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Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of…

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Review: Marxism and the French Left – by Tony Judt

This is an in depth study of socialism in France. The book is broken up into a series of long chapters, each covering a critical period of the political left in France. The emergence of working class political culture in the nineteenth century is explored and we see the development of trade unionism and the creation of socialist parties. The development of the social party, the SFIO is looked at in detail, prior to its rise to power under Blum. We then see the decline in the power of the socialists as they concede proletariat votes to the PCF, communists. The chapter on the French communists looks at the theorists who were so successful at internationalising the ideas and images of French Marxism. Sartre among the most famous, also there is a detailed study of Althusser, who unlike many of the French Marxist writers – was also an actual member of the PCF. The tailing off off Communist popularity as it clung hopelessly to the vestiges of Stalinism, leads to the book’s final chapter, where the rise of the socialists yet again, culminates in the ascendancy of Mitterand at the 1981 French general elections where the socialists swept surprisingly into power. this victory is compared with the Revolution of 1791 and the Paris Commune of 1871 in terms of its relevance to leftist politics in France. I found this book to be very detailed and some chapters were a bit tricky in terms of ideas and specialist vocabulary – but the book, read for a History of French Labour course at Cardiff University – has certainly enlightened me on certain aspects of French working class politics and I feel that the knowledge imparted has been vital.

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Review: Marxism and the French Left – by Tony Judt

marxism and the french left

This is an in depth study of socialism in France. The book is broken up into a series of long chapters, each covering a critical period of the political left in France. The emergence of working class political culture in the nineteenth century is explored and we see the development of trade unionism and the creation of socialist parties. The development of the social party, the SFIO is looked at in detail, prior to its rise to power under Blum. We then see the decline in the power of the socialists as they concede proletariat votes to the PCF, communists. The chapter on the French communists looks at the theorists who were so successful at internationalising the ideas and images of French Marxism. Sartre among the most famous, also there is a detailed study of Althusser, who unlike many of the French Marxist writers – was also an actual member of the PCF. The tailing off off Communist popularity as it clung hopelessly to the vestiges of Stalinism, leads to the book’s final chapter, where the rise of the socialists yet again, culminates in the ascendancy of Mitterand at the 1981 French general elections where the socialists swept surprisingly into power. this victory is compared with the Revolution of 1791 and the Paris Commune of 1871 in terms of its relevance to leftist politics in France. I found this book to be very detailed and some chapters were a bit tricky in terms of ideas and specialist vocabulary – but the book, read for a History of French Labour course at Cardiff University – has certainly enlightened me on certain aspects of French working class politics and I feel that the knowledge imparted has been vital.

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Account For The Nationalist Victory In The Spanish Civil War

franco

The Spanish Civil War lasted for three years from 1936 to 1939 and was ultimately won by the Nationalists. This victory was far from certain at various points of the conflict and this essay shall explore the many factors that actually contributed to the ultimate outcome and that which paved the way for almost 4 decades of the authoritarian Franco régime in Spain. The single most important factor, in my opinion, which led to the Nationalist victory in the Civil War, was the international support that was offered to Franco’s troops. The Republican side became an international pariah, with only Russia substantially offering support, yet on the Nationalist side a coalition of Axis dictators paved the way for Franco with both Hitler and Mussolini readily providing matériel. ‘International participation and the ideological zeal which surrounded both sides conferred upon the war the character of a crusade.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:94) Indeed, the whole military uprising, in the first place, couldn’t have succeeded without the Germans successfully transporting Franco’s Army of Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar. ‘Reinforcements were needed urgently on the mainland and, since the rising in the fleet had failed, aeroplanes were essential to carry the Army of Africa to Spain.’ (Beevor 2006:71) They were stranded and the whole pronuncamiento might have failed completely had Hitler’s Luftwaffe never intervened. Franco’s army provided the most crucial backbone for the Nationalist army. ‘In any case, the decisive factor in the power stakes was Franco’s control of the 47,000 well-armed and well-trained men of the Moroccan Army. The battle-hardened colonial army, consisting of the professionals of the Spanish Foreign Legion and Arab mercenaries of the Regulares Indígenas (native regulars), was to be the cornerstone of Nationalist success. (Preston 1996:83) The Arab mercenaries went on to strike terror into all they came across, in particular the civilian populations who they brutalised. Indeed the use of terror was about three times more prevalent in the Nationalist Zone. Despite the presence of the backbone of the Catholic Church in Nationalist Spain, discipline was strict. This was a military area and reprisals for the enemy were widespread and brutal. ‘Although figures are very unreliable and open to controversy about 55 000 Rightists were murdered, mostly in the first months of war, for over 200 000 leftists.’ (Romero Salvadó 1999:113) The theatre of Spain was a testing ground for new military tactics and equipment. We saw firsts…

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Review: Voices from S-21 – Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison – by David Chandler

voices from s21

Tuol Sleng or S-21 was the secret prison of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Comrade Duch and his workers put to death in S-21 over 14000 enemies of the State. These enemies of the party centre were treated like they were subhuman and animals and eventually all prisoners were ‘smashed to bits’ or annihilated. Like the horrors of the Nazi death camps, the Stalinist Soviet Purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot spared no sympathy for those that stood in his way. Once transferred to S-21, a prisoner could expect to have to fully denounce any fellow conspirators and confess totally to either real crimes or most often perceived imaginary ones. The use of torture was inevitable and screams from the prisoners kept neighbours in Phnom Penh up all night. Documentation for S-21 was immense and workers had to detail every confession and their actions to appease the Party Centre bosses and give the detainment and ultimate executions a quasi-legal framework. The author does a very thorough study of that evidence that is recovered and has interviewed the few survivors that escaped after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Chandler attempts to explain the inhumanity. His obvious sympathy for the victims extends into attempts to understand the mindset of the guards. The psychological insights are profound and this most disturbing case study serves as a warning to our race over any future mistakes that can be made when places like S-21 spring up and crimes against humanity are perpetuated. This dark tale of horror is a compelling read and I have given it a five star rating.

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Review: Winter Is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped – by Garry Kasparov

winter is coming

Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, is clearly an intelligent man. Having retired from the game he has entered the world of politics and is a key human rights activist. The book explores his frustrations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It is a study of Putin and the way in which he has eroded the democratic institutions bought about by Perestroika and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. Kasparov tried to align a coalition of democratic oppositionists within Russia yet the force of the state and its poor human rights record left Kasparov no alternative but to fight as an exile from New York City. It is clear from the book that his chess success has made him different to the average Russian. His priveleged life as a global Soviet citizen has perhaps led him further to embrace Yeltsin’s opening up of Russia. I think he hearkens for a Western style democracy within Russia but perhaps Russia itself is not suited to such political freedoms and requires a degree of autocracy for it to effectively function on the international stage. Although I can identify many of the problems posed by Putin, I feel that he has successfully restored a great deal of lost power to Russia and will perhaps be remembered in posterity as a key figure in Russian history. Although he may be a dictator, he is no Stalin and his absolute rule has still brought about many benefits to the Russian State. Can the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine be equated to Hitler’s pre WW2 actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland? Kasparov sets out a case of why the appeasing Western democratic leaders have failed the Russian people in standing up to Putin and he spells out the dangers of the régime, crying out for help. I enjoyed the tactical surprises and clear prose of hearing one of the world’s great mind’s thinking process at work as I traversed the book although I feel that perhaps it is a little unfair on its target and fails to recognise some of the intricacies of superpower politics. It will be interesting to see where Kasparov takes his future life as indeed will it be interesting to see where exactly Putin steers Russia.

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