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Ever since I was nine years old, I've had huge respect for the writer Arthur Ransome. Some here will recognize him as the author of a delightful series of children's books starting with Swallows and Amazons, good for reading at any age and full of wholesome stuff; siblings in each of several families are portrayed, discovering and practising virtues like respect, self-reliance, individual responsibility and courage, and just having adventures and fun. If you haven't read S&A, your childhood was deprived; go get a copy and read it now, lest you grow up without the pleasure and it become too late. Ransome was to the 1930s and '40s what J.K. Rowling is to the 1990s and 2000s. He had me at Hello, and inspired in me a lifelong love of sailing, for all his characters sail. Sailing has been the single most enjoyable pastime of my life, so I owe him much gratitude. One of my treasures is a short hand-signed reply he sent me to some boyhood query about where best to drop anchor.
It was therefore quite a shock to discover last year that although Ransome lived most of his life as a genial, avuncular, conventional member of the English middle class--perhaps, a typical bourgeois--for ten years in his 30s he was in bed with the Bolsheviks, literally in one case, for he married Evgenia Shelepina, a secretary to Leon Trotsky.
Ransome's family background was in the (Classical) Liberal tradition, and he blossomed late, being undistinguished at school. As a young writer in London , he was gregarious, talented and very well liked--but still struggling, as writers often must, and by 1914 was reeling from a failed first marriage. His strong ambition then led him to Russia, in search of folk stories he could translate and publish back home, so he went to St. Petersburg and in a few months taught himself Russian (!) and got to work.
His labors on what became Old Peter's Russian Tales were disturbed by WWI, and as he'd become friendly with foreign journalists in Petersburg , he found himself in demand as a reporter from the Eastern Front. He was hired by a London daily and later by the Manchester Guardian. He then made it his business to get to know as many in Russian public life as he could, and among his contacts after 1916 was the band of revolutionaries called Bolsheviks. Ransome repeatedly claimed he was never "political," but made friends with all; so he was able to befriend these too--before, during and after their acquisition of power--despite his freely-admitted dislike of politics and ignorance of economics. His newspaper articles showed empathy, at least, for the new régime, and when the British and other governments invaded Russia to try to put down the Communists, Ransome wrote against the intervention as sheer folly. So, I hope, would have you and I--though it threw the Brits into a tizzy; they didn't know whether to trust him as a part-time spy or denounce him as a Red.
Such foreign support was rare, and the new Russian leaders appreciated it and gave Ransome extraordinary access. In 1919 he was on first-name terms with most of them including Lenin (with whom he would play chess and sometimes win!--yet lived to tell the tale) and especially close to Karl Radek, of whom Ransome's cheery snapshot appears here and who was #2 to Trotsky. Radek had been in exile until 1916 with Lenin, and it was his achievement to persuade the German government to support the Bolsheviks with money and with that very special train which brought them all across Germany and Scandinavia and back to Russia in 1917 ready to complete the Revolution. Early in 1918 it was Radek, again, who led negotiations with the Germans in Brest-Litovsk, which gave the Germans a handsome return on their investment by taking Russia out of the war so that the Kaiser could focus his armies on the French, British and Americans on the Western Front--while giving the Bolsheviks respite to deal with the chaos and deprivation at home which the Tsar's war had produced. Kark Radek can therefore be said to be the one who (1) enabled the Russian Revolution to take place, (2) enabled it to survive the first few critical months of life, and (3) thereby changed the course of history for the worse. And this was the roommate of my long-time favorite author. Life is full of surprises.
Stalin, who later murdered seven million owners of small farms by stealing their produce, was around when Ransome drank tea and vodka with his friends, but was in the second rank, waiting his chance for a power grab; and Stalin was what Lenin, Trotsky, Radek and company made possible. These were people whom journalist Ransome knew as human beings, and supposed they were trying to do what they thought best. In our own time we rightly damn Bush and Cheney as mass murderers and warmongers; yet on a personal level, I would not be surprised to find each of them as affable a fellow as might be met at a cocktail party--to say nothing of Condi Rice, among whose admirable attributes is the ability to play music.
Ransome returned to England in 1924 and by the decade's end had started his series of children's books that would bring him fame and fortune; he and Evgenia lived most often in the Lake District, where many of the stories are based and where I walked many a fell in my youth. Having been thought a Red sympathizer, he had some difficulty being admitted to the local yacht club, and had to emphasize again that he had neither interest in nor understanding of politics and swore that he was not only not a Communist, he wasn't even a Socialist. I think I believe him; I think he was just as naïve as he asserted, just a good writer who researched deeply and befriended whomever he could.
Was there, however, a line that he crossed--was he too uncritical? Was there a point at which he ought to have said to his friend Karl Radek, "Enough! Your friends are murdering innocents in the street, I will no longer regard you as honest reformers." Never mind that had he done so, he would instantly have been excluded from the inner Bolshevik circle that gave him such influence as a reporter. Should he not have recognized evil when he saw it, and walked away on moral grounds?
It's easy enough to say now that he should, but in pointing an accusing finger at Ransome, we have to take care that three other fingers don't point back at ourselves. Should Ransome have walked out on his friends? Not unless you and I walk out on our neighbors. Yes, his friends killed adversaries without trial; yes, they set out to (and did) govern millions of people who had the absolute right to govern themselves. These things were evil, for "evil" is best defined as something like taking "any action which imposes force upon another human being." Thus, Stalin and Hitler were not evil per se, but they did evil when they starved seven million peasants and gassed six million Jews. Ransome's friends were as amiable as he thought--but they did evil when they set out to exercise rule. Were they worse than their predecessor the Czar? Perhaps, but Ransome had seen the awful catastrophe caused by that "autocracy" and might be forgiven for thinking, at the time, that his friends were not.
Ransome could not have been unaware of those summary executions; his serious error was to condone them, to be so tolerant in his friendliness as to suppose that even a worthy end can result from an evil means. Those who today suppose that freedom can come from the barrel of a political gun in the 2008 or any other election are making a similar error, and Stefan Molyneux made a comparable point here in his brilliant article about running for public office. Ransome's error was exactly that of virtually all of our neighbors at election time--for ballots are merely bullets, in drag. Failing clearly to understand politics and economics, once one accepts that government is in some way necessary, it's a very short step to accepting that it's okay to use force to put or keep it in place. The voter is saying, as he pulls the lever or presses the screen, "I want you to be ruler, and if you win and anyone refuses to submit to your rule, it's okay by me if you kill him." Ultimately, that's exactly what always occurs; on the chaotic streets of Petersburg in 1917, they just took a short cut.
This definition of "evil" fits the whole political world, from the tyrants who control vast armies to the tin gods of Town Hall who forbid anyone to modify his own property without their permission. The imposition of force or fraud is what evil is. Governments never do anything else but impose force, and so government is always, invariably evil in all it does. Sometimes other people impose force too, by doing violence such as rape and murder and by stealing property. They are not evil, but those actions are--by definition. They are--for those moments when they impose their wills upon others--acting as miniature, one-person governments. That's the nature and full extent of evil. It had nothing to do with Eve desiring an apple, allegedly signifying the knowledge of right and wrong (without which sense the human race would be in a very bad way), but everything to do with using force instead of persuasion and voluntary exchange.
It follows that the only kind of society that can eliminate or at least minimize evil is one in which no mechanism exists for the imposition of force. We call that kind of society "anarchist," for it's one from which the institution of government has vanished. If we wish ourselves and our fellow-humans well, we can have no better aim than to cause it--by persuasion only--to come about.