Are universities places of freedom and knowledge?

I got the idea to write this piece from a seminar in my university last week. It was discussed whether universities are places of freedom and knowledge.

It seems that the university cannot be separated from its relation to society. Although many good hearted morons may think they attend university fundamentally for the knowledge, they would then have no real reason to come to university in the first place – because they could do just as well intellectually without paying large sums of money by studying independently. However, at the end of one’s university career one is provided with a certificate of achievement – to do what? – Primarily to show to employers evidence of success. The whole setup of the university then suggests that actually, the academic institution exists largely to provide a function required by our societies.

This would mean that in the final analysis, students are commodities in the eyes of the government – and now in fact – pay to be commodities. Students are told to throw off that silly ivory tower idiocy and join the tax-payer in contributing towards society. Yet, the very existence of the university is precisely to provide a need to keep our societies functioning. If then students exist primarily to fulfil a role unique to the nature of our societies – how is it possible that the university can truly be about knowledge and freedom. The institution of the university surely cannot be removed from the needs required by our economies.

It may even seem a waste of time to talk as if the one who registers for university will suddenly because enchanted with different ideas. Most people go on accepting more or less the same political views as they have for their entire lives. The son of a parent more often than not shares the same political views as their parent. What does that suggests? It suggests that before one accepts the real value of other ideas, they first need to be a critical thinker themselves!

After a decade or more of being made to conform to conventional ideas that are provoked by the institutions of our societies, what are the chances that a student in university will suddenly be able to overcome a lifetime of indoctrination? It seems that Liberals, for all their beautiful ideals of promoting individual rationality and reason, finally fail on their own terms because they cannot remove themselves from biased structures.

The university is of course then not an institution that really promotes knowledge or reason to any meaningful extent. It is too related to the type of society that we have created and its main purpose is to fulfil a role required largely by employers of this economy. Furthermore, to ask one to accept differing points of view after a decade of indoctrination is like asking the British government to fight fanatical terrorism solely with persuasion. Most students, as damned as it is, simply have not had the encouragement not to conform throughout their lives, and those that manage to overcome the particular historical circumstance of the day arise only very rarely and are very lucky when they do.

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What does it mean to be ‘Machiavellian?’

Many would have us believe that Niccolo Machiavelli was a monster attracted to using violence for the sake of violence. But this is a common perspective usually put forward by those who have not actually taken the time to study his short book – The Prince, or the equally important, Discourses on Livy. To be Machiavellian today is to be selfish and evil, dark and cynical. The latter two descriptions are probably fair summaries of the philosopher’s perspective, but the former represent a complete misunderstanding of Machiavelli’s political thought.

Machiavelli had political ideals. Famously we know that he desired a Republican form of government. But it was not the form of government that most concerned Machiavelli. He was interested in the outcomes of a particular government; whether it provided stability and met citizen’s desires. Advising against revolution and sudden drastic change because it was difficult to change the ways of time and therefore would easily lead to chaos, it was precisely Machiavelli’s pragmatism that became his morality. He saw abstract ideas as playing with people’s lives in actually existing circumstances.

The Italian writes;
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”.

Machiavelli is labelled as a wicked personality because he wanted to separate traditionally accepted moral principles from politics and the duty of government. Why? Because in our world where violence and conflict has been the norm throughout history, he believed that we cannot afford to put our citizens at risk by refusing to do what may be necessary on occasion, because of some abstract moral arguments. Romantic thoughts do not feed people or save states from being annexed by threatening powers. Words cannot be thrown like the stones of a catapult at an enemy. Here lies the reason why Machiavelli argued for the separation of church and state – because he did not want the moral values of men to constrain a state’s ability to govern.

Many of the politicians of our hour are very much Machiavellian. They all haven political ideals, dreams that they want to see implemented into our societies. Yet time and time again political parties and government’s compromise for what would seem to be the sacrifice of previously announced moral values. While the United States and Britain speaks about the respect of individual rights, they are at the same time negotiating a compromise with that great respecter of individual rights – The Taliban. We are told that our moral stands are what makes us special. But when those moral values become inconvenient, those supposed moral values are quickly pushed to the side.

Yet at the root of Machiavelli’s thought is morality. The philosopher teaches us of the need to be deceptive, not for the sake of deception or the rule of a prince, but so that we can guard and preserve the stability that ensures our survival and the development of our societies – the rule of law. For Machiavelli, without stability, without first understanding the way the world is as opposed to how we want the world to be, we are destined to succumb to the infringing power of others. As Erica Benner writes in her brilliant book Machiavelli’s Ethics, the Italian is a ‘moral philosopher’ who identified ‘strict rules of laws as key to avoiding and correcting civil disorders’.

The virtuous leader or prince was the one that could act decisively on issues without being constrained by abstract principles that are sure not to carry a victorious banner. For example, sometimes force is necessary to achieving an objective – but if one adheres to a moral stance such as pacifism; they will end up making the wrong decision because of a principle that is not fitting to the times. And here is why, what runs throughout Machiavelli’s work, is the belief that “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times”.

Ultimately, Machiavelli is said to be a moral philosopher precisely because his advice will lead to the most moral outcomes. He questioned the idea of running a city-state or a country in dangerous times through the advice provided by ideas that did not fit with the reality. In addition, the Republicanism of Machiavelli shines through most powerfully in each of his works, where he relates the need to adapt ones actions with the end of preserving those freedoms and liberties that we are said to possess. But the only way to understand the real Machiavelli is to study his political thought objectively, on his own terms – away from previously held judgements too often shaped by abstract moral ideals.

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Thomas Hobbes: One of the First Great Democratic Theorists?

Thomas Hobbes is widely seen as a man who dedicated his life towards defending the indefensible, the totalitarianism of a dictatorship modeled in the form of a state with almost unlimited authority. He was, as they say, a monarchist whose only answer to problems was the use of fear. However, was it not the same author that wrote the state is and should be the result of man coming together to establish a community based on consent? For Hobbes, the state is the result of a democratic awakening of the people, interested in protecting themselves and at the same time, the rest of us. It was both passion and reason that first led to what today many brag of being ‘democracies’. Should we quietly ignore these facts?

The state, old Thomas says, must abide by the contract agreed upon between people. To do otherwise would be to break the contract that led to there being a state in the first case. The state commands maximum authority, but it does so thanks to a radical instance of democracy. Of course, Hobbes did claim that dictatorship to a ruthless point was legitimate and necessary for the preservation of peace. This position, however, must not ignore the fact that the development of such a state was rooted in democracy itself. To understand Hobbes – to completely appreciate his work and be able to boast that one understands his arguments – we need to first and foremost understand the condemned man on his own terms, as too often others try hard not to do.

Some point out that Hobbes argued the state should constantly use ‘the sword’, or force, in order to moderate potential conflicts between people. It is true; Hobbes absolutely did call for a state ready to dish out punishment to prevent citizens from breaking their contract. Is that not the same force that is dealt those who do not submit to the laws of our modern democracies? The British author believed – the same way that most politicians today believe – that punishment works far more effectively as a deterrent than mere wordy criticism. Folks need something to fear if they do wrong and act against the will of the majority.

It goes without saying that Thomas Hobbes was not a ‘Liberal Democratic’ thinker in any meaningful sense. But as the silent victims of Liberal Democracy know, the latter do not own the concept of democracy. Individuals matter most for Hobbes. It was separate individuals that voluntarily decided to work together for the benefit of all – not a state, not one man, or a minority group of men – that decided the creation of a Leviathan would be witnessed by the world.

It seems then that Thomas Hobbes was far more democratic a thinker than his enemies would wish the people of our planet to believe. At the root, the very foundation of Hobbes’s argument is the belief that the people should rule and that the people do rule, because it was they and nobody else, that gave us the state or the ‘Leviathan’ in the first place.

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Away Until Late September

I will be in Cuba over the summer for at least three months. I am leaving tonight. There will probably be no more articles published here until I get back. So until September: Hasta La Victoria Siempre!

PS: This is my 50th post for Insurrect. Not bad timing!

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The Leninist struggle against the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War

War is all rosy posy according to some. Anarchists are principled allies because communists fight for the same goal. Apparently, one would wonder what the need was for a distinction between anarchism and communism was. There is one important difference that changes everything – that is the difference between realism and idealism.

Anarchists today complain they were eradicated by the Leninists. Perhaps if the anarchists were more realistic, employing a more effective strategy rather than putting ideals before the reality – they would not so easily have been destroyed. Anarchists first employ a weak struggle and then complain that they were destroyed later. One could argue they got what they asked for by nature of failing to reflect the struggle of their enemies – highly organized, disciplined and determined actors with a clear political objective.

The reason the Leninists waged war against the anarchists as well as the Spanish nationalists was because they believed the anarchists undermined the struggle against fascism. The anarchists would organize themselves along the lines that represented their hopes before than what the context of warfare could be sympathetic towards. Reality on the groundis often hostile to ideals in the mind.

Anarchists now complain Leninism was responsible for their defeat. Defeat for the anarchists was always destined because anarchism inherently reduces itself to very limited practices, due to its opposition to authority and the desire to embrace perfection today without looking at actually existing conditions.

Karl Marx had long before spoken of the idealism of the anarchists during the Paris Commune, where they were too interested in implenting hopes of the future at that specific moment. Friedrich Engel’s highlighted that revolution is ‘surely the most authoritarian things there is’. Revolution, and indeed war, is an act whereby one part of the population imposes itself on another part of the population.

Yet for the anarchists in the Spanish civil war – it was important to take all decisions democratically. This gave the enemy, thanks to their hierarchic setup, an advantage because they needed not to waste time talking and talking time and time again. Rather than random individuals with no military experience forming the leadership, the enemy had skilled and experienced military officers leading the charge. The anarchists were set to lose from the start. A factory worker with no significant experience of warfare is probably not the best person to lead a military unit when others have more knowledge and experience of that situation.

What was the plan for the anarchists after victory? We do not know because they never really had a clear political objective – something that I believe is necessary if we want to play with people’s lives by calling them out of their houses for war. One can only assume that they wanted to destroy much of the authority that existed from within and of the state of Spain. This was the perfect path to take if one wanted welcome in outside hostile foes by means of force. Adolph Hitler would have thanked you for destroying the authority that protects every state in a world where states must depend on themselves for their own survival.

The Leninists executed anarchists because they knew they posed a serious threat to the whole struggle against Fascism and the future by undermining the struggle in the first place. For them, the struggle against the anarchists was a moral struggle because the anarchists, whether they knew it or not, would only searching for defeat due to the fact that they had no effective plan of action.

It is easy to look at the killing of the anarchists and only see dead bodies. But to truly understand the history; you need to look at the context and the international situation of the period. Nazi Germany and Italy had intervened on the side of the nationalists. The nationalists were well trained with an army of experienced soldiers. The anarchist response was to ignore this reality, as anarchists all too often do. They never had a chance because the only chance for them was thrown away when ideals were put before the very people the anarchists claimed to struggle for. It was the idealism of the anarchists that largely led to the violent realist reponse of the Leninists. The far left remains divided between idealism and realism until today.

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Fidel Castro: A Man with more Courage than you

Long before the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro had shown an intense desire to struggle for political change in Cuba. He was an active member of the nationalist Orthodox Party that was heavily influenced by the Cuban independence fighter and philosopher – Jose Marti. While studying Law at the University of Havana, Fidel was a leading figure in the student movement, organizing protests against the military dictator at the time – Fulgencio Batista. He was regarded as a passionate and talented orator, speaking out during a period when student leaders were often murdered by the police. Castro would soon receive death threats insisting that he leave the university, although, perhaps as we should expect, he refused.

The young Cuban anti-imperialist would travel to Colombia as part of a student group where he witnessed and played an active part in the Bogotazo situation in defense of the students, where thousands were killed following the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala – the newly elected Liberal president. It was here, if ever before failing, that Fidel Castro proved he was a man of action as well as ideas.

Writing afterwards, he would say the following of the event in Bogota;

“I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station that collapsed when it was rushed by a crowd. I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous revolution… That experience led me to identify myself even more with the cause of the people. My still incipient Marxist ideas had nothing to do with our conduct – it was a spontaneous reaction on our part, as young people with Martí-an, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and pro-democratic ideas.”

It has been difficult to tell when exactly Castro became a fully fledged Marxist. The Communist Party of Cuba was not constituted as the leading party until years after the revolution, in 1965. Alas, prior the guerrilla struggle that was waged with eighty one other revolutionaries, Fidel led what is known as the Moncada Barracks Attack. Gathering another 165 comrades, mostly from the Orthodox Party, the challenge was launched with orders from Castro not to open fire unless attacked first. The event was a failure, resulting in many of the revolutionaries being tortured and executed on the spot. In the aftermath of the event, however, Castro would become an admired political figure throughout Cuba. He was nevertheless, to be a man of the future, but only if he had the determination and love to fight until the end.

Shortly before the attack, the Cuban figure would say to the movement who led the attack;

“In a few hours you will be victorious or defeated, but regardless of the outcome – listen well, friends – this Movement will triumph. If you win tomorrow, the aspirations of Martí will be fulfilled sooner. If we fail, our action will nevertheless set an example for the Cuban people, and from the people will arise fresh new men willing to die for Cuba. They will pick up our banner and move forward… The people will back us in Oriente and in the whole island. As in ’68 and ’92, here in Oriente we will give the first cry of Liberty or Death!”

Castro’s life had been guided not only by moral conviction. He was a man of action; in a world where words and deeds rarely correspond. To those who claim Fidel is guided by self-interest – what power can any man expect from such a struggle as he was involved in? The odds weighed against Fidel. Defeat was to be expected. But he did not fear a violent end. The important thing was to fight against injustice, even if that fight would mean paying with his life.

If somebody wants to criticize the man – let these people ask themselves first; have they ever come close to the sacrifice in which Fidel Castro paid? It is easy to condemn others. But when most only talk – constantly – obviously in an age of self-righteousness – do these people really care about the problems all too often they speak against? I think not. Talk is cheap. Fidel Castro’s are rare because it takes courage and love to dare to defy the powerful. Castro embraced death because he valued others more than himself. Can you speak of yourself in the same way?

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The Cause of Katyn and Reasons for the Massacre

I speak of the ‘Cause of the Katyn Massacre’ as being a political cause worth fighting for – in the eyes of the Soviet Union. For them, killing those Polish military and police officiers, along with intellectuals, was entirely moral, justified, and necessary. In retrospect, their decision was the only decision that really mattered, for the very reason that it was decided.

When Winston Churchill concluded that the Soviet Union almost certainly committed the Katyn Massacre, his response was the following: ‘the alliance with the Soviet Union is more important than what happened at Katyn’. In other words, Churchill was content with the mass executions because the struggle against Nazi Germany was decided to trump whatever moral wrongdoing the Soviets may have committed in the process.

Few deny the Katyn massacre was committed by the Soviets. Some Stalinists acknowledge that the killing of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals was committed under the orders of the Soviet leadership – but deny it publicly because they are concerned that such an admittance would make it unnecessarily more difficult to gain support for their political ambitions in the future. Others conclude that the whole thing was a setup by Nazi Germany – an argument that the evidence heavily stands against. Yet, let us look at what actually drove the desire of the Soviet Union to kill all those people.

Polish territory had been used as a corridor for Germany to attack Russia in World War One. The two countries also had a long history of conflict dating back centuries. Like all states, the Soviet Union was concerned about its security – it is necessary in a world without an international government. Adolph Hitler, now at the head of the Third Reich, had already spoken of his ambitions to advance to the East – and everybody knew of his hatred for Bolshevism. The Soviet Union was naturally worried that the Polish nation – and a people with a long history of nationalism – of siding with Nazi Germany or becoming an enemy of the Soviet Union in the future once the war was over. Removing its future talent, those likely to be enemies rather than friends, was a method to help ensure the safety of the USSR from the Polish threat.

Polish officers and intellectuals were not killed as such. To say so would be to ignore what provoked the decision behind the executions at Katyn in the first place. The NKVD (Soviet Secret Intelligence) were ordered to interrogate the Polish officers and intellectuals. Those that were hostile and held no sympathetic feelings towards the Soviet Union would be shot. Those that were deemed not to pose a threat were not. Clearly, the Soviet Union was driven by feelings of fear more than anything. It is estimated that about half of the officers interrogated were murdered in the Katyn forests. German bullets were used, in order to make it look like the incident was the work of Nazi Germany. Ironically, it was fear that motivated Stalin and other leading figures in the Soviet hierachy to order the executions, and it was also fear that provoked the whole situation to be covered up after the event took place. The Soviets denied that it was committed by their hand until 1989.

At Yalta, the Soviet government insisted that parts of Poland would be partitioned to ensure the security of the Soviet Union. In return, Poland was to be given areas formerly part of Germany. Churchill accepted the proposals on the understanding that the Bolsheviks promised not to try and encroach on Britain interests in Greece. He understood that just like Britain, the USSR had security interests that would not be sacrificed. Eastern Europe was conceded to the whim of the Soviets, a trade initiated in the hope that the Soviets would respect British national interests. Poland’s future had been decided at Yalta by the three dictators: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Naturally, the Soviet government knew that Poland would not agree to its territory being cut up into pieces, shaped and determined by an outside force, as if sovereignty was an issue only subject to the will of whoever commanded power. Poland’s wishes were nonetheless irrelevant. The Soviet Union had for a long time worried about the position of their borders. They wanted to minimize the chances of what could potentially be a Polish friend from becoming a Polish foe that would cause issue for the USSR during the Second World War and in a post-WW2 era, where the United States, the country that Stalin believed would inevitably end up becoming the USSR’s greatest enemy, seek to challenge it. Much of the Polish expertise would pay with their lives. Alas, their representatives in London could do nothing except beg on their knees and speak of ethics from whence the the USSR had decided to impose its hegemony. For the Soviet Union, with the First World War and the historic legacy of conflict between the two countries still in mind, the question of individual instances of ethics was far less significant than leaving a weakness open to be exploited, located in the position of its borders and those opposed to the Soviet Union capable of paving the road to hell for them. The situation was the classic example of the powerful doing what they can while the weak suffering what they must. Shut up or put up.

Moral philosophers can debate the ethical issues of the executions in the Katyn forests all day. Nevertheless, fundamentally, the Soviet Union was not willing to put its security, political hopes, and citizens at risk only to satisfy those who now decided they had moral principles. But then, Poland too, even though ever ready to employ moral rhetoric – would only be trying to promote their interests just as the Soviet Union sought theirs.

The first state victim of World War Two had opposed the border change proposals put forward by the Soviet Union. What happened at Katyn gave the Polish government-in-exile ammunition to use against the Soviets at the negotiation table – which they tried to do (Even if words were destined to fall hollow before the actual might of the USSR). Three days after Nazi Germany announced the discovery of the graves, the Polish government in London released a statement which promised that those responsible (While clearly highlighting the USSR) would not be able to gain politically from the massacre, suggesting that the Polish representatives were ready to use the event against the Soviets at some later point. While the Bolshevik-led state denied responsibility for the incident altogether (Because the response that would come from admitting guilt would play into the hands of present and potential future enemies), the Polish government exploited what was expected to be regarded as moral outrage, to pursue, like the Soviets, what was regarded to be in their own interests.

“Those who exercise power always arrange matters so as to give their tyranny the appearance of justice” – said La Fontaine. But in fact, for the Soviet leadership, though it may seem the opposite to some, the executions at Katyn were morally justifiable because they were seen as necessary to protect themselves in the context of WW2 and the international situation, along with an understanding of the nature of capitalism – a belief in the tendency of the class struggle to extend aggressively into international life.

The Polish government now calls the Katyn massacre a genocide. They do not try to empathize at all with the historical context. Would that state rather the Soviet Union have lost the war instead of be the giant behind the Katyn massacre? It is essentially what they would be asking if Poland would rather welcome the defeat of the USSR over moral repulsion for the Katyn massacre. But then, did the Soviets ever put Poland’s interests before their own? Poland in the early 21st century, just as the Soviet Union in 1941, is thinking fundamentally not of the victims; but of themselves as a state in an anarchical international system. These questions are important because it can show the real concern that states have for ethics, in a far from ideal world, where history, rather than an abstract understanding of morality, shapes the behavior of one state towards another.

The Polish government, at no point, wanted the Soviet Union to lose the war – even after they condemned the ‘genocide’; ‘the killing of one’s own people’, as they like to say today – before the same people call for intervention, except of course, when it against ones ‘national interests’. The Polish complainers, which is all they were at the time, put up nothing more than abstract moral philosophical rhetoric. And still, because rhetoric is all the daring Polish in London could manage to muster, they ended up consenting to the very crime they claimed to oppose, accepting it, as the British and the United States did, as necessary and justified in the context of the period. It was later, when the Soviet Union, as part of the Grand Alliance, had saved Poland from ruin, humiliation and absolute devastation, that they truly gained the courage to stand upto their once thanked – but now apparently despised, liberators. States sometimes benefit from the slaughter of their own people.

It was realism, and not idealism, that we mostly have to thank for victory over Nazi Germany. If we put principled standards of ethics before context, reality, objectives and necesssity; Britain would have lost the war; the USSR would have lost the war – and you and I could well be speaking German. Objective progress is decided by victory – not by subjective, biased, and out of context complaints, unleashed with too much emotion by good hearted morons.


Filed under Classical Realism, International Relations, Katyn Massacre, Neo-Realism, Poland, Soviet Union, Winston Churchill, World War Two