This text is thought-provoking and infuriating in equal measure. Written by an eminent scientist, it raises as many questions as it answers. The problem is perhaps the scope of the book. Without footnotes, it covers a huge amount of ground, interspersing science with political argument.
The work takes an alarmist view of climate change, departing from the scientific consensus, and attacking much of the green movement. Sensibly, it raises awkward questions about population growth and mass consumption. Less certainly, it endorses nuclear power and attacks renewable energy. Confusingly, it brings various religious ideas into the discussion.
The reader is left alarmed and uncertain by the end of the book. The text is well-written, but there is something unpersuasive about it. Perhaps it is because the perspective taken is an Anglocentric one- too much of the global problem is analysed from Devon, and there is an excessive reliance on anecdotes. Acknowledging the limits to growth seems more prudent than accepting the prescriptions of this odd and perplexing volume.
This collection of short stories is thought-provoking and beautiful in equal measure. Even in translation, the bulk of the prose reads really well. Each tale has something special about it, and there is a surprising variety in the subject matter. The book is a pleasant reminder of the sublime talents of the author of ‘The Plague’ and ‘The Outsider’- true literary classics.
For me, the most effective story is ‘The Silent Men’ as this atmospheric piece of writing chimes with our austere times. It describes the sullen mood of workers who had failed to assert themselves through strike action. Unflinchingly, it focuses on disappointed lives.
However, there is a poetry about the story which gives hope to the reader. It apparently maintains that people had chances and consolations and options even when they were defeated. Some of the choices might have passed by, but viewing things through cold eyes allowed for life to be examined. And that examination could be highly rewarding in non-financial terms.
The thesis of this text is that the UK Labour Party has always been imperialist. Moreover, it argues that it has always represented a coalition of the middle class and the more affluent section of the working class. Furthermore, it castigates as opportunists those on the left who have ultimately seen it as the lesser of two evils.
Empirically, this polemic is impressive. It highlights numerous instances of the Labour Party failing to live up to minimal ethical standards. It shows ample evidence of unpleasant attitudes within the wider British labour movement. In addition, it demonstrates how British capitalism has benefited from the exploitation and oppression of ordinary people around the globe.
However, theoretically the book raises many questions. It does not quote from a wide range of sources in ideological terms. It leans heavily on Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and the way war divided the working class. It does not pay sufficient attention to the evolution of the rest of the British party system. Nor does it highlight how centre-left parties in other countries have stumbled in ways similar to the Labour Party. These problems could have been resolved in part by the greater use of state theory, by a rigorous examination of the functions of the capitalist state. The Labour Party may have become a shabby compromise, but without it things might well have been even worse for workers. The disastrous foreign policy of Tony Blair cannot be allowed to discredit every positive thing which the party and the unions have achieved.
This short history book is a defence of history and a criticism of those who try to distort it for reasons of their own. The positions taken are liberal and progressive. Specific attacks are made on an assortment of nationalists, conservatives and Marxists. However, while many of these assaults were persuasive, the text raised some awkward questions about itself.
While nobody would defend the intentional ideological pollution of history, can anybody tell a narrative which is free from ideology? Is it possible to be neutral or objective about a partly known past? The critical reading of sources may reveal biases, but how can our own biases be transcended?
The central problem is that the work of a professional historian can be as flawed as the speech of a politician in terms of its selectivity and its distortions. Being composed inside an academic environment will not necessarily make a text free from the influence of the powerful. Nor does opposition to the powerful guarantee impartiality. Studying the past is only likely to be useful if a range of positions are taken seriously. Admitting the limitations of knowledge is a productive beginning as MacMillan suggested, but her scepticism could be met by the scepticism of others who might want to know more about her own beliefs.
Jacques Rancière wrote an irate denunciation of the work of his erstwhile mentor Louis Althusser in the aftermath of the political earthquakes of Paris and Prague. Althusser had pursued a subtle course, remaining within the French Communist Party but managing to produce autonomous theory simultaneously. His legacy in relation to the theory of Ideological State Apparatuses is a thought-provoking one which repays reading today.
For Rancière, Althusserianism was a flawed compromise. He alleged that it was not revolutionary when it mattered. It was theory without practice: it was politics without philosophy. For the leftist militant, “cut off from revolutionary practice, there is no revolutionary theory that is not transformed into its opposite.”
Perhaps Rancière was simply too close to his subject in time and space to develop a balanced perspective. It may well be that there is an element of ‘rate my professor’ about the text. Nonetheless, the attempted demolition of structuralist Marxism makes for better reading than much postmodernist verbiage, for example. There are sharp points of conflict, and words are used as weapons. In these times, the relevance of this work cannot be disputed.