Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Question of Democracy

Those In Favour?

The end of the Soviet experiment was probably as revealing as its birth. In the middle of the 1980s, Russian Communism struggled to reinvent itself. It was losing the war against the West, but hadn’t yet given up the fight. Russian Communism had a difficult and ambiguous task: it was competing with the capitalist powers, learning from them, and compromising with them—all at the same time. Gorbachev era propaganda pieces such as the 1986 pamphlet, USSR: 100 Questions and Answers shed some light on the final stages of the Russian communism, but are ultimately very hard to interpret.

Was the state in the age of glasnost issuing self-conscious lies, immersed in tragic self-deception, or making sincere efforts to explain the merits of the socialist system? Many of the 100 answers are a mixture of these three things, although some questions were harder to answer than others. The case of Soviet Union’s conception of popular sovereignty is instructive. What did Russian leaders—to say nothing of ordinary people-- think about their own system of government? What did the word democracy mean to Communists?

In hindsight, it’s easy to say that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime whose rhetoric meant very little. But whether Communist apologists meant what they said or not is beside the point. The fact is that this Marxist creed, even as bastardized by Stalin and decades of corrupt rule, was still meaningful, still an important if weakened counterweight to capitalist modernity.

How did Communists describe their own government to outsiders? They said a few things that are difficult to understand, defend, or even believe. Russia had one ideology and one party, the Communist Party. It was an ideology that ensured that the Soviet state operated by and for the people--the working people in particular. The state’s validity was predicated on its accomplishments. The USSR ended exploitation of “man over man,” guaranteed people jobs, housing, health care, education, and leisure time.

What about democracy? The authors admit that the Old Bolsheviks came to an early decision to avoid sharing power with political parties who supported the Old Regime. The Bolsheviks also excluded the Social Revolutionaries from power and thereafter ruled alone in the name of the proletariat and peasantry. The authors admit up front that the Communist Party made a decision to do away with any pretence of competition in the political process. Is this surprising? Even America’s founding fathers—men with long experience with British democracy-- had difficulty accepting some of the key elements of modern democracy, including political parties. The Soviet System also did away with elections within the Party.

The authors make assertions regarding the one-candidate system that can only be described as naive. In fact, they seem to know very little about how democracy works in the West. They describe their election process accordingly. Unlike in the US, where the wealthy effectively buy their elected posts, Soviet candidates are put forth by public bodies of active citizens, usually trade union or local soviets. These candidates are often or mostly working people. Often they are women.

Soviet elections are about validating the choice of some authoritative public body. Although candidates don’t compete for office, the authors assert that Russian local government (in contrast to American government) is always elective. Everyone in government is nominated by a public body and then formally validated by election, once vetted in the media. No one is appointed. There are two million Soviet elected officials, all but 90 or so of them endorsed by the required 50 percent of the voters. Some are Party members; a large percentage are not. Russian elections didn’t offer voters much choice. Fortunately everybody shared the same political platform. Elected deputies received input after they were elected in the form of “mandates.” Citizens put forth platforms that effectively force officials to carry their concerns to the central authorities.

The whole edifice only makes sense if you accept the premise that bourgeois democracy is a fiction, and that Russian government brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. The best features of democracy are ignored and it’s a fatal flaw in the communist system. Does this make any democracy better than any socialist state? Probably so, although there are developing nations that practice democracy and do next to nothing to ensure that their citizens receive food, shelter, and a modicum of education and health care.

The Aged

Russian Revolution Day

I work at an institution that fetishizes old people. Hardly a month passes without some octogenarian showing up to share memories of the old days and set straight the youth of today. The youth in question are implored to treasure these apostles of "living history" and offer obeisance to their mastery of time. Meanwhile all I see is some guy who used to own a movie theater and once shared an elevator with Duke Ellington and JFK. When asked about the old days they issue a rambling series of pointless anecdotes. At which the youth--the handful in attendence--nod vigorously. But if we had some sharp Ph.D. come talk about the socio-cultural history of the 40s and 50s nobody would come at all. Memory always trumps history.

Sewing Machine

We seem to have a kind of grandfather complex. People without grandparents think they can erase loss by collecting wisdom from the elderly. This cuts against what we usually think of as the American idolization of the young and new. It also suggests that we have more in common with the Russians, who are among the great worshippers of the aged, than we think. How else to explain the Soviet gerontocracy, ably described in recent posts by Fur Coat by way of Volkogonov, of the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Or Khrushchev's initial contempt for the youthful Kennedy, which provoked the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or those tremendous beards that made even vigorous guys like Tolstoy look prematurely ancient? I suppose it is better to fetishize age than youth, but at some point you have to accept that your own perspective is more real than either what's past or coming.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Butterflies, Memories, and Poetry


Nabokov’s interest in butterflies is legendary. It seems unlikely that his interest is coincidental to his literary genius. What does it say about an author when he takes a detour in a novel to describe butterfly collecting using the following words: antennae, insect, thorax, appendages, corneal, wings, specimens, breeding, caterpillars, genitals, larvae, species, colors, chrysalis, tympanum, sounds, smells, mimetic disguises, evolution, predators, prey, abdomen, pierids, hibernates, hatched, et cetera and so on? Are the butterflies, trapped in their cases—for more than a century in the case of Linnaeus’ specimens—a metaphor for memory itself? Do they represent beauty? Is the open-ended, all encompassing, endless search for butterflies indicative of the purposefulness of life or its random meaninglessness? Is the specificity of Lepidoptera a mirror to the specificity of life as a whole, where god is in the details? This seems in general to be the point of almost all of Nabokov’s books, particularly The Gift.

Butterflies Surround Wild Animal Park Visitors

In The Gift the protagonist’s father was a Lepidopterist in life, but as a dead man, he was also a series of memories. To know his father, was to remember him. To remember him, was an effort akin to the difficult search for new species of butterflies. Sometimes one needed to go to remote, unmapped terrain to have any success.

Butterflies Star In Interactive Exhibition

Blending these two themes together, Nabokov’s narrator recalls the time his father thought he had discovered a rare species of butterfly in St. Petersburg, only to find out that he had been beaten to the punch on the discovery by a matter of weeks. His father had cried, probably much like the narrator (or Nabokov the author) cried when summoning up this very specific, allusive memory.

Soldier's Butterflies

If you’re not a butterfly collector, it’s hard to see why anyone would devote his life to the study of these strange insects. And if you’re not an exile from Russia—or at least somebody who has lost a parent (Nabokov’s died at the hands of a political assassin)—you probably can’t get the full sense of why people chase memories, sometimes to the ends of the earth. The Gift shows one more strange kind of collecting--that of Nabokov as a collector or preserver of Russia’s short but distinguished literary tradition. Nabokov’s attempt to summon up the spirit of Pushkin seems redolent of his fictional father’s search for butterflies, and or protagonist’s quest for memories.

The Natural Hisotry Museum Open The Doors To The Darwin Centre

An American Alternative to Socialism

An historian once said that his communist grandfather had once confidently asserted that anyone who tried to escape from Communism was clinically insane. He meant that literally. How could anybody actually want to leave the worker’s paradise? Compared to that, the worldview of my grandfather, Montelle Boyd, seems banal. He wanted to find a middle way, a collectivism that was neither capitalist nor socialist. In this he was influenced by Protestant liberals such as Francis Greenwood Peabody and Walter Rauschenbusch. These men were passionate about improving society, and serious critics of the atomization of society that capitalism had produced, but they were not revolutionaries.

As a child, I always heard the term Christian-Socialist applied to my grandfather. That oxymoron seems to capture his insistance that Christianity obligated Americans to take bring about an earthly "Kingdom of God" that bore some resemblance to socialism. While it wouldn't necessarily involve the nationalization of state industries, it would involve the reconstitution economic activity along cooperative or collective lines.

August Bebel

According to a relative, Montelle never described himself as a socialist; he didn’t mind the label, but he felt that it was a misnomer because he believed that the concentration of state power that occurred during the 1920s in Russia was just as bad as the concentration of wealth that was threatening America. What exactly did Montelle want? I'm still searching for that answer. To that end, I skimmed one of the few books I’ve inherited from Montelle, Francis Greenwood Peabody’s 1909 The Approach to the Social Question.

Peabody was one of Montelle's professors at Harvard; and he has admitted to his great influence over the course of his life. Peabody’s book doesn’t particularly stand the test of time, but it's intelligent, readable, and even likable. Its conclusions seem strangely dated, less relevant today than, for instance, Marx’s much earlier works. The book focuses upon the Social Question, capitalized probably under the influence of German social theorists, a term that seems to apply to a wide variety of interconnected social pathologies in industrial society.

Peabody was an ecumenical liberal who wanted to find common ground between the demands of revolutionaries and the pleas of conservatives. Society is clearly afflicted. As America modernizes, its citizens suffer from overlapping problems related to class stratification, exploitation, alcoholism, race tensions, sweat shops, disease, labor unrest, and the destruction of the family. The tools of the relatively new science of sociology help to diagnose these and other problems. Society is sick. Individuals cannot address these problems as individuals but rather holistically, as members of intertwined communities. Change is imperative. Even so, the cure is not violence but rather reform.

Unlike Marx, Peabody doesn’t spend too much time on either the diagnosis of societal ills or even suggested prescriptions. Rather, he’s concerned with creating a methodology for addressing the Social Question. He advocates a mixture of economic, political, ethical, and sociological exploration, at a time when social science journals were in their infancy and the disciplines were still being organized and imported to America. Socialist theory guides Peabody’s inquiries but the influence of German Social-Democrats-the world’s largest socialist party at the time—is obviously more important to him than anything the tiny Bolshevik sect might have had to offer at the time. Indeed, the First World War (an event that my relative says influenced Montelle greatly) had not even occurred at the date of publication; the October Revolution was still eight years away.

Auguste Comte

Peabody is ultimately a reformer rather than a radical. He accepts the fact that society requires intervention; he assumes that reform should not interfere with traditional institutions such as family, church, or indeed private enterprise. More than that, Peabody is a Christian. Ultimately, he’s most interested in how Christian ideals should be applied to American political and economic life than he is with the specific societal afflictions.

If Peabody’s book seems peculiarly anachronistic, this anachronism is unrelated to collectivism. His gradualist message of charity rather than revolt seems unremarkable: American did, by and large, choose a middle road between socialism and unfettered capitalism. They often supported change, but never in the context of overwhelming class antagonism or social resentment at economic elites. Americans also celebrated (and Governor Palin still celebrate) small town values, neighborliness, etc. FDR picked up many of the same threads even in the midst of the massive economic upheaval that came two decades later.

What is remarkable is Peabody’s liberal Protestantism as a guide to action. Today, Christianity seems to be unrelated to politics, except insofar as it perceives that the Democratic Party has intruded on the personal or family ethics, especially with respect to gay marriage, abortion rights, and sex education. Mainstream Protestantism doesn’t seem to be an important player in America’s struggles with health care reform, environmentalism, or gay rights. But then again, it’s hard to say whether modern America lacks a reformist Church or a reform movement in general.

Peabody clearly thought that Christianity was the driving force in the public sphere, or at least could be. What is charming about Peabody (and one suspects this about the American intellectual class in general) is that he’s enthralled with the seemingly simple notion that men and women are products of society. Peabody may not be a radical, but he is enchanted by the Marxist creed (echoed by German and French socialists) that human beings are the product of complex historical circumstances and social phenomena.

Ultimately, Peabody and men like him were important influences on the Christian collectivist reform agenda of men like my grandfather. But if a book such as this has a specific message about what to do to improve society, this message is lost on me. It’s a call to avoid quietism: to be Christian is to be involved in social reform. But the author doesn’t suggest any specific reforms, and doesn’t suggest any specific expressions of religious faith other than practicising Christian love through good works. This is a good and noble and learned book, but one that seems to be the embodiment rather than the refutation of Marx’s concern that religion was little more than the ideological expression of class interests. But maybe that’s not always a bad thing…

Red Army

Chernobyl - 20 Years After Nuclear Meltdown

As late as 1988, the Soviet Union was churning out anti-imperialist propaganda, including deputy chief of the Political Directorate of the Soviet Army and Navy, Alexei Sorokin’s, short tract on the virtues of the Red Army entitled “The Soviet Army—The Army of the People.” Sorokin’s pamphlet gives readers a concise history of the accomplishments of the USSR’s armed forces, but the pamphlet’s cover photo of a Russian soldier being given flowers by a peasant woman a kiss by a little peasant girl.

Moscow's Annual Victory Parade In Red Square

At bottom, the author contends that the Red Army was better than its Western counterparts in that it was an instrument of popular sovereignty and revolutionary morality rather than one of imperialism and capitalist aggression. While ignoring Trotsky’s colossal contributions to its formation, the author notes that Lenin called upon the people to defend the Revolution against German militarists, foreign interventionists, and counter-revolutionaries. (Marx and Engels had already given theoretical justification to Lenin’s resolve to suppress inevitable counter-attacks of the landlord class and its international allies).

US Meet Russia

Political enlightenment lay at the heart of Red Army successes: Communist Party members stiffened the resolve of ordinary soldiers and ensured the loyalty of former tsarist officers whose expertise, the author admits, proved invaluable to the inexperienced Red Army officer class. At first, the author claims that the military strategy was decided by Lenin and a small group of senior Party officials, although this gave way to a unified command system in the middle of the 1920s. As literacy expanded dramatically as a result of communist educational ideals, the Soviet Army became increasingly efficient. The 1920s also saw the Army implementing a system of formal bigotry against anyone who was not fortunate enough to hail from the working classes (although this principle of exclusion was later revoked when class differences had been “ended”).

Soviet Prisoners

The growing power of the Soviet army eventually led to the country’s greatest triumph, the defeat of the mighty NAZI war machine. Interestingly, Sorokin notes that the Germany armed forces had grown strong as a result of the investment by America and its allies in the German economy during the interwar years, but skips over Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Germany, as well as the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or indeed the Russian invasion of Poland and other Eastern European states before operation Barbarossa. However, the author’s adjective for the premeditated attack by German is “perfidious,” a term that at least hints at the embarrassing fact that Communist Russia had some reason to expect cooperation from Hitler.

At any rate, Sorokin rightly attests to the heroism of the Soviet Army, and the brutality of the invading forces that can be linked to the deaths of 20 million Soviet citizens. Clearly, the Revolution—indeed all revolutions—need defending. Witness the unfortunate demise of the interwar experiments with communism such as that of Hungary and Bavaria.

Sorokin is rightly proud of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War and battles such as Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad, and the role the Red Army played in the liberation of 13 different European and Asian nations. One of his ongoing themes is that Communist Party members were particularly heroic in such battles and suffered disproportionate losses relative to ordinary Russian citizens, a theme that must have been appealing to old line Bolsheviks in the age of glasnost and perestroika.

Soviet successes were also predicated on the superiority of Communist principles. Collectivized farms even produced more food for the army than would have otherwise been the case. The author acknowledges allied assistance but notes that Russia was responsible for the great bulk of German losses. Of course, Sorokin says very little about American leadership in the Pacific War, and says nothing about the Lend-Lease program. In fact, Sorokin insists that the Soviets played a large role in the Japanese capitulation owing to the Soviet route of its one million man Kwangtung army. Moreover, he says that the American decision to drop the bomb was meant to intimidate Russian and the world rather than to win the war against Japan. Needless to say, Sorokin says nothing at all is said about Stalin’s disastrous military decisions in the opening phases of the war.

Red Square Marks Anniversary Of Bolshevik Revolution

Coming to the present, the author underscores that the Soviet armed forces are distinct from those of the West. They are peaceful, popular with ordinary people, scientifically managed, inseparably linked to the Communist Party, and supportive of revolutionary aspirations in the developing world. Under Gorbachev, the armed forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan (which he asserts, with some defensiveness, they were right to aid), making significant efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, and maintaining the “shield of socialism,” i.e., the Warsaw Pact.

Rand and Nietzsche For Kids

Postal Stamp Art On Display At National Postal Museum

My five year old son has been asking me how it is that I have chosen to write a blog about socialism without commenting on the philosophical legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Rightly or wrong, the fascist critique of the Revolution was intertwined with an admiration of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms. What is the relationship between the Superman and socialism? How about the will to power? The tyranny of the weak over the strong? What did the slogan—God is Dead—mean to the socialist project? WWNS, What Would Nietzsche Say about the October Revolution and its aftermath?


Even Francis Peabody, the Christian social theorist referred to in a recent post, felt it necessary to address Nietzsche’s legacy in the context of a full analysis of what he called the Social Question. I tell my son that I’m no philosopher. I’m not equipped to deal with the subject. He replies (our debate is getting old—it often interrupts our attempts to play Good Transformers versus Bad Elmo and his stuffed animal goons) that it’s simply impossible to neglect the twentieth century’s most important philosopher. I don’t get Nietzsche so I don’t really have an opinion. He doesn’t understand that at all.


I recall a moment in my long and sorry graduate school career when I approached a cultural studies professor and asked him whether I might not audit his class. I was a history graduate student but somewhat fraudulently claimed cultural studies as a minor field. The professor (who hailed from the Caribbean and had a deep, Jazz radio sort of voice) invited me to his class, and also to a more mysterious “Foucault Reading Group.” It felt like I was falling through a series of trap doors. I hadn’t been trained for cultural studies, still less for philosophy.

The conversation among the professor and his graduate students seemed brilliant to me, or perhaps I was merely stupid, or bored silly by years of old fashioned political and social history. A remember one woman with fashionable glasses (and who what other graduate student in Urbana had fashionable glasses?) who dominated the conversation.

When I objected that something she had said wasn’t historically accurate, she coldly and decisively dismissed my comment with something like this: What I’ve said may not be historically true, but if I am speaking of an archeology of knowledge, then wouldn’t it make all the sense in the world? The large circle of her supporters nodded in agreement and I was ashamed.

Inevitably, the Foucault Reading Group turned its attention to one of Foucault’s inspirations, namely Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. I couldn’t keep up with my peers, but I do remember one relevant discussion of Nietzsche’s concept of "resentiment." I recall from this distant time, the term refers to the way weak people will sometimes resent stronger people. It’s a form of bitterness born out of jealousy and a desire to bring people down to their lowest common denominator. It’s related to Nietzsche's critique of Christianity as an ideological justification for ensuring that the meek really could inherit the earth, or at least quash anyone who really was worthy of such an honor.

Socialism in this context resembles Ellsworth Toohey (Thank you, Wikipedia) in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He’s a brilliant but sinister apostle of everything second-rate, incompetent, and ordinary. He resists Howard Roark, the Nietzsche-inspired superman and architect. He knows Roark’s projects are superb, and for precisely this reason he objects to them. As editor, Toohey uses democracy itself (in the form of his readership, who are easily manipulated) to thwart humankind’s natural aristocracy. One can easily imagine that Ayn Rand had Lenin or Trostsky in mind when she created Toohey. The original communist leaders were also brilliant, almost themselves natural aristocrats, who used their genius to implement a system that ruthlessly ensured the triumph of mediocrity.

The socialist project failed, but it made some significant attempts to implement social equality, at least on a theoretical level. In a way that would have horrified Nietzsche, the Communist Party in Russia, as well as China, celebrated the little guy, and move brutally against anyone who had any association with elitism, including priests, aristocrats, kulaks, intellectuals, NEP-men, and former officers, and indeed their families. The system of Soviet mass education and public education were also geared toward leveling out disparities. This was the ultimate expression of currents of modernity that—I would imagine—horrified Nietzsche. Socialism did away with Christianity, but seemed to embody the essence of Christian principles anyway by celebrating the weak at the expense of the strong.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Life In The Former Soviet Republics 15 Years After USSR Breakup

It’s self-evident that totalitarian regimes take the liberty of monopolizing the media and bending the truth to suit their needs. This being said, it’s sometimes shocking to encounter specific pieces of propaganda. Take for instance a pamphlet entitled USSR-7: Entering the 21st Century, donated to me by a friend who visited Russia in the 1980s during a high school trip. The pamphlet is a tour de horizon of Soviet accomplishment in technology, manufacturing, science, health care, education, and social reform. Needless to say, the pamphlet presents the country in the best possible light, but the copy is nothing short of ridiculous, even in the era of glasnost and Gorbachev.

According to USSR-87, the October Revolution actually “put an end to exploitation” in socialist countries once and for all. It also ensured that almost all Soviet working men and women were members of trade unions with direct responsibility for organizing factory work, and the ability to nullify management decisions whenever necessary. In one strikingly false passage, the writer stresses that “Moscow and the Kremlin have become symbols of social progress and the struggle for mankind’s future.” In another, the writer insists (somewhat defensively?) that the Soviet Union is blessed by a unified proletariat, peasantry, and intelligentsia. In a third, the writer touts figures of industrial expansion and impressive increases in the standard of living of Soviet citizens.

Beginning in 1917, Communism had granted a backward people free education and health care, complete equality of the genders, and diverse leadership roles for ordinary men and women. It had also equalized the wealth in the various republics and autonomous regions. Moreover, the county was witness to a system of total fraternity among the many nationalities. As the writer tells us, the USSR’s “1500 Eskimos” are treated as the absolute equals of even the vast Russian people. Absurd exaggerations like that one might strike some readers, then and now, as comic, but they are also saddening. What must it have been like to live in a society where lies like these were so ubiquitous? How much worse must life in the previous generations have been when even the benign Gorbachev era had so much trouble discussing the country with any degree of objectivity or realism?

It’s possible that an official short summary of the American experience would be inadequate and biased, but certainly this tract demonstrates that the Soviet government was totally unable to either recognize or admit some basic realities about the USSR, even 70 years after the October Revolution Gorbachev’s “revolution from above.” The tract does hint at some fundamental problems within the USSR, including housing and other consumer shortages as well a gap between scientific breakthroughs and their application to manufacturing problems, but the cures involve breathtakingly naïve generalizations about “renewing” all aspects of society and “accelerating” the pace of development. They also involve more strenuous “five year plans.” The plans suggest a certain frenzied illogic in governmental thinking: the Soviet Union had to get better in each five-year cycle, no matter how bad things had gotten in the previous cycle.

On the other hand, the USSR was at least paying lip service to ideas related to consumer desires, democratization, and active citizenship. And in a sense, the country was reaching out to the West for support in the form of increased trade. What is more, the Soviet Union really was making concrete proposals for the improvement of international relations, something the pamphlet touched upon, even as it took gentle stabs at the Western powers for not fully reciprocating. But sadly, the Communist system was set up to fail. The political system ensured that the rural soviets as well as the Supreme Soviet were passive entities, rubber stamps for executive power, whether it came from a despot like Stalin or a would-be reformer like Gorbachev.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reality Bytes

Family In Kitchen

Any fool can start a political revolution; it takes a real revolutionary to overturn the patterns and substance of ordinary life in the search for something new and better. The Russians, who have long been obsessed with everyday life, use the term “byte” to refer to the quotidian. Svetlana Boym argues in her fittingly named book, Common Places, that Russian intellectuals have had a long and complicated history with byte. Indeed, Russians were more often than not at war with byte: they sought to overcome or surmount the banal stuff of everyday life in a quest for personal or national transformation.

Ship's Cook

The Russian tendency to think of byte as something that stands opposed to greatness--as opposed to merely representing its context or background noise--is not universal. It may also be destructive. It’s been said that Russians accept or perhaps even embrace suffering in their quest to rise above the ordinary stuff of life. Better to court war, conflagration, political upheaval, mass murder, and famine, than submit to the exigencies of soul-destroying byte.

Like Boym, Christina Kiaer has examined the question of byte, although she focuses on aesthetic approaches to the topic in her wonderful book, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism. Fascinatingly, certain strands of Russian constructivism embraced everyday life, even eschewing “high art” traditions in the process. Some of these artists saw their principle task as revolutionaries to be that of participating in byte rather than escaping it. Some constructivists went so far with the concept that their own artistic projects were almost indistinguishable from physical culture of existing Russian peasants and proletarians. Whether this amounted to avant-garde work or its opposite is an open question.

To the credit of Russian revolutionaries, the end of the Russian Civil War saw the country actively debating almost every aspect of byte. Trotsky, still at the apogee of his political influence, wrote a treatise on the subject, and various art journals carried on a rich dialogue about its import. Trotsky’s view was that everyday life was essentially conservative in nature. The past clung to people, held them tightly to old and discredited traditions. It was crude and crass. Even people’s seemingly insignificant household objects were dangerous and ultimately counter-revolutionary. They signified proletarian attachment to outmoded bourgeois ideals, and they deflected proletarian aspirations away from worthy goals. Bourgeois-inspired objects celebrated purely aesthetic values, and largely visual ones at that.

Trotsky At Sukhumi

This was hardly appropriate for people who hoped to become better than they had ever previously been. Revolutionary material culture wasn’t predicated on a search for beauty for its own sake; rather it sought to implement principles of hygiene, mass production, rationality, and usefulness. Bourgeois material culture celebrated conservative values such as patriarchy and individuality and privacy; its revolutionary counterpart would move decisively toward values related to freedom, collective action, equality, and community. I understand Trotsky’s concerns. Material culture is like quicksand.

I think of George Clooney’s speech in Up in the Air. “Imagine you have a backpack. Imagine you can put all of your things into that backpack. “That backpack just gets heavier and heavier. You need to watch an episode of hoarders to get the full import of that speech. But even with well-disciplined byte, you’re a victim of everyday life and everyday material culture. Watch that inspiring movie about an orphan-turned-football start. Who is in charge, the family, the orphan, or the massive, tastefully decorated house that surrounds them? Byte always wins.

I have decorated my office in bourgeois display. I’ve got an antique wooden desk, inherited from my grandmother’s basement (an episode of hoarders that somehow never got taped), filled with knick-knacks, including a mawkish portrait of two dogs, inherited from grandfather, and vine wreath, made by a friendly horticulturalist for a holiday fundraising event. And of course there are books on it, Russian books, holding me back, keeping me from my revolutionary destiny. Twenty years ago I prided myself on my barren walls, my opposition to photography, my Spartan insistence on sleeping without a pillow. That was before I got dragged down by the tacky seductions of Pier One.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Volkogonov on Gorbachev

Ruling Couples

When Volkogonov arrives at a description of the Soviet Union’s last Party Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, he has become part of the storyline. Gorbachev’s political nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, appointed Volkogonov as the the civilian leader of the Russian armed forces when he assumed power. Volkogonov believes Yeltsin made the correct choice in jettisoning the Communist Party and Bolshevik ideology, and he faults Gorbachev for remaining wedding to Leninism when the Leninist system had already been discredited as both a political creed and an economic philosophy. However, Volkogonov is sympathetic to Gorbachev, who was, as one American journal put it, the best that the Soviet system had to offer. He admits that Gorbachev was a towering political figure, a humane reformer, and a change agent who hastened the end of the Bolshevism.


While Gorbachev had no particular road map for reform, and did not know where glasnost and perestroika and acceleration might lead, he unleashed forces that could not be turned back. Although committed to failed ideological premises associated with Lenin, he renounced most, but not all, of the tools of totalitarianism. He also avoided military force and ultimately pulled the country's forces out of Afghanistan.

The author notes that historians have written more books about Gorbachev than any other Russian politician, including Lenin. In the midst of this sea of information about the man, Volkogonov understandably appears reticent to render a final judgment on Gorbachev. Clearly, Volkogonov believes that Gorbachev had a genuine faith in socialist principles, which he reiterated even after the failed coup of 1991. He also believes that Gorbachev was unable to free himself from the Party’s traditions, which included secrecy, extreme political centralization, and the Party’s monopoly of power. But these were inherited sins, and Gorbachev’s relentless pursuit of perestroika and glasnost had tremendously useful ramifications.

The Great & Good

The author particularly admires Gorbachev’s decision to move away from international rivalry, although he notes that the Russian people were more severe in their judgments about the real cause of Gorbachev’s popularity abroad. They thought he was betraying Russia at the expense of its traditional enemies.

Synchronizing Watches

Volkogonov’s analysis of Gorbachev is incomplete, but he emerges as an intelligent and complicated man who blended moral inclinations with the obsolete clichés of Marxist-Leninism. Perhaps Gorbachev could have taken a few pages from Yeltsin’s playbook and resigned from the Party at an earlier date. But it’s hard to see how exactly this would have helped either Gorbachev or Russia. Gorbachev’s ability to effect change was predicated on his role as Party Boss. To surrender this privilege, would have been to have surrendered his power base. In fact, when the USSR came apart, the Party hierarchy continued to control the destinies of the people. The former apparatchiks rapidly took control of the formal as well as informal economy, to say nothing of the various nationalist movements. Even Putin gained much of his authority as a direct result of his tied to the security organs who dominated the Communist State.

Germany Celebrates 20 Years Fall Of The Berlin Wall

Friday, January 15, 2010

(National) Socialism

Hitler Stalin Pact

The history of Communism in the Twentieth Century doesn’t make sense without reference to National Socialism. And although I’m not prepared to write extensively about the German or Italian fascist movements, I do want to say something brief about the relationship between National Socialism and Bolshevism.

Moscow Meeting

On the simplest level, the two forms of government have a lot in common. As many have argued before me, whatever the source of their ideological inspiration the deep structure of all totalitarian regimes is necessarily similar. Saddam Hussein may have subscribed to a Baath Party ideology of secularism, modernization, and pan-Arabism, but if Baath ideology didn’t exist, a man like Hussein would have found something else to espouse. For most dictatorships, power rather than ideology counts most. For this reason, Hussein made war, alternately, with Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, and Western regimes, and Adolph Hitler initiated and signed the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact when it suited his foreign policy objectives.

The structures of totalitarian regimes bear at least some superficial resemblance too, insofar as each regime relies on omnipotent internal security organs, powerful propaganda departments, and oversized military establishments to maintain control over citizens. But in the case of National Socialism and Communism, there are other similarities. Fascism was an attempt to refuse socialist ideological premises, but it was also an attempt to co-opt them. The very term, “socialist,” was incorporated into the German fascist party name, although the fascists rejected basic Communist assumptions regarding internationalism and class competition. The fascists accepted the idea of competition and strife as the engine of historical change, even if their notion of struggle was rooted in racist theory and nationalism, and embraced the notion of violent expansion at the expense of enemies. They also accepted some ideas regarding the putative sins of individualism, bourgeois democracy, and capitalism.

Of course, fascists never articulated their ideology with the precision of the socialists and communists, so it’s difficult to make extended comparisons between the two creeds. Fascism was—in the words of a Saturday Night Live skit related to the way GAP salesmen sell jeans to susceptible customers—whatever people “wanted it to be.” And, despite the anti-Semitism of large portions of the Russian people, Communist was not ostensibly ant-Semitic. The brutality of each regime may have been roughly comparable, but Communism was at least capable of reform, and eventually settled down into a more ordinary kind of evil. Fascism, at least in Germany, was incapable of reform.

In the end, National Socialism propped up Communism. It gave the Soviet Union an enormously important victory in World War II, and the opportunity to occupy Eastern and Central Europe, something that hadn't even happened when Russia defeated Napoleon. And by comparison with fascism, it made Communism seem viable by comparison long after it should have been soundly discredited.

1968: Can Revolutions Be Funny?

Sid Vicious And Mum

It’s been more than a decade since I read Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, a work that—as far as I can recall after so long a time—tracks the history of Punk music, especially in London. Marcus is a cultural historian, so he explains Punk music with reference to the aborted revolutions of 1968, in France and Czechoslovakia in particular.

Student Riot

Shamefully, I’ve said nothing at all about 1968 in this blog, but 1968 led to a radical reappraisal within the European Left about what could or could not be accomplished by trying to replace a dominant storyline, namely that of capitalism, with a subversive storyline, without being defeated outright or, worse still, creating something almost equally bad, or perhaps much worse. 1968 marked the end of unity within the European Left, which had of course already been divided between Liberal Democrats and Communists, to say nothing of Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Trotskyites, and Anarchists. But many European radicals now decided that the effort to implement global revolution (and meta-narratives in general) was inappropriate, misguided, and potentially dangerous. After all, the movement was defeated in France, and the strongest revolutionary power in the world had actually invaded Czechoslovakia to overthrow a popularly inspired movement toward greater freedom.

The Ramones

The revolutions of 1968 stand squarely in the middle of a dozen or so new academic and intellectual movements who stated goal was to subvert traditional authority at the local level. Michel Foucault’s idea that all power is local and contested seemed to embody the overthrow of the socialist paradigm related to the international solidarity of the working class. Now academics, intellectuals and activists strove to engage the enemy at the level of race, class, gender, ethnicity, culture, music, and indeed linguistic practice.

The strange thing about the year 1968, and something that was picked up upon by the Punk Movement which emerged in its wake, was how far you could get with humor. Picking up where the Dadaists left off, radical sects tried to undermine authority with outrageous humor and ridiculous art. It’s been too long to recall many of the stranger revolutionary slogans that Greil Marcus incorporates into his history of Punk, but I recall one self-consciously absurd demand of 1968 for “helicopters on demand.”

Special Note: While Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces makes you want to buy more Ramones albums, his Elvis Presley will make you regret you ever made the trip to Graceland…

Neil the Generous

My brother donated his copy of Nabokov’s novel Defiance to my growing Russian library on one condition: that he get a proper “shout out” on this blog. So this writer would like to formally acknowledge the ongoing generosity of his benevolent brother, the renowned patron of the arts, Neil.

And, while I am at it, I hope that by thanking others who have contributed to my Russian fetish I will in no way dilute the role my brother has played in laying the foundations for one of Woodlawn’s finest private collections of Russian history and literature. Taking that risk, I want to thank my Milwaukee friend for scouring the Russian shelves at the central Milwaukee library for their wonderful discarded monographs that sell, amazingly, for $1 dollar. I also thank my stepmother for her donation of other Nabokov books, a book about the Russian memory of Stalin’s crimes, and a few novels by other novelists of the Russian Diaspora. And I thank my parents-in-law and boss who gave me gift cards to bookstores. Without them, there would be no posts about bloody Civil War warlords or post-apocalyptic, nuclear landscapes.

My co-author too, deserves thanks, not only for indulging my obsession with Russian history, and writing many posts in the midst of a busy life, but for donating his entire Russian library, Chekhov stories and all, to my growing collection. The Sheila Fitzpatrick history was particularly appreciated, since it brought back memories of my favorite city, Urbana, the Paris of the area of central Illinois that is immediately West of Darien.

My wife also deserves praise, both for not mocking me too ruthlessly for the subject of this blog, and for giving me a grand and unsolicited biography of Peter the Great. My Aunt-in-Law does too, for English as well as Russian spelling corrections.

As the list goes on, I am grateful to a friend in Washington who took me to a Russian Orthodox Church bizarre which, despite the stereotype, had a rich collection of under-priced texts. Additionally, one colleague at work donated a Serbian novel; another gave me some old Soviet pamphlets; a third gave me a copy of House of the Dead and loaned me his articles on Siberian travel.

I am also grateful for a recent shipment from a Canadian friend who had collected some Soviet propaganda while on a high school trip back in 1988. Those posts are coming soon. And I should probably add a word of thanks to the Hyde Park bookseller who dramatically slashed the price of Keeper of Antiquities after I told him that I visited the book for three years, and gave me Gorky’s short book on his trip to New York for free in the knowledge that it would go to a good home. He also promised me a deal if I ever raised the capital to buy his set of E.H. Carr histories. Thanks also to my dad for keeping my grandfather’s books and newspapers on socialism for many decades. And thanks to anybody I have forgotten. I'll remember you on the red carpet, I promise. Last but not least, I thank you, gentle reader, for reading on, ignoring your complete lack of interest in the topic.

P.S. Neil, you need only to send me your photo to be more publicly recognized in this post for your outstanding works. Donate another book and there might be a naming opportunity on this site, as in the Officiall Mr. Neil X Soviet History and Literature Blog.

Second Draft

Sotheby's pre-auction display at Moscow's Historical Museum

All teachers have their strengths and weaknesses. My strengths in the classroom are, or rather were, related to textual analysis, classroom discussion, and the Socratic Method, if interrogation deserves such a serious label. My main weakness—and this will sound like a very serious deficit—was in the area of lecturing. When it came right down to it, I didn’t feel that I had a lot to say. No doubt, I felt that discussion-based lesson plans were superior to other format insofar as they forced students to take ownership of the learning process. Even so, my avoidance of formal lecturers was somewhat self-serving: I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to say something new and meaningful about my subjects. Everything had been said before, and said better, by other people.

The inspiration for this blog--like genius is it? -- has many authors. People ask me what I want from this blog. I’m not sure. It’s a diary, an autobiography, a series of book reports, notes for a novel, my own social media, an attempt to reclaim lost learning, an exploration of my own political feelings, a resource for graduate students who intend to their preliminary examinations, and an ode to my mother and grandfather. But it’s also a syllabus for a course I would one day like to teach, a course in which I fully intend to place the lecture format front and center, notwithstanding the rhetoric of disparagement toward the lecture format in higher education.

At first, I thought this blog meant that I needed to teach a course in the Russian Revolution and its legacy, or at least Communism in general. Lately, I am tempted to see this blog as the attempt to create a more critical, unified, thematic approach to Western Civilization in general. At any rate, expect to see more than one attempt to draft a syllabus. This post is a second in what I hope will become a long series of posts on what this kind of course might look like.

But back to the course that focuses more clearly on the Russian Revolution. At this point, the course will center on the following topics: why did the Revolution matter to people? Why does it continue to matter in the 21st century? What 19th century traditions made the Revolution, as it manifested itself, a possibility? What happened in the Revolution? What was the lived experience of everyday people like in the Revolution? What did the Old Regime look like, and what aspects of that regime survived the Revolution? What were the arguments people used to defend as well as attack the Revolution? What was the relationship, respectively, between gender, religion, and violence and Revolution? How did the Revolution impact Russian aesthetic traditions in literature, poetry, theatre, film, and music? What political structure emerged from the Revolution, and how did that structure evolve? How did the Revolution affect high as well as low culture? How did the Revolution change life for the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat? How did the Russian Communist Party function? How did Communism collapse in Russia?

What am I forgetting?

Scammel on Koestler and Zubok

Arthur Koestler

With some embarrassment, I admit that I was watching C-Span two nights ago. The upside was that Michael Scammel, one of Solzhenitsyn’s greatest biographers, was being interviewed about his new book on Koestler. The interview taught me something about Scammel as well as Koestler, who I didn’t previously think worthy of a full-scale biography by such a serious author.

Scammel, an Englishman, published a journal dedicated to combating censorship for eight years, wrote the massive biography of Solzhenitsyn, and taught Russian literature at Cornell before moving on to a position at Columbia University. As Scammel’s ten plus years of research on Koestler reveal, he’s probably one of the last of the great literary biographers. Although I’ve never read Scammel’s books, or seen Richard Ellman being interviewed about his lengthy and brilliant biographies of Wilde, Yeats, or Joyce, I imagine that Scammel’s dense research and artistic sensibility might make him Ellman’s rival in the craft.

At any rate, Scammel traced Koestler’s activities in Hungary—his birthplace—and Spain, Israel, Russia, France, and America. Scammel, who knows five of Koestler’s language (but not Hebrew) seems particularly well suited to follow the career of a polyglot like Koestler. Scammel is especially interested in showing that Koestler was a representative European intellectual of the 1930s, a “utopian” who thought that the job of a writer necessarily involved him in great political events like the Spanish Civil War. According to Scammel, Koestler was not alone in his attempt to couple intellectual activity with active political participation: Malraux, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck all had similar inclinations.

Defending Madrid

The whole generation was, in fact, fascinated by action, movement, and revolution, which was after all the embodiment of political ferment. Koestler, who married three times and produced nonfiction that could easily rival most of his five novels (Darkness at Noon was clearly the best of these), threw himself into a variety of different ideological encounters, each time neglecting to maintain any pretence of objectivity. First, Koestler became a serious Zionist, then a serious socialist, and finally a serious opponent of socialism.

On the subject of Michael Scammel, his New York Review of Books article about Vladislav Zubok’s new book, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, also deserves comment. Rightfully, Scammell critiques Zubok for neglecting to document the importance of dissident writers and thinkers like Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam, Sinyavsky, Ginzburg, and Brodsky, in maintaining the pre-revolutionary artistic tradition in Russia.

There’s anger here toward the gradualists (does the term liberal or moderate or appeaser fit here?) who attempted to reconcile some of the humanist traditions of old Russia with the imperatives of the Soviet state. The anger stems, quite rightly, from Scammel, who knows many of the persecuted men he has written about, Solzhenitsyn most importantly. These people produced better and more honest literature than any of the official writers that get so much attention from Zubok. However, any attempt to explain how Soviet mainstream thought and wrote, seems worthwhile. The dissident artists made sense then, and they make sense today. It’s the men like Ehrenberg or Yevtushenko who no longer do. Everything about their value system as well as their aesthetics seems anachronistic; they need some explaining.

18th International Arts Festival 'Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk'

Volkogonov on Chernenko

Rightly or wrongly, Volkogonov is more contemptuous of Chernenko than any of the other six Soviet leaders. His Chernenko is a mumbling sycophant without political stature, real-world experience, or interest in the world outside of the Kremlin. According to Volkogonov, Chernenko, who reached the top post at age 72 by riding on Brezhnev’s coattails, was a Party bureaucrat to the core, and one without Andropov’s character, curiosity, practical experience, or intelligence. While presiding over a period of deepening malaise, Chernenko made no effort whatsoever to effect change.

Under Chernenko, the Soviet Union purchased ever greater quantities of foreign grain, lost more men in the maelstrom of Afghanistan, and became more deeply committed to propping up disreputable regimes like that of Angola, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Syria. As Rome burned, Chernenko busily crafted decrees about how governmental reports should be formatted, or spent time picking out presents for the North Korean dictator.

Kim Jong Il & Family

Chernenko had little genuine familiarity with the burdens of regional or national government. After all, he gained power by befriending Brezhnev early in his career and presiding over his personal office and even Brezhnev’s personal affairs. While Volkogonov has almost nothing positive to say about the man, Chernenko was obviously well organized, hard-working and extremely knowledgeable about political procedures and the individual men who made up the Party leadership. As such, he helped first Brezhnev, and later Andropov, to maintain important political relationships. He was a man who knew people’s birthdays, and knew all of the latest gossip before anybody else did.

Chernenko’s rise to power had little to do with either the Soviet people or indeed the Soviet Party. The patronage of a single man, Brezhnev, brought him into the heart of Soviet politics and kept him there for 18 years as the head of the “general department.” Following Berezhev’s death, Chernenko was out maneuvered by Andropov, but soon ended up chairing meetings in his absence. Apparently Andropov recognized Chernenko’s greatest virtue: loyalty.

Chernenko’s short reign is notable insofar as it served as a foil to the excitement of the Gorbachev era of reform that succeeded it. The contrast was stark. As the Soviet economy began to disintegrate, and the Soviet people became increasingly cynical about their experience with communism, Chernenko still agonized over which meaningless Marxist-Leninist slogan the government needed to employ to mobilize public opinion. Nothing—not the decline of agriculture, not increasing evidence of technological stagnation, not the rise of nationalism in the republics, not the inhumanity of his government toward human rights activists such as Sakharov —could convince him to try to change the course of the ship of state.

In his final days, Chernenko became increasingly ill but, like all previous Soviet leaders, he clung to power, flattered by everybody around him to remain in office right up until he died. The author relates one particularly embarrassing moment, when the old man was pulled from his hospital bed to vote, his hand visibly weak in front of the camera that projected the pathetic image to the nation at large.

Mikhail Suslov in England

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Ice Dance Medallists

Nothing sparks Russophilia like an afternoon of ice skating. I've laced up maybe 3 or 4 times in my entire life--I'm a little awkward on the ice--but whenever I pass a rink I am riveted. I think of my first fumbling attempts, wearing my mom's old skates, to glide across a 10 foot frozen puddle in our yard when I was 9 years old. Or the impromptu one-on-one hockey game I played with a friend a few years later, before litigation fears led the high school to stop flooding its practice fields in winter. Or Levin bumping into Kitty and trying to impress her with his moves in Anna Karenina. Or Ekaterina Gordeeva at the 1988 Olympics.


So the other day I took my son to a local indoor rink. He hated it. He said it was the worst sport of all time. He held onto my arm for dear life for an hour straight. By the time we were done my ankles were wobbly with pain and I'm sure I pulled something in my hip. They say you grow nostalgic with age, but I seem to have been born nostalgic and getting older just destroys one illusion after another.
Olympic Skating

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Volkogonov on Yuri Andropov

Yuri Andropov

Yuri Andropov was sixty-eight years old when Brezhnev died and he ascended to the role of Party Leader. He lived only fifteen months after that, but his short reign as the Soviet boss reveals a great deal about the Soviet political experiment. Andropov’s rise to the top Party job reveals the close ties between the political hierarchy and the security apparatus. The Soviet Union was awash in security officials and paid informers, people who existed at every level of Russian society and regularly received small stipends for their services, so it was only natural for Brezhnev’s Politburo to place its faith in the head of the KGB.

Under Andropov, the KGB had become less brutal but no less efficient or even powerful. Andropov referred to his men as “Chekists” (a term that connoted a certain level of cold-bloodiness to those who had experienced the early years of the Bolshevik regime ) and was sometimes called a “Liberal Chekist,” insofar as he believed that the security organs could often fight heterodoxy at the level of ideas more often than it relied on the naked threat of physical coercion. Volkogonov points out that Andropov spent half his life as a Party apparatchik, and the other half as a KGB leader.

Andropov –calm, secretive, desk-bound, humble, and hard-working-- shared Brezhnev’s basic political outlook. The two men were conservatives who believed wholeheartedly in the basic tenants of the Soviet political system and command economy. Unlike Brezhnev, Andropov was well-read and extremely intelligent, if fairly orthodox in his approach to the growing problems that confronted the Soviet Union, including its troubles in Afghanistan, ailing economy, strained relations with China, and expensive arms race with the United States. According to Volkogonov, Andropov had a powerful intellect but failed to creatively address the basic flaws in the Soviet system. The answer to all pressing problems was greater Party discipline, more police surveillance, and more perfect control over the economy.

While Andropov made cosmetic proposals to alter the formal composition of the Supreme Soviet, took on a few regional bosses on issues related to corruption, and talked about new “brigade contracts” to incentivize work at least one some level, he entertained no thoughts that would have affected the Party’s monopoly of power. Indeed, under Andropov, the Politburo continued to make all decisions, no matter how big or small. In a single day, a few old men (and usually, only one old man, namely Andropov) would decide the future of Soviet foreign policy as well as which pig breeders deserved to be awarded prizes for their accomplishments.

Andropov’s rule was marked by debilitating illness. Volkogonov is impressed with Andropov’s capacity for work in the face of advancing physical infirmity, but notes with sadness that no Soviet leader even considered giving up power, no matter how incapacitated. The darkest moment of Andropov’s reign came in 1985, when the Soviets shot down a commercial Korean airliner, killing 269, and showed no remorse (and some deceit) over the incident.

Samantha Smith Arrives In Russia

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dickens, Balzac and Das Kapital

Das Kapital

I’ve always been fascinated by the Great Books approach to education—fascinated, but not convinced. At one point does it become useful to study primary sources without the benefit and context provided by secondary sources? I’m afraid I sometimes fall into the category of the young man in the film, Barcelona, who tells a friend that he prefers literary criticism to the work it dissects. Sometimes, you're not equipped for the unmediated experience of reading 1000 pages of esoteric language. For this reason, I am not greatly troubled by my unfamiliarity with the Russian language or indeed with a few of the classics of Marxist literature, in German or any other language. However, I suffer an occasional pang of conscience, most particularly about Karl Marx’s masterpiece, Volume I of Das Kapital.

Karl Marx

Like others perhaps, I’ve wrestled with the meaning of the Russian Revolution and Communism in general with very little direct contact with Marx’s work, with the exception of that short and easily digestible pamphlet, the Communist Manifesto, and, only recently, the Eighteenth Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte. I remember a high school friend who put me to shame by referring to her own reading of Das Kapital as well as Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations. Yet 20 years later, Das Kapital continues to intimidate me.

Reading Room

Two months ago, I pulled a copy of the book from the shelves of a used bookstore, but put it back, convinced that I’d never be able to get through it. Do I seem unusual? Francis Wheen, who wrote a book called Marx’s Das Kapital in the “Books that changed the world” series, doesn’t think so. Apparently, many other people have avoided the book, including politicians (Harold Wilson said the footnotes on page one turned him off) and even committed Marxists. Wheen believes that they are making a big mistake.

Marx House

According to Wheen, Das Kapital is a work of literature or at least quasi-literature. It’s filled with erudition but it’s also filled with brilliant prose and real aesthetic power. It’s a satire, comedy, farce, Gothic novel, and tragedy all rolled into one. The bourgeoisie and capitalism in general, are alternately portrayed as extraordinarily vigorous protagonists (a la Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air) and monstrously destructive and depraved villains. Das Kapital is, Wheen continues, a sprawling treatise on modern economics, but it’s also a creative and multilayered and open-ended encounter with modernity as embodied in capitalism.

Although Wheen demonstrates that the book didn’t make a large splash upon publication, people did, as we know from the course of Russian history, fall in love it. Das Kapital has as much in common with a work by Tolstoy or Dickens or Balzac or Melville as it does with Ricardo or Adam Smith. The art, I suspect, was more important than the dismal science. If revolutionaries were going to overthrow the old order, they needed something worthy enough to put in its place, and communism as described in Das Kapital fits the bill.

Stalin At Work

Notwithstanding its critics, which Wheen attempts to refute without necessarily endorsing Marx’s analyses, the book is subtle and its dialectics complex (or slippery?) enough to elude any easy categorization. Like great literature, Wheen says that Das Kapital is rich and difficult and all-encompassing, and therefore the book seldom makes predictions about capitalism that can be easily dismissed or proven wrong. All in all, Wheen thinks the book is worth reading, both because it’s a work of art, and because it remains the best critique of the current economic system ever written.

Marx's Grave

Volkogonov on Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev Addresses UN

In Stalin’s old age, he told his cronies that they were “Pygmies” who would be eaten alive after he was gone. He’s wasn’t too far wrong, but Khrushchev was at least interesting. He wasn’t an intellectual giant, to be sure, but he was folksy, quick-witted, comical, energetic, flamboyant, and mercurial. Deeply implicated in the horrendous crimes of Stalinism—but what Communist bureaucrat who survived the purges wasn’t?—Khrushchev outplayed and outlasted other Party insiders, especially the notorious Beria, and eventually emerged as the third Communist Leader.

Berlin Bound

Khrushchev probably owed his survival under Stalin to his working class origins and unassuming, comic persona; he probably owed his rise to power in the wake of Stalinism to his craftiness and reputation as a man who was unlikely to kill off too many rivals. In the event, Khrushchev had Beria killed (as the Thermidoreans had Robespierre killed) but soon emerged as a reformer who, somewhat courageously, overturned much of Stalin’s legacy. Self-serving or not, there is not a little sincerity in Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin and Stalinism.

Khrushschev With Mao Zedong In China

Volkogonov’s assessment of Khrushchev is of course mixed. As Taubman’s biography also makes clear, there is much to both hate and admire in this complex man. In the “hate” column, Volkogonov stresses Khrushchev’s participation in collectivization, slave labor, and deportation during the 1930s and 1940s. He shows that Khrushchev was an unevenly educated, boorish, anti-Semitic ideologue, who accepted—despite his critique of the “cult of personality”—his own right to make decisions in every arena of Soviet endeavor, including politics, economics, agriculture, technology, defense, and even art.

Kennedy With Khrushchev

The First Secretary was an energetic reformer, but his reforms, especially in the area of agriculture, were poorly thought out and frequently disastrous. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign was a truly earth-shattering event in the life of the Soviet State; even so, Volkogonov asserts that Khrushchev never really upset any of the principles of the Leninist regime. The security apparatus, the expensive military machine, the Gulag, the Communist ideology—everything was kept in working order.

The Communist hierarchy eventually brought Khrushchev down. They blamed him for his erratic behavior, which was perhaps most embarrassing in the arena of foreign policy. Volkogonov supports the criticism and blames Khrushchev almost exclusively for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as for the rupture with China. Even the most critical communications from Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis appear a bit disjointed and rambling, if not deluded. For instance, Khrushchev denied that nuclear weapons in Cuba could be considered as offensive weapons at all.

Mighty Luxor

In his way, Khrushchev was interested in peace, and certainly he promoted detente, but he was a bully too, and threatened Poland with invasion, attacked Hungary, banged his shoe in the UN, and constantly provoked the West in unproductive ways. Khrushchev believed what he said, that socialism would “bury” capitalism, that socialism was inherently peaceful, et cetera.

Premier Khrushchev And Vice President Nixon

Khrushchev’s final years gave his life a final dignity. Ousted from power and ostracized, Khrushchev braved Party pressure and wrote or rather dictated his memoirs (published in the West by his son) which Volkogonov assures us are one of the best descriptions of this epoch in world affairs. In the end, it’s a strange comment on world history that this strange “Pygmy” steered the ship of state of one of two superpowers in the age of the space race, detente, the U2 incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Hungary, the Suez Canal Crisis, the Sino-Russian split, the Tito reconciliation, the Berlin Blockade, etc.

Soviet Pride