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Lessons From The Future by Grey Wolf

The idea that a leader from the past could be transported to the present (his future) and then returned with knowledge is a staple of science fiction?alternate history crossover, but I always felt people misunderstood the lessons they would learn.

We assume they would learn lessons about kingship and the facile nature of royalty, that war does not gain them anything, that hopes and aspirations of honour and power are mere chimera. We assume this because history tells us this about their reigns, their power, their progeny, their dynasties, their countries.

But history does not tell us this about power, about war, about money, or about bloodlines. We assume they would take a narrow lesson when the broad lesson tells something different. That is us, projecting what we like to think of our values back upon the past, but the past has eternal values, it would learn eternal lessons.

A king from the past presented with evidence of his eventual failure, the extinction of his dynasty, the loss of all of his territorial claims, the hopes for his country's future, would not learn a lesson of humility, but of victory. He would look at why he lost, how he lost, where he failed, what he should have done better.

But the people of the present who would tell him that the lesson he should learn is one of hubris, humility, etc fail to understand that history teaches the opposite. Kings may fall, royal dynasties may collapse, empires may disintegrate, and ambition may be crushed, but the rich, the powerful are still amongst us in families, dynasties, trusts, and politics. Any intelligent being would look at this.

And what lessons could be learned? That power and money should never be divided. That the sources of money will change over time, but you need to keep a hold on it, and diversify. That society will always bow to money even when it does not to power and privelege.

Perhaps even they will learn that soft power can suborn hard power. That anyone with the ability to lend money, or finance investment, can trump the so-called rulers of a realm.

But the lesson they will NOT learn, is that they should not try, not bother, not attack, not destroy, not conquer. It will simply be that they should do it better, in different ways, and they will learn those ways and apply them to their own time.

1972 - Guest Blog by Grey Wolf

In 1972 Ted Heath was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He has been very much in the news this month, years after his passing, because the police announced that were he still alive he would have been interviewed on historical child sex abuse allegations. Some have seen this as "evidence" of his guilt, but being interviewed does not mean guilt, it means that someone has made a plausible enough case that it has to be looked into. Now, I have no idea if he was guilty, and no desire to go down the path of speculation, or of examining the potential evidence. I mention this because it cannot be ignored, and because what I have to say about 1972 is, to a large extent, about the nature of knowing.

I read this week Nicholas Mosley's book "The Assassination of Trotsky" which was published in 1972. In this, the author weaves the strands of Trotsky's life of revolutionary, leader, and exile in with the final years and months of his life in Coyoacan, Mexico City. It is not relevant to the book, but interesting none-the-less to note that Nicholas is the son of Oswald Mosley, but as far apart in politics and outlook as father and son can be.

Three central tenets emerge in the book:-

1. That in the world of intelligence, counter-intelligence, spying and the like, reality is a shadow. Everyone has aliases, and aliases of aliases, they work with different factions for varied aims, they betray sometimes who they are actively working with, and sometimes who they are supposedly working for, and sometimes both. They have lost their own original identity, assumed mere forms in its place, and struggle in a constantly changing world to define their objectives, let alone to define themselves. That this is especially so during the 1930s with Stalin's Purges reshaping "reality" and his show trials redefining the concept of the objective versus the subjective reality, is important, but it is a universal truth, not just one of its time.

2. Frank Jacson alias Jacques Mornard originally Ramon Mercader delivered the blow that was to prove fatal, though Trotsky would live more than 24 hours after the attack, the first few of which he was physically impaired but fairly lucid. Mornard, as he is generally referred to, since it was the alias he was using at the time of the attack (though alias is somewhat a loose term here since his legend was never very secure), was a veteran of a school for spies run by a Soviet general in Revolutionary Spain, a man with more names than his protege. How one became the other, who he really was, what he believed in, what exactly he thought he was doing - all of this exists only in the deep memory of the assassin, who at the time Mosley was writing was a TV repairman in Prague. or perhaps in Moscow (one gets the impression that the Iron Curtain obfuscated this). He did it, he killed Trotsky, but who he was, and why he did it, and whether he ever fully justified it to himself, one is not sure of.

3. Trotsky had his own existential angst, to use an in-vogue term. He had been certain in his youth of the inevitable victory of Marxism and that certainty lay behind his success with Lenin in carrying out the October Revolution in 1917, and in winning the Civil War, building up the Red Army and securing the existence of the Soviet Union by 1920. But after Lenin's death, Trotsky had been (or more or less, allowed himself to be) sidelined, had been exiled internally, and then externally, first to Turkey, then to France, then Norway and finally to Mexico. This was not so much a sign of weakness, as an understanding that both the idea of Perpetual Revolution, bringing socialism (Marxism) to the whole of the world, and the Worker's Utopia within one state had failed, or had failed so far. Marxism is a historical theory in that it postulates a certain inevitability but when that inevitability fails to occur, or starts to occur but goes off the tracks, that is when existential angst sets in. Stalin, in power, simply blamed everybody else - Imperialism, Nazis, Trotsky, whatever, scapegoats to the failure in the USSR which could not, from Marxist theory, come from within and this was his rationalisation of (one hesitates to say for) the Purges of the 1930s. Trotsky on the other hand had the relative leisure of opposition from outside, in that he did not actually have to deal with realities. But in being able to look at things realistically, he had to ask himself what was behind the failure, in rational terms, and what could be done about it, without of course doubting the eventual inevitability. This essential conflict was behind his writings from the late 1920s up to his death in August 1940.

Tonight, I watched John Berger's 1972 documentary, part 1 of "Ways of Seeing" looking at aspects of the history of art and painting. Again this focused me on the nature of both perception and of reality. He was very correct in that we, with our reproduction of famous art works on our walls, on our TV screens (and now on our computer or iphone screens) see them in a very different way than they were intended to be seen. Many of us probably have "detail from" on our walls, or as our wallpaper and he talks about how focusing on one detail of a painting can obscure the message of the whole. On my own wall, is a section of Renoir's The Umbrellas, not the whole, but a small part of it, a close-up if you will. He explains how what we would temporarily do with our eyes, zoom in and examine something, is made permanent by such tricks of printing, or camera-work.

He also looks at how art has several contexts - it has the context in which it was created, the context of what it shows, and the absolute context in how someone who knows nothing about either of those comes to it. The first two of these are amply demonstrated by a painting of Hal's' of the benefactors of the Almshouse he inhabited in old age. We see the academic description of the painting which is all about light and form, and we hear the story of the condition he was in when he painted it. We can also see the whole during these phases and can look at the same time upon the painting as an impressive visual show.

The know-nothing (sic) approach to a painting is fantastically summed up when John Berger takes a painting by Caravaggio and discusses it with some school children, of maybe ten years of age. They know nothing about the painting, the painter, or even the scene it displays, but bring their own understandings of reality to the artwork. It would be different today - far fewer people would consider the central figure to be Jesus, because far fewer people go to church, but it was the child's reality that was being brought fresh to the painting. A striking note was the sexual ambiguity of the central figure - the boys thought it was a man, the girls generally thought it was a woman, but one girl said it might be both. John Berger explains to us this was actually intentional on Caravaggio's part as a homosexual, and that the children have caught onto this, whereas adults bring other preconceptions to bear in looking at the painting and by and large don't notice it.

So what IS reality? These two experiences, mixed unwillingly with the unproven Ted Heath allegations, raise some interesting points.

One of these is on the nature of identity. I have often wondered what happens when John le Carre signs a book for a customer. Does that customer come away wondering who on Earth Paul Cornwell is, or is he pleased to have the signature saying John le Carre? If the latter, who are we to say that Ramon Mercador was not really Jacques Mornard, despite all evidence that Jacques Mornard invented his childhood background?

One point is that politics, ideas, philosophy is never a straightforward matter, that every individual has their own ideal summation in their head, or would do if they consciously sat down and thought about it. Every political party has factions and those factions have factions within them, that no doubt also have factions within them. Political identity is a generalisation but when this meets revolutionary ideology it can create chaos. An ideology wedded to action, that works partly in the shadows, when it meets the chaotic construct of the lack of definition becomes wayward. We see this clearly in the 1930s in various Marxist factions all rooting around for purchase, scrabbling to formulate their own truths, denouncing one another, betraying friends for ideals that differ a bare fraction, betraying ideals that barely seem to differ for the sake of a greater whole, coming together, breaking apart, and struggling for a truth which probably does not exist.

For that is Trotsky's point - that what he had presumed to be true for the future had not turned out to be the case, but that did not invalidate the fundamental argument just how it was implemented, or, more worryingly, the consequences of and reaction to the implementation. Perpetual Revolution failed. The masses proved conservative. The worker proved selfish. The bureaucrat proved authoritarian. All of this went against the ideology of historical inevitability, but did not invalidate it. After all, inevitability does not have to happen now - that was, in a way, Trotsky's eventual revelation. That the USSR might not be the end point, but the starting point, that whilst it was essential to protect what had been gained in the Soviet Union, the way forward lay in doing it differently elsewhere (the idea behind the Fourth International). History and Marxism does not make mistakes, but maybe it does have a trial run.

And appearances can be everything. Unproven allegations when you are not around to defend against them can make you seem guilty. Not fighting in his articles against Stalin would have made Trotsky seem to be accepting of the brutality, mass murders, and dictatorship of the 1930s. His work against Stalin might not have made a huge impact at the time, but he kept his name clean (in relative terms), his arguments fresh and of the exact time, and his thought processes open to change. In today's world, Trotsky as an intellectual remains relevant, whilst Stalin's legacy is only about how to take and hold power.

As John Berger shows, everything has its own context - a painting is both what it shows, and when it was painted. It is both who commissioned and displayed it, and what it says to us. Trotsky had a sense of the history of man, he wanted to be above and beyond his own time in his legacy. We can see him as the revolutionary leader standing beside Lenin, or as the War Commissar winning the Russian Civil War, things of their time, or we can see him as a thinker who grappled with the essential problem of how to explain the failure of the inevitable.

In the latter, Trotsky transcends the context of his time. He becomes like Caravaggio's painting in its sexual ambiguity - able to be seen by the unitiated. The children of 1972 did not understand the issue of sexual ambiguity, but they could see it lay at the heart of the painting, even if for most of them this would have been a consensus of the group, rather than the thoughts of an individual.

Trotsky in challenging the implementation of Marxist theory in the ever-more dystopian Soviet Union was addressing an eternal truth - how to explain, and move on from, the failure of theory when exposed to reality. He was certain that it did not invalidate the theory, but rather the implementation, or underlying assumptions, or more probably both.

We can blithely say that if the underlying assumptions are wrong then the theory is wrong, but who are we to make this judgement on history? The 1930s were a moment in time. We are a moment in time. What is real is always in flux.

Grey Wolf
October 2017

The Origins of Rome - Guest Blog by Saran Wolf

My understanding of the archaeology of early Rome is that there were two early villages, one on the Quirinal and one on the Capitoline (I think) and that they merged and created a ditch/pallisade around both of them, thus creating a unified settlement.

The story of Romulus and Remus could thus be seen as an analogy, or as a garbled history, of this event. No doubt the two villages intended to lead jointly, but at some event the 'Roma' village would have come to dominate, perhaps bloodily, its federated neighbour. Maybe there even was a Remus jumping over the Roma side's ditch and saying it was not as good as their ditch, or maybe it is an anology for an attempt by the Remus side to take control of the joint project that went wrong. But there can be no doubt that the Roma village won, and gave its name to the whole site.

Personal names in ancient times were more fluid than they were today - in later Roman times agnomens were popular, an additional name tagged onto the end of your formal name to celebrate an achievement: Africanus onto the end of the member of the Scipio dynasty who defeated Carthage is one of the best known examples. Thus, Romulus whilst literally meaning "Man of Rome" might not just be an apocryphal figure of myth, but a named individual who took Romulus as his agnomen after creating the unified township.

Early Roman history is sometimes sighted through Etruscan lenses, or glimpsed at by Roman historians such as Livy, or the Emperor Claudius himself, who was a renowned scholar of the Etruscans. Much of the histories that were written from original sources have been lost, and these include whatever Claudius himself penned, and only fragments survive. Livy's great work best resembles that of the Medieval British monk Gerald of Wales who tried to create a cohesive history of Britain from decaying old manuscripts, and in the process whilst preserving lots of information, created a somewhat garbled and confused origin tale, because he himself did not know the facts. Later historians would have much preferred the exact replication of all of the original documents, just as later historians of Ancient Rome would have preferred Livy to have transcribed exactly everything that he was reading from. But that was not their purpose - both men intended to tell a cohesive story of their land, weaving into it a narrative tale that would be read for generations. And both men succeeded, but at what cost to history?

In the names of early kings of Rome, and in the identification Claudius would later make between some of them and other information he had, we can glimpse a history of internal power struggles, mixed with incomers, Etruscan exiles, and war with local Latin and Etruscan townships. Some of the names are no doubt true, and some of the tales put to these names, but until someone either digs up inscriptions which state unequivocally what happened (such as one might find on stone in Ancient Egypt) or someone strikes lucky, perhaps in Herculaneum, and comes across an original papyrus of one of the lost histories, any reconstruction of events into a coherent history must be fractional. We can go with Livy, or other ancient Romans, most of whose writings are in the main lost, or we can create our own from what we can see. But either way we are peering through shadows at something we can just make out the form of.

Whilst Rome's origins in pre-existing villages is proven by the archaeology, there is no reason to rule out that Rome became a magnet for dispossessed men who wanted a chance to make a new life for themselves. Indeed, if local Latin or Etruscan towns resented the newly combined villages-as-town, the leaders of Rome may well have encouraged as many of these exiles, wanderers and chancers as possible so as to provide for themselves a warband sufficient to see off any local threat. Thus, the idea that Rome was both a haven to criminals, exiles and so on and that these men came to greatly outnumber any available women can be seen to have a possible logical origin.

And so would the Rape of the Sabine women. If we assume that in fighting to secure Rome's continued existence as a unified town of pre-existing villages, Rome had alienated its neighbours, and that its neighbours forbade their women to marry into the greatly-enhanced male population of Rome, then a ruse like that with the Sabines would make sense from a practical perspective. And to kidnap enemy womenfolk it would be more logical to have them come to you, than to raid and try to steal them from a fortified enemy settlement, which action may also draw in other towns in the area.

It would certainly provide wives for the mass of menfolk who had come to fight for and live in the newly unified township, and thus provide a momentum for the growth and consolidation of the town of Rome. Later, very early, history of Rome would thus have it as one of a number of sustainable towns vying in the region for local political hegemony.

And all of this has been written without reference to Aeneas. What are we to make of Roman attempts to shoehorn the Trojan War into their origin myths? Even Roman scholars were perplexed by the issue, as they actually had a pretty good understanding of the relative chronology of the Trojan War in relation to the Foundation of Rome, and could see that there were several hundred years in between.

The complication in simply saying it was a myth created by educated Romans once they were educated in ancient Greek history, is that some sense of the myth of Aeneas and Rome also appears in Greek writings of the 4th century BC, and is certainly well established in Roman mythology by the 1st century BC, well before Virgil put together his great work, the Aeneid. Later Romans squared the circle by having Aeneas not founding Rome, as such, but nearby settlements, including the one that Romulus and Remus, in the long story, are supposed to have been scions of, left to drown by the Tiber by servants of their uncle, the king of this Alba Longa.

This squaring of the circle might have a certain potential, albeit one would currently be impossible to trace. The question that arises are: who were the Etruscans, and when did they settle in Tuscany?

History Wanderer

  • 10 May 2016

    Guest Bloggers Welcome

    The blog here at AHF is now open to authors to write their own blog posts. These can be on anything you wish. AHF claims no copyright on third-party blog posts, so it can be as lengthy and detailed as you wish...

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