Posts Tagged ‘communism’

“Pervy blin narkomom”

August 14, 2016

This summer I tackled my first real history book – real in the sense of first-class scholarship drawing directly on primary sources. The topic was 1930s Soviet industrialization, and the author is Stephen Kotkin. I chose Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, the second of his books on Magnitogorsk, a large planned Soviet-era industrial and mining town. His first book deals with its more recent history, and I may read that one too, or one of his other titles about Russian history in the transition and post-Communist eras.

His research questions, in studying primary sources, included these: What was Russian about Stalinism, what was inevitable (inherent in the project of governance under communism), and what was idiosyncratic about it? This book is especially interesting in light of Putin’s heavy-handed efforts to rehabilitate Stalin, which can best be understood as reactionary conservatism, an attempt to reverse the demoralizing effects hindsight had on the Russian people during the late Communist era of de-Stalinisation, when so many skeletons were taken out of the closets to be buried.

I was largely unprepared for what I learned from this book, having always associated Russian Communism with American Socialism and the progressive movement. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the movie Reds at face value. Socialists and other progressives were persecuted violently under Stalinism, as were any officials who questioned the official line, not to speak of rank-and-file Party members. And I was completely surprised to learn that Party membership was far from universal in Communist Russia. Apparently the Communist Party itself was made up of a highly selective new ruling elite – membership was tightly restricted, and yet at times during the Party’s history, Party members were the first to feel the brunt of a violent purge.

Kotkin paints a vivid portrait of everyday life for both workers and officials under Stalin, and the picture of a society in turmoil is engrossing. He documents ordinary workers’ adoption of communist values in everyday life as well as their grumblings, some violently suppressed and others blithely noted in passing by the keepers of official records. One witnesses rapidly rising expectations in terms of standard of living, and a glaring gap between these utopian promises and the reality on the ground. The lightning-speed eradication of illiteracy in the early years of Communism is documented alongside the extreme cultural paucity of the radical censorship regime. Promises to meet every citizen’s material needs are juxtaposed with images of famine, sometimes episodic and sometimes prolonged, but never equally distributed across the population.


It becomes difficult to see Stalinism as a civilization when it seems that everything we associate with civilization today was banned under Stalinism, with the notable exception of jazz (which was always considered suspiciously bourgeois, but never quite fell out of favor with the ruling elite). But Kotkin convincingly attributes a sense of ownership of the revolutionary project to the Russian people in this era, and a deep sense of popular commitment to the goals of rapid industrialization, however traumatic the pace.  As a sense-making project, the book is definitely a success.

Perhaps the most valuable lessons to be learned from this book are the lessons of the purges within the Communist Party – while the author barely describes the purges of non-Party members, which were in fact far more extensive. Very likely this bias reflects a bias within the official record, with far more evidence available from which to describe the Party purges vividly. Kotkin recognizes the “housekeeping” rationale of the iterative bloodbaths alongside the vicious cycle of recriminations and careerist incriminations fostered by Stalin’s murderous directive that the Party engage in “self-criticism”, a byword which survived as a tenet of Party ideology even into the Khrushchev thaw.

If there had been any “housekeeping” agenda at work in the purges, it was a desperate and double-dealing project from the outset. Take the example of an official “purged” for engaging in illegal trade with state resources in order to finance his mandated quota of services and goods provided. His motive was simple: he had orders to deliver, and no budget with which to work. And had he not found ways to meet his quota, very likely he would have been “purged” for nonperformance.

The vulnerability of the Communist elite can be explained by the redundancies built into the Russian government under Communism: there were two chains of command, the state pyramid and the Party pyramid. Every organ of the state thus operated under two chains of command, the ordinary one and the Party one, which was to serve as an ideological watchdog and which was liable for the successes and failures of its counterpart. Hence the redundant Party bosses could easily be painted as self-serving leeches on the system, if any flaw could be found in their performance.

The first to be purged were the ideological non-conformists, lumped indiscriminately under the banner of Trotskyists. Later purges associated their victims with the fascist threat from abroad, and accused officials lagging in industrial performance (or guilty of ruining their equipment in an overeager attempt to exceed its production capacity to meet official targets) of sabotage and espionage in one breath. Kotkin illuminates an enduring level of xenophobia and ignorance of the outside world that could explain how some officials were purged simply for having foreign-sounding names.

Yesterday I discovered an anecdote about Shostakovich and his Symphony No. 5 that illuminates the era of the Great Purge nicely. The symphony was written while the composer (living in Russia) had fallen into disfavor, in the late 1930s. His opera Lady Macbeth had been a great success until the day Stalin came to see it, but the composer was “white as a sheet” by the end of the performance. Stalin had laughed during an explicit sex scene and had later walked out. The next day Pravda carried a scathing editorial about the opera, and not until Symphony No. 5 brought the audience to their feet with tears in their eyes was Shostakovich restored in stature. You can judge for yourself what the symphony is about.

The Russian proverb I used as the title of this blog entry appears untranslated as an epigraph to Kotkin’s last chapter, and he says it is untranslatable. But I was able to find the source:

“‘How was that as a first try?’ asked Trotsky. [Vladimir] Mayakovsky answered with a devastating pun: ‘The first pancake falls like a People’s Commissar’ (pervy blin lyog narkomom), a play on the saying ‘the first pancake falls like a lump.’”

This and other gems make Kotkin’s description of the “little tactics of the habitat” under Stalinism a real page-turner, and I am looking forward to checking out more of his work. But for now I am chewing through Khrushchev’s memoirs, the first half of which are profoundly depressing in this context. Over and over again he shares anecdotes about directives from Stalin that he carried out against his own better judgment for fear of the consequences of gainsaying the boss. I’ve made it up to the point of Stalin’s death now, and I’m hoping the second half of the book will show up the author’s engaging personality more fully, out from under the shadow of pervasive sycophancy in an environment of totalitarianism.

The Frontiers of Justice

August 8, 2015

In The Frontiers of Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that under neoliberal governments like ours, there are four major groups of persons who are excluded from recourse to the justice system by virtue of their lack of means (money to bring a case in court) and/or lack of voice (ability to reason with a court/right to stand before a court). These are children, the disabled, non-citizens, and animals.

This is an important book to me, and one I mention often in my blog. Lately I’ve been wondering whether these frontiers of justice are really a product of neoliberalism. Or are they more deeply ingrained than that in human behavior? Do they in turn shape human behavior, through childhood psychology? It seems to me that these groups have always been at a political and social disadvantage, regardless of what system of government we’re talking about.

This brings up two questions. The first is, what is neoliberalism? The core values of neoliberalism are individualism, private ownership and freedom of choice. Under this regime, social space is a form of market capital, cultural resources and political voice (via the mass media) have been privatized, inequality levels are high, and consumption rates have everything to do with willingness to pay and competition over paid work. Nussbaum argues that it is through a fee-for-service justice system and through doubts in their capacity to reason that children, the disabled and animals are denied the ability to enforce their rights in court, whereas non-citizens are simply denied the right to bring cases in court.

The second question is, how would we treat children, the disabled, non-citizens and animals if ours were not a neoliberal regime? It seems to me that even under conditions of anarchy, maybe especially under conditions of anarchy, these groups would get the short end of the stick. As human animals, we have limited patience with our own offspring and less with those of other people. Towards disabled kin, we have moderate sympathy – towards disabled strangers, we have little to none. Outsiders to our social groups are greeted with skepticism or outright hostility, depending on how well they have acculturated to our norms (from language use to attitudes and beliefs). And animals are either dinner, personal property or an at-large nuisance – even those we think of as family are excluded from the consolations of language use and the rights that come with it.


If these frontiers of justice are in our animal nature, and not a product of our social contract, how do these boundaries shape us as individuals? Object relations theory seems to scratch the surface of this question, with its emphasis on the contingency of infant emotional life on the attentions of the mother. Impatience with the willfulness of their own children is the natural pressure parents exert (without any special training in how to teach children to grow up), and once they have internalized adult habits and come of age, they are sent away to fend for themselves. Later, I’ll look at Freud’s theory of child psychology in this context of actual (not merely imagined) parental hostility towards the developing child.

Returning to the first question, is there really anything about neoliberalism that would lead us to exclude non-citizens from the courts? Here I am inclined to turn to Jane Jacobs again, and look at the two codes of conduct described in Systems of Survival, one more similar to traditional conservative politics in America, and the other more characteristic of liberalism. But this time I would argue that they blur together, rather than competing for political dominance. If neoliberalism were like the market-oriented code of conduct Jacobs describes, it would protect the rights of strangers and aliens and promote multiculturalism. I would argue that it does not, and that instead, this moral question is ceded to the hierarchical code of conduct that stands in opposition to commercial norms, one in which in-group loyalty is paramount.

Neoliberalism is often compared with neoconservatism, but some would say they are two sides of the same coin. The centrist policies of the Democratic party and the radicalism of the Republican party have produced a situation in which domestic politics are, by and large, neoliberal and foreign policy is neoconservative, even when a Democrat is in the White House. Neoconservatism has less to do with individualism and more to do with unilateralism. This co-existence of market-oriented values in the domestic sphere and hierarchical values in the international sphere mirrors what Jane Jacobs describes as the natural symbiotic relationship between market norms and hierarchical regimes. (But it also represents a type of perverse hybrid that she describes as a recipe for corruption. I’ll return to the topic of perverse hybrids later.) War powers are used to open markets and break up cartels, all in the name of the peacetime values of freedom, individualism and private profit.

Some commentators describe this neoliberal hegemony as a depoliticization of the public sphere, and to understand this critique, you have to compare neoliberalism and neoconservatism with their ideological opposition, contemporary Western communism. The hallmark of communist regimes is a top-down redistributive policy on property ownership, as opposed to private ownership of capital and competition over work, housing, food and ultimately, profit. To say neoliberalism depoliticizes public life is to say that politics is, fundamentally, the legal negotiation of class conflict, and that neoliberalism deprives the poor of their negotiating power.


There are two other major points of departure between communism and neoconservatism: the close regulation of daily life, breaking up traditional power structures within family units, and the endorsement of universal suffrage regardless of race (which, when it comes to Palestine, leads neoconservatives to accuse the radical left of anti-Semitism). Here I am talking about communism in Western democracies, not in China or Cuba, where state censorship is also an important point of departure from neoliberalism (to be compared with market-oriented control of the mass media).

Under neoliberalism, racial discrimination is most apparent in the housing market, where it is enforced by private associations colluding to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods in a formal strategy largely ignored by public agencies responsible for upholding civil rights. This is the regressive side of liberalism, promoting freedom of choice (the opportunity to live in a predominately white suburb) for an elite minority on a willingness-to-pay basis. This racist elitism is normalized in national culture, and ‘minorities’ are encouraged by entertainment/advertising media to identify with and compare themselves to white role models, and to associate minority status with being lower class, poorly educated and/or a criminal.

The neoconservative police state’s use of racial profiling and indiscriminate deportation policies, and the neoconservative foreign policy administration’s tendency to equate Arab race/Islam with terrorism, both function as scapegoating behaviors on an irrational level, fostering black-and-white thinking about group loyalties and aversion to multiculturalism and international law. Neoconservatism, at its most basic, is an us-versus-them mentality in which U.S. national interests and preconceptions trump international diplomacy and military force is a first, rather than a last, resort. Outsiders (and, arguably, ‘minorities’) are viewed with contempt or fear, rather than curiosity and admiration.

But perhaps it is through the exclusion of ‘outsiders’, the disabled, children and other animals that neoliberalism is so atomizing, lonely and monotonic. Competition over resources is a never-ending struggle under this regime, and cultural resources are monopolized by a remote elite (from the privatization of Google to the total control of local news coverage by Fox). The agenda of this elite is remote from daily life (minority status now belongs to whites in the census), and tied to a foreign policy agenda that has more to do with direct subsidies than with imperialistic resource extraction. Patronage politics serves a tiny sector of special interest groups and a thinly stretched, poorly compensated military, while the rest of the 99% are at the mercy of the market.

From this point of view, neoliberalism and neoconservatism certainly don’t co-exist in a system of checks and balances – the most obvious feature of this political unity is that it is unsustainable. The real question is, could an alternative system of government expand the frontiers of justice? Or are they simply in our nature?