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.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Why was the Soviet Union created?

            When Putin in his ideological salvo that preceded the actual war in Ukraine placed the blame for the existence of the Ukraine within its current borders on Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, he not only opened up the Pandora’s box of borders,  but led to the renewed discussion of the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in December 1922. (Putin’s blaming of the three Soviet leaders was as following: Lenin for ignoring the Russian majority population in the Donbass and thus “giving” the Donbass to Ukraine; Stalin for “giving” the eastern part of Poland after World War II to Ukraine, and Khrushchev who “for whatever reasons” decided in 1954 to transfer the Crimea to the Ukraine.)

            There is often very little understanding among many, especially young, people about the ideology behind the creation of the Soviet Union. In an otherwise good article recently published in the “National Interest”, Mark Katz rejects Putin’s critique of Lenin by arguing that “instead of blaming Lenin, Putin should draw lessons from Lenin’s realization that a more accommodative approach toward Ukrainian nationalism would better serve Russia’s long-term interests”.

            This point however shows  marked lack of understanding by Katz of the forces that led to the creation of the Soviet Union, in addition to imputing Lenin to have been concerned with “Russia’s [sic!] long-term interest”—a statement that only people unfamiliar with Lenin’s ideology and writings could make. But let us go back to the creation of the Soviet Union. The most important person behind the  creation of the Union was Stalin, not Lenin. Stalin, as is well known was the People’s Commissar for Nationalities,  and was, within the Bolshevik leadership the person in charge of nationality questions, including obviously the creation of a new Union composed of ethnically-based republics. (At the creation there were six republics: RSFSR, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Transcaucasian Federation  composed of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.)  Here is what Stalin said about the creation of the Union:

Finally, there is a third group of facts, which also call for union and which are associated with the structure of the Soviet regime, with the class nature of the Soviet regime. The Soviet regime is so constructed that, being international in its intrinsic nature, it in every way fosters the idea of union among the masses and itself impels them to take the path of union. Whereas capital, private property and exploitation disunite people, split them into mutually hostile camps, examples of which are provided by Great Britain, France and even small multi-national states like Poland and Yugoslavia with their irreconcilable internal national contradictions which corrode the very foundations of these states— whereas, I say, over there, in the West, where capitalist democracy reigns and where the states are based on private property, the very basis of the state fosters national bickering, conflicts and struggle, here, in the world of Soviets, where the regime is based not on capital but on labour, where the regime is based not on private property, but on collective property, where the regime is based not on the exploitation of man by man, but on the struggle against such exploitation, here, on the contrary, the very nature of the regime fosters among the laboring masses a natural striving towards union in a single socialist family. (my emphasis)

Very similar statements are repeated in several publications, speeches and interviews that Stalin gave at that time. The links are here and I would suggest that people read at least some of them. For my purpose here, the key thing to understand is that the ideology behind the creation of the Union was not whether that Union, with the Ukraine defined one way or another, would be more or less stable at Katz implies, but that the Union is simply the reflection of the end of national and class contradictions that come with the socialist revolution. It is thus a “natural” striving  of peoples liberated from under the rule of capital, and –the most important point—it is therefore is open for all other parts of the world that, sooner or later, may also become free. The USSR was thus created not as a finished state, but as an open-ended state that would grow as socialism spreads to the extent of including within it all European, and perhaps even all countries in the world.

To make this union more attractive, the open-endedness was not only in accepting the new countries, but in allowing those that are included to leave. Thus “the character of the union should be voluntary, exclusively voluntary, and every national republic should retain the right to secede from the Union. Thus, the voluntary principle must be made the basis of the Treaty on the Formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. Here the point is made by Stalin, but Lenin, as is well-known, insisted on that double open-endedness even more.

Consequently, it is not the political stability of what then constituted the USSR that was of paramount importance to its Bolshevik founding fathers but its openness. This is a point on which Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the entire leadership were in full agreement. The new federated Soviet Union was not the end- formation, but the beginning-formation. The Bolsheviks expected the success of the revolution in Germany, Austria and Hungary any time. Thus they expected that these new Soviet republics (as they indeed called themselves) would soon join them in a federated state even if they were for now defeated. It is notable that the USSR has no geographical denomination in its name. When the United States of America were created (in  a somewhat similar fashion like the USSR) the founding fathers did include a geographical limit in its name. Not so the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

   It is then fully understandable that Mao Zedong proposed in 1949 to Stalin that China join the USSR (Stalin, after some reflection, rejected the idea). It was a “normal” view entertained by many communists world-wide. When the communist revolution won in Yugoslavia, many people there thought that the next step would be the accession to the Soviet Union. I recall my father’s friends in 1960s in their conversations talking of believing in the 1940s that Yugoslavia would immediately apply to become another republic of the USSR. 

Perhaps for today’s generations that know very little about the communist ideology and the forces that led to the creation of the USSR, this may be difficult to grasp, but it would help to think by analogy: if instead of the USSR they think of the European Union. The EU is a similar supra-national and ideological creation, and it is at present thought “natural” in many parts of Europe to believe that countries will ultimately “accede” to that Union. It was likewise thought “natural” among the communists that, as individual countries became free, they would “accede” to the Soviet Union.

One can think of at least two other historical precedents when ideological homogeneity was thought sufficient to trump over all other allegiances including national. The first precedent is the Christian empire that was thought  indissoluble and one. The emperor in Constantinople was thus shocked when the Pope decided to bestow the crown on Charlemagne and create yet the second Christian emperor. It was thought inconceivable that Christians would have two different empires since they were all just that: Christians. Another example is Islam where too, at the origin, it was believed that all Muslims, anywhere in the world, would be united into a single political union, the khalifate. That too rather quickly evaporated. But as in the case of communism and the Soviet Union, it is important to understand the ideological motives of the founders and not to ascribe to them the goals that seem reasonable to us now, but that they simply did not have at the time.  


Saturday, August 13, 2022

Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the young person

Several years ago, Chinese state’s People’s Publishing House introduced  English translation of excerpts from Xi Jinping’s speeches and, in a few cases, from his writings under the title of “Anecdotes and sayings of Xi Jinping”. The original was published in Chinese in 2017. The link to the book is available here. I could not find it on Amazon though. I am unsure if it is available in the United States. I recently bought a paper-copy in Belgrade and read it in Serbian translation made from the English translation. Thus one has to take into account that the text has gone through a number of language metamorphoses.

            Some may compare the book of Xi’s “anecdotes and sayings” to the famous Little Red Book. There are similarities in the sense that both publications aim to promote the way of thinking of the leaders, and that Xi has recently began to enjoy somewhat of a cult of personality reminiscent of the one that enveloped Mao from the Cultural Revolution to his death. There are also differences. The Little Red Book was a collection of relatively short excerpts from Mao’s writings. The current Xi’s volume is a selection of longer (on average page-long) pieces from Xi’s speeches, each followed by a more detailed interpretation written by the editors of Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily). Since Xi’s “anecdotes” draw very heavily on Chinese history and since the level of historical detail to which Xi refers is unlikely to be known to most non-Chinese readers (and I would guess to many Chinese too), interpretations are absolutely indispensable. I wish they were  clearer and less repetitive of Xi’s own sayings.

There is another important difference between Mao’s and Xi’s books. Mao belonged to the generation of leaders like Lenin, Stalin and Churchill who were writing their own texts (and, in Mao’s case, poems as well). So we could be sure that whatever was published was indeed written by these old-fashioned leaders. Leaders nowadays rely on ghost-writers. This is especially the case when we deal with speeches that provide most of the text in this book. We cannot be sure if this is something that Xi has really said, or that his speechwriters have written and he just approved. This is not a small issue. Why? Because the book is replete with examples from the Chinese history and literature, Marxist literature, and finally world literature and history. Xi is, by his own admission or claim, a voracious reader, and has been so since a very young age (“What do I do with my leisure time? Of course, most of my time is spent working. The only hobby that I have retained [from my youth] is reading; it has become my way of life. It strengthens my spirits, gives me inspiration, reinforces my morality.”). But did anyone who was climbing the steps of power in China (or elsewhere) really have enough time to absorb all these different schools of thought? We do not know. But the reader may wonder.

The book is composed of two parts. The first is directed at the Chinese reader, discusses Chinese (but also to a certain extent global) themes, and uses mostly the examples, projected as metaphors, from the millennial Chinese history, the cases of extraordinary individuals from the Maoist times, and even some from the contemporary period of construction of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  The second (much less interesting) part is a compilation of various speeches given by Xi at the occasions of international meetings (conversations with Obama figure there two times, but there is no Putin). The second part is supposed to showcase Chinese benevolent interaction with the rest of the world, but its programmatic character makes it much less interesting. The only exception to this is where Xi discusses soccer of which he is genuinely fond, and where his opinions are interesting.

The undisputable emphasis in the “Chinese” part of the book is on the matters of governance. By giving numerous examples from Chinese history of rulers and their aides who cared about people’s welfare, lived modestly (“One should be the first when taking care of state affairs, the last when taking care of personal affairs”), strove to improve themselves morally and educationally, Xi proposes a theory of governance that is based on virtue of rulers and results achieved, not procedure. While Western theories emphasize the procedural aspect (how is one selected to be the ruler, is it by a well-established democratic process or not), Xi’s concern is with the results. The tacit premise is not to discuss how one is selected to rule—and this applies not only to top positions, but to all positions from the lowest county level to the head of CPC—but how successful they are in fulfilling their functions.  The success is defined in terms of improvement in the well-being and happiness of people whom they govern.

The good rule itself, as in a story from ancient China told by Xi, need not be structurally the same. Three different rulers, Xi writes, imposed the just rule by different mechanisms: one by his attention to detail and by controlling all government expenses item by item; another by his good nature; and the third by severe punishments. Corruption was eradicated under each of the three rulers but for a different reason: under the first, people could not cheat; under the second, they felt ashamed to cheat; under the third, they were punished if they cheated.  Xi who told that story in 2004 does not reveal which of the three ways he prefers.

In all cases of a good rule, there is the emphasis on individual characteristics of rulers. As editors mention, if many virtuous and conscientious rulers and government officials existed in the feudal China, would not the more ideologically-conscious and people-oriented Communists be even more likely to care about their co-citizens? What is required, they write, is “morality inside and virtue outside”; what is sought is the rule of virtue, and by virtue.  

But how to bring about such rule? Obviously, by having moral rulers. Hence--the reader begins to realize--Xi’s ideological campaign: if Confucian-cum-Communist  ideology is disregarded and everything is simply esteemed in terms of money and economic success, there cannot be a moral and virtuous rule. To quote Confucius, as the editors do, “if one allows oneself to follow profit in one’s behavior, there will be many with cause for complain.” There could be a fair procedural selection of rulers, say, by election, but not necessarily a virtuous rule. The latter can be assured only through education of rulers.

The key question, unanswered in the book, then becomes: is it possible to achieve an educational and moral “rejuvenation” under the current “normal” conditions of capitalism where money-making is held by the majority of the population to be the highest objective revealing also one’s individual worth? Can the examples brought up from the revolutionary era, from Yen’an forum, early Mao etc. be relevant for a new generation raised in the world of relentless commercialization? One is allowed to doubt. This does not make the ideological campaign conducted by Xi (including probably through this book) less relevant—it makes it rather more so. Yet the likelihood of success of that campaign is not very high. Xi is fighting against the spirit of the times, and while his struggle may be driven by a genuine desire to create a morally superior China, the odds of succeeding in this endeavor are, I am afraid, not particularly high.   

But, perhaps, Xi could answer with the story, told by Mao in 1942, of the crazy old man who tries to move two mountains. In Mao’s version the two mountains were feudalism and colonialism. They were removed. In Xi’s version, they could be greed and indifference.