Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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How capitalism has failed us

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin… our homes are covered with mortgages, labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists… The fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes … tramps and millionaires.*

The failure of capitalismYou might be forgiven for thinking that was something that came from the mouth of a modern Democrat lamenting on the decay of America and the rise of the rich under Donald Trump and his Republican minions. But you’d be wrong: it’s actually from the late 19th century. It was the preamble to the platform of the People’s Party, back before American politics was dominated by just two parties. Between 1870 and 1900, there were at least nine or ten political parties running for office in the USA, some of which merged or morphed into others in that period.

It’s not so much the number of parties that identified the era, but that America had a much more diverse political culture with a much wider range or platforms and perspectives from which to choose. And there was a lot more leftist, activist sentiment than today.

At least some of the issues and problems faced by the nation in the late 19th century were the same as they are today. The great and increasing disparity between the working classes and the rich was causing enormous social and political upset, just like today. People took to the streets to protest about it. Violently and often. Our Labour Day holiday is the result of workers’ protests. May Day celebrates the protests for an eight-hour workday. Our child labour laws came from similar protests.

But today, we don’t seem to have much of an organized protest movement to challenge the control of the government by the rich. Alvaro Sanchez, writing on the Common Dreams website, noted,

Tell people their gas taxes are going up and they will riot, literally. Tell people that 62 individuals hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and we don’t blink an eye.

An Oxfam report on wealth inequality is headlined, “Richest 1 percent bagged 82 percent of wealth created last year – poorest half of humanity got nothing.” The Oxfam website notes:

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International said: “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”

Many of the economic and social conditions today are frighteningly similar to those in the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), the time of the industrial revolution and the monopoly capitalists.

Yes, there was Occupy Wall Street, a short-lived protest movement that launched in 2011; it gave us some hope that people were not going to tolerate the wealth inequalities and pro-rich tax policies of Western governments, but it faded away after barely a year of action. Fickle media attention moved on.

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Fire and Fury reviewed

Trump and BannonDysfunctional. Childish. Self-centred. Narcissistic. Ideologically myopic. Illiterate. Cranky. Capricious. Arrogant. Scheming. Petty. Ill-educated. No, I’m not writing about our local council (although, yes, all those words apply equally to The Block). These are some of the words that came to mind as I read Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Dysfunctional popped into my mind most often as Wolff described the lurching, staggering, fumbling and bumbling of Trump’s staff and family advisers after their unexpected – and for some unwanted – victory. (I know: curiously coincidental how that description also echoes our own council’s meandering, aimless and destructive governance, but let’s not talk about The Block right now…). Not that it’s surprising: the amount of political experience among the core group and family that stuck together through Trump’s campaign combined was less than an hour’s worth.

It’s like reading about a train wreck described in excruciatingly minute detail: the trajectory of every rivet and bolt as it shakes loose from the engine and flies off into space is chronicled, measured and examined. Or perhaps it’s better described as reading about the antics of an entire kindergarten class where cranky children fed on high-sugar treats are not given sufficient nap time.

And despite my initial expectations, the book is less about Trump than about his minions and the limpets who cling to him. While it’s not flattering about the Ignorati-in-Chief, it scorches the hangers-on. There’s a point made that American democracy could survive Trump and manage well enough if the White House had a competent, experienced, educated and literate staff of professionals to mitigate his inabilities. But with its cast of amateurs and grasping opportunists it hasn’t a chance.

I had already read much of what Wolff described online and in newspapers and magazines (such noteworthy publications as the Washington Post, New York Times, Maclean’s, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others which Trump labels ‘fake news’ because they fail to tug their collective forelocks and genuflect to his self-described “very stable” genius). The madcap antics, the sordid affairs, the flailing and failing of Trump’s staff are already as well documented as the president’s own erratic bumbling governance and noxious tweets. But I’ve not had it all served in a single dish before, nor had I been aware of the backgrounds of many of the players. That’s the strength and delight – and fright – of this book.

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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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A cunning plan

Mike PenceI see Donald Trump’s plan to utterly eviscerate the Republican Party is working very well. Just look who he picked as his running mate: possibly the only white man more bigoted, vile, close-minded, racist and misogynistic than the passel of presidential candidates Trump bested earlier.* Brilliant.

You couldn’t do more than that to alienate the remaining American intelligensia, the moderates, the women, the Latinos, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays… now pretty much every social, racial, educational and cultural group has an opportunity to be offended by Trump and his potential Veep all at once.

Now, although pretty much everyone with an IQ over 60 has long since left the party, the remainder are gathering together in Cleveland. Imagine a whole mob of America’s most illiterate, racist, gun-toting, fanatically religious wingnuts stuffed into a stadium where they can feed off each other’s ignorance and hatred.

I expect once it’s packed, Trump will have it sealed, pumped with liquid nitrogen and everyone inside frozen. It will then become a museum of American bigotry. What other choices does he have?

Trump has managed to squeeze out support from two of the top GOP weasels – Mitch Connell and Paul Ryan, whose allegiance to the NRA rises far above anything they feel for the American people or state. Tepid support, true, but if these two sellouts say yea, then you know the NRA is saying yea, too. After all, puppets only dance to the pull of the strings.

Along the way he managed to remove the spine from presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Ben Carson and get them to stand up and in Soviet-show-trial style, endorse him at the convention. A masterpiece of showmanship that even Stalin couldn’t have bettered. Genius.

All Trump needs now is uber-oleaginous Ted Cruz to endorse him, and his trap has sprung. Get Cruz and all the rest of the top sleaze to Cleveland and zzzzzzap! They’ll all be frozen in ice for all time. And good riddance, too.

Sadly, both of the former Bush presidents will be sitting out this event. One suspects George W wanted to attend, but is still trying to figure out how to work his GPS…
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