Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

Gracchus Babeuf and the Calls for a Welfare State in 18th Century France

January 21, 2023

Gracchus Babeuf was a French revolutionary, who tried to overthrow the Directory and establish a communist state during the French Revolution as the leader of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’. He’s one of the founders of the European socialist and communist traditions. I’ve been reading Ian Birchall’s book on him and his legacy, The Spectre of Babeuf (Haymarket Books 2016), and it’s fascinating. Birchall discusses the influences on Babeuf, which included Morelly, the author of the Code de la Nature, which also advocated a communist system with a centrally planned economy, Nicolas Collignon, who wrote an 8 page pamphlet demanding the same, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Collignon’s ideal state, the citizens were to be provided with free food and clothing, high quality housing, schools and healthcare. Like the Tories, he also believed in competition, so doctors would be graded according to their performance. Those that cured the most would be consequently paid more and get promotion, while those who cured the least would be struck off. Even before he devised his own communist plans, he was already discussing the need for collective farms. What he meant by this is not collective farms in the soviet sense, but farms run cooperatively by their workers rather than a single farmer with employees. And he was also in favour of creating a welfare state. In a book he authored on correct taxation, he wrote

‘That a national fund for the subsistence of the poor should be established. That doctors, apothecaries and surgeons should be psif wages out of public funds so that they can administer assistance free of charge. That a system of national education be established out of which all citizens may take advantage. That magistrates be also paid wages out of public revenue, so that justice can be done free of charge.’ (p. 29).

Birchall also attacks the view promoted by Talmon in his The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy that Babeuf was an authoritarian who prefigured soviet tyranny. Talmon was an Israeli Conservative writing at the beginning of the Cold War. But Babeuf himself, although a revolutionary, was also keen to preserve and expand democracy. One of his suggestions was that there should be a set of elected officials charged with making sure that delegates to the national assembly were representing their constituents properly. If they weren’t, the people had the right to recall them.

Regarding industrial organisation, he believed that the citizens in each commune should be divided into classes, each class representing a different trade. The members of these classes would appoint governors, who would set the work and carry out the instructions of the municipal government. It’s very much a command economy, and utopian in that money would be abolished.

I can’t say I find Babeuf’s full-blown communist ideas attractive, for the reason I believe in a mixed a economy and the right of people to do what they wish outside of interference from either the authorities or other people. And I really don’t see how such a state could last long without a money economy. Some Russians looked forward to the establishment of such an economy at the beginning of the Russian Revolution when the economy began to break down and trading went back to barter in some areas until the Bolsheviks restored the economy. And there is clearly conflict between violent revolution and democracy. But I respect his calls for a welfare state. He was also an advocate of equality for women and an opponent of imperialism, which he felt corrupted extra-European peoples with European vices. This view is clearly based on the 17th century ideas of the Noble Savage, in which primitive peoples are seen as better and more morally advanced than civilised westerners.

Demands for a welfare state are as old as socialism itself. We cannot allow the British welfare state and NHS to be destroyed by the Tories and Blairite Labour under Starmer.

Poul Anderson and Ideas about Terraforming Venus Before Carl Sagan

December 21, 2022

This might appeal to readers of this blog, who aren’t fans of the late astronomer, Sceptic and presenter of the blockbusting TV science series, Cosmos. I put up a drawing I’d done of Sagan a week or so ago along with a piece explaining why I thought he was a great TV personality. While Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and space scientist, some of the readers of this blog were less impressed by his attitude towards the UFO crowd. Sagan was a fervent rationalist, who saw it as his mission to attack ideas he thought were irrational, and particularly the paranormal. He was one of the founders of the Sceptical organisation, CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, along with the stage magician James Randi and the mathematician Martin Gardner. One of Sagan’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World in which he worried about the tide of irrationality creeping over America and the world and foresaw a time in which the New Age would have taken over completely, leading to a new Dark Age and people earnestly consulting their horoscopes each morning.

Some commenters remembered how Sagan had been wheeled on TV in the 1960s to debunk UFO encounters. They didn’t like his superior and condescending attitude towards the experiencers. Now I’ll admit that I don’t regard UFOs as nuts and bolts alien spacecraft. Much of the imagery and the basic plot of UFO encounters seems to come from science fiction and supernatural encounters with gods, demons and fairies before then. One of the alternative views of the UFO phenomenon is the psycho-social hypothesis, which sees it as an internal psychological experience which uses the imagery of contemporary culture. In previous centuries this was of fairies. Now, as belief in the supernatural has declined in the West, the imagery is from science fiction. But both the imagery of fairies and alien spacecraft represent the same theme of encounter with a cosmic other. Some UFO writers and researchers like John Keel and Jacques Vallee believe that there is a genuine paranormal phenomenon at work, and that the force that was previously responsible for encounters with fairies and so on has simply now changed to using that of space craft as society has changed. See Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse, for example. Many UFO encounters can be explained as misidentification, hoaxes, and sightings of top secret military aircraft. I’m also convinced that some are due to the intelligence community deliberately messing with people for their own purposes. In one of his books, Vallee suggests that the Cergy-Pontoise abduction in France may have been faked by French intelligence as an experiment to see how people would react to a real alien encounter. And then there’s the case of Paul Bennewitz, a defence contractor in the US who was driven out of his mind by a pair of intelligence agents at a nearby USAF base. Bennewitz thought he had got in touch with an alien held captive at the base. The pair claimed to be whistleblowers and fed Bennewitz a whole load of spurious documents apparently confirming it, and then told him that it was all fake. It’s a tactic apparently known as the ‘double-bubble’ used by the intelligence services to destabilise their enemies. It worked on Bennewitz, who I think was driven to a nervous breakdown.

Even with the hoaxers, the top secret aircraft and the misidentified objects, there are still some UFO encounters that are very difficult to explain. I think the best explanations are probably the paranormal and psycho-social rather than the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any the less puzzling nor that genuine people, who have had a truly inexplicable experience, should be sneered or condescended to.

But back to Sagan. One of Sagan’s achievements was to suggest a way Venus could be terraformed. This involved planting genetically-engineered bacteria in the Venusian atmosphere. These would consume the carbon dioxide and exhale breathable oxygen. But Sagan wasn’t the first person to suggest ways of terraforming the planet, and he didn’t invent the concept of terraforming. You can find the idea, but not the name, in the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which the Martians have built giant machines to replenish the atmosphere on their dying world. The great SF writer Poul Anderson wrote a story in which a similar technology is used to terraform the Venusian atmosphere.

This is mentioned by Mike Ashley, the editor of the anthology of classic SF stories about the worlds of the solar system, Born of the Sun, published by the British Library. In the introduction to the story about Venus, Ashley writes

‘The 1950s saw some authors taking note of recent research which suggested Venus was far from a watery world. Leading the way was Poul Anderson. In ‘The Big Rain’ (1954) he describes a harsh, sweltering Venus that, when it does rain, rains formaldehyde. The story considers how Venus might be terraformed, using the formaldehyde locked in Venus’ clouds. Airmaker machines, spread all over Venus, accelerate a reaction with the formaldehyde, ammonia and methane to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen, whilst bombs reinvigorate volcanos so that in time it starts to rain – and rains for over a hundred years, by which time Venus starts to be more Earth–like’. (p. 93).

To me, this is an example of one the instances where informed Science Fiction, even if wrong in the details, has advanced scientific thinking. And there are plenty of other examples in some of the other stories Ashley discusses in some of the other books in the same series.

Sagan, for all his faults, was a brilliant scientist and he did much to make people aware of the environmental crisis and opposed the threat of nuclear war and the New Cold War Reagan and Thatcher started ramping up in the 1980s. But in this case, while his ideas about terraforming Venus are most likely to be correct, he wasn’t the first to invent the idea.

Sometimes SF writers get there first.

Video on Orion, the US Navy’s Nuclear Space Battleship

December 4, 2022

I found this very interesting video on the Found and Explained channel on YouTube. It’s about Orion, a massive space battleship designed, but fortunately never built, by the US navy. The vehicle would have been propelled by nuclear bombs thrown out from the rear of the spacecraft. The force of the explosion would have been caught by a buffer plate on four retracting struts. This would have absorbed the shock, while allowing the spacecraft to move at immense speeds. The ship would have had a complement of 120 men, who would have rested and worked, at least at times, in a centrifuge that would have generated artificial gravity. It would also have carried four shuttle craft, and an arsenal of 140 nuclear bombs. It would also have carried another type of nuclear bomb, the details of which are still classified. This would have been thrown out of the spacecraft and when it exploded would have released a deadly beam of charged particles at its target. It would also have been equipped with a number of conventional naval cannons. I think the intention was to dominate the Earth militarily from space. The navy also planned a number of peaceful missions, including expeditions to Saturn by the 1970s. They didn’t work out any detailed plans but created a detailed model which they showed to Kennedy to persuade him to back the project. It had the opposite effect. Kennedy realised that it would have made the Cold War much worse, and wisely cancelled it.

The video’s sponsored by a Star Trek computer game, and so there’s much comparison between the USS Enterprise and other ships in that series with the Orion battleship. It also goes into the methods by which the spacecraft could be used to become a real starship enabling humanity to reach Alpha Centauri. With its conventional nuclear fuel, it could attain 3.3 per cent of the speed of light, which would enable humanity to reach Alpha Centauri in 144 years. But other techniques could be used, including matter-antimatter annihilation. This could propel the ship to 80 per cent of the speed of light, cutting the journey time to a decade or so. Unfortunately, anti-matter is immensely expensive and so unless or until a cheap method of mass producing it is found, that means of propulsion is impossible.

Sagan mentions the Orion spacecraft in Cosmos, and how it could have taken humanity to the stars. He doesn’t mention, however, the fact that it was intended as a warship. Either he didn’t know, which is unlikely, or that aspect of the ship’s design was classified at the time, and he wasn’t at liberty to divulge it. However, the use of bombs to push a spacecraft forward is actually a sound one. It was tested experimentally on a scale model, and there are clips of this about. The idea goes back to before the Russian Revolution, when an imprisoned revolutionary sketched a platform taking off from the ground propelled by exploding gunpowder bombs beneath it.

Nuclear explosions in space are currently banned under international law, which has helped to prevent atomic war but means that so far only chemical rockets can be used for space exploration. The Beeb a while ago made a science fiction programme about humans exploring the solar system in a nuclear rocket and confidently predicted that, although now fiction, this would actually happen sometime in this century. I’m also struck about how closely the spacecraft resembles the Discovery, the spacecraft that travels to meet the alien monolith around Jupiter in Kubrick’s 2001. That was also nuclear propelled, and its crew also lived in a giant centrifuge to simulate gravity.

I also wonder if JFK cancelled the project for financial as well as geopolitical reasons. Such as spacecraft would have been massively expensive. As it was, the Moon programme absorbed 5 per cent of America’s GDP, and that was for conventional, chemical rockets carrying no more than three men. I can see the construction of a spacecraft like Orion practically bankrupting the entire country, just as trying to keep up with Reagan’s wretched Star Wars programme did the Soviet Union. Scientists have estimated that the technology isn’t necessarily the problem with building spacecraft to other stars. We can almost do it now. It’s just the expense. It’ll be about 200 years before the world can afford to build such spacecraft.

One day a ship like Orion may be built to take us to Alpha Centauri and beyond. But hopefully, not as a warship.

Three More Heroes of Comedy Sketched – Alan Coren, John Wells and Roy Hudd

November 24, 2022

Here’s another three sketches of some of the people I consider to be great comedy talents – the satirist Alan Coren, and the actors John Wells and Roy Hudd.

I’m not quite satisfied with the picture of Alan Coren, as he really wasn’t jowly or fat in the lower face. But I do think he is one of this country’s greatest comic writers of the 20th century. He was for many years the editor of Punch, and just about the only reason in its last years to read the magazine. Coren’s method was to take a ridiculous story from one of the papers, and then write a ridiculous piece about it. Thus, a story about a ‘sexy actress’ missing her pet tortoise turned into a tale of the said reptile making an excruciatingly slow bid for freedom before finally getting caught. The beginning of package holidays to Spain with booze included turned into a tale of a totally blotto bloke trying to write back home. 1984 is rewritten as if it was about 70s Britain, where nothing works. The press runs headlines like ‘Come Off It, Big Brother’, the Youth Spy is annoying brat who shouts to its mother that Winston Smith has a lady friend, and Room 101 isn’t really terrifying because due to supply problems they can’t get a rat. They offer Smith a hamster instead, but he isn’t afraid of them and annoys them by telling them so. They inflict the hamster on him anyway, and he has to pretend to be frightened. Coren has been accused of racism because of a series of pieces, The Collected Speeches of Idi Amin, and More of the Collected Speeches of Idi Amin, in which he depicted the thug using the stereotypical Black pidgin English. I dare say it is racist, but as it’s directed at a brutal torturer and mass murderer, I honestly don’t care. Amin deserved far worse, and I don’t see Coren as personally racist.

At the same time as he was editing it, Coren also appeared as one of the contestants on Radio 4’s News Quiz, facing Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop on the opposing side representing Private Eye. I read Private Eye now, but back then I far preferred Punch, which seemed more genteel and funny without being vicious. Punch died the journalistic death after Coren left it to edit the Radio Times, but he still continued to appear on the News Quiz until his sad death in the early ’90s. He eventually stopped editing the Radio Times and took up writing a column in the Times giving his humorous view of life in Cricklewood. These pieces are funny, but the really good stuff was earlier in Punch.

His pieces were collected in a number of books, some of which had deliberately bizarre names. In an interview on Pebble Mill he revealed how one of them got its particularly striking name. He rang up W.H. Smith to ask them what their bestselling books were about. They told him, ‘Cats’. He then asked them what their second bestselling books were about. ‘Golf’, they replied. He then asked them what the third most popular books they sold were about. They told him it was the Second World War. So, he called it Golfing for Cats and stuck a swastika on the cover. For his next book, he contacted them again and asked them what the most popular product they sold was. They told him it was tissues for men, so that’s what he called it.

Coren’s humour was distinctive – it was dry, but also slightly silly. Answering a question on the News Quiz about one of the members of Thatcher’s cabinet, he replied, ‘Oh – this is the ministry of Gummer’. A question about Prince Philip on an edition of the show in Edinburgh prompted him to reply, ‘This is the patron of this fair city, Zorba the Scot’. When the Tory election broadcast for the 1987 general election showed Spitfires and other World War II planes zooming about, Coren remarked that it was the Royal Conservative Airforce and pointed out that when the servicemen came back from the War, they all voted Labour. He’s been succeeded as broadcaster by his daughter, Victoria Coren-Mitchell, who is genuinely erudite and intelligent, and his son, Giles, who is a right-wing snob, and who made a sneering comment about people in council houses. Although Coren edited the patrician and eminently establishment Punch, he himself was a former grammar school lad, and there was a bit of class friction in the News Quiz between himself and the genuinely upper-class team from the downmarket Private Eye. I stopped listening to the News Quiz a long time ago because I got sick of the anti-religious sneers when Sandi Tokvig was chairing it and didn’t agree with many of the views of the panellists, who seemed to be stuck in the London bubble with a contempt for the rest of the country. Previous series are available on DVD, however, and they are well worth listening to, not least because of Coren. A great comic wit, sadly missed.

John Wells. He was one of the Private Eye team and was as patrician and establishment as the people that magazine skewered. He was the headmaster and French teacher at Eton. He was also one of the writers of the Dear Bill diaries in the Eye, which were supposed to be the letters of Dennis Thatcher to Bill Deedes, one of the writers in the Times. The book’s hilariously funny, especially when it describes Keith Joseph getting egged everywhere, but no-one can work out why it’s only him that does. Other highlights include him visiting the old folk’s home in which Ted Heath and Harold Macmillan are respectively housed, with Heath hating and ranting about Thatcher while Macmillan still hates and rants about Heath. As with Bentine and the Bumblies, this work of fiction excited the interest of the security people, who asked Wells where he got his information from. Wells replied that he just made it up, and he wasn’t getting any information from anyone. ‘Thank heaven for that,’ the rozzers replied, ‘We thought there’d been a leak.’ Wells had got the tone of Dennis Thatcher’s speech and mindset exactly right, in my opinion. He also appeared as Thatcher’s husband in the farce Anyone for Dennis?, which I can remember being put on TV. There’s a piece of very Cold War humour there, when the Russian ambassador fears that a nuclear war is imminent and talks about the brave Soviet soldiers with their eyes fixed on the last dawn, before collapsing with relief when he finds out that he’s mistaken.

Wells also appeared as a guest on a number of TV shows, including Lovejoy, and the radio shows The News Quiz and Tales of the Mausoleum Club. He had a camp manner, which he knew how to use for great comic effect. For example, when the teams were answering a question about the controversial portrait of the royal family that showed them all nude, he remarked that it was glad one royal was absent because ‘that would have been really gristly’. A question about the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland prompted him to describe her as a woman, who wrote covered in small, white dogs. Tales from the Mausoleum Club was a series of parodies of Victorian classic literature. One of these was a spoof of Treasure Island, ‘Trevor Island’, in which a gang of pirates go after the treasure buried on the island of Tombola. Wells played the pirate’s camp captain, who at one point remarked, ‘Oh damn, I’ve snapped my second-best bra!’

Roy Hudd. He was on TV quite a bit in the early 70s only to subsequently vanish. I can remember him from when I was at junior school presenting an afternoon programme for the elderly. While he vanished from TV, he carried on broadcasting on the radio, where he was the star of the satirical News Huddlines on Radio 2 with June Whitfield. He also appeared from time to time on other programmes, including as an astral seaside entertainer playing the Wurlitzer on the Reeves and Mortimer revamp of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). I’m including him here as he was also an expert on the Music Hall. Back in the 1980s he appeared on a Radio 4 programme about the original Peaky Blinders, who were so notorious that they even wrote Music Hall songs about them. The one he performed was about how they could drink a brewery dry. Away from such elevated matters, he also apparently appeared as the Litterbug in the 1970s public information film against littering.

Stop the War Coalition on their Protests Planned for this Saturday

June 21, 2022

I got this email from the Stop the War Coalition about a number of protests they’ve organised for this Saturday, 25th June 2022.

We have groups up and down the country – from Glasgow to Southampton – organising for the International Day of Action this Saturday. 

In London we are holding a protest outside the Ministry of Defence.

We will be there from 2:00-4:00 pm. Do get along if you can.

We have a great line-up of speakers including: Mohammad Asif, Director of Afghan Human Rights Foundation; Alex Gordon, President of RMT; Lindsey German, Convenor StW; Roger McKenzie, Liberation general secretary; Kate Hudson, CND general secretary; George Solomou, former British soldier who resigned over the Iraq War; and musician Sean Taylor.

The war in Ukraine is ongoing and on the brink of escalation. It is fast developing into a proxy war between Russia and NATO and it is the Ukrainian people who are suffering the consequences.

Rather than sending extra missiles to Ukraine, the British government should be urging for a ceasefire and getting both sides around the negotiating table in peace talks. From the beginning of the war we demanded that Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine and that the British government stop fuelling the conflict.

Join the Protest

There are protests organised in DorsetLondonManchester, Sheffield, BrightonGlasgowSouthampton and Cardiff plus other events in NottinghamYork,  Hull and Shrewsbury.

If you’ve got a protest or event organised let us know

I’m Organising An Event on 25 June

I strongly support Ukraine’s right to exist as a free, independent sovereign state and utterly condemn Putin”s invasion. As for Putin, he’s a monster. Since he came to power Putin has demonstrated over and over again that he’s an authoritarian butcher with nothing but contempt for democracy and the rule of law. He’s done everything he can to all but outlaw public protest, has banned those parties that look like beating him in elections, and the journalists that dare to criticise him have had visits from his thugs to show them the error of their ways. And twenty years later, the murder of the Russian dissident Politovskaya, who was a very trenchant critic of the arkhiplut, still looks very suspicious. He started a murderous war in Chechnya at the beginning of this century, which included horrific massacres of the civilian population, such as in the city of Grozny. And his wretched long arm has stretch out over here to assassinate his critics and foes who’ve taken refuge in our great nation.

But Stop the War’s analysis of the situation is right. There is a profound danger of the war escalating. We had a general only the other day telling us that British troops should be prepared to fight in Europe. This is terrifying. I think the Coalition are correct in saying that NATO should not have expanded up to the Russian border, so that the Russians felt threatened. This was the original agreement signed after the Fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War. But it was violated and as a consequence this terrible, evil war has broken out.

We desperately need peace, and far more jaw-jaw not war-war. As John Lennon said, ‘Give peace a chance’.

Glasgow Council Report Criticises Statues of Livingstone, Peel and Gladstone for Slavery Links

April 5, 2022

GB News and the Heil carried reports a few days ago attacking Glasgow council for a report compiled by a highly respected Scottish historian about the city’s historic involvement in the slave trade and its statues commemorating figures connected with it. The council felt that, unlike Liverpool and Bristol, and the city had not faced up to its history as one of the other major British centres of the slave trade. It compiled a list of seven statues that were particularly questionable because of their subjects’ links to the trade. These included the missionary and abolitionist, David Livingstone, Robert Peel and William Ewart Gladstone. The reports concentrated on the criticism of Livingstone, as the man was a fervent abolitionist and it demonstrates how ridiculousness the iconoclasm by the anti-slavery activists is. According to reports by GB News, the Heil and the Glasgow Herald, it’s partly because Livingstone started work at age 10 in factory weaving and processing slave-produced cotton from the West Indies. They make the point that as a child worker, Livingstone had absolutely no control over what the factory did. I doubt very much that he had much control, as someone who could be called a ‘factory slave’, over his choice of employment either. Later videos from GB News and further down in the articles from the Herald and the Heil is the statement that he also defend the cotton masters, believing that they were paternalistic. He may well have done so, but this hardly discredits him because of his life’s work in Africa.

Livingstone had a genuine, deep hatred, as many British Christians had at the time, of slavery. He travelled to Africa to spread Christianity and to combat slavery as its sources. He was also a doctor, and had worked hard after work to educate himself. One of the guests on the GB News debate about it was a right-wing historian of Africa. He pointed out that Livingstone is still very much loved in Africa, and there are plaques to him in Malawi, Zambia, Tanganyika and three other African countries. I have no doubt this is absolutely true. A few years ago I took out of Bristol’s central library a history of Malawi. The book was even-handed and objective. It did not play down massacres by the British army committed when we annexed the area during fighting with the slaving tribes. It described how, under imperialism, White Malawians tended to look down on the indigenous peoples and the dissatisfaction with imperial rule that resulted from the use of forced labour. But neither did it omit or play down the enslavement of indigenous Africans by the other native peoples. These included the Yao, Marganja, Swahili and Arabs, who preyed on the other tribes for the Arab slave trade, sending their captives to Zanziba, Kilwa and across the Indian ocean. To gain their victims’ trust, they’d settle down with them for a year, working alongside them as friends before finally turning on them. They also set up a series of forts to defend the slave routes. One of these, set up by Zarafi, one of the most infamous slavers, had a palisade on which were impaled 100 severed heads. As for the akapolo slaves used in the local economy, they were made very much aware of their status. They had to work with broken tools, and eat their meals off the floor. The chiefs, meanwhile, seemed to have spent much of their time relaxing and having their hair done.

Livingstone, whatever his faults, hated all this and his settlement became a refuge for runaway slaves. As did many of the other settlements he or his followers founded for this purpose. These settlements have since expanded to form some of Malawi’s towns.

William Ewart Gladstone was the leader of Britain’s Liberal party, serving as prime minister, in the latter half of the 19th century. The scandal here is that Gladstone’s family got its money from slave estates in the West Indies. I know Conservatives who genuine hate slavery, who despise Gladstone because of this. So it isn’t just ‘leftists’ that have issues with the Grand Old Man, as Gladstone’s supporters dubbed him. But Gladstone is immensely important because of the social legislation he enacted. He was an Anglican, who, in the words of one historian, ‘became the voice of the Nonconformist conscience’. He wanted the disestablishment of the Anglican church at a time when Christian Nonconformists were still required to pay it tithes and other duties that left them disadvantaged. He also wanted to give Ireland home rule. Of course this faced immense opposition, and I think it was one reason why he failed to win elections as the century wore on. But it seems to me that if he had been able to enact this policy, then perhaps Ireland’s subsequent history may not have been quite so bloody. One of the surprising facts about Irish history is that there was in the 18th century an alliance between Roman Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. This was before Roman Catholic emancipation, which legalised it and granted Roman Catholics civil rights. At the same time Protestant Nonconformists were tolerated, but still suffered deep political disabilities. As a result, one of Ulster’s historic Roman Catholic churches was build with donations and subscriptions from Ulster nonconformist Protestants. This surprising fact was included in a BBC Radio 4 series, Mapping the Town, which traced the history of British and UK towns through their maps.

I don’t know much about Robert Peel, except that he introduced free trade as a policy for the Conservatives, or a section of the Conservatives. But what he is primarily known for is founding the metropolitan police force. I’ve got a feeling he might also have been responsible for reducing the 100-odd crimes that carried the death penalty to three. These included murder and treason. It might be because of Peel that we’re no longer hanging people for stealing a loaf of bread or impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. But long before Glasgow council decided he was problematic, there was also a demonstration by masked protesters in London demanding that his statue should be removed. And last year the right were also getting in a tizzy because one of Liverpool’s universities was removing him as the name of one of their halls. The student union replaced him with a Black woman, who was a Communist and teacher. She is, no doubt, perfectly worthy of commemoration, but hardly in Gladstone’s league.

Part of the problem is that iconoclasts want to judge everything by a very strict, modern morality. Slavery and the slave trade was an abomination and was rightly abolished. Good people have been continuing the struggle against global slavery since then. But not everybody, who was connected to the trade, is such a monster that they should be blotted out of history in the same way Stalin’s historians removed all mention of his opponents.

One of the things you are taught, or at least were taught, in history at university level is not to play ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ with historical figures. There is no set outcome to the historical process. If events had been different in the past, then modern society would also be different. If, horribly, Wilberforce and the abolitionists had lost, then slavery would still be unchallenged today. At the same time, you need to use the historical imagination to understand why people in the past behaved as they did, and why good people by the standard of their times were capable of attitudes that are deeply morally repugnant to us.

The great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, was an admirer of the 17th-18th century Italian historian Vico. Vico believed, as Berlin later did, that there were no objective moral values. He noted how they changed over time, and that to properly understand a past epoch, you needed to understand also its art and culture. I don’t think he was a cultural relativist, however. Berlin certainly wasn’t – he believed that while there were no objective moral values, there were certainly those which acted as if they were. He was fiercely anti-Communist, partly because his family were Lithuanian Jews, who had seen their logging business seized by the Bolsheviks and had fled the Russian Revolution. He was a major figure during the Cold War in establishing western contacts with Soviet dissidents like Nadezhda Mandelstam, who wrote moving accounts of her experience of the gulags under Stalin.

I don’t share Berlin’s Conservatism and strongly believe in the existence of objective moral values. But I strongly recommend Berlin’s books. He wrote a series of potted intellectual biographies, including on the early Russian revolutionaries like the 19th century anarchist, Bakunin. Even though he hated what they stood for, his books are notable for his attempts to see things from his subjects’ point of view. So much so that some people, according to Berlin, though he was pro-Communist. They’re fascinating and highly readable, even if you don’t agree that someone like the French utopian socialist Saint-Simon was ‘an enemy of freedom’.

There are statues of slavers and the people connected with the trade that deserve to be torn down. There had been calls for Colston’s statue to be removed since the 1980s. It was highly controversial all those decades ago, though many Bristolians would have defended it because he gave away most of his money to charity. But other historical figures deserve to be still commemorated despite their connections to the ‘abominable trade’ because of their immense work that has benefited both Britain and nations like Malawi. And I believe that some of those, who find figures like Gladstone objectionable, could also benefit from reading Vico and Berlin. In the meantime, it should be noted that Glasgow council has no plans to tear any statues down.

Slavery is a great moral evil. But historic slavery should not considered so grave and unforgivable, that it is used to blot out the memory of figures like Livingstone, Gladstone and Peel, whose work has so helped shape modern Britain for the better.

Jeremy Corbyn on Putin and the Invasion of Ukraine

March 17, 2022

I’m posting this for Trev, one of the great commenters on this blog. He posted a comment a few days ago stating that some nutter elsewhere on the web had accused him and Jeremy Corbyn of being pro-Putin. This is absolute nonsense, as this video from Double Down News put up on YouTube on the 28th February shows.

In it, Corbyn makes it very clear that he utterly condemns the Russian invasion and its horrifying loss of human life and has every sympathy with the Ukrainians. He states that all wars end with a political solution, so let’s cut out the fighting and go directly there. He feels that we should go back to the agreements made at the end of the Cold War, particularly that in Minsk. Starmer has denounced the Stop the War Coalition as a Russian stooge, for which there’s no evidence. All governments try to make sure it’s only their line that’s heard during a war, and truth is the first casualty. It’s very easy for political leaders to send other people’s children to die. He states that he has been accused of being pro-Putin, but he has a record of standing up against tyrants and for human rights both in the Soviet Union and in democratic Russia. As Putin, he was helped into power by various world leaders – here the video shows Putin meeting and greeting Blair, the Queen and, I think, George Dubya. This was at the same time Putin invaded Chechnya to persecute and murder its people. He talks about the palpable racism in Moscow towards Chechens, complete with footage of Russian Nazi scum goose stepping about with their wretched right-arm salute. He was part of a parliamentary human rights delegation that met Russian officials complaining about the abuse of human rights, and was part of a demonstration in London with Tony Benn against the violations and the war in Chechnya. And when the terrible events in Salisbury took place, Corbyn said it was a consequence of Russian money in Britain, which needed to be examined. This is followed by a clip of his speech in parliament attacking this dirty money, and noting that the Tories had received £800,000 in donations from Russian oligarchs. We now have the Magnitsky rules and other legislation. But there have been people on the left who have been quite consistent in their support for human rights and the rights of journalists.

He says that when the Iraq war broke out in 2003 he was completely opposed to it, but didn’t want to go to war with the US or anybody else. He wanted peace for the people of Iraq. Similarly an attack on Russia in Ukraine will just produce another war and more bitterness and hatred. It would mean more of the world’s precious resources being used to manufacture weapons rather than dealing with the environmental crisis that threatens everyone. He states that it often seems that the people who have absolute unity are more prescient, so it’s good to stand out sometimes. As for wars being won or lost, he says that after they’re over and the media circus has moved on, the person who has lost a son is forever left with that, wondering on their birthday what they would have done and that goes on for all their life. Nobody ever wins a war, and having a war is a defeat for all of us. The best option is to halt the war as quickly as possible and move on to peace, recognition and understanding. In the case of Ukraine, the country could be occupied with massive destruction,, leading to resistance fighting and a civil war that could go on for a very long time. And worse is the possibility of a conflict between NATO and Russia with their nuclear armaments.

Being anti-war isn’t a weakness. It’s looking at the current conflict and seeing that it needs to be resolved and we need peace. We need more voices for peace and anti-war activists around the world to speak and oppose what their governments are doing. He was inspired to see so many young people on the streets of Moscow protesting against the war and that it was not being done in their name. It was the same language many people used against the Iraq War, and which Americans used against the Vietnam War. It is the voices for peace around the world we should be listening to at the present time.

There you have it from the man himself: he’s made it clear that he condemns the invasion, as he condemns all wars, and has protested against Putin when others in the West embraced the tyrant. He wants the war to stop not just because of the carnage that all wars cause, but of the dangers of this escalating into nuclear war. And he admires, respects and supports anti-war campaigners in Russia and around the world.

Jeremy Corbyn: the prime minister this country should have had.

Sting Reprises 80s Anti-Nuclear Song against War in Ukraine

March 14, 2022

A few days ago I put up the YouTube video of Punk legends Toyah Wilcox’s and Robert Fripp’s song of support for Ukraine against Putin’s invasion. Sting has also posted on YouTube a version of his 80s hit ‘Russians’ as a protest against Putin’s bloody invasion of ‘a peaceful and unthreatening neighbour’. It’s dedicated not just to the Ukrainians but also to the many Russians protesting against the war, and is once again a plea for our children and our common humanity.

Sting released ‘Russians’ right in the middle of the new Cold War under Thatcher and Reagan, when it seemed all too possible that a nuclear war would erupt to end humanity and destroy our lovely and beautiful planet. It was partly based on a theme from Prokofiev and urged everyone to protect their children against the nuclear threat. One of its lines is ‘How can I protect my little boy/ From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?’ with the refrain ‘Believe me when I say to you, do the Russians love their children too?’ It also reminded both sides that ‘We share the same biology regardless of ideology’. It was a powerful, heartfelt song that reflected the deep fears and hopes of millions across the world at the time.

Sting states that he hasn’t really played it since because it wasn’t really relevant. Horrifically, it is now, with Putin threatening to launch nukes if NATO gets involved. I find Sting’s piece profoundly moving, but I’m also furious with the way geopolitics has gone in eastern Europe in the forty or so years since this was written. Reagan was an arch-reactionary who supported every bloody Fascist dictator that disgraced Latin America in his campaign against Communism. But together he and Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War. Communism fell and the former Soviet satellites went their own way. And in the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev did his best to transform the Stalinist Communism of the Soviet state into something genuinely good and progressive. He wanted to introduce democracy and multiparty elections, ended the persecution of religion, and wished to create a mixed economy in which state and private enterprise existed alongside each other. But he also wished to create a new class of genuine cooperatives, where the workers would hire and fire management. He wanted Russia to join the rest of the world in the Green movement and tackling environmental issues as well fully support human rights. And as the Berlin Wall came down, thousands of people from the former eastern bloc came over here to work and run businesses.

Terrible things were still being done across the world, including the first Gulf War, which was also really about oil rather than freeing Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. But the Fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War made it that bit better. For all the claims that socialism was dead and that free market capitalism would now reign unchallenged at the ‘end of history’, it was still an optimistic time. It looked like the world had finally put that part of the nuclear threat behind us and that we could look forward to a future without any more fears of another Cuban missile crisis or similar armaggeddon.

And now I feel that all that hope and promise has been squandered through great power interference and Putin’s warmongering. Well, damn this! I want the world to go back to how it was before all this erupted.

Bring back Gorbachev!

Love and peace to everyone protesting against the war, and especially to those in Russia. May peace come soon.

Solidarity with Russian Peace Protesters

February 25, 2022

I understand from the news that there have been peace protests against Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in many cities in Russia. They have my absolute support, just as I condemn the warmongering by NATO and our government led by Boris Johnson. Russians interviewed on demonstrations over here against the invasion of Ukraine have said that this is Putin acting against the wishes of the majority of the Russian people. While the older generation are misled by his propaganda on television, the young folks are much more aware of what’s really going on through the interwebs. This reminds me of Putin’s invasion of Chechnya at the beginning of this century and the horrific massacre of its people by Russian forces. I was reading a book about Russia after the end of the Cold War by an American author. He covered the war in Chechnya and managed to interview a senior Russian officer. The man was desperately trying to get his own son away from the war, and told the author that no-one wanted it. It was just Putin. To which you could probably add in this conflict Johnson and Biden, but no-one else.

I admire the immense courage of the Russian peace protesters. Protesting against any decision by Putin and his followers will get you arrested in Russia, let alone demonstrating against more militarism. As for the press, writing something that Putin disapproves of will get you beaten, or thrown down stairs. And in this country Johnson and Priti Patel are doing their best to make the demonstrations they don’t like impossible.

I heartily support all the protesters everywhere against this war, in Britain, Russia and wherever, and hope their voices will be heard against the warmongers. May there be a speedy ceasefire before this war consumes us all.

Love and peace – Mir i lyubov’.

Statement from Stop the War Coalition Against Russian Invasion and NATO and Government Warmongering

February 25, 2022

I got this statement yesterday from the Stop the War Coalition. It condemns the Russian invasion and calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops. But it also argues that NATO is an aggressive imperialistic organisation that itself has caused wars. It rejects economic sanctions against Russia as a form of warfare, and points out that the government expects to have increased funding for the armed forces while at the same time increasing repayments on student loans and cutting expenditure on the NHS. The statement reads as follows

‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine overnight is a massive escalation in the conflict there. Stop the War is calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops and for an immediate ceasefire. Our statement is here and our resolution for union branches/CLPs here.

The danger of war involving nuclear weapons is more real than previously and must be opposed. The real losers will be the ordinary people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of Europe.

We should, however, take no lessons in peacemaking from our own government and its allies. They have brought us decades of escalating wars, each of which has been a failure. They have encouraged a growing arms race internationally. And they have set on a path of Nato expansion which has brought the military alliance to the borders of Russia, in contravention of agreements made at the end of the Cold War.

Nato is not a defensive alliance but an aggressive one, centrally involved in wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Yugoslavia, and engaged in more and more ‘out of area operations’ including in the Indo-Pacific.

Our government wants to hide its domestic problems behind its belligerent statements, and we can be certain that this will continue, at the same time that it will provide unlimited money for war but increase student loan repayments and cut the NHS.

There is a surge or argument in favour of greater sanctions, including from those who purport to be anti war. But sanctions are not an alternative to war – they are economic warfare and therefore a prelude to war. We have seen this in Iraq where all they did was bring war closer, at the same time as bringing real suffering to the people of Iraq.

As an anti-war and peace movement, our first priority is to stop war. This conflict has not developed in the last few weeks alone, but reflects a society where war is being turned to increasingly to solve other problems. However, we are also aware that this is a different situation from previous wars where our government has been directly involved in military action, and we need to do as much as we can to explain and discuss the issues with those around us.

We are asking our members, supporters, groups and affiliates to do the following:

  1. Make sure our statement and resolution are disseminated as widely as possible.
  2.  Do everything to publicise and support our international meeting on Saturday 26th February and our in person rally on Wednesday 2nd March in Conway Hall, London.
  3. Hold urgent meetings in all localities – in person where possible – calling for withdrawal of Russian troops, ceasefire now and against Nato expansion.
  4. Attend the demos and actions in support of the NHS with placards linking cuts in public spending with money for war- you can download and print our new placard design from our website.
  5. Prepare for a day of action (tba) where we hold protests and vigils against the war.

Please contact the office for materials and more information, and for speakers.

Due to the high volume of traffic we are currently experiencing, we apologise for any difficulties you may encounter whilst trying to access our website today; please keep refreshing or try again later.

Best wishes,

Lindsey German

Convenor’

I also noticed that the Depress was ranting about Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott against because they had both condemned NATO, and one of the other Tory rags had reported that Starmer was under pressure to discipline 14 other Labour MPs who’d done likewise.

Which means that Corbyn, Abbott and the other 14 are the only people talking sense in all this.