You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes? Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?
I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.
Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures. TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.
Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?
Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known. However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.
As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term. Read More…
A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business, trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.
The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even cause the Union to start unravelling.
This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.
Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’. Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit
… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.
Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process. Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.
French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.
And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.
FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down). Read More…
25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? – progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe. Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states – although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.
The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe. Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.
If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves. As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned – the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out from Asia. Read More…
“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.
You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.
“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.
Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it. Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure. Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.
The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations. Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.
The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’? Read More…
The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.
Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone– Greece and Ireland. Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.
Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised – and instead stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.
The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.
However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.
For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.
But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?
The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).
I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.
Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China. But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability
It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers. In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945. The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.
And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming – surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? – to be born
At 8.30am I am sitting in a thinktank seminar on ‘subterranean politics’ in Europe. At 8pm I am sitting in launch event for a book about populism in Europe and the America. It is a long day framed with big questions and incomplete answers.
At one of the regular European Council for Foreign Affairs regular Black Coffee Mornings Mary Kaldor of the LSE launches her project team’s new report on Subterranean Politics in conversation with Mike Richmond of the Occupied Times. ‘Subterranean politics’ is an appealing term, but a vague (and undefined) one intended to capture a plethora of alternative and protest phenomena: new anti-capitalist social movements (like the much feted Occupy), successful far-right parties like Hungary’s Jobbik or the True Finns; sundry less easily categorisable new parties like the German Pirates or Italy’s Five Star movement and broader, more subtle – perhaps truly subterranean – changes wrought on citizens and politics by the internet and below-the-radar reactions to the crisis.
The more interesting argument is that what has changed is such fringe, anti-establishment phenomena are bleeding into the political mainstream and what they all have in common is demands for new forms of politics, rather than simply demands for economic redress – economic crisis triggering political crisis. It isn’t entirely clear how these impacts are supposed to happen (or indeed if there was a common impact). The clearest answer offered –referencing some rather well established academic ideas about social movements- was that we were in a new cycle of protest and that the generational change would bring this about change in the mainstream, perhaps in the similar way that the demands and leaders of 1968 were gradually incorporated into academic, political and cultural establishments of 1980s and 1990s.
(The more conventional party-political far left, oddly, didn’t get a mention, although Greece’s Syriza perhaps illustrates margins-to-mainstream transition of the most direct and immediate kind under conditions of acute crisis).
Europe, needless to say, was absent from the idea of various practitioners ‘subterranean politics’ as it is from much conventional political discourse, regarded as distant, technocratic and neo-liberal and generally part of the problem. Perhaps the focus on the national level, someone suggested, would in time gradually further stoke xenophobia.
Overall, the impression is of discussion feeling its way uncertainly along, sensing political and social change – of ‘something kicking off’ to borrow Paul Mason’s phrase, but unable adequately to name more than a few of its parts or move beyond a rather flakey zeitgeistish rhetoric of a ‘global revolutions’ linking Tahir Square to Westminster and Wall Street . Instead it seems to collapse in on itself, recycling familiar debates about national and European democratic deficits, the rise of the far right and citizen distrust of politicians. Ideas floated to remedy the malaise – localism, new institutions to meet a (supposed) public yearning for participation, the use of social movements as a space for deliberation and reconfiguring, Tobin taxes – seemed well worn and oddly moderate.
Pretty much the stuff that establishment politicians and journalists are already taking about surely? Have the margins already shaped the mainstream? Or are the new politics of crisis and uncertainly less a product of the woes of capitalism and the Eurozone than a continuation of much longer term democratic deficits?
By evening I have moved to home ground – and moved on to drinking black sugary tea – for the launch at UCL of a new book on Populism in Europe and the Americas. Although co-sponsored by the Counterpoint thinktank the discussion at this second event was resolutely more academic: the book is a new collection which – as co-editor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and co-discussant Paul Taggart made clear – ambitiously tries to combine inter-regional comparison (European populism mainly radical right, Latin American radical left(ish) – reflections on whether populism was a boon or bane for democracy (an overview of the argument can be found here )
I had mixed feelings about this. Despite having written a case study chapter in the book (on the Czech radical right)– and liking the sweep of the comparision I sensed that events were rushing ahead: as the Subterranean Politics briefing flagged up, European populist phenomena, are far from confined to the far-right. Indeed, oppositional, anti-establishment, anti-elite mobilisation appears so diverse and fragmentary that much debtated, well honed concepts of populism and populist parties almost appears something of straitjacket. Perhaps it always was.
David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of differing opportunity structures (types of electoral system, party system format and so on) and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.
Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success – is dependent partly on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide. Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.
Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics. An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant right – is needed if they are to stick around. Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).
Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.
As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy, while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix: historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency. (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).
The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.
An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.
For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent, Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS). Poland represents, as so often, interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.
The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.
The question of cordons sanitaires in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually represented in government in Slovakia and Poland, although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s perhaps comes closest. Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable. In the end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.
When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.
A slow train wends it way through the tower blocks of South London to get me to plusher territory near Runnymede, where Birmingham University’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) is holding its annual research conference. As ever this takes place in the Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.
Cumberland Lodge was built by a Roundhead during the English Civil War, but smack bang in the middle of the royal estate it has had strongly monarchist associations ever since. The interior also features in the The King’s Speech as George VI’s bedroom. I always half expect to see Hercule Poirot coming round the corner or to hear that Colonel Mustard has been done in With the Candlestick, In the Library, but bar a brief mention of Ian Rankin, most of the conversation during my day stays off the subject of royalty and crime fiction and stay strictly political science – gardening.
The early morning panel I’m on features and interesting three-way discussion of the breakthroughs made by market populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe (my jointly authored contribution); Tim Haughton’s presentation on the reasons some(mainly larger) parties in the same region have doggedly hung on and prospered as ‘hardy perennials’ ; and the changing role of parties in the (now) decidedly different context Russia (more ‘electoral authoritarianism’ than ‘competitive authoritarianism’). Tim’s presentation is interesting – beyond the nice horticultural graphics and the underlying issues of party stability – for its self-conscious use of metaphor.
The academic literature on parties is replete with metaphors mostly (as Tim and co-author Kevin Deegan Krause) note, of geological or meteorological inspirations: the ‘freezing’ of party systems, ‘earthquake elections’ and so on. Other sub-genres of the literature, mostly those dealing with individual party organisations, rather than party systems, use a biological type of metaphor: references to party ‘birth’ and ‘death’, the ‘life cycle’ of a party or its ‘genetic’ character are not hard to come by.
I used to think that such reliance on metaphor was a weakness of the literature and an inveterate bad habit: organisations are not organisms still less geological formations and, if you’re going to write about processes and structures write about processes and structures without lazily reaching for analogies. Our presentation had (we hoped) nothing more florid than pink and green Tosmana visualization, that might distantly have looked like some kind of exotic orchid to people sitting at the back,
But tracking down an old conference paper by Jernej Pinklo on ‘Metaphors of Nature in Political Science’, I realised I was my first take far too dogmatic. Shaking loose from metaphor was in reality damn near impossible, so what mattered was their conscious and creative use and application.
Chewing this over quick walk among the royal Rhododendrons, I realised, however, Central and Eastern Europe’s toughest and most aggressive enduring parties were perhaps not Chelsea Flower Show material, but instead exactly what their anti-establishment challengers accused them of being: political dinosaurs. Understood, of course, that dinosaurs were the most longlasting and dominant life forms the ever: usually big, capable of continual adaption in changing environments, sometime aggressive and usually pretty much top of the food chain.
Do party specialists need to put down the garderning gloves and reach for their copy of Charles Darwin or Stephen Jay Gould? Ideas of population ecology seems already to become established in the literature on interest groups and, as Ian Lustick’s recent paper suggests, political scientists generally might gain a lot from doing so.
the expanding late Victorian world and ended up in the USA, where he reinvents himself as Henry M. Stanley (assumed names, but later backed by a concocted story of adoption by a wealthy cotton planter); had a series picaresque not to say bizarre series of adventures as trader, gold prospector, deserterfrom both sides in the US Civil War before finally making it at the age of 30 as journalist and heading off to Africa for he journalistic scoop of the century: ‘discovering’ missionary and explorer David Livingstone, whom his best selling book subsequently mythologizes as a saintly figure.
He then turned explorer himself making two epic journeys (in opposite directions) between Zanzibar and the mouth of the Congo, sorting out the true source of the Nile and opening up central Africa for European colonialism. His candour and exaggeration of his ruthlessness in his books, says Jeal, left him with a reputation for brutality, argues, was basically undeserved. Despite laying the some of the foundations of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, he can’t, says Jeal reckons, be held directly responsible for the atrocities of Belgian colonialism in Congo, which later transpired, but was guilty of some political misjudgements.
This thoroughly documented shades-of-grey interpretation and mildly revisionist agenda came across as basically plausibe, although left the question of how (and if) we should judge Stanley, – as well as much of the psychology that drove him – hanging in the air. Most interesting (if underplayed in the book) was the political and social context of the time that emerges: public and political attitudes to Africa is far from the gung-ho imperialist racism overlaid by a patina of religiosity that we perhaps imagined. Indeed, what is striking is how strong altruistic, humanitarian and liberal impulses seem to have be, albeit it mixed with Realpolitik and economic self-interest. Uncomfortably, recasting some of the politically incorrect language of the time, Stanley (in Jeal’s account, at least) and others emerge as a worrying modern figures concerned to deliver failed and/or underdeveloped states on the global periphery from local warlords, bringing them the benefits of development (‘civilization’), open and global markets and combating mass people trafficking (abolition of East African slave trade).
Anti-imperialism in West Europe, this time in the form of protest against and outrage about the Vietnam War and depredation of the Third World were also a driving force the story of the Baader-Meinhof group and the radical left in 1970s West Germany, as told in Aust’s reworked The Baader-Meinhof Complex, now, of course, a glossy and violent new film. Unlike Jeal’s biography which loses a bit of readability by dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, Aust’s book has fragmented episodic structure, making for a fast and compelling read . It’s easy to see why it was filmed as blockbusting political thriller-cum crime story-cum reconstruction of the 1970s.
Aust clearly knows his stuff, however, having been personally acquainted with some the leading dramais personnae and obsessively followed up the RAF story through the three decades worth of research and interviews with cops and terrorists alike. Without being too didactic, the book debunks much of the (self-)mythologization of and violent chic of the RAF as misguided but pure martyrs, showing them as a strong on verbiage, low on ideology and strategy, high on brutality (emotional and physical) and at key moments sustained by East European secret services and factions of the PLO.
The psychology and background key RAF personalities, however, remain as much of a cipher that of the compulsively driven Stanley and his fellow explorers/adventurers, although both seem to share a self-destructive urge and strangely toxic mix of overblown moral certainty and callous brutality. However, I couldn’t help the rather odd feeling that world of the Baader-Meinhof Complex was utlimately more distant and unfamiliar – perhaps the word I am looking for is irrelevant – than of that Stanley and late Victorian imperialism/globalization in the making.