Findlay, Harry: “Gambling For Life”.

On the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s seminal The Gambler comes the tale of a bettor who lives it every hour of every day. Australian football, rugby, rugby league, dogs, tennis, snooker, horse racing. It is odds of 1.01 that Findlay has bet every sport on Betfair.  I doubt that even the man himself knows how much he has won or lost down the years. Over 99% of bettors do not, and with good reason. As U2 sang on Every Breaking Wave, “Every gambler knows that to lose / is what you’re really there for”.  We can say for sure what Findlay’s biggest loss was: a £2,500,000 bet on New Zealand to win the 2007 Rugby World Cup. France prevailed with an incorrect last-minute penalty that should not have been awarded. Next time you get a bad beat, chew on that.

That’s what this book is all about: the highs and lows of a shrewd, instinctual gambler. After lumping on the 10/11 Navratilova to win a Wimbledon match with money that he had borrowed from a builder’s kitty in his day job, Findlay knew he could get on a roll at any time in order to get the “readies”. These would not come from the aforementioned building job, as he was sacked the next week. He was no stranger to playing hard and loose with the truth, having previously “done bird” for credit card fraud.

His most famous, and beloved, dog “Big Fella Thanks” was bought in Ireland and named after a comment that Charlie Haughey had made to Ben Dunne after receiving a payoff. Haughey had apparently said “thanks big fella” which had to be legally changed to “Big Fella Thanks”. After some previously bad beats in big dog races, Findlay learnt, in the words of Curley O’Driscoll, that “you have to take your beating in this game”. “Big Fella Thanks” won virtually everything and duly went on a 31-race unbeaten streak. Findlay cared for the greyhound at home until he died.

Snooker player Willie Thorne was dying a very different sort of death after going out drinking with Findlay during a tournament. Naturally, when Thorne played the next day, Findlay lumped on his opponent Terry Griffiths who duly smashed the worse-for-wear Thorne 4-0.

Findlay’s story is also that of the generational change to the “machine” Betfair, where he still does most of his trading today, and the rise of the purely financial punter like Tony Bloom. His most legendary day of horse racing was when Denman won the 2008 Gold Cup. That race still gives me Goosebumps and is up there with Dawn Run in Cheltenham folklore. Findlay won £1,000,000 on him that day. Incredibly, this was probably from a lower stake than when he bet £360,000 on Denman to win £33,000 in his second ever hurdle race.

Findlay was perhaps unfairly banned from racing. He laid a horse despite having a net back position. Yet, I cannot help but think: don’t lay your own horses. Seems simple enough to me. Some of his whining about this being a conspiracy by people who didn’t like him is also wide of the mark. In fact, it reminded me of the similar wailings that emanated from the man who ghost wrote this book, Neil Harman, the disgraced ex-Times tennis journalist, after he was caught out plagiarising another persons work some years back. Birds of a feather and all that. Overall, file under mildly interesting read.

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Kondo, Marie: “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying”.

I am a collector and have always surrounded myself with art that I love. Be it records, CDs, Minidiscs, books, DVDs: you name it and I have it squirrelled away in my abode. This hobby has obvious repercussions for my living space.  The problem is that I fundamentally do not want to get rid of any of my collection, so emotionally attached am I. Naturally, I thought I would read a book about tidying up instead of actually…tidying up.

Kondo is an interesting character who believes that “people cannot change their habits without changing their way of thinking” which is self-evidently true. She states that reorganising has to be done on a strictly one-off basis over a maximum period of six months. She tried every trick in the book such as tidying by room or by type of mess and has reported back that none of it worked. Consequently, she has a unique angle which is to pick up every item in your home and ask yourself whether you truly love it. If you do, then keep it. If not, discard it. Once you do this, everything else will click into place.

Kondo advises that it is important to visualise what the outcome of this big clear out will be beforehand and to focus on what you want to keep and not just what you want to discard. Her philosophy can be boiled down to asking yourself: “keep only those things that spark joy in your heart”. She believes that it is better to decide what you want by category: for example, to pick up each item of your clothing in sequence and decide how to pare the entire collection.

It is an interesting concept and one that could work. Now, to get started. Perhaps I ought to pick up a book about procrastination first…

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Philbrick, Nathaniel: “In The Heart Of The Sea”.

This is the real story of the Essex, a ship which set sail from Nantucket in 1820 and upon which, famously, Herman Melville based Moby Dick. As is so frequently the case, the truth is stranger than fiction. Philbrick is a resident of Nantucket and has written a history of the area, so knows his onions on the topic. The book is well researched and became a page-turner approximately thirty pages in, after a somewhat slow beginning. When I was a hundred pages from the end, I had to drag myself off my couch to see a play called Class in the Peacock Theatre – and I dived straight back into the book as soon as I returned home that evening.

If you are afraid of flying, just imagine what it would have been like travelling any distance in 1820 when one had to travel by sea. It is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend. Moreover, the role of the sea has been overlooked since the rise of air travel. Think to World War II and ask what really saved the United Kingdom from Hitler. It was the sea. Read Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and what does he base a large amount of his economic analysis on? How the free market of trading fish benefitted the United States.

Religion was the dominant ideology in the early nineteenth century and Nantucketers, bizarrely, believed that they were doing God’s work, rather than killing God’s work, by fishing whales. I would class myself as somewhere between atheist and agnostic, yet never cease to be amazed by the utterly bizarre lengths that people will go to in order to justify certain actions. Fishing whales is a case in point. Killing a creature like that cannot surely be justified. I guess it could be somewhat justified if you are a Christian, as the bible does make opaque reference to it being morally acceptable to kill animals. Yet Nantucketers were Quakers, whose religion is largely based on pacifism, which I find difficult to align with the harpooning of whales to a grisly death. One area in which religion does still come in handy is when we are in danger of dying. Plenty of atheists will put in what Richard Pryor would call an “emergency phone call to God” at such times, similar to the one that a crewmember on the Essex, Chappel, did when he was shipwrecked on Henderson Island with no water. Philbrick writes that he “found religion not only useful…but absolutely necessary”. I daresay a few of us would be in the same boat in that situation. I may even have put in a phone call to Allah too under such circumstances, just to cover the bases.

Nantucket was a village of fatherless men due to the harsh realities that seafaring exacted on its sailors. This left a plethora of widowed women behind who used to please themselves with makeshift sex objects that Philbrick writes were found in a house at the time. There was also an opium epidemic because it was relatively easy for Nantucketers to come across the drug as the ships in the harbour used to keep it on board in case of emergency.

Seven African Americans set sail on the Essex and Philbrick writes that negroes were beginning to take the place of the Native Americans at the time, as the local population had almost completely wiped out them out. It is not a topic that is investigated fully, yet it does make one think about the founding of the United States. How much of their subsequent power was built on exploiting the Native Americans and, subsequently, the slave trade?  Negroes were frequently treated worse than white sailors. One only has to read Jack London’s vile The Heathen to confirm this. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the first four crewmen killed on board were African Americans.

In 1820, there were bull whales that were eighty-five feet in length before, after one and a half centuries of relentless whale fishing, they became extinct. The book raises serious concerns about our anthropogenic destruction of planet earth. Plus ca change, in that regard.  I am in favour of free markets, yet at what price? What has capitalism done to our oceans?

The crew of the Essex who survived had to resort to cannibalism and drinking tortoise blood in order to stay alive. Captain Pollard even had to eat his own cousin, a term which Philbrick neatly calls “gastronomic incest”. It is riveting to jump back into the 1820s in a book on a Saturday evening. Thankfully, I awaken in 2018.

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Pappe, Ilan: “Ten Myths About Israel”

Ilan Pappe takes a sledgehammer to the official narrative that the Israeli state wants people to believe. “Narrative” is a kind way of saying blatant propaganda. That many academics and intellectuals fall for complete fabrications of history that belie the official Israeli narrative underscore how big an issue this is. It is Pappe’s assertion that until Israel and the US are honest about Israel’s past and present, the Palestinian people will not get the justice that they are entitled to. Anyone vaguely criticising the Israeli state tends to be labelled an anti-Semite yet, as Pappe observes, “from the very beginning, Palestine resistance was depicted as motivated as hate for the Jews” when in fact it was nothing of the sort.

In his excellent short book with Noam Chomsky, The War on Gaza, Pappe used the word ethnic cleansing to describe the actions taken on behalf of the Israeli state. Here, he goes one step further and deems it genocide. I am not sure that it fits Raphael Lemkin’s original definition of the word but, certainly, Pappe makes a strong case for this, saying that it is exactly “what the Israeli army has been doing on the Gaza Strip since 2006”. He cites a United Nation’s report that predicts that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Pappe does not deal in falsehoods and supports his assertions with facts.

The first myth he torpedoes is Israel’s claim that when they first began settling Palestine in the 1880s, it was an empty land with few indigenous people present. Pappe details the history of how the Romans named the land “Palestina” when it became an imperial province of the Roman Empire, who in 70 CE ethnically cleansed Jews from Jerusalem. For most of the next two thousand years there were few Jewish people in Palestine: just before the Zionist movement began in earnest, their population numbered about 5,000. By the eighteenth century, new historical records show that there was what Pappe deemed a “thriving Arab society” present in Palestine, with a breakdown of 85% Muslim, 10% Christian and 5% Jewish people.   The myth that Palestine was, to all intents and purposes, empty, supports the Israeli assertion that there was no Palestinian national movement preceding Israeli colonisation, yet Pappe details historical Palestinian leaders, such as Khalidi and Muslih, to prove that Palestinian national identity existed long before the influx of Zionists in the nineteenth century. It is pure fiction to suggest otherwise. “Without the appearance of Zionism on its doorstep, Palestine would probably have gone the same way as Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria . . . [Palestine] was a pastoral country on the verge of entering the twentieth century as a modern society, with all the benefits and ills of such a transformation. Its colonisation by the Zionist movement turned this process into a disaster for the majority of the native people living there”.

Pappe explodes the myth that Zionism is not colonisation. Specifically, he terms the Zionist movement a form of settler colonialism.  “The diaries of the early Zionists are full of anecdotes revealing how the settlers were well received by the Palestinians, who offered them shelter and in many cases taught them how to cultivate the land. Only when it became clear that the settlers had not come to live alongside the native population, but in place of it, did the Palestinian resistance begin”. By 1945, Jewish people owned 7% of the land, which they did not consider enough, so they had to “remove the natives from their homeland. Zionism is thus a settler-colonial project, and one that has not yet been completed”.

Another humdinger that is prevalent in modern Israeli propaganda is that Zionism is Judaism. Of course, the very fact that there are people like Pappe writing a different version of Israeli history refutes this myth. Pappe cites the fact that Theodore Herzl considered settling in Uganda at the 1897 global conference on Zionism as proof that Judaism was not his primary consideration.  That the Jewish secularists totally rejected Zionism until 1948 is more evidence that Zionism is not Judaism. The American Council of Judaism (ACJ) reminded the world, in 1993, that Zionism was a minority movement among Jews – a point that is often lost. The picture that Pappe paints is that Zionism consumed all the movements around the fringes, eventually including them under the umbrella of Zionism and leaving only a small number of dissidents.

Socialist Jews, who were a big influence in early to mid-twentieth century Jewish society, did not fully buy into Zionism. Even the ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment was not originally Zionistic. Although the Bible was not the sole text used for Zionism, it was used to justify an enormous amount of settlement expansion. “Yigal Aron used the Bible to build a Jewish town, Qiryat Arba, on land expropriated from the people of Hebron…people selectively chose biblical chapters and phrases that in their eyes justified the dispossession of the Palestinians”. Pappe states that “since 1882 the Bible has been used as a justification for dispossession”. He reveals that “Israeli educational textbooks now carry the same message of the right of the land based on a biblical promise” following a letter sent to all schools from the Ministry of Education in 2014.

One of the ten myths that Pappe dismisses, that the Palestinians left their land voluntarily in 1948, is so ludicrous that the mind boggles that even the most ardent Zionist could believe this to be the case. Former President of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, had said in 1938 “I favour compulsory transfer” of the local Palestinian villages, anticipating the Nakba.

The biggest misconception I can see in defence of Israel is that it is a peaceful democracy. This does not stack up. Pappe details the Kafr Qasim massacre of 1956, when 56 Palestinian civilians were attacked and killed by Israeli border police, ostensibly for being outdoors after a 5pm curfew and really because the official Israeli dictat was to consider all Palestinians hostiles.  The victims were a group of field labourers returning home from the valleys, who were unaware of the newly-imposed curfew, and upon whom the Israelis opened fire in nine separate shooting incidents between 5 and 6:30 p.m.  Among their number were 23 children and teenagers shot to death, the youngest of whom was only 8 years old. Many injured survivors were left to lie suffering in the streets, with no assistance for 24 hours due to the curfew, and the bodies of the dead were put in a mass grave. Only months of lobbying and protests induced the Israeli justice system to act: even then, the brigade commander who ordered the killings was found not guilty of murder and symbolically fined only one Israeli cent. Of the 8 officers and soldiers found guilty of murder, not a single one served their full prison term.  Murderers Shmuel Malinki and Gabriel Dahan, with sentences of 17 and 15 years respectively, were granted so many reductions, pardons and remissions that they were out of prison in less than 3 years – not only this, the Israeli state reinstated their careers within the state apparatus and gave both men significant promotions.  This is the antithesis of democracy in action.

That the poorest Israeli settlement is richer than richest Palestinian one is more proof for Pappe that the Israeli state is inherently undemocratic. After an election in the Gaza Strip, Israel overthrew the democratically elected Hamas.  “When the Palestinians did resist – as they did in 1987, 2000, 2006, 2012, 2014, and 2016 – they were targeted as soldiers and units of a conventional army. Thus, villages and towns were bombed as if they were military bases”. This demonstrates that Israel deliberately targets civilians. After the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, the Israeli army poured concrete into the windows and doors of Palestinian civilians. Pappe cites the 2015 Amnesty International Report which stated: “In the West Bank, Israeli forces committed unlawful killings of Palestinian civilians”. He also quotes a Middle East Monitor list of 200 methods that the Israeli state use to torture Palestinians. This list was based on a similar UN report, which stated that the Israeli police force-twisted testicles of male prisoners, poured hot and cold water on prisoners and chained prisoners to railings for hours on end.  This is obviously closer to a totalitarian nightmare than a liberal democracy.

On the Gaza strip, Pappe puts forward the theory that the Israeli state had strong links to Sheikh Yassin, one of the founders set of Hamas. In a move similar to Assad releasing thousands of jihadis from Syrian prisons months after their 2011 revolution, Israel wanted the political leadership in Gaza not to appear secular but extremist. This is part of the broader post-9/11 narrative of The West versus Muslim extremism which must be challenged. It is simply not applicable to the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a geographical dispute about who has the right to the land. As with the extremist groups that took hold in Syria and protected civilians from Assad, “Hamas is now deeply emboldened in Palestinian society thanks to its genuine attempts to alleviate the suffering of ordinary people”. The people had no choice in the face of the violence undertaken, like the punitive actions carried out by the Assad regime in 2012.

My experiences online lead me to believe that Israel has a highly effective and professional online presence. Look at the comments sections under any article discussing Israel and you will see coordinated waves of comments militantly promulgating Zionist views and denouncing any criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic. I consider Israeli online presence second only to the Russian internet army in its organisation, influence and pernicious dissemination of untruths.  It is refreshing to read a book that lays out the truth so uncompromisingly and so honestly about a history which is essentially dishonest.  This is the very least the memories of the 15,000 Palestinian (including 2,000 children) killed since the illegal 1967 occupation deserve.  The fact that one in five Palestinians continues to undergo “imprisonment without trial” is a fact that will not change until Israel as a society begin to be honest about their past and present. As Gandhi put it, “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense England belongs to the English”.

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Lichtheim, George: “A Brief History Of Socialism”.

George Lichtheim details the history of the word “socialism”, from its 1827 appearance in Robert Owen’s Co-operative Magazine through to its far broader use in the 1970s. Like so many political words and concepts, the term has been rendered somewhat obsolete today, in so far as virtually all modern economies feature a degree of privately owned enterprise. There are very few countries that remain genuinely socialist. In the US, people refer to Bernie Sanders as a socialist. Health care aside, he does not call on the US to nationalise multiple industries. He is not a socialist at all. Jeremy Corbyn in the UK wants to nationalise two or three industries, so could be deemed somewhat socialist. Even he does not want to nationalise all industries. Labour’s 1995 abandonment of their “common ownership of the means of production” was when they disavowed the concept of the government running large industries such as the railways. Therefore, to define the word “socialism” in this context is troublesome. The overwhelming majority of countries have a balance of public and private ownership and the loose definition is neoliberalism, which most so-called socialists seem to be opposed to. In reality, we are all neoliberal.   The problem with the government running industries is that they are generally incompetent and corrupt. This fact becomes apparent when one analyses the economic record of socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and Cuba. When most people in Western countries refer to themselves as socialist, they are not inferring that they want a democratic version of the Soviet Union. In fact, they are left leaning neoliberals. Pure socialism always comes with authoritarianism because when it inevitably goes wrong, those with the power (usually in the form of a one-party state or the “dictatorship of the proletariat”) want to hang onto what they have. A contemporary example of such authoritarians clinging to power can be seen in the ostensibly “socialist” Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro. As Lichtheim says, “Social democracy maybe boring, but at least it is familiar and holds no menace to freedom and democracy”.

1830s liberalism saw a rabid fanaticism of the free market and Lichtheim writes that the most extreme form of this led to the Irish famine. This is an interesting observation. I always saw the Irish and Indian famines, under the yoke of British rule, as having resulted from a racist form of national colonialism, yet it is certainly interesting to think of how the mindset of free-market extremism led to the “let them fend for themselves” attitude. If communism was the end point of socialism, then classical early liberalism was its opposite, being too weighted in favour of unregulated free markets. A balance was required. Early liberalism meant that Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism came into being, which led to absolute misery for the working classes. A quick read of any Dickens novel bears witness to the necessity of early socialist thinking. Early liberalism and utilitarianism had come into being after the Enlightenment and democratic revolutions around the world in the previous fifty years, yet failed to sufficiently improve the lot of the majority of people, leaving a thirst for new models of social organisation. “The abolition of slavery was the last great triumph of democratic liberalism”. The free market reigned supreme from the time of Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations until 1848’s Marx’s 1848 The Communist Manifesto. The co-operative theories of Robert Owen in the UK and the ideas of Marx were not properly tried out until the disastrous 1871 Paris Commune experiment.

Lichtheim has some interesting comments on the early democratic French thinker Rousseau, whom I would never have associated with socialism! Yet this is to misunderstand socialism, as it was essentially a demand for equality: something which democracy provided. “In Rousseau, we thus confront the theorist of a democratic movement that was to overstep its own limitations. Communism, no less than socialism, was born in France, and it came to life under circumstances in which plebeian leaders felt obliged to ask why the Revolution had failed to establish social equality”. Lichtheim draws a straight line from the perceived failure of the French Revolution to make society more equal to the demand for socialism. I had never considered the link but it now seems obvious that when democracy did not fix the ills of society, people wanted something else that would do the job. I do not see democracy as utopian, yet Rousseau’s theory about society was somewhat utopian. Unlike Hobbes, he did not believe that man lived in a perpetual “state of nature” which opened the door to a utopian psyche where equality was possible. In a sense, liberals saw “civilization” with its flaws, whereas Marxists saw a “class society” that needed to be made more equal. Robespierre tried to impose a form of what Lichtheim calls “totalitarian democracy”. An expression that I am in love with! The Jacobin experiment from 1793 to 1795 failed because it did not introduce social equality and also because of Napoleon’s warmongering. From then on, Cabet, Babeuf & Buonarroti split from the wing of extreme democratic thought to form communism and so Lichtheim is clear that the idea of socialism emanated mainly from France in a direct line from their democratic revolution. Of course, Robert Owen in the UK had set up the co-operative movement in a pre-democratic era. He was an atheist and a successful, cotton-making industrialist who believed that the system could be made more equitable. Lichtheim notes that “socialism was the creation of intellectuals of bourgeois origin”.

Lichtheim views Henri de Saint Simon (1760-1825) as critical in this process, “Saint-Simonism became the cradle of feminism, pacifism, philo-Semitism, Europeanism and Christian Socialism” because he had “proclaimed free love…made a public issue of sexual repression a century before Freud” and also influenced Marx. I have often wondered about what the exact difference between communism and socialism is. Lichtheim went back almost a century to define it: “Communism in France by the 1940s had become a primitive proletarian class movement…whose leaders thought in terms of conspiracy and armed insurrection. French Socialism was the work of men who had no thought of overturning society”.

Marx continues to tower over the left to this day and Lichtheim clearly believes that he was the greatest socialist thinker ever. It is difficult to argue with this but I would add that most of Marx’s predictions have been proven to be false, so I question the wisdom of still hanging on his every word. Marx’s historical materialism meant that he, in my view, mistakenly saw everything as a class struggle, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. The key thing about the evolution of capitalism and democracy, particularly within effective welfare states, is that people can change their class by improving themselves. In my view, Marx is completely misunderstood. He never really created a viable blueprint for a functioning society and his philosophy was very vague. Like Bakunin before him and the great current left thinker, Noam Chomsky, I see his work as a critique of capitalism and not a solution for how to run an alternative society, especially after his forecasting was so off. Lichtheim: “A philosophy of history is not, of course, the same as a theory of society”.  Even modern leftists, like Piketty, have seen the problem with Marx as an economist. As Piketty wrote in “Capital”, Marx was writing with no economic data to hand, so how could he get it right? The simple answer is that he could not.

Lichtheim: “He never worked out a consistent theory of the state…”Capital” was not meant to be a blueprint for socialism”. It remains infuriating that so many think it is. “Marxism” is a critique, not a blueprint. As to why the idea of socialism came about, it was the harsher edges of classical liberalism that made it so some degree inevitable. For example, when Engels critiqued Malthus’s inhumane doctrine that poor people should not have children because it was somehow their fault, it represented a turning point in the sense that he observed that human existence as being determined solely by economics.

One of Marx’s key ideas was that he believed that as profits rose then labour costs would decrease. It was a fair assumption at the time because the markets were completely unregulated. These days, there are many rules and regulations that, to varying degrees, stymie this from happening. The Welfare State as a concept has balanced things out. “The entire concept of exploitation –in the Marxist sense, not in the popular meaning of the term– stands and falls with the thesis that under capitalism the worker necessarily produces a surplus for those who own or control the means of production,” writes Lichtheim. Of course, as Conquest noted in The Dragons Of Expectation, once you take away the impetus to create wealth, then it has far worse consequences. This and the idea that wages would fall were the two predictions that Marx was incorrect on.  He believed businesses would pay an absolute minimum which did not take into account the rule of law and politics and ethics. He also assumed that the majority of people were bad actors. I guess when you look at utilitarianism and classical liberalism, it was reasonable to assume that Smith’s “invisible hand” had disappeared in a sea of greedy capitalists. I also think that we need to credit Marx and his fellow leftist thinkers with being instrumental in implementing elements of the Welfare State and protecting workers.   Perhaps Marx’s biggest mistake was the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which led to untold suffering for countless millions of people. Lichtheim provides an interesting insight, highlighting how dismayed and dismissive Marx became when the French, mainly working class, people voted for Napoleon in 1848. Interestingly, Marx’s theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” came from fact that only 240,000 out of 36,000,000 French people could vote. He was correct about this but the solution was more democracy, not communism.

Lichtheim chronicles pre-Bolshevik Russian socialism, including how Herzen, in 1869, believed that the “denial of private property is such nonsense”. The right to own a private property has always seemed an absolute right for me. If only Lenin and his ilk had listened a bit more carefully to Bakunin who wrote that, “I do not believe people who prefer destruction and brute force to evolution and to amicable agreements are really serious”. Curiously, the author all but dismisses Bakunin except for the fact that “he did, however, leave one great central theme: all authority was dangerous. Hence no reliance could be placed on radical movements which shirked the issue of political power”. In this regard, I think Bakunin was correct about socialism in that the idea is great but any state that holds that amount of power is to be mistrusted. He continued that “contrary to authoritarian communist belief- in my opinion wholly erroneous- that a social revolution can be decreed and organised, either by dictatorship”. Exactly. Bakunin foresaw the tyranny of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Oddly, he wrote an infamous letter in 1870 decreeing that his followers had to adhere to him in a bizarre form of authoritarianism.  Bakunin and Chomsky are two greatest left thinkers to date, in my view, as both understand the risk implicit in any power structure, and that giving the government that amount of power is dangerous.

Lichtheim chronicles the travails of the Western socialist project from the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864 onwards. In the UK, the build-up of the Labour Party began after Gladstone had disintegrated the Liberal Party by being gung-ho about the prospects of Irish freedom from the UK. Gladstone is an interesting case. Calling himself a liberal is an odd one, in my view. Liberalism is about promoting the political liberty of individuals in society. How did he consider himself as one if he planned to subjugate the liberty of millions of Irish people? Lichtheim details the first real communist experiment, the Paris Commune, from 1871 until Marx’s death in 1883, the very same year in which the Fabian society was set up by Dr Thomas Davidson, who had hated wealth creation. The society which “adhered to democratic procedures…but had no objection to a certain degree of enlightened authoritarianism” was named after Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who was apparently reserved in his militarism. Does anyone know what “enlightened authoritarianism” is? Sounds a bit like the infamous “dictatorship of the proletariat”. We will control you but in an enlightened sense. There is an interesting discussion about the tentative links between authoritarianism and socialism.  Back to the Fabians, whose job it was, or so they believed, to convert middle-class intellectuals to socialism. Strangely, George Bernard Shaw became pro-imperialist for a time as well as flirting with Italian fascism. International Socialism ended abruptly in 1914 with the outbreak of World War One when Germany and France become powerful. That socialism failed to stop the war was seen as a fault.

It is a point that socialists still misunderstand today, Namely, that nationalism will always take preference over socialism. “In Europe of 1914, nationalism was still the most powerful of all emotions”. As Lichtheim writes, “It came to be widely believed that socialism was a protest against poverty, whereas the real issue had to do with equality”. The increase of democracy has also halted socialism as it has had enormous benefits. In Ireland, in 2017, we saw copious leftists waxing lyrical about the authoritarian brand of socialism when they lionised Che Guevara.  Democratic socialism, defined by Louis Blanc as “to prepare for the future without breaking violently with the past”, is the only game in town. It is impossible to take people who celebrate violent, brutal and repressive systems such as Cuba seriously. If it is not entirely democratic, forget about it. Modern leftists like to call themselves “socialist” yet are anything but in practice. Similar, in a sense, to how Lichtheim views Howard Wilson: “Wilson spoke the language of socialism while in practice was indistinguishable from American liberalism”. The fact remains that capitalist democracies have seen incredible economic and social improvements whereas the purely socialist countries have not. It is just that leftists cannot bring themselves to admit this. Given the choice of living in East or West Berlin in the 1980s, which would you have chosen? Aside from the Seamus Milnes of this world, the overwhelming majority of people would have chosen capitalist democracies.

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Murakami, Haruki: “After The Quake”.

First published In English in 2002 after its Japanese publication in 2000, these six stories from the Japanese master-craftsman deal with the effect that the 1995 Kobe earthquake had on the psyche of a disparate group of individuals in Japan. As with everything that Murakami writes, it is a gentle excavation of the deepest recesses of Japanese society and the prose is wonderfully understated. Simple, evocative descriptions such as “All sounds reached him as far off, monotonous echoes” are the order of the day here, chronicling how humans deal with violence and death on the television and the radio. In short, it can be oddly impersonal. Despite this, we learn that “No matter how far you travel you can never get away from yourself”. Perhaps this is why we try so hard to distract ourselves.  Elsewhere, in “Landscape With Flatiron”, the third person narrator (unusual for Murakami) observes how two people “fell silent for a while in the presence of the fire, each lost in private thoughts and letting time flow along separate parts”.

Like Plath, Murakami extrapolates personal stories to catastrophic events. In “Nimit In Thailand”, the narrator observes, “strange and mysterious things, though, aren’t they – earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being down to earth”. In the trippiest story here, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”, we learn that “people will be made to realise what a fragile condition the intensive collectively known as a city really is”. This is what Murakami does. He explores just how gentle the balance between civilisation and madness truly is.

Murakami sees wonder in banality and uses it as a tool to understand the more complex issues in life, observing how a taxi driver “steered silently at the road ahead. His technique with the steering wheel was almost beautiful”.

The last story, “Honey Pie” is named after a Beatles song and they are referenced a couple of times in this collection. That Pearl Jam, opera, Errol Garner, Harry Edison, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins are also mentioned in such a short text is telling. Elsewhere there is a superb description of jazz as Murakami writes that it “is telling us the story of the free spirit that is doing everything it can to escape”. Quite.

Reading “After The Quake” is the realisation that every day is an earthquake for human beings. Once we understand this, we can begin to comprehend life itself.

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Frankopan, Peter: “The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World”

The first half of Peter Frankopan’s book is a triumph which presents the Eastern history of the world in a clear manner. “It is easy to mould the past into a shape that we find convenient and accessible. But the ancient world was more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think” he wrote of the period in question. He contextualises, like Robert Conquest in his wonderful The Dragons Of Expectation, how dangerous ideas can be. It is interesting to question the modern narrative that Islam is destroying Western culture. We seem obsessed by it, yet if you go back to 1099 the Christian Crusaders were even more brutal when they took Jerusalem: “For all the rhetoric about the knighthood being motivated by faith and piety, the reality was that self-interest, local rivalries and squabbling were the order of the day”. Questioning the actions of our ancient Western ancestors is essential to viewing the modern world in a balanced light.

All this is not to say that the world was superior in ancient times – far from it. In 260AD, when the Roman Emperor Valerian captured a rival ruler, he used him as a human footstool before skinning him alive and consequently spurred the Persian Empire to similarly depraved heights.  The ancient world was as brashly opulent as it was violent. Sizabul, who lead the Turks “took to receiving dignitaries in an elaborate tent while reclining on a good bed supported by four gold peacocks and with a large wagon brimming with silver”. It was partly this gross inequality that resulted in various revolutions. The Sassanian Empire, the last in the Middle East before the rise of Islam, was ruled on a monarchical basis. Religion was not yet a key element, even though a number of Christian missionaries had made their way as far East as the edge of China before the expansion of Islam had begun in earnest.

Before the spread of Christianity in the first couple of centuries AD, Buddhism was the first major religion, along with Zoroastrianism.  The Zoroastrians were mainly based in Persia and clashed with Christianity. In 335 AD, the Romans banned blood sport due to the burgeoning influence of Christianity. Constantine’s warmongering spread east and he attacked Persia, which turned them against Christianity while Shapur II unleashed “hell” on the local population. Ironically, it was the atheist Steppes and Huns who brought the Roman Empire down. Frankopan notes how there were more Christians in Asia then there were in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The Qur’an noted that mankind was once a single umma and that Muhammad’s revelations were “revealed to Abraham and Ishmael, to Isaac and Jacob and the tribes”. That the prophets were largely the same as in Christianity led to early co-operation between the religions and it was some time before they began to genuinely compete against each other: “collaboration of the faiths was an important hallmark of early Islamic expansion- and an important part of its success”. Islam spread as far as France in the 8th century and very nearly conquered Europe. In the 8th and 9th centuries, Islamic territory was the envy of the world. They believed that when the Romans became Christian, it was a sign that they had chosen faith over science. The dominance of Islam at the time led to what many people believe was the face of Mohammad appearing on the back of a coin during the “coin wars”.

Frankopan unearths the testimony of Bohemond, who told of insane levels of brutality during the Crusades. Entire villages were levelled and endless people murdered. In 1204, when the Westerners took Constantinople, they “behaved like animals, the Byzantines were treated with abysmal cruelty as virgins were raped and innocent victims impaled”. The whole sordid tale also signified that the pope had “military and political capabilities”.

The Mongols came close to conquering all of Europe in 1241 after they rampaged through Kiev and all around Asia. Frankopan asserts that, after his father’s death in 1227, Genghis Khan’s son Ogodei, took as much land as Alexander the Great had on his epic journey. They became known as Tatars in a reference to Tartarus or torment in classical mythology and believed in low taxes in a secular society.   Frankopan suggests that they were further ahead of their time than many other historians admit. In 1346, the Mongol army flung corpses into a Genoese trading outpost in Caffa, after some of them had died of a mysterious disease.  They thought they would kill their rivals with the stench. Kill them they did, by infesting them with the Black Death which put a halt to the Mongol advancement.

Meanwhile, some Vikings who were called Rus or Rhos, largely because of their red hair, founded Russia after their forays to the East. They set up a lucrative trade network with the Muslims they came into contact with.  Slavery was a major source of trade at this time. Slaves, or Slavs, had become such big business that in 961 that Prague had become the centre of the slave trade. They used to castrate slaves too. The Khazar rulers in the Steppes areas traded fur with the Muslims.

After the Mongols had been largely repelled in Europe, the pope anointed Spain the head of Catholicism after Elizabeth in the UK had become Protestant. Spain duly went bankrupt four times in the sixteenth century, despite having amassed more wealth than any other country on earth after new trade routes were opened up with North and South America. They were constantly at war with the UK and the Netherlands. The Dutch had set up the East and West Indies trading companies and removed the Portuguese by force in Jakarta to further their own ends.

Frankopan asserts that it was the warfare after 1492 that led to Europe’s rise. He is clear that European society was not in any way superior to the indigenous societies in the Americas. For example, the Incas were a relatively progressive meritocracy who distributed wealth quite evenly around their society – certainly more so than in Europe, where primogeniture still ruled the day. “Although the Europeans might have thought they were discovering primitive societies, and this is why they could dominate them, the truth is that it was the relentless advances in weapons, warfare and tactics that laid the basis for the success of the West”. This is an important point to grasp. When the Spanish rode in on horseback and spread Smallpox to the local population, they conquered them because they were violent and aggressive, not because they were culturally superior.

The British Empire also believed that they were superior to other countries in the eighteenth century.  When Thomas Bowrey drank Bangha (a form of cannabis) in India in the late seventeenth century, he “sat himself down upon the floor and wept bitterly all afternoon”. Sadly, his fellow British compatriots did not choose to chill and get high but instead to loot, pillage and starve the Indian people.  In 1770, one-third population of the population of Bengal died because of an enforced famine: “Europeans thought of enriching themselves as the local population starved to death”. This links directly to the Boston Tea Party: the catastrophe in India was the reason Britain had to levy taxes on America.

The British Empire disliked the French who, under Napoleon, had attacked Russia in 1812. Fast forward to 1854 and the UK helped take Crimea and gave it to the Ottoman Empire in order to stop Russia’s progress. Ironically, this denial of the Russian military access to the Crimean peninsula meant that they were intent on, and did, improve their military. The burgeoning Russian Empire attacked the Balkans in 1877 and then Merv in Persia in 1884 in a show of their imperial strength. The British feared their rise. When the Bolsheviks, after World War one, began to entice the new countries in the land that was formally the Steppes territory, they began to rapidly expand.

Perhaps it is my own bias because I am more familiar with history from the last two centuries but the second half of the book was not as inspiring. Frankopan wrote a lot about Iran, which dovetailed with Michael Axworthy’s superb history which I reviewed here:

Middle Eastern countries played the rival superpowers off each other in order to get larger and larger aid from them. The British and American imperialism was bound to fail. Iraq nationalized its oil in 1972 and the Islamist revolution in 1979 had the same effect. The era also saw the rise of Gaddafi in 1970. The Western backing of the Shah in Iran, after they had overthrown Mossadegh, and support for the despotic regimes of Saudi autocrats were anti-democratic, despite the US playing lip service to trying to spread democracy. They are continuing the charade to this day.

During the first Gulf War, the US gave Hussein the green light to attack Kuwait and, post-war, put $100m into covert regime change when they could have easily taken him out after they backed him to the hilt during the Iran-Iraq war. The number of times the US played politics with both sides can only prove one thing: that they wanted to permanently undermine the region and ensure its instability. In 1998, after Clinton had illegally bombed Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar told him it was completely unacceptable and that it would lead to further extremism. We know how that panned out. In October 1956, the UK and France took military action against Egypt to try and retain control of the Suez Canal. The West also vehemently tried to prevent a United Arab Republic from forming and growing after Syria and Egypt tried to join together in 1958.

One key lesson from this is that we need to keep the sovereignty of nation-states intact to preserve a peaceful world. Imagine if every country, like Ireland, took a neutral stance.  What would the world look like? No country has the right to interfere in other countries’ affairs. The only exception to this is if a country is committing a genocide on its own people and intervention is necessary to protect them. Judging by the start of the twenty-first century we have not learnt anything. Frankopan compares modern imperialism to the Crusades: “Just as the Crusaders had found in the holy land hundreds of years earlier, the mere existence of a state supposedly made up by outsiders was a cause for disparate Arab interests to set to one side”.

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