I finally needed a new mobile phone, unlocked so I can use it in different places. And since I feel people can contact me way too much already, I steer clear of anything that smacks of a ‘smart’ phone. But what to do? In the end I opted for a simple seniors phone. It has large keys for potentially arthritic fingers, simple display and very clear and loud sounds. It even calls out the numbers as you are pressing the keys. Oh yes, it joins one of the pocket watches I have had for well on 15 years now. Actually, it’s a nurse’s watch – extremely robust and reliable.

IMG_7940 (5) (800x600).jpg

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.

A conference celebrating 120 years since the death of Friedrich Engels has just come to a close here at Nanjing Normal University. We even had a representative from the CPC discipline committee welcoming us to the conference. It was sponsored by the Marxist Research Centre at Nanjing Normal University, the Marx-Engels Research Society and the CPC Central Compilation and Translation Bureau. We had scholars from Japan, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, USA, UK, China, and a good contingent from Russia – where they speak of a revival of Marxism. Among many highlights, the best for me was when Professor Shevchenko said that he would present in the language of Lenin. His colleague, Professor Burov, translated into Chinese with a heavy Russian accent (he had grown up in China).

In 1934, H. G. Wells travelled to the USSR to interview Stalin. A few delightful snippets from that interview:

Wells: Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world …
Stalin: Not so very much…

Stalin: You, Mr. Wells, evidently start out with the assumption that all men are good. I, however, do not forget that there are many wicked men.​

Wells: I cannot yet appreciate what has been done in your country; I only arrived yesterday. But I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here. The contrast with 1920 is astounding.
Stalin: Much more could have been done had we Bolsheviks been cleverer.
Wells: No, if human beings were cleverer. It would be a good thing to invent a five-year plan for the reconstruction of the human brain which obviously lacks many things needed for a perfect social order. (Laughter.)​

Works, vol 14, pp. 21, ​43-44.

In the fascinating interview with Emil Ludwig from 1931, Ludwig about Stalin’s smoking preferences:

Ludwig: You are smoking a cigarette. Where is your legendary pipe, Mr. Stalin? You once said that words and legends pass, but deeds remain. Now believe me, there are millions of people abroad who do not know about some of your words and deeds, but who do know about your legendary pipe.
Stalin: I left my pipe at home.

Apparently, Stalin preferred cigarettes, especially Herzegovina Flor. In public, he would smoke a pipe, but when relaxing, it was a cigarette. Yet, the pipe itself was filled with tobacco from two torn-up cigarettes. Occasionally, he was photographed with a cigarette in hand or mouth:

Stalin's Tobacco 16

Stalin's Tobacco 13

Stalin's Tobacco 14

Joseph Stalin at Potsdam Conference

An update on my study of Kotkin’s much-hyped first volume of his Stalin trilogy. Although it is not quite the cartoon script of Montefiore’s two books, it really is a stunning collection of caricatures and derived positions. Before I mention those, a couple of failed promises:

1. Kotkin makes much of trying not to identify the tyrant to come, lambasting (rightly) Tucker’s pop-psychological effort. And yet he constantly uses the epithet ‘future dictator’ when speaking of all manner of activities, from grief at the death of Stalin’s first wife to cutting holes in the ice to fish while in northern Siberian.

2. He also vows not to engage in gap-filling, which he describes as the bane of historical biographers. Yet, whenever he needs to fill in some lacunae, he resorts to comparisons – with Hitler (of course), Napoleon, Mussolini and so on.

Now for the caricatures:

1. Lenin was a hysterical zealot, who ran around ‘screaming’ for the Bolsheviks to seize power. He was also an elitist who shunned workers in favour of intellectual revolutionaries. The standard text, What is to Be Done?, is trotted out in support of this wayward suggestion. Lars Lih’s monumental Lenin Rediscovered has debunked that one.

2. Stalin was a derivative thinker, writer of stolid prose and a man of Asiatic temperament (he gets this from Trotsky). Apart from the tired orientalism that runs through the book, it seems as though Kotkin has not actually studied Stalin’s texts. Then again, he says clearly that nothing is to be gained by reading Stalin – in a supposed biography on Stalin.

3. The far Left and far Right are largely the same. They use the same tactics and want largely the same things. Not only does this enable Kotkin to deploy the usual reductio ad Hitlerum, but is also enables ‘pat’ (a favourite word) dismissals of socialism.

4. The Russian Revolution was a ‘putsch’ or a ‘coup’, carried out by a hapless, disorganised and unskilled bunch that stumbled into power. If two bullets had disposed of Lenin and Trotsky, the ‘putsch’ would not have happened. At the same time, Kotkin contradicts himself, since he cannot avoid the data that shows the Bolsheviks had mass support, especially in the armed forces.

5. Stalin was really another tsar. As a product of the contradictions in Russia, which enabled the Bolsheviks to fluke a coup, Stalin simply mirrored the repressive tsarist apparatus.

So where do Kotkin’s sympathies lie? A telltale sign is his comment on Pyotr Stolypin, the conservative reformer: ‘Tall, with blue eyes and a black beard, a figure of immense charm and sensitive to form … Stolypin was a discovery’ (p. 91). Sadly, for Kotkin, Stolypin failed to overcome Russia’s contradictions and turn it into a parliamentary system with capitalist economic forms.

This article now appears on The Conversationwith a lovely picture of Xi Jinping:


Next Page »