Friday, July 27, 2007

Speed Reading and Cultural Amnesia

Woody Allan had a quip "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."

And in today's Grauniad a correspondent writes:
I "speed read" my daughter's copy [of Harry Potter 7] in 45 minutes. It's about wizards.
Glenn Baron
Leigh on Mendip, Somerset
Green, recycled quips have a safe feeling to them. Like curling up in a saggy armchair with a favourite book and a cup of tea.

I've just bought Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. Slate magazine describes the essays as offering
a compelling alternative history of the last century and of the struggles of liberal humanism against totalitarianism.
You can either read a small selection online at Slate, or buy the book and read it curling up in a saggy armchair with a a cup of tea, or you can do something else, who am I to force you to do anything?

There is a cracking review of Cultural Amnesia by Gordon McLauchlan that mentions that James
writes with warmth and conviction about the brilliant period of four decades in Vienna before World War II when a group of intellectuals, mainly Jewish, flourished in a cafe culture because they were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses, because universities discriminated against them. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain [which] could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the result except a faculty supervisor.
That ties in to a theme, possibly not mentioned in James's book, that having a group of people with the same interests is important for any artistic movement. Bebop needed a group of people around Charlie Parker for Bird to shine. Abstract expressionism needed a group of people supporting each other in New York in the post WWII period. But that's an aside.

McLauchlan goes on to say "James is a great public intellectual not infected by the hubris of Christopher Hitchens." Some people may argue with that point.

It's a big book, so that's me set up for several weeks.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The New Philanthropists

Ignore all the charitable donations of capitalists and bankers. The real philanthropists are those who take jobs where they earn less than they need to survive. Without people giving of their time and energy the economy would collapse. Where would you get your coffee? Where would you buy your groceries? Where would you stay away from home?

Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Ignorance is not bliss

CP Snow questioned parties of the literati about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and got looks of disdain in response.

Natalie Angier, the science editor of the New York Times, has written a book, 'The Canon - A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science', as a minimum requirement of an educated person. Steven Pinker reviews Angier's Whirligig Tour in the NY Times (registration required).
The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.

In “The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science,” Natalie Angier aims to do her part for scientific literacy. Though Angier is a regular contributor to the Science Times section of this newspaper, “The Canon” departs from the usual treatment of science by journalists, who typically cover the “news,” the finding that upsets the apple cart, rather than the consensus. Though one can understand why journalists tend to report the latest word from the front — editors’ demand for news rather than pedagogy, and the desire to show that science is a fractious human activity rather than priestly revelation — this approach doesn’t always serve a widespread understanding of science. The results of isolated experiments are more ephemeral than conclusions from literature reviews (which usually don’t fit into a press release), and the discovery-du-jour approach can whipsaw readers between contradictory claims and leave them thinking, “Whatever.”
In today's Observer Angier's Whirligig Tour is reviewed by Tim Adams. According to Adams the book has been snapped up at auction by publishers all over Eastern Europe and Asia but there has been no interest in the UK - "a place, we might remember, where 20 per cent of people still believe that the Sun revolves around Earth".

It's time to consider that finding stuff out is inocculation against stupidity. And who could be agin that?

Monty Johnstone

The unexpected death of "Monty Johnstone, Political and Social Historian" and Eurocommunist was announced in the Death Notices in yesterday's Guardian.

In Francis Beckett's Enenmy Within, The Rise and Fall of The British Communist Party (1998) Beckett acknowledges the "tireless Monty Johnstone who has been generous with his deep knowledge" and says that Monty has "spent many years of his life making sure that the darkest secrets of international Communism are not swept under the carpet" (p viii).

Becket goes on to mention that
"Monty Johnstone, condemned in the higher reaches of the CP ever since 1956 as a revisionist, was staying in Prague at the time of the Soviet invasion. I'd gone to spend a holiday to see what was going on - I was attracted by the programme of democratisation. On the night of 20 August I was with a the director of Czech television, Jiri Pelikan, who was also a member of Parliament's foreign affairs commission. He thought the Soviet Union would invade. I said he was exaggerating - Brezhnev would not be so foolish. As we parted outside the television station at 10 pm he said, "Come and see me again, if I'm still here." I laughed. But he was never to enter that building again."
Later Johnstone was to draft a pamphlet, at the request of the YCL, called Czechoslovakia's Struggle for Socialist Democracy. (Becket p164 - 165). After almost a decade of exile from the top ranks of the CP Johnstone "was at last respectable again and in demand to address meetings" (Becket p165).

For a more critical piece try this essay from 1976 by Jim Higgins on Monty Johnstone.
YOU CANNOT help having a sneaking regard for Monty Johnstone. He is quite un-putdownable. Not only that, by a quirk of an unjust world, he seems to have discovered some spring of eternal youth.

Perhaps that is why his best writing is reserved for the pages of the Young Communist League magazine, Cogito. In the late 1960s he produced a lengthy critique of Trotsky and Trotskyism part 1.

Despite a promise, in part 1, of an early appearance of part 2, we have had to wait 7 years to get the full beauty of Monty’s thought on the question. But now it is with us and it would be surly to cavil at the delay.

Monty Johnstone has some credentials, that set him apart from his fellow CP authors on the subject, to write on Trotskyism; In his extreme youth he was a Trotskyist, a trauma which – if it did not last long – must have left lasting scars.

He has actually read the source material, which as I say puts him one up on such as John Mahon, Willie Gallagher, William Wainwright, Betty Reid, Marjorie Pollitt, J.R.Campbell and a host of others – who have vented their ignorant literary spleen on Trotsky.

Monty knows that Trotsky was not in the pay of the Mikado (the one in Japan, not the Labour MP), Adolf Hitler or anyone else and, refreshingly, he says so. He takes some pains to point out that on Germany, during the rise of Nazism, Trotsky was right and Stalin, and the Comintern, were wrong.

That, however, is as far as Monty will go. On every other question Trotsky was wrong, apparently. The “fallacy” in Trotsky’s thought is traced back to his theory of Permanent Revolution. This theory, placing as it does the working class as the central core of socialist strategy and action, blinded poor old Trotsky so it seems, to the great revolutionary potential of the middle classes, the peasantry and the “progressive” capitalists, as represented, for example, by the Kuo-Min-Tang.

Now, of course, this is a point of view, and one that has activated the minds of the Stalinist wing of communism for many years. It is not, nevertheless, the only view on the question.

It is for example the view of quite a number of people that the theory of permanent revolution is one that explains, in a Marxist way, the developments of the post-war period in Eastern Europe and China and several other “workers’ paradises”.
In part 1 of his work Monty Johnstone conceded, readily, that the Moscow trials were a frame-up: What he did not make clear, though, was the reason for the need of such a method of winning an argument.

The fact is that Stalin was neither right or wrong on the questions Monty Johnstone discusses. Zinoviev and Kamenev were right, or wrong. Bukharin was right, or wrong. But Stalin just won the arguments and in the end it was with a gun or a long distance ice-axe.

In the process the Communist International was transformed into an instrument of Russian policy. The Communist Parties became the extension of Russian diplomacy. And almost without exception the men who made the revolution were killed, disgraced or capitulated completely.

Now sophisticated CP apologists will argue, with the characteristic dialectical chop-logic of the breed, that whatever the crimes of Stalin, whatever the inadequacy of his theoretical grasp, it all came right in the end.

Well that too is a point of view. Even if it flies in the face of all the facts, and it ignores the divisions in the Communist movement, and the abject failure of the Western Communist parties to see any route to socialism except via a bourgeois parliament.

It is true that Trotsky had his failings but he never dreamed that working class power could be exercised through a capitalist institution. For Monty and his chums in the Italian CP this may smack of ultra-leftism; for others it sounds dangerously like marxism.

Our advice to Monty Johnstone is that, now he has completed his work on Trotsky, he should reexamine the Stalinist tradition and attempt to explain the phenomena of the late J.V.Stalin. It will be instructive, worthwhile for the YCL and will undoubtedly get him a highly paid post squaring circles.


Just sent an email to a friend.

Got this message back:
Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

<>: does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 551 5.7.1 Recipient Unable to accept message
Giving up on
It seems like our relationship is over. And that makes me sad. I think it's the folksiness of "I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out" that adds to the pathos.