The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?


There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .



Guardian Angel

I am not really sure why I bought this book.phillips-195x293 Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.

But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).

When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.

The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left”  (See Nick Cohen,  Dave Rubin,  and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.

All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.





12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life

I watched an interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman recently and was rather surprised by what I saw. I was bewildered by Cathy Newman’s approach to her subject, she obviously found his views distasteful and was trying very hard to trip him up and reveal his dark and unpleasant, presumably misogynistic, side. She failed to do this and he remained placid, un-rattled, and replied fully and reasonably. Now I have seen her interview many people over the years and she is usually an excellent interviewer; able to debate with the best and able to handle herself in an argument She is, without doubt, one of the best news journalists we have on British television.  I was therefore surprised to see her have such difficulty with this subject, to the extent that at one point she was literally struck dumb and at a loss for words.

At this point I had not heard of her subject Jordan B. Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, nor did I know of his views. But, spurred by this interview, I read a little about him. It became clear that he has become very popular on account of his most recent book and also for his lectures on psychology which are available on YouTube. He is a clinical psychologist and academic who has made a bit of speciality of examining the role of religion in culture and personal psychology. But it became clear that this was not the reason for his widespread, and increasing, fame (or notoriety), this was because of his position on the issue of “compelled speech” (in regard to pronoun usage with transgendered people) and because he has recently published a book which has become a surprising best seller “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos”.

The book, a self-help psychology text, has been very successful with young men and his position on free speech has caused him to be seen as a darling by the “alt-right“. The latter problem is a common difficulty experienced by those of us who try and safeguard free-speech. Those on the far-right often like to profess a support for free-speech as they think it protects them when they spew their bile, particularly their misogynistic or racist ideas. They do not realise that those who support free-speech do so specifically to be able to debate with such hateful ideologies and, through debate, destroy them. The best way to get rid of hateful erroneous ideas is to debate with those who hold them and make them, and their fellow-travellers, feel embarrassed and ashamed town such thoughts.

The fact that his book was popular with young men was interesting as this is a demographic not often drawn to reading. This in itself did not cause me concern, despite Cathy Newman’s obvious distaste for the book, but it did suggest to me that I should read his book. A quick trip to the kindle store and three days later  I was finished. It was a gripping read and one of the best books I have read in a long time.

To be fair this is a “pop psychology” book. It is written in easy chapters, each describing a basic rule. For example  “Chapter 6 : Set you house in perfect order before you criticize the world“, and so on. He writes well and is an erudite thinker with a wide knowledge base. He starts each chapter with a story to outline his thinking on the subject or rule. He then considers the cultural history and scientific knowledge about the issue before completing the chapter with practical advice on how to apply this knowledge to your own life.

Much of his thinking is based on current knowledge of scientific psychology but it is mixed with practical experience of working in clinical psychology, especially in working in the field of deep insight orientated psychology. He refers back to Jung, Neitzsche and Adler as well as to recent neuropsychologists. But perhaps more interesting is his use of knowledge of religious history. He looks at how the major religions have addressed psychological issues such as suffering, death, guilt and happiness and points out, whether you believe in a deity or not, that religion was mankind’s way of making sense of our life experience and many of the lessons learnt millennia ago are just as applicable today.

In essence, I discovered a very readable and wise book. I am glad it has been successful as it will prove much more valuable that many of the faddish self-help bibles which have come and gone. The chapter on parenting is a valuable counterpoint to many of the prevailing mistakes we are making today.  I found no evidence of misogyny or racism at all. Certainly there were some areas where he suggests that our evolutionary history has meant that some biological factors continue to influence our gender behaviours and he does not agree that this is entirely a social construct. Indeed, this might be his heresy. Today, we are meant to believe that all aspect of gender are socially constructed and that, barring organs of reproduction, there are no differences between men and women. This is clearly not true and the scientific literature attests to this. Unfortunately this is becoming a rather inconvenient truth and one that is not allowed to be said. I think this was the dynamic underpinning Cathy Newman’s interviewing style.

This is a problem. Womens’ rights have improved over the recent years but there is still a long way to go. If we are to obtain equality and fairness we will have to continue to fight for it. However, if there are uncomfortable facts, if there are biological factors influencing our behaviours, then we need to know about them and discuss them. It will not help our progress to pretend they do not exist and to cry “heresy” when people raise them. Biology is not necessarily our destiny but it has a bigger influence when it is ignored or denied; as a man I may be more prone to aggressive behaviours than a woman (on group averages) but knowing this only means I need to be more mindful. It is not an excuse and has no exculpatory power. For example, if I want to be a good man I need to know how to control and curb my aggressive instincts, to pretend that these  impulses are not there helps no one.

I think therefore, on this occasion, Cathy Newman was wrong. Rather then trying to explore or debate his ideas she tried to shut him down. Others, with a similar agenda, have  tried to minimise his works by smearing it, and him, as alt-right or similar. This means that his genuine insights are not considered but more importantly those young men who find meaning in his writings will be pushed and corralled into the area occupied by those who are indeed of the alt-right. This is a danger, as Peterson is aware, we need to help men to maturity and insight in our society, we need to make them more self aware, strong and confident because if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of”







The Sense of an Ending

This short novel was the book chosen by my The_Sense_of_an_Endingbook club this month. I am doubly thankful for this. Firstly because it is an excellent novel and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,  and secondly as it is a book which sticks in the mind and prompts many questions which will benefit from discussion in a book group.

The title both  references Frank Kermode’s book of the same name and also the intention of this novella – to explore how we make sense of our lives and the stories we create for ourselves. The title may also humourously allude to the feelings the reader may have on finishing the story.

As we expect from Julian Barnes, it is well written – dialogues are believable and uplifting, difficult and weighty topics are handled with ease and often with genuine humour,  emotions are conveyed with accuracy and empathy. There are few writers who handle the English language this well.

Not wishing to spoil the story it is difficult to give much information. It concerns itself with life, love and memory, with yearning and regret. However, it touches on many, many things, as it is reported in the novel :-

“The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”


Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’


The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I have read very little science fiction. 51mski9o2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I recall, when a teenager, reading some futuristic tales but these were usually the those in the intersection between science fiction and dystopian novels, such as Brave New World. I thought, therefore, as part of my New Year’s resolution that I would broaden my reading and dip my toes in the science fiction pond. After a short browse it was clear that Robert A. Heinlein was highly regarded and that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was considered one of his best. Hence it became my first novel of the year.

This prove to be a very wise choice as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It works at many levels. Firstly there is a standard action-adventure story which is fast paced and rewarding. It was no surprise to hear that  the film of the book is in the pipeline and if it remains faithful to the book it should be a success. But more than this it is also a work of science fiction and consequently it discusses broader philosophical points. One of the major themes is the development of sentience by computers and machines, will artificial intelligence cross this divide ?  This is discussed interestingly and also with humour. Indeed, the biggest and most pleasant surprise reading this novel was the amount of comedy it contained. There are many genuinely funny scenes.

Heinlein describes himself as a “rational anarchist” and much of this novel is an exposition of his views. Sometimes this is done by giving his protagonsits moral questions to debate, such as .. ..

‘For example, under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?’


what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”

while in other passages there are fairly straightforward explanations of his views .. ..

“a rational anarchist believes that concepts such as “state” and “society” and “government” have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world …”

However, some of the best explanations of his desire for minarchy are seen in the whimsical advice his revolutionary leader offers to his fellow conspirators :-

‘I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent – the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.’

This is an excellent piece of fiction, provocative, funny and exciting and one you can approach in many different ways. It is well worth anyone’s time and I have no doubt I’ll look back on it as my entry point into a wider range of reading.




‘I, Pencil.’ L.E. Read

This is an excellent short read. More a pamphlet27831931 than a novel, it is  the autobiography of an HB pencil. By looking at the birth and ancestry of the pencil  a complicated topic of economics and knowledge theory is made easily understandable. As individuals we have only a tiny fraction of the sum of human knowledge and planning, not one of us is able to make a pencil by ourselves. But by our cooperative endeavours every one of us can own and use a pencil.

We are, in part, successful because  we don’t need to know everything about everything. We can specisalise in what brings us most pleasure, and that which plays to our strengths,  in the knowledge that others will be doing liklewise in different areas. By this, knowledge is distributed between all of us and is much more than the sum of its parts. When we act cooperatively, in a dispersed and decentralised manner we achieve much more than we ever could when we work under central guidance.

As the pencil decribes it :-

“This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”


“None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.”