Review: Kolchin’s American Slavery

Ed. Note – this is one a 100 or so book reviews I wrote for a now long defunct livejournal. I’m posting it, and many others like it for my own records and hopefully your enjoyment.
Name Your Link
Peter Kolchin

If you’re going to read one overview book on the history of slavery in America, and you want it to include not only the racism and sexism that were endemic in the slavery era, but you also want a good discussion of the economic consequences of slavery, and at least some explanation of why the practice was beginning to fail both morally and economically by the late 1800s, you could do worse than read Kolchin’s book.

How’s that for sentence? Read Kolchin, and you’ll get a number just as long.

All kidding about Kolchin’s sentence structure aside, this is one of those rare books which walks the line well between the exhaustiveness of an academic work and the readabilty of popular history. While it isn’t as good as Battle Cry of Freedom, the book on the Civil War, if you ask me, it comes close.

And in fairness to Kolchin, in some ways, a history of slavery is a harder thing to write. The subject matter is unrelentingly horrific. And yet, if you are to do the subject justice, you need to more past the horror to the economics and politics behind it not in a way which trivializes the plight of the enslaved, but goes at least part of the way towards explaining their enslavement. Walking that line is difficult, and Kolchin doesn’t always succeed, but its clearly what he is going for in this work and for that he should be applauded.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Braudel’s The Structure of Everyday Life

Ed note: this review was written for a now defunct livejournal sometime in 2007.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

Volume I
Fernand Braudel
The Phoenix Press Reissue (563 pages)

The first volume of Braudel’s massive work on the construction of capitalism in the 15th to 18th century sets the stage for all that is to come. It is an exhaustive survey of the social and economics conditions in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world at the beginning of the 15th century.

The amount of primary research that went into this is mind boggling. Everything you ever wanted to know about how much livestock the average farmer in Batvia had to the trends in fashion in the courts of Europe is covered here in great detail.

Braudel is all over the place in these books, chasing every detail and argument to their end, and it can be difficult to grasp the important threads running through the work. In the first volume this isn’t as much of an issue as it becomes in volumes two and three. Braudel is still all over the place, but since he is really only setting the stage, it isn’t as important to try and pick up his overall theory. Volume Two is where he really lays out his argument for the separation of capitalism and the market and why certain places in Europe became economic power houses and others didn’t.*

As in volume two, Braudel is at his best when he’s discussing Europe, and is out of his depth when he deals with the rest of the world. There is a trove of good information in this first volume however, and I would recommend it to the academics out there if only because at some point you may need to be able to speak on the Dutch economy in 1500 or the clothes worn in England by the aristocracy in 1600 and this is the place to get all that good info.

* This is also an idea that he returns to in extreme detail in volume three, which I am about a quarter done with and find…kind of ehh, actually.

Review: Bruadel’s The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization & Capitalism 15th – 18th Century Volume 2

Ed note: this review was written in 2007, while I was in my first year of law school, for a now long defunct livejournal account I had.

The Wheels of Commerce (Civilization and Capitalism: 15Th-18th Century -Volume 2)

Fernand Braudel

The Phonix Press Reissue, 601 pages

(Originally published in France as Les Jeux de l’Exchange, 1979)

After a somewhat tedious first volume, where Braudel sets the stage for life and commerce in the period under discussion, Volume two of Civilization and Capitalism really gets the ball rolling. Or as much as anything ever gets rolling in a Braudel book.

The economics of everyday life can be fascinating stuff, but it is not easy going. The language is straight forward, but Braudel wanders around his subject, giving us mountains of specifics and following various side currents to their ends. The basic point of the volume is to outline, first the difference between the market and capitalism, and then to trace the creation of capitalism in the markets centers of Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Unlike many historian of this period, Braudel is more concerned with the world of finance than the world of production, which I find fascinating and very useful for thinking about the role of finance in the economy today. If you care to know how the financiers of Amsterdam dealt with getting a ship in the ocean and bound for America or India, this is the place to look.

While Braudel is not an economic determinist, economics is at the center of this book. Unlike many other economic historians, Braudel does take the time to deal with how culture (there a section on fashion in the first volume!) religion and other factors play into the shaping of an economic and social system. This makes for a deeply convincing argument when he demolishes Weber’s idea of the protestant work ethic, but is less informed or convincing (and sometimes borderline racist) when he is dealing with non-western cultures.

I appreciate that Braudel didn’t assume that by “civilization and capitalism” one can only mean Western Europe, but his sections on the rest of the world I found lacking. They did not have the erudition he exhibits when taking about Western Europe.

The Book fascinating, but I think Braudel could have done with some editing. This book is not going to lay out point by point the creation of capitalism for you. You’ll need to discover the steps through the examples Braudel gives. It’s a riveting if you’re an econ and history nerd but complicated and meandering work that could have used a co-author (or a better team of research assistants) to handle the non western areas he covers and an editor to tease out the string of the creation of capitalism that subtly floats through this work.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

Before Bob Avakian was a punchline

Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, by Max Elbaum. Verso: London, 2006.

Today, when the U.S. left consists of little more than Barbara Ehrenreich, a couple of blogs, and an anarchist burrito stand or two, it’s hard to imagine a time when the left was so vast and powerful that it could accommodate a vital and influential revolutionary fringe. Nowadays, this description applies to the right, with its Birchers and seasteaders aiming their doctrines toward the power centers of the Republican Party and its various para-organizations. But in the 1970s, it was the left that dominated American politics from Congress to the street corner.

A mostly forgotten chapter of this history is the New Communist Movement, veterans of 1960s radical politics who were inspired by national liberation movements in the Third World, antiracism struggles in the U.S. and, above all, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. While the stories of “moderate radicals” like the early SNCC and SDS movements have been well chronicled, and the accounts of the Weatherman tendency have proliferated all out of proportion with that group’s actual importance, the New Communist Movement is overlooked, even though at its height in the early 1970s it had thousands of adherents and could claim influence in protest politics and some trade unions.

The New Communists – organized into groups like the October League and the Revolutionary Union – were firmly convinced that the West was on the brink of large-scale revolution, and that Marxism-Leninism was the only philosophy capable of providing guidance for people looking to shape the future. It’s to Elbaum’s credit that he establishes this as a plausible belief in the context of the times rather than the ludicrous fantasy it seems today. The upheavals conveniently labeled “the Sixties” didn’t end on Dec. 31, 1969, and in the early years of the subsequent decade there were larger protests than ever over the invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State. In 1970, there were more strikes involving more workers than in any other year since 1946, and mutinies in the military were so common that in the month of May that year, an average of 500 GIs deserted. Henry Kissinger himself said “The very fabric of government was falling apart.” And, of course, the president of the United States himself resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.

In that context, the idea that Leninism showed the way forward was, if not self-evident, at least arguable. And while the New Communists were always a minority within a minority, their energy and idealism helped them win broader influence within the left. But a movement so yoked to the lunatic example of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was always in danger of shaking to pieces, which is what happened as the decade wore on.

Elbaum is a sympathetic observer, and attributes a great deal of the movement’s stagnation and failure to systemic changes in the U.S. economy and political system during the 1970s. The postwar economic boom finally ended in 1973, followed by the large-scale deindustrialization that gutted the labor movement. The oil shock and bitter recession of 1974-1975 sapped worker militancy, while fights over school busing in the North destroyed cross-cultural agreement between blacks and whites over the best way to attack racism. Finally, the right spent the decade organizing, making an early comeback with Jimmy Carter in 1976 before the full-blown Reaganist tidal wave four years later.

All of this is true, and yet it’s hard to escape the impression that the New Communist Movement was doomed from the beginning because of its internal flaws. Most of all, the movement was yoked to Mao’s China, which damaged it in two ways: first, by inculcating a Cultural Revolution-style obsession with ideological purity, and second, by forcing the constituents to constantly revise political positions based on whatever Beijing decided was expedient. The most significant example of the latter problem was the revolution in the Portuguese colony of Angola, which eventually helped topple the fascist government in Portugal itself. Most of the worldwide left, including the Soviet Union, were on the side of the MPLA rebels. But China, to counter its Soviet rival, joined with the United States, apartheid South Africa, and Portugal in first opposing the liberation movement and then supporting the fascist UNITA group. The New Communist Movement bitterly split, and never really recovered.

The examples of how ideological purism damaged the movement are still with us in the form of one of the last remnants of New Communism: the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Revolutionary Union principle Bob Avakian, who has turned it into a tiny, quasi-religious sect that venerates him as a Maoist prophet. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read RCP literature or engage an RCP cadre in conversation can attest to the deadening intellectual effects of embracing the correct line above all.

This is a good book, but a dry one. The personalities who shaped the movement must have been rich and dynamic, but Elbaum spends very little time with them. He is more interested in ideas than people, which sometimes turns the book into a rehashing of decades-old quarrels over historical events that now seem to have less relevance to political life than the average game of Dungeons & Dragons. But as the only general-interest history of a significant part of American political history, it’s a major accomplishment.

(V. Charm)

Review: Everitt’s Cicero

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
Anthony Everitt

Odds are, you have heard of Cicero. Considered one of Rome’s greatest orators, his writings are the major influence on how way we remember the last days of the Roman republic. The story of Cicero’s life is the story of end of last years of Republican Rome. The major players of the era: Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Brutus and Octavian (soon to be Augustus) all make appearances. In his role as lawyer, statesman and backroom player, Cicero was friends and enemies with all of them. From Everitt’s book, it seems Cicero was, at times, courageous in his rhetoric. At others, he was cowardly. He tried to see all the angles and jockeyed for a position ruthlessly. While often held up as a man of virtue, the truth is he was probably closer to our own modern day politicians – conniving, and willing to bend his morals if it meant getting ahead. In the end, he wound up on the wrong side of Marc Antony and was killed.

Cicero’s story from privileged provincial boy to one of the most powerful men in Rome is fascinating. I am no expert on Roman history (yet!), but this biography is excellent for the reader with a casual interest in this time period in Rome. Not only does it give us insight into what a complicated person Cicero was (arrogant and generous; brilliant in the courtroom and terrified of physical injury) it is also an excellent primer on the death of the Roman republic. The story of Rome’s decent into dictatorship, the attempt at recovering republicanism, and then the reassertion of dictatorship is the foundation of western history. Everitt’s book is a good place to get a sense of who did what when and what Cicero had to say about it.