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mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

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This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

khatch1
Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

khatch2
The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.

Reflecting on the failure of the socialist dream people like his own communist parents had subscribed to, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in a 1994 poem [1] that ‘Research has shown Socialism to be a universal failure wherever practiced by secret police’.

This, to me, is at the nub of the problem with 20th Century socialism.

Now, however, at the juncture of the greatest crises of capitalism since the Great Depression, is it time for communism to rehabilitate itself?

The best example for us in the West of the dream gone sour is that of the former GDR (DDR or East Germany) – the Soviet satellite that found itself the frontier of the Cold War, both on its border (with West Germany) and in its capital, Berlin – divided geographically and ideologically.

In the last decade there have been a number of examples that have shown us an East Germany shaped only by the Stasi. Works like ‘The Death of Lenin’ or ‘The Lives of Others’, both brilliant movies, but both pedalling only a single thread of the wider story that was day-to-day life in the GDR. Then there have been journalistic forays into a state held captive in both Anna Funder’s ‘Stasiland’ and even the BBC’s own ‘Lost World of Communism’. All these rightfully question the role of the state and the individual, and offer many cases of terrible injustice and oppression. But I feel the idea of an ideology in crisis is not explored. The examples merely qualify the statement I cited earlier from Ginsberg. Those works don’t widen the debate.

Other publications, like ‘Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic – What Can We Learn from It?’ and the Stasi Museum’s own ‘GDR Guide’, give fuller examples of everyday life for quiet conformists. They offer a narrative that living in a police state was not actually the main experience of life for the overwhelming majority, even if the culture it bred created its framework. This is not to revise, forgive or ignore those state crimes but we must be mindful that we witness the GDR from a purely Western perspective.

I am also mindful, however, of Rowan Williams’ Easter address this April where he picked up on the point that life can be richer than material wealth. A clear admission, perhaps, that the basis of socialism is still a natural human desire for many people, though they’d never call it that.

And Rowan Williams isn’t the first man of faith to recognise our principles…

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes–that is, the majority–as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation.

…says the Dalai Lama [2]. It might be a bit strange for a Marxist to cite religious leaders, but what I am doing here is trying to highlight the universality of the basis of socialism.

I am not for a second suggesting that everyday life in a police state is better than today’s relative affluence. But following the most recent banking crisis and with public services sliding away from us only to build more profit for the powerful few, the desire for something more humane is widespread. So, I contest we might to do better than to gloat at the dubious humanity of capitalism’s triumph over the Soviet Union, asking of ourselves instead whether can socialism mean more than totalitarianism?

Of course it can.

Show me where the great British socialists William Morris, Engels or Marx even suggest the formation of a police state or the summary arrest of ordinary citizens. You can’t because it doesn’t exist.

The basic premise of socialism is our most precious principle: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. But even that can only be built on solid ground. The opening remarks of many a revolutionary tract is the need for freedom from our oppressors. Not the freedom to oppress others.

I share the analysis of philosopher (and incumbent International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London), Slavoj Žižek, that the time for the rehabilitation of communism is now. In my opinion, the most important means to achieve this is to publicly denounce the legacy of totalitarianism and divorce it from our own modern British programmes. We have nothing in common with the dictatorships of China or North Korea, though we have everything in common with its people. That seems a good place to start.

Two fundamental aspects of Marx I find lacking in the conduct of socialism are the most important checks that have never been served well by its executors. Firstly, that Marx clearly makes a case for analysing reality in its current context – that things move in struggle and it is only in our understanding of that struggle in its current place in time that we can hope to address it; that means we cannot use early 20th Century revolutionary means to overthrow the capitalist state of today. But that does not mean the goal has moved but rather that we actively revise Marxist thinking for our own age.

Secondly, and to complement the first point is the issue of self-criticism within the current context. If only Mao had read Orwell’s 1984, then I’d rather think the Cultural Revolution would be one less shame laid erroneously at our door.

Žižek picks up on Lenin’s point [3] that sometimes it is ok to start-over. The road to revolution is not always best achieved from starting from where we left off the last time we had to abandon that road – this leads us only to misinterpret the failure and, ignoring history, repeat the mistakes for generation after generation. If we re-boot from the ground up then we build a new solution from outset in today’s context based on today’s analysis. That might sound like the road to Pol Pot’s year zero but hear me out – I cannot think of any philosopher or scientist worth listening to today who doesn’t see the education of our children as the best way to change the world for the better.

In post-war East Germany, the Soviet’s built up a youth movement to create great patriots of the Soviet. The terrible reality, however, was that, apart from the colour of their neck-ties, its members looked exactly like the Hitler Youth. It seems to me that the issue here is fear: fear of losing popular support. The need to force an ideology on citizens shows a fear that, perhaps, the ideology is not really up to the job of human civility.

I don’t think this is true. I think that if we truly believe in the power of socialism – and in particular our fundamental basis of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – then its greatest asset is in its freedom to stand proud against the immoral basis of capitalism, and to stand up to scrutiny from our own, let alone our enemies.

A socialist state built by popular support is the true expression of this project we call ‘civilisation’.

The task now is to find a home from which we can build a movement. The ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the programme of the Communist Party of Britain – unlike its less mature SP and SWP programmes, seeks this home in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. It is under no illusion of power, but it is a compelling reminder that – if we’re honest with ourselves – for the left and true Marxists who can see the job at hand, in its current context, there is only one true place for British socialists.

[1] from ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’ by Allen Ginsberg (Penguin, 1994)

[2] http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes1.html#marxism

[3] In his ‘First as Tragedy, Then as Farce’ (Verso, 2009)

There is an argument that faith teaches us to be virtuous. But this presupposes that faith is the only means capable of us acquiring virtue. I don’t think that is at all true.

But does true virtue transcend motive? Can we be virtuous without some kind of motivation, or gain?

For example, without the motivation of organized religion, would those same people be able to be as virtuous without that motivation? In fact, would it be more virtuous entirely because it is divorced of the motivation of organized faith? Could we have stopped on this discourse with Socrates and his proposition that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’?

And then, can non-sentient beings be virtuous?

Is being virtuous a unique part of the civilization of man? Perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps wild animals know not of immoral cruelty, for example, but exist in natural virtuousness. That perhaps it is civilization, in fact, which has given some men the motive and means not to be innately virtuous: we have un-learned natural virtuosity.

Of course, nature can be naturally cruel, natural selection demonstrates this well, but it does so outside the context of virtuosity. Is being virtuous a man-made construct, then? The likelihood looks compelling.

REVIEW: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation (Travels in the World of Nuclear Weaponry)’ by N. Hodge & S. Weinberger

There were tests on living creatures as well. Because pigskin is remarkably similar to human flesh, the U.S. government experimented on live pigs. Tests in 1957 exposed some twelve hundred pigs to atomic detonation.

This is a strange book. Much like the Missile Defence Programme itself, it is presented as one thing but is, in fact, something else. Whereas Missile Defence was sold to the world as a defensive measure, in reality it was an offensive means of getting one’s enemy to believe you could withstand a first strike and thus break the M.A.D. doctrine which guaranteed mutual destruction to your advantage. And therein lay the end of deterrence.

Here, I detect the heavy hand of the Bloomsbury marketing office: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation’ has no family about it and as such is a rather lazy play on words, and it is hardly a travelogue as the sub-title and ironic cover of my edition would have you believe. Instead what we get is an extended journalistic foray into the development of the United States nuclear defence programme. And it reads like the kind of article one might expect in the Sunday supplements, albeit stretched over some 285 fairly laborious pages.

The most despicable line these Cold War enthusiasts reveal is the deadly lamenting of the end of the Cold War itself. Engineers, scientists and contractors seem to openly regret the end of so-called hostilities between the US and the Soviet regime. With funding removed there was, before 9/11, no role for development in a world where mutually-assured destruction guaranteed jobs for what seem like unashamedly candid hotheads who believe in the myth of the great American dream.

Initially, nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers lumbering through the skies and, like any aircraft, could be shot down. The advent of the ballistic missile changed the entire calculus: A nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles was nearly unstoppable. The ABM Treaty, adopted in 1972, helped preserve the Cold War’s nuclear balance of terror by ensuring that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would (with certain exceptions) deploy active defences against ICBM’s, thus guaranteeing mutual assured destruction. The treaty was seen as a landmark of arms control, limiting the need for new offensive nuclear weapons and reinforcing a key point of nuclear deterrence: the only defence against nuclear attack was massive retaliation.

Following 9/11 the Bush Presidency quit the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the military got the renewed funding it had been searching for since the end of the Cold War. Now missile defence had a new role with Iran and North Korea. Though, as the authors point out in a rare moment of rightful scepticism, not a single missile has been halted by Missile Defence Programme in realistic test conditions – the above passage suggests an acceptance of M.A.D. as a legitimate tool for peace (as opposed to eradication of nuclear weapons, which simply isn’t entertained throughout the book).

Look at the anger Bush’s policy has awoken in Russia. Even if, as the book claims, Russia missiles wouldn’t be the target of the Missile Defence in Poland and the Czech republic (as they are convinced their missiles would fly north across the Pole as the shortest route to the USA), the political message cannot be ignored. In kind, long-range Russian nuclear bombers have re-started their run-up against UK airspace (as – let’s face it – with Fylingdales, we’re little more than a radar outpost for the US military and it’s NORAD).

Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and has also featured in the FT and Foreign Policy magazine. His wife, Weinberger, writes for Wired’s national security blog ‘Danger Room’ and has also appeared in the Washington Post. But their journalistic qualities need to be held into account. These people are definitely nuclear tourists and while they clearly know their subjects well and write on the history with authority, they seem to portray an ugly fascination with their topic and, like the military hotheads they interview, metaphorically rubs their hands with glee at the thought of a new generation of nuclear R&D. Not quite the un-biased, scientific view they should have presented. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s editorial team have themselves been nuked. To be fair, they rightly raise an eyebrow at the survivability argument of the US side and also point out that post-‘duck and cover’ the general consensus appears to be that protecting the civil population wasn’t really on their agenda. But these points paradoxically run counter to their implied view that the presence and continuity of nuclear weapons is not to be questioned, whereas the jobs of its committed servants re-appears in almost every chapter. If only they cared so much about humankind.

But I have to ask myself why did I buy and read this book? And why did I continue to read it when the repulsive lamenting of the good old days of Reagan and Star Wars became clear? What then is the appeal of nuclear weapons? The answer is simple: war fascinates. Its history and its depiction of the worst of human kind. From All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of Sassoon or Owen to movies like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. From the War Game to Threads. Only by recognising the worst in human nature can we hope to change. This book is a despicable reminder that, despite what the history books tell us about a period of time we’ve called ‘the Cold War’, US military staff sit round-the-clock, trigger-ready and morally bereft in their underground missile silos with 10,000 warheads at their disposal (with 400 more in Europe, many in the UK). Or humming around the oceans, waiting for politicians to fail, British sailors maintain Trident and its capability to leash death unto millions of innocent civilians. The authors end by stating that ‘It took a trip around the world for us to question the rationale behind the nuclear arsenal,’ – frankly they appear to be lacking in imagination. They sleep-walked around the world just as many people sleep-walked out of the Cold War not realising the nightmare was still a reality. What’s missing here and in the wider Trident debate is the child’s question – ‘Why?’ to which the response could be left to Albert Einstein when already too late he commented on the destructive power of the atom: ‘If only I had known, I would have been a watch-maker.’

I’ve been reading the 9/11 Commission Report (which you can read for free in this PDF).


On the morning of the attacks, as you will probably have seen, President Bush was visiting an Elementary School in Florida. At 8:46am the first plane had hit the North Tower of the WTC, followed later at 9:03 by Flight UA 175 hitting the second, South Tower.

Of course, by the time the President was informed (9:05am) of the second plane it was clear this was no accident.

At 9:35am the Presidential Motorcade departed the school and not long after the President learned of the attack on the Pentagon.

At which point the President calls the Vice President stating: “Sounds like we have a minor war going on here…We’re at war…somebody’s going to pay.”

And a lot of  innocent people have been paying ever since.

This tells us a lot about the mindset of President Bush. Rather than a defensive position, his first thoughts are offensive, and thus we can see how we quickly arrive at bloody wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile the actual instigator of the attacks – a non-state agent – remains at large: Usama Bin Laden.

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.