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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 2016-02-01 00:00
The Soul of Man under Socialism
The Soul of Man under Socialism - Oscar Wilde If you 're a woman who decided to wait until 30 to have kids, or don't even know if you'll have them at all, then I guess you've been called a lot of these adjectives: “selfish”, “nascissistic” or “immature”. I know I was.

And then comes Oscar Wilde:

“...a man is called selfish if he lives in the manner that seems to him the most suitable for the full realization of his own personality; if, in fact, the primary aim of his life is self development. But this is the way everyone should live. Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people's lives alone, not interfering with them.

Oh, yeah. The essay has “socialism” in its name, but it's not all about politics. You'll be granted with ramblings about how popular art is “unhealthy” (apparently, Wilde was the original hipster), a few arrogant (and justified) remarks on journalists and his own concept of individualism (and how it is supposedly good).

In sum, it is a reflection of how the public psyche can change under socialism's focus of ending poverty.

And in case you're wondering if he is favorable or not to socialism, Wilde does a good job of exposing the Authoritarian Socialism trap...

“if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.”

… But compliments the broader, generic socialism in a way that is disturbing to the modern eye:

“Socialism […] will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.”

And Wilde's Individualism is not such a bad thing:
it is simply the state in which we can dedicate ourselves to our interests, not worried about the pursue of material goods (a.k.a. paying rent, or in Wilde's gross generalization, “property”).

That doesn't mean he is in love with socialism. Wilde feared that, by giving the poor what they want would only turn them in well fed slaves, enabling their mediocrity and subjection to conformity. The best poor man is not the one content with what he's got, for his conformity perpetuates current relations of power. The best poor man is the rebel:

"He who would be free', says a fine thinker, 'must not conform.' And authority, by bringing people to conform, produced a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism amongst us."

And conformity leads to the tiranny of the people:

There is the despot who tyrannises over the body. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannises over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.

… and the tyranny of public opinion, its damage to the arts, journalism and personal freedom of thought:

Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.

But the future is not so grim to Wilde: as poverty diminishes, so does the scope of socialism, until the job will be entirely done and we won't need it anymore. At this day, we could finally live dedicated to our own interests, like arts, engineering, philosophy or science; and the machines would do all the boring, repetitive work.

Those extremely long terms predictions reminded me of the words of modern technologists like Vinod Khosla or https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4403625.Peter_Thiel">Peter Thiel. This last one, in Zero to One, rationalizes about how the man-machine integration will lead us to intelligence, greatness and innovation; computers and robots do the manual, automatic, bureaucratic labor, as we humans focus on the creative, critical and transactional part of business. This 100% analytical man is the modern equivalent of Wilde's individualist, to him the only ones with lives worth living.
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review 2015-09-12 00:00
The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and Selected Critical Prose
The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and Selected Critical Prose - Oscar Wilde,Linda Dowling Introduction
Note on the Text

Eight Reviews (1885-90)
--1. Mr Whistler's Ten o'Clock
--2. The Relation of Dress to Art
--3. A Sentimental Journey through Literature
--4. Mr Pater's Imaginary Portraits
--5. [The Actor as Critic]
--6. Poetical Socialists
--7. Mr Swinburne's Last Volume
--8. Mr Pater's Last Volume

--The Portrait of Mr W. H. (expanded version 1889)

--In Defence of Dorian Gray (1890-91)

--The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)

Intentions (1891)
--1. The Decay of Lying
--2. Pen, Pencil and Poison
--3. The Critic as Artist -- Part I
--The Critic as Artist -- Part II
--4. The Truth of Masks

Further Reading
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review 2015-02-20 00:00
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy - Joseph A. Schumpeter Introduction

--Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

Prefaces and Comments on Later Developments:
Preface to the First Edition, 1942
Preface to the Second Edition, 1946
Preface to the Third Edition, 1949
The March into Socialism

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review 2014-08-18 00:00
Socialism: A Very Short Introduction
Socialism: A Very Short Introduction - Michael Newman Dull, meandering, very little on trade unionism, anarchism, cooperatives etc. and much too much on feminism, which deserves (and has) its own "Very Short Introduction" book.
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