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review 2016-11-13 00:20
Communist "witch" hunt during the '50s
Home Sweet Home: A novel - April Smith

This book is loosely based on a real-life family who was victimized by the fear and hatred created during the McCarthy era.   Cal Kuseck and his wife Betsy move their two children, Jo and Lance, to a cattle farm in South Dakota.  The book chronicles their struggle to adapt to their new life.  Cal becomes interested in politics and serves three terms in the State Assembly.  When he decides to run for the Senate, the FBI looks more closely into his and his family’s past affiliations and learn of Betsy’s short membership in the Communist party when she was a very young woman.  Cal’s political enemies start a smear campaign and his friends and neighbors turn against him.  This all leads to a libel lawsuit and ultimately, many years later, to murder.


I had expected this to be a fascinating, empathetic book but for some reason, I never could really connect with the characters. I thought this book would really speak to my heart, especially during this difficult time in our country when people are so divided and fear is prevalent.  I read this book during the last days of the presidential election.  But I really didn’t get caught up in the victimization of this family and didn’t find much suspense in the murder either.   It felt a bit flat and disjointed to me. But it’s certainly a timely book and shows just how fear and hate can grow in a country until it produces unreasonable mass hysteria.


This book was given to me by the publisher through First to Read in return for an honest review.

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review 2016-10-12 22:05
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore's history of Jerusalem happened to be the first book I reviewed on Booklikes and I was happy to revisit the author with another one of his works. It seems that every time I pick up a history book in a book shop it is endorsed by Montefiore, he's clearly very passionate in his pursuit of historical knowledge. 


This book centres around Stalin and his changing inner circle. It's an odd blend of details of dinner functions, Stalin's character in calm times and the chronicles of the terror and his political brutality. It's a fascinating glimpse into the sycophantic fervour he fostered amongst his magnates and the cunning, horrific nature of his paranoid mind. I've given it five stars, because probably fittingly, after Kershaw's Hitler this is simply the best biography of a historical leader that I have read. 


Anyone who harbours any romanticism or flirts with the hard left I advise to read this and recognise the dangers of unswerving idealism, the dangers of being an illiberal bent on realising a utopia for humanity in the future at any cost to the people of this life. I had always thought that Stalin wasn't overly ideologically motivated, yet this book seeks to dispel that notion comparing the avidity of Stalin's belief in Marxism to that displayed in radical Islamists. 


Something touched upon in the book and spoken about in debates by Christopher Hitchens is the idea that the Tsar in Romanov times was the voice of God himself, understand that and you may be able to understand the cult of personality that Stalin was able to engineer and take advantage of. The idea of a strong, powerful leader was ingrained into Russian society and it is an interesting feature of the revolution, that despite its attempts to turn society on its head with the ultimate goal of Communism, the aura of leadership remained steadfast. 


It fascinated me that the sons and daughters of some of those murdered and tortured beyond repair on Stalin's orders still regarded him as a great leader. It is unfathomable to me that it is possible to inspire such unswerving loyalty amongst people. This is ultimately what draws me to these immensely flawed and yet ridiculously charismatic characters. There seems to be men and women who pop up from time to time under varying banners of ideology, be it religious/political who manage to cultivate vast followings and impact the course of human history through their actions.


And so I came to the end of the book having lived within the court of the red tsar through the eyes of his vicious inner circle and I was struck again by the surreal nature of it all. How terrifying is it? If you place enough power into the hands of the wrong person you can end up with a society in which an innocuous comment could result in years of torture and imprisonment or a painful death. How is it that a man so well read and intelligent as Stalin, uses that intelligence to create a cut throat, savage society in which even those closest to him are not safe from assassination? 


I guess my curiosity will never be sated.

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review 2016-08-05 06:35
Morality of the Execution
Measures Taken and Other Lehrstücke - Bertolt Brecht,Ralph Manheim,John Willett,Carl R. Mueller,Wolfgang Saueralnder

This is actually a really short play, so short that it only took me four beers to finish it. Mind you, these plays generally aren't available in English (which I didn't realise until I started reading this particular book). Anyway, Brecht himself says that the idea of the plays is that they are morality plays, and further more, he wrote them not to be performed by professional actors, but amateurs. Also, as should be noted, this was written during the time when he was basically a communist so there is a lot of communist language used (and one should also note that it was also written during the rise of the Nazi party, however at this time Hitler had yet to seize control of Germany, and the parliament was divided between two extremist groups – the communists and the National Socialists).



The play is about the revolution in China (though one should note that as of its writing, the Maoist revolution was still a long way off – that was to really hit full swing after World War II, though there was still the beginnings of the revolution sturing) and about how a group of revolutionaries executed somebody, and then tell a story to the chorus (who are obviously the judges) as to why the execution was necessary.



The interesting thing that continued to arise during the play is that the nature of the proletariat and the question as to whether the soldiers (and the police) are the friends or the enemies. One sometimes feels that in such a dictatorship the best job to have is in the security forces, but Brecht suggests otherwise. In fact the security forces are being oppressed just as much as the rest of the population – instead of fighting them one should attempt to sway them over to their side. However, it is hard not to view the security forces as being the enemy in that they tend to oppose your movement, as is the case in the play where the police officer is challenging the revolutionary and the worker over handing out leaflets (which the police officer believes is far, far more dangerous than any bomb or gun).


This leads me to the concept of the power of ideas. Sure, there is a suggestion that political arguments are not won or lost on Facebook (or even during a dinner party), however what many people seem to forget (usually those trying to shut down such an argument) is that you're not actually trying to win over the person that you are having the argument with (because in many cases it is nigh impossible to be able to win them over), but rather you are attempting to persuade those whom are listening as to the validity of your argument as opposed to the other side. The same is the case with Facebook because you're not trying to change your opponent's views, but persuade those who may be listening – it is true that arguments aren't ever won or lost, but it is the audience who are the targets – which is the key to many debating contests, and it is also why the audience are the ones who determine the winner in the debate.

As such this graphic actually isn't true:





Finally, I wish to touch on the idea of winning over the security forces. We saw this in Egypt, and also the case with other revolutions – they are never won or lost through the organisers but rather through bringing the military onside. Sure, there are instances where revolution descended into civil war (as was the case with Libya, and is also what is happening in Syria), but this is because the military has disintegrated and they have split off to their respective teams, or that the military was generally made up of a minority, and the majority who are revolting were able to arm themselves effectively. However, in the case of Egypt, the revolution would never have been won and Mubarack deposed were it not for the support of the military (and this was also the case with France, while in Russia the military had been so decimated by the World War that they weren't able to fight the communists, and by the time the West had managed to mobilise against them they had become pretty much entrenched – and also the communist troops were pretty fresh while the troops representing the White Russians had been exhausted through four years of war).

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1717827045
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review 2016-07-20 11:46
It's All About Money
The Year of Dreaming Dangerously - Slavoj Žižek

Well, here we have another Zizek book that has so much packed into the 135 pages that it is almost impossible to be able to talk about everything that he says. He seems to have this ability to use English so well that he is able to touch on a huge number of subjects in a really short space – he certainly doesn't waffle, and he uses words really sparingly. The other thing that I love about his books is how he pulls philosophical meaning out of pop-culture, his take of Kung Fu Panda (which I gather is one of his favourite movies – I can just picture him rolling around in laughter while watching the film – I've only seen it once) being his most well known. In this book he spends a lot of time looking at the television series The Wired (which I haven't heard of) and he also talks about 300 and Ralph Finnies Coriolanus.


Anyway, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously can be boiled down to an exposition of the protests in Tahir Square in Egypt, which is more commonly known as <i>The Arab Spring</i> and the Occupy Wall Street movement, both of which appears to have fizzled – with the Arab Spring turning into what appears to be a never-ending civil war in Syria, an Islamist government in Egypt (which has since been overthrown to be replaced with a military dictatorship), and the Occupy Wall Street movement simply morphing into 'business as usual' in the advanced democracies (with the exception of a few Facebook pages and websites).


Mind you, he does point out a few interesting things, particularly the nature of modern democracy. In reality democracy is simply us going to the polling station every few years to vote for either the centre-left party or the centre-right party. Actually, that isn't even the case anymore because it seems to be the centre-right party and the extreme fundamentalist Christian and economic party. Somebody even suggested on my Facebook feed today that the Democrats are now the GOP while the Republicans are basically little more than WTF (though since he is a Christian minister he didn't phrase it in the way that I have).


But it is interesting watching how democracy works, especially these days. For instance Bernie Saunders went from nothing to a nationwide sensation before he lost to Hillary Clinton. However, before he conceded to Hillary he told his supporters that the fight wasn't over and that it was time for them to take action by not only joining the Democrats, but also running for seats in the local, state, and federal congresses, as well as for other electable positions. In fact the left-wing media has indicated that this is what needs to be done – if Saunders had won the nomination, and then the election, then he would have basically come out as, well, Obama. However, I then noticed that now that Saunders is out of the race the support has suddenly flooded over the Jill Stein of the Greens.


That actually tells me a lot about many of his supporters – they don't want change, they want a saviour, however Saunders isn't that saviour. The truth is that change won't come about from the top – it never does – Obama demonstrated that. Not only does he have to deal with Congress, as soon as one steps into the Oval Office there are a lot of pressures coming from a lot of quarters. Don't get me wrong, I think Obama has done a lot, and has made calls, such as normalising relationships with Cuba and Iran, that needed to be done. Sure, many people claim that he is as much of a warmonger as Bush was, and point to his drone campaign as an example (and the fact that he didn't close Guantamo down, as he had promised), however the fact that he made moves to normalise relations with Iran goes to show that he is actually more than just another president, but one who is actively seeking to extend the olive branch where it is possible to do so.


But Saunders is right – real change doesn't come after somebody becomes president, it comes when the president has support in Congress. Notice how the Democrats didn't come out to vote in the mid-terms, which resulted in the Republicans gaining control of both houses of congress. Real change doesn't come about by standing in a park in Wall Street chanting slogans – Egypt proved that: as soon as Mubarak was removed from power the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, and the president started running around claiming that he was Pharaoh. Change doesn't come from the top, but comes from those who are willing to put in the hard work to make that change a reality.


However there is another interesting thing about democracy – it only works when the right result comes from an election. When the European Constitution was voted down, they just went to another vote – okay, they don't like it, so let's do it again. We are seeing the same with Brexit – they weren't supposed to leave, but when they voted to do just that, all of the sudden the referendum was flawed, and they had to go and do it again (though a second Brexit vote is looking incredibly unlikely – and for those who are interested I have written a blog post on it). I remember a similar thing happening in Palestine. After Arafat's death the Palestinians went to an election and voted for Hamas – democracy had failed, the media screamed, because Hamas wasn't supposed to have been elected. But isn't that what democracy is actually all about, or does it only work when the powers that be get the results that they want (we are seeing the same coming from Labor supporters in Australia simply because Labor didn't win the election).


Sure, an extremist group is unlikely to elected, at least at this stage, in our advanced democracies, but that is because things are really not all that bad. Okay, the recent Australian election brought about a bunch of minor parties, but with the exception of Pauline Hanson (which is actually an Australian celebrity because of her extreme anti-immigrant views), all of the minor parties that were elected were basically moderates. However, when things get bad then the extremists suddenly start to gain in popularity. We saw that in Greece when the left wing Syriza party was elected in a landslide - notice how quickly they moved to the centre when they rejected the EU bailout and the country was on the verge of economic collapse – they pretty quickly learned how to play ball, and the people of Greece agreed to follow along behind them.


So, the question boils down to the idea of money – which is what I titled this post as. Sure, you might have issues of culture drifting around the fringes, such as gay marriage, however politics all comes down to one thing – how do we spend the money. A government isn't actually about governing the country – a liberal democracy is, in theory, a country where people are free to do and believe what they like, within reason of course. In the end it comes down to how money is spent, and how it is collected, and the sad thing is that this is all it is, whether you are communist or capitalist. The problem I see is that you need money to have access to the basic essentials of life (and that doesn't mean a two-story house, caviar every night, and three BMWs in the driveway), and if something doesn't generate money then it isn't seen as having any value. In fact everything that we do and produce needs to have some value, either in the short term, or the long term. In fact, the way we are living now the long term is just too far away, and we want everything yesterday. It doesn't matter whether we part with 10 cents, or ten thousand dollars, we all want to be treated the same – we paid you money therefore treat us with respect. For me, I wish we could do away with money and just focus on the arts and culture – our society is becoming ever more empty and meaningless as time moves on that I think it is time that brighten things up without having to resort to watching Kim Kardashian's life.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1699858194
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review 2016-06-14 09:14
The Rise of the Soviets
Russia In Revolution - John Robertson

It is always difficult to write a book covering an historical period when there are generally so many events leading up to one event and so many repercussions radiating out from the said event. It is even more difficult when one is writing a book for highschool students. This particular book was recommended by our year 12 history teacher since she believed that it covered most of the topics that we would be looking at during our topic on Russian History. However, while it touched on the events before 1905, it finishes off around 1920 after Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy.



Russia had always been a backward country, the Reformation had not reached its borders nor had the democratic revolutions of the 19th century. Out of the European powers Russia was one of the last countries to industrialise. While many of the Western European states had become industrial powerhouses by the turn of the 20th Century with a rising middle class, Russia was still an autocratic state with a substantial peasant population with a rigid class structure. There was really no upwardly mobile middle class and the reigns of government was tightly held by the Tsars.



That is not to mention that there were no reforms, serfdom had been abolished (though this was relatively late) and factories were beginning to appear in many of the major cities, but the backwardness of the country was ripe for a revolution. Throughout the late 19th century numerous left wing groups (such as the anarchists and the nihilists) were agitating for change, and this agitation lead to the assassination of one of the Tsars. The response was a brutal crackdown on these extreme groups. Obviously the boiling point came in 1905 when the country collapsed into revolution, and the most famous event of this period was the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin where the sailors (which I believe was the pride of the Russian fleet at the time) rebelled and took over the ship.



The revolution was quickly crushed, but Tsar Nicholas did institute some reforms introducing the Dumas, which was their form of parliament. However the Duma was quite weak and Russia was still very much an autocratic state. While tensions still mounted through the period, when war broke out in 1914 Russia quickly joined the side of Britain and France. In their mind the defeat of Napoleon still loomed large and they believed that nobody could take Russia (they had forgotten the embarrassing defeat during the Crimean War, a war which they should have won). However things did not work out as they planned. Germany did not invade Russia, but rather they would launch strike missions against their lines, but did not go deep into Russian territory as Napoleon had done. This meant that when the Russian troops pulled back, scorching the earth as they went, they were causing more damage to themselves than to the Germans.



To say that the war went badly for the Russians is an understatement. It went so badly that in February 1915 the country once again collapsed into revolution and this time the Tsar was deposed as a parliamentary democracy was established. However this did not last long. The country was still at war, the war was still going badly, and the lot of the people had not changed much at all. This was what Lenin and his Bolsheviks needed, and in a coup in October 1915 seized control of the important institutions of Russia and established the Soviet Union.



Now a couple of things we need to remember: Russia was never meant to become a communist state at this stage; this is not what Marx had envisioned. The communist state was supposed to come about through a workers revolution, where the workers rise up enmass, overthrow the Bourgeoisie employers, and establish a series of communes. The idea was that the concept of the management structure was to be disbanded and the workplace was to run along democratic principles. We see echos of this idea today with the union movement, though many people look down on the unions as being under the control of the employers that they are supposed to stand against, though this is a debate for another time (or corrupt, militant, and incredibly dangerous).



Secondly Lenin's following was quite small. The Bolsheviks were the more radical of the groups, with the Mensheviks being supportive of Marx's ideas but somewhat moderate. However, the Bolsheviks won, and with control of the government structure of Russia, proceeded to execute the royal family (so that they could not seize control - oe method is establishing control in a coup is to kill the previous leaders for as long as the previous ruler is still alive there is always a chance that they will rally support and make another tilt at the throne). He then pulled Russia out of the war (which upset the allies no end, and resulted, after the conclusion of hostilities in Western Europe, in a civil war in Russia).



It is interesting to speculate as to whether it was withdrawing from the war was the cause of the rift between the Bolsheviks and the west, or was it more on ideological lines. We see that during the 20s there was a growing rift between the communists and the capitalists, but then the ideological differences between the two was always going to lead to conflict, particularly since the communists in Russia were agitating for a world wide communist revolution (which never came).



The tipping point was during the Great Depression, and shortly after the end of World War II. In 1933 Germany was divided between the two extremes of Facism and Communism, and the Facists won (with a little help from the Americans) and the West then sat back hoping that Germany and Russia would destroy each other in a war of attrition. This never happened, particularly since Hitler and Stalin signed a peace treaty. However I am getting way ahead of myself.


I will finish off with the New Economic Policy. This was pretty much a response to the fact that Lenin's extreme version of communism pretty much failed. Granted, Russia had been economically devastated by World War I, and was now facing pressure from the White Russians and their allies in the west. A completely state run economy was not working, so Lenin, while maintaining control of the means of production (that is agriculture and industry), he allowed small business to flourish. As with the civil war he didn't need to do all that much. The West was sick of war and did not want to continue the fight against Russia, and the White Russians were pretty weak without them, so the whole war collapsed leaving the Soviet Union to dominate world politics for the next 70 years.


Finally the means of production. The truth is, who owns this? Modern Russia (under Putin) has seized back control of Russia's oil and gas wealth, which was taken out of government hands during the rise of the oligarchs in the 1990s. Russia now uses its energy wealth as a very powerful bargaining chip to force her neighbours to heel (though this has since change with the collapse in the price of oil). However we see the struggle between public and private interests all the time. It is my position that all mineral wealth in a country is owned by the people of that company, so foreign (especially foreign) miners who want to come in and mine these minerals need to pay for them like everybody else. It is like walking into a shop, paying a flat fee to the store owner for being in the store, and then taking what you like. I have to pay to take something out of the store, so why don't the miners pay for the minerals that they want to take (as China is doing by restricting the sale of Rare Earth Elements into the market). Granted, it may cause fluctuations with the price of the commodity, but hey, all of that iron ore up in the Pilbara belongs to us Australians and that should be remembered.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/235130199
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