Pick of the Quarter

Issue: 178

Far too many important figures in our tradition have been lost in recent months. The editors of International Socialism were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Martin Upchurch, a member of our editorial board, as we were preparing this issue to go to press.

Martin wrote extensively for this journal, including articles on work and new technology in issue 152; debates around the end of globalisation in 157; and the concept of “extractive capitalism” in 168. One of his final pieces was an overview of writing in our tradition on the union bureaucracy and the rank and file, a topical issue today (https://socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/an-activists-guide-to-trade-union-leaders-and-the-rank-and-file).

As well as his work for this journal, Martin was a highly respected academic in the field of employment relations. For those with access, it is well worth looking at some of the articles he wrote for journals such as New Technology, Work and Employment and Capital & Class. These include an excellent intervention into debates on the trade union bureaucracy, co-authored with Ralph Darlington, in Capital & Class, volume 36, issue 1.

Martin will be greatly missed as a writer, a socialist activist, and a warm-hearted presence at editorial boards and countless other meetings and events.

Another loss to the movement was the death last year of Mike Davis. Marxist historian Bryan Palmer has contributed a beautifully written, riveting and moving account of Mike’s life in the January-February issue of New Left Review. This complements our own tribute in the winter issue of International Socialism.

A short article by Joshua Watterton in Human Geography (https://doi.org/10.1177/19427786221147613) on military spending distinguishes itself by taking seriously Marxist approaches to the question. It includes commentary on work published in this journal by Mike Kidron and Chris Harman. This is particularly welcome given the frequently confused or misleading presentations of Kidron’s theory of the permanent arms economy within academic texts, noted in the appraisal of the theory we published in issue 171 of this journal.

The latest issue of Monthly Review features an interesting essay by the Canadian socialist Ian Angus, who casts new light on the role of fishing in the origins of capitalism (https://monthlyreview.org/2023/03/01/the-fishing-revolution-and-the-origins-of-capitalism). Angus begins with the startling fact that fishing is older than humanity, since it was practised by our ancestors, Homo habilis and Homo erectus. Yet, until the rise of settled, class-based societies around 5,000 years ago, fish were eaten almost exclusively by those who caught them. Markets for fish arose alongside class-divided urban societies around 5,000 years ago, reaching their high point with the Roman Empire before going into decline during the so-called Dark Ages.

Angus argues that the re-emergence of large-scale fishing in medieval Europe was important to the ultimate development of capitalism. The industry was most advanced in the Netherlands, where some 79,000 tonnes of fish was landed in 1602. The prowess of the Dutch and English fishing industries was a significant factor in the geopolitics of the time, since these two countries were the major Protestant powers in 17th century Europe and were moving towards capitalism. The wealth produced by fishing, and the demand it created for more and bigger boats, helped turn these states into major naval powers, thus undermining the power of feudal, Catholic Spain.

Another important feature of fishing for the emergence of capitalism was the use of assembly line-like methods on ships, where much of the gutting and salting took place. Angus describes how life onboard a late medieval fishing ship involved “floating production lines”, which “resembled 19th century factory labour in many respects”. He argues that the evolution of capitalist fishing blazed a trail for the later development of the first “manufactories”, the precursors of the modern factory.

An article by John Bellamy Foster in the same issue of Monthly Review explores the theory of “irrationalism” put forward by the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács in his 1954 book, The Destruction of Reason (https://monthlyreview.org/2023/02/01/the-new-irrationalism). Lukács argued that the history of Western philosophy includes an “irrationalist”, anti-modern tendency that paved the way for Nazism. As we have noted in the past, the recent republication of this much maligned book in English has generated a new debate about its historical reception. When first published, the work was savaged by leading thinkers of the radical left such as Theodor Adorno. Foster contends that this negative response was a result of its implicit claim that irrationalism had not disappeared with the defeat of the Nazis, but rather lived on as an inherent tendency within the capitalist system

JC & RD.