Friday, January 25, 2008

Rethinking Communism

"Communism didn't fall. It was pushed." – George H. W. Bush, July 2, 1992

I've noticed that, whenever anyone wants to give the devil his due, they first must stand up and announce in a loud voice that it is, in fact, the very devil we're dealing with, so bad, bad, bad, old devil, and then they can say what they set out to say. I've seen this in action where people analyze the infant mortality rates in Cuba, which are far lower than any other country in Latin America and close to those of the U.S., but Castro is a bad, bad man, so let's be sure we get that in. Similarly, if one wishes to locate where in south central Asia the USSR has occupied, now or in the past, one can find a very good map of it by just looking at literacy rates, as compared to the neighboring countries, with the former USSR countries having over 97% literacy rates. The outlier is Afghanistan, which, despite a violent and unsuccessful occupation by the USSR in the 1980s, nevertheless saw large increases in both male (increasing from 30% to over 40%) and female (6% to about 15%) literacy during that time.

But communism, especially in the Russian and Chinese models, was an authoritarian political form that demanded a single Party state, censorship, secret police, and all the trappings that gave George Orwell the heebie jeebies. Bad old Commies.

So let's pretend, somehow, that it's possible to divorce communism from those things. What do we have left? Can we somehow rewind the tape and start all over again from the French Revolution and the Paris Commune and somehow get it to work better? Ah, that seems pretty dubious, so that's probably a dead end.

Still, from my recent review of the French Revolution (granted, more the Cliff Notes version than anything deep or substantive), one of the things that stuck was the degree to which foreign intervention kept the pot on the boil. The monarchies in the rest of Europe felt that they could not afford to let the French Revolution succeed; the American Revolution was bad enough, and that was just a slaveholder rebellion as far as many Europeans were concerned. The Americans were half a world away, besides. But this new French thing…no, best to nip it in the bud.

And even Napoleon, who rose like a cork from the stormy sea, well, he named himself Emperor and put his cronies in charge of things. They may have despised the little twerp, but at least Napoleon they understood.

So what about Soviet Russia? Well, again, was there ever a time when the Western powers just let it ride? The Red and White armies marched all over hell and gone in the 1920s, and not without plenty of outside interference and support for various factions. In the twenty years before the Second World War, Europe looked like a tossup match between Communism and Fascism, and liberal democracy was hardly considered worthy of a seat at the debate. The Hitler/Stalin pact looks insane at this distance (and was a head bender at the time, as well), but I've seen it explained as the natural outcome of Stalin's actually being a real Communist. He considered England to be the real enemy, and it was trivial for Hitler to play on that. Hitler had his own delusions, of course; he viewed England as a natural ally, and thought the British royalty (who were "racial Germans," after all) would swing his way.

Then, big war, one that wiped out almost an entire generation of Russian males, followed by the Cold War. England had spent itself in the war, and divested itself of its colonial empire, in a series of moves so ham fisted that they guaranteed several generations of blood and conflict in the former colonies. But hey, that's the White Man's Burden, isn't it?

The United States took up the great cause of anti-communism, though, and wasn't that a peach? We built up an Armageddon arsenal of nuclear weapons, and then, when the Russians got themselves a bomb or ten, the U.S. went absolutely batshit berserk, seeing Communists under every bed, with neighbor denouncing neighbor, lives ruined on rumor, and drunken old Joe McCarthy scaring the pants off of everyone. In college I knew a few old lefties who'd been through that wringer, and it's not something I ever want to see up close and personal. After 9/11 people were killed for just wearing turbans. Imagine how it would have been if the mark of Cain had been belonging to some club in college 10 or 20 years ago. In other words, imagine if it could be _you_ under the hammer.

It also makes me wonder what sort of derangement would have resulted if the U.S. had actually been _invaded_ in WWII, or if the first ones with the nukes had been some other country, which is to say, if the U.S. had experienced even a fraction of what the USSR went through. But, of course, trying to imagine the world from the perspective of a "godless communist" is exactly the sort of thing that could have gotten you blacklisted in 1950.

Exactly what is it that created the Cold War? The Russians grabbed a lot of land in eastern Europe, I get that. They supposedly threatened Western Europe militarily, I get that, too. But it's not as if there wasn’t a "vice versa" there as well.

And as nearly as I can tell, nothing justifies the general plan that seems to have been in place for "containment" of communism, which, in practice, worked out to replacing democratically elected governments with authoritarian dictatorships that were "friendly" to the West, which is to say the U.S., which is to say U.S. commercial interests. The list of those is long and brutal, and we all know who they were. The other option seems to have been putting a lot of U.S. soldiers into the place, as hostages. That was pretty much how it was for Germany and South Korea.

For the life of me it looks like the United States and the European democracies simply didn't believe in their own forms of government. Democratic principles were (and still are) considered "weak," things to be replaced by authoritarian command-and-control whenever things got tough, or scary, or even hard to understand.

My own belief is that the USSR fell because of the generation gap. The War Generation (the Russians had a "greatest generation" of their own, after all), got old, and boring, and the young elites of Russia saw the cool stuff that was going on elsewhere in the world and they wanted a piece of it. They wanted sex and drugs and rock and roll, just like every other younger generation in the history of the world. So as the new technocrats took over, they just let the whole communism thing slip away. I imagine the same thing happened in China; Tiananmen Square was an urban youth rebellion, put down by soldiers drawn from the countryside—the Chinese Red States, if you will.

From time to time, I see someone writing about the "internal contradictions" of Russian Communism, and the "inefficiency" of the Soviet economic system. I think that there are truths buried in there, but I have to observe that an oligarchic command-and-control structure is the model for every corporation in America. And yes, corporations do go bankrupt, and they do get bought out, but the same can be said for the USSR. And corporations generally don't have to have their own armies, and they don't have foreign governments trying to subvert their every move.

I do believe in those things that we all wave at when we talk about "freedom" and "democratic principles." I just wish that I were more certain that the rest of my countrymen did.


JP Stormcrow said...

I do admit that from time to time I enjoy contemplating the similarities of big corporations and the Soviet Union. My favorite is leadership succession at the top. However, I must admit that the fact that (so far) it is not required that you continue working at a corporation limits the conclusions one should draw from it.

black dog barking said...

Soviet societies devoted a non-trivial chunk of their national weal to spying on themselves. That's a form of taxation that costs a lot and creates nothing of value.

For much of the Cold War it seemed like everyone wanted to be American -- TV and blue jeans. I'm still a little confused about how we came to be so insecure about our standing. You know, the Russkies, who couldn't make a passably decent two-door sedan, were somehow going to rule the world if we didn't stop dominos from falling in Vietnam. It's almost like we didn't believe our own story.

James Killus said...

jp, that's one of the reasons why "barriers to exit" are so important. Leave your job, lose you pension vesting, lose your health care, etc. etc.

But this is really part of my "Rethinking Socialism" thing that I'm also working on.

And yes, black dog, I don't think that they really believe in America. It's not just that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel; it's the plaintive cry of those who have lost their faith.

JP Stormcrow said...

jp, that's one of the reasons why "barriers to exit" are so important.

Yes, I was thinking about that when I was posting. I note that the Aussies I know, who have lower barriers to exit, are much more likely to move on when their work situation gets bad—even those with a lot of years in at one company. Past a certain number of years of service in the US, most everyone sticks it out if they have the choice.