Posts Tagged ‘Gulags’

Is the End of Debtfare Forced Labour?

September 28, 2020

In his chapter ‘The Violence of the Debtfare State’ in Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, eds., The Violence of Austerity (London: Pluto Press 2017), David Ellis uses the term ‘debtfare’ to describe the dismantling of state welfare provision and its replacement by debt and credit. And I’m starting to wonder how far this can go before something like debt slavery arises. The Romans abolished debt slavery, but the punishment for debt was addictio, forced labour. People are being forced into mountains of debt through poverty created by austerity and the removal of living wages and proper unemployment and disability benefits. Students are also mired in it through tuition fees which now may amount to tens of thousands of pounds.

I am therefore left wondering at what point the various banks and other organisations offering credit will stop it and start demanding their money back or some other form of repayment. Clearly if people remain in debt, they can’t repay the money. The alternatives seem to be either that the banks keep on giving them credit in the hope that they’ll be able to repay something, or else write it off as a loss. But if the number of people in irrecoverable debt hits millions, what happens? If the levels of indebtedness actually starts to harm the banks and the other organisations, will they turn to the state to demand some kind of forced labour in order to make good their profits?

I’ve already pointed out the similarity of the workfare schemes to the forced labour systems of Stalin’s Russia. Stalin used slave labour from the gulags to industrialise the Soviet Union. Business managers would give the KGB lists of the kind of workers their enterprise needed, and the KGB would then have those with the appropriate skills and qualifications accused of anti-Soviet crimes and arrested. The workfare scheme now used to punish the unemployed doesn’t teach anybody any new skills, nor does it allow them to find employment. Indeed the stats a while ago showed that people on workfare were less likely to get a job than if they were left to their own initiative. But workfare does supply cheap, state-subsidised labour to the scheme’s backers and the parties’ business donors, like the supermarkets.

So if the number of people in grievous, irrecoverable debt, will the government simply write them off and let them starve to death, as so many disabled people have done already thanks to false assessments under the Work Capability Tests? Or will they decide they can still make some money for business by pressing them into compulsory labour in order to work their way out of it, as in the Roman system?

I’m not saying this will happen or even that it’s likely. But I do wonder if it’s a possibility.

The Tories Are Economic Saboteurs – Get the Gulags Ready!

September 8, 2020

The former Soviet Union had a series of legislation defining and punishing economic crimes. As all industry and agriculture was nationalised and the country a single-party totalitarian state, any attempt to disrupt this situation was considered subversive and attack on the Soviet system and state itself. This meant that people could be jailed for organising a strike or industrial dispute, or for simply trying to set up their own, independent private company. This was actually permitted under the Soviet Constitution, but was limited to self-employment. Thus when Gorbachev started glasnost and liberalising the economy in the 1980s, one of the first developments was the rise of private taxis by people with their own cars. Under hardliners like Brezhnev, however, any attempt to set up one’s own company was strictly punished, and the offending entrepreneur sent to the gulags. It was declared to be and punished as sabotage and anti-Soviet activities.

Stalin justified his terror and mass arrests in the 1930s through lies that the Soviet Union and its economic development were under threat from an army of saboteurs. Secret agents and collaborators with the capitalist West, including the followers of his exiled rival, Trotsky, were active causing disaffection with Stalin’s personal rule and plotting to cripple and destroy Soviet industry and agriculture. 30 million Soviet citizens were falsely accused, convicted and either executed or sent to the gulags to die of starvation and overwork.

But now in neoliberal, capitalist Britain, the Tory party really does seem to be trying to sabotage this country’s industry and agriculture. Boris Johnson’s Tory are heavily funded by hedge funds, who are shorting the British economy. They’ve gambled on a no-deal Brexit ruining Britain. And so Boris and his coterie are pushing for precisely that type of exit from the EU. Yesterday the Boorish Bozo and his minions announced that they were going to tear up the deal they’d already agreed with the EU, in order to push for something better. This, as Mike has pointed out, just shows the EU that we can’t be trusted. It’s weakened our position, and made such a disastrous Brexit even more likely. At the same time, it’s been estimated that a third of British farmers could go under in five years thanks to such a Brexit and the probable imposition of agricultural tariffs by the EU.

If Boris and the Tories, or at least his faction, are determined on a no-deal Brexit, because it will destroy British firms and farms, for the enrichment of the hedge funds, then they are guilty of economic sabotage.

In the Soviet Union, they’d be sent to the gulag for it. But as it stands, they’re supported by the British media, and so distort and spread lies blaming everyone but themselves, especially the EU.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/09/07/if-johnson-is-ready-to-renege-on-eu-withdrawal-agreement-whats-the-point-in-a-trade-deal/

I can’t remember where I read it, but one of the commenters on Mike’s blog also suggested that after Boris has done his job and wrecked our once great nation, he’ll take his money and flee abroad.

Which is what any number of truly horrific dictators have done throughout history. I’m thinking of people like Idi Amin, the butcher who ruled Uganda in the 1970s. After he was ousted he fled to Yemen or Jordan or somewhere, where he holed up very comfortably in a luxury hotel.

One of the problems with the developing world is that its dictators and ruling class loot their countries and peoples without putting anything back. They don’t spend the money they’ve stolen consuming any of their nations’ traditional products. They just hoard it abroad in Swiss bank accounts. Mugabe in Zimbabwe is a case in point.

And Boris and the Tories are doing something similar. Which means that what is said about these tyrants can be said about them:

The Tories are kleptocrats trying to turn Britain into a third world country!

If there are people, who count as ‘economic criminals’ who deserve to be thrown into a forced labour camp, it’s them.

If You Support Black Lives Matter, Condemn China’s Genocide of the Uighurs

July 21, 2020

In case you’ve missed the news over the last couple of days, relations between China and Britain are strained due to mainland China’s insistence in suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, and the genocide of Uighur people of Xinjiang. Their only crime is to be a separate people, whose native language is related to Turkish and their traditional religion is Islam. Xinjiang is a region rich in natural resources, such as coal and iron. According to the Financial Times back in the 1990s, it was always a border region with a high degree of independence, if not actually a separate state, under the Chinese Empire. Then came the Chinese revolution and the mass influx of majority Han Chinese to exploit and develop these resources for the benefit of China. The Uighurs were and are becoming a minority in their own region. The result was increasing demands for separatism.

The War on Terror

The Chinese started to crack down on these demands in the early parts of this century, spuriously claiming they were part of Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. For nearly two decades now newspapers and news reports have been telling anyone who will listen about how far this persecution has moved into full on genocide. The Uighurs are formally forbidden from speaking their own language and practising their traditional culture. Their homes are monitored. If they break these laws, they are interned and brutalised in concentration camps. The I reported last week that the regime had engaged in the mass sterilization of Uighur women.

The UN Law on Genocide

This is real Nazism. I believe the UN resolution against genocide also includes forcible attempts to deprive a people of their culture and heritage. As for the sterilisation, this was the Nazi policy towards recidivist criminals, the insane and chronic alcoholics, who were also interned in camps. This preceded the extermination of the disabled, Jews and Gypsies by gassing, the disabled as part of the Aktion T4 programme. The Chinese haven’t moved on to that. Yet.

China’s Uighur Policy and European Extermination of Indigenous Peoples

These policies are also extremely similar to those the European powers adopted to the indigenous peoples of their expanding empires. It began with the extermination of the Amerindian peoples of the Caribbean and the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In America and Canada indigenous Americans were placed in boarding schools to deprive them of their own culture in order to mould them into modern American and Canadian citizens. There is also bitterness and controversy surrounding the Spanish missions in the American west, which did the same in order to convert them to Christianity. Many of the children and people thus incarcerated died of starvation, brutal maltreatment and disease. Over in the Pacific, there was the genocide of the Aboriginal peoples and the scandal of the lost generation, in which mixed race children were removed from their Aboriginal families and placed with Whites. And again, indigenous children were also placed in boarding schools to stop them speaking their complex native languages and deprive them of their culture. All in the name of progress.

During the Mao Mao rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, tens of thousands of innocent Black Kenyans were killed, imprisoned, tortured and mutilated in what has been described by a book of that name as ‘Africa’s Secret Gulags’. Aaron Bastani said in his piece attacking David Starkey’s views on race and the Empire with Michael Walker, posted on YouTube, that the White colonists were also considering and demanding their outright extermination. I think he’s speaking from experience, family if not personal as he’s too young to have experienced it himself.

And before all this started, we imposed similar laws in Ireland in the 16th century in order to eradicate that country’s Gaelic culture. Similar laws came into effect after the defeat of the 1745 rebellion, despite the fact that many Scottish clans actually joined the British in fighting the Young Pretender. And Welsh Nationalists keenly remember how the speaking of Welsh was punished in schools, with wooden notices saying ‘Welsh Not’ hung about the necks of children who persisted in using the oldest written language of the British Isles.

History of Chinese racism

There’s been a nasty strain of racism in Chinese culture for a long time. The Middle Kingdom was isolated from the rest of the world, and dominated the other nations in its region. It led the world for so long, that its defeat in the Opium Wars and then occupation by the European empires during the Boxer rebellion was a severe psychological shock, and has produced feeling of humiliation and resentment that have not dissipated to the present day. Europeans, initially confined to mercantile ghettos in a limited number of ports trading with the West, were viewed as almost alien beings. There’s a Chinese drawing from the 19th century of a western sailor, who is drawn as some kind of hairy anthropoid with a huge beak of a nose, wreathed in tobacco fumes like the smoke from some hellish demon. It’s the counterpart of western caricatures of other non-western races. The ‘Yellow Peril’ scares that spread through Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which claimed the Chinese wanted to invade the West and conquer the world actually had some basis in reality. They came ultimately from a small number of anti-western texts, although their significance was wildly and grotesquely exaggerated by racists, thus laying the foundations for the Fascist and imperialist horrors of the 20th century. I also understand that there are ideologies of Chinese racial uniqueness based on the ancient fossil finds of pre-human hominid races, like Peking Man. Chairman Mao, a man who did his best to wreck his nation’s people, history and traditional culture, was carefully anti-racist. He saw the Chinese as part of the global community of non-White races, referring to them as ‘we Coloureds’. But nearly a decade after his death, there was an anti-Black riot in one of the Chinese cities, which was reported in the Observer c. 1984/5.

19th Century Chinese Drawing of European Sailor

And with the emergence of the Coronavirus has come other forms of anti-Black prejudice and discrimination in China. The extreme Right-wing blogger, Sargon of Gasbag, the man who broke UKIP, put up a video about this on his vlog. It told how Black native English speakers are refused jobs teaching the language in China, because they prefer Whites. Blacks have also been refused entry to restaurants on the wholly mistaken grounds that they are more vulnerable to Coronavirus than those with paler skin. If they are admitted, they may be isolated from other guests and the area specially cleaned afterwards. Sargon wondered why no ‘SJWs’ were campaigning against this racism. Part of the answer, as Emma Maltby wrote in the I last Thursday/Friday, is that they don’t want to be deliberately distracted against their goal of combating western racism. But it is a very good question, as China is now fully integrated into the global capitalist economy. Hope Not Hate has compiled a petition, which they are asking people to sign, against buying goods from multinational companies, like Adidas, Puma, Fila, BMW and Jaguar, made from Uighur slave labour. I have absolutely no problem signing it, because the industrial use of slave labour was exactly what Stalin and the Nazis did. Under the purges, industrial combines gave the KGB lists of the type of workers they needed, and the KGB dutifully arrested them as capitalist spies and saboteurs, to work as slaves in the Gulags. The SS had a subsidiary company, staffed with Jewish artisans and craftsmen, producing luxury goods for the Nazi elite. They even brought out a catalogue. And it is notorious that America continued trading with Nazi Germany, with the banks lending them credit, even after their persecution of the Jews was well known. If we continue buying Chinese goods made using forced Uighur slave labour, we are doing exactly the same.

I am not remotely trying to demonise the Chinese as a people. I know some really great Chinese people here in Bristol and the West Country, who are vital members of the community running some of our local stores. I knew one lady who was an opera signer, or at least opera trained. I am merely stating that China, like very many nations, also has its racism and that in the case of the Uighurs it has become little short of Nazism.

Mencius – Ancient Chinese Anti-Racist/ anti-Nationalist

Way back in Chinese history there were a number of competing philosophical schools. Confucianism is the best known as it was ultimately victorious, becoming the ideology of the Chinese empire. The worst of these was Legalism, an ideology that has been compared to modern fascism in that it did believe that might was right and the rulers should have absolute power. But there was also Mencianism. Mencius, or to give him his real, Chinese name, Meng-tse, was an altogether gentler, more idealistic soul. While Confucius believed that one’s primary love should be for the country of one’s birth, Mencius argued that one should love all the world’s people’s equally. You could imagine the great sage mixing easily as a respected figure among the hippies of the ’60s.

Now as the Uighurs are being ground down and exterminated by the Chinese authorities, we need less Legalism, less racism, less totalitarianism and far more Mencianism.

And Nazism needs to be fought wherever it is, whether in Europe, America or China.

Hope Not Hate, the anti-racism organisation, has an entire section devoted to the genocide of the Uighurs, including videos of the concentration camps. It’s at:

What’s happening in Xinjiang?

It has this section on the western brands exploiting Uighur slave labour.

Brands of shame

History of Global Slavery in Maps

July 10, 2020

James Walvin, Atlas of Slavery (Harlow: Pearson Education 2006).

I’ve blogged several times about the importance of putting western, transatlantic slavery in its global context. Slavery was not something that only White Europeans did to Black Africans. It has plagued humanity across history and the globe. It existed in ancient Greece and Rome, in the Arab and Islamic worlds and even in sub-Saharan Africa itself. And it reappeared in the 20th century in the Nazi concentration and death camps, and the gulags of Stalin’s Soviet Union, as well as the Russian dictators deportation of whole ethnic groups and nations to Siberia.

While concentrating very much on European transatlantic slavery, in which Black slaves were transported to the Caribbean and North and South America, Walvin’s book does place it in this global, historical context. James Walvin is a former history lecturer at the University of York, and was the co-editor of the journal Slavery and Abolition. He has also published a series of books on the subject. Walvin’s Atlas of Slavery presents the history of slavery throughout the world in maps. The blurb for it on the book’s back cover runs

The enslavement of Africans and their transportation across the Atlantic has come to occupy a unique place in the public imagination. Despite the wide-ranging atrocities of the twentieth century (including massive slave systems in Nazi Europe and the Russian Gulag), the Atlantic slave system continues to hold a terrible fascination. But slavery in the Atlantic world involved much more than the transportation of human cargo from one country to another, as Professor Walvin clearly explains in the Atlas of Slavery.

In this fascinating new book he looks at slavery in the Americas in the broadest context, taking account of both earlier and later forms of slavery. The relationship between the critical continents, Europe, Africa and the Americas is examined through a collection of maps and related text, which puts the key features of the history of slavery in their defining geographical setting. By foregrounding the historical geography of slavery, Professor Walvin shows how the people of three widely separated continents were brought together into an economic and human system that was characterized both by violence and cruelty to its victims and huge economic advantage to its owners and managers.

Professor Walvin’s synthesis of the complex history of Atlantic slavery provides a fresh perspective from which to view and understand one of the most significant chapters in global history. We may think of slavery as a largely bygone phenomenon, but it is a practice that continues to this day, and the exploitation of vulnerable human beings remains a pressing contemporary issue.

After an introduction, the book has the following chapters:

  1. Slavery in a global setting.
  2. The ancient world.
  3. Overland African slave routes
  4. 4 European slavery and slave trades
  5. Exploration and the spread of sugar
  6. Europeans, slaves and West Africa
  7. Britain, slavery and the slave trade
  8. Africa
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Crossing the Atlantic
  11. Destinations
  12. Arrivals
  13. Brazil
  14. The Caribbean
  15. North America
  16. Cotton and the USA
  17. Slave resistance
  18. Abolition and emancipation
  19. East Africa and the Indian Ocean
  20. Slavery after abolition.

The book concludes with a chronology, further reading list and index.

This is slavery minutely described. The maps and accompanying texts not only discuss the history of slavery itself, but also the general trading systems of which it was a part, the goods and agricultural products, like cotton, it served to produce, and the regions, towns and cities that produced and traded in them and the routes across which they were transported. There is even a map of the currents of the Atlantic Ocean as part of the background to the horrendous Middle Passage – the shipping route across the ocean used to transport slaves from Africa to the New World.

The book’s an excellent resource for people studying or simply interested in the history of slavery. The book is almost totally devoted to transatlantic slavery, as you’d expect. But not totally so, and as I said, this global historical context is needed if an equally racist, anti-White view of the history of slavery is to be avoided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

May 16, 2020

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons treatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.

 

 

Boris Johnson Declared Islamophobia ‘Natural Reaction’ to Islam

November 28, 2019

Mike also put up another excellent piece, pointing out that while the Tories are misdirecting people to look for massively over-exaggerated anti-Semitism in the Labour party, they have been actively promoting hatred against Muslims. According to the magazine Business Insider, in 2005 our comedy prime minister wrote in the Spectator that

To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers.

This was in the wake of the 7/7 London bombings, and Johnson questioned the loyalty of British Muslims and said that the country must realise that ‘Islam is the problem’.

Mike concludes ‘He’s not my prime minister. He is racist filth.’

Boris Johnson believes Islamophobia is a ‘natural reaction’ to Muslims. Let’s vote this racist OUT

No argument there from me, especially after Mates Jacobs has released a dossier of rabidly islamophobic, racist and anti-Semitic comments from the supporters of Jacob Rees-Mogg and our buffoonish Prime Minister. Not after Sayeeda Warsi has repeatedly demanding investigations into islamophobia in her party, and been condescendingly told that there’s little to worry about. Not when an inquiry into it has been pushed back after the General Election – presumably so that it won’t embarrass Johnson when it uncovers massive prejudice and hatred.

Now let’s put Johnson’s comments into their context. Many Brits understandably were worried about the possible danger from Islam after the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground and on buses. This was also a period when alienated Muslim youths marched through the street waving placards against the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, proclaiming that Islam would dominate the West and promising more violence and terrorism. But it is a mistake to claim that this alienation and rage represents true Islam, or comes from the pages of the Qu’ran.

In fact Islamism is the product of a distinct set of social and political circumstances. This includes the economic and political stagnation of Islamic societies, rising poverty and the bewilderment and dislocation felt by many Muslims to rapid modernisation. Some of the problems are due to the adoption of neoliberal economic programmes by secular Arab and Middle Eastern states, like Algeria, which have massively increased poverty. Some of it is a reaction to western colonialism and cultural and economic hegemony. And some of it is a response to real oppression by non-Muslim states around the world. Like there is massive discrimination and organised violence against Muslims, as well as Sikhs and Christians, by Hindu ultra-nationalists in India.

I studied Islam as part of my religious studies minor degree at College. Yes, Islam has expanded through violence and conquest, just as Christianity has. But it has also spread through peaceful contact and conversion. And the problems Islam is experiencing as it modernises aren’t unique to it. Christianity and the West experienced the same process in the 19th and 20th centuries. There were reactionaries in the Anglican Church in the 19th century, who were frightened of the extension of the franchise and political rights to Protestant Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and other religions. In the middle of the century the Papacy placed on its index of forbidden doctrines the idea that Roman Catholic countries should allow freedom of religion and conscience to non-Catholics. But now the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches as a whole very definitely are not anti-democratic, despite the attempts of General Franco and Roman Catholic clerico-Fascists during the Second World War. And aggressively atheist states like the Soviet Union have their own bloody history of intolerance. Religion was viciously persecuted in the USSR, and millions of people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or shamanist, were killed or imprisoned in the gulags for simply holding their beliefs. Nathan Johnson, surveying the vicious intolerance across secular, atheist as well as religious societies in his books on the mythology of New Atheism, has suggested that such intolerance may be part of human nature, rather than just unique to religion or a specific religion.

Islam also has a tolerant side. Christianity survived in the Balkans after the Turkish conquest because, when the Ottoman emperor wanted to force the Christian peoples to convert to Islam, the majlis, the assembly of Muslims scholars and jurists, told him it was specifically forbidden, for example. And even after the conquest, there were many areas in which Christian and Muslim lived side by side in peace. When Mike visited Bosnia after the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he saw areas where churches and mosques had been built next to each other. Not the mark of an intolerant society, at least, not at that time.

Boris Johnson is, as Mike and so many others have repeatedly pointed out, a vicious racist. This is in sharp contrast to the Labour leader, who is a determined opponent of all forms of racism. Don’t believe him when he smears Labour as anti-Semitic.

And don’t let him get away with smearing Muslims. This is what the Tories are doing and have always done: manufacture hate against an out-group in order to gain power. They are doing it against the poor. They are doing it to the unemployed, to the disabled, to anybody, even working people, who claim benefits. And in the early part of the 20th century they did it to Jews. Now they’re doing it to Blacks, Asians and particularly Muslims.

A better world is possible. Reject the Tories and their prejudice and bigory, and vote for Corbyn and his anti-racism instead.

 

 

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/10/believing-in-not-believing-new-atheists.html if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
KEN RUSSELL’S ‘THE DEVILS’ (1971)
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
DEMOCRITUS
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Anton Petrov’s Tribute to Veteran Cosmonaut and Space Artist, Alexei Leonov

October 16, 2019

Last Friday, 11th October 2019, Alexei Leonov passed away, aged 85. Born on 30th May 1934, Leonov was one of the first Russian cosmonauts and the first man to walk in space. His obituary in yesterday’s I, written by Nataliya Vasilyeva, ran

Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and who nearly did not make it back into his space capsule – has died in Moscow aged 85.

Leonov, described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No 11, was an icon both in his country as well as in the US. He was such a legend that the late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Leonov staked his place in space history on 18 March 1965, when he became the first person to walk in space. Secured by a tether, he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule. “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” he recalled later. “I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-racking, according to details that only became public decades later. His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to release oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch. Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first American spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.

Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family. 

The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even in space, and took coloured pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975.

That mission was the first between the Soviet Union and the US, carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international co-operation aboard the current international Space Station.

Nasa offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death. “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible”, it said in a statement.

“One of the finest people I have ever known,” the Canadian retired astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”

Russian space fans have been laying flowers at his monument on the memorial alley in Moscow that honours Russia’s cosmonauts. Leonov, who will be buried today at a military memorial cemetery outside the Russian capital, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren. 

Anton Petrov put up his own personal tribute to the great cosmonaut on YouTube yesterday, 15th October 2019, at his vlog, What Da Math. Petrov posts about astronomy and space, and his video yesterday placed Leonov in his context as one of a series of great Soviet science popularisers before Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene or Carl Sagan. Petrov shows the stunning paintings done by Leonov with his friend, the science artist Andrei Sokolov. He describes how Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so that he couldn’t enter the capsule, and was forced to let some of the oxygen out. As a result, he nearly lost consciousness. This showed both the Russians and Americans that spacesuits had to be built differently. He also describes how Leonov, during his 12 minutes in space, was profoundly struck by the profound silence. It was so deep he could hear his heart pumping, the blood coursing through his veins, even the sound of his muscles moving over each other.

Petrov states that the Russian cosmonauts did not enjoy the same celebrity status as their American counterparts, who could live off book signings. Many had to support their families with other work. In Leonov’s case, it was painting. He illustrated a number of books, some with his friend Sokolov. These are paintings Petrov uses for the visuals in his video. He considers these books the equivalent to works by modern science educators like Carl Sagan. They were meant to encourage, inspire and educate. Sokolov’s and Leonov’s art was not just beautiful, but very accurate scientifically and included some SF elements. Some of these elements were borrowed by other science fiction writers. the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is somewhat similar to one of Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings. This became a joke between the two, with Leonov creating a miniature version for the great American director to keep. Kubrick also borrowed many of the ideas for the movie from the Russian film director, Pavel Kushentsev. An extremely talented cameraman, Kushentsev made films about the first Moon landing, the first space station and the first man in space decades and years before they became reality. And all of his movies were scientifically accurate. Some of his movies are on YouTube, and Petrov gives the links at his site there for this video.

Petrov explains that he is talking about these men because their era has ended with Leonov’s death. Leonov was the last of the five astronauts on the Voskhod programme, and so all the men who inspired youngsters with amazing paintings and film are now gone. He considers it unfortunate that some of their experiences in the last days of their lives were not very happy. They did not live to see the future they depicted, and their paintings were not appreciated by the modern generation. Kushentsev said before his death,

Popular science is dying, because there is no money. No demand. Nobody wants to educate. Everyone just wants to make money everywhere possible. But one mustn’t live like this. This is how animals live. Men have reached the level of animals – all they want to do is eat and sleep. There is no understand that this humanity has passed a certain phase of evolution. We must understand the direction of this evolution. For this, we need culture, we need knowledge. 

Petrov believes Kushentsev’s criticism of modern Russian society also applies more broadly to the modern generation in the West, to all of us as well. We are all doing what he said we shouldn’t – just living for the money, to eat and sleep. Unfortunately, according to Petrov, nothing has changed in the 20 years since his death. But there are people out there in the world working to change this, to produce culture, to inspire and share knowledge. But sometimes the world crushes them, simply because it can. But Petrov says that, like those Soviet men before him, despite not being a famous astronaut or talented artist, or even someone who has very good diction, he will continue doing his part of sealing the hope for humanity, continue the work of these great men and inspire new generations to do things, believe in science and create a better world. Because as Leonov once said,

the Earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone. Our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ’round’ meant until I saw the Earth from space. 

Petrov concludes ‘Goodbye, comrade, and thank you for all the paintings.

This is the first of two videos about Russian art from that era of space exploration. I’ll post the other up shortly.

I don’t feel quite as pessimistic as Kushentsev. Brian Cox, who’s now taken Sagan’s place as the chief space broadcaster on British television, has attracted record audiences for his stage presentation about science and the universe. There is a massive interest among the public in space and space exploration. At the same time, there are a number of really great science vlogs and channels on YouTube. Petrov’s is one, but I also recommend John Michael Godier and the Science and Futurism channel, presented by Isaac Arthur.

Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings, they are of a universe of rich, vibrant colour. Spacesuited figures explores strange, new worlds, tending vast machines. They stand in front of planetary landers somewhat resembling the American lunar module. Or crawl across the landscape in rovers, gazing at horizons above which hang alien, often multiple, suns. The best space art shows worlds you’d like to visit, to see realised. These paintings have this effect. It’s a pity that on the blurb for this video over at YouTube, Petrov says that these paintings come from old postcards, which are difficult to come by. It’s a pity, as they still have the power to provoke wonder and inspire.

I’m not sure Leonov himself was quite so pessimistic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main space museum was closed, and many of its exhibits sold off. Before it finally closed its doors to the public, they held a rave in it. I think Leonov was in attendance, sitting at the back with his wife. Someone asked him what he thought of it all. The old space traveler replied that they had found graffiti on the walls on Babylon complaining about the behaviour of the younger generation. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the young man’s world’. It is indeed, and may cosmonauts, space pioneers, scientists and artists like Leonov, Sokolov, Kushentsev and Kubrick continue to inspire the young men and women of the future to take their strides in the High Frontier.

Is Margaret Hodge an Hysterical, Paranoid Lunatic?

February 21, 2019

I wonder about the sanity of some of the witch-hunters accusing people of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Or at least their sense of proportion. Margaret Hodge, who claimed that Ruth George’s perfectly reasonable inquiry into whether the Labour Splitters were funded by Israel, is a case in point. She caused outrage and disgust a few months ago when she screamed at Corbyn in the House of Commons, and reviled him as ‘a f***ing anti-Semite’. For which she was duly suspended under Labour party rules that apply to everyone.

This was too much for her sensitive soul, and she compared the stress this had caused her with the fear Jews in the Third Reich felt, waiting for the knock on the door from the Gestapo ready to send them to the death camps. People, who really had had family imprisoned in the concentration camps were rightly outraged. Hodge was attacked for her grossly insensitive comments by Jews, whose family had been sent to these murder factories, and also by non-Jews, who had also had family members incarcerated for their opposition to Hitler’s Reich. Like a young man, whose Sudeten German grandfather was sent there because he was a Communist.

The witch-hunters were also outraged a week or so ago when Jenny Formby dared to reveal the truth about anti-Semitism in the Labour party: there actually wasn’t a lot of it, and only a very few people had actually been expelled. This was too much for them, who can’t stand the thought that anyone they’ve denounced could possibly be innocent. Hodge herself whined that this couldn’t possibly be true, as she’d denounced 200 people.

200? What party did she think she was in? The BNP, the Klan or something? The Labour party is now, thanks to Corbyn, the largest Socialist party in Europe, and as a mass party it obviously is going to include some anti-Semites. But real research shows that anti-Semitism in the Labour party has actually fallen under Corbyn, and is lower than in wider British society. Also, other Jews and Jewish groups have come forward, like Jewish Voice for Labour, and a group of Orthodox rabbis. The good rabbis said that they had absolute confidence in Corbyn, while the peeps at Jewish Voice for Labour said that although there was anti-Semitism in the party, they had never personally, or only very rarely, ever personally experienced it. These were Labour members of long standing, who had been active in their local constituency parties.

But the accusations of anti-Semitism aren’t really about anti-Semitism. Not as it is defined by Wilhelm Marr, the founder of the German Bund Anti-Semiten, who coined the term. He said that it was hatred of Jews, simply as Jews. This is the standard dictionary definition. What Hodge and co see as anti-Semitism is actually criticism of Israel. And long term Jewish critics of the Israeli state and its brutal maltreatment of the Palestinians, like Norman Finkelstein, have made the point Israel defends itself by accusing its critics of being anti-Semites. And this is what has been going on here.

And what the witch-hunters decide is a basis for an accusation of anti-Semitism is very, very wide. One young man was accused of anti-Semitism and expelled, or suspended, because he posted a picture of a Jobcentre sign carrying the slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, the infamous inscription above the gates of Auschwitz. His accusers maintained that he was somehow denigrating Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. But he wasn’t. He was denigrating the suffering of the jobless inflicted by the DWP under Ian Duncan Smith. Who had begun an article actually quoting this infamous slogan, and saying that it should be rehabilitated because of its usefulness in getting people back into work. It was, he wrote, part of his ethos. Not surprisingly, his editors weren’t impressed, and this part of his article was removed a few hours later. But the Gentleman Ranker had said, nonetheless. And Tony Greenstein and others also pointed out that the inscription was on all the concentration camps, whose members also included the long-term unemployed, people declared arbeitscheu, or ‘workshy’, by the Nazis.

In fact Hodge’s denunciation of 200 hundred people doesn’t remind me of serious accusations, so much as the hysterical persecutions that have occurred in very repressive societies in the past. Like the witch craze in 16th and 17th century Europe, in which people could be accused of witchcraft for the flimsiest of reasons. Or the horrific purges of Stalin’s Russia, where voicing even the slightest comment, which could be considered disrespectful of the tyrant could see you arrested by the NKVD and sent to the gulags. One man was arrested simply for remarked that Stalin didn’t seem quite well when the dictator coughed or something similar during a speech. It also reminded me of all the nutters that wrote into the FBI denouncing anyone and everyone as a Communist agent during the Red scare of the Cold War. Or indeed of the quarter of the East German population that were spying on their friends and neighbours to the Stasi.

It also reminds me of a very dark joke I heard once by an American comedian years ago on one of Bob Monkhouse’s shows on the Beeb in the 1980s. This was a series in which Monkhouse interviewed other comedians, including Pamela Stephenson before she returned to psychiatry. One of his guests was an American comedian, whose act included a parody of the stereotypical, racist southern sheriff. Putting on the accent and persona, the comedian told the following joke.

‘You know, I can tell if someone’s a murderer simply by the look in their eye. And if they got that look in their eye, I hang them. Well, one day I saw this black man, and he had that look in his eye. So I hung him.’

If you know the history of lynching in the Deep South, then it’s probably not a joke. Blacks – and other minorities – were lynched for almost no reason at all, simply for being ‘disrespectful’ to Whites. And the local community would celebrate their deaths, holding a mass party and even breaking pieces off the victims bodies to take home as souvenirs. Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks has described this in one of their videos. British anti-racist YouTuber Kevin Logan has also mentioned it in one of his, complete with a photograph taken as one such lynching, showing the crowds gathering and rejoicing around two lynched Blacks. Some idea of the pressure and fear of that environment came across very clearly in the Dr. Who story at the beginning of the season about Rosa Parks.

I’m not accusing Hodge of being racist. But I am accusing her of having the same paranoia that has motivated witch-hunters and persecutors, like those in Stalin’s Russia and the anti-Communist fanatics of the ’50s.

So what did those 200 people do, that made her accuse them of anti-Semitism. Does she think she has the ability to see if someone’s an anti-Semite, just by looking in their eye? And did she accuse those 200 simply because they looked at her funny? It might not have been quite because of that, but I very much doubt that the reason she gave was much stronger.

Giles Udy Tries Fomenting Red Scare against Corbyn and Labour

February 4, 2019

The Tories must really be in trouble. Not only are their supporters claiming they’re ahead in the polls, based simply on the evidence of one poll, and their fellow travelers in the Labour party are talking of quitting because of anti-Semitism, yet again, but the Tory press is now trying to run another Red Scare campaign.

This type of anti-Labour propaganda began with the Zinovieff letter in the 1920s. This purported to be a letter from the head of the Comintern in Communist Russia urging Labour to turn Britain into Communist state. It may have cost Labour the election that year, though some historians have suggested that Labour would have lost anyway and the letter itself didn’t make much difference. It certainly didn’t come from the Soviet Union, but was cooked up much closer to home by MI5.

In 1987 when Thatcher was up against Neil Kinnock, the Tory press ran it again. This time they claimed that there was a group of Labour MPs, who were secret Communists. If Labour was elected, they would oust Kinnock, seize power and turn Britain into a Communist state. The Scum also ran a double page spread of various left-wing Labour MPs, like Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott, with quotes underneath them intended to scare the public into believing they were dealing with the ‘loony left’, as the Tories called them. The quote purporting to come from Red Ken had him saying that he didn’t believe in the British army, but in a worker’s army to guard the factories. And Diane Abbott was supposed to have said that ‘all White people are racist’. At the same time, the Tory press had been loudly telling everyone that Livingstone was a Marxist. Those who knew him made it clear that he wasn’t. He could sound like them on occasions, and was quite willing to use them. But he was never a Communist. So it’s a fair bet that Livingstone and Abbott may never have made the comments the Scum attributed to them, or if they did, they were ripped out of context. In any case there was no secret cabal of Commies within the Labour party plotting to seize power and turn us into the UKSSR.

Not that it stopped one of the Thatcher’s favourite novelists, Frederick Forsythe, writing another thriller based on this premise. This was about MI5 working to prevent Moscow turning Britain into a Soviet satellite through a group of infiltrators, who had worked their way into a Labour party headed by someone, who bore more than a little similarity to Michael Foot.

Now it seems the Tories are running the same scare tactics again. Zelo Street today has put up a very interesting piece about historian Giles Udy, who issued a series of Tweets promoting a forthcoming article in Tory political magazine Standpoint. Udy claims that Labour has a ‘shadow manifesto’ which states that capitalism has taken Britain to the abyss and only the seizure of power by the working class can save us. This document predicts that this revolution will be opposed by a Fascist dictatorship run by industrialists and newspaper editors, which will start a White Terror with death squads. This will only be avoided if the police, civil service, armed forces, security services and the judicial system are purged and replaced with supporters of the revolution. The lower ranks will be sent for re-education.

This is, of course, all twaddle. Zelo Street makes it clear that if you actually look at the article, you’ll find that the document in question doesn’t come from Labour. Not at all. It comes from the Communist Party of Britain’s 25,000 word piece, Britain’s Road to Socialism. This might actually cause a problem for a real journalist or historian, who would be well aware that this very obviously does not come from the Labour party. Udy tries to wave this objection away by saying that the words ‘socialist’, ‘democratic socialist’ and ‘communist’ are virtually interchangeable to describe followers of Marx. As Zelo Street remarks, they aren’t at all, and this is fraudulent in the extreme.

See: http://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/02/giles-udy-corbyn-red-scare-busted.html

In fact, Udy has previous in trying to smear Corbyn and other members of the Labour party as agents of Moscow. In February last year he issued a series of Tweets touting an article by him in the Torygraph. This was at the time the Tory press were claiming that Corbyn had passed information on to the Czech secret service, despite the fact that he didn’t. Udy claimed that Corby and Abbott must have met party officials when they went on holiday in the former DDR, and that the Stasi would have preserved records of these meetings. Except that Corbyn and Abbott didn’t meet anyone from Honecker’s ruling party, and the Stasi didn’t have any records of them doing so. Those facts did not deter Udy. He claimed that he didn’t believe Corbyn had taken money from the East Germans, but he was only one of various deluded members of the Labour party, who were admirers of socialist totalitarianism, and lamented the fact that Blair’s revolution hadn’t cleaned them all out. The other high-ranking Labour figure and trade unionist, who had taken Soviet money, he claimed, was Jack Jones, the former head of the Transport and General Workers Union, now Unite. He also claimed that Jones’ wife had been a Soviet agent since the 1930s. This was all bilge. He only had one source for this nonsense, and that was the Soviet defector and liar Oleg Gordievsky. But Jones and his wife were safely dead, and so couldn’t sue.

http://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2018/02/corbyn-smear-enter-useful-idiot.html

Udy was supposed to be a historian of the gulags, and was respected on the Right supposedly for his insight into the Labour party and Soviet Union. But Zelo Street said that after this article, he squandered whatever little credibility he had, and was just a paranoid fraud. ‘So no change there’.

None whatsoever. When things get tough for the Tories, run a scare story about them and Communism. This posed a problem when Blair was in power, as he was as right-wing as they were. They solved it then by published various fictions predicting that sometime in the next decade the remains of the European socialist parties would united with the Muslims to start a new Holocaust of European Jews. Frederick Raphael reviewed a book, which had this as its theme, set in France, around about 2004 in the Spectator as I recall. Now that they’ve got a real left-winger to fear and smear in the case of Corbyn, they’ve dropped all the stuff about Islam and are going back to Communism.

As for Standpoint itself, it’d be very interesting to know what connections it has, if any, with the British or American secret state. When the roughly left leaning political magazine, Prospect, first appeared about a decade or so ago, Lobster noted that it was more than a little like Encounter, another political mag from the ’60s – ’70s that was revealed to have been financed by the CIA. The right-wing press in this country has been running articles from the British secret state. It’s therefore quite possible that British intelligence or one of its nominally independent subsidiaries has been feeding it bilge about the Labour party as well. Like the smears against Corbyn and other British, American and European political figures claiming they were agents of Putin by the Integrity Initiative.

Which brings us right back to MI5 and the Zinoviev letter. And how old and shopworn the Tories’ smear tactics are.