I came away with five things from the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s incomparable Trotsky biography -- The Prophet Unarmed. Some of these thoughts...moreI came away with five things from the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s incomparable Trotsky biography -- The Prophet Unarmed. Some of these thoughts are new to me, some of them are solidifications of ideas or opinions I already had, but they are what I leave this book with and, I think, worth sharing.
5. Stalin destroyed the promise of Engels, Marx and Lenin. He stained communism. And he provided capitalism with the ugliness it needed to vilify communism in the minds of their own, potentially dangerous, proletarian ranks. His need for power, the way he achieved it, his authoritarianism -- none of these things a feature of genuine communism -- all came to represent communism in the minds of the capitalist west. Stalin’s very existence was capitalism’s best propaganda tool against communism. And this man who was neither a Bolshevik nor a true Communist remains the best tool to this day (with neo-Stalinists Mao and Pol Pot a close second and third).
4. The U.S., England and their European lackeys should be ashamed of themselves -- as usual -- because it would have been vastly more difficult (if not impossible) for Stalin to have achieved power if it weren’t for their meddling in the earliest days of the Soviet Union. Arms and advisors sent to the White Guard during the Civil War, isolationist policies, boycotts, etc., etc., worsened already terrible conditions in post-Tsarist Russia, forcing the early Bolsheviks into compromising their principles to ensure survival, and once those principles were compromised the situation became easier and easier for Stalin to manipulate. While the west’s support of the counter-revolution failed in the short term, it certainly succeeded in condemning the Soviet Union to totalitarianism in the long term.
3. The methods, tactics and controls of Stalinism are not all that different from contemporary North America. Our right wing engages in fear mongering, disinformation, media manipulation, vilification of dissenters, purges, and claims to moral superiority and historical loyalty; they’re tactics are so commonplace as to be almost unnoticeable to everyday citizens. Worse still, our left is as apathetic and conciliatory as most of the Left Opposition that Trotsky tried in vain to rally in his day. Our liberals clamour on about how “nice and polite and correct” they are, about how “stupid and racist and misogynistic” the right is, but they’ve not learned the lesson that their “enlightenment” is a minority “enlightenment” that can only be turned into a majority “enlightenment” through hard work and a conscious effort to negate their tendency to condescension. History repeating itself. Again.
2. Trotsky was a great man. Some can be great revolutionaries. Some can be great thinkers. Some can be great leaders. Some can be great diplomats. Some can be great warriors. Some can be great writers. Some can be great winners. Some can be great losers. Some can live great lives. Some can die great deaths. But very few can be and do all of them in their lifetime. Trotsky was great at every single one. In the annals of socialism only Marx and Lenin can match him (although Engels and Che surely deserve honourable mentions). The hatchet to the brain was a great loss to us all.
1. Communism can’t succeed. Not because of any bullshit about the superiority of capitalism. Not because communism is “inherently evil” as ultra-capitalists would have us believe. Not even because it is “unworkable.” Communism can’t succeed because it hard fucking work. To be a communist, to create a communist society, everyone must be dedicated to selflessness, to hard work, to action, to trust, to reason, to each other. But most humans are too selfish, too apathetic, too untrusting, too unreasonable, too lazy to achieve the requirements of communism, and so communism must fail.
But I’ve a crappy lance, a skinny horse, and a world full of windmills, so I’ll keep fighting.(less)
It's been a while since I read this book, a couple years now, but I quite enjoyed the read (though I didn't love the book and was nowhere near in full...moreIt's been a while since I read this book, a couple years now, but I quite enjoyed the read (though I didn't love the book and was nowhere near in full agreement).
I've always appreciated that Lomborg -- despite Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, likening him to Hitler -- was mostly trying to put all of the world's ills in perspective.
For Lomborg, at least back when he was writing Cool It, there were other issues of greater importance to the world than climate change. He talked about how we can deal with several of the world's problems -- such as malaria, the need for clean water, an end to famine, etc. -- for a fraction of what it would cost to deal with climate change (which, I might add, I never got the sense he was denying existed, simply attempting to "cool" down, rightly or wrongly, those who were rushing in), and he suggested that those areas are where we should be spending our money.
Fast forward a few years, and Lomborg is now calling for massive spending to put an end to climate change. I am sure there are some critics of Lomborg out there who will say this discredits everything he's ever said about climate change, but what it does for me is build trust. If he's willing to take "a u-turn" on something as major as climate change, he is a man worth hearing out -- even when I disagree with him.(less)
Admittedly, my reading of The President of Good and Evil is a touch belated, but in many ways I am glad it is because I was able to appreciate Peter S...moreAdmittedly, my reading of The President of Good and Evil is a touch belated, but in many ways I am glad it is because I was able to appreciate Peter Singer's work more for what it does than who it is was written about.
Singer's discussion of the failure of Bush's ethics came as no surprise to me. Indeed, there was very little in Singer's argument that I hadn't already considered. The hypocrisy, the lies, the fundamentalism, the arrogance, the vengeance, the stupidity, it is all covered in well argued and scholarly detail.
And Singer's conclusions speak for themselves:
"When Bush speaks about his ethics, he is either sincere or he is insincere. If he is insincere, he stands condemned for that alone. I have started with the opposite, more generous assumption: that Bush is sincere, and that we should take his ethic seriously, assessing it on its own terms, and asking how well he has done by his own standards. Even if that assumption should be false, the task has been worth undertaking, for we no know that, sincerely held or not, Bush's ethic is woefully inadequate."
Singer proves that Bush was a failure, and his presidency was an unethical mess. But that's not what makes The President of Good and Evil such a fascinating book.
The most compelling aspect of The President of Good and Evil is what it reveals about the importance of thinking and arguing critically. Singer takes all of Bush's statements about ethics and morals and applies them to Bush's actions, moving logically through every misstep to illuminate how those missteps prove Bush's ethical failure, regardless of whether Bush's ethics are individual, utilitarian, Christian or intuitive. It is an impressive critical analysis of Bush's first term as President (the book was written before the 2004 election) and an impressive survey of ethics in action.
Moreover, it provides a convincing argument that all of our leaders should, at the barest minimum, be capable of critical analysis themselves (and, really, so should we all). Bush was incapable of any analysis, critical or otherwise. Perhaps his inability was derived from his faith, perhaps it was merely from his inborn stupidity, but the fact that he was and is incapable of critical analysis was thoroughly proven by Peter Singer.
I would love to see Singer apply this sort of analysis to every American presidency. Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama -- just to name a few -- could all use a deconstruction of their ethics.
But all that aside, I think I will use The President of Good and Evil as a required text the next time I teach "The Principles of Literary Analysis" -- Singer has provided the perfect model of how to think critically.
China Miéville's theory of international law is easy to sum up. In fact, it's key to the title of his work. Taken from Karl Marx's Das Kapital vol. 1,...moreChina Miéville's theory of international law is easy to sum up. In fact, it's key to the title of his work. Taken from Karl Marx's Das Kapital vol. 1, the entire quote reads: "Between equal rights, force decides."
Miéville's argument is convincing. He traces the history of international law from ancient flirtings with pseudo-international law to the birth of sovereignty to mercantilism to the capitalist monopolies and colonialism to imperialism, globalization and human rights. He shows at every turn how international law has always been and remains a bastion of theoretical equal rights between polities while entrenching, in reality, violence and coercion in a system of ultimate inequality where "force" is the deciding factor that makes powerful polities "more equal" than weak polities.
Moreover, Miéville shows how the supposed "rule of law" exists -- like so much else in our capitalist world -- to convince the oppressed that they have "rights" that make oppression impossible, to convince the oppressed that they are not oppressed and cannot be oppressed. Meanwhile, the oppressors continue to do what they want, when they want, and use the process of international law, a process in which every action can be argued as simultaneously legal and illegal, to justify and/or rationalize their wars, reprisals, and thefts of natural resources.
In the end, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law is a damning attack on the rule of law in the international sphere, suggesting that we would all be much better off if we rejected the "rule of law," or at the very least started holding nations responsible for the "justice" of their actions rather than letting them claim legality for actions that are quite clearly unjust -- and this means all nations, not just those who are weak enough to be bullied. Miéville points out that law and justice are not the same, and so long as we tie them together we doom ourselves to serving under the yoke of a system in which violence inheres and property and economic expansion are more important than all other concerns.
If you're interested in international law, Marxism, capitalism, or just the writing of China Miéville (this text certainly informs his fiction writing) then this book is for you. It is an intelligent meditation on law, a well argued thesis, fair minded, and it is, more than anything else, thought provoking.(less)
This is really a book of soundbites, so it is best over a week or two on your visits to the toilet, but it is a nice way to bask in the words, wisdom...moreThis is really a book of soundbites, so it is best over a week or two on your visits to the toilet, but it is a nice way to bask in the words, wisdom and cheek of Canada's last important leader.(less)
Important for anyone interested in Canadian Politics, particularly for anyone interested in Quebec's place in the nation or in Pierre Elliot Trudeau's...moreImportant for anyone interested in Canadian Politics, particularly for anyone interested in Quebec's place in the nation or in Pierre Elliot Trudeau's early days. (less)
Recently, however, I was reading the list of the best selling books of all-time and discovered that Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung is second only to the Christian Bible for copies in circulation. This reminded me that somewhere on one of my bookshelves was my very own sliver of Mao Tse-Tung just waiting to be read.
So I did, and the read was a fascinating one.
While I've read much about the revolutionary struggles of the Soviet Union and Cuba, I knew and still know very little about China. Schram attempts to contextualize Mao's writings with an impressive introductory overview, but it is a mere skeleton, lacking the circulation and respiration and flesh that foreknowledge could have provided.
As I began to read Mao's words, I worried that I was missing too much, and I probably was, but I pressed on because once I was reading the Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, in his own words, the book was too interesting to set aside.
Compiled by Schram in 1969, when Mao was still alive and at the height of his power, Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung is intentionally set up to present Mao's personality as "poetic rather than logical and rigorous," and this makes for palpable gaps in the thought presented (although I can't imagine any presentation that wouldn't leave palpable gaps in one direction or another) -- gaps coloured by Schram's agenda and likely deepened by my own ignorance.
I wouldn't recommend Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung for anyone who is coming to Mao with only a sketchy understanding of the Chairman's place in revolutionary history (like my own). I wish sincerely that I had started reading about Mao somehow and someplace else, but perhaps it isn't so bad; my curiosity about Mao and Chinese Communism is piqued, and I will certainly continue my studies elsewhere.
Besides, Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung does offer Mao's unique perspective on U.S. Imperialism from WWI to Vietnam, and that makes it well worth the read...whatever the gaps in the political thought presented might be.(less)
To Charles Taylor’s credit, he recognizes that his Massey Lecture "The Malaise of Modernity" is rendered deficient by its own constraints. He has neit...moreTo Charles Taylor’s credit, he recognizes that his Massey Lecture "The Malaise of Modernity" is rendered deficient by its own constraints. He has neither the time nor the space to fully develop his argument, and even the first premise , that the search for individual “authenticity” in Western civilization is a malaise, doesn’t move beyond a skeletal outline.
It seems almost disingenuous, therefore, to criticize his work, but Taylor himself would not likely want to shut down discourse, for any reason, and I feel compelled to make a few observations.
The first is about Taylor’s seeming criticism of the inherent anthropocentrism of individual self-actualization or personal authenticity. He implies that the focus on humanity as the end goal of the universe is a great weakness in our culture’s drive to authenticity, then suggests that this anthropocentrism is unique to the postmodern world. Perhaps there is a subtlety missing in Taylor’s lecture because of its constraints, but every viewpoint Taylor discusses has anthropocentrism at its core, yet he only seems to see it as a weakness in the one.
The second is the way Taylor sees the tension between the two extremes of the authenticity debate. His position is that these two poles are the debate, implying that the two sides of the debate are populated by nearly equal sized groups. One side is filled with those who believe in and practice self-actualization, and the other side is filled with those who are opposed to the “narcissism” of self-fulfillment. Because these two sides are the debate, they cancel each other out, making the key to overcoming the malaise of self-actualization the retrieval of a supposedly hidden middle ground.
What Taylor’s book fails to address (and I suspect this is a genuine constraint of the book and not a downfall of Taylor’s) is that this “middle ground” doesn’t need to be retrieved because it already exists, although their population is minimal. In fact, there are really very few people who are capable of true authenticity, and even fewer are capable of authenticity devoid of anthropocentrism (and they are those who make up the pole of anthropocentric self-actualization). So those few who are truly engaged in self-actualization, those in touch with the “authentic” ideal, are not of the pole but the equator. They DO exist, and they are acted on upon by the poles on a regular basis. Which suggests that Taylor is not dealing with the real issue involved in his first malaise. He calls for a “retrieval” of this equatorial situation, but since it already exists one needs to ask how and why it is ineffective. What does that say about Western humanity? What does that say about the first malaise? How do we overthrow the malaise and make this equatorial “ideal” a potent rather than impotent element of the debate? How do we stop the poles from silencing the equator?
The Malaise of Modernity is a fine starting point, as Taylor himself suggests, and it does much to generate thought (particularly in the final chapter, “Against Fragmentation”), making it a book well worth reading. But if you are looking to Taylor for answers you will be disappointed. The Malaise of Modernity should generate questions. Use as directed and you will be just fine. (less)
If you're tired of the dilettante mentality of your fellow "social revolutionaries" this is a must read. Pacifism as Pathology makes a powerful case f...moreIf you're tired of the dilettante mentality of your fellow "social revolutionaries" this is a must read. Pacifism as Pathology makes a powerful case for violent, armed struggle in the face of what Churchill and Ryan make clear is a world of our own making. Our current, socially acceptable forms of protest are not only not good enough, they are totally ineffective and tacitly in support of the violence our Governments perpetrate on ourselves and others. For anyone who feels impotent in our culture but still wants to make a difference, Pacifism as Pathology may just present the starting point you've been looking for.(less)