“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre; Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police spies.
The communist Manifesto-Karl Marx
“The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock, it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again.”
Barbara W. Tuchman-August 1914
“if the King were in the body of the enemy, he would as soon discharge his pistol upon him as upon any private man,” and if they did not think likewise, they ought not to enlist under him.”
“The attempt to minimise or eradicate the history of republicanism in England in the seventeenth century is one of the British establishment’s most important and longest-running projects. Unlike in the United States and France, where the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 have become a celebrated part of the national story, the English Revolution is systematically marginalised in the British education system and public life.”
God save the Queen, She’s not a human being, and There’s no future And England’s dreaming
God Save the Queen-Sex Pistols
Why was the life of Elizabeth II the cause of so much love and adoration? It begs the question, what exactly was her contribution to humanity? After all, she lived a long and privileged life. She was a billionaire with more money than most people can dream of and belonged to a family that deeply sympathised with the Nazis. Remember Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform. Or the picture in the tabloid press of members of the Royal family giving Nazi salutes.
As for the funeral, as Chris Marsden says, it takes place amidst the spectre of war and revolution. Marsden’s excellent article delves into history to expose the absurdity of the whole affair. Speaking of a previous royal funeral, that of Edward VII, the American historian Barbara W. Tuchman says in the book The Guns of August, “The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock, it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again.”
Another article on wsws.org examines the bourgeoisie’s sudden deep love affair with the royals. Joseph Scalice’s scathing article points out that “Monarchy is an institution of colossal stupidity, a barbaric relic of the feudal past; its persistence is an embarrassment to humanity. Founded on heredity, shored up with inbreeding, intermarriage and claims of divine right, the monarchic principle enshrines inequality as the fundamental and unalterable lot of humanity. It maintains this lot with the force of autocratic power.”
Although the English bourgeoisie buried “the ghosts of its republican ancestors long ago”, that time was the 17th century when things were different. Then the English bourgeoisie killed a king, established a republic and got rid of the house of lords, a tad different from today’s fawning over a bunch of crooks, child traffickers and Nazi lovers.
The English bourgeoisie does not like to be reminded of its revolutionary past. As the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov wrote in his extremely perceptive essay:
“The attempt to minimise or eradicate the history of republicanism in England in the seventeenth century is one of the British establishment’s most important and longest-running projects. Unlike in the United States and France, where the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 have become a celebrated part of the national story, the English Revolution is systematically marginalised in the British education system and public life. England passed through her revolutionary storms in the seventeenth century, and there were then two revolutions: the first led, among other things, to the execution of Charles I, while the second ended with an animated banquet and the rise of a new dynasty.
But the English bourgeoisie, in the evaluation of these revolutions, manifests very divergent views: while the first, in its eyes, does not even deserve the name ‘revolution’ and is simply referred to as ‘the great rebellion, the second is given a more euphonious appellation; it is called ‘the glorious revolution. The secret of this differentiation in evaluating the two revolutions has already been revealed by Augustin Thierry in his theses about the English revolutions. In the first revolution, the people played an important role, while in the second, the people participated hardly at all. When, however, a people mount the stage of history and begin to decide the destinies of their country according to its power and best understanding, then the higher classes (in this case, the bourgeoisie) get out of humour. Because the people are always ‘raw’ and, if the revolutionary devil begins to pervade it, also becomes ‘coarse’, the higher classes have a way of always insisting upon politeness and gentle manners—at least they demand these of the people. This is why the higher classes are always inclined to put upon revolutionary movements if prominently participated in by the people, the stamp of ‘rebellions’.
It is not only the English bourgeoisie that would like to see the English revolution buried along with its brief republican past. As Leon Trotsky wrote, many historians have sought to ” vulgarise the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.” These historians have not exactly covered themselves in glory over the death of Elizabeth II.
Historian Clive Irving who is not exactly a Marxist called the funeral a ‘façade’ and said that the Royal Family should ‘atone’ for slavery. Irving said the Royal Africa Company, founded by Charles II in 1666, “concealed a very evil enterprise which was shipping slaves from Africa to the Caribbean colonies.’Not exactly calling for a Marxist insurrection to replace the Monarchy, but this did not stop the torrent of abuse he received from several sycophantic historians
“Zareer Masani, a historian and author, responded to Irving’s comments by saying: ‘His comments are pretty old hat because these kinds of comments have been made about the Monarchy for the last decade by Black Lives Matter and those sorts of groups. I don’t see anything new. The Empire was overall very positive for most parts of the world. There were mistakes and violence in pockets, but on the whole, it was a benevolent institution which gave most of the world foundations for modern nationhood and economy. I don’t think it has anything to apologise for.’
Perhaps the most stupid and crass comment came from one historian who wrote, “‘The British crown stand above politics and outside politics, both domestic and international. At last, the Queen has a fitting epitaph.
Working people need to wake up and smell the coffee, the Monarchy is no friend of the working class. In Requiem For a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr writes, “Eventually we all have to accept total responsibility for our actions, everything we have and has not done. I suspect there will never be a requiem for a dream, simply because it will destroy us before we can mourn its passing”.
Edward VII – King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India (1841-1910)
“There are ideal series of events which run parallel with the real ones. They rarely coincide. Men and circumstances generally modify the ideal train of events so that it seems imperfect, and its consequences are equally imperfect. Thus with the Reformation, instead of Protestantism came Lutheranism.”
The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt” (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe.
“If one man is fated to be killed by another, it would be interesting to trace the gradual convergence of their paths. At the start, they might be miles away from one another, and yet eventually, we are bound to meet. We can’t avoid it.”
Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate
It is perhaps an understatement to say that Robert Harris is a remarkably versatile and clever writer. He has written numerous books on wide-ranging subjects such as Ancient Rome and The Second World War and a book set 800 years in the future. Titles including ‘Fatherland’, ‘Munich’ and ‘An Officer and a Spy.
His latest narrative-driven book examines one of the most contentious periods in British, if not world history, The English Revolution. It is well-written and researched.
The book covers Charles I execution and the subsequent pursuit of two leading regicides who signed the king’s death warrant. Colonel Will Goffe and Edward Whalley were exiled to America in 1660, where they were welcomed with open arms by many colonists who were Puritans and had supported their political stance against the king. Both men were high-ranking soldiers in the New Model Army, and Whalley was Oliver Cromwell’s cousin. Both played an important part in the successful English revolution.
Harris’s book treads an already well-trodden path. The last few years alone have seen numerous books on the subject covered in his book.The book appears well researched, but Harris, like many other historians, has found a dearth of information about what Walley and Goffe did in America. So like all good writers, he makes things up and employs a method favoured by the 18th-century writer, poet and philosopher Novalis, who wrote, “There are ideal series of events which run parallel with the real ones. They rarely coincide. Men and circumstances generally modify the ideal train of events to seem imperfect, and its consequences are equally imperfect.”
Regarding historiography, the book is part of a new wave of studies, both fiction and non-fiction, concentrating on different aspects of the Royalist cause in the 17th century.
Not all historians are fans of narrative-based historical writing. When C V Wedgwood produced her splendid book A King Condemned-The Trial and Execution of Charles Ist, it was criticised by some historians. In the foreword of the 2011 edition, Clive Holmes said: “Wedgwood’s relationship with academic historians was not an easy one, and the immediate reception of this work by the professionals in their flagship journals was cool and even condescending.”
While Harris’s invention of the character Richard Naylor is legitimate and interesting, one can’t help feeling that Harris is trying to persecute the two regicides again. He seems a bit miffed that they escaped the so-called royal justice of Charles II. Further hostility came from the pen of the Guardian newspaper, Andrew Taylor writes, “It’s not easy to make Whalley and Goffe sympathetic to a modern sensibility. They were hardcore Puritans who believed that only the elect would go to heaven, that their aggressively righteous ends justified their often ruthless means and that the world would end in 1666.”
Just like their modern counterparts, the late 17th English bourgeoisie would rather forget their revolution of the 1640s; hence The 1660 Act of Oblivion(the title of the book), was an act of parliament supported by Charles II to draw a line under the events of the 1640s and pretend they never happened.
‘The wounds of the brutal civil war are still visible on men’s bodies”: the execution of Charles I in Whitehall, London, 1649. Illustration: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
But it cannot be denied that the killing of the king had, as Ann Talbot recounts, “a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie was soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a dreadful mistake, no monarch sat quickly on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria’s reign”.
Also as Christopher Hill put it so well, “In 1660 passive obedience was preached in all pulpits; a King was brought back “with plenty of holy oil about him,” because this was necessary for Parliament, for the possessing classes, threatened by social revolution from below. A white terror was introduced by the returned émigrés, and an attempt was made to drive from political life all who did not accept the restored régime in Church and State (the Clarendon Code, the Test Act). Educational advances, like the purge which had made Oxford a centre of scientific research, were reversed. All this broke the revolutionary-democratic movement for the moment, though it fought back again in the sixteen-seventies and -eighties. In 1662 a Presbyterian minister, who had been deprived of his living by the Restoration, wrote in words that recaptured the fears of many respectable members of the possessing classes at that time: “Though soon after the settlement of the nation we saw ourselves the despised and cheated party … yet in all this, I have suffered since, I look upon it as less than my trouble was from my fears then … Then we lay at the mercy and impulse of a giddy, hot-headed, bloody multitude.”
Harris’s book, albeit fictitious in parts, shows that this manhunt dominated the reign of Charles II. While sanctioning what amounted to judicial murder, the regime was hardly a picture of stability. The longer the show trial went on, the more nervous Charles and his ministers became and recognised the growing danger of rebellion. Charles II made one mistake in giving a public funeral to one of the regicides. Over twenty thousand people attended, testifying to the still considerable support for Republican ideas.
One of the difficulties of writing about this period of English history is that, as one writer put it, “intricacies of religious faith and faction can seem distant and abstruse to a modern audience”. But Harris’s book is timely as the United Kingdom is living through a period of constitutional upheaval and faces the distinct possibility of breaking up. Act of Oblivion is an enjoyable read and has a ring of authenticity. It is pointless recommending this book, and Harris’s books sell in the millions, but it is a good read.
1. The Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660 was an Act of the Parliament of England (12 Cha. II c. 11), the long title of which is “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion”. This act was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth period, with the exception of certain crimes such as murder (without a licence granted by the King or Parliament), piracy, buggery, rape and witchcraft, and people named in the act such as those involved in the regicide of Charles I. It also said that no action was to be taken against those involved at any later time and that the Interregnum was to be legally forgotten.
 See Charles I’s Executioners -Civil War, Regicide and the Republic By James Hobson- Pen & Sword History-Published: 4th November 2020. https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2021/04/charles-is-executioners-civil-war.html andKillers of the King – The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I Hardcover – Charles Spencer 11 Sep 2014 352 pages Bloomsbury Publishing – ISBN-13: 978-1408851708-https://keith-perspective.blogspot.com/2014/10/killers-of-king-men-who-dared-to_23.html
 The Mystery Of Marie Rogêt” (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe
I am afraid that Sturza’s account of the events of the 1640s and your analysis of its merits (and faults) is not correct, Keith. First of all, the historiography of this period is wrong. The problems with a materialist or Marxist explanation were apparent well before the rise of so-called ‘Revisionism’ in the mid-1970s. The debates over the fortunes of the gentry between Tawney and Stone on one side and Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper on the other had stimulated a raft of research into the condition of landowners In many counties across England but also the growth of county studies and the hypothesis first advanced by Alan Everitt about the importance of localism in the ensuing conflicts.
John Morrill cut his historical teeth in this area and has never, to my knowledge, subscribed to the view that the English Civil War or Revolution came as a bolt from the blue.) In Cambridge, the work of Peter Laslett and the CAMPOP group called into very serious question whether any classes in the Marxist sense existed at all.
The idea that capitalist merchants and farmers had come by 1640 to find themselves temporarily aligned with the interests of artisans and peasants against the Caroline regime, which was Christopher Hill’s view in 1940, does not hold water if only because the early Stuart monarchs were keen on promoting economic innovation, new industrial inventions and overseas trade: if you look at the papers of Lionel Cranfield or Arthur Ingram (or those of Sir John Bankes in the Bodleian Library), you will see what I mean.
There is certainly no evidence whatsoever that, as a result of the events of the 1640s and 1650s, the rule of one class was replaced by that of another, whatever Ann Talbot claimed. The larger landowners were predominant after 1660 as they had been before 1640. (W.R.Emerson’s account of the growth of large landowners’ fortunes is better than that of Lawrence Stone in 1965 or 1972.) Nor should it be forgotten that Valerie Pearl and Keith Lindley have shown how closely aligned the groups in the Long Parliament were to their allies in the urban area of London: mob activities and riots were much less important than figures like Hill or Manning, or Sturza supposed.
Furthermore, London was not the entire kingdom: beyond its bounds, there were important groups of supporters of the Long Parliament in counties, towns and villages, just as there were neutrals and supporters of the Royalist cause. The links between landowners, their tenants, allies and supporters in the countryside were critical too in the Long Parliament’s military victories by 1646 and the period between 1648 and 1651.
I should add that Christopher Hill did not fail to take on the ‘Revisionists’. If you look at his Open University A203 course, England: A Changing Culture 1618-1689 (Block 3, Pp.72-78), you will see one of his attempts to reply to Conrad Russell’s post-1975 work. In fact, ‘revisionism’ had a long pre-history stretching back into the 1960s and was over by the early-1990s. It was not the product of a capitalist attack on the working class, nor did it have any links with Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan’s political views. This contention is completely untenable.
Similarly, the grounds for thinking that what happened in the British Isles or in England in the 1640s was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ are not tenable. Those events can be more clearly seen as comparable to the revolt of the Low Countries or the French Wars of Religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, the revolts of Portugal and Catalonia in 1640 or the Frondes in France in the years between 1648 and 1653. ‘Les grand soulevements’ in these places and times never fitted into the framework postulated by Marx, Engels and their successors. Marx et al. asked interesting questions but their answers were never convinced.
“The ‘great’ national historian Macaulay vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.”
“The dreams of a Milton, a Winstanley, a George Fox, a Bunyan, were not realised; nor indeed were those of Oliver himself: ‘Would that we were all saints’.”
“English academics always hated revolutions so that there is an in-built pleasure in being able to get back, as some of them tried to do, to saying nothing important had happened. French, Russian and American historians have accepted revolutions as part of their tradition, whereas we’ve always hushed ours up and transferred it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.”
The London Revolution 1640-1643 does not contain any new research from previously used new primary archival sources. It, however, stands on the shoulders of previous work and provides the uninitiated with a useful summary of the main points of the English revolution.
Sturza’s defence of the concept of an English revolution is to be welcomed, as is his attempt to explain the English Revolution from the standpoint of a historical materialist outlook. As Frederick Engels so eloquently put it, “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but changes in the modes of production and exchange.”
The book offers a basic understanding of the main historical events for the reader new to the English revolution. But its main task is to highlight the revolution’s fundamental political and class character. Many of the main revolutionary figures of the English Revolution were moved, as Sturza outlines in the book, by definite social, political and economic ideas. Still, their ideas were often cloaked in religious form. Many varied social currents brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a struggle against the king. They sought to understand the new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared. They turned to the only source available to understand these ideas, the Bible.
Sturza’s book pays considerable attention to the works of previous Marxists while also examining current historiography, which has been dominated over the past few decades by revisionist and post-revisionist ideologues. Sturza correctly explains that revisionism was an academic articulation of capitalism’s attack on the working class. Reagan-Thatcher’s right-wing agenda was enforced by a violent assault on the working class. The high point of this assault in the UK was the year-long civil war conducted by the British police against the coal miners’ strike of 1984-85.
The English revolution was not the only revolution under attack from the revisionists. The French, Russian and, very recently, the American Revolution have all come under sustained attack from revisionist historians.
What makes Sturza’s book different from the previous historiography, according to Alan Wallis, professor of history at New Jersey City University, is that “unlike most other writings on the English Revolution, the English Revolution was driven by petty-bourgeois artisans under militant Puritan leadership rather than the moderate gentry in the House of Commons, as is usually claimed by historians who deny or ignore the importance of leadership in carrying out any successful revolution. Sturza illustrates how the protests and street battles in the early 1640s foreshadowed the Civil War, which many historians have presented as an inexplicable bolt from out of the blue.”
One of those historians who thought the revolution was a bolt from the blue was the dean of revisionism, John Morrill. Morrill’s essay ‘Revisionism’s Wounded Legacies’ neatly encapsulated his opposition to any theory that remotely smacked of revolution or Marxism, prompting one colleague to ask him if there was ever a civil war in the first place. Morrill explained that his Revisionism “was a revolt against materialist or determinist histories and historiographies.”.
However, Morrill made one insightful remark in that essay in that he correctly states that every historian writing on the English revolution had to define their attitude to the work of Christopher Hill. The same must be said of Sturza. Christopher Hill, whose astonishing early book, The English Revolution 1640, had defined the English revolution as a bourgeois revolution, has achieved widespread acclaim and, to some extent, has not been bettered.
In it Hill writes, “England in 1640 was still ruled by landlords and the relations of production were still partly feudal, but there was this vast and expanding capitalist sector, whose development the Crown and feudal landlords could not forever hold in check. There were few proletarians (except in London), and most of the producers under the putting-out system being also small peasants. But these peasants and small artisans were losing their independence. They were hit especially hard by the general rise in prices and were brought into ever closer dependence on merchants and squires. A statute of 1563 forbade the poorer 75 per cent of the rural population to go as apprentices into the industry. So there were three classes in conflict. As against the parasitic feudal landowners and speculative financiers, as against the government whose policy was to restrict and control industrial expansion, the interests of the new class of capitalist merchants and farmers were temporarily identical to those of the small peasantry and artisans and journeymen. But the conflict between the two latter classes was bound to develop since the expansion of capitalism involved the dissolution of the old agrarian and industrial relationships and the transformation of independent small masters and peasants into proletarians.”
Hill was extremely sensitive enough to his historical sources to understand and write about the social currents that brought people of different social backgrounds into a struggle against the king. From early in his career, he identified new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared. These ideologists of the revolution used the Bible to find a precedent for their actions.
As Ann Talbot explains, “Hill’s achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution which overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power in the case of Britain. Secondly, he recognised that the mass makes revolutions of the population and that for a revolution to occur, the consciousness of that mass of people must change since a few people at the top do not cause revolutions. However, the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.
Sturza spends a lot of this book attacking Hill. In his conclusion, he chides Hill for not taking on the revisionists, but as Ann Talbot points out, Hill was a better historian than a political thinker. Also contained in the book’s conclusion is Sturza’s assertion that the English revolution was a “bourgois revolution from below and that petty-bourgeois artisan craftworkers, shopkeepers, early manufacturers, domestic traders and mariners…provided the horsepower of the revolution.’
Sturza’s formulation is confusing and not an orthodox Marxist position. He would have done well to read and then quote the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky for a clearer understanding of how the revolution unfolded and how the social forces within it related to each other. Trotsky writes:
“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents, and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the. Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called root and branch men or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The halfway position of the Presbyterians fully corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie — between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents’ party, which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to its conclusion, naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution. Events unfolded empirically. In their struggle for power and property interests, both the former and the latter side hid behind a cloak of legitimacy.”
To conclude, The English bourgeois revolution is a complex subject, and one book does not do it justice. However, despite its limitations, Sturza’s book gives the reader a good introduction to the topic. Further criticisms of the book will follow in a postscript to this review. Comments on the text and this review are welcome.
The UK’s Notting Hill Carnival returned to London’s streets after a two-year absence caused by the coronavirus pandemic. My first thought is why given that a deadly virus is still around and putting people in hospital and killing thousands, would two million people turn up to an event that, by its very nature, would spread the virus and cause untold suffering and possibly death to vulnerable people who will in the future come into contact with persons who went to the Carnival?
If that was not bad enough, footage has emerged on the internet of people packed so tight on the street that it constituted a threat to safety. To escape being crushed, people climbed over railings and into basements to avoid the surge of people. The scenes were reminiscent of the Hillsborough disaster, only thankfully without the death toll.
Quite what attracts people to this event is a mystery. While I grant you the costumes are pretty, and some people have a bit of fun, the experience must be pretty bad for the majority. With an all-time high of 38 gigantic sound systems, you would have thought the music would have been of a high calibre. However, this was not the case. The fact that no musicians of any world renown would be caught dead performing at Carnival is telling.
Secondly, having experienced being close to a fifty-foot sound system, one is completely numb and deaf after only a few seconds. It is also very difficult to appreciate the musical vibes when you are sky-high after breathing in gallons of nitrous oxide. So far, thousands of large gas canisters weighing in total 4 tonnes have been collected from the streets. Hospitals expect to have to treat a large number of young people for nerve damage.
It is also hard to fathom why people think it is their democratic right to have fun, dance, drink, and take drugs while the victims of the Grenfell fire have still not received justice. The RBKC council and the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival paid lip service by holding a 72-second silence but still allowed the Carnival to go ahead. At the same time, the ashes of over 72 people remain in the tower block, which can be seen in full view of people dancing and parading in the streets. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. The Carnival has become big business.
The presence of companies including Red Bull and Virgin Atlantic have meant the Carnival has become not only a money spinner for big business, but several small organisations and even residents have monetised the event out of all recognition from its earliest anti-racist and anti-capitalist origins.
As Dr Razaq Raj writes , “the commercialisation of Carnival began with the sponsorship of Lilt in 1995, a tropical fruit-flavoured soft drink manufactured by Coca-Cola, in which it became the Lilt Notting Hill Carnival; this arrangement continued in 1996 and 1997 (Carver, 2000). The Carnival was sponsored by Virgin Atlantic in 1998 when Nestle (who were meant to sponsor the event) withdrew their support (BBC News, 1998). Western Union Notting Hill Carnival became the festival’s name in 1999 when Western Union sponsored the event. Notting Hill’s commercialisation highlights the event’s growth since its humble beginnings. It is symbolic of the conflict between the political and radical past to the present day organised and funded event. The commercialisation of Carnival highlights its growth but also critical problems for the event and carnival management. The conflict between the radical past and conservative operations of Notting Hill Carnival presents the main questions as to the future purpose of Notting Hill Carnival. Has this cultural event that acted as a political vehicle for the community fallen victim to the Western capitalist society?
Carnival 2022 was a sanitised and unpolitical event. The Carnival has become so far removed from its origins that it is unrecognisable from its early days as a vehicle of protest against racism and slavery. In historical terms, sixty years is not a long time. Sixty years ago, the fascists were openly marching on the streets of Notting Hill, and the fascist leader Oswald Mosely was holding meetings on the Goldborne rd.
As the Marxist writer, Cliff Slaughter wrote in 1958, “The race riots in Nottingham and London came like a bolt from the blue to most ordinary men and women in Britain, just as they did to the Press, that self-styled watchdog of the public conscience. The Observer, usually more far-sighted than most newspapers, spoke of the race riots as something which seemed a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand a few days earlier. So long as we look only at the surface of social life and try to deal with each question separately as it arises, we shall continue to find ourselves bewildered by events like the race riots. But they are no nine days wonder. Every worker in the country must clearly understand this.
Every member of the working class must endorse the condemnation by the Trades Union Congress of racial discrimination and violence. But this is not enough. Only if we can trace the social roots of racial conflict shall we be able to weed them out and those who profit from it with them. The starting point for the working class must be unity and solidarity against the employers and their political representatives—in the first place, the Tory Party. All the problems the working class now faces—growing unemployment, the housing shortage, rent increases, the rising cost of living, attacks on wages and working conditions, and, above all, the threat of an H-bomb war—can be solved only by the unity and determined action of the working class. It is no accident that the steady growth of unemployment over the last year has been accompanied by an insidiously growing campaign around the slogan ‘Keep Britain-White’.”
The problems faced by the working class in 1958 are the same but on a much higher scale, unemployment, the housing shortage, rent increases, the rising cost of living, attacks on wages and working conditions, and, above all, the threat of nuclear war. These issues and more will not be solved by a few dances on the street or by sniffing a gas up your nose. Young people especially need to think about the choices they are making now. They do not have too much time.
 Exploitation of Notting Hill Carnival to increase community pride and spirit and act as a catalyst for regeneration. Dr Razaq Raj
“The followers of historical materialism reject the existence of a special woman question separate from the general social question of our day. Specific economic factors were behind the subordination of women; natural qualities have been a secondary factor in this process. Only the complete disappearance of these factors, only the evolution of those forces which at some point in the past gave rise to the subjection of women, is able in a fundamental way to influence and change their social position. In other words, women can become truly free and equal only in a world organised along new social and productive lines.”
“We in Russia no longer have the base, mean and infamous denial of rights to women or inequality of the sexes, that disgusting survival of feudalism and medievalism which is being renovated by the avaricious bourgeoisie … in every other country in the world without exception.”
V. I. Lenin
“The most important distinguishing feature of socialist schools should be the child’s fullest possible and most comprehensive development. They must not suppress his individuality but only help develop it. Socialist schools are schools of freedom in which there is no room for regimentation, rote learning and cramming.”
“Until the old forms of family life, domestic life, education and child-rearing are abolished, it is impossible to obliterate exploitation and enslavement. It is impossible to create the new person, impossible to build socialism”.
“Much better to die in open combat, among comrades, with weapons in their hands. That’s how I want to die. That’s how hundreds and thousands die for this republic every day.”
“Only a Socialist society will solve the conflict that is nowadays produced by the professional activity of women. Once the family as an economic unit will vanish and its place will be taken by the family as a moral unit, the woman will become an equally entitled, equally creative, equally goal-oriented, forward-stepping companion of her husband; her individuality will flourish while at the same time, she will fulfill her task as wife and mother to the highest degree possible.
Kristen Ghodsee’s new book examines the lives of three revolutionary women and two non-revolutionary women between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the consolidation of Stalinism in the former USSR.
One assumes that Ghodsee chose these five women, which were not handed to her by her editor. Strangely, she leaves out two women revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Larissa Reissner. They were far more deserving of appreciation than the two apologists for the Stalinist regime, Ludmila Pavlichenko and Elena Lagadinova.
Red Valkyries is a limited attempt to counteract the recent narrative of liberal feminism and the #Me too movement and replace it with a revolutionary tradition espoused by “socialist women”, many of whom have been largely ignored or turned into harmless icons.
Ghodsee’s choice of Alexandra Kollontai is a logical and welcome one. If young women today looking to fight against capitalism wanted a role model, they should stop doing their TikTok dances and study the work and life of Kollantai.
Kollontai was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. She broke decisively with her aristocratic upbringing and dedicated her life to the revolution. Like many of her generation, she well conversed with the work of the great Marxist writers Karl Marx, Frederick Engles and August Bebel. Kollantai specialised in the study of women’s oppression.
She was one of only a handful of Bolsheviks that wrote extensively about sexual relationships. She opposed bourgeois feminism and understood that the emancipation of women was a class question and could only be carried out in partnership with the male working class, as this quote shows: “The feminists see men as the main enemy, for men have unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves, leaving women only chains and duties. For them, a victory is won when a prerogative previously enjoyed exclusively by the male sex is conceded to the ‘fair sex.’ Proletarian women have a different attitude. They do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades, who share with them the drudgery of the daily round and fight with them for a better future.”
Like all good revolutionaries, she lived by what she wrote. She formed a close political relationship with Vladimir Lenin, who appointed her social welfare minister in the new Bolshevik government. Kollantai and her staff made legal changes that put the rights of Russian women light years ahead of any western capitalist government.
Ghodsee correctly restores Nadezhda Krupskaya, who historians often portray as only Lenin’s companion, to her rightful place as a revolutionary. She not only supported Lenin but looked after the family household and, at the same time, played a crucial role in building the Bolshevik Party.
Like Kollantai, Krupskaya believed that the fate of the woman worker was closely tied to that of the male working class. Her pamphlet, The Woman Worker, states, “The woman worker is a member of the working class, and all her interests are closely tied to the interests of that class.”
She had a passion for education matched only by a few others. She advocated a child-centred pedagogy, saying, “The most important distinguishing feature of socialist schools should be the child’s fullest possible and most comprehensive development.”They must not suppress his individuality but only help develop it. Socialist schools are schools of freedom in which there is no room for regimentation, rote learning and cramming.”One can only hope that the attention paid to Krupskaya by Khodsee is the beginning of a revival in the interest of this important Bolshevik.
One striking aspect of this book is the failure to mention the second most important revolutionary in the Bolshevik Party that of, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky knew and worked with these three revolutionary women and held them in high esteem. Krupskaya was particularly fond of Trotsky even when it was very dangerous.
In a letter to Clara Zetkin, Zetkin relays what Krupskaya thought of Trotsky “She said to me recently that it is false what [Lev] Kamenev and [Gregory] Zinoviev assert, that Lenin had never trusted Trotsky. On the contrary, at the end of his days, Lenin was fond of Trotsky and held him in high regard. After his death, she wrote to Trotsky.”
Dear LEV DAVYDOVICH, I write to tell you that about a month before his death, as he was looking through your book, Vladimir Ilyich stopped at the place where you sum up Marx and Lenin and asked me to read it over again to him; he listened very attentively, and then looked it over again himself. And here is another thing I want to tell you. The attitude of Vladimir Ilyich toward you at the time when you came to us in London from Siberia had not changed until his death. I wish you, Lev Davydovich, strength and health, and I embrace you warmly.”
Leon Trotsky returned the compliment when he wrote a letter upon hearing about her death in 1939 “Nothing can be further from our mind than to blame Nadezhda Konstantinovna for not having been resolute enough to break openly with the bureaucracy. Political minds, far more independent than hers, vacillated, tried to play hide and seek with history – and perished. Krupskaya was, to the highest degree, endowed with a feeling of responsibility. Personally, she was courageous enough. What she lacked was mental courage. With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.”
Inessa Armand was an extraordinary woman, and few others matched her work rate. She carried out many translations for Lenin and was often sent by him to represent the Bolsheviks at numerous congresses.
In a short time, she became a leading Bolshevik. She was in Lenin’s sealed train when he returned during the height of the war to partake in the revolution. After the Revolution, Armand was elected to the Moscow Soviet (workers’ council) and was in the All Russian Central Executive Committee, the highest body in the new workers’ state. She taught in party schools and organised conferences for working women.
Despite working under the conditions of Covid 19, Ghodsee manages to carry out important research into the life of this important revolutionary. It would be important to know more about the 1918 national congress for working women held 1918. After which she wrote, “Until the old forms of family life, domestic life, education and child-rearing are abolished, it is impossible to obliterate exploitation and enslavement, it is impossible to create the new person, impossible to build socialism”.
Armand herself had led a complicated personal life with five children, the last by her young brother-in-law. Ghodsee correctly pays little attention to her alleged intimate relationship with Lenin. After her tragic death from cholera, Lenin and Krupskaya looked after her two young children.
As Vladimir Volkov writes “Women played an important role in this milieu. Such vivid and versatile figures as, Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand were best known, of course, but they were not exceptions. Behind these stood dozens and hundreds of other women who entered the history of the revolution and left their own indelible traces.If we remember the classic phrase of Charles Fourier that the degree of society’s progress may be measured by its attitude to women, then the Russian Revolution must be considered a great leap forward towards social liberation of that part of humanity that over the centuries was considered the most dependent and deprived.Informed by knowledge rather than outdated prejudices, free revolutionary attitudes towards the family were inseparable from the revolution’s political perspective. This morality had a real material existence and was expressed in personal relationships between the men and the women who made the revolution.
The three chapters about the three revolutionaries are well worth reading. The book has several major weaknesses: the most important being the lack of differentiation between the period of the Bolshevik revolution and the counter-revolutionary period dominated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. There is Nothing wrong with deeply appreciating the three leading Russian revolutionary women, but it is another thing lionising two women that largely supported the Stalinist regime. With this reservation, I recommend this book for a wide readership and hope it provokes further study into these important revolutionaries.
Kristen R. Ghodsee is a prolific and award-winning Russian and East European Studies professor and a Graduate Group in Anthropology member at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of eleven books, including Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Duke University Press, 2019) and Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (Bold Type Books, 2018 and 2020.
Do you want to quell a social revolution? The easiest recipe is to defuse its incendiary social content by simply publicizing it as a quest for the sensational and voyeuristic. Short of ideas? You already have a rich arsenal of Oriental imagery and tropes. Therefore, portray those asking for their rights as unworthy of such demands since they haven’t resolved the simplest of concerns; they are still mapping the geography of their second half, women. Diverting attention from demands for “bread, freedom, and social justice”, the initial call of the Egyptian Uprising 2011, often works by portraying these revolutions as sensationalist and spectacular demands for gender equality. Worse, the counterrevolutions’ best weapons narrate a story about how restrictive and addictive to restrict women’s freedom because, as unworthy people, Arabs asking for their rights cannot see beyond their women’s vaginas. Hence, they cannot be serious when asking for “bread, freedom and social justice”.
Kraidy is neither naïve nor wicked to synthesize the Arab uprisings as a quest for voyeurism. His premise, however, hinges on the idea that the social uprisings can be approximated as a creative insurgency that is infatuated with, even fixated on, the body. The body has been the most salient trope that marks the creative insurgency, otherwise known as the Arab Spring. To illustrate his point, Kraidy distinguishes between three varieties of artworks, each deploying the body to serve its message. First, there are those incendiary works such as Bouazizi’s suicidal self-inflammation, an act that had a domino effect as it deposed several dictators. Second, there are those sarcastic works with scornful references to dictators. Kraidy brings to evidence Omar Abulmaged’s April 2, 2014, court sentence in consequence of the latter calling his donkey Sisi and adorning its head with a military cap. The case underlines a situation stretching decades before wherein Egyptians used to deride President Hosni Mubarek as the laughing cow, imitating the famous French cheese commercial brand, La vache qui rit. The third trope combines the serious and the sarcastic through nude art and is spearheaded by the young blogger Alaa El-Mahdy in her 2011 A Rebel’s Diary.
It is not farfetched to conclude that the early two trope variations pave the way for the third, assumedly the most enigmatic and puzzling. Thus, The Naked Blogger of Cairo “explores the mixture of activism and artistry characteristic of revolutionary expression and tracks the social transformation of activism into Art and ensuring controversies.” (p. 5) Towards this end, Kraidy finds that creative insurgency cannot be restricted as an instantiation of one artistic expression or another. A fair analysis of that creative insurgency’s emergence must grapple with the one it finds confusing. Interestingly, El-Mahdy’s nude photo is compared with other creative expressions from the mother of all revolutions, the French one, zooming on Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le Peuple (1830).
With the human body as the governing principle for a creative insurgency, The Naked Blogger of Cairo lies in four sections with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction “In the Name of the People” highlights a problem: Why is the body so fundamental to the Arab uprisings? Furthermore, “How does the rise of digital culture complicate our understanding of the body in revolutionary times?” (p. 12) Standing in awe of the naked blogger, Kraidy develops: “by inviting both moral opprobrium and threats of physical oblivion, al-Mahdy’s digital nude selfie had immediate rhetorical and physical consequences.” (p. 18) Understandably, the sky is the limit for the readers’ expectations to find all those rhetorical and physical consequences.
Section One: “Burning Man” zooms into the visible and invisible dimensions of radical militancy, mostly in Tunisia, namely Bouazizi’s act of self-inflammation. Kraidy finds the act has been less directed toward the dictator’s stifling renditions of the country and more against his countrymen’s approach to that stifling as a fait accomplait. Section Two: “Laughing Cow” invests in the opposite direction of section one. The gradual mode of activism, namely the sarcastic laugher, and mostly in Egypt. Like radical militancy, sarcasm too hinges on the body politics, and Kraidy finds that armed with only sarcasm and laughter, ordinary Egyptians have defied megalomaniacs ever since pharaonic times.
Section Three: “Puppets and Masters” explains how the human body is often at ease with both moods of expression: the radical and the sarcastic. As a result, revolutionary or creative insurgency chooses to mix the extreme with the gradual, using examples from Tunisia, Egypt, global activism, and the French Revolution. Understandably, the chapter prepares readers to register the content of the following section. With Section Four: “Virgins and Vixens”, comes Kraidy’s opportune time to sell readers the presumed seriousness of bodily undressing. Through a rhetorical phraseology, the author succeeds in affecting an aura of seriousness by what political scientists qualify as the blind spot of the king’s two bodies. The blind spot—understood to be the king’s male organ since it is only this organ that puts him on the same bar with other humans—facilitates the acceptance, even the balancing, of naked activism with all political, aesthetic, and ethical militancy.
“Requiem for a Revolution” or the conclusion asks whether simply women’s bodies are engaged in men’s political tussles less to liberate women and more to galvanize the populace around what is ultimately men’s fixation on power. Women’s bodies become tools whereby women are ultimately emptied of subjectivity and the capacity for free thinking and decision-making.
In order to make space for the voyeuristic and the sensational, Kraidy has to beat about the bush and lecture readers about the uses and abuses of body politics so that his rendering of the Arab uprisings may sound plausible. To buy his idea is to embrace an insult and participate in the still unfolding counterrevolution. There is simply no way whereby one may even begin to compare the conscious and principled acts of either Bouazizi, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, or the Kurdish Women of Kobani fighting ISIS with the nude selfies of El-Mahdy and her several pretenders. Kraidy does not want to acknowledge that the counterrevolution aims to cast the class struggle as a gender, race, or faith struggle. The further to stay away from the class struggle, the safest the counterrevolution remains. To equate Bouazizi’s act with El-Mahdy’s is to participate in distortion as perpetuated by the false omnipresent and to ensure that the narrative of the revolutionaries of Tahrir and elsewhere will stay forever tarnished and uninviting.
Quite the contrary, the revolution precipitates a world order that does not call for spectacles and where bodies are loved, caressed, and cared for in dignity and mutual love. Only love is revolutionary and triumphant orders presiding over the false omnipresent always seek to divert attention from true and mutual love. What does El-Mahdy in her diary preach? In a nutshell, she communicates men-hating as if the world is short of hatred. Other than seeking to destroy the pillar of the nonetheless corrupt values of society, her method is hatred. Let us all recall how revolutionary couples married and committed to sacral (not sacred) vows and principled living in Tahrir. Their revolutionary friends congratulated them and savoured the delight of simply witnessing the promise of social love (not just harmony) and larger emancipations come true. Had Kraidy bothered to read El-Mahdy’s A Rebel’s Diary, he would find ages-old litanies and ill-articulated cliches regarding the alleged oppressive practices of the Orient.
Again, had Kraidy bothered, he would have found the right parallel to El-Mahdy’s selfie, Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), and certainly not La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830). It is not rocket science to note that with the latter, the bare-chested woman is a participant in the arduous struggle and an active one, for that matter, against forces of regression. Perhaps, she was among the group of women protestors whom Louis XVI famously ordered croissants au beurre when they were dying for lack of bread, showcasing the sovereign’s divorce from reality which ultimately sealed his fate for good. With Femmes d’Alger, one traces a process that eventually propagated into El-Mahdy’s selfie: the fetishizing principle, the need for a mysterious form of freedom, and freedom in Capital as slavery since both Algerian or Egyptian men do not know how to handle/to man their women. Hence, the reason why these women are slowly rotting in the harem. Only Capital—the logic in the selfie and the classical painting—is savvy and reliable when extracting value from these oriental women. What is most painful is the self-Orientalizing act that academics and serious academic publishing such as Harvard UP deem liberating and introduce it to the world as such.
But since the neoliberal order glamorizes El-Mahdy’s daring act, Kraidy could see no alternative but to give his final assault and insult “… most revolutionary martyrs-at-large were dead and clothed men, whereas the emergence of women as icons in the Arab uprisings tended to result from their disrobement.” (p. 13) How else to read this statement other than a reproduction of the patriarchal mindset that Tahrir revolutionaries brazenly fought against? Besides the insult, disrobement is glamorized because it is the only way to ensure the restructuring of capital forces and the valuation of surplus value. Every rebel-à-la-El-Mahdy labour is further devalued, literally prostituting workers, even those who never heard of El-Mahdy. How else to afford the imagined independence of one’s place except through increasingly lower wages?
The editors start with the premise that the social explosions, otherwise dubbed the Arab Spring, cannot be explained by postcolonial or nationalistic theories. The latter are anachronistic and unhelpful. The uprisings, they add, far supersede the capacity of a single idea or approach to account for the ideological, cultural, historical, or economic realities “that have unsettled the power structures of state formations and processes of subjectivation…” (p. 1). It is not difficult to note that the book’s core question veers into an identity quest imagined to require assimilation to European multiculturalism, or so the material advances of Europe are supposed to be premised. For purposes of lending that quest a heavy and serious endeavour, the book hinges its rationale on “…the deeper reality [that is supposed to have fueled the uprisings, precisely those] …collective modes of knowing, and of knowing collectively, beyond institutional politics, national and postcolonial histories, and the established discursive modes of expert sciences and intellectual discourses.” (p. 2) Hence, the preaching of transcultural is almost in tandem with the reigning neoliberal order, which seeks to simultaneously resolve two contradictions: the fall in the rate of profits and the squashing of the class struggle through banalising immigrants and immigration as a free and conscientious choice. With one contribution, Katie Logan, one cannot overlook in her reading of Etel Adnan’s 1993 novel, Paris, When It’s Naked, an infantile admiration of the European Union and an evocation of reproducing the ‘melting pot’ in the Arab World.
Western discourses of social mobilisations, the editors trust, cannot account for the recent changes taking place in the MENA region. Social movements such as the ones that spearheaded the studied uprisings are presumed to have become governed by new modes of social mobilisation, namely the internet. Hence, there is little, if at all, historical continuity between past and present struggles in the Arab World. The book lies in four parts, comprising twelve chapters: four in the first and third and two in the second and the fourth. They are contributions by scholars of social and human sciences.
The first part trusts that the Arab Spring marks the emergence of a multiplicity: ideological, cultural, religious, educational, class-based, and gender-based. It claims to find and marshal a methodology rooted in the dynamics of the Arab Spring. A methodology that breaks away with the old norms of study “…sublimation of the Other—and especially of the United States as pervasive—has built an idea of fragile Arab communities… [together with] the emergence of the digital citizen opens ways for conceiving oneself differently from decades–, if not centuries—old narratives.” (p. 23) Through shuttling back and forth from the mother countries to the hosting places, Diaspora communities are deemed to facilitate the perceived need for change. Thus, the transcultural reality fueled exasperation with the likes of Mubarek and Ghaddafi, and triggered a new mode of digital citizenship that undid censorship and broke rigid borders. Caroline Rooney, in her contribution, proposes that even old enmities (Jewish and Arab) are no longer operative, and the new generations are receptive to the undoing of political manoeuvrings and discourses.
Part II investigates a culture’s diversifying and assimilative practices that help to re-narrate identity after traumas. At stake in this is a rethinking of the idea of inclusiveness.” (p. 5) Negotiating a new, universal identity wherein Facebook plays a key role is what Ben Driss notices in the poetry of Sghair Ouled Ahmed (201). This poet used to write with a universal audience in mind for which he sought not only solidarity but the need to register a different hypothesis or vocabulary with which he, the poet, “…rectif[ies] the Western grammar of revolution.” (p. 84) In the name of reclaiming one’s history and saving it from the falsifications by victors, Jeanna Altomonte finds the Iraqi artist, Adel Abidin’s 2007 interactive installation, Abidin Travels: Welcome to Baghdad a recreation of Iraq and Baghdad’s millennial history in Western capitals. With its subversive character to neo-Oriental tropes pushed by heavy Western media, Adidin’s installation is supposed to “…promote social and political change in regions affected by war.” (p. 102). The logic of the essay goes assumes that the simple fact of living outside Iraq (in diaspora) facilitates new esteem for the Iraqi as a productive and respectable subject.
Part III highlights how migration enforces the sociopolitical collision around issues of cultural identity. As Melissa Finn and Bessma Momani argue, Settling in Canada surveys over 860 Canadian-Arab youth to explore the possibility of a transnational outlook on oneself and others through metissage. Differently put, in being a hybrid, that is, both Arab and Canadian, one leaves the parochial and ravishes inclusive, “…demarcating the inside and outside of cultural boundaries, and choosing positions on an issue-by-issue basis.” (p. 121)
Part IV stands apart from the other three sections in how it claims that “…identity is a false problematic.” (p. 7) and where the staging of the revolutionary/protest act in the artistic work cannot be taken for granted. The Houthi sarkha (scream) is found to be a self-contradiction in movement in the sense that it “serves the Houthi’s solidification of power but not without rendering the sarkha‘s context of the struggle against violations of Yemen’s sovereignty meaningless.” (p. 206) Embraced as an identity, the chapter finds that sarkha‘s capacity for galvanising the struggle for life in dignity is a false radicalism because it reduces complex history and culture into a follower of either the Sunni brand of Islam or Zaydi Shia. Hamid Dabashi’s essay on the art of protest carries out this section’s investigation of falsehood. He finds that radical art is precisely the one that cannot be recuperated and championed by museums and art galleries because that radical art lies at the interstitial and transitory, “specific to the moment of their staging” (p. 236). The ‘interstitial’ is his term for the truly subversive art as it haunts counterrevolutionary forces, the ones that have feasted on the Arab Spring’s propulsion for emancipation.
In asking what is about the self-immolation of a single man in Tunisia that sparkled the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, the first section finds that the answer lies with the emergent trans-cultural identities in the Arab World and beyond. What an elusive approximation to a point-black question! Instead of discussing the dictatorial orders as the latter unflinchingly pursued the extraction of surplus value/profit, thus stifling the possibility of mere survival, the contributions in the section project their own biases and jumpstart singing the song of capital, rendering the incendiary radicalism a quest for a transcultural identity and self-referentiality. The fluidity of movements is supposed to combat “the essentialism, ghettoisation and fundamentalism.” (p. 14) Any objective reader cannot miss the insult to the sacrifices of the activists who paraded the squares and streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It is fallacious to assume that technology (social media) galvanises the rebellious subject. Rather, the burdensome thresholds of exploitation and grab cancelled the possibility of decent living and triggered the way for a social explosion.
Overall, the transnational and transhistorical as championed in this book seek to dispose of the incendiary content of the uprisings surgically. In making the uprisings look like an orgy for metissage, historical and intergenerational continuity is the target since only the one who embraces their history can convincingly shout ‘no’ to the neoliberal order. One cannot possibly develop the same stance toward their two histories—even if awareness is possible, acting and standing for the two roots is impossible. Sometimes, if not often, the two roots are mutually exclusive. That explains why metissage, transhistorical, and transcultural are the darling ideologies of the current neoliberal and counterrevolutionary orders
Objectively considered, icons should not be celebrated as either revolutionary or counterrevolutionary. Still, Siobhán Shilton finds them problematic because—she thinks—they are reductive of how revolutions and resistances unfold in practice. Such is the premise of Shilton’s impressive volume on art in the context of the Arab uprising. This revolutionary movement started in Tunisia in December 2010 but swept to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen in the following months and years. Even when this movement, otherwise known as the Arab Spring, toppled long-reigning dictators, it has not so far led to a smooth transition or translation of the revolutionaries’ aspirations. Hence, the role of artists is traced in this book as they accommodate the social explosions and change.
Given the usual channels of sense-making, famous among which is iconography, “The significance of the uneven phenomenon which has often been named the ‘Arab Spring’ is still not fully understood.” (p. 1) because iconography often, if not always, falls into either black or white portrayals and binary stratifications. Art is, thus, supposed to encourage an informed and nuanced engagement with the events. And icons fall short of this prerequisite for all intents and purposes. In this volume, Shilton asks a pertinent set of questions: How “…photography, sculpture, graffiti, performance, video, and installation—forges a way between internal and external cliches? How does it invent new aesthetics? How do these works call for alternative critical approaches?” all for propagating an art that does not subscribe to propaganda. Irrespective of how we look at icons, they essentialize what is usually considered a fluid phenomenon, “…places these revolutions outside history and sets up Arabs as apolitical” (p. 2). hence, the call for an aesthetic form that exceeds the iconizing—Bouazizi’s iconography, a single act that unseats a dictator! Therefore, “My focus, by contrast, is on art that negotiates a way between a range of icons, including these revolutionary (or anti-revolutionary) bodies or objects; that is, art that reveals the unsaid, the unheard, or the unseen of ‘revolution’….” (p. 11) By exceeding icons, Shilton means those artistic works that target the senses instead of the merely visual. She seems to be sharing Slavoj Zizek’s concern about the post-euphoria phase or the next day of the revolution. That is why she addresses only those pieces whose preoccupation is the ” ‘reordering’ space, [as they] challenge sites of power through elements such as framing, camerawork, editing, and corporeal movement.” (21)
The work lies in four chapters, each extensively addressing one form. The first two zoom-on pieces are exhibited in museums and galleries. Galleries do not restrict the second two as they have been displayed to the wider public through social media. The first one addresses a technique founded by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) known as the “Infra-thin Critique”: Shilton brings Duchamp’s technique to enable art goers to distinguish and, at a second level, negotiate the relationship between the visible and invisible. The chapter elaborates on distinctions that resist essentialization by exploring Nicène Kossentini’s video, “Le Printemps arabe” (2011), and later versions of this work, among other works by other artists. Shilton zooms in on what she labels the ‘poetics of absence’ as instantiated through the layering of colours or sculptural ‘casts’ along with transparent materials. Other than encouraging a transnational outlook, Shilton finds that reworking modernist themes and techniques can be an opening for “…the transhistorical and multidirectional.” (p. 32)
In the second chapter, “Contingency and Resistance: Exceeding Icons through Matter and Motion Chance Aesthetics”, Shilton insists that contingency is anti-iconic par excellence, hence its value in resisting essentialization. Aïcha Filali’s sculpture pieces: Bourgeons en palabres (Buds in Discussion) and Bourgeons d’i (n)vers (Opposing Buds). Similar works by other Tunisian and Syrian artists are studied too. Decomposing portraits of deposed dictators (and other icons) such as Ben Ali’s are meant to communicate the limitations of power.
Chapter three follows on Contingent Encounters as the pieces considered encourage comparisons with revolutionary situations elsewhere. Shilton calls these situations: transnational practices of resisting through social media. Unlike how participatory art is classically viewed, Shilton insists on those pieces that reiterate artisans’ work (weavers) with an artist in a collective ensemble, such as Majd Abdel Hamid’s mural titled: Mohammed Bouazizi (2011). The second part addresses how spectators reorder space through the generation of alternative iconography. Mouna Jemal Siala and Wadi Mhiri’s Parti Facelook / Parti Facelike (2012-13).
To further challenge iconography, chapter four addresses the interface of bodies as they can be ambivalent and defy easy categorizations. The interface, in a nutshell, is based on a collage of various images or scripts, even icons, so that they start evoking alternative meanings and stories in contradistinctions with the ones specified by orthodox narratives of the uprisings as celebrated in media or by politicians. Among several examples, Shilton studies Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets and Bullets Revisited (2012) along with Majida Khattari’sLiberté, j’écrirai ton nom (Freedom, I Will Write Your Name) (2012). A dancing performance occurs in markets, transportation junctions, and the least expected spaces of downtown Tunis. Unused to confusing spectacles, crowds react differently to the phenomenon.
Espousing the ultra-conservative, if a not reactionary journalist, Rami G. Khouri, particularly when the latter claims that “There is no single, unifying theme to the Arab Uprising”, as a rationale for her approach to the book epiphenomenon (The Arab Uprisings), one wonders why Shilton trust certain renderings and choose to overlook diametrically-opposite others, hence, how the book does not answer the criteria for its selection of the impressive body of artistic works. Why not, for the sake of example, Mohamed Mounir’s song “Ezay” (2011) or “Ragg’een” by the group, Eskenderalla, knowing that, along with several works, they do not hinge their message on icons and do not cheaply excite listeners as they address the sense, perhaps more than the ones Shilton select. This leads us to observe that every work which pretends to connect with the Arab Uprisings, even when it dialectically opposes these uprisings’ destiny, is chosen and extensively commented on. Khattari’s allegedly ambivalent dance spectacles aim to distract and confuse, not to invite and discuss. Not for nothing, the dancing spectacle starts and closes in markets, with an eye on smoothing everyday shopping and transactions regardless of the crisis and distracting people from tracing the causes and drawing the essential consequences, which are how counterrevolution answers through hyperinflation.
Meanwhile, non-spectacular and truly subversive works are ephemerally mentioned and never studied. It is not until the end that Siobhan’s work is seen as a field of testing/experimentation of the infra-thin, chance aesthetics, participatory art, and corporeal images. The author is less interested in how the selected works communicate the revolution’s strongest or weakest and more engulfed in how the expressive techniques deployed in each artistic piece advance the infra-thin and other aesthetic formulations. And here lies the problem of projection, the presumption that theory exists in a realm separate from history’s real movement. Other than a depressive narcissism, readers cannot seize the benefit(s), if any, from seeing Marcel Duchamp, Michelangelo, or any other celebrity artist reproduced in the streets or the galleries of Tunis, Cairo, or Damascus.
The book is overly technical to the point that it is disorienting in its technicality. Does one wonder what is behind its penchant for reproducing the revolution at its weakest? That is producing those situations when disagreements between revolutionaries emerge. Has anyone told you that Gaddafi’s two-scores rule ended with a tsunami or that Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth mandate was reversed by his democratic inclination, not an incendiary revolution? The antinomy against icons and iconicity, which is how the book is premised, is motivated by a stigma against division and diversity. But division and diversity, even polarity of opinions, are the natural consequences of defunct regimes and decades-old orders. The real motive for dispositions against icons is how icons facilitate the historical transmission of past struggles and victories. Similarly, what if the divergent opinions stem from historical outlooks, that is, between those radical elements of society against those who are reformists and desire only applying some make-up for the unjust and enslaving order?
Art, in a nutshell, expresses the reversal of the reversal, the alienating world order that corrupts the senses and which needs to be ultimately abolished for the process of emancipation to set in. Shilton reclaims those works of art she thinks are more revolutionary than abolishing them, mostly to celebrate them and develop an identitarian affiliation with fetishistic outlooks that keep alienation in place. While the select works of art variably criticize the dictatorial powers, commodity fetishism remains intact because it is never questioned. Similarly, portraying the Arab Spring as a movement of a population stuck between modernity and tradition is a classical veering into the culturalist approaches, which are anti-historical and counterrevolutionary.
Overlooking the author’s disposition against icons even when knowing it is icons that galvanize action and sharpen intentions, the celebration of the transnational is the most bothersome. Transnational, as conceived under the current global order, not only does not but never propagate toward the universal. Transnational is a celebration of parochialism and enclosures—a process similar to international cocktails or Parisian banlieues that facilitates the circulation of goods and capital. Transnational is revolutionary only because it seeks the explosion/forced openings of national markets and cultures to give leverage for multinationals to exhort profit from previously protected markets. A true revolutionary work of art, however, targets the fetishization of interiorities through culturalist approaches. Culturalists target the few remaining defence mechanisms, opening the way for the vassalization by capital with the same vehemence culturalists fetishize icons under the pretext of exotism. Transhistorical outlooks are anti-historical. Being the privileged weapon in the arsenal of capital, a transhistorical subject is forced to scorn intergenerational history and its legacy of resistance so that capital forces flood the few remaining vestiges of defence.
Amy Zegart, in this study, proposes reshaping American intelligence institutions to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. America boasts of exactly eighteen agencies, but instead of aspiring awe or efficacy, the number should underline the limitations of the current structuring of intelligence bodies. Since each apparatus was added after a major failure, the lingering challenges remain unsurmountable, and the strategic advantage over adversaries is unmet. The challenge facing the intelligence community and America now lies less in half-hearted coordination work between diverse and specialised agencies and more in the fundamental contradiction between business and national interests. The two claims are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled. Unless some formula is found to harness business for the nation’s benefit, the intelligence agencies’ operations will stay largely dysfunctional and bypassed by tenacious adversaries.
With eighteen intelligence agencies and the result is America is underperforming. Zegart thinks this is a lingering and counterproductive Cold War mindset. In the age of open-source information, with the internet doubling its volume of knowledge every two years, secrecy, the cornerstone of all eighteen bodies, emerges as a certain way towards disaster. Teenagers using Google Earth and other freely available and inexpensive applications can now perform feats that used to consume considerable time and Personale. In this environment where anyone can spy, and everyone with a reasonable set of skills can access sensitive data, secrecy is a liability. And as such, the intelligence community needs to harness the courage to rethink its work.
To mount her revamp proposal, Zegart deploys ten chapters, introduction and conclusion included. She lays out the problem of her argument slowly in “Intelligence Challenges in the Digital Age: Cloaks, Daggers, and Tweets.” The first of these challenges is power. Being powerful translates not only invincibility but also vulnerability. The second is democratised data which the internet revolution has introduced. Satellite images from Google Earth are perfect. Anyone with a computer and connection can monitor what Iran, North Korea, or any other government does not share. No state monopoly over access to sensitive information is possible. This leads us to the third challenge, which is secrecy. In the past, maintaining secrecy gave an advantage in intelligence collection tasks. Now, secrecy is almost detrimental because no government can entirely protect its power grids, financial records, or start-up inventions—all of which can be accessed online—by disengaging or “standing apart from” (p. 8) the world. Hence, why private actors such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, among others, should be involved in securing America as most cutting-edge technologies can be used and often are used as weapons against American interests. Similarly, this is why secrecy in the old sense translates to disadvantages that severely hurt U.S. interests. A lot of catching up is facing the U.S. intelligence community concerning secrecy.
Chapter two: “The Education Crisis: How Fictional Spies are Shaping Public Opinion and Intelligence Policy.” Here, Zegart addresses the inhibitive impact of Hollywood in the sense that spy entertainment (she calls it: ‘spytainment’) provides a completely distorted image of intelligence work. Equally damaging, spytainment clouds public perceptions of the real challenges facing America. Fiction maintains the myth that America is invulnerable le whereas, in reality, America is vulnerable. Besides, Hollywood fuels conspiracy theories such as President Trump’s conviction of Deep State rhetoric and plotting against his policies. With conspiracy roaming wide, congressmen and judges tend to believe spytainment flat plotlines, featuring “heroes, escapism and the triumph of good over evil” (p. 26) more than intelligence reports they have access to. Clouded in secrecy, the culture of the supremacy of the intelligence agencies set in motion through fantasised decades of intelligence success during the Cold War does not help break the ingrained myths.
To get a consistent picture of U.S. intelligence, Chapter three, “American Intelligence History at a Glance: From Fake Batteries to Armed Drones.” In providing a snapshot of the development of intelligence institutions since Geroge Washington, Zegart aims to remind policymakers and the general public alike that America is vulnerable. In its brief intelligence history, America could not bridge over halted development, organisational fragmentation, and democratic tension. During peace times, before World War II, America had the habit of dismantling its spy bodies. Whatever experience gets accumulated, it is soon lost to the wind. Besides and a latecomer in the spy industry, America should not be engrossed with its Cold War success, particularly when compared with countries such as China, a millennial history of warfare and intelligence. The rules of the games are quickly changing, and America—Zegart never tires of reminding—should not sleep on past feats. Again, Zegart hammers how technological advances are more disorienting than conducive to any strategic advantage. In her opinion, intelligence agencies should resist the temptation to violate their mission as information-gathering bodies, giving decision-makers an informational gift.
Chapter four: “Intelligence Basics: Knowns and Unknowns” Here, Zegart dispels myths from reality and underlines how intelligence operates in practice. The three core missions: the analytic, the human, and the operational, interact to make any intelligence agency what it is now. The analysis is geared toward giving policymakers an “advantage over adversaries.” (p. 79) For successful executions of analytic missions, one has to be aware of the fine distinction between knowns and unknowns. Intelligence now, we find, is not necessarily the amassing of secrets, and as such, it cannot be confused with policymaking. The mission’s human side sheds light on various motivations and traits, animating the analyst, the officer, and the informant. We read too about how intelligence officers balance their jobs with their private lives. There is a section on how officers grapple with moral dilemmas. In carrying out their mission, intelligence agencies handle interrogations of detainees. Still, evidence often amounts to no more than a good bet since cases where conclusive evidence can be reached is rare. Zegart finds that the golden rule with intelligence professionals is ways of “…challenging their prevailing hypotheses.” (p. 103)
Chapter five: “Why Analysis is so Hard: The Seven Deadly Biases”, is key to the book’s overall thesis. Given the abundance of open-source data, the chapter seeks to answer why analysis has become excessively hard. Other than outside compromises, Zegart outlines the sinister role of seven deadly biases. Even when an institution is sure it has neutralised internal endemics such as “bureaucratic turf protection, agency cultures, career incentives, ingrained habits, and a desire for autonomy” (p. 114), not a simple task. However, it can move on to work on the seven biases. These last range from confirmation bias, optimism bias, availability bias, fundamental attribution error, mirror imaging, framing biases, and groupthink, to the secret for super forecasting (p. 136). The key strategy to outsmart these biases lies in encouraging dissent, finding a team of experts that reviews an intelligence case and makes the opposite argument on the devil’s behalf. She similarly notes that advances in artificial intelligence can help overcome human limitations.
Chapter six: “Counter-intelligence: To Catch a Spy”, grapples with traitors’ motivations and how intelligence officers recruit informants in the digital age. We read that “China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran are among the most aggressive foreign intelligence services seeking to steal American secrets. Of them, China stands apart as the most serious counter-intelligence threat. American military experts have said that there isn’t a single major Chinese weapons system that isn’t based on stolen U.S. technology.” (pp.146-7) The chapter elaborates on early tell-tale signs for suspecting, investigating, and uncovering sell-outs (or molls in intelligence jargon) without compromising trust among intelligence community members. Three counter-intelligence challenges are: trusting too much, paranoia: or trusting too little, and technology that made it possible to recruit assets from afar. Technology makes it equally likely to incur considerable damage if a trusted insider breaches their trust oath. For example, we read how the damage done by turncoats such as Snowden has been irreparable.
Chapter seven: “Covert Action: A Hard Business of Agonising Choices”, studies those undercover operations that aim to serve a certain line of policy but which can either be claimed or officially disowned depending on interest, not on success or failure. The operation that killed Bin Laden counts as one, but so is the CIA’s funnelling of money to help Italy’s Christian Democratic Party to win parliamentary elections back in 1947. (p. 174) Since only the president can authorise covert actions, the chapter weighs those uneasy choices presidents take or circumvent to serve a policy. When all policy lines have been tried and extinguished, covert actions serve as the last resort. How drone technology and the war on terror have been operating forces policymakers to face how the blurring of intelligence and military mandates is counterproductive.
Chapter eight: “Congressional Oversight: Eyes on Spies”, recounts that as lawmakers, congressmen are not trained or sufficiently motivated to do the oversight work stipulated by the constitution. Zegart summarises three challenges facing congressional intelligence committees in three words: information, incentives, and institutions (p. 198). Given the inhibitive influence of spytainment and the poor payoff from carrying out proper oversight on intelligence agencies, Zegart observes an information and motivational lag beneath successive congressional committees charged with cross-checking intelligence agencies. Besides, she highlights a structural and deeper problem of these committees’ culture that does not encourage rigorous second opinions about the work of intelligence agencies. The compounding effect from the three challenges explains the scandals, such as the presumed weapons of mass destruction owned by Iraq. In short, one comes face to face with how policy becomes outpaced by technology.
Chapter nine: “Intelligence Isn’t Just for Governments Anymore: Nuclear Sleuthing in a Google Earth World”, further advances the cause of renovating U.S. intelligence. Underneath the chapter lies, a call for humility as “estimating nuclear threats is hard. Assessing the intelligence track record is, too.” (p. 230) A new phenomenon, democratising intelligence, breaches governments’ monopoly over sensitive information. Low-cost satellites with competitive image capacity than military satellites are routinely put in orbit. Machine learning and computer modelling enhance surface-to-air missile launching site identification for anyone with an internet connection and the patience for tracking terrestrial alterations. Hobbyists using only Google Earth images can chase Iran or North Korea’s uranium-enrichment facilities and the activities taking place therein. Once the intelligence ecosystem is widely open to non-governmental actors, intelligence policy has to accommodate the informal branch lest the latter adds salt to injury by encroaching unforeseen and further damage beyond malign actors in the pay of foreign intelligence agencies.
Chapter ten: “Decoding Cyber Threats” here, the argument runs that cyber-threats have opened the door for a new generation of warfare rooted in deception, sabotage, and misinformation. Hacking and deepfake can sow the seeds of social discord and upheaval. The examples with which Zegart illustrates her point are telling. Shadowy Kremlin-backed organisations armed with automated Facebook accounts or bots sow discord in American cities. The intelligence community registers the 2016 presidential elections as a cyber Pearl Harbor. We read too that “China is believed to have stolen trillions of dollars of intellectual property, including terabytes of data and schematics for the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighter jet programs.” (pp. 261-2) Without the cooperation of the private sector with state agencies, such complex intelligence challenges triggered by the digital age cannot be met, and the cost will be American democracy and liberalism. This explains Zegart’s initial call to rethink the structuring of intelligence agencies along lines that do not abandon Cold War methods but without overlooking the need to engage with open-source data and other unorthodox initiatives.
The book draws on thirty years of research experience, advising the U.S. government, and hundreds of interviews with current and former intelligence people. As a career academic, Zegart comes as an outsider, but that counts to her advantage since probably only an outsider can reflect on that, which makes the institution’s chances of facing the new threats pretty grim.
Contrary to Hollywood’s overblown portrayals of American invincibility, the records of American intelligence agencies, though professional and functional, are far from adequate to meet cyber threats and other challenges put by the digital age. What Zegart has in mind is the recent failure as America’s spy network has been blown, hence, how the call for renovation and accommodation to the new-brave world reality is nothing short of a call for revolution. In outlining, “Today’s technological demands, though, are even greater because there are more breakthrough technologies. They’re spreading faster and further. They’re inherently hard to understand. They’re driven by commercial companies seeking global markets, not governments seeking national security.” (p. 222), we realise that Zegart has touched on the core of the problem. America is experiencing a self-contradiction in movement: the forces of nationalism against globalism. The American establishment can no longer postpone the question: are they for American capitalism or capitalism without qualifiers?
All else, such as debates over the competency of congressional oversight, cyber threats, and breaches of secrecy, are secondary and disappear once the earlier question is resolved. Addressing the efficiency of democratic measures in the form of congressional oversight to prevent personal or institutional abuses become a liability, a crippling structure. Because authoritarian regimes are free from similar democratic stipulations in their accountability system, they have an advantage over America.
Indeed, it is not the lack of patriotism and sense of national service among those heading tech companies (p. 276) that drives the present fixation on U.S. intelligence. Predisposed to markets, tech companies’ allegiance resonates with clients, not citizens. To account for this contradiction, Zegart improvises an implicit willingness to sacrifice democracy that “[o]versight has rarely worked well because the sources of dysfunction run deep—in information, incentive, and institution.” (p. 224) Other than being a discreet call for jingoism, the problem with the book is that it sees intelligence agencies and the state that these agencies presumably protect as independent totalities. The successes of World War II and the Cold War were dictated by economic miracles as U.S. companies, not the U.S. government, beat up all competitors (foes and allies alike) combined. These companies’ hunt for profit now presupposes any allegiance to the state as a mechanism that leads to asphyxiation. Between asphyxiation and global growth, tech companies have chosen the latter. Given this context, the state with its eighteen intelligence bodies can do very little except postpone, not reverse, the collapse of the Westphalian state order. Instead of addressing the major transformation ahead, Zegart contemplates how companies should be loyal.