History, goes the old rhyme, is about chaps, while geography is about maps. Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography, is all about how these two matters are actually very hard to separate. What the chaps think and do, says Marshall, is profoundly influenced and often downright determined by the circumstances described in the maps.
When I bought this book, in a remainder shop, I did not know who else was reading it. I am fascinated by the impact of geography upon history, but is anyone else? Since buying the book I have learned that it is now a best-seller. This pleases me, because it is a very good book, and in particular a very unsentimental book.
Britain and Western Europe, and then the other parts of the world where English is the dominant language, have mostly been blessed with a degree of geographically conferred freedom of manoeuvre that is denied to the inhabitants of pretty much all other nations. That is why these places got rich first. And it also now means that we Euros and Anglos are able to believe, as a matter of practical political policy rather than merely as privately pious aspiration, in a wide range of idealistic things of very variable value – things like freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, freedom for women, “social justice”. and so on and so forth – things that geographically more constrained people can only, as yet, dream of, and which they often regard as more as a threat to their own ways of doing things than as any kind of promise.
Another book that Marshall refers to quite frequently in this book is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which also offers a fundamentally geographical explanation for these facts. I share Marshall’s admiration for this book , and it heads the bibliographical list at the end of Prisoners of Geography, but this is an accident of spelling. I was also intrigued to see in that same list two works by Halford Mackinder, in particular Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, a title which Marshall might have picked for his own book had it not already been taken.
Why, for starters, did the modern industrial era that helped to create all that freedom of political manoeuvre for the world’s luckier people, having kicked off in Britain, then, after an imitative surge in Western Europe, then see its centre of gravity shift to the USA? Well, there are many reasons.
→ Continue reading: Tim Marshall on chaps and maps
The British Whig tradition, and the Tory tradition also (Dr Johnson and all that), starts from the principle of moral personhood – the ability of human beings, with effort, to tell moral right from wrong and, again with effort, to choose to overcome our evil passions and do what it is morally right. To choose do other than we do. As Ayn Rand reminded us in the 20th century – one can be an atheist (and hold that the soul, the human person. dies with the body) and still hold to these principles.
Typical Whig thinkers including Thomas Reid and the Scots “Common Sense” School of Philosophy who dominated the Scottish Enlightenment (the modern association of the Scottish Enlightenment with David Hume is bizarre, considering he was the arch critic of it), but the Whig tradition and (in this) the Tory tradition also, reached back to Ralph Cudworth (he enemy of the determinist and political absolutist Thomas Hobbes) and in law to Chief Justice Sir John Holt and Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke (the enemy of Sir Francis Bacon – whose servant Thomas Hobbes was). For law is based on the “metaphysical” assumption that people can choose NOT to commit crimes – if they can not choose to do other than they do, then punishment is unjust. And, of course, to the Christian (and Jewish) understanding of man – seen, for example, in the work of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (and Joseph Butler much later) and the Christian Talmudist and Common Law thinker John Selden.
This view of what a human is (a human being) goes back, at least, to the Arisototelian Alexander of Aphrodisias – see his “On Fate”. As for “compatibilism” – determinists (those who deny the existence of the soul, in the Aristotelian not just religious sense, and hold humans to be flesh robots) should at least state their doctrine openly, rather than hide it. The words of Immanuel Kant and William James (whatever their other faults) are just on this matter – it is a contemptible subterfuge leading to a wretched quagmire. Of course Dr Johnson would not even waste words on the doctrine – and when he heard that his “fellow Tory” (the quote marks are because Johnson did not really recognise Hume as a Tory) it just confirmed his low opinion of the man. But at least David Hume did not claim to be a Whig – unlike some of his more recent followers. In America the determinist Johnathan Edwards was less influential than the libertarian (libertarian = believer in Free Will, sometimes I suspect people do not remember even this) Samuel Johnson (not to be confused with the British Dr Johnson, although their opinions were similar on this matter). It is a sign of our evil and degenerate times that Edwards is remembered as a “great philosopher” and people who were more influential among the American Founders (most importantly Thomas Reid) are almost forgotten.
→ Continue reading: The British Whig tradition and Mr John Stuart Mill
The Times 28 February 1917 p4
And no representation without (net) taxation one might add.
I did some searching to see what happened in this case but to no avail. I presume the state got its money in the end. As to the good lady herself there seems to be some sort of medical prize in her name.
Today I went to the cinema, Cineworld, a round trip of some 100 miles, to see the film Bitter Harvest, a film about the Stalin’s Terror Famine in the Ukraine in 1932/3. The film takes the form of a dramatic ‘love story’, starting in a Ukrainian village (most likely but it unspoken – Cossack) as the Bolshevik Revolution has started, and news of the Tsar’s death breaks. The Revolution seems far away in this idyll and the couple who are the heroes are young children. There is an echo of Tolkien’s shire about the place, very beautiful even if life is hard. Then Lenin dies and Stalin (called ‘Koba’ by his Comrades) comes to power. The local Commissar comes around, backed by Red Army troops, and the village is to be collectivised. All land belongs to the State, as the Commissar reminds everyone, and evidently he has some targets to meet, enemies of the people to kill, kulaks to be purged, icons to be seized (for sale) and Collective Farms to be formed. His brutality is probably only tempered only by his anxiety at which target he has the greatest need to meet, something which diverts him occasionally from the most brutal option available.
The heroes of the film are a couple Yuri and Natalka from that same village. Yuri is one of several artists, he is a painter, and all his friends in his age group are keen to go to the Big City Kiev, some eagerly noting how the State has work for artists. Eventually Yuri goes to Kiev (on his internal passport*), leaving behind Natalka. On the way to Kiev, there are encounters with the starving peasantry, a passenger talks about the famine and gets arrested by the NKVD. There is a constant theme of the starving and dying, with an unmechanised disposal system of horse and carts scouring the streets for corpses for mass burials here and there, and corpses in open train wagons. The starving flock to Kiev, simply to die in the streets. The film is simply and properly unrelentingly grim, and it does not shy from showing the brutality of the Bolsheviks.
Stalin is informed of the resistance to collectivisation and the starvation that his policy is causing, he implements Lenin’s plans but without mercy, and the greater the resistance, the higher the targets become until all food is to be seized. The official line is that there is ‘malnutrition’ but not famine, a lie that Walter Duranty and the New York Times were happy to peddle, the latter partially recanting many decades later.
Yuri in Kiev meets up with his friends, and awkwardly hints and the famine and its increasingly visible consequences. He finds himself working as a painter, with his friends all doing political work, but his art lacks the necessary ideological flavour, his boss is purged (we infer) and he is then fired, working as a ‘rag and bone man‘, sorting through the possessions of the dead for sale, the only growth industry apart from terror. His friend from the village, who has risen in Kiev to be local party chief, shows some perhaps surprising independence, before shooting himself as the NKVD close in. Yuri gets arrested after a brawl, but manages to escape. Yuri’s family have been arrested for anti-Soviet activity after realising that they are doomed in the village as it is collectivised. Yuri meets up with Ukrainian partisans, and manages to spring some of his family. The film gives the impression that there was a significant amount of resistance to the Soviets, and also that people in the early 1930s spoke more freely that you might have imagined. Perhaps this has been overlooked in the face of the apparently monolithic Soviet police state. Yuri and Natalka realise that they have to escape, and they hope to make it to Canada, (long before the Trudeaus starting fawning over Castro). They head for the Polish border before making for a break chased by shooting Soviet Border Guards.
The film is very well shot, CGI is minimal, and barely noticeable. The grimy, shrunken starving hordes are a constant presence, very well done. The clothing and fashion are convincing, and whilst the dialogue is a little forced sometimes, the message that the State is your executioner (which it was) is well put across. It also mentioned famines in Kazhakstan and amongst the Jews in Belarus. The plot feels slightly fanciful, being necessarily at the high end of expectations, not in that it obviously shows a fight-back, but that there was so much spirit in those fighting the Soviets. However, it at least tells a story that should be told again and again.
That the film has had minimal publicity is a shame, even in the cinema showing it, it was not advertised except for a partial listing. In its first and only week, 11 people came to this Sunday showing, the nearest to me at 50 miles away. I enjoyed it, I appreciated it, and it was nice to be somewhere watching an anti-Soviet film feeling pretty damn certain that I wouldn’t end up sitting next to Jeremy Corbyn.
As I write, some speeches are perhaps being polished for the Oscars. I’m sure that the people in this film heading for a border as a matter of life and death won’t feature in the minds of the speech makers, and you won’t hear an actor not called, say, Sterile Weep, making a heart-renching condemnation of the system that led to an estimated 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 deaths.
* per Wikipedia, The Ukraine only scrapped internal passports in 2016.
Patsy Cornwallis-West was at one time mistress to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. By the First World War she was a woman in her fifties married to a highly respectable retired colonel in his late seventies.
Her son, George, married one Jennie Jerome, mother of one Winston Churchill before marrying one Mrs Patrick Campbell. But that’s another story.
It would appear that Mrs Cornwallis-West was not entirely satisfied with her septugenarian husband and developed a “more than ordinary interest” in a young officer recently promoted from the ranks and recently wounded. When the young officer failed to reciprocate she started to pull strings. One of these strings was attached to the Quartermaster General.
Soon afterwards, the officer found that he had been transferred to another battalion. This may not sound like a big deal to you or me but it was clearly a huge deal to everyone involved at the time. My guess is that soldiers are deeply attached to their battalions especially when there’s a war on.
This was not the end of the matter. Questions were asked in Parliament and – I kid you not – a special Act – the Army (Courts of Inquiry) Act – was passed to create a committee to look into this one case (well, two actually, but the other one doesn’t concern us). The upshot was that the junior officer was exonerated, his commanding officer fired, Cornwallis-West censured and the Quartermaster General, ahem, informed of the “displeasure of the government”.
That such an effort could be made to secure justice in the middle of a war for a single subaltern who for all I know got killed anyway and may well not even have had the vote is staggering. And magnificent.
Which brings us on to the linked article. The Quartermaster General concerned was a chap called Sir John Cowans. The job he had in supplying the biggest army in British history was immense. And it would appear that he was very good at it. Clearly, scandal or no scandal, a lot of people wanted to keep him in his post. Hence (probably) this article from the Times Military Correspondent singing his praises.
The Times 5 January 1917 p3
I particularly liked this bit:
For example, when the frost-bite first became a danger, an urgent demand for a new anti-frost-bite grease reached him from France late one Monday night. On Tuesday morning he had assembled the chief tallow merchants at his office, and by the Thursday night thousands of tins of this new remedy were on their way to France.
Justice was one thing but the heavens falling was another.
The Times 4 January 1917 p7
I recommend this essay by Jack Staples-Butler for his “HistoryJack” blog, Starvation and Silence: The British Left and Moral Accountability for Venezuela.
DENIAL in the face of catastrophic failure of one’s ideas is a predictable reaction from a believer, as per Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction in response to the failure of one’s beliefs. Denial in the face of shame for one’s actions is an experience well-studied by psychologists and criminologists. One 2014 study summarises the role of ‘shame’ in creating both denial of responsibility and recidivism among offenders:
“Feelings of shame… involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.”
Combining both faces of the phenomenon of denial is the behaviour of the supporters, apologists and promoters of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, the late Hugo Chávez and the PSUV regime in Venezuela, and their response to the present state of the country. Humanitarian catastrophe of an apocalyptic scale is now unfolding in the most oil-rich state in the world. The magnitude of human suffering is indescribable. The scenes of bread queues and shortages familiar to Eurozone-crisis Greece are long since surpassed. Venezuela has become a ‘Starvation State’ which “today drowns in a humanitarian crisis”, with lawless cities and hunger for the majority.
The Chávez apologists are confronted with two cognitively distressing facts; that a favoured political project has failed, dragging millions into an abyss of hunger and despair in the process; and that they played an instrumental or even essential role in bringing this state of affairs about, whilst enabling the regime responsible to suppress and destroy its opposition by legitimising and even providing its conspiratorial narrative, pro bono. What is most striking in the Western socialist left’s response to Venezuela’s agony is the absence of response.
The vacuum of recognition or even acknowledgement in the face of disaster is followed by an absence of moral accountability. Knowing full-well that Venezuela is still there, suffering beyond measure, those who involved themselves intimately in the politics of a South American republic now conduct their lives “as if” nothing had happened. In a devastating article, the writer Paul Canning named this as ‘The left’s giant forgetting’. Venezuela has become a collective unperson to those who formerly proclaimed it an example for humanity’s emulation; although tacit recognition of their previous behaviour is found in some of the apologists, as in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s deletion of any reference to ‘Venezuela’ from his website in March 2016, after two decades of promoting the Chavismo ideology in articles, demonstrations and media appearances.
Bookmark the essay. It would take some time to follow all the many references and links provided by the author, but they are a resource in themselves. This one, about the ambiguous and contradictory testimonies given by two British Communist veterans of the Spanish Civil War decades later, caught my interest.
Recently a friend who works for the BBC asked if I knew of any good general interest but topical stories coming up any time soon, and I said that when they finally finish London Gateway, the new container port now being constructed and even already slightly used, on the north bank of the Thames Estuary, that will be made a big fuss of.
She then told me about a series that the BBC World Service is doing about 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. I said that the Container certainly should be one of these Things. She later determined that the Shipping Container does indeed feature in this series, and she sent me that link. Amazing what a difference an email with a link makes to your willingness to attend to something.
This piece about the Shipping Container lasted under ten minutes, and, although I had heard most of the story before, I liked it. So I then sampled a couple of the other Things, about which I knew less and nothing, namely: the Barcode, and the Haber-Bosch Process. The latter is for turning the nitrogen in the air into fertiliser.
The next Thing I listen to will be Concrete. I already know what concrete is, but I expect to learn a lot more, about it, and about what it did to and does for the world. Made life a lot easier for farmers, apparently. Which, to a townee like me, is one of those many things which is obvious, but only if someone makes me think about it.
Recommended. An economist and economic historian by the name of Tim Harford has done a number of these Thing broadcasts, including the ones about the Container and about the Barcode. He is already very well known, but not so well known to me. But, I can already tell you that he also is to be recommended, going only by how he talks about these Things.
LATER: See also this earlier posting here, about similar Things.
So said Churchill on VE Day, but in its own way, 25 years ago, 25th December 1991 was a yet greater day, the day when the Soviet Union collapsed with Gorbachev’s resignation as President of the USSR, and so it vanished after the leaders of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus had told Gorbachev, who had by then become Lenin’s Dönitz, to go away and take what Auberon Waugh called ‘that accursed, groaning slave empire’ with him.
The events leading up to the disappearance of the USSR are recalled in an article on the BBC website, ‘How three men signed the USSR’s death warrant‘ rather lacking in nostalgia for the slaughterhouse of nations. The then leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, was a key figure, as the article tells us:
8 December, at 09:00 the leaders (of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus), with their prime ministers and various officials in tow, gathered for the negotiations – still apparently unclear what they were about to discuss.
The first suggestion came from a Russian adviser, Gennadi Burbulis – and it could not have been more radical.”I will remember this sentence to the end of my life,” says Shushkevich.
“It is the opening statement of our agreement, the only one which was adopted without any arguments. ‘The USSR, as a geopolitical reality, and as a subject of international law – has ceased to exist.’ And I was the first to say that I would sign up for this.”
The agreement would render the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev irrelevant, while giving more power in Moscow to Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin.
But putting an end to the centuries-old Russian empire and its successor, the USSR, was a big step. Years later, many wondered whether the three politicians were entirely sober when taking this momentous decision?
“According to a popular myth, we drafted our agreement while drunk,” says Shushkevich. “This is completely wrong! Of course, it was a typical Soviet arrangement, and alcohol was freely available everywhere in the residence – but no-one touched it. The most we would allow ourselves was a drop of brandy every time we adopted a new article.”
In the next few hours, 14 articles in all were adopted. By about 15:00, the document confirming the dissolution of the USSR was ready. The next step was to inform the world, and the Byelorussian leader drew the short straw.
Shushkevich goes on:
“Yeltsin and Kravchuk said to me jokingly: ‘We have voted to nominate you to inform Gorbachev.’ And then I said: ‘Kravchuk and myself nominate you, Mr Yeltsin, to call your good friend, the US president George Bush.’
“I dialled Gorbachev’s office in Moscow – but they wouldn’t put me straight through, they kept passing me from pillar to post, and I had to explain who I was over and over again. Meanwhile, Yeltsin, seeing that I was on the phone to Moscow, dialled President Bush. [Andrei] Kozyrev, the [Russian] minister of foreign affairs, was on the other line, translating Bush’s comments.”
For a more sanguine review of the Soviet Union, the good people at Breitbart have provided this piece, full of details of the horrors of Soviet power.
An example of a diary entry from 1920.
The machine of the Red Terror works incessantly. Every day and every night, in Petrograd, Moscow, and all over the country the mountain of the dead grows higher … Everywhere people are shot, mutilated, wiped out of existence …
Every night we hear the rattle of trucks bearing new victims. Every night we hear the rifle fire of executions, and often some of us hear from the ditches, where the bodies are flung, faint groans and cries of those who did not die at once under the guns. People living near these places begin to move away. They cannot sleep …
Getting up in the morning, no man or woman knows whether he will be free that night. Leaving one’s home, one never knows whether he will return. Sometimes a neighborhood is surrounded and everyone caught out of his house without a certificate is arrested … Life these days depends entirely on luck.
And then there was Brezhnev’s abuse of psychiatric hospitals for those who rejected the logic of Socialism, and it wasn’t just locking people up, it was using drugs for torture.
As head of the KGB in the 1970s, Yuri Andropov (who later was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982), accepted a new theory in Soviet psychiatry which said opposition to the socialist regime was a sign of mental illness.
Why? Because only the mentally disturbed would resist the logic and the truth of Marxian dialectical determinism and its “proof” that socialism and communism were the highest and most humane stage of social development. Those who criticized the system or wanted to reform or overthrow the Soviet socialist regime were mentally sick and required psychiatric treatment.
And the grim reality?
Of all the drugs administered [at the mental institution] to impose discipline, sulfazine stood at the pinnacle of pain … ‘People injected with sulfazine were groaning, sighing with pain, cursing the psychiatrists and Soviet power, cursing with everything in their hearts,’ Alexei told us. ‘The people go into horrible convulsions and get completely disoriented. The body temperature rises to 40 degrees centigrade [104 degrees Fahrenheit] almost instantly, and the pain is so intense they cannot move from their beds for three days. Sulfazine is simply a way to destroy a man completely. If they torture you and break your arms, there is a certain specific pain and you somehow can stand it. But sulfazine is like a drill boring into your body that gets worse and worse until it’s more than you can stand. It’s impossible to endure. It is worse than torture, because, sometimes, torture may end. But this kind of torture may continue for years.’
So remember when people talk of the need to reform or reduce government, it is possible for an entire State to be swept away, without bloodshed, in hours, and whilst in the Soviet Union’s case, the aftermath was economically chaotic, that was because of where they had been, not because of where they were going.
Edit: TM Lutas points out in the comments, for which I am grateful, the following regarding an apparent error in the linked article:
Sulfozinum is not sulfazine. The former is what was used in political psychiatry. The latter is actually used in legitimate medicine. Could you add the spelling variant at least to the article so people unfamiliar with the substance are not led astray? The following two links above in combination illustrate the problem.
The Time 22 December 1916
Hollande and Europe are turning the tide. Where will it leave Cameron?
Labour gains from the triumph of the French Socialist leader with his intellectually cogent rallying cry for a new direction for Europe. Look how he won with a promise to tax the super-rich at a heart-attack rate of 75%, yet the French stock market actually rose slightly. Can he now turn the great liner of the EU’s disastrous economic policy?
– Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, 7 May 2012
François Hollande will not seek re-election as president of France
François Hollande, the least popular French president since the second world war, has announced he will not run for a second term in office.
With a satisfaction rating so low it recently dropped to just 4%, the Socialist president appeared shaken and emotional as he said in a live televised address from the Élysée palace that he would not attempt to run for a second term, conscious of the “risks” to the French left if he did so.
– Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 1 December 2016
As to the position of intellectuals in Cuban society, it appeared that they had almost everything estranged Western intellectuals desired. There was, to start with, ample official recognition. They were taken seriously and, if loyal to the regime, given generous opportunities to share in power and the management of the new society. They were given responsibilities such as the visitors rarely enjoyed in their own societies. For the most part these were, in the words of Susan Sontag, “pedagogical functions,” and “a major role in the raising of the level of consciousness.” The jubilation on the part of the visitors, as they witnessed Cuban intellectuals moving into positions of power and responsibility, signaled their relief that at long last intellectuals could abandon their traditional roles as social critics and outsiders and could now joyously affirm, endorse, and assist an ongoing social system. At last the painful dichotomy between thought and action was dissolved; Cuban intellectuals were men of action, some actually fought as guerillas; others became revolutionary deans of universities, revolutionary officials in ministries of education, culture or propaganda, revolutionary writers, film-makers, academics. Most of them shared, from time to time, the manly burden of manual labor with the masses. Most importantly, they were fully integrated into society, there was nothing marginal about them.
Under these circumstances, it was possible to accept with a clear conscience the material benefits and privileges the regime bestowed on them, unlike in Western societies, where the material privileges and status advantages of estranged intellectuals often became a major sources of their bitterness, inner conflict, or self-contempt. Wishing to be severe social critics of the societies they lived in and half expecting some measure of retribution or mild martyrdom for their criticism, instead they often found themselves either ignored by the holders of power or, worse, in positions of influence or high social status despite their relentless castigation of the social system which continued, almost absent-mindedly, to feed generously the mouths that so regularly bit it.
– Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, 1928-78, Paul Hollander, page 264.