[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Common features; 22 Justification: Epilogue.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]



If a revolution is a successful revolt, the historical justification of violence in a revolution is its success in overthrowing the old regime – plus some kind of judgment that the bloodshed and killing have all been worth it.  A revolution is merely a revolt that has succeeded.  If those who are revolting fail, they are liable to be executed for treason; if they are successful, they are ensainted as liberators and they form or provide the first government under the new regime.

The justification of terror or the police state must be more ongoing.  In the end, the regime says that it is justified in inflicting death pain or loss of liberty on some people in order to advance the interests of the people as a whole.  This will ultimately come down to a moral judgment – there are shades of a judgment that might be called political, but the ultimate criterion will be what we describe as a moral view.

For example, most countries in the West now do not believe that it is right to execute people who are found guilty of committing certain crimes – or any crimes.  At bottom, this aversion comes from a view about the sanctity of human life that is part of what might be called the culture of the West, and which is at least in part derived from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.  It is no coincidence that the aversion to capital punishment does not run in many states where those creeds do not run, such as China or many Islamic nations.

On the other hand, the Western aversion to killing criminals is not absolute.  It is a simple fact of political life that the Americans were not going to try Osama bin Laden, or that if they had tried him, they would have convicted him and they would have executed him.  Hitler may have been tried – Churchill was against having any war trials – but all those major German war criminals knew what their end would be – and, we may be sure, they had known that for many years.

It follows that opinions about the French Terror and the Russian will change from person to person and from time to time.  Those who were prepared to stand up for Stalin were thinned down when Khrushchev disowned him, and they just about disappeared with the collapse of the empire that is now so lamented by Mr Putin.  For those outside Russia, the judgment of Solzhenitsyn was terminal.  The Communists had expressly adopted the Jacobins as their models.  The Russians had views about making a new beginning and being in the vanguard.  This led François Furet to make some observations (in 1978) that have since provoked discussion.

But these two notions – of a new beginning and of a vanguard nation – are now giving way.  Solzhenitsyn’s work has become the basic Soviet reference for the Soviet experience, ineluctably locating the issue of the Gulag at the very core of the revolutionary endeavour.  Once that happened, the Russian example was bound to turn around like a boomerang to strike its French ‘origin’…. Today the Gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror precisely because the two undertakings are seen as identical’.  In the first reign of terror, thousands were killed; in the second, it was millions.  And in each case, to what extent did the justification being offered on behalf of the killers improve on the proposition that ‘I need to kill you so that I and others can have a better life’?

One problem for those who justify terror in the name of the state is the same for those who justify killing in the name of the state – where do you draw the line?  It is like the problem that haunts all revolutionary regimes – if we could seize power by violence, what stops you from doing the same to us?  Bloodshed, we know, tends to breed bloodshed.  Is it the same with breaking the law?  History suggests that it is.  Each of the American, French and Russian revolutions led to frightful civil wars, as had the first revolution in England in the seventeenth century; the combination of violence and terror offered by the Nazis was in this and other ways unique, and no sane person seeks to justify any aspect of the Third Reich.  When you destroy the source of the law, you let in lawlessness.

It is not enough to say that Robespierre was in pursuit of a political ideal called liberty, whatever that might mean, or that Osama bin Laden was in pursuit of a spiritual ideal of one true faith – or that his pilots were driving into the arms of seventy-two black eyed virgins.  Something more than slogans and abstractions is required.  The facts are rather less clear or virtuous than the theories.  When the French Terror ended with the killings, as part of that same process, of Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, it was in the hands of three professional revolutionaries, all three trained as lawyers, who had always been longer on intellect than humanity, and whose driven didactic virtue was fast going down the drain of a murderous amour propre.  Indeed, young Saint-Just was burying his memories of a misspent youth in a relentless hatred of the enemy that had turned him into a cold killing machine.  That kind of end calls for some human response other than justification.

Nor were you likely to take any comfort from any justification of the French Terror offered by the old school who liked to write history about a ‘class war’ that for all we know only existed in their imagination.  Albert Soboul accepted Robespierre’s proposition that ‘virtue’ as a fundamental principle of democratic or popular government ‘provides the guarantee that Revolutionary Government does not turn into despotism’  Soboul then said that the Terror purged the nation of groups considered to be ‘socially unassimilable, either because of their aristocratic origin or because they had thrown in their lot with the aristocracy’ or that ‘the Terror had the effect of cutting off from the rest of the nation elements incapable of being assimilated into society, either because they were aristocratic or because they had attached themselves to the aristocracy.’

The first proposition is falsified by all history, not least that of Robespierre; the second is falsified by the evidence and is morally revolting.  ‘If your membership of a group means that in our judgment you cannot live with us, you will be liquidated’ is a maxim that could not have been improved on by Stalin.  It would be in bad taste to refer to Hitler, but he did seek precisely to implement that world view.  Nor is it surprising to find Robespierre tersely noting that ‘the word virtue made Danton laugh.’

It remains, then, to say something about those who were responsible for our three reigns of terror, in France, Russia, and Germany.  Is it too simplistic to say that Stalin and Hitler were evil but that the French terrorists were not?  Those driving what we call the Communist Revolution may or may not have had altruistic notions about working for others, but before Lenin died, the basis of Stalin’s regime was set, and most now agree that the original scheme was flawed in any event.  Both Lenin and Stalin were in truth guilty of appalling crimes against humanity – Lenin possibly being the more morally culpable on the ground of hypocrisy alone – and their reputations are not as bad as they might have been mainly because Hitler and Mao would prove to be even more murderous.  The only thing that can be said in favour of Hitler is that he entered into a pact with Stalin which Hitler broke and for which Stalin killed him.


Here and there – Being a Conservative


The word ‘conservative’ is sadly abused.  Nasty people claim it.  So do fakes.  So, when the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes a book called ‘How to be a Conservative’, we sit up and take notice.

First, some caveats.  On the very first page, we get this about ‘ordinary conservatives’:

Their honest attempts to live by their lights, raising families, enjoying communities, worshipping their gods, and adopting a settled and affirmative culture – these attempts are scorned and ridiculed by the Guardian class.

Don’t ordinary liberals or socialists, if there any left, want to raise families and enjoy communities?  Are there people around who scorn and ridicule people who do?  And is not the reference to the Guardian class an indication that the author may have succumbed to tribalism?  Does he stand for the Spectator class?  Then, a few pages later, Scruton tells us that he got his cultural conservatism ‘from the literary critic F R Leavis, from T S Eliot, whose Four Quartets and literary essays entered all our hearts at school…..’  Can I say that I have never met a man whose heart was so entered – at school, or at all?  As well as a tribal war, we may have a class or culture war on our hands.

But to business – Scruton refers to what might be the Conservative bible, Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.  Burke did not believe politics could be reduced to a plan – he was opposed to ‘a politics that proposed a rational goal, and a collective procedure for achieving it, and which mobilised the whole of society behind the resulting program.  Burke saw society as an association of the dead, the living and the unborn.’  That is a very English position and a useful introduction to being a Conservative.  It’s a view I share – with other views, of course.

Burke was appalled at the popular revolt – in France or anywhere else.  Eventually, most of the world joined him in that revulsion.  When government fails, things get out of hand.  That’s why I cannot understand how people who claim to be Conservatives support popular revolts – the position that we now call ‘populism’.  How can someone who claims to follow Edmund Burke also claim to follow Farage, Hanson, or Trump?  God only knows what Burke may have said (and Burke was not short-winded).

Then we get eight chapters seeking to find the truth in eight –isms.  Did anything good ever come out of an –ism?  Are we comfortable with a search for truth in abstractions like Liberalism or Environmentalism?  If we are going to find truth in each of these –isms, of which Conservatism is the last, then are we not in for long journey in political or ideological Multiculturalism –another of the eight – isms?  For example, under the truth in Socialism we get:

But socialism means, for most of its advocates, a political program designed to secure for all citizens an equal chance of a fulfilling life….That idea of social justice may not be coherent.  But it speaks to sentiments that we share….Hence British conservatives in the nineteenth century frequently acknowledged common cause with the Chartists, and the greatest conservative thinker of the Victorian age, John Ruskin, addressed many of his homilies to the urban working class.  Disraeli was not the inventor of ‘One Nation’ Toryism, but he certainly made clear….that the conservative cause would be lost if it did not also appeal to the new migrants to the industrial towns, and if it did not take their position seriously.  A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded for themselves.

That last proposition is just a fact of political life – at least in Australia and England.  (The U S is very different.)  Much later we get –

….civil society depends on the attachments that must be renewed and, in modern circumstances, these attachments cannot be renewed without the collective provision of welfare.

Well, given that we do have and will continue to have the welfare state, is there not some Socialism and Conservatism in all of us – and is not the rest of the discussion just bargaining or posturing about the margins?

Scruton spends a lot of time on the zero sum game fallacy.  ‘The great socialist illusion’ is that ‘the poor are poor because the rich are rich.’  That statement does look rather large – but how would I know?  I can’t recall meeting a Socialist, at least recently, outside the National Party – and I think I would remember.  (I should say that I haven’t met Jeremy Corbyn.)

The author must be right to say that we cannot condemn Nationalism just because it can be abused, and he is right to say that people are entitled to protect their national character against invading religions.  It would be shocking to permit the practice of Sharia law in an open society.  My own view is that historians and philosophers have underquoted on the liberation inherent in the Reformation.

When God makes the laws, the law becomes as mysterious as God is.  When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean.  The only question is ‘Who are we’?

Now, that statement about our being certain about what we mean is sadly unwarranted, and the other question is how do we know which laws were made by God and which by men?  We only get the laws of God from the mouths of men.

The truth in Capitalism is that ‘private ownership and free exchange are necessary features in any large scale economy – any economy in which people depend for their survival and prosperity on the activities of strangers.’  But we are told that ‘Socialists don’t in their hearts accept this.’  Well, Socialists may not, but the people of China and Russia plainly do.  They have both seen the starvation that otherwise comes about.  Perhaps the professor had in mind Cuba or perhaps he foresaw the fate of Venezuela.

Under the heading Liberalism, there is a very good discussion about the two differing concepts of liberty – the positive and negative.  Scruton is in my view plainly right when he says:

For the search for liberty has gone hand in hand with a countervailing search for ‘empowerment’….Hence egalitarians have begun to insert more positive rights into the list of negative freedoms, supplementing the liberty rights specified by the various international conventions with rights that do not merely demand non-encroachment from others, but which impose on them a positive duty.

The author refers to Article 22 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  Its terms are unsettlingly wide and they bear the hallmarks of people who may not have had to get their hands too dirty to make a living.  It’s hard to write Kant’s concept of dignity into an international covenant – and be taken seriously.

There are also some helpful remarks on the ‘down with us mentality’ in the discussion of Multiculturalism.  Writing in 2014, Scruton said ‘The dethroning of reason goes hand in hand with a disbelief in objective truth’.  He was certainly a prophet new inspired.

But the book is worth the price for the chapter on Environmentalism.  Why don’t Conservatives want to conserve the earth?

the love of home lends itself to the environmental cause, and it is astonishing that the many conservative parties in the English-speaking world have not seized hold of that cause as their own.

At last – someone who shares my astonishment!  Scruton gives two reasons for the conservative heresy – the ascendancy of economics in the thinking of modern politicians and the agitated propaganda of the other side.  We certainly have seen both here, but are we to remain prisoners of history while we ruin Earth for those who come after us?  Later Scruton says (again, in 2014) that the only nation in the world who can lead it out of the crisis is the U S.  God only knows what he thinks of the U S now.

Under Internationalism, we are told that once again ‘a fundamental truth has been captured by people with an agenda.’  We see this throughout the book – and the writer himself has an agenda.  As someone who has spent a lot of time in universities, Scruton may find it hard to recall too many people who don’t have an agenda.  We see it again on gay marriage.  ‘Only someone with nothing to lose can venture to discuss the issue with the measure of circumspection it invites, and politicians do not figure among the class of people with nothing to lose.’

Later we get another entertaining look at the impact of religion on our communal life.  The French revolutionaries were for the most part manically anti-church.  ‘The Revolutionaries wanted to possess the souls that the Church had recruited…’  That is I think the case.  It’s a theme that recurs in revolutions.

Subsequent revolutions have in like manner regarded the Church as Public Enemy number 1, precisely because it creates a realm of value and authority outside the reach of the state.  It is necessary, in the revolutionary consciousness, to enter that realm and steel its magic.

In the hands of Robespierre, the attempted theft was low farce, but the effort was there.  Burke stated the view that we and England adhere to – ‘that government must hold religion at a distance if it is to maintain civil peace.’  Scruton makes a droll observation on the fact that a majority of English people still put down ‘C of E’ as their religious affiliation.

But that did not imply that they attended an Anglican church – only that they were so far indifferent in the matter as to believe that God would not object to their pretending that they did.

When we finally get to Conservatism, we get a reference to Hegel – which in my view is a heroic flirtation with eternity – and we then get:

What emerges from it is the view of human beings as accountable to each other, bound in associations of mutual responsibility and finding fulfilment in the family and the life of civil society.

If that’s what makes a Conservative, how is he or she different to me or the rest of us?

Well, all these labels are suspect, but in the intellectual desert of Conservatism in Australia this book comes up at us like a Ballarat gold nugget.

Passing Bull 143 – Contradictions in terms


A group of people purporting to be members of our governing parties are acting so as to raise doubts about their sanity or good will – or both.  They were consistently, manifestly, and unrepentantly wrong about climate change.  Now they seek to perpetuate their error, and the consequent harm to the nation, on the issue of energy.  They have formed a group called the Monash Forum.  It is, I gather, what used to be called a ‘ginger group’.  They want a new coal-fired power station run by the government, and, if necessary, paid for by you and me.  It is not surprising that the Monash family are not amused.

The labels ‘conservative’ and ‘populist’ are at best fluid.  So is the term ‘socialist.’  You don’t meet too many of them any more.  For most people, it is a term of abuse.  Most Australians would not regard their federal government as socialist, but most Republicans in America may find it hard to duck applying that label to us.  But however watery the term ‘socialist’ is, it is hard to disagree with Paul Kelly in The Australian when he says:

The idea that drives the latest core conservative revolt — a new coal-fired power station run by the government, if needed — is delusional and flawed at every point. It fails on policy, politics and consumer grounds. The conservatives are becoming coal power socialists. They are losing the plot.

You might imagine a conservative Socialist, but not a socialist Conservative.  (The choice of case is deliberate.)  It is just that contradiction in terms that raises doubts about the sanity or bona fides of these agitators or activists – to invoke other label used to put their objects down.  And it is not as if these activists didn’t have form.

But in analysing this irrational behaviour, Mr Kelly says:

Given Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce as spear carriers, this push is guaranteed to ignite populist conservatives and their media champions across the nation.  The drums will be beating — but many backbenchers have refused to sign.

‘Populist conservative’ is to my mind another contradiction in terms.  People who seek to seduce the gullible are not trying to conserve what is best in our community.  Disraeli and Churchill made a fair fist of a kind of populism, but they were freaks in another era and in another hemisphere.  The nightmare that is called Donald Trump shows how nauseating the cocktail is when you mix conservative and populist.  That is why in my view the media champions that Mr Kelly refers to engage in deception when they call themselves, with unblushing pride, ‘conservatives’.  They’re not and their behaviour is not more attractive because they do it for money.  (The politicians so engaged do it for another well-known evil – faction.)

There is another protean term that Mr Kelly invokes – ‘progressive’.  Well, they must think that all their Christmases have come at once.  Seeking public money for a venture in coal that the banks won’t touch would be an unbeatable way to qualify as the antithesis of ‘progressive.’  It’s not surprising, then, that Mr Kelly concludes his piece this way:

The government seems caught in conflicting emotions. Is it trying to destroy Turnbull’s leadership without having any successor in mind? Is it determined to ignite a new internal brawl over energy policy without having a viable alternative option? Has it given up on the election in pursuit of domestic battles it intends to wage in opposition?

For me it recalls the words of Stephen Sondheim in one of the most beautiful songs ever sung:

Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?

Me here, at last, on the ground

You in mid-air

Send in the clowns

Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?

One who keeps tearing around

One who can’t move

Where are the clowns?

Send in the clowns

Just when I’d stopped opening doors

Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours

Making my entrance again with my usual flair

Sure of my lines

No one is there

Don’t you love farce?

My fault, I fear

I thought that you’d want what I want

Sorry, my dear

But where are the clowns?

There ought to be clowns

Quick, send in the clowns

What a surprise!

Who could foresee?

I’d come to feel about you

What you felt about me

Why only now, when I see

That you’ve drifted away?

What a surprise

What a cliché

Isn’t it rich?

Isn’t it queer?

Losing my timing this late in my career

And where are the clowns?

Quick, send in the clowns

Don’t bother They’re here.

Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump


When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.




[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015.  The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933.  The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Common features; 22 Justification: Epilogue.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]


Common features

Here then are some of the features, for better or worse, of our three regimes.


Each of France – under the Terror or under Napoleon – Communist Russia, and Nazi Germany had something more than mere righteousness, or self-righteousness.  Each of them believed, and was convinced, that their way was the way of the future.  France and Russia hoped and believed the rest of the world would follow their lead.  Hitler had no such delusion.


One result of this triumphalism, this splendid newness and hard-won sanctity, was a kind of absolutism that promoted intolerance.  Saint-Just, a true fanatic, said: ‘Since the French people has manifested its will, everything opposed to it is outside the sovereign.  Whatever is outside the sovereign is an enemy.’  This was an invocation of Rousseau’s Social Contract to justify the Terror.  These notions are inherently vicious over and above their waffly foundation of an abstraction of ‘the people.’  The people of France rose up in 1789 against privilege. 


Napoleon and Mussolini manipulated religion as a tool of government and to keep the hordes content.  In the course of their revolutions, both the French and the Russians took the opposite view.  The objection was not to the teaching of Christ.  They were objecting in a way to what the Roman emperors were attracted to – the role of the church as a part of governing.


The French and the Russians were taking over from autocrats.  Those leading the revolutions had little or no experience in government, and they were not inclined to trust any of the machinery of their predecessors.  And just as importantly, Louis and Nicholas had no experience in politics or negotiation.


In neither France nor in Germany did the regime as a whole ever feel at peace or at rest.  France went from being threatened by all around them to something close to perpetual war and the defeat of Napoleon brought no settlement.  Lenin’s personal need to short-circuit Marx meant that the Russian process was off-keel from the start.  The New Economic Policy showed that they were making it up as they went.


Anxiety and intolerance were mutually self-supporting.  Professor Furet said: ‘As early as 1789, the French Revolution could envisage resistance – real or imaginary – only as a gigantic and permanent conspiracy, which it must ceaselessly crush… Its political repertoire had never given the slightest opening to expressions of disagreement, let alone conflict: the people had appropriated the absolutist heritage and taken the place of the king.’


You can see this need for absolutism all the time during the French Revolution.  It is as if moderation had been banned.  Everything is over the top – someone said that the whole Third Reich was just one long, bad opera.  Robespierre wrote to Danton, one of those whose death he would compass: ‘I love you more than ever.  I love you until death.  At this moment, I am you.’  That could have come from Wuthering Heights. 


Armed insurrection became something of a habit for the French, and barricades became moveable parts of municipal furniture.  Some kind of civil war was inevitable.  Napoleon convulsed Europe for about a generation, and five million died. The Russian Revolution was based on received dogma of inevitable and universal class wars, and led to a civil war more frightful than anything the French had known


Mein Kampf is a flat denial of thought.  But at least some in the lead of the French Revolution, and almost all those in the vanguard of the Russian Revolution, claimed some intellectual background to their violence.  This was not helpful in either case.  Intellectualism has never been a problem in England.


The nationalism inherent in the Nazi regime is obvious from its name and nature – an attempt to win living room and to conquer at least Europe.  But it very soon also emerged with the revolutions in France and Russia, and in ways that were equally obnoxious and lethal to the neighbours.


Patriotism now has an aura very different to what it had in 1789, and even then it varied greatly from one nation to the next.  Its history is in part linked to that of nationalism.  It too is a dirty word.  Both the French and Russian revolutions saw aggressive nationalism which achieved its nadir under Hitler.


When people revolt against a system of government, they commonly want to transfer shares of power down the ladder, but they hardly ever want to go all the way down.  If you had suggested to those behind the English Revolution of 1689 or the American Revolution in 1776 that they were democrats, they would have been scandalised.


Nowadays, the opposition to repressive regimes is facilitated by communication over the internet.  The reverse problems obtained in much of France, and even Paris, and even in some of Germany.  The absence of quick and reliable communication encouraged rumour, suspicion, and fear, the lifeblood of the mob.  Ignorance can lead to almost a cult of suspicion.  Now social media enables others to manipulate elections and to murder the very idea of truth.


All these people were going where no man had been before, and most of them did not know what they were doing – but only the French understood that.  Ignorance deterred none of them.


We all know that all power corrupts.  Robespierre was incorruptible financially but his political success, the adulation of a crowd, and a belief in his own nonsense about the Supreme Being turned his head. He was one of those responsible for the execution of hundreds or thousands of enemies of the people.  Before that, he had been opposed to capital punishment

Passing Bull 142 – Gilding the lily


A registered psychologist cast doubt on the qualifications of people behind an outfit called Creative Mind that had been engaged to conduct a pre-season taring camp for the Adelaide Football Club.  The event was controversial.  (But not as controversial as Melbourne’s – they cancelled theirs.)  The camp was modestly called ‘Mankind Project.’  On the website www.the soulspace.com.au, the qualifications of the principal of Creative Mind were described as:

Amon is trained in a range of coaching, assessment and training approaches, including Vertical Mindset Assessment and Coaching, Power Stage Assessment and Coaching, and more.  He integrates those coaching approaches with extensive experience in the leadership field, and through a long-time involvement with the national masculinity and men’s work community.

You might wonder if Amon has anything against national femininity or Horizontal Mindset Assessment and Coaching.  In a statement to The Age, Amon said:

Our organisation specialises in performance training, focusing on leadership [mindset] and team performance.

Personally, I’m a coach, facilitator and trainer who has a background in leadership and culture in large organisations and I am certified in coaching a range of assessment tools and diagnostics for leaders and teams.  I also hold a Master of Business from the University of Queensland.

Could it be that the word Amon was searching for was quack?  Amon sounds like the kind of dude Donald Trump would appoint to run Veterans’ Affairs or bring peace to the Middle East – more bullshit than you can point a stick at.  If I were a Crows supporter, I would be minded to inquire how much Amon trousered for the Mankind Project.  I wonder if the Crows think Mankind is better off for the Project.


‘Networking drinks 4.30pm to 6pm.’

Advertisement for global food forum.

The Australian, 22 March 2018

Can you get a drink even if you are not into networking?  We’re going bad when people who get together to talk about food need an excuse for a drink.


‘Russia’s behaviour continues to trouble us and we are continuing to push back in meaningful ways,’ a senior national security official said.

The Guardian, 16 March, 2018

On the eve of the Crimean War, the Launceston morning paper began its editorial ‘This newspaper warns the Tsar of Russia.’