Monday, September 30, 2019

Dining with Stalin

When I was recently in St Petersburg, I bought in one of the very nice bookstores that seem to dot the downtown Petersburg, a book by Vladimir Nevezhin entitled (in a somewhat  free translation) “Dining with Stalin” (or at “Stalin’s Dining Table”). The book is almost 400 pages long, and is an empirical and often detailed review of 47 large banquets given by Stalin between 1935 and 1949 at the Kremlin (no banquets were given during the War). It is based on original sources  (e.g., invitations, list of guests), Stalin's and Molotov's archives, contemporary newspaper reports, and memoirs published by numerous more or less well-known attendees. (The copy I bought is published in 2019; I do not know if it is different from the version from 2011.)

The book is easy to read, even if one’s Russian (like mine) is far from impeccable. It is not well-written though. It reads like a dissertation. It is part of a large research project on Russia’s 20th century history (volume 50 of that project) with often unnecessary repetitions of many details. It is structured in a very formal way—which, given that the banquets were also formally very similar, leads the author to say many times the same or similar things. It has a tunnel-like focus on banquets alone. While this is an advantage for those who are interested in the number of invitees per banquet and the lay out of the tables, it is a clear disadvantage when banquets, especially in the late 1930s at the peak of The Great Terror, are not considered within their political and human context. Thus, only once we learn that guests noticed Stalin’s unusually good mood which the author ascribes to the fact that he must have felt that that evening’s banquet provided a respite from a long day of Moscow Trials which were going on simultaneously. But we are not told a word about whose trial went on that day, nor what happened. (Information is easily available because the dates of both banquets and the trials are well-known.)

Despite these defects, the book is full of interesting and even important details. Moreover, it allows one to reflect on the people and the times. Banquets, hosted in various reception rooms of the Kremlin, included between 500 and 2000 people and were sumptuous affairs, especially if contrasted with generalized penury of meat, fresh fruit and vegetables that often was the case in  Moscow and even more so in the provinces. All produce and drinks however were Soviet-made. Compared to their equivalents organized by Hitler and his lieutenants and studied by Fabrice d’Almeda in The High Society in the Third Reich, Soviet banquets were more monotonous, less extravagant, and more modest. They were also more business-like in not (generally) including family members.  

There were, of course,  two groups of people at the banquets. The first, the hosts, are fairly invariant: it is the Politburo and top government officials, or more generally Stalin and the leadership (“stalinskaya komanda”). The guests are various groups of people. Many of the banquets were done after the May 1 or the  Day of the October Revolution (November 7) military parades and thus included mostly the Army and the Navy. There were also banquets for the New Year’s Day and for the Days of the Republics which were organized in Moscow in the 1930s showcasing artistic and cultural heritage of various federal republics (from the Ukraine to Tajikistan). 

There were several special banquets for the pilots that in the 1930s achieved some notable successes for the Soviet aerospace, including flying to the North Pole, saving sailors stuck in the icy northern desert, and flying long-range non-stop flights to North America. These banquets seemed to put Stalin in an exceptionally good mood because he treated pilots with special consideration, allowing them liberties that very few were granted, including having his toast twice interrupted by the same pilot, at two different banquets. At times, there were unusual scenes that in a more bourgeois Western settings  would have been unimaginable—as when Stalin invited the pilots to the leadership table and then began to hug and kiss each of them, which in turn led the entire Politburo to do likewise. With a dozen of pilots and more than a dozen of members of the leadership that implied perhaps as many as 150 or even 200 hugs and kisses. An almost California-like therapy of free hugs. 

            But there were more macabre scenes as well since the leadership, even if  the core was stable (Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Voroshilov, and to some extent Mikoyan, Andreev and Zhdanov) included also the people who were, at various times, later purged and executed. For example (p. 158), “From June 1937 to April 1938, almost to his arrest, Kosior sat five times at that [leadership] table….In August 1938 Kosior’s wife was shot. And then he was arrested himself. He was taken to the higher level of punishment [probably torture]”. Overall, out of 21 people (excluding Stalin) who sat at the leadership table in 1937 and 1938, eight were shot and two killed themselves (p. 162). Thus almost half of the convives to that supreme table were killed by the main host. Not a usual occurrence. 

Nevezhin discusses at length the fate of Yezhov, who practically out of nowhere became the head of NKVD and proceeded to preside over the most bloody period of The Great Terror only to gradually have his wings clipped (ironically, appointed to be the commissar of river transport), be eased out of the positions of authority, and finally removed and executed (to be replaced by Beria). 

            One can only imagine what was the atmosphere around the main table in those days when Yezhov and NKVD could arrest (and were encouraged to do so) practically anybody and had two standing members of the Politburo executed (there was not enough time to go through the process of their formal demotion). We of course do not know what the conversations around the table were, but do have written evidence of various ministers (commissars) bitterly complaining to Stalin that Yezhov’s campaign of indiscriminate arrest and murder decimated their ministries and often took away the best people. They thus in their turn collected “kompromat” on Yezhov and his people in the same way that NKVD was collecting compromising documents on their collaborators. (In addition, having your collaborators thrown into jail was often a prelude to having yourself being subjected to interrogation and arrest; thus trying to defend them was also a preemptive self-defense.)

            Stalin appeared there as an arbiter since formally investigations were conducted by NKVD, so he could decide, God-like, to either forgive some of those investigated or to let the process continue, ending in most cases in executions, or in suicides. The latter is what Sergo Ordzonokidze, perhaps the least unlikeable of the Stalin’s komanda, was eventually pushed to do, as his fellow Georgian in this cat and mouse game, arrested first Sergo's closest collaborators (in the ministry of the heavy industry), then his brother and his wife, leaving Ordzonokidze only two options: to wait for his own arrest and probable torture, or to kill himself. 

            Molotov and Kalinin had also their wives arrested, and we know from Molotov’s conversations with Felix Chuev (that episode however is not described in Nevezhin’s book) that Molotov, while attending regularly meetings of the top leadership and seeing Stalin frequently in private, never once raised the issue of his wife. Molotov, as we know ex post, was probably right in doing so: her chances of being freed were greater if he said nothing that if he had asked for her release. This was the kind of perverse calculations that the court members had to engage in.

            The number of extraordinary episodes detailed in the book is huge. We learn about several State Jazz Orchestras that were often invited to perform at the New Year’s parties although Stalin did not appreciate jazz. Since every ministry competed with every other in having own musical orchestra, even NKVD under Beria created its own, professionally quite well-regarded one. I suppose NKVD had the means to make proposition attractive to the best musicians.

Nevezhin gives excerpts from Bukharin’s extravagant panegyrics to Stalin, published in “Izvestiya” when he was its editor: descriptions of the enthusiasm and happiness that enveloped all the guests when Stalin and his komanda would show up. Nevezhin does not tell us if Bukharin was really present at the banquets, or simply wrote what was expected of him. If he was present, as seems to have been the case, he must have sat at journalists’ place or journalists’ table. And it must have been galling to him, and truly impossible to describe, how a person who wrote “The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class”, and was Stalin’s equal, and even his conspirator in intra-leadership struggles must have felt writing such nauseating panegyrics.

  We know that personal lives of Stalin and his komanda were very barren. According to Stalin’s daughter he had only one interest: politics. They too. Banquets were a way of making such lives ever slightly less barren, but banquets  too, remained just ersatz oases in the lives full of office work, intrigue, fear and hate.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Capitalism, Alone: Four important--but somewhat hidden--themes

I review here four important, but perhaps not immediately apparent, themes from my Capitalism, Alone.  The book contains many other, more topical, subjects that are likely to attract readers’ and reviewers’ attention much more than the somewhat abstract or philosophical issues briefly reviewed here.

1. Capitalism as the only mode of production in the world. During the previous high point of the British-led globalization, capitalism shared the world with various feudal or feudal-like systems characterized with unfree labor: forced labor was abolished in Austria-Hungary in 1848, serfdom in Russia in 1861, slavery ended in the US in 1865, and in Brazil only in 1888, And labor tied to land continued to exist in India and to a lesser degree in China. Then, after 1917, capitalism had to share the world with communism which, at its peak, included almost a third of the world population. It is only after 1989, that capitalism is not only a dominant, but the sole, system of organizing production (Chapter 1).

2. The global historical role of communism. The existence of capitalism (economic way to organize society) throughout the world does not imply that the political systems must be organized in the same way everywhere. The origins of political systems are very different. In China and Vietnam, communism was the tool whereby indigenous capitalism was introduced (explained below). The difference in the “genesis” of capitalism, that is, in the way capitalism was “created” in various countries explains why there are at least two types of capitalism today. I am doubtful that there would ever be a single type of capitalism covering the entire globe.

To understand the point about the different origins, one needs to start from the question of the role of communism in global history and thus from the interpretation (histoire raisonée) of the 20th century (Chapter 3; Appendix A).

There are two major narratives of the 20th century: liberal and Marxist; they are both “Jerusalem”-like in the Russian philosopher Berdiaff’s terminology. They see the world evolving from less developed toward more developed stages  ending in either a terminus of liberal capitalist democracy or Communism (society of plenty).

Both narratives face significant problems in the interpretation of the 20th century. Liberal narrative is unable to explain the outbreak of the First World War which, given the liberal arguments about the spread of capitalism, (peaceful) trade, and interdependence between countries and individuals that ostensibly abhor conflict should never have happened, and certainly not in the way it did—namely by involving in the most destructive war up to date all advanced capitalism countries. Second, liberal narrative treats both fascism and communism as essentially “mistakes” (cul de sacs) on the road to a chiliastic liberal democracy without providing much of reasoning as to why these two “mistakes” happened. Thus the liberal explanations for both the outbreak of the War and the two “cul de sacs” are often ad hoc, emphasizing the role of individual actors or idiosyncratic events.

Marxist interpretation of the 20th century is much more convincing in both its explanation of World War I (imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism) and  fascism (an attempt by the weakened bourgeoise to thwart left-wing revolutions). But Marxist view is entirely powerless  to explain 1989, the fall of communist regimes, and hence unable to provide any explanation for the role of communism in global history. The fall of communism, in a strict Marxist view of the world, is an abomination, as inexplicable as if a feudal society having had experienced a bourgeois revolution of rights were suddenly to “regress” and to reimpose serfdom and the tripartite class division. Marxism has therefore given up trying to provide an explanation for the 20th century history.

The reason for this failure lies in the fact that Marxism never made a meaningful distinction between standard Marxist schemes regarding the succession of socio-economic formations (what I call the Western Path of Development, WPD) and the evolution of poorer and colonized countries. Classical Marxism never asked seriously whether the WPD is applicable in their case. It believed that poorer and colonized countries will simply follow, with a time lag, the developments in the advanced countries, and that colonization and indeed imperialism will produce  the capitalist transformation of these societies. This was Marx’s explicit view on the role of English colonialism in Asia. But colonialism proved too weak for such a global task, and succeeded in introducing capitalism only in small entropot enclaves such as Hong Kong, Singapore and parts of South Africa.

Enabling colonized countries to effect both their social and national liberations  (note there was never a need for the latter in advanced countries) was the world-historical role of communism. It was only Communist or left-wing parties that could prosecute successfully both revolutions. The national revolution meant political independence. The social revolution meant abolishment of feudal growth-inhibiting institutions (power of usurious landlords, labor tied to land, gender discrimination, lack of access to education by the poor, religious turpitude etc.). Communism thus cleared the path for the development of indigenous capitalism. Functionally, in the colonized Third World societies, it played the same role that domestic bourgeoisies played in the West. For indigenous capitalism could be established only once feudal institutions were swept away.

The concise definition of communism is hence: communism is a social system that enabled backward and colonized societies to abolish feudalism, regain economic and political independence, and build indigenous capitalism.

3. The global dominion of capitalism was made possible thanks to (and in turn it exacerbates) certain human traits that, from an ethical point, are questionable. Much greater commercialization and  greater wealth have in many ways made us more polished in our manners (as per Montesquieu) but have done so using what were traditionally regarded as vices—desire for pleasure, power and profit (as per Mandeville). Vices are both fundamental for hyper-commercialized capitalism to be "born" and are supported by it. Philosophers accept them not because they are by themselves desirable, but because allowing their limited exercise allows the achievement of a greater social good: material affluence (Smith; Hume).

Yet the contrast between acceptable behavior in hyper-commercialized world and traditional concepts of justice, ethics, shame, honor, and loss of face, creates a chasm which is filled with hypocrisy; one cannot openly accept that one has sold for a sum of money his/her right to free speech or ability to disagree with one’s boss, and thus arises the need to cover up these facts with lies or misrepresentation of reality.

From the book (Chapter 5):

"The domination of capitalism as the best, or rather the only, way to organize production and distribution seems absolute. No challenger appears in sight. Capitalism gained this position thanks to its ability, through the appeal to self-interest and desire to own property, to organize people so that they managed, in a decentralized fashion, to create wealth and increase the standard of living of an average human being on the planet by many times—something that only a century ago was considered almost utopian.

But this economic success made more acute the discrepancy between the ability to live better and longer lives and the lack of a commensurate increase in morality, or even happiness. The greater material abundance did make people’s manners and behavior to each other better: since elementary needs, and much more than that, were satisfied, people no longer needed to engage in a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. Manners became more polished, people more considerate.

But this external polish was achieved at the cost of people being increasingly driven by self-interest  alone, even in many ordinary and personal affairs. The capitalist spirit, a testimony to the generalized success of capitalism, penetrated deeply into people’s individual lives. Since extending capitalism to family and intimate life was antithetical to centuries-old views about sacrifice, hospitality, friendship, family ties, and the like, it was not easy to openly accept that all such norms had become superseded by self-interest. This unease created a huge area where hypocrisy reigned. Thus, ultimately, the material success of capitalism came to be associated with a reign of half-truths in our private lives."

4. Capitalist system cannot be changed. The dominion of hyper-commercial capitalism was established thanks to our desire to permanently keep on improving our material conditions, to keep on getting richer, a desire which capitalism satisfies the best. This has led to the creation of a system of values that puts monetary success as its top. In many ways it is a desirable evolution because “believing” in money alone does away with other traditional and discriminatory hierarchical markers.

In order for capitalism to exist it needs to grow and to expand to ever new areas and new products. But capitalism exists not outside of us, as a external system. It is individuals, that is, us, who, in our daily lives, create capitalism and provide it with new fields of action—so much that we had transformed our homes into capital, and our free time into a resource. This extraordinary commodification of almost all, including what used to be very private, activities was made possible by our internalization of the system of values where money acquisition is placed on the pinnacle. If this were not the case, we would not have commodified practically all that can be (as of now) commodified.

Capitalism, in order to expand, needs greed. Greed has been entirely accepted by us. The economic system and the system of values are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Our system of values enables hyper-commercialized capitalism to function  and expand. It then follows that no change in the economic system can be imagined without a change in the system of values that underpins it, which the system promotes, and with which we are, in our everyday activities, fully comfortable. But to produce such a change in values seems, at present, to be an impossible task. It has been tried before and ended in the most ignominious failure. We are thus locked in capitalism. And in our activities, day in, day out, we support and reinforce it.