Monday 28 May 2012

African Rights

"Spurred by popular uprisings in North Africa, pressure to respect the rights of all Africans is growing across the continent, but political leaders are standing in the way, says the internationally respected lobby group, Amnesty International."

That`s the opening paragraph of an unsigned article posted on the allAfrica website (  on 24 May 2012.

To read the full article, including a link to Amnesty`s report, click here ;

As I`ve explained before, I`ve decided to brighten up the blog occasionally with pics of a few items of my own. This picture, by a Zambian artist named Patrick Kamanga, was purchased from a shop in Nottingham, UK,  probably during the 1980s. It has no real connection with the story on the All Africa site, but I thought it would make things a bit more interesting. 

The Philosophy of G Lowes Dickinson

G Lowes Dickinson - Plato and His Dialogues - Pelican - 1947 (Reprint)

I`ve mentioned before that my knowledge of history and philosophy is largely based on old and often second-hand books. This is a case in point.

The book is based on a series of talks given by the author aimed at "men and women who are not and do not mean to be scholars, who have not much time for reading". Sounds good to me !

The author gets off to a strong start, acknowledging that his hero "is in some respects the greaest of revolutionaries, in others the greatest of reactionaries".  He infers that he has some differences with Plato, finding an element of despair in the philosophers` later work "and, even worse, a recourse to intolerance and persecution." He differs sharply with Plato on this issue ("by that road there is no way out") and affirms his own optimism and belief in liberty.

He looks at the time and place that formed Plato`s character, quoting Thucydides ; "The whole Hellenic world was in commotion ; in every city the chiefs of the democracy and of the oligarchy were struggling." Against this background, the young Plato saw his mentor Socrates imprisoned and condemned to death.

After looking at contemporary accounts of the life and character of Socrates he moves on to Plato`s dialogues.

Plato`s works were written in the form of conversations, a little like plays, in which two or more characters attempt to get to grips with the issues of the day. As a tribute to his mentor, Plato always makes Socrates the central character and portrays him as an incisive questioner who exposes inconsistencies in the arguments of others and  makes them question their attitudes and values. 

Disappointingly,the passages Dickinson quotes do not really show us Socrates the opponent of hypocrisy, but often seem to be mere exchanges of courtesies by no means essential to the matter in hand. Terms such as `charming`, `beautiful` and `delightful` are bandied about, but we are no further on with actual questions of philosophy.

Now we move on to a pet hate of mine. Plato`s Republic is the book in which he sets out his vision of an ideal state.  It relates to a form of social organisation that has never existed, almost certainly never will, and which probably wouldn`t be desireable in any case. Many of  Plato`s notions concerning this `ideal` state seem quite ridiculous or unworkable to modern eyes, and there is some debate among scholars  as to his true intentions. It is profoundly anti-democratic, mainly because the one democracy he knew well, his native Athens, was profoundly flawed.

Dickinson then moves on to a later work, The Laws, written by an older and rather more world-weary Plato. At this point, Plato  has effectively turned his back on autocracy and, according to Dickinson, now advocates "a moderate middle class democracy". Dickinson notes that Plato "gives a certain preponderance to the richer classes", but also seeks to avoid too glaring a disparity between rich and poor. Because The Laws is not concerned with an ideal society, but with proposals for a real one, it is open to being reformed or improved in a way that The Republic was not.

Unfortunately, once we get on to detail, Plato`s authoritarian streak runs riot once again. There are stipulations as to who should marry, at what age and a great many other such suggestions, including a proposal for compulsory marriage with a range of penalties for men who remain single !

Dickinson himself was an unapologetic utopian and at times I did question his judgement.

Dickinson explains in his introduction that he has made few amendments to the texts of his original talks, but has expanded on the quotations used. This is glaringly obvious, as his quotations from Plato and indeed other sources are often of inordinate length and could usefully have been trimmed down. Despite this, Plato and his Dialogues is a slender volume.

In my view, this book represents an opportunity missed. While I can see that The Republic and The Laws needed to be discussed, there seems no reason why the author could not have added material on Plato`s other works, and I for one would have favoured a lot more emphasis on dialectic.*

I`ve owned this book for a while and if I`m any judge it had more than one owner before me. I think it may be time for this one to find a new home !

*Dialectic is a method by which two or more peoples seek to establish the truth about a particular matter by means of reasoned argument. It is very different from debate in the formal sense (in which the interested parties arrived with a fixed opinion and the emphasis is on `winning`) or from rhetoric. The phrase `dialectic` is often associated with Marxism, but is not unique to that school of thought, which it predates by many centuries, and indeed some strands of Marxist dialectic are not true dialectic at all.


Sunday 20 May 2012

Quotation Station ; Jane Addams

The good we procure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is procured for all of us and incorporated into our common life

Jane Addams

Can You Walk Away ?

President Lincoln`s Cottage is a museum located, as you might imagine from the name, in a country home used by Abraham Lincoln during his Presidency as a quiet setting for important meetings and as a place to enjoy family life or simply to get some time to himself to reflect on the responsibilities he faced.

I`ve never visited it, but one can imagine it was a very important place to him and I don`t doubt that it is fascinating to visit at any time.

The reason for mentioning it today however is the presence there (until 31 August 2013) of an exhibition on slavery entitled Can You Walk Away.

This exhibition began during February 2012 and is intended to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a mark of the commitment of all concerned that it is to have such a long run.

Rather than focussing on slavery in history, this exhibit is intended to "challenge perceptions of slavery in America today" and "inspire people to engage with the modern abolitionist movement". To that end, the exhibition`s website provides links to a variety of relevant bodies, including the Polaris Project, the US State Department, the CNN Freedom Project.

Here are a few links  ;

Saturday 19 May 2012

Figures of Africa

Afficionados of African art might like to check out a recent article of mine ;

Nick Osmond - African Art in Derby - Thurs 17 May 2012 at .

Friday 18 May 2012

Updates ; Minority Rights Group May 2012

The Minority Rights Group has posted a number of news items online in the last couple of weeks, items relating to human rights/the rights of indigenous peoples around the world.

To learn more, click on these links ;

Monday 14 May 2012

The History of V Gordon Childe

This will be not so much a review as a collection of observations and thoughts of mine inspired by reading V Gordon Childe`s book `History`.

I should probably make clear that, while I am interested in history and philosophy, most of my reading on these subjects has been from old and usually second-hand books and I can hardly claim to be at the cutting edge in these matters. I could not make any useful contribution to a debate on string theory or post-modernism and, indeed, I don`t want to. Anyone with a greater knowledge of history/philosophy will no doubt find my humble efforts laughable, but if it gives them a few moments  of  innocent amusement I do not particularly mind.

V Gordon Childe was a historian with a particular interest in archaeology and pre-history and is still well-respected today. He held Marxist views and it may be as well if I give a simplified explanation of the Marxist view of history. I am not myself a Marxist and anyone looking to discuss Marx`s politics would probably be better served elsewhere, but I will add a brief footnote on Childe`s approach to Marxism in case it is of interest (see below).

Karl Marx believed, rather grandly, that he had "solved the riddle of history". As I understand it, Marxism is quite a complex belief system incorporating aspects of politics, history, economics and philosophy. For our purposes there are two important aspects I want to mention at this point.

Firstly, Marx  argued that the history of western nations could be understood as a series of incidents in which power was taken from one class by another (in English terms, e.g. the transfer of power between the King on the one hand and the Barons on the other at Runnymede, which was formalised in the Magna Carta).

Secondly, he further stipulated that these changes only came about when prior advances in economic and other forms of development meant that the circumstances for change were fortuitous, i.e. if an old aristocracy were superseded by if a growing and newly assertive middle class of merchants.

Another view, one which I personally find more convincing, would be that the same incidents were all events in which power was diffused more widely as societies evolved new forms of organisation.

Many Marxists have queried how fully Vere Gordon Childe had assimilated Marxist politics into his work. My own feeling is that they had a point. Whether that`s necessarily a bad thing depends on your point of view !

As I understand it, Childe`s thought evolved as he went through life.

Like many Marxists,  for a time he apparently subscribed to a clumsy, mechanistic understanding of Marx - probably believing in a world in which man`s destiny is determined by vast, impersonal forces of history.

Subsequently he developed a more rounded view, arguing that overall patterns of human development could be discerned but allowing for considerable variation at the level of the individual. That seems to be where he was at the time of this book, presenting quite a rounded view of human existence. For instance, although he rejects the old-fashioned view that history is made by  `Great Men` ,  the view championed by Thomas Carlyle, Sir Charles Oman and others, he is careful to acknowledge it`s positive aspects ; "To reject the Great Man interpretation of history, is not to belittle the significance of great men...Men have lived, and do live, greatly, and it is one of history`s functions to preserve this greatness and keep these personalities alive." 

Ultimately,  I gather he went on to reconsider even some of the positions expounded in this book, although he continued to be a staunch believer in human progress. As far as I know, he continued to subscribe to some semblance of a Marxist worldview throughout his life, though clearly within that framework he developed his ideas and understanding as he went along. 

At this point in his life, he had rejected a deterministic view of human development, i.e., he did not believe, as many Marxists have,  that mankind was making it`s way to a pre-ordained outcome. "If history be not following a prescribed route but is making a path as it proceeds, the search for a terminus is naturally vain", he comments. Although he was a member of the original, now defunct, Communist Party of Great Britain, this book does not expound the virtues of  a  socialist utopia in which a classless society has been achieved and which therefore remains static, but looks  more towards "a society in which men consciously and voluntarily co-operate in a collective effort to extend further the productive forces and the creative activities these liberate. Such an order would not be static but consciously and intentionally creative. It might then be regarded as the true beginning of rational history."

In general, Childe`s History is an accessible and thought-provoking overview of human history. It is largely free from Marxist jargon and for the most part his views are not presented obtrusively. Some of the points he makes regarding human history and development have been  shared by non-Marxist thinkers such as Winwood Reade and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, he makes the point that on one, relatively analytical, matter Karl Marx, right-wing economist Adam Smith and constitutionalist Walter Bagehot were all in agreement !

The last  chapter is rather heavy on the Marxist sources, though as we`ve seen he seems capable of transcending his influences. Some Marxists will find this book disappointing, but I think it should be approached with an open mind. More to the point, you can pick up second-hand copies fairly cheaply (mine cost 99p !) and it does not take long to read !


I don`t particularly feel the need to defend Childe`s political views in every respect, but it may not hurt to give some context.

I`ve  stated that he was a member of the original CPGB (another, quite distinct, body uses that name today). In his day there was no Eurocommunism, no New Left. The party he knew too often supported the Soviet line, even during the Stalin period. For sure, there were periodic internal rebellions but there were no John Pecks or Ray Suttons in those days, no-one (as far as I know) making a sustained and determined effort for change from within. Normally, CPGB members either rebelled over key issues whilst remaining loyal at other times, or left the Party altogether.

Turning to Wikipedia, we learn that Childe`s biographer Sally Green believed his views "were never dogmatic, always idiosyncratic and were continually changing throughout his life" and that "Childe`s Marxism frequently differed from contemporary `orthodox` Marxism."

Marxist Neil Faulkner is quoted in the same piece as describing Childes as someone "heavily influenced by Marxism"  but not a true Marxist as he (Childes)  did not think in terms of class struggle as an agent of social change. For what it`s worth, that`s the impression I formed from my reading of History.

I don`t know if this footnote really clarifies things much but  hope it`s of interest anyway.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Going Global

Just to let you know, the current issue of `Global - the International Briefing` is online now, featuring interviews with Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, President Ramotar of Guyana and jazz musician Hugh Masekela, plus John Vidal on the forthcoming Rio summit, John McCarthy on the BBC World Service, Sir Ronald Sanders on Guyana, Commonwealth Secretary Geneneral Kamalesh Sharma on diversity and much else.

The magazine is quarterly, which at least gives us plenty of time to read it. Find out more at .

To brighten things up a bit, I`ve decided to add a few pictures of items of my own here and there. Where possible, I`ll give any background information but most, like this, were just lucky finds in second-hand shops. This is presumably tourist art from somewhere. I must admit my limited photographic skills haven`t done it justice, but hope you like it anyway.

Monday 7 May 2012

Nabu Press - an Elusive Entity

The word Nabu can have many meanings - a German conservation group, an Assyrian and Babylonian god of wisdom, a children`s clothing company or, and this is the one that interests us today, Nabu Press, a print-on-demand historical reprint publisher.

Nabu allegedly publish around 600,000 titles using POD technology. Of particular interest to me is the fact that their titles include works by Mary White Ovington and George Padmore.

Having found a UK bookseller offering their reprint of Ovington`s The Walls Came Tumbling Down, I placed my order and sat back happily to await it`s arrival.

On taking receipt of the book I was a little surprised to see the publication that arrived was rather more slender than expected, and that the cover illustration had no obvious connection with the subject matter.

On opening the book I was even more surprised to find that the text inside was not Ovington`s personal account of the founding of the NAACP, but an antiquarian work by a German academic, written in German.

I don`t expect to have any problems returning the book but I was curious to find out more. A quick skim around the internet showed that a number of people have had problems with this company`s output. Worryingly, Nabu have no website and their publications provide no contact details.

I did find a useful article `Who and Where are Nabu Press` at which tells you the name of the company that owns them and the address of their registered agent.

I understand that a number of people are experiencing problems with POD reprint companies and that the problem is not confined to Nabu alone by any means.  Presuming you place your order through a reputable book dealer you should have no problem getting a refund if you have a similar experience.

I can see a very valuable role to be played by reprint companies - POD companies if necessary, by all means -   making affordable copies of books like Ovington`s available. Unfortunately, that doesn`t seem to be what`s happening.

If anyone else wants to use the comments facility to tell the world about their experience of these companies - good  as well as bad, if that`s been your experience - I`d be very happy for you to do that.

Sunday 6 May 2012

A Trip to the Library

Staying in the UK, a recent decision by the London Metropolitan University to dispose of two of it`s special collections has proved controversial.

The collections concerned are the Women`s Library and the Trade Union Congress Library. The university has said it is looking for a new home, a new owner or a new sponsor for these.

Cynics have suggested that this because the LMU has been caught `upgrading` figures on the number of students it has in order to get more state funding. I myself had no idea that was the case and couldn`t possibly comment !

A lively campaign is underway in respect of the Women`s Library, which houses everything from early suffragette memorabilia to the archive of the National Women`s Register. For details, see my article Save the Women`s Library , posted earlier today at

At present there does not seem to be an equivalent campaign in respect of the TUC collection. However, these sites may be of interest ;

Hopefully new homes and/or new sources of funding will be forthcoming for these unusual collections. As I`ve said elsewhere, it`s worth remebering that documents and artefacts aren`t the only assets these collections have, there`s also the expertise of the staff that maintain them and their familiarity with the stock.

Perspectives ; Racing to the UK (Part One)

Often a variety of different perspectives are needed to cast light on the social issues of the day, and race relations in the UK is no exception.

The Runnymede Trust publishes the views of representatives of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish Nationalist Parties and is actively involved in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community. For more on the Trust`s work, see my articles `Racing to Runnymede`, Friday 9 March 2012 at and   `Ann Dummett 1931 - 2012` , Thurs 8 March 2012 on this blog.

The Runnymede Trust certainly brings it`s own contribution to the debate, but clearly it cannot be the only one. What other voices are out there ?

There have been two distinctive contributions from the Conservative Party ;

Max Wind-Cowie (ed) - Are We There Yet ? is a product of the Progressive Conservative Group and features contributions on issues around race and equality by Conservative thinkers such as Andrew Boff, Max Wind-Cowie, Mohammed Amin, Paul Goodman and others. It can be found on the website for Demos ( , and can be downloaded free of charge. I must admit that reading this is on my `things to do` list but with one thing and another I`ve not got round to it yet. I am particularly interested in Mohammed Amin`s `Hard-Edged but Inclusive` and Paul Goodman`s  `Time to End the Tory War on Multiculturalism` , as on the face of it they sound like something I could relate to.

Probably the most thorough work on race and Conservatism is that by Lord Ashcroft KCMG, particularly his report `Degrees of Separation`. For further detail on that, you could do worse than check out his article Ethnic Minority Voters and the Conservative Party at . This offers a summary of `Degrees of Separation` and a link to the full report.

So there we have links to publications featuring the views of what I would think are the four main political parties in Great Britain (GB comprises England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland). There is no particular reason why the Conservatives are more heavily featured than the other three.

Of course, political parties don`t have a monopoly on wisdom (far from it!). At some point in the future I`ll be returning to this theme and looking at various non-party organisations.