Monday, May 25, 2015

Marie Goldsmith: Her life and thought



     Maria Isidorovna Goldsmith was born on July 19, 1871 in  Russia (1). There is some confusion about both the date and location of her birth. Some assume that she was born in Switzerland, around 1873 probably in Zurich where the family later moved, but this move was years later. Her father Isidor published Znanie, a positivist (2) oriented review. He was exiled to the north for his views, according to the historian Max Nettlau first to Pinega and later to Arkhangsk (3). Nettlau was of the opinion that she was born in one of these places. Her mother, Sofia Ivanova Goldsmith, was a follower of the SR writer Labrov. Like Lavrov she was also interested in the natural sciences, studying at the Faculty of Medicine in Moscow and later receiving her doctorate at the Faculty of Science in Zurich (4). Goldsmith's father died when she was young, and her and her mother's common interests in radical politics and natural sciences was the basis for their lifelong close relationship.(5) In 1888 she and her mother left Russia and eventually settled in Zurich Switzerland.

     Before we go any further a matter of names should be cleared up. Goldsmith went by more than as many names as I have fingers. The last name is an anglicized version of an original Yiddish 'Goldsmid', 'Goldsmit' or 'Goldsmidt'. All four of these were used by various people at various times by people who either knew her or wrote about her. Her first name is also rendered either 'Maria' or 'Marie' depending on the author. To complicate things further she adopted two noms-de-plumes in her political writing. One was 'Korn' (sometimes rendered 'Corn'). The other was 'Isidine'. In both cases either Maria or Marie have been used. Her scientific publications were printed under the name of 'Marie Goldsmith', but whether this was the preferred label is hard to judge. In this essay I use this name as a matter of convenience.


     Goldsmith's first political commitment was in imitation of her mother. She became a member of the International Socialist Revolutionary Students (a branch of the Russian SRs in exile)(6) in June of 1892. She was active in these circles as an editor of their pamphlets. Meanwhile the Goldsmiths relocated to Paris in 1890. Once there she frequented other Russian exile circles and eventually became an anarchist. She still, however, maintained contact with the SRs, actually edited their pamphlets despite her political disagreements with them. As late as 1903 she translated and published the 'Historical Letters' of Labrov. As will be seen later in her relations with other anarchists this was a pattern she held to, never letting differences of opinion to lead to estrangement.

     Goldsmith studied biology at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. In 1894 she was awarded her undergraduate degree (7), and later her master's.She worked at this institution for many years in association with her fellow biologist Yves Delage. In 1915 she wrote her PhD thesis 'Réactions physiologiques et psychique des poissons' as a graduate student of Delage. It was published by the Institute Géneral Psychologique in the same year. Long before this, however, she had become his indispensible research collaborator, and was the co-author with him of two important books: 'Les Theories de l'Evolution' (1909)(8) and 'Le Parthénogénèse Naturelle et Éxperimentale' (1913). The former book was particularily influential, and was translated into English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. It also figured prominantly in the anarchist side of her life as we shall see later.

     Goldsmith had a long and distinguised scientific career, both as an associate of Delage and on her own. Her main interest was in comparative animal psychology, but she also "wrote on marine animals' response to light, psychological evolution in animals, construction of spider webs, and the role of tannins and sugars in sea urchins [and]...on mendelian evolution" (9). Some of her publications include...

-Les theories de l'evoluion 1909 (with Yves Delage)
-La parthénogénèse expérimentale 1913 (with Yves Delage)
-La parthénogénèse naturelle et expérimentale 1913 (with Yves Delage)
-Réactions physiologiques et psychique des poissons 1915
-Le tannin et le sucre dans la parthénogénèse des oursins 1915 (with Yves Delage)
-Les grands problèmes de la biologie générale 1917 (with Yves Delage)
-Le mendélisme et le mécanisme cytologique de l'hérédite 1919
-La psychologie comparée 1927
-La Dictionnaire illustrée d'histoire naturelle 1931

     Goldsmith was also an editor of  'L'année biologique' from 1902 to 1924 (10). As an interesting sidenote she and Delage wrote editorials for this journal defending Konstantin Merezhkovski's symbiotic theory of the origin of chloroplasts. The idea was developed independently by the Russian botanist Andrei Famintsyn who first advanced it in 1906 and 1907. They also wrote a lengthy review of Portier's book 'Les symbiotes' in this journal. This idea fell out of favour for many decades, but it later became famous through the work of Lynn Margulis who rediscovered it without prior knowledge of the Russian biologists who had first advanced it. Herein lies an interesting tale of the history of science.

     Despite her record of publications Goldsmith had to struggle in the last few years of her life to find scientific employment. She worked as a "laboratory preparer" at the École Practique des Hautes Études from 1927 to 1933. She also found employment as a "seminar leader" at the Faculté de Médicine from 1930 to 1933. She laboured under the dual burden of being both female and undoubtedly being known for her radical views despite her use of pseudonoms. This may explain Nettlau's description of her as "very poor".


     Goldsmith was not totally absorbed in her scientific work. As her commitment to the SRs declined she became more and more active amongst the anarchists, particularily the exiles in Paris. In 1897 (11) she began a correspondance with Peter Kropotkin, an exchange of letters that was to continue, at least as sources allow us to speculate, until 1917. There is a problem here in verification as only letters received by Goldsmith have been preserved. In his exile in England Kropotkin was in a perhaps justifiable state of over-precaution. He burned all correspondance. As such we have only his letters to Goldsmith to work from. To complicate matters most of these were written in Russian (12) and only a few are in French. The Russian letters await translation. Goldsmith actually became Kropotkin's major correspondant with almost 400 items having been preserved (12) in the Nicolaevsky Collection in Paris. As such she was one of the major influences on Kropotkin's later thought, no matter how she might disagree with him on certain points. She was actually the major political correspondant in Kropotkin's life in exile. The number of his letters to her is only exceeded by those of Kropotkin to his brother. As Martin A. Miller, one of the most reputable of  Kropotkin's biographers says in his notes to his biography;

     "This is the largest single collection of letters in Kropotkin's entire career with the sole exception of the large correspondance with his brother which, however, was written before Peter's conversion to anarchism". (13)

     The collection contains six volumes, and despite Miller's 'presumed' familiarity with them he makes an egregious error about Goldsmith's opinions during the First World War, as we we see later. Goldsmith became the leading figure amongst the Russian exiles in Paris (14), and their anarchist group meetings were held in her apartment (15). It was during this period that she adopted the nom-de-plume 'Maria Korn'. Goldsmith also began a prolific output for the libertarian press, writing in Russian, French, English, Italian and Yiddish for publications across Europe and North America. (16) According to Paul Avrich she also made the acquitance of another newcomer, Emma Goldman, when the latter was in Europe in 1895-1896 on a tour to campaign for the release of Alexander Berkman from prison. Goldman met with other Parisian anarchists in Goldsmith's home. The pair also became correspondents and she later defended Goldman's attack on Johann Most (17) in the pages of De Vrije Socialist on April 6, 1900.

     Goldsmith was also prominent in non-Russian anarchist circles, though her main focus was on the Russian movement. At the 1906 London conference of Russian anarchists in exile she authored no less than three of the reports, "on the matter of politics and economics, on organization and on the general strike" (18). In 1914 she was one of the speakers in Paris on the anniversary of the death of Bakunin (19). She also help organize meetings on commemorations of the Paris Commune and the Haymarket martyrs though it is unclear if she spoke at these gatherings. Her major contribution, however, was as one of the founders and one of the main writers of the Russian language journal Khleb i Volia (Bread and Freedom) published in Geneva from August 1903 to November 1905 and smuggled into Russia. Under the influence of the recently successful French CGT she promoted the ideas of anarchosyndicalism in her writings. Her writings on this subject were later produced as a pamphlet 'Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism' in Moscow/Petrograd in 1920. The work has, unfortunately, never been translated from the Russian.

     Khleb i Volia was perhaps Goldsmith's most significant activity in these years. This journal was initiated in Geneva under the influence of Kropotkin. It grew out of the Russian language Anarkhicheskaia Biblioteca , a publishing house started by an Armenian Alexander Atakekian who had come to London to ask the 'anarchist sage' about how he could best contribute to his ideals. It began by publishing works of Bakunin and Kropotkin, and it later laid plans for a Russian language newspaper. It was actually Goldsmith who first suggested the idea to Kropotkin in their correspondance (20). Kropotkin in turn provided her with an introduction to two other contacts K. Gogeliia-Orgeiani and his wife Lidiia Ikonnikova (21). Along with another anarchist in Geneva, Maksim Raevskii, the Geneva group began publication with Goldsmith, under the pseudonom of Maria Korn, as an external editor in Paris.

     Kropotkin wrote many pieces for KiV even though he had many differences with the editors including Goldsmith. As Martin Miller says in his biography of Kropotkin,

     "Kropotkin's participation in the publishing of Khleb i Volia took many forms, from contributing to fundraising to advising. To be precise Kropotkin influences the paper but did not control it in any way; in fact, in all his associations with anarchist papers, he may never have had as little to say about the running of the paper as he did with this one." (22)

     Kropotkin's problems with the journal began in 1904 when he was disturbed by a lead article, probably the work of Gogeliia, that seemed to present terrorist tactics in a favourable light. He expressed his displeasure in a letter to Goldsmith, going so far as to suggest that the person he had introduced to her might in fact be a police agent. Goldsmith was definitely on Kropotkin's side in this debate, but for reasons quite different from his. They won the dispute. In the next issue of KiV an article appeared denouncing terrorism. As mentioned before Goldsmith, admiring the work of the French CGT, consistently defended an anarchosyndicalist position in her writings for Khleb i Volia. At the time the growth of syndicalism was a constructive reaction amongst anarchists, and French workers in general, reacting against the blind alley of the individualist pseudo-anarchist trend of 'illegalism' that had disgraced anarchism in fin-de-siecle Europe. What syndicalism provided was a practical outlet whereby anarchists could move beyond dramatic demonstrations to productive activity. Kropotkin, however, harboured doubts about the tactic that Goldsmith did not share. The difference was muted, basically a matter of emphasis. Goldsmith was far more optimistic about syndicalism than Kropotkin and even though all the editors of KiV shared reservations about the possible degeneration of syndicates it was Kropotkin who was most emphatic about this danger. (23) This was the first instance where Goldsmith disagreed with the person she undoubtedly considered a mentor, but it was not the last. It was typical of Goldsmith that their differences didn't lead to a break in their friendship. It was also typical of her that there was no direct confrontation.

     Smuggled into Russia, Khleb i Volia became quite influential amongst workers and young intellectuals. Copies reached as far as the factories in the Urals. Anarchosyndicalists in south Russia where the ideology was most popular appreciated the journal even if they had doubts about how much French ideas were practical in their situation.


     As mentioned above Goldsmith became Kropotkin's primary correspondant in his years of exile. In the beginning the influence was pretty well one way with Kropotkin playing the role of mentor. From September 1890 to June 1896 the exiled anarchist had published a series of article in the English magazine 'The Nineteenth Century' (24) which were later collated in book form in 1902 under the title of 'Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution'. The most popular interpretation of Kropotkin's purpose in wrting the articles was to counter the opinions of Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's Bulldog") who in 1888 published his 'The Struggle for Existence in Human Society' in 'The Nineteenth Century'. Kropotkin mentions this as the motive behind his articles in his introduction to the book's first edition. (25) He also mentions Huxley's 'Ethics' and the opinions of Herbert Spencer whom he also disagreed with. Mutual Aid became an international success and is still considered a classic today. During the composition of his essays Kropotkin wasn't simply writing a political text. To a great extend he was influenced by ideas current amongst Russian naturalists of the time (26) who, unlike people such as Darwin, Wallace and Huxley, carried out their studies in relatively severe climates where intraspecific cooperation was selected for as against competition.

     Whatever its popularity, amongst both left wing circles and the general biological community, 'Mutual Aid' had an obvious deficiency. It may indeed have established the evolutionary importance of cooperation, later to become the scientific fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, but it lacked a 'mechanism'. That is to say that there seemed to be no obvious way that cooperative habits could give rise to innate cooperative tendencies. Kropotkin had discussed this question before (27) in The Nineteenth Century , but in a rather superficial way. In 1910 he returned to the question in a series of articles in The Nineteenth Century and After, the successor to The Nineteenth Century. In these essays he was concerned both to exorcise the ghost of Malthusism from Darwinism and to present a theory of heredity that would seem consistent with his views on cooperation. He also attempted to recruit the later Darwin to his point of view, especially the Darwin of  'The Descent of Man'. (28) The first essay in the series, 'The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid' (1910) (29) was basically an attempt to "recover the real Darwin" who supposedly became progressively more Lamarkian in his latter years. (30) Kropotkin thought that a form of Lamarkism was the most fertile pathway. In his view natural selection was a mere secondary factor and it was acquired characteristics prepared by the action of the environment that set up the basic raw material that evolution worked upon. It was here that Marie Goldsmith and her academic partner Yves Delage enter the picture.

     As mentioned previously Goldsmith and Delage had published their book 'Les Théories de l'évolution ` in 1909. The first English translation was published in 1910 in England. The first American edition came out in New York in 1912. It`s an open question how much influence their book had on Kropotkin when he was composing his essays. The following should be noted. First, Kropotkin`s scientific career was that of a field naturalist despite his general familiarity with other aspects of biology about which he wrote as a journalist. To a large extent he was very much an outsider to experimental biology and genetics. It was here that his major correspondant, Goldsmith, came to his aid. As Álvaro Girón in his article on Kropotkin and Lamarkism says;

     "Now, Kropotkin was not completely alone when he had to deal with this complexity. He received the critical advise and support of Marie Goldsmith, a brilliant Russian student of Biology, disciple of the French Neolamarkian Yves Delage. Her help was instrumental. Kropotkin was an amateur naturalist of the old school, a complete stranger in the field of experimental Biology." (31)

     There is little doubt that Kropotkin was aware of the problem, perhaps as far back as 1903 (32), and he was aware of the controversies about the nature of heredity as early as the 1890s. He was also a convinced Lamarkian, believing that it would be "a weapon against Malthusianism" (33). There is, however, another thing that is not in doubt ie that he had read Goldsmith and Delage's book before writing his essays. In his third essay, 'The Response of the Animals to Their Environment' their book is mentioned as item # 2 in his notes (34). Finally,there is little doubt that the subject of the mechanisms of evolution had been discussed at length in his correspondence with Goldsmith. It isn't certain that he read the book in its French edition of 1909, though it would be hard to imagine that his good friend Goldsmith wouldn't have forwarded him a copy hot off the press. In the above article Kropotkin references the English edition of 1910, but he was, after all,writing for an English speaking audience. In later essays in the series he referenced Delage and Goldsmith's book in its 1909 French edition. He also references Delage's 1903 book 'L' hérédité et les grands problèmes de la biologie générale` . In 1903 Goldsmith was already associated with Delage, and she had been corresponding with Kropotkin since 1897. It is likely that the ideas presented in Delage's 1903 work had benefitted from Goldsmith's input, and, through her, from Kropotkin's earlier work. This is not unusual in the history of science. Scientific ideas are almost invariably the result of collective effort rather than the lone genius of popular mythology.

     What I would like to present here is the possibility that Kropotkin's ideas in his essays were more or less derivative from those of Goldsmith and Delage. This is not to say that Kropotkin was a plagarist. He adduced a vast number of studies that the Paris pair hadn't dealt with, and the organization of the material was his own. Yet Kropotkin himself mentions their books, amongst others, as useful reviews, and there no other reviews that shared his views, biological and otherwise, so widely. It is also significant that there is proof that he discussed these questions in his correspondance with Goldsmith (35). What follows depends on two publications. One, 'Evolution and Environment' ,(36) is available in print. It contains both Kropotkin's earlier pamphlet 'Modern Science and Anarchism' and the essays in question under the title of 'Thoughts on Evolution'. The other source is the online English language edition of 'The Theories of Evolution' (37). The latter is interesting in its own right in presenting the controversies in turn-of-the-century evolutionary biology, and it would certainly bear inspection by historians of science (38).

     In his introduction to the essays George Woodcock mentions the genesis of the series in a letter Kropotkin wrote to W, Wray Silbeck, then editor of The Nineteenth Century and After in November 1909 ie after the publication of Godsmith and Delage's book;

     "He remarked that his researches for 'Ethics' (39) had led him to the conclusion that before proceeding further he must "discuss seriously the question of Darwinian Struggle for Life - and Mutual Aid. It is a big question as it requires a critical analysis of Natural Selection, but of the deepest interest just now, when Lamarkism is coming so prominently to the front"". (40)

     In other words Kropotkin saw Lamarkian inheritance as a counterweight to what seemed, in the writings of Huxley and others, to be a reactionary use of terms like Natural Selection to justify the socioeconomic system of class rule and statist imperialism. He saw Lamarkinism as more compatible with his own theories of mutual aid. Lamarkism was to be the means whereby sociability became part of the genetic heritage of animals and humans. He was sorely mistaken in this opinion. Nowadays there is a huge corpus of the study of cooperation/sociability within the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, all of it based firmly on the premise of natural selection. In the 1910s, however, these theories and facts were decades away in the future. Mendelian genetics had barely been rediscovered. The function of nucleic acids in heredity was unknown. Even the role of the nucleus was a matter of dispute.

     Goldsmith and Delage were Lamarkians, even though in their book they treated other theories in a fair and balanced manner. The fact that an anarchist, and personal friend, such as Goldsmith could at the same time be an exponent of Lamarkism no doubt suggested to Kropotkin that his "choice of sides" in the dispute over heredity lined up with his political beliefs.There are many parallels between Kropotkin's essays and the themes discussed in 'The Theories of Evolution'. Let's examine a few.

     One of Kropotkin's first goals was to "rescue Darwin". This consisted of two lines of argument. One purpose was to show how Darwinism was separate from the ideas of Thomas Malthus whose 'Essay on Population' influenced Darwin's theory of natural selection (41). The second line of attack was to suggest that Darwin was ambivalent about natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism and that he became more 'Lamarkian' over the years. Much of Kropotkin's first article, 'The Theory of Evolution and Mutual Aid' is devoted to these propositions. This is one area where Kropotkin went beyond Goldsmith and Delage, at least in terms of evidence. Even though the Paris Pair had advanced a similar statement (42) Kropotkin presented a much more convincing case, both from Darwin's published work and from his correspondance. This was actually not so hard to do as, as previously mentioned, Darwin's idea of  'orthogenesis' comes close to assuming a Lamarkian point of view. What the anarchist Prince was trying to prove was that Darwin gradually came to accept his own opinion - that adaption to the environment provided the source of variation and that natural selection was a secondary "editing" influence on evolution. Writing, as he was, before the development of modern genetics Kropotkin felt that there had to be something other than chance that produced the variability that natural selection worked upon. As he says;

     "To be cumulative in its effects, there must be, beside the chance variations, a cause, such as hybridism, or still more so the direct action of the environment, which tends to alter the structure and the forms of the animal or plant in a certain definite direction....But once there is such a cause, there is no need of an acute struggle between the individuals of the species to preserve the effects of variation." (43)

     This was Kropotkin's argument by which he tied his two assertions together. Yes it was logically flawed as the subsequent history of genetics demonstrates, but given the state of knowledge in his time it was at least consistant.








1)The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Marilyn Ogilviet and Ivy Harvey eds, Routledge NY 2000 ISBN 0-203-80145-8; p 1046

2)Positivism was a nineteenth century philosophy propounded by the French philosopher and utopian socialist August Comte. It was an early form of empiricism. It also, however, was linked to a proposed technocratic form of collectivism, like that espoused by Henri St.-Simon for whom Comte was once secretary. At the time this philosophy was coloured with a radical tinge. Hence its attraction for the radical intelligentsia, especially as it promised them a directing role in the society that was to replace capitalism. It was an influence on the later doctrine of technocracy. In a mendacious way it later became smuggled into the socialist movement via the Leninist theory of the Party and the role of the intellectuals in it. Today positivism has mutated almost beyond recognition in at least the English speaking world.

3)Nettlau, Max 'A Memorial Tribute to Marie Goldsmith and Her Mother' Freedom (New York) Vol. 1, No 10, March 18 1933, p2 . See also

4)Confino, Michael and Rubinstein, Daniel 'Kropotkine savant [vingt-cinq lettres inédite de Pierre Kropotkine à Marie Goldsmith` Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique Vol 33, No 33 1992 p245. See also

5)There is very little information available on Sophie Goldsmith, but there is little doubt that she was a remarkable woman. Her studies in Moscow were carried out under two barriers as she was both a woman and a Jew. At the time Jewish registration in institutions of higher education was still restricted under Tsarist laws. There is no information about her attitude to Marie's conversion to anarchism, but the circumstances of her life suggest that she made few objections. Considering the strength of will that she evidenced in her prior career it is doubtful that Marie could have stood out against any strenuous objections on her part. In the early years Marie adopted the SR ideology from her mother. The two women remained incredibly, almost pathologically, close through Marie's life, and Marie in fact committed suicide because of her mother's death. Before jumping to pseudo-scientific psychologizing, however, we should take note of the time and culture in which the women lived. Such family closeness was not as uncommon then and there as it is today.


7)Ogilviet and Harvey Ibid  

8) Les théories de l`évolution B & L Routenberg, Paris 1909. For Yves Delage see Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Yves Delage at . To say the least Delage was a 'character'. His main field of research was marine biology, but he contributed greatly to general physiology. He discovered the function of the vestibular semi-circular canals and was a major influence in evolutionary biology and the growing new field of genetics. Still, even though he was a convinced and often militant atheist and an anti-clerical secularist, he spent (wasted ?) time trying to prove that the Shroud of Turin was authentic !!

9)The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey, Routledge New York 2000 p 1046


11) See and Michael Confino and Daniel Rubinstein Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 1992, Vol. 33, No 33 p244



Monday, January 19, 2015

A Devilishly Smart Pope


One of the books I'm reading now is John D. Barrow's 'The Book of Nothing'. The subject is  a look at the concept of 'nothing', the void, emptiness, zero, the vacuum and so on. There's actually quite a bit to say about nothing, and book ranges from a history of the mathematical sign for zero, through the 'philosophic concept' of nothingness, to the idea of the vacuum in physics, its explanation by the 'ether' and the eventual overthrow of that concept. Temperatures (absolute zero) and the place of the vacuum in quantum mechanics, relativity and cosmology come on stage, and the book ends with a return to the philosophic concept itself. Yes, quite complex, and I've barely gotten to chapter 2. Nice to have a roadmap to a blank space. I'll be reviewing the book when done.

But one of the matters that did come up was the story of Pope Sylvester II, one of the few admirable holders of the keys of Peter in the Middle Ages. This is a story appealing enough to shove its way to the front of the 'Molly Line'. Sylvester II was born Gerbert de Aurillac (945 - 1003). He reigned as Pope from 999 to 1003. Yes the Pope in the Chair during the turn of the millennium. The world didn't end, and Gerbert/Sylvester was definitely one of the more capable Popes of the age. A lot of his accomplishments were political and hardly bear mention here. Defending the property of the Church. Playing off one ruler against another though he was usually in alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor of the time.  The politics of Italy at the time were particularly chaotic, and once both he and the Emperor had to flee Rome during one of the revolts. He even tried to reform the Church's organization and reduce abuses such as simony, concubinage and nepotism. This was an Herculean task, and even with the assistance of St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) the Church remained just about as corrupt as always. He did, however, succeed in significantly increasing the Church's title holdings. Maybe this goal was in direct contradiction to the idea of making the Church into a more 'Holy' outfit. He also played a major role in the Christianization of Eastern Europe, appointing Metropolitans for both Poland and Hungary, and in the later case naming that country as a 'Kingdom'. Thus the Crown of Hungary became dependent on the Papacy.

His political accomplishments were minor compared to his intellectual contributions to European culture. He had early on spend considerable time as an envoy to the far more civilized Muslim states of southern Spain, and he turned his natural curiosity to good effect there, absorbing much of the culture of Andalucía. When he returned to France he was appointed head of education for the Archdiocese of Rheims, and from there he significantly elevated the clerical level of education throughout the French Kingdom.

 When his patron died he was considered the natural successor, but the Capetan monarchy had other ideas, and a relative of the King was appointed in his stead even though Gerbert was a supporter of Hugh Capet whose reign marked the end of the Carolingian dynasty. Barrow has this matter somewhat confused as he lists this Episcopal position without mentioning that Gerbert's appointment was overthrown. Consistent with the political level of the time the King's appointee was later removed because of suspicion of treason to his sponsor. Gerbert who initially was himself accused of treason to the House of Capet was reappointed, but this was challenged and his appointment declared invalid. When he did finally become Pope he pretty well washed his hands of the matter by declaring his competitor as the legitimate Archbishop. Barrow also confuses another appointment of his, as Archbishop of Ravenna, supposing him to be the 'Abbot' of Ravenna. All this is quite forgivable as the politics of the time, clerical and lay, were by their very nature confusing.

Gerbert was lauded for his scholarly contributions in a number of fields. He became the tutor of both Emperors Otto II and his son Otto III, and, as mentioned above, he was elevated to the Papacy with the support of the latter. Gerbert was a true polymath. He was the accepted authority in the liberal arts in his day and a major influence on theology. He was also something of an engineer, designing a hydraulic organ that didn't require air to continually be pumped in as it played. He is also credited with advances in the art of clock making due to one which he designed for the Cathedral of Magdeburg. Even this is confused. Some sources such as the 'Catholic Encyclopedia' say that he was the inventor of the pendulum clock. Others say that his clock was mechanical but weight driven rather than using a pendulum. Still others say that his clock was actually simply a sundial. It was, however, in the field of science and mathematics that he made his greatest contributions.

Gerbert was credited with a number of innovations. He introduced the abacus to Europe, and also the use of the Arabic/Indian number/decimal system. Both were necessary foundations for the later rise of commercial enterprises in the Renaissance. Hard to do proper accounting with Roman numerals. Not that they were always appreciated. In 1299 the decimal system was outlawed in Florence supposedly because it was more vulnerable to fraud. The worry about this matter delayed the adoption of decimal numbers in northern Europe until the sixteenth century. For Gerbert, however, they were a Godsend, and he was the foremost expert on mathematics, geometry and astronomy of his day. Much of this was based on what he had learned in southern Spain even though he was creative enough in his own right.

He is credited with the reintroduction of the 'armillary sphere' to western Europe. This is a 3D model of the heavens, and fitted with viewing tubes it was an early prototype of the telescope. It should be noted that such a sphere would imply that the Earth itself was a sphere. Not that the idea of a flat Earth was universal in Medieval times, but it was common enough even though the use of spheres such as this proliferated.

Barrow's book corrected a misconception of my own, one that I had held for more than a few years. I knew that Sylvester II was a remarkably educated and knowledgeable man well ahead of his time. I also knew that one of the medieval Popes had been dug up from his grave and the corpse put on trail. I'd always assumed that the uncommunicative defendant was Sylvester. During his lifetime and after his death rumours circulated that he was in league with the Devil, that he had even constructed a bronze head that would answer questions posed to it. Sort of an early robot I guess. I assumed that this was the reason for the exhumation. Wrong I was. The corpse was that of one Pope Formosus, and the charges were much more mundane. After the guilty verdict was pronounced the hapless cadaver was chopped to pieces, burnt and the ashes thrown into the Tiber. That will teach him.

The accusations of witchcraft would certainly be a likely medieval explanation for Sylvester's brilliance, but no - he stayed in the ground. Not that he rested easily though. The legends of his life followed him into the grave, and typically they are also confused. One legend says that when a Pope is due to die that Sylvester's bones rattle in the tomb. Another says that the walls of the crypt weep on the sad occasion. I guess there's no reason they can't both be right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Molly's Kitchen Sink Writing Problem


     Well it's back to blogging, and my old problem remains - motor mouth of the pen. I've always had a tendency to 'kitchen sink' anything I write. The old 'and another thing and another thing and another thing' habits refuse to die. I've begun to write reviews of books that I've been reading. Production, however, is miniscule. I've had a review of 'Pierre-Joseph Proudhon', one of George Woodcock's many biographies on the burner for some days now, but it's a dish that keeps cooking but never seems to be done. It's been decades since I first read the book, and it's fascinating to return to it with all the (cough) wisdom of age. Yet it seems that the review is developing into a book of its own. Or maybe it's just that I am more inclined to check and recheck things before putting them in final form.

It's still coming though. I promise not to bore readers too much with my writing process. This is just a little explanation. Excuse ? Still the process is interesting in itself.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


It's been almost a year now that I've been away from blogging, and I'm sure it will take some 'flexibility exercises' to get back in form. Here, however, I am. Ready to ride the waves once more. The first few posts will be more like journal entries and short reviews of recently read material, but I hope to produce more interesting stuff in the near future. Til then...

Glad to be back,


Friday, January 31, 2014

Milton: A Master of Run-On Sentences


     I'm about halfway through the collected works of John Milton. It's a project that's taking some time. Mercifully the poetry is at the front of the volume. That's good because most of Milton's prose writings have little intrinsic interest. Aside from a few exceptions they are religious polemics against the high church prelates of his day. Reading such things tends to lower one's estimate of the author. Especially as their tone is beneath even the usual level of political polemics. I'll see if the tone improves with the more political pieces later in the book. It's hard to imagine the author of things like Paradise Lost and Sampson Agonistes using "fart jokes" as arguments, but it's there all right.

     Be that as it may there is another problem besides crudity to Milton's prose. I've discovered that he may be the ultimate master of the run-on sentence in the English language. Just to give the flavour of things here's a quote from one of his essays, 'Reason of Church Government Urged'. Take a deep breath:

     "For not to speak of that knowledge that rests in  the contemplation of natural causes and dimensions, which must need be a lower wisdom, as the object is low, certain it is, that he who hath obtained in more than the scantiest measure to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship, and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of man's life, though vulgarly not so esteemed; he that hath obtained to know this, the only high valuable wisdom indeed, remembering also that God, even to a strictness, requires the improvement of his intrusted gifts, cannot but sustain a sorer burden of mind, and more pressing, than any sustainable toil or weight which the body can labour under, how and in what manner he shall dispose and employ those sums of knowledge and illumination, which God has sent him into this world to trade with."

     Yes, that's all one sentence, and it is not an exception. I think it makes grammatical sense, but I'm not certain. Reading this sort of things is about as fun and as "educating" as reading post-modernist nonsense. I hereby nominate John Milton as the patron saint of post-modernism.


Friday, January 17, 2014

CNT-f Faces Eviction


     The CNT-f is the larger of the two anarchosyndicalist/revolutionary syndicalist union federations in France. They have traditionally been called the 'CNT-Vignoles' after their headquarters at 33 rue Vignoles in Paris. They have survived a previous attempt to evict them in 1996, but now they are facing a fresh attack from the Mayor of Paris.

     The following is their statement on the events. The original French version can be here. You can follow events from either their website or from the site of their newspaper Combat Syndicaliste. These events seem reminiscent of the eviction of the Spanish CGT from their headquarters at 18 Via Laietana in Barcelona back in 2011. Hopefully this time around the good guys will win against the government.



     In a recent letter the City of Paris has come to unilaterally terminate the ongoing discussions about the continuation of the CNT in its historic location at 33 Rue des Vignoles. We were also "invited" to leave on the pretext of carry out 'rehabilitation' work.

     Previously in 1996 the then-Mayor Tiberi voted for the demolition of 33. She had to retreat in the face of mobilization of the local residents, associations and the CNT.

     We, paramedics, masons, primary school teachers, labourers, nurses' aides, truck drivers, teachers' aides, metal workers, architects, technicians, journalists, postal workers, etc. who form the CNT unions in region of Paris:

     We who in this XXnd arrondissement walk in the footsteps of the Paris Commune and those of the Bourses du Travail of the CGT in the beginning of the 20th century:

     We who at 33 Rue des Vignoles walk in the footsteps of our older brothers and sisters of the Confederacion Nacional de Trabahadores, anti-fascists, survivors of the Nazi camps, the Resistance and the liberation of Paris:

     We who continue the struggle for the emancipation of the working world at the beginning of the 21st century:

     We who to maintain this place in acceptable conditions while the City of Paris has done nothing for almost 20 years:

     We will resist again. Yesterday in the face of Tiberi it was the violence of bulldozers. Today with Delancé it is the violence of King Money.

     This CNT has called a public meeting for information, solidarity and support from all who want a living Paris, a revolutionary Paris.
15 hours: Information on the status of 33

18 hours: Concert with Serge Utgé-Royo

20 hours: Convivial meal

Monday, December 16, 2013



     The following brief biography was originally published at the website of the CNT of Puerto Real in Spanish. The original Spanish version can be found there under their 'Biografias' section.

     Joan Peiró, glass worker, anarcho-syndicalist intellectual, and Minister of Industry during the second Spanish republic, was executed by firing squad on July 24, 1942 at Paterna (Huerta Oeste, Valencia). He was born on February 18 in the working class district of Sants in Barcelona. He began work in a Barcelona glass factory at the age of 8 an d didn't learn to read and write until he was 22. He continued to work in the glass sector and along with other compañeros founded the Glass Cooperative of Mataró, a thing he never abandoned.

     In 1907 he married Mercedes Olives, a textile worker, with whom he had three sons (Juan, José, Llibert) and four daughters (Aurora, Aurelia, Guillermina, Merced). As he explained his union militancy began in 1906, and he began to hold positions of responsibility from 1915 to 1920 as Secretary General of the Spanish Federation of Glaziers and Crystal Workers and director of La Colmena Obrero (organ of the unions of Badalona) and El Vidrio (publication of the federation of glassworkers).

     Because of his intellectual acuity he later became editor of the newspaper Solidaridad Obrero (1930) and the daily Catalonia (1937). Very influenced by French revolutionary unionism he began taking on positions of responsibility in the CNT after the Sants (1918) Catalan Regional Congress. Thanks to his capacity for work, organizing skills and prestige he held the highest offices in this organization.

     At the Congreso de La Comedia (1919) he defended industrial union federations which were rejected at the time (in favour of geographical During the 1920s he suffered the repression unleased by the state and the employers and was arrested and imprisoned inSoria and Vicoria. In 1922 he was elected General Secretary of the CNT. During his term the Conference of Zaragossa was held where the resignation of the CNT from the Red Internation Federation of Unions was approved and membership in the reconstituted AIT/IWA was accepted.

     At this same Congress, along with Salvador Segui, Angel Pestaña, and José Viadiu, Peiró defended the "political motion" which was widely criticized by the more orthodox sections of the organization. He settled in Mataró in in 1922, and in 1925 he guided the establishment of the glass workers' cooperative that he had previously intended to organize. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera the CNT was outlawed, their offices closed and their press suspended. Many militants were arrested and Pieró was imprisoned in 1925, 1927 and 1928. In the last year he was again elected Secretary General of the CNT.

     He criticized the UGT for their advocacy of  "mixed commissions" during the dictatorship and also Pestaña with whom, however, he agreed on other matters. He also criticized the more anarchist union sector, and despite the fact that he joined the FAI he was never militant in it. On the contrary he defended a more syndicalist mass organization and opposed the action groups that a minority of militants controlled. In 1930 he signed the "Republican Intelligencia" manifesto and received much interal criticism which led him to withdraw his signature. He defended industrial federations up to the 1931 CNT Congress in Madrid where he won mass support against the FAI theses.

     At this Congress he supported the presentation of the "Position of the CNT Towards the Constituent Cortez" proposal which defended the idea that the proclamation of a republic could mean an advance for the working class. The proposal was adopted with some modifications despite the opposition of some FAI sectors who saw it as support for bourgeois political machinations. Also in 1931, along with 29 other prominant CNTistas among them Angel Pestaña, he signed the Treintista Manifesto which analyzed the social and economic situation of Spain and criticized both the republican government and the more radical sectors of the CNT.

     The reaction to this led to the expulsion of Pestaña from his position on the national committee of the norganization and the schism of the Sabadell unions. These later gathered others who formed a bloc called the "Opposition Unions". Although Peiró participated in this split he had no outstanding responsibility, and he tried to build bridges to avoid the final rupture.

     Reunification occured in 1936. After the fascist military rising Peiró served as vicepresident of the Antifascist Committee of Mataró, sending his sons to the front. He defended the entry of the CNT into the governments of Catalonia and Spain and proposed a state form of a federal social republic when the war ended. Along with Garcia Oliver, Federica Monteny and Juan Lopez he was one of the four "anarchist" (my emphasis-mm) ministers in the government of Largo Caballero where he was Minister of Industry.

     In this position he drafted the decree of expropriation and intervention in industry and designed an Industrial Credit Bank. Many of these projects were annuled or diluted by Negrin. With the fall of the Caballero government he returned to Mataró and the Glass Cooperative. He also dedicated himself to giving lectures on his steps in government and publishing hard articles against the PCE for its actions against the POUM.

     In 1938 he re-entered the government now headed by Negrin although not with the rank of Minister but rather as Comissioner of Electric Energy. He upheld an "anti-defeatist" attitude and proposed a certain revision of anarchosyndicalism in light of the development of the revolution and the war. He crossed the French border on February 5, 1939, and was briefly held in Perpignon from where he went to Narbonne to reunite withy his family. Later he moved to Paris to represent the CNT on the Coalition for Spanish Refugees with a mission to free Spanish CNTistas fromFrench concentration camps and facilitate their transfer to México.

     He tried to flee after the Nazi invasion but was arrested when he went to Narbonne. e was returned to Paris where the French authorities issued a deportation order so as to remove him from Gestapo action and thereby go to the unoccupied zone and from there to México. He was, however, arrested again by nazi troops and taken to Trier (Germany). In January of 1941 the Francoist Ministry of Foreign Affairs  requested his extradition. This happened on February 19 of the same year in Irún, violating French and international law. He was transfered to the custody of the Security General in Madrid where he was interrogated and suffered maltreatment (he lost some teeth).

     The start of the trial was exceptionally delayed, and he was transfered to Valencia in April 1941. In December of that year a summary trial opened at which Peiró had statements in his favour from institutions and people of the new regime (military, falangists, clergy, judges, prison officials, businesmen, rightists and even a future minister under Franco, Francisco Ruiz Jarabo).

     Even so his repeated refusal of the government proposal to be head of the Francoist unions determined his sentence. In May of 1942 the prosecuter presented his charges. A month later Peiró was assigned a defence lawyer by the military. On July 21 the death sentence was pronounced. On July 24, 1942 he was shot along with six other CNTistas at the firing range of Paterna. Some of his published works include The Path of the National Confederation of Labour (1925), Ideas About Syndicalism and Anarchism (1930), Danger in the Rearguard (1936) and From The Glass Factory of Mataró To The Minister Of Industry (1937) and Problemas y Cintarazos (1938).