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.


The Post

It’s quite a time for The Post to have been released, and the movie is very aware of the echoes in history.

The Post tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, fighting against threats from the White House to tell the American people ‘the truth’. There’s a lot to like. Spielberg tells a good story, with a particularly likeable twist for Meryl Streep’s character, who steps out of her deceased husband’s shadow to make critical decisions, even as those around her don’t all trust her.

The story shows the balance between commercial decisions (the Post’s IPO happens around the same time as the publishing decision), and the messiness of powerful relationships (McNamara is a friend of the Post’s proprietor).

It’s been said that a montage is a movie apologising for reality, but I think there were some that were used to good effect in the movie. At the start, they do a good job of taking the story from the wide expanse of its era, into the decisions inside the newsroom that will echo out into history.

The ending of the movie felt off to me. There’s a point, during the celebrations after a crucial court victory, when it feels as though the movie isn’t content with showing its impacts. There is no montage of soldiers returning home, or changes in the wider American context – marches on the streets, speeches in Congress. Instead it gives us slightly twee speeches by the Post’s proprietor and editor, spoken as though they were conscious of history looking over their shoulder.

Overall though, it’s a fun watch. Worth it.

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.


Article roundup: Politics, octopuses and preppers

It’s been a while, but these are some random pieces I wanted to note down. In no particular order …

Greg Jericho writes in The Guardian that ‘Reform isn’t bipartisan. One party advocates for it and then fights hard to keep it‘. I would have liked to read this in a political science journal article, with better argued facts, but none-the-less it rings true to some of what I’ve seen in relation to particular debates. People talk about the need for bipartisanship all the time, but if politics really is about the alignment of different interest groups, then perhaps it’s unsurprising that even if one group is able to set up a particular structure (healthcare, or a particular form of tax), other groups may want to either contest it at the time, or revisit the issue decades later.

I think squids (especially the giant ones) and octopuses are fascinating creatures. But it’s worth seeing the other side of the argument, presented by Daniel Engber in Slate, Against the Octopus‘.

This article on the teenagers campaigning after a shooting is one of the many excellent pieces being written on their work, and you should read what they’re saying directly. But the piece stuck with me particularly because of this line: ‘… all grand reform movements are failures until they aren’t’.

Not an article, but just something I wanted to note down: Campbell’s law is, roughly stated, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

The Plot Against America‘ in in-depth piece in The Atlantic about Paul Manafort by Franklin Foer. It shows a man confused, scared, and while he may have had more experience and resources than many could dream of, was still caught up by currents beyond his control – in part, of course, because of his own decisions that had lead him there.

Mark O’Connell’s account in The Guardian of Peter Thiel’s prepping by buying a property in New Zealand is disconcerting, as it highlights a separate world, where billionaires buy property in far off lands, making plans that most of us can never hope to.

Power and communication are inextricably intertwined; this account of corruption charges in relation to a newspaper and a Prime Minister in Israel are a stark reminder.

I wasn’t paying much attention to politics in the early 90s. But it’s strange to think that a heart attack killing a Treasury secretary in turn launched a personal speech (known as the ‘Placido Domingo’ speech) that marked the break between Keating and Hawke, and in turn a change of Prime Ministership. But at the same time, it serves as a real reminder of the humanity of the individuals involved.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss is an excellent read. Moss looks at each of the key ingredients, focussing on how they impact our health and our taste, and how they’ve been used by corporations to make processed food more attractive. He tells his story by using key executives from corporate giants, telling stories about trials they’d run, failed attempts at cutting back on bad ingredients (or sham attempts), and throughout paints a bigger picture, of how corporations have turned food into an unequal playing field, where the typical consumer, unless they have the resources to cook at home regularly, has little chance of eating healthily.

In examining this dynamic, it’s interesting to see the sense of helplessness that emerges even on the part of the leading executives. Some, in retirement, have turned crusaders – but none, in office, seemed able to successfully make a significant difference to benefit the consumer. In part, this seems to be due to corporate tensions – competition is so fierce that those who cut back on sugar or fat, risk losing market share to a more ruthless competitor.

Executives know this – they don’t eat their own food, and they know they are part of a machine that is reducing the nation’s health. Some try to combat this, but largely once they’re outside; steps from within appear to be token, desultory attempts, or well intentioned failures doomed before they begin.

Moss doesn’t take the next step, to painting a bigger picture of the relationship between corporations and politicians – it would have been a useful addition. But for all that, it’s a useful read. There is no single fact that is surprising, in the sense of upending our view of food – but it’s a helpful, detailed, reminder. My sense was that reading about how processed food is designed at a corporate level might have a slightly similar effect to reading about food processing in the days of Upton Sinclair – it made the sausages much less attractive.

Well worth it if you’re interested in thinking a little more about how food, corporations, and your health intersect.


[In the 1980s] … the world’s largest cigarette maker, Philip Morris, became the largest food company by acquiring the two largest food manufacturers, General Foods and Kraft.

But in their hands, the salt, sugar, and fat they have used to propel this social transformation are not nutrients as much as weapons-weapons they deploy, certainly, to defeat their competitors but also to keep us coming back for more.

In her view, soda has moved the bliss point higher across the spectrum of drinks-from vitamin waters to sport ades-that is gaining popularity even as soda consumption begins to taper off.

Moss quotes Moskowitz, one of the earlier food researchers:

I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time, and I had to take what I can get. Would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. Did I do the right thing? If you were in my position, what would you have done?

Moskowitz uncovers an intuitive but important point about cravings:

Because what Moskowtz found is that hunger is a poor driver of cravings. We rarely get in the situation where our body and brain are depleted of nutrients and are actually in need of replenishment. Rather, he discovered, we are driven to eat by other forces in our lives. Some of these are emotional needs ,while others reflect the pillars of processed food: first and foremost taste, followed by aroma, appearance, and texture.

Like the Hoover-era FBI pursuing its enemies list, the industry infiltrated the association of home economics teachers. This operation started with money and advertising, an archive of the association’s journal reveals. In 1957 alone, General Foods funnelled $288,250 into the grants and fellowship program of the home economics association, winning the gratitude of a generation of teachers. The association then devoted a special section of its journal to publicizing all the convenient products, from Stove Top Stuffing to nine-serving cake mixes … Then the food industry began sending people to further reshape the association to its own designs. It sponsored candidates for the organization’s top leadership posts, candidates who would bring a decidedly pro-industrial view to home economics.

They pored over these [rival’s] cereals like generals, but of course, the other food companies were not the target. The target was the civilians who were buying the rival cereal.

Research suggests that our bodies are less aware of excessive intake when the calories are liquid.

Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. “It was a mind-bending paradigm shift for me,” Putman said. “We weren’t trying to get share of market. We weren’t trying to beat Pepsi or Mountain Dew. We were about trying to beat everything.”

In marketing these drinks to kids and their parents, the brand managers now working for Phillip Morris would use something else to create allure. They would use fruit, or rather the intimation of fruit, to create an even more powerful image of their drinks: a chimera of health.

Like Kool-Aid and Tang, Capri Sun was sweetened mainly by high-fructose corn syrup, but it also now contained juice concentrate, which allowed the drink’s label to boast, for the first time, “Natural fruit drink. No artificial ingredients.”

… scientists have studied the brain’s reactions to processed foods and drugs like cocaine, and have concluded that some drugs achieve their allure, and addictive qualities, by following the same neurological channels that our bodies first developed for food.

This disconnect between moms hating the idea of cold raw pizza and the kids loving it had to do with their distinct approaches to eating it in general. Adults use their mouths when they eat, tasting whatever it is they are eating. By contrast, kids tend to use their eyes, judging the food – initially, at least – by how it looks.

There is a class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don’t generally partake in their own creations. Thus the heavy reliance on focus groups with the targeted consumer.

… the People’s Department of Lincoln’s imaginings has long been enmeshed in a conflict of interest that undermines its populist roots. On one side are the 312 million or so people of the United States and their health, which the USDA is charged with safeguarding. On the other side are the three hundred or so companies that form the $1 trillion industry of food manufacturing, companies that the USDA feels obligated to placate and nurture.

Kids who were overweight tended to stay that way for life.

Could they find a way to help people ease up without killing off their own company?

Lin found himself caught between corporate and public interests, struggling to reconcile what was best for the company with what was best for its consumers.

… the [consumer advocacy] organization has forced … PepsiCo to change the labeling of its Tropicana Peach Papaya Juice to reflect the facts that it has neither peaches nor papaya and is not a juice. “We’re open to listening to legitimate concerns, and this seemed like a reasonable concern,” a PepsiCo official said in settling the Tropicana case.

It had taken me three and a half years of prying into the food industry’s operations to come to terms with the full range of institutional forces that compel even the best companies to churn out foods that undermine a healthy diet. Most critical, of course, is the deep dependence the industry has on salt, sugar, and fat … companies won’t be giving these three up, in any real way, without a major fight. Salt, sugar, and fat are the foundation of processed food, and the overriding question the companies have in determining the formulations of their products is how much they need of each to achieve the maximum allure.

Making money is the sole reason they [food producers] exist-or so says Wall Street, which is there, at every turn, to remind them of this. Indeed, some experts, believe that Wall Street was one of the chief causes of the obesity epidemic when, in the early 1980s, investors shifted their money from stodgy blue chip companies to the high-flying technology industry and other sectors that promised quicker returns.

“… there is a huge economic issue involved in the obesity problem. It falls most heavily on those who have the fewest resources and probably the least understanding or knowledge of what they are doing.” [said James Behnke, the former Pillsbury executive].

Here they were, these people of Strawberry Mansion, sick of their kids getting the jitters and stomachaches from the corner-store food, trying to rehabilitate their own eating habits, and getting snookered into buying a “healthy” item that was no healthier than candy.

It is, perhaps, not unreasonable in this scenario to think of the grocery store as a battlefield, dotted with landmines itching to go off. And if you accept this, then it becomes all the more apparent why the food industry is so reliant on salt, sugar, and fat. They are cheap. They are interchangeable. They are huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural food. And yet, for us, knowing all this can be empowering.

Flyting and rap battles

Because this blog is still a notebook, of sorts, I just wanted to note down something I found fascinating.

You may have enjoyed the verbal rap battles in Mile; but apparently, that goes back a long way. Flyting is something people have done for centuries. Although it’s a little hard to find examples, and there’s definitely something lost in translation, it’s still a fascinating idea.

Have you heard any verbal battles recently? Which ones would you like to see?

Black Panther: Or, how subversive can a multi-million dollar movie be?

There have been a lot of reviews of Black Panther (New York Review of Books, Variety, Verge). I’d previously read the comic books, so given all the hype, I was excited to check it out.

Overall, the movie doesn’t disappoint, for what it is. It’s a well-paced action movie. It has fast-paced, well-choreographed action scenes. It’s better than your average Marvel movie (and definitely better than those TV shows), in that it features interesting characters: a king struggling to be a king after the death of his father, and one of the most nuanced villains (and therefore the most believable) we’ve seen in a long time. Killmonger is motivated because he sees power that isn’t used to the ends he thinks it should be, to helping those who are suffering and struggling. The fact that he is better motivated than other Marvel movie villains isn’t saying much though; there could have been much more about the suffering he was trying to prevent.

There’s been a lot written about representation, and what it means to have a full cast of people of colour, who are given a wide range of roles, including female leads who aren’t defined romantically. That is all important, and I’m not the person to write about it any meaningful way – you should go read someone else on that topic, because it’s an important one.

For all of the excellent things that the movie features, it is still a multi-million corporate production. There was a jarring reminder at the start of the viewing we went to, because of the Lexus ad before the movie had even started.


Killmonger’s final line, after he is defeated and dying, is:

Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.

It’s a powerful line, and one that’s generated some debate. But to have a few lines be the most subversive statement in an entire movie (again, apart from the representation – that is an important point, but one that I can’t do justice to) feels like a reflection on the context that produced the film. Had it been more controversial, it might not have made it through the corporate system, and fewer people might have seen it if it had been produced.

It’s a fun movie, but it’s a product of its context.