|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
That was quick
It took, oh, hours for the comrades at SIAW to pounce on the post below as apparently 'a quixotic attempt to rehabilitate Josef Stalin as a great Marxist thinker'.
To say that the conversations reported indicate that Stalin was capable of writing three slim pamphlets ('Dialectical and Historical Materialism', 'Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR' and 'Marxism and Linguistics' - Stalin's only ventures into theory, and the only ones as far as I know whose authorship is contested) all by himself, and that some who knew him had a high regard for his ability and personality is entirely compatible with almost any political position, and in no way an endorsement of his.
'Engels did not understand a thing about production ...'
How well we all know Stalin! The arrogant Stalin, the boorish and boring Stalin, the crude, coarse and cynical Stalin, the dull and dogmatic Stalin, the egregiously egotistical Stalin, the ferocious and never funny Stalin, the grim and grey Stalin, the hectoring and hortatory Stalin, the ignorant Stalin, the jealous and jesuitical Stalin, the knavish and kakistocratic Stalin, the livid and leaden Stalin, the mediocre but megalomaniac Stalin, the nationalist and narrow-minded Stalin, the obtuse Orthodox-educated Stalin, the paranoid and parochial plagiarist Stalin, the querulous Stalin, the rude Stalin, the savage, stupid, scholastic and soon-to-be-senile Stalin, the terrifying Stalin, the unlettered and uncouth Stalin, the vain and vengeful Stalin, the wolfish and wilful Stalin, the xenophobic Stalin, the yawn-inducing yokel Stalin, the zealot Stalin.
How different he must have been from the iconoclastic Old Bolshevik who made the following remarks in a series of discussions with economists who were working on a new textbook of political economy:
If you want to seek answers for everything in Marx you will get nowhere. You have in front of you a laboratory such as the USSR which has existed now for more than 20 years but you think that Marx ought to be knowing more than you about socialism. Do you not understand that in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx was not in a position to foresee! It is necessary to use one's head and not string citations together. New facts are there, there is a new combination of forces -- and if you don't mind -- one has to use one's brains.These must be from notes of conversations with some other Stalin.
This other Stalin does seem more consistent with the astute, blunt, canny, didactic, energetic, frank, gregarious, hard-working, iconoclastic, jovial, knowledgeable, lucid, modest, natural, open-minded, patient and pedagogic, quite rational and scientific, sometimes sentimental, tough, unflinching, vehement, wry, xanthochroic (yellow-skinned) zetetic Stalin whom we glimpse in the reminiscences of some of his actual acquaintances, from Averell Harriman to Zhukov - but what did they know?
OK, I'm laying it on with a shovel. Some of those actual acquaintances had much harsher words for him. And, given all that Stalin incontestably did, perhaps even joking about his character and thought is in poor taste. But I was genuinely surprised by the notes from which I've quoted above. Some have claimed that Stalin's theoretical works were ghost-written or plagiarised. If these notes are genuine, the least that can be said is that he had no need for it.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Holes in the sky
Mike Gallagher writes to correct himself:
Pedantic gloss on the ozone layer - British Antarctic Survey was the first to recognise it for what it was but GEOSAT was the first to detect it. NASA thought it had to be a glitch until independent confirmation came in from BAS.
Iain J Coleman coincidentally writes:
There's an error in one of the responses that you've published to your posting on Bush's sudden conversion to space exploration. I wouldn't normally be quite so picky, except that it involves my colleagues and I want to be able to look them in the eye at coffee time this afternoon. Mike Gallagher states that "A NASA Earth observation satellite found the hole in the ozone layer." This is untrue. The ozone hole was discovered by British Antarctic Survey scientists Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin, using meteorological balloons. Of course, satellite measurements did play a crucial role in the subsequent analysis of ozone depletion.
Saturday, January 24, 2004
O Caledonia, I'm leaving home
My son was out with his girlfriend yesterday afternoon, and in Cockburn St he got an out-of-nowhere and quite unprovoked headbutt on the cheekbone from a 'ned'. He walked away, looking back. The ned wanted a fight. My son and his girlfriend still walked away, and called the police on a mobile phone. The ned, and his gang of ten or so, backed off. A police car arrived half an hour later, cruised down the street and did nothing.
This is the third unprovoked attack my son has experienced, from exactly the same kind of people. There's nothing unusual or provocative in his appearance - not that that would be an excuse. He talks about emigrating.
Better nation my arse. Scotland is a lumpen country, that's the truth of it.
Friday, January 23, 2004
'Not even God could stop the people.'
It is very good that corrupt officials have left their posts. All government bodies, executive, legislative, and judicial are now subordinate to the government. There are still problems such as the fact that the Liberty Institute along with the Soros Foundation and the US embassy are actually governing the country.There's something very moving, as well as funny, about this long, informative, artless letter from Georgia.
The majority are going to vote for Saakashvili, but they must know the words of John Lennon who said that we must create our life our selves, and not rely on presidents. Let's see what will happen.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
The Man Who Travelled in Elephants
Well, that didn't take long. Two days after Bush announced his new space program, NASA announced that it was going to ditch the Hubble. These decisions may or may not be connected, but the coincidence is symptomatic.
Oh well. Lesson learned.
I nevertheless think that manned space exploration is important, and that there is something positive about the announcement, but before getting on to that, let's see what some of my correspondents have to say. (These posts got more email response than anything else I've posted. Maybe my general line that certain of Bush's other policies could be regarded as a nostalgic whimsy of extraterrestrial invaders eager to extraterraform Earth into something like their own warmer and more radioactive planet, with the Mad Max scenario as the preferred arrangement for any surviving sapient mammals, is less controversial than I had assumed.)
I have to say I was surprised and (as a fan of the more critical aspects of your work) kind of disappointed at your post on the Bush space program. At worst an obfuscation of ongoing imperial action set to snow the proles for another election cycle (we'll see if it takes) and at best a great leap forward for the militarization of space (Rumsfeld's been angling for this upper hand for decades). And all with the sort of humanist only-REAL-people-can-experience-things dogma that really makes me blue.
(Count me in as a firm upholder of the humanist dogma, by the way. 'Consciousness is an emergent property of carbon.' This is the True Knowledge.)
(I think this is a misunderstanding of the budget proposal, but there's no doubt the proposal is skimpy.)
Boeing's internal rough estimate of developing a replacement for the space shuttle is $20 Billion. Bush wants to scrap the shuttle, but has not commented on where the R&D funds for the new craft would come from.
David Fisher adds:
I hope that I didn't come across as hostile or anything. I have family who have worked for NASA for twenty years, and this new proposal is really a slap in the face. I'd love to see a renewed interest in space, a self-sustained moon base, and a robot colony on Mars. But this proposal isn't going to get us there.
Let's assume the worst. The unstated purposes of the Bush space program might then include:
Military and aerospace pork-barrelling
The militarization of space
Ditching research on the origins of life, the universe, and everything
else that might offend the creationist yahoos
Ditching research that might produce observations embarrassing to the oil industry
Throwing a fiscal millstone to any future administration that might have different priorities
Even so. Without prejudice to any of the above, and acknowledging that the devil is in the details, I still, dammit, think it's a big thing that a president for the first time has signed on to the Golden Age skiffy agenda of open-ended space exploration. The only person who wrote to me agreeing works for Liftport, a company aiming to build a space elevator. That one made my day.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
The Bible in fifty words. Impeccably devout. (Via). Less reverently, The IRC Bible. Not recommended for the easily offended; but highly, otherwise. (Via).
Saturday, January 17, 2004
Theories of surplus value
Nick Gevers at Science Fiction Weekly interviews Kim Stanley Robinson about his latest book, Forty Signs of Rain:
[...] Your career-long critique of capitalism is strongly in play here; in your opinion, why don't science and capitalism constitute a productive combination?(via).
The Man Who Sold the Moon, cont'd
Four comments have flooded in about the post below. Unless I hear cries to the contrary, I'll quote them shortly. Meanwhile, to clarify: I'm not making any judgement on Bush's speech as space policy, issues of funding priorities, military implications, etc. All I'm saying about it at the moment is that as far as I know it's the first time a US President has said we're going to go into space and keep on going, and that this matters.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
The Man Who Sold the Moon
I've just been interviewed for Wired News about George W. Bush's speech at NASA, which I'd watched an hour or so earlier. I was flattered to be asked, and I hope Charlie Stross gave a better impression of an SF writer who is clued up on all this space rockets stuff. Seriously, I don't follow space policy in any depth. I don't, for example, know if Bush's way of finding the money by shifting $11 billion worth of existing NASA priorities and giving the agency an extra $1 billion over five years is open-handed, tight-fisted, or cack-handed.
I do know this. Watching it felt like science fiction coming true, and in a good way. Complete the space station. Replace the Shuttle. Build a Moon base. Learn more stuff. Go to Mars. And then what? Worlds beyond. A human presence across the Solar System. And then what? 'Humanity is going out into the cosmos.'
A feasible beginning, a reasonable progression, and no prospect of an end. This what the Space Age was supposed to be like.
Liberation for women, that's what I preach, preacher man
Juan Cole points to reports of Iraqi women's protests against the IGC's abolition of Iraq's former uniform, secular civil code and its replacement by religious/communal personal status law.
As reported here earlier, the IGC took a decision recently to abolish Iraq's civil personal status law, which was uniform for all Iraqis under the Baath. In its place, the IGC called for religious law to govern personal status, to be administered by the clerics of each of Iraq's major religious communities for members of their religion. Thus, Shiites would be under Shiite law and Chaldeans under Catholic canon law for these purposes.
This is literally mediaeval reaction.
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
'I vote Labour, always with the same deep misgivings. My life has been entirely lacking in excitement or incident apart from the time I attached a PAVEMENTS ARE FOR PEDESTRIANS sticker to the windscreen of a scarlet Ford Sierra illegally parked on the footway of Walker's Way, Penge, and my seven years as a Maoist guerilla in Peru.'
(This is by way of a (partial) reply to SIAW. It isn't point-by-point - not that I think there's anything wrong with that, and I may yet do it, but I've become wearied by years of doing that sort of thing on Usenet, and for now at least I'd much rather point people to the argument in question to read for themselves, and then get on with whatever positive responses it brings to mind.)
Explaining a joke or an allusion kills it; but if the joke is so laboured, or the allusion so obscure, that explanation is needed then it didn't deserve to live in the first place. My immediately preceding post is a sack full of such kittens.
So here, in no particular order, I drown them one by one.
The back room of Collett's (a left-wing bookshop in Central London) was, in the 1970s and 1980s, stocked with the pamphlets and papers of every socialist sect that bothered to place them there. I attribute no virtue to the place, other than that it was more comprehensive than any other I've come across, and that I browsed my way around the lot. (To the point where the staff wondered if I was an agent of some secret service, using the back room for intelligence gathering; a former agent of BOSS having recently written an autobiographical admission of doing just that.)
The SPGB and B&ICO are two of the most diametrically opposed socialist sects imaginable. My suggestion that SIAW seemed to draw on something of both was meant, not as a smear by association, but as a compliment. The SPGB (est. 1903) is famous for upholding a strong distinction between socialism ('a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community') and anything and everything else, most especially the state ownership and bureaucratic control of the means and instruments, etc. It's notable for its recognition that on its definition, socialism has never existed; that socialism's original (or at least its Marxian) meaning has been traduced by its identification with both totalitarian and liberal, or complete and partial, instances of state capitalism, and furthermore that the number of people who 'understand and want' unfalsified and untried socialism is tiny. I think the comrades of SIAW would agree with the aim, the distinction, and the recognition.
If the SPGB is notable for its radicalism, the B&ICO (now defunct, but its former members trade as the very different and less intriguing Bevin Society) was notorious for its iconoclasm. By the odd expedients of proclaiming themselves Stalinist, and claiming that much of Mao's critique of Soviet revisionism had been anticipated in a slender pamphlet by an anonymous Irishman while the Great Helmsman was still being comradely to Khruschev, they cleared their minds of a great deal of leftist clutter and Leninist piety, and turned themselves into one of the most free-thinking and contrarian groups on the British left. What did they think about nuclear power? NATO? Immigration control? Northern Ireland? Ted Heath? Imperialism? Pornography? Zionism? The Falklands War? Solzhenitsyn? You can save yourself the research (though you'd miss the entertainment) by taking the standard far left position on any of them, and turning it on its head. All of this while being fairly solid Labour and trade union activists, and calling themselves communists. They thought in terms of practical politics, as if asking themselves: if you were the Cabinet, now, this minute, what would you do? The SPGB scorns 'the meantime', the clamour for 'something now', the question: 'What would you do?'; the B&ICO insisted upon it; any measure that couldn't be argued for as in the working-class interest and realistic in the present circumstances was for them a waste of breath.
I don't endorse much of what they wrote, and I doubt SIAW would either, but in a left where policy was too often concocted from an unstable mix of passing fad and historical precedent, in isolation from the actually existing working class, there was something enormously refreshing in their 'grubbing about in reality'. I suspect their influence was far greater than their present obscurity suggests; and that their dogged concentration on the feasible, their insistence on reasoned argument, and their scepticism toward the shibboleths of the left, was (in its impulse if not always its results) admirable.
OK. Radicalism of the goal, realism of the means. That's all. That's all I find interesting and inspiring in the record of two obscure and opposite sects, and all that I was, too obliquely, ascribing to SIAW.
A dash of genetic modification from the RCP (and its successors, currently trading as Spiked) refers solely to that group's defence of science, technology, liberty, and progress, and not at all to their more narrowly political positions.
Having said that, I should explain, if it isn't obvious already, that my own position is far from Marxism, much as I think there is to learn from Marx and other Marxists, and oft though I've defended them from the endlessly-recycled slanders of the right and distortions of the left. Bakunin, Mill and Spencer (among others) saw Stalin coming, and they read him between the lines of Marx, or of the Marxists; and Mises saw him, and Gorbachev and Yeltsin too, latent in the legislation of Lenin; and I wish I could say they were wrong.
What I mean by socialism is a working life without bosses and gaffers, a condition I've fleetingly experienced often enough to know it's possible and productive, and the generalisation of that to the extent (and only to the extent) that more people come to 'understand and want' it. Alec Nove's 'feasible socialism' may be its most realisable (though still no doubt historically distant) beginning, Proudhon's 'federalism' its prospect, and Marx's 'association in which the free development of each is the free development of all' its farthest horizon.
'There are times when we slide into envying the monochrome certainty of people like MacLeod, but we quickly recover. As for 'confusing strong writing with solid reasoning', pot and kettle, Mr MacLeod, pot and kettle.'
It was my own pot's blackness I was pointing at. Whether the accumulated deposits amount to a monochrome certainty is for others to judge.
Sunday, January 11, 2004
The other night I dreamt that I'd asked the folks at SiaAoW to meet me down the pub. Which I guess shows: (1) I should get out more, and (2) my subconscious must still be fairly fraternal towards them, despite their recent (scroll down) burchilling [*] of this post. The latter may be because I'd always prefer to read a punchy polemic against ideas I hold than a dull defence or clunky statement of them. (Over the years this frivolous penchant has dragged me into, and kicked me out of, countless curiosities.) The substance of their criticism is:
(1) That by banging on about the less than accurate threat assessment widely and loudly proclaimed before the war, I'm snootily underestimating the intelligence of the people who supported, and fought in, the war.
(2) That by pointing to the possibility of things going very badly in Iraq, I'm indulging in Cassandra-like predictions of doom, for the sheer malicious pleasure of looking forward to saying 'I told you so' if they turn out to be true.
(3) That both of these betray my position as out-of-touch lefty radical, compensating for the disappointment of earlier fervent expectations by scorning the working class for not being revolutionary and cursing the capitalist system for not obliging me by collapsing in conformity to some now-faded perspectives document.
Well, that's not how I see myself, but if that's the impression I give, it's my own damn fault, and one I intend to correct. Seeing yourself on CCTV can often do more to make you straighten up your posture than seeing yourself in the mirror.
Who are these guys? Their main site, BICEPS (acronymed for their former incarnation as the British Institute for Contemporary Economic and Political Science) contains a lot of material which is interesting whether you agree with it or not (that frivolity again) but no ideological genealogy. First impressions might suggest some Colletts'-back-room joy-of-sects episode resulting in a bizarre cross-fertilization of the SPGB and B&ICO with a dash of genetic modification from the RCP, but this is surely false, and hardly relevant. What matters isn't where they come from, but where they are, and where they're going. Given that they can argue with a straight face that the Iraq war was (among other blessings) defensive because it helped secure Western oil supplies, and that they're broad-minded about possible future Western military intervention in China, one wonders whether they shouldn't rethink their retrospective opposition to such past adventures as, say, Suez, Aden and Vietnam. In an Internet cafe by a virtual Lake Geneva, some unknown disciple of Lenin may already be writing the definitive dissection: 'The nascent trend of imperialist Deutscherism'[**]. I'd read it. But I'd also go on reading SiaAoW, because it's interesting and well-written. Confusing strong writing with solid reasoning is a known weakness of the political-journalism junkie, and political journalists know it. The world-view that Julie Burchill (back in the day) parleyed out of a girlie pash for Stalin and soldiers may have been as reprehensible as it was lightminded. But how we laughed.
[*] You figure it out.
Sunday, January 04, 2004
The apparent loss of Beagle 2 doesn't mean the end of British attempts to reach Mars. The Brits, after all, owe it to themselves to make the chaps with the heat-rays and tentacles sorry they ever heard of Woking.
NASA's Deep Space Network has received a signal confirming that Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is alive after rolling to a stop on the surface of Mars.
Wahey! Heartfelt congratulations to the people and artificial intelligences of the United States!