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).




Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Spanish Syndicalism (1) CGT Strike in Unipost


      The following is a translation from a Spanish language article at Rojo y Negro, the organ of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union the CGT. I have had to rather "freely translate" as the particulars of Spanish labour practices are quite different from here in the Anglosphere. Any mistakes are my own responsibility.


     The stoppages will be for 24 hours (from 00:00 to 24:00) and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays are not included. The schedule is as follows: December 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 27 and 30 and the 2 and 3 of January 2014. If the dispute is not settled we reserve the right to call further stoppages which will be conducted according to applicable legal provisions.

     There are two principle objectives of this strike. On the one hand the breaches of agreement on the part of management, salary cuts and non-payment of summer bonuses. (Such bonuses are a regular part of Spanish labour On the other hand an end to layoffs.

     Thus the CGT, having consulted both general assemblies and workshop assemblies, has decided to carry out the strike to show important solidarity with the workers to carry it out.

     We want to thank those who have expressed their support in favour of your decision and we want, secondarily, to encourage the rest because everyone together will have more force and power to achieve the objective marked out.

     We also inform you of the suspension of the December 2 hearing by the High Court about the pay cut that we applied for in August 2013. It was going to address three charges of non-compliance and misappliance, one of them not cited by the works council, on procedural grounds. To avoid a full trial it was decided to postpone the hearing until January 28, 2014. On that day the hearing will hear the complaint of unpaid summer bonuses. At the same time some unions have been in negotiations with the company and have reached a possible agreement to agree to the suspension (of the This is something the CGT does not agree with given the negotiating intransigence of the company.