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.