Monthly Archives: January 2015

Syriza: what to watch for



Up at the League, says a friend, there was last night a brisk discussion as to whether what had happened this week in Greece was already the Morrow of the Revolution, which shaded off into a forthright statement by various of the comrades on their views as to the nature of a revolutionary government.

Continues our friend, all things considered, the discussion was good natured for if comrade Tom was sitting at the back with his face in an expression of utter scorn, at least the remainder of the seven people present did not always attempt to speak together, as is the custom when persons are assembled together for any social occasion. The hall was not wholly empty, the building not wholly unlit, and the situation of the apostles of Humanity not too unpleasant. One of the company, says our friend, began by explaining that the Syriza government had achieved more reforms in a week than the Labour Party here has managed in 40 years, drawing in particular on the government’s stated intention to increase the minimum wage, restore sacked cleaners, and sack the ministries of their neo-liberal advisers.

Now it was hardly expected that those present would agree with each other’s opinions, but that comrade was followed by her neighbour Sam: a man of celebrated revolutionary sentiment. His riposte was that governments of the left or in his language “reformists” (a term uttered only with a clearing of the throat) came and went, and that Syriza should be watched with the greatest caution. Reminding those present of the story of the Ox and the Flea, in which the latter, the perennial advocate of another country’s militant cause, claims half the credit for the great work done by the former, he concluded with a muted call on those present to observe, “Let us watch it for a month”, he said, “we can but wait and see…”

If we can but watch, albeit in a spirit of solidarity, what should we be looking for?

There is a common analysis on the left which explains the success of Syriza in terms of the depth of the social movements in Greece, in particular the very large number of general strikes, in comparison to Britain where enthusiasm has been drifting out of the movements since early on in the Coalition, when the students were physically beaten of the streets and the unions failed in their joint strikes in defence of pensions. In this explanation, the large social movements are the prior cause of Syriza, and the modest movements here the cause of our weakness.

One problem with this approach – in terms of understanding Syriza –  is that the relationship between what used to be called party and class must always first be established and can never be assumed. In particular, it would be wrong to underestimate the barriers that had to be crossed so that the leaders of Syriza, who as recently as 2009 were only the third-largest party on the left in Greece with a mere 4% of the vote, could become the unifying force they are now generally perceived to be.

A further difficulty comes when you start to see social movements as (say) merely the base and the party as merely the superstructure, with the movements providing the money, activists and voters on which the party relies. Such a metaphor implies that the structure takes without giving and the base gives without anything being returned. Yet there must be an extent to which Syriza reshapes its supporters: it provides an explanation as to who is to blame for Greece’s crisis and how the crisis can be solved and a strategy combining elections, negotiations with the EU, etc, all of which has an impact on the movements. It structures the issues they campaign about, and to whom they protest and how.

Given that Syriza is now in government, I want to see if it will enact reforms which pave the way to more powerful social movements. This ought to be the point at which a reforming administration earns its name. When Barack Obama was elected as American president in 2008, this was down to the millions of people for whom the importance of having an American President was an overriding priority. The main policy achievement of his administration – greater healthcare – may have all sorts of strengths but it is almost wholly devoid of any feature that might enable new social movement activists to emerge from it. This puts Obama in contrast to his obvious predecessor, Roosevelt, whose New Deal contained a large number of measures which were likely to strengthen the movements on which the Democrats were based. The Wagner Act gave workers collective bargaining rights, assisting the great sit-down strikes which forced the car industry to conceded union recognition. The Works Progress Administration gave work to left-wing writers, musicians, artists, etc. The New Deal was so successful at deepening the movements on which the Democrats were based that it established them as the natural party of government in the US for thirty years; Obama by contrast has failed to strengthen the social movements which sustained him.

A further question is whether Syriza will take steps which enable the movements to retain a degree of independence rather than merely co-opting them – either into Syriza or the state. Co-option can take place inadvertently, as for example, after the October revolution, when the Bolsheviks saw themselves as the party of workers’ (“Soviet”) power. Within six months, the Civil War had begun and by winter 1918-1919 a huge proportion of the working-class activists on which the party was based were fighting in the Red Army. By this point, the historic potential of Bolshevism had not yet been exhausted, but there was no meaningful sense in which unions, soviets or co-operatives were in control of the state – tens of thousands of activists had been killed and the social movements of the working class were vastly weaker than they had been.

The right hope is that Syriza must accede power to the movements without expecting anything in return, and while this notion of what you might call the unselfish state (unselfish in its relationship to the movements) sounds paradoxical, there are clues that the party might understand the need. For example, the removal of barriers outside Parliament is a small but important suggestion that Syriza welcomes protests against its policies, and even encourages them in order to discipline it in government.

I want to see if Syriza will enable a turnover in the power relationships constituting the state. If you think for example of the last decade in Venezuela: Chavez’s plan was to achieve state control of the oil industry and use its income for social and economic development. From early on oil revenues were spent on social programmes (“Missions”) in health, education, land redistribution and housing which were always intended to benefit the poor and indigenous majority. A key question was whether the Missions were going to be simply conduits to reward loyalty to the state. It was an attempted coup by the old order which caused the regime to become radicalised, and a very different project emerged in which, although still part of the state, the Missions were now intended to represent a grass roots democracy – ie a different kind of relationship between the people and the state.

Given who Syriza has just entered coalition with, I will look to see if there are going to be measures which illustrate the weakness, or the power, of Syiza’s partners. For example, if the Coalition holds good to its promise to grant citizenship to migrant children born and raised in Greece, this seems in complete kilter to everything the racists of Anel stand for. But of course there will equally be pressure – votes in Parliament which can only be won in return for the sorts of small compromises whose ultimate effect is to denude a left-wing party of the things which once made it worthwhile.

The one point at which Syriza seems most interesting is in its commitment to renegotiate the Greek debt, beginning when the last bailout ends, which is only next month. Immediately, Greece will have to borrow £22 billion euros (to cover debt repayments in 2015 and 2016) with the immediate prospect of either of the likely lenders – the EU and the IMF – demanding that Syriza in return concedes the very policies (eg an increase in the minimum wage) on which it was elected. Syriza has attempted to position itself as a combination of the mild and the militant: keen to talk, opposed to an EU exit, but determined to concede nothing of substance. Its plan B, such as there is, is to overstep the heads of the negotiators and to speak to the people and then the leaders of Europe. This helps to explain why Pablo Iglesias Podemos’ leader was present at quite so many Syriza election rallies: if Podemos wins the Spanish elections, he will be a key ally. Even if he does, if the election drags on till December (as under Spanish election laws it may do) it may not come soon enough to resolve negotiations starting in February. Faced with an impasse, will Syriza turn to the people, ignoring investment strikes as Chavez did after the 2002 coup?

So long as this possibility remains open, events in Greece will be worth watching – because if Syriza does turn to the people of Europe to put pressure on their behalf – at that moment, much more will be required from us than mere observation.

Sidney Pollard, economically-marginal regions in history, and the recent rightward shift by the Tories…



I’ll be speaking at 5.30pm today on the above topics, with a bit of combined and uneven development and other thoughts worked in.

Venue: University of London: Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St., London WC1

More details, and other seminars in the same series (John Foster on Marx, David Howell on Hobsbawm) here.

Why are these so few strikes? When will there be more?



There was a time when I, and many of my friends, believed that socialism would come about principally through a continuous process of trade union radicalisation with small, sectional strikes leading to larger, industry-wide ones, and then national strikes. Workplace struggles would become successively more common, and more successful. Ultimately, the workers would finally stream out of the factories to take over the whole world.

For much of the past 30 years, the continuing holding of that belief has involved a certain denial of reality. Every small strike that took place I personally welcomed as the start of a generalised upturn – hoping there would be a direct route from a single strike to the mass strike and then to the revolution. It was not just a matter of reading too much into short, localised disputes. I remember, 25 years ago, being much comforted by a talk given to a set of statistics which appeared to show that the growing tendency for jobs to become more precarious was in certain ways limited. It seemed from the figures that young workers were speeding through a series of temporary or part-time contracts before settling on fixed-term, permanent jobs at around 30, and then sticking to them with no less determination than all the generations that had preceded them. The interpretation of the figures may or may not have been correct, then or now – that is not my point – what I remember rather is the physical sense of relief I felt in my heart and lungs at encountering a serious explanation which reaffirmed my existing beliefs. This was not a healthy state to be in…

The lack of strikes matters not just if class struggle is seen in offensive terms, but also if it you follow its defensive aspect. Every government of the past fifty years has attempted to attack some aspect of the welfare state – when they have been defeated, it has usually been because a group of workers formed an alliance to protect (eg) abortion rights (in 1979). When strikes are low, it makes it harder to organise effective resistance.

When mass strikes did not happen, the challenge became to establish a different sort of optimism – a more guarded sense of hope, a surface caution beneath which there lurked a willingness to discard everything when necessary in the hope of being part of the single moment at which the world would turn. I think Daniel Bensaid had something similar in mind when speaking of revolutionary “impatience”: a fusion of optimism and seeming disdain in which the former was always waiting to subordinate the latter.

There is something of the same spirit in a recent article by Simon Joyce, which explains in compelling detail how mistaken a 30 year perspective of imminent mass strikes has been. He writes: “the current low level of strikes is unprecedented in British history. Official records of strikes in the UK have been kept since 1893 and record numerous ups and downs, periods of calm and sudden upsurges. Seen in this perspective, the last 20 years are exceptional. Never before has a low-strike period lasted so long.”

He goes on to insist that the present system of low strikes is stable: “once in place, institutional arrangements for conducting relations between unions and employers tend to be fairly robust and are only altered in ‘times of great crisis’. It is likely that it will take some type of wider social or political crisis significantly to upset the current institutional arrangements”. In so arguing, Joyce is undoubtedly right. I am sure some readers will disagree with him, even if they do not say so in public. A tendency could not change its 30-year perspective without some disagreement as to the new approach to take. But the people who disagree with him are projecting their wishes onto reality rather than engaging with the world in which they live.

Where I think there is space for further discussion is in Joyce’s explanations for the decline in strike figures since 1991. First, a large part of Joyce’s analysis is given over to the package of employment law changes which came in between the Heath and Thatcher governments (under Heath, the right to take an unfair dismissal claim to the then industrial tribunals, under Thatcher the anti-union laws, especially the balloting requirement for strikes).

These are part of the picture, but the relationship between law and society is subtle, and I would be critical of anyone who argued, for example, simply that “more law” must mean “fewer strikes”. (Or conversely, that the retreat of law from industrial relations, represented by the decline in ET figures since fees were introduced recently, will – by itself – make strikes more likely).

In an old book, I once set out the sociologists’ concept of “juridification”, ie the process where disputes which are seen as fundamentally non-legal and are resolved without litigation become things which are dealt with in the courts. Juridification implies its opposite, “de-juridification”, i.e. when things which were once treated as a legal question stop being so. The point of invoking either concept is that the last 150 years of workplace history in Britain gives examples of both dynamics, and in particular of occasions when a big opening up of legal opportunities for unions or for workers has not resulted in juridification. EG on both sides of the 1914-1918 war the ruling class and the state made serious efforts at legalising industrial relations – by giving unions incentives to fight battles in court. But there was no meaningful take-up of these opportunities and strikes remained ubiquitous.

Undoubtedly the Coalition has engaged in a systematic campaign of de-juridification. In an early draft of the same book, before the Coalition government had even been elected, I speculated as to how the Tories might implement what were then New Labour’s vaguer proposals for dejuridification and joked in a bitter spirit that what would be needed would be a system of criminal penalties for those who dared to bring tribunal claims – say, a £500 fine for anyone who took one case to a Tribunal, and jail terms for those who brought a second. Of course, politics turned out even worse than my satire, in that the fine for claimants (the “fee”) has been set at nearly three times higher than the level had guessed.

After decades of individual employment rights, it is almost certain that the dejuridification of dismissal rights will not result in a simple process whereby unions simply take up dismissals and strike over them, as if the entire preceding period of 40 years had simply not happened. Instead, what we are actually seeing is a very clear process by which unions are trying to make the best of what is left of the old Tribunal system – so while the headline figures for the decline in Tribunal claims is very high, this is masked by a series of attempts by unions to keep on going as if nothing had happened. These tactics of “making do” including lobbying Labour and the SNP for a reversal of fees; and a judicial review brought by UNISON (so far unsuccessful at 3 court hearings) to declare fees unlawful. Most significantly of all, unions have so far largely paid the fees on their members’ behalf, with the result that despite the very sharp feel in overall Tribunal cases, it seems that the number of cases brought by unions is holding up at more or less the levels they were before. If that process continues, as on my prediction it will (assuming Labour does not simply come back in and abolish fees), it could have all sorts of further unintended consequences. It could for example make union membership significantly more attractive than it has been to non-members in organised workplaces; since the union will subsidise a tribunal hearing which members could never afford themselves. It would also operate a vast cost on unions, who would have to pay thousands of tribunal fees and millions of pounds a year. What we are not seeing – yet – is any process of unions striking over cases that they would a year ago it would have been economically wiser to take to Tribunal. I do not think that will happen without other, larger changes in the relationship between workers and employers in the workplace.

Joyce is right that the anti-union laws have placed an additional pressure on the bureaucracy to police its own members. This is almost the one place where I think it is useful to speak of the memory of the 1980s, which is felt much more keenly within this level than in the typical workplace. Hundreds of senior trade unionists remember the sequestration of the once-massive funds of the miners’ union, and this memory places an enormous pressure on the individual bureaucrat not to mismanage a ballot where, it is assumed, the entire resources of the whole union could be at stake.

But this is not the only problem of the anti-union laws: they are costly, they are slow (amounting to, in effect, a statutory one-month cooling down period between the original decision to strike and any outcome), and they are intended to prevent the very strikes that were most effective in the 1950s, and 1960s, ie localised, rapid strikes by specific sections of workers about smaller issues as well as large ones.

I agree with Joyce that the left needs to give a much larger commitment to campaigns for the repeal of the anti-union laws, but having played a very modest part in one or two of these initiatives, we need to recognise how isolated the interest presently is in repeal – either within the unions themselves or, especially, among committed activists on the left but outside the trade unions. There are good examples on the left in recent years of causes which were isolated to specific groups but have acquired a more general significance – eg Defend the Right to Protest, set up around what once seemed the relatively narrow, immediate issue of the criminalisation of the 2010 students protests – any serious critique of the anti-union laws would rapidly founder if it was just the trade unions with their existing fiefdoms, rivalries and aging activist base.

Joyce makes good points about the link between low inflation and few strikes. Historically, medium-level inflation has been associated with policies of (modest) redistribution from the rich to the working class. We forget on the left just how important low inflation (“monetarism”) was to the early Thatcher governments as a strategy for a more radical kind of class rule. The left in general should be better at exposing this ongoing fixation, which is amongst its other problems also a partial cause of the present stagnation of the European and British economies.

I also think he is right to work into the equation the part played by unemployment. Again, it is a regret that no-one on the left ever seems to sit down and try to calculate or still less publicise how many people in Britain are now unemployed. We have allowed a situation of mass unemployment to be treated as normal which few recent generations would have tolerated.

A further, modest point of disagreement is where Joyce, despite focussing on what he terms “economic factors” resists any idea that the post-1979 economy is in any meaningful extent different from that which preceded it. In particular, he resists the characterisation of the present as a “neoliberal” capitalist economy, as distinct from the post-war state capitalist, welfare state, economy.

To an extent, his own developed argument makes this a meaningless distinction – after all, as soon as you recognise that there are significant dynamics such as low inflation and high unemployment, you are starting to accept that the industrial economy runs on – subtly – different lines from before.

Moreover, if you understand industrial disputes in social activist terms, as Joyce does, then the key issue when workers consider when deciding for or against striking is whether they will win. The “confidence” approach suggests that winning is simply a matter of will, workers with the greatest confidence will take the most radical steps (unofficial rather than official, continuous rather than discontinuous action) and that these will be the most effective. Now, this idea brings certain insights; clearly, to say from the outset that certain forms of strike are impossible is to reduce the choice of protest actions available to potential strikers, and this reduces their prospects of winning. But, equally clearly, among the reasons why strikes have lost in the last 40 years are some economic factors which are primary to and causative of workers’ lack of confidence. Even if we just limit ourselves to Joyce’s two principal economic factors, unemployment and inflation, they serve to discipline workers, unemployment especially, because it changes the calculation as to how much the workers will lose if the action is wholly ineffective and they are all dismissed.

For that reason, I look forward to the historian of the future who can go a little further in addressing the analytical weight to be placed on certain other features of our present economy. For example, Joyce alludes to size of establishment as a factor in the decline in strike levels. Could this have an importance within manufacturing in particular? The 99% fall in the number of strikes in coal since 50 years ago is down to the destruction of jobs in that industry; the 85% fall in the number of strikes in manufacturing over the same period cannot be down simply to the loss of jobs because there are still millions of people working in manufacturing. What has happened though is that there are very few employers, as there were in almost every medium-sized town in Britain just 30 years ago, with several thousand workers all doing relatively similar tasks. To this extent, the capacity for manufacturing workers to feel that they have a power to take on the employers is surely reduced as the size of the workplace is diminished. Could the demise of the giant plants (and therefore the large single-workplace strike) have had an effect in terms of the capacity of workers in one town to see someone else striking a large workplace, to hear about it and want to copy them? Where workplaces are smaller, it surely follows that strikes have less of a rallying effect as physical expressions of the different interests of capital and labour.

Or, to take another example, structural mass unemployment has not served simply to act as a caution for those worried about losing their jobs (what you might characterise as the “reserve army of labour” effect). Additionally, it has had an impact on the nature of the jobs that are being created. I have seen some estimates of job creation since 2008 which suggest that fewer than 5% of new jobs presently being created are full-time, permanent, direct employment. Even if these estimates are hopelessly wrong, and as many as 20% or 40% of new jobs are secure, the picture still remains that for hundreds of thousands of new workers, their industrial reality is not that of the Fordist economy, with secure jobs with long-term prospects.

Portraying some of labour’s difficulties as structural is not to close off the possibility of defeat, but to encourage people to think towards the dynamics of the present crisis which are superficially most obstructive to strikes and yet at the same time capable of challenge.

The issue which I have focussed on in repeated blog posts over the last 18 months is the precariousness of labour both because of its disciplinary aspect and its demobilising potential but also because it seems to me that it gives an incentive to groups of workers to organise. Joyce points to on one group of workers where strike rates have held up relatively well – those engaged in transport. The most successful strikes in history by this section of workers were precisely by groups of people who were precarious and yet wanted greater control over their working lives (carters, dockers…). And now we find ourselves in that same situation again, where the greatest incentive to protest is among groups that are outside what is presently assumed to be the centre of working class life. It seems to me almost certain that when the industrial sociologist looks back from 2035 in our direction, the disputes they will describe with the greatest affection will have something like the same character of those of 125 years ago, with struggle coming from those presently seen as marginal but eager to have the levels of job security which 40 years ago were universal.

Nine months


The wrong red poster, too much sugar in the drink
The white disc smashed
Its pieces ring and shiver, still
The yellow teat of a half-squeezed lemon
The hubbub of people speaking
Subdued rather than expressive:
“Were you going to order food?”

I present to you my son these possessions
The taste of chocolate, cooled
A sweater frayed from Matalan
One black hat in need of a wash
The knowledge of London in the cold

The Large is written in the Small



I cannot unsee the history of racism by which a continent has been shaped; I cannot unsee the corridor or the dead.

The act is specific. A dozen people are in the room; there are cups of coffee on a table, articles waiting to be approved. Afterwards, the corridor is marked in red: all that remains after two pairs of combat boots have gone.

Many of us have a sense of the immense longing that follows this instant, the hopeless, uncontrollable tears of the lovers, the comrades, and the children of those who were killed.

But think of the mentality that can plan a killing. If you work every day with a hoe or a hammer, calluses will form on your hands. What tools can harden a person’s mind?

Those who don’t know what it is like to go to sleep hungry, should not judge those that starve. But, equally, the large is written in the small. There is no necessary murder. Killing, like rape, is an instrument of oppression and not a tool of liberation.

If you have never had dreams of a vivid future only to see them slowly crushed – over days and years without variation – by a society in which black or brown faces can go so far and no further, you will struggle to understand the deep bitterness of those who have lost.

But an explanation cannot stop there. A man goes to work; it is made clear to him on his appointment that he has reached a limit beyond which he could never be promoted. Why would he blame not the manager or the boss but someone else?

The selection of a target involves a process of seeing – and not seeing. It involves giving your life a story, in which the person who has defeated your dreams is the person who lives, surrounded by their colleague, at the end of that corridor.

And whatever faults the journalists had, they were neither the organisers nor the beneficiaries of the structural racism within which a sense of grievance took root.

Running in winter



It was cold, not with the immediate inrush of chill with which I normally associate rising before daybreak in winter, but with a slow-gathering and chastening freeze. I opened the door telling myself that a pair of shorts and a single  vest would be more than sufficient. There was no frost or none that I could see, among the houses on the estate, and no suggestion that it was going to rain. What I could see even in the dark but underestimated was a gloom of mist and fog which should have been familiar from the black and white films of postwar London. I ignored it. I left the house, my feet tapping tentatively on the ground. Five minutes away, beside the park, I watched my glasses slowly mist from the contrast between my warm breathing and the frozen air. On the ground, finally, the puddles had iced over. Running beside the canal, murky with glass strands and still, I felt an unfamiliar passage of skin; the tops of my arms, just where they spilled out from my short-sleeved running top. The cold was confirmed finally by the glare I saw from this camel in Regent’s Park, bitter as it surveyed an expanse of hard ground, and nostalgic for the warm air of its desert youth.

An eclectic history of capitalism



A review of The Cambridge History of Capitalism, edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Cambridge University Press, 616+567pp. (2 vols)

There could be no topic more significant to history than how people have fed, clothed and sheltered themselves and how they have obtained this food, clothing and shelter, and after a year in which a book named Capital in the Twenty-First Century has sold 250,000 copies, there could be no topic more timely than the history of capitalism. Neal and Williamson’s collection is wide-ranging. The first volume, covering up to 1848, contains studies of market relationships amongst the pre-modern economies of Babylonia (Michael Jursa), Greece (Alain Bresson), Rome (Willem M. Jongman), the Silk Road trading bloc (Étienne de la Vassière), China (R. B. Wong), India (Tirthankar Roy), the Middle East (Şevket Pamuk), mediaeval Europe (Karl Gunnar Persson) Italy (Luciano Pezzolo), Latin America (Richard Salvucci), Africa (Morten Jerven), and pre-colonial Northern America (Ann M. Carlos and Frank D. Lewis). The chronological structure is maintained with studies of the Low Countries (Oscar Gelderblom and Joost Jonker), a comparison of state forms in England, Europe and Asia (Patrick Karl O’Brien), and chapters on industrialisation in Britain and Europe (C. Knick Harley), on the dynamic early capitalism of the United States (Jeremy Atack), and on the ideas of classical political economy (José Luís Cardoso).

The second volume provides a series of contemporary histories of different aspects of capitalism, including the spatial distribution of manufacturing (Robert C. Allen), the scale of agriculture (Giovanni Federico), the distribution of technology (Kristine Bruland and David C. Mowery), some of the legal innovations associated with the rise of capitalism (Ron Harris), and two chapters on the business form (Geoffrey Jones, and Randall Morck and Bernard Yeung). Other chapters address financial capitalism (Ranald Michie), capital movements (Harold James), capitalism and the colonies (Gareth Austin) capitalism and war (Mark Harrison). Two chapters look at capitalism’s intellectual (Jeffrey Frieden and Ronald Rogowski) and labour movement (Michael Huberman) opponents. Three final chapters address welfarism (Peter H. Lindert), whether capitalism has contributed to actual welfare (Leandro Prados de la Escosura) and what the future of capitalism might be (the editors)

The writing is generally lively, and the detail of the supportive argument is frequently compelling. To take just two examples of many that could be chosen: in volume one, Alain Bresson’s chapter on the ancient Greek economy uses shipwreck data to illustrate the decline of the Mediterranean economy in the Christian era. The number of wrecks per century increases seven-fold between about 700 BCE and 100 BCE before declining to an equal extent between 100 CE and 700 CE. There are some problems with the evidence of the seemingly catastrophic downturn in trade and prosperity in the Christian era (classical amphorae from shipwrecks are more likely to survive than wooden barrels): the compelling point is rather the previous, dramatic increase in Mediterranean trade.

In volume two, Robert Attlee illustrates the relative weight of different economies in global manufacturing with a graph showing (amongst other things) the proportion of world manufacturing taking place in India and China: which fell from 58 per cent in 1750, to just 4 per cent in 1950, albeit with recovery in the last two decades. Almost every chapter has a similar moment when the typical, informed reader will stop and pause and express a silent thanks to the author for the quality of the detail.

At times in the second volume contributors do struggle with the difficulty of writing compellingly about every country in the world over a timescale of 150 years or so. That said, Allen makes a good job of dismissing the contemporary cliché that growth correlates to an absence of state intervention, while Frederico is right to point out the resilience of small-scale agriculture (in contrast to the best predictions of 120 years ago), and Austin’s chapter on the relationship between capitalism and the colonies is surely right as to the differences between British and American-style colonialism, the variety of settler projects, and the costs with which post-1945 administrators associated their no-longer-loved empires.

An important weakness of the first volume is the editors’ and the contributors’ lack of a coherent definition of capitalism. In the introduction Larry Neal defines capitalism by four common characteristics: private property rights; contracts enforceable by third parties; markets with responsive prices; and supportive governments. This analysis is not explanatory, and in so far as it purports to be descriptive it is unconvincing. What contracts in contemporary capitalist Britain are enforceable by third parties? (The lawyer’s answer is: very few). What would a market without responsive prices look like? It is hard to see how it could still be ‘a market’. The operative part of this definition appears to be in the relationship between the first and fourth characteristics – i.e. capitalist governments are those which support private property rights – but not only does this involve tautology (capitalist states are ones which encourage capitalism) the definition also hinders the historian in terms of what a good definition ought to do, i.e. distinguish between marginal cases. Did the courtiers of Tudor England support property rights? In so far as they could, they did. The absences are clear only once state policy is located in its total social context. Did the government of Nazi Germany promote private property rights? Yes, again, but only if it is understood that the holding of capital remained sacrosanct to a much greater extent than the position of capital’s personal holders. Neal’s definition suggests that capitalism operates primarily on the national terrain, which after the initial breakthrough in Holland and Great Britain, is far from apparent. Was late Tsarist Russia capitalist? If state policy was addressed in isolation from the world market the answer might well be no. If the answer is seen from Russia’s position within a world system, the answer would surely be yes: its investments, trade and profits were shaped by a world market – only food production carried the memory of a pre-capitalist era.

Neal’s definition is not taken up by the book’s contributors, several of whom adopt a simpler definition, that capitalism is a growth economy compared to the low-growth economies of previous epochs. But this is again flawed, in part because it fails to do justice to the capacity for growth within some previous societies, and in part because it fails to recognise the radical unevenness of growth in different capitalist countries, epochs and sectors. Growth in Japan in the 20th century was from a different base and at a different level to what it was in the 20th-century Congo, growth rates in Britain in 2010 were not what there were in 1950, house-price inflation in London in 1985 was not what it had been 10 years earlier

Because the book has no guiding definition of capitalism, chapters are chosen which are interesting and well-informed but whose relevance to the book is questionable. If, as a minority of contributors seem to believe, a characteristic of capitalism has been the reliance of its most dynamic sectors on free (i.e. non-slave) labour, then, the appropriate place for a historical volume focussing on origins (like the editors’ volume one), would surely be on a) those societies in which this transition took place early, and b) those other societies, which had been at a similar level of development but which did not see a transition to free labour.

Chapters six to 12 of the first volume broadly correspond to this schema. But they are bookended on each side with chapters which tell us, in effect, that there was an economy and there were markets in ancient Babylonia, Greece, Rome, etc. At this point, you feel that the editors of the collection have drifted into allowing their book to be a General History of the World Economy, rather than what it purports to be, a history of capitalism.

The imprecision of the editors’ guiding hand is also seen in the omission of any chapter which answers directly the historian’s question: why did capitalism emerge in Britain? This reader was left feeling rather like the observer of a complicated archery competition, in which the most talented archers were instructed to aim only for the outside blue and black rings but to miss repeatedly the golden rings in the middle. A series of contributors come close to addressing the breakthrough, before leaving it in effect to someone else.

Persson’s chapter on coercion makes some good points about the early decline of manorialism in Europe west of Germany, Gelderblom and Jonker’s vivid account of the marketisation of the Low Countries cries out for a parallel piece looking at Britain, and O’Brien has some good points to make about the stability of post-Cromwellian naval policy for decades afterwards and its contribution to England’s later naval hegemony.

In his chapter Harley argues, plausibly, that British industrialization was based on quite narrow technical advantages, and refers with a brief backwards look to Brenner’s famous thesis about the early adoption of market relationships in British agriculture. At this point, he is turning back to arguments originally applied to a period 200 years before the bulk of his material, and he devotes just a page to expounding Brenner’s argument. Brenner, or the alternative theories looking for capitalism’s origins in developments in the towns, should have been at the heart of the first volume, and it is to the collection’s weakness that no chapter addresses them fully.

The King of the Werewolves



“Have I told you how the King of the Werewolves was made?”

“In the town of Klagenfort there was once a lazy cobbler who was known throughout all the empire as a cunning, no-good rascal. He was brilliant with his hands and could make almost anything. But he rose late and he was always looking for tricks and devices so that he could stop working as soon as the day had begun.

“He made for the emperor a pair of shoes.”

“The emperor asked for the shoes to be stitched with gold and silver thread, and he paid very handsomely for them. When they arrived, they were very beautiful and the emperor lavished the cobbler with gifts. But the cobbler had stitched the shoes with copper and tin, which he had painted to look precious. As the shoes aged, and the paint flaked, they turned to grey and to green.”

“The emperor sent his messengers to every corner of the empire, and finally they found the cobbler, living far away, under a new name.”

“Then the vengeance of the emperor was terrible. He told the captain of his guard to whip the cobbler, and to flay his skin. Soon, the streets ran red with blood. As the cobbler lay dying, the captain took the knife from his belt, and cut a strip from the cobbler’s back, and he sewed himself a belt from the cobbler’s skin, so that all would see and remember and no tradesman would ever cheat the emperor again.”

“Before he died, the cobbler spoke his last words. He swore that for his terrible punishment, by the gods or by the Devil himself, he too would be avenged.”

“For his loyalty, the Emperor rewarded the Captain. He let the Captain marry his only daughter. Then the people rejoiced, for she was beautiful, and she was the pride of her people. And for a week or two no-one thought of the cobbler’s curse. But on the first night after the full moon, when the servants entered her chamber, they found her body dripping with blood. In the night, a wolf had come and eaten her neck. And then the servants were confused, for the door to the palace was locked, the walls were high, and they could not understand how the animal had come in. And nowhere in the palace was there any trace of the Captain.”

“This was the first adventure of the King of the Werewolves, who lived afterwards with the other animals, for he was ashamed of what he had done.”


“So many people, when they have done something wrong, will keep to themselves and admit nothing, blaming others for their own crimes. So it was with the King of the Werewolves, he retreated deep into the forest, and he waited for a chance to prey on the people, any people, who he blamed for casting him out. He lived on mice and rats and other small animals and he was always hungry, and he was still ashamed.”

“One day, there came into a forest, a trader. He made his business by exchanging iron nails, spices, things made in the towns, for the food grown by the peasants. But he was a thief, and he would charge just as much as the people could bear, and then more, for they needed him more than he needed them.”

“As the merchant rode his horse among the trees, the King of the Werewolves could smell his coming. He could smell the fine meats that the merchant had packed for his journey. He could smell the rich odours of the city, of a man whose hands were not calloused, and whose arms and legs were pale. And, as the King of the Werewolves waited, his throat glistened with the meal that would be his.”

“As the merchant rode through the woods, the King of the Werewolves began to follow him. And the trees, which so often sang with the sounds of the birds, grew silent, as all of nature watched to see the man’s fate.”

“On he rode, conscious of nothing but the sun of the noon day. On and on, the King of the Werewolves followed him, deeper into the dark woods.”

“Finally, when the trader came to a well, and dismounted, the King of the Werewolves struck. He jumped on the man, dragging him to the ground. He did not even spare the man’s bones, but broke them, to suck the marrow clean.”

“This was the second adventure of the King of the Werewolves.”


“Over time, the King of the Werewolves buried himself deeper in the woods, among the trees that never came looking for him, among the wild things that left him alone. For much of the month, he would sleep, but on the night of the full moon he would rise, and then he would look for the tame animals that lived in the fields and in the barns and were his favourite food. The King of the Werewolves was no longer sad, for he barely remembered that he had once been a mortal man.”

“So it went on, for many long years. Until the people who lived in the district became angry, and complained that if nobody stopped him, they would starve.”

“Finally, the village blacksmith brought them altogether, and armed the folk with the swords from his forge, and told them to be strong. On hearing his words, finally, the people went on, to kill the beast that was in their midst.”

“But years of hunting had made the King of the Werewolves cunning. He could hunt in the night, he could hunt in the day, and he could smell fear.”

“When the men of the village were out looking for him, he slunk silently into the homes which they had forsaken. And when the men returned to their homes, there was not a woman or a child left standing. All had been killed, and the King of the Werewolves’ belched as his body filled with their flesh.”

“This was the third adventure of the King of the Werewolves.”


“So why did they call him the King of the Werewolves?”

“He had special powers. At night-time, when a mood cunning came over him, he would still take the form sometimes of a human being. He could run on the ground for a hundred miles, fast as lightning, and not feel tired for a second. And his claws were so sharp that they could cut anything, flesh, fur or bone.”

“You say he was the King of the Werewolves. Did he have subjects?”

“All the animals of the forest, all the wild animals, were his to command. The rats were his messengers; the foxes would bring him food. And the longer he lived in the forest, the further afield his name was known. Other wolves came to follow, some who had been human once like he had, others who lived as men but only changed into wolves on the very night of the full moon. They followed him in their thousands.”


“In the city, there was a new Emperor. Like all the educated folk, he had heard the stories of the King of the Werewolves. Unlike his predecessor, the old Emperor, who had died, he knew nothing of where the King of the Werewolves had come from. Every day his messengers brought fresh stories of the foul deeds of the werewolves. People had been killed, their bodies eaten, even children were not safe.”

“So he asked his advisors what should be done.”

“One suggested that they could surround the city with walls so tall that no evil could sneak in. Another suggested that they could build great stone towers, reaching right up to the sky, so that they could see evil before it was upon them. A third wise man said simply this, ‘You cannot defeat the King of the Werewolves, for his evil was made by Man. The best you can do is to call on your people to laugh and play and forget his name. And hope that with the ordinary passage of time his evil abates and people forget to speak his name.”

“‘I will not wait”, the Emperor said.

“To defend the city against the King of the Werewolves, the Emperor ordered his alchemists to make a giant figure out of earth. For three days and three nights, his labourers worked at the task. They stood in the grounds at the very heart of the city. They traced a shape with their sticks, like an unborn child with its hand near its mouth. They cut and dug, deep into the soil. And then the alchemists came and cast spells. The earth formed into shape and took life.”

“In this way, the Golem was born.”


“When the King of the Werewolves heard of the city-dweller’s plans, he took off his magic belt, and dressed himself in human clothes. He wore gloves and boots, and a fine black cape and a black hat upon his head.”

“He walked into the city, and no-one knew the threat which was upon them.”

“He sniffed the food that the guards ate, he tasted the beer that the soldiers drank, and he looked upon the hut where the Golem lived.”

“After 30 days and nights, the King of the Werewolves returned, which a mighty host of animals. He was determined to destroy the town. His forces were so many that they surrounded the city on ever side.”

“The people threw spears at the foxes and the wild dogs, they fired at his wolves with arrows dipped in fire, but the arrows could not piece their skin.”

“After many hours of fighting, the people began to grow weary, and the Emperor came to the hut where the Golem said. ‘You are our champion’, the Emperor told him, if you cannot defeat the Werewolf, we are doomed.’”

“And so the messengers of the people and the messengers of the Werewolves spoke, and finally it was agreed. The King of the Werewolves would fight the Golem. If the King triumphed, the City would be razed to the ground, and all the people would be scattered. But if the Golem triumphed, there would be no more war, the werewolves would retreat, and they swore they would never come again.”

“There was a stadium in the City, and the men and the wolves sat there as they watched the battle that would determine everything.”

“The Werewolf howled, and all his people howled, and the men cringed with fear. Powered by this dreadful sound, the Werewolf reached as if to tear his enemy limb from limb. But the Golem had all the cunning of the city-dweller in him, and he twisted and turned one way and the other and the Werewolf could not strike him.”

“Next, the Golem attempted to pound the King of the Werewolves with the rocks and stones that were his flesh and blood. But the Wolf was a magical being and the stones could not hurt him. Every blow the Golem sent down, bounced off his skin”

Then it the King of the Werewolves’ turn again. He flexed his terrible, long, until they shone in the terrible moonlight. With a great roar, he swung his hands, as if to cut the Golem’s head right off.”

“He swished, one way and another, and finally, the head was cut.”

“And then there was a terrible sound from the people, a sound of sorrow such as never you heard. For the sky was dark, and the wolves were waiting to eat”

Resolutions for 2015


Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

My hope for 2014 was that I would write and that Rs21 would prosper.

Instead, it became a year of running; I ran often in the dark, the ground obscured and with nothing to guide my feet save the feel of concrete paths beneath me. I ran up hills in the warmth and alongside lakes in the frost, tapping the ground quicker than was comfortable, hoping above all not to lose my footing. I ran with friends, in very club, and (very often) by myself. I ran occasionally – my best running – with my boys. Through the year, I ran over 1500 miles. I felt at times as if was stripping away years of poor sleeping, sugary foods and a sedentary lifestyle. I ran in around 40 races of varying degrees of competitiveness, taking about 8-9% off my best adult times for a series of distances from 400 metres to a half marathon. Another year of similar progress would bring me back to the runner I was, not at my peak, but when I first began to run competitively at the age of 14.

There is one longer piece I published of which I am proud; but there remain a number of projects I need to finish – fictions taking me back to people I knew, memories of those that I guard and cannot address directly.

As for RS21, I hope that we grow, that new people join us and bring their personalities to the group without disturbing certain subtle consensuses within the group which date back to the circumstances in which we were formed. We cannot be for ever “a group of settlers from Mars who subscrib[e] to Marxism in general, but otherwise ha[ve] to start from scratch on every question”, as one observer described us, but I would rather that we retained our thoughtful, questioning and cautious spirit.