Westerners won’t sympathize if you talk to them the way we talk among ourselves

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

The Russian revolutionaries had no more effective advocate abroad than the charismatic Stepniak, Gary Saul Morson explains:

Stepniak made his literary reputation with Underground Russia (1882), written in Italian but soon translated into English, Swedish, German, French, Dutch, and Hungarian. The best commentator on Stepniak, Peter Scotto, stresses the significance of a letter Stepniak wrote to some Russian comrades to explain why the book was less than candid. Underground Russia was designed, Stepniak explained in the letter, to convince polite Europeans that Russian radicals shared their liberal ideals — a bald-faced lie — even if they were compelled to resort, highly reluctantly, to violence. Westerners won’t sympathize if you talk to them the way we talk among ourselves, he cautioned, and so you must omit mentioning our program and illuminate the movement “in a way that makes it clear that the aspirations of Russian socialists are identical — temporarily, to be sure — with those of the radicals of European revolutions.” By “temporarily” Stepniak means that the radicals demand civil liberties only so long as they make terrorism easier. “Propaganda in Russian for Russian youth should, of course, have a completely different character.”

Stalin added very little to this sort of thinking

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

What motivated Russian nihilist terrorists?

Solzhenitsyn got it right: what is most remarkable in the memoirs of terrorists is how rarely they express concern for the unfortunate. “Sympathy for the suffering of the people did not move me to join those who perished,” Vera Zasulich explains. “I had never heard of the horrors of serfdom [when growing up] at Biakolovo — and I don’t think there were any.”

Then what did motivate terrorists? Zasulich describes how as a girl she wished to become a Christian martyr, but when she lost her faith, terrorism offered a substitute martyrdom. Some men and women were, like Veronika, attracted to the excitement of living the prescribed terrorist biography. The fact that life was likely to be short endowed each moment with a vertiginous intensity that became addictive, and many reported that they could not live for long without committing another murder.

Zasulich also saw terrorism as an escape from a lifelong feeling that she “didn’t belong. No one ever held me, kissed me, or sat me on his knee; no one called me pet names. The servants abused me.” Like many others, she loved the camaraderie of the closely knit terrorist circle, in which mortal danger created bonds of intimacy experienced nowhere else. Many found the idea of suicide enchanting. We often think of suicide bombing as a modern invention, but it, too, was pioneered by the Russians.

It never occurs to these memoirists that their motives are entirely selfish. They amount to saying that one practices terrorism for one’s own satisfaction. Other people, whose suffering is a mere excuse, become what Alexander Herzen called “liberation fodder.” Interestingly enough, some heroes of Savinkov’s novels do know that such murder is above all self-affirmation. As aesthetes affirm art for art’s sake, they accept terror for terror’s sake. “Earlier I had an excuse,” one hero reflects, “I was killing for the sake of an ideal, for a cause…. But now I have killed for my own sake. I wanted to kill, and I killed…. Why is it right to kill for the sake of an ideal… and not for one’s own sake?”

Like Kropotkin’s autobiography, Figner’s became a classic, but the two differ in one important respect. Figner is utterly unable even to imagine any point of view but her own. “My mind was not encumbered with notions and doubts,” she explains. She describes her early life as the sudden discovery of one unquestionable truth after another. “Every truth, once recognized, became thereby compulsory for my will. This was the logic of my character.” Although she disdains attachment to any specific socialist program, she is certain that socialism will at once cure all ills. She gives up medicine for revolution when she concludes that medicine can only palliate ailments but socialism will eliminate them.

After the revolution, Bolsheviks insisted that anyone who differed from party dogma in the slightest respect deserved liquidation: There could be no nuance or middle ground. Figner, too, presumes that no decent person could think otherwise. “If all means of convincing him [someone who disagrees] have been tried and alike found fruitless,” she explains matter-of-factly, “there remains for the revolutionist only physical violence: the dagger, the revolver, and dynamite.”

To be a terrorist, Figner explains, one must practice constant deception. One lives under a false identity and regularly abuses trust. One spreads rumors among the peasants and plants spies in the enemy’s camp. So it is mind-boggling to read of her shock upon discovering that she herself has been deceived. It turned out that her comrade Degaev was working for the police. His betrayal led to her capture, but what did that matter “in the face of what Degaev had done, who had shaken the foundation of life itself, that faith in people without which a revolutionist cannot act? He had lied, dissimulated, and deceived…. To experience such a betrayal was a blow beyond all words. It took away the moral beauty of mankind, the beauty of the revolution and of life itself.” The same act is not the same act.

On one page Figner denounces the unjust persecution of radicals’ harmless work in the countryside while on the next she describes their work as revolutionary propaganda. With no irony she says that soon after Perovskaya killed the czar she “was treacherously seized on the street.” She finds imprisonment of terrorists immoral even though she also claims that upon release they immediately resume killing. How dare the government defend itself! She mentions only casually the death of many innocent bystanders, as if no one could seriously object. More horrifying than her actions is her mentality. Someone who reasons this way could justify anything. Stalin added very little to this sort of thinking.

Liberal professionals and industrialists did more than applaud

Monday, November 19th, 2018

Liberal professionals and industrialists did more than applaud Russian terrorists, Gary Saul Morson notes:

They offered their apartments for concealing weapons and contributed substantial sums of money. Lenin supposedly said “when we are ready to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope,” but he might better have said “buy us the rope.” Liberals proudly defended terrorists in court, in the press, and in the Duma. Paul Miliukov, the leader of the liberal Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) party, affirmed that “all means are legitimate… and all means should be tried.” The Kadets rejected the government offer of amnesty for political prisoners unless it included terrorists, who would, they well knew, promptly resume killing government officials. “Condemn terror?” exclaimed Kadet leader Ivan Petrunkevich. “Never! That would mean moral ruin for the party!”

If the strategy was to demoralize the government, it worked. Wearing a uniform made one a target for a bullet — or sulfuric acid in the face, another favorite form of attack. In Petersburg the head of the security police faced insubordination from agents afraid of revolutionaries. My favorite story concerns the reporter who asked his editor whether to run the biography of the newly appointed governor-general. Don’t bother, came the reply. Save it for the obituary.

It is impossible to draw a line between revolutionary and criminal action

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

It is hard even to fathom the extent of the terror in early 20th-Century Russia:

The Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries (or SRs), founded in 1901, immediately created a combat organization to conduct mass terror. Each of its three leaders—the second was Savinkov—achieved mythic status. In 1879, the People’s Will had some 500 members, but by 1907, the SRs had 45,000. So many bombs—referred to as “oranges”—were manufactured that people joked about fear of fruit. In 1902, SRs killed minister of the interior Dmitri Sipiagin and in 1904 his successor Vyacheslav von Plehve, along with the czar’s uncle Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in 1905, among others.

As Geifman calculates, between 1905 and 1907, some 4,500 government officials of all ranks were murdered, plus at least 2,180 private individuals killed and 2,530 wounded. Between January 1908 and May 1910, authorities recorded 19,957 terrorist acts that claimed the lives of 700 government officials and thousands of private people. Robberies—called “expropriations”—became commonplace. Terrorists robbed not just banks and the imperial treasury but also landowners, businessmen, and eventually just ordinary people with barely a ruble to steal. According to one liberal journalist, robberies occurred daily “in the capitals, in provincial cities, and in district towns, in villages, on highways, on trains, on steamboats.” Newspapers published special sections chronicling violent acts, while murder became more common than traffic accidents.

The SRs were far from the only terrorist organization. Even more crimes were committed by various anarchist groups. The Bolsheviks, while late to the game, caught up. Though some other Marxist parties rejected terrorism as contrary to the dogma that individuals don’t matter, the Bolsheviks engaged in it anyway. Criminals calling themselves revolutionaries joined in, but since revolutionaries themselves recruited criminals and applauded their violence, it is impossible to draw a line between revolutionary and criminal action. Some terrorists would give half their take to a revolutionary party and use the other half to buy a villa or even their own business. In Riga, terrorists effectively replaced the local government by levying taxes, establishing police patrols, and, of course, creating their own secret police to uncover disloyalty.

How the People’s Will, the world’s first modern terrorist organization, killed the czar

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

The story of how the People’s Will, the world’s first modern terrorist organization, killed the czar makes gripping reading, Gary Saul Morson explains:

Surviving attack after attack, Alexander seemed to enjoy divine protection. He certainly had a run of good luck. The terrorists tunneled under a street on which he was to pass and planted explosives, but his route changed. Then they blew up what was supposed to be his railway carriage but, because of a last-minute rearrangement, turned out to be a baggage car. The most amazing attempt took place when they blew up the dining room in the Winter Palace, intending to kill the czar and everyone else present. Police incompetence staggers the imagination. They had already arrested a terrorist in possession of a map of the Winter Palace with an X marked on the dining room! Guards checked visitors to the Winter Palace but paid no attention to workers going in and out of the basement. A terrorist had no trouble getting a job, smuggling in a little dynamite every day, and eventually causing the explosion. The bomb killed 11 people and injured 56 others, but Alexander was late. The People’s Will blamed their failure on the ruler’s unpunctuality. “What is most depressing,” opined one conservative journalist, “is that so-called political crime has become a veritable national tradition.”

The police were closing in and on February 27, 1881, arrested terrorist leader Andrey Zhelyabov, but his lover Sofya Perovskaya took over. The terrorists got their man on March 1, when an assassin threw a bomb at Alexander’s carriage, wounding two people but leaving the czar unharmed. Instead of just driving on, he stopped to see to the wounded. The bomb-thrower had just said ironically, “Still thanking God?” when a second terrorist hurled his bomb. The mangled czar died hours later. Under the leadership of Vera Figner, the People’s Will survived for a few more years.

Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference

Friday, November 16th, 2018

Russian terrorism’s “heroic period” began in January 1878, Gary Saul Morson explains, when Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov, who had ordered corporal punishment for a member of the intelligentsia — as if the man were some peasant:

These radicals took their class privileges seriously! At her trial in the new law courts, the defense attorney, the Clarence Darrow of his day, in effect put Trepov on trial while portraying Zasulich as a saint. In his account, she was living in a “rural wilderness” — it was actually a revolutionary commune where she rode about carrying a gun — when she heard about Trepov’s outrage and resolved to sacrifice herself for justice. The cream of society vied for tickets to the trial, applauded the defense, and were utterly delighted when the jury preposterously acquitted her.

Soon after, Stepniak stalked General Nikolai Mezentsev, head of Russia’s security police, and, finding him unprotected, stabbed him in the back with a stiletto, turned it in the wound, and made his escape. He became the toast of British society, the friend of William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, among others. Abroad, the radicals would claim that all they wanted were basic civil liberties, but in fact they either rejected Western “freedoms” or favored them only to make revolution easier. They opposed democracy because they knew very well the peasants would never support them. As one historian observes, “Terror seemed easier than beating one’s head against the wall of peasant indifference.” It gave a small group the chance to demoralize the government while creating a mystique of violence to ensure endless recruits. They achieved both these goals.

There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Why should Russian nihilists have targeted Alexander II, the most liberal czar Russia ever had?

Alexander had freed the serfs — thus liberating the third of the population owned outright by private landowners, not to mention an equal number owned by the crown. Before the liberation of 1861, serfs were routinely bought, sold, and lost at cards. His “great reforms” included creating organs of self-government, first in the countryside (1864) and then in towns (1870). The entire justice system was reformed along Western models. The modernization of the military in 1874 reduced mandatory active service from 25 to 6 years. Nevertheless, the radicals insisted that terrorism was their only choice. “There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means,” Stepniak explained with a straight face. “After 1866 a man must have been either blind or a hypocrite to believe in the possibility of any improvement except by violent means.” The very day the czar was killed he had approved a reform moving in the direction of a constitution.

Russian history has been a godsend for literature

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

Russian history has been a godsend for literature, Gary Saul Morson explains:

How many firsts we owe to Russians! Lenin invented the political system we call totalitarianism. The Soviet Union was the first state based on terror and the first “one-party state.” (Previously, a party, as its name implies, represented only a part of society.) The first dystopian novel was not Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984, but Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, well known by Huxley and Orwell. Czarist Russia inspired both the modern prison-camp novel, beginning with Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, and the “terrorist novel,” starting with Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Prison camps, dystopia, terrorism: Whatever else it has been, Russian history has been a godsend for literature. And for political language as well: We get the word “intelligentsia” from Russia, where it was coined about 1860; and before the American “populists” of the 1890s there were the Russian narodniks (populists) of the 1870s. Political extremism and great fiction — these are Russia’s obsessions.

Russia was also the first country where young men and women, asked to name their intended careers, might well say “terrorist.” Beginning in the 1870s, terrorism became an honored, if dangerous, profession. It was often a family business employing brothers and sisters generation after generation. Historians sometimes trace modern terrorism to the Carbonari of early-19th-century Italy, but it was Russia that gave it unprecedented importance. You cannot relate the history of czarist Russia in its last half-century without the history of terrorism. As we now associate terrorism with radical Islam, Europeans then associated it with “Russian nihilism.” By the early 20th century, no profession, except literature, enjoyed more prestige among well-educated Russians.

Russian history, one of novelist Vasily Grossman’s characters observes, stands as an object lesson to the rest of the world, a lesson it has failed to learn. People still romanticize revolutionary violence, as we see in all those posters of an angelic-looking Che Guevara. In czarist Russia, the mentality Tom Wolfe was to dub “radical chic” gripped educated society. The privileged cheered on those who would destroy them.

Terrorism has arisen in many cultures, but Russian terrorism, so far as I know, is unique in one respect: its intimate connection with literature. Not only did great writers like Dostoyevsky and the symbolist Andrei Bely (author of Petersburg) write major novels about terrorism, the terrorists themselves composed riveting memoirs and fiction. Prince Peter Kropotkin, once the world’s most influential anarchist, authored a masterpiece of Russian autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and many other terrorists, most notably women, have left classic accounts of terrorist movements. When the assassin Sergei Kravchinsky escaped to Europe and assumed the name Stepniak, he became internationally famous for both his history Underground Russia: Revolutionary Profiles and Sketches from Life and his novel Career of a Nihilist. Still more amazing, Boris Savinkov, the longtime leader of Russia’s most important terrorist organization, responsible for spectacular killings of high officials, also published his Memoirs of a Terrorist as well as three novels about terrorists. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether terrorist experience demanded literary treatment or was chosen to provide compelling literary material.

The scale of 19th- and 20th-century Russian terrorism boggles the mind. According to the movement’s best historian, Anna Geifman, terrorism affected just about everyone. Conventionally, accounts describe a brief prehistory in the 1860s and early 1870s, then a “heroic phase” from 1878 to 1881, and, after a pause, a period when terrorism assumed staggering proportions. In 1866, Dmitri Karakozov, a member of a radical organization called “Hell,” tried to kill the czar and was hanged. Sergei Nechaev, who inspired The Possessed, not only committed murder but, more important, wrote the infamous Catechism of a Revolutionary, which provided a model for revolutionaries to come. The true revolutionary, according to Nechaev, “has no interests, no affairs, no feelings, no habits, no property, not even a name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — the revolution.” He must suppress all feelings of compassion, love, gratitude, “even honor.” For him only one criterion of good and evil exists: “Everything that promotes the revolution is moral; everything that hinders it is immoral.” Without hesitation the revolutionary uses other people, including other revolutionaries, as Nechaev did. By comparison, Machiavelli was a softie.

In the mid-1870s, idealistic men and women became “populists” and “went to the people.” They flocked to the countryside to imbibe the peasants’ natural goodness while instructing them in socialism. (I described this movement recently in these pages.) The peasants were unimpressed and often turned them in to the police, in much the way Turgenev describes in his novel Virgin Soil. Far from abandoning their ideals, the populists decided to realize them without the people, even against the will of the people, through terror and a coup d’état. Ironically enough, they called their organization “The People’s Will.” Eventually, in 1881, they succeeded in killing the czar.

(Hat tip to T. Greer, who puts the piece on his short list for best essay of 2018.)

Do the rich capture all the gains from economic growth?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Do the rich capture all the gains from economic growth? Russ Roberts explains why it matters how you measure these things:

But the biggest problem with the pessimistic studies is that they rarely follow the same people to see how they do over time. Instead, they rely on a snapshot at two points in time. So for example, researchers look at the median income of the middle quintile in 1975 and compare that to the median income of the median quintile in 2014, say. When they find little or no change, they conclude that the average American is making no progress.

But the people in the snapshots are not the same people. These snapshots fail to correct for changes in the composition of workers and changes in household structure that distort the measurement of economic progress. There is immigration. There are large changes in the marriage rate over the period being examined. And there is economic mobility as people move up and down the economic ladder as their luck and opportunities fluctuate.

How important are these effects? One way to find out is to follow the same people over time. When you follow the same people over time, you get very different results about the impact of the economy on the poor, the middle, and the rich.

Studies that use panel data — data that is generated from following the same people over time — consistently find that the largest gains over time accrue to the poorest workers and that the richest workers get very little of the gains. This is true in survey data. It is true in data gathered from tax returns.

Some of the most important books Nick Szabo has read

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Nick Szabo shared a list of some of the most important books he’s read on Twitter:

  1. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
  2. Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
  3. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
  4. The Fatal Conceit, by F. A. Hayek

It’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies

Friday, October 26th, 2018

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code — or any other conspiracy thrillers, now that I think of it — but I have to assume that Hans G. Schantz‘s Hidden Truth series reads like Dan Brown’s bestselling novel — but with physics taking the place of theology.

Schantz can credibly weave physics into his story, because he is a trained physicist and “wrote the book” on The Art and Science of Ultra-Wideband Antennas, and the first book definitely made me want to know more about the pioneers of electromagnetic theory — many of whom did die young or inexplicably left the field.

But the real draw — or drawback — of the novel is that it is unambiguously conservative and especially anti-Progressive. This makes it a bit of a guilty pleasure, if you ascribe to Jordan Peterson’s point about art versus propaganda:

Neovictorian reviewed the second book, and I think he reviewed it well:

It’s fun, it’s well written, it’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies. Also, it’s a practical guide to understanding, infiltrating and grandly screwing with college SJWs. After you’ve read it, buy a copy (of both volumes) for your friends and children at school! Buy copies for younger kids, too. These books show how young people should conduct themselves with honor and perseverance, and not through preaching, but through example.

I may have to read Neovictorian’s own Sanity next.

It’s not right to want others to believe wrong thoughts, is it?

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

The new San Francisco school board president has dispensed with the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of board meetings and has substituted the new tradition of reading from Maya Angelou. This reminded Travis Corcoran (The Powers of the Earth) of The Children’s Story, by James Clavell:

That’s the one where the US loses a war and the “new teacher” helps the children cut up the American flag so they can each have pieces as a “new tradition”.

You can find the full text of the story easily enough, and it’s a quick, breezy read.

The story of how it came to be is almost as interesting as the story itself:

Children's Story 1
Children's Story 2
Children's Story 3

There’s also a short movie version:

Far more catechized by popular culture than by the church

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Rod Dreher addresses Handle’s critique of his Benedict Option:

I have had an open tab on my browser for almost three weeks now, trying to figure out how to engage with this massive, massive post about The Benedict Option from a blogger named Handle. It might be the longest single post anyone has ever written about the book. He likes parts of it, and he doesn’t like parts of it. Most of his commentary is really interesting, and I’ve been struggling with how to engage it without giving myself over to a 7,000-word reply that few people will read.

[...]

To be clear: my Ben Op argument has always been that conservative Christians already are in very bad shape. Political power is holding up a façade that won’t remain much longer, precisely because politics is a lagging indicator of culture. Christians in America today — even those who identify as conservative — are far more catechized by popular culture than by the church. It’s not even close. The statistics are clear (I present them in my book.)

Why Paul Romer and William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Tyler Cowen explains why Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize in economics and why William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics:

These are excellent Nobel Prize selections, Romer for economic growth and Nordhaus for environmental economics. The two picks are brought together by the emphasis on wealth, the true nature of wealth, and how nations and societies fare at the macro level. These are two highly relevant picks. Think of Romer as having outlined the logic behind how ideas leverage productivity into ongoing spurts of growth, as for instance we have seen in Silicon Valley. Think of Nordhaus as explaining how economic growth interacts with the value of the environment.

Did China use a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies?

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Bloomberg claims that China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies:

A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.

The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.

The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.

The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.

When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

The claims are… incredible:

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.