Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Orwell on historical truth

George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- were grossly misrepresented by the Communists. Ultimately his own faction, the POUM, was accused by the Communists of having engaged in conspiracy and having fomented the street violence that occurred during these weeks. Orwell was a participant, and he knew first-hand that this was untrue. It is instructive to read Homage to Catalonia from the lens of "historical truth".

So what were the facts about Barcelona in spring 1937?

IT will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eyewitnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective. (70)

In what follows Orwell offers a judicious account of the events and pronouncements that preceded and followed the beginning of street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- first between the anarchists (CNT) and the Guardia Civil, then with several parties of the left joining with the CNT on the barricades. He makes an effort to recover documents and contemporary news articles to piece together the sequence of events that culminated in the suppression of the POUM. And he finds that reportage in the press was almost invariably incorrect, whether purposefully or not. The Communist line was consistently antagonistic to the anarchists and the Trotskyists (POUM). 

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back’, and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation. (73)

In particular, the Communists were active in constructing a propaganda platform against both POUM and the anarchists.

Since the beginning of the war the Spanish Communist Party had grown enormously in numbers and captured most of the political power, and there had come into Spain thousands of foreign Communists, many of whom were openly expressing their intention of ‘liquidating’ Anarchism as soon as the war against Franco was won. In the circumstances one could hardly expect the Anarchists to hand over the weapons which they had got possession of in the summer of 1936. (73-74)

Orwell explicitly considers his own position and potential bias in constructing the narrative that he offers. He credibly offers a commitment of his own intention to report honestly what he has observed.

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest. But it will be seen that the account I have given is completely different from that which appeared in the foreign and especially the Communist press. It is necessary to examine the Communist version, because it was published all over the world, has been supplemented at short intervals ever since, and is probably the most widely accepted one. ... In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ —a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists. (74)

Throughout he establishes the ideological and propagandist "line" taken by the Communists, and he demonstrates its deliberate mendacity.

In a moment I will give some more extracts from the accounts that appeared in the Communist press; it will be seen that they are so self-contradictory as to be completely worthless. But before doing so it is worth pointing to several a priori reasons why this version of the May fighting as a Fascist rising engineered by the P.O.U.M. is next door to incredible. (75)


The alleged Fascist plot rests on bare assertion and all the evidence points in the other direction. We are told that the plan was for the German and Italian Governments to land troops in Catalonia; but no German or Italian troopships approached the coast. As to the ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ and the ‘German and Italian agents’, they are pure myth. So far as I know there had not even been any talk of a Congress of the Fourth International. There were vague plans for a Congress of the P.O.U.M. and its brother-parties (English I.L.P., German S.A.P., etc., etc.); this had been tentatively fixed for some time in July—two months later—and not a single delegate had yet arrived. The ‘German and Italian agents’ have no existence outside the pages of the Daily Worker. Anyone who crossed the frontier at that time knows that it was not so easy to ‘pour’ into Spain, or out of it, for that matter. (65-776_

And Orwell proceeds with a point-by-point refutation of the anti-Anarchist propaganda narrative offered by the Communists.

It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice. Hence, for instance, such statements as Mr Pitcairn’s in the Daily Worker of 11 May that the ‘rising’ was suppressed by the Popular Army. The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the ‘Trotskyists’. But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. (78)

By contrast with the organized and coordinated Communist narrative, Orwell's account of the street fighting in Barcelona in 1937 has the authenticity of an honest participant who offers his own account of events in which he participated. It is plain that he had sympathies -- for example, he refused the invitation to leave POUM and join the Communist International Brigade because he was not willing to risk being ordered to fire his rifle against Spanish workers (anarchists). But his sympathies do not appear to have interfered with his critical eye and his willingness to tell his story unflinchingly and honestly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An absolutist Socrates

We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors. 

So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which his trial led? Crito offers a series of pragmatic reasons why Socrates should flee: the welfare of his children, the avoidance of harm for his friends, who will be thought to have been too afraid or too penurious to help Socrates escape, his own ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life in another city.

Socrates' reply is that he is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him. Socrates insists that he wants to make the virtuous choice, not the most advantageous choice. He focuses on what justice requires of a citizen when the laws of the city have led to a command that requires great sacrifice of the citizen. In his own case, the laws of the city have been observed: charges have been lawfully brought forward; he has been given the opportunity to rebut the charges; and a majority of the jury has found him guilty of the charges and a separate majority has voted in favor of the penalty of death. The laws of the city have spoken; so what now is the unconditional obligation of the citizen?

Socrates' reasoned answer is unequivocal. He concludes that the lawfully enacted commands of the city create unconditional obligations of compliance for the citizen.

So: Do we say that we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, as we often agreed on previous occasions? (Crito 49a)


So: And so one must never act unjustly.
Cr: By no means.
So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly. (49b)

Here Socrates believes he has established the unconditional, unqualified obligation to act justly. So all that remains is to determine whether "acting justly" requires complying with the lawfully executed commands of the state. But first, are there exceptions to this principle -- for example, in cases where the state's commands are themselves unjust? And second, are there qualifications about the "legitimate" state that must be respected in order to create obligations at all?

Or will we say to them "The city treated us unjustly and did not decide the case properly"? Will we say this or something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that's what we'll say, Socrates. (50c)

Socrates emphatically rejects this idea: there is no exception for "unjust commands" by the state.

So: What if the laws then said, "Socrates, did we agree on this, we and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?" And if we were surprised to hear them say this, perhaps they would say, "Socrates, don't be surprised at what we're saying but answer, since you are used to participating in questioning and answering. Come then, what reason can you give us and the city for trying to destroy us? Did we not, to begin with, give birth to you? And wasn't it through us that your father married your mother and conceived you? So show those of us, the laws concerning marriages, what fault you find that keeps them from being good?" "I find no fault with them," I would say. (50c)

And the crucial lines:

"Well, then. Since you have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? (50e)

The authority of the city, then, depends on two things: the citizen's agreement (explicit or implicit) to comply with decisions the city makes; and the idea that the city created the citizen and rightly "owns" the citizen as offspring and slave. The first reason is fundamentally a social-contract argument for the origins of political obligation, while the second is an even older argument based on the idea of "moral parentage" of the citizen by the city and its laws. And, conjoined with arguments described above, the obligations described here are unconditional: the city has the inherent right to command (enact its laws) without limitation, and the citizen has the absolute duty of compliance. The city and its laws have a moral status higher than that of the citizen.

This is an absolutist theory of the state and its authority. It is, among other things, a complete refutation of the legitimacy of principled civil disobedience; disobedience and non-compliance are never "just". It is also a procedural conception of justice: if the laws stipulate that capital cases must be decided in a day, then there is no place for argument or resistance to the effect that this requirement is unjust to the accused. 

It is worth noticing that Socrates (or Plato) stacks the deck a bit here, by considering only the city's command and the consequence for the individual citizen. The citizen must comply, no matter what the cost to his own interests. But surely this is a special case. If the individual wishes to sacrifice his own interests or life in obedience to the commands of the state, perhaps we should simply regard this as an individual choice. However, the arguments seem to have the same force if the city's commands require the citizen to inflict harm on others -- innocent civilians, members of family, other citizens. If the laws had allowed as punishment for the crimes for which Socrates was convicted the execution of the accused and his children, would Socrates be equally obliged by the requirement of justice to comply? More historically, if the city had commanded that Cleon had unlimited authority to choose the means of war against Sparta (delegating its unconditional right to command) and Cleon had ordered the massacre at Melos, would any Athenian soldier have the moral right to refuse the order? It appears that Socrates' arguments to Crito would persist in holding that the authority to command is absolute; therefore soldiers must comply.

This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state. There is no constitution or bill of rights defining the legitimate scope and limits of state power, and nothing that secures an inviolable zone of protection for the rights of the individual citizen.

Socrates was executed by a judicial process conducted under the terms of Athenian democracy. But what about the commands of the city and its laws during the rule of the Tyrants? Were Athenian citizens equally obligated to comply with the commands of the Tyrants during the period in which they ruled? If so, what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate one? For that matter, how are we to understand Socrates' own refusal to do the bidding of the Tyrants? Why did he not regard their commands as being as absolute and binding as those of the democracy?

Athens' condemnation of Socrates for his speech and teaching is one thing; legitimation of the massacres committed by Cleon in the name of Athens is another. And yet the arguments offered by Socrates in the Crito seem to equally support both. (See these earlier posts for more discussion of crimes of war committed during the Peloponnesian War; link, link.) This suggests that the political theory defended in Crito is fundamentally wrong, and wrong in a very deep way. It provides an absolutist, even totalitarian, basis for thinking about the relationship between state and citizen that is antithetical to the idea of the moral autonomy of the citizen.

Monday, September 4, 2023

A horrendous massacre in Tamil Nadu, 1968

A recurring theme in Understanding Society for the past several years is the occurrence of unfathomable atrocity in the twentieth century. Many of the examples considered occurred in Europe. But atrocities have occurred in many countries and civilizations. A horrific example occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1968. In the small rural village of Keezhvenmani, some 44 dalit people, mostly women and children, were gathered into a hut by the strongmen of local landlords, the hut was set afire, and all 44 innocent dalit people died a horrifying, torturous death. The exact number of victims is uncertain.    

The term "dalit" refers to the lowest caste of people in the Indian caste system, now officially designated as "Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe", and the massacre at Keezhvenmani was only one of a number of mass murders of dalits in Tamil Nadu since independence. (Here is a detailed report by Human Rights Watch on violence against dalit women in India (link). A central finding of the report: "The lack of law enforcement leaves many Dalit women unable to approach the legal system to seek redress. Women are often also unaware of the laws; their ignorance is exploited by their opponents, by the police, and, as illustrated by the cases below, by the judiciary. Even when cases are registered, the lack of appropriate investigation, or the judge’s own caste and gender biases, can lead to acquittal, regardless of the availability of evidence or witnesses. The failure to successfully prosecute cases of rape also allows for crimes against women to continue unabated, and in the caste context, encourages the use of rape as a tool to punish and silence Dalit communities.")

The young scholar Nithila Kanagasabai (herself a resident of Tamil Nadu) attempted to provide an evidence-based reconstruction of the Keezhvenmani massacre in "The Din of Silence: Reconstructing the Keezhvenmani Dalit Massacre of 1968" (link). 

The background of the 1968 killings was the conflict between landlords who owned or controlled the rice paddy of the region (mirasdar) and the landless workers (often formerly bonded laborers) who were the primary workforce. These agricultural workers were dalits and they were extremely poor. When these workers and families began to support the mobilizing efforts of the increasingly active presence of several Communist parties in the region, the landlords began to use violence against these workers and families. A number of murders occurred in the months preceding the December 1968 massacre at Keezhvenmani. Here is Kanagasabai's description of the December 25 massacre:

According to eye witness accounts, on 25th December 1968, at around 10 p.m., the mirasdars and their henchmen came in police lorries and surrounded the cheri (hutments), cutting off all routes of escape. They shot at the labourers and their families who could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot. They also started burning the huts in the vicinity. Many of the women and children, and some old men, sought protection in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. The hut was burnt down, and the people with it. Both the sessions court and the high court that later heard the case, held that those who committed the arson were not aware of the presence of people in that particular hut (Krishnakumar, 2005). But eye witness accounts by the survivors point to an altogether different truth. (111)

The accused perpetrators of this atrocity were charged, tried, and convicted, but their convictions were set aside by the Madras High Court. "The evidence did not enable Their Lordships to identify and punish the guilty” (114).

This event illustrates the workings of oppression involving both caste and class. The landless workers were predominantly dalit -- the lowest caste. And they were the poorest of the poor, with very little power to assert a fair share of the harvest. Land owners were in a position to resist increases in wages (the primary demand of the workers in this dispute), both through their structural advantage within the property system (land ownership) and their coercive power (through their ability to call upon armed thugs to carry out their violence against the dalit protests). A solution for the property disadvantage for the dalit workers is land reform, and during the years following the Keezhvenmani massacre there was a reasonably strong organization dedicated to land reform and dalit land ownership, the Land for Tillers Freedom (LAFTI). However, land reform based on NGO activism is likely to remain small-scale, in comparison to state-wide land reform programs.

Kanagasabai quotes V Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran in the introduction to Mythily Sivaraman's Haunted by Fire (2013):

That episode and visit brought home to Mythily the starkness of life in this grain rich part of Tamil Nadu... She realised that the price for dignity, for daring to declare oneself a communist was very high in these parts – many had paid with their lives... Unsurprisingly, in her subsequent reflections, she refused to concede that the monstrous incident at Kilvenmani was only a wage dispute gone wrong, and argued passionately for it to be recognised for what it was: class struggle in the countryside. (Geetha & Karunakaran, 2013)

Class struggle in the countryside, indeed -- landlords exercising horrendous violence against landless workers.