions and the anarchist groups spent time creating centres, libraries, schools and other forms of mutual aid.

Sadly, the book is badly translated. While most of the text can be understood, sometimes the more turgid "sociological analysis" can be unreadable. Some editing would not have gone amiss, and not only to correct the poor translation. Moreover, it desperately needs an introductory essay to place the main text in context. For example, while numerous insurrections and strikes are mentioned they are not discussed in detail. This means that critical events such as the 1934 insurrection against the fascist regime are mentioned in passing, with no attempt to discuss what happened. For a book claiming to be a history, such an oversight is astounding.

This lack of historic context makes the author's conclusions seem even more superficial than they already are. As the book ignores the repression of the resistance to fascism, it ends up blaming the decline of anarchist influence on anarchism's inability to "learn from experience." Incredibly, the possibility that the repression after the defeated insurrection of 1934 together with 40 years of fascism may have played a role in this decline is not discussed.

What strikes the reader is that an anarchism that is not rooted in working class life and struggle is doomed to wither and, worse, become theoretically bankrupt. At the peak of its influence, Portuguese anarchism was capable of organising an extensive network of organisations, social projects and class conflicts. By 1987, "anarchists" in Portugal could write that "the 'perfect society' does not exist, fortunately, since it would probably be one of total oppression for the individuals. Therefore we do not believe in any type of 'anarchist society.'" How a once mighty movement had fallen!

This book is for those with the patience to handle the bad translation, who are not seeking a history of Portuguese anarchism but rather want a book which discusses it within its social context. Sadly, anarchism in Portugal still awaits a book to do its struggles justice.


The Spanish Civil War - Antony Beevor
Orbis Publishing

Originally published in 1982, this work has obviously been republished to take advantage of the success of Antony Beevor's later work Stalingrad. It is a good thing that it was. Beevor has produced an exceedingly good, if short, work on the Spanish Civil War.

Unsurprisingly, his account is primarily a military history, but do not let that put you off - he clearly understands the role of the revolution in Spain and how it impacted on the course and nature of the war (and in the conflicts in the Republican side).

Beevor attempts to analyse the Spanish Civil War from three angles: class interest, centralism versus regionalism and authoritarian rule versus libertarian instinct. Unsurprisingly, this means he discusses the anarchist movement (indeed, he places it at the heart of the story). His accounts of anarchism and the social revolution during the war are excellent. For example, he defines anarchism as a "structure of co-operative communities, associating freely" and which "corresponded to deep-rooted traditions of mutual-aid, and the federalist organisation appealed to anti-centralist feelings." He makes clear that the anarchists were the main part of the labour movement as well as their key role in defeating the fascist uprising. He discusses the collectivisations that occurred in a positive light and notes the disastrous effect on the morale of the anti-fascist side when they were undermined and forcibly disbanded. It is nice to see a historian state the obvious as regards the Aragon collectives: "the very fact that every village was a mixture of collectivists and individualists shows that peasants had not been forced into communal farming at the point of a gun." He even mentions and discusses the Mujeres Libres and quotes Malatesta when discussing the anarchist critic of reformism in syndicalism!

From an anarchist perspective, his account of the failings of the Popular Army makes interesting reading. Beevor argues that it was unimaginative in its tactics, with its commanders blindly following instructions even when circumstances on the ground made them inadequate. The army allowed its commanders "little initiative," a dangerous condition when the lines of communication were disrupted by fighting (as was the habit of the commanders lying to their superiors in and after battles to save face). Used to centralised, top-down structures, the communists re-created these in the Popular Army and the results were the exact opposite of the efficiency and success promised.

Ultimately, the Communist and Republican principle of "unified command" and a regular, orthodox (bourgeois) army became a "bureaucratic tourniquet" which was defeated in almost every battle in the war. Indeed, Beevor accounts how its battle plans were usually drawn up simply to gain prestige for the Communist Party.

In this, his account is a useful antidote to those who argue that the militarisation of the militias was a necessary step in winning the war. As history clearly shows, the Popular Army was a disaster. As for the International Brigades, while acknowledging their members courage, he also paints a horrific picture of Communist Party control (which included the shooting of about 500 Brigaders, nearly a tenth of the total killed in the war) and mentions a few rebellions in their ranks.

While the militias were hardly perfect, it is clear from his account that the Popular Army was not a good replacement. Beevor stresses that much of the problem with the militias, as George Orwell also argued, was due to their lack of experience rather than their libertarian nature. Beevor even argues that electing leaders was "not so much a difficulty as a source of strength" as it "inspired mutual confidence." The question was how to federate the militia columns, not to abolish them. This solution, however, was dependent on whether the revolution would be successful.

Beevor gives a fair account of the dilemma facing the CNT after they had put down the coup in Barcelona. The dangers of isolation internally ("Madrid had the gold") and externally (unofficial sanctions by governments and companies) and the fate of their comrades in other parts of Republican Spain obviously played a key role. However, he quotes Garcia Oliver's comments that the alternative was either an "anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signifies collaboration" without any analysis. Made in 1937, these comments are both historically and logically defective. On July 20th 1936, the CNT leadership decided to not mention libertarian communism until Franco had been defeated, yet his argument, if valid, was as much applicable to a post-Franco Spain as it was on that day. Ultimately, Garcia Oliver argued that representative democracy is more "democratic" than self- managed communes (hardly a valid position, given the authoritarian and repressive nature of any capitalist democracy and the Spanish Republic itself in the 1930s). His argument simply reflected the CNT-FAI leadership's attempts to justify their collaboration with the state rather than a coherent and accurate argument.

Of course Beevor's work has its weaknesses. His account of the decisive CNT plenum on July 20th, as noted, is one. Similarly, his account of the uprising and suppression at Casas Viejas is wrong, relying as it does on accounts disproved by Jerome R. Mintz in his The Anarchists of Casas Viejas. Similarly, his account of the conflict between the radical anarchists and the treintistas is somewhat confused chronologically, but at least he does not paint the usual picture of the FAI seizing control of the CNT by conspiratorial methods. He does suggest that the FAI advocated sudden and fragmented uprisings while, in fact, most of the early uprisings were spontaneous and the later ones co-ordinated by the CNT itself (his account of Casas Viejas fits into this false picture of FAI activities). Ultimately, it would have been nice for the work to be referenced more completely, allowing the reader to investigate for themselves aspects of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution that Beevor discusses in too short a space!

However, be that as it may, Beevor's account is to be recommended. His account of the first days of the revolution, when workers armed themselves when the government refused, is excellent. His summary of the collectivisations is positive. The role of the allied governments and foreign capitalists in stabbing the Republican government in the back is clearly shown. He even discusses the post-war resistance against Franco and the part played by Spaniards in the French resistance.

All in all, an informative and interesting read.


Fast Food Nation - Eric Schlosser
(Allen Lane / The Penguin Press)

This is an excellent book, crammed full of useful (and disgusting) "McNuggets" of information on the whole process of producing "fast food." From the industrialisation of farming, to the monopolisation of food processing, to the standardisation of food consumption throughout whole sections of North America, Schlosser's book exposes the horrors of modern corporate capitalism. He documents the impact of the rise of fast food on almost all aspects of North America, from farming to health, from working practices to landscape, and beyond.

Like the "fast food" economy he dissects, Schlosser's work is far ranging, covering such notable scum bags as Walt Disney (whose father, ironically, was a socialist) and Ray Kroc (the man responsible for making McDonalds what it is now). Schlosser, to his credit, fills his book with interviews with workers involved in every stage of the "fast food" process, including independent farmers and those opposed to corporations advertising in schools and providing teaching materials. He brings a refreshingly human look at an industry that denies in practice individuality and humanity.

The vision of a "fast food" world is truly horrific. It is a world where even the smell and taste of food is mass produced. Standardised food for a standardised society. As he memorably notes, "Millions of... people at that very moment were standing at the same counter, ordering the same food from the same menu, food that tasted everywhere the same." The true banality of capitalism is exposed in all its multitude of ramifications in Schlosser's book. The Orwellian world of modern corporate capitalism is seen in all its "glory." A world in which the industry group formed to combat Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation is called "Alliance for Workplace Safety" and where the processed food's taste has to have the correct "mouthfeel."

It is a world where corporations feed at the public trough and then praise the free market, where firms grow huge and exercise monopolistic power while talking about competition, where executives talk about "the very essence of freedom" and yet their corporation's "first commandant is that only production counts... The employee's duty is to follow orders. Period." For all its talk of liberty, the essence of capitalism is wage slavery, and its most odorous aspects are well documented here.

Fast Food Nation discusses the corporations' perspective on independent farms, opposing any attempt to form co-operatives or associations to improve their bargaining position in the market. As one executive put it, "Our relationship with our growers is a one-on-one contractual relationship" and they "want to see that it remains that way." As with the industrial workforce, the talk of "teamwork" just hides the reality of corporate power - the liberty of doing what you are told, under conditions specified by the powerful. Under such pressure, America's independent farmers are being replaced by industrial farms.

Schlosser places the birth of the "fast food" industry within the 1950s love affair with "progress." Technology would solve all our problems, even the ones it generates itself. The irrationalities here can easily be seen. For example, faced with the serious health problems generated by the industrialisation of meat processing, the meatpacking industry advocated yet more technology to "solve" the problems caused by the existing technology. Rather than focusing on the primary causes of meat contamination, they proposed irradiating food. Of course the firms involved want to replace the word "irradiation" with the phrase "cold pasteurisation"!

Much of what happens today is justified in terms of "progress." Progress is, we are assured, "neutral." As if! Capitalism is a class society, marked by exploitation, oppression and social hierarchies. As such, change within it will reflect the various class conflicts, social hierarchies, power relationships and so on which exist within it as well as the rationales of the economic system (e.g. the drive for profits). Therefore progress can hardly be neutral. This is particularly true of the economy. The development of the industrial structure of a capitalist economy will be based on the fundamental need to maximise the profits and power of the capitalists. It does not follow that because a society which places profits above people has found a specific way of organising production "efficiently", a socialist society will do the same. Anarchists have long been aware that capitalist methods are precisely that and that they may not suit a society which replaces the profit system with human and ecological need as the criteria for decision making. Reading Fast Food Nation brings home this anarchist perspective and provides some modern and well researched documentation to support it. We must never forget that capitalism twists progress in its own imagination.

Fast Food Nation also brings home how alienated the West is from its food. Food production has become increasingly industrialised and concentrated into fewer and fewer big firms. It also raises some important questions for revolutionaries. Clearly, the Leninist idea that socialism simply involves nationalising big business is a fallacy.

If a future society is seem in terms of nationalising McDonalds and appropriating the "efficient" mass production generated within capitalism, not only will it not work, it will not inspire anyone to fight for it.

The logical conclusion of the Leninist vision in terms of food production would be highly centralised and extremely fragile to outside shocks. The disruption of "normalcy" experienced in most revolutions would quickly mean the disruption of such an industrialised food production and distribution system. This reinforces Kropotkin's arguments in Conquest of Bread on the importance of decentralising production during a revolution. Not only would this ensure the feeding of a rebellion, it would also be the first step in creating a method of producing food which was in harmony with nature and encouraged diversity in both production and in the final meal (as the French say, "Non a McMerde").

The book has its weaknesses. Like most of the so-called "anti- capitalist" authors how being published by capitalist firms to profit from the current wave of global mass protest, Schlosser nor his proposed solutions are in any way anti-capitalist. While presenting a searing indictment of US capitalism, his vision of the future is simply US capitalism infused with a European social-democratic sensibility. Needless to say, he is not opposed to wage labour. Indeed, he holds up family owned businesses which treat their workers paternalistically as an alternative to corporate capitalism. There is not even a mention of co-operatives which would, at least, be a step forward. Schlosser's vision of a nice capitalist is identical to that of Tolstoy's kind donkey owner who will do everything for the donkey except get off its back.

Similarly, his suggested European-style America is totally compatible with capitalism. While correctly acknowledging (in fact basing his suggestions on) the corporate control over the political structure, he raises the spectre of consumer power as the means of achieving his goals. As he puts it, corporations will "sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it. They will sell whatever sells at a profit." Which, of course, is true. It is equally true that we are not forced to buy fast food, which is why companies spend so much in convincing us to buy their products. Even ignoring the influence of advertising, it is unlikely that using the market will make capitalism nicer. Sadly, the market rewards the anti-social activities that Schlosser chronicles in his book. As he himself notes, "The low price of a fast food hamburger does not reflect its real cost... The profits of the fast food chains have been made possible by the losses imposed on the rest of society." The idea that by using the market we can "reform" capitalism is flawed simply because even "good" companies have to make a profit (i.e. will exploit workers' labour) and so will be tempted to cut costs, inflict them on third parties in the form of pollution, and so on. Ultimately, the price mechanism does not provide enough information for the customer to make an informed decision about the impact of their purchase and, by reducing prices, actively rewards the behaviour Schlosser condemns.

Rather than see change as resulting from collective struggle, Schlosser sees it in terms of individual decisions within the market place. As such, it does not break from the logic of capitalism and so is doomed to failure. After all, what is now "organic" production was just the normal means of doing it. The pressures of the market, the price mechanism he suggests as the tool for change, ensured the industrialisation of farming he so clearly condemns. Ultimately, we must never forget that the unfeeling corporate capitalism Schlosser exposes so well, sprung from the family owned, small-scale industry he holds up as an alternative. Indeed, one of his examples of paternalist capitalism broke apart in the 1970s under the pressure of class struggle and competitive pressures from less "ethical" capitalists.

This, in itself, shows the weakness of his means of change. Capitalism has a dynamic nature that propels it in certain directions, namely towards big business. Only when faced with a greater danger (namely a mass popular movement which could go further than the politicians suggest), will capitalists submit to state regulation. And as the 1960s and 70s show, this submission will not last long.

This is not to suggest that individual decisions on what to consume are irrelevant, far from it. Nor are consumer boycotts a waste of time. If organised into mass movements and linked to workplace struggle they can be very effective. This is the main failure in Fast Food Nation. It fails to appreciate the importance of working class struggle and organisation (forming unions is mentioned in passing, for example).

As the book makes clear, much of the drive behind the way the fast food industry has developed has been fuelled by fear of labour. Like the food they produce, the "fast food" corporations want workers that are standardised, uniform, easy to define and replace. No training is the goal in this industry and de-skilling the means. Applying Taylorist ideology developed in mass production, the skills of workers are transferred as far as possible into the hands of management and into machinery. In this way anyone can replaced, making workplace organising and action more difficult. Schlosser presents extensive evidence of machinery designed to reduce the power of labour, industries moved to crush unions and, of course, the anti-union perspectives of the "fast food" giants. Needless to say, this fear of labour is well-founded as profits are unpaid labour extracted by management's power over workers, whose acts of resistance can bring the whole thing crashing down.

It is here we must look for a real solution to the problems generated by capitalism, not in "green" consumerism. Equally, we must also be aware that the new world we are struggling for must not just aim to take over, without modification, the existing industrial structure. While the expropriation of capital is a necessary step in the social revolution, it is not the end. As Fast Food Nation shows, an alienated society has created an alienated means of feeding itself. Such a system will have to be transformed from top to bottom by those who live and work in it into one fit for human beings to live in.


Workers Against Lenin: Labour Protest and the Bolshevik Dictatorship - Jonathan Aves
Tauris Academic Studies / I.B. Tauris Publishers

Published in 1996 by an academic publishers, Aves book is essential reading for anyone interested in the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

For decades Trotskyists have been arguing that the Russian working class had been decimated during the Civil War period and was incapable of collective decision making and organisation, so necessitating Bolshevik Party dictatorship over them. Workers Against Lenin provides extensive evidence to refute those claims.

In his work Aves provides an extremely well researched and readable account of labour protests during the period of 1920 to 1922. Rather than the Trotskyist claim of a 'non existent' working class, workers under Lenin were more than capable of collective action and organisation. Perhaps it is because this struggle was directed against the Bolsheviks that explains this blind spot? In this they simply follow Lenin: "As discontent amongst workers became more and more difficult to ignore, Lenin... began to argue that... workers had become 'declassed.'"

The most famous expression of collective workers struggle during this period was, of course, the general strike in Petrograd which set off the Kronstadt revolt. Due to Kronstadt, this strike wave is often downplayed or even ignored but, in fact, general strikes or very widespread unrest took place nation-wide. Faced with this mass wave of protest, the Bolsheviks used a combination of concessions (on the economic demands raised, not the political ones like free soviet elections, freedom of speech and organisation for workers) and repression. They also called it the "yolynka" (which means "go slow") rather than a strike movement to hide its real nature and size.

This was hardly an isolated event. Strike action, Aves notes, "remained endemic in the first nine months of 1920" as well. In Petrograd province, 85,642 people were involved in strikes, which is a high figure indeed as, according to one set of figures, there were only 109,100 workers there at the time! Rather than this being an isolated and atomised working class, what comes through clearly from Aves' work is that the workers, usually drawing on pre-1918 experiences and modes of struggle, could and did take collective action and decisions in the face of state repression.

As the Bolsheviks clamped down on all independent working class activity and organisation, it is hardly surprising that the workers became marginal to the revolution. Moreover, it was during this period that the Bolsheviks raised the dictatorship of the party to both a practical and ideological truism. Given workers opposition to the Bolsheviks, this was the only way they could remain in power. This implies that a key factor in rise of Stalinism was political – the simple fact that the workers would not vote Bolshevik in free soviet and union elections and so they were not allowed to. As one Soviet historian put it in his account of the "yolynka," "taking the account of the mood of the workers, the demand for free elections to the soviets meant the implementation in practice of the infamous slogan of soviets without communists."

This review cannot hope to cover all the important information contained in this book. Aves' discussion on the intensification of war communism and Trotsky's "militarisation of labour" is excellent, placing it in the period of peace at the beginning of 1920 and noting its ideological basis. Also of interest is his account of the "mini-Kronstadt" in the Ukrainian town of Ekaterinoslavl in June 1921, where workers raised resolutions very similar to those raised at Kronstadt, including the demand for "free soviets" popularised by the Makhnovists.

Simply put, it’s hard to claim that the Russian working class had "ceased to exist in any meaningful sense" in such circumstances. As such, Workers Against Lenin helps to undermine the various forms of the Bolshevik myth and, as such, is a key resource for studying the Russian Revolution. Being an academic book, it is expensive and will need to be ordered from a bookshop or a library. However, the wealth of information contained in it, the social context in which it places protest and developments in Bolshevik policies and ideas, make it a must-read for all people who want a revolution to be more than changing who the boss is.


Direct Action, memoirs of an urban guerrilla - Ann Hansen
Between the Lines / AK Press

This quite a stressful book to read, despite the fact that we know how the story ends. Living 'underground' means a constant stream of crimes - from shoplifting for food, stealing cars for transport as well as the 'actions' themselves - any of which could have meant disaster.

The focus is exclusively on the active period when Direct Action where making things go bang in Canada: part of an electricity megaproject, a cruise missile component factory and (as the Wimmins Fire Brigade) a series of outlets for violent pornography. The people involved definitely didn't want to carry out purely symbolic actions: as Hansen herself has said "the bomb we used at Litton building [where cruise missile components were built] was too big..."

'Damn, Ann Hansen can write!' says one of the reviewers, and it's true; however, as well as a straight first person account you also get a 'reconstruction' of what the 'forces of law and order' were up to - which is just as fascinating. Part of the quality of this book is its personal nature - the dynamics of the individuals are scrutinised as clearly as the political context of the times. This makes you wonder at times how these events would look through the eyes of the other people involved, but that's inevitable with a book which steers clear of empty phrases - either celebratory or repentant - which it could have been written in. This book gives some 'pitfalls to avoid' kind of hints: getting arrested for shoplifting, not taking notice when you're obviously under surveillance etc. but more than that it raises some interesting tactical questions. A non-symbolic approach to blowing things up marks you out as serious - and also inevitably increases the scale and urgency of the state response. How can 'the underground' and 'the movement' safely talk to each other? That connection – different methods, similar ends - is something that is vital in current discussion of tactics.

The big question which many will ask (and not only the dyed-in-the- wool non-resisters) is 'was it worth it?' Does defeat equal failure? Few political activities produced immediate and lasting results on their own; guerrilla activities are no exception - they are merely another part of the struggle, and the more closely connected they are to that struggle, the more effective they'll be. In an interview about the book, Hansen has said she would like to see a discussion of "going beyond legal protest" and that she wants to "inspire more militancy, not less". Overall the book gives a good guide to the potential and dangers of underground activity: a worthy companion to Baumann's 'How it all began'.


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Jul 6 2021 16:33


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