George orwell

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Book on Utopias from the 17th Century to Today

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2011).

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for several days. Part of that is because the news doesn’t really inspire me. It’s not that it isn’t important, or that the Tories have stopped trying to strip working people of their rights and drive them further into poverty and degradation. Or that I’m unmoved by Trump trying to organise a coup to keep himself in the Oval Office like just about every other tin pot dictator throughout history. Or that Brexit isn’t threatening to destroy whatever remains of British industry and livelihoods, all for the benefit of the Tory superrich and investment bankers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have their money safely invested in firms right across the world. Or that I’m not outraged by even more people dying of Covid-19 every day, while the government has corruptly mismanaged their care by outsourcing vital medical supplies and their services to firms that are clearly incompetent to provide them, because those same firms are run by their chums. Ditto with the grossly inadequate food parcels, which are another vile example of Tory profiteering. It’s just that however disgusting and infuriating the news is, there is a certain sameness about it. Because all this is what the Tories have been doing for decades. It’s also partly because I can’t say anything more or better about these issues than has been already said by great bloggers like Mike, Zelo Street and the rest.

But I’ve also been kept busy reading some of the books I got for Christmas, like the above tome by Ruth Levitas, a sociology professor at Bristol Uni. The blurb for this runs

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of Utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia offers the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

It has the following chapters

  1. Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition
  2. Castles in the Air: Marx, Engels and Utopian Socialism
  3. Mobilising Myths: Utopia and Social Change in Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim
  4. Utopian Hope: Ernst Bloch and Reclaiming the Future
  5. The Education of Desire: The Rediscovery of William Morris
  6. An American Dream: Herbert Marcuse and the Transformation of the Psyche
  7. A Hundred Flowers: Contemporary Utopian Studies
  8. Future Perfect: Retheorising Utopia.

I wanted to read the book because so many utopias have been socialist or socialistic, like the early 19th century thinkers Karl Marx described as utopian, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, and was interested in learning more about their ideas. In this sense, I’m slightly disappointed with the book. Although it tells you a little about the plans for the reformation of society, and the establishment of a perfect state or political system, the book’s not so much about these individual schemes as a more general discussion of the concept of utopia. What, exactly, is a utopia, and how has the concept been used, and changed and developed? Much of this debate has been within Marxism, beginning with the great thinker himself. He called his predecessors – Owen, Fourier and Owen ‘utopian’ because he didn’t believe their particular schemes were realistic. Indeed, he regarded them as unscientific, in contrast to his own theories. However, Marx did believe they had done a vital job in pointing out the failures of the capitalist system. Marxists themselves were split over the value of utopias. The dominant position rejected them, as it was pointless to try to describe the coming society before the revolution. Nevertheless, there were Marxists who believed in their value, as the description of a perfect future society served to inspire the workers with an ideal they could strive to achieve. This position has been obscured in favour of the view that Marx and his followers rejected them, and this book aims to restore their position in the history of Marxist thought. This idea of utopia as essentially inspirational received especial emphasis in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. Syndicalism is a form of radical socialism in which the state and private industry are abolished and their functions carried out instead by the trade unions. Sorel himself was a French intellectual, who started out on the radical left, but move rightward until he ended up in extreme nationalist, royalist, anti-Semitic movements. His ideas were paradoxically influential not just in the Marxist socialism of the former Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy. Sorel doesn’t appear to have been particularly interested in the establishment of a real, syndicalist utopia. This was supposed to come after a general strike. In Sorel’s formulation of syndicalism, however, the general strike is just a myth to inspire the workers in their battle with the employers and capitalism, and he is more interested in the struggle than the workers’ final victory, if indeed that ever arrived.

The book also covers the debate over William Morris and his News from Nowhere. This describes an idyllic, anarchist, agrarian, pre-industrial society in which there are no leaders and everyone works happily performing all kinds of necessary work simply because they enjoy it and find it fulfilling following a workers’ revolution. Apart from criticisms of the book itself, there have also been debates over the depth of Morris’ own socialism. Morris was a member of one of the first British Marxist socialist parties, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and the founder of another, the Socialist League, after he split from them. Critics have queried whether he was ever really a Marxist or even a socialist. One view holds that he was simply a middle class artist and entrepreneur, but not a socialist. The other sees him as a socialist, but not a Marxist. Levitas contends instead that Morris very definitely was a Marxist.

When it comes to the 20th century, the book points out that utopias have fallen out of fashion, no doubt due to the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist, which have claimed to be ideal states. However, the critic Tom Moylan has argued that utopias have still been produced in the SF novels of Joanna Russ, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delaney. He describes these as ‘critical utopias’, a new literary genre. The heroes of this literature is not the dominant White, heterosexual male, but characters who are off-centre, female, gay, non-White, and who act collectively rather than individually. The book criticises some earlier utopias, like News from Nowhere, for their exclusive focus on the male viewpoint, comparing them with the Land of Cockayne, the medieval fantasy that similarly presents a perfect world in which everything is seemingly ordered for men’s pleasure. In contrast to these are the feminist utopias of the above writers, which began in the late 19th century with Harriet Gilman’s Herland. It also discusses the value of satires like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and dystopias like Eugene Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Levitas does not, however, consider utopianism to be merely confined to the left. She also considers Thatcherism a form of utopianism, discussing the late Roger Scruton’s Conservative Essays and citing Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. This last argued that the Conservative promotion of heritage was being used to reinforce old hierarchies in a markedly racist way. Some members of society were thus delineated as truly members of the nation, while others were excluded.

The book was first published in 1990, just before or when Communism was falling. It shows it’s age by discussing the issue whether the terrible state of the Soviet Union served to deter people dreaming and trying to create perfect, socialist societies. She argues that it doesn’t, only that the forms of this societies are different from the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR. This is a fair assessment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the future colonisation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, the colonists not only succeed in terraforming the planet, but also create socialist society in which authority is as decentralised as possible, women are fully equal and patriarchy has been overthrown and businesses run by their workers as cooperatives. At the same time, those wishing to return to a more primitive way of life have formed hunter-gatherer tribes, which are nevertheless also conversant with contemporary technology.

Further on, although the Fall of Communism has been claimed to have discredited not just Marxism but also socialism, recent history has shown the opposite is true. After forty years of Thatcherism, an increasing number of people are sick and tired of it, its economic failures, the glaring inequalities of wealth, the grinding poverty and degradation it is creating. This is why the Conservative establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party, were so keen to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, a Communist and Trotskyite, or whatever else they could throw at him. He gave working people hope, and as Servalan, the grim leader of the Terran Federation said on the Beeb’s classic SF show, Blake’s Seven, ‘Hope is very dangerous’. A proper socialist society continues to inspire women and men to dream and work towards a better world, and it is to stop this that the Blairites contrived to get Corbyn’s Labour to lose two elections and have him replaced by Keir Starmer, a neo-liberal vacuity who increasingly has nothing to say to Johnson and his team of crooks.

Back to the book, its discussion of the nature of utopia therefore tends to be rather abstract and theoretical as it attempts to describe the concept and the way it has changed and been used. I didn’t find this really particularly interesting, although there are nevertheless many valuable insights here. I would instead have been far more interested in learning more about the particular ideas, plans and descriptions of a new, perfect, or at least far better, society of the many thinkers, philosophers and authors mentioned.

Israeli Politicos Went Bug-Eyed at Jack Straw ‘Cos He Mentioned Palestinians

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/11/2020 - 11:02pm in

On Monday, the ultra-Zionist smear sheet the Jewish Chronicle returned to its old tricks of denouncing perfectly decent people as ‘anti-Semites’ because they dare to criticise Israel. Their latest victim is the Labour MP for mid-Sussex, Gemma Bolton, because she had issued a series of tweets describing Israel as an apartheid state, calling for the deselection of MPs who had been disloyal to Corbyn and supporting the BDS campaign against Israel. Aaagh! What a monster! Except, as Zelo Street has shown, there’s absolutely no anti-Semitism there. These are all criticisms of Israel, not Jews or Judaism.

They’re also entirely justified. Israel is an apartheid state. 95 per cent of property in Israel is owned by the Jewish National Fund, which will only let it to Jews. Palestinians are subject to choking legislation deliberately designed to strangle their businesses and agriculture. Arabs travelling into Israel to work have to use separate roads from Israelis, in which they are subject to frequent stops at checkpoints. It doesn’t matter how upset the Board, the Chief Rabbi and the inmates of the United Synagogue get about having Israel described as an apartheid state, an apartheid state is precisely what it is. Demanding that it’s critics see it otherwise is just bullying and brainwashing, like the torture scene in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien attempts to get Winston Smith to say that the wrong number of lights are shining.

As for the BDS campaign being against Israel, this is a deliberate half-truth. It’s not against Israel. It is against goods produced in the occupied territories. These belong to the Palestinians, but the Likudniks and their ultra-nationalistic allies and supporters believe they should be part of Israel. The BDS campaign is thus against Israeli expansionism and apartheid, not against Israel and certainly not against Jews. Indeed, the BDS campaign has the staunch support of many Jews outraged at what the country is doing to the Palestinians in their name.

For a detailed critique of the Chronicle’s smears against Bolton, see

But then, you can’t expect common sense and sweet reasonableness from the Chronicle, nor any of the other institutional defenders of the Likudniks and the current ultra-Zionist regime. Even the mildest criticism of their country sends them off into what Molesworth would sa was a ‘fearful bate’. And any mention of the Palestinians has them climbing the walls and chewing the furniture. This was shown in a very telling story from Jack Straw, which Lobster head honcho Robin Ramsay has included in a piece about the UAE-Israel rapprochement in his ‘View from the Bridge’ column, ‘Forget the Palestinians’. Straw’s a Christian of Jewish heritage. In his memoirs he describes how various Israeli officials flew off the handle at him simply because he had referred to the Palestinians in an article.

‘One Israeli Cabinet minister described this was as an “obscenity” and
“pornographic”. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon expressed “anger,
outrage and disappointment”. Israeli president Moshe Katzav cancelled a
meeting with me. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres cancelled a formal

These people are fanatics and racial supremacists, not statesmen or respectable politicians. And the Board, the Chief Rabbianate and right-wing rags like the Jewish Chronicle share that irrational fanaticism.

It is they, rather than Israel’s decent, reasonable critics, like Gemma Bolton, who should be held in contempt.


Shut Up, Boris! Even Fascists Declared They Fulfilled Individual Freedom

Boris Johnson was in parliament and on the box yesterday announcing his new plans to tackle the renewed rise of the Coronavirus. This includes drafting the army in to ensure the new regulations regarding social distancing are respected. His response to the question in parliament why cases in Britain were rising, while Germany and Italy were nearly normal, met with a characteristically jingoistic response: ours is a country that respects freedom. So we’re back to the old jibe, that even though Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were defeated and their evil regimes swept away 75 years ago, Germans and Italians are still authoritarians at heart. And Mike and the peeps on Twitter have also pointed out how alarming Johnson’s stated intention to use call in the troops coming before a no deal Brexit that may well result in shortages, including food, unemployment and civil unrest.


Johnson’s comments about Brits supposedly valuing their freedoms more while simultaneously declaring that he may call in the army will remind some people of the slogan ‘Slavery is freedom’ in Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s great warning of the danger of totalitarianism came from his experiences with Stalinist Communists while fighting for the Republicans against Franco in Spain. But Mussolini’s Fascists themselves also claimed that their system also granted the individual freedom and fulfilment.

Mussolini himself was very firmly authoritarian, championing the total state and condemning liberalism and individualism for undermining society and the nation. But the Fascist ideologue, Ugo Spirito, argued that Fascism’s corporative state offered the individual instead true freedom against the false promises of liberalism. People realised their full potential in society through collaboration, including in industry, as well as trade unions and society generally. It was these collective institutions that allowed people to follow the trades and occupations they desired, whether it was he thinking in his study, or the town butcher. An absolute stress on individualism led to humans living in a state of nature, and having to do everything themselves and so denied the ability to follow their true callings or rise any higher in civilisation.

He concluded of this

Laissez-faire liberalism proclaims freedom of thought and of action, free competition, private enterprise, and, above all, the sacred and inviolable character of private property. But it ends up realizing, more or less consciously, that these don’t add up to genuine freedom. Freedom is founded upon collaboration, that is, upon a choice of social goals and the social discipline required to achieve them.

From: ‘Corporativism as Absolute Liberalism and Absolute Socialism’, Ugo Spirito, in Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ed. A Primer of Italian Fascism (University of Nebraska Press 2000), p. 144.

The Fascists praised and protected private property and declared that private industry was at their heart of their economic system. Spirito himself goes onto attack the idea of an omniscient state as the ultimate destroyer of human freedom.

Let us assume it were possible (through improved organization) for the state to attain true knowledge of even the smallest, most remote events. This knowledge would still not be readily translatable into leadership and discipline of a spiritual sort. It would remain abstract because outside known reality; it would generate laws that correspond only to the knower’s will. The state would still function as a bureaucracy, setting goals for the entire nation and, therefore, reducing the nation to a kind of mechanical instrument. The organism’s life would be that of a machine: to each man an assigned place, to each worker an imposed job, all according to the scheme’s rigid necessity. Each individual would be a cog lost in the overall machinery. Freedom, personality, and individual enterprise would become meaningless terms. The hoped-for social justice would translate into a general levelling, and the individual would vanish in the eyes of the state.

He went on to state

Corporativism replies to liberalism by confirming that every person’s individual freedom is sacred. Corporativism proclaims itself antiliberal only because the individual under liberalism is not a true individual, nor is his will truly free. It points to the fact that liberalism ends up denying individuals the very rights that it purports to defend. Corporativism’s antiliberalism is thus not meant to deny or to curtail freedoms. Rather, it aims to strengthen them as much as possible and to achieve liberalism’s highest aim. (p. 150).

In fact, as any fule no, Mussolini’s Fascists regime was a brutal dictatorship, where the individual was very much subordinated to the state, regardless what Fascism’s supporters and ideologues said to the contrary.

Boris, however, still talks the language of classical liberalism and the Tories are still very much permeated by Thatcher’s attack on society: ‘There is no society. There is only people’. Which very much reveals the atomisation at the heart of classical the classical liberal idea of individualism which the Fascists condemned.

But Boris and the Tories are still moving towards a very authoritarian, totalitarian state. David Cameron passed legislation providing for secret courts, Dominic Cummings has pushed the idea of identity cards and Suella Braverman and Priti Patel have both shown they either don’t understand, or just don’t recognise, the independence of the judiciary and the civil service.

The Tories claim to celebrate individual freedom, but their moving in the same direction as Fascism. And Fascists like Spirito defended their ideology by claiming it protected individual freedom, even if those arguments are directly opposed to those marshalled by Tories like Boris.

Boris has always been an authoritarian, so don’t be taken in by any of his claims that he’s protecting British freedoms. He isn’t. He’s destroying them. And remember: even Soviet Russia had constitutions claiming that individuals and their freedom were respected there.

Spain Offers Citizenship to Descendants of Brits Who Fought Against Franco

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 3:35am in

I found this great piece of news in yesterday’s I newspaper, for Wednesday, 16th September 2020. It’s a piece by Graham Keeley, ‘Spanish offer to those in UK related related to civil war heroes’, reporting that Spain is offering citizenship to the descendants of the British volunteers who fought against General Franco and his Fascists. The article reads

British descendants of the members of the International Bridgade, which fought fascism in the Spanish civil war, have been offered Spanish citizenship as part of a new law which confronts the legacy of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Some 2,500 British volunteers went to Spain to support the Republican government against an armed uprising by Nationalist troops loyal to General Francisco Franco in the conflict between 1936-1939.

Yesterday Pablo Iglesias, the Spanish deputy prime minister, confirmed that descendants of the International Brigades “that fought for the liberty and against fascism in Spain” would be eligible for Spanish citizenship.

He tweeted : “Now is the time to say from this government to these heroes and heroines: thanks for coming.”

About 35,000 members of the International Brigades from around the world fought in Spain. No British volunteers are still alive.

Jim Jump, president o fthe International Brigade Memorial Trust, told I: “We are delighted. It honours the descendants who have kept up the memories of their relatives who went to Spain to fight fascism. It comes at an important time when Spain tries to deal with its past.”

The offer of nationality to the descendants was one of the measures in the Democratic Memory law, which was passed by Spain’s government and which also offers reparations to the victims of General Franco.

The article is accompanied by a box explaining that the novelist George Orwell was nearly killed when he was shot in the neck while fighting in a left-wing militia, the POUM. Orwell famously describes his experience fighting in Spain in his Homage to Catalonia.

This is great news, as Spanish liberals have fought long and hard to combat Franco’s legacy. When I was studying for my archaeology Ph.D., I went to a seminar where a Spanish archaeologist described the excavations that were being carried out on the mass graves of those massacred by the Spanish dictator. These were being done despite opposition from the surviving members of the Spanish extreme right. There’s also controversy over Franco’s mausoleum. Franco claimed that this was to commemorate everyone, who fought in the civil war. In fact, it just glorifies him and his fellow Fascists.

But there have also been other moves to celebrate the contribution of the International Brigade. The anti-racist, anti-religious extremism organisation Hope Not Hate reported a couple of years ago that a brewery had launched a pint commemorating the International Brigade, though I’ve forgotten what the beer was called.

I also wonder if this initiative is another, liberal response to allow some Brits with links to the country to get round Brexit. A few years ago the Germans granted citizenship to British Jews, who left their country fleeing the Nazis. And the Irish have also offered citizenship to Brits, whose grandparents were Irish.

History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.