Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

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Long rant about various things

I learned something interesting at a party last night, at which I met for the first time in several years a former friend and political ally for whom I had become estranged for reasons that never seemed very sensible to me, but mattered a lot to them. Reasons that had to do with the interactions of third and fourth parties, not with anything significant between us.

We managed to work together, sort of, but through an incredibly laborious process of communicating through third parties. When I got sick, and decided to drop out of political activism altogether, that was pretty much it for any occasion for us to meet or patch any of the mess up. Oh, well, I thought, maybe a decent interval...

Anyway, meeting at the house of a mutual friend, there was awkwardness. The sort of thing where you sort of acknowledge each other's presence with a half smile and a little wave and go back to pretending they aren't exactly there. Only of course, and this is the interesting thing, there is no estrangement on the left so total that it cannot be broken down by someone's starting an argument about what went wrong in 1917, and whether what went wrong in 1917 had actually gone wrong far earlier at the time of the so-called Bolshevik/Menshevik split. (So-called because the Bolsheviks did not in fact have the majority for which they are named save through chicanery.) How much Kerensky was to blame for forming a working alliance with the militarist Kornilov to pre-empt a Bolshevik coup that was in part caused by concern to pre-empt a Kerensky-Kornilov coup. And what happened at Kronstadt. And whether the whole problem was ultimately the failure of the central committee to read Lenin's will and its denunciation of Stalin. And whether it was sensible to regard Trotsky as a potential Bonaparte when, after all, he was not especially good at actually winning wars.

It was the usual thing where a group most of whom are anarchists and left libertarians start arguing about the fine tuning of Lenin's 'The State and Revolution' and throwing around Emma Goldman's 'My disillusion with Soviet Russia' as a neglected set of insights. I guess that younger people don't do this - we are all old 60s radicals and have been worrying about it since forever. Anyway, after an hour or so of this, we had been talking for some time without remembering that there was a problem, which just proves that Marxist historiography is good for something after all.

On the other hand, no easy answers because actually, as the evening wore on, it was far clearer to me than it has ever been that we had real issues between us that we always managed to brush under the carpet when we were working together. Essentially, she is an all or nothing pessimist who wants so much from the political sphere that she is perpetually disappointed, whereas I am probably more cynical in my basic assumptions and so vastly more cheered by any small sign of progress.

You could call it a Rousseau/Voltaire split, because I am much more interested in Voltaire's occasional moments of real political courage and occasional successes in humiliating the Church over its brutal repression of atheists and Protestants than Rousseau's fantasies of an ideal state. And I accept that this means putting up with Voltaire's long attempt to fit in with things as they were, and his weird relationship with Frederick the Great, and his long boring poems and perfectly Aristotelian plays, for the few great good things he did. And 'Candide'.

Whereas she would disapprove of both of them as Dead White Males, but actually be doing so entirely in the spirit of Rousseau.

She is horrified at the human race's tendency to commit genocide and the way we have got better at it; I am minimally cheered by the fact that we have actually started talking about it and thinking of it as a bad thing for which people ought to be punished. The Aztecs used to manage to sacrifice ten thousand people over a weekend, which is pretty efficient if you are using stone knives and taking the time to tear each heart out or flay each corpse. We invented nothing.

I find it more fascinating that, in mid-C18, a group of religious and political and scientific radicals started discussing the point that slavery was morally wrong and within a century persuaded most of the world, than the possibility that one of the reasons for their success was that it was doomed to be inefficient in an industrial age. The Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Priestleys kick-started one of the world's great protest movements; they had a bit of luck with the Mansfield decision; and the fact that the movement got co-opted by the evangelical reactionary Wilberforce should not obscure the fact that the moral case against slavery was a perception that came from the left even though lots of conservative figures who normally despised the Birmingham group - Dr Johnson for example - agreed with them.

Nothing will ever make up for the vast crimes perpetrated against Africa by Europe and the Arab world, but the Victorian Royal Navy's Anti-Slavery Patrol was at least some sort of start. People tend to forget that Dr Livingston was at least as concerned with organizing Africans to resist Arab slave traders in alliance with the British as he was to convert them to Christianity. He objected stringently to the way that anti-slavery efforts got co-opted by land grabbers and imperialists. Which is one of the reasons why the Establishment sanctified him after he was first missing and then dead.

Other ages had been worried about slavery, but no-one much in human history had ever said it was wrong. The Roman Empire was full of people who were unhappy about it, but if you look at the romances and drama it is always about people being wrongfully sold into slavery and getting out of it when recognized by a birthmark or something, not about its being wrong. And this is something that was not changed by Christianity - Paul never told masters to free slaves, but rather told slaves to do what they were told in Christian meekness. (Which is why I am not prepared to be told anything by Paul about sexual morality.)

In fact, I am pretty clear in my own mind that slavery could have continued had it not been for campaigns against it, not least because a version of it worked for Stalin. The difference between the Gulag and the Holocaust is this - the Gulag was about working people without any great concern for whether they lived or died and the Holocaust was about killing people without any concern for whether they did any work. There are and were other ways of exploiting people horrifically, but the point of most of them is that they resemble slavery more or less.

Except for the Aztecs, who killed people by the thousands to place the gods, and saw no point in wasting all that spare protein. The various attempts to debunk Aztec cannibalism as a myth seem to have come to nothing - they really were a military empire who expanded in order to carry on eating people so their soldiers would go on being stronger. And they produced utterly gorgeous art at the same time, just so we don't get complacent about the divide between monstrosity and what makes us human. And then smallpox and the Spanish Inquisition did for them and their victims at the same time. Which is not one of the things I would count as progress.

Of course, one of the problems with moral campaigns is what happens when they are about things you don't entirely agree with. Specifically, there is this worrying case of the village in Staffordshire where animal-rights protestors have decided that the villagers are insufficiently concerned about the farmer who has been raising guinea-pigs for experimentation for about thirty years. Masked callers and anonymous letters informed people that, if they did not start boycotting the man and his family, they would join them as legitimate targets - and when, say, the local pub and the local child-minder refused, they started getting the whole bricks through the window, letters to neighbours accusing them of paedophilia, threats to their employers if they didn't sack them treatment. A leading animal rights advocate recently said that, if they did not win entirely soon on all their causes, they would probably start killing people so that they would be taken seriously.

All of this is deeply scary, partly because I have a bad conscience about my certainty that they are simply wrong about most of the moral and philosophical issues and partly because of the can of worms they are opening. For some reason, the police are oddly bad at catching them and Blunkett is doing his whole 'I need new powers' thing using all this as an excuse. For another, anti-abortion crews will doubtless be watching how this works out and targetting whole communities rather than just individual doctors and nurses - after all, people who refuse to express shock and horror at the presence of an abortionist next door are just as guilty....

And yet, in spite of idiocy, and George W. Bush, I retain some hope for humanity - mostly because of cookery and music.

I made a salad today - just a quarter of a red onion chopped really fine and a few torn leaves of lime basil and a spoon of olive oil and a double handful of various tomato varieties that were sold as a mixed pack. And I listened to some late Beethoven quartets - which, when I am in the mood, almost make me want to be in Heaven so I can watch him listening to them and actually be able to hear them. How great a gift to humanity is that? To write utterly sublime music that you cannot yourself hear at all and never ever will. After the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, he had to be tugged round to see that the audience were applauding him.
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