30 September 2016

A realist-left primer?


Clockwise from top left: Lasch, Solzhenitsyn, Mailer, Berry

Someone – and I would be more than happy to work together with the Realist Left and Lord Keynes on this – should put together a primer on the realist left, encompassing primarily (but not exclusively) American thinkers, poets, activists and essayists of the past century who embraced the sort of values we stand for: firm commitments to the working class, to fair trade and to the family, but also a deep-seated scepticism toward crypto-libertarian fragmentation, regressive identitarianism and the ‘lifestyle’ elements kindled by the American New Left. My modest suggestions, at this point, would include Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, Norman Mailer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Advisedly, of course, as I realise that these are all ‘cultural’ scholars, and the interests of Lord Keynes and Realist Left do swing more toward the economic side of the equation. I still hope that they would generate some interest.

Christopher Lasch is something of a no-brainer here. He began his idiosyncratic sociological career as a Freud-inspired Marxist, and throughout his career he never lost his deep-seated leftist revulsion at the entire capitalist structure or the narcissistic personality traits it encouraged. But as his career went on he began to see these same narcissistic predilections at work in the same ‘radical’ elements of the counterculture that claimed to want to displace capitalism. He saw in this ‘radicalism’ several decidedly non-radical, alienating elements: the abandonment of the family; the managerial revolution in the liberal arts; the obsession with youth and its maintenance; the elevation of ‘busyness’ as virtue; the pursuit of sexual pleasure at all costs and the corresponding ‘flight from feeling’; the shift from grassroots-radical producerism to the accommodationist language of ‘social mobility’; and the encroachment of a welfare system run by degree-holding ‘experts’ (usually with faux-‘radical’ lifestylist social agendas) upon the lives of working-class families. He grew deeply, perhaps even overly, critical of the communitarians for a ‘sentimentality’ which corroded their insistence on overlapping meshes of rights and responsibilities – but he embraced environmentalism as a form of politics which encouraged class solidarity and continuity between generations. Together with Lawrence Goodwyn (with whom he studied), he is one of the foremost historians of the populists of the 1880’s and 1890’s, whose heterodox economic and monetary ideas find echoes in modern monetary theory.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may not be as much of a no-brainer, on account of the obscurantist and reactionary reputation he has gotten in American circles as a result of his Harvard address in 1978. And it is true: he supported the continuation of the Vietnam War, and the critique implicit in his address to Harvard was as much aimed at the ‘softness’ and mushy-headedness of the American academic and countercultural left as it was against the Communists who took over his motherland. He was no friend to the antecedents of the regressive left. He was a true patriot who loved both the nation he was exiled from, and the nation which sheltered him. Yet he was no war hawk – he spoke out with his wonted prophetic vehemence against the military campaigns in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. His economic ideas themselves tended toward a kind of decentralised economic democracy. Not only did he speak up (perhaps surprisingly to some) in favour of a form of the local soviet model as it had been originally envisioned in the early days of the Russian revolution, but he also had a high respect and admiration for the backwoods-Yankee town hall culture as it was practised in his adoptive Vermont. Also, similarly to Lasch, even though he wasn’t anti-industry per se, he endorsed an environmental-conservationist ethic because he felt that high-profile, top-down, wasteful boondoggles were ruining Russian communities and laying waste to Russian families, selling off Russia’s true patrimony to support its sprawling imperial ambitions abroad.

Wendell Berry is another kindred spirit in the same vein: the poet-prophet of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, the American farmer and the disappearing small town. The realist left may find some to disagree with in his sceptical treatments of (in particular) the ‘food industry’ (though I’d hope they appreciate his principled opposition to ‘free trade’ dogmas), but, critical as they are of globalism, they will also find much to love in his championing of local communities and local businesses, his championing of ‘producerism’, and his opposition to the proletarianisation of much of rural America. They may also enjoy the well-deserved literary lashing he once delivered to his gender-feminist critics back in 2003, as he defended the family, the family economy, and the growth of family-based industry and production. On the topic of immigration, he has decried the ‘mean’ sloganeering of both the xenophobic right and the regressive left, and called for a balanced, humane approach which respected all three of the law, the local economy, and the demands of those genuinely fleeing from violence and deprivation.

Last but certainly not least on my current list is the prodigious counterculture essayist and novelist Norman Mailer. I confess that I’ve been quite remiss on my Mailer for these several years in which he’s been on my radar; I have yet to read anything by him longer than a publicly-available essay. Yet what I have read from and about him has been intriguing. He was an ideologically-evasive and politically-incorrect man-of-letters, often (literally) pugilistic in his high-profile academic and literary feuds. He was, in the words of Taki Theodoracopulos, ‘anathema to those censorious leftists and middlebrow novelists who are taken seriously nowadays’. But he called himself a ‘left-conservative’, and his critics described him as a ‘radical moralist’: he wants to promote equality and alternatives to capitalism while at the same time conserving, in his own words, ‘family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance’ and other ‘dependable human virtues’. Yet at first glance, his books seem suffused with the horrifying possibility that neither, ultimately, may be possible in our current cultural moment… Certainly some more in-depth reading is due on my part in order to get the gist of his thinking, but I would like to give him a tentative boost here.

At any rate, perhaps a project to consider, in the broader interests of keeping it real and keeping it left.

29 September 2016

A very happy 2,567th birthday to Confucius!


Celebration of the birth of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong

It is supremely important for China to remember, with fondness and with sober reflection, her Uncrowned King, her Sage, her Great Teacher, as she forges her bold way forward. A classical educator who hailed back to the wisdom of the Zhou in his own time, Confucius taught us that we should not forget nor despise the past. He taught that sovereigns should be obeyed, but also that they should exercise humane government and cultivate the personal, family virtues. He taught that sovereigns should not seek to expand their own kingdoms by force, but instead through the power of virtuous persuasion. He taught that relationships within a family – between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between elder and younger siblings – should be warm, caring and harmonious, even if not egalitarian. His egalitarianism, however, showed up in other ways: he counselled against small-minded cupidity and excoriated greed. He taught that poor people and even barbarians are capable of knowing the Way. He thought it more important that students understand the Odes than that they be skilled in reciting them. He chided his own wealthier and more powerful countrymen that they preferred flattery and conceit to the truth.

It is necessary – indeed, of vital importance – for China to regain and find a footing for the unique, radical public witness of the followers of Confucius, from Dong Zhongshu and Ban Zhao to Kang Youwei, Kang Xiaoguang and Jiang Qing. And so much the better if this discourse runs against the coarse, crass, greedy and depersonalising demands of globalist liberal capitalism!

Let it be known that even 2,567 years after the birth of China’s Great Sage, his words and works still hold great moral power and inspire great love in the Chinese people. Ten thousand years to the Uncrowned King!

28 September 2016

Remembering Merciful and Right-believing Martyr-Duke Václav (Přemyslovec) of Bohemia


Václav, the martyr and saint for whom the holiday song ‘Good King Wenceslaus’ was written, and who is held in particular esteem by both the Czech and the English nations, is remembered today on the New Calendar, in particular for the zeal of his faith, his generosity toward the poor and suffering, and the holy, uncomplaining, self-giving and Christlike way in which he met his death, similar to the manner in which the Princely Martyrs Boris and Gleb met their own.

Václav was born in particularly troubled times. His grandfather Bořivoj was the first of the Přemyslovcí to be baptised, along with his grandmother Saint Ludmila, uncle Spyhtiněv and father Vratislav, into the Holy Orthodox Church, by the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius. At the time of his birth, the lands of the Western Slavs were being torn asunder in many ways. Amongst themselves, the pagans still disputed with the Christians. In foreign policy too: from the east they were attacked by the Magyars; from the west they were undermined and conquered by the Franks. Some of the rulers of the Czech people attempted to side with the Franks for protection – this was the policy of Spyhtiněv. Václav’s father Bořivoj, a zealous follower of Cyril and Methodius himself, pursued the independence of the Czech people from foreign dominance, and spent much of his career fighting the Franks. Duke Bořivoj eventually fell in battle, and Václav’s education fell to his pious Orthodox grandmother Ludmila. However, his pagan retainers, hoping not to let Václav out of their grasp, began whispering rumours against Ludmila to Drahomíra, Václav’s mother, and fomenting her jealousy over her son. Drahomíra ordered her own saintly mother-in-law to be assassinated by strangulation; thus Saint Ludmila met her martyrdom.

But this vain and wicked plan was to no avail. Václav continued in his Christian faith even under his mother’s heathen tutelage, going to receive the Holy Mysteries in the middle of the night, even donating wheat and grapes from his own fields to prepare them. Drahomíra’s devilry was exposed, and she was banished by the Bohemian nobles for her connivance at the murder of the regent. However, the filial Václav pardoned her and welcomed her back to the Czech lands when he took the Duchy of Bohemia upon himself.

Václav had a deep and heartfelt generosity of spirit that extended far beyond his immediate family, and he took great pains upon himself to ease the plight of the poor and to guarantee peace and stability within his realm. His court was famed for its hospitality, and he opened his castle and his stores of food to homeless and to pilgrims alike, and also to orphans and widows. He personally delivered firewood to poor families in his duchy to keep warm in winter. He bought the freedom of many of his fellow Slavs who had become slaves. In the law, he actively took the part of peasants who were cheated, beaten or oppressed by the nobility. He built churches throughout his realm for the sake of bringing his people into the Orthodox faith. In the interests of peace and of the integrity of the Czech nation, he maintained a steady, if somewhat one-sided, friendship with the East Frankish monarch, Kaiser Heinrich ‘der Finkler’, from whom he was given the relics of Holy Martyr Vitus (in whose honour he then built a great church for these relics to be housed).

However, even though he had been reconciled to his mother Drahomíra, his relationship with his younger brother Boleslav was not so easy. Boleslav connived along with some of the still-heathen nobility to bring about his elder brother’s downfall – playing, as he supposed, on Duke Václav’s piety, he arranged a feast in honour of the Holy Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, at which he was in fact secretly plotting to kill him. Václav, though he was made aware of his brother’s murderous intent by one of his loyal retainers, nevertheless placed all his trust in Christ and went to the Liturgy, and stayed for the feast afterward. When the bell rang for Matins the next day and Václav proceeded to the Church, Boleslav waylaid him on the road, and – together with three of his co-conspirators – stabbed his brother, beat him, and then ran him through with a lance, even on the very steps of the Church; however, as he fell, his blood did not sink into the ground. As he died, Václav blessed his brother and forgave him. His mother Drahomíra was told of his death, and she ran grieving to her son’s side. She later fled the court, fearing the wrath of her younger son Boleslav, and spent her last days in what is now Croatia, in exile and in repentance for her own and her younger son’s misdeeds.

The blood of the martyred Duke stayed and drew itself up over his body; even after his body was interred, his subjects came to pray over his grave. His recognition as a saint came very quickly afterward, and the sainted Václav worked for his people many miracles. One pagan who was in prison called upon the God and the good deeds of Václav, and the chains fell off his wrists no matter how many times his guards tried to fasten him down; upon this prisoner’s release he was baptised into Christianity and lived the remainder of his life piously. A poor old woman who was blind and lame came to pray over Martyr Václav’s relics, and her sight and the use of her limbs was restored. Another lame man in Germany was ordered by the vision of a man to go to Praha and pray over the relics of Holy Martyr Vitus; he ignored this vision at first, but when the man reappeared and asked imperiously why his order hadn’t been carried out, the lame man went, with much assistance, to Praha and did as he was bidden. At once his legs and ankles and feet were healed, and he could walk freely.

A legend quickly arose that Martyr-Duke Václav was only sleeping, and when the motherland is in danger, he will rise from beneath Blaník and, mounted on a white war-horse, lead his great army of loyal retainers to Praha and defeat their enemies. Possibly because of this legend and its similarity to the king-in-the-mountain legends surrounding Harold and Arthur, folk devotions to the Martyr-Duke Václav sprang up in England as well as in Czechia. But these pious folk legends aside, the good deeds of the holy and right-believing Václav retain their own power in witness to Christ Our God.
Through the tender-hearted prayers of St. Wenceslas,
Young father of many,
O Christ our God, release us from our shackles of sin,
Heal our souls, and save us!

26 September 2016

God bless the land of Saint Euphrosyne


From the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, with a translation by Pravoslavie.RU:
Modern Belarus is fulfilling a God-given peacekeeping mission, Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslavl Pavel, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus, said when speaking at the 5th Belarusian People's Congress, BelTA has learned.

“I believe that Belarus has a special mission given to us by God, and the country's leadership has not hesitated to make proper use of this divine gift. In light of the tragic events in the neighboring country, Minsk became a platform for peacemaking initiatives. It is here, in Belarus, that the settlement is being sought to the most difficult international problems,” Metropolitan Pavel said.

Exarch considers that this role is a result of the course of history. “In the 20th century, the Belarusian people walked their own Golgotha. Wars, repressions, all sorts of troubles befell Belarus. Our people survived the crucible of suffering, and this is why we know the value of peace and the price of human life,” Metropolitan Pavel stressed.

The Hierarch emphasized that there is no hostility and confrontation between people, including between representatives of different religious denominations and social groups. “Of course, we understand that this is not just a happy coincidence. On the one hand, this is the result of the relevant policy of the state, and on the other, this shows that the society has certain moral values. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is ready to do everything to ensure that peace strengthen in our land, and that the relations between people develop based on the principles of mutual understanding, mutual respect, trust and mutual support. We constantly pray for peace, and preach the need to cherish this precious gift,” the Patriarchal Exarch noted.

He also said that responsible interaction between Church and State is a guarantee of people's well-being and prosperity. “I rejoice in the fact that over the past decade Belarus has developed a stable system of Church-State relations, which gives us the possibility to create and work together to achieve civil peace and harmony,” Metropolitan Pavel said.

He expressed gratitude to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko “for the words in the defense of Christian values. I believe that this is a very courageous, bold but conscious and meaningful position. Nowadays such state position is extremely important despite the fact that it is sometimes at odds with the outside world because we see aggressive secularism and a tendency to abandon traditional spiritual and moral values gaining strength in a number of countries,” Metropolitan Pavel said.
It is to be recalled, that Belarus under Lukashenko was one of four countries to voluntarily disarm all of its nuclear weapons when it achieved independence from the Soviet Union – the other three being the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and post-apartheid South Africa. Now that the Ukraine is again attempting to regain its nuclear arsenal, gripped as it is in extremism in its fratricidal struggle against its own Russian-speaking population, the role of Belarus as peacemaker becomes all the more vital.

In marked contradistinction to its southern neighbour, Belarus has adopted in its language policies and preferred reading of history, a cultural and civilisational affinity for the Russian mir which coexists with a multi-confessional civic patriotism on the one hand, and a repudiation of the extremes of ethnic and interracial hatred on the other. And the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has been given the task of witnessing to and building the harmony between state and society, in the sort of virtuous cycle that was hinted at by the proponents of classical Orthodox political thinking. The Great Patriotic War has become, in the official Belarusian history, a point of civic solidarity with its neighbours and with its own Jewish population – ironically, the basis for its modern status as a neutral state uniquely poised to act as a broker of peace.

God bless and grant strength and prosperity to the people and land under the protection and patronage of Saint Euphrosyne! For He knows that in this uncertain world of ours, we have great need of such states as can exert a pacifying and stabilising influence on their neighbours.

25 September 2016

Congrats to Jezza!


Jeremy Corbyn has now twice won the Labour leadership election, with, as David Lindsay notes, 62,000 more votes than last year, and an increase in the voting share from 59.5 per cent to 61.8. If he didn’t have a mandate to swing Labour leftward going in, he certainly does now.

I am not, by any means, an uncritical supporter of Corbyn. His stance on the European Union I find a bit credulous. His support of Amnesty International I find irritating. His support of Irish unification outside the UK I find distressing. His republicanism (very much a back-burner issue for him, thankfully) I find repugnant. But at the same time, Corbyn represents a few of the very, very best traditions of Old Labour: realism in international politics; embracing real working-class values; treating unions as though they aren’t simply outmoded anachronisms; championing (what ought to be) national institutions like mail and rail; and treating young people as though their voices matter. As a member of the unabashedly Old Left he represents, at bottom, a socialism which owes far more to the moralists of the early 1800’s, than to the British Marxists of the later 1800’s – and that’s a very good thing. But Corbyn’s moralism is emphatically not of the hectoring, totalitarian and Puritanical type; contrary to popular assertions, he is neither a pacifist nor a tea-totaller, and even his vegetarianism represents a practically-Johnsonian personal preference and sympathy rather than a rigid ideological position.

My heartfelt congratulations to this distinguished veteran of the British trade union and peace movements, and I, for one, wish him all the best. Godspeed, sir!

22 September 2016

Global leadership: not a Christian imperative

Answering the call to dialogue from Providence Magazine’s manifesto, ‘A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy’, I feel I must offer this response.

I should state from the outset that I belong to what has historically been an imperial church. I do not say this in approbation or in any kind of adverse judgement upon the tradition I have willingly embraced: it is nothing more than a statement of fact. The One, Holy, Conciliar and Apostolic Right-Believing Church has been, from the 313 Milan Edict of Emperor Saint Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the state-tolerated, later -recognised and -supported, religion of the (Eastern) Roman Empire. In addition, it has been, from the marriage of Tsar Ivan III the Great to the Roman refugee-princess Sophia Palaiologina in 1472, to the martyrdom of the blessed and God-bearing Emperor Saint Nikolai II in 1918, the state religion of the Russian Empire. (After the fall of the City, Russia was often conceived of in Orthodox writings, polemics and prophecies as the Third Rome, after which there would be no fourth.) Today, Holy Orthodoxy retains close symbiotic relationships with the governments of Greece, Georgia and Bulgaria, and has been repairing those with the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Balkan states for the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Eastern, Orthodox Christianity preaches an eschatological renunciation of earthly libido dominandi, power, wealth and self-will unmatched by any other religion’s call to the same (apart, perhaps, from some of the Protestant ‘peace churches’), is nevertheless the one Christian tradition which has maintained the closest proximity to earthly political power, even in its rawest and most absolute forms. The Orthodox witness is therefore often criticised in strident tones by Western thinkers – even amongst ourselves – for being, alternately, either politically-quietist or opportunistically wedded to authoritarian governments (often both at once). However, the political and social witness of the Holy Orthodox Church, precisely because of its paradoxical relation to power, remains vibrant and brimming with potential, particularly in a world positively aching for some kind of moral orientation. It is out of this long tradition of political-theological witness that I hope to respond to this manifesto.

To start with, there is much that I can agree with in this epistle. To begin with: the notion that authority is not a bad thing in itself, but can be beautiful, creative and nurturing is one that the Church readily and gladly acknowledges. Parental authority to their children, teacherly to students, husbandly to wife, elder brotherly to younger brother – can at its best be among the highest expressions of self-sacrificial love and self-giving. Secondly: the related idea that the purpose of the state is to exercise authority in a spirit of justice, as the authors rightly note, ‘as a check against the worst abuses of human sin and evil’. This idea is one which the Russian Orthodox Church has put forward most strongly: ‘Holy Scripture calls upon powers that be to use the power of state for restricting evil and supporting good, in which it sees the moral meaning of the existence of state’ (Basis of the Social Concept III.2).

These are good principles to build upon, but we must examine why they are so. The sorts of authority wielded by fathers, mothers, teachers, rulers and so on are present in the human anthropology only by the impress of God, our Creator. As Christ Our God said to Pilate: ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.’ Authority is only authoritative because our Author authored us in perfect, self-emptying love – in the truth that He wanted us to be united to Him. As the Prophet Isaiah said on God’s behalf: ‘So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.’ Authority is not arbitrary; it is based on the truth of the author, and the accountability of the author for what she says. Subjects must be given reason to trust what the author directs.

The trustworthiness which God showed to us is present in the story of Genesis. God called us human beings to life, even to eternal life, from the very dust of the earth, and He had prepared for us a garden with every good thing needed to allow that life to sustain itself and flourish. He did not condemn us to solitude, but created us male and female: to work together, to live together, to raise children together – all before the Fall. Anthropologically speaking, in the differences of sex God ordered human society before the state ever arose: ‘[t]he family represented the initial cell of human society’ (Basis III.1). The authority of God is manifest in His word to us to ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it’.

However, we disregarded the authority of God, who did all things so that we might live. We trusted instead in the false promises of the Evil One, and ate the fruit which God forbade us to eat. Instead of the eternal life which was our birthright, we chose the inheritance of death. Instead of the equality with God, that we would ‘be as gods’ as the serpent promised, we found ourselves degraded and exiled from the Garden, doomed to a fallen state subject to the laws of sin, corruption and death. Though the Orthodox Church is very far from denying the right purposes or raison d’être of the state, it is clear that is only in our fallen condition that the institution of the state becomes needful. ‘Thus, the emergence of the temporal state should not be understood as a reality originally established by God. It was rather God’s granting human being an opportunity to order their social life by their own free will’ (Basis III.1).

Here’s where the Providence epistle begins to get, at least from an Orthodox Christian view, more than a little strange. Amstutz et al equate the Garden – the Paradise God has ordered for us – with the ‘international system’, and direct the mandates to take care of the Garden to the postlapsarian institution of the state, and in particular the American state, on account of its unmatched power. Leaving aside for the moment the dubious eisegesis of the God-planted Garden as metaphor for a human-constructed international order, this reading makes for a most peculiar and nationalistic anthropology which, as we have seen, not even the supposedly-nationalistic and imperial Russian Church has dared to articulate! But the directive to the man and the woman to work and to take care of the Garden is not given because they are powerful, but because they are loved in such a way that enables them to show love to other created things and to each other, in a way that mirrors, emulates and approaches their Creator. This is the true basis of the sophic logic of the Edenic economy, which is the end of our striving as human beings: as social beings, as working beings, and – yes – as subjects of states.

Instead, in spite of the Providence editors’ protestations that ‘there is no perfect political order’, when the ‘international order’ is identified with Eden and the ‘liberal order’ identified (a propos of literally nothing) as the ‘best means’ of accomplishing the ends of government, the epistle begins to take on an alarmingly triumphalist and imperialist tenor, and Amstutz et al open themselves to the very same temptations to ‘hubris and selfishness’, the ‘strategic and moral myopia’ they later decry. On what empirical grounds, I must ask, do Amstutz and his co-signers assert that our ‘passivity’ has enabled ‘actors with scant regard for the responsible use of power’ to ‘[step] into the vacuum’ we’ve ostensibly left? For that matter, the innuendo is unbecoming – to which ‘actors’, specifically, do they refer?

Remember: the basis and the ideal for earthly authority is not power, but rather truth to life and the trustworthiness of the author, whose model is the Author of Life. It is only from here that a truly Christian realism can proceed. It ought to be recognised, speaking of ‘scant regard for the responsible use of power’, that the reason Americans have withdrawn so heavily from supporting the projects of their own state abroad, even in support of the ‘liberal order’, have to do with the lack of trust they have in the American state. The American state has squandered its own citizens’ trust in military adventures waged on morally- and practically-dubious grounds, beginning with the dismantling of the Yugoslav state and the reckless eastward expansion of NATO, continuing through the mindbogglingly wasteful and bloody crime that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and perpetuating itself today through less-publicised but equally ill-conceived projections of American power in Libya, Syria and the Ukraine. As a result, not only thousands of innocent people have perished and hundreds of thousands if not millions more find themselves homeless and displaced, but also we, the American people, have failed to secure any of the benefits to our own safety or prestige as a nation we were told these international projects would bring us. None of these sins are the primary responsibility or the fault of the shadowy, unspecified outside ‘actors’ which Amstutz et al darkly hint are the cause of the world’s problems.

Sadly, this Providence epistle, proceeding as it does from a faulty anthropology of the state coupled with an extreme, blood-curdlingly nationalistic reading of Genesis, does not and cannot offer a morally-sound or even realistic prescription for introspection and reflection on the proper role of the United States on the world stage. Ironically, even as they lay claim to ‘deep sense of responsibility to see such power used well and caution because of how such immensity of power can be misused’, Amstutz et al display, in consigning any serious and profound conversation on the hard limits of American power to the outer darkness of ‘reactive populism’ and ‘withdrawal’, a thoroughgoing lack of both responsibility and caution.

Christian realism has to be shaped, first and foremost, in the full knowledge and awareness of the fallen nature of man, and in the understanding that the state itself (and not only individual human beings, or our society) is always already conditioned by the limitations of sin. It is not for nothing that such astute and subtle Christian ethicists as Vladimir Solovyov (who was certainly no pacifist and no anarchist) have explicitly said that it is not the state’s primary job ‘to transform the world which lies in evil into the kingdom of God, but only to prevent it from changing too soon into hell’. He understood how, all too easily, the desire to do the former ends up resulting in the latter. May God have mercy on us.

19 September 2016

Left-realism, with qualifications

I do like what I see. Oh, yes, indeed.

My own Tory-populist, fiat-monetary sentiments, though they draw on older heterodox economic theorists like John Ruskin and Edward Kellogg, do happen to overlap quite nicely with post-Keynesianism and modern monetary theory. And of course they render me hostile to goldbuggery, usury, opaque top-down semi- or fully-privatised financial systems, neoliberalism, libertarianism, deindustrialisation, ideological free-trade absolutism and the whole bit. Immigration is neither something to be mindlessly supported nor implacably opposed, but rather carefully regulated in correspondence with economic and cultural conditions. Political-correctness culture on college campuses is a real problem, though it is symptomatic of a broader set of problems in our approach to education. Islam is something to be approached realistically, and in full view of its theological flaws. Foreign adventurism of the idealistic and militaristic variety generally hurts more than it helps. The idea that police practices should be subject to a certain level of scrutiny ought to be upheld alongside the idea that the police and the state have rightful powers and responsibilities which should be respected. All of these ideas put forward by the realist left hold very strong appeal for me.

That said, though, given certain intellectual, religious and cultural commitments, I have a couple of reservations.

I am neither opposed to the idea nor to the defence of Western culture. But it ought to be recognised that the roots of that culture do stem, in part, from non-Western sources. I think much of the malaise that has gripped modern education is the result of making it about power (per Machiavelli, among others) rather than about objective truth (something with which the Iranians were and remain highly concerned). As a result, even as an Anglophile Tory, I often feel a greater kinship with Iranian, Russian and Chinese cultural priorities than with modern American ones.

Still, a very promising direction for political engagement. Long live the realist left!

15 September 2016

Antonín the Agrarian: the strange tale of an authoritarian-democratic visionary pragmatist


Cross-posted from Christian Democracy Magazine:

I recently had the pleasure of reading through Forging Political Compromise, a monograph written by Dr Daniel Miller, formerly of the University of Pittsburgh, on the subject of interwar Czechoslovak democracy and how its fragile success ultimately depended on the long rule of peasant statesman Antonín Švehla. It’s a book which oughtn’t to sit comfortably with a great many commentators on European history, though it provides a number of broad insights from what is essentially a scholarly sketch of a person (Švehla) and his political movement (the Czechoslovak Agrarians – later the Republican Party of Farmers and Peasants).

It is a scholarly sketch, but it is an incredibly evocative one. The Antonín Švehla that Dr Miller portrays is a man of numerous contradictions, yet a dynamic and capable man who is able to hold sway over an entire country’s destiny due in no small part to those very same contradictions. Early in his political career he was an active participant in the rural beet growers’ union movement, and agitated on behalf of rural workers and peasants involved in that trade, who at the time were being cheated out of a fair price on their produce by beet sugar processing companies. He readily and with great energy went out to give stump speeches to protesting workers. He travelled easily between town and country, for he himself had taken on his patrimony of a significant estate in the suburban reaches. But once ensconced in government, first of the Habsburg Monarchy and then of the new Czechoslovak Republic, he was quite content to stay well out of the public eye, and to deal behind the scenes. He was, as Miller describes him, ‘an artist in the politics of inclusion through rimpasto, combinazione and transformismo’, and through ‘skilful manipulation of personal friendships, careful construction of deals and clever staffing of ministries’. The Pětka, or the ‘(Committee of) Five’, an unelected, extra-parliamentary body made up of five party leaders which ran much of the political process out of the public eye, was Švehla’s brainchild, and Švehla, occupying a position both between and apart from the socialists and the capitalists, was more often than not the key member. The irony was that the Pětka was made up and functioned explicitly to preserve the norms of trust needed for Czechoslovak democracy to function, but itself was an inherently anti-democratic body.

Švehla had a firm belief in democratic principles and popular self-determination, as he made clear in several of his speeches. He had an activist, populist ‘faith in the masses and their ability to select capable leaders’ which had grown out of his work in the rural producers’ unions. But that belief did not extend fully to democratic processes. With good reason, he thought of parliaments and elections as messy, chaotic and potentially violent beasts that needed a firm, outside taming hand if they were to serve the public good. Miller notes the ‘carrot-and-stick approach’ Švehla took to the parliament between 1925 and 1927, when he was facing massive roadblocks over budget proposals. Even within his own Republican Party, he faced backbench revolts from the conservative wing, made up of large-scale landowners and agricultural businessmen, which he was usually able to thwart through a mixture of political manoeuvre, pressure from the grassroots, deal-sweetening and – occasionally, as in the case of Karel Prášek – more iron-fisted forms of party discipline. From the left, the democratic socialists accused Švehla and his agrarian allies of ‘speak[ing] beautifully about Western democracy’ but being ‘closer in their hearts and souls to the politics of the Balkans’.

In truth, he was never as pro-Russia as his conservative colleague Karel Kramář was, and he detested Bolshevism. However, it was still a distinction of Švehla’s foreign policy that he and his party markedly preferred working with other populist, peasant-governed Slavic and Eastern European states: especially Bulgaria, Poland and Yugoslavia. This was in marked contradistinction to the westernisers Masaryk and Beneš, who preferred working with industrial powers like France, Britain and Germany. Though he had, as Miller notes, a strong and well-earned reputation as a pragmatic deal-breaker and a compromiser, who preferred to get his way by talking around an issue tirelessly one-on-one or in small groups, there was a certain steel both in his management of his own party and in his management of the country as Prime Minister. Given the hindsight of interwar Czechoslovakia’s success and stability, it’s clear that Švehla handled things in an understandable and moderate way, but if he lived today, no doubt among the Atlanticist powers he would carry the authoritarian reputation, perhaps not of a Lukašenka, but certainly of a Yanukovych, a Fico or an Orbán.

But Švehla was no opportunist or corrupt politico. His writings and speeches carry evidence of strongly-held ideals and values, to the point where I’m tempted to judge Miller’s often-deployed epithet of ‘moderate’ as somewhat misleading, however well-intentioned. As an ideologist, he contributed to agrarian thought the ‘law of the land’; that ultimately the ones who control the food supply control the destiny of the nation, and that the ‘nation is created from its land’. In common with other agrarian leaders, Švehla was markedly hostile to the individualist tendencies of Western political liberalism, and admirably took up the defence of the family, the credit union and the agrarian cooperative. He constantly stood up for small farmers against exploitative industries, urban businesses and banks. The Republican Party, in cooperation with the socialist parties, managed to push through a land reform bill which returned massive amounts of formerly-consolidated land into the hands of the families who worked it. Though their leadership was heavily Czech from the start, the political programme which Švehla’s Republicans forged in 1922 eschewed ‘rough nationalism’ in favour of Czechoslovak unity, and embraced the Slovaks and especially the much-beleaguered Carpathian Rusyns – who were in fact more heavily agrarian, poorer, more vulnerable to capitalist predation and more dependent on smallholder agriculture than the Czechs were. Such passages show an unshakeable trust in the workings of nature and of the farmer’s ties to it, even to the familiar Catholic social ideals of subsidiarity, independent property and distributive justice – even though as a nominal Catholic, Švehla was never particularly devout.

Though he led a ‘big-tent’ party bankrolled to a significant extent by large landowners and agrarian industrialists, Švehla’s instincts were in a distinctly leftward direction, and he was always more comfortable working with socialists than with Kramář’s National Democrats, to the point where at one time he became known as the ‘red agrarian’ – and he eagerly entered his party into coalition with the socialists on a cooperative basis: ‘you have the coal; we have the bread’. Still, his interests were first in the well-being of the rural poor. It is notable that he broke with the socialist parties and entered into the non-socialist centre-right ‘Gentlemen’s Coalition’ over the issue of tariffs: the socialists, in common with the urban élites and business owners, wanted low tariffs on imported grain, to ensure lower food prices for Czechoslovakia’s urban workers. Even the left wing of the Republican Party found this insupportable, though: the people who would be hurt by the socialist embrace of free trade in grain were precisely the rural smallholders and landless agricultural labourers, whose crop would no longer bring a fair price. The budget problem was eventually solved in the Pětka, but it would leave a lasting bitterness between the rural left (represented by the agrarians) and the urban left (represented by the socialists).

Unfortunately, politics took its toll also on Švehla’s health. He was often bedridden through the late 1920’s, and Masaryk, out of concern for his friend and colleague, would take care not to visit him so that he wouldn’t feel the need to talk and get agitated about current affairs. Unlike his fellow agrarian statesmen Stamboliyski and Madgearu, he wasn’t murdered by far-rightists; instead he succumbed to complications from influenza in the fall of 1933. But the movement he led was similarly tragic in its downfall, for the reason that it had no great organisers or compromisers like Švehla to take his place, to mediate intra-party disputes, or to hammer out deals with other parties. The social democrats never forgot the tariff dispute or their exclusion from Švehla’s last government, and when the communists took power after World War II, the democratic socialists were among the first to agitate for outlawing agrarian party politics.

Which is a shame. Miller argues that Švehla was primarily responsible for guiding the infant Czechoslovak state through a particularly trying period of modern history when all the states around it succumbed to various totalitarian ideologies, and that is true. But more importantly, he represents a political option which, having been rediscovered in some places of Eastern and Central Europe, now very much needs to be rearticulated and attuned to the problems of advanced globalism. Švehla represents a tendency which combines respect for private property and real democratic values with a cooperativist imperative to protect the poor and most vulnerable from the cultural and economic ravages of laissez-faire and atomisation.

14 September 2016

Alt-erior motives

In recent weeks, particularly due to the election season, we’ve seen a growing attention to a certain, primarily online political presence, called the ‘alt-right’. These netizens have been gaining influence for quite some time, and not least because of the attention being paid to them now by the political candidates running for president. It seems somewhat relevant now to pay them a bit of heed, given their growing prominence.

Here’s the thing: I follow a handful of the ‘alt-right’ websites with some significant interest: in particular, The Unz Review (I was personally acquainted with one of the contributors when I worked as an English teacher in Luoyang) and Social Matter. Generally these sites are thoughtful, interesting and entertaining, even when they happen to be wrong – even spectacularly wrong. And there are certain things on which the alt-right and I find fairly significant agreement, at least in negative terms. I share with the alt-right a deep hostility to imperialism and wars waged in the far abroad for idealistic and ‘democratic’ reasons. In fact, I share with the alt-right a profound distrust of parliamentarian proceduralism itself (or at least, the ideological faith so many mainstream liberals put in it). Like the alt-rightists, I view globalism as doing as much harm as good to genuine human communities based on geography and tradition. Also like the alt-rightists, I don’t view immigration and ‘free trade’ as necessary, positive goods. And finally, the alt-rightists and I agree that culture, broadly stated, is ultimately more important than economics.

But, high among my political commitments, I am a realist. Realists recognise core interests as needful in any alliance. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from the past decade-and-a-half of political engagement, it’s that core interests need to be determined before committing to any kind of shared action. Otherwise, as our government has ably shown, in our pursuit of projecting our model of governance abroad and remaking the world in our image, we will ally ourselves with Islamic jihadists in Syria one day, and FEMEN in Poland the next; or we will ally ourselves with out-and-out fascists in the Ukraine and simultaneously with sycophantic native-informant neocon ‘activists’ like China’s Liu Xiaobo or Russia’s Garry Kasparov. Core interests presume at least a partial positive shared understanding of the common good; and if that shared understanding doesn’t exist, ultimately an alliance will lead to strategic errors and conflicts of interest, ultimately bringing more harm than good. So the question with regard to the alt-rightists is: what the hell are you for?

That question, it turns out, is somewhat difficult to answer. The online alt-right presence is expressed largely through memes and macros, and their expression is usually aimed not at anything substantive, but with an eye specifically to offending those they imagine are easily-offended. They are the equivalents of Marilyn Manson, Tucker Max and Howard Stern – which should give you some idea that they are ‘pop-cultural’ in orientation rather than either ‘high-cultural’ or ‘folk-cultural’. It becomes necessary, then, to look at the lacunae they leave; the residue of intellectual assumptions behind the memes. What is left on the alt-right at the end of the day, is a rancid mixture of free-speech absolutism, postmodernism and white identity politics – none of which I find particularly appealing on their own merits.

The free-speech absolutism of the alt-right, in fact, is one of the reasons I’ve taken to looking at tribal values on their own merits. The Teutonic tribes of yore, even as they were not yet fully Christianised, understood that speech had power, and as such they had the good sense to regulate it, albeit informally. It is no accident, and should come as no surprise to the students of ‘human biodiversity’, that the American cultures and subcultures which descend directly from northern European immigrants (Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish settlers who came to the Upper Midwest and Plains states, for example; or the northern English colonial, and later Russian and Polish, settlement in Pennsylvania) tend to be so ‘nice’ – and it has nothing at all to do with any ideological commitment to ‘political correctness’. It has much more to do with the fact that, historically, armed societies have been polite societies, and if you said something un-‘nice’ to another warrior or his kin in a tribal society, you ran the risk of sparking off a deadly blood-feud. It is actually only in the context of an overly-feminised, atomised, homogenised and deracinated culture that the sort of Internet-based incivility and free-speech absolutism which the alt-right represent stand a chance of becoming socially-acceptable.

The postmodernism and the identity politics on the alt-right, on the other hand, are all too common, and as clear as day to those with the wit to see them. When reading alt-right screeds on Breitbart or on Taki, it is fairly obvious that they have studied long and hard at the feet of the Frankfurters and the Poststructuralists, and are eager to join battle with their teachers using the selfsame weapons. They lament their victim status with all the eagerness and crocodile tears of a teenage Tumblrista; the only difference is that they take offence on behalf of a slighted white identity. As Tom Slater puts it, ‘they may take up arms against weepy identitarians, but they share the same, deadening sense of victimhood – just with another set of dreamt-up grievances attached’.

The postmodernism doesn’t stop there, though. Still creepier to my mind, drawn as I am to certain traditional values, is this interest I see on the alt-right for transhumanist fantasies and schemes to break and remake both human society and the human subject, in ways which would have utterly appalled the Old Right (who in general had a meet and proper appreciation for the small vices, the hypocrisies and especially the habitual inertia of the everyday, common man). Read that passage in Yiannopoulos’s piece linked in my first paragraph describing Eliezer Yudkowsky’s scheme for stripping away social inhibitions for the purpose of getting human beings to think like machines, and see if that doesn’t chill the blood. It’s the stuff of Dickian and Gibsonian nightmares, CS Lewis’s NICE writ large. It is, in point of fact, the one aspect of the alt-right which is with true justification linked to fascism. I can, of course, understand why such schemes have an appeal to certain classes and subcultures, primarily haute-bourgeois Silicon Valley desk jockeys and start-up investors. It is a truism that a class which has managed to convince itself of its own superior intellect will come to see itself as the rightful ruling class. But God save us all from any government run by such ‘experts’.

On the other hand, there are two versions of the alt-left that I have seen forming. One of them, sadly, joins the alt-right’s pathetic postmodernism and white identity politics to sexual hedonism and transhumanism. The result bears an uncanny resemblance to Eduard Limonov’s National-Bolshevik street theatrics: the worst attributes of the lifestyle-left combined with the worst of the alt right; a poseur’s version of being rebellious and ‘transgressive’ through breaking race and sex taboos alike, and offering the very worst dregs of 19th-century futurist thought in their place. The other version, though, the banner of which has been taken up by the blog of ‘Lord Keynes’, is far more sensible, to say the least! It explicitly rejects the postmodernist and identitarian direction of the alt-right as well as the ‘regressive [SJW] left’, but it retains the realist, anti-imperialist, anti-globalist, post-liberal and modernity-sceptical (that is to say, High Tory-derived) aspects of alt-rightdom that I’m inclined to respect in the first place. I’d very much like to see more of the ‘alts’ drawn into this ambit.

At the end of the day, what we need is not an ‘alt-right’ given to the weaknesses of late-19th and early-20th-century radicals, and guided by postmodernist and transhumanist delusions. What we need instead, if you will forgive me the anachronistic English wordplay, is an ‘eld-right’ driven by the modestly-cosmopolitan, virtue-ethical and realist suppositions posited by the High Tories and those who followed in their footsteps.

12 September 2016

Just society and smallholder competencies

I recently read, on the recommendation of my Solidarity Hall colleague Grace Potts, a Washington Post op-ed which piqued my interest somewhat. It is written by a Latin Christian woman of thirty-two years, on the subject of chastity – and she approaches the topic in a way which celebrates the liberating potential of personal virtue, in a serious and honest way (that is to say, without being sentimental or sanctimonious). In several ways, I very much appreciate this. It’s a relief from both extremes of the sort of egocentric hedonist ‘radicalism’ which treats sexual pleasure and its pursuit as the sine qua non of liberation, and also from the stultifying, creepy Puritan sublimation and inversion of sexual desire into its rigid control and regimentation (of the sort which finds its expression in chastity rings and father-daughter balls).

And yet there’s something more than a bit uncomfortable about this piece. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m coming from the other side of the spectrum: a young father who had two kids by the age of 28, and whose collegiate life was (to my regret) not particularly chaste. My girlfriend (now wife) and I had a child before most of my extended family considered it wise or prudent, from an economic point of view – and I most certainly do not regret that decision, even though it came at a certain cost to me. So it’s slightly strange to see chastity being justified on the basis that it can fulfil a ‘feminist dream’, which in the author’s view is apparently synonymous with the lifestyle options of the urban haute-bourgeois: ‘good friends, a great family, hobbies… one of the best jobs I’ve ever had… learning how to scull on the Potomac River’. Is that really how we want to craft the case for chastity – or, for that matter, for any of the other smallholder competencies (patience, thrift, modesty, industry…)?

The smallholder competencies rely on certain smallholder assumptions about the way life works. The smallholder virtues are to a very significant extent based on the acknowledgement that we have control only over our own behaviour and its consequences within a limited social and environmental range. Chastity is valuable – and here Miss Bryan has it right – because pregnancies happen, because sexually-transmitted diseases are a real danger, and because sex is associated with emotional bonds that are not to be taken lightly. Chastity is valuable because sex is a good which is fully realised only in connexion with child-bearing, child-rearing, and the mutual, sobornyi work of keeping a household. Aristotle is the best for this realisation: virtue of all sorts is needful because we human beings are not self-sufficient, we are not powerful, we are neither gods nor beasts, and we must rely on each other when times inevitably get tough. It’s a demand of social justice in such a world, in other words, that we comport ourselves virtuously, so that we are able to look after each other when an unforetold disaster strikes.

But once we enter onto the grand arena where mastery of man and nature becomes the goal, the need for the smallholder competencies vanishes from the horizon. Hence, the existence and predominance of the very egocentric hedonist ‘radicalism’ Miss Bryan is critiquing here. Why bother striving to be virtuous when we have pills and ‘medical procedures’ for that? Also, when disaster strikes a prole who doesn’t have the means and expertise to overcome it herself, she should expect only the ‘help’ her enlightened technological masters will offer – which will, of course, be in the forms of pills and ‘medical procedures’. Whereas the smallholder competencies have a virtuous (pun intended) levelling effect, placing them at the service of consequentialist, haute-bourgeois expectations corrodes the basis for the virtues themselves, and sorts society into ‘experts’ and proletarians – masters and slaves. We run the risk not only of cheapening, but actually destroying, the real case for the smallholder competencies when we make them a mere means, a method of striving, for the end of ‘making it’ into the world of the mastery-driven and success-justified world of the haute-bourgeois. In fact, this is one of the major points Christopher Lasch, informed by a radical reading of Aristotle (along with Marx and Freud), drives home time after time after time.

It’s also somewhat telling that the author herself equates ‘virtue’ with ‘lifestyle’ at certain points. That’s not wrong, of course – the way in which you live and the habits which you build are the basis for virtue. And she redeems herself immensely by her comparison of building virtue with taking up a sport and practising it. But by this point in history, ‘lifestyle’ connotes something akin to consumer choice, and has almost more to do with self-presentation as self-edification. I think Miss Bryan recognises this, because she seeks to address it with Pope John Paul II’s exhortation to love others perfectly. Still, absent that reflection, it’s all too easy for self-development to turn into a kind of narcissism, a spiritual dead-end – the equivalent of taking the talent and burying it in the ground.

Clearly Miss Bryan cares about chastity for its own sake, as a good Catholic and follower of Pope John Paul II, and not only because it allows her to go sculling, make friends, make a lot of money and so on. For that reason, I kind of wish she would go further with this op-ed. I rather wish she would question the need for the sort of ‘liberation’ which takes the form of striving for individualistic self-fulfilment, and instead place the smallholder competencies within the framework of, say, the Catholic social doctrines.

10 September 2016

Red Henan: ironies of latter-day Maoism


In the wake of the 40th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the kinds of left-wing sentiment that seem to be growing in China, and in particular in my adoptive home-province of Henan. (Full disclosure: I’m very much a Henan nüxu 河南女婿, with everything that that entails.) But this is something that has long held my attention: from the street protests backing OWS in Luoyang and Zhengzhou to the torn-down towering totem in Tongxu, Henan seems long to have been a hotbed of popular support for the Chinese Left, particularly in the wake of ‘reform and opening up’. This is not, or should not be, hard to understand. Henan, along with other rural provinces like Anhui and Guizhou, was overlooked for the new commercial developments that brought astounding new wealth to the coastal cities, even as newly semi-privatised farmland was being expropriated at staggering rates, sending a deluge of mingong 民工 migrant workers into the glittering coastal-urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – where they were at once both gleefully exploited and discriminated against by the urban denizens. In addition, the province of Henan – since antiquity the breadbasket and civilisational core of China – became saddled down, through a series of high-profile scandals, with the monstrously-unjust stigma of being a poverty- and disease-ridden criminal backwater.

Little wonder, then, that so many of the inhabitants of the Zhongyuan would look back with nostalgia on what they consider to be simpler, more egalitarian, less self-centred times – and that nostalgia clearly has enough currency to translate into a potent political force.

There is something of an irony in this nostalgia, though: an irony which is best illustrated in this story of two deceased officials from Henan: Zhang Qinli and Jiao Yulu, and the battle that still rages over their memory. Zhang Qinli was among the first victims of Deng Xiaoping’s party purges in the wake of the ‘Gang of Four’ trials. He was stripped of his Party membership and imprisoned for 12 years; he thus still stands condemned in Chinese officialdom. However, he remains incredibly popular in his Henan hometown to this day, 12 years after his death, as something of a ‘red saint’. He is remembered for having had the misfortune of backing the ‘wrong side’ and thus being a victim of high-ranking injustice. And he has the additional cachet of having been a fairly scrupulous, earnest, industrious and clean-living official who stands in marked contrast to the sort of corruption which exists in the modern China of more nakedly materialist and consumerist pursuits.

This is a nostalgia which appears to be growing and popular among local Party cadres and even local élites. But, for obvious reasons, it remains an uncomfortable subject for higher-ranking officials of the sort who live in Beijing and Shanghai. It is made all the more uncomfortable because Zhang Qinli’s close associate in Henan Province, the Communist Party Secretary Jiao Yulu, together with whom he tackled the problems of postwar economic underdevelopment, agricultural problems and infrastructure degradation, is still remembered in high official circles as a ‘Revolutionary Martyr’, who has been praised publicly by President Xi Jinping. In fact, after Jiao’s death, Zhang Qinli was responsible primarily for continuing his work improving the living conditions among Henan’s peasantry. The difference between Jiao and Zhang, it is to be remembered, is that Jiao’s early death spared him the ignominy of being associated with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For local residents of Henan, though, the double standard could not possibly be more glaring.

It is to be remembered that the local Maoist nostalgia that surrounds figures like Zhang Qinli is a loyal nostalgia – loyal, that is, to the ideals which they ascribe (rightly or wrongly) to the founding of the communist Chinese state – but this is a loyalty which Chinese Communist officials, sensitive as they are particularly to internal critics and reformers, seem very willing to do without.

The contours of this Maoist-looking nostalgia are both ironic and tragic. Ironic in that the very system that produced such idealists as Zhang and Jiao, a system which was premised on the need for equality, ended up, under Deng Xiaoping, treating the two monstrously unequally: elevating one as a hero, and imprisoning and dishonouring the other. In one sense, this is not surprising, since revolutions and Thermidorian reactions both have a tendency to eat their own children. On the other hand, though, there is a certain tragedy in it: there is something highly admirable – and not at all wholly-born of the Revolution he was associated with – in the kind of selflessness and love for his countrymen that Zhang is still remembered for in Henan.

(As I have said before multiple times now, I have strong reservations about Mao. Though he is to be credited for some great achievements and improvements in China, what his Cultural Revolution did to good men, good thinkers and good doers like Fei Xiaotong, among many thousands of others, is to my mind simply unforgiveable. And yet the irony shouldn’t be lost that Fei Xiaotong, the tribune of the Chinese peasantry, ill-deserves his ‘rightist’ reputation as much as Zhang Qinli ill-deserves his ‘anti-Party’ one. His care for the peasantry, his communitarian sociology and his economic advice through the 1980’s – for improving peasant life whilst keeping them on their land and retaining some sustainable forms of communal and collective ownership, such as the ‘township and village enterprises’ – all serve to place his work and his memory firmly on the same side as the leftists who are now evoking the image of Mao in their protests. Indeed, no less prominent a Chinese New Left economist than Cui Zhiyuan makes explicit his intellectual debts to Fei Xiaotong! Though the two of them fell victim to the politics of the Cultural Revolution in opposite ways and at different times, Fei Xiaotong is in some ways as much a wrongful victim of political misrepresentation as Zhang Qinli.)

It’s something of a tragedy in itself, that the domestic critics of China’s oppressive and unbalanced economic direction have so few iconic figures other than Mao to draw on. But if you look at the substance of the left’s wishes rather than the style in which they are presented – an end to corruption, an end to regional discrimination, an end to illegal expropriations of land, fair treatment of the poor, a turn away from consumer-capitalist materialism back toward more ‘traditional’ ideals and spirituality – it becomes clear that what they’re really asking for beneath those red banners is a return to something still deeper, older and more meaningful than the Marxist doctrines they represent.

09 September 2016

Sacrilege


There’s no other word for it. That’s precisely the word that deserves to be used for what Dakota Access has done.

It is bad enough indeed that the living Indian-rights protesters of Dakota Access have been attacked with dogs (a treatment which apparently hasn’t gone out of fashion since the 1960’s). But the deliberate bulldozing of an area where the dead of the Sioux nation are buried is a direct outrage against tradition, a mortal insult to the memories of the dead, and, from a personalist point of view, an assault on human dignity itself. For we Orthodox Christians and Latin Christians especially, who treat the bodies of the dead with utmost respect and who recognise only the commitment of the dead to the earth as befitting the image of God in which people were fashioned, this act of disturbing earth which has been hallowed by the presence of the buried Sioux ought to be considered all the more dire. In addition, the fact that Dakota Access conscripted its bulldozer operators to commit this ghoulish act of desecration on Labour Day weekend is a gross and deliberate affront to the dignity and the consciences of working men and women. This is not a radical-left concern only; this is a traditionalist concern, as the slogan ‘defend the sacred’ bears witness. When the graves of the dead cannot be held as sacred and worthy of our respect and honour, then nothing can be.

That Dakota Access would do this out of ordinary, simple greed and out of utilitarian concerns is bad enough. But the fact that the company went out of its way, on a nationally-honoured day of rest, to destroy sites sacred to the Sioux who are protesting against them, speaks to a far more demonic influence behind these events – the same manner of demonic influence which has led Daesh to destroy Christian communities and sites sacred to the Christians of the Holy Land. And it is happening now. In the next state over.

Pray for the Standing Rock Sioux. Stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Dakota Access’s barbarities will not go unmarked in the hereafter, and they should not go unmarked now.

06 September 2016

Remembering Righteous Father Maksim (Sandovich), New Hieromartyr of Gorlice


Father and Priest-Martyr Maksim of Gorlice

In the wake of Labour Day – an occasion on which I called some much-deserved attention to the Carpathian Rusyns who fought in the IWW and in the UMWA for the dignity of workers in their newfound homeland – it seems only too meet that the Orthodox Church (on the new calendar) should commemorate the glorification of a hard-working priest and martyr of that long-suffering people-without-a-state: Father Maksim Sandovich.

Maksim was born to Timko and Kristína Sandovich in the village of Zhdynya in the Carpathian Mountains (now in Poland, but then part of the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria-Hungary). Though Timko and his wife were farmers, they noticed that Maksim from a very early age had an aptitude for scholarship, and a sincere love of the Church and its prayers. Timko thus sent Maksim to be educated at a normal school in Gorlice, where he enrolled in Russian coursework – learning the Russian language, history, culture, and the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Though his parents were fairly well-to-do, the effort to put him through school strained their resources, and Maksim transferred to a monastic school in Kraków out of respect for his parents, not wishing to burden them. This was not, however, to his liking, and he soon left for Russia to enter a novitiate at the Lavra of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos in Pochaev. The abbot at the Pochaev Lavra introduced the young Maksim to Metropolitan Antoniy (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia, who oversaw the promising pupil’s education in the faith, and entered him into the seminary at Zhitomir.

He graduated from the seminary and was entreated by the villagers in his hometown to seek ordination and serve them as a priest. This he did; he was married to a Belarusian woman named Pelageya, and thereafter was ordained in Saint Petersburg in 1911. His sponsor, the good Metropolitan Antony, was aware of the growing persecutions of the Orthodox faithful in German-speaking countries, and told him that he would be welcome as a parish priest in Russia, but Father Maksim insisted on returning to his hometown and serving his own people, the Rusyns of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Travelling back to Zhdynya from Zhitomir, he was not received kindly by the Poles who lived in the area. Seeing him in the long beard and cassock of the Orthodox clergy, they mocked him and said amongst themselves, ‘Look – Saint Nicholas has come to the Carpathians!’ His early priesthood would meet with many difficulties and trials: the German authorities refused to allow him to serve the Liturgy, and shut down the residence where he celebrated the Mysteries with his fellow Rusyns. He moved to another house, but the Uniate priest nearby complained about the candle smoke, and the Germans arrested all the Rusyns they could find who were holding candles, imprisoned them, and fined Father Maksim 400 crowns after a month’s confinement – but even then he did not give up serving the Liturgy or preaching among the Rusyns.

The Austrians and the Uniates persecuted the Orthodox Rusyns mercilessly, expropriating their cattle or throwing them into debtors’ prison when they could not pay. The Uniate priest Kiselevsky even hindered the burial of an elderly Orthodox woman who had died by having her grave filled in secretly at night before she could be interred, and then when the interment occurred, Kiselevsky and his Uniates disrespected the body by refusing to remove their caps, and blocked the Orthodox from entering the cemetery with the help of the German police. Still further persecutions continued. In the face of charges that he was a Russian spy, Father Maksim proclaimed simply, ‘My only politics is the Gospel’ – and for this answer he was imprisoned for nearly two months.

In the meantime, his mission in the Carpathians attracted more and more men and women from the countryside. It is to be remembered that the Unia was something imposed on the people from above, by city-based Jesuits and the Polish merchant class; in the countryside, many of the Rusyns still maintained the Orthodox way even if they had to do so in secret. Among them, word of Father Maksim spread rapidly. So many parishioners filled his little chapel that he soon ran out of candles, and he and his wife had to make a special trip to L’vov to buy more candles and other supplies for the chapel, and to visit his old seminary-school friend Father Ignatius (Gudima). The Habsburg authorities planned to trap him on this trip: both Father Maksim and Father Ignatius were arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage for the Russians. They were held in captivity for two years, while the Habsburg state built up its case against them with all manner of false witnesses and fabricated evidence. A panel of judges assembled to hear the capital case in 1914 failed to find proof of the two Orthodox priests’ espionage, and true witnesses were produced who attested to their innocence.

Father Maksim was released once more, but for all of six weeks. The First World War had erupted between Austria-Hungary and Russia, and immediately following the declaration of war the Austrian gendarmes began making mass arrests of suspected Russian sympathisers, with the help of Ukrainian informants. Father Maksim was one of the first people accused. On 4 August, the Germans arrested Father Maksim, his father Timko, and his pregnant wife Pelageya in their home, marched them to Gorlice and threw them into prison.

On 6 August, the Warden Kalchinsky and Captain Dietrich of Linz, along with four gendarmes and two Austrian militiamen, came for Father Maksim. They blindfolded him and bound his wrists, in spite of the saintly Father’s gentle protestations that they were not needful, and that he would go with them wherever they wished. The gendarmes paraded him before the crowd, but Father Maksim went with Christlike meekness to his end, praying to God. Captain Dietrich marked his cassock with chalk, then gave the signal. As he was shot, Father Maksim cried out: ‘Long live the Orthodox Rus’!’ But even though he had been mortally wounded, the martyred priest remained standing. Dietrich, panicking, drew a revolver and fired it three times into Father Maksim’s head, and then shoved him so that he would fall over. After the brutal summary execution, the gendarmes prepared a rough coffin and buried Father Maksim without any ceremony in an unmarked hole in Gorlice Cemetery. Only in 1922 would Timko Sandovich obtain permission from the new Polish government to disinter his son’s body and bury it properly in Zhdynya.

Father Saint Maksim’s memory was cherished by his fellow Rusyns, even as the war dragged on and many of them, including his pregnant widow Pelageya, suffered in the Austrian concentration camp at Talerhof. Matushka Pelageya was fortunate; she survived the horrors of Talerhof and gave birth to Saint Maksim’s son, named in his father’s honour – who would become a priest later in his life and faithfully serve a growing, spiritually-thriving Rusyn flock as his father had done. The Rusyns still venerate Father Maksim, whose tireless efforts and steadfast endurance of persecution even to his death, mirroring the passions of Christ Our God, have continued to give them strength even in the most trying circumstances.

By the Providence of God you were sent to the Mountain of Pochaev
For the knowledge of the truth of the Orthodox faith,
And receiving true teaching in the city of Zhitomir,
As a soldier of Christ you came to our land.
For Orthodoxy and your own people you accepted a martyr's crown.
Therefore you confirmed your native land in Orthodoxy.
O Priest-Martyr Maksim, entreat Christ God that our souls may be saved!

05 September 2016

Worthy of his hire


A photograph of early Pennsylvanian Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants,
many of whom were heavily involved in 19th-century labour disputes
From a Christian perspective, labour in itself is not an absolute value. It is blessed when it represents co-working with the Lord and contribution to the realisation of His design for the world and man. However, labour is not something pleasing to God if it is intended to serve the egoistic interests of individual or human communities and to meet the sinful needs of the spirit and flesh.

Holy Scriptures points to the two moral motives of labour: work to sustain oneself without being a burden for others and work to give to the needy. The apostle writes: ‘Let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth’ (Eph. 4:28). Such labour cultivates the soul and strengthens the body and enables the Christian to express his faith in God-pleasing works of charity and love of his neighbours (Mt. 5:16; James 2:17). Everyone remembers the words of St. Paul: ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat’ (2 Thes. 3:10).

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church continuously stressed the moral meaning of labour. Thus, St. Clement of Alexandria described it as ‘a school of social justice’…

A worker has the right to use the fruits of his labour: ‘Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?… He that ploweth should plow in hope; and he that threshesth in hope should be partaker of his hope’ (1 Cor. 9:7, 10). The Church teaches that refusal to pay for honest work is not only a crime against man, but also a sin before God.

Holy Scriptures says: ‘Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant… At his day thou shalt give him his hire… lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee’ (Deut. 24:14-15); ‘Woe unto him… that useth his neighbour’s services without wages, and giveth him not for his work’ (Jer. 22:13); ‘Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth’ (James 5:4).

At the same time, by God’s commandment workers are ordered to take care of those who for various reasons cannot earn their living, such as the weak, the sick, strangers (refugees), orphans and widows. The worker should share the fruits of his work with them, ‘that the Lord may bless thee in all the work of thine hands’ (Deut. 24:19-22).

Continuing on earth the service of Christ Who identified Himself with the destitute, the Church always comes out in defence of the voiceless and powerless. Therefore, she calls upon society to ensure the equitable distribution of the fruits of labour, in which the rich support the poor, the healthy the sick, the able-bodied the elderly. The spiritual welfare and survival of society are possible only if the effort to ensure life, health and minimal welfare for all citizens becomes an indisputable priority in distributing the material resources.


VI. 4 and 6, Basis of the Social Concept
of the Russian Orthodox Church
The rights of labour to the fruits of their own work, to this day, have still not been recognised or fully honoured by modern societies, and the struggle for ‘life, health and minimal welfare’ still rages for many of us. It is worthy of note that the first Labour Day celebrations in the United States and Canada came swiftly on the heels of the Pullman Strike, which ended as so many labour struggles on this continent have, with the blood of at least 30 workers being spilled brutally and callously by American federal marshals in concert with the corporations which bribed them; and the Democratic president who signed the holiday into law did so partially to quell the threat of further strikes and protests in the future, similar to what happened at Haymarket eight years before that. Even so, this holiday is one where we stand and recognise the workers who sought – not even necessarily revolution, but to satisfy the basic needs commensurate with what Holy Mother Church considers to be a dignified existence.

It is also a holiday when we must remember that the Orthodox clergy in North America were already deeply involved with the labour movement. Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow, then Bishop of the Russian Church in America, actively gave money to unionised workers to be used when they went on strike, and encouraged Orthodox Christians in San Francisco to do the same. And of course, Father Saint Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre, during his life, was also an active and ardent supporter of the labour movement, particularly among the Carpathian-Rusyn miners who made up so much of his flock. These Orthodox immigrant miners themselves were often members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and the United Mine Workers of America – the two labour organisations of the turn of the century which would allow immigrants to join their ranks.

For all those who lost their lives in the struggle for their families and for dignified treatment from the government and from their employers – may God make their memories to be eternal!

Remembering Holy Hieromartyr Athanasius the Abbot of Brest-Litovsk, Confessor and Defender of Orthodoxy in Poland and Lithuania


Igumen Saint Athanasius of Brest-Litovsk

We remember today the blessed martyr, Igumen Saint Athanasius (Filipovich) of Brest-Litovsk, the steadfast and learned monastic who together with his monastery resisted the Union of Brest, and who fell victim both to the hatred of the Jesuits and to the vagaries of Russian border politics.

Athanasius is the ecclesiastical name of this gentle monk, but we do not know his earthly name. We do know, however, that he was born around 1597 to a fairly well-to-do Belarusian family, and that he was tutored by an Orthodox parish school from a very early age, and later graduated from a Jesuit university. He kept a diary in his youth, and had a remarkable gift for languages, being knowledgeable in Greek and Latin as well as in Polish and White Russian. He made his living as a court tutor for the Polish-Lithuanian Chancellor’s family, as well as for those of several merchants of the realm. However, he found his monastic vocation in Vilnius, where in 1627 he joined the Monastery attached to the Church of the Holy Spirit, and later the Holy Ascension Monastery in Dubovsk, where he was ordained a hieromonk. This monastery was seized by the Jesuits not four years later, however, and the monks of Dubovsk were relocated to Kupiaticka.

Athanasius distinguished himself as a monk by his care for his brothers and for the poor. On one occasion as he was travelling outside the monastery he met a lame man and bore him up on his back. This lame man spoke with him about matters of faith, and Athanasius took this incident as a sign from God that his podvig would be to struggle for the Orthodox way in the Polish and Lithuanian lands.

At another time, he was tasked with finding donors to his Monastery for the task of rebuilding the Church of the Ikon of the Mother of God. He prayed before this ikon, and the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, telling him to go to the court of Mikhail Feodorovich, the Tsar of Russia, for help in building the Church; and he obeyed. The journey was long, arduous and dangerous, given the lawlessness that prevailed in that time on account of the Thirty Years’ War; but under the protection of the Mother of God, Athanasius reached Moscow in safety and was welcomed warmly by the Tsar, who proceeded to make a generous donation for the rebuilding of the church at Kupiaticka.

In 1640, Hieromonk Athanasius was elected to be the Igumen (Abbot) of the Monastery of Saint Simeon in Brest, where he would live out the rest of his life struggling on behalf of the Orthodox Christians who lived in that city, who were discriminated against by the authorities for their faith and who were constantly being harangued by the Jesuits who sought to convert them to the Unia. Moved to pity for them, he exhorted the Orthodox believers of Brest to be strong in their faith, and eventually, again guided by the Holy Theotokos, he went before the Polish sejm. Taking the icon of the Mother of God of Kupiaticka and the cross with him, he appeared in Warsaw before the Polish noblemen and king, and he spoke out loudly against the Jesuits and the Union of Brest, saying that the Mother of God had warned him of God’s displeasure that the Orthodox Christians of Brest were so persecuted.

For his daring to speak thus before the Polish king, Saint Athanasius was thrown into the dungeons and pronounced mentally ill, though in fact the good monk was simply following in the Russian tradition of yurodstvo - ‘foolishness for Christ’. On the day of Christ’s baptism, he escaped from the dungeon and went out into the cold streets of Warsaw wearing nothing but a cloak and cowl, running into the Latin churches and warning them of the punishment of God. The authorities were called, and they had him flogged and kicked, then thrown into a ditch. A Polish judge stripped him of his abbatial office and even of his status as a hieromonk, a judgement which was to be confirmed by Metropolitan Peter of Kiev. However, the Metropolitan refused to condemn the holy hieromonk, and reinstated Athanasius as the Igumen of Saint Simeon Monastery.

The persecutions of Orthodox believers in Brest resumed, however, and riots instigated by the Jesuits made it impossible for the Orthodox clergy to hold Divine Liturgy in their own churches. For a third time the Mother of God appeared to Saint Athanasius; once again he was sent to plead the case of the Orthodox believers before the Polish King; and once again he was thrown into prison: this time on a trumped-up charge that he had conspired against the Polish kingdom when on his visit to Russia to raise funds for the Church. During his second imprisonment he wrote lengthy epistles to the Polish king denouncing the Unia, reminding the king of his promise of religious tolerance in his realm, and pleading that the Orthodox believers might be permitted to worship in peace; but the most the Polish king would do was to release him to Metropolitan Peter on the understanding that he would spend the rest of his days in Kiev and never again return to Brest as a monk or a priest. The Metropolitan gladly welcomed his brother in Christ, and Athanasius stayed at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev as long as Metropolitan Peter remained alive. But he returned to Brest in 1647 upon the Metropolitan’s repose.

When the Rising of the Zaporozhian Cossacks occurred the following year, Athanasius was taken prisoner for a third and final time, and charged, without a shred of proof, with having provided material support to the Cossacks in the form of smuggling gunpowder through the Monastery (sadly a common charge against Orthodox churches by the Uniates even to this day). When no proof of materiel-smuggling was found in the search of the monastery, Athanasius was then charged with profaning the Latin Church and the Unia. When he again denounced the Unia before his interrogators, he was thrown into prison, where the Jesuits alternately threatened him with torture and cajoled him with freedom, if he would join the Uniates. The holy monk refused to renounce his faith, crying aloud, ‘Anathema to the Union!’. On 5 September 1648, the monk was taken from the castle by the Polish soldiery into the forests outside of Brest, tortured cruelly with red-hot coals, flaying and burning, and forced to watch as his grave was dug. One last time he was told to renounce the Orthodox faith, and he refused. The soldier who was ordered to carry out the execution, seeing the steadfastness of the holy martyr, knelt before him and asked Athanasius’s forgiveness, before shooting him twice in the head. This failed to kill the holy saint, however, and the soldiers threw him into the open grave. The holy hieromartyr managed to cross his arms before he landed in the grave and was buried alive.

The students at the monastery school at Saint Simeon described that night as one of terror for them; though not a cloud appeared in the sky, sounds of thunder were heard and flashes of lightning were seen. It was over eight months before the monks of Saint Simeon dared to leave the city and look for the body of their igumen, having been told by a local boy where the monk had been executed; they had to steal out in secret to dig up Saint Athanasius’s relics because the land still belonged to the Jesuits. When they dug up his body at last, his relics were shown to be free of corruption, and he was moved into the monastery and given a proper burial there.

The relics of Holy Hieromartyr Athanasius have been translated several times. The Monastery of Saint Simeon suffered a fire in 1815; the relics were found to be intact and reinterred beneath the altar when the church was rebuilt, eventually moved into the sarcophagus so the parishioners could pray over the relics. In 1893, the relics were transferred to the church named in the Hieromartyr’s honour in Grodno; and some of the relics were subsequently moved to an Orthodox convent in the bordering province of Lublin; when the nuns were relocated first to Siberia and then to Paris, the relics of Saint Athanasius went with them, before being restored to Lublin in 1996. The courage, the steadfastness in the Faith, and the love for the persecuted by which the holy monk lived his life are virtues for which all Orthodox Christians should strive; and Saint Athanasius of Brest-Litovsk remains a beloved source of inspiration for Russian and Polish Orthodox Christians alike.

Holy Hieromartyr Athanasius, Confessor of Orthodoxy, pray to God for us sinners!