Triumph and tragedy

The Easter Proclamation of 1916.

The Easter Proclamation of 1916. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923

When it was announced that next year the UK will begin four years of commemoration of the Great War a number of voices were raised to demand that this should be a celebration of the ultimate victory and a recognition of the necessity of the fight.

But what sort of victory is it that sees a state lose close to a third of its national territory? Because the separation of the bulk of Ireland from the United Kingdom was not only a dramatic phase in a long struggle between Irish nationalism and English imperialism, but also, in reality, an extension of the Great War.

That war had led to the postponement of the devolutionary scheme of Home Rule (and perhaps an earlier military conflict), split the Irish Volunteers (so strengthening the hand of the minority separatist faction), created the conditions where the rebels of Easter 1916 thought they had a hope of victory – our gallant allies in Europe – conditioned the stupidly brutal British response to that initially unpopular uprising and then – as this book begins – tipped Ireland decisively towards conflict by, as the Bolshevik revolution allowed the Germans to switch forces from East to West, provoking the conscription crisis.

From the moment of that crisis – another one needlessly prolonged by cretins in Dublin Castle – the issue was not if there would be violence, but when. The physical force men of the Volunteers were not particularly interested in politics: it was merely chance that the attack at Soloheadbeg was on the same day as the Dail first met. They wanted the “echo of the Thompson gun” more than anything else. So in this very real sense everything that followed, civil war and all, was a part of the conflict that began with Gavrilo Princip’s bullets in Sarajevo.

Townshend – whose previous book on “Easter 1916” is a classic of popular revisionist history – sets out here to show that what gave the extended rebellion real force was actually not the military conflict alone, but the establishment of the republic’s shadow state, the popular legitimacy of which demonstrated far more strongly than military force where the Irish people’s views truly lay. Indeed, as he makes clear, the people never were consulted on the war and if they had thought voting Sinn Fein in November 1918 meant war – as opposed to the republic – then the result then may not have been anything like as clear cut as the separattist triumph over the home rulers.

In his way – as he did in his previous work – Townshend once more shines a light on Bulmer Hobson – probably the most important Irish nationalist nobody has heard of – and credits him for the core idea of establishing the parallel Irish state.

The parallel state was weak in many ways and few of its ministers matched the energy and determination of Michael Collins who, as minister of finance, did more than anyone to make that state work (Collins’s military record is less clear – was he “the man who won the war”? Probably not in the way Neil Jordan suggests anyway). Townshend goes on to suggest that it was the active state builders of the republican era who were most likely to later support the Treaty – they really understood how a new nation could be built using the powers given by the Treaty. Could that be right? Maybe – DeValera spent most of that time out of the country, Brugha was a pompous fool, Stack not much use as a minister.

But the “Treatyites” also took a different view of the military situation. Mulcahy, for instance, who emerges as something of a hero of the war of independence in these pages, frankly believed the IRA/Volunteers had been beaten and so regarded the Treaty as the best that could be hoped for. In contrast Liam Lynch comes over as close to the “Comical Ali” of his day – even insisting during the Civil War that the republican cause was growing daily stronger as his fellow staff officers looked for a way of admitting defeat.

Northern affairs – as so often – do not get much of a look in here. Belfast is discussed several times, and Derry mentioned in passing. But we are given no sense of just what – if anything – went on in the Mournes and the Sperrins, classic guerrilla territory surely? At the very end Townshend appears to suggest that nationalist opinion should have been quicker to accept the inevitability of partition as it could have got more from the British in response to that concession – a depressing coda for any Northern nationalist feeling their community’s sense of abandonment. But perhaps that should be read in conjunction with his earlier work, where he shows how little concerned the separatists of Easter Week were about the views of the one-third of their fellow country men and women who looked to the Union with England as their guarantee of religious and cultural liberty. Then, as now, too many were simply willing to dismiss them as settlers or holders of false consciousness.

What is also missing is an explanation of how the war developed – throughout 1919, it would seem, nothing much happened, but by the middle of 1920 much of Munster was in open military revolt. Quite how we got from one to another is not adequately explained.

Other mysteries remain. Collins operated fairly openly in Dublin but, unlike DeV and Griffith (who were seen as negotiating partners), was plainly someone the British wanted arrested or worse. So how did he manage it? It is barely discussed, except to dismiss the claim that they did not have a photograph of him and so did not know what he looked like. It is true that the DMP’s G Division was destroyed (by Dick McKee rather than Collins it appears), but it is still hard to believe that the RIC and military were quite as incompetent as it appears.

Revisionism in Irish history is not simply the tool of those who seek to question republican myths – in the North in particular Sinn Fein are assiduously pumping the line that “The Troubles” of 1969 – 1998 (or 2005) were necessary to secure civil rights. Readers of this book might discern a rather different motivation – militarists who were always dismissive of demands for reform and political programmes whether for civil rights or anything else  – having one more go at re-establishing that which they saw as lost in 1922. Both times round the reformers, the politicians won and in the end the militarists were forced to turn to politics. But both times round a legacy of bitterness was left that lasted for decades.


A history of particle physics

Higgs: The invention and discovery of the ‘God Particle’

Unfortunately, I cannot rate this book as anything better than disappointing. There was a lot of interest in here but ultimately the book falls down because it is neither an explanation of the physics behind the “Higgs mechanism” nor a pure history of the development of the theory (which it, rather annoyingly, insists on calling its “invention”).

For example, we get a brief mention of group theory and a consistent naming of various symmetry groups throughout the book but even the more mathematically inclined reader (ie me) is left almost totally in the dark about what SU(3) is.

Similarly, the explanation of symmetry breaking is more confusing than illuminating.

That said, towards the end the book does get very interesting as it explains that the mechanism – as opposed to the particle detected at CERN – could lie at the heart of not just electro-weak unification, but of a grand unified theory that encompasses the strong force also.

But here’s another thing that confused me – it turns out that, after all, most visible matter really is energy – in the form of gluons. But where do these gluons (which are made to sound a bit like perpetual motion machines in the book) get their mass from? Is it from a Higgs mechanism? I am just not clear…

And finally, is there anything more annoying in popular discussion of physics that the term “God particle”? Frankly, that almost put me off buying this book in the first place.


Glasnost in action

Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia

This book – now nearly 25 years old – is in one sense a relic of a different era. A time when the idea that the Soviet Union would cease to exist would have been treated as fantastic and even that its basic “socialist” character would crumble as unlikely.

But it is also a reminder of other things – that hopes were high, of when Boris Yeltsin was a heroic reformer and not a corrupt drunk, when a whole country began to step into the light of historical truth for the first time in more than sixty years, when people were allowed to tell the truth about their suffering in the Great Patriotic War and not just salute “the victors” in that most desperate and yet so necessary fight.

A friend suggested to me that the reason I loved this book so much is not because it takes me back to a time when every new day brought an exciting revelation and when we could dream of the end of the threat of imminent nuclear confrontation, but because it just reminded me of being 23 again… maybe there is some truth in that, but I think there is more to it.

The days since “the end of history” was proclaimed with the collapse of the Soviet Union have hardly ushered in peace and plenty – perhaps there were other routes that could have been taken – not least the Gorbachev-sceptics in the west could have been dismissed as what they were – leftovers from the Cold War. One doesn’t have to regret the passing of the Soviet Union to regret the manner of its passing – the collapse into a void that means that of all the successor states only three – in the Baltics – have emerged as fully successful liberal democracies and only another three – Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – have even seriously tried to follow that path.


Blood on all their hands

Economic History of the USSR

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of...

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The past is always with us, it’s not even past.” In the case of this book, this is very true: I bought it in 1989 or 1990 read a few pages, put it down and then “lost” it. I genuinely don’t know where it has been for most of the intervening years, but just a few weeks ago I noticed it, in close to pristine condition, on the top shelf of a bookcase and – having read Applebaum on Eastern Europe – I thought the time had come to finish the job (or restart it – I don’t claim to recall the pages I covered three decades ago).

Since 1989 both the Soviet Union and Alec Nove have passed on, but Nove is surely the greater loss to humanity: as the book makes very clear, murder and Soviet economics went hand in hand from the very start.

Nove’s work is powerful both because he was Russian (his family were Mensheviks I believe) and so has read in the original, and he’s on the left. This is not to say that the objective facts change from a political perspective but to know that his work is impervious to the claim of anti-Soviet propaganda.

The bulk of the book describes the terrible years of Stalin’s long rule – most Soviet citizens (the ones who survived) were poorer in 1950 than in 1913 (and while the struggle of the Great Patriotic War was plainly a major factor in that, the book shows it is not a good enough excuse). But from the very start we see that Lenin and Trotsky too were all in favour of brutal methods. Indeed the Stalinist plan for “socialism in one country” bears a great resemblance to the Trotskyists “primitive socialist accumulation“: treat the peasants (80% of the population in 1928) as the class enemy and squeeze them for all they are worth.

Of course the Stalinists did more – mass deportations of the “Kulaks” and engineering a famine in the early 1930s – but how can the Trotskyists claim their hero would have been better? The man who urged the Red Army to shoot the Kronstadt mutineers “down like partridges” has no moral clothes to hide behind. (Though it is difficult to disagree with Nove’s view that the Stalin famine was a crime against peasants, many of whom were Ukrainian rather than a crime against Ukrainians, many of whom were peasants.)

Further, Nove shows how a lack of democracy and debate worsened the economic situation. One only has to look at how Trotskyists behave – to one another never mind those they have a fundamental disagreement with – to know that democracy and Leninism do not mix.

The book feels strange because it is written with  the Soviet Union in full existence and even – in 1989 (the year of my revised edition) – before the nationalist pressures in the Baltics and the Caucasus were widely visible. Nove writes that we will need to wait to the 21st century to be able to make a critical examination of the impact of the Gorbachev reforms.

The history of the post-Soviet states is a mixed one. The Baltics have become liberal democratic republics – though lies have been told about the role of many of their citizens in Hitler’s murders and they treated many within their borders as second class citizens. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have struggled to make the transition to democracy and liberalism but with limited success (though hope should not be abandoned for any of them). Russia and the rest are in varying degrees authoritarian failures. But no one can read Nove’s book and wish for a return of the USSR.


The mind of a sociopath

The Book of Evidence

Badge of An Garda Síochána

Badge of An Garda Síochána (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Banville‘s work is often difficult. Reading this short novel involved keeping a notepad and writing down words and names I wanted to look up – villous, Euphorion, accidie and so on – and you never quite know whether Banville is doing this to show off or because these are the sort of words he would use in everyday conversation.

But – as with The Untouchable and unlike, despite what the Booker judges thought, The Sea – this book is compelling and not just a slog. Banville paints an entirely believable portrait of a sociopath struggling to justify his actions in murdering a family friend’s servant in a botched art robbery. One can truly imagine the man and many of the other characters found here.

The one thing the book does not really do is give an insight into the murky politics of “The year of the GUBU“. The 1982 GUBU – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented – was the moment when one of Ireland’s most wanted murderers was found to be a house guest of the Attorney General who had recently discussed his own case with the Commissioner of the Garda. Banville’s book is indeed based on this case, but only very loosely. There is no attempt here – as, say in The Heather Blazing – to examine why the regime of Charlie Haughey had so betrayed the values of the founders of the Irish state. This book looks inward rather than outward, but does it rather well.


Barn doors and banjos

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topograp...

English: List from Eastern Europe AMS Topographic Maps. Series N501, U.S. Army Map Service, 1954 Русский: Лист из набора карт Восточной Европы Картографической военной службы США. Серия 501. 1954 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56

At the very end of this book Anne Applebaum says there is a need to tell the story of the Stalinist take-over of Eastern Europe without resorting to caricature or a tale of villains. She is right. Yet she fails to do it.

In writing this I want to make clear my complaint is not that she attacks the Communists. It is that in her determination to show the (leading) Communists as uniformly, consistently, inflexibly and completely evil she lets them off the hook. And they certainly do not deserve that.

Once or twice in the book she comes close to letting the Communists speak in their own terms and then the effect is far more devastating than the vast majority of the book where she just piles on her pre-determined narrative. Here are people talking of “democracy” while building a police state – we do not need to be reminded they are criminals, their own words reveal them to be so.

Here and there a junior figure in the Communist world – the ultimately heroic Jacek Kuroń is one example – is allowed to express their doubts and their uncertainties, to have a conscience – but such moral greyness is not permitted for the top leaders: but surely they too were once sincere in their hopes?

And so, for instance, the brutality of the regimes – which must have become increasingly horrific and shocking to those who lived under them – is portrayed as a constant as opposed to a ratchet (as Applebaum seems unwilling to concede that the regimes degenerated as they were always so evil or at best on a pre-determined path to full, brutal, dictatorship).

That said it is also seems obvious that Applebaum has difficulties in being objective. Her refusal to list the Soviet Union’s casualties in the second world war while discussing those of everyone else sticks out like a sore thumb. The Soviets may have been paranoid and vicious in their treatment of people they thought to  be a threat to “peace” but it is surely also important to examine why they might have been so. As I have seen another reviewer remark, she treats the Soviet anxiety to conquer Berlin as quickly as possible as though it was a fault: when surely it was both right and natural to want to see the Nazis utterly crushed as rapidly as was feasible?

Similarly there is no consideration of the politics of the West and indeed the whole European dynamic and its impact on Eastern Europe. Applebaum more or less dismisses the idea that Cold War politics made things worse in the East early on in her book, but it is also plain, from reading it, that in some way 1947 did mark a crucial break year. Whether an attempt at “detente” would have made any difference in the long run is another question – and it is difficult to be optimistic – but don’t Finland and Austria (both ignored here) show that the Soviet response was not necessarily monolithic?

Further she seems reluctant to discuss the legacy of pre-war politics in any of the countries she discusses. Maybe those claims that opponents of Soviet occupation were “fascists” had some basis in truth? Or at least enough basis in enough cases to persuade a big enough minority in the countries of Eastern Europe to agree that the ruling regimes had a point?

It’s all a great pity because in here there is a great book struggling to get out. Once or twice we glimpse it – she is particularly good in her discussion of socialist realism, for instance. But most of all we get a mess – a readable mess, for sure – but in the space of a few pages we are first told that the “Moscow Communists” (those who spent the 1930s and the war in the Soviet Union) had long had plans for a takeover, then that they did not plan to make their countries miniature Soviet Unions, and then that they did not know what to do. One of these three is right, but they cannot all be.


What is this “complexity” of which you speak?

Melanie Mitchell

Melanie Mitchell (Photo credit: hukuzatuna)

Complexity: A Guided Tour

This excellent work of popular science is very cheap and I have to confess that was part of the attraction – I could see from a quick scan that it covered a lot of subjects I was interested in and I could still feel I was using my leisure/pleasure time in pursuit of science if I read it (one day I will be back to reading novels, I promise).

In fact it turned out to be a very good companion volume to Godel, Escher, Bach: not a surprise when you discover its author, Melanie Mitchell, had her PhD supervised by Doug Hofstadter.

The book built on the knowledge I gained from GEB – especially in (computational) biology and genetics (the explanation of a genetic algorithm here is streets ahead of that in The New Turing Omnibus – and that’s a very good book) and a number of other fields – including the ideas of A New Kind of Science – which I am now determined to have another look at.

The book’s principal weakness, one that Mitchell discusses at some length, though never quite satisfactorily, is the very idea of “complexity” – are these areas really the core of a science (of emergent properties?) or are they interesting areas which are analogically related but where the links might not be that much greater? At the end of the book I can certainly see the links between the subjects discussed but, as with GEB, one is left puzzling over whether this is really as profound as the author thinks. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

Anyway, it’s a very good (and cheap!) book.