I have been to more conferences than I care to remember and have often listened to old, old fogeys spouting forth. But one of the more fascinating experiences is when some very old man or woman ends up delivering a mish-mash of odd ideas, if not simply rambling on incoherently. I have wondered about knowing when to stop, when your mind and mouth are no longer what they used to be. I guess it requires someone else to tell you.

But over the last few days another idea hit me: an old fogey panel or series of panels. This would be reserved for exactly such garbled presentations, full of vague and wandering ideas. How would it work? The inspiration comes from China. A couple of years ago I attended a large conference, where one particular very old invited speaker was less than impressive. In fact, it was pure rubbish. Yet, after his presentation, countless people came forth, shook his hand, wanted photos taken with him and so on.

Puzzled, I asked the person next to me, ‘How can people be so impressed when what he said was so bad?’

‘Oh’, said my colleague. ‘We deeply respect old people, especially the very old. We show them the utmost respect. But we don’t listen to a word they say’.

Exactly why there should be old fogey panels.

(I posted this one over at Voyages on the Left, but thought I would post it here too.)

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

In light of all the hyperbole over the recent attacks in Paris, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the modern history of ‘terrorism’. To begin with, it was the favoured mode of the radical Anabaptist groups in the sixteenth century. In the wake of the Münster Revolution of 1534-35, the most radical part of Europe at the time was the northern Netherlands, especially in the areas of Friesland and Groningen. Here squads of some hundreds engaged in systematic ‘terrorism’, including arson, destruction, large-scale killings of ‘infidels’ and so forth. Their leaders were a colourful lot, including Jan van Batenburg, Cornelis Appelman, and Johan Willemsz. Crucially, this was a Christian development in the radical north. Soon enough, the area would become home to staunch Calvinists.

A second moment appears with some anarchist elements in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They were keen to make an impact and spread uncertainty among governments and corporations. In Western Europe and North America, they managed to bomb an opera house in Barcelona in 1893, bomb the French parliament in 1893, bomb the Cafe Terminus in Paris in 1894, assassinate Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot, the French President, in 1894, bomb the Greenwich Observatory in London in 1894, assassinate William McKinley, the American President, in 1901, bomb the wedding of King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie in Barcelona in 1906, and bomb Wall Street in 1920.

A third moment appears in Russia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will), especially its militant wing, engaged in bombings, assassinations and so forth. They managed to assassinate Tsar Aleksandr II in 1881 (after a few attempts). Notably, Lenin’s brother, Aleksandr Ulianov, was involved, although he was arrested and executed in 1887 for his part in the attempted assassination of the next tsar.

The fourth moment follows on the heels of Narodnaya Volya, namely the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). A significant force in the wider Left in Russia, they retained terrorism as a tactic, even to the point of being involved in the attempted assassination of Lenin – not a good move when the Bolsheviks were in power.

Indeed, a notable feature of communist movements is that they eschewed ‘terror’ as a revolutionary tactic, since they saw it was counter-productive.

I have always dislike alarm clocks: they wake me up when I do not want to be woken up, to go somewhere I do not want to go, to do something I do not want to do for the sake of someone I do not want to see. Recently, an enterprising Swede has come up with the best reason to hate alarm clocks. Go to minute 3.18 if you do not wish to see the preamble.

On Friday evening at the Historical Materialism conference in London, I had the opportunity to deliver the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Lecture. I must admit, I was somewhat nervous, but Gilbert Ashcar, the chair, put me at ease. He enabled me to redirect my energies to the lecture, at which a good crowd seemed to pay close attention. A photo sent to me after the lecture:

Yazhi_DP lecture (3) (800x707)

The text of the opening of the lecture, called ‘Marxism, Religion and the Taiping Revolution‘, is as follows:

In early 1837 one Hong Xiuquan sank into a delirium and had a vision in the small southern Chinese village of Guanlubu. The vision was populated by many of the figures one would expect from traditional Chinese mythology and some not. Taken up into heaven he was greeted by children dressed in yellow, a cock, a tiger, a dragon. They led him to a high gate bathed in light, surrounded by musicians. Here some other men in dragon robes and horned hats cut his body open and replaced his organs with clean new ones. The wound was healed as though it had never been. Now he became aware of his mother, who washed him in a blood-coloured stream. He also became aware of an older brother, who would later become crucial. Inside the gates, he was led to his father, a tall erect man with a black dragon robe. His father’s golden beard flowed down to his waist.

Hong and his father spoke of many matters, but especially the demons and devils who had even begun to infiltrate the 33 levels of heaven. Hong urged his father to overcome reluctance and allow Hong to attack the demons. With the gift of a seal and a powerful sword called ‘Snow-in-the-Clouds’, Hong (supported by his elder brother) wreaked havoc among the demons, to the point of having the king of the demons in his grasp. He stayed his hand only at his father’s request. The demon king and his minions were banished to earth. For a time Hong stayed in heaven, with a wife who had born him a son. He studied mysterious texts that took some effort to understand (much to the impatience and annoyance of his elder brother).

Yet Hong’s father would not let him rest in heaven, for the demons still roamed the earth. So Hong was given two mysterious poems, a new name (Xiuquan) and a title, ‘Heavenly King, Lord of the Kingly Way, Quan [Completeness]’. To earth Hong returns, with his heavenly father’s urging not to fear and promise to help.

Meanwhile, what did his family and friends do as they kept watch at his bed in the village of Guanlubu, while he ranted and raved? They thought he had gone mad. At times during his delirium, he would call out, get up and run around the room while making sword thrusts, only to collapse back on his bed. At one point he wrote out his new title in red ink and posted it on the door. That door was kept firmly locked, since the family would have been held to account should he have done harm to anyone else.

Perhaps Hong Xiuquan himself understood the dream? Not so, it seems. Upon waking, he was unable to make sense of it. So he gradually settled back into village life, began teaching children again and studying the Confucian texts in preparation for his next attempt at the civil service examinations.

And to add to the festival, an interview with Gilbert Ashcar was made before the lecture. It should be available shortly.

All in all, I had a wonderful time, having to chance to meet and talk with the friendly people of the Deutscher Prize committee. But I should say that a real highlight also was to meet George Hallam, from Lewisham.

I am increasingly drawn to the Taiping Revolution of 1850-1864, especially in light of Samir Amin’s observation: it was the ‘ancestor of the “anti-feudal, anti-imperialist popular revolution” as formulated later by Mao’. However, what no student of the revolution has yet examined is that the Taiping Revolution marks the moment when the revolutionary Christian tradition arrives in China. I will be speaking about this to some extent – as a way to deal with the question of Marxism and religion – in the Deutscher Lecture later this week. In the meantime, I have been tracking down some images, especially after visiting the Taiping museum in Nanjing last month.

This is Hong Xiuquan, the man with the vision and biblical interpretation:

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Central to Taiping practices was the weekly church service (alongside daily prayers and recitals from the Bible):

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They gave great attention to ensuring the Bible was reprinted and interpreted:


Taiping Bible 02

Interpretation of the Bible led them to a revolutionary position and to practice forms of Christian communism. Their revolutionary armies (with both women and men) numbered up to a million and the innovative tactics saw them control the cradle of Chinese civilisation in the Yangze (Chang Jiang) basin:

Taiping battle 02

Taiping battle 03

Taiping - storming a fortress

This one is a battle flag held on behalf of a general:

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Their aim: to overthrow the whole Chinese imperial system and inaugurate the ‘heavenly kingdom’ (tainguo). This was part of the widespread appeal among peasants and miners. They abolished the Confucian examination system, replacing it with one based on the Bible and open to women and men. The women had their feet unbound and young women were not permitted to bind their feet. The men grew their hair long, without the queue and the shaved front insisted by the Qing rulers.

Taiping vs queue

Among many things, I am intrigued by the character used for ‘heaven’, tian. Usually in Chinese, it is written so:

The second stoke is longer than the upper stroke. However, the Taiping wrote the character in a different way:

IMG_7740 (2) (480x640)

In this case, the upper stroke is the longest. The reason is not quite clear, but it may have something to do with the respect shown for heaven, and indeed that it was a different heaven from Chinese mythology.

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The Taiping were on the verge of crushing the Qing dynasty, shaking it to the foundations. Were it not for foreign intervention (the British Empire had lost much of North America and they certainly weren’t going to let the Chinese market opium slip away), the Taiping may well have done so. Meanwhile, in the space of 14 years they achieved an immense amount: rebuilding Nanjing, land reform, new forms of social organisation, the publication of an extraordinary collection of texts. And they had some seriously weighty coins:

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In many respects, the Taiping Revolution was the forerunner of the Republican Revolution of 1911. Sun Yatsen was known by the nickname of ‘Hong Xiuquan’ and some of the revolutionary wore their hair in the same way as the Taiping. And when Mao writes of revolutions in which the masses rose up against the international (imperialist) and national ruling class, he speaks of three: the taping Revolution, the Republican Revolution and the communist revolution.

An interesting report from the Grattan Institute on higher education funding for teaching and research has just appeared. Among a number of points, I enjoyed these the most:

1. There is little direct connection between research and teaching. I suggest it is because the courses taught usually have little if anything to do with the research undertaken. This busts the myth, propounded again and again, that teaching and research go hand-in-hand.

2. Universities in Australia already make about 3.2 billion in surplus from university fees, mostly from international students. And this is with a system that has significant government input. This money goes directly into research, since universities are keen to climb the dubious league tables that do the rounds these days.

3. Funding for research has increased exponentially since 2002.

However, what the report does not say is that research is typically over-funded with minimal expectations for output. That is, they give too much money for too few results. Each year people ask for more and more money, and fellowships increase their pay levels. Yet the expected results of research are ludicrously small. This situation creates a conundrum: a researcher has to spend grant money on research activities when less than half, if not a quarter, would be more than enough for the proposed research. Why give so much money? University research standing is also assessed on the basis of research money earned. It gets even better, for now we are expected to provide a return (at 2, 3 or 5 times) on the money ‘invested’ – the creation of a pseudo-market. Perverse? Of course. Australia has the dubious reputation of leading the world in such practices. This curious situation has brought me to the point of not applying for research money any longer. As one who has managed to get a few modest grants, I find I can get more actual research and writing done without them.