May 092021

I have recently re-read a bunch of stories about the Cold War where the blame for the repressive nature of the Soviet state was placed firmly on the Communist regime. Fair enough you might think, and certainly for most of the 20th century, the former Russian Empire was an extremely repressive regime whilst the Communists were in charge.

Certainly the secret policemen of the Soviets were well known – the GRU, KGB, NKVD, Cheka (where the label “chekist” comes from and all Russian secret police are labelled “chekists”), and others. But the persistent use of Russian secret policemen continues after the collapse of the Communist regime – the GRU is just as strong as they ever were, and there is also the SVR, the FSB, etc. And they’re just as active as ever – including the Salisbury poisonings and similar activities.

What is less well known is that the Russian intelligence services started well before the Communists acquired power in 1917 – the Okhrana. Whilst their headquarters were burned by the revolutionaries, there are persistent left-wing rumours that Okhrana operatives were recruited by the Cheka for their expertise. It is something that is never likely to be proved – these organisations are secret after all, and it did occur over 100 years ago, but the Cheka did become effective surprisingly quickly.

It is easy to blame the communists for their repressive regime, and they certainly deserve plenty of blame but is it really communism that is to blame here? That’s an all too easy assumption to jump on – particularly given the antipathy certain parties (old school European aristocrats and capitalists) have for anything that smacks of depriving them of their ill-gotten gains.

Communism certainly isn’t to blame for the secret police before and after their regime, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to say Russia has a chekist culture that survived two regime changes? Particularly seeing as the current president is a former KGB officer.

The Wild Chained

Does it matter?

Well for a start, Russia is currently a rogue state using intelligence services in an activist way to kill off critics of their current dictator. And it isn’t communist.

And not all communists are authoritarian communists; they may very well be wrong or misguided but they are not all authoritarians.

Apr 202021

Well they were bad of course – you can’t invade someone’s land and call it good. At best it might be justified – such as when the Allies invaded occupied Europe and Germany to kick out the Nazis, but that is the best case scenario and the crusades were a long way from that.

But they did not happen in a vacuum – the islamic world had previous contact with the christian world, and that contact wasn’t always harmonious and it wasn’t always the intolerance of christians to blame.

First of all, which crusades are we talking about? Because despite the popular notion that the crusades were all christians trying to kick muslims out of the “holy land”, it wasn’t actually the case. There is some disagreement about whether the other crusades actually count or not – such as the Reconquista or the crusades against the pagans of eastern europe.

But as we’re not looking at those, we can ignore that little argument except to make one point about the Reconquista – this was (overly simplistic) the christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsular after the islamic conquest of starting in 711. And whilst it’s childish to say “but they did it first” (and doesn’t justify the Crusades), it is actually true.

The other aspect contributing towards the first crusade was the actions of the so-called “Mad Caliph” – Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah who reversed a previously agreed policy of toleration to christians (including pilgrims to Jerusalem) and jews. Plus the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Now this may have been exaggerated, but whatever truth lies behind the “Mad Caliph”, the effect on christian europe has more to do with the information (or propaganda) going around europe at the time. Although the first crusade was nearly 100 years later, the destruction of churches was mentioned by Pope Urban in his speech at the Council of Clermont.

We can still condemn the crusades without implying that it was an entirely unprovoked attack on the islamic world.

It’s Round
Mar 272021

Recently I came across a Twitter thread that perpetuated the notion that atheism is a belief. Which is always frustrating to read because atheism is not and has never been a belief; it’s an absence of belief.

There are many historical definitions of atheism which show the prejudices of the religious towards the “godless”, but the best modern definition of the word comes from philosophy: “rejection of belief in God or gods”. But it would perhaps be better put as not believing in the existence of gods because there is no satisfactory evidence for their existence.

Note the word “satisfactory” in there – no, just because you had blue cheese last night and dreamed of Jesus, this isn’t evidence for the existence of any god. And no the bible isn’t evidence either – you may believe that it was written by your god, but there is no evidence that it is the case.

Does this matter? Not that much to be honest, it is just that as a whole atheists tend to be a little bit pedantic about their “beliefs” or lack of them.

Mar 052021

Every so often I encounter some statement online which perpetuates some slavery myth or other. Those myths are not entirely unreasonable – they’re very often applicable to the largest group of descendents of victims of one of the most recent episodes of the slave trade.

But they’re still myths and they distort the history of slavery.

1. Slavery is History

Nope. Estimates of the number of people held as slaves today vary from 25 million to 43 million.

And whilst legal slavery has been abolished world-wide, the last country with legal slavery (Mauritania) didn’t abolish it until 1981, and it wasn’t criminalised until 2007. There are supposedly more anti-slavery activists in prison than slave owners.

2. Only Africa

Slavery has existed throughout history and in every part of the world. For example, the Domesday book (1086) documented that 10% of England’s population were slaves. Indeed the port of Bristol owes its success to the salve trade, but not the one involving African slaves, but Anglo-Saxon slaves – 1,000 years earlier.

3. Slave Traders Weren’t All White

When white dudes rocked up at African ports (yes really) and asked if there were any slaves for sale, the slave trade was already centuries old. It’s hard to ascertain just how many free people were enslaved by each group, but what we know of African history makes it plain that many if not most of the slaves shipped to the Americas were sold to slave traders by other slave traders; native slave traders.

For an example look at the history of Dahomey (and this was not an isolated example).

13th Century Africa Slave Trade Routes (from Wikipedia)

4. Not All Slaves Were Black

In the early modern period the overwhelming majority of slaves traded were African, but the slave trade (even during this period) did include white folk.

For example, the Barbary coast pirates enslaved up to a million Europeans by seizing ship’s crews and raiding coastal settlements (mostly Spain and Italy but England and Ireland weren’t immune). Despite punitive military expeditions from all over Europe (and the US), the slave trade wasn’t finished off until the French invaded.

And that ignores the amount of slaves captured by the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe.

5. It Wasn’t Just The Atlantic Slave Trade

As you can see from the previous map, the trade in African slaves doesn’t just predate the Atlantic slave trade (and predates it by a long time), but it continued even after the Atlantic slave trade. Numbers are understandably somewhat vague, but it seems likely that the Arabian slave trade was at least half of the Atlantic slave trade (~12 million) and some estimates put it at parity.

6. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was Funded By The Slave Trade

This is still open to argument, and there are serious historians on both sides of the debate. It is common to argue that the profits from the slave trade were used to fund the industrial revolution.

But :-

  1. There are not unreasonable arguments to show that the profits from the slave trade were never enough to fully fund the industrial revolution. Some did for sure, but the aristocratic landlords would have far more money to invest.
  2. Those making money from the slave trade would have been more interested in investing in property than a riskier industrial venture. Social advancement in England/Britain (or any European country at the time) was through agricultural land ownership and in the long term it was profitable too.

The other thing that is overlooked is that considerable profits were made by African slave traders; that money didn’t go towards investment in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

7. Britain Only Opposed The Slave Trade When It Become Economically Redundant

So Britain only started combatting the slave trade when slavery was no longer profitable for the British? Any number of slave traders (including African slave traders) would have begged to disagree – slavery (or at least the slave trade) remains profitable today or it wouldn’t exist.

And Britain didn’t just oppose the slave trade with words; it put its money where its mouth was and funded the West Africa Squadron. Some say it was the most expensive international moral crusade in modern history.

Final Word

Slavery is repugnant to every decent human being well deserved of its status as a crime against humanity. And there is plenty of blame to go around – Britain should have banned the Atlantic slave trade when it began not several centuries later; so should the Portuguese (who shipped twice as many slaves). Hell, why were African kingdoms fighting wars just to capture slaves not also condemned?

This is not supposed to be a political narrative – specifically this isn’t supposed to support “white supremacy”. The only statement I would say on that kind of subject is that evil-doers can be found amongst all ethnic groups.

Of course this is from the perspective of the whole-world, and more geographically localised slavery may well be different in nature.

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