Monday, August 24, 2009

Argument about Haber

... on Language Hat blog
 But scientific/technological invention is precisely the area in which  the "great man" theory is shakiest.
Yes. And the reason, IMHO, is not that there are no great men, it's that the "great" in "great man" makes us to look for something glamorous, while it's oftentimes the blacksmith and his proverbial nail.

Every great advance seems to have been invented by two or more people almost simultaneously. I confess I now nothing about Haber or nitrate fixation, but I'm guessing if he hadn't developed it, someone else would have around the same time.

"Around" is crucial. Those who argue about Haber's contribution being important to the course of European history don't say he was the only one who could do it or that no one would have developed it "around the same time". Indeed, it took the intervention of others and many more years to develop his tabletop reactor into an industrial process. What is being claimed (and I don't have the knowledge to either support or reject the claim in question) is that the discovery, and the Haber-Bosh
industrial process dependent upon it, could have been easily delayed for several crucial years by, say, untimely death of Haber (he used to tinker with noxious agents under high pressure and had sustained some poisonings as a result). In which case the World War would have been seriously affected.
  (Besides, I think the premise is flawed; Russia fought on for a long time with ludicrously inadequate supplies of ammunition, artillery, rifles, boots, you name it.)
One thing I didn't write on Language Hat: the above seems to be a little exaggerated; Russian army had its problems, but so did others, including Germans. Everybody had to ration shells and munitions in the first year of the war; all governments responded with state regulation of production. The Russian "military-industrial committees" actually arrived at making the supply barely adequate by the time the Revolution struck. In any case, absent Haber's process, the Germans would not have had an inadequate supply (that's what they had in the beginning of the war, like everybody else); they would have had no supply at all.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Firtz Haber as the most influential man of XX century

Continuing the discussion on Language Hat blog:

I have seen people seriously argue that the most influential man of the XX century was actually Fritz Haber: absent his "nitrate fixation" chemical process, Germany, not having access to natural nitrates to manufacture ammunition, would have had to sue for peace after Marne and World War I would have ended with all the empires firmly in place. Imagine what that could do to XXth century history: Lenin dies in Switzeland, Hitler is a total unknown.

This, not the "laws of history", is, in my opinion, the main problem with "great men" theory: we just don't know the right "great man".

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Again: Great men in history

The discussion of "War and Peace" started by Language Hat made me want to try to participate:

"Interesting thing I have observed over time, as my interests made me witness numerous debates on the "laws of history" is that participants are rarely given to moderation: it's either all chance and "great men", or all "laws of history".

I guess the great philosophical systems of the past centuries have accustomed us to there being a complete non-contradictory answer to all meaningful questions. So the lack of historical significance of the personality of one George W. Bush is taken as evidence of all personalities being relatively unimportant to the course of historical events; if, as this view implies, there were an over-arching theory of historical probability, this would be a valid approach, just like 2x2=4 would be sufficient to prove that 3x2=6. But this is emphatically not the case in history. The historian begins where the natural scientist stops: it's all about the particulars. Every imaginable theory can find its "confirmation" in the huge mass of known facts: you just have to choose the right facts.

There definitely were personalities whose presence or absence was not, as far as we can know, demonstrably important for the course of historical events. There also were historical events that changed the world beyond recognition, and pivoted on presence, absence, and whims of a particular person. For example, not jut the event itself, but the timing and course of World War I defined everything for the history of the next century; even if we agree that _some_ war was inevitable, the timing, and the course of it could well have been different, and depended on personalities in a lot of cases. The personality of Henry VIII is a visible cause in a lot of events that shaped the next two centuries of British history. Yes, it's open to question if Alexandre was really a genius and if his military skill was indeed important in conquering Persia; but without him the Greeks (well, the Macedonians -- some say there were more than enough Greek mercenaries fighting on the Persian side) would not have gone that far in the first place."

Overstating my case, going far beyond my field of competence... Well, that's what blogging seems to be for.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beckwith III: Empires of the Silk Road

(previous posts on the subject here and here)

Finally finished "Empires of the Silk Road". I must say that the epilogue has pleasantly surprised me. I think it deserves to be published separately (was it perhaps intended to be published separately and only included in the book due to some vagary of the publishing process?)

Overall, I am very glad I have read the book and the epilogue. It will definitely forever change my way of reading "conventional" history centred on urban civilizations, and forever change the way I will be thinking about nomads. Beckwith, in fact, promotes the view that "pure" nomads are fiction; the Central Eurasian cultures were, according to him, always complex, with the nomads being just one link of a complicated chain of interaction between agriculturalists, merchants and pastoralists.

There are, however, things that seem less evident. First of all, the whole idea of a "cultural complex", when traced over cultures spanning continents and millennia, seems a little arbitrary. Someone tracing recurrent cultural similarities reliably must, of course, be on to something. But this something could be telling more about the author than about the subject of the study. This is, again, akin to what Lev Gumilev used to call "passionary" people and cultures (пассионарность, пассионарии). Gumilev could have been on to something when observing that historical change comes in waves. But his definition of "passionary" is such that only Gumilev himself was able to say if it applied to any particular culture, person or period or not.

"Central European cultural Complex" could be something of this sort. I am just being naïvely suspicious here, it could be a well-established term in the field for all I know.

If we are saying that peoples that had similar customs as regards a ruler's bodyguard and similar elements of folklore belong to the same cultural complex and must have deeper similarities, are we being a bit arbitrary? All people eat and drink -- is it cultural? All rulers -- modern ones included -- have a bodyguard of some sort; tales of a prince overthrowing an unlawful ruler are necessarily common, because most political collisions in a tribal society or a monarchy are about someone ousting the "bad" chieftain, prince or king (the victor is always the rightful ruler, of course). This means that -- at least as far as a non-specialist can see -- there is a possibility of being arbitrary and always finding a similarity when one is required to prove a point. There are similarities that are not meaningful at all: both Henry VIII and Ivan IV had many wives and had some former ones executed or imprisoned; both kings were pious, learned and had some theological ambitions; is it significant culturally, or is it similar circumstances producing similar personalities? Again, I am no specialist; Beckwith is one. But it is this part seems most suspicious to me -- if it says more about myself than it does about Beckwith, I have no idea.

Then there is his moral and aesthetic approach: Central Eurasians as poor victims of evil Modernism. Modernism, for Beckwith, seems to be the root of all evil and the biggest injustice in history. I beg to differ. The biggest injustice in history, for me, is the fact that for millennia history was like a history of a prison camp -- and written by the guards, too. We only know of warriors, sometimes eclipsed by the shamans. To caricature Beckwith, then, one might say that he seems to disapprove of Stravinsky more than of Tamerlane. Not only does his moralistic approach seem to interfere with his study. It also seems to be very wrong fundamentally.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Толстой, Алданов и смысл истории

Опять интересная статья Language Hat: WAR AND PEACE: THE SUMMING UP.

Я опять не удержался и, конечно, вставил свои две копейки про Алданова -- рискуя, очевидно, прослыть маньяком, потому что я туда уже про Алданова писал.

А интересно, что дискуссия как раз пошла в направлении, которое Алданова -- и в "Загадке Толстого", книге, которую я сразу вспомнил всвязи с этой статьей, и в "Ульмской ночи" -- интересовала чрезвычайно. Я даже думаю, что добрая половина алдановского интереса к Толстому именно от этого. Дискуссия пошла о роли случайности и закономерности в истории. Конечно, всякий, кто сдавал экзамены по марксизму-ленинизму, сразу при этих словах хватается за то, за что он хватается, чтоб истребить, испепелить и вообще къебенезировать. Но ведь, правда, хороший вопрос. Что девятнадцатый век без Наполеона? Что английская история без Генриха VIII? Но, с другой стороны, мировые войны и религиозные реформы не вполне определяются прихотями одного человека.

А у Алданова все очень интересно. В кратком пересказе получается, что противоположность случайности и закономерности -- в истории -- мнимая, потому что все, в сущности, случайность, так как ничего не определяется единственной причинно-следственной цепочкой. То, что марксисты считают основной причиной -- это необходимое, но не достаточное условие; масса других факторов, часть из которых вполне субъективны или индивидуальны, могут дать нашим "объективным предпосылкам" реализоваться, а могут -- и не дать. А тут еще то обстоятельство, что "задним числом" всегда можно найти предпосылки чего угодно. Так что "объективная необходимость" вместе с самими марксистами, ее провозглашающими -- вовсе не необходимость. Алданов приводит два примера: Девятое Термидора (во Франции, конечно) и Двадцать Пятое Октября (в России, конечно) -- одно событие он изучал по документам во французских архивах, другому сам был свидетелем. И вот -- обоих легко могло не быть, как он убедительно показывает. И ведь оба этих события изменили мир. При этом для обоих событий характерно не только очень сильное влияние случайных факторов (дождь в Париже, Ленин в Петербурге), но и очень сильная зависимость обоих от одного человека (без Ленина в Петербурге, например, восстания, очевидно, не было бы: именно он переубедил всех остальных; а его там легко могло бы и не быть). Еще более неустойчиво, добавлю от себя, начало Первой Мировой: легко могла начаться не так, не тогда и течь по-другому. А ведь буквально все в следующие сто лет от этого зависит.

А про Толстого и его понимание истории мне запомнилась у Алданова ироническая деталь: взялся человек доказать, что личность не играет роли в истории, и выбрал для этого, в качестве примера, Наполеона: надо быть Толстым, чтоб выбрать такой неподатливый материал.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Beckwith II: Empires of the Silk Road: Lev Gumilev and Bertrand Russel

Continuing to chew through Empires of the Silk Road (prvious post on the subject here)

Reading Beckwith, I definitely have some thoughts to share (or, at the very least, to note for myself); however, I must stress -- let's say, as a disclaimer -- that those are naïve views; not necessarily in the sense of youthful inexperience, but in the sense of coming from someone who doesn't and can't, through lack of knowledge, distinguish what is commonplace in modern Orientalism from what is peculiar to Beckwith. I might then be repeating what everybody knows, or trying to force an open door, or replying to ideas that have nothing to do with what Beckwith really meant. The authors overwhelming scholarship, amazing depth of knowledge and erudition commands great respect. What I write about the book is written for the fun of writing it, no more, no less.

The above being said, reading Beckwith gives me a strong sentiment of awe mixed with a definite déjà vu. Beckwith's knowledge and ability for synthesis is definitely awe-inspiring. However, the whole work, from the start, reminded me of something. First of all, of course, as already mentioned in the previous post on the subject, it reminded me of Lev Gumilev. In more than one way, in fact -- more on this later. After that -- Spengler, of course.

The more I read, the more it feels like being presented backwards. Someone -- who happened to be an orientalist -- has an axe to grind with all things modern. Especially modern art. Believes he is living in the last age of civilization (at least the civilization he likes). Then works this idée fixe of his back to the depth of his professional knowledge and emerges with a historical theory of everything -- a theory that only confirms his initial feelings of times out of joint. He then proceeds to write a book that starts far afield and deep in subject matter -- only to bring the reader to the author's original bias as a logical conclusion. Lev Gumilev was, I believe, of this mould. Beckwith appears to fit it even better.

Another thing that seems sadly familiar is the way it all comes back to the cult of warrior hero. Such cults are not necessarily limited to historians or authors of historical literature (Isaac Babel admired the warrior-heroes of the Russian Civil war that he participated in, his intoxication with violence being nearly total). This infatuation with violent freedom seems to be always aesthetic at core. It is all about the modern world, or the world created by sedentary, cleptocratic, urban culture being ugly, and that of the free and violent warrior being beautiful. As Bertrand Russel wrote when describing the romantics, they admire the tigers, not the sheep, and want to set the tiger free to admire the mighty leaps of the beast.