1937: Alexander Chayanov, economist of the peasantry

Add comment October 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov was shot during Stalin’s purges.

“Our present capitalist form of economy represents only one particular instance of economic life and the validity of the scientific discipline of the national economics as we understand it today, based on the capitalist form and meant for its scientific investigation, cannot and should not be extended to other organizational forms of economic life.” (via)

A specialist in the rural economy, Chayanov was noted for his forward thinking about Russia’s backwards peasantry.

Prevailing Marxist orthodoxy envisioned this class hurtling inevitably towards capitalism as its members sought their own advantage;* against this, Chayanov emphasized the resilience of the peasantry. And not only that, he postulated that the unwaged peasantry operated in an economic constellation alien to the classical model of value maximization — and would rather tend to relax labor once it reached subsistence production, rather than working ever onwards to attain surplus value and Five-Year Plan quotas.

This theory accurately anticipated difficulty for Soviet agricultural policies like collectivization and grain confiscation.

Denounced as an apologist for the refractory kulaks — official agrarian bogeymen of the early Soviet state — Chayanov was arrested in 1930 and found himself shipped to a labor camp in Kazakhstan. He was re-arrested in 1937, tried, condemned, and shot in a single day; his wife Olga also disappeared into the gulag only to be released in 1955, after Stalin’s death. They were officially rehabilitated in 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though Chayanov’s own work was cut short by his suppression, his ideas would resurface in the postwar period and find exponents among western economists and social scientists. Nor have those ideas been exclusively of interest to academics studying peasant societies; Chayanov’s emphasis on the family as an essential economic unit found an echo in the New Home Economics field launched in the 1960s by classical economists like Gary Becker, while his appreciation for maintaining a harmonious relationship to the land has been revived in contemporary Russia by Vladimir Megre‘s “Ringing Cedars” eco-cult.

* Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value that the “peasant who produces with his own means of production will either gradually be transformed into a small capitalist who also exploits the labor of others, or he will suffer the loss of his means of production … and be transformed into a wage worker.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1891: Benjamin Harrison spares the Navassa rioters

1 comment May 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison settled a death penalty case from the remote Navassa Island by granting a commutation.

Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilizer and for use in gunpowder and explosives.

In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well. For audio product handling the guano binge, try this 99 Percent Invisible podcast.

Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.

Today, Navassa is uninhabited and administered by the Department of the Interior on somewhat disputable footing. (Haiti, just two miles away, also claims Navassa.)

But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.

The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.

Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.

“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.

They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.

Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.

Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.

Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*

However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.

Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.

* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Navassa Island,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rioting,USA

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1957: Walter James Bolton, the last hanged in New Zealand

11 comments February 18th, 2011 Headsman

New Zealand got itself permanently out of the execution business after hanging Walter Bolton this date in 1957 for the murder of his wife.

The 68-year-old farmer was condemned after his wife finally succumbed to a year-long bout with some mysterious recurring ailment — and the post-mortem revealed long-term arsenic poisoning. Since Bolton turned out to have been having an affair with his wife’s sister, the pieces just fell right into place.

Jurors found these circumstances credible enough to stretch Bolton’s neck, but there’s the small problem that Walter Bolton himself also tested for arsenic poisoning.

The defense argued that the farm’s wells must have soaked up the poison from sheep dip.

But if you like your wrongful executions more sinister than dunderheaded, you might turn a wary eye to that adulterous sister-in-law, Florence Doherty, who committed suicide a year after Bolton hanged. This 2001 Investigate magazine argues (beginning on p. 24 of the pdf) that Doherty may have been a serial arsenic poisoner.

(Bolton’s hanging was also botched, to complete the official dog’s breakfast.)

Whether or not Bolton was rightly accused, nothing along the lines of a public scandal over the case triggered death penalty abolition in New Zealand.

It was rather the First World’s collctive mid-20th century move away from capital punishment. Various abolition efforts building in the 1950’s finally led to a 1961 free vote on the matter, in which ten members of the conservative National Party broke party ranks to eliminate the death penalty for all ordinary crimes. (Decades later, a Labour government also eliminated the death penalty for treason; New Zealand has only ever hanged one person for that crime.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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