Saturday, 25 March 2017

Noam Chomsky

My attention has been drawn to a recent review of Noam Chomsky's book, "Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda". 
   Chomsky is a world-renowned expert in the nature and origins of language, but for several decades now he has been writing books denouncing American foreign policy. This particular volume, written more than twenty years ago, is in essence an anti-Plato tract. By this I mean that he attacks the ideas put forward in Plato's famous book, "The Republic", which advocates that government should be entrusted to a specially-trained elite class of "Guardians" rather than left in the hands of the fickle forces of democracy.  
    Chomsky sees the USA and other self-styled "democracies" as under the control of a  class which he calles the "specialists", ruling over the masses, who are called "the bewildered herd". However, unlike Plato's Guardians, who were trained from childhood to use their power solely for the public benefit, Chomsky sees the rule of his "specialists" as being illegitimate; running the country entirely for their own benefit whilst keeping up a mere facade of democracy, and misleading the public mendacious propaganda. He gives various examples of how this is achieved.
   But such a clear dichotomy between "specialists" and the "bewildered herd" is of course absurd. In all western countries there is a large intervening class of educated and intelligent people who do not fall into either category, and are well capable of seeing through blatant propaganda. This number must, of course, include Chomsky himself.

When I read the review, it immediately struck me how out-of-date Chomsky's argument is. The reviewer makes a valiant attempt to tie it into today's world of Brexit and Donald Trump, but wholly in vain. The argument simply has no bearing on a situation where, in America, Donald Trump was elected President after insulting all the leading members of his own party, and is now at war with the "New York Times" and the leading news media, and where in Britain a majority of the people voted for Brexit against the wishes and advice of most MPs, most members of the House of Lords, all living former Prime Ministers, the leaders of all the traditional political parties, a majority of university graduates and the "Times" newspaper. Since the, we have seen senior judges denounced as "Enemies of the people" by the Brexiteer tabloids, to the fury of the legal profession, and Brexiteer Tories complaining that top civil servants are undermining their negotiations. If these people aren't part of the "specialists", then who is? Now Donald Trump has, without a shred of evidence, even accused the FBI of colluding with MI5 to tap his phone!

The reviewer would have done better to portray these events as something truly revolutionary: an uprising of the "bewildered herd" against the "specialists"; the like of which we had not previously seen in the West, and whose consequences we cannot yet foresee. As was said by Michael Gove (a man who rose from a humble background to become a cabinet minister, thereby joining the "specialists"), "The public has had enough of experts". 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

History: The End of Tsarism

On this day, March 15th, one hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. This followed several weeks in which the capital, Petrograd, had slid towards anarchy. The war was not going well, and food supplies to the city had broken down, leading to shortages and severe price inflation. This in turn had led to strikes and demonstrations, which had soon turned violent. Most alarming of all, sections of the Petrograd garrison refused to supress the rioters, but instead joined the crowds on the streets. Police stations were attacked, and armed police who fired on rioters from the rooftops were lynched. Meanwhile the Tsar was away at the Front, and did not realise the seriousness of the situation until it was far too late. His only action was to suspend the Duma, the Russian Parliament, which at this stage was dominated by conservatives and moderate liberals, with hardly any left-wing representation. But the Duma refused to disperse. There were demands that the Tsar should go. Finally Nicholas, finding that he was supported by nobody, not even his generals, tamely surrendered and abdicated.
   Nicholas offered the crown to his brother, Grand Duke Michael; but Michael, feeling his accession would lack legitimacy unless he was recognised by the Duma, rejected the crown. After four centuries, Tsarism ceased to exist.

Into the gap left by the end of Tsarism stepped two different bodies. The Duma proclaimed a “Provisional Government”, headed by a liberal nobleman, Prince Lvov, with a radical lawyer, Alexander Kerensky, as its dominant personality. The second body was the “Soviet (that is, council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, which arose spontaneously in the city, and to which increasingly the masses looked for leadership. For the moment, the Soviet was dominated by moderate Socialists who were prepared to co-operate with the Provisional Government.
   There was general rejoicing, both in Russia and amongst her allies, as the Provisional Government freed all political prisoners, ended press censorship and announced future elections for a Constituent Assembly. The main reason this amity and optimism did not last was that the decision was also taken to keep Russia in the war. Over the next few months the army disintegrated and German forces advanced further into Russia. The food supply to Petrograd became ever worse as anarchy spread throughout the Russian countryside. Violence in the streets increased. The path was set for the Bolshevik seizure of power in the autumn.
   The Bolshevik Party had played no part in the fall of the Tsar. Lenin was in Switzerland (and was caught entirely by surprise by the fall of the Tsar), Trotsky was in New York and Stalin in exile in a remote part of Siberia. They now all returned to Petrograd and worked to seize control of events.   

These events are known as the “February Revolution”. In fact most of them took place in March under our calendar, but at the time Russia still followed the antiquated “Julian” calendar, thirteen days behind the West. Historians deal with this problem by indicating that the dates they cite are “Old Style” (O.S.) or “New Style” (N.S.) The date of March 15th, given above, is N.S. 

An American cartoon of the fall of the Tsar. Note the whip Nicholas is holding. It is labelled "German Influence", reflecting a widespread (but incorrect) belief that Nicholas's German-born Empress, Alexandria, was pro-German, and their friend Rasputin might have been a German agent.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Unexpected Kings

There are several well-known monarchs whom I'm calling "unexpected kings"; the reason being that they had elder brothers. Only the death of the sibling suddenly elevated them to the status of heir to the throne.

Richard I of England, the great crusading warrior nicknamed Richard the Lion-Heart, was only the second son of Henry II. Until Richard was 26 the heir was his elder brother Henry, who was given the title of "The Young King". Henry, Richard and their younger brothers Geoffrey and John all rose in concerted rebellion against their father; but then young Henry died childless in 1183, leaving Richard to succeed to the throne in 1189.
   Richard himself was childless when he was killed in battle in 1199. The next brother, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, was already dead, and by modern rules the heir to the throne should have been Geoffrey's 12-year-old son, Arthur; but rules of strict hereditary did not yet apply, and rather than run the risks involved in having a child as king, John, the youngest of the four brothers, was given the crown. Arthur was taken prisoner, and John apparently had him murdered in 1203. John is remembered as one of England's worst Kings, but would he have become King if Richard had lived a few years longer, until Arthur became an adult?

We might consider the case of Edward II (reigned 1307-27), another spectacularly incompetent King. He he was only a few months old when his elder brother Alfonzo died from unknown causes in 1284. Very few English people realize that they might have had a King Alfonzo!

A much more famous case is that of Henry VIII. He was born in 1491; five years after his brother, Prince Arthur. At the age of just 15 Arthur was given a diplomatically-important marriage to the equally young Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain. Arthur died a few months later, and when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509 he decided to marry Katherine himself. This had enormous consequences for the history of England, because marriage to a deceased brother's widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible (the book of Leviticus). Henry therefore had to seek permission of the Pope for his wedding to take place. This was duly given, but when after 20 years Katherine had failed to give him a son and heir, Henry became convinced that his marriage was cursed, and sought to end it (tecnhically by annulment, not divorce). Unfortunately at this point European politics intervened, for in 1527 Rome fell to the forces of the Emperor Charles V, and the Pope (Clement VII) was a virtual prisoner of the Emperor. As it happened, Katherine was the Emperor's aunt, and there was no way Charles would permit this tremendous insult to his family; so the only solution Henry could find to his dilemma was to separate the English church from Rome and end the marriage by his own authority. 

English Kings had been murdered or killed in battle, but the unfortunate Charles I was the only one ever to be sentenced to death and executed. But until he was 12 years old he had an elder brother, the popular Henry, Prince of Wales, who died at the age of 17. Would the English civil war have happened if Henry had become King instead of Charles?

More recently, as a young man George V was not expected to become King, because the eldest son of the future King Edward VII was the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert Victor, commonly known as Prince Eddy. He was a dissolute young man; he was rumoured to be a regular visitor to a discreet homosexual brothel staffed by working-class teenage rent-boys, and has even been suspected of being Jack the Ripper! It was thought that the only hope was to find him a strong-minded and sensible wife, and a German princess, Mary of Teck, was selected for the job. But in 1892, before the marriage could take place, and doubtless to everyone's secret relief, Prince Eddy died of pneumonia at the age of 28, leaving his brother George as heir. It was tactfully discovered that Mary's affections were transferred to George, and the pair were duly married the next year. As King (1910-36) George V faced several serious crises, but always behaved with the strictest constitutional propiety, and the monarchy survived and prospered. Quite probably Prince Eddy would have done far worse.

King Louis VII of France (reigned 1137-80) was originally intended for the Church, and it would have been better if he could have stayed there. Unfortunately for France, his elder brother Philip had died as a teenager in 1131. Louis was noted for his piety, but as a warrior was an extremely inept crusader, and his main achievement as King was to divorce his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She then ran off with the future Henry II of England, taking her vast holdings in south-western France into the English orbit. Louis was one of the worst of the French mediaeval kings, but fortunately for his country his son by his third wife, Philip II, "Augustus", was easily the best, and recovered the ground that his father had lost. 

Francis I of France (reigned 1515-47), a dazzling prince of the Renaissance, had trained his eldest son, Francis the Dauphin, to succeed him, but the young man died at the age of 19 in 1536, and the succession went to the younger son, who became Henry III. Henry had no more than average ability, and was killed in a tournament in 1559. His three sons succeeded him in turns as King. All were disatrous failures, as France was engulfed in a violent civil conflict known as the "Wars of religion". None succeeded in producing an heir, and the Bourbon dynasty came to an end in 1589.

When the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in 1881 and succeeded by his son, Alexander III, it was commented that the assassins (a small anarchist-populist group knwn as "People's Will") had murdered an intelligent liberal Tsar in order to replace him with a stupid reactionary one. But until Alexander III was 20 he would not have expected to become Tsar, because it was only in 1865 that his elder brother Nicholas died unmarried. Alexander III himself died young, at the age of 49, and was succeeded by his ill-prepared son Nicholas II. Nicholas as a child had witnessed his grandfather's murder: one can only guess at the traumatic effect it must have had on him. 

There has been quite a fad in recent years of "virtual" or "alternative" history, asking whether things would have developed differently if there had been some accidental change - in the examples above; what if the elder brothers had lived? This leads to a more general debate: how much do individuals really matter in history?