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Sep 17, 2001
Jun 01, 2002
We recently reviewed a book from the left of the trades union movement, written twelve years ago, to see what insights it might give us into the curre
We recently reviewed a book from the left of the trades union movement, written twelve years ago, to see what insights it might give us into the current (2015) UK General Election - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
This is a similar exercise but the review takes place after an 'unexpected' (to the sort of pundit who writes these sorts of book) Conservative victory and amidst a renewal of ideological infighting inside the Labour Party that lost power in 2010.
This is a lesser book than Andrew Murray's account of trades unionism but still useful. Written in 2001, this edition is a 2002 'update' although the final part merely shows a rushed attempt to ensure decent paperback sales.
Fortunately, James Naughtie has contained his tendency to develop rhetorical 'cadences' after the introduction so you get broadly straight reporting of the political history of the relationship betwen Blair and Brown through to the beginning of their second term.
Naturally, this book will tell you nothing about the central event of the second term, the divisive Iraq War, nor the bulk of that term, nor the third term and Brown's succession and brief rule in which his plans were thrown into the air by the damaging Crash of 2008.
The period of rule from 1997 to 2010 was remarkable by any standards. Its 'true historie' has yet to be written but this book gives us insights into the political phenomenon of New Labour through observing the twin leadership just beyond the point of reaffirmed power in 2001.
One does suspect that, writing contemporaneously as a journalist relying on interviews rather than as a historian with access to papers, Naughtie is giving us a convenient narrative to create meaning rather than giving us the absolute truth of the matter.
Sometimes the story seems a little to pat, too much like the morality tale much beloved of newspapermen that fails to take into account the messiness of life and the complexity of people. I would not take the story over-seriously and there are occasional errors.
For example, no one expected the massive landside in 1997 - I was there, in the Labour Party system, and the general expectation was of a majority of around or up to 50. This expectation is important because if you do not understand it, you do not understand the politics.
The point was that, in 1997, New Labour was not quite a done deal. The majority made it a done deal - for the moment. Before 1997, Blair was anticipating have to draw in the 'soft' Left (about 50 active MPs) to counter the 'hard' Left (about the same).
Note the numbers - which was why MPs like Fatchett and Hain were suddenly seen on platforms in the last days of the election and why Hain was fast-tracked into the higher ranks of the Government where he was to stay.
If you know this, then the talks with the Liberals become less some ideological obsession of Blair's and more a case of practical politics for him that, a politics that would be intrinsically less attractive to Prescott (whose power increased with the power of the soft Left) or even Brown.
The Liberals were simply no longer necessary as it became clear that New Labour had established itself within the Party and that, though reduced, decent majorities could be had from that point on and, more to the point, by then, the Hard Left was practically defunct.
The real story of the national politics of this period is the systematic destruction of the old Left (which wholly failed to take advantage of public concern at the warrior mentality of the Prime Minister) and the eventual containment of the trades unions.
By 2003 (after this book ends), New Labour was paramount so that, in 2010, when a new Leader had to be elected only the heirs of the two founders of it could realistically contest its leadership - and they happened to be brothers!
Where the book is far more useful and well worth reading today is in the Scottish origins of the power struggles within the Party and what we begin to see is just how dependent and how related to Scottish politics was New Labour.
Think about this - after another Celt [Kinnock] departed, the next Leader was Scottish [Smith], his successor was educated in Scotland [Blair], the dominant economic figure [Brown] was Scottish and the leader of the Soft Left was Scottish [Cook].
Naughtie, a Scot himself, gives us a picture of a Party always looking sideways at its dominance of the sister nation to a complacent England and he tells us much about the debates over the Union and devolution that led to the victory of the proponents of the latter.
These debates have proved central to the plight of the Party today. Elsewhere - http://positionreserved.blogspot.co.u... - we have argued that, as a coalitional party, the loss of Scotland is highly dangerous to it.
That loss, made manifest a few days ago, was written into a script that Naughtie outlines for us but which, perfectly reasonably, he could not follow through to a predictive conclusion.
Cook argued that Labour should stick by the Union. Brown argued for devolution as a concession that would stop the SNP in its tracks and preserve Labour hegemony. Brown won but ended up arguing for Union against a near-run Independence Referendum over a decade later.
While the 2014 Brown won his battle within devolution, his Party lost the war and, in losing Scotland, they lost the motor for the social justice modernisers that he represented.
With Balls losing his seat, Miliband having to resign as Leader and the 2008 Crash looming over Brown's prudential redistributive strategy, the Brown vision of the Labour Party as responsible governors of the Union is all but dead.
Meanwhile, the Blairites are still standing and ready to demand a return to the Radical Centrism of the Blair era, perhaps not understanding that Cameron has already stolen that territory and is ready to expand on it with five years to do it in.
The last fully English leader of the Labour Party before Milliband and the temporary incumbencies of Harriet Harman (metropolitan intellectuals) was Michael Foot and he also was a Hampstead intellectual. We do not count the temporary incumbency of the capable Margaret Beckett.
If you look at the history of the Party, its leaders were almost entirely Scottish from 1908 to 1932 (with one brief year under the forgotten Clynes). From 1932 to 1983, they were exclusively English.
Scottish socialism ideologically drove the Labour Party disproportionate to the population but proportionate to its role as 'work shop' of the Empire but a national Party was strong when it was seen to be British, meaning in reality able to appeal to the English working class.
The strategy of dumping the English worker in favour of identity groups of which the biggest is women (who refuse to be corralled in this way) but which also includes ethnic minorities and LGBT is not unconnected to this withdrawal from 'England'.
The more recent return to Scottish dominance suggests that Labour was indeed losing its base in the south while simultaneously, as New Labour, appealing to its prejudices.
But the appeal was always form and not substance. It thus strikes this reader that 2015 was an accident waiting to happen and Naughtie's earlier chapters provide valuable background here.
So what of the main subjects of the book - Blair and Brown and their rivalry? We have already intimated that the journalistic narrative demands that the rivalry be talked up.
I have to say that I find this over-done - this partnership lasted many decades and, though no doubt it had its frustrations and serious squabbles, the core of it was sustained, albeit as rival and often childish courts.
The secret to New Labour power was compartmentalisation and containment. Blair's political genius lay in containing centres of power (such as trades unions or the political Left in Parliament) in order to give himself total freedom where it interested him to be free.
It just so happened that he really was immensely bored by economics once he had laid down the general rules of 'aspiration and inclusion' (in David Miliband's phraseology) and happy to have Brown sort out boring interdepartmental squabbles over resourcing.
In return, when he decided to strut on the world stage or offer us 'aspiration and inclusion' homilies, the alternative centres of power in Parliament and the Party had nothing to say because they were so busy protecting the feudal estates granted them by his Majesty.
The secret to New Labour is that it moved from being a truly federal Party with competing centres of power creating policy through struggle (but making itself increasingly unelectable) to a feudal Party, headed by a Sun King and his Court, only interested in the sinews of war.
The fact that the succession was disputed by two brothers only makes the feudal analogy more appropriate. The Kingdom is now, accordingly, riven by rebellions (Scotland) and no doubt 'assassinations' and 'plots and counter plots'.
The character of Brown is well drawn in this book, possibly because Naughtie as a Scot, has a better feel for his origins and culture than many others.
He comes across, I think truthfully, as a serious and moral if difficult man with a genuine concern for poverty and social justice. He is also a pragmatist (a curse word on the Left) who sees, rightly, that poverty alleviation must depend on sustainable resources.
Blair is another kettle of fish and my attitude changed to him as I read the book. He really is the cuckoo in the Labour nest and it is staggering that even the desperate post-Kinnock Party allowed this man to rule it in a deal with the devil.
At one level, there is something of the likeable rogue about him with a refreshing lack of seriousness about politics as understood by most activists, who wears his undoubted intelligence lightly and just wants to enjoy himself in office.
Where one starts to worry is where one should worry - his stealthy introduction of communitarian religiosity into a party of the secular Left that always had plenty of room for Catholics and Methodists alike but which, while respecting them, did not let them dictate the terms of policy.
Naughtie does not cover the later stages of this proces domestically - the earnest entry of faith-based interests into higher councils, the careful attempt to cover up faith in the Leader himself except when it suited, the link with American religiosity, multiculturalism as cover for excessive tolerance of illiberal communitarian practices.
He is also not good on the link between the messianic visionary stance of New Labour concerned with extending values globally (Brown has a similar distracting focus on global debt when he should perhaps have been concentrating on his own people) and war.
Both men took the internationalism that was always part of the socialist message, removed the core 'national' socialist element, and turned it into two very different 'crusades' for values - social justice in the case of Brown and liberal politics in the case of Blair.
Brown was more justifiably socialist, this is true, but both became part of something bigger, an expansion of values by an entirely different sort of hegemon, the global hegemon in Washington.
Although fully backed domestically by considerable constituencies that Cameron has had to court - the liberal internationalists in the NGOs and churches and authoritarian national militarists - both men looked not to native but to Atlantic traditions.
Naughtie brings this out but perhaps fails to inquire more deeply into how this came about and what it meant in terms of the pre-2008 drive towards Western hegemony that seems to be collapsing around us as we write.
Brown's politics seem to have been based on a life-long love for the progressive Democrat tradition (which, of course, was never a socialist tradition but one of moderated state-managed capitalism), forgetting that the UK and the US are entirely different societies.
Blair's values of freedom extension as markets, rights and democracy (and to be fair to him, he really does hold to the rights of people previously second-class in Western politics like gay people, minorities and women) soon became identical with neo-conservative ideology.
This Atlanticisation of the Labour Party which started in earnest under Kinnock in the general fascination with Clinton's victory in 1992 alongside the Europeanisation that started with Delors Speech to the TUC in 1988 re-orientated the Party back from 'national' social democracy to 'international' social liberalism.
This is not to say that the US State Department and NATO-driven Atlanticism have not had a powerful influence over the Labour Right since the 1940s but only that this was the first time that the link was out in the open and dominant, proud of its Presidential links whether Democrat or Republican.
Under Blair, it would be almost unthinkable that a British Labour Prime Minister would decline to support the US in an operation overseas as Harold Wilson did over Vietnam.
This is the importance of the Syrian vote in Parliament when the Labour Party and the nationalist Tory Right combined to call a halt to a similar adventure but only because a relatively weak leader actually bothered to listen to public opinion and his own Party.
As a 'sotto voce' aspect of the recent Labour failure, alongside the growing resistance to metropolitan liberalism and multiculturalism, we may add a growing sense that it is time for British politicians to attend to British (perhaps English in some quarters) interests.
Otherwise, the book is a useful reminder of the events of the first five years of New Labour rule. As the years pass, its lustre fades. It appears to be more show than substance but it leaves one big question unaddressed by Naughtie and his class - a fundamental question.
How is it that we still have a system (and this could apply to much of the Western world) in the Twenty First Century in which the destiny of some 64 million human beings are in the hands of what amount to coup-mongers within one or two organisations (political parties).
The Labour Party contains 190,000 members (the other parties less) but these members have little say over policy. Incredibly small groups of people conspire and collaborate to acquire power and hold on to it.
That two men in a restaurant can carve up a candidacy or two brothers be the only persons deemed fit to lead a 'great party of state' strikes me as a sign of decadence.
The decadence of New Labour is unspoken in this book because Naughtie is part of the elite group that loves the narrative, loves the soap opera and is not paid to question deeply what is presented before him.
As with all such books, enjoy the story if you are of that type but try to go behind what is being said and start asking some questions for yourself about whether this system is any longer fit to rule a country of such size and (still) world importance.
Still, we now have five years of a relatively strong Government (good) without a massive majority (good) based on 51% of the House of Commons (331 seats) but 36.9% of the vote in which only two thirds of the eligible voting population participated.
Labour meanwhile got 36% of the seats on 30.4% of the vote so it might be in a tail spin but it has not crashed yet. Yet, in 1945, the national turnout was 72.4% and Labour got 393 seats and 47.7% of the vote.
The New Labour experiment clearly failed to sustain the triumph of 1997 and it might be interesting to ask why. Simply blaming Ed Miliband is always going to be an evasion.
Notes are private!
May 12, 2015
Mar 01, 1990
Mar 01, 1990
This is a solid guide to the known history of inner asia, essentially of the peoples of the steppe and forest zones and of the kingdoms and empires th
This is a solid guide to the known history of inner asia, essentially of the peoples of the steppe and forest zones and of the kingdoms and empires that arose before the arrival of the great unifying Mongol Empire in thirteenth century.
It is not an easy book for non-specialists, partly because the paucity of data means much explanation of why so little is known about some events and peoples and then, where there are chronicles and histories, much explanation of various readings of the data.
By the end one finds oneself ultimately in danger of being bored by history - an amazing effect - because what we mostly have is the same persistent cycle of banditry, imperial management, temporary state-building, invasion and collapse repeated almost ad nauseam.
But if we clear away the cycles of impenetrably named tribal kings and their princesses, we have an interesting and persistent model about what happens at the margins of 'civilised' settled empires that holds lessons for us even today.
Strategies of buying off chaos with tribute, princesses or trade or employing military force that gets bogged down in an alien environment or trying both together with alliances and offers of settlement are with us today albeit in other forms.
The very stickiness of the barbarian/civilised relationship lies in the fact that no empire can sustainably conquer even its known world without seeing itself implode from within. On the other hand, no barbarian people can conquer and administer a weak existing empire without becoming its past enemy both culturally and in terms of administrative methods.
This beat of imperial over-reach and the seduction of the invader or the migrant creates something close to our own situation. Humanity comes to appear like some organic thing with its own historical heart beat. We seem to be in the slow decline stage in the West with the barbarians quietly turning into us because we could never conquer them with our legions.
The book only includes scholarship up until the date of publication (1990). While it contains a great deal of Soviet scholarship, one assumes that much more would be added today from the study of Chinese archives.
The book also has the problem of all Cambridge Histories in being very poorly served with maps despite its high level of scholarship. The book needs no photographs but it desperately needs more and better maps.
The tribal movements of the peoples described from the Scythians and Sarmatians to the Kitans and Jurchens (precursors to the Manchu) requires an atlas open for almost every page in order to be fully understood.
The average non-specialist is just going to give up and accept geographical vagueness after a while which is a shame because some decent maps (the ones provided are very poor) might have clarified matters of time and space considerably. Instead we have specialists clarifying matters of orthography and nomenclature for each other. Fine for specialists but not adding much to the education of the public.
This might not seem important but there is important stuff here about the creation of the Hungarian and Turkic peoples, about the Tibetan Empire and the creation of Tibetan culture, about the coming of Islam into Central Asia and about the relationship between imperial states and 'barbarians' that might affect how we see the world today.
Central Asia is still important and was an important battle ground in the imperial struggle for Asia in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it was subsumed under two tough-minded communist empires and so it was rather treated as marginal to world history.
The collapse of the Russian side of the communist equation permitted a number of Turkic-type Central Asian authoritarian republics to emerge and it has helped to create a problem of Islamic resurgence in China's West. Both Mongolia and Tibet exist as potential players in a Great Game. The zone is now far from marginal.
And Great Game there is with Western interests making intense efforts to drive a spike into the Eurasian Co-Prosperity project, potentially aided by Turkic nationalism driven from Ankara. Recent events have cast the Western strategy in doubt but that is another story.
Inner Asia remains geo-politically important in itself as the central factor in any Eurasian project to bind the Chinese East Coast with the North German plain in one massive economic zone, an outcome which Russia dearly needs and wants.
It is also important as exemplar of the relations between a settled and prosperous centre and a mobile and hungry periphery that seem to be one of the few eternals of human social existence and which have come to the fore again under conditions of globalisation.
This book is thus a useful backgrounder on some of these themes even if it is not the book to answer the more important questions arising from the history it provides.
Notes are private!
Feb 24, 2015
Jan 28, 1982
This book takes the story of the House of Saud and of Saudi Arabia only up to 1979 and Juhaiman bin Muhammed Utaibi's crazed attempt to seize the shri
This book takes the story of the House of Saud and of Saudi Arabia only up to 1979 and Juhaiman bin Muhammed Utaibi's crazed attempt to seize the shrine at Mecca but it remains valuable.
The authors seemed to think in 1980 that the 'regime' had little chance of long term survival, yet here we are, thirty five years later, with the Kingdom still an arbiter, if not the arbiter, of much Middle Eastern politics despite intensifying liberal distaste for its system.
The book falls into two natural parts - an exciting narrative history that takes us from the origins of the Saudi State to the removal of King Saud and then a much more plodding story of the 1960s and 1970s that, at times, is like reading Keesing's Contemporary Archives.
The early narrative history (and perhaps the story of the attempted seizure of the shrine towards the end) now seem more relevant than the tortuous business of becoming an oil power and finding some way to solve the Palestiniam problem (a failure) without destroying the global economy and inviting US military intervention (a success).
I have never liked the primitive demonisation of the Kingdom which tends to come from rather thick ideological fanatics whose hysteria is carefully fanned by the Israeli lobby but it is clear that the Dynasty has had to learn by doing in an amazingly short period of time and that this has inevitably meant errors of judgment.
The charge of Saudi Arabia being a wahhabi fanatic regime has never really stood up. It is a Government that took modernisation rather for granted up until 1979 and then found that it had to row back towards traditionalism in the subsequent decades precisely because of the shock of the attack on the Holy Places.
What the book does not tell us is what happened next as the US and the Saudis found common cause against Communism in the Reagan era and both jointly made dreadful mistakes that were still being compounded as late as last year (2014).
It is not Saudi Arabia that stands as 'villain' here but a somewhat disturbing dialectic between a US that has morphed into its own form of ideological fanaticism under the fateful gaze of the players in its increasingly plutocratic domestic politics and a Kingdom trying to manage traditionalism and consistently failing because it is not dealing with its central core.
This central core is not what it appears to be - that is, some religious revelation - but a sustained revolt by traditionalists whose essential ideology is anti-imperialist and anti-Western and which is now fuelled by hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised and poor young men (and women). The female commitment to radical traditionalism was there in Mecca in 1979 and it is still clearly present in the story of Islamic State - a very inconvenient truth to liberatory liberal feminists. Nothing is ever simple in the Middle East.
To read the early narrative in this book is to understand better the roots of the current crisis - the betrayals of Arab aspirations by an arrogant British imperialism, the shift of a people who could know serious hunger as late as the 1940s into the super-wealthy without the time to prepare and the failure of the US to maintain its own anti-imperialist stance after 1945 and become a tail wagged by a Congressional dog on a tight Zionist lead.
In this context, the achievement of the House of Saud in managing to survive, modernise the Arabian Peninsula (albeit inefficiently) and avoid destabilising the Western economy in which it has its own portfolio investment stake is more remarkable than the failures.
Western liberal fanaticism, directed at pushing this elite, whose alleged corruption is not always what it appears to be when one sees how funds are disbursed to feudal followers in order to maintain stability, deeper into a hole dug by modernisers and traditionalist loons alike, may be a major own goal for the West.
The time when a democratic revolution would have handed over the Kingdom to secular modernisers whether socialist or Baathist is over. A bungled military coup in the 1960s simply showed just how under-developed the country was at that time. This coup might not have been pro-Western but it would have been 'manageable' as most revolutionary regimes became manageable in the subsequent decades.
What might erupt now with a standard issue colour revolution, not just as Sunni traditionalism but Shia rage at their historic oppression (a major error of judgment by the dynasty for half a century), would simply turn this country into another blood-soaked Syria and then probably spread to the other Gulf States. The effect on our economies would be interesting to say the least.
The Yemen has already got to the point where US Embassy personnel are having to scuttle ignominiously and the apparent victors are no friends of the Kingdom or the West. So many opportunities have been lost in a confluence of incompetencies and malignities but the Saudis themselves are only one part of the problem and not the worst of it by any means. Look to our own elected and career officials before throwing stones at Saudi windows.
In a sense, we Western liberals (the ones with brains instead of hearts on sleeves) really have nowhere to go now except to hope that the Dynasty remains strong enough to reform in the general direction of a Muslim rule of law and that it has finally learned its lesson about the sort of people it throws money at.
One model for understanding what has happened is that of the barbarian and the empire. The radical traditionalists are steppe barbarians (not far from the reality insofar as their extremism comes from a nomadic Iron Age base) and Riyadh is Rome or Chang'an under the Tang.
There are only three strategies in such cases - buy the bad guys off, crush the bad guys with punitive expeditions or duck and dive between the two and suck the barbarians into civilisation. The first is what the Saudis have had to do, more than they should, because of their limited population resources and administrative capacity. The third is what they should have done or perhaps are trying to do even now but it takes time and time is not what the dim-wits in Congress or the liberal media are going to give them.
The second option would require the massive intervention of the West as not much more than Saudi Arabia's political mercenaries (more so than was tried in Afghanistan, arming Saudi fanatics using Saudi money). The political risks of this for Western Governments can be seen in the hysteria of its populations at a few European shooting incidents. The killers genuinely believe they are merely taking the war home but that is another story.
There is not much more to say other than that armchair whiners about wahhabis should start reading books like this and try to understand the history of and constraints within the Saudi polity. By all means encourage liberal reform but accept that this is the devil we have come to know and that our economies and security require the Kingdom's survival.
A Saudi anti-traditionalist middle class is already emerging and it is increasingly managing to develop an incipient Saudi nationalism alongside a desire for liberal change. In time, this class will be the decider of fates and this is where it will get interesting.
Either the House of Saud will follow the path of the British Monarchy which it so admires and transfer authority to the population in a series of calculated steps or some split in the ruling order at some stage in the future will trigger the classic stages of a bloody revolution - the nice liberals soon being eaten up by the less nice radicals.
We'll see but now is not the time to destabilise the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - not unless you are a radical liberal with the mental capacity of a bath sponge.
Notes are private!
Feb 15, 2015
Jan 01, 1991
May 15, 1991
Corelli Barnett is a polemicist about British decline as much as he is an historian. Sometimes his rhetoric could go a little 'over the top' but he ma
Corelli Barnett is a polemicist about British decline as much as he is an historian. Sometimes his rhetoric could go a little 'over the top' but he made a good case. He saw a British elite behaving as if the UK was as great a Power in the middle of the twentieth century as it had been in the nineteenth.
Nevertheless, his powers as a historian always kept him well within the bounds of reality. The facts dictated the story. In that context, this book (published in 1991) has multiple virtues as both corrective to received ideas and as a chronological narrative.
It is a weighty tome. Barnett is not shy of offering precise details of ship movements and tonnages but, if you slide over these as you are so inclined, you will get both a sound strategic overview of British naval power in the Second World War and some very exciting stories.
Let us take the second first. He takes us to the heart of the naval achievement under the heroic organiser Admiral Ramsay in abstracting thousands of defeated troops from the shore at Dunkirk in 1940.
Then there is Cunningham's achievement at the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941 which defeated the Italian Grand Fleet in the type of sea battle that might have been a throw-back to the great age of Nelson. It was indeed the last British naval fleet action.
Barnett also takes us deep into the only naval battle that was truly existential to the British - that for the Atlantic which Admiral Donitz nearly won. He explains its importance and why it was such a 'close-run thing'. Donitz was still capable of re-starting the Battle with new and superior submarine resources very late in the war as Germany itself was falling to land armies. Hitler made Donitz his successor for a reason and one of them is that he did not let him down.
There are accounts of the Arctic Convoys, the to-ing and fro-ing across the Mediterranean as the British attempted to hold their lifeline to their Asian Empire, many sea-to-land operations and, of course, the massively important contribution of the Royal Navy [Operation Neptune] to Operation Overlord, once again under Admiral Ramsay.
History has perhaps neglected men like Ramsay and Cunningham because the naval struggle in these years was essentially defensive. The actual defeat of the enemy was a matter of air raids, land forces and the island-hopping of US Admiral King and US General Macarthur but these Britons were the equals of Nelson and should be honoured as such.
Barnett's title gives you a flavour of the book. The spirit of close engagement is Nelsonian and requires an attitude to calculated risk-taking and sheer courage that really did seem to give the British an edge. It was a cultural stance as much as anything else. This is no patriotic puff piece, however. It makes the important point that the Royal Navy was technically a flawed operation, over extended and under resourced, albeit led into battle by these (mostly) remarkably brave and intelligent commanders supported by exceptional men.
The weaknesses of the Navy owed a lot to complacencies and conservatism engendered within an Empire on which the sun never set but which were also budgetary. national-economic and political - matters almost entirely out of the hands of the Admiralty although conservative attitudes in the Navy before 1939 were as costly to success initially as Anglo-French pre-war military doctrine.
The strategic story is as interesting as the tactical heroics. It is one, in summary, of utter shock at the scale and speed of collapse in the East, followed by an existential crisis in which the Navy's main role is keeping supply lines open and enabling invasions. Eventually, it becomes the story of the rather too-obvious replacement within a very few years of British naval superiority with that of the United States.
The underlying problem was economic - the British Empire was not merely over-extended and complacent but it had been exhausted by the First World War. Barnett's polemical point here and elsewhere is that the homeland economy was inefficient and plagued by truly decadent class attitudes that mitigated heavily against improved production and technological effectiveness.
I remain persuaded that the British Empire was never not going to survive the war in some form - its historic trading links and scale gave it the luxury of a certain inertia - but time and time again we see superior innovation or ability to scale up production in both Germany and the US. This alone leads to US displacement of the British Empire. One might be grateful that the Presidency was held by an anglophiliac East Coaster and not someone with the views of Admiral King or Joe Kennedy.
The book adds insights into the process by which that displacement took place. Its smoothness and inherent logic remains one of the most remarkable examples of imperial hand-over in history even if some of the British military establishment tried to equalise the relationship as they went along.
What is very interesting is the way that the Navy became the leading edge of Anglo-American co-operation, striking up practical working relationships with the American Navy that might be said to be at the very core of post-war political Atlanticism.
The Australians and New Zealanders had effectively been abandoned after the Fall of Singapore and had turned to US leadership for protection. They were not let down by Washington and they remain part of the US sphere of influence today, fully integrated into the Big Five of which the UK is only one part. Indeed, on a map of the Big Five, the UK looks decidedly odd - like an island colony, a massive Hong Kong for two faraway Continents.
The Battle of the Atlantic had certainly demanded close Anglo-American naval co-operation. This developed in response to events rapidly. Once it was decided that Germany must be brought to heel, the UK became the absolutely necessary launch pad for a military schwerpunkt. That meant that the British people had to survive much as the Arctic Convoys sent a signal that the Soviet Army had to keep driving forward.
From this perspective, the U-Boat War was perhaps not only the most dangerous existential threat to the British people since the Norman invasion but a threat not so much of German dominance of Europe as, as things started to turn out by 1944, Soviet dominance.
A UK starved into submission was not likely so much as a grinding down of the Western ability to conduct war at all except costly attrition in France and the Netherlands or on the Rhine. The Western Allies could only watch as the Red Army rolled up the Germans from behind and an interesting counter-factual is what Nagasaki and Hiroshima might have meant as threats within Europe in that eventuality.
Whatever the concerns, the North Atlantic needed to be kept open first to feed the British people and to maintain its productive capacity and then to ensure the safe arrival of hundreds of thousands of men and associated hardware from North America.
As for the Pacific theatre, this scarcely existed for the British Navy after Singapore. A somewhat pathetic defensive naval presence in the Indian Ocean held a certain line while Admiral King, an anglophobic exception to the Atlantic orientation of the rest of Washington, moved forward, clearly not wanting British offers of help.
The lack of interest in British help was not just political (to stop the British claiming a larger role than they should have had in the defeat of Japan) but technical. Brave British naval warriors could not keep up with the administrative and logistical efficiencies of their US counterparts. They might even have been regarded, at times, as a potential drag on American progress. It could be said that the US in 1944 did not need the British in the Pacific any more than the Russians needed the Western Allies in 1945.
The main contribution of the British was to have kept on fighting for two or three years, slowing down enemies until the two major post-War Powers could come into play and get organised for battle. If Hitler had not attacked Russia and Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbour, the British Empire might not have been defeated but it would have had to come to some sort of terms with a Continental Power, even if those terms were simply a 'Cold War' acceptance of mutual resentful existence or a Napoleonic blockade punctuated by massive air raids.
The Navy played an absolutely critical role in those crucial years, maintaining sufficient though not total command of the North Atlantic (albeit wasting resources often on sustaining a busted Empire elsewhere) and enabling amphibious operations of ever-increasing efficiency and effectiveness.
One of the stories of note in this book is that of the development of invasion tactics. If you only have to read three chapters of this work, read those on the remarkable achievement of Ramsay during Operation Neptune - the organisation getting men and material across to Europe was very much a British naval business and brilliantly organised.
The Royal Navy, as much as Air Defence, saved the island yet it also permitted the wastefulnesses of Churchill's peculiar hobby-horses and the noble, heroic but economically distracting pretence that a global empire could be held permanently. Today, the Royal Navy has been busted down to an anti-submarine operation and home defence with a rather expensive (for its value to the British people) support operation for political adventures directed at protecting islands filled with sheep and sustaining Blairite 'humanitarian' operations to keep liberal voters happy.
Liberal voters were a problem in the past too and a sort of dead weight on interwar naval history. The well-meaning Liberal Pacifism of the inter war years is fingered by Barnett as a major contributing factor to naval operational weakness. Democracy is not good for security, it would seem.
The Royal Navy will never again 'rule the waves' but it remains a vital island defence force, more useful in its seamanship than in its capacity to send death-dealing mega-war crime nuclear missiles to slaughter millions. More today than ever, the British population is vulnerable to the closure of sea-lines - our overcrowded little island could probably never have survived the Battle of the Atlantic at its current population density.
The Anglo-American relationship is thus mutual when it comes to command of the North Atlantic and it can survive on that basis. One can only regret that recent Prime Ministers continue to think that this relationship, designed to command just half an ocean, now has to include expensive bloody adventurisms in old imperial territories to keep it alive. It probably doesn't.
It is as if cunning policy-makers in Washington and old elites in London who still talk the talk of hegemony conspire to spread us far too thinly once again and to undertake actions that bring our former subjects into a direct confrontational relationship with us that none of us need.
This situation has arisen a quarter of a century after Barnett's book but one wonders if anything has been learned here about over-stretch and concentration of effort - but that is another story for another day. What this book does is bring us down to earth both on the material basis for any exercise of power and the added edge given to someone weaker than they think they are by the morale factor.
Because the British did not believe they were in decline, they acted as if they were not. This was ultimately wasteful and economically disastrous but it did contribute to the winning of an existential struggle which is where it counts - a sort of political adrenaline rush.
The trouble is that using that extra effort to win a sprint is one thing, winning a marathon is another. Barnett's book tells us about a nation that can be a great sprinter but is losing the marathon because it won't change its technique. He simply saw this happening at half-way stage. We are standing nearer the finishing line. Or to use another analogy. Adrenaline rushes are sometimes vital for survival, triggering fight or flight, but a body that is constantly in a state of stress will get ill and may die earlier than it needs to.
Highly recommended with good photos, maps, notes, glossary and index.
Notes are private!
Jan 18, 2015
Jun 01, 2011
Jun 07, 2011
Red Shambhala adds useful information about esotericism during the early Soviet experiment, the Great Game in Central Asia in the 1920s and the theoso
Red Shambhala adds useful information about esotericism during the early Soviet experiment, the Great Game in Central Asia in the 1920s and the theosophical egoism of Nicholas Roerich.
What it is less good at it, though scholarly and well written, is tying these threads together into some sort of analysis of what was going on in all these theatres - and how they relate.
There are fuller stories to be told of the high point of theosophical political influence in the West and the survival of esoteric silver age esotericism in the early Soviet Union.
The Great Game, of course, is a well told story and recent interest in the fairly marginal figure of the 'Bloody White Baron - 'https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... - adds to the relatively easily available works of Peter Hopkirk.
As so often, we are talking of a surprisingly short period in human history covering a huge geographical canvas. Closure comes with Stalin's bloody purge of every standing 'esoteric' Communist.
Here, I think a trick is lost. The purges were a widespread phenomenon and the esoteric dead might simply have been caught up in the bloodiness but I suspect there is more to it than that.
It was not just a case of eliminating old Bolsheviks as rivals but of eliminating all traces of their ideas.
There is no doubt that Stalin was intelligent and very aware of the dialectic between communism and nationalism. He had played a leading role in formulating policy at the beginning of the regime.
There is a line that could be drawn from Stalin's very early policies on the national question which were highly sophisticated through to today's tensions in the Ukraine. They remain relevant for study.
It is also clear that esoteric communism was a very 'bourgeois', even post-aristocratic, phenomenon, that dabbled with ideas that were close to those underpinning volkisch nationalism to the West by the 1930s.
Eliminating rivals also seems to have combined here with the elimination of ideas about expending national energy in Eastern empire-building while threats were building to the West.
There are potential insights here into the edginess with which Stalin regarded the Japanese and why he could not feel comfortable declaring war on them until after the US had dropped its atomic bombs.
Exaggerated or not, the possibility of a fanatical Buddhist or Mongol rising to seize Siberia helps to explain much that might otherwise be obscure - including the hurried forceful repression of the lamas.
In a sense, the story is also very modern in being about what amounts to a struggle between arguments about hard power (realism) and soft power that still resonate.
Stalin was a hard power man - a realist - whereas the Comintern policy, much like modern Western liberal internationalism, was thoroughly muddled, using rhetoric and bluff to try to achieve the unachievable.
The Great Game was really a game for realists like the Dalai Lama of the period and the British Empire which was well served by its canny political agent for Tibet.
The theory that you could mobilise a region with a quasi-communised esoteric Buddhism ignored the inherent internal contradiction between international communism and faith-based nationalism.
Again, we see the same today where soft power advocates continue to believe that they can contain and then control 'moderate' versions of similar obscurantist faith-based movements in faraway cultures.
Stalin, faced by a highly developed neo-faith-based national socialism and ideologically antipathetic to religion, was not going to tolerate these Comintern fantasies. Their proponents got rolled into the purges.
There is also a bigger story to tell about Roerich, a highly ambiguous character who is possibly the epitome of the spiritual adventurer, but, to be fair, this is not Znamenski's job here.
Even today, Roerich remains hard to assess both in pragmatic terms of who he was actually working for and why but also what he means to history ... Znamenski adds new suggestive detail to consider.
There is no Roerich without theosophy and no understanding of Roerich without entering into the spirit of the decadent auto-didacticism of the silver age gentry and their aspirant hangers on.
Theosophy now strikes us to be as nonsensical in practical terms as alchemy although an open mind would see both as psychotherapeutic analogical modes of thinking useful for personal development.
Across the West, new forms of imaginative thinking emerged disconnected from reality that were creative in the arts and destructive in politics though this latter took some time to become clear.
The Communists in the Soviet Union (though not in Europe) were not immune from the infection despite Marx's strictures against utopianism, a major intellectual struggle in the mid-nineteenth century.
Theosophical thinking could be highly progressive (Annie Besant springs to mind) but also a home for half-educated upper class minds confused by modernity and projecting a desire for stability into the future.
These are analogous to trans-humanists today, declasse individuals seeking a new way to cohere against history and deal with anxiety through a new eschatology, a pattern that repeats through history.
Evasive intellectually innovative movements based on redirected class pain generally turn into quasi-religious movements and these movements soon start to dabble in political solutions to the crisis of the time.
From Madame Blavatsky to Nicholas Roerich is about half a century and half a century is ample time for an irrational movement to peak. And peak it did against the brute realism of the interwar period.
Roerich's performance art in Central Asia is thus, like Baron Ungern's, more of a footnote amidst the chaos than something of great significance to Central Asian history.
These outliers are dabbling in a vacuum with opportunities for otherwise marginal figures who would remain marginal or end up in jail in their heartlands. These are the adventurers of etidorhpa ...
The opportunities for eccentricity are provided by the margins of empire but the conditions in the heartlands that create such outliers and the mentalities that lead to their adventures remain interesting.
Roerich is also interesting because he represents another ambiguity within the esoteric ... what often starts as progressive change becomes a form of traditionalist primordialism of the right under pressure.
If you look at the works of two 'spiritually'-inspired artists, Roerich and Kandinsky, you get a sense of this ambiguity where romantic traditionalism can either become abstraction or primordialism.
We think of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' as modernist but it could equally (especially in the light of Roerich's designs for the stage performance) be seen as a purification of tradition.
I have argued elsewhere that even contemporary trans-humanism has these throw-back golden age aspects and represents its own search for purity. It shares a form of occult magical thinking with theosophy.
In this context, a communism that was materialist and looked to Marx and the West as a dynamic form of social change seems to have magically incorporated silver age magical thinking in an underdeveloped society.
Stalin was a brute but in terms of the progressive and materialist agenda based on radical social transformation, he was probably right to 'deal with' this highly conservative trend within the movement.
Still, the book is highly readable (if you can remember to connect the names as they appear) and it should stimulate a desire to know much more about the many worlds it touches on.
Notes are private!
Jul 30, 2014
This is superb history - dispassionate though not without judgment, informative with a clear narrative and capable both of changing prejudices and ass This is superb history - dispassionate though not without judgment, informative with a clear narrative and capable both of changing prejudices and assumptions and suggesting analogies with today.
Fehrenbach wrote this book forty years ago as a sympathetic historian of Texas and Mexico who was filling in the natural sovereign gap in the history of the South West - the 'savage' Comancheria.
Because it was written so long ago, it was also written before 'political correctness' obliged us to accept an entirely false view of the benignity of savagery because of our fear of what Hobbes claimed.
In fact, Fehrenbach (who does have a bias towards 'civilisation' that might be unwarranted) treats the southern plains Amerindians with more respect and less sentimentality than East Coast liberals.
He takes them for what they were and not what deeply idiotic Quaker Indian agents would like them to have been - the book presents a standing argument for keeping religion and ideology out of empire.
There are two overwhelming truths about the dreadful experience of the Comanche: the official state machines of Texas and the USA were never in control of the situation; and the Indians were vicious.
The first point is one of demography and not actually of superiority. Indeed, the white settlers were held back, even pushed back by Comanche determination, for many decades.
Driving the white population forward was the simple fact that they were breeding like rabbits and surviving, sending waves of dour Baptists and then desperate migrants eastwards.
Ironically, the West is now besieged by the opposite - excitable pentecostalists and islamists and desperate migrants moving northwards with the same sort of sentimentalist evading the consequences.
The native Amerindians were numbered in tens of thousands, not millions, and were defeated ultimately first by disease and second by a market-driven, not calculated, destruction of the bison herds.
The United States in particular, but also the Republic of Texas, were not sophisticated hierarchical empires with the ability to enforce assimilation or treaties but polities trying to keep a lid on things.
The British in Canada preserved Indian culture by enforcing deals against settlers but the sheer scale of European migration and the weakness of the state meant that this was not possible in the US.
Hence the much written about tragedy of long and violent border wars and brutal and intermittent guerrilla actions leading to the utterly self-destructive tactics of the tribes and their final destruction.
Fehrenbach plausibly argues, using the Navajo example and alluding to Canada, that the best strategy for the Indians would have been a decisive military defeat and enforceable treaty-making.
It is at this point that he may be too kind to the populist federal republics that emerged in Texas and which made up the rather nasty Jacksonian democracy that drove agrarian indians ever westward.
The plains indians were not fools but simply ignorant and Jacksonian democracy as a political model had lies and faithlessness built into it - Texas was a mere extension of Christian Southern arrogance.
The point was that the Indians could never possibly resist the surge from the East because it was many and they were few but their culture and experience failed them in organising adequately to deal with this.
A diferent sort of Indian culture might have followed the classic barbarian model of creating a single Comanche proto-state that could create its own settler patterns but this was not to be.
Had it had the intellectual and organisational resources to do this, it would have followed the Slav pattern, created a sovereign war chief ('king'), adopted Protestant Christianity and become the Comanche Republic as a state within the Union or independent.
This could either have happened naturally (which no plains indian seemed able to achieve) or as a result of a defeat in effective collaboration with a sympathetic federal enemy (as in Canada).
This latter is not as absurd as it sounds since the military were professional not racist and there was a strong body of Eastern opinion sympathetic, overly so, to the Amerindians.
Unfortunately, the classic problem of American democracy - populist hysteria and inter-agency conflict constantly evaded a decisive handling of the problem.
When the military were finally permitted a free hand, the war of attrition between millions of whites and thousands of Comanche was a brutal walk over that destroyed a culture that had no room to adapt.
The Comanche, by their blunders and brutality, also sped up the end for their northern plains counterparts but that is another story.
So far, my account of the book sounds rather one-sided but that is because I have missed out the essential truth of the conflict - that the Comanches and other southern plains tribes really were savage.
The small-minded Baptists and racists were no less unappealing to modern tastes and many whites were thugs of the first order but the plains indian culture was inherently violent.
What we are dealing with here are not the romantic noble figures with waving feather headdresses who speak of great spirits and environmental responsibility but torturing half-beasts.
These were stone age people engaged in permanent internecine warfare of consummate brutality, engaging in the vilest form of torture and destruction for a form of 'honour'.
Horses and then iron simply upgraded the methodology of terror to include the plains and competition with other tribes. This moved on to brutal raids against vulnerable Mexican villagers for loot.
Given the culture, its misogynistic kin-orientated brutalities would naturally be applied to the very different tejanos even if they were initially restrained with the americanos.
Be in no doubt, the horrors perpetrated by the Amerindians on their own kind and the settlers - systematic rape, mutilation, kidnapping, enslavement, murder and wanton destruction - were 'normal'.
Any excuse that they were responding to the invasion of their territory does not hold water. They were raiding because it was profitable and that is what their young men did to get 'honour'.
Fehrenbach's book is good not only in clarifying this but in giving important context for each stage of the Comanche's evolution so that we learn a lot about the history of the whole American South West.
As he points out, what was 'normal' to Amerindians became normalised as barbarities amongst the besieged 'tejanos' although the Texans and Americans certainly did not rape, mutilate and torture as a 'norm'.
These were two incommensurate borderlands cultures and, as we know from European history, borderlands are the liminal areas where any cultural restraints will collapse under pressure.
Fehrenbach points out the differential in 'organisation' (not intelligence or technology) and the effects of demography and market capitalism as decisive in the final American victory.
But, as we note above, this victory took an inordinately long time a-coming and only emerged when the American Civil War had permitted the federal state the ability to organise itself for modernity.
The story is a tragedy. There are many capable people in it and some heroes - the disastrous rule of the Quaker Indian agents must not be included here. Most people here are muddling through on tram-lines.
Perhaps that is the lesson for today - populist democracies can never seem to get a grip on what needs to be done and there is, as a result, far more suffering than is necessary.
For all their brutalities and short lives, the plains indians deserve the respect that Fehrenbach and the best of the soldiery gave to them.
They deserved an early defeat in battle with honour and a treaty imposed by a superior force that enforced its provisions with the same sense of honour and professionalism as was found in Canada.
(Although we should be careful of claiming too much British Imperial decency. Once those missionaries got their teeth into the tribes, the decency started to disappear pretty quickly)
Instead, the Comanche faced a weak state whose lies and incompetencies derived from sentimentalism and religion. These did far more harm to them than any number of honest military defeats could have done.
The soft sentimental liberal and faith-based mind simply cannot understand this - that progress comes from direct brutal struggle between strong forces succeeded by magnanimity and the rule of law.
The final form of the American Federal State, before it degenerated again into ideology and religiosity, got this perfectly right in 1945 after another existential struggle.
It is probable that the USA will never be great again until it learns the lessons of the Indian wars - use power effectively, decisively and sparingly and be generous to the defeated.
The treatment of the Amerindians after their defeat, despite their brutal 'norms', is a lasting stain on American democracy, indeed on the normative claims of the West in general.
I recommend this highly readable book to anyone who wants to understand our own species better, what differential power really means and why sentiment and faith are appalling guides to policy.
Notes are private!
Jul 15, 2014
Jan 01, 1979
Jun 01, 1979
Authored in 1979, this remains a fascinating account of the negotiations that took place in Switzerland between the OSS and Karl Wolff, a senior SS Of
Authored in 1979, this remains a fascinating account of the negotiations that took place in Switzerland between the OSS and Karl Wolff, a senior SS Officer, aimed at the capitulation of German forces in Italy in 1945.
At one level, this is just a well researched piece of micro-history which, in itself, as the authors agree, made little difference to the outcome of the war. In that respect, it reads like a period thriller.
At another level, however, it provides insights into the conduct of that mega-struggle and suggests that, though only a symptom of something, that something was the disease we would later call the Cold War.
We should start by praising this book for the clarity of its writing and its exceptionally helpful explanation of the conditions under which the negotiations took place.
Like so many books that give us the actual history rather than the subsequent myth (and there are many such myths!), you may be surprised by the interpretation.
For example, whatever the grand strategy of the three major players on the Allied side, the actual conduct of the war was largely driven by 'military necessity' rather than politics.
Many of the problems that started to appear in April and May 1945 arose precisely because all seemed to be agreed that military victory was the war aim and political issues could wait.
The story tends to confirm that there was not quite the necessity for the Cold War that we have been led to believe. It looks 'inevitable'. It was not. It was as much manufactured as not by special interests.
Any strategy of military necessity with direct lines of command to war leaders (applicable until May 1945) cuts out diplomats, political interests and political warfare operatives.
The negotiations of 'Operation Sunrise' tended to bypass (on both sides) this line of command and opened up an opportunity for a certain type of German thinking to 'infect' the West, like a virus.
Bear in mind that the European Right at this time was divided between those who could see the collapse coming and those who would fight on from stupidity (or loyalty which amounts to the same thing) or despair.
'Operation Sunrise' was not the only point where Soviet distrust of the West seemed reasonable but it was wholly unhelpful in reducing the space for the sort of discussion that was had at Yalta.
Smith and Agarossi persuasively argue that Allen Dulles in Switzerland developed a 'blind spot'. To him, these talks were the last opportunity for political warfare operations to make a difference.
In opening up a sensible opportunity for capitulation by Germany, he mishandled and misinterpreted what was happening (where many career soldiers did not) with perhaps grim consequences.
First, he allowed a war criminal, a leading SS Officer, to become a co-conspirator in the salvaging of two sets of careers. And, in doing so, he persuaded himself and others of Wolff's argument.
Second, in undertaking a project which muddied the water on 'unconditional surrender', Dulles helped to initiate the distrust that allowed the 'German virus' to mutate into a Western one.
What should disgust us about Wolff, as we should perhaps be disgusted by Gehlen and Operation Paperclip, is that this was the man who was Himmler's liaison at Hitler's HQ.
Whatever his post war claims (he got 15 years in the end), he knew who was being transported to Treblinka and certainly had innocent Italian blood on his hands. The Soviets would rightly have just shot him.
But this highly intelligent and undoubtedly physically brave SS officer on first name terms with Himmler and Kaltenbrunner managed to 'sell' himself, like Gehlen and Von Braun, as an asset.
Most of the allies had no illusions about him but the conduct of Dulles looks increasingly naive as the story is told and the seeds of the malign vision we have today of the 'West' were planted.
It is not that the Soviets were not a problem nor that they were not going to fill what vacuums of power they could but this was a State that had been nearly overturned by the West once.
Not only that but millions of its people had been brutalised and murdered and it was its massed ranks that had driven national socialism - murderous in intent not just as means - to the wall.
Wolff and those like him were engaged in a late project to split the allies and incorporate German national socialism into the Western model. He and others half succeeded.
They succeeded primarily (once the officials of the State Department, the politicians and the OSS, later the CIA, had recovered their power over the Truman administration) in creating a shared view of communism.
Think of these two reactions to events by two leading Nazis in the last days. First, Hitler stating to Wolff that the allies would split and he did not care which side he then dealt with.
Hitler was living in fantasy land but it helps us to understand the importance of 'unconditional surrender'. Wolff was horrified (as most Germans would have been) because 'Jewish' communism was the enemy.
Now look at this quotation from Himmler (not in this book):
We have made serious mistakes. If I could have a fresh start, I would do many things differently now. But it is too late. We wanted greatness and security for Germany, and we are leaving behind us a pile of ruins, a fallen world."
Er, yes, well. This was on April 21st, 1945, and we see that as one world of Hitlerist fanaticism was dying, another one of 'starting again' was already opening up.
What was going on in Bern in the April 1945 was the seduction of intellectual amateurs, Wall Street lawyers and political fixers, by this second vision relying on a shared terror of 'communism'.
Dulles was not a fool and sometimes the authors are, I believe, too hard on him - this was a real time crisis - but, isolated in Switzerland, he undoubtedly came to fall for Wolff's implicit pitch.
This becomes the more significant when we realise that the political amateurism of the OSS becomes the dangerously powerful thuggery and malignity of the CIA.
The circle of American players in Italy in these last days become the basis not only of a hard-line Cold War but sponsors of the single major reason the US has lost its positive image - its security apparat.
Regardless of the villainy of the Soviets and the fact that unresolved political issues would have caused problems after the capitulation by the very nature of things, things could have been handled differently.
From the perspective of the time, before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union would have been an essential resource for the defeat of Japan and Stalin played more than fair in this respect.
The period from May to August 1945 might have been used more effectively to settle post war conditions and develop collaborative relations between the three dominant empires.
However, amongst the factors that helped unravel this possibility, we must include the OSS' adventuring and the effect of anti-communist German arguments about the threat of communism.
Instead of calculating responses to communism and a fundamentally defensive Stalin, political paranoia emerged, rushing into negative responses and developing a peacetime alliance with the real villains.
The atrocities were forgotten, the death camps were forgotten, the invasions were forgotten and the Soviet Union cast as an expansionist villain when its prime purpose was reconstruction.
The shift of power from war leaders and military men, with practical ends, to a curious clique of lawyers, cronies, politicians and military theorists transformed the situation.
Although we should not exaggerate the significance of 'Operation Sunrise', it marks one of a number of points where we can trace the transfer of power to a new cold war elite, paranoid and closed.
Perhaps the high point of the lunacy, which encompassed nuclear weaponry and the Rand Corporation, would be James Jesus Angleton. All the powers fell into the same trap. Gehlen ran rings round the US.
But, despite the reforms after the Church Committee, what we have now is not the rational Great Power diplomacy and hard power of the period before 1945 but the mentally unbalanced world of 'security'.
The blunders of the West in recent years can be traced to the mentality that emerged in Bern, the loss of focus on hard power and the elaboration of ever more oozalum-like political narratives.
Yes, of course, eventually, this mentality may have resulted in its prime aim - the destruction of the Soviet Union - but this presupposes that this was the right aim all along.
This is where we may part as reader and reviewer. The Soviet Union was either equivalent to national socialism, and Dulles implicitly and Wolff explicitly were right all along, or it was not.
My doubt lies in the fashion for equivalence between the two ideologies - one imperialistically seeking to expand on a radical racial premise and the other seeking development against intervention.
The crimes and oppressions of the latter are not in doubt (and unanswerable in most cases) but the British Empire was not exactly unsoiled by horrors nor industrialisation anywhere in the world.
This is no defence of Sovietism but we should doubt whether a mentality that could contemplate mutual nuclear extinction, acceptance of the security state and collaboration with Nazis is tolerable.
We should think on this when being seduced into our various positions in relation to the Ukraine or China.
Notes are private!
Jun 01, 2014
Aug 04, 2005
Aug 04, 2005
Professor Bayly and Dr. Harper have produced a superb history of an important corner of the Second World War. It provides important insights into the
Professor Bayly and Dr. Harper have produced a superb history of an important corner of the Second World War. It provides important insights into the South East Asian present.
War changes everything. We see first a decadent British Empire run, in Burma and what would later be called Malaysia, by self-satisfied prigs whose failures would be all-to-evident in an early crushing defeat.
Then, we have the new nationalisms of the region (though only these two countries and more tangentially, India, are covered) ready to fight imperialism alongside and against the new ideology of communism.
The war was transitional at so many levels. It showed how surprisingly easy it was to drive out the undoubtedly racist British through the sheer will power and brutal energy of the Japanese lust for power.
But it also showed that the same machinery of empire may have been ruled by fools at the margins but it was also equally ruled by brutally pragmatic men of great energy and resource at the centre.
Though stretched to the limit and on the point of being overtaken by American wealth and superior management, Mountbatten's British-led SEAC halted the Japanese advance and drove it back beyond Rangoon.
The truth is that the Atomic Bomb against civilians in Japan probably did stop the deaths of hundreds of thousands (or more) if brutalised Westerners really did have to crush brutal Easterners in the field.
This front was as deeply monstrous as the European Eastern Front. The behaviours similar - only the deliberate machinery of the extermination camp was missing.
There are so many levels to this story that it is quite an achievement for the two authors to hold it together as a single narrative - even if this falters a little in one area.
The authors are at pains to tell us all they can about resistance movements and 'forgotten armies' - radical anti-imperialists who fought with Japan much as Vlasov fought with Hitler.
Some flipped sides at just the right time. Others (the Communists, the Chinese and most of the hill peoples) backed the British on the basis that my enemies' enemy is my friend.
The problem is that these forces were, like Vlasov's, historically important for the future but much less so in that particular present and the sections on some of these can read like abridged monographs.
Yet some of the detail is absolutely necessary for a full understanding of what will be the second half of the story - imperial European recapture and then negotiated loss of its Eastern hegemony.
Indeed, Bayly and Harper have produced that very sequel ('Forgotten Wars') so these detailed longueurs must be accepted as a necessary prologue to the meat of the next act in the drama.
But the truth is that the Indian National Army, the Burma Defence Army and the much lauded behind-the-lines guerrillas and special operations may have been disruptive but were not central to the imperial struggle.
In fact, these units were about as important as the resistance in much of Europe - making life difficult for the invader or causing additional pain to SEAC but not decisive.
Such units were aspects of the political - the real story was of Japan reproducing the methods and atrocities of their German allies but doomed to lose bloodily once it had blundered over Pearl Harbour.
Much as we have seen in Edgerton's work, the ultimate triumph of the West was not going to be in doubt but these chancers in Tokyo might still have come out of it well if they had caused an Indian revolt.
It is India that matters. The book is not about India but India looms over the story nevertheless and its story has to be told to make sense of what goes on between Chittagong and Singapore.
The British military were so unnerved by the speedy fall of their South East Asian Empire and troubled by dissent in the Raj that they considered shifting the base of the fight to Australia.
The question is not answered - how on earth did the British hold on to a whole sub-continent for so long? And the answer is that its hold was no more certain than this consideration suggests.
The same question arises in relation to Western domination of every non-Western polity - China springs to mind but so does Burma itself and the Malay States. And the answer is uncomfortable.
It really comes down to the old saying that 'in the land of the blind, the one eyed man was king'. These second and third rate products of minor public schools were just a bit cleverer than their charges.
The British ruled because they ruled over more politically primitive peoples so the political, social and military education of Indians, Burmans and Malays in war was sufficient death knell for empire.
The book, like all intelligent histories of the Second World War, is riddled with atrocity - with an added element of the most appalling racism, sexual exploitation and arrogance on both imperial sides.
The tension between 'modern' Britain and its furthest colonies was simply the tension of the former realising just how much its own civil service and local military had 'gone native'.
Mountbatten and Slim would be recognisable in today's British military - highly intelligent men with the ability to inspire - whereas types like Dorman-Smith were little more than arrogant local potentates.
The unjustified self regard of the British locals (satirised by Maugham and others from the metropolis) continued after the war in the detemination to treat its own suffering as somehow unique.
Yes, some 14,000 European men died horribly on the Burma-Thailand Railway but this was perhaps 5-10% of the total deaths caused by the panicking Japanese on this project. The rest were 'natives'.
The story of the comfort women is also well told now but the scale of it will help explain why Japanese failure to 'atone' (unlike democratic Germany) makes it so deeply unpopular even today.
For all its claims of Asian for the Asians, the Japanese militarist onslaught was like the German - a grab for power that misused local nationalists and left its naive or corrupt quislings high and dry.
We have the civilian deaths from the bombings of Singapore and Rangoon (twice), the terrible fate of refugees, the avoidable famine in Bengal in 1942/1943, inter-ethnic pogroms and evil collective punishments.
Bayly and Harper's account of the mass exodus from Burma as the Japanese advanced should be read by every Briton who thinks the values of our ancestors were based on some code of honour.
The conduct of the British community was more than self-preservative, it was totally dismissive of the lives of even those of mixed race descent who had given exceptional service. One is ashamed.
The Japanese often reached dizzy heights of evil but then, alongside the treatment of British prisoners, we have the mistreatment of Japanese in India and the British 'no prisoners' policy in 1944.
The sheer scale of dislocation and death, the sheer malice and brutality of the Japanese invaders and the sheer incompetence of the old imperial elite makes this a depressing read at times.
There are some heroes - Major Seagrim surerendered himself to certain death rather than see Karen villages destroyed in reprisals - but most of the story is just of men and women driven to hell and back by fate.
And at the end - the Japanese rightly beaten and humiliated but the British and other colonial empires now unsustainable. Oh, the scale of suffering needed to oust a bunch of minor public schoolboys!
Notes are private!
May 28, 2014
Every time I walk past the statue 'honouring' the aircrews of Bomber Command in Green Park, I taste something unpleasant in my mouth.
I can imagine a d
Every time I walk past the statue 'honouring' the aircrews of Bomber Command in Green Park, I taste something unpleasant in my mouth.
I can imagine a decent German feeling much the same if Berlin had a major monument to the Eastern Front war dead of the Wehrmacht.
Yes, both sets of men were courageous and died for the sins of their leaders but both sets of men were complicit in appalling atrocities under orders that specifically targeted civilians.
This remarkable, well evidenced and well written book is about the use of bombing and its effects in Europe during the Second World War - at least that is its primary purpose. It is, in fact, a book about evil.
Half a million Europeans were murdered from the air either indirectly as part of the prosecution of war or directly as a deliberate strategy of area or political bombing by air power advocates.
The book is dense in places. Overy does not put statistics into foot-notes but makes sure you have them to hand when you read of this raid or that campaign - whether deaths or tonnage of bombs.
He does not go into too much detail of effects - just enough for us to be clear what bombing involves - because his interests (and ours) are the policies that led to these horrors.
This is one of those books where the complexity of issues requires that we do not try an easy summary. Overy is fair-minded. He seeks to understand and not condemn. There is no emotion here.
The final conclusions are measured and pointed. He also provides a useful coda that suggested that nothing was fundamentally learned from the experience.
He rightly points out that the area bombing of Bomber Harris - who must be the very epitome of the banality of evil if you have a soul - was of its time and could not be repeated.
He then stops any sigh of relief at this point by pointing out that these maniacs (my opinion, not his) did not need to repeat it because they soon had nuclear weaponry. We have been lucky so far.
Half a million dead over five years could now become 80million Russians in a few hours. The strategy of total war would dictate first strike in the forlorn hope of limiting the effect at home.
One should continue to think on this as a bunch of war loons try to convert crises in the Middle East or over local self-determination in the Ukraine into confrontations with well armed nuclear powers.
The point is that the area strategy was not a general one amongst the combatants but a specifically Anglo-American - indeed British one - based on the thinking of an Italian proto-fascist, Douhet.
The irony of this is not lost on Overy who points out that Allied bombing of Italians (while their Government was an ally) cost more lives than the Blitz.
One gets a shock to the system when one discovers just how evil the British as a war state had become in what was clearly an existential struggle of constant escalation with no quarter given.
Let us start by noting something uncomfortable. Although air power advocates promoted independent bombing strategies, the general view in the 1930s was that civilian bombing was a horror.
Neither the Soviets nor the Americans adopted civilian bombing as a policy directive and (surprise!) it was Hitler who attempted to outlaw it and chemical and gas weapons at the beginning of the conflict.
Of course, this does not gainsay Hitler's villainy against first the Jews and the mentally disabled and then anything that got in his way of a civilian nature in the East or in terms of reprisals.
But facts are facts. And probably because he still had a residual notion that the West Europeans were a basically civilised people, Hitler seems to have thought it uncivilised to bomb people in war.
There is, as well, multiple room for misunderstandings, sometimes wilful, in international relations with deeply unpleasant political warfare operatives muddying the truth at every opportunity.
Overy, somewhat embarrassingly, places Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam in their military context and draws the critical line between what we call 'collateral damage' and deliberate terror.
This is central because we need to understand that the British not only had a strategy of terror (the only nation to do so) but, with the Americans, banked up gas bombs in Italy ready to use in the last days.
Biological weapons may have been in their infancy but it seems (from Overy's coda) that the next total war contemplated by the air power loons included advocacy of bacteriological warfare to retain assets.
So what is going on here? Certainly Churchill was troubled by the strategy of terror though unafraid to use any resource to meet political ends. As we will note, we can still see his point.
Similarly, not only the Germans and the Soviets but also the Americans may have been ruthless though happily held to the notion of tactical use of air power where civilians were unfortunate collateral damage.
The secret of evil seems to lie in its true source - the corporate mentality. The RAF was a new arm of state force and competed for budgets and resources. It positioned itself as the future.
Its chief, Bomber Harris, somewhere ceased to be a human being and became the pure will of his force. He had done a common thing, lost himself in the task and ceased to be more than the task.
Edgerton has written persuasively that last century air power was associated with the technological right and he has pointed out the ideology underpinning Liberal Militarism.
Overy does not go down this route but we should remind ourselves that the driver for techno-war was the protection of one's own people by mustering massive power targeted at the population of the other.
This reversion to a Mesopotamian attitude to the cities of your enemy also held a sub-text of fear that democracy (actually the hold of the liberal elite) could not survive another general call-up.
The solution - tanks on the front and planes in the sky - neatly converged with the institutional aspirations of the RAF to an equal or dominant role in war strategy.
Since fighters and fighter-bombers by definition were always going to be ancillary to armies fighting blow by blow across country and naval forces defending trade routes, this meant bombing.
The justification of bombing however was not easy. Aiming was poor, air crew losses were high and the equipment was very expensive. To be more than ancillary required a 'result'.
What these callous men offered was one or both of two possibilities, one taken up more reasonably by the Americans and the other - fanatically - by Bomber Harris.
The first was to claim that bombing raids directed at aeroengine works, transportation and oil facilities (and so on) could degrade the economy of the other side so that his war capacity would fail.
Naturally, given the weakness of bomb aiming equipment and the constant pressure on air crews of fear, this meant serious collateral damage to the civilian population.
Needless to say, this is what happened not only in the Blitz (which was always military in purpose in terms of economic warfare) but also in many of the major raids on Germany and all those in allied states.
Overy plausibly demonstrates that this sort of airpower was far less effective than the bombers claimed but he (and we) can give the men of the time the benefit of the doubt here.
The bombers in these cases seem to have killed a lot of people, including allied citizens to the increasing frustration of the resistance, but there was at least a theoretical case for action.
It could be reasonable in an escalating existential crisis to accept this massive collateral damage if it brought the hell to a faster end - this is the dark justification, of course, for Hiroshima.
This sort of bombing is just - just - on the right side of morality for most people: we say again, that which reasonably might be considered to be the lesser evil in an existential struggle.
Strategic area bombing of civilians to inspire terror in the dubious and unevidenced belief that this might cause panic and bring down a regime is another kettle of fish however.
There are cases where regimes were brought down by terror bombing - Italy seems to be an example - but nearly all countries appear to have adapted and even seem to have seen the regime strengthened.
The fact of bombing and disruption exposed weak and poor regimes like Mussolini's but it enabled a narrative of resistance and a politically-led popular organisation to emerge elsewhere.
Just as general tactical asset bombing oddly tended to increase production through reorganisation, substitution and determination so area bombing tended to strengthen political legitimacy.
In the first case, it might be very reasonable for strategists not to have understood that this would be the case but in the second we are faced by two new factors.
The Blitz itself should have provided sufficient evidence that regimes strengthened on existential threat while what we have here is something different - the deliberate targeting of workers.
Ah, I seem to have slipped into the unforgivable here - the values-driven business of morality!
The point is that Bomber Harris was no different from Himmler in this - the destruction of persons deliberately because of their nature, in this case as German workers, in Himmler's as Jews.
The argument that the Jews were 'innocent' and the German workers were 'guilty' is specious. To Nazis, the Jews were as 'guilty as hell' as origins of the war (yes, absurd but believed culturally).
German workers, many of whom voted social democratically in the 1932 and previous elections and who were led no less than workers anywhere by malign elites, were suffering here from collective punishment.
The deliberate firestorming of Hamburg and other cities was a war crime that the Allies knew to be so when they decided not to prosecute the Nazis at Nuremburg for their bombing atrocities.
The most notorious case, Dresden, ironically probably falls into the milder category of tactical warfare bombing in support of the Soviet push to the East. Overy is good at revising our preconceptions.
The lessons of all this are largely academic, on the old mafia saying that 'that was then and this is now'. The conditions were peculiar and unrepeatable - new atrocities entirely are for our time.
However, we can draw some lessons about the human condition, about the blind and unaccountable nature of institutional forms operating in unevidenced ways and doing bad things under unrestrained leaders.
To be fair, Churchill was a man under severe pressure to whom bombing remained a tool-at-hand and a sideshow and, though committed absolutely to success, he was neither stupid nor psychopathic.
What is worrying is that, under conditions of existential crisis, power to do great evil can be delegated so easily. This story raises very uncomfortable thoughts about other war leaders.
And not just Stalin and Hitler but Cameron and Obama. The post-war Presidents, for example, appear to have had some reasonable grip over their forces through acceptance of their authority. Are we so sure now?
One question is what happens when the 'fuhrerprinzip' sends down the line vague generalities alongside instructions that can be interpreted brutally because they were stated brutally (the Hitler/Stalin model).
But another question is what happens when a Leader is not working on full information and makes false or 'bad' judgements on the claims of the institutional pressure groups who claim to serve him.
There are signs on several occasions in this story that Bomber Command lost the ability to do two things under Bomber Harris: think beyond the interests of itself; and have reasonable moral boundaries.
The British were far from alone - the Soviets were restrained only because they were fighting a different sort of war - and the Americans soon descended into hell themselves with the Tokyo firebombing.
But bombing itself was over-egged as tool - strategic bombing in the battlefield could lead to the 'friendly fire' errors that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan as well and often did more harm than good.
It may - given existential struggle and acceptance of the 'just war' (ho, hum!) - have had some important function in degrading the flow of materiel to the enemy front and redirecting production.
What strikes me as unconscionable, especially with political motives of pure populist revenge, is to continue with a campaign of total war against civilians long after it is clear that it is just murder.
Almost every civilian death could be justified by some rational explanation based on the struggle for existence by the end but, by that time, everyone has lost the moral plot.
The great lesson of all this is that war has its own remorseless logic in which (as Overy wisely notes) political conditions eventually block the chance to do the right thing.
However, you can make up your own mind. Overy is detached and clinical. The facts are all there in his book. I urge you to read it and ask where you think the boundaries of death-dealing should lie.
Notes are private!
May 11, 2014
Oct 24, 1996
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving po
Nevin produces a perhaps overly generous but nevertheless useful account of one of the last century's most important European intellectuals, giving powerful insights into the 'German mind'.
Of course, Junger was an exceptional - a hysterical personality hidden behind an icy persona. His morbid and intense fanaticism presented in cool and refined terms, the aesthete of collectivised death.
The book only covers half his life. This would mean the story of a young man in most cases but here covers five decades at the heart of a terrible history. Junger's responses to them have things to tell us.
The master works are two-fold - immediate post-war and then polished memoirs of what a fanatic feels and does in mechanised trench warfare and diaries of Nazi occupation from a consummate aesthete.
The first, notably 'Storm of Steel', created an hysterical mythology that undoubtedly helped fuel the Radical Right capture of power in Germany in 1933.
The second, the 'Paris Diaries', should be reissued as an insight of immense value into what it means to occupy and what it means to resist.
But how to evaluate this important figure who represented the German haute bourgeoisie's adoption of faux-aristocratic elitism and its subsequent conversion, after trauma, into conservative revolutionism?
The writings in the interwar era bear all the hall marks of a form of literary post-traumatic stress response - the violence and morbidity packaged into grand schemes detached from all observable reality.
During that period, like many committed ideologues, Junger would find that national socialism was somehow not quite right, too demotic, too pragmatic, not cosmic enough perhaps.
He entered into what we now identify as National Bolshevik circles - the Left critics within the broad national socialist ideology associated with Niekisch and the Strassers.
Junger - a minor political figure as much as he was a major cultural figure - was by-passed by the Night of the Long Knives as he escaped the terror after the July bomb plot. He was both lucky and protected.
In the 1930s, his aestheticism dominates. He writes the spectacularly effective and misunderstood 'Auf den Marmorklippen' and sees through Hitler early but his politics remain fundamentally militarist.
Back in military service in the early 1940s, without changing his radical conservative views, merely adapting them, aesthetic distaste for the modern techno-brutality of demotic Hitlerism grows.
Does this redeem him? That case is hard to make. He is complicit. His aestheticism of elite domination, his disregard for the ordinary person, his sentiment - all these remain.
All he does is write beautifully and with acute observational skill (to the delight or horror of other highly educated intellectuals) about monstrosities and what the rich do on their holidays.
As a result of his brutal and cold honesty, there is far more to be learned about the human condition, however, than there is from the worthy whining and dishonesty of liberals.
The only place where this author's writings (which are not covered after 1945) filled me with an almost physical repulsion was at the very end when he discovers 'religion'.
Nevin tries his best to make this 'turn' interesting but the effect is part deadening and part visceral gut-wrenching disgust. In the midst of hell, with defeat on the horizon, he turns intellectual coward.
But the malign political influence does not stop with this intense new round of hogwash - it starts all over again.
We have written elsewhere of the attempt to whitewash the conservative nationalist hog in today's Europe. Here we see more of the origins of that whitewash in the 'programme' for post-war Europe.
Junger's interwar influence is still to be found reborn, alongside Evola's, in the rise of the political soldier and National Bolshevik activists' dabbling in Kiev and the undergrowth of European Rightism.
What is not so well appreciated is the influence of the wartime conservative nationalist idea of a united Europe based on 'Christian' values - little more than a ploy to win back the alienated occupied.
Junger's programme was not alone in this but it was part of the implicit strategy of the July plotters. Nevin's description of its main thesis is worth quoting at length.
... Junger seeks an authoritarian state that will unify Europe. He cites as visionaries of this union Richelieu, Cromwell [sic], and Bismarck, champions of statism but not certain friends of individual conscience. Suggesting that a democracy can be both authoritarian and liberal, he likens the state's security and the individual's prosperity to a mussel: hard outside so that the pearl may grow. .... He envisages an imperial state in tandem with a virtually established church, a tableau that conjures authoritarian Prussia.
We must always remember that Junger is rarely an original thinker on politics. What he does is take the general belief of his broader circle and the National Right and extend it into imaginative extremity.
He does this with the enthusiasm for war in 1914 and its ideology of the disciplined violence. And with the demand for integralist fascist order on the 1930s. And now with conservative survival.
The model for Europe, nurtured in the viper's nest of the German conservative elite and amongst complicit church-goers, the lesser evil to the satanic hatreds of national socialism, is that of today's Right.
The demand for peace - the leitmotif of the pro-European movement - is still cast on the Right in terms developed before 1914 by anti-Bolshevist conservatives under conditions of impending defeat.
This is the ultimate 'detournement' - turning defeat into ultimate victory. One wonders if the distaste of German liberal intellectuals for Junger is partly awareness of his partial victory.
The implication is that German violence can only be straight-jacketed by Europeanism and the Church (to the Right) and can never be a free liberal and democratic nation in its own right.
I want to praise Nevin for one minor innovation. When he cites an article or a book at the back he describes what is in it and whether he thinks it stands up to scrutiny or not.
I wish more academic authors would do this. It helps us get a better sense of controversy and the possible differences of opinion on how a work is to be interpreted. Junger must be seen in this way.
Finally, I think this book reminds us why books should never be banned or forgotten. Junger's work is very important and not as an 'object lesson' (as left-liberals might like it to be).
They are important because they are emotionally and intellectually 'true'. The blood-lust, grand schemes, detachment, controlled hysteria and fantastic essentialism are true to what we are as a species.
The paradox is that Junger is in good faith about laying out his limitations and bad faith. It is no accident that Celine and Bloy appear in the pages on occupation.
We need to know not only what we are but what we could be and therefore what others could be if we give them authority and power. Junger is what we all could be under certain conditions.
I find I cannot relate to some aspects of this conservative extremist but that he does speak to other aspects of me as possibly no other writer can.
Junger dances around the dark demonic without ever becoming quite satanic himself. His world visions are fusions of pessimism and dark hope, clear observation and the fantastic.
At one point, some passage or other triggers thoughts of the cosmic despair of a Ligotti. At another, he appears to get into the very heart of what it is to be compassionate, almost by accident.
But remember that the story ends in 1945. There is another 53 years of life to go - some may consider that long and full life mere proof of a godless universe but his work remains of inestimable value.
Notes are private!
Apr 26, 2014
Jan 01, 1999
Mar 28, 2014
Pasi took some two decades to write this relatively short work. What started off as a dissertation in an area of maximal obscurity (the politics of es
Pasi took some two decades to write this relatively short work. What started off as a dissertation in an area of maximal obscurity (the politics of esoterism) has become important in post-recession Europe.
In fact, Pasi is writing a corrective. Crowley's involvement and interest in politics (except as means to ends related to his religious ambitions) was actually very small and intermittent - and unstable.
This has not stopped Crowley being adopted by elements in the neo-fascist European Right, almost certainly through the different magical interest of Evola and the flummery of Rightist occultism.
This New New Right (since the New Right tends to neo-conservative extreme radical individualism) goes beyond even populism to revive the 'political soldier' model of the 1970s and seeks revolution.
Regardless of the extremities of Russian propaganda, it is to be found in the Ukraine and lurking in competition with more obvious traditionalist excesses and nostalgia for a Nazi-led Europe.
Paganism, occultism, esotericism - all the mish-mash of thought found in a rootless bourgeoisie who know, as we all do, that something is wrong but who are incapable of thinking through what is to be done!
Pasi does us the service of going back to the man, asking what he was in his own time and what his purposes were, and then placing any politics to be found there in that context.
The answer is not good for latter day extremist acolytes. First of all, Crowley was either a conventional man of his time or (in his second phase) a pragmatist and an opportunist.
His conventionalities were the Tory attitudes of his generation and his class alongside periodic rebellions that had him dabbling in romantic political games that attracted many well-fed esotericists.
If anything, though never a materialist, his anti-traditionalism and commitment to religion being justified in scientific terms by results pushes him into the progressive camp, if kicking and screaming.
Alleged flirtations with Mussolini, Hitler and Sovietism were nothing more than naive attempts to get his religion in front of the masses by whatever was to hand in the conditions of the time.
In fact, there is so little to say about his politics in the long run that Pasi effectively 'pads out' the tale with extended essays on Crowley's relationship with Pessoa and (by Hakl) on Evola.
Neither essay really tells us much about Crowley but I have no complaints. Pasi's scholarly discipline is exemplary and we learn important detail about what really matters - the culture of the era.
In that context, the book is a valuable monograph that shows just how the decaying upper middle classes interconnected on nonsensical beliefs and intellectual fads - from jacobitism to pseudo-communism.
In fact, for all his faults, Crowley comes out of this not too badly if you stick to the image of someone who stuck to his last on core anti-Christian, libertarian and elitist values.
That odd mix means that there is no way that he can be seen as part of today's traditional revival - Thelema is definitely not a primordialist religion but a revolutionary new religion.
It also means that it is intrinsically anti-totalitarian and closer to what Nietzsche might have seen as a transvaluation of values (though I doubt the philosopher would have been impressed with him).
One can see why this old roue flirted with systems like scientific socialism, national socialism and fascism as an intrinsic libertarian anti-democrat but also why each flirtation lasted for such little time.
He thought these systems could bring spiritual liberty to the masses (not to be confused with political liberty), only to find quite quickly, as Evola did, that these were practial men of brute power.
What is more interesting throughout this book is the peculiar culture of pre-war and interwar esotericism and the underground of ridiculous theory that seems to be finding fertile ground again.
My own view is that no one understood Nietzsche at that time except in simple terms because he was asking far too much in terms of free thought but Crowley probably made most progress in a half-baked way.
I am not and will never be a Thelemite - a cure as bad as the disease - but I will always admire Crowley, for all his irresponsibilities and narcissism, for asking the right questions.
The right questions were ones of liberating the individual self from the trammels of inherited forms, re-invention if you like. He came (as Pasi notes) to see this as a mission - hence his political dabbling.
The message remains liberatory even if he is as misused in the practice as was Nietzsche whose role in triggering his thought may have been under-estimated. They were both men before their time.
The book is highly recommended not only as an intelligent evaluation of the man - more measured than acolytes and critics - but as providing insights into a period of Western cultural confusion.
Pasi does not engage much with his influence after Evola (who seems not really to have been influenced!). But the notes are excellent in every respect and his judgments strike me as sound at every point.
We have had good works appearing now on traditionalism and on the esoteric cultural environment as well as on the post-war Right but it is good to see some facts laid down before further abuses take place.
Notes are private!
Apr 21, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
Oct 02, 2013
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distil
This is a wise and highly intelligent, if very long, attempt to come to grips with the slippery term 'strategy' by a prominent British academic distilling at least two decades of thinking on the subject.
Although a Professor of War Studies, Freedman does not restrict himself to the conduct of war but reviews revolutionary and dissident stategy on the one hand and business strategy on the other.
He is highly critical of some of the nonsense (he is too kind to call it that) from business gurus and I can only be pleased that I smelled the rat throughout the 1980s and 1990s and read few of them.
Where he gets to is a sceptical view of what we can possibly know about our own futures or control them.
He outlines, in the final section, the role of narratives and scripts in giving us the illusion of control.
This is not a counsel of despair. There is no fatalism in Freedman's approach but he does suggest that 'real life' requires a degree of detachment from scripts and narratives while making use of them as tools.
Educated readers will probably not be surprised by the general thrust of the section on war where there is a sort of master in Clausewitz (and the influence of Jomini) but it will bring you up to date.
As we write, a rather odd crisis between the 'West' (whatever that is) and Russia, after some egregious blundering by the European Union, has allowed all sorts of absurd 'narratives' free rein.
Trying to rein in historic stories about fascism and appeasement as well as more recent tales of humanitarian intervention and self determination has been part of the problem for intelligent diplomats.
The Ukraine remains unresolved as we write but the undoubted strategic skills of Putin and Lavrov on the one hand and Obama and Kerry might be enhanced by having this text at their sides.
The second section on the strategic attempts to overturn elites and systems gives due weight to the role of Marxism but is perhaps too easily seduced into a highly US-centred picture of political struggle.
This provides us with one of the few 'strategic' criticisms of the book - the elephant in the room that Freedman assiduously dances around: the State.
Military strategy is the expression of the force of the State, revolutionary strategies seek to overturn or capture the State and business strategies compete with the State ... but what of the State?
The State, emergent out of warlordism and dynasticism (or small trading communities), is the thing that should interest us most because we are most stuck inside its narratives and scripts.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of space (the book is over 600 pages long) but one senses sometimes that the broader academic community is always nervous of telling us the truth about what feeds it.
But this may be unfair. The book is mostly easy reading (though the idiocies of academic social scientists often cause one to lose patience) and the assessments are honest and fair to all parties.
Indeed, it is good to find a book that both gives due to the troubled struggle by educated revolutionaries to speak for the masses and to the games businessmen play to try to control what cannot be controlled.
A book which treats Rockefeller of Standard Oil and Karl Marx fairly, let alone Tom Hayden, has a lot going for it though maybe Freedman should throw up his hands at Sun Tzu as perpetual strategic cliche.
Will this book make you a better 'strategist'? Well, it will do a service if it makes you sceptical about books that claim to offer that particular pot of gold.
Strategists are probably born rather than made but many of the skills can be learned - or rather 'bad' unstrategic narratives might be unlearned and 'scripts' recognised.
His story of continuous failures to 'get it right' becomes a bit cheerier when rationalist progressives begin to be challenged by the behaviourial economists.
Though I remain unconvinced by this particular discipline - and consider political science to be an utterly absurd concept - cognitive psychology has helped us here.
Increasingly, we are beginning to stop whining that we are not 'rational' (or rather autistic academics are) and beginning to see our mentalities as extremely good survival machines for uncertainty.
Freedman is persuasive that we have a sort of double action mind where intuition and 'art' working in real time gets things right most of the time under most conditions (his System 1 strategic thinking).
Habit and narratives and scripts can get in our way in a crisis and the reasoning abilities of his System 2 thinking enable us analytically and critically correct our own biases and errors.
However, we can only do this in real time, constantly adjusting to realities that are, in themselves, way beyond any form of reasonable long term analysis because of so many variables and unknowns.
Perhaps the thinking started with John Boyd's simple but productive concept of OODA (observation, orientation, decision, action) but Freedman here develops a more interesting model of struggle.
In essence, the only strategy is the intuitive positioning of oneself to win each battle as it comes within a general vision of where one wants to be - and this is not a matter for mathematicians.
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2014
Mar 31, 2011
David Edgerton's book turns popular myths about Britain in the Second World War upside down and inside out. But a word of warning first.
He is making a
David Edgerton's book turns popular myths about Britain in the Second World War upside down and inside out. But a word of warning first.
He is making a point about history and not giving us a narrative so it would help if you already had some understanding of the course of the second world war and its past historiography.
There are times when the author revels in his piling up of data to prove his points - which are very many - so that some chapters require a fair amount of concentration of effort to understand fully.
But I do not want to put you off the book because it is informative, sometimes downright exciting as it shifts mental models and well illustrated with tables, maps and extensive notes.
Where to begin? I was persuaded by the sheer logic of the book that much of what I thought was true was not true ... it has even changed my view of contemporary political priorities.
He is persuasive that the British Empire was never not going to win the Second World War (with perhaps my own caveat that a lucky invasion and a bunch of quislings might have made it a very different Empire).
The scale of the trading and financial muscle of the Empire with its Dominions (four of the five 'Big Eyes' of global surveillance today) meant that what became the United Nations would conquer in the end.
By the end of the book, one might even feel sorry for Germany if it were not for the vile nature of its regime, blockaded, led by a blockhead, self-murderously running itself into the ground.
There is, of course, the story here of how the US displaced the Empire as hegemonic Western power but Edgerton is persuasive that this was not Britain declining but the US making use of spare capacity.
The difference between the two powers in 1939 was that the UK was an efficient global trading operation (which it still is) and the US had still not found a way to mop up the mass unemployed of 1929.
War permitted that massive surplus capacity to be employed. There is a fascinating transfer of capability from the UK to the US where it becomes clear that the US is simply more effective at utilising assets.
This is one of the points that come out of the book - Britain was so prosperous that it was monstrously wasteful. War is wasteful, of course, but the level of waste here was something else.
What was happening was that Churchill and his cronies exemplified a peculiar form of Liberal Militarism (still operative today) that created what amounted to a warfare state.
But the liberal part of that apparent oxymoron included an evident reluctance or perhaps political inability to expend human life with the gay abandon of the Central and East Europeans.
Edgerton has written elsewhere on this idea of a Liberal Militarist warfare state beyond categories of Right and Left (perhaps more to the Right) that saw total victory arising out of machines.
What this meant was that the right application of technology to wielding death on your opponents would permit the minimum death to your own side and the minimum disruption of the good life at home.
He makes clear that it was rather a 'good war' for Britons compared to what was experienced on the Continent. Not for some individuals or families perhaps but undoubtedly for many young workers.
In general, people were well nourished and the bombing campaigns were isolated to a relatively short period and area. When they came, they were horrific but most people most of the time were secure.
But it was no welfare state - the poor, the young, the old and the vulnerable were shunted aside to ensure that war workers and the military had the best of what was going.
Similarly, the death rates for troops were far less than the bloody milling going on from the suburbs of Moscow to Berlin. Bomber crews and merchant navy men were the worst affected with significant losses.
And that in itself tells you something - one set of men were expended to wreak greater death largely on civilians and the other lost their lives ensuring their fellows were well nourished and armed.
The US was to bring to a higher level this Anglo-Saxon belief in technology - the atom bomb and B-52 - as assurance against sending voters' kids too lightly to their deaths.
This attitude is very much part of what it is to be a modern liberal in the age of democracy and it empowered the State to allocate vast sums to armament and social control for decades to come.
Not that any liberal has ever hesitated to send another father's son to their death if it was 'the right thing to do' but only that it was deemed better to have your enemy and his mother killed remotely.
If the British Empire was never going to be defeated (and the German regime is now reliably seen as economically flawed at its very core), this was because it was never alone.
The Empire was not just a formal empire but an informal network of global relationships. Much of the world was dependent on patterns of trade and finance set by London and London dictated its terms.
The UK was quite capable of shifting its supply around from a blockaded Europe to the rest of the world in a way impossible to Hitler as much as Napoleon and to do so very quickly.
European dictators have to grab territory - drive desperately for oil fields or wheat lands - whereas the great Anglo-Saxon empires have simply sent a ship, theirs or one purchased with their geld.
Europeans within the blockade and third world suppliers of single crops that were no longer a priority suffered terribly. The Bengal Famine of 1942 was the fruit of a callous shift of shipping priorities.
The Empire treated much of the world as private property required to maintain the homeland and war then became a means of creating a strong national state that could disregard the interests of its partners.
Edgerton is persuasive that the war represents a transition not only from British to American global dominance but also from an imperial mind-set to a nationalist mind-set.
But Britain was 'never alone' - the rhetoric was nonsense and should be seen to be nonsense. The British were just the self-regarding beneficiaries of their own past piracies.
In the end, the myths were necessary to create a certain spirit or morale, helped by the fact that the Nazis really were rather vile. Perhaps we did not do bad things simply because we did not need to.
But we did. This brings us to the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon contribution to the long litany of man's inhumanity to man - the strategic bombing campaign where the British made a fetish out of area bombing.
The brutality of this is fascinating. Though we are brought up on Guernica, in fact the Nazis retaliated rather than initiated bombing and bombing of civilians was absolutely central to British strategy.
Indeed, it is interesting that it was the Americans that insisted on trying to be precise and break down transport and oil supply while the horrible Bomber Harris insisted on area bombing.
It was all part of this idea that war could be won by technology so minimising harms to the homeland. Edgerton is particularly good on this, showing not merely a warfare state but an aviation state.
The interwar ideology of world peace being enforced by a British imperial air force links us directly with the mentality behind atomic warfare and the repulsive bombing campaigns of Vietnam.
The same mentality is behind 'shock and awe', drones and surveillance as means of both crushing alternative military structures and controlling errant asymmetrical tribes people - increasingly ourselves.
The Liberal Militarism (precursor to neo-conservatism and Blairismo) of empire is matched by its wastefulness and its intense interest in technology as weapon of state expansion and social control.
I think you are beginning to see the importance of this book because, alongside the work of Peter Hennessy on the Cold War State and many others, we have a picture of the democratic state that disturbs.
Huge resources are made available to the State, justified by war or emergency, that can be applied not merely to winning the war but to controlling how we see that war. This is totalitarianism-lite.
Edgerton does not spend a lot of time on culture - his metier is science and technology - but his few examples show how the arts contributed to our own contemporary false consciousness about our past.
We need to start thinking about this. His and other historians' remorseless engagement with the facts tell us a very different picture about the Second World War than we had been led to believe.
We leave the book with a profound sense of confusion because he has dismantled a structure of belief (like Nietzsche killing God) but has not given us alternative structure.
He takes no ideological position so perhaps we have to - we might go back to the myth and say simply that this was what we were led to believe and now we have become what we believe.
This would be no different from any member of any religion who has inherited norms which scholarship will dismantle easily enough but which the believer chooses not to listen to.
What we have done is inherited a national religion - as perhaps all nations have done - and the new facts require either forgetting or a reform of our belief.
Certainly, the book has led me to 'fix' some revisions of belief that were already in my mind but has produced some new ones.
Thanks to Hennessy and others, I already knew that the United Kingdom had become a warfare state in stages throughout the last century and that welfare was a poor relation made necessary by political pressures.
I was never sold on the country having a well functioning democracy so the account of Churchill's cronyism - as oligarchical as anything to be found in Putin's Russia - did not surprise me.
Perhaps the historical depth of liberal internationalism as Liberal Militarism was new to me but not wholly a surprise.
After all, I had, when young, sat in on private meetings at which noble lords and industrialists had plotted with surety the defeat of the Left precisely in order to save the nuclear deterrent.
And, finally, no one but a fool does not understand imperialism and capitalism as essentially exploitative, although without necessarily believing that the exploitation cannot be progressive and modernising.
No, what was new was the realisation of just how much the 'ordinary folk' of Britain, the British working class, had been bamboozled about their own condition and in so many different ways.
The worst culprit is ironically the Party in which I spent much of my life - the Labour Party.
Although it did triumph in 1945 and it did shift into a welfare agenda, it never shifted out of the warfare agenda (excepting perhaps under Harold Wilson and then in its time of troubles in the 1970s).
It was brought into Government by Churchill as a political manouevre to counter the free trade and peace elements on the Right and was largely cover for his own Liberal Militarism and imperialism.
From that point on, although it captured the State through elections, in fact the State captured it, culminating in the final indignity of a full-blown Liberal Militarist running it like a dictatorship in Blair.
1926 may have proven decisively that the revolutionary path was not possible for the Left but Ramsey Macdonald and then Attlee both hammered nails of different sorts into the coffin of left democracy.
Macdonald toadied to the prevailing vision of economics when he had no need to and Attlee (far more forgivably) sacrificed democracy for the power to make material changes in the lives of the people.
Similarly, the book helps to lay to rest another set of malign myths that come from the closed elite that seems to decide how we are to think as well as live - about Europe.
The logic of the European Union for Europeans is profound in the context of world war. Any power that conquers Europe by force destroys Europe by triggering blockades on one side and Russia on the other.
From this perspective, unifying Europe and turning it into a single market by consent halts competition for internal imperial control and ensures that scarcities can be ameliorated by internal trade.
But for the United Kingdom and for Russia, the same logic does not apply. Let Russia speak for Russia but the United Kingdom only survives as an island through global and not just European trade.
Inside Europe, the United Kingdom is just a Province, outside Europe it is a wealthy Informal Empire. The welfare state depends on it being more than a Province. It requires the City and exports.
Just as the Labour Party needs to be removed or become the voice of the people, so the United Kingdom needs to recognise that what is in the interest of the people is independence of Europe.
The elite that blundered into war in 1914 and in 1939 is still with us. It still has a Liberal Militarist ideology and it still buys off any attempt to question its rule in just the way it has always done.
It is committed to its own survival by selling out a rather limited democracy and our independent cultural tradition to a bureaucracy that reproduces its own desire for waste, warfare and a trough.
Neither world war was necessary to the British people unless you are a card-carrying liberal internationalist but that is what these people are. The same people took us to edge on the Ukraine only this month.
The same bureaucrats and intellectuals from the same network of schools and universities, with the same editors, run rough-shod over both the wealth producers in business and the 'workers'.
One of the tricks is to divide us aggressively into right and left as if the worker and the financier do not actually have more in common as wealth creators than either do with those who live high on the tax hog.
Workers who won't work but want a regular wage and capitalists who are pig-greedy are minorities we can deal with but a free nation is one with absolute equality of opportunity and reward for effort.
But back to the book, where none of this politics exists, just straight talking on the facts that stands in a long tradition of independent historical thought that goes back to Angus Calder.
Each generation of historian - I admire Richard Overy in this respect too - is stripping way the mythology of power and allowing us to make choices about the narrative that works for us.
Increasingly, one sees accepted history as a form of belief, a religion of identity, and the best historians of our time as critics of culture whose impact is like that of philosophers on religion.
Identities have become fluid in the internet age. So they should be, matters of choice and not imposition, but identities have not gone away.
Just as someone might choose to be transgender, another might reaffirm their traditional masculinity. Someone might choose to be a Wiccan and another affirm an existential belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So it is with national identity - it is a thing that we inherit and then we have to choose what to do with the inheritance, adopt what we have been given, reject or adapt it to new conditions.
I hope the new fact-based and humane historiography of war, empire and nationality enables us to begin to analyse our position without falling into the trap of ideology.
What are our own core values - what is the good - and how do these values related to what I have been told it is to be (as I choose to be) English, British or even European.
Edgerton's book, alongside others, reaffirms that what it is to be British is my choice on the facts and I choose to be enraged at the incompetence and waste of our ruling elite and at the warfare state.
However, I also choose to be deeply impressed by the way the people of a very small island created a global trading system that, on balance, if callously, brought a positive modernity to the world.
I also choose to think that the suppressed and repressed radical democratic tradition of the English remains fundamental to reviving Britain as a peaceful, prosperous and humane nation.
An English Left, shorn of ideology, critical of power, engaged with global wealth creation and abandoning liberal internationalism and techno-warfare as false and cruel, may be far away but it can be.
If we come to see an equivalent Right that is individualistic and democratic and competes for space with neo-socialism in a free independent Britain, this will also be down to good historiography.
Notes are private!
Mar 21, 2014
Apr 27, 2004
Apr 27, 2004
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much
As a 2004 biography of Gamel Abdel Nasser from a well known Arab journalist, this is worth reading for insights into events that have taken place much more recently in Egypt and the wider region.
Aburish expresses ambivalence towards this curious character, a romantic idealist whose personal conduct as a dictator was (unless you were Muslim Brotherhood or Communist) better than most.
Aburish's Arab heart seems to appreciate that Nasser represented an emotive restoration of dignity to a people who had been denied respect over a long period of Turkish, French and British imperial control.
On the other hand, although his last years showed some ability to function effectively within the rules of the game, his story is one, fundamentally, of failure and not just because of imperial opposition.
Aburish writes of him as a man 'whose heart was in the right place but whose policies were too weak to cope with the problems he faced', an autodidact small town dreamer. He is right.
But one should not be too harsh. It is unlikely that any man could have done much better. Sadat and Mubarak clearly failed to resolve any of the problems he faced, merely intensifying thuggish dictatorship.
By the end of the book, we are, if we have a heart, faced with the same ambivalence to him as Aburish. If only, if only, we say ... and then find the 'if onlys' multiply to meaninglessness.
On the one hand, the man was just another Arab dictator in a culture that has still (today) not really got past the stage of relying on pashas, tribal leaders and autocratic dynasts.
On the other, he at least tried to reflect the will of the people and made real efforts to modernise his country (with some success) despite the traditionalist obscurantists - and was only tactically brutal.
Much of the problem here is central to the Arab condition. Autocratic leadership is accompanied by a complete lack of an institutional learning process to create administrative capability.
Such leadership is also used to surrounding itself with a court of friends that are judged on friendship and loyalty and not on competence or shared vision. The result is inherent instability.
Nasser retained power because he had one unusual skill and one new tool - he could speak to the crowd as Churchill could in another era and, like Goebbels and FDR, he had radio to spread his message.
The army too often becomes the only structure where some form of capability meets vision but, here too, Nasser was ill served by his own generosity and lack of interest in the quality of his colleagues.
He was thus a very Arab leader, with all the strengths and weakness of the culture, and it is valuable to have an experienced Arab journalist interpret him for us.
Indeed, there are times when Aburish goes a little native, not so much in his sentiments as in his style, with repetitions for emphasis and the fluctuations of heart and mind that are intrinsic to the culture.
Indeed, the book is fascinating until the end of the Suez gamble, about half way through the story, when the decline in Nasser's mission sets in and seems to be reflected in Aburish's suddenly heavier style.
To his credit. he avoids blaming everyone but the Arabs themselves for the catalogue of errors that we see in the book, also a history of the region from the Free Officers coup to the rise of the PLO.
There is sorrow rather than anger as tribal interests, ideology, egos, the superior cohesion of the Israelis, Western ambitions and corrupt and decadent elites create the unending mayhem we know so well.
But this is not to exonerate the West at all. The behaviour of the CIA is interesting not only for its despicability but for its lack of political accountability at home - still going on in the region today.
CIA involvement in drawing up death lists for the Baathist coup (that was eventually to lead to the 'regime' of Saddam Hussein) against Kassem in 1963 makes a mockery of US moral claims to leadership.
The West was involved in assassination as strategy and instrument of policy. Only fools really believe that there is much moral content to Western decision-making as we hurtle towards war in the Ukraine!
The book is also a sustained critique of Western support for Political Islam which started much earlier than most believe and which has been an own goal of no less standing than has been the Saddam one.
In assessing the successes (rhetorical) and failures (practical) of 'Nasserism' - Arab nationalism - its culturally-sensitive secularism was the baby that got thrown out with the bath water.
The relationship between an essentially conservative Nasserism, the more radical Baathism and Communism with Political Islam is a story of incommensurate ideologies manipulated by outside powers.
Perhaps only Nasser, based on the instinct of a modernising soldier recalling his small town background, saw the danger in Political Islam if it was allowed to take hold if ever Arab nationalism failed.
Ghaddafi attempted another solution, of course, which was to incorporate Islam within a revolutionary national socialist model but the Baathist model of secularism jettisoned culture altogether.
Instead of understanding that Arab Nationalism was a potentially progressive and collaborative force, the West, the British in particular, did everything they could to undermine it.
Progressive for Arabs but also progressive in order to reach some form of equitable relationship with the West - this demand for equity, respect and dignity seems to have been dismissed out of hand.
The Western tool in the war against communism (the primary driver of Western foreign policy) and Arab nationalism alike was Islamism which is not to be confused with Islam (Nasser was a sincere Muslim).
The book is worth reading just to remind ourselves of the foolish decisions made by 'our side' against secularism that ultimately led to bloody civil war in Syria and counter-revolution in Egypt.
As I write this, dimilar decision-makers seem to be teetering on the edge of yet another global war (the Ukraine) so questions have to be asked about their competence to rule over the long run of history.
This is not to exonerate Nasser himself from egregious blunders and often being all mouth and no trousers but the resistance to what he stood for was undemocratic and ignorant.
There were ample opportunities to work with rather than against those who spoke for real popular sentiment and feeling ('dignity' above all) and still draw appropriate red lines - even over Israel.
Underhand subversion by adventurers, failing to appoint and listen to seriously effective diplomats, obsession with communism and working with obscurantists in preference to secularists were crimes.
Nasser was a romantic failure, a creature of his culture, an inspiration perhaps still to many Arabs but ultimately a lesson in there being no substitute for political discipline and capacity.
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Nov 07, 2013
Nov 07, 2013
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wantin
Colin Brown is a former senior political journalist and his book has all the hallmarks, good and bad, of a current genre - the retired news man wanting to top up his pension and sweat his intellectual assets.
The good parts first. Brown writes well and clearly. He has made a real effort to get behind the wheel of history, visiting the sites of central historical events and understands the importance of place.
His account of battles are very good (Azincourt and the holding of Hougoumont at Waterloo in particular). He is equally good on the myth-making around events such as Magna Carta and the Armada.
His choices are (with one exception) important markers for what it is to be English (rather than his claimed Britishness) and he is good at showing just how contingently events have turned out.
Very few of the events in this book were 'inevitable' (other than perhaps the creation of the NHS) though probability was with some (1688, women's suffrage and 1940) and chance with others.
The weather of North Western Europe plays an inordinate role on the touch-and-go nature of national survival but it is also true that the English/British commitment to military innovation is always high.
He is (again with one exception) no sentimentalist either, able to point out that many major events were largely 'fixes' by special interests in struggles high above the world of us peasants.
He is a fairly typical example of the modern progressive-Tory-Whig, a creature squaring a lot of internal contradictions to come up with the right answer - a modern variant of the 'God is an Englishman' thesis.
But, like most British journalists, he is averse to analysis. The story is told, the falsities exposed but no conclusions drawn that are not rather simplistic and often comforting despite what we have read.
And the book takes a sharp turn for the worse at the end, after excellent and enlightening accounts of the two pivotal events that shaped the modern English mind - 1940 and the NHS in 1948.
It is as if that mind is his mind and he becomes the nation for the last event because he was there and can report on it as a newsman with 'inside information' - the Falklands and sinking of the Belgrano.
But, bluntly, the Falklands has been manufactured here as a defining event when it was merely a gamble that paid off for a Government that had already set the tone for the next thirty years.
More defining events might have been 1956 (Suez) or the defeat of the coal miners or the lifting of exchange controls (my personal choice) or are yet to come (the Scottish and European Referendums).
Similarly, he prefers the Falklands to the dissolution of the monasteries, the union of 1707, the Somme and so many other 'bigger' events ... this just does not work.
And the final chapter seems to be little more than a complacent establishment manifesto for monarchism and for our increasingly shoddy parliament ... the junior ranks of the establishment speak!
All in all, a well written and informative book that makes a good read for a journey and will change your views perhaps on aspects of our 'island story' but the jewels are set in a lazy and tinny setting.
At one level, this is excellent infotainment and I applaud Brown's active engagement with place and evidence but, at another, it represents, once again, that our elite still does not 'get' it.
Notes are private!
Feb 09, 2014
Sep 01, 2011
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of p
This is what good history should be about - an evidence-based narrative exploration offering the best working explanation of a particular problem of possible concern to us today.
Ian Kershaw asks a simple question of why Germany continued to fight on, far beyond reason, against the overwhelming force of Russian manpower and of Anglo-American air and technical superiority.
The book takes us from the failed Operation Valkyrie (the only serious revolt by conservative nationalists against national socialism) in July 1944 to the final capitulation in May 1945.
These were ten months in which it was pretty clear after the failure of the Ardennes Offensive and then the massive punch of the Soviets to within 80km of Berlin that the 'regime' had no chance of survival.
Yet Germany fought on - not just the Nazi Party but the entire military, the bureaucracy, the increasingly discredited judiciary and a good proportion of the common people. Kershaw simply asks why?
This period saw not just the military dead but the death marches of concentration camp victims, significant refugee losses, mass aerial bombings (including Dresden) and German-on-German terror.
And yet the system did not break even as the country was split - not until Hitler was known to be dead and a more rational if still ferociously Nazi Donitz eventually sued for unconditional peace.
Can it be down to the force of Hitler's will or the blind obedience of the German people? Kershaw explores these and many other reasons and like all the best history comes up with some very complex answers.
However, the best history seeks patterns in the chaos and in the interweaving of many causes and effects. Kershaw is no exception. There was some binding force that locked Germany into its apocalypse.
Kershaw finds this force in the functional reality of the 'fuhrerprinzip' where military, bureaucracy, party and national identity were bound into one locus represented by a monomaniac.
Unlike Italy, where Mussolini could be ousted by the Fascist Grand Council and the military and state be redirected under a national identity separate from the man, Germany was bound into one figure.
Beneath this man, all the players could dispose of forces towards one end set by Hitler but under conditions where each gathered power in competition with the other.
After Valkyrie, Bormann turned the Party into a mechanism of terror directed at controlling the German people through fear. Goebbels took responsibility for the engagement of the masses in the war effort.
Speer used his power to broker a corporatist economic state directed at armaments production, binding military, industrialists, workers and, more unwillingly than most, slave labour.
Himmler imposed discipline on the army in a collaborative relationship with the Wehrmacht. Powerful pro-Nazi Generals took advantage of Valkyrie to place their honour and duty in the hands of the Fuhrer.
Above all, the whole 'fuhrerprinzip' was underpinned by a dreadful combination of German nationalist duty and honour and national socialist fanaticism against both communism and the 'Jewish threat'.
If most soldiers may not have cared that much about the Jews, they were prepared to sacrifice them and other race-hate targets in the primary war against the Bolsheviks.
It was this hatred of the East which bound military and Hitler together and the hatred was fully returned. Soviet vengeance became a genuine fear factor in the continuation of the war.
Any deal with the West that did not allow Germany to release its troops to fight the Soviets was seen as a cultural and possibly real death sentence for half of the country.
Anti-communist fanaticism and fear were so strong that senior figures often could not comprehend that the Western Empires would prefer to fight alongside Stalin to the end rather than save Germany.
If I have not mentioned the opinions of the ordinary German (though Kershaw is very enlightening here) it is only because they had very little to say that mattered. They were not permitted much agency.
By the last months of the war, Germans, including ordinary German soldiers in some zones, were placed under a brutal terror regime of arbitrary executions that meant revolt was a death sentence.
And this is what strikes us about the story - the extreme lack of agency offered by the 'regime' where, although paid the weekly or monthly cheque to the end, a German was the slave of his Government.
Kershaw is also good on the fundamental attitudinal split between military and civilians in the East (fearful of Soviet atrocities) and in the West (almost desperate in some places for the Allies to arrive).
He also reminds us of the human cost, with atrocities in which no player in the game was not guilty. Nazi atrocities in the East were simply compounded at home under what amounted to a gangster regime.
Soviet atrocities were real enough (it took some time for control to be re-asserted by the authorities over their own occupying troops) and led to a tragic refugee exodus in icy conditions.
The French destroyed a whole village under circumstances still not clear today and the mass aerial bombing of German civilians by the British, notably the fire storm at Dresden, still leaves a bad taste.
This was a maelstrom of horror in which the men at the top (and their wives) reveled in their own fanaticism, desperation, 'heroism', brutality and power. But can we learn from this?
The puzzlement of Kershaw was that it was so rare, possibly unique, in history for a state to go so far and so willingly down the road to potential annihilation and at such cost to itself.
It is unlikely that it will ever be repeated as a case since now we know that even communist regimes can fall without a fight - their internal complexity perhaps helps to explain why.
Perhaps Stalin's Russia came closest and perhaps it was an intelligent analysis of his own situation - a lesson that Saddam Hussein attempted to copy, not reckoning on the sheer firepower of the US.
The story tells us something about our species and power that, on reflection, is rather grim - it is that the state's strength is in opposition to individual agency on terms very favourable to the former.
Even in our lovely cuddly liberal democracies, the state has immense reserve powers - as Americans saw under Woodrow Wilson and Britons saw under Lloyd George and Churchill. These are truly formidable.
We think our agency is a human right in that magical thinking about contracts and rights of which liberals are so fond. It is true that political culture in the West usually restrains the worst of the State.
But be under no illusions that the restraint exists only because those who control the State do not have a monomaniac will to use the State for some mad cap ideal. It is convenient for them to separate powers.
If a State is so disrupted that a monomaniac can systematically unravel pluralism and centre the bureaucracy, the military and the police on him then you and I do not stand a chance.
We are then simply not in a position to organise anything but the most futile of resistance (basically, we die or are imprisoned). We should remember this when think of the powers now accruing to the NSA.
This leaves us with an interesting dilemma in our dealings with the modern state. Do we trust it to be restrained and hope it is never disrupted so that some extremist loon can seize power?
Or do we begin to consider how we can make sure that the State is always actually rather than theoretically beholden us. In short, what checks can we the people make against a loss of checks and balances.
Certainly, in 1933, the elite handed power to a genius in political manipulation and turned itself into his willing creature. Within a little over a decade, the population ended up in a hell on earth.
Even today, the British and American military have ideologies of duty and honour towards single sovereigns that are scarcely different from that of the Wehrmacht in functional terms.
It is, of course, extremely unlikely that we, in the West, would be ruled by a monomaniac able to terrorise us into total compliance but, even today, the state's weapon of choice remains fear and half truths.
Outside the West, the idea of monomania is less ridiculous when there are religious and nationalist parties which offer path ways not dissimilar to that of the Nazis in the drive to control the State.
Perhaps this is why Sisi's coup in Egypt may not be pleasant but should be heartening in a way. The military turned away from obscurantist magical thinking in favour of rational administration.
The book should thus be read not as something distant from us but as a lesson in our lack of agency even in more benign conditions and in the ridiculous power that we give to institutions and belief systems
It should also be read as an essay in the consequences of particular modes of thinking - duty and honour in the military, duty and 'public service' in the bureaucracy and belief in the party and the nation.
We think of heroism, duty, honour, ideals and often faith (though less so with maturity and education) as positives but they are not if there is no serious questioning of why the heroic act and to whom the duty.
In Silesia, the Soviet advance isolated a town. The local Gauleiter became a Nazi hero for his defence to the end against the 'Asiatic horde' but the citizens would have done better to have surrendered.
This is not an argument for pacifism or 'cowardice' but for reason. Continuing a fight against overwhelming odds for gangsters is simply stupid, worse, it is criminal where lives are concerned.
It is time to look duty, obedience, honour, authority, custom, claims of heroism, idealism and leadership in the eye and call them out by asking them why and for whom people hold to these magical beliefs.
The Nazi regime was a merger of an aristocratic presumption on its last legs and the resentments at the uglier end of the masses in a malign war on modernity and progress.
Such people were not and never could be heroes. They were simply, so it was proved, not bright enough to understand their own condition and they dragged a lot of innocent people down with them.
Let them now be cursed again. In the end, these were only dim thugs who denied humanity its greatest evolutionary prize - personal agency and freedom.
Notes are private!
Jan 15, 2014
Jan 01, 2013
This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism aga
This is a useful but flawed account of an important theatre of war in the struggle of liberal internationalism (Western imperialism) and socialism against the attempted imperialisms of rising powers.
The story has two contemporary sets of resonance - the obvious one is the tricky current state of Sino-Japanese relations that has Westerners rushing to books like this. The less obvious is the attempt by the West to answer the question, 'what to do with rising powers?'
On the surface it is traditional narrative history. It starts at the beginning (what led up to the Marco Polo Bridge incident, the 'Sarajevo' of eight years of slaughter) through to the surprise ending - the 'deus ex machina' of the Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With the usual unconscious racism of the Western armchair liberal, the debates on the use of the Bomb usually wonder about the dreadful morality of wiping out 100,000 persons in a few days in terms of saved men and materiel for the West.
A more open view would throw into the pot the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Chinese and Japanese lives saved from not going down the Nazi route of a year or two of mayhem as Japan fought to the end despite its prospect of certain defeat.
Between 8 million and 20 million, variously estimated, died in those eight years with perhaps three to four million the victims of first the deliberate flooding of Henan and then its appalling famine (Mitter also notes the estimated 3m who died in a similar Indian wartime famine).
The whole business is another story of 'things getting out of control' with millions being disrupted, starved, conscripted, terrorised and murdered as a few 'big men' squabble for advantage and for 'values' that are often noble enough but equally as often hypocritical.
It is a story played out almost continuously even today - Africa being the current playground for 'big men' and psychopaths of all 'moral' persuasions. We should be pleased the rising thuggery of new empires was suppressed but it was not a simple tale of good and evil.
The flaws in the book, however, detract from its usefulness as analytical tool although the 'further reading' at the back is useful for anyone wanting to delve deeper.
Above all, the book often reads like an unjustifiable apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek, warlord leader of the Nationalist Chinese with most claim to legitimacy as ruler of China. It certainly spends more time on the squabble with General Stilwell than a straight narrative deserves.
What is going on here? The reality is that, legitimate though he was, Chiang Kai-Shek was soon run out of town (the core of China in the East) and was not much more than a superior warlord from an earlier era.
He could speak for China and for millions of men but he had proved an unimaginative and narcissistic leader before the Marco Polo Bridge incident and was not much better after it. Mitter justifiably contextualises his decisions but they were more often than not poor.
Most of the non-Communist warlords in the south marked time under his leadership but his control was limited, while the Communists under Mao cannily created a state within a state in North West China that treated the peasantry as if they mattered instead of as fodder.
By the time the Americans arrived (and the Communists are almost exclusively seen through American eyes by 1942/3 as Mittar swerves off into analyses of thinking in Washington), Chiang's China was virtually being re-colonised by the US by stealth without benefit to the people.
The blunders of Stilwell and the Americans can be charitably put down to them 'learning on the job' as they slowly displaced the British Empire as global arbiter. US foreign policy does not really settle down into full competence until after the McCarthy blood-letting.
Mitter's attempt to recover Chiang's reputation by pointing out the new status given to China in the 'UN' holds little water. Yes, this was a fact on the ground and it portended great things, a benefit that India failed to achieve, but China was always a tool under Chiang.
In essence, China held down some 600,000 Japanese troops and that was important for the Allied war effort but it presupposes that this was always in the interests of the Chinese who died in huge numbers holding together a ramshackle strategy of mere survival.
It is noticeable that in the struggle against the last Japanese offensive - like the last push of the Germans in 1918 - Nationalist troops were attacked by Henan peasants who had suffered deliberate flooding and then famine, fertile ground for communism later.
The second flaw is associated with the first. Mittel devotes about the right amount of space to the Communists in Yan'an but his coverage is still cursory and lacking in analysis. His great lack is any serious investigation of Japanese thinking and Japanese motives.
This is highly problematic. The book is about the Japanese war on China. That means it is about both main participants and the whole war zone yet we hear virtually nothing of East China other than Nanking and little of Japanese-collaborationist dealings.
He devotes a great deal of attention to the Petain of China - Wang JIngwei and his circle - but always in the light of them being implicitly honourable Nationalists who got it wrong.
This misses the point - they were naive and 'useful idiots' but there were important ideological and practical Japanese reasons for creating 'Vichy' regimes across Asia and for nationalists to choose what they thought might be the lesser evil. We get little sense of this.
Right or wrong, what was actually happening in the huge area of East China under Japanese rule needs to be explained in terms of Japanese conduct on the ground after the Rape of Nanking and of the motivations for Chinese collaborationism and resistance.
By the second half of the war, just as the National Socialists could put 'national' SS divisions into the field against the Soviets so there were substantial collaborationist Chinese troops fighting against the nationalists alongside the Japanese in the final offensive.
This has to be explained. It cannot be explained by giving excessive coverage to the superior warlord's dealings with Washington and almost completely neglecting the dynamic between Tokyo and Nanking except in terms of the factional struggles of a few failed politicians.
The net effect is that we have a book that does not take the detached and cold view of the struggle that we need to have in order to assist with the analysis of the twin issues noted at the beginning of this review - Sino-Japanese relations and the rise of new powers.
Instead, what we have is another easy read for liberal internationalists that seems intended to guide them through the group think politics of their own side rather than assist in understanding complexity and think about the unthinkable.
It is a morale-booster that seems to say that the 'real' China was only accidentally corrupt and incompetent and that if we (the West) had behaved in diferent ways and taken a flawed great man at face value, things would have been better. It is like a polemic for the past!
However, there is lot to learn from this book - about Mao's genius for making inaction look like action, about the cynicism of the Allies, about the delusions of the Japanese elite, about the resilience and humanity of the Chinese people and about the chaos of war.
One lesson is fascinating and well taught. Under conditions of war and threat, all three regimes in China turned to terror to try and hold power - Mao's reined in his intellectuals and mobilised the peasantry with the help of the Yezhov-trained Kang Sheng but he was not alone.
Chiang used the dedicated monster Dai Li (with the close co-operation of the Americans) to eliminate opposition to a regime that was really not much different from those targeted in Libya and Syria more recently. Chiang was not a democrat but an authoritarian militarist.
Wang Jingwei hired politicised gangsters to do much the same in Nanking from a class which, in Shanghai, had helped Chiang himself on his road to power. Even today, it is clear that, after seventy years of Communist 'totalitarianism', South China's gangster culture thrives.
Although the victor Mao adopted techniques later that taught Pol Pot and the extremists in North Korea their techniques of terror and power, thuggery arose on all sides out of warfare and whatever state might have emerged, none would have had much truck with 'human rights'.
This makes any attempt to make the 'less worse' seem good rather futile - Chiang murdered 800,000 Chinese in a somewhat poorly thought-out tactical attempt to slow down the Japanese by breaching the dams on the Yellow River. No wonder the Henanese peasants were obstructive!
At the end of the day, the whole debacle came down to an incident where a rising power thought that it had rights, demonstrated by its imperial enemies in the Opium Wars and subsequently, to use force to extract concessions on spurious grounds against a weak target.
That the target was weak was definitely not the fault of Chiang Kai-Shek. He was dealt an appalling set of cards but, given the realities of the situation, his decisions tended to make things worse, starting with his initial 'Night of the Long Knives' against the Reds.
Still, the book remains a valuable narrative introduction to one of the nastiest wars in an era of nasty wars. It left this reader with an abiding sense of solidarity with the Chinese people if not their leaderships.
Above all, I have come to admire the achievement of China in not merely holding itself together but appearing to cohere into a Great Power that has managed, through the construction of its own creation myth, to bind together the East, the Party and the nationalist impulse into one.
The nervousness of the West - and the margin states of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and perhaps Vietnam and the Philippines as well - is understandable but it may be that the US in particular is still not learning the lessons of the 1940s.
The book reminds us of the fragility of the Communist 'achievement'. The European Union is now seeing old interwar attitudes re-emerge in troubled economies - notably Spain and Eastern Europe - and there is no reason why something similar might not happen in China.
In its hour of greatest need, 'Free China' needed unconditional love like the battered child it was but instead it got used as a tool and was patronised by its equals - no wonder its successors are disinclined to trust anyone but their own instinct for tough love.
Notes are private!
Jan 03, 2014
May 28, 2013
This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two This 1991 well argued polemic has been reissued by Penguin, perhaps to set the context for Edgerton's latest book 'Britain's War Machine' but with two useful additions - a new introduction and a superbly informative historiography bringing the story right up to date.
Despite his own 2012 caveats, this book is well worth reading and Edgerton's calling it a 'polemic' does it a disservice - it is solid and well argued history. Perhaps his use of the term simply gave him space to be a bit more assertive early in his career.
The book is set in the context of a historical debate about 'decline' that has been the standard psychological currency for anyone educated before the mid-1990s - whether from the Right or the Left. This means policy-makers who are now over 40 and who do not 'keep up with things'.
Edgerton's politics are not worn on his sleeve but one guesses he is an industrial progressive that would have felt at home (as, with caveats, this reviewer would) in the old Labour Party before it got turned into a liberal internationalist simulacrum of the Left. Perhaps not.
Edgerton's thesis is very important. He is saying - as De Jouvenal might have done from a Republican Right tradition - that the UK as advanced liberal democracy was not a welfare state at heart but a warfare state with an ideology of liberal internationalism at its core.
Far from the UK being the first industrial nation in decline, he presents it as technocratic and modernising with immense reserves of organisational and state-directed power that out-competed all its competitors, bar, in the end, the 'American colossus'.
This is dealt with in greater detail in relation to the Second World War in his latest book which we hope to review later in the year but the point he is making is important for a reason he does not give - how our perceptions are formed by group consensus rather than the facts.
This lays us open to confusion but also to manipulation. He describes, through the medium of aviation history, how early aviation strategies were strongly lnked to the political imperial Right - as readers of Nevile Shute's novels will quickly recognise.
Although this might often shift under pressure into pro-fascist and anti-democratic tendences (there is a hint of aviation industry links to those Hess expected to meet on his ill-fated trip), the best description is of it being a liberal-democratic internationalism.
This liberal internationalism is not as lovely and cuddly it seems. This reviewer sees considerable continuities between the maintenance of empire over subject peoples, the brutality of air power strategies and the trajectory that would put the Trident-loving Blair into power.
The history of aviation is only one facet of British political history but, taken as the history of air power, it is a definer of foreign policy imperatives alongside the search for oil. Its neglect until Edgerton synthesised the work of many others has made us ignorant.
We are (as British) profoundly ignorant of the nature of our State which has learned a certain rhetoric of freedom, rights and democracy but is still the creature of the few and of its own urgent desire to survive at all costs - and I mean, at all costs.
We have reviewed some of the issues arising from this in relation to the Cold War at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... [Peter Hennessy's 'The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War'] but Edgerton's book supplies us with more evidence for the prosecution.
There is so much meat in this short book about the interplay of the technology of aviation with economics, culture and politics that we should not lose contact with Edgerton's primary thesis - that the UK did not decline, it appeared to decline only because others rose.
Apart from the massive mobilisation of an empire in order to participate in a struggle to the death at mid-century, the continued mobilisation of resources directed at subsidising the military aviation (and then missiles) sector was remarkable.
The scale of the military-industrial state constructed out of the 'reforms' of 1916 (equivalent to the allegedly progressive quasi-fascism of Woodrow Wilson and the real thing produced by Mussolini) and through the Cold War saw only one serious attempted check.
Whereas Eisenhower and Reagan brilliantly used military-industrial expenditure to develop the civilian infrastructure of the US - industrialisation of the West, road systems, civil aviation, satellite technology and the internet - the traditional elite in the UK did not.
There was a moment when elite insiders (Harold Wilson and Tony Benn) made a material effort to shift expenditures from the production of nonsensical attempts to keep ahead of a military game that could not be won into civil applications but the project fell apart on politics.
The experience appears to have radicalised Tony Benn into becoming an easily discreditable target of that same elite, while Wilson developed a partially justifiable paranoia about the right's determination to destroy him.
Even in the 1990s when I was involved in Labour Party politics, the military-industrial nationalist Labour Right plotted in my hearing to restore Trident to the top of the agenda and Amicus played a critical role in putting the Brown-Blair 'team' into power.
Much of the argument was around industrial decline, maintaining skills and full employment but what it was really all about was the military-industrial interests in the State ensuring that it would be 'business as usual' as Communism collapsed.
As the Left collapsed into a ridiculous sub-Marxism that gave cause for the Right to appeal direct to the people, New Labour eventually emerged as the synthetic merger of State resistance to fundamental change and the 'useful idiocy' of ambitious former Marxists on the make.
A similar failure took place in the Soviet Union where attempts to turn war expenditure into civilian expenditure crumbled on vested interests and sclerosis until the internal contradictions of bureaucratic paranoia resulted in the collapse of Russia into populist nationalism.
Russian populist nationalism is merely the Russian version of the British solution - the power of the State allied to a rhetoric that seduces an ill-educated population whose politics are those of slogans, prejudices and hand-me-down analyses endorsed by the media.
Edgerton does not deal with any of this grand theory but he does provide another fruitful source of data on the true nature of the state and the degree to which all is not what it appears to be in quasi-democratic states - like the UK and Russia.
His work starts to strip away our myths without in the least being 'ideological' or anything other than descriptive. The facts simply speak for themselves - the class basis within the RAF, the cruel calculations behind the use of air power, the interconnections.
If the book has a message for me, it may not be one intended by Edgerton. I am sold on the idea that the UK was not subject to decline in the twentieth century or indeed in the twenty first century. The Labour Party may indeed be electorally stuffed by robust recovery.
I am also sold on the idea that an advanced technology like aviation is transformative of political and economic structures and, another Edgerton proposal, that technological progress and modernity are very much at home, possibly more at home, on the Right than on the Left.
No, the lessons for me are several. First that the British ruling elite, as a closed-in caste that ably incorporate threats and assimilates them like an amoeba ingests food, is as powerful as it has ever been but has never been truly competent in its decision-making.
Second, that the public remains a prey to the elite's command of the terms of debate about important political issues under conditions where its 'Left' and 'Right' are merely struggling to rise to the head of something that exacts its own high price for the welfare it offers.
Third, that Right and Left are meaningless because both have been captured by the State and can only become meaningful when the Right means Republican Virtue (in the manner of De Jouvenel) and the Left means the Commonweal (in the manner of the English revolutionaries).
We have a very old story here - the struggle between Crown and People which the Crown won in 1660. It has brilliantly adapted its form to exist at the expense of the people - even today.
This book is, above all, a study of the relationship between a new and advanced technology (aviation) and its adaptation to the interests of the state and its eventual reformulation as a doctrine of mass murder in the mass bombing campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s.
It is this aspect of tolerance for mass murder as instrument of policy that took the 'regimes' of 1916 (Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George) from the more efficient use of conscripted labour to sustain the machine in the direction of two further dark ends.
The first dark end was preparedness to slaughter civilians overseas to avoid slaughtering young men at home, forgetting that the capability was mutual - and the second (see our Hennessy review) was acceptance that the nation itself could be obliterated to save the 'Crown'.
None of this was spoken of. None of this was analysed. Everything was accepted as most Germans accepted radical nationalism in the 1930s and most Russians accepted Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s. But it was no less totalitarian - simply the totalitarianism of consensual ignorance.
History may show that the conquest of the air was one of our darkest moments - darker in actual lives lost than the discovery of nuclear power (so far). This has to raise questions about a more recent invention, the internet.
Aviation was 'invented' by two brothers who had an eye to military applications from the very beginning. The internet was created by a military-industrial complex under a democratic system that saw civilian applications as a reasonable pay off for taxation.
Aviation gave us globalisation but it also gave us Dresden. The internet is currently seen as giving us 'empowerment' but also 'child porn'. 'Child porn' is the excuse for controlling action much as 'insurgency' was an excuse to drop bombs under the British Empire.
The complexities suggest a 'game' in which the State will want to command and use this tool - as Edward Snowden has apparently exposed - while getting the economic benefits for the population that supplies it with the taxes to dole out death and welfare to taste.
The question arising from the history of aviation is this - have we, the people, actually analysed correctly what is going on here and who is actually benefiting or are we taking on a narrative written by special interests for special interests?
Above all, the myth of 'decline' owed a great deal to liberal intellectuals with minimal experience of the world asserting truths without evidence because it felt right. Has much changed? A daily read of the nonsense in the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' would suggest not.
How much of the current story of the internet and its purpose and use as well as its relationship to freedom and power is truly understood by these commentators. And, if they do not understand the crude nature of power and history, why are we listening to them?
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2014
Jan 01, 2002
Sep 01, 2004
I was considering putting this book into my 'horror' list but it is no fiction, no attempt to assuage real anxieties with fantasy. This is the real th
I was considering putting this book into my 'horror' list but it is no fiction, no attempt to assuage real anxieties with fantasy. This is the real thing and if I could give the book six stars, I would.
Peter Hennessy has carved out a niche as the historian who is a 'safe pair of hands' for the quasi-official history of the near-contemporary British State.
However, this is the United Kingdom and not yet a third world dictatorship so 'safe pair of hands' merely means that he will respect continued security concerns. Otherwise he is rigorous, curious, independent-minded and, at the end of the day, humane in his assessments.
The best way forward is to draw some conclusions of our own, bearing in mind that this edition was published a decade ago and much material remained 'under wraps'. You are recommended to go straight to the book for the full and an accurate picture.
The book was published at that key point after the security apparat had begun to wonder what its purpose was now that the Soviet threat had evaporated and before the 'construction' of the part-real and part-invented terrorist threat that now threatens to recreate some of the horrors in this book but in new forms (see below).
Part of the pleasure of the book (if pleasure at its grim story is the right word) lies in the facility of Hennessy's writing and in the element of detective work as he plausibly reconstructs past policy even where documentation remains classified.
Indeed, the reconstruction based on known declassified documentation is so (bluntly) 'scary' that the mind boggles at what was being left behind closed doors (possibly literally in the case of the West Country Command Bunker) and still could not be seen by the people who pay the salaries of these officials, the enemy having long since departed.
There is black humour as well. Many of these highly intelligent officials had no illusions that their constant and expensive war planning was little more than 'pissing in the wind'.
I am left with the image of Her Majesty bobbing away on HMS Britannia in the North Atlantic while her Government sits hours away from extermination, having murdered 8 million Soviet men, women and children in retaliation for the Soviets doing in 12 million of ours.
The idea that 210 (probably less than 150 after traffic hold-ups) officials could command a country of around 30-40million ('surviving'), most of whom would be starving, rootless, irradiated, dying and bitter through regional centres of much the same numbers - let's say 1,500 men and a very few women - is patently ridiculous.
Desperately trying to direct their armed forces into public order control as a de facto military dictatorship with draconian rights to the death penalty (the safeguards would have collapsed on the first regional revolt), the question arises how these people ever contemplated this scenario as a rational possibility.
The only good news today (and probably the reason our Government is so in favour of 'nudge') is that we simply no longer have enough soldiers to hold down the population.
Our police are also unlikely to accept orders to do the sorts of bad things necessity might seem to require - but then we are no longer under the threat of a wave of nuclear bombs that could physically wipe out our industrial capacity within minutes.
And that brings us to another absurdity. The only reason that those bombs were targeted on us was because of our unique role as the Western Alliance's island supply base for the protection of the Continent from the Red hordes.
In other words, think about this, we were targeted because we were the premier supply base and yet the first few minutes of a nuclear exchange would ensure that we could never ever be used as such an asset. Our island would be an irradiated ashen ruin, the symbolic hub of an empire (before we lost it) which would merely remember us on 'Irradiation Day' each year.
Our nuclear capability was created in a series of steps of logic from false assumptions (which we will return to later) as a 'deterrent' but a deterrent related to what? - because the answer is not as simple as it first appears.
Let is pause here to say at once that this monstrous war never took place (self-evidently) so deterrence 'worked' But this deterrence was explicit not only against the Red Hordes (effectively, "attack us tactically and we'll take out 8 million of your people") but against another fact of the Cold War - American lunacy.
That is not too strong a phrase for the really serious worry of the British authorities in the immediate wake of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. There was once a critical gap in nuclear capability between the US and the Soviet Union and a genuine fear (attested from multiple evidence) that 'hawks' in America would engage in a pre-emptive war against Moscow.
This was a fear that never went away because American assesments and psychology were always different from British, its interests were global in a more fundamental way and the fear was of brinkmanship by either side in which the first victim would be the United Kingdom as forward supply base.
Naturally, this oversimplifies a situation which changed from year to year (read the book for the detail) but fear of American behaviour at the beginning, when the United Kingdom was still under some great power illusions (held by Ernie Bevin as much as by any Tory), led the country into a deep entanglement with its ally.
That entanglement required our own expensive weaponry with its own consequences - for example, while small European countries built at least some degree of protection for their citizenry, the British population was left wholly exposed because all the money had to go on a massive programme of bomb and delivery development. Contingency planning for anything beyond the survival of the State as military dictatorship was simply not possible.
The situation moves inexorably into nightmare - the determination to try to control the US within a Western alliance which made the UK little more than a target, the need to buy a place at the table with an independent nuclear deterrent that was merely a provocation to destruction in a crisis and which was beyond the country's means, and the fact that a weakening economy and scientific-industrial base meant that this self-destructive white elephant was mostly dependent for its functioning on the US in any case.
At a certain point, the ridiculous position is reached where four nuclear submarines are made available to commit mass murder because the United Kingdom no longer exists.
But there is a second aspect to the story that emerges. This is about the relationship between the Crown and its People which is a story of degradation that has not ended with the end of the Cold War.
This is not to say that the high officials and politicians of the Cold War were not men of the highest intelligence, integrity and goodwill who genuinely placed what they saw as the interests of the nation at the centre of their thinking. If the outcome was absurd, it followed logically from first assumptions and it is the lack of questioning of those assumptions that now looks so tragically startling.
There might be an analogy drawn with the logic of the German war machine in which so many men of 'intelligence, integrity and good will' were engaged to the point of the worst sort of mass murder. There really is, in the end, only the moral difference (admittedly an important one) that the German war machine committed mass murder as part of a war of aggression whereas the British would have committed mass murder only in retaliation for a similar assault - or an accident.
Oh dear! Because an accident of information was always possible and our external security apparat was built up mostly on the need to avoid accidental failures of interpretation and to get good warning - if only to manage the cowboy responses of their main ally.
But the British and German States had this in common - whether for Crown or Kaiser, both had a reified concept of the nation that could contemplate rationally that its population could be thrown on to the poker table as part of the gamble.
The continuity of the State, the safety of the Queen, the preservation of what remained of the Empire, all these were vastly more important than the particular lives, properties and aspirations of the 'subjects' (mark that word) of the Crown. It drove the concept of the State/Empire as something to be preserved by alliance against an offensive ideology but, above all, it drove the construction of the secret state which was secret not only against the enemy but against its own population because of the Communist 'enemy within'.
Again, we should not be too hysterical about this. What Hennessy's researches make clear is that (sometimes for practical reasons) the genuinely civilised high officials of the State alwaysd started by trying to minimise intrusions into private life (only, of course, to see bureaucratic logic extend the machine further by degrees).
The American approach to Communism - a brutal unjust purge of citizens who simply thought differently - was pure politics and such methods were vigorously resisted at the highest political level in the UK. It was understood that real espionage against the British would remain undiscovered except through break-throughs in counter-espionage that no vetting procedure or bugging of King Street would contribute towards.
The discovery of the Cambridge Communist spies came in just that way and I offer the unfashionable view that, given the fact that not knowing what the other side is up to represents the greatest risk of error and accident of interpretation, Philby's supply of 20,000 pages of security material to the Soviets may actually have helped avoid apocalypse, with the only regret that we did not have our own Philbys in Washington and Moscow.
However, as in the logic of the acquisition of armament through to Trident (via the V-Bombers and Polaris) and the huge gamble involved in deterrence for an unprotected population, so the British wartime state that was first constructed by the 'war socialisms' of Lloyd George and then, after a gap, by the Churchill-Attlee Government found itself increasingly paranoid about an 'enemy within'.
The most interesting moment is not the decision to engage in 'positive vetting' which strikes me as reasonable, if appallingly handled in individual cases such as that of Turing (not mentioned in this book), nor the cat-and-mouse with the Communist Party which would have been rounded up and interned long before the bombs started landing.
[Personally, I would have driven straight to the internment camp zone since there is an above-average chance that the Russians might decide not to plant a bomb in the vicinity].
The most interesting moment is when a non-communist part of the population starts to get wind of the scale of the threat to its own existence and to the arrangements made by the elite to hunker down and sit out the bombings. This is the foundation of CND and the distribution of leaflets that pinpointed the 'safe bunkers' making them suddenly useless. The leaflets would have resulted in the Soviet targeting being adjusted accordingly - poetic justice, I say.
There was a rather desperate attempt to keep a lid on public awareness of what was going on and to some extent this was successful, if only because the Soviet threat was, even for socialists, possibly for them more than anyone, a very real concern and fear.
Peter Watkins' disturbing TV film of the aftermath of an attack on Sheffield was kept off the BBC for some years until it could be held back no longer. A strain of doubt set in about the good will of the Government from the mid-1960s though it never attracted a majority.
The handling of student revolts of the 1960s and 1970s and labour action have to be seen in this Cold War context because the difference between the 1950s and the 1980s was the State's belief that it might not, in fact, be able to hold the country in the run-up to a war, let alone in the aftermath.
In short, the Cold War strategy of defiance, secrecy and deterrence was being quietly undermined by the arrival of a different sort of 'enemy within' - not foreign-backed and partially-directed Communists but imperfectly educated (and whose fault was that?) and angry indigenous people.
Fortunately for the Government, the histrionics of the Left and of direct action and genuine fears of Sovietism on the centre-right kept the majority solid if wary but (and we move well beyond the book now) precedents had been set for investigation into the secret state (which are still under way) and for popular resistance to authority.
The book is, therefore, vital reading not only as contemporary history and as an insight into what happens when a delusion of power affects a whole institutional elite but also in helping us to critique what is happening to the State mechanism today and why we should continue to be wary of its claims and its internal logic.
We noted above an important difference between the German and British war machine which may be summarised as a desire for empire compared with a determination to preserve what was left of empire but this no longer applied under the most dangerous man ever to be given control over the State machine - Tony Blair.
The Cold War over by a few years by the time of his arrival in office, adventurism could now be an option. Blair synthesised the German and British models by replacing the desire for empire with a determination to spread 'values', simply replacing the US as collaborative ally for the preservation of empire with a model of inveigling a sympathetic American political class into a forward policy of extending those values and (yet again) 'ensuring Britain's place in the world'.
This aspiration to be a global player is like a drug that affects the British Left more than it does the old British Right which is generally less interested in the world and more interested in simple profit (a much more healthy attitude). The Tory Party has since been 'Blairified'-lite under Cameron and Hague.
Macmillan expressed this well - as referenced by Hennessy - when he mused on whether it might be best just to flog off the family assets (so to speak) and retire on one's wealth but, like all the others, he was trapped into the same path of redirecting massive resources to weapons that could only be used genocidally.
Blair reintroduced an ideology of Great Power status far beyond the capability of the British economy and so reinvigorated the famous 'poodle status' with the US.
This is not electorally daft. A good proportion of the British population are highly delusory about our ability to sustain a global presence and are still locked into militarist imperial imagery from the past. There are also a fair number of jobs involved in various aspects of the so-called military-industrial complex.
Perhaps one might say - "why not, if you can get away with it". But, apart from moral considerations and the sheer absurdity of the cant involved, there are two more fundamental issues that take us back to Hennessy's book.
The first is that the British economy is desperately in need of sustainable investment according to a national plan that takes account of its true destiny - as a solid trading power in the second rank globally but first rank at what it does well. It has a huge population of nearly 80 million for a small island but one that is under-educated, expectant of welfare standards that are not sustainable and increasingly non-competitive.
The 'Great Power' fiction and the excessively close relationship with the US has benefits but it also has costs and the costs of policy are a recurrent theme in Hennessy's book. Back in the day, strategic choices were made solely for cost - a massive wasteful intelligence system and deterrent with no lasting value, say, in preference to a massive house-building programme with full civil defence capability and the sort of industrial investment seen in Germany and Japan.
As we write, the Cameron Government is trying to hang on to Trident despite a desperate lack of funds for investment in innovation. What funds are available are being poured into an electorally important welfare system for an increasingly old and unskilled population.
The other legacy is the 'secret state' itself which has not merely been reinvented for the age of 'terrorism' but has the sinister aspect that it is almost entirely directed (barring 'Al-Qaeda' in collaboration with the Americans) at an 'enemy within' who is not easily identifiable.
The original positive vetting procedures of the 1940s extended themselves into significant MI5 investigations and surveillance of individuals who simply made it known that they did not agree with national policy and were prepared to say so. Within a relatively short period, threats, none of which are foreign-financed, came to include a whole range of direct action activism as well as terrorism arising out of Northern Irish and Islamic issues.
Some of this interest is justified where breaches of the law are involved and certainly where the breaches offer public danger, but we should be aware of the risk of mission creep involving not merely increasingly widespread surveillance and file-keeping but other more sinister developments, all of which have Cold War precedents.
There is also the 'co-operation' with allies where the survival of the collaborating network of regulatory states is placed ahead of the real interests of the inhabitants of those states. The argument that these are democracies stand up less well when, after reading Hennessy, one realises the degree to which the political and bureaucratic elites are in close cahoots on the need to preserve the state and impose order on the population.
As we noted, the Cold War model successively involved internment camps and ultimately military dictatorship (albeit under Cabinet Control which must make the other 79.99m of us feel immensely better) with death penalties.
What Hennessy reveals and which is easily missed is that part of the war plans involved a pre-drafted Emergency Power (Defence) Bill which would have been whipped through the House of Commons and which would effectively have ended all civil rights.
The planning was reminiscent of Hitler's move after the Reichstag Fire. The Bill was recognised not to be passable in peace time so the plan was to deliver it to parliament only when the threat of war was imminent - requiring some fine timing. The document remained secret until it appeared in an MOD file at the PRO in the late 1990s. One wonders what other 'emergency measures' are being readied for a crisis.
We should not be too paranoid. State officials are generally decent men and women and the growing 'whistleblower phenomenon', the reduced number of military and police in the hands of the State, the changing international situation, the emergence of the internet (which clearly worries the Cabinet Office) and a slight increase in political education and awareness all militate against action.
But we should never forget that the State defines the terms of a crisis and that it is now proven to place its own existence ahead of the lives of its subjects for whatever carefully thought out and logical reasons. There is potential for harm.
The Government has a command centre, much more effective than the old West Country bunker, has access to internment camps, and can rely on a relatively uneducated, atomised and easily led majority in the population and on a supine and self-selecting political party of third rate minds where a consensus can be constructed over the heads of the population through Privy Council. You have been warned! ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 10, 2013
Mar 01, 2005
This a book with insights but, I am afraid, too few insights to recommend it to the casual rather than the specialist reader who may be unable to see This a book with insights but, I am afraid, too few insights to recommend it to the casual rather than the specialist reader who may be unable to see through the speculation and the implicit ideological positioning.
However, when we reach 1938, there is a subtle shift in the book from a narrative well told to yet another strike in the never-ending war betwen revisionist conservatives and the mainstream over the conduct of events after Munich.
Interestingly, given the bias, the story has the odd effect of giving some credence to the old Marxist theory of national socialism as the last refuge of a late imperial military-industrialism faced by the Bolshevik threat.
Canaris was not an aristocrat but he was part of a bourgeois class that had imbibed aristocratic values of war and duty (values that, of course, would have been completely alien to actual aristocrats at any time before the rise of the middle classes).
What we see here is an old story revisited almost by accident - one of classes who are perfectly prepared to go to war with one another as competing nation states for advantage but who rapidly collaborate internationally when a threat to their hegemony appears from 'below'.
Our current condition is not too dissimilar from this although the ruling elite is more likely to be represented by a graduate euro-socialist or bureaucrat in an international agency or NGO than an officer in the imperial navy or a landed gentleman running a ministry.
The evidence for this class interpretation lies everywhere in the first third of the book and beyond, pehaps most poignantly in the strange appearance of at least three Jews at different times as agents of German and national socialist espionage!
There is Canaris' undoubted involvement in protecting the cold blooded murder of Luxembourg and Liebknecht and there is his personal network of alliances with arms manufacturers and bankers that played a critical role in Nazi support for General Franco.
Indeed, one might reverse the usual claim that Hitler supported Franco in an ideological drive to expand international fascism into a far more realistic model where conservative nationalists inveigled the Nazi into supporting one of their own.
Whoever Canaris was by 1938, he was a ruthless player who may have pragmatically felt (like many German conservative nationalists) that the nasty little oik running the country was dragging the country to disaster but who was, equally, no stranger to criminal acts.
The revisionism that fuels the book from this point on seems to be one of the recurrent 'problems' of history where inconvenient truths have to be explained to salvage an interpretation necessary for the self image of a particular element in society.
I am confidently expecting Labour memoirs and historiography to give thoroughly revisionist perspectives in due course on the alleged unwilling complicity of senior Labour left-wingers in the Blair 'regime' and to claim their 'secret resistance'. Ho, hum!
It is true (I think Bassett demonstrates this) that Canaris was horrified by the turn of events within Germany after Kristallnacht. Canaris was not particularly anti-semitic and also understood better than his bosses that the early easy victories of Nazi aggression were not sustainable without some sort of peace with either the Reds or the Empires.
Strategically, Germany can look to the West against the East or look to the East and security and both visions have played their part in German history since Bismarck - as they do 'sotto voce' even today.
Canaris was firmly (remember the violence against the Spartakists) against the East because it was Bolshevik but he may well have had a different view had Russia been Tsarist.
Ideology infected strategy here as elsewhere. Once Germany had bitten off more than it could chew, there was a relatively short period when flexible cynics might have tried to 'do a deal' with one set of enemies in order to crush collaboratively the other.
Bassett concentrates on this 'window of opportunity' but too easily confuses the facts of the matter (the 'is' of the story) with an implied 'ought' - oh how much happier we would all have been if the generals had overthrown Hitler and a strong Germany resisted and beaten Stalin back. Ho, hum again!
Canaris was drawn to circles with a similar conservative anti-Bolshevik view in the West and this undoubtedly drew him into dialogues that any reasonable Nazi (indeed, any reasonable German in a state of war) might reasonably have called treacherous.
It is this treachery that Bassett seems at pains to justify and it is true that all spies are 'treacherous' to a degree in that part of their job is to maintain lines of communication with the enemy - whether IRA or Taliban or 'C' in London - so that deals may be struck later.
Unfortunately, this truth is spun here into something that the evidence simply does not support. Bassett speculates so that we see information that could be interpreted more reasonably in one way being interpreted in another in order to praise the man for the ideological reasons that we will come to.
It is the nature of espionage that we have very little evidence that is reliable and what evidence that we have may derive from a deliberate intent to tell a particular narrative.
Similarly, any dealings with the enemy (the separate peace feelers with London) are part of an elaborate game of maintaining options and advantage in which we simply cannot KNOW what precisely was intended.
Contacts with London could be interpreted in many ways and not all of them treacherous. The treacherous aspects do seem to have been there but it would also seem that senior Nazi figures were well aware of them and even (almost certainly in the case of Himmler) happy to take later advantage if they could.
Moreover, none of the acts that were designed to suggest the back door to London for conservative nationalists need be interpreted in quite so noble terms as Bassett implies. After all, to conservative nationalists sacrificing some of their own hoi polloi might be regarded as a perfectly reasonable price to pay for political advantage,
Similarly, like good philosophers, spies can think two or more apparently inconsistent things at the same time and can over-reach themselves in doing so.
We must remember that this was a man who not merely collaborated with Heydrich, albeit as a bureaucratic rival, but who knew him well before he became a Party figure and who lived next door to the man and spent musical evenings with him.
Canaris' knowledge of the man may have helped to create seriously defensive moral principles in his more conventional Abwehr but it might easily be interpreted that Heydrich's SD was there to 'do the dirty work' so that the old guard could keep its hands cleans.
What I cannot believe is that Canaris was so horrified by what Heydrich represented that he began to 'plot against the regime'. It really is not that simple. And whatever Canaris was, he was a highly intelligent and rational player who loved his career and being at the centre of things.
It is equally probable that, like Gehlen later, he saw the way things were going a bit earlier than most and simply wanted to hedge his bets so that he had a job later. In the end, he miscalculated. It has to be said that he accepted his fate (as far as we can understand) with enormous dignity.
In other words, the 'distance' of complicity and mentality between Canaris and Heydrich is simply not proven but is merely suggested by testimonies that owe a lot to the later need of his officer colleagues in the New Germany to distance themselves from the thugs with whom they had shared power.They are not liars but they are not telling the total truth.
I would have been more inclined to give Bassett, and so Canaris, the benefit of the doubt if there had not been the implicit ideological agenda in the Introduction to the book (and in the closing comments) and which begins to emerge in force in the account of matters after 1938.
Again, we must not go too far. My own view is that Bassett demonstrates sufficiently that Canaris did retain certain standards, did refuse to get down into the mud with his Nazi colleagues, was part of the German nationalist readiness to overthrow Hitler and did undertake a number of highly creditable acts in defiance of Nazi ideology and hegemony.
Where we seem to differ is that all this is not enough to exonerate him or his class because there is enough evidence even in this book that the conservative nationalists only started to take a serious interest in countering national socialism when it looked like defeat might bring crimes to account.
It is true that Canaris wisely saw Hitler's forward foreign policy as potentially disastrous but we should not make too much of this. After all, many loyal Party men (I have been there!) know that their party is heading for a disaster on the logic of the situation but continue to serve the party regardless.
Yes, we have evidence of private horror at Nazi behaviour but much of this is cast in almost aesthetic and cultural terms rather than in terms of the sort of 'outrage' that affects (or infects) contemporary international relations discourse.
The picture that Bassett seeks to paint is one where a noble class of conservative nationalists, implicitly transnational in their acceptance of chivalric values but proudly patriotic, are outmanouevred by a bunch of rabid gangsters and then nobly risk their lives to recover their country from the fiends' coming apocalypse.
This ideology is part of a wider European revisionism that is deeply conservative in mentality. It implies that if only the Catholic Church (Bassett is characteristically kind to the Pope), conservative gentlemen and public servants, especially the military and allied services, had retained power, then all would have been well.
The conservatism comes through even in the rather pointed (and actually true) references of the debasement of the gentlemanly breed of spies by Tony Blair and his 'dodgy dossier'.
One of Bassett's items of evidence for the defence is that Canaris, faced with a similar demand (to that demanded by New Labour) from Nazi officials (to assist the invasion of the Netherlands) simply refused. I am afraid this does not make Canaris 'good' but merely reminds us just how dreadful Blair was!
Canaris is put into the same bracket of honour as 'C' - men of 'service who stood up to politicians and served their country with as much ethical consideration as the unethical trade of espionage permits.
This is, of course, romantic tosh but very much part of the self image of a particular element in the ruling order that will talk of the Christian West around High Table and at conservative European dinner parties much as they did in the age of the Kaiser and Edward.
Now let's put away this propaganda of a revival of a Christian-aristocratic vision of Europe with the politicians firmly under the control of the subtle counsellors in the bureaucracy who rely on the Vatican for moral succour and on an 'ethic of service' to give the masses the administrative rule they require.
In fact, the German conservative nationalists of the interwar period were wholly complicit in the rise of national socialism but were simply incompetent at managing it or in understanding its true nature. Far from effective, they were serially incompetent - no less than their imperial equivalents in the British Conservative Party before 1940.
To this day, Chamberlain's naive and stupid guarantee to Poland in 1939 must rank as one of the most stupid acts in British history - it cost millions of British and imperial lives and lost Britain its already weakening global hegemony.
To have allowed war elsewhere and national feeling (which was strong) to buy time for a major national rearmament programme designed to contain Germany and then ally with the Soviet Union at the 'right time' seems not to have occurred to the confused buffoon surrounded by incompetent 'service professionals'. One thanks someone for Churchill!
As for mainland Europe, the catholics, the aristocracy and the bureaucracy were so blinded by terror of Bolshevism that they gave carte blanche to populist gangsters who would kill their own as much as their enemies and they gave this carte blanche willingly in fear of worse.
Nor were they alone. Mussolini suggested a 'way forward' with his Papal Concordat that horrified his own radical pagan supporters such as Evola. The old revolutionary socialist marched on Rome and then made himself head of the biggest protection racket in history.
Franco was treated as the 'coming man' (and was clever enough not to concede ground to the Nazis) and the Church backed vicious dictators across Eastern Europe and 'quislings' in the West as the Wehrmacht moved towards Moscow.
In one of the silliest analytical tricks of the conservative revisionists, any crime is moderated because conservative nationalists were less anti-semitic than the Nazis - basically, they simply had none of the lust for extermination of their radical cousins.
This is like the justification of the old man bonking a fifteen year old school girl that he is not to be compared with a member of a ring that abuses five year olds - true but it rather misses the point.
Even Hitler compromised with the old guard once he had shown what he was capable of in hitting out at both conservative nationalists and his own 'Left' in the Night of the Long Knives.
Though historians love to suggest that the SS slaughter in 1934 created a sense of terror amongst conservative nationalists, we must not forget that the main purpose of the event was to create an understanding with the new Wehrmacht.
Von Papen himself was held back from the slaughter as a chess piece in case of need. He did not defect and (on the evidence of Bassett) even considered it possible that he might be reappointed Prime Minister by Hitler in order (we presume) to help broker a peace deal with the West against Stalin.
In other words, the conservative nationalists were cowed perhaps in 1934 and came to understand their role as junior partners with the radical nationalist state but they never gave up hope of being senior partners again.
They were still well in play within the system and they never truly revolted except in their own class interest (beautifully recast by the identification of that class and cultural interest with that of their own nation). The self-delusion here is almost magnificent.
Only at the end, to save their own skins for the consequences, not merely of aggression but of gross atrocities unmatched in war since the seventeenth century, did they seek any means possible to counter the decisive statement from FDR that German surrender had to be 'unconditional'.
Bassett seems to dislike this commitment to 'unconditionality' because he continues to have faith in this class and to share their view that the division of Europe between Anglo-Americans and Soviets was an unalloyed disaster.
I do not - not because I like sovietism (on the contrary) but because the true disaster for Europe would have been anything less than a decisive defeat for the undemocratic instincts of the old feudal classes and an opportunity to create new parties and new constitutions for the defeated 'ab initio' and regardless of their much vaunted 'tradition'.
In the end, though much later, Eastern Europe was enabled to join this new model with its own aristocratic and religious machinery collapsed and with traditionalism only able to return as a petit-bourgeois pale simulacrum of its previous claims to power. Even the fascistic Golden Dawn is no Iron Guard.
The real danger for Europe is of a Vatican resurgent (which it has been since its effective claim to have won the Cold War in Europe for the West) backed by a sentimental 'service ethos', to which a certain sort of conservative bourgeois is attracted, in order to control the masses.
This book acts as both a flawed history of an interesting figure in twentieth century history but also as an unintended warning of the new political romanticism that might suggest that a failed ruling order still has something to offer Europe. It does not.
Notes are private!
Jul 21, 2013
Aug 03, 2002
This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in This book was produced to accompany what may have been the first major exhibition of video gaming in an art gallery (in both Edinburgh and London) in 2002.
The exhibition was excellent and no doubt helped one member of my family to feel even better about (eventually) choosing video gaming as the subject of his university course.
But, in retrospect, I regret that there seemed not to be a traditional catalogue available (or else I was misled into thinking that this book was such an artefact for the future).
Instead, what we have here is a series of essays, of varying quality, one or two of which are arch and truly awful, with some added eco-cant at the beginning.
It all looks very dated about one of the fastest moving industries in history. A catalogue of the exhibits would have been far more useful, giving us a base-line history of the genre in the last century.
Having said that, the better essays give us a decent picture of what people thought was important in 2002 and we can use the book to compare and contrast what was expected and what actually happened.
For example, there is no reference to the massively fast growth in social media gaming and mobile platforms and tablets simply because, well, they weren't available then.
Other things are talked up that have not had much impact - notably machanima which became crass to an extreme and virtual worlds which rather stagnated despite the massive rise of the MMORPG.
What has changed are the graphics. The graphics of 2002 look clunky in the extreme and would be wholly unacceptable today in a world where games can show us a remarkable hyper reality.
Video gaming has been immensely influential - Hollywood adventure movies routinely use the 'level' meme to structure their narratives - and is more sophisticated but the book has one insight to hold on to.
This is that video games are, well, games. That is, they are not to be confused with the narrative forms of other arts like film or the novel.
The gamer is not simply watching or passively allowing words to create mental images away from reality. The gamer is actively engaged in manipulating formal rules for particular outcomes, usually competitive.
This may explain one of the great frustrations for many outside observers - the inability of the gaming industry to do more than add beautifully designed bells and whistles to a very few narrative forms.
Gaming is immersion in a restricted set of possibilities that are usually linked to a very few and simplified primary drives - hunting, being hunted, winning, acquiring, raising status, being 'more than'.
It is skill-honing and wish-fulfilment but it is not often subtlety though this is not how it needs to be in the hands of some coming genius of the genre.
Someone is going to enter into this field, on the back of increased computing power and the availability of artificial intelligence, and introduce subtlety much as the Renaissance introduced perspective.
What this needs, of course, is a market (which is probably sufficiently there) but also the ability to understand a very advanced technology alongside a creative and artistic mentality.
This mentality, though, will be very different from the expected one of the individual genius. It is more likely to be the Disney type leader who can collaborate equally with workshop and purchasers.
We are on the edge of this change. Some masterpieces - Myst, The Sims, Final Fantasy perhaps - have drawn us closer to a point where, eventually, we will see interaction guided into self-discovery.
Instead of the mere expression of desires and clan-based competition, the game may mature not into the 'vision of the artist' but of a 'guided shared vision' that has a process-based and not a fixed 'form'.
In a 'guided shared vision', the prime creators and the game players would be co-creators of an inward reality that is personally transformative. At that point, we will have a high art on our hands. ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 05, 2013
Jan 01, 2013
Oct 01, 2013
The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowl The first half of this book is a superb introduction to the current crisis in Syria. It would be hard not to recommend it to anyone with limited knowledge of how this monstrous civil war came to be and who feels that they may need to understand it better before coming to a view.
Unfortunately, about half way through, the book seems to change tone and become something else: half history and, then increasingly as the book proceeds, half an implicit attempt to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that simply does not quite stand up to scrutiny.
It would seem that no book in English on the Syrian situation can now detach itself from a position on one side or the other, at least by strong implication.
This mimics the intellectual world surrounding the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s where statements about the combatants were always absolute and placed in terms of good and evil. George Orwell's critical stance on the communist/anarchist conflict was the exception.
We badly need Orwell today because, in a parody of the Leftist position on Spain, there is a neo-Arabist perspective on the Middle East that, in justifiably seeking democracy, human rights and the reform of sclerotic governments, has abandoned support for some fundamental enlightenment values.
Lefevre is very definitely not a propagandist but he is also not an Orwell. He describes in an evidence-based way but sometimes, perhaps, he just cannot bring himself to ask the right questions as if that would betray his interviewees.
Critical questioning of beliefs and of such matters as the treatment of women are not to be found in this book and the result is a skewed and over-sympathetic portrayal of the Brotherhood as well as one that rightfully ends much negative stereotyping.
One of Lefevre's achievements is to demonstrate the breadth and complexity of 'Political Islam' but, then, this should be common sense - socialism and liberalism are similarly complex. However. it is hard to claim plausibly that the late discovery of reform and democracy within the movement is anything more than tactical at this stage.
We cannot rely on conservative democratic claims to mastery over the movement while these elements are busy competing for Western patronage and Gulf geld.
The thought that kindness and encouragement are enough to split Political Islam in general from the jihadi loons in Syria and turn it into another pale blue AKP misses a fundamental point - the model, the AKP, is censorious and partially obscurantist with a very troubling view of sexuality and women.
Some Western liberal internationalist policy wonks, analysts and security advisers (many of whom are still half-looking over their shoulder at the 'Russian Empire') seem to be aiming at a liberal-faith based alliance of democratic interests.
This is sometimes explicit on both the neo-conservative Republican Right and in the Blairite model of the universe which 'does not do God' overtly but clearly has an orientation towards inclusion of faith-based perspectives in public policy in a way fraught with danger for the Western tradition.
We see here a repeat of an old Cold War strategy (that of linking right-wing Italian and German democrats to the obscurantism of the Vatican and the order of the Lutheran Church in order to defeat communism) but, in this case, the policy is in danger of selling large numbers of Arabs for whom 'traditional values' are oppressive down the river.
The condition of the Northern Levant in the 21st century and of the Southern Mediterranean in the mid-twentieth century are very different. The Allies were able to impose a liberal order everywhere except Spain, one that permitted individual freedom to co-exist with Vatican power, but these conditions do not apply in 'Greater Syria'.
Yes, it is possible certainly that moderate Islamism could become a partner within an essentially liberal democratic Syria but there is no reliable 'deal' to be struck here because there is no reliable deal maker on the faith-based side.
At the end of the day, the corrupt old Christian Democrats of Italy and the earnest Christian Democrats of West Germany acted as firebreaks against further secularisation and not as agencies for the assertion of canon or church law on revived democracies.
The AKP in Turkey and the MB in Egypt (and Hamas in Palestine) suggest that the ambitions of Political Islam are not defensive. We seem to be allowing faith-based perspectives to slip in behind the door of our liberal cultures in a way that may have blow-back on hard-won Western freedoms.
The book thus has a perverse effect. The Baathist government ('regime' is already a loaded word you use for people you do not like) has undoubtedly been thuggish and cruel. Its behaviour has been appalling.
But the actual conduct of traditionalists has tended to provide some justification for the belief that, given what was inherited from successive empires, only authoritarian order could hold up civility.
This reviewer tended not to take that view and to hold to a reform view (and we must reveal some direct involvement in Anglo-Syrian relations between 2002 and 2005) but events since 2011 and the evidence of this book has shifted my perspective somewhat.
The question becomes whether that sufficient and temporary authoritarian order is better to be secular republican or shar'ia, whether the thugs are better Alawite peasant bootboys or fanatics who treat women as essentialist objects.
It is Hobson's Choice but a choice seems to have been made inevitable and the question is really about whether we can hope for it to be temporary if it cannot be sufficient. The threat of a revived political islam is precisely that it may become permanent as in Iran.
Any serious Syria watcher who has actually been in active politics as opposed to reading from texts knew two things from the start of the conflict.
The first was that the Assad Government would not fall on a puff of liberal rhetoric from those intellectuals who confuse what 'should be' with 'what is'. Only a matching of force with force could ever defeat this Government because it was ruthless enough to commit force itself.
If you wanted to impose democracy, then you needed an Iraq or at least a Libyan solution which means, bluntly, the manufacturing of a war where the aggressors would have to commit lives and reconstruction funds - and we all know how badly those other cases were handled.
The second was that, as the struggle continued, the complexity and inherent contradictions of post-colonial Syrian culture would tend to extremism, repeating the brutalities of the late 1970s on both sides.
The Assads, in fact, had compromised with non-political Islam in order to avoid democracy after the massacre at Hama so that a democracy movement that did not understand its own objective conditions would necessarily have created a militant Political Islam.
If Assad had adopted Islam as state religion and taken a relationship with compliant islam any further than his father had done, he would have had a coup on his hands. This is the Syrian trap - all sides want what can't be given without blood.
Order (because of sectarian, class, tribal and corrupt family needs), democracy and true religion is a game where two out of three is good going and a 'true religion democracy' was always going to be a threat and a fear to too many special interests to be viable.
If the Western strategy is to tame and neutralise sufficient of political islam to permit democracy, then it may be making the same mistake as the German General Staff in popping Lenin over to Petrograd to try and end the war in their favour.
Where Lefevre is valuable is in his fundamental honesty in telling his tale in terms of the evidence even if my instinct is that he has been bamboozled to some degree by contemporary interviews with Muslim Brotherhood activists.
The problem for anyone following the Turco-Qatari line of support for the Botherhood is that history shows the MB and Political Islam to have been provocative and brutal long before the massacre in Hama. They may try to rewrite this history but it is there in the eyes of the local public even if we do not recognise it in the West.
The experience of Islamist terrorism can be encapsulated in the story of the murder of 83 young Aleppo military graduates in a gratuitous escalation of the then-crisis in 1979. In other words, the horror of Hama did not emerge suddenly like some evil Venus from the waves.
Yes, this was the deed of the so-called Fighting Vanguard but the MB appears to have wobbled around this without condemning or seeking to calm matters and certainly not as we have seen the Muslim community do in London this month.
We have a case study now, in the UK, of what happens to a political culture when just one soldier is killed by a fanatic in the streets. We all wobble - almost ridiculously so. Syrian culture thirty four years ago was in no condition to respond mildly.
Bear in mind that at this time in history, even the advanced British were behaving like thugs in Northern Ireland because their opponents were fanatical killers and that the US was just coming out of phase of mass civilian murder in South East Asia intended to defeat a very different ideological enemy.
It was also an age of state terror of horrendous proportions in South and Central America which were condoned and supported by the US administration. We forget our own histories too easily.
This justifies nothing. Let me repeat that - this justifies nothing. Exiled Uncle Rif'at is culpable here but so are a lot of Pentagon officials. The question is what is to be done now.
The 'history' certainly does not justify the sustained torture of inmates, the arbitrary justice and the mass murder in Hama in which civilians were massacred alongside islamisty rebels but it does contextualise it better.
Although this may seem strange to us in our Western safe havens and with our simple view of good and evil, a secularist in a Syrian city, especially a woman or a member of a minority group, might come to fear some rebels more than the Baathists.
This is why this book strikes me as naive while being useful. Part of that use lies in Lefevre's scholarly honesty because he lays out, in the interstices of his narrative, all the reasons why we should be nervous of taking sides with Islamism, even of the moderate behaviour.
Why? Because, like socialism or all universalist ideologies, Islamism (as opposed to Islam) is intrinsically anti-universal and inhumane. Its core model of the universe requires that at least half humanity, the non-believers, let alone people who will believe in other things, be bent to its transcendental and traditionalist will.
The given argument is that the Arab world (or at least Greater Syria) is inherently Islamic but this is about as valid as the right-wing assertion that the West is inherently Christian. It just is not so.
It has merely been made to be so by circumstance ... and circumstances change. People change and they can choose to go backwards or forwards. The fact that liberals may be helping whole cultures go backwards is truly disturbing because it suggests that we may decide to follow them.
In complex multi-community societies, the best guarantor of safety and freedom remains secular order first and then democracy and not the other way around.
We are lucky in the West because democracy arose out of dynastic order. The Syrians are unlucky in that order has ossified into a set of corrupt special interests but it is still the order that has to be reformed first or else democracy will be a brutal chaos much as we have seen.
Even Turkish Islamic democracy follows this model with the AKP ruling on the back of a transition from secular militarism after years of creative struggle within a structure of order created by Ataturk.
But, of course, we must be fair. The Muslim Brotherhood is complex and could become much like the AKP (though the AKP remains conservative and obscurantist at heart). They are not to be confused with the jihadis. The question is really what are Western liberals doing 'in bed' with the AKP!
Some of the best material in the book comes from the interviews conducted by Lefevre but I urge you to take time to read the Appendices which are very revealing.
In the tales of Marwan Hadid, we have little more than a local version of the bandit narratives that were brought to life by Eric Hobsbawm. This is the legend of Mesrine moved from France to the Syria.
Meanwhile, we have the Brotherhood's 'liberal programmes' from this century which are models of democratic sophistication and may be persuasive to those armchair policy wonks who live by the text.
But neither sets of narrative are to be trusted as 'true' and not merely situationally useful.
The radical jihadi narratives are there to create legends. Underlying them is the sheer monstrosity of an essentialist ideology that can permits almost any crime if it can be justified by a text. The text again! Always the text! And not life lived in the world.
On the hand, all ideologues will shift the superficialities of their language in any necessary way in order to gain power. Saudi dissidents were notorious in the 1990s at having two versions of their programme - one for the West and one (often brutally anti-semitic) for the rest.
But these people are not to be classed as opportunists. They do believe not only in the divine but in the Koran as sacred text. This is very much their privilege but the political islamist (as opposed to the muslim) would be inclined to impose what they could on the wider population at the first opportunity.
What Western policymakers are doing by even contemplating being politically associated with these interests merely indicates how imperial opportunism and the triumph of tactics over stategy are perhaps one of the few constants in our international affairs.
All in all, if you retain a critical mentality as you read this book, you will emerge far better informed after than before. You may kick yourself for your naivete in ever thinking that there was a simple solution to the Syrian horror but the book is still highly recommended despite all our caveats.
Notes are private!
May 29, 2013
Jul 01, 1971
A tiresome potboiler in many ways, caught between proto-fascist wartime propaganda and an attempt to convey Crowley's 'Magickal' ideas, this book is n A tiresome potboiler in many ways, caught between proto-fascist wartime propaganda and an attempt to convey Crowley's 'Magickal' ideas, this book is neither particularly exciting nor illuminating.
The bulk of it was written in 1917 allegedly to help bring America into the First World War but was only prepared for publication in 1929 very much later when Crowley's game was getting funds on his notoriety.
This is not to say that there is not merit in the writing once you get past the late Victorian Swinburnian prose poesy or in the ideas once you get past the flummery.
But, honestly, most of the ideas are now readily available elsewhere and you have to work through a lot of dross to get to the literary gold.
It may be more entertaining if you have some knowledge of the period and appreciate the satire on spiritualism, on rival 'occult' schools and on the character of the imperial post-Victorian English middle classes. But that is a lot to ask of the modern reader.
There are some moments of genuine horror - the black magick ritual certainly puts Dennis Wheatley to shame - and, perfectly in character, he is much better at portraying villains than heroes.
But the story does not flow, the psychology is unconvincing, the long stretches of didacticism dull, the obfuscations unnecessary, the 'wit' heavy-handed (he is no Oscar Wilde) and the more than occasional nastiness about women and war uninspiring.
All this book tells us is that Crowley was capable of creativity but not capable of the sustained effort and judgment to refine his literary art. This looks and feels like something cobbled together for ulterior purposes.
Perhaps it serves an insight into a man who is an important cultural figure but it also confirms the view that he was only a minor literary figure if not a wholly uninteresting one. It is, in short, hard work.
A footnote may be useful on the concept of the moonchild, which is the capture of a higher soul into a newborn child through magickal means. This is an idea of interesting potential somewhat wasted in this book. However, for those Americans who remain entranced by the experiments of Jack Parsons in this area, the book might be a useful corrective and explain why, for all his dark side, Crowley was horrified by the naive dabbling of Americans in undoubtedly serious matters. The 'high ethic' of Crowley in this effort (if you are of a Platonic mind-set) contrasts with the cynicism and cruelty displayed by him on the material plane. It is difficult to work out the point of sincerity in the author. My personal view, as an out-and-out materialist, is that, consciously or unconsciously, the experiment demonstrates the inherent cruelty of all idealisms but others will be entranced by anything that takes them out of the mire and into the imaginal realm. If you can ignore the worst of the writing and the faults enumerated above and you can lose yourself in the conceit, then you may enjoy the performance.
Notes are private!
Mar 05, 2013
Dec 31, 1980
Dec 31, 1980
The book tells the history of the brief insurgent response to the arrogance of both Liverpool City Council and the British Government in their dealing The book tells the history of the brief insurgent response to the arrogance of both Liverpool City Council and the British Government in their dealings with Wales in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
There is an indirect link with the story told in Lyn Ebenezer's book on the Fron Goch internment camp which we reviewed in January - http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
The internment camp, which was the bungling British Government's school for the IRA, was situated only a very short distance from what was to be the Tryweryn Reservoir, the creation of which, alongside the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, proved the trigger for the events described in the book.
A bombing campaign was signalled in 1963 with an attack on the transformer of the construction crew for the reservoir but by the time that the insurgents were defeated, there had been significant attacks not only in every part of Wales but also on pipeline outlets in England.
The narrative here is very much from a radical Welsh Nationalist perspective and that has to be borne in mind, but it is clearly written and fair and so it offers us a rare insight into how an insurgency starts and how it is defeated in a developed country.
My position in what follows should be made clear and was outlined in the Fron Goch review. Nationalism is intellectually absurd but then so is any ideology.
However, as a binding force for resistance to the arrogance of power, it has its uses and it is elite mismanagement that tends to trigger violence rather than the inherent malice of the insurgent. This is certainly borne out by the testimony of Jenkins who founded MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru).
Here we are speaking of two wholly separate cell-like operations, the Free Wales Army (which existed as much for publicity as for action) and MAC as well as individuals whose actions proved strategically problematic.
There were also radical propaganda operations in the borderland between the insurgents and the disapproving official nationalism of Plaid Cymru.
The growth of insurgency within a few years makes this a case study in the initial success and eventual inevitable failure of the sort of 'leaderless resistance' strategies much favoured by the revolutionary radical right.
The strategy of both the FWA and MAC (though they did not connect) was similar - to use violence to raise consciousness.
The author insists, and I accept on the evidence, that both sets of operation were careful to avoid deaths and to direct their attacks on property, although the FWA was much less inherently disciplined in this respect than MAC.
The total number of casualties was small given the amount of gelignite used, even in urban areas - one RAF man (though this may not have been an insurgent action), two insurgents blowing themselves up very late in the campaign and a young boy getting his leg badly injured.
One suspects though that the insurgency was heading to a tipping point where violence might have become more widespread after the failure to stop the investiture.
The bulk of the Welsh were torn between admiration for someone standing up to the English and a traditional loyalty to the Crown, depending on their location and self-perceived 'Welshness'.
Strategists on the insurgent side would have been minded, we believe, to jolt the population with increasing extremism if they had not been removed from the scene soon after the investiture.
The Free Wales Army was a classic romantic nationalist 'petit bourgeois' operation, consciously anti-communist and operating under conditions where the dominant party of Welshness at the time was the South Wales Labour Party with its phalanx of left-wing but centralising mining constituency MPs.
You can study its founder Julian Cayo Evans and the operation at length in the book but it was surprisingly open in the field, somewhat ramshackle, but it did what it said it would do until the raids that finally broke it up at the end of the decade.
'Cayo' was partly inspired by an (unwitting) Polish romantic exile, a teacher, and all the paraphrenalia of interwar romantic small nation fascism emerged in reduced form within the FWA as it did in its non-Marxist celtic nationalist contemporaries.
There were fraternal links with exiles and other Celtic nationalists, as well as the IRA which used them for its own purposes, but these were people of limited means, if of passion, who only required a determined and brutal response by a competent security apparat to unravel.
Still, they may have become a threat if they had taken a hold on a greater proportion of Welsh sentiment.
They were representing a genuine and widespread resentment at English demands on water resources and an historic lack of respect for their culture (although Prince Charles' determination to learn Welsh proved an imaginative act of partial and symbolic restitution by the Crown).
A turning point might have been the FWA's active support for the Aberfan community (after the disaster that led to the deaths of many of their children).
The community was disgracefully, almost psychopathically, treated by the clumsy British bureaucracy and by the National Coal Board. This might have turned moderate men like me into supporters of radical responses if it had become more widely known.
MAC was a different kettle of fish. It was also the creation of one man but one with a well thought out ideology of resistance, closer to the partisan mentality of the Second World War, John Barnard Jenkins.
Jenkins was a common soldier in the Malayan insurgency. It is striking how many British-Welsh ex-soldiers found themselves, despite their emotional allegiance to the British Army, fighting against the Crown as romantic nationalists.
This is a phenomenon of 'spirit'. The current British Government may be making its own blunder in letting loose on a troubled English community a large number of well-trained but only partly educated men without a purpose in life.
That is another story but rightist insurgency in the developed world has always had a strong element of resentment from ex-military about their former or current masters.
The Freikorps in post-first world war Germany were not unique in history and the Fron Goch book showed us examples too of British-Irish soldiery turning to the IRA and romantic nationalism.
Be this as it may, Jenkins, working as a lowly NCO still within the territorial structure of the British Army, ran a small but effective 'terrorist' (that is, insurgent) cell in North Wales in the latter part of the period.
Jenkins evidently gave an extensive interview for this book and its honesty and ability to analyse self-critically is remarkable. He clearly had and has a good mind. All policy makers could learn from his frank testimony. These were not bad men but frustrated men.
Perhaps the most valuable insight is psychological because it is true. Consciousness-raising in the individual is very different from ideologicial consciousness-raising of the mass.
In the first case, an act or an experience shatters a way of seeing and forces the world to be rebuilt along new lines. The latter is simply a matter of taking a grazing herd from one field to the next.Here is Jenkins on the moment of action and its effect on him:
"My basic feeling going home in the car [after the first bombing of a pipeline] was one of great sadness because it had come to this. The thing is that the first time you deliberately break the law ... then that is the first time you snatch the blinkers away. The web that has been carefully and steadily drawn about you since the day you were born is suddenly cut through. All the taboos, such as the policeman is a nice chap, and the government is always right, and the state is there for the citizen's own good ... I was reacting violently against everything that up until then had been the whole basis of my existence. What I felt when I left that bomb on the pipeline was that since before my action I had been within the law and a respected member of the public within the law; now I was outside the law ... and I was filled with a sort of sadness, a sense of loss because I had cut myself off. I felt a totally different person. Once one has taken a bite out of the state and it succeeds, then one is totally different, totally divorced. I felt that I could then for the first time look at things with complete objectivity, because I no longer has these 'should I or shouldn't I? doubts. I could go against the state, I had gone against the state, and I was still here ... "
This is probably the best account I have ever seen of the transformative and liberating effect of transgression (including the 'sense of loss').
It helps to explain why controlling the cultural infrastructure is always going to be more important even than controlling access to weaponry as far as the defensive state is concerned.
The end of the insurgency owed itself to two causes. The first was inherent in the approach of the insurgents and the second inherent in the state machine of the day.
Things started to go wrong when the insurgents failed to win a base in the community that could sustain them. They could not expand until they no longer feared ordinary people as law-abiding informers and that point never came.
Worse, as an early example of 'leaderless resistance', excitable individuals outside the relatively disciplined structures of FWA and MAC began amateur bombing attempts that endangered life.
The FWA was also once too close to declaring war on the English rather than the British Government (a mistake MAC never made) when one bomb attempt threatened to deprive 1.5m people in Birmingham of water as early as 1967.
This sort of thing (if it had later been pursued as a strategy) or the assassination of Prince Charles (which was discussed but not pursued) might have given the FWA what it wanted - the equivalent of the black & tans in the Cambrian Mountains to alienate the population - but the Welsh People would probably have turned on them long before that.
The 'insurgents' also had minimal resources. The Official IRA's half-baked support at the margins and the odd secret wealthy donor were not sufficient to provide more than a few guns.
We leave you to read in the book the tragi-comical story of the IRA deal involving a brochure offering armoured cars and tanks when the FWA could scarcely scrape the cash together to buy a second hand motorcycle and a sidecar.
Above all, Wales in the 1960s was mostly a modern industrial nation (certainly in the South) and the ideology of the FWA was that of small people outside the mainstream of 'history'.
A genuine insurgent response to London would have required an ideology that did not look back to the 1916 Dublin Rising which in turn looked back to the 1840s but would have 'detourned' socialism in the Welsh Valleys much as Hitler 'detourned' socialism in the industrial zones of Germany.
However, all this is academic, because we must turn to the response which showed all the essential characteristics of the British State when it looks like it is going to lose a bit of its property.
The crisis started because of the utter arrogance over Trywern. The first reactions to 'extremism' were mostly outrage, huffing and puffing and posturing.
One of the biggest huffer and puffers was Plaid Cymru which had decided on a constitutional route to independence which (at that time) had achieved nothing. The drift into the Establishment of constitutional radicals is an eternal of history.
The next phase was one of somewhat desultory policing where (as far as the FWA concerned) both sides, FWA and police, engaged in a somewhat autistic rivalry where each taunted the other but no decisive evidence brought men to trial.
The reason for this is clear. Central Government saw Wales as a strategic problem that had to be dealt with strategically, until then it was a matter of local policing within the law.
The eventual strategy was to appropriate Welsh feeling to the Crown and isolate the nationalists by offering the young Prince Charles up as Prince of Wales direct to the people.
This was a risky strategy tactically - it could centre violent protest on the Prince and on the event (which it did) and it could mobilise more awareness-raising activity about the imposition of the Crown on Wales - but it proved the correct strategy if only because the working classes of Wales love an excuse for a party.
From this point on, matters escalated. The British system is centred on the Crown to a degree not always appreciated by its own population, let alone foreigners.
The Prince of Wales was being gambled against not only the FWA but possibly the IRA which was then in a highly unstable state. Needless to say, every stop was pulled out to protect the Prince and control the media.
Equally needless to say, the somewhat thuggish Special Branch (the more discreet Black & Tans of the day) went into what amounted to gang warfare mode with the FWA, supported by the magistrates.
Again, I refer you to the book on the detail but it is a truth universally acknowledged - from the Easter Rising to the London Riots - that the British State, when faced by the first signs of an existential threat, mobilises itself to crush that threat with consummate ruthlessness, without morality and only barely constrained by its own laws.
The characterisation of 'James Bond' as representative of the British Establishment in defence mode is in this respect accurate. The operations against radical Welsh nationalism, also had the full political support of even the 'official' Welsh nationalists.
Needless to say, the FWA were taken out largely by judicial means (not without back room beatings and bad faith). The amateurs were removed by the professionals.
MAC was more conventionally defeated when Jenkins, its only central co-ordinator, was removed from the scene by solid conventional policing.
The principals were jailed and the story somewhat suppressed (there is, for example, as of today, no reference to the FWA's role in the Aberfan disaster relief campaign in Wikipedia). The individuals left prison in the coming years with no machinery in place, no popular support and under permanent surveillance.
But there is a coda not in the book. Wales, forty years on, has its own autonomous Assembly within the United Kingdom and the Welsh language has equal status to English. The police are now Heddlu.
Plaid Cymru would like to claim that this was all their doing. The South Wales Labour Party would like to claim the political credit since they implemented it through the Blair Government (which, incidentally, recognised the wrong-doing at Aberfan if in a somewhat mealy-mouthed way as soon as it got into office).
In fact, the FWA and MAC gave the British Establishment a bit of a scare and Home Rule for Wales seriously entered the agenda from that point on even if it would be resisted until the 'right' way of doing it had been offered.
If a tiny group of marginalised young males could threaten water supplies, gain growing acceptance amongst others (as was happening) and offer a terrorist threat that stretched into England, then it could happen again if Welsh culture and aspirations were ignored.
Plaid Cymru and the (mostly South Wales) Labour Party were henceforth competing to claim that they were the party of Welsh aspirations and culture.
The process only awaited a new Labour Government to see that the British State could safely grant those aspirations without detaching the country from the Crown.
There were important steps along the way - the subsidised Welsh television station S4C in the early 1980s, for which Plaid Cymru should take the political credit, is one. Home Rule was not automatic but it was probable.
FWA and MAC were, thus, failures as political strategies but they are not unimportant. They helped to force autonomy on to the agenda by showing that resentments were real enough to force some ordinary people into direct action.
The Trywern reservoir campaign in which the FWA played a critical role, the skilled public relations operations of the FWA and the FWA's Aberfan activity at a very local level, showed that anger and resentment could be exploited by extremism and that simply removing the obvious extremists from the stage was not enough.
The British State wisely removed those extremists by fair means and foul but then allowed democratic competition to permit eventually a solution for Wales. If the same wise strategy had been followed in Ireland, it might have remained within the Kingdom.
So, this short and not easily available (I picked it up by chance on a visit to the Lleyn Peninsula) must be added to any library on insurgency and terrorism as testimony from 'within a movement' that was very close to home.
There is nothing in the interviews in this book that might not be said one day by resentful working people in British Columbia or Bethnal Green so one hopes lessons have been learned.
Notes are private!
Feb 17, 2013
Dec 05, 2002
This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hi This is a superb bit of diplomatic micro-history covering a series of foreign policy crises between 1933 and 1939, using the question of what facts Hitler had to hand when he made a number of important decisions.
This book is illuminating about German and European history in the run-up to the cataclysmic Second World War but it should really be seen as a contribution to a much deeper contemporary concern - how can we be sure that we have true information in making policy decisions?
This issue is going to become one of ever more vital importance under conditions where the veracity of any claim being made about the world is increasingly subject to serious questions about the prior manipulation of information, as well as about its control by interested parties.
Shore refers to the contemporary Middle East in passing in his conclusions - the book was published in 2003 - and we have our own intimate experiences during precisely that period of how information was supplied, blocked and hidden as inconvenient by officials.
He covers each of six cases in intimate but not dull detail. I admire, above all, his courage in making intelligent judgments about what would most likely have filled those gaps where evidence is not direct and clear.
I argued in a Lobster article before this book was published that 'truth' in contemporary political analysis required both a rigorous attitude to the evidence but equally a sensible judgment on the gaps in the record.
There is a tendency in the less intelligent historian to restrict themselves only to the evidence to hand yet where the gaps are is where something happened. We must adopt a Japanese approach to silences and voids as things of a sort.
Our founding engasgement with the Exaro project - www.exaronews.com - represents the first part of the necessary equation: the forensic uncovering of evidence without making conspiratorial leaps or allowing ideology or partisanship get in the way.
Shore is a good historian and fulfils this primary requirement brilliantly. However, he goes further, as he should do, and becomes an equally brilliant intelligence analyst in interpreting the facts in the most probable way.
Once or twice I might demur on his judgments - once or twice - but that goes with the territory. For example, he possibly over-eggs the 'terror' aspect of Naziism in policy-making as opposed to the impacts of careerism and the standard bureaucratic obsession with position.
This is not to deny the terror represented by the Nazi regime or the reality of collaboration and resistance amongst the conservative elite - the case of Von Papen is instructive in how terror can work with almost scalpel-like precision in the hands of political genius.
It is simply to point out that second-guessing human motivation is perhaps a judgment too far and to say that much of the conduct Shore describes in closed political and bureaucratic systems is far from unique to national socialist Germany.
Our own experience of working inside the New Labour culture from 1992 to 1996 indicated precisely the same processes of competitive control of information, manipulation of facts, deliberate denial of access for bearers of inconvenient truths and so on. The rest is history.
Almost all political and state systems operate in much the same way - as do corporations, churches, NGOs and probably clubs and societies - anywhere where individuals have a career or personal stake in the retention or acquisition of power.
As for the history, Shore throws new insight on several problems that make this book an invaluable additional secondary source to set against the 'big histories' that most people will buy.
I draw attention here to only two of many - the factional struggle about whether to support Ethiopia or not in its struggle against Italian imperialism in 1934 and the final decision of Hitler and Stalin to cut a deal before partitioning Poland.
The first provides particular insight on the balance of power betwen traditional conservate realism and the more intuitive and ideological approach of Hitler.
It is interesting that conservative realist and ideological aims were similar in terms of the issue at hand - ultimately anschluss with Austria - but the conservatives took a traditional line of national interest that saw Italy as threat to the dream of German unification.
Hitler saw things differently, bigger perhaps, exploiting Italian resentments at Western refusal to respect its rights in order to build an axis of resentful powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) where anschluss could be positioned as relatively small beer to imperial domination of 'spheres'.
It is not too fanciful to see the struggle between traditional State Department realism and the hysteria of both neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism mirroring this story in our own time.
The second set of insights come from the account of the information flows surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact which is positioned in our conventional history as a particularly heinous act - it looks less so in the light of the information provided by Zachary Shore.
On the contrary, Stalin now looks as if he had no alternative because of the blundering of that utter fool Chamberlain whose commitment to appeasement seems to have been much deeper than any of us might ever have thought.
We can never know what might have happened if Chamberlain had not blundered, working behind the backs of his own nation and much of his party.
Chamberlain gave Germany the opportunity to demonstrate itself and have demonstrated by the facts to the Soviet Union that Britain would never provide the security guarantees for the Soviet Union that might have saved Poland.
Litvinov was only the first of many sacrifices to Chamberlain's errors of judgment.
The Soviet Union left the decision to join with Germany very late but it had every cause to make that decision given the asinine handling of the situation by the British Government - I refer you to Chapter 6 which is damning.
We have got into the habit of pouring all the blame for killing on the tyrants but blundering fools must also take their share of the blame.
If Chamberlain had not been such a fool, it is quite possible that millions would not have died, or at least have had some more years of life.
Never again should not just mean no war but no more blundering fools - regrettably they still continue to appear with alarming regularity.
As Shore points out if indirectly, the information flow at the hands of Saddam was a material fact in a fairly recent war. We now know that a misreading of a diplomat's statements were interpreted as giving the green light to an invasion that need not have happened.
This brings us back to information flow in our culture and the importance of process, system and transparency (within limits).
Elected politicians can and should define the national interest as the needs and desires of the people through the democratic process (which must be more than competing party cadres)
But, as in war, the performance of policy needs to be left to the professionals. By all means get new professionals if the old ones are not up to the job but let them be professionals.
Hitler's 'achievements' from a German nationalist perspective were quite remarkable but he was, in my opinion, pushing at an open door.
Most of Europe, fifteen years on from Versailles, knew that Germany had to be accommodated. There is scarcely a claim of the nationalists that might not have been 'sorted out' by professional diplomacy within ten or twenty years of a determined commitment to do so.
What Germany required was Bismarckian conservatism or internal transformation from its militaristic and rather strange culture into something truly liberal. What it got was a violent emotional reaction to humiliation under a charismatic hysteric.
One of the virtues of this book is that it raises questions about Hitler himself. He was undoubtedly a political genius but he was not and never could be a statesman.
The stories here should help knock on the head any lingering idea that he was quite the decisive all-knowing courageous leader (in foreign policy) who just went too far of revisionist legend.
The real story is that he was an ideologue and fantasist about power - just like today's liberal internationalists, neo-conservatives and Islamists - riding for a fall.
His tactical genius in domestic politics was translated into 'wins' in foreign policy but he was well served by his supine (UK) or weak (France) or distracted (Italy) potential opponents.
But underlying his tactical skills was a degree of strategic nonsense that had defeat in-built into it - the exact reverse of Stalin whose domestic ideology had ultimate defeat written into it while his realist foreign policy built a short-lived empire.
Germans are ashamed of Hitler for some very good reasons - thuggery being one - but they should add to the charge sheet that they allowed a genuine ideologue to operate the machinery of state. Let us hope we never make the same mistake today. ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 31, 2013
Feb 15, 2006
Dec 31, 2006
This book looks at the Fron-Goch internment camp from an implicitly Welsh nationalist perspective and is, in that context, surprisingly fair-minded, i This book looks at the Fron-Goch internment camp from an implicitly Welsh nationalist perspective and is, in that context, surprisingly fair-minded, if clearly and understandably critical of the 'English'.
Fron-Goch in Wales became home to many of the men (many perfectly innocent of wrong-doing) seized by the British Government after the Easter Rising in Dublin and it was instrumental in the creation of what became the IRA.
There are a number of lessons from the book which is what makes it worth reading. This reviewer has an ambivalent relationship to nationalism. One's view of the national question will almost certainly affect how the reader responds to the book.
Nationalism is an intrinsic absurdity that merely shows that traditional state formation has failed. It is also clear that outrage about the brutality of empires is more often than not hypocritical - nationalists become brutal in power, often against each other.
On the other hand, empires of all types have a tendency to take their subject peoples and their vulnerable and neglected for granted. Nationalism is a powerful insurgent mobilising force that can teach the arrogant a sharp lesson or two. In short, it has its political uses.
For example, in a modern twenty-first century context, a moderate English national feeling is a useful tool in restraining and combatting the technocratic incompetencies of the European Union but any extension of it to an intrinsic belief in 'England' would be ridiculous.
So, the first lesson to be drawn from this book is not the nobility of the Irish cause - since many of the Irish nationalists were clearly fanatics and capable of murderous intent themselves - but the inherent incompetencies of the British Empire.
To some extent, this arose from the sheer scale of the Empire as complex system - it was fated in this to be handled incompetently once it had reached its natural peak.
Although larger in the 1930s than the turn of the century, it was clear that its manageable extent had been reached under Lord Salisbury. The Boer resistance was a central event when 'white' national resistance emerged to challenge London's right to rule.
Ebenezer makes a good case for the Irish revolution - a confusing affair with a long history and a long tail - being central to subsequent insurgency against empires for the next 100 years.
The techniques on both sides - internment and hit-and-run guerrilla tactics - may have been created in South Africa but they were distilled in Ireland between 1916 and 1922.
The British royally screwed up at so many levels. Ebenezer wisely points out that the IRA was not a formidable military force but a force engaged in political warfare under a tight and effective cadre later led by the remarkable Michael Collins.
The IRA at its largest could probably count on perhaps 3,000 active fighters within its paper complement of 15,000 but the panicking British, operating on multiple imperial fronts were calculating an uprising in the 100,000 to 200,000 range.
Prior to 1916, most urban Irish would have been perfectly happy with the prospect of a Home Rule which was to be blunderingly delayed but was almost certain to come in the post-war political environment.
The revolutionaries were disorganised and incompetent and cursed by those they were trying to liberate. Irish revolt was an intellectual and rural business of unsophisticated passions and hatreds.
The British Government then made error after error with arbitrary killings and a complete disregard for the rule of law - or rather the construction of laws that made a mockery of any form of justice.
Fron-Goch proved a forcing ground for political education and Collins and the IRA learned swiftly to out-think their captors at almost every level.
Having incarcerated angry innocents with the hardened survivors of a failure whose incompetent leadership had been eviscerated, the British then allowed them to cohere and released them when they were ready to do maximum damage to the British interest.
There was something fundamentally unsound about the management capabilities of the British ruling elite. A great deal of it can be put down to the rigidities of class - both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires were to fall on similar failures of management.
The situation was partially recovered - insofar as Eire under the bitter English-hating De Valera never became the cause of a fascist stab-in-the-back after 1940 - by the arrival of a brutal but intelligent outsider in Lloyd George who knew how to 'deal' with the situation.
This is an old trick of the British ruling establishment - bring in an outsider to handle a crisis: Disraeli to deal with democracy, Lloyd George to deal with working class aspirations, Churchill to deal with the Nazis and Thatcher to deal with the unions and socialism - and then it is business as usual.
It is infinitely sad for Britain that the current and extremely severe economic crisis only has a group of old Etonians on one side and the failed economics of Ed Balls on the other when what is probably needed is just such a ruthless insider-outsider.
The rest as they say is history but a relatively small number of ruthless and driven men took on an empire and within six years, learning fast and adaptively, removed an entire nation, regardless of its wishes, into a working autonomy within that empire and then to complete independence within another two decades.
Fron-Goch also was innovative in other respects. Ebenezer is good on the traditional roots of the hunger strike but the academy of Fron-Goch was to refine the hunger strike as political weapon in subsequent years to the extent that it is the defining tool of resistance.
This cannot be stated enough - the Irish revolution was a political revolution making use of terror and the provocation of counter-terror and not a military insurgency as it has often been portrayed.
Much of the kiling was actually Irish-on-Irish and I strongly recommend Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) as a superb cinematic evocation of what that meant.
The violent approach also slowly destroyed the working class and trades union urban argument for change which dominated politics in Scotland and Wales during the same period and replaced it with something that could be classed as quasi-fascistic by the time of De Valera.
There are many, many lessons in all this and some for today, though we should not over-estimate them since both sides (empire and insurgency) have learned their histories to greater or lesser extents.
The insurgents, however, always seem to learn faster than sclerotic empires, perhaps because there is a creative elan to attack where defence is bureaucratic and fearful.
Even as late as the 1970s, the British were repeating the same mistakes in Northern Ireland that they had made in the South half a century before - heavy-handedness, a failure to maintain the rule of law, internment and poor propaganda.
The early days of the so-called 'war on terror' show the same egregious errors, the same panic, the same thuggery - for the propaganda value of Fron-Gach and the black-and-tans, read extraordinary renditions and Guantanamo Bay. The stupidity of empires passeth all understanding.
And maybe the same result - the kow-towing in process to so-called 'moderate' Islamists is a defeat for the West just as the Irish Free State (as opposed to Home Rule) was a defeat for the British Empire.
The best (though they will not tell you this) that the 'Western' policy-makers will get is the eventual neutralisation of these new Islamic states as direct threat - the secular liberals will be thrown to the wolves as were the majority of Irish to romantic fanatics.
A relatively few fanatics may, of course, be defeated by extra-judicial murder and the turning against them of 'moderates' but their intended aim is under way - large tracts of the Arab World will be under Islamic law. Terrorism and insurgency will be proved to have 'worked'.
The question is always why are empires so incompetent. It might be forgivable in 1916 insofar as both sides were 'learning' and because the Boer situation may not have been adequately analysed in the middle of a war for survival from 1914.
But that the successor empire - the US - did not learn these lessons is almost unforgivable, both in allowing the insurgency to find its roots in the first place and then handling it in a populist and emotional way that has been, in many ways, more foolish than London's.
The book is not easily available outside Wales. The book is translated from the Welsh and contains useful information about the area around Bala that helps us to see the Welsh nationalist perspective better.
However, despite some serious tensions in the 1960s, Welsh nationalism is quite a cuddly animal that has achieved a sufficiency of self determination and cultural autonomy almost without asking too aggressively.
There is a Welsh Assembly. English cities would not get water rights any more without a real struggle and a high price. Labour has constructed a compromise on autonomy that enables Welsh nationalists to be a democratic and not a revolutionary challenge.
It may be that the experience of Eire helped this process but it is more probable that protestantism and industrialisation modernised Wales faster and made extreme romantic nationalism counter-productive except at the cultural level. Welsh language culture is strong, albeit subsidised.
The old empire is almost gone, little more than a dynasty, an economic power embedded in a global city, the increasingly loose association of ancient kingdoms, a cultural myth and some problematic far-flung islands.
If there is to be an insurgency against it, it is either a proxy game in faraway countries where an increasingly economically exhausted polity plays at being powerful under the wing of others or it will be in its own inner cities.
If there is a revolutionary insurgency in the UK today, it probably lies in the ranks of organised crime and the potential for blundering in the Home Office - the handling of the recent London Riots does not bode well.
Notes are private!
Jan 27, 2013
Jul 05, 2012
May 01, 2014
Shaun Hutson has done a worthy job in translating a 1950s British attempt to mimic the American monster movie (and Hammer's effort to follow on from t Shaun Hutson has done a worthy job in translating a 1950s British attempt to mimic the American monster movie (and Hammer's effort to follow on from the initial success of Quatermass) to twenty first century Britain.
It is often tougher to write a page turner for the average bloke than a literary effort for the soi-disant intellectual in Hampstead and from that point of view Hutson does well.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest that he has a talent for introducing simple descriptions of very real emotions into a story.
I 'liked' in particular the way he wove very real daily twenty-first century fears - death or maiming in military service, cancer, family loss and deformity in children - into the story.
However, the book is a bit of pot-boiler for a fault that is not Hutsons - he has been remarkably creative in adding new elements to an old 'radioactive monster from out of the ground' story but a story that was entertaining on film is far too limiting as literature.
Hutson had a choice here whether to 'stick to the script' for the sake of Hammer's revival and the fans or go spinning off into more credible characterisation, political context and science - he chose or was instructed or pitched the former.
The result is an entertainment of sorts but also a reminder that any attempt to stick to a film story too closely in literature is likely to produce flawed material.
This ties in with the common experience that films of books may be great films but never as great as the original text while some of the iconic films, especialy in genre cinema, are quite free adaptations of short or relatively popular and simple fiction.
The book is part of the attempt to revive the Hammer brand (which we welcome) and assure the British public that the 'spirit' of Hammer lives on but be warned, the blurb in the GoodReads introduction is inaccurate and suggests a lazy copywriter who has not read the book.
The book is not set in Afghanistan or Scotland (yes, the film was set in the latter) but in the English countryside - the only connection with Afghanistan is that the British soldiers are sympathetically drawn as facing duty in that useless war.
There is no horrific chemical weapon being created by the British Army - who is this guy, a Fenian? I won't give the story away here except to note that the 'hero', as in all early Hammer cinema attempts to reach the US market, is an American scientist like the early Quatermass.
And a boy stumbles on something but only after British troops have done so and it is not anything man created but a classic monster from the deep.
As so often in a reading since the crash of 2008, this is another sign of the sheer laziness and perhaps cost-cutting of the publishing industry. The sales agents do not even read the books they are selling.
Still, though a potboiler, and it looks as if he hurried the commission in the last third, it made me interested in reading a 'real' Shaun Hutson, one he initiated and plotted rather than one fitting a strict pre-set formula, and I may look out for one of these. ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 24, 2013
Apr 04, 1995
Primo Levi may or may not have committed suicide in 1987 and it is all too convenient for myth-makers to say, as Elie Wiesel did, that Levi had died a Primo Levi may or may not have committed suicide in 1987 and it is all too convenient for myth-makers to say, as Elie Wiesel did, that Levi had died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.
However, there is one section of this book - Vanadium - where one understands the possibility of existential despair for Levi, his exchange with a German who was 'on the other side' at Auschwitz.
It is not that the German was wholly obtuse and certainly the man knows that bad things were done. By all 'conventional' standards, he is not a 'bad man' - indeed, he reminds one of Arendt's description of evil as fundamentally banal.
But the world views of victim and (relatively) minor participant are so utterly different that the only conclusion to be drawn is that empathy is always going to be the human exception rather than the human rule.
The Royal Institution awarded this book the title of 'best science book ever written' in 2006 (it was written in 1975) but it isn't. This is pure sentimentality - rather it is a very well written series of memoirs and some stories, hung together around a scientific theme.
It is, in fact, a bit of a mish-mash and it is perhaps time to 'toughen up' and stop missing the point. If Levi was defined by his experience in Auschwitz, the world has colluded out of what can only be described as a mass guilt trip that, I think, insults the dead.
We know now that - separated from the eurocentric view that rediscovered Nazi attrocities in the 1960s and after - the human species is capable of atrocity by its very nature. We live in a world of discovered and new atrocities, of Milgram experiments and Rwanda.
Primo Levi's testimony is important because he was in the heart of hell but we diminish him by patronising him. He does not come to terms with anything in this book and we should not either - we cannot 'empathise' or believe we have any conception of what he experienced.
Indeed, that is the flaw of the book - a set of incidents for which the periodic table is an excuse skirt around the elephant in the room, a 'why' that has no answer.
It is as if he is clearing his mental deck of thoughts and memories but we come out none the wiser as to the reality. We are filled with sympathy but blocked from anything but a very sentimentalised empathy.
At the end of this book, I deeply cared about this man - not humanity - but this man and in that sense the book is a success insofar as it helps us see each victim of these grinding machines to be a person.
But it takes us no nearer to coherence or understanding. The lack of anger or rage in itself seems to be taken as a good sign, that Levi was not a man who hated or seeked vengeance. I disagree.
The sweet reasonableness is what most people want to see but it does not look like a truth, only a repression out of confusion. Levi never ever says he forgives here or elsewhere. He is simply pining in 'Vanadium' for a German to understand what it is to be Primo Levi.
The tragedy is not only that the German does not understand what it is to be Primo Levi but, bluntly, none of us do. If we claim to do, because of his fine writing, then we are self-deluding liars.
The praise and the awards and the claims about the man are almost piling insult on injury. No one understands what it is to be Primo Levi any more than anyone can understand who it is to be me or you.
Atrocity is now understand to be common enough - Stalin and Mao were both responsible for more deaths than Hitler. It cannot be great to be in Guantanamo or see your family blown to bits in a drone attack or macheted in Rwanda - but each person in each atrocity is unique.
Worse, the dead person no longer suffers - only those left behind suffer and we cannot 'get' this essential injustice where we cannot be sure whether it is better to be alive or dead.
So, Levi is important because of what he fails to be able to say not because of what he actually says.
Who knows what he thought on the night of his death but it is a fair guess that he would have given up all his writing just to know that someone, anyone, could actually communicate that they knew precisely what he had become because of the cold brutality of others.
It just can't be done. So, by all means read this book and get what you can from it (including insights into life in pre-war Italy) but do not expect to really understand what is going on here.
Or, at the least, read and re-read 'Vanadium' and be humbled at the inexpressible sadness of the human condition. Sometimes, all that is left is a respectful loving silence. Literature is an ambiguous friend in such circumstances.
Notes are private!
Jan 20, 2013
Jan 01, 2009
Sep 09, 2010
A solid and competent biography of an icon of British popular literature.
Wheatley is, however, not as interesting a person as (say) Somerset Maugham A solid and competent biography of an icon of British popular literature.
Wheatley is, however, not as interesting a person as (say) Somerset Maugham whose biography by Selina Hastings we reviewed on GoodReads last year.
The net result is a readable account of a British 'type' - conservative, perhaps street-wise rather than highly intelligent, 'bon viveur', mostly likeable though not without mild sociopathic tendencies and, of course, slightly odd.
The one thing to be said is that a social snob like Wheatley is still infinitely preferable to the intellectual snob - Giles Gordon of Secker & Warburg on pages 544-546 may stand as the type of the last.
There are interesting tit-bits about sexual life in the first world war and twenties, about the first world war itself, about propaganda operations in the second and wealthy upper middle class lifestyles.
However, what we really want to read about is his occult literature (which gets its first treatment only after two fifths of the book has passed) but the book adds little to what we intuit.
The truth is that Wheatley was an energetic and creative man but no great writer. He simply hit on a formula that was able to latch on to the repressed fantasies, desires and fears of mid-century Britain.
The 'Devil Rides out' remains his masterpiece and possibly that of the Hammer Studio output. Wheatley's place in British cultural history is assured but none of that makes him great or good.
Still, Phil Baker writes in a clear and easy-going style and, with only very occasional confusions and minor repetitions in over 600 pages, the book is readable and useful. ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 02, 2013
Sep 26, 2000
Ashenden is a thinly disguised memoire of Maugham's own period in wartime (1914-1918) secret service work. For all his customary detachment, he is ver Ashenden is a thinly disguised memoire of Maugham's own period in wartime (1914-1918) secret service work. For all his customary detachment, he is very aware of and interested in the moral issues involved in such work.
Maugham cannot write badly but this book is still (structurally) an imperfectly strung together group of short stories and novellas. It can also be rather self-consciously literary at times.
Famous as a precursor of Fleming's Bond and influencing an early Hitchcock film, it is rather misleading to compare Ashenden with 007. The book is certainly not 'exciting' in the way that we have come to expect within the thriller genre.
Each story is both a literary concoction and a moral tale of sorts in which the 'hero' is an observer out of necessity, with his own moral choices limited to a certain commitment and a sense of duty.
As neither one thing nor the other, literature or memoire, the total leaves one a little dissatisfied but the parts make up for the whole.
The component stories tend to centre on types of weak, fundamentally unimaginative or unfulfilled individuals, none of whom are truly mocked but all of whom are dissected through their own words.
They kill, lose lovers, probably die, actually die or are left deeply depressed, either because some obligation creates a situation from which there is no escape or the necessary duty of others entraps them.
The book closes with a tragic satire of two types of bourgeois - the Russian liberal and the American businessman - but there is an unusual generosity of spirit here, as if the confusion of the middle classes in a collapsing West had resulted in a strange camaraderie.
If the book can appear to be callous on the surface, it is only the detachment of the doctor dealing with pain and disease. We should remind ourselves that Maugham was originally trained in that profession at St. Thomas'.
Every now and then, we find out that this secret agent is not a natural psychopath like 007 but one socially constructed entirely by war and empire.
Ashenden is quite capable of holding strong sympathies with his required victims while wholly suspending sentiment in order to get the job done. In a way, he stands for all corporate men with a job to do.
In the tale told by an ambassador, in a literary sleight of hand, a man speaks of another where Maugham is clearly speaking of himself in the voice of the first.
It help here to know what contemporary readers did not - that he was gay. 'Society' requires certain things in terms of sexual conduct and that's an end to the matter.
This particular tale drags a bit and is conventional in precisely the way that Maugham (through Ashenden) appears to mock earlier in the book but the sentiment within it is undeniably real.
Perhaps that is the real virtue of the book - out of conventional, even theatrical, tales of duty, courage and treachery, he teases out an underlying human reality.
In each of his characters, he uncovers some emotional trait that may be absurd, and even be hysterically expressed, but which is nevertheless 'true' to our species.
Ostensibly a story of a world which has lost its moral compass in a struggle for survival, the book returns us time and time again to the fact that even a world of duty and obligation contains human foibles and emotions that need to be recognised as part of that world.
Notes are private!
Dec 16, 2012