Huxley, Alduos: “Brave New World”

Got a gramme of soma? You do? Excellent. Well, strap in and fade out. Scottish techno wizards Slam were so taken with the designer drug in Brave New World that they named their illustrious label after it.  In a letter to Orwell, whom he briefly taught, Huxley wrote: “my own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing”. Soma acts much like alcohol does in Nineteen Eighty-Four, albeit on a harder scale to create a world where the subjects are “not listening, not thinking at all”. This is the goal of all totalitarian societies: to dull the critical faculties of its citizens who merely watch “the flower of the present rosily blossom” and get high and fuck all day.

If Orwell’s classic is about a state-run dystopia, then Huxley’s is of a right-wing capitalist one where the Ford corporation controls the world. Huxley leaves us with the district impression that ideas, both left and right, are the issue: “The greater a man’s talents, the greater his power to lead astray”. I cannot help thinking that Huxley is Bernard Marx. Incidentally, although it attacks capitalism, the names of the characters are telling: Polly Trotsky, Sarojiji Engels, Herbert Bakunin and Lenina. Marx thinks freely. As Camus, who understands all too well the risk that totalitarian societies pose for artists, writes in Create Dangerously: “If art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie”. Huxley, as Marx, understood this. Or perhaps he is the “Savage”, John, who goes home to read Othello (infamously dumbed down to Three Weeks In A Helicopter) rather than having sex with Lenina. Indeed, the use of the word “Savage” is important. Society must dehumanise John.  “Savage” also has imperialist conations and it is redolent of Arendt’s thought in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the “superiority of man over man, of the higher over the lower breeds” leads to a virulent form of racism. All the more reason why human beings need, as Erich Fromm beseeches us in Escape from Freedom, to think critically and to impose our individuality on society.

The Savage knows this and recognises the real value of art in a totalitarian society: “you’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art”. He does not subscribe to the vapid society where “liberalism, of course, was dead of anthrax, but all the same you couldn’t do things by force” and fights back vociferously against the senseless consumerist materialism where “ending is better than mending”. Conservatism, as well as liberalism, is dead: “never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today”. This is a world akin to The Matrix and Patrick Ness’s More Than This, where we are materials. It is the Savage who understands that we cannot exist on pleasure alone: “but I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin”. And so say all of us.

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Sakwa, Richard: “Frontline Ukraine. Crisis In The Borderlands”

Professor Sakwa views the current conflict in Eastern Europe as extremely serious, likening it to the turmoil that took place in the Balkans before the outbreak of World War One. Sakwa, welcomely, challenges the liberal doctrine of the West in their approach to Russia and Ukraine.

Essentially, he thinks that “NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement”. This can be traced back to 1990 when then Secretary of State in the US James Baker verbally promised Russia that there would no NATO expansion to the East. However, during Clinton’s presidency, “NATO began its path of enlargement, gradually threatening to encircle Russia to the east and south”. It is true that NATO expanded to the East. However, I would take issue with the word “encircle” by Sakwa. Look at Russia on a map. I am not sure encirclement is the correct term. Also, the real debate as to whether or not sovereign nations wanted to or have the right to join NATO. If we are to believe, in any meaningful way, in the right of nations to decide their own future, then what the US or Russia wants should be irrelevant. Perhaps this is naïve. Sakwa cites George Kennan: “our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime”. This is an excellent point and on that, it is worth focusing on, and not forgetting. Namely, that Russia is not the Soviet Union. That said, it is understandable if countries in the region have not yet forgiven or forgotten the crimes of the Soviet Union, especially as Putin has stated that he regrets its disintegration.  Moreover, it is not as if the Soviet Union was replaced with a healthy democracy. Far from it, Russia is run by a tyrant. There is a chapter here called “Gambit” and Sakwa refers to Putin as an expert tactician. Yet, is this accurate? Garry Kasparov, exiled from Russia for attempting to run for president, has written in his book “Winter Is Coming” that it is not. He thinks Putin is a poker player upping the stakes all the time. I am uneasy with Sakwa’s belief that Putin is a master strategist.

Sakwa is excellent on the events of the Maidan revolution, describing it as a fight between the pluralists who believe they should acknowledge their deep ties with Russia, specifically in regards to the large number of people who speak Russian in Ukraine, and the monists who wish to ignore these ties and plough a nationalist path which has led them to cross into the dangerous Orwellian definition of nationalism. He quotes a 2014 study which stated that the “culture, language, and political thinking of western Ukraine have been imposed upon the rest of Ukraine”. This is especially problematic when 57% of the population, in 2001, claimed to be Russian. Another political example of the tensions was when Yanukovych refused to describe the Holodomor as a genocide but Yushchenko acknowledged that it was. Sakwa references some of the WikiLeaks documents and thinks that the five billion dollars that the US spent on democracy promotion had an improper and undue influence on events. He rallies against the attitude of the West to underreported events such as those in Odessa where forty-eight people were killed. He is careful with the language that he uses about the way that Yanukovych left. Was it a coup or a putsch? I am still unsure. Ultimately, Sakwa thinks that “what has begun as a movement in support of European values now became a struggle to assert a monistic representation of Ukrainian nationhood” which has led to the Russians believing that a NATO base may have been installed on Sevastopol base in Crimea.

He alleges that Khrushchev was drunk when he “gave” Crimea to Ukraine in 1954! In 1991, 93% of Crimeans voted for independence from both Ukraine and Russia. This was to be ratified in a referendum which was cancelled in February 1992. Power was devolved to Crimea in 1996 as tensions ratcheted up. Sakwa refers to a series of polls from 2011 until 2014 which showed that 23% to 41% were in favour of joining Russia.  He acknowledges that the referendum in 2014 when Putin’s infamous little green men were on the streets was illegitimate.  It is infuriating to read Sakwa printing Putin opining about the Crimean people’s right to governance. What about the Russian people’s? I cannot take Putin seriously when he discusses self-governance. However, his view is a healthy counter-balance to the oafish Boris Johnson who compared Russia’s upcoming hosting of the 2018 World Cup to the Nazi Germany’s 1936 Olympics when he writes that “Russia under Putin is a profoundly conservative power and its actions are designed to maintain the status quo, hence the efforts Moscow put into ratifying its existing borders” in China, Norway and Estonia among other countries.  Putin on Crimea: “we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory”. The threat of this should have been recognised by the West and Ukraine. Maybe a deal could have been struck where the West promised that Sevastopol would have been left NATO free?

Of the tragic events in Novorossiya, Sakwa writes that “the goals of the insurgents were never entirely clear”. He is also clear that it was chiefly insurgents and not Russian forces there. Crucially, he sees an “inability to understand that was not an invasion but a genuine revolt against a particular type of statehood” by those in the West. Wise words. He deems Putinism a form of “neo-revisionism” and thinks, especially after the Iraq war, that “Russia’s refusal to submit itself to Atlanticist hegemony” is completely justified. I would have to say that it is. However, this does not justify his non-democratisation of Russia.  However, it does mean that West should interfere in events less in Ukraine and let them plough their own course.

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Fromm, Erich: “Escape From Freedom”

Fromm has some interesting perspectives in his quasi-psychological assessment of the post-World War Two geopolitical landscape. The first half reminded me of Siedentrop’s “Inventing The Individual” in its analysis of the part that religion has played in putting the focus on the individual. Whereas that book writes of the impact that Catholicism had, Fromm focuses on Protestantism and Luther’s fight against Catholicism and the idea that the pope had the right to decide what the word of God was. This placed the focus on the individual, as opposed to say, Calvin, who believed in predestination. Intriguingly, Fromm even proffers the fact that Calvin preached an “inner-worldly asceticism” in order to atone for a life of sin as being evidence of an extra focus on the virtues of free will. It is an unarguable point.  Furthermore, Fromm sees Lutheranism and Calvinism as an essential milestone on the way to capitalism as they broke down the feudal system because the “newly formed character traits became important factors in further economic development…productive forces furthering and intensifying the new economic development”.

Fromm on early, religious capitalism: “One works for profit’s sake, but the profit one makes is not made to be spent but to be invested as new capital; this increased capital brings new capital, and so on in a circle”. Consequently, “This principle of accumulating capital instead of using it for consumption is the premise of the grandiose achievements of our modern industrial system”. A point that we have lost sight of.

I am most appreciative of Fromm’s ideas about critical and free thinking. Something else we have forgotten how to do: “A great number of decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision”. This even leads people to get married for wrong reasons and creates what he calls a “pseudo-self” that replaces the “original self”. This pseudo-self is, of course, ripe for the authoritarian leader: “The attitude of the authoritarian character toward life, his whole philosophy, is determined by his emotional strivings. The authoritarian loves those conditions that limit human freedom”. If we do not think critically, we leave ourselves wide open to be duped by these emotional responses. Throw in how social media plays on said feelings, something Fromm’s generation did not have to worry about, and a dangerous combination is suddenly present. Social media taps entirely into emotion as opposed to logic and reason.

Fromm was writing before the onslaught of post-modernism when he stated that: “truth is made out to be a metaphysical concept, and if anyone speaks about wanting to discover the truth he is thought backwards by the progressive thinkers of our age. Truth is declared to be an entirely subjective matter”. One of the bulwarks against this is the artist who “can be defined as an individual who can express himself simultaneously”.

How do we protect society against these threats? “This respect for and cultivation of the uniqueness of the self is the most valuable achievement of human culture and it is this very achievement which is in danger today”. Also, we must concentrate on increasing democratic values: “democracy is a system that creates the economic, political and cultural conditions for the full development of the individual. Fascism is a system that makes the individual subordinate to extraneous purposes”. In an especially appropriate warning for the Antifa times that we live in: “Freedom is not less endangered if attacked in the name of anti-fascism or that of outright fascism”.

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Orwell, George:  “Notes On Nationalism”

Is Orwell a better essayist than novelist? When you consider just how seminal and outstanding Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are, it would seem a near impossible case to prove.  Yet Notes On Nationalism does just that. It is an essay on a par with his novels in its incisiveness. Even in 2018, it is devastatingly accurate. Orwell was a sage with a perspicacious mind who identified thoughts that few else did. Take, for example, the following differentiation: “Patriotism is a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon people. Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.

Fascinatingly, he highlights how often influential leaders of countries were frequently born elsewhere: Stalin, Napoleon, Hitler, de Valera and Disraeli. This is possible partly because of what Orwell deems “transferred nationalism”: that people are capable of tuning into nationalities not common to them. So, an English or Irish person could be a committed Soviet nationalist. He expands his definition of nationalism to include political points of view such as communism. Ideologue is an alternative word for what Orwell describes in this 1945 essay. Norman Doidge, in the foreword to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. An Antidote To Chaos defines ideologues as “people who pretend they know how to make the world a better place before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within”. Perhaps the second part is not what Orwell meant but the first part most certainly is. Orwell views a key part of nationalism as having an “indifference to reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts”. Their feelings override the facts. This then allows the “bigoted communist” to turn into a “bigoted Trotskyist” with a minimum of fuss and explains how “in continental Europe fascist movements were largely recruited from among communists”.

The centenary, in 2017, of the Russian Revolution saw a couple of members of the Irish Dáil waxing lyrical about how misunderstood Trotsky was. It is mind-boggling to witness how pervasive this myth still remains: “When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that responsible people are merely lying. More probably they feel their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and one that is justified in rearranging the records accordingly”. This level of delusion multiplies so that the “nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”. More to the point: “the fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them of being fascists is absolutely false, creates an impression that that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference”. This is quite a clever little trick: use a falsehood to create another one. The wisest thing to do, and it baffles me how infrequently this happens, is to actually interpret Trotsky’s ideas first-hand by reading his books. I have written about these works previously and there is little or no difference, philosophically, between Trotsky and Stalin: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/defending-the-indefensible-a-review-of-leon-trotskys-terrorism-and-communism/

Sticking with my native Ireland, in 2017 we released a commemorative stamp for the despot Che Guevara, despite the facts about his violent past being openly available for all to see. Similarly, in Venezuela, modern leftists refuse to see the economic damage done in the name of communism and label the opposition fascists. Elsewhere, in Syria, people are convinced that the what is happening is a gigantic US PSYOP. Of course, you rarely hear said people discuss the fact that ninety percent of the death toll is caused by Assad. Why? Orwell: “The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied…the nationalist is uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit”. In order for this to occur, he sees through the so-called “intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.” Nail on head.

Orwell talks of the delusions that “Celtic nationalism” can cause and expands his definition to include class: “Among the upper class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life”. This is quite common. People feel guilty about the level of, what these days would be termed “privilege”. It is bollocks. The reality is that no person has any influence over what class they are until their late teenage years. Moreover, if we are fortunate enough to be born into a Western society, we can change our class by working hard in society. The best way for every human being to improve is to educate themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. What I really appreciate about Orwell is his honesty. Being a socialist, he was not afraid of criticising his own side’s actions: “the average intellectual of the Left believed that the war was lost in 1940…he could believe these things because his hatred of the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind”.

I find that Orwell seems at times to be directing his thoughts directly at me: “Nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which attracts him but which he knows absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods”. I occasionally feel myself slipping into these delusions, particularly at weak moments, or if I discover a new idea. In fact, ideas themselves may just be the problem. Orwell was not a nationalist and I try to follow his example. If only more people could follow suit, it would make discussing politics more rational.

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Camus, Albert: “Create Dangerously”

Camus writes of the imaginative process that culminates in art, beautifully, as “the strange liberty of creation”.  He describes how society all too often “discourages free creation by undermining its basic principle, the creator’s faith in himself”.  It is an interesting concept and I think it can be contrasted with Robert Conquest’s idea, in The Dragons Of Expectation, that the sheer number of artists in modern day society is proof that we now have an excess of them. Certainly, we have learnt to encourage them since Camus gave this speech in 1957.   Perhaps this is because society is freer than it was in the post-World War Two years, which is critical to enable artists to create: as Camus puts it, “Without liberty, we shall achieve nothing”. This is why “tyrants know that there is in the work of art an emancipatory force”.

He rails against the notion that “If art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie”. Camus believes the role of the artist is not to represent what the majority of society view as acceptable: “If (art) adapts itself to what the majority of what our society wants, art will be a meaningless creation”. He is scathing about art for art’s sake and anyone who tries to get famous on the back of being an artist should not be seen as genuine: “A true artist could not compromise with the world of money”. Equally, Camus believes that “true art is called upon to unite” so he sees a socialistic quality in it. There is an obvious logic at play here in that the artist shares their creation with others. I would slightly disagree. Art is entirely subjective and is made by the individual. Yes, people can have shared experiences, but the concept of uniting implies some pre-disposed aim before or during its inception and this minimises its legitimacy.  He does broach the topic: “If there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue”. Sources of inspiration include “The Sea, rains, necessity, desire, the struggle against death…we resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together”. It is intriguing that he sees these as shared qualities or experiences. I believe that they are individual ones. At other times, he muddies the waters: “At the very moment when the artist chooses to share the fate of all, he asserts the individual he is. And he cannot escape from this ambiguity”. Applying this logic, it would be difficult to separate the artist from their art. This is a question which I have asked but have not been able to answer. I wrote about it in a previous Radiohead piece but remain none the wiser: https://wordpress.com/post/orbitalmick.wordpress.com/1590

Camus thinks that art “striving towards realism is legitimate” yet imagines a camera recording one person’s actions all the time and decides that this is only a tiny portion of their life. It is the parts we don’t see, namely the “lives of people he loves…fellow citizens, policemen, professors, invisible comrades from the mines and foundries, diplomats and dictators, religious reformers” that the artist needs to capture. What a wonderful and evocative description of the task at hand.

He also has an idea about where art sits: “We shall choose in the reality of today or yesterday what announces and serves the perfect city of the future”. This would seem to apply to artists who create science fiction but also speaks to the timelessness of the artist’s works and the fact that artists need to create the future.  In doing so, they can help to right wrongs and “speak up for those that cannot do so”.   To Camus, the “greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain”.

Ultimately, “What then, is art? Nothing simple, that is certain. And it is even harder to find out amid the shouts of so many people bent on simplifying everything”.  He quotes Balzac: “the genius resembles everyone and no one resembles him”. Once more, he tries to delineate the artist, their art and where they sit in society. Maybe it is best to just accept these questions are not that easy to answer. However, he is clear that “the aim of art is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all”. So, even if we cannot find the answers, the artist must try.

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O’Neill, Eugene: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

James Tyrone represents the imperfect, meliorist conservative belief that the more responsibility we take for our lives, the better we will all be, both collectively and individually. It has long been an outlook that I respect in those on the right. Written in the mid-twentieth century but set in 1912, the doctrine was being eaten away at even then. These days, the slide into being defined by our identity threatens to take the focus off us all doing the right thing more than before. The dynamic between James and his two sons symbolises a generational break between left and right.  “Forget everything and face nothing,” says James to Edmund and Jamie.

“I’m taxed to death” complains James, underscoring his belief that individuals should be unburdened with high excises. James Tyrone invests all his money into property and is cash poor. In doing so, he is willing to delay his gratification to a future date. His economic principles are based on an avoidance of living in the “poor house”, which he cites as a concern multiple time throughout. For this, Jamie dubs him a “miser”. Yet the contrast is telling. Both sons spend their money as soon as they get any and do not plan for the future, so which lifestyle is more effective?

When James discovers that his wife Mary has relapsed into drug use, he exclaims “I don’t want to listen to your excuses”. Mary claims that it is not her fault and, in this dynamic, we see the tension in how society affects the individual. James desperately wants her to take control and get her house in order. Can she? At one point, while identifying who is at fault, James even slips and says that “no one is to blame”. It is thus tempting to think that he has admitted defeat, yet the point about taking responsibility is that it is not always possible. There are times when we cannot do so – but we must always try.

Similarly, when it comes to James’s religious beliefs, he tries and fails all the time. This is enough for him. He is happy that he is a believer, even if he messes up. Whereas, for Jamie, he thinks it is all an act: “I don’t notice you’ve worn any holes in the knees of your pants going to mass”. Theism becomes atheism. While Jamie rejects James’s Catholicism due to the level of his piety, the critical point is that James has tried. The question is: is it better to try or to do nothing at all?

The next generation’s renunciation of Christian values irks James and he rails against the inherent nihilism. Mary, meanwhile, begs for forgiveness from the Blessed Mary. Losing her faith is painful: “If only I could find the faith I lost”. This is why she constantly talks about how she could have been a nun. Elsewhere, O’Neill makes it impossible for us not to believe that there is a link between Edmund’s attempted suicide and his “atheist morbidness”.

I viewed a stirring production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2018 with Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville and Rory Keenan in Wyndham’s Theatre, London. It ticked every box: the venue, stage, lighting and acting were exceptional. Witnessing the play live made me consider how significant O’Neill deemed the transition from the old Roman focus on the family, the hearth, as the most important unit in society to the Christian focus on the individual. We see a family visibly disintegrate before our eyes. For example, Mary excoriates James about how theirs is a house, an investment and not a true home: “I know you can’t think it’s a home”.

Ultimately, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a reminder of the fog in which the West finds itself in a post-Christian world. Do we give up, like Jamie, shrug our shoulders and bleat that most people get “nowhere in the end” anyway, so what’s the point? Or do we try? The answer is simple. We need to at least aim to do the right thing by taking responsibility for our own lives.

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Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. A Story Of Greed, Terror And Heroism In Colonial Africa.

Europeans first advanced into Africa when shipping became a realistic mode of transport in the fourteenth century. The Portuguese sailed down to the Kongo (it was spelt with a K at that time) to find Africans who were willing to trade slaves. King Afonso I was himself involved in the slave trade – namely of native criminals and prisoners of war – before the new colonialists arrived yet he neither advocated the enslavement of his free citizens nor foresaw the degree to which Portuguese demand would outstrip supply. The Portuguese rapidly began to renege on their agreements with the king and took his subjects as slaves, leading Afonso to forlornly comment that “the traders are kidnapping our people”.

Knowing the enormous volume of slaves traded, it was odd that John Stanley, a major early European explorer in the nineteenth century, called Africa the “unpeopled country”. Of course, what he meant was that there were no white people. Following the British Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1838, there was a fresh zeal to abolish the practice in Africa and other countries.  Despite this, the Arab and American countries continued unabated. The deceitful language that was used to justify the slave trade was noteworthy. Take the 1884 US Congress report on the Berlin conference, where the imperial powers had gathered to decide how best to divide other countries amongst themselves as colonies. The report states that the imperial powers had “readily adopted the fostering care of benevolent enterprise…there was never a more honest and practical effort made to…secure their welfare”. It is especially jarring to read their acknowledgement of the “remarkable artwork” produced by the indigenous societies in the Congo.

Ascending to the throne in 1865, the Belgian King Leopold II founded his drive for a colony on what he deemed “humanitarian” and altruistic reasons. The statement is the acme of perversity. Leopold hired John Stanley to establish a colony in the Congo on his behalf before he bribed the US into recognising it as Belgian. International recognition was not so easy. Bismarck, for example, called it a “swindle” and said the notion that the Congo was a free state was a “fantasy”.

From the beginning, all of the imperial powers acted with disregard for native peoples and their cultures but Leopold’s regime may have been the most brutal of them all.  Even visitors from other imperialist nations, like George Washington Williams from the US, felt morally obliged to expose the brutality and violence at the heart of Leopold’s Congo. Washington detailed in an open letter in 1890:

  • How the imperialists manipulated the supernatural beliefs of the native Congolese people to sign contracts with them.
  • How the military bases in the Congo killed innocent people.
  • The horrid levels of cruelty and violence that were meted out the local population.
  • How no schools or hospitals were built despite the rhetoric and promises of it being a “civilising” mission.
  • How Leopold’s soldiers killed Congolese human beings for fun.
  • How the slave trade continued unabated despite Belgian commitments to end it.

Perhaps predictably, his warnings were ignored. In April 1897 French priest Pere Auguste Achte fell into Congolese rebel hands and was an eyewitness to the reality of what was happening. The rebels treated him well and informed him what life under Leopold was actually like.

Hochschild believes that Joseph Conrad’s infamous Colonel Kurtz may have been based on the Belgian soldier and colonial officer Leon Rom. When I read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, I thought there was a degree of exaggeration yet after reading the factual version of events, if anything, it seems that Kurtz’s “exterminate all the brutes!” remark and the insane “International Society For The Suppression Of Savage Customs” underplayed the reality of life in the Congo.

Leopold wrote a letter to his officers in the Congo in 1900 directing them to set up child colonies in order to train young Congolese men to be soldiers in his army later in life. The mortality rate was upwards of fifty percent for children who were enslaved in these camps which incited further rebellion against the egregious actions of the colonists. What really changed the dynamics in the Congo was the discovery of rubber at the end of the nineteenth century. Once Leopold realised how much wealth he was able to extract, he oversaw the torture of local people in order to increase the amount of rubber produced. Soldiers cut off the hands of local Congolese people who did not reach production targets. They also kidnapped women and children from local families until the men reached the targets set for them. Charles Lemaire, who was the first commissioner of the Equator district in the Congo, wrote that in order “to gather rubber in the district…one must cut off the hands, noses and ears” of the local people. Baskets of hands were taken as evidence that the locals were worked hard enough. Another official Fievez was clear on how he achieved his targets: “a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian”. Again with the humanitarian madness! Elsewhere, Agent Alberic Detiege forced any locals who handed in pebbles and dirt in order to try to reach their quotas of rubber production to eat it as punishment.

Thousands of labourers, including numerous Chinese workers who were specifically imported to build a railway line from Matadi to Stanley Park in 1898, perished during its construction. There was no outrage after the Chinese were killed. It was the fate of Irishman Charles Stokes that began to spark outrage at what was happening in the Congo. Stokes married a local woman and sold arms to the Afro-Arabs. It was only when he was executed by the Belgians in 1895 that London began to question the brutality of Leopold’s rule.

In 1897, Leopold staged an exhibition about the Congo in Belgium. He brought over two hundred and sixty seven Congolese people whom the Belgian public fed with sweets which made them ill and resulted in a sign being put up: “The blacks are fed by the organizing committee”.

When E.D. Morel began writing full time about the chronic injustices in the Congo in 1901, he exerted genuine political pressure in Europe about ending the violence in the Congo. After witnessing the depravity first hand, Morel was offered numerous bribes by the company that he worked for, who traded with the Congo, to keep quiet. He did not and wrote a report in the UK that led to them passing the 1903 parliamentary motion that the Congo should be run humanely.  Morel worked closely with Roger Casement, then working as a British consul to the Congo, who authored a damning report in 1904 exposing the atrocities committed by the Belgian regime. Casement supported Morel in the establishment of a society to stop the exploitation and abuse, the Congo Reform Association. I had come across Casement’s story before but it is interesting to read more on his involvement in the Congo. Joseph Conrad also became acquainted with Casement and lent his support to the movement. Whatever the calibre of their friendship, it did not endure to the end of Casement’s life: Conrad, a true British nationalist, refused to add his voice to the many advocating for Casement when the Irishman was tried and subsequently hanged for treason against Britain in 1916.

Morel fought for ten years to stop the abuses, working with numerous insiders to gain the evidence required for the international media to believe just how inhumane it had become. He later became an anti–World War One activist and was accused of being a German spy in the process. Naturally, Leopold did not take the attacks on his Congolese colony lying down: he fought back with a media and smear campaign of his own.  When John Stanley died, Leopold had Viscount Mountmorris publish a fawning account of the Congo in 1906. Hochschild likens it to Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s infamous propaganda trip to the USSR. So successful was Leopold’s media blitz that, on the 3rd of November 1905, a day before the official report about Leopold was released, he minimised the story in the media by putting out a false summary that whitewashed what was happening. The media bought it.

Under increasing pressure, Leopold eventually agreed to the annexation of the Congo by the Belgian state in 1908 before he died in 1909.  Thus began a cover up by the Belgian state that lasted for decades and when Jules Marchal, a Belgian diplomat and civil servant who served in the Congo, tried to find the official documents about what the Belgian government had done in the Congo in 1975, he was unable to do so. It took many more years before the truth emerged. While the colonisation of the Congo is arguably one of the most brutal examples of imperialism in history, it is too facile to only blame the Belgians. As Colonel Kurtz said, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”. The effects of the Belgian and European colonisation are still, sadly, being felt to this day. Hochschild: “From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left to Africa was not democracy…it was authoritarian rule and plunder”. After Congo gained its independence in 1960, the US then killed Lumumba, their first elected president. Civil war still plagues the country, though not on the scale on of Leopold’s reign when low birth rates, murder, disease and starvation cut the Congolese population in half, from approximately ten million to five million people.

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