Posts Tagged ‘Merchants’

Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.

The French Revolutionary Sansculottes, Their Attitudes, Ideology and Continuing Relevance

April 22, 2014

French Revolution Book

I have found this description of the Sansculottes, the radical Parisian republicans, in D.G. Wright, Revolution and Terror in France 1789-1795 (London: Longman 1974). They weren’t working class, but a mixture of people from across the working and middle classes, including wage-earners and prosperous businessmen. The majority of them were tradesmen, shopkeepers, craftsmen, small masters, compagnons and journeymen. Their membership reflected the structure of Parisian industry, which largely consisted of small workshops employing four and fourteen workers. Despite containing many members of the middle class, the Sansculottes believed strongly in manual work and direct democracy.

The ideal sans culotte, depicted in popular prints, wore his hair long, smoked a pipe and dressed simply: cotton trousers (rather than the knee-breeches, culottes, of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie), a short jacket and the bonnet rouge (the Phrygian cap of the freed slave in ancient times). Powdered wigs, scent, knee-breeches, buckled shoes, flowered waistcoats, bows and lorgnettes were dismissed as foppish and frivolous trappings of privilege, with overtones of sexual deviancy. Equally dismissed were the manners and deferent behaviour of the ancient regime: the good sans culotte took his hat off to nobody, used the familiar ‘tu’ rather than ‘vous’ and ‘citoyen’ rather than ‘monsieur’, and swore in the colourful Parisian slang of the Pere Duchesne. He tended to judge people by their appearance: those who wore fancy clothes, spoke in ‘posh’ tones, looked haughty, or failed to offer the fraternal kiss of liberty. Those who seemed to despise the honest working man were in trouble. A music dealer was arrested as a suspect for observing, at a sectional meeting, ‘It was disgusting to see a cobbler acting as president, particularly a cobbler who was badly dressed’.

‘Aristocrat’ and ‘moderate’ became interchangeable terms for those who opposed in any way the outlook and aspirations of the sans culottes or appeared to look down on them or ridicule them; they were also applied to those who seemed indifferent and lacking in the open enthusiasm of the good revolutionary. ‘Aristocrat’ could include those who refused to buy biens nationaux or to cultivate land or sell it at a fair price, or failed to find employment for labourers and journeymen, or refused to subscribe generously to patriotic loans, or to those dealt in gold rather than republican assignats or speculated on the Bourse or in joint stock companies. As the revolutionary crisis deepened in 1793, ‘aristocrat’ increasingly came to mean bourgeois property owner; in May an orator in the Section du Mail declared: ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’ Wealth always raised sans culotte suspicion, unless offset by outstanding political virtue. Hoarders and monopolists were seen as hand-in-glove with large merchants, bankers and economic liberals in a plot to starve the people and crush the Revolution; for sans culottes were ultra sensitive to the problem of food supply and the price of bread, while they lived in constant fear of plots and betrayal. Hunger, as well as democratic politics and puritanical moral views, was a cement holding the disparate sans culotte groups together. Hence pillage could be justified as ‘egalitarian’ and ‘revolutionary’ in that it fed the people and struck at the machinations of hoarders and speculators, the visible vanguard of counter-revolution. Sans culottes always tended to advocated immediate and violent political solutions to economic problems and, with brutal simplicity, assumed that spilling blood would provide bread.

Despite the fact that many sans culottes were small property owners, there existed a deep-rooted egalitarianism. They believed in the ‘right to live’ (‘droit a l’existence’) and in ‘the equality of the benefits of society (l’egalite des jouissances). A family should have enough to live on in modest comfort, especially sufficient bread of good quality flour. No rich man should have the power of life and death over his fellow men by his ability to monopolise food and other basic necessities. thus food prices and distribution should be controlled by law, while the government should take stern action against hoarders and speculators. Some of the more radical sans culotte committees demanded taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers. (pp. 52-4).

‘He was a fervent believer in direct democracy, a concept which stemmed ultimately from Rousseau and the Social Contract and filtered down into the sections through the revolutionary press, broadsheets and speeches, revolutionary songs and Jacobin Club pamphlets and propaganda. Authority could not be delegated, for the true basis of government was the people, sitting permanently in their evening sectional meetings, where they discussed laws and decrees. Deputies should be delegates rather than representatives and be constantly and immediately answerable to societies populaires. The latter had the right to scrutinise the laws of the Assembly, administer justice and the police, and help to run the war effort. Thus the sans culottes saw themselves and the ‘nation’ as synonymous. (pp. 54-5).

We don’t need the murderous bloodthirstiness of the sans culottes, some of whom took their children to public executions as part of their political education, and, as time wore on, became increasingly nationalistic and chauvinistic, to the point where they insisted on Parisian French as they only indicator of political reliability, and were hostile and suspicious of other languages spoken in France, such as the Breton Celtic tongue, and even other French dialects. And I don’t share their radical atheism and hatred of Christianity and Roman Catholicism. However, we do need a revival of other parts of their attitude and values: the radical egalitarianism, which despises and revolted against any attempt to sneer at someone because of their occupation as a worker or manual tradesman. Owen Jones in Chavs points to the way Kenneth Clarke once heckled John Prescott with the cry of ‘Here, barman’, because Prescott had once been a ship’s steward. And this government is indeed that of ‘Aristocrats … wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers’ and the owners of vast property and industry. And monopolists, bankers and economic liberals are pursuing policies that penalise and push into grinding poverty the poorest and weakest sections of the society for their own profit.

Instead of a government by them, which benefits the rich alone, we desperately need instead a government of real egalitarians, that is not afraid to pursue policies that include the ‘taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers’ and more. Regardless of one’s attitude to religion, it’s about time we returned and revived their radical egalitarianism against a radically unequal, illiberal and thoroughly oppressive regime.


David Cameron: He personifies the Sansculotte statement ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’

19th Century Liberals Not Democrats

April 13, 2014

Libertarians claim that they returning to the real Liberalism of the 19th century, while also claiming that they stand for true, individual freedom against the encroachments of the state. Yet historians have pointed out that in the 19th century, while Liberals fought for individual freedoms against aristocratic privilege and feudal oppression, they were not Democrats and feared the working classes. Peter Jones in the book The 1848 Revolutions (Harlow: Longman 1981) states

Liberalism in the nineteenth century was the belief that government should be carried on by means involving consent among the various sections of society or the nation. Liberalism’s intellectual justification was derived from eighteenth-century rationalism, which had attacked all forms of arbitrary power, particularly the power of kings. Liberals believed that the power of traditional institutions, such as the Church and the monarchy, should be restrained by institutions presenting the interests of society more generally and the aristocracy and the more wealthy sections of the middle class in particular. The liberal programme – government by parliament or representative assembly, freedom of the press and individual freedom – was most popular among the emerging classes of manufacturers, merchants and professionals, who saw the privileges of the Church and the most wealthy sections of the aristocracy as obstacles to their own economic and social betterment. Liberals, as distinct from those who preached democracy, believed in the sovereignty of parliament rather than the sovereignty of the people. Middle-class liberals regarded democracy with suspicion, since it was associated in their minds with the excesses of the First French Republic . Consequently middle-class liberals in both Britain and France advocated broadening the property franchise: ‘Vox populi, vox dei, which gives to the majority the infallibility of God … is the most dangerous and most despotic absurdity that has ever emerged from the human brain. If you want to ruin a state give it universal suffrage’, so claimed Odilon Barot, leader of the Dynastic Opposition in the 1840s.

This concern for the interests of the middle classes and the fear of democracy and the working class explains why von Hayek and Mises, the founders of modern Libertarian, were prepared to serve and give their approval to extreme Right-wing regimes – Dollfuss’ Austrofascist dictatorship in Austria, and General Pinochet in Chile. It also explains why sections of the Italian Liberal party actively co-operated with Mussolini and appointed him as a coalition partner. In this milieu, Pareto’s elitism, which stemmed from his belief in free trade, was merely part of a general distrust of the masses taken to its logical conclusion. And Fascism did gain support from the Italian middle classes for its support of liberismo – sound money, a balanced budget, free trade and private enterprise against the threat of Socialism and organised Labour. The same authoritarian mindset also explains why the Tory Democrats have supported highly authoritarian and illiberal initiatives by the Tories, like secret courts and the Gagging Law.

This fundamental authoritarianism is disguised, but nevertheless extremely strong in other areas of Right-wing ideology. The Neo-Conservatives of Bush’s administration considered themselves to be ‘Democratic revolutionaries’. Nevertheless, they believed strongly in limited the power of the state in favour of extreme laissez-faire economic policies. One Neo-Con politician interviewed on Adam Curtis’ series How We Lost Our Dreams Of Freedom, stated that the democracy they wanted to introduced was ordered to exclude state economic intervention. The NeoCons have even written their policies into the Iraqi constitution to make them unalterable. This policy no doubt influenced David Cameron in his statements that he would try to force subsequent governments to follow his policies even if the Tories lost next year’s elections.

For all their claims to represent individual freedom, Libertarians, as the self-professed heirs of 19th century Liberalism, share the same distrust of democracy and fear and despise the working class and organised labour. The freedom they espouse are those only for a very restricted class of the wealthy and privileged.

The Utopian Socialist Fourier on the Evils of the Merchants and the Banks

March 13, 2014

Fourier Pic

One of the very earliest, pioneering Socialists of the 19th century was Charles Fourier, a French shop clerk, who recommended the reform of contemporary capitalist France into a federation of phalansteries, co-operative communities, each containing about 1,600 people. Fourier believed that capitalism was not only cruel in the poverty it inflicted on so many people, but also wasteful. He stated that he was moved to develop his socialist ideas after seeing tradesmen throw away a consignment of rice on the grounds that too much of it would lead to lower prices. I found this description of Fourier’s attitude to trade in John Plamenatz’s book Man & Society II: From Montequieu to the Early Socialists, revised edition by M.E. Plamenatz and Robert Wokler (Harlow: Longman 1992):

Widely felt emotions, he tells us, are rarely mistaken, and in most countries traders have been despised. He approves Christ’s rebuke to the merchants driven from the Temple ‘You have made of my house a den of thieves.’ He concedes that the ancients went perhaps too far in their contempt for traders, but that is a better fault than to exalt them, as is done in industrial society. For there the merchant and the trader call the tune. They are the middlemen, the controllers of the market, the speculators who levy tribute on consumer and producer, and who create disorder by their manoeuvres to increase their profits. Fourier sees free competition in industrial society leading inevitably to a kind of mercantile feudalism – the dependence of the producer (both the manual worker and the manager) o0n the merchant and the banker, the real masters of society.

Fourier’s plans for the restructuring of French society were utopian. The small, co-operative communities somewhat like his, which were founded by the Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet, failed, often lasting no more than about two years. Nevertheless, I think Fourier would feel very much that his analysis of the evils of capitalism were amply confirmed today. We have had a series of governments that have consistently rewarded the bankers and the financial sector over manufacturing industry since Margaret Thatcher. The present cuts to essential services and the abolition of the welfare state are justified by a government, which claims this is necessary due to the chaos and massive debts created by the banks. In the case of the Conservative authors of Britannia Unchained, they have also tried to justify their attacks on workers’ wages and conditions by demanding that they be lowered to compete with India, China and the Developing World in line with the demands of international trade. Sometimes, despite their unworkable schemes, the Utopians made points that still remain valid.