March 19, 2014

“The French Revolution was a ‘revolution of ideas’ before it became ‘a revolution of fact’”

Filed under: Europe, History, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:35

Duncan Kelly reviews Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel.

According to this hefty new study of the French Revolution by Jonathan Israel, a professor of history at Princeton, what such events really show is the motivating power of ideas in guiding and transforming events. In his terms, the French Revolution was a “revolution of ideas” before it became “a revolution of fact”; indeed, it was three revolutions all at once.

Ideas about political equality, anticlericalism and modern republicanism grounded in “reason” motivated Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet and Thomas Paine, while they clashed with the “moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism” embodied by more pro-royalist factions (the Feuillants) and aristocratic supporters such as Lafayette. Both struggled against Robespierre’s “authoritarian populism”, which for Israel prefigures modern fascism.

The radical compound in this instance might have been uniquely French but its impact spread widely. The resounding Declaration of the Rights of Man, writes Israel, was a “manifesto entirely incompatible with all ancien régime notions of social, racial, and religious hierarchy”. Revolution lent support to Caribbean struggles for black emancipation such as that of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, memorably described in CLR James’s 1938 classic The Black Jacobins. James’s book, however, is an odd omission in Israel’s otherwise compendious bibliography.


Historians have often criticised Israel for flattening out all the differences between these radical ideas except those he wants to retain and, when applied to the French Revolution, his arguments can feel like the inverse of some 19th-century Marxist schema. Instead of subterranean economic determinations, it is Radical Enlightenment that provides the means by which everything from press freedom to de-Christianisation can be slotted into a matrix requiring little in the way of extra interpretation.

What you get from such a focus on subversive editors, disenchanted priests and materialist philosophers has much in common with a more conventional account: food shortages, public debt crises and social grievances from Paris to the Vendée, combined with a plethora of radical ideas about press freedom, absolute equality, political liberty and radical democracy. Yet the vaulting ambition to ascribe such a momentous transformation to one cause still feels hubristic. The obvious parallel in this year of all years would be the thought that there might be a single idea or singular complex of ideas behind the outbreak of the first world war. Can you imagine such a claim commanding general assent?

January 27, 2014

QotD: Montreuil and Le Corbusier

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:16

Montreuil reminded me strongly of something: ah yes, I remember what it was, Eastern Europe in the good old days. It had that same air of inspissated gloom and ontological pointlessness; the architecture would have gladdened the heart (so to speak) of Elena Ceausescu. The bus passed through a wasteland of 1970s modernism, egalitarian doctrine made not so much flesh as concrete. The buildings did not age, they dilapidated; it was architecture that induced immediate thoughts of suicide. (Le Corbusier is still revered in France and treated as a hero, though it should be obvious to anyone who reads any of his voluminous writings that he was a psychopathic architectural delinquent of totalitarian pretensions whose talents belonged more to the field of propaganda than to those of architecture, in which his abilities were all negative.) The bus stops were in places such as Saint-Just, the patron saint of revolutionary terror, and Nouvelle France: new in the same sense that the New Man, so beloved of Mussolini and Che Guevara, was going to be new. Montreuil is, in fact, firmly communist, and it shows, although honesty compels me to admit that I don’t know which came first: the communism or the ugliness of everything. Probably the relationship is what Marxists used to call a dialectical one.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Museum of the Living Dead”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-01-26

January 21, 2014

What The Three Musketeers owes to real history

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:56

Boyd Tonkin discusses some of the real historical incidents that Alexandre Dumas drew upon for his fiction:

In September 1784, an unpleasant incident took place at M. Nicolet’s fashionable theatre in Paris. A young, aristocratic man-about-town, born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), had escorted to the play an elegant lady whose family also came from the West Indies. Dashing, handsome, the son of Count Davy de la Pailleterie might have seemed the ideal squire for the evening. Save, in many eyes, for one thing. He was black — notably dark-skinned, the mixed-race youth had a slave mother — and his companion white.

At Nicolet’s, a white West Indian officer, Jean-Pierre Titon de Saint-Lamain, decided that it would be good fun to insult the count’s black son. First, he pretended to mistake the young man of colour for the lady’s lackey. Then, after an affray, Titon’s henchmen forced the victim to kneel in front of his assailant and ask for pardon. Soon the police arrived and took both men into custody. Statements were taken, but no further action followed. In 1786, the humiliated colonial boy forsook his life of leisure to embark on a military career. He enrolled in the Queen’s Dragoons under a surname not his father’s. Instead, he chose the identity of his slave-born mother: Marie-Cessette Dumas.


By the early 1850s, this Alexandre Dumas had become not only the famous novelist but, arguably, the most famous Frenchman in the world. At this point, garlanded with international fame and quickly spent riches, he wrote his memoirs. Dumas the novelist adored and hero-worshipped his father, who had died in 1806 but left indelible memories. The first 200 pages of My Memoirs deal with General Alex; in fact, Dumas abandons the narrative of his own life at the age of 31. But in his version of the contretemps at Nicolet’s, the strapping young Alex picks up Titon and chucks him into the orchestra pit. This is a feat of derring-do worthy of… well, worthy of a musketeer.


Dumas relished his life, and the privileges and pleasures that his mythic tales earned. He made and lost fortunes as quickly as he wrote bulky novels. He meddled in revolutionary politics first in France and then in rebellious Italy (where he founded a paper called The Independent). He ran through perhaps 40 mistresses and sired (at least) seven children with them. His published works comprise 300 volumes and 100,000 pages. After packing around five lives into one, he died after a stroke in 1870 — the same year as Charles Dickens, whose A Tale of Two Cities pays its own tribute to the style of the comrade with whom he dined in Paris. If living well is the best revenge, then Alexandre made the bigoted society which had tried to humble General Alex kneel to him.

H/T to Jessica Brisbane for the link.

Update, 4 February: A.A. Nofi reviews The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss.

Reiss [...] fits Dumas into his times and his social environment. So we get a look at the brutalities of slavery and racism under the Ancien Régime and later during the supposedly enlightened French Republic. We see the dying days of the Bourbon monarchy, the Revolution that finished it off, and the rise of Bonaparte’s empire, which brought things part way back to their start again. Reiss also gives us little portraits of many individuals; the general’s family, of course, but also soldiers and rulers such as Carnot, Kleber, the Neapolitan and French royals, Lafayette, and others, including Bonaparte, who would become Dumas’ nemesis. Finally, Reiss looks at how the count’s life shaped that of his son and influenced the latter’s novels, noting traces of the senior Dumas in some of the younger’s characters, notably Edmund Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The book has some flaws. Reiss betrays a certain over-fondness for Revolutionary France, failing to see its dark side. He neglects the corruption of French officials, both at home and in occupied territories, the widespread plundering of supposedly “liberated” peoples, the slaughter of dissidents, and the widespread atrocities committed by French troops, which often sparked resistance from the very people the Revolution claimed to be liberating. There are, however, flaws common in treatments of the era, and Reiss is commendably more critical of Napoleon, who also tends to get a favorable press.

The Black Count, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in biography, is an excellent work, well-crafted, with a flowing narrative that makes for an easy read.

November 17, 2013

The Anglosphere

Filed under: Britain, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:27

In the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Hannan discusses exceptionalism and the Anglosphere:

We often use the word “Western” as a shorthand for liberal-democratic values, but we’re really being polite. What we mean is countries that have adopted the Anglo-American system of government. The spread of “Western” values was, in truth, a series of military victories by the Anglosphere.

I realize that all this might seem strange to American readers. Am I not diluting the uniqueness of the U.S., the world’s only propositional state, by lumping it in with the rest of the Anglosphere? Wasn’t the republic founded in a violent rejection of the British Empire? Didn’t Paul Revere rouse a nation with his cry of “the British are coming”?

Actually, no. That would have been a remarkably odd thing to yell at a Massachusetts population that had never considered itself anything other than British (what the plucky Boston silversmith actually shouted was “The regulars are coming out!”). The American Founders were arguing not for the rejection but for the assertion of what they took to be their birthright as Englishmen. They were revolutionaries in the 18th-century sense of the word, whereby a revolution was understood to be a complete turn of the wheel: a setting upright of that which had been placed on its head.


There was a fashion for florid prose in the 18th century, but the second American president, John Adams, wasn’t exaggerating when he identified the Anglosphere’s beautiful, anomalous legal system — which today covers most English-speaking countries plus Israel, almost an honorary member of the club, alongside the Netherlands and the Nordic countries — as the ultimate guarantor of freedom: “The liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature… and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England.”

Freedom under the law is a portable commodity, passed on through intellectual exchange rather than gene flow. Anyone can benefit from constitutional liberty simply by adopting the right institutions and the cultural assumptions that go with them. The Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia, why Hong Kong is not China — and, for that matter, not Macau. As the distinguished Indian writer Madhav Das Nalapat, holder of the Unesco Peace Chair, puts it, the Anglosphere is defined not by racial affinity but “by the blood of the mind.”

At a time when most countries defined citizenship by ancestry, Britain was unusual in developing a civil rather than an ethnic nationality. The U.S., as so often, distilled and intensified a tendency that had been present in Great Britain, explicitly defining itself as a creedal polity: Anyone can become American simply by signing up to the values inherent in the Constitution.

August 22, 2013

Chinese government philosophy in the headlines

Filed under: China, Government, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:57

Jon, my former virtual landlord, sent me this link and said “Does this sort of thing really matter any more? Aren’t all governments doing this?”

Under Tocqueville’s Influence, China Chooses Despotism
Paul A. Rahe

In the last few days, the national press has been full of reports suggesting that China’s new President, Xi Jinping, is orchestrating a revival of Maoism and a crackdown on those in China who would like to introduce within that country the procedures, practices, and institutions that distinguish the West: the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and “universal values” – which is to say, a respect for human rights. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story on Saturday, claims that Xi is receiving strong support from former President Jiang Zemin; and on Monday The New York Times filled in some of the details:

    Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.

    These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

    Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change.


The evidence now suggests the contrary — that Wang Qishan is by no means alone in his convictions, that Xi Jingpin and his lieutenants take quite seriously the possibility that China is in a pre-revolutionary situation, and that they are intent on putting a lid on everything. Where Tocqueville might have suggested that the way forward was for the country’s leaders to embrace the “seven subversive currents,” to carry out a revolution from above, and to gradually introduce into the country the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and a respect for human rights, they have decided in this year — the 120th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s birth — to return to the path he charted more than 60 years ago.

July 4, 2013

Egypt’s new post-Morsi era

Filed under: Middle East, Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:14

Daniel Pipes sees joy in the aftermath of Morsi’s removal from power, but also worry. Lots of worry:

The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt delights and worries me.

Delight is easy to explain. What appears to have been the largest political demonstration in history uprooted the arrogant Islamists of Egypt who ruled with near-total disregard for anything other than consolidating their own power. Islamism, the drive to apply a medieval Islamic law and the only vibrant radical utopian movement in the world today, experienced an unprecedented repudiation. Egyptians showed an inspiring spirit.

If it took 18 days to overthrow Husni Mubarak in 2011, just four were needed to overthrow Morsi this past week. The number of deaths commensurately went down from about 850 to 40. Western governments (notably the Obama administration) thinking they had sided with history by helping the Muslim Brotherhood regime found themselves appropriately embarrassed.

My worry is more complex. The historical record shows that the thrall of radical utopianism endures until calamity sets in. On paper, fascism and communism sound appealing; only the realities of Hitler and Stalin discredited and marginalized these movements.

In the case of Islamism, this same process has already begun; indeed, the revulsion started with much less destruction wrought than in the prior two cases (Islamism not yet having killed tens of millions) and with greater speed (years, not decades). Recent weeks have seen three rejections of Islamist rule in a row, what with the Gezi Park-inspired demonstrations across Turkey, a resounding victory by the least-hardline Islamist in the Iranian elections on June 14, and now the unprecedentedly massive refutation of the Muslim Brotherhood in public squares along the Nile River.

But I fear that the quick military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government will exonerate Islamists.

February 25, 2013

What Argo doesn’t show about “The Canadian Caper” of 1979

Filed under: Cancon, History, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:15

In Maclean’s, one of the American diplomats who took part in the actual hostage drama in Tehran provides a bit of supplementary material to the film Argo:

Ben Affleck’s Argo has stormed box offices, collected awards [. . .] yet Canadians of a certain age may find themselves thinking: This is not quite how I remember those days. I was there when Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, and it is not quite how I remember them either. Argo is terrific entertainment, but it tells only a part of our story, and says nothing at all about many of the real heroes — most Canadian — who helped rescue us. Before Argo came along, our rescue was routinely called the “Canadian Caper.” It still should be. The operation consisted of four distinct phases. Three were almost entirely Canadian, and only one involved significant U.S. assistance.

For those not of a certain age, a brief summary is a good starting point. Nov. 4, 1979 brought cold rain and hinted of trouble of a different sort. Two weeks earlier, then-president Jimmy Carter decided to admit the former shah of Iran to the U.S. for cancer treatment. Iranians were outraged; many suspected it was a plot by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to remove Iran’s new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and put the shah back in charge. Protests outside Tehran’s U.S. Embassy had become daily occurrences. That November morning, demonstrators climbed the gate and soon controlled the compound.

[. . .]

Phase four always receives the least attention. The U.S. government was desperate to keep the CIA’s role secret, rightly fearing its disclosure might endanger the hostages (who weren’t freed until 1981). This concern was sufficiently real that we were asked to live under false names in Florida until the hostages were set free. I was looking forward to seeing how many speeding tickets my alter ego could accumulate, but La Presse decided to publish Jean Pelletier’s story once the Canadian Embassy in Tehran had closed. We came home to a rousing reception and the Canadians were asked to claim complete credit for our escape. That job understandably fell to ambassador Taylor, who spent the better part of a year on the rubber chicken circuit at receptions to honour the Canadian government and people for helping us. Some have said he did the job too well, or failed to share the credit with other embassy staff. My own experience contradicts this. I heard Taylor speak several times. He always mentioned his staff. I also tried, during press interviews I gave, to mention others, particularly the Sheardowns. My comments were edited out. It seemed the press could handle only one hero at a time. Unfortunately, this meant John Sheardown, who was indispensable in phase one, became invisible in phase four. I truly believe John did not care. He did his duty as he saw it. For those who loved and respected him, it was painful.

[. . .]

As I wrote at the beginning, Argo is a wonderful film. Not because it is historically accurate, but because, aside from its technical brilliance, it reminds us of a time when ordinary people performed great deeds, and two neighbours that feud over many small and not so small things came together and did something magnificent. Maybe it didn’t change history, but for we six house guests it was truly life changing. And it was, and should always remain, the Canadian Caper.

November 10, 2012

What Ataturk accomplished to create modern Turkey

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:35

History Today posted that today is the anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire:

Mustapha Kemal Pasha was given the honorific title ‘father of the Turks’ at the height of a revolution which he was pushing forward intuitively and idiosyncratically, there being no precedent for such a fundamental sea change in a Muslim state.

Inevitably, it took someone standing outside the Islamic tradition of Ottoman Turkey to create a new state out of Anatolia — rising from the wreck of the empire. But as The Times was to say in its obituary, this was a man of extraordinary qualities; a Cromwell of the Middle East and also a maverick with an almost feminine subtlety in handling crises on the path to supreme power. He had an iron will and displayed single-mindedness when it came to ensuring the security of the state, even to hanging former confederates who plotted against his revolution.

Ataturk was born of an Albanian mother in Salonika and, without connections followed a military career in which, after being involved with the Young Turks reformist movement, he made his name in 1915 by rushing reinforcements to the Gallipoli beach-head and holding the ANZAC assault.

[. . .]

The Kemalists formed a provisional government in the small town of Ankara, in the middle of the desolate Anatolian plateau. On the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts the Greeks and Italians laid claim to what they regarded as their Asia Minor birthright, hoping to recreate some sort of classical empire. Kemal disabused the Greeks, who soon, of all the Allies hoping for a piece of Anatolia, were alone in arms against the nationalist forces. Halted in a blistering hot wilderness just short of Ankara, the Greeks, who had out-marched their supply lines, were outflanked and thrown back by Kemal’s outnumbered and ragged levies at the Sakaria river. A retreat became a headlong flight and the Greek forces joined their fellow nationals and the Armenians and foreigners who had formed the mercantile community of Smyrna, in a panic-stricken evacuation of the sacked and blazing port. Kemal is supposed to have indulged in a drinking orgy as Smyrna went up in flames — a Tartar conqueror’s celebration of total victory.

The Greeks quit the struggle and their sponsor, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who had threatened armed British intervention backed by the fleet to keep Constantinople an open port under British protection, followed suit. The French and Russians signed separate treaties, giving the Kemalists recognition and aid.

October 14, 2012

Imagine if Eric Hobsbawm had been a Nazi apologist rather than a Communist apologist

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:25

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe:

Hobsbawm [...] was a lifelong Marxist, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party from his teens until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long after it was evident to even true believers that the Bolshevik Revolution had unleashed a nightmare of blood, Hobsbawm went on defending, minimizing, and excusing the crimes of communism.

Interviewed on the BBC in 1994, he was asked whether he would have shunned the Communist Party had he known in 1934 that Stalin was butchering innocent human beings by the millions. “Probably not,” he answered — after all, at the time he believed he was signing up for world revolution. Taken aback by such indifference to carnage, the interviewer pressed the point. Was Hobsbawm saying that if a communist paradise had actually been created, “the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm’s answer: “Yes.”

Imagine that Hobsbawm had fallen in love with Nazism as a youth and spent the rest of his career whitewashing Hitler’s atrocities. Suppose he’d refused for decades to let his Nazi Party membership lapse, and argued that the Holocaust would have been an acceptable price to pay for the realization of a true Thousand-Year Reich. It is inconceivable that he would have been hailed as a brilliant thinker or basked in acclaim; no self-respecting university would have hired him to teach; politicians and pundits would not have lined up to shower him with accolades during his life and tributes after his death.

Yet Hobsbawm was fawned over, lionized in the media, made a tenured professor at a prestigious university, invited to lecture around the world. He was heaped with glories, including the Order of the Companions of Honour — one of Britain’s highest civilian awards — and the lucrative Balzan Prize, worth 1 million Swiss francs. His death was given huge play in the British media — the BBC aired an hour-long tribute and the Guardian led its front page with the news — and political leaders waxed fulsome. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair called him “a giant … a tireless agitator for a better world.”

October 11, 2012

Venezuela’s man on a white horse

Filed under: Americas, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

In sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill says that the western leftist affection for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez illustrates its intellectual disarray:

For an insight into the collapsed standards, declining intellectual rigour and desperate opportunism of the modern Western left, look no further than its fawning over Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In the past, much of the left — both the radical sections and even some of the stuffy Stalinist crowd — was highly critical of the Bonapartist antics of populist Latin American leaders. They critiqued the way these leaders mobilised the masses to give their narrow, bourgeois, largely state-orientated policies a gloss of legitimacy or the appearance of revolutionism. But now, so isolated is the Western left, so bereft is it of a domestic constituency or anything approaching a political plan, that it sees in Chavez’s twenty-first-century Bonapartism something ‘genuinely progressive’.

This week, Chavez won a fourth term as president of Venezuela. He did not repeat his landslide victory of 2006, instead winning a safe but not-especially-astounding 54 per cent of the vote (on a turnout of 81 per cent). His supporters among Western radicals immediately went into hyperbolic hyperdrive, talking about the ‘revolution’ that Chavez has led in Venezuela and commending him for ‘challenging imperial domination’. Chavez’s posturing against US influence in Latin America and his implementation of social-assistance programmes for the Venezuelan poor are variously described as ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ and part of his broader ‘profoundly revolutionary struggle’. He is compared to Simon Bolivar, the nineteenth-century political leader who liberated much of the Latin American continent from Spanish rule, or to Che Guevara, the more recent Argentine radical beloved of t-shirt sellers in hipster communities across the West.

Yet these accolades for Chavez tell us far more about the state of mind, and deep, existential needs, of the disarrayed left than they do about any revolution taking place in Venezuela. Because in truth, Chavez has far more in common with the populist style of the nationalist leadership pioneered in Latin America by Juan Peron, whom the left castigated for his exploitation of the masses, than he does with yesteryear’s revolutionaries. Juan Peron was an Argentine military leader who, after playing a role in the army’s 1943 seizing of power from the corrupt regime of Ramon Castillo, was elected president of Argentina in 1946, 1951 and briefly again in the 1970s. His rule — which came to be known as Peronism and was influential among populist left-wing leaders in Latin America — consisted of a combination of anti-Western actions, concessions to the working classes and the poor in the form of higher wages and trade union recognition, and populist demagogy. Through this process, Peron was able to build up an impressive mass base of support for his pursuit of nationalist capitalist development in Argentina.

October 2, 2012

Eric Hobsbawm is about to be beatified as “the most celebrated British historian of the 20th century”

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

Michael Burleigh on the recently deceased — and totally unrepentant Communist — Eric Hobsbawm:

I can almost hear the wave of mourning that is about to fix Hobsbawm in the public consciousness as “the most celebrated British historian of the 20th century”. You have to understand the British Left, which is still near hegemonic in the humanities and social science departments in our universities, to grasp why those of a more liberal conservative persuasion will disagree.

First there is the tendency to worship at the feet of foreign gurus, a failing George Orwell (or as Hobsbawm had it, the “upper-class Englishman Eric Blair”) attributed to Britain’s alienated intellectuals taking “their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow”. This led them to give credibility to such evanescent charlatans as Michel Foucault, the chief exponent of “knowledge as power”, and the Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said.

[. . .]

Throughout, there was a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure. Asked by the Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff on television whether the deaths of 20 million people in the USSR — not to mention the 55 to 65 million victims of Mao’s Great Leap Forward — might have been justified if this Red utopia had been realised, Hobsbawm muttered in the affirmative.

Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges, while being manifestly nonplussed by the democratic transformations of Central Europe since 1989-90. That the secret police — the Sword and Shield of the Revolution — would end up running Vladimir Putin’s FSB-mafia state was literally inexplicable to him.

June 29, 2012

From Maoism to Kleptocracy in one generation

Filed under: Business, China, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

China’s economic growth has been one of the wonders of the modern world, as one of the poorest nations has pulled itself well up the economic tables over just the last twenty years. What it has not done, however, is replace the communist leadership with democratically elected leaders. What has happened is that switching from a pure command economy to a freer economy has created fantastic opportunities for graft and corruption. Opportunities which have been grasped eagerly by party leaders and their friends and family:

As I set out in The Fall of the Communist Dynasty, and a HT to John Hempton’s piece within which he contends that the entire Chinese economy is a Kleptocracy , this week we have news from Citron Research who reports that Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd is ‘a deception on a grande scale’ .

Citron quote ;-

‘Evergrande who ranks among the top 5 Chinese property companies. Our analysis and primary research reveal that: 1] Evergrande is insolvent; and 2] Evergrande will be severely challenged from a liquidity perspective. The Company’s management has applied at least 6 accounting shenanigans to mask Evergrande’s insolvency. Our research indicates that a total write-­down of RMB 71bn is required and Evergrande’s pro forma equity is negative 36bn.’

What sparked Citrons interest in Evergrande was the mail order doctorate the chairman claimed from the University of West Alabama, a small college 230 miles north of New Orleans with 2300 on-campus students. Evergrande’s is one of the top 5 players in the Chinese property market that fell for its 8th consecutive month in May. My experience with these types of matters is that small things can be excellent markers to greater problems. Small examples of dishonesty in one area of life are often reflected in larger undiscovered examples in other areas of a person’s life.

[. . .]

Zoomlion has an interesting business model, it is similar in many of ways to Caterpillar, except whereas Caterpillar report falling sales, Zoomlion reports astounding sales growth with a fivefold increase in revenue since 2007. Zoomlion customers sometimes buy ten concrete mixers when they planned to initially by one or two. They have a perverse incentive to buy more than they need because these concrete trucks are purchased via finance packages supplied by Zoomlion.

Then the machines can be garaged and used as collateral to borrow further funds from other lenders. Zoomlion continues to grow while cement sales have plunged. In May, cement output increased 4.3 per cent YoY, down from 19.2 per cent recorded last year. Zoomlion’s new debt of $22.5B buys roughly 900,000 trucks which could produce enough concrete (at six loads a day) to build over thirty Great Pyramids of Giza a day.

[. . .]

All revolutions have class and economic matters at their core. Ironically, the difference in a future Chinese collapse is that the expropriators in China in this cycle have been the Communist Party political class. The CCP have become the Kleptopreneur bourgeoisie who have expropriated from China’s proletariat (the industrial working class), via corruption and theft from the state and state owned enterprises. The Ka-Ching Dynasty is responsible for the greatest looting of a nation in history.

Marx wrote that modern bourgeois society (Capitalism) has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells (Karl Marx)

The CCP ‘sorcerers’ have summoned up a political and economic nether world that is so systemically corrupted it is in the process of spiralling into same revolutionary physics that destroyed the original Chinese merchant bourgeoisie that Mao overthrew.

Earlier posts on China’s economy are here. H/T to Cory Doctorow for the link.

May 26, 2012

Neil Davenport reviews Tony Judt’s final book

Filed under: History, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:13

As I just started reading Judt’s best known work recently (Postwar), I was unaware that Judt had died not long after that book was published. In the sp!ked review of books, Neil Davenport reviews Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder:

In 2008, Judt discovered that he was suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), an incurable degenerative disease. Over a two-year period, Snyder records and transcribes a series of conversations that cover both Judt’s life and intellectual pursuits by way of the tumultuous events of the last century. Judt died in August 2010, 62 years old, just a few weeks after dictating a final afterword to this book.

The format works surprisingly well. Judt relishes his role as a public intellectual and makes accessible huge swathes of history and ideas throughout the book’s 400 pages. There are never any lapses into impenetrable jargon or academic riddles. The book is tremendously lucid and informed, thoughtful and engaging. Credit must be given to Snyder who, rather than stamping on the coat tails of Judt’s intellect, proffers sharp questions and observations only intermittently. When he does, it serves as a striking reminder that this is a conversation, not an academic monologue. Mostly we are left to marvel at Judt’s command of his material, his knowledge, intellect and insights, as they’re casually reeled off into a digital recorder. The working-class ex-grammar school boy makes attractive and vital something that has been relentlessly and scandalously attacked in recent decades: a liberal, humanities-based education.

[. . .]

Judt gave much of his early career to the history of the French left, but could not buy into their assumption that the Russian Revolution was merely the continuation of 1789. And to his credit, he saw through the cultural studies, Marcuse-era left of 1968, too. As he rightly puts it, ‘my residual socialist-Marxist formation made me instinctively suspicious of the popular notion that students might now be a — the — revolutionary class’. He was also spot on about how the cultural left fragmented history as a discipline into competing ‘narratives’.

These are all sharp, well-observed points. So it’s a pity that, like so many left-leaning academics before him, he retained that most durable of illusions: belief in the credibility of the British Labour Party’s social democracy. For someone so well versed in Marxism and interwar radicalism, it’s surprising that he remained steadfastly quiet about the real purpose of social democracy. And if he was feeling generous about its achievements, he doesn’t nail down social democracy’s strengths during its postwar heyday, either. Although he used the social-democracy banner to describe contemporary politics both in Britain and Europe, there’s no awareness of how ‘parliamentary socialism’ has come to mean something very different in the twenty-first century.

January 28, 2012

Deirde McCloskey on the “Bourgeois Virtues” that sparked the modern world

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:08

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dalibor Rohac reviews some of the key arguments in McCloskey’s recent book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (which I’m currently reading — and very impressed with).

Unlike “Bourgeois Virtues,” “Bourgeois Dignity” makes a historical argument. Modern economic growth, she claims, is a result of an ideological and rhetorical transformation. In the Elizabethan period, business was sneered upon. In Shakespeare’s plays, the only major bourgeois character, Antonio, is a fool because of his affection for Bassanio. There is no need to dwell on how the other bourgeois character in “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock, is characterized.

She contrasts this with attitudes 200 years later. When James Watt died in 1819, a statue of him was erected in Westminster Abbey and later moved to St. Paul’s cathedral. This would have been unthinkable two centuries earlier. In Ms. McCloskey’s view, this shift in perceptions was central to the economic take-off of the West. “A bourgeois deal was agreed upon,” she says. “You let me engage in innovation and creative destruction, and I will make you rich.” A commercial class that was not ostracized or sneered at was thus able to activate the engine of modern economic growth.

Ms. McCloskey insists that alternative explanations for the Industrial Revolution fail, for a variety of reasons. Property rights, she says, could not have been the principal cause because England and many other societies had stable and secure property rights for a long time. Similarly, Atlantic trade and plundering of the colonies were too insignificant in revenue to have made the real difference. There had long been much more trade in the Indian Ocean than in the Atlantic, moreover, and China or India had never experienced an industrial revolution.

By elimination, Ms. McCloskey concludes that culture and rhetoric are the only factors that can account for economic change of the magnitude we have seen in the developed world in past 250 years.

December 30, 2011

Revolution driven by social media? How 16th Century . . .

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

The Economist shows that there’s nothing new in social media as a catalyst for change:

It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.

Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks — what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

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