Thursday, June 1, 2017

My response to DeLong and Pseudoerasmus

I am sometimes puzzled whether (very sharp) people so deeply immersed in their world and their thoughts, do not want to understand what the topic of discussion is, or pretend not to understand.

My post (here) to which both Brad DeLong (here) and Pseudoerasmus (here) strongly (and at times intemperately) reacted does not at all ask whether capitalist strategy to contain and defeat Communism was rational (ex ante or ex post) nor what conflicts could have been avoided, not even whether all conflicts could have been avoided and still the 1989 outcome would have been the same.

The stated and clear objective of the text is to argue that the current crisis of liberal capitalism is not something new and unique. It is in that context that I discussed capitalism’s actual (factual) response to Communist challenge. And that actual response was indeed a combination of the use of “power and intimidation” and "superior economic performance" that with time became even more so, compared to Communist countries. So my point is that in fighting off the challenge, capitalist countries used the means, domestically and internationally, that were neither liberal nor only peaceful. (They used, of course, the peaceful means too: e.g. supporting land reform in Latin America or providing World Bank loans).

But throughout the text I look only at the actual response and the actual means used, not whether these means made sense at the time or with the hindsight now, nor whether these means were better or worse than the means used by Communists. I am simply arguing (and I think examples are so numerous, some of which are cited by me and others by Pseudoerasmus; they are not worth listing here) that many of these means were violent and thus invalidate a vulgar Fukuyamian contention that the triumph of capitalism was achieved through the force of example and by peaceful means exclusively.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The hidden dangers of Fukuyama-like triumphalism

Tomorrow, I am attending a conference that deals with the decline of Western “liberalism capitalism” and how it should be arrested. In the past year, I have been submerged with articles and books that discuss the same topic. They come from all parts of social sciences: economics, politics, sociology, anthropology, geopolitics…It seems that you cannot write anything meaningful today unless you first address “populism” and the crisis of “liberal democracy”.

Throughout all of this I have had a strong feeling of “unreality”. Not only because the  people who write about the crisis live the lives that are, by far, the best lives in the history of humankind, but that the talk of the crisis seems vastly exaggerated. And I was wondering where does this extravagant fear, “the end is nigh”, come from. The cause I think, is twofold: lack of knowledge of history and more importantly the Fukuyama-like narrative of post 1989 triumphalism.

The post-1989 narrative that was, often for self-serving reasons, promulgated in both the academic and popular circles in the West (and in the former Eastern bloc for obvious reasons) saw the period after the end of World War II as a victory of liberal capitalist democracy that was not allowed to take place in some parts of the world because of the imposition of Soviet “glacis”. Once the Soviet pressure relaxed all these countries, and of course all the others (according to the triumphalist narrative) from Iraq to China, saw, or will soon see, the advantages of liberal capitalism and adopt the system. It was a very simple and seductive narrative. While Fukuyama’s original essay was based on important, Hegelian historical and ideological precedents, it gradually got watered-down into a simplified  Hollywoodesque story of a battle of good and evil—where it was even incomprehensible how the “evil” (except for its intrinsic “evilness”) was able to put up such a good fight for decades.

In reality, as even amateurish students of European history know, that narrative is deeply flawed. Europe, as it emerged after the World War II with fascism defeated in Germany and Italy, but its many tentacles present all over Europe, was internally deeply divided between the democratic and Communist factions. The former eventually prevailed but after having to keep in check, and often by very brutal and undemocratic means, one-quarter of the electorate in France and Italy, large organized trade unions linked with communist and socialist parties in most of Continental Europe, all the while supporting capitalist dictatorial regimes in most of the Mediterranean Europe and in places as far away as Chile, Guatemala, Taiwan and South Korea. And not to mention fighting innumerable colonialist and post-colonialist wars where the “liberal democracies” invariably and not accidentally supported the “bad” guys : from Mobutu in Congo to Holden Roberto in Angola.

“Liberal democracy” was in a continual crisis, fighting for its mere survival, buffeted domestically by strikes, wage demands, RAF and Brigate Rosse, and internationally by the challenges of the Third World emancipation and Soviet influence. It fought off all challengers and survived, not because everybody, as the triumphalist narrative would have it, saw that it was a more “natural” system but because it used power and intimidation on the one hand, and superior  economic performance for the masses on the other. In 1945, the chances of democratic capitalism winning over the Soviet system were 10% (read Schumpeter), in 1965, they were 30% (read Samuelson, Galbraith and  Tinbergen), in 1975, they were 60%, by 1985, they were 90%, and in 1989, it won. So at the end, the system that, up to the mid-1970s, did not even dare mention its name (“capitalism”), because it was used only by the left and only as a term of opprobrium, could openly declare what it was and hyphenate it, dubiously, with the adjective of “liberal”.

When you have in your mind this (I think) much more accurate narrative of the past half-century, the current crisis can only be seen as one of the many crises of capitalism. Like a swimmer that at times goes down under water when  the winds are high and then reemerges when the winds die down, liberal capitalism is now going through one of its periodic episodes of withdrawal and weakness. There is no guarantee that it will emerge victorious from this one—it did not in 1917, nor in 1922, nor in 1933—but it allows us to think of the problem much more clearly than if we view the world through the misleading lenses of a continuous and conflictless march toward the chiliastic reign of democracy and “liberalism”.

This is where unfortunately the vulgarizers of Fukuyama terribly misled the young Western generation. Having had no direct experience of attractiveness and importance of nationalism, Fascism, populism, or Communism (the Orwell of “Homage to Catalonia” is never mentioned but the Orwell of the “Animal Farm” is known by all) they imagined that no rational human being could ever entertain such views.  The imagined that such beliefs had to be imposed from without—by  the use of extravagant force. So, they believed (in part because it also economically suited them as many of them came of age in the last decade of the 20th century), that the foreordained teleological march toward the system about which their parents and grandparents entertained serious doubts, could no longer be forestalled. When the march deviated from the planned course, they panicked. But they should not. They should look back at history: historia magistra vitae est.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lenin in his time: Review of Tariq Ali’s “The dilemmas of Lenin”

I bought this book less than a week ago planning to take it with me on vacation. But I “made a mistake” of reading the first chapter and was so captivated that I finished it in just several days.

Tariq Ali has not written a standard biography of Lenin. It is not a book that follows its subject every step of the way. He has not written a full intellectual biography either. “The dilemmas of Lenin” is something in-between: a book for the general audience that covers Lenin’s entire life but is organized thematically and discusses topics such as the rise of terrorism in Russia, the ideological reasons for the break-up of the Russian Social Democratic party, the collapse of the Second International (all topics that have been studied in extenso), but also the military strategy used by Trotsky, Frunze and Tukhachevsky during the Civil War (a chapter where Lenin does not appear at all), and ends with a very interesting discussion on the position of women before and during the revolution and on Communist attitudes towards sex (including Lenin’s love affair with Inessa Armand).

Who is a better person to write such a book than Tariq Ali, who (by his own telling, p. 34) at the age of seven recited by heart, at a meeting of left-wing intellectuals in Lahore, Pushkin’s poem celebrating one of the Decembrists’ heroines who decided to join her husband in Siberian exile; a person who spent his life being engaged in progressive politics in Britain and the US, and participating in a number of ideological disputes?

Ali brings another advantage too: a “Third World” outlook which is especially important for the understanding of the evolution of the Third International (under Lenin and afterwards). His point of view is radically different from that of Bill Warren (discussed here). While Warren criticizes Lenin for having fused the anti-capitalist struggle with anti-imperialism, to the detriment of working-class movements, Ali shows both how that was inevitable (after the failure of revolutions in Germany and Hungary) and desirable as it made Marxism attractive to many “Third World” workers, peasants and intellectuals and opened huge new vistas to the socialist movement. It may be even argued that it was that decision that made Communism a global movement, and probably lay the groundwork for the formation of strong nation-states in Asia (China, Vietnam) that were needed to regain national independence and to develop economically.

This is therefore a very different narrative of Lenin’s life from the more usual, Euro-centric narratives where the spread of Communist ideology to Asia (and the specific problems it had to overcome to appeal to the Muslim populations in the Central Asia and the Caucasus) get treated only parenthetically.

Even in the parts that are well-known, and have been much written about, Ali’s book is useful especially for the younger generation of readers because Ali does not shy away from pointing out to the shallowness of some contemporary historians like Volkogonov (a “vulgarian”, p. 151), Richard Pipes (“The Unknown Lenin” is “a horror movie version” of his earlier books; p. 337), and even to some extent Robert Service. They all, reflecting the post-1989 Zeitgeist, see Lenin as a blood-thirsting tyrant and the revolution as a coup. Ali (relying mostly on Sukhanov who wrote the only existent day-to-day chronology of the revolution) shows that while the last “strike”, the seizure of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, was (obviously) a bloodless “coup”, it simply crowned a long period of Bolshevik’s increasing popularity and thus control of the Soviets, both in Petrograd and equally importantly among the soldiers on the frontline.  But that “coup”, conducted against the well-known opposition within the top Bolsheviks (Zinoviev and Kamenev), set the stage for what Ali sees as leading to a one-party, and ultimately one-man, dictatorship. The “coup” irrevocably separated Bolsheviks from even the left-wing Mensheviks, and while the first Soviet government was a coalition of Bolsheviks and left SRs, the SRs were dropped and banned after their opposition to the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement.

Thus, at the end of the book, Martov (perhaps with Trotsky, Lenin’s most trusted—or liked—collaborator—that is, when they were not at loggerheads) makes a sudden reappearance as a person whose views might have saved the revolution from its decadence under Stalin. Did Lenin recognize this? Ali makes perhaps too much of Lenin’s last article, severely critical of the bureaucratization of the party (but very timid in suggesting any real solutions to it), and of Lenin’s expressed desire to meet Martov and his grief at learning of Martov’s death (which preceded his own by nine months).

The reader is left thinking that—as all evidence, not only here, points out—there would have been no revolution without Lenin, but also that the methods that he in part chose, and those that were in part imposed on him by the Civil War and the Entente and US military interventions, destroyed all democratic potential of the revolution. And that on that last issue Martov (and many others) were right.

It is worth also pointing out to three excellent chapters on the role of women in Tsarist Russia, where, as Ali writes, they legally had almost as few rights as women in Saudi Arabia have now, but where they were extremely active in the political life (10 out of 28 members of the People’s Will Central Committee were women), in education, health and liberal professions. By many numerical indicators, “the self-liberation” of women had gone further in the Tsarist Russia than in Western Europe and America at the time. It was also politically much “deeper” than the suffragette movement. The “self-liberation” then took another big step forward with the Revolution. Women and men were legally equal, Church marriage was no longer legal, marriage only required a “registration” (and even that for many revolutionaries was too much because it legalized state involvement), homosexuality was decriminalized, children born out of “wedlock” were treated equally as those born in “registered” marriages—and even special trade unions for sex-workers were organized.

Reading this book on your vacation will make your life better and your mind broader.