The “Skoptsy” and the Group Selection Darwin Awards

Since group selection is becoming fashionable once again, I propose that a special group prize be added to the yearly Darwin Awards.  According to the banner on the website, “The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it.”  In the case of groups, self-selection seems to play a far more prominent role than it does for individuals.  The word “accidental” should therefore be replaced by “deliberate.”  Finally, groups that reduce overall fitness are disqualified.  Otherwise the Communists would have no competition, having, in effect, beheaded two whole countries, Cambodia and the Soviet Union.

Religions, being false (except for yours, of course, dear reader), have been prominent throughout history in spawning self-destructive behavior.  The Catholic Church should certainly receive a lifetime achievement award for convincing millions of priests and nuns that they should not reproduce.  However, a different Christian sect takes the cake.  It is described in the Memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French Ambassador to Russia during World War I as follows:

I recently mentioned the important role played by mystic sects in the religious life of the Russian people.  The following description concerns one of the most unusual and obstinate thereof, the sect of the “Skoptsy,” or “the Mutilated Ones.”

They can be traced back to the same religious principles as the “Chlisty”; but whereas the “Flagellants” seek to defeat the flesh by mortification, the Skoptsy free themselves of carnal sin by mutilation.  The founder of this sect was a simple peasant, Andrei Ivanovich, who was born around the year 1730 in the vicinity of Orel.  Certain words of Christ evoked a remarkable impression on his childish and tortured soul.  “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”  ” Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”  “For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.”  Andrei Ivanovich was touch so profoundly by these words, and saw in them such a secure basis for eternal salvation, that he robbed himself of any ability to satisfy his fleshly lusts.  As there is no aberration, that isn’t contagious to the Slavic soul, the newly-minted eunuch immediately found 12 disciples, who also castrated themselves in the name of Christ and the Holy Ghost.  One of the, Kondrati Selivanov, who was a talented and convincing speaker, became an apostle of his teachings, adding weight to the words of the Gospel via the divine promises handed down to us by Isaiah:

For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

He went from city to city, to Tambov, Tula, Riazan, Moscow, and preached the necessity of redeeming ones self from the hellish temptation of the flesh through a bloody sacrifice.  And everywhere he went he found followers.  This propaganda eventually took on such proportions, that the government arrested the heretic and, in the year 1774, sent him to the prison of Irkutsk.  Andrei Ivanovich died soon thereafter, and left behind a clouded legacy.  For Selivanov, however, it was the start of a period of activity as full of wonders as a fairy tale.  The rumor that he was the Savior himself, the true incarnation of Jesus Christ, gained more and more believers.  Another fairy tale gained currency, according to which Czar Peter III had actually managed to escape his would-be murderers, and that he was under the protection of the mystic prisoner.  Even more remarkable stories were whispered in the shadows of churches and cloisters.  This unfortunate Peter Feodorovich was not the son of Anna Petrovna:  It was said that he was miraculously conceived in the womb of his aunt, who remained a virgin her entire life, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in spite of all the obvious facts that appeared to contradict this story.  Panting after chastity, it was only after overcoming a terrible aversion that he agreed to be married.  The struggle exhausted him.  Immediately after the birth of his son Paul, he castrated himself, so that he would no longer be a prey to the carnal passions of his wife Catherine, who then flew into a rage and murdered him…

The bloody manner in which one joins the sect sets the tone for the entire religious life of the Skoptsy, and is integral to it.  Their spiritual and liturgical heirarchy is based entirely on the significance of bodily mutilation.  The “brothers” and “sisters” who have agreed to the complete removal of their genitals, thereby destroying in their earthly existence the “playgrounds of the devil,” and referred to as “white lambs” and “white doves.”  Their flesh, forever purified, gloriously bears “the great imperial seal.”  The timid ones, who have only agreed to a partial operation, are still subject to certain attacks of the devil, and bear only “the lesser seal” on the scars of their imperfect mutilations.

I know of no other mammal that deliberately mutilates its own genitals.  Only in humans with their “advanced” brains is it possible.  As costly as it is in calories to maintain that brain, it must have given us decisive advantages indeed to evolve so quickly in spite of such occasional drawbacks.  Whether it will prove to be an improvement to the fitness of our species in the long term remains to be determined.

Skoptsy Religious Service

Israel and the Other Holocaust

Perhaps it would be better to say “one of the other holocausts” instead of “the other holocaust.”  There have, after all, been many.  However, the one that Jews of eastern and central Europe suffered during and immediately after World War I was probably more costly in terms of lives and suffering than any other save the Nazi inferno.  Accounts of it may be found in numerous sources.  The following are taken from the memoirs of Maurice Paleologue, French ambassador to Russia during the war (my translation from the German version).  The first is from the entry of March 1, 1915:

The Jews of Poland and Lithuania have suffered terrible persecution since the beginning of the war.  During the month of August (1914) they were forced to leave the zone near the border as quickly as possible.  After a short time, these mandatory expulsions, carried out with excessive haste an cruelty, were applied further east with each passing day.  Eventually, the entire Israelite population from Grodno, Lomza, Plozk, Kutno, Lodz, Pietrokov, Kielce, Radom, and Lublin was forced into the interior of the country in the direction of Podolia and Volhynia.  Everywhere the expulsions were accompanied by acts of violence and plunder, carried out under the approving gaze of the authorities.  One could see hundreds of thousands of unfortunates, driven aimlessly through the snow, driven on like cattle by bands of cossacks, in extreme want, abandoned in train stations, open fields, and the outskirts of cities, dying of hunger, exhaustion, and cold.  And to improve their morale, everywhere they went these miserable people encountered the same feelings of hatred and rejection, the same accusations of expionage and treason.  Never in all its painful history has Israel suffered a more tragic expulsion.  And yet, there are 200,000 Jewish soldiers fighting bravely in the ranks of the Russian army!

and, from the entry of August 5, 1915,

With every retreat of the Russian army, the police continue the expulsion of Jews.  Wherever it occurs, the expulsions are carried out with the usual excessive haste, as mindless as they are cruel.  Those affected are informed at the last minute; they have neither time nor opportunity to take anything along.  They are hurriedly packed into train cars; they are forced onto the road like herds of cattle; they are informed of their destination, which is then changed 20 times along the way.  And wherever the order is given for them to leave a city, the orthodox population descends on the ghetto and plunders it.  Forced back in the direction of Podolia, Volhynia, Bessarabia, and the Ukraine, they are given over to terrible suffering.  The total number of the expelled has reached 800,000.

These expulsions were accompanied by bloody pogroms, lasting through the Civil War years, in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in cold blood.  Descriptions of those carried out in the Odessa area may be found, for example, in Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days.

In the years immediately following World War II, as hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews continued to wander about Europe, it seemed obvious to President Truman and many other leaders on this side of the iron curtain that the best solution to the problem was the creation of a Jewish State.  There they would have at least a fighting chance of defending themselves against the holocausts of the future.  It is interesting to consider, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the founding of the state of Israel really was a good idea after all.  However, while the existence of human moral emotions certainly cannot be ignored in answering that question, they should certainly not be consulted to arrive at that answer.

Consider, for example, the contortions of the “progressive” ideologues as they chased the chimera of “the Good” as applied to the state of Israel.  In the beginning, the Jews were the “good guys,” as seen, for example, in films like “Exodus.”  Now, after demonstrating on several occasions that they are quite capable of defending themselves, they have become the “bad guys,” a much more familiar role for the Jews, who have always had the misfortune of being a “natural” outgroup wherever the diaspora has taken them.  They are accused of favoring “apartheid,” in spite of Israel’s large Arab population, and the decimation of Jewish minorities in many of the states of north Africa and the Middle East.  They are the ones guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” even as genuine ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is accepted without a murmur.  They are accused of atrocities against civilians, even as their enemies deliberately fire thousands of rockets at civilian population centers, and so on, and so on.

All this demonstrates once again, as have a virtually infinite number of similar experiments throughout human history, that decisions of this sort should not be based on morality.  The reason for this seems abundantly obvious.  The moral emotions from which all moral systems are ultimately derived evolved at a time when entities such as the state of Israel, or anything else resembling a modern state, for that matter, simply did not exist.  On what, then, should they be based, if we exclude the wonderfully satisfying but grossly destructive and unreliable moral emotions?  Why, the human ability to reason, by default.  It is, admittedly, a very weak reed to lean on, but it’s the only one we really have.

Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”

To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays.  In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,

Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote.  Here’s how he describes the plot:

In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers.  They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily.  They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.

Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it.  Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984.  For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending.  That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original.  Far from it.  The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades.  In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,

There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind.  Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.

Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day.  For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,

You see, even in our thoughts.  No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’  We are so identical…

to be original means to somehow stand out from others.  Consequently, being original is to violate equality.

The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this:  humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?

The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,

And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…

They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.

…and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,

In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin’s request.

By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad.  He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.  Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him.  That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals.  Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

N. N. Sukhanov and the Poverty of (Marxist) Philosophy

The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions.  The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year.  Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events.  He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution.  He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky.  More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.

In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type.  Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.”  By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them.  The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant “philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie.  A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:

I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section.  Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.  “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”

…in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.

As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come.  Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”

The great exception was, of course, the proletariat.  As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers.  They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality.  For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,

It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting.  The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country.  An enormous difference leaped to the eye:  the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.

This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes.  All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest.  Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses.  So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.”  Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit.  In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature.  Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them.  In the end, of course, human nature had the last word.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments.  This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology.  It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better.  On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will.  Thus, to become the vanguard of the “expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not.  They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government.  As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.”  In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution.  Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.

So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.”  His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!”  He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.”  After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,

So the thing was done.  We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles.  And that was the least of it:  in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.

A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg.  The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger.  By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.  By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”

I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution.  But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress.  To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.

All this, of course, was a complete chimera.  Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone.  The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.

The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.

Who Says Russia Can’t Beat Napoleon?

The Edinburgh Review, that’s who.  The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century.  It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time.  An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.”   Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France.  The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.

The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view.  It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans.  His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned.  The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941.  They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future.  Political pundits take note.

Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility.  In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand.  Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:

The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret.  The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine.  The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.

Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.”  Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected.  The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.”  They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.”  In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator.  Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:

We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it.  This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent.  Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish.  If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?”  it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France?  Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.

Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away.  His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:

While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.

Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,

…degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.

Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.”  Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.

I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages.  However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review.  In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events.  It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.

The “Reconciliation” of Stalin and Trotsky

Trotsky was perhaps the brightest, and certainly the most readable, of the old Bolsheviks. However, unlike Bukharin and several other former comrades, he has never been formally rehabilitated, perhaps because he was never tried, but simply murdered at the behest of Stalin. According to an article that just appeared in The Moscow News, at least a part of the Russian left is now considering a “reconciliation” between the two. It quotes Darya Mitina, one of the leaders of the Russian Communist Youth and a former State Duma deputy to the effect that,

It is my dream to once see a memorial in a quiet part of Moscow, depicting Trotsky and Stalin sitting across from each other.

That would certainly justify a famous remark by Karl Marx,

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The proponents of such a “rehabilitation” would do well to actually read Trotsky, starting, perhaps, with “The Stalin School of Falsification.” Sometimes he could be remarkably prophetic. Here’s what he had to say about the historical fate of Communism in “In Defense of Marxism,” a collection of his letters and articles published shortly after he was murdered by Stalin in 1940.

If, however, it is conceded that the present war (WWII) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative: the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signalizing the eclipse of civilisation.

Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale.

If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous this perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

“Ended in a Utopia” could be said of many revolutions, and Stalin was not unique.  Revolutionary euphoria is a perfect vehicle to power for unscrupulous leaders who care more about personal aggrandizement than noble ideals.  You say you want a revolution?  Be careful who you pick to lead it.

Terrorism (and Heat) in Russia

Yuri at Russia Blog posted this article about an Islamist attack on one of the country’s hydroelectric plants.  Apparently the US media were too busy keeping us up to date on the latest doings of Sarah Palin and the guest list at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to notice. I hope the folks in charge of security at our own energy facilities were not similarly distracted.

Meanwhile, Weather Underground is predicting temperatures of 100 degrees today and tomorrow in Moscow. That has to hurt in a city with little or no air conditioning, especially when you throw some peat and forest fires into the mix.

Minnesota in 1854: An Account by a Remarkable Englishman

The easy availability of a vast library of books is not the least of the Internet’s many gifts. If you find a reference to some interesting volume published before 1922, you are more than likely to find it among the online collection at Google books. Recently, for example, I happened to see a reference to an account of the Earl of Elgin’s mission to China and Japan in the years 1857-59 by one Laurence Oliphant. It was mentioned in one of the great British literary reviews of the 19th century, and described in such favorable terms as to pique my interest. In searching the author’s name at Google Books, I found not only the work in question, but any number of others attributed to the same author, including descriptions of travel in the southern regions of Russia, describing conditions there in 1852, just before the onset of the Crimean War, Palestine, and of no small interest to myself, as I grew up in Wisconsin, an account of an expedition through Canada to our neighbor state of Minnesota by way of Lake Superior in 1854.

I was pleased to find the book as entertaining and skillfully written as the earlier work about the Far East described in the British review, and highly recommend it to the attention of the interested reader. There are many insightful comments about social, economic, and political conditions in the U.S. at the time. Midwesterners will enjoy the many details and anecdotes about the rough and ready life in Wisconsin and Minnesota at a time when the region was still considered the “far west.”

For example, when Oliphant and his three companions climbed off their steamer at Superior, Wisconsin, they discovered that the only hotel in town was a large barn, which doubled as a carpenter shop and land office. Guests were expected to bring their own shavings to sleep on, should they be lucky enough to find an unoccupied spot. The author gives an interesting account of an expedition with a local realtor to have a look at some promising building lots in the growing metropolis:

…we commenced cutting our way with billhooks through the dense forest, which he called Third Avenue, or the fashionable quarter, until we got to the bed of a rivulet, down which we turned through tangled underwood (by name West Street), until it lost itself in a bog, which was the principal square, upon the other side of which, covered with almost impenetrable bush, was the site of our lots.

Oliphant goes on to describe a harrowing journey with two Canadian voyageurs in a birch bark canoe through swamps and over rapids to the headwaters of the Mississippi, from which they descended to St. Paul, the up and coming capital of the Minnesota territory. They were pleased to find it a great deal more civilized than Superior, with a hotel that was passable, even by European standards. Oliphant recounts that the guests would rush through their evening meal in typical American fashion. The process of digestion, however, was another matter. The men would retire to the front porch, where they would lean back in chairs, criticize the passers-by, and pontificate on the politics of the day at their leisure.

Among the topics of conversation was the issue of slavery, and while latter day Marxists and sentimental writers about “southern heritage” have “proved” that the Civil War was not really about slavery using any number of facile and unconvincing arguments, there was no confusion about the matter at the time, whether among opponents or proponents of slavery or European observers. Oliphant described an exchange on the subject between an eastern Yankee and a scowling Texan, and observed,

Whatever may be the views of Americans upon the great question of slavery, which seems destined, before long, to split the Union, they do not scruple to avow themselves annexationists.

The great question of slavery will lead to an explosion which it is to be hoped will not terminate in a Kilkenny-cat process.

The author and his friends took a river steamboat to Galena, Illinois, a point which was already connected to the rest of the country by rail. Apropos railroads, he notes in passing,

…we have no business to question the engineering performances in a country in which there are already 21,310 miles of railway laid down, or about 2500 miles more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The story of Oliphant doesn’t end with travel stories. Strangely enough, this obviously intelligent and articulate writer later went completely off the deep end as an adherent of the then-fashionable “spiritualist” craze. Among the collection of his works available at Google Books, one will also find a remarkable production entitled, “Scientific Religion, or Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces.” Published in 1888, it is full of revelations about “dynaspheric forces, the vital atomic interactions between the living and the dead, the transmutation of material forces by conversion of moral particles, Magnetic Conditions in the Holy Land,” and any number of similar ravings, all of which have so far failed in their author’s evident intent of enlightening future generations.

Those who pique themselves on the supposedly high intelligence of humankind would do well to read such stuff occasionally. Oliphant was a man of no mean intellect, possessed of remarkable insight and powers of analysis in his description of life in the United States of his time, and the political affairs then current. He also published ravings about “spiritual forces” that even a child would laugh at today. Those who consider themselves infallible would do well to recall that they belong to the same species (starting, of course, with me).

Steamboats docked at St. Paul, 1858

The Civil War, Slavery, and Historical Revisionism

Historical revisionists abound in our day. From 911 Truthers to Holocaust deniers, they are out there busily plying their trade, re-crafting historical events to make them fit whatever narrative happens to tickle their fancy. Many of them end up actually believing their modified versions of reality. Instead of seeking the truth, they imagine they already “know” the truth before they start the search. As a result, they become victims of what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls “confirmation bias.” In his words, “By a mental mechanism I call naive empiricism, we have a natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world – these instances are always easy to find. Alas, with tools, and fools, anything can be easy to find. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and you treat them as evidence.

The US Civil War must certainly rank near the top when it comes to “most revised” historical events. It has been sliced and diced to fit the narratives of everyone from southern schoolmarms in the 1920’s, whose continued employment depended on their ability to demonstrate to their students that their heroic granddads were fighting for a cause more noble than chattel slavery, to Marxist “historians,” eager to “corroborate their theories” regarding the nuances of class structure in the antebellum North and South. Like all recent historical revisionists, they have a problem; there are mounds of source material out there for anyone who cares to take the time to fact check their pet theories. I just ran across some telling examples thereof in an old copy of the “Edinburgh Review,” published in 1860. One appears in an article on the subject of serf emancipation in Russia, and reads as follows:

The subject of serf-emancipation in Russia is a very interesting one to the civilized world generally, and particularly those nations in Europe and America who have been or are vexed by the calamity of Negro slavery. Those who have abolished that slavery speak confidently of the practicability of emancipating the serfs of Russia; while, in the United States, where the very existence of the Republic now immediately depends on the approaching settlement of the slavery question, the two sections of the nation are respectively triumphing in the avowed intention of the Russian Emperor to emancipate the serfs, and in the obvious difficulty which attends the operation.

In a later article about the presidency of Mr. Buchanan, one finds much more in a similar vein.  For example:

Buchanan was elected in the interest of the (slaveholding) minority; and he lost no time in intimating that his policy would be regulated in favour of that interest. If this appears astonishing, we can only remind our readers that the Republican Party of the present day was then in its infancy; and that of the 20,000,000 of non-slaveholders, the larger portion were politically paralyzed by fear; – fear of an explosion of the Union; fear for their commerce; fear of the disgrace of civil war.

On Mr. Buchanan’s accession to office, therefore, the struggles of many parties had just been converted into a distinct and circumscribed conflict between two, – the Northern and Southern or the Anti-slavery and Pro slavery parties.

Several Southern States had, throughout the Presidential election, propounded schemes of marching on Washington, in case of Colonel Fremont’s (Republican Presidential candidate in 1856) success, seizing the archives, and assuming the government and bringing the political quarrel to the issue of civil war.

By the testimony of all parties, the election orators of the South were answerable for the disorders of the autumn and winter of 1857. They had made speeches to multitudes throughout the Slave States, in which they had dwelt on the certainty of the abolition of slavery if Fremont were elected. They insisted on the menacing appearance of the Republican party, and the necessity of every Southern man exerting himself, if the planters would not see the property and their domestic authority wrenched from their grasp.

We see in Southern newspapers white and black lists of Northern mercantile firms, the members of which are set down by guess as pro or anti-slavery;… The mails are searched for matter of an incendiary (anti-slavery) character.

The North protests against the pro-slavery legislation of late years, and supplies an organisation to agitate for the dissolution and reconstitution of the Union; and at the same time several Southern States are openly proposing to secede from the Union.

Thus far, recent Presidents have lent their whole force to the attempt to spread the fatal institution of slavery over the whole Union; and the question now is whether this policy shall be pushed forward or reversed. This alternative has swallowed up all political subdivisions, and has left the stage clear for the conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties on a definite question.

It is universally known that the Democratic party, deeply divided before, gave way altogether at the Charleston Convention; and that the slaveholders who do not look beyond preserving slavery or perishing in the attempt to secede from the Union have nominated a candidate in the person of Mr. Breckinridge.

and finally, there are these prophetic words;

The “irrepressible conflict” indicated by Mr. Seward must be encountered and dealt with in one way or another. The Slave Statesmen persist in supposing this to mean civil war thrust upon the South by a tyrannical majority in the North; while the North always understood the expression to refer to the eternal opposition of the principles of free and despotic institutions. The man who might so preside over the struggle as to bring it to a favorable issue would be the true comrade of Washington. Such a man is nowhere recognised at present.

Now we recognize that man. 

The Edinburgh Review was the premier “liberal” British journal of the first half of the 19th century, but one can find similar allusions to the possibility that the American Union may break apart over the issue of slavery in its “conservative” twin, the Quarterly Review.  The Americans themselves were no more confused about the matter before the war than the Europeans.  Read the texts of the state and county proclamations calling for secession in the South, and the decisive significance of slavery is obvious.  Here’s an example from one Virginia county’s Call for Secession:

Owing to a spirit of pharasaical fanaticism prevailing in the North in reference to the institution of slavery, incited by foreign emissaries and fostered by corrupt political demagogues in search of power and place, a feeling has been aroused between the people of the two sections, of what was once a common country, which of itself would almost preclude the administration of a united government in harmony.

John C. Calhoun, perhaps the greatest southern politician of them all, began his final speech before the Senate in 1850 with the line, “I have, senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.”  When it came to the significance of slavery, politicians in the North were in cordial agreement with Calhoun.  Read the northern newspapers of the time, and you’ll find they’re no more “confused” about the role of slavery in the breakup of the Union than their colleagues in the South.  In short, then, European liberals believed the decisive issue was slavery, European conservatives believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the North believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the South believed the decisive issue was slavery, and virtually anyone else alive at the time who happened to take a passing interest in the subject believed the decisive issue was slavery, albeit southern planters occasionally embellished their pronunciamentos with references to such noble causes as “states’ rights” and “liberty,” perhaps with some perfunctory grumbling about the tariff thrown in for good measure.

One can but lament the fact that the southern schoolmarms and Marxist scholars of the 20th century were born too late to explain the “real” reasons for the Civil War to this benighted generation.  The process goes on in our own day.  Consider, for example, the periodic European outbursts of anti-Americanism, the most recent, and probably the most violent of which began metastasizing following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reached a peak of almost incredible obsessiveness and fury at some point in the Bush Administration.  To any nascent Ph.D. in sociology who cares to study the phenomena, I suggest finding all the references to US historical events in the top two or three news magazines or newspapers in a broad sample of western European states during the decade from, say, 1998 to 2008.  Categorize them into the categories “negative” and “positive,” and see what you find.  I rather suspect that all but a vanishingly small remnant will “confirm their story and their vision of the world” that the United States is an evil empire.

Would you study history?  Don’t fail to look at the source material.  If your history was written by a journalist, heaven help you.