(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


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Some Background for Grappling with the Question "What was the Cold War?"

All I can hope to present here is really the barest sketch.

A sketch conveys something about a complex scenario or event, while having only a miniscule fraction of the complexity of its subject.

e.g. http://markrabo.com/blog/time-and-struggle/picasso-woman/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E94BFivA4tA&feature=related

Picasso's realistic but minimal line drawings give an impressive illustration that such a thing may be possible. One can look at the line drawing, compare it to a photograph, and get a sense of something complex being beautifully invoked by something with a thousanth of the complexity of the photography, let alone the original subject. Still, photograph and sketch are somehow comparable.

In representing a major historical event, we can *only* present the sketch. To go over the corresponding "photograph" a piece at a time would take hundreds or thousands of lifetimes.

The "sketch-artist", or historian can never even have *seen* the whole that he or she tries to portray. At best, one hopes to have examined a balanced sample. But in the study of history, it is very possible to, even after after a lifetime of study, discover that the whole thing can be seen to have hinged on one small detail that was overlooked or hidden.


One of the by products of World War I was the sudden collapse, or loss of legitimacy, of several regimes in Germany and to the East, especially in Russia. The primary reason was, I believe the extreme, inhuman and seemingly bottomless demands of the World War.

Russia was very different from Western Europe. It was several times larger than any nation to its west, and lacked natural boundaries between it and its most vigorous rivals. The Urals formed a boundary between European Russia and Siberia, but that was breached in the 17th century and thereafter, controlled Siberia, and kept going -- in fact Alaska was Russian territory until 1867. Russia's vast expanses of thinly populated land, the flatness of terrain, and legal attachment of people to the land through serfdom may have made it suitable for the centralized and militarized rule it developed and retained right up to the 1917 revolution. The only decentralization was a dispersed landed Aristocracy which was highly dependent on the center.

Russia's serfdom, which by the 19th century was the closest thing in most of the "old world" to new world chattel slavery, was finally abolished in 1861, coincidentally as the Civil War was ending American slavery. By releasing millions from attachment to the land, this, for the first time, provided fodder for an industrial revolution.

After the Napoleonic wars, many Russian soldiers were employed for the occupation and pacification of France. This lead to a broader exposure to liberal Western ideas, to an enduring francophilia among the Russian upper classes, and to a major attempt in 1825 to overthrow and modernize the government. This, in turn, led to an unprecedented police bureaucracy which spied on and terrorized dissidents (this was greatly surpassed by the Soviet Union of course).

Both the modernizing impulses (by intellectuals and the lower classes), and the official response to these impulses remained extreme and violent from this period up the the Revolution. An incremental path to a free and democratic society seemed to remote a possibility to stimulate any powerful movement. The extreme backwardness of the countryside combined with the sudden opening up of the country's vast spaces and creation of urban masses due to an influx of foreign technology led to the tossing together of very disparate cultures and subcultures with no time to work out ways to accomodate eachother.

The reforms of Alexander II, including abolition of serfdom, could not move fast enough to assuage bitter and desparate sentiments. Alexander was himself assassinated in 1881, and succeded by the very backward looking Alexander III (1881-1894).

... (much more to cover)

In summary, there was extreme alienation and almost no possibility of convergence between the liberal yearnings of the Russian Intelligencia, and the underground radical movements. The movement that would untimately come out on top was the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democrats (both branches of the SD were desciples of Marx, with different interpretations). The Bolsheviks were led by the extremely domineering and hard Lenin, who in his youth, saw his brother hanged for conspiracy against the government. Lenin was a ruthless leader, and perhaps (until near the end of his life?) *infatuated with the power of ruthlessness*. He did, however, often show a keen grasp of reality, and did not totally lose sight of the idea that his often bloody means would be mere senseless violence if they did not bring about a better state of society than the present, and if he did not have such a distopian view of where capitalism was headed.

Lenin directed the Bolsheviks from exile, mostly in Switzerland. His group printed revolutionary materials to be smuggled into Russia, and tried to coordinate the activities of those in the country. These included attempts to build up ties with workers, and sometimes quite bloody bank and stagecoach robberies to raise funds to keep the Bolsheviks in operation.

Stalin, who would shape the USSR for nearly 30 years, was prominent in these types of operations. Thanks to the recent opening of Russia (while it lasted?) Simon Sebag Montefiore read unpublished memoirs and diaries and spoke to those who knew the stories or were direct witnesses (one was a 109 year old relative of one of his wives). According to this portrait Stalin reveled in conspiratorial violence, and took charge of sniffing out and eliminating those in the movement suspected of disloyalty.

Let me stop and consider what point might be served by this examination of this especially catastrophic revolutionary transformation of one society.

Nothing drives people into the arms of those who tyrranize or prey on them like fear and hatred of the real or imaginary viciousness of some other group. The envisioned "Road to Serfdom" described in books like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and by the Reader's Digest caricature of Hayek's book "The Road to Serfdom" (condoned by him but really very different from the book he wrote) are unlike any real transition to tyrrany I have run across in the study of many such catastrophic transitions.

One really abbreviated version of Road to Serfdom with comic book style illustrations states:

"Most national planners are well-meaning idealists, balk at any use of force"

I can find no real example of a totalitarian revolution evolving out of a movement of gentle minded idealists. Rather, all seem to have been brought about by fanatics through the inspiring and feeding hatred with lurid pictures of the "enemies of the people", whether these real or imagined enemies are Jews, Fascists, Communists, or some "intellectual elite" as in the case of Cambodia and China's Cultural Revolution.

All such movements that I have observed were responses to catastrophically bad governments under the greatest strain, or power vacuums caused by the disappearance of a previous totalitarian system (as in the Warsaw pact countries formed soon after Stalin's forces displaced the Nazis).


[In the course of 20 years (through the late 1930s), the Bolshevik party was purged of idealists; anyone with any sort of internal compass affecting their actions, and these were replaced by people willing to be tools of Stalin, and to live under his terror, making themselves believe whatever Stalin said was correct.]


The fear of democracy leading to a "tyranny of the masses" stripping people of property at least some of which was earned by their own hard work -- is at least a couple hundred years old. I suspect much of the fear and loathing of the USSR over the decades was more a fear of what the USSR *claimed* to be than of what it actually was, and fear that they would actually succede in establishing a nation of economic equals.

North Korea is, I think, a reminder of what a state ruled by almost universal terror can accomplish. While people starve, and the country is deeply isolated, they continued to make stunning technological accomplishments for their size and poverty.

I think much the same thing happened under Stalin, when the USSR went from a mostly agrarian society to a highly technological and competent one, *in matters pertaining to military strength*, though neglecting nearly all other areas (Education in science and technology was an absolute necessity for keeping up military strength, though it could be turned to other purposes).

While rule by terror must necessarily destroy some potential contributers to a nation's goals, it did in fact terrorized nearly everyone into working very hard, in contrast to the joke about Brezhnev's USSR "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work".

Over the years after Stalin's death, the USSR became more static, predictable and a *highly* class-based society. The privileged shopped at special stores and were first in line for apartments and such cars as were available. Still, the myth was repeated ad nauseum that the purpose of the CP and USSR Over the years after Stalin's death, the USSR became more static, predictable and a *highly* class-based society. The privileged shopped at special stores and were first in line for apartments and such cars as were available. Still, the myth was repeated ad nauseum that the purpose of the CP and USSR was its commitment to the perfection of human society.

Why did the change take place? On Stalin's death, a clique of top leaders faced eachother, and rather than fight to the death for the top leadership, as happenned during Stalin's ascent, they opted for a predictable level of comfort, and so called a truce for all but Beria, the bloody chief of secret police. As usual throughout Soviet history, the transition was presented as the vanquishing of a diabolical group of traitors -- in this case called the "Anti-Party Group". Under Stalin, the secret police trumped the Communist Party, and Stalin's no longer wanted to live that way. While they must have thought of it in more positive terms, what they wanted, and got, was a more or less comfortable oligarchy. Except for Beria, the losers in the power struggle would simply be demoted or at worst kept under house arrest, as Khrushchev was once he lost power.

For several years it wasn't clear who was in charge, until Khrushchev came out on top for a few years.

The overview of the USSR is nowhere near complete; still I'd like to shift gears, focusing for on Cold War related events and perceptions in the US, and the "western world" generally.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw waves of immigration to the US especially of Italians and East Europeans (many of the latter being Jewish). Such people had to have been motivated to take drastic actions to leave their homelands, and many had been oppressed, or associated with radical movements, or both. This millieu helped bring about a strong current of labour movements, as well as expressions of anarchism and socialism.

One of key resulting events was the Chicago Haymarket Riot of May 1886 where dynamite was thrown at the police killing 7 police and 4 others. The riot and dynamiting were blamed on an anarchist conspiracy. Americans were reminded of the "anarchist menace" in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. February 1919 saw a huge and very well organized general strike, probably more associated with socialists than anarchists, with some materials exhorting workers to follow the example of Russia. In April 30 bombs were sent through the mail to prominent people, causing much panic but little damage, and in June came a wave of more powerful bombs, including one very powerful one targeting the home of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, which lead to heavy repressive measures including the Palmer Raids, and a general panic known as the Red Scare.

Such domestic events, expressing the power of strong and disciplined radical movements, or simply nihilistically violent, reinforced the harshness of new Russian regime, and the waves of revolution and attempted revolution in the rest of war-devastated Europe, helping to produce a first impression of Russia and its international revolutionary asperations.

In the U.S., the World War was followed by a relatively short but deep depression putting many ex-soldiers and others in desperate straits. Whittaker Chambers, who became a Communist for two decades, and then a famous anti-communist, describes what this was like in his memoir _Witness_.

The poor performance of status quo institutions in the U.S. and catastrophic failure of institutions abroad (starvation swept much of Europe) became a powerful recruiting tool for revolutionary movements, and the now Soviet-backed Communist International grew to be one of the strongest such movements, and almost certainly the best funded. The core soviet leadership, at this time, believed fervently in world revolution, and that their own survival depended on it. Years later, when Stalin announced the doctrine of "Socialism in One Country", it seemed like folly and shocking heresy to many Bolsheviks.