Review “Thirst” by Benjamin Warner

We never get to find out why the water runs out in “Thirst” yet the implication is clear. Sadly, we will not be able to unburden our global conscience quite so easily if this happens on Earth. We all share collective responsibility after systematically destroying our environment and we cannot say we did not have a fair warning either. Authors have been at the forefront of foretelling our downfall. “Thirst” takes its place in the deluge of recent dystopian novels. It is closer in spirit to Patrick Ness’s “More Than This” than say Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves” or Emily St Mandel’s “Station Eleven”, although the result is still the same: humanity as we know it is finished.


The narrative of “Thirst” is told through the eyes of former track star Eddie Chapman. The language is suburban, with some considered urban licks from Warner, “Someone’s headlights were lighting up and the dust swirled in a dramatic way”. Not spectacular, but sets the scene nicely. I enjoyed Warner’s turn of phrase when Mike Senior embarrassed the young couple, “Eddie could feel the heat of Laura’s blush”. Similarly, when Eddy is in his frantic, desperate quest for water at the stories climax, “It was strange the way his energy left him like a plug had been pulled at the base of his spine”. The prose is tight and occasionally delivered with aplomb.


The streams and rivers have all dried up, forcing communities to distil salt water from the sea. People drink their own piss to survive. The reservoir is burnt out. When Eddie and Laura cover themselves in ash to hide from a gang of vandals whom they have stolen water from, it is near impossible not to think of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.


The theme of religion is interesting. Steve McCarthy fakes being religious to extort water from Eddie and Laura. He harps on about how it is part of Gods plan to save them. Naturally, this is all nonsense and McCarthy turns out to be a huckster trying to stay alive. The point is marked and important. Religion will not protect anyone. Remember when Eddie dreams of how Laura’s father would speak to him about “God and faith” after he imagines informing him about Laura losing her baby. Laura’s father thinks only God and faith can answer the big questions we face as a species.


The main takeaway from “Thirst” is just how quickly civilisation can break down. Even before the crisis becomes serious, Eddie and Bill Peters end up in a physical fight over the dwindling water supplies. Granted, Peters is not seriously hurt at this early stage, but it makes me think of how precarious our collective society is. We have evolved to, largely, subdue millions of years of fighting instincts within us to live peacefully. I realise that statement may not stand up to scrutiny when you think of the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, the Holocaust and the Stalinist/Maoist purges. Still, “Thirst” highlights how even peacefully existing societies can degenerate into paroxysms of violence within a matter of days when basic resources run out.


An interesting parallel in 2017 is the Israeli government cutting the supply of electricity to the Palestinian people in the West Bank. Within a few short weeks, the number of murders and attempted murders increased dramatically. The implication is clear: when people do not have humane conditions to live in, violence is inevitable.


Logically, as we destroy the planet we have kindly been bequeathed by our ancestors, the resources will dry up just as they do in “Thirst”. We need to reverse the effects of Climate Change now. It is no longer enough to fail to meet our targets. Drastic action needs to be taken. Petrol, diesel cars and all plastics should be banned rather than focusing on hitting opaque targets. Let us focus on the actions we can take as a society and not just the goals. We are sleepwalking into self-destruction. How long before the water runs out?


When Eddie goes looking for the boy that he and Laura had found, he takes a golf club with him, the threat of savagery latent. The lack of water creates fissures in Laura and Eddie’s relationship, “there was no reason for them to be arguing like this” as Eddie says. Being starved of their resources did it. This year saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, another example of how a supposedly peaceful society can deteriorate within a matter of days. It is not something that we consider all too often. It should be.


The rule of law breaks down with similar alacrity in “Thirst”. When Paul tries to make a “citizen’s arrest” on Eddie for assaulting Bill Peters, the idea is scoffed at. Without a deterrent in place, Eddie kills Bill Peters. Once the first domino has fallen…


The civil unrest further unravels when Mike senior shoots at Steve McCarthy, who has brought water to…help! Tensions are sky high and the normal steps to resolve disputes have been replaced with the threat of immediate violence. Mike Senior’s wife Patti shoots him in the shoulder then kills herself, unable to live in this insane new world.  Mike Senior then begins firing randomly as he demands “all of” Steve McCarthy’s water. This selfishness and unwillingness to share is a hallmark of a societal decline. Survival instincts begin to override any sense of the collective.


How close are we to ending up decanting our own piss, like Laura and Eddie have to, in order to survive? Stephen Hawking, Yuval Noval Harari and a plethora of other writers and thinkers are sending out strong signals that our time as a species is limited due to there being “something deeper, something wrong with the earth”. We need to listen to our planet. Currently, we are living out Eddie’s pre-lapsarian philosophy, “it’s just nature you don’t have to think about it”.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Review “Who moved my Cheese?” by Dr Spencer Johnson

A work colleague recommended this book to me some years back and I had completely forgotten about it, only to be reminded of it last year by a different colleague. I finally got around to it last week. In retrospect, my subconscious must have been hinting at me not to read this for a reason. It is truly dreadful.


It is written for people who cannot manage change well. Let me be clear, I am in no suggesting that I am in some way suggesting that I am an expert in changing. Far from yet. Yet, I have got my head around the fact that we are spinning around the sun on a rock, in space, hurtling into an uncertain future. This much seems relatively straightforward to grasp. Apparently not.


The story is about two mice and two “littlespeople” who reside in a maze. It is dark and their sole objective is to survive on a diet of cheese. Hem & Haw are the two littlespeople who stay in the same spot in the maze until their cheese runs out after it has gone mouldy. Hem wants to go looking for further supplies while Haw stays put. All the while, the two mice, Sniff and Scurry, had immediately learned that they had to journey into the dark maze to find more cheese and survive. They were able to change. Yawn.


There are a plethora of mundane aphorisms such as “if you do not change you become extinct”. There is the obligatory segment on overcoming fear, no book on management would be complete without this, “what you are afraid of is never as bad as what you imagine. The fear you let build up in your mind is worse than the situation that actually exists”. For that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know…

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Review “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath. 2004 Edition with a foreword from Frieda Hughes

I have no idea how I managed to misplace my battered and beloved copy of Plath’s “Collected Poems”, which contains all the missing compositions that Hughes omitted from the original 1965 edition of “Ariel”, released after Plath’s untimely death. I came across this 2004 release of Ariel, in which her daughter Frieda has written an intriguing introduction to. It is short but revealing. She does not take either side but does make a point of reproducing Ariel with the twelve poems that Hughes had taken out and also reproduced them in the order that Plath had originally planned, a key indicator in itself. This edition also has copies of Plath’s handwritten notes on some of the poems that were originally released.


Plath’s poetry is as shocking and visceral today as it was when I first read it in school in the nineteen nineties. The words scorch off the pages and laser guide themselves into your mind. It is difficult to imagine how people read it when it was first released. To date, I have never read anyone who writes about depression and mental health issues with as much honesty and directness. It is disconcerting at times. Throughout her life, Plath observed “unmiraculous women, Honey-drudgers” before pointing out that “I am no drudge”. You can say that again! In the introduction, Frieda recounts a story about her burning some of Hughes poetry. “Ariel” contains a number of themes that will beguile readers as long as people continue to read.




Mental health:



The honesty and bravery she wrote with endures. In “Tulips”, Plath describes her experience in hospital, “My body is a pebble to them” she wrote. “They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep”. The use of words is extraordinary. When I first read her as part of the supposed pantheon, her confessional style struck me as being completely separate to anything else out there. It still does. I do not think there has been a better articulation of the struggle with mental health than Plath’s thoughts about how “the vivid tulips eat my oxygen”. She envies the fresh flowers but can only see a normal existence in “a country far away as health”. There was no escape for Plath 😦


“Cut” may have been about the mundane injury Plath sustained in her kitchen, yet I cannot read it neutrally, “My thumb instead of an onion. / The top quite gone”. She wrote with an airy sense of detachment as if her body was not her own. Maybe it was not. When she depicted her physical pain, it seemed to pale in comparison with her mental health issues. In “Elm”, Plath informs us she is “terrified of this dark thing / That sleeps in me”. Reading Plath makes me thankful I have never suffered any mental health issues and also reminds me that I have a duty to help anyone I know that is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with them.




Plath’s life as a Mother of a baby:



Is there a better opening line to a poem and book of poetry than, “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” from “Morning Song”? It is a line that has stayed with me. She described her new born baby as a “new statue in a drafty museum”. This museum theme continues in a poem that Hughes excluded in 1965, “Barren woman”, “Empty, I echo to the least footfall, / Museum without statues”. This concept of her living life in a museum is revealing. She elevated her daily life with her child to that of a permanent work of Art. The isolation and timelessness of the museum.


She expressed life with her young baby directly in “Thalidomide”, “All night I carpenter / A space for the thing I am given, / A love / Of two wet eyes and a screech. / White spit / Of indifference!” I adore this image of Plath trying to fit this screaming human being into her life as a curator in her museum.


My favourite single phrase she uses to depict her new-born is in “Lesbos”, where she wrote that Frieda was her “little unstrung puppet”. Wonderful!


Plath enunciated the resentment of a baby too, “We’re here on a visit, / With a goddam baby screaming off somewhere. / There’s always a bloody baby in the air”. The frustration and anger seep off the page. Some of this antagonism was clearly being levelled at the cheating Hughes too.


Plath is devastating about her married life with Hughes in “The Applicant”, “It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”…”Will you marry it, marry it, marry it”. The repetition purposeful and pointed.



Life and Death:



You can listen to Plath read plenty of her poems for free on Spotify and Soundcloud. She discussed her inspiration on “Comments on Poetry”, speaking about how she liked to draw inspiration from personal events that she experienced and then relate them to global situations such as the Holocaust or Hiroshima. In “Lady Lazarus”, she treats her life like the Nazis treated their prisoners, “My skin / bright as a Nazi lampshade”. Aside from the dramatic effect, it is sad to think that Plath viewed herself as inhuman.



The fascist overtones continue in “Fever 103”, where she details, “Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash”. It must be pointed out how shocking the word “Nazi” was even when I read it for the first time in the nineties. For a person to describe their life in these terms was unheard of. The word “Nazi” is now so utterly overused that it has lost all meaning. Godwin’s law is something that irritates me immensely. I cannot scroll Twitter without seeing the term being misused. As Orwell put it, the term fascist has lost all meaning. Did Plath add to that by normalising it when writing about her life?


In “A Birthday Present”, she wrote “I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year. / After all, I am alive only by accident. / I would have killed my self gladly that time any possible way”.







I have only covered a tony number of topics that Plath dealt with in Ariel. It really is an all-encompassing, with each poem as intriguing as the one before it. “Ariel” is undoubtedly her poetic masterpiece. I did not even go into detail about “Daddy”! One of my favourite poems. “I could never talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw”, she wrote of her relationship with her father. “I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe”. A terrifying image. She dubbed her father a “Panzer-man”. It is the standout poem from a standout poet from her standout collection.


Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Review: “I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes

After watching Dublin effortlessly dispatch Monaghan in the quarter final of the All Ireland Championship over in my parents’ house last weekend, we began chatting, after some tasty fish cakes my Mother had prepared. I mentioned that I was reading a book that I thought Pop would absolutely love. Just as I was beginning to wax lyrical about “I Am Pilgrim”, he instantly knew it. Silly me, it was he who had suggested it in the first place! Which got me thinking about how I need to start jotting down how each book gets on my list and not just scribble the author and title into my Evernote App. In fact, the whole idea of how books appear on my agenda has become quite increasingly important. With so little time to get through everything, I need to ensure no chaff gets through! Pop said that he has already pre-ordered Hayes’s “The Year of the Locust: A Thriller” on his Kindle, based on his debut effort.


Hayes’s 2014 “I Am Pilgrim” will not change the world,  it is a straight up thriller. The central character Pilgrim is one of the great action heroes. Think Bruce Wayne meets Jason Bourne meets The Count of Monte Cristo (another book that Pop advised as an adolescent) and you are in the rough vicinity.

He is mysterious, intelligent and street smart. The language is gritty and realistic, redolent of a George Pelecanos novel. As Pilgrim says, “In the world in which I dealt there were no appeals and no last-minute stays out execution”.

It is quite a long read, but no chapter or page is superfluous. The pace at which Hayes moves the story along is perfect. Right from the mysterious murder of a drugged-up woman in a dingy motel, it never lets up. If you have a reading list, get this on there. If you do not, get to a library or book shop as soon as you can. This one is not to be missed. I have just added “The Year of the Locust” into my Evernote…


Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Review: Keigo Higashino “Malice”.

After recently savouring Higashino’s “Salvation of a Saint”, I checked “Malice” out of the library on my last trip. I got what I bargained for, “Malice” is similar to his other book. Japanese author Hidaka is mysteriously killed and all the main suspects have an alibied up, innocent verisimilitude. It is no masterpiece, but if you are a sucker for a detective story, then you will enjoy this. I still have not gotten around to his most famous work (Pembroke Library did not have it in!). That is on my ever expanding list…


My longstanding, deep affection for Japan was calcified after an incredible trip there in 2013. I find Japanese culture compelling. From Cornelius’s flipped out zany madness at Glastonbury 1999 to Susuma Yokota’s entire catalogue. I find it easier to connect directly to Japanese music and movies as they are more visceral. “Ghost in the Shell” and “Spirited Away” are two favourites. Although not a Japanese movie, “Lost in Translation” gives me Goosebumps every time I watch it, conveying the majesty of a trip there, from Murray’s jet lag to falling in love but not being able to articulate why (what does he whisper in her ear?). Memories of Japan come flooding back after each viewing. The red lights flickering on the skyscrapers, the sound of fake birds chirping in the subway stations, the cleanliness of Shinjuku, the politeness and respect people show each other. Eating freshly prepared Sushi in a local restaurant. The temples in Kyoto, the bullet train to Hiroshima.


The only slight problem with reading Japanese books is the translation issue. It is impossible to evaluate Higashino’s prose. “Malice” is clunky in parts, yet that could easily be the medium. No matter, as the story is purely plot driven. In both of his books, the police take the main suspect out for a meal at a restaurant. A measure of how much trust there is in the Police and vice versa! Of course, when you consider that Japan has a 99% conviction rate, it makes you realise how much effort the Police have to go to in order to prosecute. They will not bring a case unless they are not absolutely certain to win. The detectives in “Malice” solve the case virtually three times, determined to find the correct motive, even after a confession. There is a scene where the Japanese detectives bow to Nonoguchi on the street! “What would people make of it?” he wonders. Contrast this with a Western cop sweating a suspect for information. Different worlds. In Japanese detective stories, as in their lives, the real story takes place in the minds of the characters. The dialogue is minimal throughout.


Reading is a constant theme in “Malice”. The two main characters are both authors. There is an interesting conversation about why children do not read as much as previous generations. Instead of the usual glib reason about technology being the culprit, the stark fact is that it is the parents not reading which is the real issue. They want their children to read as they like the idea of them reading, despite not doing it themselves. We know from how religion died out in Western civilisation, that the “Do as I say, not as I do” strategy will not work. Which books would you recommend to your children if you do not read yourself? Certainly not the right ones.


Think about when the police are forced to read all of the books that Hidaka has published for research purposes. They joke that they have never read as much in their whole lives. Likewise, Hidaka’s barber friend from his school days who says that he would love to read more, but just does not have the time. Hidaka is killed due to Nonoguchi’s jealousy over his fame as a writer. He was so envious of his talent that he attempted to kill his reputation, seeing this as a fate worse than death for an author.


In “Salvation of a Saint”, Higashino uses only the omniscient narrative. Here, he oscillates between styles in virtually every chapter. Some are written in the first person, some are omniscient. Lots of chapters are just letters from characters writing their own version of events. It is a refreshing approach to take and unsettles the reader.


Nagging at the back of my mind whilst reading “Malice” was that it was almost identical to “Salvation of a Saint”. Yet, arguably the whole detective genre has been variations on a theme since Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” in 1844. Higashino does not reach the beautifully symbolic heights hit in that oeuvre. “Malice” is an entertaining read, which stirred shimmering echoes of Japan in my mind. As my dad says, this is a “Good ‘aul yarn”.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Defending the indefensible. A Review of Leon Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism”




This short polemic from Trotsky was a reply to Karl Kautsky’s stinging critique of the Russian Revolution. Kautsky believed that the Bolsheviks had disregarded some of the basic tenets of Marxism by violently seizing power. Kautsky was considered the eminent Marxist scholar worldwide after his friend Engels died. He was a passionate advocate for social democracy and believed that true change had to come about through the ballot box. Trotsky believed in the opposite; permanent revolution.


In “Terrorism and Communism”, Trotsky doubled down on his theory that the violence, repression and forced labour that the Bolsheviks employed was justified and likened their power grab to the French Revolution. Even if you forgive how the Bolsheviks took power, it cannot be deemed acceptable as a long term strategy. This book was written in 1920, after the Bolsheviks had been in power for three disastrous years.


Slavoj Zizek, in the introduction, notes how Stalin kept a battered old copy of “Terrorism and Communism”, replete with his scribblings in the margins, in his study at all times. He used it as a blueprint for how to rule. Trotsky has a reputation as the intellectual heavyweight of the Revolution. Yet, he called for exactly what Stalin put into practice. Anybody that tries to separate him from Stalin is being dishonest. Sure, he may not have turned out as violent as Joseph, but he was fine with employing violence and repression as tools to control the people “in a period of economic and political dictatorship”.


Kautsky was a social democrat and posited the theory that the Russian people should have decided their own path. We know from the last election before Lenin suspended the Duma, that the Bolsheviks would never win a majority. This was the real reason that they held onto power. They knew that the people would never grant them complete control, so they stole it. Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin were so ideologically driven that they believed that communism came before democracy. This was the fundamental mistake as democracy has to be prioritised. They claimed to be acting in the interest of the proletariats but there is no getting around the fact that Russia should have become genuinely democratic in 1917. The vast majority of Russia’s population was working class and they outnumbered the “bourgeoisie” that Trotsky lambasts throughout. So, logically, it follows that if they truly wanted communism, they could have voted them in as they would have had the numbers. Why not let the people decide? The answer is obvious.


Crucially, there is no blue print for a peaceful Russia in this book. Whilst it is easy to opine on what should have happened one hundred years after the event, Trotsky’s beliefs still shock the modern reader. Certainly, he offers no route forward and this book should be condemned as a relic of a violent past. Modern leftists using Trotsky as a template need to start again. Democracy must come before a “revolution”. Violence can never be justified to run a country. Forcing human beings to work? No. Suppressing the political opposition with violence? No. Ostensibly, this is a letter to Kautsky. In reality, Trotsky was also addressing and threatening the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.






The concept of communism involves the State controlling everything, the so called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as Lenin called it. “The dictatorship is necessary because it is a case not of partial changes but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie,” says Trotsky. He wanted to destroy the class structure. Yet, somebody still needs to manage the affairs of a country. Again, I write with the benefit of hindsight. Speaking from an Irish position, I would not want the State to control everything. In the early 1990’s in Ireland, the State used to have direct control over a lot more industries than it now does. Take two examples. The State had a monopoly on air travel. One could only fly with Aer Lingus, our national airline. It lost huge sums of money every year which the taxpayer funded. Flights were up to IR£600 to fly from Dublin to London. As soon as competition came into the market, flight costs reduced, standards got better, inefficiencies in the State were reduced and everybody benefitted. Aer Lingus began making money by cutting costs etc. The second example is “Telecom Eireann”. This was a State company that used to control the entire phone network. If you wanted to get a second landline in the 1990’s in Ireland, you could be waiting months for an answer. The customer service was terrible. Again, once the market was liberalised, landlines were easier to acquire and the effect of competition improved the offer for the consumer. Are people really arguing that if the State held control of these two areas that Ireland would be better off? Bullshit. Maybe in fantasy Trotsky land. This is the problem with the critique of “Neo-liberalism”. It has become fashionable for leftists to assume that if we Nationalise industries, it will improve them. It will not. This has been proved many times over. This is not to say that criticising Neo-liberalism is wrong – it is not. The best example of it destroying Ireland was when we had to Nationalise private debt. This was a drastic error. That criticism is valid. However, Nationalising industry is not, and will not, be the solution. The so called “Nordic Model” is the best route forward.


So, back to 1917-20 and the infamous “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Let us nail down this definition. It is the concept that the State should control everything. It is of critical importance to understand exactly what this was. Zizek tries to pull a sleight of hand by saying that Trotsky should have just changed the word “Dictatorship”. Nice try, Slavoj! Trotsky and Lenin wanted to end private enterprise and stop individuals from running their own businesses. Think about how much power and responsibility the State had. A child could tell you it would never work. Yet, major heavyweight intellectuals cannot get their brains around it. The belief was that the power over all industry and politics would be in the hands of an undemocratic State Party. By definition, communism and democracy seem incompatible. A quick look around the globe and in history and we can see that it almost always has to be forced on people.


Remember, the first step is to have a democracy. If people vote for communism, then fine, give it a try. See what happens. This is based on the condition that the people can change their mind and vote it out if it does not work. However, Trotsky sneers at this idea. Throughout “Terrorism and Communism”, he looks down his nose at what he deemed the “worthless masquerade that is democracy”. He deemed it a “puerile illusion”. Now, I am all for critiquing democracy and making it stronger and more inclusive. However, to remove the right of the people to vote so that one Party can run a State is wrong. It is a dangerous, idealistic vision that can only end up in a dictatorship.


Trotsky was honest in his assessment of the three years of failings that the Bolshevik Party had inflicted on the Russian State. He did not pretend, like Stalin later would, that everything was perfect. He spoke numerous times of a “transition” to a successful State. Yet, why did they not have a specific plan? It would seem to me a reasonable request after three years in charge. He does a lot of complaining about how they had to build the “means of production”. Why was this not carefully planned out in advance? At the very least, I thought this book, written three years after initially taking power, would have some specific details about how communism would work. It does not.


Trotsky derided democracy as inherently “bourgeois” in nature. He did have a point when he identified the perilous state of the world and, specifically, of the democratic countries at the time, “Perish the world but long live the parliamentary majority”. I disagree, but he had a point. Democracy is not a panacea. It does not fix everything. Far from it. Yet, if you go back through history, what other way can we organise ourselves as a species? What is a fairer, more just way to decide our own fate? The democracies at the time were immature. For sure, there is an element of self-correction in the parliamentary democratic system. Critically, once you skip the step of the people deciding their own destiny, then you open the door – every time – for a one Party system or some other form of subversion. Trotsky tried to get around this by stating that they spoke for the working class. Bollocks. Even if they did, and history has shown us that this was not the case, what about all the other classes? Trotsky also sneered at the “bourgeoisie” throughout. Are they not human beings too? Every Russian of every background should have had a right to determine the future of Russia from 1917 on. What gives the right for either class to rule over the other? As I have already pointed out, there were vastly more working class people than every other class in Russia at the time. Therefore, democracy should have given them the power. Again, the reminder that in the 1917 elections, the Bolsheviks did not win a majority. “Lenin the dictator”, as Sebestyen has shown us, knew this implicitly. That is why he suspended elections in January 1918. In doing so, he spoke for the people when he did not have that right. Trotsky denigrated the working class, whom he claimed to speak for, by deeming them “uneducated” and therefore not deserving of a vote. Once you look down on fellow human beings in this regard, you start on a very slippery slope. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” as Orwell observed. He saw it. Trotsky didn’t.


Trotsky did at least hint of a future without the Party when he imagined a Russia where the “concentration of state power in its entirety in the hands of the proletariat (would) set up for the transitional period of an exceptional regime”. He imagined a Stateless future where everybody….well, your guess is as good as mine. This is one of the reasons why intellectuals keep returning to communism. It is this opaque utopia where we are all equal. Yet, nobody can explain, in detail, why the State will improve on private individuals running business and putting the power in the hands of the citizens. On a cruder level, in a communist State, the government, by necessity, would have an inordinate amount of control. They cannot be trusted with this. This is one of the great contradictions of left politics. They relentlessly criticise the State. Then want to give more power to…


Trotsky was not a believer in political parties having to earn a “socialist majority in a democratic parliament”. Instead, he thought that “political autocracy” was expedient. Trotsky employs some mind-blowing mental gymnastics in backing up his position. At one point, when discussing why they abandoned the constituent assembly, Trotsky says that it would have been pointless as so many of the working class were soldiers who were in the Russian army and not able to vote. Yes, Leon, that is a valid reason for not permitting a free and fair election. It would be funny if it were not to have such tragic consequences.







Trotsky advocated, without a doubt in his mind, for forced labour. Contemplate this. Forced labour. The mind boggles. He said that there was “no (other) way to socialism” than forcing people to work. Sadly, he is correct here. In a communist system, there is no incentive to work, so, yes, you will have to force people to work.


He waxed lyrical about how the Revolution “spurred a lazy and demoralised people to incredible feats of arms”. Once again, Trotsky’s true opinion of the working class shines through. Before the Revolution, they were “lazy”.


Trotsky was an admirable anti-imperialist and I can agree with him there. He called out the mindless violence of World War One. However, he then says that “the destruction of bourgeois Poland, guided by the Red Army’s working men, will appear as a new manifestation of the proletarian dictatorship”. So, Western imperialism is wrong. Fine. But, Russian imperialism in Poland is…OK? You may want to ask the Polish people how they felt about that Leon. Not too good as it turns out. Once again, his undemocratic tendencies surface. It is comically hypocritical that one could be so opposed to Western imperialism and at the same time, cheer on the Russian tanks rolling into Poland.


“Only force is possible” he stated when deciding whether or not the Revolution was justified. “It is hopeless to think of a peaceful arrival to power while the bourgeois retains, in its hands, all the apparatus of power”. I would disagree thoroughly. We need to strive to be as peaceful as possible as a species. But, let us go with that. We need to smash the “bourgeoisie” by overthrowing them. Once in power, they would ease the violence, right? This was not the long term plan for the Russian people? “We were never concerned with the Kantian, priestly and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life…we were Revolutionaries in opposition and remained Revolutionaries in power”. There you have it. Striving to be a peaceful human being was “vegetarian prattle”. I won’t take it personally Leon. Goodness knows how he viewed animals given he was not concerned with human life. In essence, Trotsky was a violent thug. I genuinely hope there are no leftists who think this man offered a way forward.


A free and open society:



Trotsky defended Trade Unions being part of the State apparatus as the alternative would be them being part of the “Capitalist State”. This was a catastrophic error and led to countless examples of workers protesting for free and fair independent Trade Unions when the State set sadistic work targets.


Trotsky looked down his bespectacled nose at the idea of a Free Press, asking – where did it get the West? His logic for it not being viable? That it gave a voice to scientists who were an integral part of the Capitalist system. Also, because the bulk of the population was “ignorant”. He could not have gotten it more wrong really.


He thought it was necessary to abolish private property and transfer it all to the State for redistribution, “Abolition of private property…was one of the original definitions of Capitalism and is a bedrock of it”. This is an interesting point. If you analyse Capitalism as a historical idea, one of the early defining characteristics of it was the right for an individual to own their own private property. This became commonplace at the end of the Feudal and Monarchical systems. If we think of Capitalism purely in this regard, it is difficult to get past this. Private ownership of property is critical to the autonomy of the citizens of any State. The concept of the State distributing property is beyond parody in any serious dicussions. Think for a moment about what the State could do to people if it had the right to take their property at any point in time.


Trotsky justified “compulsory labour” versus “unfree bourgeoisie labour”. He backed “militaristic labour” and decried the Mensheviks bitter opposition to it, referring again to his “man is lazy” theory as a defence for compulsory labour. He decided that “Free Labour is little different from convict labour”. Eh, yes, Leon, it really is. He cites Kautsky’s retort that compulsion is against the ethos of socialism because people have to want to work. This gets to the nub of why people think communism can work. The reality is that if you impose opportunity and outcome then personal responsibility and motivation is removed. The notion that the level of productivity would increasein a State where people’s sole motivation was for the greater good of the country is naive at best. This is why, when we have seen communism in the World, it is almost always observed being physically forced on people. As Kasparov puts it, “communism goes against human nature and can only be sustained by totalitarian repression”. This is also why intellectuals frequently point out that it could be done without repression. The reality is, it cannot.






Zizek draws an interesting comparison between modern Neo-Conservativism and Trotskyism. They both wanted to enforce their way of government on people. The Neo-Conservatives believed they could enforce democracy on any country they wished through violence. Trotsky believed force was justified in seeing his philosophy being realised. They are both wrong. Any Political Philosophy has to be brought about peacefully.


Trotsky thought that the bourgeoisie would never “make its peace” with the Revolution and that, consequently, violence was justified. This is fundamentally wrong.


Trotsky viewed democracy as a “crown” that was increasingly unnecessary as the old institutions of class would “melt away” in a perfectly equal society. We all know how that panned out.


He summed up with a sailing analogy, describing how the “problems which the Soviet government is fixing in practice have no solution in books…the sailing ship has to manoeuvre before the wind, yet no one will see contradictions in the manoeuvres that bring the ship to harbour”. Sadly, for the millions of Russians whose lives were lost, the ship is now lying at the bottom of the ocean.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Anna Applebaum “Gulag: A History”



Applebaum has helped to lift the lid on arguably the most brutal regime in history. The level of systematic and institutional violence was incomprehensible. I am not sure the human brain is meant to think in these terms. I kept asking how throughout. In the Soviet system, they did not view individuals as human beings deserving of their own human rights, but rather as pawns in their quest to victory. This justified untold violence.   Applebaum has completed a scholarly work, researching countless numbers of official documents and speaking to survivors, and she succeeds in giving a voice to an untold number of people, humanising the mass terror.   As Applebaum puts it, “without question the system was rigid, inflexible and inhumane”. The history principally analysed here dates from the start of the Revolution in 1917 up until the beginning of the end of the Gulag as a system in 1953, after Stalin had died. She estimates that from 1928-1953, approximately 18 million people went through the 176 Gulags in the old USSR.



Early Gulag history:



Pre Revolution, the Gulag was a typical prison system as could be found across the world at the time. It expanded when Lenin began sentencing increasingly high numbers of political opponents.   This quickly escalated into Lenin sentencing bourgeois people to “half a year in a mine” and so the early expansion of the totalitarian mind-set of simply locking up anybody who disagreed with the Party set in. Applebaum points out that it is dishonest to say the system began with Stalin, as some would imagine. Indeed, Trotsky and Lenin both philosophically justified violence and repression as necessary tools of the Revolution.



Lenin discussed using the camps as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power. Of the early political prisoners, it is intriguing to recall that the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks (the main Political opposition in Russia at the time), whom the Bolsheviks fought with, wrote a letter publicly stating that conditions had worsened in prison under the new regime. An important distinction.  Human rights were bottom of the Bolshevik agenda. Although the situation would gravely deteriorate, this bourgeois attitude to human life paved the way for the senseless violence that was to follow. Some revisionists believe that Lenin and Stalin can be differentiated in this regard. Not so, the level of violence is the only thing separating them. Both believed in the use of force and repression as justified.


Under Lenin, camps were chiefly for prisoners. They became Gulags sometime in 1927 when thirty thousand prisoners were transferred to the secret police, the OGPU. “Prisoners” grew to include Kulaks, who refused to participate in collectivisation. Stalin became paranoid about virtually everyone, especially those within his own Party. Applebaum highlights how, due to the numbers involved, it could not have been only Stalin locking people up. It is too easy to lay the entirety of the blame on his violent shoulders. However, he was instrumental in institutionalising the terror. Laws were ignored and new ones created to justify imprisoning anybody vaguely resembling any political opposition or “counter-revolutionaries” as they became to be known. Regional camp commanders were given the green light to lock up anyone they wished to. Evidence was rarely required.



Brutality and Violence:



The number of hours prisoners had to work slowly doubled after the start of the Revolution.  As the camps began to expand, the ethos that people were just numbers, microscopic cogs in the overarching Soviet machine began to take hold. Prison guards began treating them as “animals”. Twelve-hour shifts were routine but consecutive thirty-six and forty-eight-hour shifts were also inflicted upon people. Evidence of prisoners being viewed as sub human can be proven by the fact that horses were entitled to a day off every eight days. Humans only had one day off a month.



The physical work was so hard that some prisoners nailed their testicles to the prison cells that they were in, just to get out of doing the work. They injected their penises with soap to fake STDs, put acid in their eyes and cut off their fingers. This tells us all we need to know about how hard they worked prisoners within the system.


Prisoners were put in boxes. New arrestees were raped.  When the Gulag system expanded, and new camps were created, there was rarely any accommodation set up for people to live in when they arrived. Prisoners and guards turned up to the location to find…nothing. Nine thousand prisoners died setting up the Kolyma Gulag in the Russian far east. They had nothing to eat for days and built their own habitats in one of the harshest climates on Earth. To this day, there remains proof of mass graves in the area surrounding far northern and eastern Gulags as the ice has kept them unburied. No names were given to the prisoners who died and their families were not informed, meaning that their ancestors never had the dignity of being able to bury their loved ones. 


From 1937 until 1939, workers were “deliberately worked to death” as the economy worsened and physical torture was introduced in an attempt to increase the productivity in the Gulags. The whole point of the communist system was meant to be to smash the social structure and make society equal. You would think that noble aim would be imbued with an innate sense of empathy. Not in Soviet Russia as “those too ill to work were simply put on disciplinary rations and left to starve”. With only a certain amount of food to go around, camp commanders made the decision to give more food to the workers who were in good health. Any people who were starving or disabled, or unable to work for any reason, were not fed. This stemmed from the utilitarian belief that prisoners who could not work were of no use.






Three hundred people were killed by Scurvy during the 1920’s in the Solovki Gulag.  Head lice were impossible to avoid, despite prisoners being shaved upon arrival (often women in front of men).  There were frequent outbreaks of louse based typhus.


From the first quarter in 1941, in one single Gulag, eight thousand people were hospitalised due to pneumonia, frostbite, dysentery and circulation problems. Hundreds perished. The full records for the whole system have still not been released so it is impossible to evaluate an accurate total.


There were no official statistics kept for the suicide rate. However, Applebaum has worked out that the many deaths attributed to “heart attack” within the Gulags, raised suspicion, even with doctors within the system. Applebaum cites an incredible story from Lev Razgon, who recited a conversation he had heard between colonel Tarasyuk (camp commander of Ustvymlag) and Kogan (the camp doctor). The doctor informed the colonel that he had saved 246 prisoners from pellagra by giving them the appropriate food rations. The colonel immediately asked when they would be working in the forest again. The doctor said that they would never be able to work again. The colonel then told him he was to stop giving them rations. Doctor Kogan replied, “obviously I didn’t explain myself clearly. These people will only survive if they are given a special ration”. The colonel shrugged and said, “Do your medical ethics prevent you from doing your job?”. “Of course,” said the doctor. “Well I don’t give a damn for your ethics” was the final response. All 246 prisoners died within a month.






Living conditions in the Gulags were prehistoric. Bed bugs were a fact of life and there were multiple accounts of how “handfuls of them would fall off people at bath time”. Prisoners were given second-hand underwear. The infamous “eat as you work system” translated into people being forced into being asked to achieve increasingly unrealistic targets just to get basic rations to survive.


Applebaum chronicles the “Nazino” affair, which took place on Nazino Island (or “Cannibal Island” as the Russians affectionately refer to it). Four of the six thousand settlers sent there died due to a lack of food, shelter and work tools. Twenty-seven died on the trains there from Moscow and Leningrad and 295 were buried on the first day alone. The people ended up eating each other to survive. A report was commissioned in 1933 to establish what happened. It was released in 2002.


In 1930, workers received up to 1 kilogramme of bread a day. This was halved by 1937. Prisoners were forced to sleep with the lights on and frequently with no pillows. Multiple people slept in cramped rooms.


Letters were not distributed to the prisoners from the camp commanders as the system was so inept and corrupt. The guards did not care if they received them or not. In any case, prisoners had nothing to write with. Prison accountants ended up using wallpaper to write on and prisoners sewed letters into the clothes of their fellow prisoners, who were leaving in a desperate attempt to let their loved ones know that they were still alive. Visits were only allowed every six months for good behaviour. Naturally, corruption was endemic and the most violent thieves, and not the innocent Kulaks, learned how to swindle the system to enhance their living conditions.



Who was put in the Gulags?  



Virtually anyone. Nine thousand German communists, thousands of Polish communists and a disproportionate amount of Jews, who began to be persecuted in greater numbers during the 1950’s, when Stalin thought his Jewish doctors were conspiring to kill him. Rabbi’s used to pray in locked wardrobes to conceal their faith. The Soviet Union was an atheist State, but people were persecuted for their beliefs. Almost all black people that came to Moscow disappeared. Foreign nationals were always suspected of conspiring against Russia, in fact, anyone that had any relation to foreign people was a suspect.  Thousands of Finnish people were sent to the Gulag. The USSR advertised great “working conditions” to unemployed Finnish speaking workers in the United States of America too. Some twenty-five thousand of them came in search of the communist dream. Most were imprisoned when they tried to leave. One hundred and forty thousand Polish people were locked up. Camp commanders were explicitly instructed to “beat the Poles for all they’re worth”. Numerous Japanese & Chinese ended up in the Gulag too. The Japanese, particularly, could not survive the weather.


Women deliberately had children to try to get an easier life. One woman was documented as having a deliberate abortion performed on her. Children were systematically separated from their parents at birth. Later, if they were ever reunited, children refused to go back home with their parents as they had been taught that their parents were enemies of the people. Applebaum refers to Robert Conquest’s unearthing of how the NKVD (the later name for the secret police) used to force confessions from ten-year-old children, after locking them in prison in 1979. Genrikh Yogada, an NKVD official, wrote that “at last count there (were) 4,305 children getting mixed up in adult prisons”. Child prisoners ended up with the adults. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of child prisoners became criminals in their adult lives.



The White Sea canal



Yogada oversaw the production of the White Sea canal project, perhaps the best example of how the ends justified the means in the Soviet system, no matter the human cost. It was only dug twelve feet deep which meant that most ships could not pass through it. This design flaw was the result of not taking the advice of experts. Stalin wanted it constructed immediately as part of the Party controlling the means of production. In fact, the whole idea of canals as a means of transport became irrelevant around about this time as trains became the way to transport goods, a fact widely known at the time.  Twenty-one thousand human beings died building it. Letters from the workers who helped build the canal said that they preferred prison. The tools they used can still be viewed today in Russian museums. They were forced to use basic implements such as pick axes made out of leather boot straps. These were supposed to cut through solid granite. There was no machinery involved.  Soviet intellectuals wrote about the White Sea Canal as if it was a success. Stalin threatened those who said his original target of twenty months was unrealistic. In an example of how nobody was safe, Yogada himself was arrested and shot, on charges of Trotskyism and espionage during the purges.







Stalin referred to the prisoners as “vermin” and “weeds” in his speeches. A dialect named “thieves language” was created in the camps.


 “Political prisoners” were not actually political prisoners. Similarly, “criminal” prisoners also became a meaningless definition. It is impossible not to think of Orwell’s newspeak when analysing how they expanded the definition of certain words. 


By 1948, special new camps within camps began to be created for political and violent inmates near the Arctic Circle. The language used in naming them was revealing, “With a surprisingly poetic touch, the gulag authorities gave them all names derived from the landscape: mineral, mountain, oak, step, seashore, river, lake, sand, meadow. The point was presumably conspiratorial since there were no oak trees at Oak camp”.



The Gulag during World War Two:



Stalin began a “cultural genocide” of Crimeans, Tartars and people from Chechnya by sending them to populate the Northern and Kazakh regions of the USSR. The Soviet government erased records of the names and families of the people who were moved. They “destroyed cemeteries and renamed towns” in a bid to pretend that this did not happen.


In Poland, “Stalin’s intention was to erase the Polish elite”. Schoolteachers, priests and twenty thousand soldiers were killed during the Katyn massacre on the “direct orders of Stalin in 1940”.

Tens of thousands of Poles were sent to Gulags across the Soviet Union.


There was a sixty percent death rate in the prisoners of war camps in 1943. Five hundred and seventy thousand people died.


In 1954, there were eighty-four thousand prisoners in camps in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.


In 1950 there were two and a half million prisoners in the Gulag. That was one million more than five years beforehand. The USSR imprisoned a million more people after the years after the war.


The beginning of the end came after Stalin died in 1953. The year after this led to multiple revolts and a slow loosening of the rules.  It is incredible that even after the Gulag’s were disbanded, there was no apology or memorial for the millions of victims. Virtually all of the other old Soviet republics did so.  Yet, the old KGB agents and camp commanders still got their pensions.







Astonishingly, people still celebrate the achievements of the Gulag system.   The roads that were built, the electricity that was provided to remote areas, the butternut squash fields that began to grow in the previously frozen north east and the linking up of remote areas of the USSR.


There were thirty thousand prisoners in 1917 and four million in 1950 in four hundred and seventy-six Gulags. This was first and foremost a failure of humanity.


Applebaum neatly summarises the utilitarian philosophy at the heart of the old Soviet Union, “anything can be justified as long as it brings more gold out of the ground”. The author of the definitive account of life in the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn, “dedicated a chapter of the “Gulag Archipelago” to the communists whom he referred to, not very charitably, as good thinkers. He marvelled at their ability to explain away even their own arrest, torture and incarceration as the very cunning work of foreign intelligence services or wrecking on an enormous scale or a plot by the NKVD. Some came up with an even more magisterial explanation. These repressions were a historical necessity for the development of our society”. The use of propaganda was so effective that it meant that even victims justified it. Nancy Adler, a survivor of the Gulag system, articulated it best when she said that an “allegiance to a belief system can have deep non-rational roots”. This belief often spread to Western communists. Recall Bertold Brecht, “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die”.


Applebaum unearths a real problem when it comes to the issue of how the Soviet Union is still viewed by many modern leftists, “the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler… where are the Hollywood movies?”. It is bewildering that people still think that because they were trying to do the right thing, that the violence can somehow be overlooked. Why do people in the West still wear USSR t-shirts and trinkets and yet concurrently believe it is inappropriate to wear Nazi ones?


Applebaum has done a memorable job of voicing the muted stories of millions of innocent victims that the Soviet system tried to silence, “sometimes a local group has put up a monument. More often there is no marking at all. The names, the lives, the individual stories, the family connections, the history. All were lost”. Humanity remains indebted to  Applebaum and her ilk for courageously telling the true story of the Gulag in Twentieth Century Russia. 

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment