Terror and the Police State – Chapter 3

[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; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Justification.  The short version is about one quarter the length of the original.  Each instalment is about 1200 words.]



Great wrongs are often done to secure what are seen as great rights.  If you subscribe to that lethal view that the ends justify the means, then you may invoke righteousness to justify terrorism.  Just think of the righteousness of John brown on slavery.  The problem then is – how do you distinguish the righteousness of John Wilkes Booth on slavery?

The French Revolution was supported and applauded from the beginning by people like Kant, Beethoven, and Wordsworth – and the majority of the enlightened people and uncrowned or unrobed heads in all Europe.  It was a colossal blow against caste and privilege, and an elevating insight into the claims of the rights of man.  Macaulay said that the only event to compare to the Reformation was the French Revolution.  Both involved people rising up against caste.  The Terror and Napoleon would put many off – Napoleon for his imperial throne and his aristocracy as much as for his wars – but the massive sense of liberation would endure.  Those championing the revolution claimed the moral high ground at the start, and they have never relinquished it.

Their decision to go to war to defend the revolution was a large part of what produced the Terror, but it did a lot more than merely change the face of war.  The old regimes of Europe, with their kings and nobles, would never have armed the people.  There was a change in the ideas of change in politics.  Professor Doyle said:

In other words, it was a profound cultural transformation.  The writers of the Enlightenment, so revered by the intelligentsia who made the Revolution, had always believed it could be done if men dared to seize control of their own destiny.  The men of 1789 did so, in a rare moment of courage, altruism, and idealism which took away the breath of educated Europe.

Righteousness is not a term to endear people to those professing to have it, and the moving forces in this revolution were full of it.  There was the sense that so many in the nation had suffered too long under a just sense of grievance caused by privilege, and this privilege was the foundation of the inequality against which the revolutionaries were fighting.  Being a champion of liberty and equality was to be a moral hero.  This is precisely the moral ground claimed today by the champions of civil or human rights, although not as many have to put their lives on the line as the men and women of 1789.

The essential dignity of each of us is the notion that crowns Kant’s moral philosophy.  He held that dignity (or worthiness) is beyond price, and that humanity so far as it is capable of morality alone has dignity.  A friend of Kant said this of his reaction to the French Revolution: ‘He lived and moved in it; and, in spite of all the terror, he held on to his hopes so much that when he heard the declaration of the republic, he called out with excitement: ‘Now let your servant go in peace to his grave, for I have seen the glory of the world.’’

Then the righteousness of the revolutionaries showed itself in the way that they defended their gains, and their nation.  There was of course faction and rebellion and civil war, and foreign nations that were intent on restoring the monarchy and punishing those who had reviled and then killed their king.  The French only had to look at what happened to the killers of Charles I in England when Charles II was restored – after an interregnum of almost a generation.  So, political idealism became fused with personal courage and love for the nation.  True revolutionaries were true patriots – who else could be?

It is hardly surprising that in extremis people took to extreme measures whether they were part of government or not.  What we call the Terror was the culmination of those forces.  The people of France were going where no one had been before.  They were trying to build a system of government after the old one had collapsed under the weight of its own inanity and brutality.  They had not had much if any experience of either governing or trying to build government.  At the same time, foreign enemies and their supporters within were threatening this young new nation with death and destruction.  You cannot just step out and go and buy a text-book that tells you what to do in a case like that.

Arthur Young was a man of birth, property, and position who knew what it meant to farm the land.  He was uniquely placed to give a balanced view on the excesses of the revolution.

It is impossible to justify the excesses of the people in their taking up arms; they were certainly guilty of cruelties; it is idle to deny the facts, for they have been proved too clearly to admit of a doubt.  But is it really the people to whom we are to impute the whole? – Or to their oppressors who had kept them so long in a state of bondage?  He who chooses to be served by slaves, and by ill-treated slaves, must know that he holds both his property and life by a tenure far different from those who prefer the service of well-treated freemen; and he who dines to the music of groaning sufferers must not, in the moment of insurrection, complain that his daughters are ravished and then destroyed, and that his sons’ throats are cut.  When such evils happen, they are surely more imputable to the tyranny of the master than to the cruelty of the servant. 

The wish to see like cases treated alike underwrites all our notions of justice.  If you contend that people are equal, and that they should be treated equally, the old caste system was a very cruel travesty and a very unjust imposition.  The hatred of the aristocracy – the owners of the burnt chateaux – was fuelled by the revulsion of privilege, and privilege is by definition in contempt of the rule of law as we know it, since one essential principle is that all people are equal before the law.

There is little point in looking for anything like righteousness behind the police states or terror practised in Germany or Russia.  The German nation had a just grievance at the behaviour of the Allies after the Great War.  No one stated that grievance better than John Maynard Keynes, but neither Versailles nor anything else could justify the Nazi revolution or terror.

The suffering of the Russian people from oppression at the bottom in about 1917 was probably not significantly less than that of the French people in 1789, but the Bolsheviks (Communists) lived in a moral and political world all of their own.  The Russian people would have to pay for the intellectual conceit of Marx in thinking that his mind was powerful enough to dictate logically verifiable answers to the human condition, and the insatiable craving for power of Lenin led him to insist on departing from the blueprint of Marx to suit his own ego and timetable.  The Russian police state now seems to us to be an inevitable product of a totalitarian kind of government that Communism prescribed, but the full ghastly flowering of the terror in Russia owed much to the personal insecurity and cruelty of Stalin.

The French would spend the next century in learning that it is hard to legislate ideals into law, but in committing itself to the Rights of Man in 1789, France was adopting as a nation a faith or aspiration that would be utterly contradicted by those regimes that we least admire, such as those of Russia or Germany when they generated their reigns of terror.

The lotus-eaters on the left

When Ulysses was trying to get back home to Greece after the Trojan War, he and his crew came upon a very dangerous island.  The people there ate the fruit of the lotus.  This fruit had the effect of a narcotic drug that induced people to find bliss through doing nothing.  If Ulysses had not manhandled his men off the island, they would still be there, sad monuments to apathy.  This is perhaps a story from mythology that the radical left government in Greece could have shown more respect to as it converted a train-wreck into a ship-wreck with frightening consequences for a people looking for a leader to take them out of moral oblivion.

The rest of the world is just sick of it, if not bored, but this awful example of the left in power and in action might be instructive on one question – what does it mean to be left?  My own view is that both the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are labels that type people and should therefore be avoided – they are at best misleading and at worst dangerous and demeaning.  But here we have a party and government that wears this badge with pride.  What do they say about what it is to be left?

The distinction comes from the sides of the popular assembly that drove the French Revolution into the Terror in which the left sought to liquidate the right.  That was a case where the downcast were driven for revenge for the past and hope for the future, and they prevailed over those who had not been victimised and who wanted to save some of the past and who were less sanguine or more realistic about the future – and after which both sides gave way to a dictator and emperor who convulsed Europe in a generation of wars that left five million dead.

Elsewhere, I endeavoured to state the differences between the left and the right as follows:

The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions.  The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution.  The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change.  The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it.  The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it.  The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it.  These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous.  Either can be authoritarian.  On the left, that may lead to communism.  On the right, you may get fascism.

For reasons I will come to, I might add that the left is inclined to oscillate wildly between strict legalism and the broadest equity.

Have we seen these features in Greece?

The problems facing Greece are that it has hardly ever been decently governed let alone well governed.  It does not make enough of anything.  It does not create enough wealth.  It does not collect enough tax, but it pays out too much in social service benefits.  Above all, it is hopelessly corrupt in government and business – the in-word is ‘clientelism’, which fittingly comes down from an ancient Roman form of patronage.  Greece just keeps promising to reform, and reneging – and holding its hand out.  Well, there is fertile ground for a reforming radical government, surely.  Not on your Nelly, Mate.

The first rule is that nothing – nothing – is our fault.  It is always someone else who is to blame.

This is because we are the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed.  We don’t like the term victims much because it would put us in bad company.  It is sufficient to say that we are on the side of the angels.  (We don’t say that God is on our side because the Comrades are not so big on Him or Her.)  We never had the opportunities the others have had, and we have never held the power the others have.  We are the people described on the Statue of Liberty, except that we stayed at home.

It follows that we are right and the rest are wrong.

If you think that this is silly, I agree, but you run into a lot in I R here at home.  You might be surprised how many people appear to be committed to the proposition that the worker can do no wrong – it is always the fault of management.  (Well, ‘capital’ would sound old fashioned and silly.)  The other day I had to endure hours of listening to I R lawyers arguing about whether grossly pornographic material was offensive and to an argument that the employer was at fault for not issuing instructions about what it considered offensive in its workplace policy documents – notwithstanding that even the accused thought that this was an insult to his intelligence.

If you think I drew the short straw, shortly afterwards the Fair Work Commission held that a dismissal was unfair in part because the behaviour complained occurred after the employee had been given a lot to drink at a party put on by the employer – free of charge.  The Greeks are not alone in creating their own fantasy world.

How does it work?  In the normal way – you invent your own language to express your own demonology.  Cutting expenses you cannot afford or repaying loans you could not afford involves self-denial and a form of hardship, albeit a hardship that you have brought upon yourself.  What Greece needs is a period of severe, even harsh, self-discipline, and prolonged abstinence.  Imagine trying that on with the lotus-eaters!  So you give that prescription its English title, austerity, and then you demonise that word.  Then you forbid those representing the lenders to use a name that denotes harshness.  People are forbidden to refer to the ‘troika’ – we must refer to the ‘institutions’.  And if you think that is silly, which it is, be careful how you say so because if you say they are being childish, which they are, that will be taken down as evidence of harshness and oppression on your part.

Then you buy your own expert to say that austerity is not just immoral but bad policy.  And there are plenty of economists who say that if the creditors want too much they will hurt or destroy the capacity of the borrowers to repay them.  This makes sense – sometimes it pays a creditor to allow some slack to the debtor.

There are at least two problems with the way the Greek left has presented this case.  One is that they use terms like freedom, democracy, sovereignty, dignity, self-respect and independence.  Now, we all have to invoke loaded terms now and then, but all these things are put in play when a nation joins a federation that involves a form of commercial partnership, or borrows money on terms and for a security.  We understand that if we default on a loan for our house, the bank will sell the house, and we will not get far by crying that the bank is being harsh, oppressive or austere to us.  And even if we can make the case that the bank itself would be better off it chose some course other than enforcing its right to the full now, that is a matter for the bank.  It is beyond our legal power to restrain it on that ground alone.  Both parties to the agreement have rights and property in those rights, and the bank can do that to us because we have put it in that position.

It is the same with Greece and its partners and creditors.  Even if Greece could persuade someone in relevant power that the best interests of the partners and creditors would be served by their proceeding differently, there is no way of stopping them using their rights and property as they think fit.  That is, if you like, a consequence of their sovereignty, and the expression of a common will by democratically elected leaders of the other partner nations.

There are about eighteen other sovereign nations who have rights and property to think about, and Greece has so conducted itself that it does not now get any support from any one of them.  And that weasel word ‘mandate’ is even more slippery here.  A change of government or a referendum in one entity does not change legal relations between it and others.  The Greek left does not I think accept this.

The other problem with the attempt to get to the high ground by talking of democracy or sovereignty is that it ignores the facts of what Greece is saying to its partners and creditors.  The Greeks are not just saying that you cannot get blood out of a stone – they go on to say that if you try to do so we will pull the pin on our dynamite vest.  Time and again the former Finance Minister said that the rest of Europe and the creditors would have to cave in because they cannot afford the cost of a Greek default on its loans.  They have pointed a gun squarely at the rest of Europe.  After last weekend the threat has changed – it is not so much that we will blow your brains out, as that we will disembowel ourselves.  This I think is what led the European president to say that the Greeks should not allow a fear of death to cause them to commit suicide.

Many observers thought that the referendum was a bad idea.  We were again told that this was democracy at work – to what end?  The referendum just asked people to say whether they agreed to all the terms solemnly put by eighteen nations.  The Greeks were not asked what they might accept, and some balance may have been added by ‘2.  Would you like to get into bed with Vladimir?’  (He has no money either.  Russia is already a pariah on the periphery.)  And the Greeks certainly got wrong the reaction of the lenders.  When the lenders refused to keep pouring money into a nation that is utterly insolvent and engaged in blackmail, they were branded as terrorists and war criminals.

This is I fear the real problem for this kind of radical left.  At bottom, they just want and hope that other people will somehow act better – that is, more in a way that is amenable to the views and lifestyle of those on the left.  This became clear to me during the two most recent episodes of Dateline London, a weekly panel show on the BBC on which four journalists from different backgrounds discuss current events.  They have difficulty finding journalists to give a rational account of the Islamic world, and they now have the same problem with Greece.  On one episode, three left leaning journalists lamented the failure of Europe to do more for migrants – there may be 55 million of them out there.  On the last episode, two left journalists, one from Le Monde and one from The Guardian, savaged the lenders and partners of Greece as being heartless and cruel, in the Le Monde case not showing enough ‘solidarity’ with Europe, and in the case of The Guardian, wheeling out all the usual suspects for conspiring against the downtrodden and oppressed.

It occurred to me in each case that these people were, au fond, just wishing that other people were somehow nicer.  What has this wishful thinking, this hankering after narcotic lotus flowers, got to do with political journalism?  Why not look at the world as it is?  What nation is happy with its Muslem minority?  How many hundred thousand more would any nation be prepared to take where hardly any of its people evince a burning moral resolve to have a refugee from a nation disfigured by religious war as their next-door neighbour?  How much solidarity does a taxpayer in Iceland or Finland feel for the concept of Europe when he is being asked to give up property or pay more tax in order that Greek retirees may live in secure financial comfort?

It occurred to me that these journalists were not asking themselves the right questions.  They are secure behind the moral superiority of their own dogma.  They are quite unable to see the other point of view.  This is why this Greek negotiating team was so awful.  It is why they burnt up so much political capital and left themselves friendless, and alarmingly desperate.

The Finance Minister said that the banks would reopen on Tuesday after a new deal had been struck.  He said that would take an hour.  Why?  Because they had already been at it for five months.  Then he wondered about asking a court to grant an injunction to restrain the eighteen other sovereign entities from dissolving the union.  We saw irrational optimism and dogmatic conceit end in madness.  The Greek left presents the absolute threat – they have the answer!  They can even predict the future!

But if these lotus-eaters do not get their way, they behave like very nasty spoiled children.  The creditors now are trying to measure the cost of another load of assistance to a bankrupt nation against the cost of humanitarian assistance to a stricken people.  But when Greek people start dying for lack of medicine, it will not be their fault.  It will be the fault of those dreadful outsiders for not doing enough to allow the Greeks to maintain the style of life to which Europe and its money has accustomed them.

So, while I still think that the terms left and right are slippery, perhaps they may come with some useful amber or red lights.  I regard the whole discussion as beside the point.  It looks to me that the marriage was a bad one from the start and that there is not one ounce of that trust and confidence that are needed to sustain such a partnership.  If it is suffered to carry on until the next explosion, then it may be that the threat of self-immolation has worked again.  Would you really trust a crowd that takes so long to get to the point, that wants to drag out the argument on everything, even points that do not matter?  People who know business know that the best contracts are put in a drawer and never looked at again.  You do not get this with the Greeks – or our I R lawyers – or the Persians talking about the bomb.  The result is that any resulting contract is not worth the paper it is inscribed on.

In the meantime, the Marxist blogger from Sydney University announced his retirement on his blog, and the former Finance Minister then just picked up his helmet and rucksack, and pointed his motorcycle to the wine dark sea in his quest for more lotus-eaters.  Every prediction that he had made had not come about – but he was not wrong.  He is never wrong.  Those poor people in the north were plainly irrational.  They were not even reading from the same script.  They too could end up as lotus-eaters.


I agree with Our Dawn.  I do not want those half-wits posing as tennis–players representing me in anything.  If we are going to cancel passports, we could start with these twerps – and the Fanatics.

The Leviathan


It was extraordinary how so many intelligent English people became Communists and whose faith survived a visit to Russia. The distinguished historian Dr Christopher Hill, of whom I am very fond, is an example. He reminds me of the remark of Chesterton that the ultimate test of a Catholic was to keep the faith after a visit to Rome. Well, the film The Leviathan will extinguish any faith or hope that anyone may have had in Russia.

It is hell on earth – drab, lawless, and soulless, and above all, a land that will not tolerate any hope at all. Every shot shows that lifeless, unfinished and motiveless emptiness that you see all over suburban Russia and Turkey. The State runs on corruption; people run on vodka; and the Orthodox Church leers over all. The survivors of the serfs, the Cossacks, and Tsars have never learned the meaning of freedom, much less how to govern themselves. The State operates like a totalitarian state – it just grinds down any person or decency or life that gets in its way – and there is not an oligarch or KGB hood in sight. The Leviathan consumes all, and a sense of hopelessness oozes out of the screen like the vodka that so many pull from the bottle or take straight like medicine. No part of life is left undenied.

The plot is that of The Castle but without the happy ending, and with a lawyer who is not quite so flawless. There is a complication involving the lawyer and the wife of the hero. She is wonderfully played by a woman who invests the part with haunting elements of Anna Karenin and the wife of The Doll’s House. The bad guy is also flawless. (Remember T P McKenna as Richmond in Callan?) The film does not move fast, but the pressure never drops. It is inevitable and unrelenting, and with more meaning and purpose than a Wagner opera.

This is the strongest film I have seen since Mystic River. I went back to see that film again the next day, as I did, for very different reasons, The Castle. The Leviathan is like the former. It has something like a Shakespearian intensity that leaves you drained and unsettled, but somehow purged. If the cinema were closer I would go back to it tomorrow. This is a movie that calls for a serious liquid debrief.

I spent a lot the Easter break writing a long note on 800 years of Magna Carta. Its most famous clauses say that we (the State) will not move or send against you except under a judgment of your peers, and to none will we sell, delay, or deny justice. If you want to know what life might be like without those rights written into the fabric of our law, go and see this mighty film. If you asked me to say how far Mr Putin’s Russia is behind the West, I would say not less than 800 years.