November 19, 2015

The historical origins of the nation-state

Filed under: Government, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Samizdata Illuminatus” on the historical evolution of a bunch of armed thugs into a modern government:

… I was familiar with the hypothesis that the origin of the modern state has its roots in criminal enterprise, yet it is always amusing attempting to reconcile this with the modern state’s increasingly matronly efforts to get its subjects to behave themselves. And it is certainly far from an implausible theory, when you consider how similar the objectives of a criminal enterprise and a state can be. The major difference is, of course, that the state functions within the law — hardly surprising since it is the major source of law — while criminal organisations operate outside of the law. But honestly, how could the activity of a crime gang that defeated a local rival in a turf war be described as anything other than a spot of localised gun control — in terms of ends, if perhaps not means?

But the article got me thinking about what we can do and perhaps intend to do about what Sean Gabb would describe as “the ruling class” — the politicians and senior bureaucrats — but also the minor apparatchiks, too. In terms of the big picture stuff, the bolded part above resonates with me as particularly axiomatic, and if libertarians or classical liberals or small government conservatives or one of the very many labels we choose to call ourselves — if we stand for any one single thing, surely it is for the obliteration of this instinct, this scourge, from the human species. Yes, I am fully aware that previous efforts to change human nature for various ends have generally worked out appallingly, so maybe I should write about ‘disincentivising’ an instinct rather than ‘obliterating’ it. (I’m keeping ‘scourge’. Fair’s fair.) Although there are those amongst us who favour a muscular Ceaușescu solution to big government for those who believe they can spend our hard-earned better than we can, along with those willing to assist them in taking it off us and spending it. Others prefer an incremental strategy of rolling back government to the point that those who wish to “command economic resources” for a living find they enjoy slightly less demand for their services than a VCR repairman. I suspect both methods, perhaps working in concert at times, will be necessary at differing stages of the struggle against the statists if we are ever to be able to declare victory over them (and then leave them alone, as Glenn Reynolds is wont to say).

I do have a gripe about a distinction the author makes between paper-stamping, useless, make-work bureaucracy, and “public goods” bureaucracy, an example of which he doesn’t actually specify, although throughout the piece the inference is quite clear that he’s referring to schools and hospitals and the like — and presumably in the parts of schools and hospitals where service provision takes place; not where the (many) papers are pushed and stamped. Now, many here (rightly, I believe) probably object to the contention made that the market traditionally failed to provide such services of the “public good”, hence the state springing to the rescue to address this “market failure”. There are many people here — Paul Marks comes to mind — who will know a great deal more than I do about the patchwork of friendly societies and other private arrangements that individuals and their families paid into voluntarily and turned to for financial aid in times of illness, unemployment, or other trouble, as well as the nature of the education sector prior to the era of compulsory government schooling; the vast majority of which was crowded out by “free” state healthcare and education. However, my purpose is not wish to dwell on this now, interesting a topic as it is.

November 9, 2015

Premature revolutionaries

Filed under: History, Media, Middle East, Politics — Tags: — Nicholas @ 04:00

Nigel Davies doesn’t post frequently, so it sometimes takes me a while to see his latest effort. Back in September, he posted a discussion of the “Arab Spring” revolutions and the inability of western intellectuals to derive any lessons from them:

When journalists were going nuts a few years ago about the wonders of the wave of ‘revolutions’ that they decided to refer to as an ‘Arab Spring’, I was reminded how few modern academics, let alone journalists, have any understanding of history. None of the political analysts or professional pundits seemed to have much more of a clue about how things would INEVITABLY turn out, than babes in a wood.

Which is ridiculous, because you would imagine that anyone with a pretense of being worth consulting might have at least a clue that there might be historical parallels worth considering. Frankly it is terrifying that our modern ‘chattering classes’ honestly seem to imagine that they are above being able to learn anything from history.

1848 of course saw a wave of ‘revolutions’ all across Europe, which many people at the time hailed as the inevitable downfall of the ancient regimes, and the prelude of the rise of true modern democracy. How sweet.

In fact, of course, the revolutions led to a re-imposition of the ancient regimes, or much worse dictatorships: often with harder edges to prevent such things happening again. In fact it can be credibly argued that the results of this wave of revolutions was to slow down the democratization of Europe by at least 50 years.

I suspect the same thing will result from the Arab Spring.

‘Revolutions’ tend to kick off way before the society as a whole is really ready for them. Usually as pre-emptive takeover attempts by the newly educated middle class ‘intelligentsia’, (or chattering class as we would call them, or ‘twitteratti’ as I have recently heard the political ‘pundits’ ruthlessly described).

Unsurprisingly these newly graduated minor functionaries, petty civil servants, and junior lawyers, want more say in the power structure of the state than the traditional ruling class has previously allowed them. Unsurprisingly – I suppose – they want it immediately… Or as Billy Connelly said in a skit, “We want it now, we want it yesterday, we want to control half of that, most of that, f….ing ALL of that, and stay awake, because tomorrow the demands will change!”

The problem with the proto middle classes jumping the gun and trying to impose their idealized version of democracy before the working class (read average voter) is even half way down the trail to a similar level of literacy and political interest and philosophical conceptualization: is that the resulting mad theories are far too complex for the voters, and NO imagined safe-guard can stand up to the combined ignorance and misunderstanding of the newly enfranchised. The result is, absolutely inevitably, a dictatorship.

October 12, 2015

QotD: The inevitable result of the “Arab Spring”

Filed under: History, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

When journalists were going nuts a few years ago about the wonders of the wave of ‘revolutions’ that they decided to refer to as an ‘Arab Spring’, I was reminded how few modern academics, let alone journalists, have any understanding of history. None of the political analysts or professional pundits seemed to have much more of a clue about how things would INEVITABLY turn out, than babes in a wood.

Which is ridiculous, because you would imagine that anyone with a pretense of being worth consulting might have at least a clue that there might be historical parallels worth considering. Frankly it is terrifying that our modern ‘chattering classes’ honestly seem to imagine that they are above being able to learn anything from history.

1848 of course saw a wave of ‘revolutions’ all across Europe, which many people at the time hailed as the inevitable downfall of the ancient regimes, and the prelude of the rise of true modern democracy. How sweet.

In fact, of course, the revolutions led to a re-imposition of the ancient regimes, or much worse dictatorships: often with harder edges to prevent such things happening again. In fact it can be credibly argued that the results of this wave of revolutions was to slow down the democratization of Europe by at least 50 years.

I suspect the same thing will result from the Arab Spring.

Nigel Davies, “The ‘Arab Spring’, 1848, and the 30 Years War/s…”, rethinking history, 2015-09-19.

August 11, 2015

Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – III: Purple is the Noblest Shroud – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 4 Jul 2015

A group of monks declared sanctuary for two hooligans from the demes (Constantinople’s fanatical chariot racing factions) who had miraculously survived a hanging. The public wanted them pardoned for their crimes, so when Justinian made his public appearance at the next chariot race, they begged him to have mercy. When Justinian refused, the crowd turned on him and became a rioting mob that tore through the streets of Constantinople. During the Nika Riots, they burned down neighborhoods and even the Hagia Sophia cathedral, rampaging until Justinian agreed to pardon the two men from the demes. Now, however, the mob would not accept that. They demanded that he fire his advisors. Then they decided to appoint their own emperor, a man named Hypatius who was related to the previous emperor Anastasius. Assaulted on all sides, Justinian made plans to flee, only to be confronted by Theodora. She gave a now famous speech asking whether he would rather live a failure or die an emperor, announcing that she would choose the latter. Justinian followed her lead and made new plans to retake his city. He called Belisarius and Mundus, his best generals, to marshal a force. He also sent the eunuch Narses to bribe one faction of the demes and begin dismantling their leadership. Then he ordered his forces to invade the Hippodrome, where they cut down some thirty thousand civilians and executed the false emperor Hypatius. Justinian’s reign was once again secure.

July 25, 2015

A new biography of Václav Havel

Filed under: Books, Europe, History, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Daniel J. Mahoney reviews Havel: A Life, by Michael Zantovsky:

Michael Zantovsky has written a remarkable book about a complex and genuinely admirable human being. Zantovsky, a long-time friend and sometime press secretary to Václav Havel, went on to become Czech ambassador to Washington and to the Court of St. James in London. He has intimate knowledge of Havel and writes with verve and clarity. He freely admits to “loving” Havel, even as he maintains his critical distance and avoids anything resembling hagiography. Zantovsky is aided in this seemingly impossible task by his experience as a clinical psychologist, which allows him to combine admiration with detachment and remarkable descriptive powers. Unlike so many other critical accounts inspired by suspicion and anti-elitism, his “loving” but measured account leaves Havel’s greatness undiminished.

As Zantovsky shows, Havel was “one of the more fascinating politicians of the last century” even as he was much more than a politician. He ably explores Havel’s multiple roles as writer, dramatist, moralist, dissident, and anti-totalitarian theoretician. The book also captures Havel’s myriad “contradictions,” which were never too far from the surface. A born leader who was kind, polite, humorous, and self-effacing, he was also a “bundle of nerves,” prone to depression and self-medication, and to “sometimes ill-considered sexual adventures.” Havel’s admirers are obliged to confront that latter point. This moralist did not readily apply moral criteria to affairs of the heart and was sometimes promiscuous in ways that belie conventional morality and religious principles. He seems to have at least partly bought into the radically “individualist” ethos of the 1960s, at least as regards “personal” morality. Zantovsky provides an insightful analysis of the dissident culture of the sixties and seventies, which was in most respects admirable, even as it defended sexual “freedom” as a venue for individual autonomy in an order dominated by totalitarian repression and the erosion of individuality.

Sexual indiscretions aside, Havel was an intensely spiritual man who didn’t adhere to any religion. Despite his admiration for Pope John Paul II and his prison friendship with the future cardinal archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, he “did not die a Roman Catholic.” But he respected religion and even attended secret masses in prison. In his voluminous writings and speeches, he upheld a quasi-theistic “conception of being” and an understanding of “responsibility rooted in the memory of Being.” In Havel’s philosophical conception, everything we do is remembered, “recorded,” by “being” itself. This was Havel’s equivalent of immortality; it provided cosmic grounds or support for moral responsibility. These spiritual convictions, bordering on New Age philosophy, were a staple of Havel’s speeches at home and abroad during his years as president first of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic.

June 27, 2015

“Individualism” as an epithet

Filed under: Europe, History, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Frank Furedi explains the odd origins of the word “individualism”:

One reason why the idea of individualism generates so much confusion is because, throughout its history, it has been defined by parties that were hostile to it. Indeed, the very term itself was an invention of the opponents of liberalism. As Steven Lukes pointed out in in his useful study, Individualism (1973), the term first emerged in French – individualisme – as part of ‘the general European reaction to the French Revolution and to its alleged source, the thought of the Enlightenment’. For those opposed to the Enlightenment, individualism served as a swear word to be hurled at the enemy.

In Europe, nineteenth-century conservative and counter-revolutionary thought was dominated by hostility to reason and the rights of the individual. Individualism was blamed for the corrosion of traditional communities and the decline in community solidarity. And this conservative representation of individualism, as a narrow-minded, egotistical outlook that selfishly ignores the needs of others in society, continues to predominate. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, describes individualism as ‘the habit of being independent and self-reliant; behaviour characterised by the pursuit of one’s goals without reference to others’. In case the reader missed the implicit moral judgement here, the OED adds that individualism comes ‘sometimes with negative connotations of self-centredness or anti-social behaviour’.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly common to attribute some of the most destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution, particularly the break-up of communities and social disorganisation, to the rise of individualism. When Auguste Comte, the French philosopher and founder of the discipline of sociology, condemned individualism as ‘the disease of the Western world’, he gave voice to a sentiment that transcended the ideological divide between conservatives and socialists. Individualism had few friends on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. The representation of individualism as a selfish, anti-social and destructive creed provided an ideological narrative for demonising liberal currents of thought.

May 5, 2015

QotD: Monarchies and republics

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

When I say monarchy I am not talking about the wishy-washy monarchy we pretend to have in the UK. I am talking about real monarchies, monarchies red in tooth and claw, monarchies that can at minimum hire and fire ministers and start wars.

Now, I can almost hear the pedants shouting “But those are precisely the powers the Queen has” To which I say “Only in theory”. Should the Queen or any of her successors ever attempt to actually exercise those theoretical powers they would be out of office in a matter of nano-seconds. Britain is a republic.

When did it become one? I think we can be pretty precise with the dates: sometime between 1642 and 1694. 1642 is the date of the outbreak of the English Civil War, when Charles I tried to impose his idea of absolute monarchy. 1694 is the date William III accepted that his powers were extremely limited. Since then it has been Parliament that makes the laws and votes funding – without which making war becomes extremely difficult.

But think of what happened in that period: four civil wars, one military dictatorship and a foreign invasion.

You think that was bad? Try the French. Between 1789 and 1871 they saw four monarchies, three republics, three foreign invasions and a 20-year war with the rest of Europe.

And now look at what happened in the 20th century. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, China, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all made the same transition from monarchy to republic. I need not dwell on the German or Russian experiences — they are well enough known but all the others follow a similar pattern. China saw a 20-year civil war followed by Mao’s communist regime; Spain, a monarchy, followed by a republic followed by a civil war followed by a dictatorship followed by a monarchy followed by a democratic republic. Even Portugal saw two revolutions, a dictatorship and a series of bloody colonial wars.

The point is that in every case the transition from monarchy to republic is bloody and protracted.

Patrick Crozier, “What caused the First World War? Part V: Monarchies and Republics”, Samizdata, 2015-04-29.

April 15, 2015

The Last Tsar – Nicholas II I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 13 Apr 2015

Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia and the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty. His reign and his command are considered especially inauspicious today. Everything you need to know about Nicholas II of Russia in portrait.

March 28, 2015

George Orwell gets a letter from his former teacher

Filed under: Books, Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I didn’t know that Orwell was a former pupil of Aldous Huxley:

Wrightwood. Cal.

21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

March 3, 2015

Sure, Molon Labe, whatever … but talk is cheap

Filed under: Government, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Ace of Spades H.Q., WeirdDave explains why it’s easy to talk about resisting illegal actions by the government, but few would really be willing to bear the cost:

In 480BC, Xerxes of Persia demanded that the Greeks under King Leonidas of Sparta surrender their weapons. King Leonidas responded with a laconic Molon labe, which translates as “Come and take them” and a legend was born. Even though the Greeks lost the Battle of Thermopylae that followed, King Leonidas’ stirring phrase has echoed with defiance down through history. The phrase has a rich history in America, too. From Fort Morris, Georgia, to Gonzales, Texas to Second Amendment defenders today, “Come and Take It” resonates in American hearts.

With the disturbing news this week about BATF’s attempt to ban M855 NATO Ball ammunition, the internet has been alive with people swearing fealty to the idea of molon labe. I approve. However, talk is cheap they say, and internet talk is cheaper than most. Anyone who considers themselves a patriot needs to take a good long moment of quiet reflection and ask themselves, honestly, what does molon labe mean? More specifically, they need to ask themselves what are the ramifications of defiantly proclaiming “Come and take them” if the authorities say “OK”.

The ramifications are simple: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.

This isn’t universally true, of course, but in order for molon labe to mean anything, in order for it to be effective, you have to accept that it IS true. If we ever get to the point where the authorities are attempting to forcibly disarm the population at large, the only way to prevent it from happening is to meet force with force. If it comes to this, you will lose. Every time. Even if you are armed, ready, and respond instantly to aggression by the authorities, there are a whole lot more of them than there are of you. You might kill one, or even several, but they will keep coming and they will bring resources to bear that you can not hope to match. Officers. SWAT teams. Snipers. Air cover. Drones. They WILL take you down, and that’s not all. No, you have to accept something else too:


Think I’m talking crazy talk? Ask Vicki Weaver. Ask Sammy Weaver. I’ll wait.

December 28, 2014

Edward Luttwak on Napoleon’s modernization of European law

Filed under: Europe, History, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:19

In the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak starts his review of Britain against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815 by Roger Knight by contrasting British and European views of Napoleon’s legacy:

I can recall few heated arguments with my father, but I remember very well our Napoleon quarrel. After two years at a British boarding school, I had learned a fair amount of English and just about enough history to mention Wellington and Waterloo as we were approaching Brussels on a drive from Milan. To my great surprise, my father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. I do not recall his actual words, and he would hardly have put it as I have here, but that was certainly his meaning, and I remember his equal-opportunity quotation: ‘Every French soldier carries a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack.’ I also remember his explanation of the reason he accused the English of being ‘selfish’: Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.

In other words, for Jozef Luttwak of Milano, formerly of Arad, Transylvania, as for many others on the Continent (and not only the French), all the wars of Napoleon, all his victories, counted for little in evaluating the man and his deeds. What counted was the progressive moderniser, the law-giver of the Code Napoléon of 1804, actually the Code civil des Français, which was really a civil code for Europeans, since Napoleon’s empire français extended across the Low Countries to Jutland and into northwest Italy, and took in the ex-Papal States and Dalmatia (as Illyria), adding up to a good part of Western Europe. Nor was Napoleon’s Code as ephemeral as his victories. It endures as the core of civil law not only in France but in its former European possessions, and their former possessions too, encompassing ex-French Africa, all of Latin America and the Philippines by way of Spain, and Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, as well as Quebec and Louisiana.

Even that list understates the influence of the code, and therefore of Napoleon the moderniser. Its text conveyed three powerfully innovative principles whose influence transcended by far its actual legal application, and which no restoration could undo: clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law, with its hundreds of exemptions, privileges and eccentricities; secularism, which inter alia replaced parishes with municipalities, thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence; and the right to individual ownership of property – which untied the immobilised holders of communal property – and employment free from servile obligations.

It mattered greatly that these revolutionary principles were proclaimed by Napoleon, already a conservative and commanding figure – unlike the revolutionaries of 1789, who could not give an aura of authority to their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was itself soon challenged by the more egalitarian 1793 version, with both anyhow rejected by the upholders of privilege. In Napoleon’s vassal states (the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdoms of Spain, Italy and Naples, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw), even where the code was not promulgated it was imitated, as was its drastically new style. Just as the florid convolutions and encrustations of rococo had been replaced by the linear elegance of the empire style, the thickets of customary law that Montesquieu had praised as barriers to despotism – as indeed they were, but only for privileged jurists – were replaced by the utterly systematic code, whose descending hierarchy of books, titles, chapters and sections that devolved into 2281 numbered paragraphs was itself infused with the new spirit of modernity. For Europeans of a liberal disposition, the code was a call to modernise not merely the law but society in its entirety – an impulse that would persist for decades.

December 15, 2014

QotD: The “purity” of Marx

Filed under: History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.

A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.

Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Singer on Marx”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-13.

October 8, 2014

Russia’s oldest warship being moved to shipyard for restoration work

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:56

From the Wikipedia page:

Aurora (Russian: Авро́ра, tr. Avrora; IPA: [ɐˈvrorə]) is a 1900 Russian protected cruiser, currently preserved as a museum ship in St. Petersburg. Aurora was one of three Pallada-class cruisers, built in St. Petersburg for service in the Pacific Far East. All three ships of this class served during the Russo-Japanese War. The Aurora survived the Battle of Tsushima and was interned under U.S. protection in the Philippines, eventually returned to the Baltic Fleet. The second ship, Pallada, was sunk by the Japanese at Port Arthur in 1904. The third ship, Diana, was interned in Saigon after the Battle of the Yellow Sea. One of the first incidents of the October Revolution in Russia took place on the cruiser Aurora.


During World War I Aurora operated in the Baltic Sea performing patrols and shore bombardment tasks. In 1915, her armament was changed to fourteen 152 mm (6 in) guns. At the end of 1916, she was moved to Petrograd (the renamed St Petersburg) for a major repair. The city was brimming with revolutionary ferment and part of her crew joined the 1917 February Revolution. A revolutionary committee was created on the ship, with Aleksandr Belyshev elected as captain. Most of the crew joined the Bolsheviks, who were preparing for a Communist revolution.

At 9.45 p.m on 25 October 1917 (O.S.) a blank shot from her forecastle gun signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, which was to be the beginning of the October Revolution. In summer 1918, she was relocated to Kronstadt and placed into reserve.

August 5, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part seven of a series)

Filed under: China, Europe, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

I thought we’d be done by now, but there’s still more historical ground to cover on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six). The previous post examined the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Today, we’re looking at the unhappy Russian experiences in the far East and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war.

Russia’s Oriental catastrophe

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a huge upset, as all the great powers expected Russia to crush the upstart Japanese and put them back “in their place”. Japan’s stunning naval and military successes at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Tsushima and Port Arthur left Russia in a potentially disastrous situation, with utter undeniable defeat in the East and revolution brewing at home.

The war came about due to irreconcilable differences in the expansionary plans of the two empires: Russia wanted control of Manchuria and Japan wanted control of Korea, but neither side trusted the other enough to make negotiations work. Japan decided to initiate the conflict with a surprise attack on the Russian naval forces in Port Arthur (now known as the Lüshunkou District of Dalian in China’s Liaoning province). From that point onwards, Japan maintained the initiative, forcing Russia to react and interrupting Russian moves on land and at sea.

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

After the defeat of the original Russian fleet in the Pacific, the Baltic Fleet was re-tasked and set out to avenge the loss. The fleet’s luck was terrible to begin with, as shortly after passing between Sweden and Denmark and sailing out into the North Sea, lookouts on the Russian battleships spotted Japanese forces and the fleet opened fire. Twenty minutes, later the enemy was in tatters … unfortunately, the “enemy” were British fishing trawlers. Given the massive firepower of even pre-dreadnought ships, the casualties were surprisingly light: one trawler sunk, two dead, and many wounded. Not long afterward, a Russian ship in the fleet was mis-identified as a Japanese ship and nearly sunk by friendly fire. The nearest Japanese ship was still thousands of miles to the East.

Despite nearly starting a war with the Royal Navy over the Dogger Bank incident (Britain and Japan had signed an alliance in 1902), Admiral Rozhdestvensky was unapologetic and insisted it was the trawlers’ fault and his ships were perfectly entitled to defend themselves from Japanese attackers. As a result of the Russian mistake, Britain refused to allow the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, forcing them to take the far longer trip around Africa instead. If ever a military expedition has had bad omens, the sortie of the Baltic Fleet — now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron for this mission — must be one of the best examples.

When the Russian and Japanese fleets met in the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Tōgō managed to “cross the T” of the Russians, allowing his ships to use their full broadside armament against only the forward-facing guns of the Russian ships. In the end, the Second Pacific Squadron lost all eleven battleships and over 4,000 men killed, another 5,900 captured, and 1,800 interned. Japanese losses were trivial in comparison: three torpedo boats sunk, 117 men killed and about 500 wounded.

There were no major subsequent battles, and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the war in September 1905. Despite the Tsar’s initial instructions to the Russian delegation, the Russians agreed to recognize Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea, withdraw their troops from Manchuria, and to give up their lease on Port Arthur and Talien. The reaction in both countries was similar: political unrest. Japanese public opinion was that they had been cheated of their full reward from the war, and the government fell in the aftermath. Russians were even more angry and the result was revolution.

The (first) Russian revolution

While the result of the Russo-Japanese war was the trigger for the 1905 Revolution, it was far from being the only grievance. Margaret MacMillan wrote in The War That Ended Peace:

In 1904 the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, is reported to have said that Russia needed “a small victorious war” which would take the minds of the Russian masses off “political questions”.

The Russo-Japanese War showed the folly of that idea. In its early months Plehve himself was blown apart by a bomb; towards its end the newly formed Bolsheviks tried to seize Moscow. The war served to deepen and bring into sharp focus the existing unhappiness of many Russians with their own society and its rulers. As the many deficiencies, from command to supplies, of the Russian war effort became apparent, criticism grew, both of the government and, since the regime was a highly personalized one, of the Tsar himself. In St. Petersburg a cartoon showed the Tsar with his breeches down being beaten while he says, “Leave me alone. I am the autocrat!” Like the French Revolution, with which it had many similarities, the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke old taboos, including the reverence surrounding the country’s ruler. It seemed to officials in St. Petersburg a bad omen that the Empress had hung a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a gift from the French government, in her rooms.

In December 1904, a strike in St. Petersburg triggered sympathy strikes in other industries, leading to 80,000 workers and supporters protesting in the city. In January 1905, a mass march by the strikers to the Winter Palace was met with rifle fire from the defending troops. Casualty estimates range from 200 to over 1,000 on Bloody Sunday. The strikes and protests spread beyond St. Petersburg, to the point that the government was threatened. Eventually the Tsar was persuaded to offer concessions :

Under huge pressure from his own supporters, the Tsar reluctantly issued a manifesto in October promising a responsible legislature, the Duma, as well as civil rights.

As so often happens in revolutionary moments, the concessions only encouraged the opponents of the regime. It appeared to be close to collapsing with its officials confused and ineffective in the face of such widespread disorder. That winter a battalion from Nichlas’s own regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards, which had been founded by Peter the Great, mutinied. A member of the Tsar’s court wrote in his diary: “This is it.” Fortunately for the regime, its most determined enemies were disunited and not yet ready to take power while moderate reformers were prepared to support it in the light of the Tsar’s promises. Using the army and police freely, the government managed to restore order. By the summer of 1906 the worst was over — for the time being. The regime still faced the dilemma, though, of how far it could let reforms go without fatally undermining its authority. It was a dilemma faced by the French government in 1789 or the Shah’s government in Iran in 1979. Refusing demands for reform and relying on repression creates enemies; giving way encourages them and brings more demands.

Russia’s economy did recover eventually, but the political solution was not strong enough to stand the strains of another war any time soon. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine what the Russian leaders who advised the Tsar were thinking as the Russians continued to stir the pot in the Balkans…

July 15, 2014

QotD: King George III’s minor fit of barking

Filed under: Britain, Government, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

It is a painful thing to confront someone whom one is accustomed to respecting, and to tell that person they are barking mad. Usually one avoids it, or dismisses the other’s strange behavior as “a difference of opinion,” and speaks platitudes about “the importance of diversity,” however when a person is going, “Arf! Arf!” right in your face, there is no way around it. This includes governments, when they become barking mad.

Thomas Jefferson knew this, when he quilled the Declaration of Independence, listing King George’s barking mad behaviors, however there has been a recent, revisionist effort to show that King George the Third wasn’t all that bad, and his blue urine wasn’t due to porphuria, and his spells of foaming at the mouth were but minor episodes, especially when he was young and was busily losing the American colonies. (I think this may in part be due to the fact that porphuria is hereditary, and certain people don’t want the rabble giving Prince Charles appraising looks.)

The argument states that, if you could get an audience at his glittering palace, King George was quite lucid, and even charming, and that the points he raised, about the government’s right to tax, are valid to this day. There is even some reproach towards America and Jefferson for failing to understand King George’s points.

However taxation was not the issue. Taxation without representation was the issue. When one looks back with twenty-twenty hindsight, the solution to the problem seems simple: Simply give the thirteen colony’s thirteen elected representatives in Parliament. It seems like such an obvious thing, to give Englishmen abroad the same rights as Englishmen at home, and seems so conducive to unity and the expansion of an unified kingdom, that to switch the subject to the-right-of-the-government-to-tax seems a sleight of hand bound to stub thumbs, to lead to schism, and to create discord out of harmony. It was, in fact, a barking mad thing for King George to do.

Caleb Shaw, “Barking Mad – A rave, prompted by facing insane heating costs”, Watts Up With That?, 2014-07-14.

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