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Which side is DSA on?

Fri, 2023-09-29 02:29

Two days ago, Democratic Socialists of America’s online publication ran my article about my recent visit to Ukraine. It was entitled “Notes from Kyiv: Which side are we on?

DSA has now answered that question — by removing the article from its website.

This is the result of a decision taken yesterday by the organisation’s National Political Committee.

The full article is, however, available here.

Please read it, share it, and spread the word.

We will not be silenced.

Review: Sell Us The Rope, by Stephen May

Wed, 2023-09-06 12:25

A new novel about the congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of 1907? Starring Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg? What’s not to like?

And the book’s premise — that Stalin was a long-term, paid informer for the tsarist secret police (the Okhrana) — made the book especially interesting for me. The fact that it had a positive review in The New York Times — that was icing on the cake.

Sadly, this is a very disappointing book. The research seems to consist of the author reading (more likely — skimming) a single book from a couple of decades ago that argued Stalin had been an agent of the tsarist police. The author of that book, Roman Brackman, built his case on the testimony of NKVD General Alexander Orlov, who was perhaps the least trustworthy source imaginable. (Following his defection to the West in the late 1930s, Orlov neglected to tell his FBI handlers that during his time in England, he recruited the infamous Cambridge spy ring.)

There is little evidence that Stephen May read anything else about the colourful history of the Russian revolutionary movement — and anyone with a passing knowledge of that history will spot the bloopers from early on.

For example, the Okhrana super-spy Ievno Azef, was not “the former head of the party’s combat organisation”. He was the head of a different party’s combat organisation, a party which was a rival to the Social Democrats. It was called the Social Revolutionary Party.

Another example: to describe Rosa Luxemburg as the “influential theorist of permanent revolution” is completely wrong. Permanent revolution was a theory created by the little-remembered Parvus (Helphand) and embraced by Trotsky.

And the idea that Stalin consorted with Trotsky in London was absurd. Trotsky wrote about meeting Stalin briefly — noting that he could barely remember the man. His disdain for Stalin was one of the reasons the future Soviet dictator hated Trotsky and eventually had him killed.

The characterisation of Rosa Luxemburg is actually offensive. She is depicted in this book in the same way as the anarchist Emma Goldman was portrayed in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, which was a far superior book. Rosa is shown as a sexually liberated woman giving life lessons to a younger female comrade while bathing together. You’d not imagine such a character as the author of dense economic works such as The Accumulation of Capital, or The Industrial Development of Poland. In this book, Luxemburg seems to have hardly any interest in politics, and like Trotsky she seems to be one of Lenin’s Bolsheviks (which neither of them actually were — certainly not in 1907).

The most important figures in the Russian revolutionary movement, including Plekhanov and Martov, are treated as buffoons.

All this could be forgiven if there was an interesting story to tell. But there is no story. Nothing happens. Romances that might have taken off go nowhere. People whose lives appear to be under threat are rescued. In the end, everyone attends a congress — about which we learn almost nothing — and then goes home.

Historically illiterate, offensive in its treatment of key intellectual figures on the Russian Left, and devoid of any drama or tension, this is a completely vacuous work.

Meanwhile, the true story of the young Stalin and his relationship with the tsarist police remains to be written.

Israel: From protest to politics

Tue, 2023-09-05 11:27

I was recently invited by some Israeli leftists to participate in a discussion about what’s happening with the protest movement that is currently confronting the Netanyahu government. The title they gave to the discussion was “From Protest to Politics”. That expression might be familiar to many people of my generation from the American Left. It was the name of an important article written by Bayard Rustin in the mid-1960s.

Bayard Rustin was the organiser of the 1963 March on Washington. A civil rights activist since the 1940s, he was also a democratic socialist. Following the March and the legislative victories that followed (civil rights laws, the voting rights act, etc), Rustin felt that it was time for the civil rights movement to move on. Mass demonstrations in Washington and protest marches in the Deep South had their value. But to create real change — in particular to fight not just for an end to racial segregation but also for social justice — meant taking politics more seriously. Rustin and others were behind the publication of the “Freedom Budget” which laid out a political programme that can only be described as social democratic — in a country that had no Social Democratic Party or tradition.

What does any of this have to do with Israel today? There are certain parallels to the United States in the early 1960s. A mass protest movement is in the streets and has been demonstrating continuously for more than six months. This is unprecedented. The movement is surprisingly well-organised, focussed on a growing set of demands that are not limited to blocking Netanyahu’s attack on the country’s judicial system. The protest movement is also fighting for the rights of women and the LGBTQI+ community, and for greater equality for all, including Palestinian Arabs. The movement was described as a kind of embryonic political party, something that could easily grow into a functioning political party.

Israel is about to hold local elections. With no national election on the immediate horizon, this will be a significant test of what the protest movement can do in the real world of politics. This week, the Times of Israel reported that “a political party representing the anti-judicial overhaul protest movement will run in the upcoming Tel Aviv municipal elections on a joint ticket with the left-wing Meretz party and the ‘Green Center’ party.”

This is a very important step forward, as Tel Aviv is both Israel’s largest city and a stronghold of the secular liberal Left. The new party, known as “New Contract”, has a real chance of winning the elections there. Similar efforts are taking place in other parts of the country.

National elections are not yet scheduled to take place. They will probably happen when the Netanyahu coalition breaks apart, as is growing increasingly likely. Part of the reason why we can expect that is the growing likelihood of a massive collapse of the right-wing vote in the next Knesset elections.

According to a survey of all the national opinion polls taken since March of this year, the Likud-led coalition loses every single time. All the polls agree on this. The next Israeli government is likely to be composed of the centre parties led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. One very recent poll shows those parties winning 48 Knesset seats (61 are required to form a government). They would need to ally with one or more of the Arab political parties as well as Meretz.

Interestingly, all the recent polls show Meretz winning enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and have 4 or 5 Knesset seats. In none of the recent polls does the Labour Party get enough votes to enter the Knesset — a crushing blow to a party that utterly dominated Israeli politics for decades.

Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” and the “Freedom Budget” he helped draft and promote unfortunately did not achieve their goal. The Vietnam War put an end to the wide coalition that would have been required to re-shape American politics in a more social democratic direction.

The Israeli opposition has a chance now to do what the American Left proved unable to do six decades ago. If they channel their energy — and their anger — into political struggles, and compete for power in local and national elections, anything can happen. Perhaps even bringing an end to the long night of Netanyahu’s rule.

This column appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: Pines, by Blake Crouch

Sun, 2023-09-03 08:19

I’ve been reading a lot of books by Blake Crouch, some I liked more than others. Pines is the first of the “Wayward Pines” trilogy, a series of books inspired by the television series “Twin Peaks”, as the author admits in an afterword. The books have apparently resulted in a television series which got very mixed reviews, from what I can tell. I enjoyed much of this book, but the second half — not so much. There’s a lot of unnecessary violence, there are creatures that seem to serve no purpose other than to give an excuse to more violence, and pretty much all the characters except for the main one and his immediate family are unlikeable. Following the big reveal near the end of this volume, I don’t plan to read the other two books in the series. I don’t see the point.

Review: The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud

Thu, 2023-08-31 03:36

In 1927 Sigmund Freud was 71 years old and in failing health when he wrote this short book about religion. The title is a misnomer — there is hardly anything about the future here at all. Instead, it offers Freud’s ideas about religion, including why it exists at all. Freud is a surprisingly readable author, even for people with only limited knowledge of psychology. “It forms no part of the intention of this study to comment on the truth-value of religious teachings,” he wrote. “We are content to recognize that, psychologically speaking, they are illusions.” Freud refrained from mentioning in this book the anti-religious campaigns then taking place in the Soviet Union. But surely he had them in mind when he wrote that “it is certainly a nonsensical plan to seek to abolish religion by force and at a stroke. Principally because there is no chance of its succeeding.” He was certainly right about that. Recommended.

Review: Patriots, by Peter Morgan

Mon, 2023-08-28 09:50

As I sometimes do, I saw this play recently and decided to read the text later. It was a very good play — and it is a superb text. This is the story of Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a man who claimed he “made” Vlaimir Putin — a grey, unimpressive mid-level bureaucrat who later turned on him. Berezovsky’s story is closed linked to those of Roman Abramovich and Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered by Putin’s spies in London a few years ago. Peter Morgan has sometimes come under fire for a certain lack of accuracy in his historical scripts — particulary with the television series “The Crown”. That does not appear to be the case here. Patriots tells a story that needs to be told, especially now. Highly recommended.

Review: Upgrade, by Blake Crouch

Sun, 2023-08-27 06:06

I loved Dark Matter, I liked Recursion, and I had high hopes for this book too. But I was disappointed.

While the other books by Blake Crouch were about theoretical physics (in a sense), with time travel and multiple universes, this one is more down to earth. Set in a dystopian near-future with much of the world in ruins (but still functional), Crouch turns his attention here to genetic research. His hero is the son of a female scientist who while attempting to do good unleashed a genetic mutation that caused hundreds of millions of deaths. The whole book is the story of the attempt by the hero to prevent his mother and sister from doing even more damage.

It’s very violent with lots of shooting and explosions and chases (is Hollywood listening?) and it’s full of detail about gene editing and the like, much of which I found tedious. Crouch was wearing his research on his sleeve, I thought. And after a while, the gun battles and explosions do become a bit repetitive and uninteresting. Of the three books I’ve now read by Blake Crouch — an author I like — this is the weakest.

Azerbaijan: Labour activists targeted as new unions emerge

Tue, 2023-08-22 23:29

In places where existing trade unions fail to organise workers, new unions will often emerge to fill the gap.  And those new unions will sometimes be the subject of state repression as a result.

This is what appears to be happening today in Azerbaijan.

The existing trade unions in the oil-rich former Soviet republic are strongly tied to the regime.  The news on their website consists primarily of support for whatever the regime wants and says, and opposition to Azerbaijan’s traditional enemy, Armenia.

Meanwhile a new union has come into existence to organise workers the traditional unions won’t touch.  It’s called the Workers’ Table Trade Unions Confederation and its chairman, Afiadin Mammadov, was detained on 1 August on charges of disobeying police orders. Azerbaijani police detained another member of the confederation, Elvin Mustafayev, on drug charges three days later. And most recently, union activist Aykhan Israfilov was detained on 11 August and remanded into four months of pre-trial detention.

The three men and their union have been involved in ongoing protests by delivery couriers — workers that traditional unions in many countries have not successfully organised.

The men are also members of Democracy 1918 (D-18), a political movement aimed at challenging the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev.  Aliyev has been the country’s leader for twenty years.

According to one report, D-18, which primarily campaigns for democratic reforms, ‘has also raised ethnic and gender issues that were ignored by the traditional opposition forces, and has dared to question the regime’s implacable hostility to Armenia.’

It has also taken up the cause of the country’s workers.  According to one independent media source, ‘D-18 is organising autonomous trade unions. These unions are mostly focused on the service sector, largely targeting delivery businesses and taxi companies. Their union is 90% composed of food couriers who recently went on a strike against Wolt, the most popular delivery app in Baku. The union is now working on involving more workers, especially in supermarkets.’

A similar struggle is taking place in neighbouring Georgia, where Wolt couriers participated in the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Tbilisi at the end of April.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s national trade union centre, known as AHIK, is so close to the Aliyev regime that the home page of its website features the current Twitter feed of the country’s president.  This sentence on the AHIK website is typical: ‘It was thanks to Mr. Ilham Aliyev’s tireless activity and decisive speeches that the Armenian aggressors were exposed in the Council of Europe, and an objective opinion was formed in the Western world about Karabakh, an inseparable part of Azerbaijan, about the conflict.’

In such a situation, one cannot expect the regime to welcome the creation of an alternative trade union movement — especially one with links to the political opposition.

If convicted, Israfilov and Mustafayev could face between five to 12 years in prison. It is not clear whether the confederation’s chairman, Mammadov, is facing a prison term as well.

According to a report on the independent news website OC Media, ‘the three labour activists were taking part in a series of demonstrations organised by delivery couriers. They were protesting a new traffic law.  The draft law, titled ‘On Traffic’, was adopted by the Azerbaijani Parliament last December, obliging drivers of scooters and motorcycles with an engine capacity of at least 50km/h to obtain a special category driver’s license.’

D-18’s general secretary Samir Sultanov has insisted that Israfilov and Mammadov were arrested for their work promoting democracy and labour rights in Azerbaijan.

‘The wave of arrests in the country shows that the government is implementing harsh punishment measures for protecting workers’ rights and free speech’, Sultanov told OC Media.

Azerbaijan is one of the few countries in the world not surveyed by the International Trade Union Confederation for its annual Global Rights Index, though it is not clear why.  The ITUC has not yet issued a statement on the arrests in Azerbaijan, where the regime-linked AHIK federation remains its affiliate.


This article appears in Solidarity.

Review: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Sun, 2023-08-20 04:49

Blake Crouch seems to make a habit of taking great ideas for science fiction novels, going as far as he can with the idea — and then going further. Much further. So this book, which starts out with quantum physics and multiple universes while telling a good human story about chances missed (a theme also explored in Recursion, which I recently read) — winds up with a completely bonkers ending. Still, Crouch writes very well, his characters are likeable and you do care about them, and he’s reinvigorated science fiction, at least for me, giving me the appetite to read more. So if you’re willing to accept a premise that’s going to go way off the charts, this is a recommended book.

Review: Fast This Way: Burn Fat, Heal Inflammation and Eat Like the High-Performing Human You Were Meant to Be, by Dave Asprey

Thu, 2023-08-17 12:59

I could be nasty and summarise this book in one sentence: fast for 16 hours a day and make sure to drink Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee. Because it gets a little bit annoying (more than annoying) that he promotes his own products on almost every page of the book.

But to be fair, I chose to buy and read this book from beginning to end for a good reason. I am interested in intermittent fasting. Asprey seems rather more than interested — he’s obsessed. A lot of what he writes is his own experiences with fasting. So some of it is interesting and he writes well. I’ve read other books he wrote which I enjoyed more. And I did try Bulletproof Coffee. Once. My partner still makes fun of me for that.

Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Mon, 2023-08-14 09:24

“False Memory Syndrome” sounds like a real thing, and it is. It is also the starting point for this outstanding thriller which is part time travel, part love story. It is a book, above all, about memory. Like many time travel stories, this is one where the plans go wrong from the outset. A New York City detective whose daughter was killed in an accident several years earlier, is sent back in time to prevent her untimely death. What follows from this is not what I would have expected, and the novel moves in several unexpected directions from then on. There is a beautiful love story at the heart of the book, there is one very nasty villain, and there is a technology that really, really needs to be stopped (and I’m not talking about AI). Recommended.

Review: World Bolshevism, by Iulii Martov

Wed, 2023-08-09 08:19

Paul Kellogg and Mariya Melentyeva have performed an important service by bringing this long-forgotten work by the most famous of the Mensheviks back into print. Their new translation and Kellogg’s introduction are excellent; the book deserves a wide audience.

I first came across this material back in the 1970s, in the dusty back-room of a used bookstore high up in an industrial building in New York’s Greenwich Village. I was so taken by Martov’s writing that I reprinted most of this book in the journal I was then editing, The New International Review. There was no question in mind then and now that Martov’s was an important voice and a key figure in the creation of a left-wing alternative to Soviet Communism.

This book reminds me of what was so powerful about Martov’s ideas. For example, he describes the Bolshevik coup d’etat of November 1917 as “an attempt to create a state machine very similar in its structure to the former military and bureaucratic type” — meaning the tsarist regime — but “in the hands of a small party” (the Bolsheviks). Such a state — the Soviet state — “might be presented to the masses … as the destruction of the old state machinery, the birth of a stateless society based on a minimum of coercion and discipline.”

My problem with the book — and the reason why I’d describe it as flawed — is that the audience to which Martov directed his arguments no longer exists. The book consists in large part of a discussion of the French revolutions of the 18th century, 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. There are many more references to what the Commune did than what the Bolsheviks did. The reason is that Martov was desperately searching for quotes from Marx and Engels to prove that Lenin was anything but an orthodox Marxist — and these quotes are not hard to find.

The book was in a sense a rebuttal to Lenin’s dishonest 1917 pamphlet, State and Revolution in which he predicted the creation of a classless, stateless society following the revolution that his party was about to launch. The society Lenin described, without coercion, without police or prisons, is an anarchist fantasy. Within a few months of Lenin writing the book, the Bolsheviks were in happen, the Cheka had been created, the first labour camps built, the opposition socialist press banned.

Martov won the argument with Lenin, if the argument was really about who was the more authentic Marxist. But sadly, he lost the war.

Review: Case Sensitive, by A.K. Turner

Wed, 2023-08-02 07:56

The third (and final, for now) book in the new British crime series featuring Camden mortuary worker Cassie Raven is keeping up the high standard set by the previous two stories. The fact that I read all three books in just one week gives a clue how addictive they are. These are well-written, gripping stories with characters one actually cares about. Like many of these series, there are two things going on here. Each book is a standalone crime novel, telling the story of a crime that is solved in the course of the book. But there is also an ongoing story with the characters who feature in all the books, including Cassie’s Polish grandmother, her father Callum (recently released from jail) and — most important — the beguiling detective Phyllida (yes, Phyllida) Flyte. And in each episode, there’s a kind of dance going on between the openly bisexual Cassie and somewhat more staid Phyllida. As Cassie once puts it (and I’m quoting from memory), “Flyte is so deep into the closet that she can see Narnia.” So it’s not a question of if, but rather when, something more than a professional relationship will develop between the two women. I can’t wait for the next book.

1923: The German October

Tue, 2023-08-01 09:05

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the decision by the Communist International to launch an armed uprising in Germany. The uprising, which took place in October that year, was a dismal failure. It also marked the final attempt by a Communist Party anywhere in Europe to come to power in the same way that the Bolsheviks had done in Russia.

The uprising was not something the German working class needed or desired. The Weimar Republic, however imperfect, was a democracy. Workers could vote for the Communist Party or the Social Democrats or any other party they wanted. In the 1920 elections, the Communists polled only a tenth of what the Social Democrats won, but their support was growing.

The uprising was needed by the Soviet regime, not by the Germans. The goal was to create a Soviet Germany — which would do more than anything else to ensure the survival of the Soviet regime in Moscow.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, they bet everything on world revolution. Initially, there was great hope that several central and Eastern European countries would follow the Russian model. Soviet regimes were established in Hungary and Bavaria. They did not last long.

Left-wing critics of the Bolsheviks had argued all along that Russia was not ripe for socialism. The leading Bolsheviks, among them Lenin and Trotsky, knew this. But they were convinced that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which they had established needed to only survive until other, more advanced countries had their revolutions. And the most important of these was Germany.

By the late summer of 1923, Germany was in crisis — indeed, it faced several existential threats. French troops had occupied the Ruhr. Hyperinflation had caused an unprecedented economic crisis. And a little known right-wing politician named Adolf Hitler was preparing an attempt to seize power in Munich, which ultimately took place a month after the abortive Communist uprising.

In Moscow, the leader of the Comintern, Zinoviev, called for the German Communist Party (KPD) to seize power. He was supported by, among others, Trotsky. Key Soviet leaders, including Karl Radek, were secretly sent to help the KPD — but in vain. The “German October” was largely confined to Hamburg and lasted a couple of days before being crushed. The Soviet gamble had failed. The “proletarian dictatorship” established by the Bolsheviks was now completely isolated.

The long-term results were catastrophic for the Germans and the Soviets. In Germany, it dealt a severe blow to the Communist Party from which they never recovered. The relationship between the KPD and the Social Democrats, already a difficult one, became much worse. The two parties eventually could not bring themselves together to fight the fascists. A decade later, the KPD was outlawed and crushed by the Nazi dictatorship.

And in the Soviet Union, the eventual result of the 1923 events in Germany was to strengthen Stalin’s hand and contribute to his ideas about “socialism in one country” and the abandonment of the goal of world revolution.

Looking back at the “German October” one hundred years later, it must be seen as a desperate bid by the Bolsheviks to keep their revolution alive. The difficult situation faced by the Soviets in 1923 was entirely of their own making, having launched a successful coup which proved impossible to export to other countries. They gambled on other revolutions in Europe which never happened, and the events of late 1923 in Germany were the final blow. After this, Stalinism became all but inevitable.

This column appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.

Review: Life Sentence, by A.K. Turner

Wed, 2023-07-26 03:05

The second book in the Cassie Raven series is as good as the first. This time, the Camden-based mortuary worker investigates a cold case even closer to home: her father, jailed for murdering her mother decades earlier, is back and wants to prove his innocence. Raven is introduced to the world of 1990s London, including Irish folk-rock, protests by eco-warriors and police who go deep undercover to fight them. Turner has created a great cast of characters and continues with a high standard of story-telling. Recommended.

Review: Writers on Writing: A Book of Quotations

Tue, 2023-07-25 13:24

This short book is a wonderful resource for writers — both writers of fiction and non-fiction. Unlike so many books about writing, this is not about self-publishing, or setting goals, or grammar, or marketing. Instead, it consists of very short quotes by people who know what they are talking about: writers. Here are three typical quotes — all of them useful or witty: “When we ask advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” That was Saul Bellow. Another one from a writer I don’t know, Jules Renard: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” That really did speak to me. And a final one, from Zadie Smith: “Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” I love that one. There are hundreds more here, grouped by subject, with good indexes by name and topic. If my next book is any good, I can thank the people at Writers’ and Artists’ for this great little book.

Review: Body Language, by A.K. Turner

Mon, 2023-07-24 06:30

Cassie (Cassandra) Raven works in a mortuary in Camden, north London, where she speaks to the dead — and it seems they might be speaking back. This is the first book in a series of three so far, and it’s very good. Cassie is a likeable character as are many of the supporting cast (plus some really bad people too). Unlike some other London-based thrillers I’ve read recently, this is a genuinely modern story with a powerful young woman as the lead. Cassie’s been compared to Lisbeth Salander, which may explain why I’m enjoying reading about her. It’s a good story — actually several overlapping stories — and I look forward to reading more from this series.

Review: Terrorism and Communism: A Contribution to the Natural History of Revolution, by Karl Kautsky

Wed, 2023-07-19 10:26

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd in the first days of November 1917, socialists everywhere greeted the news with delight. But not Karl Kautsky, the German Social Democrat then widely known as the “Pope of Marxism”. Within a week of the Bolshevik “revolution” Kautsky was already writing up his criticisms of the new regime. By the following summer, he published these as a book, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which was a blistering attack on the new Soviet state. Lenin, for whom Kautsky was a mentor, was furious. He took a break from running that Soviet state to writing a book-length rebuttal to Kautsky in which he famously described his former teacher as a “renegade”. This book is Kautsky’s followup to the earlier one — but it is not in any way a direct answer to Lenin. This book got Trotsky to hastily write a reply, also called Terrorism and Communism, which the Red Army commander drafted while leading troops into battle from his armoured train.

I was frankly disappointed with this book. It is not Kautsky at his best. In some senses, it is Kautsky at his worst — pedantic, repetitive, and wandering. The first half of the book doesn’t even mention Russia and the Bolsheviks. Instead it is a ponderous history of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871. Kautsky is trying to draw out some general rules of revolution, but without much success. The remaining bits of the book reiterate arguments he made about the Bolsheviks in his earlier book. I imagine that Trotsky felt the need to reply not because of the power of Kautsky’s arguments, but because of who Kautsky was — the pre-eminent Marxist theoretician of his time.

One of the biggest surprises of this book is how amorphous Kautsky’s views really were at this time (1919). After criticising the Bolsheviks for a long list of sins, he concludes: “Whatever one may think of the Bolshevik methods, the fact that a proletarian government in a great state has not only come into power, but been able to maintain itself for nearly two years under the most difficult conditions conceivable, naturally increases the feeling of power among the proletariat of all countries. For the world-revolution therefore, in this respect, the Bolsheviks have rendered an enormous service …”

Strange words coming from a man who a year or two later would be comparing the Bolsheviks to Mussolini’s Fascists. Kautsky eventually convinced the Social Democratic and Labour parties in Euroope into supporting armed insurrections against the Soviet government — which he was still calling “proletarian” at this stage.

This edition fo the book is ill-served by its original translation. W.H. Kerridge, the translator, was a church organist and pianist for an opera company. He was also, apparently, a linguist, though it’s not clear if he had any background on the Left. It would be a good thing if someone would come along and do a new, better translation from the original German.

Review: Zero Days, by Ruth Ware

Mon, 2023-07-17 12:03

I love a good, fast-paced thriller and this book showed a lot of promise. In the opening few pages, the heroine — a woman known as “Jack” — returns home from a dangerous assignment (she does physical checks of security for companies, involving illegal break-ins) to find her husband murdered. And she quickly becomes the prime — indeed, only — suspect. And makes a run for it. With echoes of 1930s thrillers like John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps she even has to jump from a moving train at one point. But there were three things I didn’t like about the book. First, the internal monologue, which is quite repetitive, focussing on how much she misses her dead husband. That significantly padded out the story and I though unnecessarily so. The second two gripes involve a SPOILER ALERT: if you’ve ever seen the movie Ghost with Demi Moore, you may remember her beloved murdered husband and his best friend, the slimy Carl Bruner. A character appears here and I immediately thought — please don’t go there. But the author did. But the worst part was to follow. In the end, as you can imagine, good triumphs (no spoiler there) and our heroine is recuperating in hospital. But with her beloved husband gone, she sees no point in living. After all, what can a woman alone do with her life? And then I worried that the author would slip in some handsome doctor and she’d fall into his arms. But no, this is 2023, authors don’t do that kind of nonsense any more. Instead, Jack finds meaning and a reason to live because, as we discover, she is … with child. The utterly backward and reactionary nature of the story was really quite a shock to me. As if a talented, educated, witty woman can only find meaning in life through her amazing husband or a child. I may be unfair, but those things ruined an otherwise interesting book for me.

Review: Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? by Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell

Sat, 2023-07-15 01:30

With those four men listed as the authors, how could this have been such an uninteresting book? It’s the transcript of a debate which took place in Toronto several years ago. Pinker and Ridley made the optimistic case, de Botton and Gladwell responded as pessimists. Pinker was the strongest, laying out a powerful case for steady improvement in the human condition, though he seemed (more than) a bit smug about climate change, among other challenges. Reading what he said now that we’ve had COVID and the invasion of Ukraine, I still think he’s essentially right. But to understand the argument better, one should read their books, not this one, which may have worked well as a debate on stage, but not as a text to read. Disappointed.