four years on

It’s now just over four years since I started this blog. It’s been an interesting experience. Putting one’s ideas down on paper (or the digital equivalent thereof) does help to clarify those ideas.
I am going to try to be a little bit more regular in my postings in 2016 – whether I’ll achieve that aim remains to be seen.
Doing this blog has helped to reawaken my enthusiasm for history so that’s been a plus.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999

Misha Glenny’s The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999 aims to provide a unified history of that troubled part of the world and the book does indeed offer a reasonable introduction to a fearsomely complex subject.
Glenny rejects the idea that the violence and instability that has plagued the region can be blamed on ancestral hatreds going back to the Middle Ages. He believes the trouble started much later – at the beginning of the 19th century. The slow but inexorable decline of the Ottoman Empire created a serious power vacuum which was exploited by the Great Powers in a manner that was selfish, cynical and short-sighted. Worse, the Great Powers entirely ignored the ethnic, linguistic and religious complexity of the region. Drawing borders in a way that suited the interests of the Great Powers more often than not created nations that were inherently unstable.
At the same time the newly developed ideologies of nationalism found their way to the Balkans. Nationalism (in the 19th and 20th century sense of the term) was something that simply did not exist in this part of the world before the 19th century.
Under the Ottoman Empire the various ethnic and religious groups had managed to co-exist quite successfully. Christians and Jews might not have enjoyed the same rights as Muslims but they had security and stability. In fact Christians often had a good deal more security than they had under Christian rulers. 
The major problem with Balkan nationalism was that, even without the interference of the Great Powers, creating coherent ethno-nationalist states was an impossibility. The various religious and ethnic groups were hopelessly mixed together. There were Serb minorities in Croatia and Croatian minorities in Serbia. There were huge Turkish minorities in Greece and equally huge Greek minorities in Turkey. There were Greek minorities everywhere. There were Albanians in Serbia and Serbs in Albania. Religious and ethnic differences were not clear-cut. There were Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims who spoke the same language and were ethnically identical. There were Orthodox Christians who belonged to different ethnic groups. There were Croats who regarded Muslims as fellow Croats and Croats who regarded the same Muslims as non-Croats. In some places there was no majority group at all. There were cities like Salonika that were coveted by several different nations but were almost entirely Jewish. In some regions the city-dwellers were predominantly Muslim while the rural populations were Serb or Bulgarian or Greek or Croatian. 
The nationalist aspirations of the newly emerged nations such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania were entirely incompatible – no line drawn on a map could possibly satisfy everyone.
The end result was that a comparatively peaceful corner of Europe became a powder keg. And the Great Powers displayed an uncanny ability to make a bad situation worse. Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908 was the first step on the road to the catastrophe of the First World War.
By the 1990s the Great Powers were no longer intervening in the Balkans for the traditional reasons of territorial greed. They were now doing so for humanitarian reasons. The results were equally disastrous.
Glenny weaves together the stories of the various Balkan peoples with considerable skill. The narrative is perhaps to complex for a single volume but it’s a brave attempt.
He also endeavours to be as even-handed as possible. Just about everyone in the region has at one time or another been both oppressor and oppressed, both perpetrators and victims of atrocities. Every Great Power (even China!) has at some stage tried to interfere in the region, with lamentable consequences. Trying to divide the various actors in good guys and bad guys is a pointless exercise and in general Glenny avoids that pitfall. He does display a touching child-like faith in democracy as a cure-all but overall he tries not to  over-simplify inherently complex problems that simply do not have straightforward solutions.
I have no doubt that there are better and more scholarly works on this subject but as a general introduction this is a stimulating and fascinating book. 

making sense of modern politics

I’ve spoken often of my belief that conventional attempts to describe politics in terms of left/right and conservative/liberal or conservative/socialist just don’t work any more.
So we need to replace these outmoded terms, but what do we replace them with? Some years ago it became briefly fashionable to use a two-axis system, with one axis describing a person’s position on economic issues (ranging from untrammeled free-market capitalism to communism) and the other being the authoritarian/libertarian axis. The big problem is that today in order to describe the political views of a person or party we need to place them on the correct points on multiple axes.
The first axis would have to deal with beliefs on social issues, ranging from social conservatism to social libertarianism. I personally would prefer to describe the latter position as social radicalism since libertarianism has other connotations which tend to cloud the issue.
The second axis would deal with opinions on domestic economic issues, ranging from laissez-faire capitalism to complete state control of the economy.
The third axis would deal with views on international economic issues, ranging from complete free trade to rigid protectionism.
The fourth axis would describe views on international relations in broader terms, ranging from extreme interventionism (the best way to solve problems in foreign countries is by invading them and imposing “regime change”) to extreme isolationism (the best way to solve problems in foreign countries is to let those foreign countries sort out their own problems).
We would also need a fifth axis, ranging from a belief in open borders to a belief in strong immigration restrictionism.
To make things even more complicated yet another axis would be required, this one ranging from a belief that environmental threats are so severe that drastic action is required to combat them to a belief that environmental threats are wildly overstated and that no serious action is required.
To describe a person’s political views we would need to know if they are social conservatives or social radicals, if they are economic interventionists or non-interventionists, if they are globalists or economic nationalists, if they are imperialists or isolationists, if they are open borders supporters or immigration restrictionists and lastly if they are environmentalist catastrophists or environmentalist sceptics.
This scheme might sound fiendishly complex but it has the virtue that at least it tells us what a politician or political party actually stands for. There may be a simpler way ofd doing this – if you can think of one let me know!

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, is a collection of nine essays examining alternative outcomes of significant historical events. 
Perhaps the most interesting and important part of the book is Ferguson’s lengthy and detailed introduction in which he puts forward a rather convincing case for the validity of counterfactual history. Ferguson is a passionate critic of deterministic approaches to history. Not only does he reject the view that historical events must have been inevitable simply because they happened, he also sees the exploration of possible alternative outcomes as an essential means of understanding history.
He is careful to stress that these exercises in “counterfactual history” should not be confused with the kinds of alternative histories so beloved of science fiction writers. To be useful a counterfactual must be genuinely plausible. It must be an alternative that people at the time saw as not merely possible but quite likely. It’s not enough to ask what if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg – to qualify as a useful counterfactual you would have to demonstrate that Lee’s victory had been not merely a possibility but had been seen by qualified observers at the time as a real possibility.
Some of the counterfactuals in this book are so intriguing, and so plausible, that I may well indulge myself by discussing them at greater length so expect some further posts on this subject.
The first of the counterfactuals in the book is contributed by John Adamson. He suggests that if King Charles I of England had won the Bishops’ War in 1639 his position would have been so immeasurably strengthened that there would have been no question of civil war. He further suggests that Charles not only could have won the Bishops’ War, he should have done so. In fact he goes so far as to suggest that the king had the war all but won until he lost his nerve at the critical moment and failed to fight the decisive battle he would certainly have won. Had he won this war not only would there have been no Civil War, it is highly likely there would have been no Glorious Revolution and a Stuart king might well be occupying the throne today.
J. C. D. Clark’s contribution explores the possibility that the American Revolution might have been avoided, with profound consequences not just for American but for European history (with the possibility that as a result the French Revolution might also not have occurred). 
Alvin Jackson speculates that Ireland could have been granted Home Rule in 1912 with the possibility that a great deal of subsequent misery might have been avoided.
Ferguson’s own contribution deals with the First World War and is a fuller version of his speculations in The Pity of War.
His idea is that there is no reason to assume that Britain’s participation in the war was inevitable. Had Britain not intervened it’s likely that the Central Powers would have won. Ferguson believes this might well have been a much happier outcome.
Andrew Roberts considers the question of a successful German invasion of Britain in 1940 while Michael Burleigh considers the possibility that Hitler might have won the war.
The least successful counterfactual in the collection is from Diane Kunz who deals with the alternative of President John Kennedy surviving the assassination attempt. She believes that had he survived he would now be remembered as a minor and distinctly mediocre president. She also suggests that nothing much else would have changed and that Kennedy would have involved the US just as deeply in Vietnam as did Johnson.
The two chapters that particularly interested me dealt with the Cold War. Jonathan Haslam asks if the Cold War could have been avoided while Mark Almond puts forward the theory that far from being inevitable the collapse of Soviet communism was in fact extremely unlikely. So unlikely that it could only have happened with a complete idiot in charge. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, such an idiot was available in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. 
The book concludes with a witty and amusing afterword by Ferguson in which he constructs a complete (and clearly tongue-in-cheek) alternative history of the world from 1646 to 1996.

The Spanish Civil War

Stanley G. Payne’s The Spanish Civil War, published in 2012, is a rare bird indeed – a balanced and fair account of that conflict.
Of all the sacred causes of the Left during the 20th century few if any can equal this one. To leftists it is an article of faith that the Spanish Civil War was an epic struggle of democracy against fascism. This is of course absolute nonsense, as Payne convincingly demonstrates.
The Popular Front government of the Spanish Republic had practised electoral fraud on a breathtaking scale. Their intention was to remove conservatives from the political process altogether. They had made the unpleasant discovery that if the Spanish people were given a free choice they would reject the parties of the Left. The obvious solution was to ban parties of the Right. The Republic was moving rapidly towards totalitarianism. It was not however a communist totalitarianism. It was to be a totalitarianism overseen by a coalition of leftist parties.
There was of course the danger of a revolt by the army. Bizarrely enough the government not only welcomed this, they actively provoked it. They were confident they could crush such a revolt. This proved to be a fairly spectacular error of judgment. Rather than a weak revolt what they got was a full-scale counter-revolution. 
The counter-revolution was all the more determined since the government had initiated a savage and brutal assault on the Catholic religion. Hundreds of churches were burnt and thousands of priests (and nuns) were murdered.
The Republic was confident that it could rely on the help of the Soviet Union. That assessment turned out to be accurate – the Republican forces received enormous amounts of military assistance from Stalin including hundreds of modern aircraft and tanks. What the Republican government had not counted on was that Franco’s rebel Nationalists received not only large quantities of military equipment from Italy and Germany but sizeable contingents of German and Italian personnel.
Payne points out the Republicans made the mistake of believing they could repeat the success of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, but had not taken account of fundamental differences between the two situations. The Bolsheviks had been united while their enemies had been divided; the Republicans were hopelessly disunited while the Nationalists were united under the strong and capable political and military leadership of Franco. A conflict between a divided movement and a united one will almost inevitably end in victory for the united side. This is of course exactly what happened in Spain.
It was a legendarily bitter and brutal war and Payne is careful to point out that both sides at times behaved barbarically. On the other hand there is no question that the Republican government was entirely responsible for the war. 
As for the leftist fantasy of a crusade against fascism, the the Spanish fascists (the Falangists) were a very minor component of the Francoist forces. Franco was a conservative Catholic who ended up by establishing an old-fashioned authoritarian dictatorship that had little in common with Italian fascism, and nothing whatsoever with German National Socialism. Fascism and National Socialism are ideologies of the Left; Franco was and remained a man of the Right. Franco’s aim was to prevent the establishment of communism in Spain and in this aim he succeeded, thereby saving Spain from the horrors of communist totalitarianism. Franco also hoped to turn Spain into a modern and prosperous country whilst preserving its traditional culture and religion. He succeeded in the first part of this aim but was less successful in the second.
Payne’s study is a superb and much-needed corrective to the depressingly pervasive leftist view of one of the key events of the 20th century. The book provides an excellent balance between the political and military aspects of the conflict (although with a somewhat greater emphasis on the political side). Very highly recommedned.

The Social Justice religion

The idea that leftist political movements have a great deal in common with religions has been around for a long time. There has always been quite a lot of truth in this idea. Political zealotry does obviously resemble religious zealotry, and the various leftist splinter groups (like Trotyskites) can be seen as heresies.

And of course the clash between communists and National Socialists can be seen as a religious war between two competing sects that had a great deal in common but differed on a few key points of doctrine.
What is different about today’s leftism is that it is purely religious. The cult of Social Justice has no actual political content at all. There is no underlying political ideology. Communists and fascists and Trotskyites and National Socialists had actual plans to remake society. Their plans were often wrong-headed and in practice were usually disastrous (although Italian Fascism worked moderately well and might have survived long-term had Mussolini been able to achieve the alliance he hoped for with the British and the French). But no matter how wrong-headed the plans might have been all these leftist sects did have reasonably coherent plans to construct a new society.
Today’s Social Justice Warriors have no such plans. They have no objectives. Their religious fervour is an end in itself. They’re jihadists but it’s the jihad itself that matters to them. If they won they would have no idea what to do next. In fact they have won the Culture Wars and they really don’t know what to do next. They can’t comprehend that the only real winners are the billionaires who fund their jihads.
As Helen Andrews points out in Politically Correct Holy Rollers: The New Campus Revival their motivations are similar to the emotional and religious fervour of the 19th century Christian revivalist movements.
If SJWs were genuinely working towards bringing about the Glorious Socialist Revolution I could understand them and even respect them, even if I strongly disagreed with them. But they have no real interest in socialism. Most of them are comfortably middle-class (or even wealthy). They are for the most part incredibly privileged. The last thing they want is actual socialism.
The SJW thing is not a political ideology and it has nothing to do with politics. It’s about religion. They don’t want to replace capitalism with socialism. They want to replace Christianity with their new warm and cuddly feel-good religion. That’s why they’re so venomous towards Christianity – Christianity is their rival religion.
In fact SJWism is a kind of Christian heresy – it’s Kumbaya Christianity with all the actual religious content removed leaving only the fuzzy caring and sharing bits. That’s why Kumbaya Christians and SJWs get along so well – there’s really not much difference between them.
SJWs are religious zealots. They’re not political ideologues. They don’t even understand politics. They’re not interested in political change. They’re funded by billionaires. They’re looking for salvation.