The logic of politics

I read an interesting article recently (German Lopez in Vox, on ‘How the NRA resurrected the Second Amendment‘). It’s interesting in that it tracks how work in the intellectual sphere flows downstream into the public sphere (a la Lopez and Leighton in Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers). But what I found particularly interesting was its discussion of the relative incentives and capacity for smaller and larger groups. Lopez sets out the argument as to why a small, highly motivated group has a larger impact than a large, less motivated group, an argument that I think would have been very familiar to Mancur Olson:

This goes hand in hand with another problem: Although the majority of Americans, based on public polling, support various kinds of tougher regulations on guns (from universal background checks to a federal database for sales), the reality is that most people are not voting on this issue, with the economy and traditional national security concerns taking much more attention.

Those who are single-issue gun voters, meanwhile, tend to be on the right. There aren’t that many of these voters, but they tend to outnumber the people on the left who would be swayed to vote for candidates just because they back more gun control.


Criticisms and growth

I’ve been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed the blog, and his books (The Beautiful StruggleBetween the world and me, and We were eight years in power). They’re all well worth reading.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about TNC is the way he approaches writing on line. I haven’t seen any hot-takes of his that I can remember, and I think he is genuinely engaged in intellectual give-and-take – in learning more, and in particular acknowledging the gaps in his own knowledge, and being willing to learn visibly, to be seen to be learning, which takes some humility to really do.

I saw the piece that Cornel West wrote in The Guardian, which subsequently blew up online. My two cents on that debate aren’t really worth two cents, for a range of reasons. So these are just my own notes, part of my own thinking it through; in the spirit of TNC, I suppose – thinking it through, but acknowledging there’s a lot I don’t know in this area. You should read other people on this, who are better informed and better placed to speak on the issue. There’s a lot out there – I found this tweet string an interesting place to start.

One of the things I’ve found, in reading part of TNC’s work, is that he acknowledges explicitly that there are areas he doesn’t tend to write on, because it’s not his turf. International relations. Broader politics. Which is refreshingly honest, but at times a part of me has wanted him to make that leap – to apply the gift he has of researching, synthesising, and writing beautifully, to bring it all together in writing about power, gender, race and economics.

I’ve read a few critiques of Coates’ writing since the furore occasioned by West’s piece, and the one that stuck out at me was a piece by Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think I agree that there is an ‘analytical lacuna’ in Coates’ writing (although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘conspicuous’).

Part of the beauty of Coates’ writing, is that he is committed to the idea of writing, of ‘art’ as a radically honest vision of the real world around us, as he says in We were eight years in power:

It [art] had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Mishra writes that ‘… Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy …’ (he writes it in a larger sentence, but I don’t think I misrepresent it by quoting that fragment). I don’t know that I would agree that Coates is indifferent. I would imagine that he is deeply moved, and having read some of his writing, I would argue that you can see a shift over time in his thinking on gender, as his understanding becomes more nuanced (to pick only one power relationship of many). But I would say that if Coates wanted to write about it, I would love reading something by him about how gender, race, and economic disparities of power interlock and are inter-structured.

As Mishra acknowledges, Coates sees himself as someone learning, growing in understanding, and concludes:

Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

I would agree, that I think I would love to see Coates write about broader economic processes, and how they link to other power dynamics – to give us his version of a people’s history. Having said that, I don’t think he’s under any obligation to do so – if he wants to write solely about racial politics in America, I think he’s entitled to do so.

I also think it’s fair to say that there’s a set of connected issues, that relate to questions about justice, power and truth, that are at the heart of Coates’ writing project. I think it’s also true that if he doesn’t address them, he isn’t giving the full picture to some of his own questions. But, it’s his writing – he’s the one with the MacArther grant. He can write about whatever he wants to write about.

The Dictator’s Handbook

The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is the more accessible version of their 2003 book, The Logic of Political Survival. I’ve noted before how disappointing it is that the Logic of Political Survival was published with a significant flaw in their entire statistical approach, which even the authors acknowledge. Given that, I give less weight to the credibility of The Dictator’s Handbook as a summary of their theory.

So. It’s an interesting read, in that it sets out to analyse self-interested politics with a very descriptive (rather than normative) approach. Their ideas centre around the relationship between leaders and the followers that keep them in power: broken down by the authors into the nominal selectorate (those who, in theory, influence the selection of the leader), the real selectorate (those who actually play a role), and the winning coalition (the minimum group necessary for a leader to gain / remain in power). From there, they use some game theory (not spelt out in detail here), to derive a set of conclusions about how leaders operate.

There are a few broad problems in their approach, however. One was the assumption of rationality built into much of what they discuss. As spelt out in Democracy for Realists, there are a number of ways in which people act irrationally, or vote against their own self interest.

You could, I think, make the case that there is an almost Darwinian mechanism, whereby leaders who are not ruthless will be replaced by others who are – but the authors don’t make this argument, and are simply content to rest on the (I suspect false) assumption of individual rationality.

Their model also doesn’t really address the role of intermediaries that are essential in a democracy. The media impacts voting outcomes, and people who lead organisations (unions, corporations, and others) can have a role as well. But that intermediary role isn’t really unpacked, beyond a brief discussion of bloc-voting.

Bloc voting takes seemingly democratic institutions and makes appear like publicly traded companies. Every voter or share has a nominal right to vote, but effectively all the power lies with a few key actors who can control the votes of large numbers of shares or deliver many votes from their village. Bloc voting makes nominally democratic systems with large coalitions function as if they are autocratic by making the number of influentials-that is, people whose choices actually matter-much smaller than the nominal selectorate of the rest of the voters …

The real decisions are made by the group leaders who deliver blocs of votes.

Another gap, unfortunately, is that it feels as though they dance around the question of what might be called the rule of law, or the balance of power within a society. Why is it, for example, that functioning democracies aren’t always repatrimonialized? What keeps the multiple centres of power in balance, enabling a strong state to provide for its citizens, while held in check by the rule of law, and / or being democratically accountable? What is it that stops the leader in a democracy, from consolidating all power? The frame is one that Fukuyama might use, but I think the underlying question (why doesn’t all power collapse to the centre in a mature democracy) is an important one, and one that is elided in this analysis.

They also over-simplify their analysis of economic life; arguing that essential political freedoms such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and so-forth, can be essential to economic growth, and will therefore be introduced as a necessity when economic growth slows. That felt … flimsy on a number of levels to me.

Those were some of the major ones, but other questions felt as though they were unanswered:

  • What exactly determines the size of the coalition that’s necessary?
  • What prevents or enables coups in consolidating democracies?

Their oversimplifications, particularly around democracy and voter behaviour, leave them making statements like:

Democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas.

Rather than, for example, a battle of social identities, or other aspect. Again, drawing on a model of rational voters, they argue:

… they [voters] are likely to vote for people who adopt policies that benefit them.


People support leaders who deliver policies that specifically benefit them.

The authors draw a distinction between the normative and the descriptive. Which is an important distinction, but their approach is calloused when they come to describing real-life individuals who have suffered for pursuing positive outcomes:

Mr. Ossebi’s error was to cooperate with Transparency International in its lawsuit to recover wealth allegedly stolen by Congo’s president. Mr. Ossebi died as the result of a suspicious fire in his home.

The closest the authors come to a measure of hopeful analysis is their estimation of the mechanisms that are most likely to lead to distribute power.

Coalition members like small selectorates. Their welfare is enhanced if there are relatively few replacements for them. The incumbent cannot use the implicit threat of replacing them with a cheaper backer as a way to keep more benefits for himself rather than paying his essentials their due. This creates tension between a leader and his coalition. The leader would like to establish a Leninist style, corrupt, rigged electoral system that guarantees him an eager supply of replacement supporters. The coalition prefers monarchical, theocratic, or junta style institutional arrangements that restrict those who can be brought into coalition to a select group of aristocrats, clerics, or military elites.

Leaders and their essential share a preference for dependence upon a small coalition, at least so long as the coalition is very small. However, as the coalition continues to expand, a wedge is eventually driven between what a king wants and what his court needs. When that wedge gets big enough we have an explanation for the emergence of a mature democracy that is so stable it will almost certainly remain democratic and not backslide into autocratic rule.

Their model (visualised below), relies on the assumption that expanding the selectorate increases economic growth, so that there is greater wealth to be distributed.

Screenshot 2018-04-29_16-33-45

So, there are two times when the coalition is most receptive to the urge to improve life for the many, whether these are the people or shareholders: when a leader has just come to power, or when a leader is so old or decrepit that he won’t last much longer. In these circumstances coalition members cannot count on being retained … Effective reform means expanding the coalition and that means everyone, including the current essentials, has a good chance of being needed by tomorrow’s new leader.


… even if politics is nothing more than a game that leaders play, if only we can learn the rules, it becomes a game we can win …

First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of “We, the people.” Second, political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office … Third, when the small group of cronies knows that there is a large pool of people waiting on the sidelines, hoping to replace them … then the top leadership has great discretion over how revenue is spent and how much to tax … Fourth, dependence on a small coalition liberates leaders to tax at higher rates …

Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions-these simply don’t apply to the view of politics that we’ll present in the pages ahead …

… we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why …

The prime mover of interests in any state (or corporation for that matter) is the person at the top-the leader. So we started from this single point: the self-interested calculations and actions of rules are the driving force of all politics.

… The answer to how best to govern: however is necessary first to come to power, then to stay in power, and to control as much national (or corporate) revenue as possible all along the way.

For leaders, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. The nominal selectorate includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader …

The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.

The most important of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that makes up a winning coalition. These are the people whose support is essential if a leader is to survive in office.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art and science of governing.

… small coalitions encourage stable, corrupt, private-goods-oriented regimes.

Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. 

Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. 

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue.

Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. 

To come to power a challenger need only do three things. First, he must remove the incumbent. Second, he needs to seize the apparatus of government. Third, he needs to form a coalition of supporters sufficient to sustain him as the new incumbent.

There are three ways to remove an incumbent leader. The first, and easiest, is for the leader to die. If that convenience does not offer itself, a challenger can make an offer to the essential members of the incumbent’s coalition that is sufficiently attractive that they defect to the challenger’s cause. Third, the current political system can be overwhelmed from the outside, whether by military defeat by a foreign power, or through revolution and rebellion, in which the masses rise up, depose the current leader, and destroy existing institutions.

Waiting is risky business. There is no prize for coming second.

The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better of stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation’s ills.

Anyone who thinks leaders do what they ought to do – that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects – ought to become an academic rather than enter political life.

Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1971 because the army did not stop them. And the army did not bother to stop them because the czar did not pay them enough. The czar could not pay them enough because he foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I.

In a democracy it is less difficult, for instance, to detach supporters from the dominant coalition because democrats need such a large number of supporters. Leaders rely heavily on public goods to reward their backers, but precisely because so many of the rewards are public goods that benefit everyone, those in the coalition are not much better off than those outside the coalition.

He [Abraham Lincoln] introduced absentee ballots so that soldiers could vote, with an especially important impact in New York. It is widely believed that the vote of soldiers carried the state for Lincoln in his 1864 race against General George B. McClellan.

What we can begin to appreciate is that no matter how well a tyrant builds his coalition, it is important to keep the coalition itself off-balance.

The practice of gerrymandering has made it such that the odds of being voted out of a US congressional seat are not that different from the odds of defeat faced by members of the Supreme Soviet under the Soviet Union’s one-party communist regime.

Democrats, in contrast, are constantly engaged in a battle for the best policy ideas to keep their large constituencies happy.

If a leader cannot find a reliable source of income, it is only a matter of time until someone else will offer his supporter greater rewards than he can.

The general rule is that the larger the group of essentials, the lower the tax rate.

In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich. And if this is the case, it is important to be loyal beyond all else.

A company that acts responsibly [by sharing resource benefits with local communities] will necessarily have less money to deliver to the government and that will be enough for them to be replaced by another company that is willing to be more “cooperative”.

Who makes revolution? It is the great in-between; those who are neither immiserated nor coddled.

They [economists] treat politics as just so much friction, to be written off instead of dealt with.

From a leader’s point of view, the most important function of the people is to pay taxes. All regimes need money. As a result, certain basic public goods must be made available even by the meanest autocrat, unless he has access to significant revenue from sources, like oil or foreign aid, that are not based on taxing workers.

The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad for staying in power. The logic of political survival teaches us that leaders, whether they rule countries, or committees, first and foremost want to get and keep power.

When fifty-eight votes guarantee victory, and the IOC president can handpick IOC members, politics and control will always revolve around corruption and bribery. As long as the IOC’s institutions remain as they are, vote buying and graft will persist because it is the “right” strategy for any IOC president who wants to survive.

When a system is structured around corruption, everyone who matters, leaders and backers alike, are tarred by that corruption … Increasing sentences simply provides leaders with an additional tool with which to enforce discipline.

Aid is decidedly not given primarily to alleviate poverty or misery; it is given to make the constituents in donor states better off.

Dictators are cheap to buy. They deliver policies that democratic leaders and their constituents want, and being beholden to relatively few essential backers, autocrats can be brought cheaply.

Why, having suffered long and hard, might they suddenly and often in multitudes rise up against their government? The answer resides in finding a crucial moment, a tipping point, at which life in the future under the existing government is expected to be sufficiently bad that it is worth their while to risk the undoubted costs of rebellion. They must believe that some few who have come forward first in rebellion have a decent chance of success and a decent chance of making the lives of ordinary people better.

Many other crucial events in modern political history, from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, also owe their occurrence to the failure of core supporters to suppress the people at critical moments.

Revolutionary moments often arise, as we saw in the cases of Ghana, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, when an economy is near collapse-so near, in fact, that the leadership can no longer buy the military’s loyalty. Such circumstances are practically inevitable in the vast majority of autocracies. Their rent-seeking, corrupt, inefficient economic ways assure it.

Democrats more often that autocrats fight when all other means of gaining policy concessions from foreign foes fail. In contrast, autocrats are more likely to fight casually, in the pursuit of land, slaves, and treasure.

If a democratic leader wants a foreign leader to follow his prescribed policies then he needs to insulate his puppet from domestic pressures. This means reducing coalition size in vanquished states. This makes it easier to sustain puppets and buy policy. US foreign policy is awash with examples where the United States overtly or covertly undermines the development of democracy because it promoted the policies counter to US interests. Queen Liliuokolani of Hawii in 1893, Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953, and Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 all suffered such fates.

It is an understatement to say that making the world better is a difficult task. If it were not, then it would already have been improved.

However, the inherent problem with change is that improving life for one group generally means making at least one other person worse off, and that other person is likely to be a leader if change really will solve the people’s problems.

Slavery has been outlawed for about 150 years and yet the electoral college persists, and the primary reason, even if rarely spoken out loud, for its survival is that it allows politicians to construct a coalition of essential supporters that is substantially smaller than would be the case under direct election.

When economic circumstances dictate that a despot’s flow of cash depends on allowing the people to converse, the dictator is truly between a rock and a hard place.

Kate Evan’s Red Rosa

I stumbled across Red Rosa at a bookstore, and thought it was worth a read, given that it probably wasn’t available on Amazon (although as it turns out, there is a Kindle version).

Overall, it’s a good introduction to a historical figure I didn’t know much about. Luxembourg was an impressive woman. She overcame multiple barriers, including (but not limited to) gender, to make an important intellectual contribution, and play a key role in major social shifts at the start of the twentieth century.

The story starts with her childhood, and her struggle to learn. She moves from Poland to Germany (not unlike Alexander Parvus), and becomes involved with the Social Democratic Party. She completes a PhD on Polish industrialisation, and lectures in an SPD institute for future SPD leaders.

In a patriarchal society where women had very little freedom, she managed to have several relationships (as far as I can tell from the comic book, in a quite caring, mature way), and to make important contributions to complex debates about political economy.

She died brutally in the Sparticist uprising, which I understand (although I’m not an expert on the era) was a conflict between the centrist elements in the SDP, and more radical elements.

One of the things I found interesting was that in a life centred on a hope and plan for a better society, but filled with the bitterness of defeats as well, the comic book quotes a particular paragraph by Luxembourg that relates to hope:

 … in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, I find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that secret is nothing other than life itself …

The art work is not amazing, and the story could be better, but this is worth it if you want a gentle introduction to a fascinating life.


Suffrajitsu is a portmanteau, describing those suffragettes who took up ju-jitsu. It’s also a rather fun comic book, based on the concept, but set in a slightly different universe. It doesn’t delve deep into the history, and the story-line is a little bit hackneyed (venture deep to the German mountains, assisted by the British secret service, to recover … something something evil experiments). It doesn’t have any real stab at the question of systemic oppression. For all that though, it’s a fun read – well worth it.

Alexander Parvus: The merchant of revolution

Alexander Parvus is a shadowy figure, who seems to lurk on the edge of historically significant scenes, without ever being willing to take centre stage. It’s hard to know where to start – so much is contested about the very facts of what he actually did, so much is uncertain about his motives over the course of his life, and the impact of his life on events that are themselves widely and intensely debated is deeply uncertain.

What seems reasonably clear is that Alexander Parvus was of Russian origin, but spent a large portion of his life in Germany, as a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, at a time when it was perhaps further outside the system than it is now. He was involved in newspapers and debates over socialist theory, and met or communicated with both Lenin and Trotsky. He spent some time in Turkey, and at some point (through means that aren’t clear to me, even after reading the most detailed biography I’ve been able to find) acquired enough wealth to live very comfortably for the remainder of his life. He was extensively involved with the German government, at the very least providing advice, and quite possibly enabling them to funnel support to groups in or related to Russia, including the Bolsheviks.

I started with The Merchant of Revolutiona biography by Zerman and Scharlau that is hard, but not impossible, to find copies of. I don’t have the context to critically evaluate Zerman and Scharlau’s work in what is a niche historical field, but as a lay reader I was struck by their use of a range of sources, from memoirs to private letters and government archives. This is of course a particularly complex area, given that every source (Russian histories, German government records, contemporary accounts) all have their own perspectives and goals, and even at the time may not have had an accurate picture of what was happening in the midst of intrigue, world war and revolution. Helphand himself destroyed his fires, perhaps in a bonfire (p. 275).

There were pages of quotes that I found interesting or wanted to note down, so I’ve pulled those out below. I’m very conscious as I read this that I’m not an expert in the history, and despite looking, there isn’t much public debate about Helphand. So if I’ve missed key information, or subsequent scholarship, let me know – I’d be very interested.

The crucial stage of his life was when Helphand was intimately involved with the Russian revolutionary movement, the Bolsheviks, and the German government. He tried at one point, unsuccessfully, to broker a peace deal between the German Social Democratic Party and the newly-installed Russian Bolsheviks; ultimately the peace deal was concluded between governments.

It’s also clear that Helphand amassed considerable wealth, and towards the end of his life didn’t live like the typical revolutionary: champagne, cigars and other luxuries weren’t out of place around him.

Whether his motives were entirely revolutionary throughout, or whether he got caught up in a complex game, more interested in the game than the outcome, is impossible to know from this vantage point. Whether he had a deep and profound impact, or was a self-aggrandizing man who puffed himself up around historical developments, or somewhere in between, is also unclear.

Perhaps a good summary is provided by his biographers:

He had helped clear the way for momentous historical developments, without having enough influence to control their direction.

Overall, this is a good book, given the constraints, and worth it if you’re interested in a somewhat unique historical figure. It doesn’t give definitive answers, but it highlights some of the overlapping complexities. And it shed a little more light on something I’d read about earlier – German government support for the Bolsheviks.

The early years and theoretical development

And then in the early eighteen-eighties, Marxism entered into competition for the favours of the Russian intelligentsia. Although the translation of the first volume of Das Kapital, by Nikolai Danielson-an economist and one of Marx’s correspondents in Russia-had appeared as early as 1872, Russian Marxism did not emerge as a movement until some ten years later.

Although revolution in Russia may seen inevitable to us in retrospect, it was always seen as a sideshow, compared to the developments in Germany.

As a Marxist, he [Helphand] knew that there existed a profound difference between the revolutionary struggle in western Europe and in Russia: whereas constitutional and civil liberties were still the main object of the revolution in Russia, western Europe had arrived at this stage of development in 1848, or, at the latest, in 1871. The workers in the West had a socialist aim before them, namely, the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of a social economic order. And in Helphand’s view, Germany was the country most advanced on the path to socialism; the Germans were running the best organized workers’ movement in Europe. Helphand was convinced that world revolution, which would emancipate the proletariat everywhere, would be decided in Germany: the class struggle in Berlin was of much greater importance to him than the opposition against Tsarism in Russia.

Inevitably, there were debates about tactical and strategic decisions:

Opposition to the budget proposals was, according to Parvus, the most powerful ‘means of parliamentary struggle’ at the disposal of the party-the best way of expressing its oppositional standpoint. He could not understand how support for the budget could be wrong in theory but right in political practice. ‘When one is no longer able to reconcile theory and practice, to deduce practice from theory … it is a certain sign that something is wrong with the one or the other side.’

This article by Parvus set off a discussion inside the socialist movement which continued, intermittently, until the outbreak of the war. Did support for the budget-even when it bought substantial concessions from the government-mean a compromise with the established order, or was it merely a part of the give and take of political life? Was it opportunism or political wisdom?

I found this interesting, as a theory of history and of economic development – it’s easy to forget the sense of inevitability some people felt about the future:

The Russo-Japanese war would, according to Helphand, further disturb the precarious internal balance in Russia. He warned his Russian comrades before taking a purely determinist view of these developments. He thought it possible that the ‘continuation of the capitalist order will be due to the policies of the Social Democrat party. It is impossible to make events. But it is possible to delay them. The idea of revolution fights against this. It fights against reaction, against political stupidity, against all vagueness, cowardice, and indecisiveness that slow down political development. It is not an independent political factor, but it makes the way for history clear’.

Helphand advocated a united front of all the opposition elements in the struggle against Tsarism; he did, however, fear that the contribution of the working class to the struggle might lose its identity: he insisted that the proletariat must exploit class antagonism for its own political ends. He was convinced that the international development of capitalism would lead to a revolution in Russia and that this revolution, in turn, would influence the internal situation of other countries.

Although Helphand was apparently not one of those who believed in an inevitable march to a Communist utopia, even if revolution was inevitable:

Helphand did not believe in the inevitability of the internal breakdown of capitalism, nor in the automatic victory of Social Democracy. He abhorred equally both these complementary ideas. The writing on the wall indicated that it was not the bourgeoisie, entrenched behind the power of the state, but the proletariat, that had reached the limit of its possibilities. Economic concentration had provided a counterbalance to the might of the trade unions; the parliamentary influence of the party had been cancelled out by the decline in the powers of the parliament.

He anticipated the need for not just an assessment of the problem, but a plan for a solution:

His interest in trade cycles, monopolies, and trade unions, convinced Helphand that examination of the past and the present no longer sufficed. Capitalism had been analysed frequently and in detail; the workers had learned what kinds of weapons stood at their disposal, and how they should attack the established order. But nothing had been said about the tasks of the future, about those political and economic problems the Social Democrats would face on the day after the revolution. What was socialism in practice? Where and how did one begin to build it up? How would the system function?

The Gorky incident

Helphand Parvus is most infamous, perhaps, for the Gorky incident. As Zerman and Scharlau tell it:

In order to acquire a bigger capital, Helphand embarked on another project. In the summer of 1902 he founded a publishing house, the Verlag slawisher under nordischer Literatur. It was based on an original idea; since Russia was not one of the signatories of the Berne copyright convention of 1886, Russian authors were not protected by its provisions, and their work could be pirated abroad. Helphand realized that he would establish the Russian authors’ claim to legal protection by publishing small editions, say 100 copies, in Germany …

The enterprise made an astonishingly good start. Its first venture was a sensational success: the discovery of Maxim Gorki–Russia’s first genuine proletarian writer–for the western European public … He [Helphand] was to receive 20 per cent of the proceeds; Gorki was the receive one-quarter of the remainder, and three-quarters were to go to the funds of the Russian Democrat party …

But this was the first and last financial success of Helphand’s publishing house. The income from the play was soon used up, partly to cover the subsequent losses incurred by the Verlag, and partly by Helphand himself. Neither Gorki nor the Russian Social Democrat party received any royalties. There the matter rested until the end of 1905. During the revolution in Russia in that year, however, Gorki and the Bolsheviks suddenly remembered the royalties Helphand owed them. As they were not forthcoming, charges against Helphand’s integrity, personal and financial, were raised …

[On the end of the publishing house] Helphand behaved with total irresponsibility. On this occasion, the most serious flaws in his character lay revealed: an absence of steadfastness and an utter lack of consideration for his friends and colleagues. He regarded human ties in strictly utilitarian tersm; he did not hesitate to sacrifice his friendship with Marchlewski to a momentary advantage for himself. The end of the publishing house broke a friendship of some fifteen years’ standing.

The 1905 Russian Revolution

It’s a less famous moment, but Helphand was on the ground for the 1905 revolution:

The workers of St. Petersburg needed leaders who were on the spot, and it did not much matter whether they were Bolsheviks or Mensheviks, socialists or not. Helphand and Trotsky knew this, and they used the situation to their advantage. They assumed the leadership of the movement, and received popular support: both of them became members of the Soviet; Trotsky had taken part in its very first session. The two friends knew what they wanted and they were energetic and skilful enough to strengthen their leading positions. Their master-stroke was the acquisition, early in November, of the hitherto insignificant liberal newspaper, the Ruskaya Gazeta, whey they transformed into the first truly popular socialist daily in Russia … Within a few days, the vaguely liberal, decidedly soporific Gazeta became a lively, easily intelligible paper … At first its circulation went up from the original 30,000 to 100,000; early in December, the sales of the Ruskaya Gazeta reached the half-million mark. The Bolshevik newspaper, the Novaya Zhizn, on the other hand, had to content itself with a circulation of 50,000 copies. In the field of publicity, Parvus and Trotsky had stolen the show.

And when the party leaders finally arrived in St. Petersburg, they could do nothing but accept the situation. The split in the Social Democrat party found little or no reflection in the Soviet; it accommodated a variety of groups and their different political ideas … Lenin was at first highly suspicious of its activities, and gave the Soviet his approval only after long hesitation, when he convinced himself that there was nothing he could do about Trotsky’s and Helphand’s leading roles on the council.

His biographers highlight that he and Trotsky faced a set of tactical choices about how the workers interacted with other opposition groups:

It seems very likely that the intensive publicity for the eight-hour day, conducted by Helphand and Trotsky, made a large contribution to the difficulties that the revolutionary leaders now faced. The demand had of course been made before the two friends launched their campaign; they, however, had raised it to the focal point of the revolutionary programme. Nothing else would have appealed so greatly to the imagination of the workers in 1905. On 8 November,  several working-class districts in St. Petersburg made an attempt, on their own initiative, to introduce the eight-hour day. Two days later, workers employed in heavy industry made the same demand. The Soviet then passed a resolution, by acclaim, to the same effect.

Against the opposition of the Mensheviks, and despite the numerical weakness of the proletariat, Helphand and Trotsky pursued the policy-implied in the campaign for the eight hour day-of separation of the workers from the liberal opposition. Their ultimate aim was the achievement of power, at least temporarily, in the state; their instrument was the general strike. The middle class reacted promptly. The unilateral introduction of the eight-hour day occasioned a sharp clash between the bourgeoisie  and the workers’ movement. The industrialists replied to the great strike on 20 November by locking out some 100,000 workers. The policy of the Soviet, now clearly directed both against the Government and against the bourgeoisie, led to the ultimate trial of strength.

Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks feared that the workers might become politically isolated, and they advocated moderation. For Helphand and Trotsky, on the other hand, the growing pressure exerted by the middle class against the policies of the Soviet, was a certain sign that the bourgeoisie was about to betray the revolution. Instead of avoiding an overestimate of the forces at their disposal, and then countering the middle-class opposition in a less rigid manner, Helphand and Trotsky continued with their policy of further intensification of the class struggle … They believed that victory could be achieved by rapid advance, rather than entrenchment …

It became quite obvious, early in December 1905, to what extent Parvus and Trotsky were misled by their own calculations … On 5 December, Count Witte’s Government resolved to embark on a trial of strength with the Soviet: Krustalev-Nostar, its president, and several other members of its executive committee were arrested. The Soviet–having elected Trotsky as its new president–was no longer capable of countering force by force. The weapon of the mass strike was fast becoming blunt, and it could not be used indiscriminately.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution, Helphand was arrested, but made a dramatic escape:

Helphand was glad he had Deutsch with him; he could hardly have a better companion. They were both well provided with the means for escape; concealed in their small bundles of linen there were glazier’s diamonds, forged passports, addresses of local party agents and, above all, enough ready cash. They had no intention of accompanying their party very far …

He plied the guards with drinks, and only when they were well past caring, Helphand and some other of his comrades took their leave. Guided by a local peasant, they made their way, across the deserted, desolate taiga, back to Krasnoyarsk. The local station of the Trans-Siberian Railway was heavily guarded; a friend bought a ticket for Helphand, who then boarded the train disguised as a muzhik. He of course travelled third class, and in order to remain undetected–there was an armed guard on the train–he had to mix with the peasants. He was safe with them, but nauseated. He shared not only their vodka but also their dirt and their smell; direct contact with the people was no source of inspiration for Helphand.


How he made his fortune in Turkey is a mystery, even to his biographers:

The exact details of the way in which Helphand became a rich man must remain a matter of conjecture. The wealthy Turks themsleves, the indigenous and permanent inhabitants of the capital, were either administrators or soldiers, who held business in contempt, and left it in the care of a heterogenous community which consisted largely of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. Theirs was a very transient society: their business deals left behind no traces. It is possible that Helphand succeeded in attracting the attention of European business circles, and that he became their adviser and representative in the Ottoman Empire-the Krupp concern and Sir Basil Zaharoff have both been mentioned in this connexion; it is possible that he began dealing in corn and other commodities on his own initiative. By 1912-the beginning of the Balkan wars-he was doing both these things, and doing them quite successfully.

It is also certain that he conducted his business under the protection of the local politicians. He had established some connexions with the leaders of the rising nationalist party of the Young Turks, and in 1912 he became the economic editor of their newspaper, Turk Yurdu; he is said to have been entrusted, during the Balkan wars, with providing supplies for the Turkish army. There can be no doubt that, at this time, Helphand had closer connexions with Turkish officials than he later cared to admit …

He learned that in the conditions obtaining in the Ottoman Empire, power could be reached through money, and that money could be acquired through political power. He was to make a good deal of use of this knowledge.

Despite what it looks like, his biographers argue that Helphand’s underlying principles didn’t change:

Despite the change in his personal fortunes, Helphand had not sold out. His main interests had not altered, nor had he laid them aside: his approach, however, had. He still regarded himself as a socialist, and he was more than ever ready to help the socialist cause. But he would do so in his own way, and on his own terms. He had his old self-confidence, and he was near to achieving one of his most cherished aims. As a man of substance, with useful political connexions, he saw himself in a position to help his comrades in their hour of need. He was ready to make concessions to the realities of politics, but, above all, he was ready to act.

But still, his political goals and his economic gains seem intertwined as he assisted Turkey’s entrance into the war:

By swift improvisation, he succeeded in obtaining grain from Anatolia and Bulgaria; from Germany and Austria, he imported railway equipment as well as spare parts for the milling industry. By assisting Turkey in her economic preparations, he made a substantial contribution to her early entry into the war. The personal profit he made enabled him to extend his business interests to many parts of Europe.

Germany and the Bolsheviks

On his return to Europe, Helphand connected with German officials:

Helphand put a three-point plan before the German diplomats. He suggested that support be given to the parties working for social revolution in Russia, as well as to the minority nations which were striving for independence from the Tsarist Empire: he proposed the infiltration of Russia by propaganda, and an international press campaign against Tsarism.

They took him up on it:

From the middle of March 1915, Helphand became the leading adviser to the German Government on revolutionary affairs in Russian. His assignment was to organize a united front of European socialism against the Tsarist regime, and to enable the socialist party organizations in Russia to promote their country’s collapse through defeatist propaganda, strikes, and sabotage. At the end of March he received, from the Foreign Ministry, the first payment of one million marks for these purposes … The Foreign Ministry also had the Prussian deportation order of 1893 against Helphand, withdrawn. He was issued with a police pass, which freed him from all the restrictions on enemy aliens then in force.

But what of Helphand himself? Was he doing all this for the love of the game? Only partly. He represented a special kind of revolutionary: not for him were pockets stuffed with explosives and illegal literature, the secret codes and frontier crossings, and at the end of the journey, imprisonment. Instead, he operated on a grand scale, using the levers of power: money, high-level contacts, a formidable machine of war. All this was sheer delight for him. Behind it there was a hard, calculating ambition. He was preparing the ground for his ultimate entry as a reformer, a saviour, the leader of the revolution.

Helphand is reported to have funnelled German government money to Russian revolutionaries in exile:

Having had a part of the one million marks the Foreign Ministry had put at his disposal transferred to a bank in the Rumanian capital, Helphand attempted to persuade Rakovsky-Trotsky’s old friend and political associate-to siphon the money off to the Russian socialist exiles in Paris, who, under Trotsky, Martov, and Lunacharsky, were engaged in publishing the defeatist newspaper, Nashe Slovo. Helphand was probably successful: Trotsky said later, in New York, that he had received the money for Nashe Slovo mainly from Rakovsky.

Despite the claims that Helphand still had revolutionary aims, his lifestyle had changed.

Helphand did not just move into Bauer au Lac, one of the most expensive hotels in Zurich: he set up court there. He lived like an oriental potentate, surrounded by an ostentatious show of wealth. There was usually a retinue of rather well-endowed blondes about; his liking for enormous cigars was matched by his indulgence in champagne; probably a whole bottle for breakfast. His appearance, too, had changed. His massive, gigantic figure was more puffed out than ever. The broad, bull-like face with its high forehead, tiny nose, and carefully trimmed beard, had developed a flabby double-chin, behind which his neck completely disappeared.

There’s the usual intrigue, about whether Parvus was part of the connection between the German Government and the Bolsheviks. There were obvious advantages to the provisional Government in prosecuting this story, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.

… it is likely that Kozlovsky, a lawyer from St. Petersburg and originally a member of the Polish Social Democrat party, was also willing to co-operate with Helphand. This connexion was revealed only in July 1917, when Kozlovsky, together with Lenin and others, was charged by the Russian provisional Government with diverting Germany money to the Bolshevik party coffers. Very little, unfortunately, is known about Kozlovsky’s wartime activities; one fact is, however, common to all the memoirs by his contemporaries: Koslovsky often travelled between Stockholm and St. Petersburg on unexplained and secret missions …

When Zimmer [visiting on behalf of the German Foreign Ministry] visited him, Helphand showed his concern with the press campaign against him in the Entente countries as well as in the Russian emigre circles … Helphand thought that his visits to the Berlin ministries might have been noticed, or that the German Government security was not tight enough. He recommended that the Foreign Ministry’s reply to these rumours should be that he had merely ‘been advising on economic questions in Turkey’.

Zimmer was able to find out for himself that the speculations of the Russian emigre press on Helphand’s Copenhagen institute-that it concealed the headquarters of a conspiracy – were quite wrong. Helphand had used it as a decoy during his recruitment drive; although the institute existed, it was merely what it purported to be: a research organization. Revolutionary conspiracy was also being taken care of, but under an entirely different front.

From every point of view, a business company was much more suitable than a research institute for Helphand’s purposes … he was in a position to build a trading-cum-revolutionary organization in Russia … Apart from looking after business interests, they [Helphand’s company’s agents] maintained contact with the various underground cells and strike committees, trying to coordinate them in a unitary manner.

Zimmer commented:

Till now it has been possible to run the whole affair so discreetly, that not even the gentlemen who work for this organization have realized that our government is behind it all.

The authors comment on Helphand’s commercial operation that

It was the only company in the Russian revolutionary business.

Rosa Luxembourg, his former confidante, was not impressed:

When she came to contrast Helphand’s claim that, by establishing a spiritual link between the armed German and the revolutionary Russian workers he was fulfilling an important mission, with the fact that he was making a fortune in the security of Denmark, Rosa Luxembourg could, she admitted, no longer understand anything at all.

Parvus wrote memos for the Germans proposing measures that would undermine financial confidence, and stir up the revolutionary spirit:

Should it be possible to demonstrate, Helphand wrote, that two sets of notes with the same serial numbers were in circulation, a panic would be created in Russia which would have the most harmful effect on the country’s credit position abroad. It would not be difficult, Helphand implied, to introduce forged currency into the Russian market. Finally, he recommended a concentrated propaganda campaign in the Russian Army … Helphand thought that the German Social Democrat Party and the trade unions were the most suitable organizations for the conduct of such a campaign …

In 1916, strikes began:

Although it [a naval factory strike] was ostensibly motivated by economic grievances, the local police was in no doubt as to its political motives. The wage demands were pitched so high that the management could not possibly have satisfied them …

There can be no doubt that Helphand thought them his own achievement. He had put a special stress on the development of the revolutionary movement in the harbour towns of South Russia, Odessa and Nikolaev: his first revolutionary contacts in the war were with those towns; the date and the course of the strike in the capital also pointed to Helphand’s influence. The workers everywhere were able to stay away from their factories for a considerable length of time: Helphand had taken special care that the strike committees should have sufficient sums at their disposal for the payment of the rouble equivalent of about 3s. (1916 value) to a worker every day.

The strikes did not, however, spark off a revolution. In the capital, fewer men were involved than Helphand had anticipated; the workers in Moscow and in the provinces did not follow their lead … Organization had never been his [Helphand’s] strong point; he thought improvisation sufficient if enough money, imagination, and energy, were used in the process.

Helphand’s company mixed business and politics:

It satisfied all the interested parties: trading profits could be regarded as a reward for the political services rendered by Helphand and his friends.

Although the range of their company’s business was wide – it extended as far as the Netherlands, Great Britain, and the United States- it concentrated largely on trade with Russia. It dealt in a variety of goods, from stockings and contraceptives to raw materials and machinery: Helphand procured copper, rubber, tin, and corn for Germany’s war economy, while exporting chemicals and machinery to Russia.

Helphand established coal trade between the German government and Danish trade unions, which had a political impact:

When the anti-German newspapers in Denmark published disclosures about the bribery of the Danish trade unions by the German Government, Rantzau [German minister or ambassador to Denmark] emphatically repeated that, without the coal business, it would have been impossible ‘to win the Social Democrat trade unions, and the party, over to our side’ …

Helphand himself made money: his gains from the coal business ran into millions of kroner.

Material from the ambassador Ratzau who Helphand stayed in touch with, indicate that at least some German officials had a very clear view of how supporting the Bolsheviks would help their military efforts. The authors speculate that these views, expressed by Ratzau, reflected Helphand’s:

… it is essential that we try now to create the greatest possible degree of chaos in Russia. To this end, any patently apparent interference in the course of the Russian revolution should be avoided. In my opinion, we should, on the other hand, make every effort surreptitiously to deepen the differences between the moderate and extremist parties, for it is greatly in our interests that the latter should gain the upper hand, since a drastic change would then be inevitable and would take forms which would necessarily shake the very existence of the Russian Empire … In all probability, we should, in about three months’ time, be able to count on the disintegration having reached the stage where we could break the power of the Russians by military action.

The authors recount another meeting, between Helphand and one of Lenin’s envoys:

Helphand was in a position to promise massive support for the Bolsheviks in the forthcoming struggle for political power in Russia: Radek was empowered to accept the offer. The events of the following months provide sufficient evidence that this was precisely what happened in Stockholm on 13 April. (p. 217)

Helphand also lobbied the German officials:

There can be no doubt that Helphand drew the State Secretary’s attention to the advantages of supporting the Bolshevik party. Lenin was the only Russian party leader whose stand on the question of peace was firm, and whose organization was disciplined and effective.

The authors note how in a public statement (as controversies about Helphand swirled in the press), one of his contacts (Karl Radek) acknowledged that Helphand’s business funnelled money to socialist organisations. Explaining why Furstenburg worked with Helphand, they quote Radek:

Because he could then not only support his family, but also because he could give powerful financial help to the Polish party organization in Russian Poland …

They then conclude:

Despite his determined attempt at obfuscation, Radek revealed a point of extreme relevance: that money had been siphoned off from Helphand’s business for political purposes. Radek was, of course, unable to add that the Polish party was a creation of Lenin, and that it stood in such close connexion with the Russian Bolsheviks that it was difficult to tell the two organizations apart. (p. 228).

German officials, in reporting internally, made sure to highlight the success of their efforts:

‘The Bolshevik movement could never have attained the scale or the influence which it has today without our continual support.’ (p. 230).

Once the Bolsheviks were in power, the Germans continued to provide support [the authors cite Zimmerman’s documents for this]:

On 9 November the Treasury allowed a further fifteen million marks for political purposes in Russia: Bergen in the Foreign Ministry knew that the Bolshevik Government had to struggle ‘with great financial difficulties’, and that it was therefore desirable to supply it with money. For the same reason, ‘a further two million for known purposes’ were transferred to the Legation in Stockholm, immediately after the Bolshevik coup d’etat in Petrograd.

Despite all he’d done, Helphand wasn’t able to return to Russia after the Bolsheviks took power. Perhaps his name was tainted by the accusations of the provisional Russian government, perhaps there was animosity between him and the Bolshevik leadership, or perhaps for some other reason entirely. The authors argue that it was because of internal Bolshevik manoeuvring against Furstenburg that Lenin blocked his return:

According to Radek’s recollections, Lenin’s reply [to Helphand’s request to return to Russia] was not only disappointing for Helphand: it was offensive. Radek told Helphand that the Bolshevik leader could not allow him to return to Russia, and that, in the words of Lenin, ‘the cause of the revolution should not be touched by dirty hands’.

Once he’d been rejected, though, it appeared Helphand was willing to turn on the Bolsheviks, actively campaigning against their government:

He planned a press campaign inside and outside Russia, which was to effect the isolation of the Bolshevik party from the majority of the nation; he intended to convince the local organisations and the middle ranks of the party hierarchy that the Bolsheviks were leading Russian into dangerous waters … he intended to mobilize and encourage the enemies of the Bolsheviks, and thus put their government under severe pressure.

After World War I

After the Great War, Helphand was no longer as much a part of the game. When revolution came in Germany, despite his years of involvement with the SDP, he wasn’t involved. Instead, he was in conversations with the German officials, and buying and selling war surplus material for a profit (p. 259). Later, retired in Switzerland, he became the subject of public vitriol in Germany for his role in the war and connection with officials:

The Nazis, in particular, continued to make political capital out of it until January 1933. According to their propaganda, Helphand was one of the leading ‘November criminals’: men responsible for a diversity of crimes …

Helphand was driven out of Switzerland, and returned to Germany a shell of his former self:

His dedicated work for the Sachsiche Arbeiterzeitung, his passionate friendships with Schonlank, Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg, were things of the past. Most of his old friends were either dead, or manning the other side of the barricades. There was nothing in his life that could take their places.

JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

I enjoyed the Harry Potter series, and wanted to see whether Rowling’s new play was as good as her other ‘post-Potter’ works.

It took me two tries to get into it; partially because it’s a little harder to read a play than a novel, and partially because I don’t think this is her best work. The story is, essentially, about Potter and Malfoy’s sons. Now friends at Hogwarts, alienated from their fathers, they set out on an adventure (Time Turners are involved).

In doing so they unwittingly set off a chain of events that could bring back Voldemort himself, in an alternate timeline (which it’s actually quite interesting to see) where Hermione, Ron, and a few other brave resistance sorts battle on after Potter has been vanquished. To return to the world they know will take the two sons’ ingenuity, and their parents cooperating against an exceptionally dangerous foe.

There’s an element, through-out, of the frustration of middle-age. Ron is not physically what he used to be, Harry struggles with paperwork. But these are only things on the margins – the story doesn’t really engage with them, in the end, it comes back to wands drawn and spells exploding, the same as it was in magical high school.

In telling a time-travel story, Rowling partially undermines her earlier work. If it’s so easy – so fragile a happenstance – to undo the fact that the Battle of Hogwarts was won, it makes the struggle there seem less titanic, and more random. More frustratingly, from my perspective, the inciting incident isn’t a great need, per se (although it’s in part driven by Harry Potter’s son’s desire to connect with him), and rather the result of two teenagers stuffing around. It makes the resolution feel less satisfying, and more of a recovery from a colossal stuff-up by two kids.

This is fun if you’ve already entered the Potter-verse; otherwise start with the books.


Dumbledore’s portrait says to Harry:

You ask me, of all people, how to protect a boy in terrible danger? We cannot protect the young from harm. Pain must and will come.

Later, Professor McGonagall says to Albus Potter:

… the lesson even your father sometimes failed to heed is that bravery doesn’t forgive stupidity.