Author: Robert Darby

Man of Yesterday: Karl Marx and His Place in History

A review of Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (New York: Liveright Publishers, 2013). The great achievement of Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing biography of Karl Marx is to debunk the complementary images of Marx as a bogyman of the Right whose ideas are responsible for the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot etc, and as an icon of the Left who laid bare the inner workings of the capitalist economic system, foretold the workers’ millennium and, like Moses leading the Israelites to the promised land, gave them the political weapons with which to achieve it. On the contrary, Sperber demonstrates convincingly that Marx was a man of his time – another ambitious systems builder, whose vision of politics was anchored in the French Revolution of 1789 and whose understanding of the economy was limited to the turbulent industrial expansion of early nineteenth century Britain. It has often been said that Marxism grew from a fusion of German (Hegelian) philosophy, French socialism and English political economy. Sperber shows that insofar as this analysis is true …

“What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” A Discussion of Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked

It’s 31 AD or 784 AUC (ab urbe condita) in the Roman calendar. Jerusalem is packed with visitors for the Passover, and Pontius Pilate returns home from the office with a thick dossier on the recent riot at the Temple, caused by Yeshua Ben Yusuf and his rowdy followers. He greets his wife (hi honey), pats the dog, welcomes his young daughter’s handsome lover, has a bath, turns on the TV, and orders pizza for dinner, home delivered by a Greek boy on a motor-bike. It’s the Easter story, but not as told in the St Mathew Passion: the Rome of Kingdom of the Wicked has experienced an industrial, electronic and medical revolution and, with all our domestic comforts, sophisticated weaponry, computer equipment and wonder drugs, it is in many respects indistinguishable from the world of the 21st Century. The plausibility of this scenario is less important than the creative use that Helen Dale makes of it, but let us consider the case that she puts forward. Are there any reasons for thinking that the …

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: Science, Commerce, Freedom, and the Origins of Modernity

They are [letters] from brothers of mine in Europe. They tell a story – albeit in a fragmentary and patchwork way – of a sea-change that is spreading across Christendom, in large part because of men like Leibniz, Newton and Descartes. It is a change in the way men think, and it is the doom of the Inquisition. — Edouard de Gex in the dungeons of the Mexican Inquisition Athenian civilization defended itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. Technology is built on science. … The process of science doesn’t work unless young scientists have the freedom to attack and tear down old dogmas, to engage in an ongoing Titanomachia. Science flourishes where art and free speech flourish. — Enoch Root, in a later incarnation in Cryptonomicon The principal and proper work of history being to instruct and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently toward the future. — Thomas Hobbes, introduction to his translation of Thucydides Commentary on Neal Stephenson’s Baroque …

Female Genital Cutting: Harm, Human Rights and the Possibility of a Sex-Neutral Approach

Two very different views on female genital cutting (FGC) have been aired in recent weeks. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a pair of American obstetricians, Kavita Arora and Allan Jacobs, recently suggested that Western societies should tolerate – and doctors should perform – what they regard as “mild” forms of ritual genital cutting on female infants and girls if their parents ask for it. Unsurprisingly, backlash in the media has been swift, with hastily-written expressions of astonishment and even outrage being published on a daily basis. In contrast, Ms. Meiwita Budiharsana, a lecturer in public health in Indonesia – where such forms of FGC are actually common and are increasingly being carried out in hospitals or clinics – argues in The Conversation that the authorities should discourage these kinds of practices and that medical personnel should not perform them. The situation is rich in paradox. Two doctors from a society that has traditionally abhorred (and in fact criminalised) any form of non-therapeutic FGC believe that certain “mild” forms should be permitted. At the …