Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/menu.inc).

Book Review: Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/05/2022 - 9:19pm in

In her award-winning memoir FreeLea Ypi reflects on the paradoxes of freedom through her recollections of coming of age at the collapse of communist Albania in December 1990 and its transition from Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to a presumably freer, capitalist and more democratic nation. This stylistically elegant and thought-provoking book is a significant contribution to understanding a period of Albania’s transition still left underexplored and will be read for many years to come, writes Andi Haxhiu

If you are interested in this book review, you can watch a video and listen to a podcast of Lea Ypi discussing Free at LSE, recorded on 1 November 2021. Professor Lea Ypi will also be reflecting on ‘The Future of Democracy’ with Dr Mukulika Banerjee and Dr Yascha Mounk as part of the upcoming LSE Festival 2022, running from Monday 13 June to Saturday 18 June 2022. 

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. Lea Ypi. Penguin. 2021

Book cover of FreeLea Ypi’s book, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, arrived in Prishtina, Kosova’s capital city, on 5 January 2022. Free has been translated into nineteen languages and has received immense international support, having won the RSL Ondaatje Prize and been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize. Considering the author’s success with the book and the outstanding reviews following its publication, Prishtina might have been just another routine destination in the book’s promotion schedule.

However, despite my initial hesitancy, I travelled from Edinburgh to my hometown to meet Ypi, a Professor of Political Theory in LSE Department of Government, whom I have long admired for her scholarly contributions through The Meaning of Partisanship (co-authored with Jonathan White), Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency and The Architectonic of Reason. The theoretical complexity of Ypi’s work has always been riveting and enticing in academic circles. Nevertheless, it was through Free that Ypi received extensive commercial coverage and recognition for the masterful crafting of a book that exposes the paradoxes of freedom through the blissful ignorance of a child coming of age at the end of history.

Ypi’s story starts at the dawn of the collapse of Europe’s last Stalinist state, Albania, in December 1990. Through an exquisite literary writing gift, she illustrates Albania’s transition from leader Enver Hoxha’s violent and murderous dictatorship to a presumably freer, capitalist, liberal and more democratic country. This rupture posed an opportunity for Ypi to retroactively theorise and reflect on the meaning of freedom. Yet, the author’s longstanding philosophical and scholarly preoccupations with migration, justice and freedom are often intrinsically related to this episode in her life.

Trapped between two conflicting narratives following the collapse of communist Albania, Ypi’s experience of freedom inexplicably transformed when she understood that her parents clearly did not care about ‘visiting Uncle Enver’s grave nor about keeping his photo in [their] living room’ anymore (47). As she adroitly puts it in the latter stages of the book: ‘Things were one way, and then they were the other. I was someone, then I became someone else’ (117). This profound assertion that illustrates unexpected change is what simultaneously encapsulates the uncertainties of coming of age at a cleavage in history. To rephrase Rosa Luxemburg in this context: ‘Ypi has not made history out of her free will. But she has made history, nevertheless.’ Free is a significant literary contribution to a period of Albania’s transition still left underexplored due to an unwritten pact of silence.

Durrës, Albania, 1978

Image Credit: ‘Street scene in Durrës with propaganda posters’ by Robert Schediwy licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

Free is definitely an easy read, but it is also throughout a thought-provoking nonfiction book that explores the relationship between freedom and hope through figurative, poetic language. It is also an elaboration of how Ypi’s experience of liberalism can be equated with ‘broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, and turning a blind eye to injustices’ (253). A stylistically elegant and often emotionally overwhelming narrative unfolds multifaceted dilemmas and questions on freedom through exploring family dynamics, dialogues and tensions.

The book’s dialogical nature is evident in the first chapter, ‘Stalin’, where teacher Nora’s lectures and the young Ypi’s curious character set the tone for the rest of the book. It is precisely the uncontestedness of Hoxha’s regime that makes Ypi’s innocent questions the epitome of doubt. Thus, the book’s first sentence – ‘I never asked about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin’ – introduces the first overlap between state-sponsored dogmatism and individual scepticism. As she vividly narrates the events of that day, eleven-year-old Ypi finds herself metres away from some protesters of the regime chanting ‘Freedom, Democracy’. Despite her initial denial, the existing system was shifting while Ypi was clinging to the legs of Stalin’s decapitated gigantic bronze statue. This is the moment when young Ypi starts questioning and, simultaneously, understanding the plural nature of histories.

Despite its powerful tone and fascinating explanations of complex historical episodes, the reconstruction of the 1990s December protests appears slightly contrived. To exemplify, it has been claimed that Durrës, Ypi’s hometown, never had a Stalin statue; rather, Stalin was commemorated through a bust – which technically means that Stalin never had legs to cling on. Ypi’s opening to the book thus appears to rather work as a metaphorical depiction of one’s inability to let go of a reality that is unexpectedly changing.

Although perhaps overlooked by the international reader, these minor inaccurate depictions of Albania’s collective memory have triggered ‘vicious’ domestic reactions that criticised the book for intentional manipulation. Ypi’s subjective literary recollection of Albania’s prolonged unaddressed collective trauma with its Stalinist dictator, Hoxha, enraged numerous reactionary voices in Ypi’s hometown who perceived Free as an apology for communism and criticised it for factual inconsistencies. What some readers have failed to fathom is that the book is not a historiographical account of communist and post-communist Albania. It is exactly here where Ypi’s reputation as a respected scholar was (mis)used by certain circles to frame the book within the boundaries of academic rigour. However, Free is neither academic nor historiographical; it is a personal history that explains the continuous quest for freedom through witty humour, accessible language and metaphorical twists.

Some of the book’s reviews nonetheless missed facts that were repeatedly mentioned. For example, Stuart Jeffries’s otherwise informative Guardian review shifts Ypi’s Stalin story from the author’s hometown, Durrës, to Albania’s capital city, Tirana. Such readings of the book often unintentionally exoticise both the author’s experience and the location where the story takes place. This unrelatability stands in contrast with the reading experiences of those who directly lived through Hoxha’s traumatic dictatorship.

In my short interaction with Ypi in Prishtina, she fascinatingly pointed out the disparities between the recollection of her memories in English and Albanian. The first, Ypi argued, was much more emotionally distant. On the other hand, the Albanian version, Të Lirë ­­– which is a rewritten version rather than a conventional translation of the English-language book – enabled the author to emotionally relive some of the dialogues that had taken place more than three decades ago. The recollection and reconstruction of these conversations, Ypi told me, were significantly more traumatic as the reminiscing took place in the authentic form of her mother tongue. Here, I understood why international and Albanian audiences had experienced Ypi’s masterful text so distinctively.

Despite the gulf between overidentifying with and denying Ypi’s narrative, it is safe to say that Free is not an attempt to manipulate the past because it does not aspire to monopolise the truth. Instead, it reconstructs Ypi’s memories by converging her own subjective experiences, diaries and dialogues. Her philosophical preoccupations with freedom continuously traverse the lines between memory and imagination throughout the book. As psychologist Frederic Bartlett would argue, Ypi’s remembering of the events portrayed so vividly are a product of the constructive process of integrating bits and pieces of information, rather than a literal replaying of the past. Therefore, the emphasis on minor historiographical inaccuracies in some of the responses to the book seems to be missing one crucial point: Free is based on a true story, but it is not the true story. It narrates the thin line between facts and literary imagination. It is a book written about the end of history that did not happen. A book that will stand the test of time and be read for many years to come.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Feature image credit: Crop of ‘interakcja (8)’ by InterAkcja Robert Turski licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Upside Down: We Won’t Bow Down – What I Learned in New Orleans

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 6:00pm in


Arts, history, Music, Travel

John Mitchinson reflects on his latest trip to the ‘Big Easy’


I’ve just spent 10 intensely hot and happy days in the city of New Orleans at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – known locally as Jazz Fest: a riotous celebration of music and food featuring more than 650 acts across 14 stages. 

I’ve been to many festivals in my time, but none like Jazz Fest. Part of what makes it so special is the extravagant range and quality of the music on offer, but even more important is that so much of the music (and all the food) is produced by people who live in or near the city. 

Jazz Fest is just one important element in an annual calendar of cultural celebration which is unique in the Western world. No city celebrates itself quite as joyously or defiantly as New Orleans.

Some part of that defiance derives from the unique position and history of the city. People who fall in love with it – and I’m one – will tell you it isn’t like the rest of America (Tennessee Williams – another devotee – famously said that it was one of only three cities in America, along with New York and San Francisco. The rest, he said, was Cleveland). 

Founded by the French in 1718 as a port linking the mighty Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans was ceded to the Spanish for the last three decades of the 18th Century, briefly reverting to French control in 1803 whereupon Napoleon sold it to the Anglo-Americans as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The old part of the town – now known as the French Quarter – remained Catholic and Francophone well into the 19th Century. 

By 1812, New Orleans had become ‘the great mart of all the wealth of the Western world’. It was also the world’s biggest market for slaves. Significantly – because the Spanish (unlike the Anglo-Americans) allowed their slaves to own property and purchase their freedom – by the early 19th Century, a fifth of the city’s population were free people of colour, and the area of Tremé, next to the French Quarter, became America’s first black neighbourhood. 

At the entrance to Tremé was the open ground known as Congo Square. It was there, as a visitor to the city observed in 1819, that “the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp and rock the city with their Congo dances”. It is out of this tradition of public performance, of drumming and dancing, of the mix of races, languages and cultures, of music as a simultaneous act of defiance and expression, that the great American art form of jazz would emerge in the New Orleans of the early 20th Century. 

Bar-hopping in the French Quarter or drifting from stage to stage at Jazz Fest, you sense that music in this city has never stood still. Here, the barriers between traditional and modern jazz, funk and R&B, Cajun and zydeco, bounce and hip-hop are porous. Past and present co-exist. Different traditions feed off one another; musicians swap from band to band – what matters is being present and giving your all. Music in New Orleans resists commodification.

Not that it’s an easy city to live in. Crime is a constant problem – so too corruption, incompetent public services (symbolised by the legendary potholes), and the annual threat of devastation by hurricanes and rising sea levels. Yet there is something about the culture which enables a sinking city to float. New Orleans survived two of the worst environmental catastrophes of modern times – Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left 80% of the city underwater; and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010, in which 200 million gallons of oil was pumped into the Gulf of Mexico. 

In his glowing portrait of the city, Nine Lives, New Yorker journalist Dan Baum hints at how it manages to face down the worst: “In the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience”. One of the best t-shirts I saw at Jazz Fest bore the line: ‘So far behind we’re ahead’. 

That’s what I love about it. The virus of late capitalism often appears incurable, but New Orleans might just contain an antidote. Life is built around public celebration and ritual – carnival krewes, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, social aid and pleasure clubs, brass bands, crawfish boils and second line parades – not gated communities and pointless wealth.

In 1922, the novelist Sherwood Anderson (another lover of the city) wrote: “When the fact is made secondary to the desire to live, to love, and to understand life, it may be that we will have in more American cities a charm of place such as one finds in the older parts of New Orleans now.”

In short: less Cleveland; more New Orleans!

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI




Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.




Book Review: Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro by Lorraine Leu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 10:10pm in

In Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de JaneiroLorraine Leu explores how the urban reform initiatives of 1920s Rio de Janeiro were underpinned by racial displacement and how black and poor white immigrant communities sought to defiantly resist these processes. This is a welcome and accessible contribution to Brazil’s anti-racist urban theory and will be a fundamental read for anyone interested in race, urban space, urban renewal and displacement, writes Laura Santos Granja.

Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro. Lorraine Leu. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2020.

Book cover of Defiant GeographiesAfter the abolition of slavery, 60 per cent of Brazil’s population was black. Over 70 per cent of black Brazilians lived in self-constructed, mostly informal housing by the 21st century. Racial segregation in Brazil occurred through urban reform initiatives and not through explicit segregation laws. The Brazilian state’s vision of modernisation from the early twentieth century onwards did not include black urban spaces. Instead it supported European immigration, urban renewal projects that implemented a European-inspired modern ideology and a national construction of the ‘Brazilian race’ that worked to invisibilise the black population.

Lorraine Leu’s book, Defiant Geographies: Race and Urban Space in 1920s Rio de Janeiro, is about how ‘race makes space’ (5) in a country where the culture of racial intermix, racial harmony, racial democracy and colour blindness has prevailed over decades despite evident structural racism and racial segregation.

The book focuses its narrative on the city of Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s. Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s capital at the time, and the perception of it being a black city was incompatible with the elite’s urban renewal projects. Leu describes the modernisation processes in Rio in the 1920s, with Mayor Carlos Sampaio in power. The exponent of the modernisation process was the Centenary Exposition, an international mega-event in Rio that aimed to showcase Brazil’s modernity. The exposition was designed to reflect the white bodies and spaces that represented modern conceptions of universal freedom, justice, legality and equality. As a result, the site chosen to host the exposition, the Castelo neighbourhood, had its black and poor white immigrant population displaced.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Cartaz da Exposição Nacional de 1922’ licensed by Arquivo Nacional do Brasil under Public Domain 

Urban renewal projects in Rio aimed to change urban geography to invisibilise, displace and place the black population in informality. The poor white immigrants who occupied the same spaces as the black population were often ‘blackened’ and also targeted in urban renewal projects. Leu describes the spaces occupied by those who fought for their existence, challenged domination, marked their presence and understood the city through a decolonising spatial logic. These are the spaces that Leu calls ‘defiant geographies’.

Leu examines the naturalisation of whiteness in Rio, establishing the lost connection between race and urban space and historically describing the elite’s strategies to justify the removal of raced bodies in the name of progress and order. Leu argues that city officials justified the demolition of Castelo’s neighbourhood due to public health and sanitation concerns. However, the real concerns were modernisation, beautification, productivity and real estate speculation due to Castelo’s central location. The experience of the Castelo neighbourhood in 1922 was not an isolated case in Rio. Nearly a century later, Vila Autódromo had a similar fate. Leu argues that these are not spaces of exception: ‘they were already produced as illegal and perceived as rightful victims of the deterritorialization and violence meted out by private/public consortia’ (13).

Defiant Geographies is divided into four chapters explaining different critical aspects of how race makes urban space. Although all aspects intersect, each chapter focuses on one of the following: discourse; visuality; spatial practices; and built or material form. Leu shows how these aspects work to naturalise race and space throughout the book and explores how subjects defy this process. To do so, Leu portrays scenes from 1920s Rio through different cultural texts, images, characters and Brazilian novels that vividly describe places and people, giving the reader an idea of Rio’s culture at the time.

The first chapter starts with a description of a scene involving three individuals. Two workers from the centenary reform project, José Vieira, an Afro-descendant, and Cícero Pereira, northeastern from the interior, found the dead body of Manuel Jesus Gomes, a homeless Spanish immigrant. The body was buried while Gomes slept on the demolition site for Pereira Passos’s urban reform project. Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Passos aimed to create a European-style boulevard (Avenida Rio Branco) between 1903 and 1906, the first urban renewal project in Rio’s city centre.

The description of this case puts us in the moment of the urban reforms and connects the dots with Leu’s previous argument on how race and ethnicity intersect with urbanisation. A white immigrant displaced from his home ended up homeless at a moment when homelessness was being criminalised by the Penal Code of 1890. The Penal Code affected Afro-descendants disproportionately, but poor white immigrants that coexisted with the black population in difficult and impoverished conditions, or those who represented a threat to the government with their militancy and discourses of social revolution, could be ‘blackened’ and have a similar fate. ‘By 1920, immigrants constituted 20.65 percent of the population of the capital, and city officials saw them alternately as agents of and impediments to the modern’ (58). However, Afro-descendants remained the majority in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and had no possibility of working their way out or up. In her book, Leu shifts the analysis of informal areas in Rio from a class to a racial lens. She argues that race should be a structural principle to analyse space and sociocultural relations in Rio.

The racialised production of space tried to exclude black bodies from the city centre, but not without resistance. Throughout Chapter Three, Leu describes her ‘defiant geographies’ or geographies of resistance. According to Leu, carnival associations, street vendors and capoeira fighters were the main actors in occupying the streets and local area and showcased Afro-descendants’ culture as an exercise of power, courage and strength.

One specific example mentioned in the text is the carnival of 1922, when one of the floats criticised the plans to demolish the Castelo neighbourhood, titling their float ‘Fico’ (‘I’m staying’). These groups conferred value to these spaces and made their own collective geographical knowledge and identifications. Although the transformation of these spaces into battlegrounds was temporary, it produced collective alternative geographies. It empowered Castelo’s residents to participate in the city’s political scene, notably through protests.

Despite all the efforts to demolish the Castelo neighbourhood hillside, city officials and developers could not flatten all of the neighbourhood in time for the Centenary Exposition. The presence of part of the hill close to the exposition somewhat disrupted the aimed visual image of modernity, suggesting an exposition of Brazil’s colonial past for visitors. The state, the municipality, the elites and developers failed in their idealisation of a place for real estate speculation. The lack of investors’ interest did not bring the expected revenue for the city and left Rio in a housing crisis. The Centenary Exposition pavilion was demolished in 1978, an act that represents the reform’s failure as an urban renewal project. As Leu argues, it signifies ‘what Beatriz Jaguaribe calls “the fragility of former utopian projections” that while positing themselves as new, inevitably presage their own demise’ (153).

Overall, Defiant Geographies is a welcome and accessible contribution to Brazil’s anti-racist urban theory. Leu shines a light on the importance of race in urban spaces, defying class theories that undermine structural racism in the formation of current geographies of exclusion and segregation. The well-detailed case study of Castelo’s neighbourhood and the Centenary Exposition is a suitable choice for discussion since the way Brazilian elites imagined the nation and the way the black population was put aside in the 1920s still reverberate in today’s society and space. For this reason, Defiant Geographies is a fundamental read for anyone interested in race and urban space as well as urban renewal projects and displacement.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Vista de Botafogo’ licensed by Arquivo Nacional do Brasil under Public Domain 


When Disasters Are Good For Museums

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 4:00am in


history, interview

Photo credit: Wellcome Collection / Creative Commons Samuel J. Redman is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the...

Read More

The History of Adoption

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 9:46pm in


adoption, history

In this episode, Niki, Natalia, and Neil discuss the history of adoption in the United States. Here are some links...

Read More


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 10:00pm in

The more we searched for the “anarchafeminist tradition,” and the more we tried to identify the “anarchafeminist canon,” the less interested we were in it. While researching for this book, it became clear that the concept of an “anarchafeminist tradition,” let alone that of an “anarchafeminist canon,” is fraught with internal tensions, if not with an outright contradiction....

Read More

What Man Has Made of Man: Confessions of an Optimist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Alexandra Hall Hall considers the mistakes she has made in believing that the arc of history was travelling in a more progressive direction


Lines Written in Early Spring

I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I sat reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

By William Wordsworth

Much has been written about the many misjudgements of Russian President Vladimir Putin in launching his invasion of Ukraine. He is regarded as having over-estimated the strength and capability of his own military, and the ease with which they would be able to defeat Ukrainian forces. He under-estimated the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, and the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He also grossly miscalculated the reaction of the West. He believed that NATO had become so divided, distracted and demoralised by problems at home and abroad that it would never be able to muster the will or the unity to mount a strong or sustained response to support Ukraine.

Putin is now suffering the consequences of his many errors. His forces are suffering numerous setbacks in Ukraine. Russia’s economy is being buffeted by sanctions. Russia’s international standing is undermined. Putin’s personal legacy, at least outside Russia, is in tatters. But while there is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing Putin proved wrong on so many counts, I ask, who amongst us can really claim to have got many of the big calls right either?

Certainly, I would argue that many of us have also been surprised by how things have turned out in Ukraine so far. I don’t think many of us expected the Russian army to fare so badly, or the Ukrainians to mount such a heroic resistance. The very fact that Zelensky apparently rejected a US proposal to take refuge in a neighbouring country – prompting his famous statement “I need weapons, not a ride” – suggests many assumed his Government would crumble.

I think many of us have also been pleasantly surprised by the robustness of the Western response to the conflict. Who could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, millions of Ukrainian refugees being welcomed into private homes across Europe with minimal popular backlash; Germany blocking Nordstream 2 and sending weapons to Ukraine; the UK clamping down on Russian money and oligarchs; the EU imposing punishing sanctions and working to end its dependency on Russian oil and gas; the US overcoming its domestic political divides to lead a strong international response; and Sweden and Finland talking about joining NATO?

Yet, as I survey the current geopolitical scene, I feel no sense of smugness or superiority, but instead a deep worry about the many other misjudgments I have made, which have far less positive implications.

For example, high on feelings of national pride, and the emotions generated by the spirit and success of the London Olympics in 2012, I did not foresee that four years later my country would descend into bitter infighting and rancour over the Brexit referendum. I also never imagined that six years later, Brexit would still not be “done”; that people would still be arguing over the rights and wrongs of that vote; and that our society would if anything be even more divided.

I also misjudged the extent to which Brexit-supporting politicians on both sides of the Chamber were willing to mislead the British public by claiming we could “have our cake and eat it”. Or, for that matter, how easily so many people were gulled by these false promises and lies.

I misjudged the extent to which Brexiters were willing to slander and insult political opponents as “enemies of the people” or “out of touch elites”. I also never anticipated that they would claim a mandate to drive through the hardest form of Brexit, instead of trying to lead a process of national consultation and reconciliation, to bridge some of the Brexit divides.

George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.

I miscalculated the extent to which Brexit politicians were willing to act so duplicitously, claiming the intention to sustain a good relationship with the EU, while continuing to blame the EU for some of the entirely foreseen negative impacts of Brexit, such as greater red tape and bureaucracy. I miscalculated the ability of opposition political parties to highlight the flaws and inconsistencies in the Government’s approach. I miscalculated their ability to offer a credible alternative, attractive to the electorate.

I underestimated our current Government’s brazenness in continuing to downplay the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement. I underestimated their lack of shame in misrespresenting some of the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol. I underestimated their shamelessness in trying to shift onto the EU the responsibility for fixing the current problems with the Protocol, even though these were created by our own Government, through its own choices.

I never anticipated that having sold the Withdrawal Agreement to the British people as a great success, barely two years later the politicians who negotiated it would be trying to walk away from its terms. I never believed that a country which presented itself to the world as a ‘force for good’ and a stalwart defender of international law, would itself threaten to renege on a treaty that it had signed. I underestimated the extent to which a British government would be willing to act in such bad faith towards neighbours and allies.

I am also guilty of being complacent about the strength of our own democracy. I had assumed that the kind of populist demagoguery seen in some other Western democracies recently would not be possible in the UK. I over-relied on a sense of innate decency amongst most British politicians, to act as a check on executive overreach, and prevent breaches of the norms and conventions of our unwritten constitution.

In particular, I had always assumed that British politicians would honour the convention to treat their political opponents with respect. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister would never wilfully lie to the Queen, or prorogue Parliament unlawfully. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister asking for great sacrifices of the British public during a pandemic crisis would scrupulously adhere to those same rules himself. I assumed that politicians found guilty of breaking the law or lying to Parliament would step down, in accordance with the Ministerial Code. I misjudged the extent to which Brexit had so poisoned our politics that it has become almost impossible to acknowledge any good in the other side, or accept any mistakes as honest ones.

I also always trusted that even if parliamentary standards began to erode, other institutions in our democracy would hold our government to account. I assumed that our free press would always expose wrongdoing. But I underestimated the extent to which much of our press has been taken over by vested interests, with unhealthy connections and loyalty to certain political parties. I misjudged the extent to which this would lead many of our newspapers to shamefully slant their coverage of events to the benefit of one political party or another.

I also overestimated the extent to which our society has become more tolerant and accepting of diversity. I never anticipated any UK Government indulging in grotesque dog-whistle racist politics, and tacitly encouraging hostility towards migrants. I never imagined that a country which had helped to draft both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Refugees would ever seek to evade its obligations under those treaties.

On the international level, I never expected in my lifetime to see a conflict in Europe reminiscent of the horrors of World War Two. I never expected to see a Russian President celebrate his country’s defeat of Naziism while allowing his troops to use Nazi methods of brutality themselves. I never expected to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, and in less than a year remove the right to education for women and girls, and require them to be veiled from head to toe. I never expected a politician from the National Front, deeply opposed to the EU, coming so close to winning the presidency in France. I never expected ‘genocide’ to be a term which applied to conflicts in the 21st Century. I never expected our global community to be struggling to protect the very climate we all depend on for survival.

But, then again, I never expected to see an American President reject the outcome of an election and encourage a physical assault on the buildings at the heart of American democracy. I never expected medieval attitudes to women to resurface in America – with a leaked Supreme Court memorandum on abortion containing references to judicial rulings from the 13th Century.

I never expected common-sense education and discussion about sexual orientation and preferences to be recharacterised as “grooming” of young children by sexual predators. I never expected the long-overdue debate about the history of racism and slavery in America to be badged as extremist, or harmful to white people. I never expected Americans to be campaigning to remove books from libraries, or a state governor to set up a hotline for pupils to report teachers allegedly deviating from approved educational material.

I never expected America to remain so tolerant of the shockingly high number of mass shootings caused by the widespread private ownership of guns.  I could never have imagined living in a country where state officials matter-of-factly debate different methods of executing people sentenced to death.

In fact, when I step back to reflect, I realise I have been guilty of gross naïvety on many, many fronts.

Above all, I trusted in human beings learning from past mistakes and becoming better over time. I repeatedly and misguidedly trusted in the slogan ‘never again’. I put misplaced confidence in democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and peace steadily spreading around the world, as nations and communities became better educated and more intertwined. I trusted that nationalism, racism, misogyny and other prejudices would recede, and tolerance, diversity and mutual respect for each other would spread.

I never expected the degree to which, in the 21st Century, we would still have so many charlatans and corrupt officials in public office. I never thought we would still have so many dictatorships and military-led regimes around the world, still able to brutalise and suppress their people with impunity. I never expected ‘great power’ politics to be an ongoing theme.

And I could never imagine living at a time when words have become so twisted, trust in institutions has become so eroded, and truth has become so relative, that facts are no longer facts, but merely interpretations. George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.


So, yes, Putin has got many things wrong in his lifetime. Hopefully, perhaps that also means he may misjudge the strength of his own position at home. Conventional wisdom says it will be hard for any internal opposition to overthrow him, but perhaps we will be proved wrong here too.

But if I have learned anything from the last few years, it is that wishful thinking is a mistake. It is wiser not to rely on man’s better nature prevailing, or to assume that bad things won’t happen. The lesson from history is that bad people frequently get away with things they shouldn’t; and, while we can certainly hope and strive for the best, we should always be prepared for the worst.

As William Wordsworth wrote at the end of his famous poem:

“Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man?”

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity




Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.




Barber authors give corporate universities a hair cut

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 12:19pm in

For anyone interested in the writing of history, particularly in Australia’s universities, this book of essays is a welcome contribution.

In writing The Barber Who Read History, Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving provide an alternative radical philosophy and politics of writing history.

The book covers many topics and is divided into five parts: Shaping Times; Labour History and Radical History; Thinking, Writing and Engagement; Some Radical Historians; and Shaping Histories.

I’m going to comment on three main points that arise from the book: the problem for history-writing today, why these authors are worth listening to, and how we can learn from the past to change history and its recording today.

Starting with the current situation in neoliberal university life, the authors take us through why their “radical history” is more useful to humanity than to academia.

Their critique is spot-on explaining the transformation of universities from centres of learning, for all their faults, to multi-million dollar knowledge/research factories. Capitalism steals any control academics had over teaching and research and destroys the lives of those who labour for the benefit of students.

They damn the peer-review journal business, a supposedly objective but far from scientific practice, that excludes academics without financial resources but contributes nothing to the production of understanding.

… whether writing for other radical intellectuals, engaging with scholarship and theory, or seeking a wider audience, radical historians place a high value on clarity of expression, avoiding like the plague the over-theoretical language of academic in-groups, and their self-aggrandizing citation of trendy thinkers.

It is with disappointment that they report on the shifts in the Labour History journal toward academic styles. They also argue for a more expansive history broader than the traditional portrayal of the labour movement (which has often been defined as a white male working class) and more inclusive of issues of the oppressed including gender and “race”, and environment.

The authors discuss their own origins and reveal how people can become radicals; they are both veterans of the 1970s New Left with a wealth of experience. Challenging establishment education, both were founders of the Free University in Sydney, which ran a radical education program. Many of these essays were written during or after their previous collaboration on a history of radical spaces and events in Sydney.

Cahill and Irving argue for a partisan history that sides with the oppressed and exploited, as opposed to the traditional histories of those who would maintain capitalist order that dominate the mainstream.

Because of this experience living through a period of change which also changed the activists themselves, they know it can be done again and their message for would-be radical historians is: “… although writing about the past, they want to encourage people in the present to resist and rebel.”

The book refers us to many earlier and contemporary left wing and Marxist historians, arguing that history is not just about facts and events but also theory and engagement with political action.

Social futures are not pre-determined in human society; the present builds on the past and raises political questions.

One essay, “William Astley (Price Warung) and the Radical Invention of the Labor Party”, examines the origins of the Australian Labor Party, showing how 19th century activists dealt with the question of how the new colony that became Australia should be ruled.

While very few understood the need to side with the Aboriginal people, left wing workers argued for a democracy controlled by workers. An essay, “Rediscovering Radical History”, shows how these projects failed in their goals, disappointing radicals but providing important lessons for future socialists.

Undefined history

The authors do not, unfortunately, define radical democracy or key concepts like the working class. While arguing for an end to oppression and exploitation they don’t provide a clear vision of the radical democratic alternative.

I cannot help being reminded of the quandary of 19th century utopian socialists applauded by Marx and Engels for their recognition of the problems with exploitation and particularly women’s oppression but criticised for failing to provide a way forward.

In The Communist Manifesto, the working class is not only oppressed but, because of its exploitation by capital, capable of exercising enormous power in stopping profits, capital’s lifeblood.

While the conditions of working class existence are always changing as capitalism changes, the working class finds new ways to resist.

Today in the midst of a triple crisis of COVID, climate and economy, workers have potential power given their global reach and role not only as essential labour in care services but in strategical industries like “just-in-time” transport and Amazon warehouses, digitalised banking and education factories.

At one point in the book, the authors seem a bit pessimistic about the militancy of university workers. However, as I write this review, the workers at Sydney University are completing a very successful 48-hour strike backed with pickets.

This action is part of a new mood in some industrial sectors in the US and here, again showing the potential of the working class to renew itself and fight back with more power than the social movements.

The authors cut their political teeth during the 1970s when Australian workers did illustrate the power of labour to go beyond wages and conditions to the highly successful Green Bans and anti-uranium campaigns, to support Aboriginal Land Rights, abortion rights and to stop the Vietnam War.

Social movements when they unite can develop into socialist movements if the working class comes to the lead.

Those struggles were pregnant with the possibilities that Cahill and Irving speak of but failed to fully deliver.

That is why this book urges the reader to examine that past and take concrete steps from utopian visions to strategy. For that reason it’s a must-read.

It could be, but it’s not a manifesto—the authors have an alternative vision to the status quo and point to a strategy for change but stop short.

The Barber alludes to the Bertolt Brecht poem of 1935: Questions from a Worker Who Reads. It begins:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates? 
In the books you will read the names of kings. 
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

The social power encompassed in the creative power of labour can become a power that can stop capitalism and organise a new society.

Radical history can help us understand what we’re capable of today. Ruling class beware.

By Judy McVey

The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History by Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving
Bull Ant Press, $30

The post Barber authors give corporate universities a hair cut appeared first on Solidarity Online.

How We Remember Leads Us to What We Remember

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 2:00am in


art, history

No Monument, contained within one and a half rooms on the first floor of the Noguchi Museum complex, challenges institutional accounts of Japanese Americans detention—often illustrated using photographs of disconsolate families surrounded by a few remaining possessions—by celebrating personal expression in a time of hardship. ...

Read More

The Forgotten Russia Report of 2008: How Ukraine is Paying the Price for Our Catastrophic Mistakes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/05/2022 - 11:31pm in

Fourteen years ago, Andrew Levi briefed the Labour Foreign Secretary on the dangers of Putin’s Kremlin. Now the terrifying predictions of that report have been vindicated, it is vital to reckon with our failures


We saw it coming. Somewhere in the MI6 building a “top secret” document from nearly a decade and a half ago, prepared for leading national security officials, sets out a series of hair-raising facts about the nature of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin and his mafia-style leadership cult. And how that could, and should, be neutralised. Permanently.

“I told you so” is rarely a good look. But at times of existential crisis, and this is undoubtedly one: a reckoning with past errors is essential to survival.

The Russia Project in 2008: ‘A Hostile, Aggressive Dictatorship’

It was late September 2008. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, a group of analysts met in the Foreign Office, on the Downing Street side overlooking Number 10.

After a month of intensive work, they were putting the finishing touches to “The Russia Project”, a report commissioned to correct the course of UK Government Russia policy. Putin’s invasion had been a huge shock for many. 

Some days later it was my job to set out the position for then Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Thinking of it now chills the blood. What might have been – and what tragedy could have been avoided – had we and our allies taken the necessary action in the years which followed.

Russia is run by the people who own it, I told Miliband, principally a small elite, dominated by ex-KGB officials with a worldview formed during the Soviet era.

Putin calls the shots, I continued. His group is driven by personal vested interests in money, survival, and self-serving notions of Russian greatness. They are neither aligned with our values nor our interests. There is only a long-term prospect of a Russian regime which might be. 

The Russian leadership feels able to be more assertive internationally, I explained, often in ways which threaten us, even if capability does not always match ambition. Russia seeks to use energy dependency to exert influence over the foreign policy of European countries.

Following Putin’s invasion of Georgia, Russian military interventions are unlikely in the near term (the next few years, after 2008) but cannot be ruled out. Beyond that, they are a real danger. The hope of a strategic or broad-based partnership with Russia is dead.

The Russia we actually face, and have done over all these years, is not the Russia we would wish to face

Current policy should be realistic about this and should be based on the most likely scenario for the medium term (to 2020). That is: a Russian leadership similar, or harsher, in foreign policy outlook and behaviour, rather than hoped-for, more benign scenarios.

I went on to set out how a closely concerted effort with the US and our EU, NATO and other allies, across a range of policies, was of the highest priority.

And I detailed what was in that “top secret” file, one key heading of which was “Espionage, Subversion and Assassination”.

It was just under two years since Alexander Litvinenko had been killed in London, with a radiological weapon. The UK’s extraordinarily weak response to that, expelling four Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in London, was still in painfully fresh memory.

In conclusion, I said that political and economic pressures building up in Russia, and its geopolitical circumstances, would be likely to bring it to a fork in the road around 2020. While positive transformation was one possible route Russia might take, more likely – and essential to prepare for – was a hostile, militarily aggressive, dictatorship.

American Myopia: German Angst: British Blindness

We shouldn’t have needed the Russia Project in 2008. Still less all the startled soul-searching and scrambling to catch up in 2022.

After Putin flattened Grozny in late 1999 and early 2000, and as he continued, on an ever grander scale, the wholesale theft and brutality which had been his speciality working for the mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, no one in the UK or any allied government could mistake what was going on. If they chose to pay attention.

But naivety, fear and greed ruled. In the UK, in Germany, in many other NATO allies, and to some extent in the USA.

American Myopia: George W Bush, infamously, “looked into Putin’s soul” and liked what he saw. He should have visited his optometrist. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton declared a reset in relations with Putin’s regime. “Good luck with that”, I thought.

Gerhard Schröder, while no Putin, long shared with him an obsessive focus on power and personal wealth, and became his sauna buddy.

Schröder pursued a strategy which developed under Angela Merkel, her foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now German Federal President) and his policy chief Markus Ederer (now EU Ambassador to Russia) into a policy known as “Verflechtung” – in English, “interweaving”. Close economic relations would create interdependence and guarantee that apocalyptic war would never again reach Germany.

They would also, it turned out, fund a very comfortable life for Schröder, as ex-Chancellor of Germany (wealth measured in many millions, rather than Putin’s even more numerous billions); promote key political careers, not just in his social democratic party; and influence German policy-making in ways contrary to its national security interests and those of its allies.

Under Tony Blair, the thrust of UK policy was similar. Putin’s Russia was understood as a rational geopolitical actor. Interdependency would create stability and mutual advantage. And, of course, there were vast amounts of money to be made: the UK needed to catch up with Germany.

The 2008 Georgia crisis led to a reassessment by Gordon Brown and David Miliband, and a more realistic approach to Putin’s regime. Even then, there was a sense that despite recognising we needed a return to a policy of containment, we would never in practice be able to mobilise resources or unity of purpose in the way Cold War containment focused Euro-Atlantic policies on the Soviet Union. And that it would be hard to coordinate a clear, robust Western policy towards Russia as the shock of Georgia faded.

Subsequent Conservative-led governments have taken an often idiosyncratic approach to the lessons of earlier years, which it is unclear their leaders ever fully absorbed, or really wished to hear.

How to Deal with Putin

If you want to be right about Putin’s Russia, a good rule of thumb is to believe the opposite of what you hear from the naïve, the fearful or the greedy.

Provocation: when they tell you we provoked Russia and should back off, remember Russia launched a war of aggression, the “supreme international crime”, under the 1946 Nürnberg principles. There has never been any credible suggestion of intent or capacity of NATO – still less Ukraine – to invade Russia.

Escalation: when you hear that weapons deliveries to Ukraine should be stopped to prevent escalation, and our highest priority should be to find a diplomatic solution, recall that the escalation has come from Russia, that Ukraine has the legal and moral right to self-defence, and that any territory Russia occupies must now be assumed to be subject to the high probability of appalling, mass crimes: against humanity, war crimes, and possible genocide.

Hypocrisy: when you are asked “what would the USA do if China took over Mexico”, bear in mind that answering questions – or general whataboutery – implying hypocrisy on the part of the US, will not save Ukraine or Europe (or even the US).

In Europe, we rely for our safety on American power, and such strategic force as we can develop ourselves. That safety, as it turns out, is from a murderous, heavily armed Russian regime, determined to steal territory and resources on a gigantic scale.

When warned that we mustn’t impose sanctions which hurt us more than Russia, the test is whether sanctions help to stop Russia hurting those they have brutally attacked, or those they are threatening. Western allies are wealthy and can afford to take much pain, on the shoulders of those best able to bear it.

The prospect of nuclear war is (genuinely) terrifying. No one can provide certainty that Putin will not use nuclear weapons. He is banking on the terror he creates by apparently threatening nuclear war, to minimise his losses and maximise his opportunity for territorial and associated resource gains, to reconstitute some version of the former Russian Empire, with the personal power, security and wealth (even with massive destruction) that such a scenario would confer.


Allowing such aggression and blackmail to succeed increases rather than diminishes the danger of military escalation. It signals that further Russian aggression would have a high prospect of success, for a minimal price to Putin. Every further Russian war of aggression raises, once again, the potential for nuclear confrontation.

Rectifying these Failures

The Russia we actually face, and have done over all these years, is not the Russia we would wish to face.

Putin, his narrow leadership group and their outriders, look upon Western prosperity, freedoms and rule of law, with raging contempt, mixed with deep feelings of inferiority and humiliation at the gulf between Russia’s level of development and the West’s – and with fury whenever “hypocritical Westerners” get in their way.

They deploy propaganda about NATO and Russian “security concerns” in the West because they know it resonates with enough people to weaken American and European resolve. They do the same with Russian neo-imperial exceptionalism at home, because they know it taps into deep-seated desires among many – fellow Russians whom, at the same time, they despise, rob and brutalise.

The job of the US President, NATO, EU and other allied leaders, in the immediate military and humanitarian crisis, is threefold.

First, ensure the victims of Russian aggression in Ukraine can defend and free themselves.

Second, provide massive humanitarian assistance to all who need it and can possibly be reached, inside Ukraine and those who have fled.

Third, by use of sanctions and clearly signalled deterrence, military and other support to those under attack, back-channel diplomacy, and covert action against Russian capability we must avert nuclear escalation; disable Russia’s war machine, severely degrading Russia’s resources and confidence to wage future wars of aggression; and dissuade China from the extraordinarily dangerous path of seeking to exploit Putin’s criminal violence.

All this must be done, while also taking radical steps to secure and reinforce our democracies and alliances, engaging in urgent action against climate disaster, protecting public health, and mitigating poverty and conflict around the world.

In the long term it may become possible to integrate Russia into peaceful, mutually-supportive, European security, economic and social structures.

If we can summon the collective strength, courage and clarity of thought, we should never replay the slow-motion catastrophe of the last couple of decades.

Russia threatens our security, prosperity and well-being. We preferred to pretend otherwise. No longer. There is no peace in Europe with Russia, until Russia has fundamentally changed.




Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.