Wednesday, September 21, 2022

A century ago: From Brest-Litovsk to Rapallo

 The Moscow-backed Kharkov government is holding out. The Rada-backed Kiev government is claiming to stand for the whole of Ukraine.  German arms are crossing the border. The Anglo-American expeditionary forces are landing in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. The French are in the Crimea. The Japanese have just taken Vladivostok. The Caucasian republics are independent. Two generals’ and one admiral’s forces are moving, at times at incredible speed, toward the capital. The Far Eastern Republic, with a constitution written in English, is hoisting its flag.

            The government in Moscow is under stress.

            This was the situation almost exactly 100 years ago in the Eurasian space from Poland to China. There are superficial similarities with today, highlighted in the first paragraph. But there are two fundamental differences: ideology, internationalism vs. nationalism, and quality of leadership, broad horizons vs. the thuggery of the mean streets of Leningrad. History repeats itself—but not quite.

            The third volume of E.H. Carr magisterial “The Bolshevik Revolution” deals  with foreign affairs of the Bolshevik government that, under the German-Finnish military threat, moved its capital from Petrograd to Moscow. Carr’s book is so rich in detail and so excellent in their interpretation that I doubt that a performance like his could be replicated today. Perhaps that we know today much more about each individual event from one hundred years ago than Carr did in 1952 when the volume was published; but it is only with Carr that we can comprehend their meaning—not as in an upper-case History way, but in the explanation of both why certain things happened and what were their consequences.

            Carr’s book moves from the Brest-Litovsk humiliating peace agreement  with Wilhelmine Germany that the Bolsheviks signed in February 1918 (only thanks to Lenin who insisted on it; Trotsky refused to go to the signing ceremony; Chicherin signed it) to the Rapallo treaty in 1922. It was a tacit alliance with by then the defeated but militaristic and revanchist Germany. The two points encapsulate the beginnings of a duality In Soviet Union’s foreign policy. On the one hand, the Bolshevik government saw itself in the first couple of years merely as an accidental success case, ready at any point in time to transfer the center of gravity of the world revolution to Berlin or Paris: “We shall be glad –said Zinoviev in 1919—if we succeed in transferring the place of residence of the Third International…as quickly as possible to another capital, for example Paris”. Added Trotsky, “If today, Moscow is the center of the Third International tomorrow the center will move West, to Berlin, Paris, London” (p. 132). Bolsheviks were proud of their accomplishment but aware that Russia was backward and that it was an anomaly: the weakness of Tsarism made the revolution possible. But the correct course of history, as foreshadowed by Marx and Engels, would retake its course and the revolutions in Berlin and Paris would bring Europe to the forefront of revolution—exactly where it should be. It was also, they thought, the only condition under which the Moscow government, besieged from all sides by imperialists and domestic reactionaries, could survive.

            Yet the revolutions in the West were not coming. Several attempts in Germany failed. August 1920 when the Second Comintern Congress took place, was, in hindsight, the high point of Bolshevik optimism. Trotsky’s army of workers and peasants was advancing on Warsaw. Soviets were springing up across Germany, and the European revolution was only—it seemed—weeks away.

            Then things changed. The Red Army was defeated before Warsaw, the Soviets in Germany were put down, the German social-democratic party already split into two, further splintered into four, and the uprising in the West was postponed sine die.

            The rulers in Moscow who signed the humiliation of Brest-Litovsk just to hold onto power for the time being, in the near certainty that it was only a matter of months until a friendly proletarian government arose in Germany, had to go back to the drawing board. If the revolution in Europe was not around the corner, then the preservation of the Soviet Republic in Russia was crucial. For only with it, as a free territory to which communists could withdraw and from which they could plan their forays, may revolutions elsewhere occur. If it was defeated, there would be nothing left.

            Thus was the dual policy of the Soviets born. The Soviet Russia’s government (there was no USSR yet) had to participate with capitalist powers in the daily business of running the world. At the same time, the revolutionary part of the government in Moscow had to undermine the very same capitalist  powers  with whom it was negotiating trade treaties, by supporting their communist foes. It was a difficult equation. Originally, it seemed to give a lot of flexibility to Moscow, but in reality made everybody unhappy. Communist parties, after undergoing numerous splits and shedding membership in the process on Moscow’s demands, found themselves being further decimated by own governments that maintained cordial relations with the very same Moscow. Persia, Turkey, Italy, even Germany are the cases in point.

            Ideology however was a powerful force. It spread  Bolsheviks’ influence far and wide: from Japan and Korea to China, India, Persia, Turkey and the United States. Zinoviev, the head of the Third International, could think himself the president of the (revolutionary) world. Perhaps no-one in history had ever came so close to seeing himself in that role. Lenin, incapacitated by the illness in 1921, made a huge effort to participate in all Comintern’s congresses during his life. But he did not run it. Zinoviev did—a thing which probably contributed to his innate vanity to make him, in the simultaneous battles waged within the Russian Bolshevik party, partner with Stalin against the too-brilliant and ever-vacillating Trotsky.

            Carr was criticized for coming close to adulation of Lenin  There is no doubt  that he admired Lenin’s clear-eyed realism and Machiavellianism. Whenever difficult decisions had to be taken, Lenin (who before 1914 was thought of as an entirely useless dogmatic, lost to the real-world politics) took them. Carr also shows the power of the Lenin-Trotsky duo. The indubitable qualities  of Trotsky—intelligence, organizational skills, even extremes in whatever position he happened to hold at a given point in time—came to the fore thanks to Lenin’s oversight and guidance. And Trotsky’s willingness to accept him as the ultimate arbiter, a role he never granted to anyone else. But once Lenin was gone, all the equally indubitable defects of Trotsky—arrogance, disdain for friends and coworkers, abstract thinking—reappeared, and led to his downfall. But this is the topic of Volume IV, “The Interregnum”.


Wednesday, September 7, 2022

What is a paleo-left agenda?

When I recently had a discussion with Alex Hochuli and Philip Cunliffe at their podcast (you can listen to it here), they mentioned one of my pieces on what I called the paleo-left. In the podcast, I went over the main features of the paleo-left, and I think that it may be useful to put them down again in writing. And hopefully to show that they can be readily made into actionable policies and are not just a set of nice words strung together.

The paleo-left agenda, in my opinion, has four key planks: it is pro-growth, pro-equality, for freedom of speech and association, and for international equality. Let me explain each.

Being in favor of growth means that the paleo-left acknowledges that income and wealth are indispensable conditions for human self-realization and freedom. We cannot achieve our potential, nor enjoy other non-pecuniary activities unless we have enough income not to worry where the next meal comes from or where we are going to sleep the next night. The paleo-left is against the constant denigration of growth because it recognizes that for an ordinary person improved material conditions of living open the “realm  of freedom”: we do not want households where mothers have to wash clothes in the nearby creek or in the bathtub; we want households with washing machines. (Of course, for people who already own washing machines this might seem like a trivial demand. But for half the world that does not it is not trivial at all.)

Growth as such without taking into account who benefits from it is neither ethically acceptable, nor politically sustainable. That’s where the second plank comes in: economic equality. Growth cannot be blind, nor can it be such that most of it, like in the US in the period 1986-2007 (see the graph below) is collected by the rich. It must be pro-poor which means that incomes of the lower groups should rise, in percentage terms, at least as much as incomes of the richer groups. How to achieve this? Not only through direct taxation or indirect taxation of activities and goods consumed by the rich (the latter is an area which is, in my opinion, under-utilized). It can be achieved through high inheritance taxes which would ensure reasonably equal starting position regardless of parental wealth, by almost free or fully free public education and health, and by special support for the young, around the time of their first jobs. The young are now in the developed Western societies as a group in need of as much support as what people who are currently old managed to politically achieve in the 1960s and 1970s. 


Reduced income and wealth inequalities are both an objective in themselves and a tool for achieving something else: relative political equality. That equality is undermined in today’s advanced societies not, as it is claimed, by an ill-defined “populism”, but by a very opposite danger: that of plutocracy. The fact that rich people fund the campaigns, pay politicians (which is just a more subtle form of bribery), and control most of the mainstream media, makes mockery of political  equality.

The paleo-left should, in my view, eschew such terms that the neoliberal discourse has captured and made meaningless, like democracy. We have to acknowledge that the term “democracy” has been hijacked by the neoliberal plutocracy in the same way that the term “people” was hijacked by the communist authorities in Eastern Europe. Both terms are used to cover up the reality. 

Instead the paleo-left should focus on something much more real and measurable: approximate political equality. The latter implies public financing of political campaigns, limits (or bans) on rich people’s control of the mass media (no “Washington Post” ownership for Jeff Bezos), and equal participation in the electoral process which in turn means making participation in the elections easier for hard-working people. Current elections in the US are intentionally scheduled for a working day, and it is neither a surprise, not an advertisement for “democracy”, that even in the most important elections one-half of the electorate simply does not participate.

The paleo-left also recognizes that the freedoms of speech and association are largely meaningless so long as approximate political equality does not exist. Individuals can spend hours and days complaining on Twitter, but it will carry zero political influence as compared to the well-paid and organized think-tanks and other institutions whose objective is to directly affect policy. It is in that area that a vague use of the term “democracy” in reality conceals vast inequality in access to political power.

The last plank is internationalism. This is, of course, an old left-wing slogan, and it should not be seen as something that is just tacked on to the rest of the domestic agenda. It is a constituent part of the overall agenda. The paleo-left accepts that different countries and cultures may have different ways in which they choose their governments or in which they define political legitimacy. The paleo-left is not ideologically hegemonic. The paleo-left might believe (and should believe) that its own approach is the best, and is right to argue for it, but the argument must be always at the level of ideas, must avoid gross interferences in the internal affairs of other countries, and must obviously never use violence. The paleo-left must get rid of the noxious idea of a “liberal world order” which is either meaningless (as it changes depending on what is politically convenient for its proponents) or is an outright invitation to wage wars. It replaces it by the respect of international law as defined by the United Nations, and by other institutions that are inclusive of all peoples. The paleo-left proselytism is made only by non-violent means, and with respect for other cultures and states, and no coercion of any kind.  

There are many other issues that cannot be directly covered by these simple rules. They concern migration, gender and racial equality, relations between the church and state etc. but they can be, I believe, relatively easily deduced from these four general principles.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A politician who did not want to rule

            God has not been kind to Mikhail Gorbachev to not allow him to die before February 24, 2022 and not witness the senseless destruction of everything he stood for. And perhaps even to reflect how sometime the decision not to use force may later lead to a much greater carnage. If Mikhail Gorbachev had maintained the Soviet Union (perhaps without the Baltics), and used the force the way that Deng Xiaoping did, we might not be now looking at a senseless internecine war that has already claimed  dozens if not hundreds of thousands of lives, and which in the worst case might degenerate into a nuclear holocaust. Politicians, even those who are the most humane, must unfortunately make this calculation where human lives are just numbers.

            Gorbachev refused to do so. Perhaps to openly state that was a mistake: nobody was any longer taking him seriously, from Baku to Washington,  although he sat atop of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, the second largest military in the world, hundreds of thousands of police and domestic security forces, and as the Secretary General of the monopolistic party disposed of unquestionable loyalty of 20 million of its members.

            By the standards of statecraft, he must be judged harshly, like one of the most extraordinary failures in history. By the standards of humanity, he must be judged much more kindly: he allowed millions to regain freedom, not only proclaimed, but stuck to the principles of non-violence in domestic and foreign affairs, and left his office willingly, when he did not need to do so, simply because he did not want to risk lives in order to keep it. But being  nice and, in fact, anti-political, he left the field open to much worse men.

            He was incapable of running a complicated, fraught by too much history, multinational, and vast empire like the Soviet Union. The country was additionally “saddled” by its reluctant satellites, the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, arms race with a much stronger opponent, and a quasi-stagnant economy. The situation that Gorbachev inherited was far from easy. But, it was manageable, and the fact that nobody predicted the precipitous economic, military, and political decline of the Soviet Union confirms it. Gorbachev, by trying to improve things, made them catastrophic. Many people in retrospect, and perhaps out of respect for Gorbachev (which we do owe to him) tried to explain the descent into the chaos by claiming that the system was “unreformable” and that everything was preordained. The role of Gorbachev, the person, in that view of history is almost non-existent. But this is wrong. A more competent ruler, a savvier politician, a more ruthless man would have handled things differently, and might have forestalled the catastrophe.

            The most mysterious part is his rise to power. I do not mean it in a conspiratorial way because there was no conspiracy. The part that must puzzle everybody who reflects on it is the following: given how badly skilled Gorbachev was in handling the economy and politics at the central level, how come that these defects have not become apparent much earlier as he climbed the ladders of power? Didn’t anyone notice that in Stavropol? Moreover, given how willing he was to reject the rule of bureaucrats who brought him to power and who worked with him for several decades, how is it that they have not seen the red danger lights flashing behind that man with the affable smile? How is it that Andropov, not a person who displayed a huge sense of humanity, nor who, by his job description, could have been fooled easily, did not see the fault-lines in Gorbachev that, once in power, would blow up the entire Empire?

            I do not think that there will ever be a good answer to that, especially not because Gorbachev did not conceal his opinions nor pretend to be different person from what he was. The only way to understand how a powerful bureaucracy would let somebody who is going to destroy it climb to power within that same bureaucracy is to believe that Gorbachev’s own views had evolved over time. That when he started reforming the system his view were very much within the acceptable reformist camp, of which even Andropov approved, but that as each step of reforms proceeded, his views evolved in direction of greater freedom, so that at the end he was presiding over a party that was an amalgam of incompatible factions and tendencies, from KGB stalwarts (Kryuchkov), to anti-reformists (Ligachev), to red directors (Chernomyrdin), to corrupt thieves (many Komsomol leaders), to technocrats (Gaidar), to social democrats (Roy and Zhores Medvedev).  

             Can we draw some conclusions? Regarding politics, we would need a person of Machiavelli’s caliber to describe what happened and why. But for Russian politics of succession, the lesson seems clearer: Stalin could not have imagined that somebody like Khrushchev (whom he treated like a not very smart country bumpkin) could ever succeed him; neither could have Khrushchev imagined that the “beau Leonid” would engineer an internal coup against him;  Andropov made a misjudgment on Gorbachev, who in turn underestimated Yeltsin. Yeltsin picked Putin to do one job, but received something entirely different. It is unlikely that Putin alone would not commit the same error.