Sunday, February 19, 2017

Did post-Marxist theories destroy Communist regimes?



The break-up of the Soviet  Union was one of the most unusual events in history.  Never before had an empire this powerful and vast given up its power and allowed the dissolution of its internal core (the Soviet Union) and its tributary states (Eastern Europe) so quickly and without a fight. The Ottoman empire went into a process of disintegration that lasted several centuries and was punctuated by numerous wars, both with western powers and Russia, and numerous struggles for national independence (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria). The Habsburg  empire dissolved after four years of the hitherto largest conflict in history. The same is true of the Russian empire and the Hohenzollerns’. But the Soviet Empire gave way almost entirely peacefully and without a fight. How did that happened?

A slender volume by Wisła Suraska (How the SovietUnion disappeared, Duke University Press, 1998) tries to answer the question. It is important to explain what the book is not. It is not a book about Communism and economics.  It does not try to answer (at least, not directly) the question about successes and failures of Communism nor does it deal with economics at all. It is remarkable that the book does not contain a single number. It is a book written by a political scientist and it focuses on internal political determinants of the Soviet collapse.

It is a very well and clearly written volume. The key conclusion of Suraska, enounced in italics in the last chapter, is that the break up is due to “the general failure of communist regimes--their inability to build a modern state” (p. 134). It is “the state weakness, rather than its omnipotence [that] stalled communist project of modernization and, most notably, Gorbachev’s perestroika” (p. 134). Lest somebody believe that Suraska is a partisan of state power, let me explain that what she means is that the arbitrary nature of Communist state, overseen by the Communist party, prevented it from ever developing a responsible and impersonal machinery of Weberian bureaucracy. Such a machinery that follows well-known and rational rules cannot be established if the power is arbitrary. And without such a machinery, the project of modernization is doomed.

But this still does not explain why the country (the USSR) broke up. It broke up, she argues, because of a Brezhnevite equilibrium that—lacking a functioning centrally-controlled state apparatus and forsaking the use of terror—consisted in the creation of territorially-based fiefdoms. The power at the center depended on having peripheral supporters and these peripheral supporters gradually took over most of the local (in the USSR case, republican) functions. They could be dislodged only by the application of mass terror as when, under Stalin, the center actively fought the creation of local centers of power, either by “purging” the leaders or by shifting them constantly between the regions in order to prevent accumulation of power. But Brezhnevite equilibrium consisted precisely in “decentralizing” power to local “barons”  who would then support the faction in the center that gave them most power.   

When Gorbachev tried to recentralize decision-making in order to promote his reforms, he was obstructed at all levels and eventually figured out that without the republican support he could accomplish nothing. This is why, as Suraska writes, at the last Party congress in 1991, he outbid his competitors (Yegor Ligachev) by formally bringing all  regional party bosses into the Politburo and thus effectively confederalizing the Party and the country. But even that proved too little too late as the largest unit, Russia under Yeltsin, became, together with the Baltic republics, the most secessionist.

Suraska rightly adds to this vertical de-concentration of power the ever-present wariness and competition between the Party, the secret services (KGB) and the Army. The triangular relationship where two actors try to weaken and control the third contributed to the collapse. She sees the beginning of the end of the Army’s role in Politburo’s decision, strongly promoted by Andropov (then the head of KGB), not to intervene in Poland in 1980-81. Andropov’s positon (according to the transcripts of the Politburo meetings) that “even if Poland falls under the control of “Solidarity” …[non-intervention] will be” (p. 70) was grounded in the belief that every Soviet foreign intervention (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968) reinforced the power of the Army and thus, if KGB were ever come on top, Army must not be in the driver’s seat.

The ultimate weakness of the Party could be, as Suraska writes, seen in the final denouements in the Soviet Union and Poland: in one case, the top party post went to a head of the secret police, in the other case, to the head of the Army.

In perhaps the most original insight, Suraska deals with the ideology of Gorbachev and the first entirely Soviet-raised and bred generation that came to power in the mid-1980s. They were influenced by post-Marxist thinking where democracy or its absence were simple external (or non-essential) features: democracy was a sham since the “real power” resides elsewhere. “Armed” with this belief and the 1970 ideas of convergence of the two systems plus (in my opinion) millenarian Marxist view that Communism represents the future of mankind, they began to see no significant contradictions between the two systems and trusted that even the introduction of democracy would not affect their positions. Thus, in an ironic twist, Suraska, who is thoroughly critical of both Marxist and post-Marxist theories,  credits the latter (p. 147) for bringing to an end the Marxist-based regimes.

In the penultimate chapter Suraska quickly and very critically reviews different theories that purported to explain the Communist state: modernization theory, totalitarianism, bureaucratic theory, are all found wanting. Suraska’s conclusion, stated in the beginning of this text, is then expounded in the last chapter revealingly entitled “Despotism and the modern state”.  There, in a final note worth pointing out, Suraska discusses Communist rejection of the state and its rules-bound procedures (which make Communists ideological brethrens of anarchists) and compellingly argues for the complementarity of  “council (“soviet”) democracy and central planning.  Both eviscerate the state, take over its functions, impose arbitrary decision-making, and do away with the division of powers. Anarchic and despotic features are thus shown to go together, moreover to be in need of each other.   


Note. Regrettably, I have to point one, extremely odd mistake in somebody whose knowledge of the Soviet and East European politics is, by all indications,  quite remarkable. Suraska puzzlingly writes of  Gheorghiu-Dej (also misspelled), the Romanian leader, as Bulgarian (p. 128). I think she had in mind Chervenkov, but made a mistake, not spotted by herself nor the editors.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Tony Judt’s “Reappraisals”: The shipwrecks of the 20th century


Tony Judt was a Jewish Anglo-American historian of France and of Western intellectual life. He used to write for the New York Review of Books.

After these two sentences (deliberately mimicking the first  sentence of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, very well reviewed in Judt’s book), you should basically know what to expect: Judt was a mainstream liberal thinker similar to the scores that have in the recent decades populated New York, Paris and London publications.  While in some sense this is true, it would be also a simplification of the man as he appears in these essays. There are at least two important areas where Judt diverges from the pensée unique which has so disastrously overwhelmed Western  intellectual life in the past thirty years.

He wrote extraordinarily prescient articles in the early naughts about the dangers that Western democracy faces due to the runaway globalization and rising inequality at home with the gutting out of the middle classes. These were not the usual homilies (although even such homilies were exceedingly rare prior to 2007) but well-argued and genuinely felt cris de coeurs about the perils of the post-Cold War Western triumphalism. Historians can often detect social trends much earlier and better than more empirically-minded economists, among whom only a tiny minority sensed the forthcoming dangers.

Judt was very critical of Tony Blair whom in another prescient essay about the emptiness of New Labour, and inauthenticity of the England outside of London, he calls “gnome” and “an inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land”. That essay, written in 2001, can be read today as an almost perfect introduction to Brexit.

The second topic on which Judt differs from the mainstream is his very tough stance on Israel, in this book appearing in the essay on Edward Said whose engagement and policies Judt fully supports. I will not enter into how realistic is his proposed one-state solution because I am not a specialist of the Middle East and it is not my topic here, but I just mention it to highlight the dissonance of Judt from other liberal thinkers.

Now, those who read carefully the first two sentences know that people who fit that description write on about six topics in toto: the Holocaust (Shoah), the Ribbentrop-Molotov  pact and the division of Poland, Kirov murder and Moscow show trials, the Vichy France, Camus vs. Sartre and McCarthyism. Judt is faithful to this description and most of his essays can be allocated to one of these themes.

But if you do only these themes, however  important they might seem, you are leaving out a lot of other themes and you end up with a strongly blinkered view of the world. It is that that I would like to discuss next.

What struck me as I was reading Judt’s reflections on Sartre, Camus, Kolakowski, Hobsbawm, Koestler etc., most of which obviously have to do with Communism and Marxism, are two things. First, they were discussions of ideas where people (“real people”) have almost no place, and second, their discussion, so anachronistically placed around the events in the 1930s or 1940s, has very scant real-life resonance to somebody who lived under Communism in the 1970s and 1980s (like me) and obviously even less to anyone today. It occurred to me that practically no one of these people (Kolakowski obviously excepted) lived under Communism and for them the Cold War battles were waged in New York and Paris. Moreover, they were waged around the issues that were of almost total irrelevance to the “real people” in Eastern Europe.  In some sense, these “battles” replicated Lenin without Leninism: primacy of ideology, disregard of real life.

This is why, “ the world he describes seems unreal, like the bodies of the Gods who in the Vedic belief project no shadow” (“le monde qu’il decrit semble irrreel, comme les corps des dieux qui, dans le croyance vedique, n´ont point d’ombre”; Paul Veyne on Rostovtzeff’s description of the Roman world).  

Today we can see much better the real importance of these ideological battles: it was quasi nil. Communism fell for entirely different reasons, because it lost the economic race with capitalism and because people wanted to own property. Whether Camus was right and Sartre wrong mattered in the end very little. In effect, it did not even matter to the French working class, and of course even less to anyone else. Reading of the sterile debates among the people who were either intellectual (Malraux) or political poseurs (Sartre) is today a waste of time.

When Judt wears the blinkers of his “pensée unique” he fails to make the subjects he discusses compelling and move them into interesting directions.

In his essay on Arthur Koestler he criticizes Darkness at noon for never mentioning the use of force whereby false confessions were extracted during the Moscow trials. Almost in a socialist realistic way, he chides Koestler for hiding the ugly truth of torture, stopping just short of implying that Koestler, despite his anti-Stalinism and anti-Communism, remained the prisoner of the ideas he once believed in. But Judt fails to see that this is precisely the strength of Koestler’s book. Extracting confession through torture is nothing new: it has been practiced through times immemorial. But convincing people that they should deliberately and falsely accuse themselves in order to further a cause is something truly important. It shows the quasi religious nature of Communism. Ignacio de Loyola and Glatkin (the interrogator in Darkness at Noon) would have perfectly understood each other, as indeed Dostoyevsky in his “Great Inquisitor”  saw a century before. Compared to that, beating somebody to a pulp is banal.

Than, take Eric Hobsbawm on whom Judt writes a nice essay that turns abruptly and sharply critical because Hobsbawm never explicitly abandoned his faith in Marxism. But Hobsbawm should have, much more interestingly, provided Judt with the theme of loyalty to one’s ideas and friends vs. loyalty to truth. We may be loyal to truth (as Djilas—unmentioned--, Koestler, Silone etc.) were but fail to be loyal to the people who are, often, our closest friends. What should we choose: loyalty or truth, mother or justice (to use Camus’ example)? It is important to acknowledge the existence of this difficult choice, perhaps the most common dilemma of the dreadful 20th century. “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”  Is present here too.

Judt’s very narrow focus on Western Europe, plus Poland, makes him not realize how politically parochial he can be at times. In an otherwise nice essay on Romania (a bit unusual given the geographically constrained topics of the book), Judt reports, with apparent disapproval, how a listener in a Romanian town asked him whether European Union should be limited only to Christian nations (p. 258). The question is supposed to illustrate the “nativism” of the Balkan man. Judt finds the idea abhorrent. But only five pages later (p. 263), Judt mentions how Bucharest, being “Balkanic” and “Byzantine” (as opposed to Central European cities) somehow rules the country out from the membership in Europe. Thus, in the span of five pages, we move from a seeming (skin-deep?) cosmopolitan inclusiveness to cultural nativism.

There are many similar contradictions, rather bizarrely displaying the prejudices of the author—the very same prejudices that, when political correctness lights are “on”, he rejects in other, less enlightened, individuals.

I enjoyed reading Reappraisals. Given the number of writers covered in the book, I could write several reviews. But I do not think that reading this book made me wish to read his History of Europe since 1945. Too bad because he was a good writer.