I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.
This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.
Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.
He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.
There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.
A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.
Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.
I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.
The park exists because the new Bundesnachrichtendienst buildings want a clear line of sight. The park exists because it’s a sliver of left-over land through which the south branch of the Panke Canal runs, briefly above ground before being returned to it’s tunnel until it’s spat into the Spree by Bertold-Brecht Str. There is another momentary surfacing behind Deutsches Theater where it dog-legs between the buildings. I have never seen this. It seems to do some right angles to surface in a gully along Schwarzer Weg as well. I think of the Panke as my canal, flowing as it does just beyond the buildings of Uferstudios when I lived in the Uferhallen. I’d always wanted to see where the Südpanke went, but it seemed only underground. Not at all. Between the Spree and BND it flows through a narrow park, one side wetland, the other promenade. Justine showed it to me today as we walked from Naturkundemuseum to Uferhallen, following the stream.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.
Sadly the exhibition was one of those “No Cameras Allowed”. I did sneak one of Edoardo Di Muro’s Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO (from the Antiimperialistisches Solidaritätskomitee für Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Frankfurt am Main, 1976) because SWAPO. I don’t know they were something my father mentioned, or just because he was South African I would see them mentioned in the news and pay attention, but SWAPO is definitely a name I remember from Apartheid.
There’s a couple of other special exhibitions on right now that are likely Kameras verboten! so now’s a good time for me to start pestering the museums for special privileges, which might mean a future proper blogging of both these exhibitions.
The title’s sensationalist. The cover I quite like; it looks better somehow attached to a book than on a screen. Black for Africa and red for China is crude when I think about it; does fit the title though. The paper is atrocious, not much better than newsprint, grey, joyless, and floppy.
Howard French I’ve been reading as a blogger for nearly ten years (bloody hell how did that happen), since he was based in Shanghai as the New York Times bureau chief. He doesn’t blog so much anymore, and hasn’t been based in China for most of the time since I added him to my feed reader. I seem to be reading more Africa stuff lately, possibly arriving at that from one side via mediæval art and my interest in representation in the artworks, and from the other via China. Gordon Matthew’s Ghetto at the Center of the World, exploring the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and the international trade with Africa by Africans run through there, as well as the large African community in Guangzhou are probably the most significant prior connections. Germany’s colonial history would be a third.
I was hoping for a substantial book, along the lines of Frank Dikotter say, rather than Susan Mann, and it is investigative journalism of a type. French spent a lot of time travelling back and forth across Africa, met and talked with a lot of people, both African and Chinese, but it’s more like a very long piece of journalism than a book, each chapter and section repeating the same structure, the same meetings of individuals, the same driving, the same observations. It tends towards a homogeneous and not so meaningful view of Chinese presence in Africa, despite that being not French’s aim.
Anyone who follows China or Africa even in passing in the usual sources like the NY Times will have their opinions and prejudices confirmed: corruption all over, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, lack of legal transparency, fragile democracies or crypto-oligarchies, war and horror never too far. Even with the occasional positive or bright moments, the implicit future for most of sub-saharan Africa with China moving in isn’t a hopeful one. His discussion of China using migration to Africa and elsewhere as a means of dealing with its own population explosion and accompanying social and environmental issues is the one thing I’d read more of.
Ah, I’m not supposed to be reviewing here: why I’m reading it rather than what I thought afterwards. Maybe to say the subject of China in Africa—if it is indeed substantial—is one deserving solid works. This book is ok for a light Saturday afternoon read after finishing the weekend paper, but like newspapers it carries implicit bias, and whether it was in French’s preparation or writing it is limited in the diversity of subjects—either interviewed or discussed—the story builds itself on.
This was a spontaneous purchase. In St George’s (huh! No, really?), snarfing a stack of Pratchetts, and the orange cover of Frau Goldman, that delightful, delectable word. Anarchism.
I’ve been facing a horrible venture into Marxism for over a month. Marx and international law, to be precise. And lashings of fucking dialectical materialism. I can’t stand Marxism; it’s erroneous much as Freud and psychoanalysis is, yet seems to form an uncritical foundation of european philosophy and leftist politics. Perhaps because I got exposed to anarchism through punk (or maybe my anarchist tendencies recognised their kin in punk), I’ve always found it to be a more sensible project than communism or socialism, though curiously I’ve read far more red politics than black.
So, Emma Goldman. Better to read a feminist, anarchist, atheist, and all the rest, than one of those boring old dead men with the big beards. It’s a bit of a history lesson too. Of course, something written over a hundred years ago does suffer from certain turns of speech, but really, I’m going to spend the rest of the night reading her and reminding myself why, if I have to subscribe to any political philosophy, it’s anarchism.
This is one I haven’t been able to pretend I wouldn’t eventually get hold of, having been greatly discussed on quite a few blogs I read. From anthropology to science-fiction, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years has been peculiarly unavoidable in a way that’s usually not seen outside book launches in specific fields that gets everyone in that field excited, and elsewhere no one’s heard of it.
Crooked Timber even devoted a substantial online seminar to it, in addition to the many posts and vast comment threads, and Charles Stross said he rewrote much of his upcoming Neptune’s Brood because of it. This in addition to seeing it mentioned across feminist blogs, language blogs, and even astrophysics blogs.
Graeber is an anthropologist, who incidentally (according to Wikipedia) is an anarchist (yay!) and was involved in the beginnings of the Occupy movement. Three good reasons alone to consider reading him, even if I hadn’t seen a blog onslaught of him in the past several months.
I’d planned to grab a copy for the train back from Brussels, but was thwarted by Belgium’s national day holiday, and had been pretending St. George’s didn’t exist out of a combination of 30º days and a large pile of books waiting for me (Books! Buy all the books!), so yesterday I finally split open the red cover.
This isn’t a review; I feel compelled to say this often when I write about what I read. The original idea was just to document what I read with no remarks, and then it became a few sentences on how I came to be reading whatever, before I started it. Now it’s often part-way in before I write a contorted mess of that into a crypto-non-review/unreview; I can’t not write on what I’ve read because I can’t unread it.
So. It’s very easy to read. Which is good because I have now three exceedingly dense anthropological works on China I’m suffering under at the rate of single pages per day, and wouldn’t want to add more anguish. There are a lot of endnotes, which are worth reading, even though they inevitably break the flow of the argument. 1/5th of the way in, perhaps the most concise thing I can say is that it’s made me reevaluate my entire political outlook as completely too narrow (which in light of the 1% having been found to have stashed $21 trillion in tax havens is probably self-evident for all of us).
I could probably stop there, but I do have some criticisms thus far. The generalist nature of the work given the scope of the subject — 5000 years and most civilisations getting at least a mention — means there is some oversimplification of either arguments or the examples cited. While this is understandable, and necessary if the book is to remain readable, I sometimes have the sense that this oversimplification misses some crucial points. I notice this sometimes when the discussion turns China-ward, particularly in combination with the next criticism.
There are some assumptions in the language Graeber uses (which perhaps reflect the habits of the intended audience), which for me imply a slightly more serious problem: There is something of a lack of women.
Possibly this will change in the remaining 4/5ths, however, both the example Graeber continually refers to (Henry and Joshua), and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ in the universal sense (cf. ‘mankind’), is oddly old-fashioned. When the appearance of women tends towards as chattel objects for exchange (marriage, alliance etc), and seemingly without agency or subjecthood, I wonder perhaps if something has been missed.
Certainly my recent reading, Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, Rosemary Joyce, all working somewhat in anthropology, shows unequivocally that any argument which fails to consider women (explicitly, not merely as an aside) is at best only part of the story, more than likely to have missed something crucial, and should be treated as potentially misleading at best if not outright suspect.
Joyce herself shows that it is the inherent bias in researchers which results in the apparent lack of evidence for women and their contribution, rather than any real absence, and Mann also, specifically in the heretofore ostensibly male-dominated and -centred world of Qing Dynasty.
There is a tendency to think, “Oh well, it’s a big topic, debt, and he can’t cover everything,” which is obviously true. However, to say that advancing a discourse which is significantly absent of women is missing something fundamental is also obviously true.
Hopefully this is something of an artifact of the first fifth of Graber’s argument, and not a general theme, as I would hope a book like this does more than merely stir some conversation, because if we — collective we, all of humanity — don’t do something, it’s plain we’re fucked.
The last of my first stack of books for 2012, and one that has been on my list for a long time, which finally became affordable, Seung-Joon Lee’s Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice Consumption in Modern Canton. Once again a book thick with endnotes, and covering such a specific topic — rice and its role in southern China during the Nationalist and revolutionary era — that it likely won’t grace many bookshelves.
In a quite sporadic and unplanned fashion, I’m managing to read my way into Canton and the south of China, which I hope eventually will cause me to arrive at a book or books that does justice to the history and culture of Canton and Lingnan. Starting with rice seemed like a good idea.