Socialism, Communism, and Liberalism

Trumpster fireWatching American political dramas like their presidential elections is both entertaining and frightening. Yet it is also strangely educational. it has taught me a basic tenet: Americans as a people know little to nothing about politics. Not just about international politics, but their own.

It is a commonly held belief outside American borders that Americans are remarkably unaware of the history, politics, leaders, or even existence of other nations, but are often equally ignorant of their own. There are far too many YouTube videos interviewing Americans about both the USA and the world for me to list them, but look at the site yourself to see what I mean.

Sure, many of the US politicians themselves seem to know how their government works (or should work), and may even be masters of their craft, yet from political pronouncements clearly many are also woefully ignorant of political realities. Which explains in part why the general populace is often confused about even things within their own governance system, like the racially-motivated electoral college, how the three branches of government work (or are supposed to work), how executive orders are made, or what the Constitution says (and not merely one or two amendments cherry-picked to support an ideological stance; even their president is remarkably ignorant of this document).

When, for example, Trump implements a tariff on imported goods, his supporters cry in delight that he’s “being tough” on some other nation (as if toughness and nationalism were worthier attributes than alliances and cooperation), without even the slightest understanding that they — his supporters and all other American consumers — will pay the price. Not the other nation, not some foreign government, not some third party like the WTO or UN. The USA is the most consumerist nation on the planet: it’s the consumers who will pay for tariffs because the cost of their goods simply goes up to cover the tariff. But Americans seem not to understand what a tariff actually is: a tax on the things they buy.*

It’s especially evident at election time when the Repugnicans throw around insults and accusations that their opponents are liberals, socialists, communists, and far-left radicals… ooh! Scary! As if America even had a left wing! It only has shades of right; its most moderate politician would still be considered a conservative in many Western nations. But the right will label that person radical, socialist, and even liberal because it’s a dog whistle for rightwing voters. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

This is mere fearmongering akin to calling people witches or warning gullible voters that immigrants will take their jobs: it works best and most efficiently when the audience is ignorant of the facts or is already fixed in their ideology (as in a Trump rally). But like in the Dark Ages, the masses are always susceptible to simplistic rhetoric.

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Will communism as a dominant political ideology ever make a comeback

I took the title from a discussion on Quora about whether Communism is dead or will re-emerge, and if so under what conditions. I don’t believe that the author of the post (Susanna Viljanen, from Aalto University in Finland) who opens that discussion wanted to see Communism arise again, but rather is asking if it can, and under what circumstances. She clearly states at the beginning of her argument,

By now, Communism is dead and buried. Its failure was so spectacular, its achievements so appalling and its legacy so hateful and bitter that nobody in their sane minds – especially in the Eastern Europe, where it was brought by conqueror’s bayonets, want it back. The first round of Communism was the greatest tragedy world ever has seen.

I think we can all agree with that sentiment. Viljanen opens her post with a quote she says is from Karl Marx:

History has a tendency to repeat itself: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.

She then adds her own twist: “a third time as a melodrama.”* I won’t debate whether this is true, but Viljanen continues:

Communism and Nazism are basically each other’s mirror images. They appeal to same kind of people and they promise same kind of world – and deliver similar results. So as long as there will be Communists, there will be Nazis as well… But neither ideology can gain enough support as long as the society is a) stable and b) provides its members decent living.

By that logic I assume the reverse: as long as there are Nazis there will be Communists as well, a sort of balancing act between two extreme forms of totalitarianism. But I think that presumes a right-left axis, and I have to argue that for all the labels applied to it, Communism was not a leftwing ideology, but only masqueraded as one, just as the Talibangelists in the USA masquerade as Christians.

Viljanen continues:

…To win, both Nazism and Communism need an unstabilized society – one in chaos, civil war, bankruptcy, natural catastrophe or horribly divided.

She is suggesting, I believe, that the current situation in the USA is becoming (or has become) fertile ground for revolution (a belief shared by some researchers into income inequality; the USA is the fourth highest nation in the GINI inequality scale), but I would disagree: in a deeply consumer-oriented society like the USA, revolutions are rare. You can distract too many people from their political goals with a sale on iPhones (or, for the right, AR-15s) too easily. People in the USA will storm the breach to buy a discounted TV set in a Black Friday sale, but organize nationwide for political purposes? Unlikely (as long as that TV is working). A revolution requires a cadre of informed, dedicated ideologues at its core, and I don’t see them anywhere.

On the other hand, I think the USA is the womb of a rapidly-developing rightwing coup; more like the Nazi solidification of power post-1933 than their Beerhall Putsch. I think the alt-right which always portrays itself as the victim, as the target, as the underdog, is more likely to rise up, but in support of — not against — the totalitarian state because it supports the racist/xenophobic/misogynist ideologies of the alt-right.** But a Communist revolution? Never.

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Where is Che now that we need him?

CheMaybe it’s simple nostalgia, but it seems to me the world was a lot better off when the Soviet Union was around. Really. Bear with me while I explain.

When the USSR was the main enemy of our loudly-proclaimed free and democratic society, we struggled to measure ourselves against its yardstick.

If the USSR claimed to have the best chess players, we had to beat them with Bobby Fischer. If they claimed to have the best students in math or science, well we had to show we had the whizzes. If they claimed their medical system was better, their workers were better treated, their social services and their agricultural output was better, we had to show ours could beat theirs. They put a man in orbit, we walked on the moon.

Anti-Communist propagandaOf course, the USSR – and indeed most Communist nations past and present – were not the workers’ paradise they alleged. We knew that, but we pretended not to. Most were bleak, dreary, economically destitute, brutal dictatorships. They weren’t run by lofty ideologues seeking to craft a society for the betterment of the working class. They were run by an oligarchy of squabbling, irritable competitive sycophants and bullies in a race to see who would be last to face the firing squad.

Communist propagandaContrary to the way the Communists portrayed the West, we weren’t all imperialists, capitalists without a conscience, greedy, warmongering expansionists. At least Canada wasn’t. Mostly. But they weren’t entirely wrong about the West, either. And if they could see us today, they’d be saying the same thing they said back then. To America in particular.

Both sides of this political divide ignored the full reality of the other because it made for better propaganda campaigns. And it was much easier to justify wars, coups, and interference in other nations’ business. The threat of the other side’s emergence was often sufficient. Propaganda was at its pinnacle.

Fischer-SpasskyBut at the same time, the competition between two opposing systems also brought out the best in both. It created the space race and some of the most important scientific and technical developments in a century. It spurred the Civil Rights movement. It created a half-century of exploration, achievement, education and science. It made chess international news: the Fischer-Spassky match briefly put an intellectual pursuit ahead of the corporate sports news. And into headline news at that!

Under pressure from the West, Soviets had to lighten up on dissidents and writers, allowing some to escape to the West. And both sides curbed their nuclear strategies for fear of mutual annihilation.

And because most wingnut terrorist groups were allied to one side or the other and dependent on that side for arms, money and direction, there was at least a modicum of control over what they were allowed to do. There was never an ISIS back then.
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Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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The Soviet Machiavelli

I’ve written a new piece for my Municipal Machiavelli blog about the late (1982) Mikhail Suslov, the “Soviet Machiavelli.” You can read it here:

Suslov was the power behind the Soviet throne; in fact behind several thrones.

From joining the Party in 1921, he rose to the top echelon. He was appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946, joined the the politburo in 1952, and finally became a full member in ’55. He survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue at the highest level, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments.

He was involved in – and aided – the rise and fall of many of its members, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev and eventually Gorbachev and played a major role in drafting Soviet international policy.

Yet despite six decades as a rising Party apparatchik, he is almost unknown in the West. It’s a fascinating story and a glimpse into one of the most secretive lives in a secretive culture. Anyone with a taste for politics should look further into this relatively unknown history.