December 8


Luis Rodriguez de Carvajal, "El Mozo" or "The Younger", was the nephew of Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva - "the Elder" for the purposes of this essay. The Elder was a "New Christian", which is to say a publicly converted Jew, who became an Admiral in Spain, defeated John Hawkins in a battle off Jamaica, and was appointed governor of the frontier territory of Nuevo Reino de León, in the north-eastern part of modern-day Mexico, a region which comprised one-fifth of Spain's territories in the New World, and from where he invited his relatives in "converso" Europe to join him.

But "the Elder" had no power over his own family's religious inclinations: his wife, Guiomar, continued to observe her Judaism in secret and refused to accompany him to Mexico precisely because this would be impossible there. Her sister Francesca was even more determined; she and her husband and their nine children took their secret Judaism with them to Mexico, and for nine years their secret remained undetected. "El Mozo" was sent to a Jesuit school at Medina del Campo, where he was trained as a calligrapher, and where the emphasis on scripture rendered him, by bizarre irony, extraordinarily knowledgeable in both Jewish texts and Jewish law.

Being appointed as an aide to his uncle gave him the opportunity to travel, and where he travelled he also taught other conversos and led religious services. At the same time, as Dr Ronnie Perelis describes it in his account of "El Mozo": "he began to compose an electrifying spiritual autobiography", writing "his life story in tiny, lucid script in a small leather-bound book that he kept hidden on his person throughout his travels. In these writings, he charts the guiding hand of Providence in his spiritual adventures, and his last entry tells of his planned escape to Italy."

Escape, because the secret Judaism of the Carvajals had been discovered. Alas, arrest precluded that escape, and the autobiography which was intended as his testament to God and to posterity merely provided testimony at his trial. On March 14th 1590 the Carvajals were brought to an auto-da-fé, where "reconciliation" was achieved, but only theoretically (click here for more detail). Whatever promises were made in place of burning, they were not kept, and on December 8th 1596 "El Mozo", his mother, three sisters and a number of other "Judaisers" were committed to the fire by the Inquisition for the heresy of subscribing to the original faith of Jesus Christ. 

After the 
auto-da-fé, the autobiography, along with other of Carvajal's writings, were kept for no imaginable use, and therefore ignored for three hundred years, in the Mexican National Archives, though fortunately a man named Alfonso Toro made a transcription of them in the early years of the 20th century. Fortunately because, in 1932, they disappeared, believed stolen. Eighty years later they re-appeared at an auction in London, anonymous and thought to be of little value; the collector Leonard Milberg heard about them, brought his expertise to look at them, recognised what they were, alerted the authorities, and arranged for their return to Mexico, though not before the New York Historical Society was given the opportunity to exhibit them, to the general public, but especially to the historians. Amongst that latter group the aforementioned Dr Perelis.

"The small bundle of manuscripts," Perelis recounts, "seemed to be inviting me in with their neat lines of tiny script. The first section was like meeting an old friend, or seeing the face of a longtime pen pal. I knew the lines of Carvajal's autobiography inside and out, but I had never seen them in his own hand, nor did I know about the small side notes and elegant arrangement of the heading - the dedication to the Lord of Hosts that announces the beginning of his tale - nor the way he arranged the last lines in a final triangular flourish. Those details point to the fact that it was a text he went back to, added to, and revised. It also tells me that he really thought that he was about to escape the shadow of persecution and that his story of trials and tribulations was coming to a favorable end.

"But then I encountered works I had never known about, like 'El modo que es de Rezar' ["The way it is to Pray" would be a literal translation], a guide to prayer for himself and for his fellow secret Jews in Mexico, and a list of the acts of mercy that the 'most high God performed for Joseph' - Joseph Lumbroso — Joseph the Enlightened, his literary name for himself in his book "Memorias", a review of the major events of his short and tumultuous life.

"Right before this list, which takes up two pages, I found a section with the ten commandments in Latin, written out in beautiful large letters with gold leaf. New questions emerged: I knew Carvajal was an expert calligrapher, but where would he have had access to the materials and knowledge of the technique to apply the gold leaf?

"There is another page towards the end with a list of Jewish holidays and their corresponding Christian dates, along with another column featuring the name of the Hebrew months and a list of transliterated Hebrew numbers from one to ten - a Hebrew primer for a fully Latinized Converso Jew? What follows is even harder to understand - some psalms in Latin and some prayers in Portuguese, along with some deeply cryptic lists that seem to be mystical codes waiting to be deciphered."

In Mexico today, when Luis de Carvajal "the Younger" is remembered at all, it is not for his Judaising, nor for his uncle's achievements, but for that autobiography, those letters, and for his last will, all of them now regarded as amongst the finest bellas lettras in that country's history. Some of them were published by the University of Miami Press in 1967, under the title "The Enlightened", translated by Seymour B. Liebman from the Alfonso Toro transcripts; they had been made public through the Publicaciones del Archivo General de la Nación, v. 28, after the disappearance of the originals, in 1935 - but these alas amount to a mere 157 pages, a fraction of his total output. The Milberg papers can be seen in digital form on the website of Princeton University, but the rest of Carvajal's literary remains are only available in the inventory of banned and lost books in the Invisible Library, for which this blog-entry provides another chapter.

I have no evidence to prove it, but such evidence as does exist suggests that this was the very same family Carvajal with whom, one hundred years later, Oliver Cromwell negotiated the return of Jews to England, and Guiomar Carvajal, the Elder's wife who declined to make the journey to New Spain, is likely the great-grandmother of that English immigrant. The story of Cromwell's Jews is told in my entry for September 30and a very strange but historical tale of how "The Hidden Jews of Cartagena" in Colombia enabled the return of Jews to England under Cromwell, will appear in my collection "Travels In Familiar Lands", due for publication very soon.

Amber pages

Horace - Quintus Horatius Flaccus - born today in 
65 BCE

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, born today in 1542 - though I shall probably move this to her death-date, which was on February 8th 1587, at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. An account of that death will be found in my novel "The Plausible Tragedy of Roderigo Lopes", likewise due for pubication very soon.

Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer, born today in 1865

Diego Rivera, Mexican muralist, husband of Frida Kahlo, born today in 1886

And today, but at Bodh Gaya in India rather than at his family's Kshatriya Castle in his native Nepal, while sitting underneath a fig tree, Siddhartha Gautama, the Sakyamuni Buddha, gained "perfect enlightenment", whatever that might be. Year? Unknown. Some time in the 6th century BCE.

December 16

1485, 1809

Catherine of Aragon, born today, in 1485. She died, supposedly of cancer of the heart, at precisely 2pm on January 7th 1536, at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire, and was buried in Durham Cathedral. Why there? By what connection? After her divorce she lived in Bedfordshire, then Huntingdon. Am I missing something? Am I wrong to assume that Durham was well out of the way, and that this is precisely where English History, like King Henry, prefers to keep her?

Hers is a tale worth telling from a "Captive Bride" perspective - history through the "other" lens: Esau rather than Jacob; Judas rather than Peter; the victim rather than the victor - indeed, she could serve as the hidden eponym! Why, even the portraits of her - fat, dour, plain, black-clad, nunly-Catholic in the one most history books prefer (top right); simply dour and plain, lightly black and Puritan in the other most commonly found (below, left). 

A young woman of virtue and royal birth, sold into marriage for political purposes, widowed within a year and still not seventeen, pressed into a Levirate marriage with a boy of eleven, made to wait seven years before betrothal became consummation, bereaved of four out of five children in just eight years, cuckolded, annulled, declared incestuous, and finally removed to the austerity of her religious devotion. 

Yet it is always Henry's story that is told, and somehow she comes across, not as a justifiable object of our pity, but as that black-clad, bible-bashing, barren harridan, severe and Catholic, somehow deserving of her fate. As if she personally bears the blame for all the several hundred years of Protestant-Catholic enmity. As though it were Catherine, and not Luther, Calvin, Zwingli; Catherine and not Henry, Wolsey, Cromwell. As though at any point from birth to death she had the faintest touch, even of her smallest finger let alone a hand, upon her destiny. As though Henry were Mr-Nice-Guy who never did a woman wrong, or any man either, all his fat and syphillitically monomaniacal existence.

Are you assuming, as I did at first, that the third picture (below, centre) must be a PR photo from some modern movie, with an actress playing Katherina (Katherina please, not Catherine)? No, this was the portrait they sent to young Prince Arthur, so he would recognise his beautiful Spanish princess when she arrived from Aragon in 1501 (they had been betrothed by then for twelve years, aged just three and two respectively at the time, and she now 16, he 15.)

A captive bride indeed!

Amber pages

Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer, born today in 1770 - though I much prefer the note about him on December 12

George Santayana, Spanish philosopher and author, born today in 1863

Noel Coward, playwright-composer, born today in 1899; and yes, I know he became Sir Noel Coward, but somehow that knighthood just doesn't seem to fit

V.S. Pritchett, author, born today in 1900

Margaret Mead, anthropologist, born today in 1901

Arthur Charles Clark, science fiction novelist, born today in 1917

The Boston Tea Party, comprising between 30 and 60 patriots and some 342 chests of tea, over-boiled, over-brewed and overboard, today in 1773

"American Pie" by Don McLean, said "Bye Bye" to oblivion, today in 1971

And as an additional note, and only because her tale is one of yet another "captive bride", Napoléon divorced the Empress Joséphine, today in 1809 - not that her name was Joséphine, but Napoleon was a fantasist in everything, and Joséphine was the name he had fantasised for his perfect woman, which of course she turned out not to be. 

Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, when she grew up among minor aristocracy on Martinique, and known as Marie, and sometimes as Rose, but never until His Soon To Be Imperial Majesté turned up as Josèphe let alone as Joséphine. 

The Vicomtesse de Beauharnais when he met her, sent to France aged 16 for that political marriage, which produced two children and a separation before the Vicomte became one of the victims of the 1794 "Terror" (Farewell the Bastille! Long live the Guillotine!). She went to prison for a few months, while the young Napoléon went to some of those interesting orgies that Paul Barras organised for his comrades in the take-over of France, and found her now released, and among the self-offering delights.

They married in a registry office rather than a church, which would provide 
Napoléon with an easy escape-route later on: the official who conducted the ceremony had no authority to do so, the officer who witnessed Napoléon's signature was a minor, the bride lied on her signed document that she was 29 when she was actually 33, and Napoléon provided a false address as well as over-stating his age. 

Clearly it was all about sex, and no sooner had he gone off to become Alexander the Great than she was looking for opportunities to become the Maquis de Sade's Justine. But she was also good at making important contacts that aided his career, and so he agreed, because the Pope insisted, and literally on the day before he was crowned Emperor of France, to formalise the marriage in a Roman Catholic ceremony. 

That was in 1804, and for the next five years, just like Henry VIII's good lady, she was unable to provide him with a child. When he got one of his many mistresses, the Countess Walewska, pregnant, he knew the problem lay with her, not him, and that was that. The marriage was annulled, Joséphine retired to Malmaison, just outside Paris, where she spent the rest of her ex-husband's life partying as lavishly as she could, at his expense, and cultivating roses. She died on May 29th 1814. Napoléon may be excused for not attending her funeral - he was on board ship, sailing into exile on the island of Elba at the time, and was not informed of her passing until he disembarked on May 30th

August 20


Real name Lev ben David Bronstein. Born Yanovka, Ukraine, October 26th 1879. Educated in Odessa. First arrest & transportation to Siberia, 1898 (escaped to London, 1902; spotted in Vienna, 1913 - click here). President of the St Petersburg Soviet, 1905. Commissar for Foreign Affairs, 1917. Commissar for War, 1918. Ousted from the Politburo, expelled from the Party, and exiled internally, 1927, externally 1929. Sentenced to death by Soviet Law, 1937. Assassinated in Mexico, August 20th 1940.

Trotsky, the intellectual heart of the Revolution, whose goal was not that of Lenin nor of Stalin - the replacement of the Despotism of the Czars by the Dictatorship of the Proletariat - but the liberation of all human beings from the history of vassaldom, of forced innumeracy and illiteracy, of inhabiting a world in which the tiny majority who form the ruling class take unto themselves all power and all wealth, and care nothing, less than nothing in some cases, about the values or ethics or morals or principles that would be necessary if Truth, Justice, Compassion, and ultimately Idealism itself, are to bear fruit for all of Humankind. Trotsky, who would have overthrown all dictatorships, including that of the Proletariat... but Trotsky does not need me to defend, justify or vindicate him. Among his many writings, the speech he delivered in Copenhagen, in November 1932, after Stalin had finally defeated him by deporting him, says what he felt it necessary to say. Click here to read it.

Unusual for the BBC to get these things wrong... the assassination was on the 20th, but he lingered on into the early hours of the 21st. The killer was named Jacques Mornard, an alias, like Trotsky. His real name was sometimes Ram
ón del Rio, sometimes Ramón Mercader, on his birth and death certificates Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río.

Click here for Trotsky's grandson's personal account of the assassination.

Trotsky is a shoe-in for my inventory of the overlooked and unfairly derogated great men of history, but the man I really want to write about here isn't Trotsky; rather it's one of his closest companions in the Revolution, like him a refugee in Mexico, like him an intellectual of enormous stature who simply terrified the morons who ran the Bolshevik party and who therefore had no choice, as the stupid always do when no other weapon is available to them, but to use fists and guns and sometimes torture to prove who is in charge, usually of making the world a far worse place. Violence, as we all know, is the last refuge of the ignorant.

The man in question is Victor Serge - pronounced à la Français with a soft "g" and a silent "e", though it hints at the Russian Sergei; Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (В.Л. Кибальчич) before he took the nom de guerre - a man whose life was so deeply involved in the major events of his day, and so colourful, and with such close personal knowledge of every one of the principal protagonists, that one has to hope he wrote it all down in an auto-biography; and thankfully he did, borrowing the title from the anarchist Pëtr Kropotkin's 1899 "Memoirs of A Revolutionist", but changing "revolutionist" to "revolutionary".

You can support the cause of world Capitalism by purchasing a copy at, or you can read it for free by clicking here, or here (same edition, either way). You can also take a short-cut to his life-tale here; given just how thorough that site is, I am not going to waste time telling more than the broken bones of it here. More interesting, to me anyway, because I have read his Memoir, are some of the passages I found it irresistible to highlight…

Born in Belgium in 1890, to Russian parents whose revolutionary antics had forced them to flee into exile, he was amongst those Belgians who protested the brutal colonial regime in the Congo (see my monograph on Gide on November 22), but almost alone in protesting colonialism per se, a century ahead of Edward Said or Kamel Daoudthe man who re-wrote Camus' "L’Etranger". Virtually uneducated, at least in the formal sense of attending schools, he worked as a typestetter in a French mining village, then lived among the beggars in Paris while editing an anarchist magazine and spending most of the Great War in a high security prison for refusing to testify against other anarchists. Released in 1917, it would take him two years to find a way to join the revolution in his homeland, now under his pseudonym, Victor Serge.

He spent the next seventeen years in Russia, as a member of a militia in the civil war, as the senior investigator of the archives of the Tsar's secret police, as a Comintern official with a passport to travel and spread revolution, but mostly fighting against the failures of the revolution from the inside - he supported democracy and an elected legislature, human rights and egalitarian social policies, was first appalled, then disgusted, by the despotic aspirations of the Bolsheviks, and became the man who people turned to when they heard whispers of their imminent arrest, or that of people close to them. He fought for a free press and against the secret police, fought for civil liberties and against closed trials, and when it came to the death penalty, an instance of which he witnessed in Paris, he was unequivocal:-
“When in the morning I returned to that spot on the boulevard, a huge policeman, standing on the square of fresh sand that had been thrown over the blood, was attentively treading a rose into it. A little farther off, leaning against a wall, Ferral was gently wringing his hands: ‘Society is so iniquitous!’... From this day dates the revulsion and contempt that is aroused in me by the death penalty, which replies to the crime of the primitive, the retarded, the depraved, the half-mad, or the hopeless, by nothing short of a collective crime, carried out coldly by men invested with authority, who believe that they are therefore innocent of the pathetic blood they shed, As for the endless torture of life imprisonment or of very lengthy sentences, I know of nothing more stupidly inhuman.” (page 36)

Hardly surprising then that, despite knowing everyone who mattered and being regarded by them as one of the intellectual prodigies of the revolution, he was expelled from the Communist Party in the late 1920s, and then jailed on Stalin's personal orders. In jail, he used the time to write, always in French though he spoke five languages with equal fluency, the beginning of "Memoirs of a Revolutionary", which are probably his most important book, but also novels such as "Conquered City" and "The Case of Comrade Tulayev", and a good deal of poetry, much of it now available in James Brook's translation under the title "A Blaze In A Desert".

               If we roused the peoples and made the continents quake
               If we began to make everything anew with these dirty old stones,
               these tired hands, and the meagre souls that were left us,
               it was not in order to haggle with you now,
               sad revolution, our mother, our child, our flesh,
               our decapitated dawn, our night with its stars askew...

No sooner was he released than Stalin signed papers exiling him to Orenburg in the high Urals. But within three years his admirers in the west had persuaded Stalin to deport rather than exile him, and in 1936 he was back in France, able to witness from a safe distance the Great Purge in which most of his comrades were evaporated, in which his wife Liuba Russakova was hounded into a psychiatric hospital, and his mother-in-law with her sons and their wives disappeared into the Gulag; the writings he had left behind suffered the fate that would have been his own had he remained.

What makes Serge stand out for me is his uncompromising refusal to be forced into anybody's ideological box. His principles and ideals were clear, and he insisted that there could be no lowering of the benchmark: all human beings must have the right to enough food, a home, the means to earn a living, and to live their lives in peace, alongside all their other fellow human beings, with a system of justice that itself models justice while ensuring it. Nothing less. So he attacked Stalin for the Great Purge and the millions who had died of cold and starvation in the name of overthrowing Feudalism, and the European Communists refused to publish him (though many were happy to pay for his typesetting skills for those writers they were prepared to publish), even attacked him for his perceived disloyalty to the Socialist cause. Only in Belgium, and there only in a labour organisation newspaper that few read, was he able to state and re-state his convictions, railing against those in Moscow who would appease Hitler. 

When Paris fell to the invaders, Serge left in a hurry; his books were burned, and his seat on the train to the death-camps was awaiting him. The United States refused to grant him political asylum, so he went to Mexico, where he spent the last years of his short life, writing, and single-parenting his artist son Vlady, until he died of a heart attack on November 17th 1947.

In his splendid foreword to the English translation of "Memoirs of a Revolutionary", Adam Hochschild speaks of Serge's "ability to see the world with unflinching clarity... In the Soviet Union's first decade and a half, despite arrests, ostracism, theft of his manuscripts, and not having enough to eat, he bore witness. This was rare. Although other totalitarian regimes, left and right, have had naïve, besotted admirers before and since, never has there been a tyranny praised by so many otherwise sane intellectuals." But not Serge, who yearned for its success, but refused to accept the delusion when it was so obviously failing.

That clarity, that refusal to be fooled by PR and propaganda, is everywhere in his writings. Here, for example, speaking about Zeitgeist and Quondam opinions, the absence of independent thought:

“The inconsequentiality of human testimony is astonishing. Only one in ten can record more or less clearly what they have seen with any accuracy; can observe it, and remember it - and then be able to recount it, resisting the suggestions of the press and the temptations of their own imaginations. People see what they want to see, what the press or the questioners suggest.” (page 45)
Or here, in a paragraph that infers the same case for permanent revolution that Trotsky made, likewise seeing the failure of the revolutionaries to establish a new order after overthrowing the previous one, the reason why all revolutions end up in the hands of tyrants - this at the time of the Spanish Civil War:-
“The only example we had till then was that of the Paris Commune, which, looked at closely, was not very encouraging: indecision, rifts, empty chatter, personality clashes between nonentities... The Commune, just like the Spanish Revolution later, threw up heroes by the thousand, admirable martyrs by the hundreds, but it had no head. I thought about this often as it seemed to me that we were heading towards a Barcelona Commune. The masses, overflowing with energy, moved by a muddled idealism, lots of middle-level leaders - and no head.” (page 65)
A description of the Arab Spring of 2012 might not read any differently, in Libya and Tunisia, in Egypt... 

I first encountered Serge during the fifty days of my own experience of jail; my elder daughter sent me three books, a complete Shakespeare (every Desert Island abandonee gets one, usually with a King James Bible!), "The Story Of Art" by E.H. Gombrich (five hundred pages of text to enchant my mind, four hundred of pictures to gratify my senses - beautiful choice). And the Serge, of whom I had never heard, despite my decades long interest in Russian literature and politics. But I knew she had chosen wisely when I went straight to the glossary in search of favourite and familiar names, and there were almost all of them, Gumilev and Akhmatova and Yesenin and Pasternak in the poetry corner (no Mandelstam or Babel, but perhaps not surprising), Gorky and Trotsky and all the expected in the political corner; and then, just surfing randomly to get a flavour, I knew that he was going to become important to me when the first piece my eyes alighted on read:
“I endured the long, enriching experience of cell life, allowed no visits or newspapers, with only the squalid statutory rations (which were picked at by all the thieves on the staff), and some good books. I understood, and ever since have always missed, the old Christian custom of retreats which men spent in monasteries, meditating face-to-face with themselves and with God, in other words with the vast living solitude of the universe. It will be good if that custom is revived, in the time when man can at last devote thought to himself. My solitary confinement was difficult, often more than difficult, suffocating, and I was surrounded by awful suffering and I did not escape - did not seek to escape - any of the troubles that could have come my way (except for T.B., of which I was afraid), seeking to exhaust them, demanding the greatest efforts of myself. Furthermore, I believe that, however bitter the situation, one ought to go all the way for the sake of the others and for oneself so as to gain from the experience and to grow from it. I also believe that a very few simple rules will suffice for that end: physical and intellectual discipline, exercise (absolutely necessary for the man in a cell), walks for meditation (I did my six miles around the cell every day) intellectual work, and recourse to that light exaltation, or light spiritual exaltation, which is provided by great works of poetry. Altogether I spent around fifteen months in solitary confinement, in various conditions, some of them quite hellish.” (page 44)
There were so many noteworthy phrases that I found myself, over the next several days, repeatedly having to grab a coloured pencil to highlight yet one more (no book is worth reading if it doesn't require a black pencil for notes and a coloured highlighter pen to mark the best fragments): "A light heart is a heavy burden", on page 25, was merely a pleasing turn of phrase; "Man is Nature become conscious of itself" on page 39 could have been borrowed from a hundred other writers; but they set a tone, and it was obvious there would be substance soon enough. 

And so there was, whole paragraphs, sometimes whole pages of it - pages 54-55 for example, too long to copy here, which excoriate the French prison service of his day in much the same terms that the Supreme Court of California had recently condemned the one in which I was sojourning. Others in which he described his early realisation (I can confirm that he is right) that survival in such a place is a matter of feigned obedience, pragmatic friendships, and sheer bloody will, and that of these three the latter matters most, forcing oneself to eat the muck that is provided for food, exercising the body and the mind, keeping thoughts of women under control, refusing to be lured into either hope or despair (this is the hardest part, the false hope especially)... but the personal is already made easier when you are reading Serge in his French prison, or in his Petrograd cell in 1919, and he is telling you that his experience is nothing when compared to Shalamov's in Kolyma; and I am grinning, because I know those Kolyma tales extremely well, because the last tale is the only known eye-witness account of Mandelstam's last days in Voronezh, and the penultimate adds a third Kuznetsov to my account in "Going To The Wall".

But all of that is just the local, the superficial. When he comments on politics he becomes eternal and universal.

"World capitalism, after its first suicidal war, was now clearly incapable either of organising a positive peace, or (what was equally evident), of deploying its fantastic technological progress to increase the prosperity, liberty, safety, and dignity of mankind." (page 133)
"Clarity" is Hochschild's term, and perhaps he was thinking specifically of this paragraph:
“I give myself credit for having seen clearly in a number of important situations. In itself, this is not so difficult to achieve, and yet it is rather unusual. To my mind, it is less a question of an exalted or shrewd intelligence, than of good sense, goodwill, and a certain sort of courage to enable one to rise above both the pressures of one's environment and the natural inclination to close one's eyes to facts, a temptation that arises from our immediate interests and from the fear which problems inspire in us. A French essayist has said: 'What is terrible when you seek the truth, is that you find it.' You find it, and then you are no longer free to follow the biases of your personal circle, or to accept fashionable clichés. I immediately discerned within the Russian Revolution the seeds of such serious evils as intolerance and the drive towards the persecution of dissent. These evils originated in an absolute sense of possession of the truth, grafted upon doctrinal rigidity. What followed was contempt for the man who was different, of his arguments and way of life. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest problems which each of us has to solve in the realm of practice is that of accepting the necessity to maintain, in the midst of intransigence which comes from steadfast beliefs, a critical spirit towards these same beliefs and a respect for the belief that differs. In the struggle, it is the problem of combining the greatest practical efficiency with respect for the man in the enemy - in a word, of war without hate.” (page 374)
For any of you who are now minded to read his book, or even just parts of it, his splendid portrait of Lenin can be found on pages 119 and 120, with his own favourite quote from Lenin on page 133, a summary indeed of everything that was wrong with Bolshevism from the outset and went wrong with Communism until it ended: "It is a terrible misfortune that the honour of beginning the first Socialist revolution should have befallen the most backward people in Europe."

As to Trotsky, who he respected enormously even when, occasionally, he disagreed with him, his account of "the Old Man" leading the Red Army into battle can be found on pages 108-111, his evaluation of him at the height of his power and influence on pages 164-166, his account of his ideological disagreements with him on pages 406-408. A detailed account of the purge which destroyed not only Trotsky but Kamenev, Zinoviev, other leaders from the period before Lenin's death, Serge himself amongst them, can be found from page 244 until 279 (but see also pages 294/5, 301/2, 320 and 325 especially) though the really full account is the one in the novel "The Case of Comrade Tulayev".

What Serge seems to have understood, beyond the narrow confines of his own failed revolution, is the inevitable failure of ideology anywhere, including the ideology of religion (which is not the same thing as theology). What he says about Bolshevism is equally true of the Vatican, or its equivalents in Islam, Capitalism, Democracy, or any of the other absolutist belief systems that we convince ourselves are the manifestations of good and right:
"Bolshevik thinking is grounded in the possession of the truth. The Party is the repository of truth, and any form of thinking that is different from it is dangerous or reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance." (page 156)
Dostoievski said exactly the same thing in "The Grand Inquisitor", and Hannah Arendt in her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
"I am quite convinced that a sort of natural selection of authoritarian temperaments is the result. Finally, the victory of the revolution deals with the inferiority complex of the perpetually vanquished and bullied masses by arousing in them a spirit of social revenge, which in turn tends to generate new despotic institutions." (page 156)
The history of most of Africa and Central America, of all of the Balkans, in the second half of the 20th century.
“For all these reasons, even the great popular leaders themselves flounder within inextricable contradictions which dialectics allows them to surmount verbally, sometimes even demagogically. Twenty or maybe a hundred times, Lenin sings the praises of democracy and stresses that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a dictatorship against 'the expropriated possessing classes,' and at the same time, 'the broadest possible workers’ democracy.' He believes and wants it to be so. He goes to give an account of himself before the factories; he asks for merciless criticism from the workers. Concerned with the lack of personnel, he also writes, in 1918, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is not at all incompatible with personal power, thereby justifying, in advance, some variety of Bonapartism. He has Bogdanov, his old friend and comrade, jailed because this outstanding intellectual confronts him with embarrassing objections. He outlaws the Mensheviks because these 'petty-bourgeois' Socialists are guilty of errors that happen to be awkward. He welcomes the anarchist partisan Makhno with real affection, and tries to prove to him that Marxism is right, but he either permits or engineers the outlawing of anarchism. He promises peace to religious believers and orders that the churches are to be respected, but he keeps saying that 'religion is the opium of the people'. We are proceeding towards a classless society of free men, but the Party has posters stuck up nearly everywhere announcing that 'the rule of the workers will never cease'. Over whom then will they rule? And what is the meaning of this word rule? Totalitarianism is within us." (page 157)
Trotsky, I have absolutely no doubt, would have concurred with that conclusion.

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The Argaman Press

May 30


Day and month unknown, year 1412, place of birth Domrémy-la-Pucelle, France; her name was Jehanne Darc - at least, in all the mediaeval manuscripts. From Jehanne to Jeanne is simply how names change with time. D'Arc, on the other hand, is a pedigree, a class-statement, an association with the aristocracy, and the actual Jehanne was pure paysanne.

We tend to forget that England was a colony of France for several centuries, starting with the Norman conquest in 1066, ending only at the end of the Plantagenet era (which should be called the Angevin era, from the House of Anjou, which ruled it from 1154) in 1485. The language of the courts, both royal and legal, was French, as was the language spoken in the first Parliament. Several kings ruled from France - Henry II, the founding Angevin, and his son Richard I, for example, ruled from Poitiers, and scarcely set foot in England in their lives.

By 1337 the English were keen to Brexit from the extensive Angevin empire that controlled much of Europe, but were unable to reach a deal, and so they sent their troops instead of their Cabinet ministers: the so-called Hundred Years War. In fact, most of the dispute was over lands inside France, the English laying claim to Aquitaine, the French insisting it was inside their geographical borders and that England was across the Channel, and should remain there, the Burgundians playing one side off against the other in hopes of gaining whatever advantage the mutual destruction might leave behind as pickings. Plus ça change, as they say in Luxemburg.

Into this quagmire of stupidities stepped Jehanne Darc, and on May 7th 1429 she led the French army that broke the English siege of Orléans, and then followed it up by taking Rheims and Paris too. Which should have made her a national heroine - but alas it made her a national hate-figure instead, because macho men do not generally appreciate being made to look flaccid by thin, anorexic, vision-seeing women, and especially not uneducated women of the peasantry who should be at home providing droit de seigneur to their liege lord. A year and sixteen days after her famous victory, on May 23rd 1430, Jehanne was captured at Compiègne by the Burgundians - and sold to the British, though it took some negotiation before the English did finally agree to shell out some cash.

So, on May 30th 1431, "la Pucelle" - the English, who have never been very good at French, may have thought her nickname meant a small flea, and fleas are best eradicated by fire; in fact La Pucelle means "young foal", though Catholic encyclopaedia now prefer to mistranslate her into a variation of the Virgin Mary by rendering it as "The Maid" - was burned as a witch by the English at Rouen. She was just 19 years young.

Two major works of literature retell her story, both very differently...

George Bernard Shaw's version was written immediately after her canonization on May 16th 1920, and acknowledged that canonization in its title; it premièred on March 26th 1924. Quite simply, it tells her story, birth to death, based on the transcripts from the trial, and such other historical evidence as he could find. 

But nothing is ever "quite simple" with Shaw. The manner of the telling, even the choices made with language in the dialogues, moves the piece by allegory from the mediaeval to the contemporary: the 100 Years War becomes the First World War, the state-orchestrated trial becomes an early instance of the Show Trials of Stalinist Russia, the idiocy of ideology is recognised as universal, and Joan herself is recognisable as a female version of the Christ in Dostoievski's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, in "The Brothers Karamazov", destroyed by those for whom the retention of power under the flag of convenience of an ideology is more important than the ideology itself, whether religious or secular. Twenty years after penning the life of Don Juan under the Nietzschean title "Man and Superman", this is once again Nihilism revisited. It was the play that cemented Shaw's reputation as the great philosopher-dramatist of his day, leading to his own literary canonization with the receipt of the Nobel Prize the following year; and of our day too, given that nothing in the world of politics or religion has changed.

Bertolt Brecht called his music-drama "St Joan of the Stockyards" (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe), and set it in 1920s Chicago, satirising the Great American Fantasy of the Land of Opportunism through the exploitative Pierpont Mauler (writers generally think up names that convey meanings), whose meat-packing plant (writers generally choose locations that convey meanings) is as representative of the bad side of Capitalism as a committed Socialist like BB could hope to get. When he shuts the plant down à la John Galt, in what turns out to be a complicated money-making scam, the poor slaves exploited by him are goaded into action by Joan Dark and her faithful followers... but I don't want to spoil the ending for you.
More significant anyway to point out that Brecht too was using the tale allegorically, to comment on his own contemporary world. The play's first performance was on Berlin Radio on April 11th 1932 - setting the universal tale far away in Chicago very much a political statement about things not terribly pleasant going on back home, but doing it safely, and in disguise (as Sartre would set his play "Les Mouches" in ancient Greece, and Camus his novel "La Peste" in some futuristic Algeria, both of them while under Nazi occupation, in Paris, in 1943 and 1944 respectively). Joan Dark, the heroine, is a member of the "Black Straw Hats", which is presented as a kind of Socialist Salvation Army, and no doubt Herr Hitler and his black-shirted SS and SA thought that salvation was what they were bringing too; though they were not there yet.
Joan was first beatified by Pope Pius X on April 11th 1905; then canonized by Pope Benedict XV on May 16th 1920. Her feast day, however, in both the Roman and Tridentine calendars, is today, May 30th, the day of her murder by the English.

A St. Joan of Arc pendant in sterling silver is available from St. Joan of Arc Products (Catholic Online Shopping) for the give-away price of $35.99 (but shouldn't that be 14.31, in any currency?). A St. Joan Of Arc "Medal Picture Folder" can be found at the same e-store for just $11.95, which is less than you would pay for three votive candles. Just click here.  

By curious irony, May 30th in America is the day on which those who died fighting in the armies of that country are remembered, Memorial Day so-called, though it is pure coincidence that it is also Jehanne's Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it was started as an event to honor Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War, and should not be confused with Veterans Day, which falls on November 11th, as its equivalent does in Britain. 

For those who do not understand the difference, Memorial Day exists to honour those who were murdered by their own government in the cause of some pointless imperialist conquest overseas; Veterans Day exists to honour those who managed to avoid murder, but returned home scarred, wounded and traumatised, and spend the other 364 days sleeping in doorways and begging as they are no longer useful to society.

Amber pages:

Ultimately, if I ever get that far with this blog-book, I shall take the people I have ambered on their birthdates, and move them to a different page, because their birth is important, obviously, as it brought them into the world, and if they were not here they could not have done whatever significant thing it was for which we wish to honour and remember them - so I will move them to the date of that incident.

Some are already there. Benny Goodman for example, Jewish bandleader and concert-quality clarinettist, who was born today in 1909 - but see January 16 for one of many instances of greatness.

And several other significants who died today, only the first one memorable in itself, though exactly what took place, murder, brawl or assassination, remains a mystery waiting to be turned into a play:

Christopher Marlowe, English playwright and secret agent, fatally stabbed, today in 1593

Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish painter, died, of heart failure, today in 1640.

Alexander Pope, English poet, died, of tuberculosis, today in 1744

François-Marie Arouet, French intellectual-garden designer, nom de plume Voltaire died, today in 1778 - from the pain of exile mostly, though he did actually return to Paris in the weeks before his death, for the première of his last play; granted permission because the church hoped to achieve the victory of persuading him to accept Christ. But Voltaire was not the sort to yield to bullying, and he held out against God until the last, though his refusal meant that he was denied the Christian burial that he didn't want anyway; his friends and family arranged a secret internment in the Champagne region where he had lived for many years with his beloved Gabrielle, the Marquise du Châtelet - much more on Voltaire, his uprooting of the Leibnitz Rose, and his war with God, in my book of travel essays "Travels In Familiar Lands".