Very Short Reviews

Review: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton

beckert-empire-of-cotton

One Thing after Another finds the ten-sentence limit for Very Short Reviews too constricting and has surrendered to the lures of a much longer format. Today’s review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is our first of what promises to be reviews of normal (or abnormal) length.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is about the “rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton” (xi). Beckert is particularly interested in this story because no other industry erected such a large, ubiquitous “global production complex.” By tracing the fortunes of this large and ever-changing empire, Beckert claims that he has provided a useful—perhaps even the best—example of “capitalism in action” (xv). Along the way, Beckert emphasizes several themes: states were absolutely integral to creating the empire of cotton; this empire relied on large doses of armed force and other illiberal types of coercion; cotton was global like no other product (which explains why a study of the empire must look not just at Manchester or Britain, but at the entire world); and production of the fiber constantly adapted to changing circumstances by engaging in revolutionary transformations.

Before the empire of cotton was created, cotton was largely consumed where it was produced—in a band that encircled the globe between 32 to 35 degrees south latitude and 37 degrees north. This band included Central America, West Africa, the Nile River valley, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. That Europe would come to dominate the production, financing, and processing of cotton when it was incapable of growing the plant is one of the central marvels of Beckert’s story.

This story proceeds by stages. In the late-medieval period, Europeans (particularly in northern Italy—and then later in Germany) began buying cotton from Mediterranean sources such as Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. But European textiles were not particularly competitive on the world market (such as it was) because the quality of there products was inferior to what was woven in India. What eventually made Europe a player in the market for cotton was its success in forging a “complex commercial web” that linked India, West Africa, North America, and Europe. As Beckert puts it, “the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers” (36). Europeans (primarily the British at this point) inserted themselves into existing networks and created ever more extensive ones through the use of force. Although the state would come to play a major role in the empire of cotton, at this point, most of the force involved in this process was in private hands—“heavily armed privateering capitalists” as Beckert describes them. The exercise of coercion became the first step in the creation of “war capitalism” (Beckert’s term). Becket never really defines what “war capitalism” was so much as he describes what it did, supported, or allowed: “imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states” (38).

As time went on, the British increasingly aimed at creating an overseas market for their own textiles—instead of merely peddling superior Indian products. The main problem for Britain, however, was that wages were much higher there than in India; for that reason, British textiles could not compete on the basis of price. This problem inspired a concerted effort to increase the productivity of British labor. The answer consisted of making advances in spinning and weaving technology—which we associate with the Industrial Revolution. It also required the mass mobilization of labor in the metropole—usually drawn from vulnerable groups like children and women. War capitalism, Beckert argues, created propitious circumstances for the industrialization of Europe by providing access to markets, technology, labor, and raw materials. It also created a great deal of capital and fostered the development of various financial instruments. These important changes allowed the British to sell their goods in overseas markets. None of these achievements would have been possible without the activities of a strong, interventionist state. The state, according to Beckert, “was capable of forging and protecting global markets, policing its borders, regulating industry, creating and then enforcing private property rights in land, enforcing contracts over large geographical distances, forging fiscal tools to tax populations, and building a social, economic, and legal environment that made the mobilization of labor through wage payments possible” (76). This array of capacities was associated with “industrial capitalism” which was initially fostered and sustained by war capitalism.

A major way in which war capitalism assisted industrial capitalism was in securing huge territories and enormous pools of labor to supply the raw materials necessary to keep up with Britain’s enhanced industrial productivity. Beckert views the emergence of the American South as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of late war capitalism. In this part of the world, the empire of cotton did not have to compromise with existing socio-economic relations as it did in, say, India. Instead, indigenous inhabitants were removed wholesale, and a completely new labor regime (slavery), ideally suited to the cultivation of cotton, was implemented. It is no coincidence, as Beckert points out, that Baring Brothers & Co., which later became the most important British merchant bank involved in the cotton business, underwrote the Louisiana Purchase which allowed the United States take hold of an enormous territory on which cotton could be grown.

Although industrial capitalism required war capitalism to get started, Beckert points out that significant tensions persisted between the two. While war capitalism was particularly useful in securing the means for growing enormous volumes of cotton, it was totally ill-suited for the processing of the fiber or the manufacturing of textiles. Frictions between war and industrial capitalism were not impossible to reconcile so long as, say, war capitalism remained something that took place overseas (or “outside” as Beckert puts it) while industrial capitalism was something that happened at home (“inside”). However, in the United States, the two systems existed side by side, their interests were incompatible, and the American Civil War occurred as a result.

The Civil War was a major turning point in the history of the empire of cotton, and perhaps the greatest crisis it ever surmounted. Southern planters, who were the last politically powerful group of cotton growers in the world, were utterly destroyed as a force. The war capitalism with which they were intimately associated also came to an end. Most important of all, the war and the Federal blockade completely disrupted the flow of cotton to Europe. Manufacturers now had a huge incentive to reduce their dependence on American cotton and diversify their sources of the fiber—especially as it became clear to them that even the American South could not meet the enormous future demand for cheap, raw cotton. Looking to alternate sources also meant recasting the socio-economic relations of various regions and changing the way that cotton was produced, financed, and transported. The empire of cotton was compelled to penetrate the interiors of India, Egypt, Brazil, Africa, Central Asia, and American South. The empire built railroads to facilitate the transportation of cotton from remote parts of the world. It also took over the financing of cotton production, shouldering aside local traditional lenders. It employed scientific agricultural reform to enhance productivity. And it imposed new labor arrangements, mainly sharecropping, that eventually led to wage labor. In parts of India, for example, the countryside was deindustrialized as weavers were reduced to peasant status. Moreover, these peasants were no longer the traditional subsistence farmers who grew cotton on the side; they now exclusively produced cotton for the market. This kind of monoculture led to food insecurity and eventually periodic famines. The intensification of imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century (what most textbooks refer to as “New Imperialism”) only provided the empire of cotton with additional political tools to pursue the same ends.

Since then, the locus of textile production has changed: the manufacturing of cotton textiles has moved to the “global South.” Beckert focuses on two major reasons for this change. First, as the global South adopted increasingly advanced manufacturing techniques, its low wages allowed it to produce textiles at much lower prices than the First World. Second, with the advent of decolonization, the global South obtained states that acted according to their perceived national interests and implemented policies (often statist) that sought to protect domestic production. States and manufacturers in these regions, however, do not dominate the contemporary empire of cotton. Instead, according to Beckert, immense corporations are in charge. They no longer have to integrate new regions of the world into the market economy; that work has already been completed by various states. They no longer depend on any particular state; they “can easily shift all forms of production around the globe” (438). They no longer focus on “raw cotton, yarn, and cloth;” their interest is in the “apparel business” (437). From Beckert’s perspective, then, “the empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet” (440).

This reviewer cannot vouch for the economic history that lies at the heart of this work (because he is not an economic historian), but Empire of Cotton is a fascinating, thought-provoking, pioneering book that required great powers of synthesis to produce. Beckert’s decision to conduct a truly global history of cotton is justified by the results. Beckert does a wonderful job of showing the complex web of business links that stretched from Liverpool and Manchester all the way to, say, Bombay and Berar during the heyday of this empire. As the author details the doings of various figures who served this empire, the reader invariably feels as if he has removed the housing from a great machine and obtained a rare opportunity to see all the cogs, levers, and flywheels working in perfect order. Beckert’s model has great explanatory force, and as he describes it, each step taken by the empire of cotton seemed to lead ineluctably to the next.

At times, though, the activities of this empire sometimes seem too inevitable. Beckert’s depiction of the machine is a bit too elegant, smooth, and unproblematic. In his telling, the empire of cotton becomes an irresistible, revolutionary capitalist force that relentlessly adapted to changing circumstances while conforming to unimpeachable economic logic. Although Beckert describes the activities of numerous individuals caught up in this empire, they merely serve it; there is very little room for human agency here either. In other words, everything seems overdetermined. Conflict and ambivalence within the heart of this empire are simply ignored. For example, the abolitionist movement in Britain, which strenuously opposed slavery, receives no mention at all (Beckert merely states that “Britain in 1834 outlawed slavery within its empire”) (122). At the same time, certain facts are shoe-horned to fit Beckert’s interpretation. Beckert argues, for instance, that Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 allowed “many textile entrepreneurs to move into the House of Commons, where they strenuously lobbied for the (global) interests of their industry, from the Corn Laws to British colonial expansion” (77). Most British historians would argue that such a statement paints with an extremely broad (and somewhat inaccurate) brush (i.e. “many” entrepreneurs did not enter the Commons until much later, their efforts did not precipitate repeal of the Corn Laws, and many were ambivalent about colonial expansion).

These problems are probably a function of studying an enormous topic whose every single detail is somewhat beyond the powers of a single historian to master. Yet they are also partly due to the nature of economic history which does not always perceive problems in the round. As we have seen, Beckert depicts the American Civil War as a clash between elements of war capitalism and industrial capitalism—an old-fashioned interpretation that smells a bit like Charles and Mary Beard. It might seem unfair to criticize an economic history for being, well, an economic history. But if Beckert had matched the global scope of his study with a wide-ranging approach that incorporated more subfields of history (for sure, a herculean task), he would have avoided some of the mistakes and blind spots that crop up in his work.

At the same time, for all the details concerning the growing, financing, transportation, processing, and selling of cotton, Beckert is somewhat less precise when it comes to defining his most important terms. He never explains, for example, what the phrase “empire of cotton” actually means. While the reader obtains a fairly good idea of what Beckert signifies, a more explicit description would provide a better analytical tool. The problem here has to do with the use of the word “empire” which is not exactly a self-evident word. The same goes for words like “war capitalism” which is something of a novelty—at least in the way that Beckert uses it.

Finally, Beckert closes his work by referring to the two faces of capitalism that were presented by the empire of cotton: “domination and exploitation” on the one hand, and “liberation and creativity” on the other (442). The balance of the work certainly seems to stress the former at the expense of the latter. This tendency seems a strange foundation for his closing statement that the story of cotton should “give us hope . . .  that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people.”

Despite these criticisms (and the amount of space they have consumed in this review), Beckert’s book is a terrific and worthwhile read. Present-day entrepreneurs like to pretend that they are the first to have made the world anew, but Empire of Cotton does a valuable service by reminding contemporary readers that visionary entrepreneurs in the past have made the world anew many, many times before.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR

SPQR

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.

Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21636708-secularism-or-religion-more-authoritarian-trouble-and-strife)
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-fields-of-blood-by-karen-armstrong/2014/10/23/a098e374-4d90-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html)

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Geoffrey Wawro’s _A Mad Catastrophe_

Wawro a mad catastrophe

Geoffrey Wawro, A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  1. In this very opinionated and highly convincing book, Wawro argues that in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a failing state, unwilling to surrender its status as a great European power and incapable of doing what was necessary to maintain that status, but recklessly determined to go to war in a futile bid to solve its domestic and foreign problems; in Wawro’s view, World War I did not destroy the empire, rather, the conflict exposed the state’s fundamental rottenness.
  2. Wawro refers to a number of the empire’s difficulties, but the most important one, he argues, was the nationalities problem, particularly the relationship between Austria and Hungary that resulted from the Ausgleich (which made for unwieldy government and allowed the Hungarians to stall any of Austria’s reforming initiatives).
  3. Domestic conflict undermined Austria-Hungary’s military preparations, leaving the empire’s diplomats with a very weak hand to play in European and particularly Balkan affairs; for example, in 1912, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro annexed Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War (territory that Austria-Hungary had been eyeing for years), Vienna found there was nothing it could do and wisely refrained from getting involved in the conflict—something it should have considered in 1914.
  4. The imperial leadership compounded its difficulties with very bad decisions (Wawro has harsh words for Emperor Franz Joseph and Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the General Staff): it did not fully think through its war plans (with their relatively small army, they thought they could invade both Serbia and Russia); it never seriously figured out how it would cooperate with Germany in a coming war (attacking the Serbs and holding the Russians at bay would be impossible without German help, but the Germans were committed to throwing all of their forces westward against France); it showed much dilatoriness in reacting to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and in waiting a month before delivering an ultimatum to Serbia, it forfeited most international sympathy; and Conrad tried to change the disposition of his forces in the middle of mobilization which caused untold confusion and ensured that Austro-Hungarian forces would be insufficient to fight in both Serbia and Russia.
  5. In the opening battles of the conflict, against ill-supplied but better-led enemies, the Austro-Hungarian army showed itself deficient at every level of war: strategically, it betrayed no ability to match means with ends, never realizing that the Russian threat warranted many more troops than the invasion of Serbia or that Austria-Hungary’s course of action depended completely on German decisions; operationally, it proved totally inconsistent, pointlessly shuttling forces hither and thither (exhausting its soldiers in the process) while in ignorance of the enemy’s location and numbers; and tactically, it launched frontal assaults in dense formations badly supported by obsolete artillery.
  6. In addition, the rank and file of the army did not fight well, Wawro argues, because many soldiers had little sympathy for the government under which they fought or interest in the cause they defended while mismanagement only led to more profound alienation.
  7. Austria-Hungary’s performance in the initial clashes of the war was appallingly bad—after some initial but bloody successes against the Russians in Galicia, the army suffered 444,000 casualties before being pushed back against the Carpathian mountains, while along the Drina River, Austro-Hungarian forces lost 80,000 men after making almost no headway against the Serbs.
  8. The army was hollowed out by these defeats which were the prelude for further disasters: two more invasions of Serbia in 1914 led to utter failure and a total of 300,000 casualties on that front (for reasons of prestige, the Austro-Hungarian army could not let the Serbs have the final word); in October, while covering the right wing of a German drive against Warsaw, the Austro-Hungarian army suffered a thrashing at the hands of the Russians; in November, a series of battles along the San River led to another 40,000 casualties to no effect; in December, during another German-led drive against Lodz, Austro-Hungarian forces were defeated near Cracow; and during the same month, a Russian attack on Austro-Hungarian positions in the Carpathians led the loss of 800,000 soldiers (three-quarters of them from illness) and the surrender of the Przemsyl fortress complex along with its garrison of 150,000 men.
  9. Many historians point to Austria-Hungary’s survival up until 1918 as proof of the regime’s essential toughness, but Wawro argues that this just wasn’t the case; by the end of 1914, after having suffered almost a million battle casualties, Austria-Hungary had become a “vassal” of Germany’s (something that was highlighted by the Sixtus Affair in 1917), and all subsequent military successes on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, or in Italy were due to German power.
  10. Count Ottokar Czernin, the empire’s last foreign minister, observed “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible”—had he seen into the future, he could have understood that this choice would also have significant and horrible implications for the 20th-century Balkans.

Stunning Fact: By 1917, the Austro-Hungarian army had suffered 3,500,000 casualties; a full half of these were POWs in Russia, something that seems to indicate a serious lack of will.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Eri Hotta’s _Japan 1941_

Hotta Japan 1941

Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

  1. The main question Hotta seeks to answer is why Japan decided to attack Pearl Harbor when most of its leaders did not want war with the United States and believed they could wage such a conflict with only a slim hope of success.
  2. The short answer is that the Japanese leadership’s own decisions brought it to the point where it felt it had no choice but to go to war: “It was as if Tokyo had gotten stuck in the thin end of a funnel” and war seemed to provide “the quickest and surest way of breaking free of that constricting situation.”
  3. Hotta takes into account the great historical forces that made Japan an aggressive power—the role of Western imperialism in stimulating Japan’s own expansionism, the fraught and ambivalent Sino-Japanese relationship, the drift of various Japanese governments that allowed army officers “on the spot” to seize the initiative in China, the unwillingness of Japanese civil society (especially the press) to check the ambitions of the military, and so on—but she is mainly interested in the activities of Japan’s leaders in 1940 and particularly 1941.
  4. One particular problem was the way in which Japanese leaders brought out the worst in each other; for example, Prince Konoe (prime minister from July 1940 to October 1941) provided unassertive leadership that gave free rein to people like the ambitious Matsuoka Yosuke (foreign minister from July 1940 to July 1941) and the inflexible Tojo Hideki (army minister from January 1939 to October 1941) to pursue their own goals.
  5. The Japanese occupation of southern Indochina (July 1941) was the great turning point in the relationship with the United States as it focused American concerns on Japan like never before (concerns inspired by Japan’s adhesion to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, by Japan’s endless war in China, and by fears about what Japan might next do in southeast Asia), led to important sanctions being imposed on the Japanese, and provided the impetus for the fevered diplomacy that eventually led to war between the two states.
  6. Many of Japan’s leaders engaged in wishful and confused thinking; to name one just one example, the Cabinet believed it needed to go to war with the United States to achieve what diplomacy could not, but it also felt that once the war had started, it would need diplomacy to bring the conflict to a swift end before the United States could crush Japan in a protracted war.
  7. In this context, the bakuryo, the junior officers responsible for strategic planning, played an enormous role—since the civilian leadership did not provide much diplomatic or geo-political guidance, war plans shaped by the bakuryo became the default policy of Japan.
  8. The army and particularly the navy were divided over the wisdom of a conflict with the United States, but neither armed service wanted to sound defeatist and take responsibility for having been the “weak” link that stopped a potential war with the Americans.
  9. In this particular context, the Japanese cultural practice of switching from private to public personas, known as hone to tatemae—“true voice and façade”— led to a great deal of confusion and double-talk as the Japanese Cabinet tried to reach a decision about what to do with the United States.
  10. Although this book is not quite as groundbreaking as the blurb on the back cover would have you believe, Hotta makes a very convincing case that the war was not at all inevitable and that it flowed largely from incompetent Japanese leaders who had become desperate because an endless war in China was impoverishing Japan and threatening to close off its diplomatic options, who failed to communicate well with another, who were committed to saving face, who misinterpreted the international situation, who proved incapable of making a realistic assessment of their nation’s capabilities, who could not understand how the Americans perceived their actions, who pitched their terms far too high when negotiating with the United States, and who imposed a completely unnecessary time limit on negotiations with the Americans.

Hugh Dubrulle