Posts Tagged ‘Communism’

Tyranny, Trump and Timothy Snyder

June 26, 2017

Timothy Snyder, a historian of the Hitler-Stalin era, has written an eloquent and heartfelt little book—On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Centurywarning that democracy could perish in the United States of today just as it did in Europe in the 1930s.

Just as no couple making love for the last time ever realize it is the last time, he wrote, so no person voting in a free election for the last time realizes it is the last time.

On Tyranny contains 20 timeless principles for defenders of democracy.    The principles are illustrated by ominous stories of how the mass of people failed to resist Nazi and Communist tyranny and inspirational stories of how a few did.

Then come claims that Vladimir Putin is like Hitler and Stalin and that Donald Trump is like all three, and a call to be ready to resist.

Snyder has done well to remind Americans of the fundamental principles of democracy and the need to defend them.

But the need for the reminder didn’t originate with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  As Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf and others have warned, these dangers have existed since enactment of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, and before.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the government has claimed the power to engage in acts of war, order assassinations, spy on citizens, and bypass due process of law and also to imprison anyone who reveals what is going on.  Until this changes, every President is a potential tyrant, not just Donald Trump.

(more…)

Could the Cold War have been averted?

February 2, 2015

The Cold War was a real war.  I have read that by some estimates 30 million people died in wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1991, and most of these were linked to the global duel between the USA and the USSR.

The casualties included those in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, the anti-Communist uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot, the U.S.-backed death squads in Latin America, the Indonesians massacred in the overthrow of Sukarno, the wars in Africa between US-backed and Soviet-backed proxies, the Afghan war between a Soviet-backed regime and US-backed rebels, and countless other struggles now forgotten by the world.

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, in their book and TV documentary, The Untold History of the United States, said this tragedy for have been avoided but for one thing.

It was that the President of the United States in the years following World War Two happened to be Harry Truman, a warmonger, rather than Henry Wallace, a lover of peace.

This is not how it appeared to me at the time.   I came of age in the early 1950s, and I thought the United States and its allies were in peril, the same kind of peril as in the 1930s.

The Soviet Union was as much a totalitarian dictatorship as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.   By “totalitarian,” I mean that the government sought to subordinate all human activity, including science, art, literature, sport, education and civic life, to the control of the ruling party, and to demand not only passive acquiescence, but enthusiastic support.

Hitler and Stalin also were alike in that they killed millions of people, not for anything they had done, but for what they were.  While historians now think that Stalin murdered fewer people as Hitler, this is not how things seemed at the time, and, in any case, Stalin’s body count was large enough.

But the most terrifying thing about totalitarianism was the idea that the ruling party could somehow get into the minds of its subjects, and experience slavery as a kind of freedom.  George Orwell’s 1984 was an all-too-plausible vision of a future in which there was no individual liberty, no concept of objective truth aside from a party line and a Winston Smith could be brainwashed into loving Big Brother.  These things seemed all too plausible.

Stalin not only ruled one-sixth of the earth’s surface, but commanded the loyalty of Communists worldwide.  Millions of people, many of them idealistic, intelligent and courageous, believed it was their duty to subordinate their personal convictions and code of morality to a Communist Party line that put the interests of the Soviet Union above all else.

A revolutionary Communist movement is one thing.  A worldwide Communist movement that subordinated all other goals to being an instrument of Soviet power was a very different thing.

(more…)

The difference between Communism and fascism

June 10, 2014

MaoTens of millions of people died in China in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of Mao Zedong’s failed policies and his refusal to acknowledge they were failures.

I said his policies were failures, but from Mao’s standpoint, maybe they weren’t.  Like Stalin’s agricultural collectivization policies in the 1930s, they have have caused death and suffering, but they enabled the government to tighten its grip over the nation’s food supply and its population.

adolf-hitlerSome scholars think that Stalin and Mao caused the deaths of more than beings than Hitler did.   It is impossible to say for certain because the historical record was suppressed.

Why, then, does Hitler stand alone as a symbol of evil?  I think that one reason is that Hitler is a defeated enemy.  If Nazi Germany had won the Second World War, and if there were a powerful government in existence today that was the heir of Hitler’s regime, there would still be apologists for Hitler.

638519-stalinThe other reason is the difference between the appeal of fascism and Communism.  Fascists for the most part are racists, elitists and thugs.  Communists for the most part are defenders of labor rights and civil rights.

Throughout the 20th century, members of the American Communist Party became disillusioned when they discovered that Communist regimes in fact suppress labor rights and civil liberties.   I never heard of a member of the American Nazi Party becoming disillusioned because they discovered the Nazis were insufficiently racists and thuggish.

I don’t think that Communists—the ones outside actual Communist countries—are as bad as fascists.  Many have fought courageously for civil rights, labor rights and other things I believe in myself.  The worst you can say of them is that they have been willfully blind to horrible things.

But Communism is the more insidious ideology.   It is one thing to recruit racists and thugs to defend a cruel totalitarian dictatorship.   It is a far worse thing to persuade people who believe in democracy and workers’ rights to justify the crimes of a totalitarian dictatorship.

China, Mao and historical amnesia

June 6, 2014

A Chinese man recalls:

Twenty-five years ago, before the Tiananmen massacre, my father told me: “Son, be good and stay at home, never provoke the Communist Party.”

My father knew what he was talking about.  His courage had been broken, by countless political campaigns. Right after the 1949 “liberation,” in his hometown Yanting [in Sichuan] they executed dozens of “despotic landowners” in a few minutes. 

That wasn’t enough fun for some people.  They came with swords, severed those broken skulls, and kicked them down the river bank.  And so the heads were floating away two or three at a time, just like time, or like the setting sun always waiting for fresh heads at the next ferry point.  My father left my grandfather, who had made money through hard work, and fled in the night.

mao.famineAfterward he never said a bad word about the Communist Party.  Even at the time of the Great Leap famine, when almost forty million people starved to death, and when I, his little son, almost died.  He did not say anything.  It was hell on earth. 

People ate grass and bark.  They ate some kind of stinking clay; it was called Guanyin Soil [after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy].  If they were very lucky, they would catch an earthworm; that was a rare delicacy.  Many people died bloated from Guanyin Soil.

My grandmother also died; she was just skin and bones.  Grandfather carried her under his arm to the next slope, dug a small pit, and buried her.  But Mao Zedong, the great deliverer of the Chinese people, would never admit a mistake.  He just said it was the fault of the Soviet Union. 

And so the wretched people all hated the Soviet Union. Just because of their goddamned Revisionism [the label Chinese Communists used for Soviet ideology after the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s], the Soviets had called back their experts and their aid for China!

Mao’s second-in-command Liu Shaoqi couldn’t stand it any longer and mumbled, “So many people have starved to death. History will record this.” For this slip he paid dearly.  During the Cultural Revolution they let him starve to death in a secret prison.  We have a saying: “Illness enters at the mouth, peril comes out at the mouth.”

via NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.

Since the death of Mao, the Chinese have raised their material standard of living, and made their country into one of the world’s strongest powers.  Ordinary people are less badly off in a Foxconn sweatshop than their forefathers were in Mao’s communes.  But there are no civil rights or labor rights, or any rule of law or restriction of governmental power.

I wrote in a previous post about how the Confucian tradition strengthens China.  I should add that while the present Chinese government supports the teaching of Confucius that calls for obedience to authority, it does not follow the Confucian  teachings of ethical conduct, respect for tradition and reciprocal obligation.

The philosopher George Santayana wrote that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.   So long as Chinese authorities suppress the historical record of what Mao has done, the Chinese people will be helpless to prevent the rule of a new Mao.

(more…)

David Graeber on Communism’s achievement

June 4, 2014

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like.  You get up.  You buy the paper.  You go to work.  You read the paper.  Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath…

David Graeber

David Graeber

If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day.

But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it.  They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue.  They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided.

Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline.  “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?”  It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.

via David Graeber – Salon.com.

(more…)

Looking back on the Cold War

March 8, 2013

ColdWarCompos

The roots of our present malaise are in the half-century of Cold War.  That’s how long the United States was on a quasi-war footing, and we Americans accepted the necessity of a global military establishment, military intervention and covert warfare as a requirement in our global duel with the Soviet Union.

Revisionist historians say that the Cold War was simply a huge mistake, like World War One, or something more sinister.  But I’m old enough to remember the origins of the Cold War, and I think there was good reason in the late 1940s to regard the Soviet Union as an enemy.

At the end of World War Two, the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, a dictator who had carried out mass killings on the same scale as Adolph Hitler, and whose totalitarian control was even more thorough.   In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, you could be executed or sent to a forced labor camp for having parents who belonged to a proscribed social class, or for expressing a forbidden thought in a private conversation, or even (in at least once case) being the first to stop applauding a government spokesman’s speech.

Stalin insisted on re-creating the same totalitarian system in all the countries through which the Red Army passed during World War Two.   Military bases and friendly governments were not enough.  The countries of eastern Europe had to become little replicas of the USSR.

Cold War Berlin

Cold War Berlin

The Red Army was the world’s most powerful military force and, but for the United States possession of the atomic bomb, could have marched from the middle of Germany to the English channel, if its generals so chose.

Stalin evidently did not have a master plan for world conquest, but, as a rational imperialist, he sought to expand Soviet power where he could.  He blockaded Berlin and ordered the North Korean puppet government to attack South Korea.

Communist parties in the Stalin era were like one of today’s religious cults.  The Communist parties attracted millions of goodhearted people all over the world, who thought the Communists were in the forefront of the struggle for a better world.  In this they were unlike the Nazis, who had the virtue of not being hypocritical about their objectives.  But in fact the Communists were servants of Stalin and the Soviet Union.   The day after Stalin announced his pact with Hitler, Communists all over the world went from advocating a “popular front” against fascism to a struggle against an “imperialist war” in which all sides were equally bad.  The day after Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, they switched back again.  This terrifying blind obedience to Stalin made his power more threatening, and was a foretaste of what would be expected under his rule.

In 1949, the Chinese Communists came to power in China, and immediately started to transform China into another clone of the Soviet Union.   Mao Zedong later broke with the Soviet Union, and China has evolved into something very different from what it was then, but during the lifetime of Stalin, Mao was a completely loyal follower of Stalin.  Also in 1949, the Soviet Union tested its atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly.   You didn’t have to be paranoid to see this constellation of forces as a real threat.

Based on the situation at the time, President Truman was completely justified in the policy of containment of Communist expansion, including formation of NATO and other anti-Communist alliances, and (I say with a little more hesitation) authorizing CIA covert warfare to match the Soviet covert warfare.   Truman also was right in what he did not do—to launch a preventive war against the USSR when the United States had enough of a lead in nuclear weapons to make that seem feasible.

Over the decades the situation changed.  Communist China’s government broke with the Soviet Union.  Communist parties around the world, while still mistakenly pro-Soviet, ceased to be slavishly devoted to the Moscow party line.   The Soviet Union and other Communist countries, while still undemocratic, ceased to be as relentlessly totalitarian as in Stalin’s day.   The potential threat did not go away, but it ceased to be monolithic.

At the same time it became apparent (or rather should have become apparent, because I didn’t see it) that U.S. foreign policy served other objectives besides containment of Soviet imperialism.   Cold War liberals such as myself were anti-Communist because we believed Communism was a lie.  We believed it was an ideology that promised liberation, but delivered tyranny.  But American foreign policy was being conducted largely by people who were anti-Communist not because of the Communist lies, but because of the Communist promise.  These were the people who engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected governments of Iran and Guatemala.

I was aware that the U.S. government did bad things, but I thought they were aberrations.  I didn’t think there was anything systemically wrong with American foreign policy or with the United States itself.   I thought U.S. intervention in Vietnam was justified as part of the global struggle with the Soviet Union.   I soon came to think that the intervention was being bungled, and then I came to think that the intervention was a huge mistake, but it took me a long time before I came to think of it as a crime.

Memorial plaque in Lexington, Ky.

Memorial plaque in Lexington, Ky.

I started to see things differently after 1991.   After the fall of Communism, I expected the United States to get back to what I regarded as normal.   I though the huge military establishment and secret intelligence establishment would fade away, now that they were no longer needed to check the Soviet Union and its allies.  Instead the U.S. government found other excuses for military intervention and covert warfare.  The definition of “normal” was no longer what I thought it was.

After the 9/11 attacks, I was shocked by how easily Americans accepted basic Constitutional rights being wiped off the blackboard, and how easily we accepted a state of perpetual warfare as normal.  But I put the blame on individuals, specifically Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

I once again looked forward to a return to normal with the election of Barack Obama.   This didn’t happen, either.

My loyalty is still to the ideals of American freedom and democracy, as I was taught to believe in them.  I still believe it is my duty as a citizen to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  If the Cold War taught us Americans to forget our ideals and ignore our Constitution, then Stalin, in a sense, really won.

Castro’s failure and Cuba’s future

July 1, 2011

As concerned and even angry as I sometimes am about the U.S. drift into plutocracy, I never have been tempted to think of Communism as an answer.  The people of the world have always voted with their feet against Communism.  Governments of Communist countries have to take measures to prevent people from fleeing.  It is rare for anyone to clamor to get in.

Fidel Castro

Cuba is probably the best of the Communist countries, as North Korea is the worst.  Fidel Castro’s government did good things.  Cuba’s health system and medical education is, by all accounts, excellent for a Third World country.  Its aid to other Latin American countries in setting up public health and basic medical services is admirable.  The government of Cuba is well-organized to deal with disaster.  Its response to Hurricane Katrina highlighted the inadequacy of the U.S. response; President George W. Bush would have done well to accept Cuba’s offer of aid.

Against Cuba’s achievements, you have to balance economic stagnation produced by failed central planning, and a police state that makes it impossible to discuss Cuba’s economic failures openly.  Over the years many Cubans have found this intolerable. Like Elian Gonzalez’s mother in 1999, they have been willing to risk drowning on the high seas rather than endure life in this supposed utopia.

Recall the origin of the Mariel boatlift in 1980.  It started with a rumor that it was possible to emigrate to Peru.  I don’t think anybody believes the streets of Lima are paved with gold, or living in Peru gives you a shot at being a top baseball player or rock star.  It was more a matter of “anything but this.”  The Peruvian embassy grounds were filled to overflowing with visa applicants, who by so doing had defined themselves as enemies of the state; President Jimmy Carter then offered them asylum in the United States, and then Castro decided to embarrass the U.S. by emptying his jails and metal institutions, and casting the inmates adrift on the high seas.

True, not all Cubans dissatisfied.  Some are strong supporters of the regime.  But Fidel Castro was never willing to risk a contested election to determine whether they are in the majority.  That is a good indication that they may not be.

(more…)

The dream of a Communist utopia

December 3, 2010

I remember talking years ago to Richard Rosett, then dean of the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business, about his meetings with Soviet economists.  He said he would ask them how, in the absence of supply and demand, they decided what and how much to produce.  He said they replied that they decided scientifically.  Their economic planning was organized around the biological needs of human beings for food, clothing, shelter and so on.

In that case, Dr. Rosett asked, how did they decide how many red dresses and blue dresses to produce.  Their reply was that it doesn’t matter whether dresses are red or blue.  But Dr. Rosett’s question is a proxy for much else.  No tiny group of central planners can grasp the needs and wants of hundreds of millions of human beings, except in very crude and general terms, and no planning mechanism has been found as effective as the market in integrating human desires with human knowledge.

There was a time, which I remember well, when things seemed otherwise.  The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik in 1957, its economy was reported to be growing faster than ours, and many Americans had much the same feeling in the 1950s and 1960s as they had toward Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.  Then as now I opposed any governmental or economic system that gives absolute power to an individual or a self-selected elite, but at the time I feared the Soviet system would be more effective than American capitalism in increasing and projecting military and political might.

I recently read a historical novel, or fictionalized history, entitled Red Plenty, which recreates that era well.  The author, Francis Spufford, describes the efforts of idealistic reformers in the Soviet Union in the 1960s to overcome the inherent flaws of central planning and make the promises of Communism come true.  He shows why their ideas seemed plausible, and also why they didn’t work out.

This story is told as a series of vignettes about characters both historical and fictional involved in the workings or the attempted reform of the Soviet economy, in a style that is sardonic, poignant and highly readable.  The second chapter is told from the viewpoint of an exuberant Nikita Khrushchev, visiting the United States in 1959 and challenging the capitalist world to peaceful economic competition.  The last chapter returns to Khrushchev in forced retirement in 1968, sitting in his garden and brooding on what went wrong.  Spufford conveys a sense of Soviet life during that period that is so convincing I would have thought he experienced it; in fact, he is a Briton who doesn’t speak Russian.

Along the way he does an excellent job of explaining Soviet and Western economics in both theory and practice. The flaw of Soviet economics is that no system of central planning has been found that can substitute for supply and demand as a means of coordinating an economy.  In a market economy, the price of a product reflects everything that is known about its value and scarcity, without the need for omniscient masterminds at the top.

(more…)