Review: “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad” – Harrison E. Salisbury

“The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad” by Harrison E. Salisbury…SUCKS! This book really, really sucks, and is a terrible, terrible book.

The title of the book is extremely misleading; indeed, only slightly more than half the total number of pages (54%) in the book actually have anything to do with the siege of Leningrad. It is not until page 307 — that’s right, THREE-HUNDRED SEVEN — that the siege of Leningrad even starts!

What’s the first 307 pages about, you ask? Good question. The first 307 pages of the book offer very little besides anti-Stalin and anti-Soviet claims juxtaposed with some poetic and colourful descriptions of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Most of Salisbury’s anti-Stalin and anti-Soviet claims are frankly absurd, outrageous, and completely ahistorical.

Page after page, for example, Salisbury criticizes Stalin and Soviet bureaucracy for lack of preparedness for the Nazi offensive; but when the Soviet’s did take actions to defend Leningrad, Salisbury criticizes those actions as being “extraordinary dictatorial”?! What does Salisbury expect?! Is there some kind of military-style democracy I am unaware of in the armed forces of other states? Did the U.S. or British militaries have some kind of secret ballot referendum about WWII that I have somehow missed?! Were the Japanese in Canada consulted before being stripped of all their assets and thrown in concentration camps?!

Salisbury’s outrageous, sometimes contradictory, and almost always uncited, accusations don’t end there. Like all anti-Soviet writers, Salisbury loves to describe Stalin as paranoid. He criticizes Stalin’s “suspiciousness” and refusal to heed the warnings of a possible Nazi invasion by the British (p. 77), as if Stalin’s suspicions of the British weren’t historically justified. Salisbury seems totally unaware of the fact of British involvement in the Allied intervention in the Soviet Union (1918-25), British policy of appeasement with Hitler throughout the 1930s and the willingness of the British to sacrifice Czechoslovakia at Munich, and the desire of leading British statement for war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the essence of which was captured by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s comments in 1936: “We all know the German desire, and he has come out with it in his book [i.e., Hitler’s Mein Kampf], to move east, and if he should move East I should not break my heart…There is one danger, of course, which has probably been in all your minds — supposing the Russians and Germans got fighting and the French went in as allies of Russia owing to that appalling pact they made, you would not feel you were obliged to go and help France, would you? If there is any fighting in Europe to be done, I should like to see the Bolshies and the Nazis doing it” (p. 33 of “1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II” by Michael Jabara Carley). Other outrageous and uncited accusations Salisbury makes include Stalin’s alleged pathological disdain for Leningrad and Leningraders (p. 126-29), Stalin’s willingness to execute someone “because he wore a funny hat” (p. 171), the execution of those whom “meticulously carried out” Stalin’s own orders (p. 182), etc.

Probably the worst book of 2021 so far. Yuck!

Review: “A Political History of The Gambia, 1816-1994” – Arnold Hughes and David Perfect


I expected “A Political History of The Gambia, 1816-1994” by Arnold Hughes and David Perfect to be a monotonous tome (at 549 pages!), but I thought I’d give it a go! And since there are so few books written about The Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest state, I was determined to finish reading it!

No English language book likely has as much information about The Gambia as this book. That being said, there really isn’t a lot of information in this book. Besides offering slightly more historical context than Wikipedia, the main area of focus in the book is electoral politics in The Gambia: the emergence of political parties and interests in colonial Gambia, the dominance of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and the various opposition parties that have come and gone during The Gambia’s post-colonial existence. Now, this isn’t a problem in itself, even if mainstream liberalism’s adulation of electoral politics is enough to make any astute political analyst want to find the nearest high-rise building and throw themselves off it. But when you consider that this book is primarily about electoral politics in a country that was a de facto, if not de jure, one-party state for the entirety of The Gambia’s post-colonial history under examination in this book (1965-94), it becomes much easier to imagine how much commitment it took to slog through this book.

Moreover, the political analysis offered by the authors is almost laughable. Indeed, I got a good laugh when the authors on page 210 compared Kukoi Samba Sanyang, a Gambian dissident and leader of the failed 1981 coup d’état, to Joseph Stalin!

Phew…it’s done!! I can now say that I read a book about The Gambia! Time to move on to something else!

Review: “One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America” – Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam

“One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America” by Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam is one of the BEST labour studies books I have ever read.

The authors don’t just examine the history of the IWA chronologically, such as the various strike battles and other struggles of Canadian and American lumber workers, like what most union histories do. This book instead offers much more than that, as indicated in the book’s subtitle: a political history of the IWA.

By examining the political history of the IWA the authors aim to refute the conclusions of other writers about the IWA. For example, the authors dispute Vernon Jensen’s history of the IWA, in which Jansen concludes that the union’s communist leadership was ousted by democratic means due to the rank-and-file membership’s anti-communism. They also dispute Irving Abella’s conclusion that the defeat of the communists in the union was due to the communists themselves. As Lembcke and Tattam write, “The Jensen and Abella theses both assume that political processes, internal to the unions, are the decisive factors in the resolutions of factional differences in those unions” (p. 175). Lembcke and Tattam argue instead “that the political make-up of union leadership at any historical moment is determined by the intersection of struggles internal to the working class with the political and economic struggles external to it. What appeared to be personal and ideological differences between union leaders and factions within the CIO-CCL unions were in reality struggles between strata of the working class whose historic roots were deeply embedded in the uneven development of North American capitalism” (p. viii). Lembcke and Tattam throughout the book connect the factional struggles within the IWA, as well as with and within the AFL and CIO, with the uneven development of capitalism and its affect on industrial regions and workers. According to Lembcke and Tattam, the support for anti-communism and business unionism by lumber workers in Oregon was due to historic conditions: most operators in Oregon were small, and many of the lumber workers were originally, if not necessarily at the time, part-time farmers with a desire to “make it”. In contrast, lumber workers in Washington state and British Columbia were more radical: operators were much larger and more capital intensive than in Oregon, most workers lived in company camps or towns and not their own properties, and many of the workers were immigrants from Scandinavia with experience in socialist and labour activism. These historic conditions, and not the personalities of individual labour leaders, were the source of the disputes within the IWA.

Lembcke and Tattam thus reject the Jensen/Abella positions on empirical and analytical grounds. “For example, if the rank-and-file were predisposed against communism, why then did the anti-communist blocks in nearly all CIO-CCL unions have to fight pitched battles to put communist exclusion clauses in their constitutions? Why was it necessary for the CIO-CCL to expel the Communist-led unions in the late 1940s rather than simply letting the members of those unions determine who their leaders were going to be? Why was it necessary for the U.S. to spend thousands of dollars on Harold Pritchett’s deportation case when a vote of the member of the IWA could have sent him back to Canada? And was it necessary to ban Communists through the anti-communist clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act if the members of the unions were not electing them? The answer, of course, is that the rank and file did continue to elect Communists to leadership positions. In the IWA case, many Communists were elected to office by referendum election as late as the post-World War II years; few were ever defeated by the [Anti-Communist] Bloc opponents; all eventually were purged” (pp. 175-76). The source of the Communists’ strength, Lembcke and Tattam write, “was that they were indigenous members of the mill towns and logging camps in which they worked and organized” (p. 176). They “not only out-performed their opponents as organizers, but they offered a superior concept of what industrial unionism should be” (p. 177).

As always when reading these kinds of books, I was thoroughly disgusted with the dictatorial, anti-working class activities of the top labour leadership. Lembcke and Tattam describe incidents such as armed workers of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (AFL), in collusion with Teamsters, attacking IWA workers (CIO) on strike in 1937 (pp. 54-56), the IWA’s leadership bootlicking of the U.S. government and enthusiastic support of the Taft-Hartley Act (p. 118-119), the forced separation of the more radical B.C. locals of the IWA, which then formed the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC), from the IWA, and then when WIUC workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions, the IWA leadership themselves shepherded strike-breakers into the mills and camps, described as “one of the most outstanding and shameful incidents in Canadian labour history” (p. 130).

Overall: FANTASTIC and BRILLIANT book!

Review: “Becoming Somaliland” – Mark Bradbury

Someone on Facebook recommended Mark Bradbury’s “Becoming Somaliland” to me because I study ethnic and separatist conflicts. I thought it would be interesting to read about Somaliland, a place I know little about besides that it declared independence from Somalia and has remained relatively peaceful while the rest of Somalia has been rife with violence and warlordism.

In this book Bradbury provides a comprehensive history of Somaliland and the origins of the Somali National Movement. According to Bradbury, Somaliland is distinct from southern Somalia in a number of ways. First, during the colonial era, the British had very little interest in Somaliland, and governed the territory (from India) through a system of indirect rule. This enabled Somalis maintain their traditions and customary laws. When the British did intervene more directly, such as in the war against the Dervish uprising of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, this united Somalis against a common enemy. In contrast, southern Somalia was directly ruled by the Italians, and was later incorporated into Italian East Africa. Tens of thousands of Italians settled in southern Somalia, and thousands of Somalis were forced to work in Italian plantations, construction, and other industries, including the construction of the Mogadishu Cathedral. Traditional Somali social relations, including customary law and conflict resolution, consequently broke down in southern Somalia. Second, British Somaliland was briefly internationally recognized as an independent state, before agreeing to unify with southern Somalia to form the Somali Republic in 1960. The fact that Somaliland agreed to unify has fostered a sense that it should be allowed to leave the union. Thirdly, under various Somali governments, the northerners were often discriminated against and marginalized in favour of southerners, especially those from Mogadishu. This helped create a separate national consciousness in the north. Fourth, the brutal oppression of northern Somalis by Siad Barre’s regime, including the bombardment of Hargeisa and the massacre of tens of thousands of Issaq, helped unite northern Somalis behind the Somali National Movement (SNM). Fifth, the SNM, the main opposition movement in northern Somalia, was a popular movement dependent on the support of the people, especially those in the refugee camps in Ethiopia. This  helped foster (not always successfully) a sense of democracy and accountability within the SNM. In contrast, the main anti-government movements in the south, such as those by General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Osman Atto, etc., were predatory and dominated by a single leader. Finally, since the north had always been marginalized and discriminated against by regimes in Mogadishu, when Barre was overthrown there was little to fight for control over. Agricultural land was minimal, state institutions were non-existent, 90% of Hargeisa was destroyed, etc. This helped to mitigate the factional infighting between rival warlords that occurred in southern Somalia.

Although Bradbury offers an excellent history and political analysis of Somaliland, he offers little else of value in the book. Most of the book is Bradbury trying to build a case for the recognition of Somaliland’s independence by pandering to Western imperialist interests. In page after page Bradbury tries to “sell” Somaliland to Western imperialism by highlighting Somaliland’s stability and comparatively well developed democracy, the fact that nearly everything is privatized in Somaliland, the merger of wealthy business interests and the state in Somaliland, and the windfall profits made in Somaliland by wealthy Somali investors in Djibouti. These are hardly convincing arguments for the average reader (and certainly not for me).

What was really disappointing to me about this book is how Bradbury never examines the lack of recognition of Somaliland from a theoretical perspective. If, as Bradbury writes, Somaliland is a politically stable, neoliberal paradise, I would be interested in reading why Western states refuse to recognize it, rather than why they should. Why do Western states recognize Somalia, which has been in a near constant state of civil war since the 1980s, and whose government has to be externally financed and imposed by force, but not neoliberal Somaliland? What’s the catch?

Final analysis: I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re really interested in Somaliland.  

Review: “France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa” – Nathaniel K. Powell

In “France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa,” Nathaniel K. Powell meticulously examines France’s multiple military interventions in Chad between Chadian independence in 1960 and Hissène Habré’s seizure of power in 1982.

Powell argues that France’s military interventions in Chad, its support to competing armed factions and ruthless dictatorial regimes, not only failed to maintain France’s neocolonial order in Chad but contributed to its downfall (in the form of the collapse of the Chadian state in 1979). To save the widely unpopular and ruthless regime of François Tombalbaye (1960-75) against multiple armed rebellions, France militarily intervened twice, most notably in Operation Limousin. When Tombalbaye’s regime was determined to be a lost cause, France then supported the military junta that ousted him, led by Félix Malloum (1975-78). To save the regime of Malloum against the still ongoing rebellions, now supported by Libya, France launched Opération Tacaud. When Malloum’s regime was determined to be a lost cause (he was forced to flee after rebel forces sacked N’Djamena), France half-supported the Government of National Unity (GUNT), a loose coalition of competing rebel factions, namely those led by Hissène Habré and the GUNT’s nominal president Goukouni Oueddei.

The GUNT didn’t last long: it was plagued by intense rivalries and clashes between member rebel factions. Moreover, France was widely perceived as favouring Habré’s anti-Libyan forces, which alienated other GUNT leaders. Only Libya strongly and consistently backed the GUNT against Habré’s forces, but fearing Libyan expansionism, France pressured Oueddei to expel the Libyans from Chad. Thus, with minimal outside support, the GUNT was no match for Habré’s forces, and in 1982, Habré seized the capital and toppled the GUNT. But Habré’s regime failed to resuscitate France’s neocolonial order in Chad, despite receiving extensive financial and military support from both the U.S. and France. Habré was one of post-colonial Africa’s most brutal dictators. His regime faced numerous rebellions (most notably by Idriss Deby), and an international tribunal convicted Habré of human right’s abuses, including rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people.

Although the book is titled “France’s Wars in Chad,” the book is actually about far more than Chad. A more fitting title would be “French Neocolonialism in Africa,” since the book isn’t exclusively about Chad. Indeed, Powell provides an excellent analysis of Operation Barracuda (1979), the French military intervention in the then-Central African Empire to overthrow the regime of Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Powell also examined France’s relations with other African countries, such as Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Zaire, etc.

This was a fantastic scholarly work. Other books I have read about Chad, such as “The Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad” by M. J. Azevedo, and “The Trial of Hissène Habré: How the People of Chad Brought a Tyrant to Justice” by Celeste Hicks, simply cannot compare to Powell’s.

Review: “Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Kiva, 1865-1924” – Seymour Becker

Seymour Becker’s analysis of Russia’s conquests of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva is considered the book on the subject. However, I did not find this book lived up to its reputation in Central Asian studies circles.

What is most striking about this book is Becker’s elementary understanding of imperialism and empire. Throughout much of the book Becker seems intent on proving that Russia’s conquest of the khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and to a lesser extent Kokand was not due to imperialism. Firstly, Becker early on in the book rejects an economic explanation for Russian expansion. According to Becker, while the search for raw materials (mostly cotton) and a market for Russian commodities were important factors in Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, they weren’t the only factors, much less the most important ones. “Although Central Asian cotton had acquired a new importance for Russia on the eve of the conquest,” writes Becker, “and considerable sentiment existed for an advance into Central Asia to protect and promote Russian manufacturing and trading interests, the influence these factors had on policy-formation was minimal” (p. 23). Becker instead argues that “Russia was spurred on in Central Asia by a whole complex of motives — the quest for secure frontier, the provocations offered by unstable neighbors, the fear of being excluded from the area by England, and the temptations of diplomatic leverage, economic profit, and military glory” (p. 23).

None of these motives are incompatible with imperialism. Becker seems to think that imperialism occurs only when there are direct economic gains to be made. However, I don’t believe this is an accurate reflection of imperialism. As Parenti wrote in Against Empire, “Some critics have argued that economic factors have not exerted an important influence on U.S. interventionist policy because most interventions are in countries that have no great natural treasures and no large U.S. investments, such as, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. This is like saying that police are not especially concerned about protecting wealth and property because most of their actions take place in poor neighborhoods. Interventionist forces do not go where capital exists as such; they go where capital is threatened” (p. 87). Moreover, “The imperialist state’s first concern is not to protect the direct investments of any particular company, although it sometimes does that, but to protect the global system of private accumulation from competing systems” (p. 42).

Secondly, Becker devotes a considerable number of pages in the first few chapters to contrasting the official noninterventionist policies of the tsar with the unauthorized faits accomplis of Russian military leaders, namely Major General M. G. Cherniaev. His intent seems to be that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was accidental, created by rogue military elements, and thus not due to any kind of imperialism. Becker repeatedly attempts to use official tsarist proclamations of noninterventionism in the khanates as evidence of Russia’s non-imperialist motivations. This is despite the fact that Becker’s own descriptions of Russia’s expanding influence in Central Asia could have been written by Lenin as a textbook case of imperialism (or, perhaps more accurately, colonialism)! Becker describes how “in March 1890 Russia’s presence in Bukhara was firmly established. A railroad had been built across the khanate and remained under the control of the Russian Ministry of War. A Russian political agency had been established in the emir’s capital. Russian garrisons had been installed at Chardjui and Kerki, in addition to troops who operated the railroad and guarded the railroad zone, and a Russian flotilla commanded the Amu-Darya as far as Kerki. Private Russian individuals and firms had begun to invade Bukhara in search of commercial profit, had purchased land, and had laid the foundations for three of four settlements that were to arise as Russian enclaves on Bukharan soil” (p. 146). But according to Becker one shouldn’t misconstrue this as colonialism or imperialism. “This revolution did not signify, however, that the imperial government had abandoned the principles of its traditional policy toward Bukhara — noninterference in the khanate’s internal life and maintenance of the emir’s authority[!]. The momentous changes of 1885-1890 were the unplanned result of Russia’s pursuance of policies that only indirectly involved Bukhara: the rivalry with Great Britain, the need for a rail link between Russian Turkestan and European Russia, and the desire to strengthen the line of the Amu-Darya against Afghan and British designs. The pursuit of these aims opened Bukhara incidentally to the penetration of private Russian interests” (p. 146). This theme of an accidental, or incidental, empire reoccurs throughout the book. “With the end of Bukhara’s isolation, brought about by the building of the Central Asian Railroad and the influx of private Russian interests, the khanate’s fate became linked ever more directly to Russia’s. Monetary controls and improved communications became necessities. These important changes, like those already discussed, were not part of a long-range scheme to subvert Bukharan autonomy. They came about rather in response to practical problems and in the context of Russia’s traditional policy of nonintervention” (p. 154); “The formation of Russian settlements and the broadening of extraterritorial jurisdiction were indeed responses on St. Petersburg’s part to the problems raised by the invasion of Bukhara by private Russian interests, but the intention was as much to protect Bukharan autonomy as to promote the business affairs of Russian subjects” (p. 173); etc. If this wasn’t bad enough, Becker similarly describes British support for counterrevolutionary forces in the Soviet Union as ‘accidental’ (“awkward,” to be more precise): “Having chosen to support Askhabad [Transcaspian Government] as the only available bulwark against German and Turkish expansion toward Persia and India, Britain soon found that she had no choice but to help Askhabad defend itself against the Soviet forces to the east” (p. 275). Thus, British Empire found itself “in an awkward position” (p. 276), as if the British were hesitant to support anti-Bolshevik forces!

Becker’s belief that “Nonintervention in the internal affairs of the khanates so long as the latter proved peaceful and compliant was to remain the guiding principle of Russia’s policy down to 1917” (p. 25) is somehow evidence of Russian non-imperialism is strikingly absurd. The nonintervention in the internal affairs of one state so long as it is “peaceful and compliant” with the demands of another state sounds a lot like imperialism to me. In fact, that is something that makes imperialism distinct from colonialism. Imperialism is more efficient and cost effective than imposing foreign rule on hostile territories! I can’t think of any imperialist state that would prefer to expend resources on brutal military occupations if it could achieve the same result without such expenditures.  

Despite these major theoretical and historical shortcomings, Becker does succeed in providing a lot of valuable and interesting information about the khanates. No other book that I have read specifically addresses the origins of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva and examines them as sovereign and independent states (ex. the regimes in power, the role of religion, internal strife, etc.). Most books either skip these subjects altogether or only examine them insofar as they are relevant to understanding Russia.

Overall this is not my favourite book on Central Asia but not the worst either.  

Review: “Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime” – Luca Anceschi

Luca Anceschi’s “Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime” was another swing and a miss by Routledge.

Just like Irina Y. Morozova’s “Socialist Revolutions in Asia,” the subject of Anceschi’s book, i.e., Turkmenistan’s doctrine of Positive Neutrality, is of great interest to me. Since the overthrow of the USSR in 1991, Central Asia has been plagued with instability, including civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, ethnic violence and state failure in Kyrgyzstan, and Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan, however, under the megalomaniac President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006), has occupied a rather peculiar place politically in the region. An analysis of Turkmenistan’s UN-recognized neutrality I had hoped would provide valuable insight into the class struggle in Turkmenistan.

Unfortunately, like most Western liberal political analyses, Anceschi’s book does everything but that. Throughout the book Anceschi seems more interested in colouring between the lines imposed by Western academia than offering any valuable insight into Turkmenistan. For all his political analysis, Anceschi fails to connect Turkmenistan’s Positive Neutrality to conditions existing within Turkmenistan. Even the chapter on Turkmenistan’s “Economic Foreign Policy” offers little beyond abstract analysis of “the problem of continuity and change in Turkmen foreign policy making” (p. 64). This is a major handicap of Anceschi’s book and Western academia. Since any discussion of class, class struggle, capitalism, imperialism, etc. is forbidden lest it threaten Western interests, books like Anceschi’s are limited to exercises in political philosophizing. Moreover, to ensure his material passes the censorship of Western academia, the quality of Anceschi’s political analysis is further weakened by such cliches as comparing Niyazov to Stalin. It is a documented fact that Stalin was against the cult of personality around himself. According to S. Davies, Stalin repeatedly “spoke out explicitly against the formation of the cult around himself”: “In speeches of the 1930s, Stalin repeatedly deemphasized the role of leaders (vozhdi) accentuating instead the key historical importance of broader social forces. Thus he affirmed in February 1933 to the First Congress of collective farm shockworkers (kolkhozniki-udarniki) that the time had long passed when vozhdi were considered the only creators of history. The history of states was now decided primarily by millions of workers.” This is in stark contrast to Niyazov, who renamed cities, streets, mosques, collective farms, celestial bodies, and even days and months of the calendar after himself and redefined the age of man! To claim that Stalin and Niyazov were both examples of Weberian sultanism is simply liberal hogwash.

Anceschi’s conclusion, that Turkmenistan’s doctrine of Positive Neutrality, is a “domestically-orientated foreign policy,” i.e., intended more to strengthen and consolidate the regime within Turkmenistan than have any meaningful impact on international affairs, is hardly a ground-breaking discovery. Bruce Pannier’s article in Radio Free Europe is just as good at Anceschi’s book but also way less expensive and quicker to read.

This book could have been much better.

Early Thoughts: “Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Kiva, 1865-1924” – Seymour Becker

Seymour Becker’s analysis of Russia’s conquests of the khanates of Bukhara and Khiva is considered the book on the subject. Although I am only about 70 pages into the book, what I find most striking about this book is Becker’s inability to understand Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his determination to prove that Russia’s motives in conquering the Central Asian khanates was not due to imperialism.

According to Becker, while the search for raw materials (mostly cotton) and a market for Russian commodities were important factors in tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, they weren’t the only factors, much less the most important ones. “Although Central Asian cotton had acquired a new importance for Russia on the eve of the conquest,” writes Becker, “and considerable sentiment existed for an advance into Central Asia to protect and promote Russian manufacturing and trading interests, the influence these factors had on policy-formation was minimal” (p. 23). Becker instead argues that “Russia was spurred on in Central Asia by a whole complex of motives — the quest for secure frontier, the provocations offered by unstable neighbors, the fear of being excluded from the area by England, and the temptations of diplomatic leverage, economic profit, and military glory” (p. 23).

None of those motives are incompatible with imperialism. Becker seems to think that imperialism occurs only when there are direct economic gains to be made. However, I don’t believe this is an accurate reflection of imperialism. As Parenti wrote in Against Empire, “Some critics have argued that economic factors have not exerted an important influence on U.S. interventionist policy because most interventions are in countries that have no great natural treasures and no large U.S. investments, such as, Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. This is like saying that police are not especially concerned about protecting wealth and property because most of their actions take place in poor neighborhoods. Interventionist forces do not go where capital exists as such; they go where capital is threatened” (p. 87). Moreover, “The imperialist state’s first concern is not to protect the direct investments of any particular company, although it sometimes does that, but to protect the global system of private accumulation from competing systems” (p. 42).

Becker devotes a considerable number of pages in the first few chapters to contrasting the official non interventionist policies of the tsar with the unauthorized faits accomplis of Russian military leaders, namely Major General M. G. Cherniaev. His intent seems to be that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was accidental, created by rogue military elements, and thus not due to any kind of imperialism.

It is absolutely absurd to claim that an empire can be formed accidentally, so I won’t waste time addressing that. However it is almost equally absurd in my opinion to claim, like Becker seems to do, that imperialism is inconsistent with official non-interventionism. Indeed, in arguing that tsarist Russia’s expansion into Central Asia was not imperialist, Becker seems to in fact describe what I would call imperialism: “Nonintervention in the internal affairs of the khanates so long as the latter proved peaceful and compliant was to remain the guiding principle of Russia’s policy down to 1917” (p. 25). The non-intervention in the internal affairs of one state so long as it is “peaceful and compliant” with the demands of another state sounds a lot like imperialism to me. In fact, that is something that makes imperialism distinct from colonialism. Imperialism is more efficient and cost effective than imposing foreign rule on hostile territories! I can’t think of any imperialist state that would prefer to expend resources on brutal military occupations if it could achieve the same result without such expenditures.  

I’ll keep reading the book but so far I am less than impressed with this book.

Review: “Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality: The Bund and the Polish Socialist Party in Late Tsarist Russia, 1892-1914” – Joshua D. Zimmerman

Joshua D. Zimmerman’s “Poles, Jews, and the Politics of Nationality: The Bund and the Polish Socialist Party in Late Tsarist Russia, 1892-1914” is an excellent, well researched, highly informative, and widely accessible analysis of Polish-Jewish relations and the national question within the late tsarist empire.

Zimmerman begins the book by describing the origins of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and the General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (the Bund). Both the PPS and the Bund emerged in a period of severe political repression. Since the failed Polish insurrection of 1863, both Poles and Jews living in Russian Poland were led by conservative elites that favored acquiescence to the tsarist regime. But, Zimmerman writes, “The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881 and the period of reaction that followed led to a decisive rejection among young Poles and Jews of the politics of conciliation. In both societies a new ‘uncompliant’ generation came of age during Tsar Alexander III’s reign (1881-94), a period that saw the growth of anti-Jewish laws as well as an intensification of anti-Polish measures in Congress Poland. Born between 1865 and 1873 and educated in secular Russian schools, this new generation of young Jews and Poles rejected the complacency and conciliatory politics of their parents and instead formed conspiratorial national and socialist movements” (p. 11).  

The formation of the PPS was closely connected to the rapid industrialization of Pale and Congress Poland in the latter half of the nineteenth century. “By the early 1890s industrialization in the Kingdom [Congress] of Poland brought about the rise of a sizable industrial working class” at the same time that there was a decline in the Russian radical movement (p. 17). Thus, the founders of the PPS concluded “that they could not serve as an appendage to the general revolutionary movement in Russia” that was already on the wane (p. 19). Moreover, many of these early Polish socialists, Zimmerman writes, “began their activity in socialist groups after  the Russian revolutionary groupings had waned. Consequently, their models of antitsarist activity were the three Polish radical groups that survived the crackdowns of the mid-1880s. Thus, their entry into revolutionary circles in the late 1880s did not occur under the influence of Russian radicalism, giving their activity a decidedly Polish orientation” (p. 20). This Polish orientation was further strengthened by the fact that many of the PPS’s founders were of “the first generation of Poles living under post-1863 Russification and were thus deeply affected by their status as a subject nation forcefully incorporated into an alien empire. It was this common experience of national defeat, Russification, and socioeconomic transformation that made possible the coming together of disparate Polish socialist groups under a single all-Polish program” (p. 20).

Within early Polish socialist circles, there was, Zimmerman writes, contrary to mainstream Polish historiography, important differences on the national question, especially with regard to relations with Russian revolutionaries (p. 21). At the first congress of Polish socialists in Paris in 1892, the creation of an independent Democratic Republic of Poland was declared the primary aim of the Polish socialists, which later formed the nucleus of the PPS. The program adopted at the congress favored collaboration with Russian revolutionaries insofar as the basis of such collaboration was complete independence and equality (pp. 22-23).

The struggle for an independent Poland naturally raised the issue of the national minorities inhabiting Russian Poland. According to Zimmerman, “As the single nonterritorial group in the Pale and Congress Poland, the Jews were excluded from the resolution on the equality of nationalities because the future Polish state was to be founded on a national-territorial basis. The resolution on civil rights for all citizens, however, included the Jews. Thus, at its founding congress the PPS viewed the Jews in much the same way as the French revolutionaries had in 1789: ‘The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals’” (p. 24).

From the very beginning the PPS struggled with the Jewish question. PPS leaders, such as Josef Pilsudski, “condemned the Jewish Social Democrats for leading education circles in the Russian language and encouraged them to switch to Polish or Yiddish as the language of agitation among Jewish workers” (p. 27). These proto-Bundists were perceived as a threat to the PPS leaders because their ‘Russified nature’ and their neutrality on Polish independence would paralyze the building of a mass socialist and pro-independence party (p. 27). As Pilsudski wrote, “In our country…the brutal violence of tsarist despotism has found expression in the politics of ‘unification’ and Jewish socialists have begun working among the Jewish proletariat with the aim of imposing on them the Russian language as the path to culture” (p. 28).  

Zimmerman shifts his focus to the establishment of the Bund. Interesting to me is Zimmerman’s description of the conditions of the Jewish proletariat in Russian Poland, and why the Bund first emerged in Lithuania. “In Congress Poland, which was overwhelmingly Polish demographically as well as in terms of high culture, the Jewish elite not only accelerated linguistically but also assimilated politically; they adopted the Polish language and regarded themselves as Polish in all respects except for religion” (p. 36). Zimmerman describes an “altogether different pattern” in Lithuania-Belarus, “where Poles and Russians each made up about 6 percent of the population. Economic backwardness and a multinational character combined to erect a barrier to full assimilation. As the late Moshe Mishkinsky similarly argued, the centrality of Lithuania in the Jewish labor movement was a function of slow industrialization, Jewish demographic concentration, and a heterogeneous character, all of which ‘impeded the assimilatory tendencies in Jewish life’ and endowed Lithuanian Jewry ‘with greater inner solidarity and stimulated its unique social self-determination’” (p. 37). Lithuania existed as “a buffer zone between ethnic Poland and ethnic Russia,” Zimmerman writes, where Jewish socialists considered themselves “neither Russian nor Polish and thus never left the living Jewish milieu” (p. 38). These factors “led to the emergence of a unique combination of orthodox Marxism and Diaspora nationalism” that coalesced into the Bund (p. 38).

The remainder of the book is mostly a chronicle of the bitter competition for Jewish support between the PPS and the Bund. While interesting, reading the tit-for-tat actions of the PPS and the Bund for Jewish support, and how each organization tried to outdo the other without fundamentally altering their political programs, eventually became somewhat tiresome. Between this incessant rivalry, Zimmerman provides a comprehensive history of both organizations, especially their organizational and ideological evolution (internal factionalism, the national question and the Jewish question in particular, Polish independence, relations with Russian revolutionaries, etc.) and how each organization responded to revolutionary events (Bloody Sunday, the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution, elections to the Duma, etc.)

I thought this was an excellent book that sheds light on an important and often academically neglected aspect of the national question in late tsarist Russia and the early USSR.

Review: “Socialist Revolutions in Asia: The Social History of Mongolia in the Twentieth Century” – Irina Y. Morozova

Irina Y. Morozova’s “Socialist Revolutions in Asia: The Social History of Mongolia in the Twentieth Century” was not what I had expected — and not in a good way!

When I first ordered this book from Routledge, I had hoped for a more balanced history of socialist development in Mongolia than B. Shirendyb’s heavily pro-Soviet book “By-Passing Capitalism” (not that I think B. Shirendyb’s book is bad). Instead, I found this book confusing and contradictory, and while I hope I am wrong, some of the author’s implications seem racist to me.

Throughout the book the author makes extremely confusing and contradictory statements or conclusions. For example, the author is (unsurprisingly) anti-communist, and like most Western anti-communists, she is sympathetic to the plight of the wealthy feudal lamas in Mongolia. Nonetheless her statements and conclusions dumbfound me. She describes the feudal lamas as “the biggest, richest and most privileged strata” at the beginning of the twentieth century (pp. 28). She then laments efforts to weaken — and eventually eliminate — this “biggest, richest and most privileged strata” and secularize the country as an “insidious policy” intended “to create a new generation of lamas who were not beholden to the Buddhist spirits of compassion and humbleness, but rather cultivating in them a truly earthly neglect of tradition and lust for power. In other words, the true teaching of Buddha and monastic ritual had to be perverted from within by the Buddhists themselves” (pp. 94). According to the author, the lamas were already “the biggest, richest and most privileged strata” and already had all the power. This is hardly in keeping with the teachings of Buddha, since it is difficult to imagine these lamas accumulating all this wealth and power in an impoverished nomadic society with “compassion and humbleness”! Moreover, if the lamas already had all the power and wealth before Mongolian revolutionaries seized control of Mongolia, it doesn’t sound like they needed to assistance in cultivating a “lust for power” by the Mongolian revolutionaries! On the next page (pp. 94) we see this “compassion and humbleness” of the wealthy lamas in practice, when the author describes how the lamas accumulated “huge stock[s] of weapons” in the monasteries and condemned the “red threat”.

Another frequent contradiction throughout the book is the threat of internal enemies and of Japanese militarism. On pp. 93, the author writes: “To increase the activity of the extraordinary supra-legal organizations, an ‘external threat’ was fabricated: the idea that foreign enemies were ready to prevent the Mongolian people from building socialism.” The implication of this was there was no threat of Japanese militarism, that Mongolia’s leaders had to create a threat to justify further repression, which the author writes “approached the level of genocide” (pp. 97). But earlier, on pp. 52, the author describes how in 1925-27, the deposed lamas “still hoped for revenge. Japanese agents endeavoured to support them, provoking and stimulating pan-Mongolist movements in Inner Mongolia.” The author then seems to do a complete U-turn on pp. 99: “In such a poor state, the country faced a real threat — it had to resist a strong and militarized Japan.” In other words, had Mongolian revolutionary leaders not “fabricated” an external threat of “foreign enemies” within Mongolia, which the author admits existed, the country would have been better prepared against the real external threat, Japan! Pardon the language — but what the hell?!

Finally, and I hope I am wrong about this, some of the author’s conclusions seem to be thinly veiled racism towards the people of Mongolia. For example, instead of the Marxist theory of the class-struggle being relevant to conditions in Mongolia, the author makes this highly dubious and seemingly racist conclusion: “As Mongolian history had included the slaughtering of entire ethnic groups according to the customs of tribal rivalry, the principle of the class struggle might have been in a certain way acceptable to the Mongols” (pp. 32). Uhm…, what?! There are many more instances of highly dubious and seemingly racist conclusions in this book. According to the author, the expropriations committed against the wealthy lamas had less, if anything, to do with the objective class struggle between rich and poor than it had to do with the nature of nomads: “First, it should be remembered that the resources of a nomadic economy are limited, and an active exchange and trade with sedentary societies are required for is sustainability. That is why, against the backdrop of the changing international situation, when all ‘peaceful’ means for acquiring essential means and goods had been expended, the nomads sparked economic expansion through forced expropriation of resources and property…” (pp. 63). Thus, when Mongolian revolutionaries began expropriating the property and wealth of the feudal lamas, this wasn’t due to the class struggle as Marxists understand it but rather it was an expression of “the militant expansionism of the Central Asian nomads…turned inward” (pp. 64).

A very disappointing book indeed!

Review: “The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir” – Telford Taylor

Telford Taylor’s “The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir” is both a memoir/autobiography and a scholarly legal analysis of the International Military Tribunal.

The book begins with some details about Taylor and international law as it existed at the time of WWII. Taylor had served in the American Army intelligence in Europe during WWII before being assigned as assistant to Chief Counsel Robert H. Jackson at Nuremberg in 1944. He describes international law as it existed at the time of the establishment of London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, such as the Lieber Code, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Convention of 1864, the Kellogg-Briand Pact (Pact of Paris) of 1928, etc., and the legal challenges of including crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and the waging of aggressive wars in the Charter’s indictment.

Taylor moves on to describe the difficulties of reaching agreement on the indictment. Firstly, there were differences in what to do with the top ranking Nazis. The British initially supported killing all the major Nazis, while the Americans wanted a trial, which Taylor notes was a reversal of the outcome of WWI, when the British wanted a trial of Kaiser officials and the Americans were indifferent, if not opposed. Secondly, differences between Anglo-American and Continental European law posed major challenges on reaching an agreement between the U.S., Britain, France, and the USSR, which affected everything from what the indictment was and how it should be written, to whether or not the SS and the Gestapo could be charged as entities. Thirdly, the charge of “conspiracy”, the brainchild of Murray C. Bernays, to wage aggressive wars was and remained throughout the trial extremely controversial.

The rest of the book is a mixture of Taylor’s memoirs (what he heard, witnessed, experienced, etc.) and legal analysis (of the defense and prosecutions arguments, the evidence, etc.). This is where the value of the book really comes to light. Taylor offers a penetrating insider’s perspective of the participants (judges, prosecution, defense, and Nazi criminals), both within the courtroom and outside, and the progress of the trial.

Taylor describes Hermann Goering’s stunning victory over Jackson in the courtroom. According to Taylor, “Jackson was ‘unable to follow’ Goering, ‘much less outmaneuver him’” in his cross-examination. Jackson proceeded to have a meltdown in court, bitter at Goering’s victory over him, causing tension between the judges and the American prosecution. Goering was apparently too smart for the Americans; the British and Soviets were more effective with him. Throughout the book Taylor frequently describes the mental deterioration of Rudolph Hess throughout he trial. Despite the court psychologist’s evaluation of Hess as fit to stand trial, Taylor repeatedly makes it known that he disagreed. Taylor takes pity on Hess, which I found strongly disagreeable. Hess was a vicious Nazi that should have been hanged with the rest of them, but that is my opinion.

Here is a glimpse of how Taylor describes some of the Nazis. Ribbentrop was “regarded with utter scorn” at Nuremberg. Keitel was “the sort of weak man whom Hitler could count on to follow his orders regardless of law or morals.” Kaltenbrunner was “the most ominous-looking man in the dock and had no friends there.” Rosenberg “was maddeningly verbose and drove both his counsel (Dr. Alfred Thoma) and [President Judge] Lawrence to distraction with his insistence on treating every question as raising theoretical and historical matters. It was much easier to find him irritating than evil, and it was not until the evidence was forced onto the stage that one became aware of the atrocious consequences of this woolly and maundering man’s activities.” Frank “was no more attractive than most of his fellow defendants, but he was among the more interesting.” Frick “was the consummate bureaucrat — stiff, orderly, taciturn, unimaginative — and the least interesting of the defendants” as well as “a very cold fish.” Streicher posed the most difficult legal issues, his sole crime at Nuremberg being incitement since he had never participated or organized any violence against Jews. Schacht “was at the top of Dr. Gilbert’s IQ ladder (though only marginally above Seyss-Inquart, Goering, and Doenitz)” and as well as having superior education and linguistic skills, “he was the most sophisticated in the ways of the world. To those whom he respected, Schacht could be charming, but he did not suffer fools gladly and was arrogant, tough, sarcastic, and domineering. He was invariably convinced that he was both right and in the right…”. Funk was “Pasty, pudgy, in poor health, blubbering when testimony or photographs illuminated the horrors of the Nazi record, and openly scared — a pitiful wreck of a man who had fallen beneath respect, and knew it.” Schirach “ was the weakest of the defendants. If wimps had been spoken of, Schirach would have been so styled.”

Almost 200 pages of the book are devoted to the Nazi criminals, their testimonies, the arguments of their defense lawyers and the prosecution, and Taylor’s personal assessment of the Nazi criminals and the conduct of their trials. The above is a glimpse of the insider’s perspective that Taylor offers.

An element of the book I strongly disliked — and eventually found unbearable — was Taylor’s American righteousness. Throughout the book Taylor repeatedly criticizes all the other powers for their actions during WWII, such as (correctly) British and French appeasement of the Nazis, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and British unwillingness to provide evidence to the defense counsel of British plans for the occupation of Norway, and (incorrectly) especially the Soviets, such as the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact and the division of Poland, the Soviet-Finnish War, the pre-WWII purges, and the Katyn Massacre. But nowhere does he criticize the U.S., even when evidence of American crimes under the Nuremberg charter are brought out in open court. For example, Doenitz, commander of the German Navy, was accused of sinking British merchant ships in violation of the London Submarine Protocol of 1936. According to Taylor, this agreement prohibited the sinking of merchant ships without the attacking vessel first placing “the passengers, crew, and ship’s paper in a place of safety.” Thus, Taylor writes, “the German practice was a gross violation, causing many deaths at sea, and the charge could well lead to a capital consequence” for both Nazi navy officers at Nuremberg. Yet, when Doenitz’s lawyer offered evidence of the U.S. Navy committing the exact same “gross violation” in the sinking of Japanese merchant ships, all Taylor has to say is that the British prosecutor Fyfe’s objection that “the question whether the United States broke the laws and usages of war is quite irrelevant…it raises the old problem of evidence directed to tu quoque” and that Fyfe was “on sound ground; in general criminal law, if a defendant has committed a particular crime, the fact that others have also, even if the others are the accusers, is no defense.” The fact that American crimes during WWII receive a pass from Taylor throughout the book really diminished my respect for Taylor and his legal analyses.

Overall it was a really eye-opening book about a critical period in the establishment of modern international law.

Terrorism and International Law in Palestine

Image Credit: Getty image by Mustafa Hassouna

Israel is once again bombarding Gaza in response to Palestinian protests against the illegal eviction of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem and Israeli attacks on the al-Aqsa Mosque. Whenever Israel commits such acts of ethnic cleansing and its genocidal policies makes international news headlines, it is often claimed by Israel’s right-wing supporters, both liberals and conservatives, that Israel has the right to self-defence against terrorist attacks by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This is a grotesque misuse of these terms. When Hamas, the democratically elected government in Gaza and the offspring of the Israeli Right, fires rockets at Israelis, it is condemned for committing an act of terrorism, even though these rockets are rarely powerful enough to cause any significant number of deaths or property damage. When nuclear armed Israel slaughters the people of Gaza, it is acting in legitimate self-defence, even if it kills thousands of innocent men, women, and children. Joseph Goebbels would not doubt be impressed by such masterly propaganda!

The widespread media coverage of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and Israel’s numerous genocidal military campaigns against Gaza has made Hamas, the democratically elected government in Gaza, a household name. Yet it is easy to forget that Hamas, described as an organization with “radical, murderous Islamic roots” and “a pervasive indifference to human life, freedom and democracy” in the corporate mainstream media, which is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, was once encouraged and supported by Israel as a rival to Yasser Arafat’s secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

It might seem paradoxical that Israel, a self-proclaimed Jewish state, would support Islamic fundamentalists, especially since Israel is regularly depicted as the victim, not the instigator, of Islamic fundamentalism. But though seemingly paradoxical Islamic fundamentalism fitted neatly with Israel’s expansionist aims in the Middle East. A Middle East dominated by Islamic fundamentalism would give Israel, especially the Israeli Right, a carte blanche to realize a ‘Greater Israel’.[1] As a former Mossad agent recalled, “Supporting radical elements of Muslim fundamentalism sat well with [Israel]’s greater plan for the region. An Arab world run by fundamentalists would not be a party to any negotiations with the West, thus leaving Israel again as the only democratic, rational country in the region. And if [Israel] could arrange for Hamas…to take over the Palestinian streets from the PLO, then the picture would be complete.”[2] Thus Israel supported Islamic fundamentalists on several fronts, including in Gaza and the West Bank, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran.[3]

When Israel captured Gaza in the Arab-Israeli War (1967), Nasser’s ban on the Muslim Brotherhood was effectively reversed, as Israel allowed, indeed encouraged, Islamic fundamentalists, including the paraplegic founder of Hamas Ahmed Yassin, to operate in Gaza. “Israel’s military-led administration in Gaza,” writes Andrew Higgins, “looked favorably on the paraplegic cleric, who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a library and kindergartens. Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of militancy. The university was one of the first targets hit by Israeli warplanes” during Operation Cast Lead (2008-9).[4]

Israeli leaders viewed the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood as an instrument to weaken the PLO and Arab nationalism, and not without reason. “During most of the 1980s,” writes Robert Dreyfuss, “the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank did not support resistance to the Israeli occupation. Most of its energy went into fighting the PLO, especially its more left-wing factions, on university campuses.”[5] Consequently, according to historian Zeev Sternell, “Israel thought that it was a smart ploy to push the Islamists against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).”[6] In fact, so close was Israel to the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, which later became Hamas, that while some wealthy Persian Gulf states supported the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Wahhabism, initially refused to do so. The reason for this, according to Charles Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was that “Saudi Arabia didn’t want money going to an Israeli front organization.”[7]

When Hamas Charter was issued in 1988, effectively establishing Hamas as an armed resistance movement against Israel, during the First Intifada (1987-93), Israel continued to support Hamas as the successor to the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, as documents released by Wikileaks during Gaza War in 2014 reveal. “Many in the West Bank believe that Israel actively supports Hamas, in its effort to split the Palestinian nation and weaken the Intifada,” a document from September 23rd, 1988 reads. In another document, Israeli sources claim that Hamas “serves as a useful counter-force for the secular organizations loyal to PLO”.[8]

Thus, Israel was instrumental in the establishment of Hamas in Gaza, which it classifies as a terrorist organization despite being the democratically elected government in Gaza. This brings us to the second issue in the media portrayal of Israel’s genocidal military campaigns against Gaza: the definition and meaning of the word “terrorism”. From a legal standpoint the word terrorism “is imprecise; it is ambiguous; and above all, it serves no operative legal purpose,” Richard Baxter expressed in 1974.[9] These same attributes make the word terrorism very attractive for political purposes; the very ambiguity of the word leaves it open to interpretation. It is subjectively “used to define reality in order to place one’s own group on a high moral plane, condemn the enemy, rally members around a cause, silence or shape policy debate, and achieve a wide variety of” political and religious goals, wrote Philip Herbst.[10] As if this writing, there is no internationally accepted legal definition of terrorism. It is necessary therefore to examine the various definitions of “terrorism” in its proper context.

The killing of civilians and non-combatants is a common criterion in many definitions of terrorism. Central to the U.S. State Department’s definition of terrorism is “premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatant targets.”[11] Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute of Counter-Terrorism, defines terrorism as “the intentional use of, or threat to use, violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.”[12]

Evidence of Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians is overwhelming. In 2014, Amnesty International found that “Israeli forces have carried out attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, including through the use of precision weaponry such as drone-fired missiles, and attacks using munitions such as artillery, which cannot be precisely targeted, on very densely populated residential areas, such as Shuja’iyya. They have also directly attacked civilian objects.”[13] Indeed, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights stated in 2014 that Israel “has defied international law by attacking civilian areas of Gaza such as schools, hospitals, homes and U.N. facilities.”[14] Moreover, the destruction of Palestinian homes in 2014 — an estimated 7,000 demolished and another 89,000 damaged — killing whole families at once, was condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as tantamount to collective punishment, a war crime under international law. A simple comparison of the number of Israeli civilians killed vs. the number of Palestinian civilians killed, including Israeli snipers deliberately targeting Palestinian children and babies (see Murder of Shalhevet Pass), makes Israel the main instigator of terrorism as defined by the Israeli(!) International Institute of Counter-Terrorism.

The unlawful or illegal use of violence to achieve political aims is another criterion common to many definitions of terrorism. The U.S. Defence Department defines terrorism as the “unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political.”[15] A very similar definition of terrorism is used by the U.S. Justice Department: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”[16]

This is especially important vis-à-vis Israel’s genocidal military campaigns against Gaza and the West Bank, and the claim that Israel has a right to self-defence against Hamas rockets. As an occupying power Israel does not have the right to defend itself under international law against the very same people living under its occupation. “[T]he right to initiate militarized force in response to an armed attack,” Noura Erakat, a professor of international law at Georgetown University explained, “is not a remedy available to the occupying state…[t]herefore the right of self-defense in international law is, by definition since 1967, not available to Israel with respect to its dealing with real or perceived threats emanating from the West Bank and Gaza Strip population.”[17] Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that “there is no Israeli occupation of Gaza”[18] notwithstanding, Gaza can hardly be considered free when, according to Amnesty International, Israel has sole control over Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and land borders, Gaza’s population registry and supply of food, medicine, electricity, and other necessities, and the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza.[19] Palestinians living in Gaza find it almost impossible “to meet with their relatives living outside the area, to study abroad, to receive advanced medical treatment, to find employment, to conduct business, to go on vacation, or to visit holy sites” without the approval of Israeli authorities.[20] Illustrative of how much control Israel wields over Gaza, when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, “widely concerned to be free and fair” according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report[21], Israel responded by imposing a “starvation diet” on the people of Gaza.[22] (Collective punishment is prohibited under Article 33 of the Geneva Convention[23], and the UN has declared the deliberate withholding of food to be a war crime[24].)

Israel’s microscopic management of the calorie intake of the people of Gaza leaves no doubt that, notwithstanding the termination of the military government and the lack of a permanent military presence, Israel wields “effective control” over Gaza, and thus Gaza is considered occupied under international law and is therefore subject to the laws of occupation.[25] This reality “enjoys an overwhelming international consensus: Namely, that the entirety of the territories captured by Israel in 1967 remain occupied according to international law,” professors and Middle East experts Mark LeVine and Lisa Hajjar explain.[26]

Determining whether or not Gaza is legally recognized as an occupied territory is more than an exercise in semantics. As an occupied territory, the people of Gaza have the right to struggle for independence “by all available means, including armed struggle,” as stated in UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/3246 (XXIX) adopted November 29th, 1974 [emphasis added]. Four years later the UN again reaffirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle…” [emphasis added][27] . Protocol I of the Geneva Convention further enshrines the right of people living under colonial domination and foreign occupation as well as racist regimes (Israel has frequently been compared to apartheid South Africa) to use armed force in exercise of their right to self-determination[28].

Thus, if we accept the definitions of terrorism used by the U.S. Defense and Justice departments, it is not Hamas that is committing acts of terrorism, it is Israel. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — which includes Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem — have an internationally recognized right to armed struggle against Israeli occupation. This fact is supported by Lynda Brayer, an Israeli-trained human rights lawyer: “This document [UN resolution 37/43] legitimises all national liberation struggles, including, at this time in history, most particularly, the Palestinian people’s struggle for its own freedom. It is this right which legitimises all Palestinian attempts to lift the yoke of Israeli oppression from Palestine, including all the actions taken by the Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2008/09 siege of Gaza]”[29]. CJ Werleman best summarizes the importance of the right of Palestinians to armed struggle: “Under international law, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is illegal, and Palestinians have a right to ‘armed struggle’ against their illegal occupier — Israel — thus ipso facto Palestinians have a right to defend themselves against Israel, but Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian resistance is not guaranteed in the same manner.”[30] Since Palestinians are entitled to armed struggle against foreign occupation, it is Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, not Hamas rocket attacks, that meet the U.S. Defense and Justice departments’ definition of terrorism.

All progressive-minded people must stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and resistance against illegal foreign occupation.

Review: “The Formation of the Uzbek Nation-State: A Study in Transition” – Anita Sengupta

Anita Sengupta’s “The Formation of the Uzbek Nation-State: A Study in Transition” is a highly theoretical examination of nation-state formation. Unlike Adeeb Khalid, Adrienne Edgar, Arne Haugen, and other Central Asia scholars, Sengupta’s primary focus is not on the actual establishment of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, nor Soviet nationalities policy, but how the transformation of Uzbekistan, first from the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920), then to a Soviet Socialist Republic (1924-91), and finally to an independent state (1991-present), challenges orthodox theories of state formation.

Sengupta’s thesis is that the process of state formation is not a “one-time affair, but a continuous process of transition” (p. 277). She arrives at this conclusion through examining the dialectics of Uzbekistan’s various transitions, emphasizing the continuities and discontinuities. Each transformation of Uzbekistan, “from the Emirate structures that existed in the region, into becoming the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan and finally the Uzbekiston Republikasi,” cannot be so simplistically understood as a “break” from the previous state formation. These transitions were not linear ones, as the “new state structures embodied numerous elements of the previous states but [were] also determined by the political circumstances of [their] birth” (p.xxii). Soviet and non-Soviet scholars alike have “generally asserted” that in the conditions of the Emirate of Bukhara and Russian Turkestan, “the October Revolution broke out in the region and transformed the politics of the area. Yet, it has been seen how this simple model of transition is problematic because it ignores the dialectic of indigenousness and modernity, at the turn of the century, which can be traced clearly to the advent of the ‘new way’ — the Usul-i-Jadid” (p.278). In other words, the establishment of Soviet rule can not so easily be characterized as a fundamental break with pre-revolutionary politics in Turkestan since the Soviets sanctioned and supported the pre-revolutionary program of the Jadids. Neither does such a simplistic model of transition characterize Uzbekistan’s transition from a Soviet Socialist Republic to an independent state. “It was the old Soviet-trained elites who found themselves as leaders of the new sovereign state. As a result there was an almost total carryover of the older structures to the new state. The Communist Party of Uzbekistan changed its name to become the ruling People’s Democratic Party, the First Secretary of the Uzbek SSR became the first President of the Republic. The continuity of structures in the course of the ‘break’ again proved crucial” (p.282).

Sengupta’s thesis — that state formation is a continuous process of transition and not a singular event — struck me as somewhat unusual. I agree with Sengupta’s conclusion; states are always in a process of continuous transition (isn’t everything?). But it shocks me that anyone would seriously argue that “states” or “nations” as they exist under conditions of capitalist modernity have assumed their ‘final’ or ‘ultimate form’! Perhaps this is because I am not as well read on theories of state formation, but it nonetheless seems absurd to me.

This book was a challenge to read — and very difficult to start. I had hoped for a more comprehensive, Adeeb Khalid-style study of Soviet nationalities policy in Central Asia and the establishment of Uzbekistan, not a book challenging orthodox theories of state formation. I’m glad its done!

Review: “Japan’s New Imperialism” – Rob Steven

“Japan’s New Imperialism” by Rob Steven is a slightly-dated (published 1990) but nonetheless comprehensive analysis of the rise of Japanese imperialism in Southeast Asia since the 1970s. Since the end of decolonization, “a new revolutionary force is sweeping through and transforming Southeast Asia. That force is capitalism, and once again the catalytic upsurge in its development is coming from Japan,” so begins the book. Examining the dynamics of this transformation is the task Steven has set himself.

Using Marxist economic theory, Steven examines the social forces engendering the flight of capital from Japan to Southeast Asia. He begins with an analysis of what was known as endaka fukyō, the high yen recession. According to Steven, although the Japanese ruling class depicted the 1973 oil shock as the cause of Japan’s economic woes (not unexpectedly, Steven writes, because ever “since the Meiji Restoration, competition from foreign capital in one form or another, from the gunboat diplomacy of the 1860s through the free trade imperialism of the nineteenth century and then the Second World War, has been a greater threat to Japanese capital than have the ordinary Japanese people” (p.12)), the origins of the endaka begin much earlier than 1973. To deal with capital’s declining profitability in the 1960s, the Japanese ruling class adopted a “three-pronged approach, which it would repeat in the subsequent period of crisis a decade later” (p.13). Firstly, ‘scrap and build’, where less profitable industries were run down and new ones built from the surplus of the old, was accelerated. Secondly, the run down industries were relocated abroad. And thirdly, a wholesale attack on the Japanese working-class, through the temporary labour and subcontracting systems.

This industrial restructuring, Steven argues, was “not unexpectedly the seed and eventually the dominant form of the next crisis” (p.14). The Reagan administration’s monetarist solution to the U.S.’s external deficit made U.S. capital more competitive, but with devastating consequences to the Japanese working-class: “By reducing the dollar outlays needed to employ American workers, it made investment in the US increasingly more attractive than Japan. Japanese employers thus once again forced down wages which in real terms were already not much more than half those in America” (p.16). In this, Japanese unions helped employers “single out old, infirm, or rebellious workers for redundancy” (p.19), which, sadly, does not surprise me. The limited spending power of Japanese workers restricted the domestic market for Japanese capital, leading to export-led economic production. “A lot of money could be made producing machinery cheaply in Japan and selling it in the lucrative markets of the advanced countries in Europe and America” (p.19). It was during this ‘second Japanese miracle’ that major Japanese corporations, such as Toyota, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd (now Panasonic), and Hitachi, achieved their international prominence.  

U.S. capital, however, didn’t take too kindly to Japanese capital’s competition for the American market: “It was one thing to rely heavily on he US for food and raw material supplies in the immediate postwar period, since this did not threaten the interests of American capital, but quite another thing to storm into the latter’s backyard and gobble up its diminishing market” (p.21). But by this period, “the already crisis-ridden US system had as its counterpart in Japan an unprecedented industrial specialization, an unprecedented dependence on export markets and an unprecedented dependence on the American market” (ibid).

Among the weapons used by U.S. capital against Japanese capital “was its monetarist strategy to reduce its deficit with Japan by shifting much of the burden from its own to the Japanese working class. The spectacular rise of the yen, following the ‘G5’ agreement (among the finance ministers of the five major powers on 22 September 1985) that adjustment of the exchange rate should receive the highest priority, had just this effect” (p.27).

Japanese capital adopted the same “three-pronged approach” as in the 1970s: the scrapping of less profitable industries, an attack on the working-class, and transferring industries overseas.

The rest of the book is devoted to examining Japanese direct foreign investment (DFI) in Asia. Steven divides Japanese DFI into three periods: the labour-intensive textile DFI in the 1960s, the raw materials DFI in the 1970s after the oil shock, and the machinery investments in the 1980s.

The first period of textile investments (1962-73), centered in Latin America and Asia, was “characterized by small projects and small companies” (p.71), “chiefly for the local markets” (p.68), and “grew out of the crisis of rising real wages following the revival of capital accumulation in the mid-1950s” (ibid). South Korea and Taiwan were the primary targets of the DFI.

The second period of basic and raw materials DFI, “continued the emphasis on labour intensive industries in Southeast Asia, but it also included a powerful new thrust into securing raw materials” (p74). Industries such as steel, non-ferrous metals, petrochemicals, pulp and paper, etc., were relocated abroad, “so that Japan could concentrate on machinery, final processing and final assembly” and other high-valued production processes (ibid). Japanese DFI in this period was quantitatively larger than during the first, involving larger investments and larger corporations, and was directed at resource-rich countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

The second period ended and the third began due to a “shift in the line-up of forces opposing Japanese capital” (p.83). Until the early 1980s, Japanese capital’s main confrontations had been with the working-class in Japan and the various Southeast Asian countries. During this time “relations with the ruling classes of the advanced countries had been relatively cooperative” (ibid). By the 1980s, Japanese capital increasingly had to compete with the capital from the advanced countries, namely the U.S. The strategy Japanese capital adopted was to “as far as possible geographically separate the points of production and sales, so that the maximum profits could be made from simultaneously exploiting both the lowest wage costs as well as the most luxurious markets” (p.83-84). Japanese transnationals have established numerous overseas subsidiaries, even in the advanced countries, but “instead of importing components almost exclusively from Japan as in the past, they are not bringing in more from cheap production sites in Asia” (p. 86).

Steven then examines Japanese capital’s strategies in selected countries and regions. In the U.S. and Europe, despite significant DFI, these regions remain sites of consumption and not production. In South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, the so-called NICs, formerly major sites of Japanese textile and electronics production, Japanese capital is increasingly shifting production away from these countries, due to successful working-class struggles for higher wages, the rise in Asian currencies, and local competition. Singapore and Hong Kong have in particular been transformed into clearing houses for Japanese capital, or so-called ‘middlemen’ for Japanese neo-colonialism in neighbouring countries. In Thailand and Malaysia, while still importance sources of raw materials, Japanese capital is increasingly centered in more production oriented investments, taking advantage of political stability, infrastructure, and low wages, as alternatives to the NICs. And in the Philippines and Indonesia, Japanese capital is still primarily invested in resource extraction and raw materials processing, due to the abundance of raw materials, low wages, and minimal environmental regulation, as well as political and social instability, which discourages riskier and more capital-intensive DFI.

I enjoyed reading this book, which I think is a valuable and comprehensive analysis of Japanese imperialism, despite a lot of numbers and charts. And although the book was published in 1990, I doubt much has changed since then. Probably Japanese capital has intensive the changes he describes, and not much else. I definitely didn’t expect such a thorough analysis. Palgrave publishes some amazing scholarly books, but I wouldn’t have expected such a progressive, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, if not Marxist, book from them. This book reads and feels a lot more like something published by Monthly Review than Palgrave!

Review: “Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It” – James Ciment

James Ciment’s “Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It” is, in my opinion, a much better history of Liberia than David Reese’s “Liberia: America’s African Stepchild”.

In Ciment’s book the primary objective of his historical investigation is the politics of Liberia, not the people, although for obvious reasons the people figure prominently in the book as well. Unlike in Reese’s book, which fails to really explain how and why Liberia developed into a racist, elitist society, where 95%+ of the country was disqualified from citizenship for the first 100 years of the republic’s existence, Ciment’s book really examines in detail the Americo-Liberian monopoly on power in Liberia. Although established by freed slaves from America, based on what Ciment writes, the initial settlers in Liberia encountered many of the same challenges as early European settlers in America: impoverishment, starvation, disease (most settlers succumbed to malaria), and incessant wars with indigenous peoples. Under these conditions, whatever their intentions, Americo-Liberian settlers became a close-knit, xenophobic, and incestuous group, clinging to life on the fringes of Liberia’s Winward Coast.

The 133-rule of the Americo-Liberians came to an abrupt end in 1980. Master Sargent Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian officer, overthrow Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, in a violent coup d’état. Ciment attributes the causes of the coup to two main factors. Firstly, he cites growing discontent with the increasingly autocratic rule of the Americo-Liberians, especially under William Tubman’s 27-year long rule. An important Cold War ally of U.S. imperialism, a die-hard anti-communist, and enemy of Nkrumah’s Ghana, Ciment describes how Tubman established his own veritable, U.S.-backed Gestapo to hunt down opposition. Secondly, Liberia underwent tremendous social and economic change after WWII. By the time Tubman died in 1971, Liberia had the world’s largest rubber industry and was one of the largest iron ore exporters. Small-scale, indigenous rice farmers were increasingly — and not uncommonly forced — to work in the rubber plantations and iron ore mines as cheap labour, forcing Liberia to import most of its rice. In April 1979, Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, increased the price of rice, provoking a riot in Monrovia. At least 40 people were killed when Liberian police opened fired on the protestors. Fearing that Liberia’s mostly indigenous armed forces would side with the protestors, the Tolbert administration brought in 700 troops from neighbouring Guinea to quell the violence. This severely damaged Tolbert’s credibility, not only in the eyes of most Liberians, but also in eyes of Liberia’s armed forces.

Ciment concludes the book with a brief overview of Liberia’s history after the 1980 coup. Tolbert’s violent end at the hands of Doe changed little in Liberia. Awash in military support from the rabidly anti-communist Reagan administration, the Doe regime continued the violent persecution of indigenous Liberians, especially the Gio and Mano ethnic groups. Charles Taylor, a sociopathic former Doe official, and his rebels (mostly Gios and Manos) invaded Liberia from neighbouring Ivory Coast, sparking the First Liberian Civil War. Taylor and another equally sociopathic rebel leader, Prince Johnson, laid siege to Monrovia as they battled for control of Liberia. Johnson can still be seen on YouTube, drinking a Budweiser, and shouting orders while his soldiers mutilate a bloody and screaming Doe on camera. Taylor’s triumph over Johnson again changed little in Liberia. Indigenous Kahan Liberians, persecuted by Taylor, formed a rebel group and invaded Liberia in 2003 from neighbouring Guinea, sparking the Second Liberian Civil War.

The story of Liberia and the former slaves who ruled it is a sad but nonetheless very interesting one.

Review: “Liberia: America’s African Stepchild” – David Reese

David Reese’s “Liberia: America’s African Stepchild” is a rather unique history of an African nation. Each chapter is essentially a mini-biography of an important person in Liberia’s history, such as Paul Cuffe, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Edward James Roye, Edwin Barclay, Edward Blyden, William Tubman, and Samuel Doe. It is through the stories of these and other men that Reese tells the story of Liberia. Anything ‘extra’ is added as a separate section in a separate typeset within a chapter.

Reese’s approach I think has some useful benefits but also some serious, and rather disappointing, drawbacks. One the one hand, the book is very easy to read (like a novel), and it is easier to understand Liberia’s historical development from a disease-ridden, impoverished settlement to an independent state. On the other hand, it leaves a lot of unanswered ‘big’ questions, such as how and why Americo-Liberian settlers, mostly manumitted slaves or the descendants of slaves, established in Liberia a society that was a mirror image of the American antebellum south in Africa! Reese’s approach, I found, skims the surface of Liberia’s history, but fails to offer a critical, penetrating analysis of why it developed as it did.

Review: “1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War” – Michael Carley

Michael Carley’s “1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II” reads like an episode of Law and Order: Special Appeasement Unit. Carley writes about the high-stakes diplomacy in the 1930s like a court-room drama — a real thriller!

Carley’s main argument is that WWII happened because of British, French, and Polish anti-communism. A British-French-USSR alliance would surely have blocked Nazi expansion in Europe, but would have strengthened Soviet influence, something British and French leaders feared and detested more than Nazism. Even after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland — the start of the “Bore War” or “Phoney War” — British and French leaders continued to appease Hitler.

Although Carley remains commendably objective in his book, Carley’s anti-communism is all too apparent, even if it is difficult for him to criticize the USSR because of the utter failure of British and French leaders. Moreover, the saintliness Carley attributes to Churchill, himself a fascist, throughout the book was rather irritating.

A great book — one that should be required reading in high school history classes.

Review: “Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR” – Adeeb Khalid

Adeeb Khalid’s “Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR” is a landmark study of the creation of the state of Uzbekistan and national territorial delimitation in Soviet Central Asia.

The haphazard and seemingly irrational borders of the five Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — has often been attributed Soviet (i.e., Stalin, since we all know it was impossible for anyone to do anything in the Soviet Union without Stalin personally having approved of…each…and…every…single…thing…) efforts to ‘divide-and-conquer’. Although I think this is a very crude interpretation of the Soviet Union, there are legitimate questions about the makeup of Soviet Central Asia. For instance, why were Bukhara and Samarkand, which were historically centres of Persian/Tajik culture, given to Uzbekistan and not Tajikistan?

Khalid demolishes the anti-Soviet idea that the origin and delimitation of Soviet Central Asia was due to “Stalin simply drawing lines on the map”. While far from being sympathetic to socialism or the Soviet Union, Khalid, like Arsene Saparov and Arne Haugen in their books on the south Caucasus and Central Asia, respectively, argues that the creation of Uzbekistan and the delimitation of Soviet Central Asia was far more complicated than what most scholars seem to think.

Firstly, Khalid argues that “No account of the delimitation [of Soviet Central Asia] has paid adequate attention to the role of Central Asia’s indigenous elites in the process or placed the delimitation in context of the rise of national movements in the region” (p.14). This is very much the same argument made by Arne Haugen in his study of Soviet Central Asia (which I also own!). The Soviets, both Khalid and Haugen argue, didn’t have the resources to unilaterally impose their will in Central Asia. The Centre (i.e., Moscow) was dependent on local actors, in this case the liberal Muslim intelligentsia known as the ‘Jadids’.

Secondly, while mistakes were made and no doubt conflict existed, Khalid argues that the wars in Central Asia were not one of a unified, independent people resisting Soviet colonialism. Central Asia was already divided and rife with conflict. “Much of the bloodshed that took place in Central Asia was the result of the extension into the region of the Russian civil war” (p.88), while “the Basmachi insurgency was…a Central Asian civil war, fought out amongst Central Asians. Instead of being a heroic resistance against outsiders, the Basmachi was a sign of deep divisions within Central Asian society” (p.88). The Soviet Union was not confronted “by a unified, cohesive local society, but a bitterly divided one. Conflicts within Central Asian society were just as important as conflicts between Europeans and Central Asians in the early Soviet period…As historians, we should rid ourselves of the phantom of Central Asian Muslim unity and look at Central Asia as an arena of multifaceted conflict” (p.88). For this reason, Khalid argues that “We should therefore be wary of claims of a primordial unity of the people of Turkestan that was shattered by Soviet machinations. Turkestan was quite literally a creation of the Russian conquest, and it encompassed no unity” (p.46).

The creation of Uzbekistan was not a consequence of alleged Soviet ‘divide-and-conquer’ machinations, Khalid writes. Uzbekistan’s creation was “the triumph of an indigenous national project” (p.1). Khalid examines at length Turkic Muslim modernists in Central Asia and how they conceived of the ‘nation’ as a means of achieving their vision for Central Asia. “For the Jadids…the main inspiration [for Uzbekistan] was the rise of Turkism in the decades preceding the [October] revolution, which resulted in the ethnicization of the confessional-territorial vision of the nation (‘Muslims of Turkestan’) that had underpinned the political imagination of the Jadids before 1917” (p.286).

A fantastic scholarly work that seriously challenges mainstream Western historiography!

Review: “Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper” – Lyudmila Pavlichenko

With 309 confirmed Nazi kills, Lydumila Pavlichenko was the most successful female sniper in the history of modern warfare.

In these memoirs Pavlichenko recounts her experience during the Siege of Odessa and the Siege of Sevastopol. Pavlichenko wasn’t just a sniper; she was a sniper that specialized in hunting enemy snipers! A sniper sniper! Pavlichenko’s description of the mental calculations she makes while ‘hunting’ really interested me. She describes being hidden in a tree and mentally performing all these mathematical calculations involving everything from wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure, humidity, angle, speed of the target, time of the day, elevation of the terrain, etc. It is really quite impressive!

After being hit in the face with shrapnel from a mortar shell in June 1942, Pavlichenko served as a spokeswomen for the Red Army in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., in which she befriended Eleanor Roosevelt. The sexist reaction she received in North America and Europe from officials and the press – such as asking about how she menstruates in the trenches! – really says a lot to me about the place of women in Western ‘democratic’ society during WWII.

Brilliant and lethal, this is one of the most fascinating WWII memoirs I’ve ever read. As a side note, I’d recommend watching Battle of Sevastopol on Amazon Prime; it is loosely based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko!

Review: “Empire of the Sikhs: The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh” – Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai

Patwant Singh and Jyoti M. Rai’s “Empire of the Sikhs” tells the story of one of the most remarkable individuals in the history of the Indian subcontinent, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire.

Blinded in one eye from smallpox, Ranjit Singh first fought in a battle with his father when he was 10-years-old. In 1797, at the age of 17, Singh defeated the Afghan ruler Shah Zaman’s attempt to annex the Punjab. Singh again defeated a second Afghan attempt to annex the Punjab in 1798. By 1799, Singh had declared himself the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.

Under the Maharaja the Sikh Empire successfully held in check British attempts to annex the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Far more remarkable than his numerous military victories, however, was the kind of state the Maharaja established. Under the Maharaja’s rule the Sikh state was a secular empire. The Maharaja built and restored numerous Sikh and Hindu temples and mosques, including platting the Hindu temple Kashi Vishwanath in one tonne of gold, and naming a mosque after his beloved Muslim wife, Moran Sarkar. The composition of the Maharaja’s government reflected his secularism: his Prime Minister was a Dogra, his Foreign Minister was a Muslim, his Finance Minister was a Brahmin Hindu, and his military included Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and Christians, including a number of Polish, Russian, Spanish, British, and French officers, some of whom fought in the Napoleonic Wars. As the authors write in this book, “Ranjit Singh’s monarchical practice was more in keeping with democratic principles than democratic functioning in India today.”

In contrast to other rulers in the Indian subcontinent, the Maharaja also prohibited his army from looting conquered territories and massacring or otherwise harming the populace. “When a victorious Ranjit Singh rode into Peshawar after wresting it from the Afghans,” the authors write, the Maharaja “provided a striking contrast to Mohammed Ghori, Timur, Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali [Durrani] and all the other blood-shedding armies down the centuries. He made it an ironclad rule that his armies would not indulge in carnage, nor burn holy books, nor destroy mosques. The civilian population could, with confidence, continue its daily activities as usual, and no women would be molested, nor men flayed alive.”

The book concludes with the death of the Maharaja, and British attempts to annex the Sikh Empire, culminating in the Anglo-Sikh Wars and British imperialism’s plundering of the Punjab’s wealth.

An excellent book about a remarkable man!