April 25, 2019

Do You Know Who I Really Am?

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/408-2019_harrison.pdf

Here's a Soviet joke (translated from Misha Mel’nichenko's Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov), Moscow 2014).

Parked at the embassy is an American automobile of an expensive make and the latest model. Two pedestrians walk up from opposite directions and stop involuntarily. One of them exclaims: “An amazing foreign car!” Then he panics and tries to correct his gaffe: “An amazing Soviet car. I think it’s Soviet. Yes, yes, it must be. Of course!” “What, you can’t tell an American automobile from a Soviet one at first glance?” “At first glance I can’t tell an informer from a decent person.”

This joke nicely captures two things. One is that the KGB recruited "undercover helpers" to keep Soviet society under continual surveillance by KGB informers. The other is that the existence of informers was an open secret, but no one knew who they were, so Soviet society was also permeated by the fear that anyone, known or unknown, might turn out to be an informer.

Recently I wrote a paper about KGB informers. As I wrote the paper, I developed its economic motivation: to understand how the informers were recruited and managed, which takes us into the economics of human capital and contracting. The paper also goes into the roles of trust and mistrust in the Soviet system of rule, which are more complicated than might appear. But the reason I was drawn to the subject in the first place was more direct: I was captivated by the stories I found, and I wanted to tell them.

My paper is based on twenty-one stories of the recruitment and development of KGB informers in Soviet Lithuania in the 1960s and 1970s. My paper focuses on their common features, but in their specifics these tales are extraordinarily varied. Their tone ranges from light to dark and from humorous to utterly grim. All of them are told in my paper, either in the text or in an appendix. In the hope that I can make you want more, here are two of them, which turned out to be one story. If you want the others, read my paper.

The story of KGB agents "Korabel'nik" and "Komandulis" grabbed me more than any other, because it is also a story of fathers and son. The fathers make a dreadful mistake, one that threatens to tear their families apart. It is beyond their powers to fix it by themselves. The KGB lends a hand; the families are saved. What price did the families pay? You decide.

One of the channels of Baltic migration in the interwar period led to South America. Among these were families from Lithuania. They had left their homeland to escape persecution, because they were Jews or socialists. Separated from the old country by a generation and an ocean, they still thought of it as home. It was the 1950s; the war was over, and Stalin was dead. From the other side of the ocean, the emigrants looked back at the old country now under Soviet rule and made a fateful choice: they decided to return.

In returning home, they made a terrible mistake. They brought their teenage children. Arriving in the old country, the young generation took a close look and realized immediately what they wanted more than anything: to leave as quickly as possible. But this was the one thing that the Soviet authorities could not permit under any circumstances.

On first refusal, the young people did not give up. They banded together and shared and nurtured what the KGB called their “emigrationist inclinations.” They made contacts with the diplomats representing the countries from which they had come. They travelled to Moscow and tried to obtain access to the embassies. They wrote petitions, demanding the right to leave. They wrote articles for publication abroad, protesting their situation. These things were worse than individual misdemeanours, for they were coordinated and took on the character of conspiracy. They drew the attention of the KGB, which began to watch them and open their letters.

Up to a point, the KGB’s attention was solicitous. These young people were ripe for exploitation by foreign powers intent on disrupting the Soviet political and social order. They were heading straight for a collision with authority, from which they could not emerge unscathed. Could a damaging confrontation be averted? Could their course be corrected in time? The KGB looked for ways to bring its influence to bear.

One idea was to infiltrate an “undercover helper” into the group. The outsider was rebuffed. The group remained solid and its course did not change.

The KGB approached the problem from another angle. They looked again at the group and singled out two of its members as weaker links. The common denominator was the parents: the KGB classed both fathers as politically reliable because of their personal records of engagement with communist politics in their former lives in Latin America. And who but a parent would share more sincerely the KGB’s interest in stopping these young men from destroying themselves over a childish dream?

The documentation tells the two stories separately. Martin (not his real name), from a Jewish family, was identified as being more suggestible than others (“it was established that his anti-Soviet judgements were the result of an incorrect understanding of Soviet actuality”) and the KGB began preparations to call him in for a warning (“preventive discussion”).

Before talking directly to Martin, the KGB applied pressure indirectly. The pressure came from two angles. One angle was Martin’s father, whom surveillance had identified as a potential ally. In preparation for addressing Martin directly, the KGB decided to recruit his father as an informer. The father proved a willing collaborator, talking freely to his handler about Martin’s activities. The handling officer set about training the father how to talk more persuasively to his son – in particular, using examples drawn from life to prove the superiority of the Soviet system to his son.

Another angle for KGB pressure was found at Martin’s workplace, a local newspaper. It turned out that the young man’s direct superior was also a KGB agent. Through this agent, Martin’s managers were given details of his anti-Soviet activities and were asked to use their influence on him to bring him back into line.

Finally, the timing was favourable. A few days before the KGB interviewed him, Martin had been given an apartment in a new building.

The interview went as well as could be hoped. Martin proved to be receptive to the KGB message. He was open about his connections and past behaviour, including contacts with foreigners and attempts to send documents abroad. He put the blame on his own lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. Why had he changed his mind? Because of his father’s influence, he said, and the influence of his colleagues at work, and because he now better understood how working people lived in the Soviet Union. In short, the KGB approach had worked.

Moreover, Martin appeared more and more to be a suitable candidate for recruitment himself. He spoke Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew. He had a large network of friends and excellent opportunities to be of value to KGB counter-intelligence. When the subject was raised, Martin consented to recruitment, choosing the codename “Korabel’nik” (shipwright). (This was in 1960, when Martin was 22.)

Not only was Martin willing in principle; he immediately began to give information about other young men of South American origin who were seeking a way out of the country. One of these had served in the armed forces of his country of birth and was allegedly supplying information via the country’s Moscow embassy. Another was currently serving in the Soviet Army in the western borderland of Kaliningrad province; it turned out that military counter-intelligence already had him under surveillance. Later, agent “Korabel’nik” visited him in Kaliningrad; his mission was monitored by a KGB officer who reported back that the new informer had behaved properly while on the assignment.

During his meetings the KGB handler continued the re-education of “Korabel’nik” that his father had begun. The two talked over the Soviet Union’s internal affairs and international relations as well as the KGB’s assignments for the young man. The KGB’s conclusion was that they had made a successful investment: the young man, it was reported, “can be used for the investigation of persons suspected of participation in the agent networks of American and Israeli intelligence.”

The other weaker link was Nicolas (again, not his real name, which we don’t know), the only son of a father who again had a history of close links with one of the South American communist parties. Approached by a KGB informer outside the family, the father was open about the family predicament, blamed his son’s behaviour on the influence of his friends and their lack of understanding of “Soviet actuality,” and expressed deep fears for Nicolas’s future, which seemed set on a criminal course.

The KGB again set out to train the father in how to manage his child. On the handler’s instruction, the informer counselled the father to explain to Nicolas various examples of the virtues and advantages of the Soviet system. The informer also evidently made acquaintance with Nicolas and got him to share some documents (perhaps these were writings of some kind that showed the Soviet Union in a good light) with his friends.

At this point Nicolas too became a potential candidate for recruitment as a KGB informer. Over two months, the KGB evaluated him. At this time, Nicolas received an instruction to report to the local military unit for a medical examination – a disturbing occurrence, one must suppose, for a young man who was doubtful about living in the Soviet Union, let alone accepting compulsory military service. Now the KGB handler took a direct hand, meeting Nicolas face to face at the military unit, at first maintaining his cover, then openly. Nicolas responded well, talked freely about his friends, and afterwards made no attempt to disclose the KGB approach to others. He became a willing and productive informer on the group, choosing the codename “Komandulis” (commander), and working with “Korabel’nik.”

In this story an accident of family ties had made two young people into active resisters to one of the core principles of Soviet rule – the closed border. To resolve the situation the KGB successfully exploited the same family ties. The fathers were willing to help if it would keep their children out of trouble – and who could blame them when the KGB was holding a gun to the heads of their sons? But first the handling officers had to teach the fathers to talk to their sons, and also to become more persuasive advocates of communist rule. The fathers became informers on the sons. This was productive not only in terms of information passed; it also helped to build the agent network. In turn, the sons also became undercover helpers, informing on their friends.

What happened to the other young people in the group of would-be re-emigrants? Frustratingly, we have no idea.


February 01, 2019

All Camels are to be Castrated

It's Friday evening. Time for some fun!

I've been writing a paper about the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and its informers. While the operations of the Soviet KGB undercover informer network were completely secret, and the identities of the informers were closely guarded, their presence in Soviet society was an open secret -- everyone knew they existed, they just didn't know who they were.

That's what I recall from personal experience, anyway. But personal experience isn't everything, so I wondered what evidence there might be to support what I remembered. I thought of jokes: if ordinary Soviet citizens didn't know about informers, how could there be jokes? I turned to the excellent compilation of 5,852 Soviet jokes by Misha Mel'nichenko (Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014). I quickly found a joke about inforners -- in fact, I found 39 jokes listed in the index, a number that I will use in my paper as evidence that knowledge of the existence of informers was widespread. For the weekend, here's joke no. 1617, somewhat abbreviated:

A husband decides to hold a party for his wife. He takes the guest list to the local security police and explains that, to avoid suspicion, he's happy to include the officer and any of his colleagues. The officer glances at the list and replies: "There's no need for that. You've already invited eight of our people."

You might wonder what's the truth in the joke. One point was a simple one: nobody knew whether some friend might be an informer. An objection to the joke might be that the officer's reply was unrepresentative: on average, the true density of informers in Soviet society was far below what the joke might be taken to imply. But, conditional on a person being already under investigation, the reply was actually quite realistic: once the KGB had you in its cross-hairs, it was no more than good practice to set several informants on you in order to cross-tally their reports. Anyway, it was still an important point that nobody knew and nobody could know.

More on this when I finish writing my paper.

For now, jokes about informers are to be found in a section of the book headed "The staff of the organs of state security." Inevitably, I've spent some time browsing. Here are some that I could understand and I think could work across the divides of space, time, language and culture. (This seems an appropriate moment, by the way, for me to offer a confession. Confession -- ha ha!! By their nature, jokes are informal. And my informal Russian is not that fluent. My Bolshevik Russian, in contrast, is excellent, and that's what you need to study the Soviet period. But what this means is that a lot of Russian jokes go straight over my head. As for translation, quite a number also rely on word plays that are funny in the original but can't work in English without laborious explanation.)

Soviet jokes came in many varieties. Here are a few, in a mix of free translation and paraphrase.

Nationalistic (#1595). "In France crimes are cleared in four weeks. In England, two weeks. But the Soviet Union has the best police in the world: every crime is cleared two weeks before it happens."

Philosophical (#1609, a rare case of a wordplay (бытие/битье) that translates directly). Marx's law that being determines consciousness, rendered for Soviet conditions: "Beating determines consciousness."

Harsh (#1612). Interrogator: "How old are you?" Prisoner: "I'll be fifty next month." Interrogator: "No, you won't."

Legalistic (#1602). Prosecutor's motto: "Give me the man, I'll find the law."

Anthropomorphic (#1603). Two hares run through a field and into each other. "Why are you rushing?" "Haven't you heard? They've announced that all camels are to be castrated!" "But you're not a camel." "Well, they catch you and castrate you and then you have to prove you're not a camel."

Downright nasty (#1644). Every Soviet organization had a personnel section the first task of which was to report to the KGB on the political loyalty of the workforce. A worker rushes into the chief's office. "The personnel officer has hanged himself in the warehouse!" "Have they cut him down?" "Not yet, he's still alive."

Not funny? You need to enter the frame of mind of a society where any of these would have given rise to a knowing smile and a shake of the head.

Enjoy the weekend.


January 03, 2019

The Radicalization of Deng Xiaoping

Writing about web page https://global.oup.com/academic/product/deng-xiaoping-9780199392032

On a beach in the autumn, I read a biography of Deng Xiaoping, the reformer of Chinese communism after Mao (Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine: Oxford University Press, 2015). I've been interested in communist reforms and reformers for a long time, partly because there was a time when I believed in them. Also, because of their personal histories before reform: the only way the reformers could rise to authority was through the system, so they were products of the system they wanted to change. They had to be very hard people, otherwise they could never have survived to that point.

Khrushchev, for example, decided to break with the legacy of Stalin, although he had been responsible for many mass killings in Stalin's lifetime. Why did he decide to rule differently? No doubt there were many reasons, but one seems to be that he was uncomfortable with the way things were. He had enough of a conscience to want to rule without continuous killing -- not enough to want to confess his sins, but enough to want to stop sinnng. Deng Xiaoping, too, built his career on the millions of victims of Mao's terror and famines. He too chose to put a stop to it when he had the power to make that choice. It seems Deng was led not so much by conscience, more by pragmatism and by a recognition that that China was weakened by the legacy of Mao.

Probably Khrushchev, like Deng, would have remained willing to go to any lengths to preserve party rule. In Deng's case the evidence is there in the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, for which he was directly responsible. There was no similar challenge to party authority in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev.

Pantsov and Levine cover Deng's adult years in fascinating detail. But what struck me particularly was something about which I knew nothing: the story of Deng's youth and his path to revolutionary activism (roughly pp. 15-35). The story seemed to correspond quite neatly with what social scientists have found out about recruitment into modern terrorism: what sort of people are attracted to join militant political factions and what other factors are involved in their selection.

Of course, you could object that communism and terrorism are quite different, as they are in many ways -- but I think not in this respect. (A logical test would be to go through, mark each time I use the word "communist" or "communism," replace it with "terrorist" or "terrorism," and check for sense.)

What the literature suggests is that the people who are radicalized in this way are typically young, mostly male, and on average relatively affluent and relatively educated. They are psychologically normal. Often they have faced some difficulty in finding a place in society. If male they may be unemployed; if female, they may have been widowed; if migrants, they may be poorly assimilated. Often they turn out to be surprisingly ill-informed about the philosophies and goals of the organizations they have joined; more important to them than ideas and programmes is the opportunity for intense comradeship with other young people based on common action for a common cause -- whatever that cause might be. (More detail and references here.)

Deng was born in 1904. His family was moderately well-to-do, in other words, well above the level of most Chinese. Later Deng described his father as a "small landowner" or a "middle peasant." In fact, he was a pillar of the local community, able to have his son privately educated and even to pay for him to study abroad.

Although educated, Deng was not a natural scholar. As a teenager, when he should have been studying in class, he was more often hanging out with his friends around the town.

The political atmosphere of the time, which Deng absorbed readily, was one of agitation against the monarchy and against foreign influences. But it is not clear that he ever encountered a foreigner at this time, other than the local Catholic priests.

In 1919, when Deng was 15, his father placed him in a school designed to prepare young people for study in France. France was not only a wealthy country but the home of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." A former classmate from this time is quoted to the effect that Deng studied "very diligently and seriously" but on other evidence he spent more time hanging out and taking part in various "patriotic" disturbances.

At the end of the year Deng scraped through his exams. He had qualified to study in France, but not by enough to earn a scholarship, so his family paid his expenses. With other students from China, Deng travelled first to Paris, then onward to college in the French provincial town of Bayeux.

In Bayeux, Deng's studies were not successful. The main subject was the French language, which he could not master. Because of this, he dropped out of his course. But his poor French also isolated him from French society, so that he was restricted to the company of other Chinese students in a similar situation. He had nothing to do, so there was more hanging out.

Running out of money, Deng took a series of unskilled factory jobs, all of which he hated and soon gave up. Eventually he gravitated to Paris and to the Chinese-French society that had organized his studies. He turned out to be one of hundreds of young Chinese men in a similar situation. They could not support themselves in France, but nor could they return home and admit that they had failed their studies. Without occupation, for several months of 1921 they hung out at the society premises with the help of a daily handout.

In early 1922, Deng found employment with other Chinese students at a provincial rubber factory. By now the other students had reached the conclusion that all their troubles had a single cause: capitalism. In this, they were ahead of Deng, but eventually he too came to share their view. "I acquired class consciousness," he wrote later, "when the capitalists and their tools--the foremen--slighted and exploited me." But he had no familiarity with Marxist ideas and it seems unlikely that he had ever met a capitalist, so the main factors must have been the racism of the French foremen (who were only half a step above the French proletariat) and the influence of his friends.

Deng's friends concluded that the remedy was communism. By 1923, although he knew little about the ideas of communism or Marxism, Deng had followed his friends into the Chinese communist party. His father sent him more money so that he could return to study, but instead he broke off relations with his family and immersed himself in the revolutionary underground. He made new friends, among them the youthful Zhou Enlai.

Deng now began to show his qualities as an effective organizer. By 1925, he was one of the leaders of the Chinese communist party in Europe. In January 1926, under increasing surveillance, with the police not far behind, he fled to Moscow. There he would receive his first serious training in the ideas of Marx and Lenin.

To summarize:

  • By family background, Deng was not ground down by poverty. His family supported him and gave him many opportunities.
  • Deng was not uneducated, but he was also a poor student. He was semi-educated, perhaps, in the sense that he was receptive to new ideas but untrained in testing or criticizing them.
  • A strong influence on Deng's outlook was distrust of foreigners. His personal interactions with them were extremely limited. Even when living in France, he did not share their language and he could not share their company.
  • In Chinese society Deng was not isolated or discriminated against. But in France he was. There, his social world shrank to the company of a few young men like himself. When he came to place his loyalty, the decisive factors were friendship and the chance to find solidarity with his comrades against an indifferent world.
  • When Deng chose the communist party, comradely feeling was a much more important factor than political or philosophical ideas. Deng's ideas did not choose his friends for him; it was the other way around. By becoming a communist, he could spend more time hanging out with his friends.

This was an ordinary path to an extraordinary life.


December 30, 2018

The Mushroom Incident: Expedition to the USSR, 1964

Writing about web page http://www.pushkinhouse.org/blog/2018/9/26/back-in-the-ussr-recollections-and-pictures-of-six-weeks-in-the-soviet-union-fifty-years-on

My parents said I’d better go. A letter from my boarding school advised them that in the summer I could travel with my class mates, under the supervision of a teacher, across Scandinavia to Finland and over the Soviet frontier to Leningrad and Moscow. The return journey would take three weeks. The cost was £70 which may not sound like much, but this was 1964 and the purchasing power of that sum would be between £1,000 and £1,500 in today’s money.

I was reminded of this by a charming column that appeared recently on the Pushkin House blog. There, Jeremy Poynton tells the story of a 1960s school trip to the USSR. Reading it I realized that, although his adventure took place several years after mine (in 1968), and his itinerary was much more of an adventure (from the Finnish border to the Trans-Caucasus), there was nonetheless a clear connection. His school was mine (The Leys School), and the intrepid leader of his expedition (Richard Armstrong) was also mine. And an incident that seals the link: Jeremy relates an incident that took place during the 1964 expedition, to which I was an eye witness, when Mr Armstrong was briefly but excitingly detained on suspicion of espionage.

The whole business was an unusual experience for a British teenager, and it had a marked effect on my life. This is how it came about.

In those days you could take O-levels twice a year, in December and June. (O-levels were the forerunner of the GCSE.) My French class had taken the exam early, in December, and somebody’s rules obliged us to continue to learn a foreign language until the school year ended in July. In those six months our teacher, Richard Armstrong, introduced us to the first rudiments of the Russian language: a new script, the pronouns and a few verbs, and some basic greetings. We began to read stories by Pushkin and Lermontov.

The class was most amused by the Russian vowel ы (transliterated to English as y). “I was” in Russian is spoken “ya byl.” My class included Hugh Beale, later a distinguished legal scholar, whose parental home was in Edgbaston in Birmingham. We decided that the easiest way to the correct rendering of “byl” was to speak Hugh’s family name with what passed among us for a strong Birmingham accent, and we all did this frequently and loudly, whether required to or not. Such was the dog-eat-dog humour of our community.

We set off in a people-carrier of the day, a Commer space van. As I recall there were half a dozen of us schoolboys and three drivers: Richard Armstrong, our leader; a friend of his, of a similar age; and a younger adult, a recent former pupil, much admired for his Minolta 16mm spy camera (that’s what we called it). I had a camera, too, the family Brownie Instamatic. I took some pictures, or so I thought, but when the film was processed later there was nothing on it. So I have no photographic mementoes.

My memory of the adventure is episodic, so that’s how I’ll tell it.

1. Ferry across the North Sea from Newcastle to Gothenburg. The weather was blowy and the seas were enough to unsettle the inexperienced stomach. I was queasy but not sick. I looked out to sea on the windward side of the lower deck. On the upper deck another passenger did the same, and threw up. The results ended up in my hair. In the ship’s refectory I discovered Scandinavian brown cheese and ate so much of it that to this day I have never wanted to try it again.

2. We drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Wide roads and dark woods.

3. Overnight ferry from Stockholm to the Finnish port of Turku. Heavy seas (or so we thought) with lots of passengers throwing up everywhere. No one slept. By dawn the sea was a flat calm, and the vessel glided into port through an archipelago of green islets in a blue sea lit mistily by the rising sun.

4. Crossing the border. We travelled by road from Turku to Leningrad, crossing the border at Vyborg. At the border, the guards went through our baggage item by item, giving special attention to books. We all brought paperbacks to read and we shared them round. Among them was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, first published in 1957, which had just been made into a film. But James Bond’s reputation had not yet reached Russia. The guards were intrigued by the title, which they spelled out carefully. They considered briefly, decided the book must be harmless, and returned it to us wreathed in smiles.

5. First night in the Soviet Union. Our route across Soviet territory and all our stopping places were pre-booked and pre-approved; our visas required us to to stick to it and not deviate by a day or a kilometre. We stayed in campsites near the major towns; these were well set up and crowded. The weather was fabulous: dry, sunny, and hot. Unlike home, the temperature did not fall when the sun went down, so the evenings were warm and convivial. Our first night was spent in a large tent; we slept on wooden bunks. In the late evening, harsh male voices were heard approaching, apparently going from tent to tent; perhaps they were looking for unoccupied spaces. When they came to us, they barked: “Male or female?” Richard Armstrong responded in a high, quavering voice: “Ne znayu” (I don’t know). There was a puzzled silence; the voices went away.

6. Leningrad. I remember the Neva embankment and the golden needle of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Probably we went to the Hermitage and did stuff like that.

7. Driving across Russia. By day, long straight roads through endless pine forests. Little traffic, mostly lumbering trucks. We overtook them with difficulty because the driver of our British vehicle sat on the wrong side for driving on the right. The driver asked: “mozhno?” (Can I?) The front seat passenger, with better forward vision, would reply: “mozhno!” At night, a problem was that Soviet vehicles did not have the facility to dip their main beams. In traffic they drove on sidelights, even on unlit roads. They either dazzled us or were barely visible. And we, driving on dipped beams, infuriated them, so that they flashed us repeatedly until we submitted and went over to sidelights only.

8. The Kremlin at Novgorod. This was Great Novgorod on the Volkhov River – not the better-known Nizhnii Novgorod far to the East on the Volga. I learned that every town of any significance has a Kremlin (fortress). I bought a print of the Kremlin at Novgorod for my parents, which I still have:

The Kremlin at Novgorod

Nearing Moscow, we visited the Tchaikovsky museum in the small town of Klin. In every town and settlement there were party banners and slogans. Most memorable was “Miru mir” (Peace to the World), which we endlessly repeated to each other.

9. The Mushroom Incident. The writer of a contemporaneous account (in The Leys Fortnightly, 23 October 1964) relates “the Mushroom Incident, or, ‘How we Nearly got Sent to Siberia all because of Mr Armstrong’s Insistence on Taking Pictures of Things he Shouldn’t’”:

On the way to Moscow we gave a man and a basket of mushrooms a lift into a town with the sinister name of Klin.

Even after more than half a century I retain the impression that the man was uncomfortable in our company. This was hardly surprising. Most likely he was taking what he had gathered in the woods to sell in the town market. When we picked him up, he probably had no clue that he’d accepted a lift from a bunch of foreigners. By sitting down with us he was enjoying "unauthorised contact with foreigners," a violation of the code of conduct for Soviet citizens in the regions where tourists were permitted. This was a misdemeanour, if not a crime. The trouble that ensued was inevitable.

As a memento, Mr Armstrong took a photo of him. At our next stop, Tchaikovsky’s house, Mr Armstrong was interviewed by two secret policemen who had been told by an upright Russian tovarisch that we had taken a photograph of a strategic object, which we afterwards concluded to be a few electricity pylons. The police expressed their desire to have the film, which Mr Armstrong in his characteristically pleasant manner declined to give them, and so we eventually went off with another tale to tell.

We were told (I recollect) that the farmer had also been detained, and Richard Armstrong bravely protested against this, but of course I did not witness his conversation with the police.

10. Moscow and Red Square. On the approach to Red Square we made an illegal turn, paid a fine, and blew a tire. I had played with Meccano as a child but I had no other mechanical knowledge or experience, and I was physically lazy, so I took no part in the repair. We visited Red Square, the Lenin Mausoleum, and GUM, the State Universal Store. I remember the summer heat and cloudless blue of the sky. I also remember the queues for everything. In GUM I waited in line to buy a red Young Pioneer scarf. Did I buy a balalaika? Maybe. Some of us did, and I might have been one of them. If so, it was never played, but hung around at home for a few years. Ordinary people were friendly and curious, I guess, but I was a bit of a Young Sheldon. If anybody spoke to me, I was probably scared to death. I do remember someone tried to buy the jeans I was wearing. I’m pretty sure they were my only trousers, so I have no idea what I was expected to do on selling them, but I didn’t. The official reporter notes that, in Moscow and Leningrad alike:

We were often confronted by children demanding ball-point pens, chewing gum and stamps in return for badges often depicting Lenin or the Heroes of the Cosmos. Once two of our members were confronted by a Russian when the conversation went as follows: “English?” – “Yes, English.” Pause. “Beatles?” – “Yes, Beatles!”

11. Food and drink. Food: I discovered the indispensable vegetable of Soviet times: pickled cabbage. Drink: at that time the Soviet consumer was beginning to thirst for Coca Cola. What they got was street vending machines that dispensed sweet fizzy sodas of no particular flavour. A glass, chained to the machine for everyone to drink from, was supposed to be washed between users. We all used it, and as far as I know we suffered no harm.

12. The return journey. As we drew near to Leningrad, we made our only deviation from the permitted route: Richard Armstrong and one or two others paid a clandestine visit to the suburban home of an Orthodox priest of his acquaintance (how the acquaintance arose I never found out). Of our second visit to Leningrad I remember only coming across the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was not in the splendid condition of today, which you can see in a photo that I took of it last year:

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood

In 1964 the church was in a sorry state, in use as a warehouse and closed to visitors.

13. Soviet roads. Near the border, after 1,500 kilometres of ruts and potholes, our faithful Commer van ran into the ground. A rear spring collapsed. One of us got underneath and counted the number of steel leaves in the spring to compare with a nearby Soviet vehicle of comparable size. Ours had seven leaves; the Soviet equivalent was thirteen, so roughly twice as many.

14. Farewell to the Soviet Union. Driving slowly and with great care, we limped our way to the Soviet border. Nearing the border, we stopped for a roadside comfort break. This was understood to be the right way to say good bye to Soviet rule. At the border we held our breath. After inspection, we were waved through to Finland and freedom.

15. Home again. From Finland we returned to the UK in comfort, by rail and boat. No doubt there was some extra expense, of which I knew nothing. In Oslo I strolled around the harbour and visited the Vasa, a wooden warship recently recovered from the waters of the bay. Our van, now barely drivable, was emptied of boys and baggage, and one of our drivers was detached from the party to bring it home.

Aftermath. On the surface, I appeared to have returned home safely and without consequences. In reality, without knowing it, I had contracted an incurable infection: a fascination with Russia that would never leave me.

I’ll finish with Richard Armstrong. He was one of the few teachers that seemed to me to be a genuinely kind person. He was slightly built with a sharp, intelligent face. He did not seem to have any particular age; I suppose he was in his thirties. He was physically tough; he helped to establish and coach the school rowing club and to lead school expeditions into the wilderness. His manner was normally gentle and good humoured; he was sharp only in the face of rudeness. He did not shape my way of thinking about the world, but his Russian class and the adventure that he made for us triggered my interest in Russia and set the course of my research for life.


August 24, 2018

Going Viral: How a Dictatorship Suppresses Ideological Infection

Writing about web page https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html

Sometimes it is said that a popular image or tweet or a video clip has "gone viral." That means that it has been shared from person to person many times, like an infection.

When we use this image, we think of ideas spreading on an epidemiological model. Some people have little resistance and so they are highly vulnerable. After just one exposure, they are taken over by the idea and become carriers. Then, they pass it on to more people like themselves who are also of low resistance. A pool is formed of people who pass the idea in question backwards and forwards and, in the process, expose many others. These others might be more highly resistant, and are captured by the idea only after repeated exposure, which happens over a period of time. Eventually, as more and more people are exposed more and more times, the infection will spread to everyone who is not for some reason immune.

The same model, according to which ideas spread like a disease, is often found in the practical thinking of authoritarian regimes. Such regimes often prescribe a particular set of ideas as "healthy" -- for example, obedience to the state and loyalty to the ruler, each embodying or personifying the nation. A source of danger to the regime is then the spread of "unhealthy" ideas, which might encourage disrespect of authority or public demonstrations of discontent. They worry that ideas about free speech or the accountability of rulers, if unchecked, might go viral, undermining the stability of the regime.

The epidemiological model also prescribes the remedy. Risks to public health are contained by keeping the community under continuous surveillance, by quickly identifying outbreaks of disease, and stepping in immediately to isolate the people who have become ideologically sick, preventing them from passing on their infection more widely.

This remedy can be seen at work today in China's province of Xinjiang, where the Chinese state is trying to manage the largely Muslim ethnic minority of Uighurs. On August 18, The Economist reported:

During the past year campaigners, academics and journalists have been shedding light on the detention for “re-education” of vast numbers of ethnic-Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. On August 13th the topic was raised at the UN, when experts undertaking an audit of China’s policies towards ethnic minorities said they had heard that as many as 1m Uighurs are being locked away.

The Economist's report went on to cite a recording by the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region communist party youth league, made last year and published on WeChat. The full transcript can be found on the Radio Free Asia website, and that's where I have taken the following excerpt:

In recent times, amid a growing heavy crackdown, a small number of people—particularly young people—have gone to re-education camps to study. However, their parents, friends and relatives, and the general public don’t understand the benefits of re-education, and as a result they are worried and fearful. So let us give answers to their questions and their concerns today.

Members of the public who have been chosen for re-education have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. In recent years, there have been violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang, one after another, instigated by the “three evil forces [of “terrorism,” “religious extremism,” and “separatism”], which has threatened the safety of people from all ethnic communities and caused serious damage and losses. These terrorists have one thing in common: they were infected by religious extremism and a violent terrorism disease.

The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine which confuses the mind of the people. Once they are poisoned by it, some turn into extremists who no longer value even their own lives … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.

Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.

In order to provide treatment to people who are infected with ideological illnesses and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment, the Autonomous Regional Party Committee decided to set up re-education camps in all regions, organizing special staff to teach state and provincial laws, regulations, the party’s ethnic and religious policies, and various other guidelines. They mobilized the public to learn the common language [Mandarin Chinese], complete various technical training courses, and take part in cultural and sport activities, teaching them what is correct and incorrect … so they can clearly distinguish right from wrong … At the end of re-education, the infected members of the public return to a healthy ideological state of mind, which guarantees them the ability to live a beautiful happy life with their families.

Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses, in that they must be treated in time, and should never be ignored and allowed to become serious. Otherwise, later we will regret it, as it will be too late … Being infected by religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology and not seeking treatment is like being infected by a disease that has not been treated in time, or like taking toxic drugs … There is no guarantee that it will not trigger and affect you in the future. If people don’t attend re-education class because there is no one to take responsibility for the household chores, or if they choose to run away from re-education, that can be considered being very irresponsible to themselves, their families and society.

You can see that the Chinese communist party youth league's model of the spread of ideas, expressed in this long quotation, is not intellectually consistent. The unhealthy ideas are sometimes called a "virus," sometimes a "poisonous medicine." But the general idea of ideological infection could not be clearer: "Ideological illnesses are the same as physical illnesses."

One feature of this perspective is that people who have been infected are not to blame (unless they refuse treatment). Another is that they are not seen as lost to the community; they can be saved (or they must help to save themselves). Nonetheless, as long as they are inflected by unhealthy ideas, they are a danger to the community as well as to themselves -- even if they are legally innocent of any crime. Therefore, compulsion is justified to treat them.

PS

Why am I interested? In another context, the Soviet KGB (security police) used the terminology of "unhealthy" ideas and behaviours, and of methods of "prophylaxis" (a medical term for prevention), all the time in internal correspondence and reports. If you would like to read more about this, there are some human-interest stories and more discussion in my book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, especially chapter 5.


August 06, 2018

Brexit and the Rights and Wrongs of Austerity

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/research/centres/cage/manage/publications/381-2018_fetzer.pdf

A great new paper by my CAGE colleague Thiemo Fetzer was in the news last week. It asks: Did Austerity Cause Brexit? Thiemo is one of those that know how to write a good abstract so, rather than try to summarize the paper in my own words, I’ll use his:

Did austerity cause Brexit? This paper shows that the rise of popular support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), as the single most important correlate of the subsequent Leave vote in the 2016 European Union (EU) referendum, along with broader measures of political dissatisfaction, are strongly and causally associated with an individual’s or an area’s exposure to austerity since 2010. In addition to exploiting data from the population of all electoral contests in the UK since 2000, I leverage detailed individual level panel data allowing me to exploit within-individual variation in exposure to specific rules-based welfare reforms as well as broader measures of political preferences. The results suggest that the EU referendum could have resulted in a Remain victory had it not been for a range of austerity-induced welfare reforms. These reforms activated existing economic grievances. Further, auxiliary results suggest that the underlying economic grievances have broader origins than what the current literature on Brexit suggests. Up until 2010, the UK’s welfare state evened out growing income differences across the skill divide through transfer payments. This pattern markedly stops from 2010 onwards as austerity started to bite.

Thiemo’s paper has already been widely reported (e.g. hereand here). The reports have tended to sustain a simple political narrative: In 2010, as Chancellor of the new coalition government, George Osborne set the course towards austerity. Austerity provoked the rise of UKIP and anti-EU sentiment. By implication, austerity was a mistake for which we are paying now with Brexit.

Not so fast.

Thiemo’s findings should be considered in the context of another story in last week’s news. In the Financial Times on 2 August, Chris Giles reported on the latest fiscal sustainability report of the Office of Budget Responsibility The report showed that, if the economy grows and if we continue to tax and spend on pensions, long-term care, health, education, and welfare at current rates, by 2050 there will be no funding for anything else. The government will be unable to pay anything towards defence, police, transport, arts and museums, business, and local authority services such as bins, libraries, and parks.

Driving this conclusion is two problems. One, the British population is ageing. Two, the economy is growing more slowly than in the past. Spending on old age will necessarily encroach more and more on a pool of resources that is finite and will fail to keep up.

In an era of low-interest rates it is tempting to suppose that the government can simply borrow more to pay for these things. Certainly, it can do this for a while. But that can only kick the fiscal can down the road. As deficits rise and once more accelerate the growth of the public debt, the burden of debt interest payments will also grow more rapidly, tightening the screws ever more harshly.

What does this have to do with Thiemo’s paper? It affects the implications that may be drawn.

First, when slow growth makes deficits unsustainable, austerity is inevitable at some point. Certainly, this does not deprive us of all choice. For example, we can choose to have austerity now or later. But for every unit of austerity that we postpone now, we will have more than one unit down the road; that's in the nature of the accumulation of debt. As Chris Giles points out, the government’s relaxation of fiscal targets in 2016, and its more recent boost to health spending, have brought forward the point at which the government will run out of money for “other” spending by six years. We can also choose who will bear austerity’s burdens. Are welfare benefits too generous? Should graduates pay higher contributions? Should companies pay higher taxes, or their shareholders, who include both relatively wealthy households and the pension funds responsible for the retirement incomes of the middle and lower classes?

These are all choices that could have been made differently, and that we can still make. But, as growth prospects diminish, what we cannot do is choose not to have austerity at all, ever.

Second, if you’re thinking that the government should not have imposed austerity in 2010 because that policy induced people to turn to UKIP and Brexit, think again. Rightly or wrongly, George Osborne was trying to return the UK economy to fiscal sustainability by following transparent targets and rules. The purpose of such rules has been to try to bind governments, so that they do not exploit their discretionary powers to time taxing and spending decisions in order to reward supporters, win their votes, and so manipulate elections.

Which is a good thing—right?

If your present thinking is that Thiemo’s paper shows that austerity was a bad policy, ask yourself what you thought of austerity before you knew his findings. If you already had reasons to believe that austerity was a bad policy, then stick to them, whatever they were. Thiemo’s findings have not added to them.

If, perhaps, Thiemo has changed your mind—previously, you thought austerity was necessary, and now you have turned against it—then be careful. The risk you face is that you may soon get what you now wish for: a government that systematically manipulates its electoral base with fiscal generosity that must be paid for later.


March 15, 2018

The Skripal Affair: Tit for Tat

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702

This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.

Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?

We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.

The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.

Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.

Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.

If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.

Don’t we murder people abroad too?

Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)

I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)

Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.

Britain's responses

Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”

It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.

We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.

One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.

Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.

What will the Russians do next?

Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?

Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.

Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.


November 20, 2017

Shorn of Violence and Coercion? The Soviet Model of Economic Development

Writing about web page https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21731113-even-today-some-see-it-way-kick-start-industrialisation-what-there

One of the joys of your own blog is that there is no editor to reject your contribution. (The corresponding downside risk is that there is no one to tell you not to be so bloody stupid.)

Last week, I wrote a letter to The Economist. I responded to a column entitled "What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model: Even today, some see it as a way to kick-start industrialisation." The column correctly pointed out that the Soviet way of doing things incurred heavy human and social costs. Nonetheless I felt it missed something. I wrote and said so, but my letter did not make it into this week's issue. Exploiting the prerogative of the blogger, I publish it here:

Sir

Jawaharlal Nehru asked whether the Soviet economic system could be “shorn of violence and coercion” (What there is to learn from the Soviet economic model, Nov. 9, 2017). Your correspondent correctly answers “No,” but, like Nehru, fails to grasp the reason. Nehru tried to understand the Soviet economy as a civilian project for economic growth and development. This was his mistake. The Soviet economy’s quantitative controls, priorities, and shortages, were the features of a war economy. The Bolsheviks’ first model was the German economy of sacrifice and mass mobilization for the Great War. Lenin expected to improve on the German outcome by dispensing with private property and the rule of law. The Soviet economy’s comparative advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the age of mass armies. This advantage was revealed not in global market shares but in the global balance of power, where the Soviet Union was much more successful than its second-rate economy would have predicted. That is why the idea of it retains appeal for Russian nationalists in times of international tension.

Yours sincerely

Mark Harrison


October 28, 2017

The Soviet Economy Collapsed After the World for Which it was Designed Disappeared

Writing about web page https://www.elindependiente.com/opinion/2017/10/28/por-que-colapso-la-economia-sovietica/

This column appeared (in Spanish) on 28 October on the website of El Independiente.

Soviet economic institutions were inspired by two western economic models of the early twentieth century. One was the German war economy of the Great War, which Lenin observed and admired for its government priorities, the control of supply chains by committees of industrialists, the rationing of commodities at fixed prices, and obligatory labour mobilization. The other was the American system of mass production of standardized products in great factories under centralized management.

Combined with an authoritarian single-party dictatorship, these two models made the Soviet economy as it emerged under Stalin and persisted until 1991. Everything was designed for mobilization, production, accumulation, and expansion. To ensure this, the state owned nearly everything and directed nearly everything from the centre, either by decree or by pressure to conform, backed up by the secret police. The citizens were motivated to comply with authority by a mixture of patriotic appeals, fear, and meagre rewards. The economy could supply basic consumer goods and services, but its special advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the world, especially a mass army with vast quantities of standardized weapons. By the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s Soviet Union had become one the world’s two leading producers of armaments, the other being Hitler’s Germany.

The Soviet economy was capable of growth, but it never proved capable of catching up with the innovative market economies of the time. Moreover, the growth rate of the Soviet economy steadily deteriorated through the postwar period. From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was falling further behind the United States in productivity and prosperity. While its economy began to stagnate, the Soviet Union faced additional challenges of the time. One challenge arose from the U.S. rearmament under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Another arose from the self-imposed burden of the Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan. In the international economy the Soviet Union was reliant on the oil market, where prices collapsed.

The Soviet leaders made repeated efforts to overcome economic constraints through reforms. The reforms sought to raise productivity by decentralizing management and improving incentives for efficient behaviour, while retaining the framework of state ownership and the party monopoly of power. All such reforms failed, as the economy reverted to its basic type. Later, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would say that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a fool for abandoning the party monopoly of power without reforming the economy. But this was unfair. Gorbachev did so only after all economic reforms had been tried, including most of the reforms that had been tried out successfully in China. Why they failed in the Soviet Union is an important story, but one for another time.

The end of the Soviet economy cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This should be clear from the example of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where ruling parties are facing vastly greater economic problems and threats than the Soviet Union ever faced, yet regimes have not collapsed. In the case of the Soviet Union, politics was decisive. The conservative generation of leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, born in the early twentieth century, died out. A new generation took command, led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The new generation was more open-minded, and their open minds had been influenced by the ideas of the dissident movement – nationalist, liberal, or social-democratic. Gorbachev was decisively influenced by ideas about social democracy and rule by consent. He did not want to rule at any price, or to rule by fear. Once it became widely understood that resistance to power would not be punished, people stopped being afraid. The Soviet Union became ungovernable and fell apart.

Politics was decisive in the moment, but at the same time we should not ignore the deeper economic forces. The Soviet economy was designed for a world of mass production and mass armies. That is no longer the world in which we live. In the 1970s, the information revolution gave rise to flexible production and a services economy based on information sharing. In the same decade, precision guidance and miniaturized nuclear weapons put an end to the idea that the future of Europe could be decided by a great battle fought by thousands of tanks and planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the central European plain. The world for which the Soviet economy had been designed was disappearing. The Soviet Union had no future. No one should want to see it return.


October 20, 2017

The Past and Future of Free Trade, or How Partisan Preferences Spread Foolishness

Writing about web page https://twitter.com/nickdearden75/status/919871698236829697

I woke up on October 16 to a learned debate on Twitter about economic history. Daniel Hannan, who is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, had posted this:

What made us the world's richest nation? We removed trade barriers and so put money into ordinary people's pockets.

In response, Nick Dearden, who is the director of Global Justice Now, a campaigning organization, replied:

No. We plundered & pillaged. We sold people by the millions. We forced China into opium addiction. We decimated Bengal's textile industry.

(At the time of writing, both of these tweets were well liked, with Dearden well ahead: Hannan 982, Dearden 1.9K.)

Maybe you've guessed: this dispute was not really about economic history. It's about Brexit. Hannan urges Britain to go it alone as a free-wheeling, free-trading nation state, as in the past; that, he maintains, is what made us rich then, and it will work for us again. Dearden maintains that we owe Britain's wealth to the world, from which we once stole it. I'm not sure what that implies for Brexit, but for sure he doesn't seem to like free trade.

Considered as economic history, which version is more plausible? Neither account would pass even a low bar, say, that of an undergraduate multiple choice test. But, of the two, I prefer Hannan's. Here's how that works:

Why Hannan would not pass: he is wrong to imply that free trade was the key factor. Britain's relative advantages can be dated at least back to the fourteenth century, long before free trade; in fact, long before foreign trade represented a substantial share of Britain's economic activities.

Why Hannan deserves some credit: he is right to suggest that in the nineteenth century free trade further promoted British productivity and prosperity. He is also correct to remind us, as many forget, that trade is primarily about wages and prices, and that the gains from trade stem from higher productivity in the jobs we have, not from more jobs.

Why Dearden would fail -- on every count. Plunder, pillage, and the slave trade have little or nothing to do with Britain's modern competitive advantages. These advantages stemmed from factors that came into play long before the eighteenth century. Even in the eighteenth century, Britain's foreign predations were not on a sufficient scale to explain the continued growth of the economy at home, for at that time the total of foreign transactions was not large enough relative to the size of the economy, and all profits on trade did not represent a significant share of British investment.

At home, the revenues from British colonies and plantation enriched a few, but they did not generate economic growth. Britain's industrial revolution was made by mill owners and ironmasters, who were not especially enriched by their entrepreneurship because competition continually drove down their prices and profits. Those enriched by the cotton trade were the many who gained from falling textile prices and cheap imported food.

That's at home; what about the rest of the world? The cotton trade did not only enrich Britain. It also enriched others. It did not, as Dearden claims, "decimate Bengal's textile industry." That was done by Indian mill owners. In India as in England, some lost but many gained. This is shown by the fact that, throughout India's so-called deindustrialization, both production and consumption of textiles rose decade by decade.

So . . . if Hannan had the better case for Britain to have embarked on free trade in the nineteenth century, does he have the stronger case for Britain to leave the EU in the twentiy-first? Absolutely not.

The gains from free trade in the nineteenth century arose from exchanging basic staple commodities: food and raw materials, textiles, and simple machinery. These goods could be described by simple standards, and contracting for them was largely free of regulation. Trade in the twenty-first century is radically different.

Today, trade in complex machinery and electronic devices relies on common standards for quality, safety, and networking. Trade in services, where there are the greatest unrealized gains, relies even more on common regulatory standards for consumer protection and contract enforcement. These things are not provided by the WTO, or by free trade, or by free trade agreements. They are provided by international regulatory harmonization, such as by the EU's Single Market.

If you want to import, you have to export. By leaving the Single Market, we throw up a trade barrier between ourselves and our largest, most competitive market.

So, to the extent that Hannan is correct on free trade, his is a powerful argument against Brexit.

More generally, the exchange between Hannan and Dearden illustrates how the desire to defend or attack prompts the opposing sides to oversimplify history and to spread half-truths and "alternative facts." Partisanship makes idiots of us all.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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