(part of) You Are Here: Explorations in Search of Current Reality

If some of these writings seem less than coherent, I am so far just trying to find my way. If you see signs of potential, then check in from time to time - I expect to be making more sense as I go along.
See also Tales of the Early Republic, a resource for trying to make some sense of early nineteenth century America


Thursday, April 29, 2010

A History of Ideas of the Cold War?

[This essay was started some time prior to 5/12/2009. It is a bare beginning of an exploration of the idea of a History of Ideas of the Cold War]

It looks to me like the confusions of the cold war are coming back to haunt us again.

To study the ideas that had major impacts on the Cold War looks to me like entering a funhouse hall of mirrors. It is particularly obvious in the case of the USSR and its satellites that by the time of the Cold War, Socialist ideals were at best confused and warped out of recognition by expediencies, and at worst (in a certain moral sense at least) downright lies manipulated to maintain power.

The "Free World" was far less coherently structured, which sometimes resulted in a sort of inferiority complex, inspiring secretive and ruthless Machiavellian processes -- sometimes propagandistic manipulation of the public, and sometimes conspiracies within branches of the U.S. government, and others aligned with it -- justified by the supposed need to "fight fire with fire", or to be as merciless and Machiavellian as the forces we believed we were fighting.

On the other hand, many people in the "West", inclined to wish for a better world were taken in, and worked for the USSR's spy organs, with such results as Russia producing atomic bombs very soon after the U.S.

Maybe it is best to start with various interpretations that purport to give a straightforward view of both sides. I suspect Whittaker Chambers' view may have had a huge impact.

It is practically inevitable that today we have even more confused ideas of the phenomenon of Communism than we had when it was a worldwide phenomenon.

Today there are just remnants of the old "Communist Bloc", the most significant of which might be Cuba and North Korea. Then there is China, which is still semi-tyrannical, but doesn't make much pretense of being Communist. It seems to me they're mostly just ambitious for world power in an old fashioned (sort of 19th century?) way, and they are starting to have the resources to attain some very serious power.

There were many misperceptions of the USSR -- that it was stronger or weaker, or more or less scientifically advanced than it actually was. Probably the biggest misperception was that they were driven in any meaningful sense by ideals of a socialist utopia. In part, I think that is part of a general tendency to see nations, and other social phenomena, such as "the terrorists" as like a person, driven by one set of ideals. Some people I've listened to recently on NPR have described the forces arrayed against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan as a coalition of a small core of zealots, a lot of people denied any normal economic life by current circumstances, who are basically hired soldiers, and whatever else.

ust finished listening to an abridged version on tape of Atlas Shrugged. I am interested in the mindset of those for whom the book seemed like a blinding flash of revelation. Ayn Rand's imagined world is a very strange one. It seems modeled to some extent on depression America. Certainly economic conditions are depressed and becoming more and more so throughout the book.
The America of Atlas Shrugged is a strange parody of itself, with states treated as semi-autonomous, and no electoral politics in sight. The heroes are industrialists, though only some industrialists, and some engineers. Those who are smart and have a "can do" attitude are initially the success stories. At the start of the book, there are pernicious, more or less socialist, or altruistic ideas in the air though they are not dominant, though there is a lot of envy and disparagement of the successful industrialists as scandalously selfish. The many weaklings in the book, including many in industry frequently throw up their hands and say "You can't blame me -- such and such happenned; I couldn't help that". The also promote really silly business policies in the name of "fairness".
There is no Wall Street in evidence, and no dynamic of fickle stockholders affecting business. Ownership seems to rest with a handful of individuals. There is no USSR, though all countries besides the U.S. are called "People's Republic(s)" of France/England/Mexico/whatever. The U.S. seems to be some kind of microcosm recreating the early history of the USSR, except that it starts out as a somewhat successful industrial society (despite all the decline, it seems better than other countries, and towards the end of the book references are made to the U.S. supporting the other nations. Large numbers of stores are closing. There is an odd lack of pressure from the poor and working classes; at least half the rich just seem to want to give away what they have, to make arbitrary loans irrespective of borrower's credit worthiness in the name of "fairness". As the story moves along though, in the course of I think just a couple of years, the nation starts taking on aspects of Stalinist Russia - there is even a fantastic torture machine out of James Bond.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Before and After

It was the strange and awful history of the Soviet Union that first got me seriously interested in history -- back in 1981, when I walked into a Cambridge, MA bookstore. I had an expense-paid trip for an interview for some computer programming job. It's hard to remember what I used to read before that, but I came across Stephen F. Cohen's Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, maybe in my opinion the best single book on the subject.

After that came about 15 years of reading a good couple of shelves of books on the subject while working as a computer systems analyst. At some point, feeling satisfied that I had some sense of how the USSR had the trajectory it had, and having branched out to examinations of other tragic/horrendous states like Nazi Germany, and the evolution of modern China, I took an interest in how reasonably sane, free, and democratic states and/or civic culture came to exist in some places.

In the mid to late 80s I was doing way too much driving which got me started with Books on Tape. The selection was not so broad and was certainly more "West" centric (as in U.S. and Western Europe), and one of the first instances of turning in this direction was "reading" a book on tape about the period of the English Civil War and the Cromwell regime. Another important thing I read was Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China, which kind of bridges the gap between China and in general the dynamics that helped drive some of the more backward nations into Communist regimes -- and U.S. history (and military history at that). One could also say that Cromwell and the English Civil war bridged the gap between an interest in huge historical discontinuities that seemed to center around a charismatic leader/dictator (Lenin and Stalin, Hitler, Mao) and the path leading to (relative) civility and western democracy.

Around the same time I started wondering whether my growing understanding, such as it was, might be worth sharing in some way, and ultimately I was lead to a much more intense study than I had ever done before, of America's path to our Civil War. The very popular Civil war miniseries around that time got me thinking that this subject could possibly be used to entice Americans to look at history, and maybe better understand the paths that peoples and nations take through history.

That lead to around 10 years during which I managed to become to some degree a "real" historian, able to elicit some respect from much of the large community of historians studying the period of U.S. history sometimes called the "Early (American) Republic". There is a society called SHEAR (Society of Historians of the Early American Republic), with a discussion list and yearly meetings around the country, and a quarterly Journal of the Early Republic or JER, which I soon joined, and then became the society's web editor for a time, AND began publishing a mass of stuff on the web and through email, which is still up on www.EarlyRepublic.org aka JMISC.net. The most successful thing I did was an email newsletter called Jacksonian Miscellanies which consisted of typically chapter length excerpts scanned from books from the period (early 1800s) with some commentary. I tried to put it out weekly, then biweekly, then occasionally, then sporadically -- still in all, I produced over 100 issues which were subscribed to by many of the best historians of the "Early Republic".

These days I'm drawn back to taking another look at the USSR, but from the outside, and looking just as closely at the US and the sequence of actions and perceptions we call the Cold War, and its aftermath. Ultimately, I hope to build up "What Was the Cold War?" into a very wide ranging set of essays, timelines, bibliographies, biographical dictionary with strong use of hypertext links -- much like Tales of the Early Republic.

Stephen F. Cohen has recently (2009) written a book: Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, stressing the contingent nature of history. For some reason, people seem (often very stubbornly) drawn to the idea that things had to work out more or less the way they did -- from the Marxists' historical inevitability to the unfolding of the "last days" as believed in by Christian fundamentalists -- and many points of view in between. From studying the history of ideas, I've come to believe it is very difficult to make sense of an idea and why it takes hold without understanding the idea(s) to which it was largely a reaction. Early Protestant belief in predestination appears to me to be a sort of big club to wield against the economy of the Roman Catholic Church as it was at that time -- largely encouraging people to buy their way into heaven and to trust that the priesthood could help you get their if you treated them with proper reverence and humility. Similarly, historical inevitability served as a big club to wield against the "Great Man" theory of history, which tended to put "common people" in their places.

So predestination can be strangely liberating under certain circumstances. It seems mainly useful for breaking the spell of the powers that be. Later, however, in the religious domain at least, liberation seemed to take the less paradoxical form of saying, as the Methodists did "Yes I can get myself into heaven" (though not with the help of priests).

[to be continued]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons From History

We take lessons from history. Often we take the wrong lessons. From World War I, when half a generation of young European men were wiped out in the trenches, England and France took the lesson "Don't be on such a hair trigger; let's try very hard not to go to war next time". Germany took a lesson from what was widely interpreted as their being "stabbed in the back" by weak leaders and powerful traitors who were not real Germans. From the depression and hyper-inflation, they learned to distrust democracy, and so on. American understanding of history was satirized by our second president, John Adams, when he complained "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington, fully clothed and on his horse. Franklin then proceeded to electrify them with his rod and thence forward these three - Franklin, Washington, and the horse - conducted all the policy, negotiations and war."