Archive for category Communism

Nelson Mandela – the Radical Hero

mandela prison

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century.    He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.

The path Mandela took to this position was interesting.  He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance.    His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party.   But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre.   69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK.  Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance.  He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals.   Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.

On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC.   He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.   Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.

While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism.   With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice.   They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location.   When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer.   Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another.   With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism.  Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.

In the eighties the tide started to turn.   While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable.   Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa.  Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.

The young Mandela was a fighter

The young Mandela was a fighter

Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization.   The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously.   That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.

Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath.  The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt.  In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism.  To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation - something some on the right still do not accept

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – something some on the right still do not accept

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years.   He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge.   Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly.   However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking.  An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.

The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society.   South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems.   Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela's former prison

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela’s former prison

Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations.  When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments.   True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.

Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies.   Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent.   British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.

What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked.  Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man.   The haters will never take that away from him.    He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be.   That is part of his greatness.

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Berlin Bunker

The “Berlin Story” Museum traces the history of Berlin since its grounding in the 1200s to the present. It includes a tour of one of the remaining bunkers.

One fascinating museum in Berlin is the “Berlin Story” Museum on the Ku’damm.   It traces Berlin’s history back to the 1200s, sketching out how the city became one of the most open and tolerant cities in Europe — a rather ironic distinction given the reputation it has for being the capital of Nazi Germany.   But even the Nazis never really had Berlin under their control until the war started and they could impose martial law.  It’s a fascinating story, and the descent into the Nazi era is symbolized by climbing down four flights of stairs into a cellar with a dark atmosphere as we follow the Nazi seizure of power.

That quickly morphs into the Cold War and the divided city, looking at everyday life in each “side” of Berlin as well as politics and culture.    This includes stories of how East German agents managed to sneak into the West, whether through a secret “hole” in the wall or a hidden entrance to the Friedrichstrasse train station.    A highlight is a tour of of one of the four remaining bunkers designed to protect Berliners in case of nuclear war.

During the Cold War Berliners knew that they’d be at risk if war broke out.   Recognizing that neither side would likely bomb the city directly, they worried primarily about fallout and radiation.    They decided to set up a series of bunkers to house as much of the population as possible for two weeks, betting (hoping) that after the initial launch people would find a way to quickly end the war.   Almost all of those bunkers have been decommissioned, only four remain.

When I first visited Germany NATO was divided by the decision to modernize NATO’s nuclear force — installing Cruise and Pershing II intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet introduction of the SS-20 in the late seventies.  This led to the rise of the Green party in Germany and a massive peace movement with protests sometimes in the hundreds of thousands against the missile plan.

Although supported by the German government, the modernization was opposed by average Germans across the political spectrum.    The reason was obvious.   In the US the Reagan Administration was talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, one that could be limited to the European continent.   US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger stated the US was no longer in a post-war era but a “pre-war era.”

The rationale for this was to make extended deterrence credible.   In order to provide a nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack on Western Europe the Soviets had to believe the US would actually escalate to a nuclear war to defend Europe.   Since a nuclear war meant the destruction of the entire planet, the rational US response would have been to let Europe go.   As Charles DeGaulle asked, would the US sacrifice Chicago for Paris?

To convince the Soviets that was not the case the US had to act as though it believed a war could be both won and limited in scope.   Even in the US almost nobody believed that was the case.    But it was a bluff the Soviets couldn’t call since if they were wrong, it would lead to their destruction.   So under this Damocles sword the Cold War balance of power was maintained.

A Trabi – the main automobile of East Germany – on display at the Berlin Story Museum

The problem with that is if you were European it seemed the US was saying “we can limit the nuclear holocaust to Europe” and come out on top.   The Germans saw Ronald Reagan as an anti-Communist Cowboy who wanted to destroy the Soviets and feared that the US could drag them into a war that would assure the destruction of Germany.  The crisis could have torn apart NATO, had not Gorbachev come to power in 1985 and then negotiate with Ronald Reagan a removal of both the SS-20s and the new NATO missiles with the 1987 INF Treaty.

Once numerous bunkers dotted West Berlin; now only four remain

The bunker we visited was below ground and the first 3600 to arrive after the war broke out would be admitted.  They’d each have a bunk and would eat dry food, barely enough to survive.   Water was stored, but there would also be a pump.   Air filters would keep the air breathable, but would be less than 1/20th as fresh as air in a modern office building.  It would be damp and stale — but would sustain life.

The lack of privacy would be immense, there would be no showers, little water for personal hygiene, and toilets had curtains instead of doors to prevent people from seeking refuge in the toilet — a bit of space all alone.     There would only be 8 people who “worked” there, they would rely on self-governance.   Any medical help would be provided voluntarily by doctors who happened to be among the 3600 admitted.   They’d have minimal medical supplies on hand — the most plentiful drug would be valium.

To be kept constantly dark, the bunker seems roomy until one considers sharing it with 3600 people!

Their fear was that if people got aggressive and panicked it would be over — mass hysteria could lead to violence and horror.    They even had tasks, some unnecessary, to try to provide a sense of community.   Although it wasn’t necessary to pump up water from the well, people would be assigned to do that — or if someone was starting to panic, that activity might give them a release.   The goal would be to strive for a sense of community to trump fear and panic.

After two weeks the supplies would be gone and they’d be forced to leave the bunker, hoping that radiation levels had gone down and that those on top would have a plan to save the population.

Besides a water pump and storage, the bunker had air filters and its own generator for electricity.

Leaving the bunker and breathing the fresh, open, tolerant atmosphere of Berlin today, it’s easy to forget how different things were before 1989.   It was a divided city and travel from West Berlin to anywhere else was difficult — though the city compensated with lots of immense parks to give its population an escape.   To keep West Berlin populated required incentives, including the fact that males in West Berlin could avoid mandatory conscription.

The Berlin story is one that meanders from Prussian militarism, enlightenment rationality, the interwar Cabaret scene and the post-war division.   The Berlin Story museum is worth a visit – it captures the essence of that story with fun and informative displays.   The bunker tour reminds us that during the Cold War West Berlin was the front line – a piece of the West 300 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain.

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Berlin Miracle

Hardly recognizable, this is where I emerged from two hours of waiting to get through customs on July 29, 1989 and enter East Berlin at Friedrichstrasse

I remember the first time I visited Berlin.  It was late July 1989.   The talk in Germany was of change in the USSR, Poland and Hungary.    I had spent the summer interviewing politicians and academics about inter-German relations, and they all agreed: unification would not come soon if at all, and that East Germany would not reform.   Thus when I made my first and only venture into East Berlin, there was no sense that within a month East Germany would be in crisis, and in just over three months the wall would come down.

Unter den Linden is still the sight of massive construction, but one site I remember from 1989 is Aeroflot – the Russian airline still has its building there!

Americans sometimes like to take credit for what happened, but the fall of Communism was driven by internal economics — the system couldn’t work and was in collapse all over the eastern bloc.   It ended the way it did because East Germans and then other East Europeans took to the streets.   You can’t credit Gorbachev, Reagan or Bush — if anything their ability to cooperate made it so the big powers did nothing to halt the collapse.

While traveling Germany that summer I bought a Sony Discman at Kaufhof in Munich for 290 DM.  The CDs I bought to accompany me were Billy Joel Live in the USSR, Jackson Browne’s World in Motion, and Udo Lindenberg’s Gänsehaut.  I had become a fan of Lindenberg since getting his album Odysee the first time I was in Europe, and remember sitting in a West Berlin hotel room and listening to Mädchen aus Ostberlin the night after I visited the east side of the city.   I had never really felt what the division of Germany meant.

Pariser Platz, the east side of the Brandenburg gate. The first time I was here guards were there and a dirty unkept gate was obstructed by the eastern wall. Now it is the symbol of united Berlin!

But on that day, July 29, 1989, I realized how absurd the situation was.  I got off the train at Friedrichstrasse, walked to Unter den Linden and went down to the Brandenburg Gate.   It was blocked by the east side of the wall, unapproachable.  I could see people on a platform in the West looking over into the east the same way I had done the day before.   I turned around and walked to Alexanderplatz, going by the Marx-Engels statue, the television tower and city hall.   A couple of guys tried to convince me to exchange money, offering me a great rate (compared to the official 1 DM = 1 Ostmark), but there was nothing to buy.

On July 28th on the West side I stood at Potsdamer Platz. There was a snack stand, I had followed the wall from the Brandenburg gate. It was quiet. None of the buildings in this picture were there, they were all built after the wall fell.

At Alexanderplatz I got lunch at a cafeteria, bought some ice cream and then went in the central store.   It was the main store of East Berlin meaning it had the best consumer goods East Germany could muster.  It had nothing worth buying.   I roamed the city all day, covering probably 12 to 15 miles on foot, taking in all I could about this “other world” of Communism.   I was awed by the beauty of the historic center of East Berlin, and realized that while it wasn’t a torturous hell hole, it was clearly dying.   “Das kann nicht so weiter gehen,” I thought — it can’t go on like this.   This is absurd.

Lindenberg’s song was about a love affair between a West German and a “girl from East Berlin.”   It was also a metaphor for a country.   “We simply want to be together,” was the plea as the couple — and the German people — were separated due to political machinations beyond their control.   The song was poignant to me having been in the East that day, at some point listening to it a third or forth time and thinking about the division I suddenly had tears running down my cheeks.  Now I felt the division.

The video below has some (very poorly translated) English subtitles, but gives an inside look at the moment the wall opened, how East Berliners pressured the guards who finally gave in – it is a moment where history was made.   It’s ten minutes, but it captures the moment communism broke and freedom expanded:

Walking around Berlin in 2012 is surreal in some ways.   I’ve been back here many times in the last twenty years, watching the city transform itself dramatically.   On this trip students kept asking if they were in the East or West, and wondered how different it had been.    Lacking a camera in 1989 I only have the photos in my head of how things looked, but I walked many of those same stretches and compared now and then, as best I could.

When I was in Berlin for four months in late 1991 it was still obvious who was from the East and who was from the West, the wall’s location was clear, and the early difficulties of bringing the two sides together had become undeniable.   Now the city is whole.   Construction continues, but former West Berlin is getting a facelift, as the Ku’damm pales in comparison to Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz.

As I thought about the changes and my time there in 1989 I came across this:

Udo Lindenberg.   A musical built on his songs tells the story of the the division of Berlin and the coming together of the city in terms of a love affair.     I thought of myself in that hotel room in late July 1989 and wished I could go to the musical.   Alas, the demands of teaching the course and working with the students kept me busy.   I tried to create an image for them of what I experienced in 1989 and even 1991.   But now the everyday of that era is captured in museums like the DDR Museum (a great hands on experience) and the “Berlin Story Museum.”   Still, knowing that Udo Lindenberg’s music is now used to tell that story is satisfying.   Someday I will see that musical.

I have been to Berlin in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2010 and now 2012.   Though I am a foreigner there, the city means a lot to me, it fascinates me, its tradition of tolerance/openness dating back to Friedrich the Great intrigues me, and no visit there seems long enough.   Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin.

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The Horror of Communism

Fictional characters Georg Dreyman and Christa Marie Sieland dramatize how the Communist system could swallow lives whole

In teaching Comparative Politics its hard to know how to explain how Communism functioned.   On the one hand, it’s easy to paint it as an economic failure.   Centralized bureaucratic planning created stagnation, inefficiency and lack of response to real demand.   Incentives within the system were not to rock the boat, not to improvise or show initiative, and thus economic dynamism and creativity were thwarted.

One can also explain the political control of totalitarianism:  the “grand bargain” whereby citizens were promised shelter, food, health care, education and a job in exchange for going along with the system and following the rules.  But explained that way some students say “why is that so bad?”   Less stress, security that one will have life’s needs taken care of, and only at the cost of not being political, well, for many people that sounds like a decent deal.

The real failure of communism, however, was neither political nor economic, it was the system’s inhumanity.   I’m not talking about Stalin’s horrific crimes killing 20 million people, or Mao’s misguided economic policies that killed over 30 million.  I’m not talking either about Pol Pot’s genocidal ideology that led to the Cambodian killing fields.  I’m talking about the mundane evil of ‘real existing socialism’ in the former East bloc even after the purges and mass killings had ceased.

People weren’t taken and shot, and most weren’t even held in prison.    Instead government repression alongside a system that bred dependency took a tool on the psyche and spirit of its citizens.   It’s hardly surprising that alcoholism rates skyrocketed and depression grew.   It was a system that worked against the human spirit with heart numbing bureaucratic control.   It was a system where you could have your basic needs met and appear to be living in relative comfort and still be suffering in the soul.

I’ve finally found a method to communicate that aspect of the communist system:  to show the film The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen, a German film set in East Berlin in 1984.    The plot is basic (spoiler alert!)   A Communist big wig – a government Minister named Hemph, has a crush on aging actress Christa Marie Sieland (CMS).   She’s in a loving relationship with the famous author/playwrite Georg Dreyman.

Dreyman is a successful writer who remains in the government’s favor but yet has appeal in the West.   He does this by knowing the rules and being sure to stay away from political themes.  He knows to say the right things to government elites and when to keep his mouth shut.    Even as his colleagues chide him for refusing to take a stand, he thinks it foolish to risk everything just to make political statements.   He wants to write, not rock the boat.

When Sieland is being routinely raped by Minister Hempf and his director friend Jerska is blacklisted and ultimately kills himself, Dreyman confronts the reality that he is living in an evil system and has to speak out.

Meanwhile, Hempf has employed the Stasi — the East German secret police — to find dirt on Dreyman so he can be arrested and Hempf would have CMS to himself.   Here we see the Communist bureaucracy.  Anton Grubitz is a high ranking Stasi official who is clearly motivated only by his desire for upward mobility.  He’s eager to give Hempf what he wants and puts his best man, Gerd Wiesler, on the case.

Hempf (center) convinces Grubitz (left) to spy on Dreyman after watching CMS star in one of Dreyman's plays

Wiesler is a committed Communist.  He is a Stasi agent because he has high ideals and believes he’s protecting socialism and the state.   Yet as he investigates Dreyman, he becomes conflicted.   He starts by hating the “arrogant artist” types who thumb their nose at the state.   But he cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Hempf wanting to use the state police to simply get rid of a rival, his friend’s lack of concern for anything but his ambition, and the way in which the state’s intrusion into the lives of this couple is destroying what he comes to recognize as a true committed love.

Wiesler sets up a listening post in the attic of Dreyman's apartment, hearing every phone call and conversation

Much of the film is about Wiesler’s inner conflict.    At one point you sense he’s changing when a boy follows him into the elevator and asks, “are you really with Stasi.”    When asked if he knows what Stasi is, the boy says “my dad says it’s bad men who put people in prison.”   Wiesler instinctively responds “what is the name of…”  but then stops.   “Your ball.”   He doesn’t have the heart to go after this boy’s dad any more.

What is the name of your soccer ball?

Ultimately Wiesler switches sides.    He starts protecting Dreyman just as Dreyman makes a stand against the system.  Dreyman writes an article to smuggle to Der Spiegel magazine in the West about high suicide rates in East Germany.    CMS is arrested when she finally resists Hempf, who has been supplying her with illegal drugs (which she takes in part because of how his affections torture her).   She is forced to implicate Dreyman and betray her love.

After a fight in which Dreyman begs CMS not to go to Hempf, she leaves, stopping in the same bar Wiesler has gone to. Seeing her there he goes over and pretends to be a fan, telling her she is genuine. His words convince her not to go to Hempf again after all. "You are a good man," she says.

Despite efforts by Wiesler to protect them, wracked by guilt she purposefully steps in front of an on coming truck to kill herself.  Weisler has removed the implicating information but Grubitz realizes he must have aided Dreyman and demotes him.   Dreyman is left broken, CMS is dead, and the system plods on.

A plot summary cannot do justice to how well this film illustrates the pervasive corruption and immorality of the internal system, how it could turn good honest people into those who betray their friends and lovers and ultimately find their own lives destroyed.    It isn’t always as dramatic as portrayed here, but the film encapsulates the human horror of communism.

Yet the film ends with an upside.   German unification and the fall of communism comes.   Wiesler finds work delivering mail.   The Stasi files are open to the public and Dreyman goes to his, shocked to find that Stasi had been watching him.   He reads Weisler’s reports and is amazed to find that Wiesler — known as agent HGW XX/7 in the report — started covering for them and not reporting his real activities.

Inspired to write, he publishes a new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” named after a sheet music for a sonata given to him by Jerska, the director who had committed suicide.   Wiesler sees an advertisement for the book and goes into the store and reads the dedication:  “To agent HGW XX/7”   He purchases the book and when asked if he wants it gift wrapped he says no.  “It’s for me.”

The destruction of the lives and relationship of CMS and Dreyman symbolize the destructive force of the Communist bureaucratic system

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Building Systems

It started with the mathematicians and the scientists  — Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The idea that the universe could be conceptualized as a system following universal and natural laws created a world view that threw medieval thought and Aristotelian scholasticism in the trash heap of history.   Instead of a world of particulars there were universals, the same laws of physics apply everywhere in our space-time universe.

Before long such thinking was applied to human behavior, yielding both powerful insights and dangerous dogmas.   Giambattista Vico’s theory of history published in Scienza Nouva (1725) is one of the first, yielding a theory of historical evolution and class struggle that influenced diverse thinkers from Karl Marx to James Joyce.   Building systems to explain human behavior created a new way of thinking that would change the world.

Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations"

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher whose 1758 book Theory on Moral Sentiments brought him to prominence, but his system building classic Wealth of Nations changed everything.  It showed both the power, and the potential pitfalls, of system building.

Throughout history merchants knew that if you increased the supply of something while demand stayed steady the price would drop.   The “law of supply and demand” was part of the practical knowledge of doing business throughout history.   Yet Smith took and it formalized it into a law and along with notions like the importance of the specialization or labor created a systemic view of market economics which came to be called capitalism.   He published Wealth of Nations in 1776 and it became a smash hit.   It described the workings of the industrial revolution, and for the first time argued that as individuals pursued their self interest they would inadvertently yet in a very real way be promoting the public good.   The idea that individual self-interest was not bad (greedy, selfish, etc.) but rather good (it allowed the market to create prosperity and adapt) was knock out stuff.

Of course, if you read Smith carefully, you see that the system builder recognized that his system was not self-sustaining and perfect.  Unlike Newton’s mathematically precise world, markets are human constructs and do not operating magically or naturally.   Smith argued that the wealthy can collude and circumvent markets, exploiting labor and using their power to benefit themselves.   Self-interest has limits, if capitalism is to work.   Indeed Smith skewers the wealthy of his day, often with rhetoric that is more fitting for Occupy Wall Street than the University of Chicago.

The problem is clear:  human system building simplifies a myriad of variables into a model that works well, all other things being equal.     Because human behavior is variable across cultures and time, any system that generalizes by definition has limited applicability.   Moreover, due to complexity the simplification is a good starting point for basic principles, not for claims of universal truth.   Smith understood this.

But those who came later made the fatal flaw of turning systemic thinking into ideology.   Theories of how reality work came to be grasped with a religious zeal as being the truth.   That rationalized looking at the world abstractly.   Perhaps the best example is the response of Great Britain to the Irish potato famine of 1846-51.    The Irish were starving in droves (over a million perished) but a libertarian philosophy led them to rely on the market rather than to intervene.   To this day when there are crises people say “individuals can help if they choose.”   That sounds good in theory, but in reality not enough ever choose to do so.

Once you embrace a system as an ideology, you lose the capacity to recognize that the system itself is an imperfect model of reality that doesn’t always work.   One further interprets reality through the system, and finds reality always fits ones’ ideological world view.   With a complex reality that one can interpret in a variety of ways, one can always support ones’ pre-existing view.  If one holds on ideology with a kind of religious fervor, there is never any reason to doubt one is right.

System builder Karl Marx

Karl Marx, writing 50 years after Smith, admired Smith’s work and considered him his “favorite economist.”   Most importantly, Marx (who also admired Vico) tried his hand at system building.   Like Vico he tried to explain the broad flow of history, using the tool of the dialectic borrowed from Georg Hegel, the German Philosopher he had studied.   Hegel’s dialectic was used to examine ideas, Marx used it to examine economic history — historical materialism.   Like Smith Marx used his system to look at how the economy functions, getting an explanation of why capitalism was leading to sweat shops and working class misery rather than prosperity.

Marx’s system suffered all the flaws that Smith’s did, perhaps more so due to the methodology of relying on the dialectic.  Moreover, Marx was not just a theorist like Smith, but a political activist who hated the poverty and misery he saw in the working class.   This led him to make a fundamental error: he extrapolated his system into the future without supporting his vision with evidence.

Marx’s insights on how capitalism function are still used today by people analyzing the political economy.   They’ve been altered and updated, but like Smith, his theory has proven resilient.    Both Smith and Marx – as well as others – have contributed to our capacity to make sense of how the economy functions.   But Marx’s extrapolation into the future imagining a perfect class free society without any exploitation led to horrific abuses of power by revolutionaries determined to achieve this just and utopian future.

System building leading to ideology is dangerous and misguided.    Ideology leading to dreams of utopia and a desire to make that utopia real are dangerous.

Ideology is not the same as having a perspective and a set of beliefs.   Everyone needs perspective and beliefs to make sense of the world, but you don’t need ideology.   Ideology comes from taking a systemic representation or model of reality and using it as the framework through which to interpret reality.

The systems are themselves not bad; they are useful.    In fact, Smith and Marx both provide useful systems that are not in contradiction to each other, even if they focus on different factors as relevant in different contexts.    It is useful to understand, try out and explore the potential and limits of a lot of abstract systems of thought, efforts to model and make sense of reality.   The danger comes when one mistakes the system for a true representation of the actual laws of nature.   The mistake intensifies when the ideology is grasped with a religious fervor so that the holder of the “one true ideological belief system” sees battling the others to be just and necessary, just as the religious soul might believe she must defend the one true faith.

Now is the time to step back from ideological delusions.   Building systems is a good thing, they help us understand, analyze and try out theories about how reality works.   But all systemic thought has limits, and the sophisticated thinker can try out different systems and explore where they lead, not needing to think he or she has the one true world view.   Moreover, humans construct culture and worlds; how the world changes, even human nature, is somewhat malleable in light of those activities.   As we move forward into the 21st Century job one must be to shed ideological dogma and think creatively about the transformations taking place.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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Lessons from Communism

Monday my two summer on line courses start — “The Politics of Russia and Eastern Europe,” and “War and Peace.”  Surprisingly the former has more students enrolled than the latter.   Usually people find Russia and eastern Europe less interesting than learning about international conflict.   Since they are both on line, I know it’s a choice people made rather than the time the class meets or something that might affect a “normal” course.

The course starts with Russian politics and the Communist era.   Teaching about communism today is much different than it was 20 years ago.   During the Cold War, Communism was seen by most as something evil and dangerous.   Some contrarians tried to defend it, or claim that western capitalism was worse, but whether Democrat or Republican, there was unity in the belief that the Cold War was real and Communism was a threat.

In the years that have followed Communism has become something of a mystery to most students.   This is made worse by way the right wing throws out “commie” and “socialist” in the political discourse.   One student who likes Barack Obama asked me in 2008 “well, if he really is a socialist or a ‘commie’ as Glenn Beck says, then does that mean communism isn’t so bad — because his ideas make sense to me.”   Of course, Obama isn’t anything close to a communist or true socialist — carelessly throwing terms like that around to insult ones’ opponents has the side effect of making the terms seem benign.

So what can we learn by looking at the experiences of Russia and Eastern Europe.   The first lesson is that horrible things can come from good intent.   The early communists were reacting to a system we’d today label as unfair and exploitive.   They believed they were bringing not only equality, but true liberty and enlightenment rationality.   Marx and the Communists had a well researched objective philosophy behind their effort, proving capitalism to be full of contradictions and doomed for failure.   Even Lenin, whose centralization of power both rationalized brutality and later enabled Stalin’s atrocities, truly believed that they were nearing a day when people would be more free than ever before.   The road to hell, as they say, can be paved with good intentions.

The second lesson is to beware of ideologies that give you a nice neat read on reality.   Marxists could point to contradictions galore that show the irrationality of capitalism — the very principles capitalism rest on contradict each other, and point towards a different way of producing value.   The ideology was so appealing, so internally consistent and persuasive that people came to use it as a system through which to interpret reality.    When people stop thinking critically about an ideology and become a proponent, they lose their capacity to see their own errors.   Rather than critically assessing Marx’s work (or that of similar theorists) they used it as a way to explain reality, treating it almost like a religion.   Ideologies are simplistic representations of a complex reality, useful as a starting point, but not something to be believed in as one does an article of faith.   Faith in ideology caused socialists and Marxists to become blind to reality, clinging intstead to slogans and interpretations of reality that explained away anomalies.  The most dangerous was the idea that communism had never truly been tried because capitalists intervened and obstructed its implementation.   “It’s never really been tried” is a very lame way to hold on to something that if it really could work, would have been tried!

Other lessons are more practical:  bureaucracies are very conservative and will lead to stagnation without an external force holding them accountable and forcing change.   That’s true of every bureaucracy, even ones at big corporations or labor unions.   Big corporations have the market to keep them accountable — no moreso than ever.   At one point GM, Ford and Chrysler could get lazy because they led the world and pretty much dominated the US car market.   They stagnated, and then suddenly found themselves behind Japan and other new comers.   That forced change.   In Communism such a stagnation was unchecked and continued for decades.

Worse, in communism the bureaucracy was not held accountable to a political system because that system was controlled by the bureaucratic class.   Many call Soviet and East European style communism ‘bureaucratic socialism,’ because ultimately the leaders became simply entrenched bureaucrats running a system that benefited the elite nomenklatura and believing that a stagnate status quo would be enough.   It was a recipe for rapid decline and failure.

Finally, there is a real lesson in how the so-called “social contract” between the Party and the people led to disaster.   Under communism everything was guaranteed:  a job, an apartment, health care, a retirement pension, vacation time, education, and complete security.   In exchange you were supposed to simply do your part for the country and not oppose the government.   This doesn’t sound so bad at first — complete security in exchange for becoming apolitical.  Given how apathetic a lot of people are in the US these days, that might seem tolerable.

However, the price was far higher than one might expect.   Because of the bureaucratic control, the chance for creative input into society disappeared, and personal ambition was limited.  Ambitious folk found the party the only mode of upward mobility, and there adherence to the bureaucratic status quo was the key to success.  If you worked in a factory or any “normal” job you learned you went along with the procedures in place; even suggesting a ‘better way to do things’ was dangerous.  Maybe it would be seen as a plus and you’d get rewarded, but it was more likely that you’d be seen as a trouble maker.

The cost of this denial of human achievement was spiritual decay.   One might think it wouldn’t be such a big deal — in medieval times humans had material stagnation and no social mobility, yet lives were arguably meaningful and full.   But that era was built on community and faith.   The material world was not the most important aspect of life, close knit communities and belief in an eternal paradise gave a sense of meaning.   Under communism that was gone.  Since “community” was forced on people, with the secret police causing distrust as anyone could be an informant, people retreated into small circles of family and friends, alienated from the community communists claimed to offer.   With faith in nothing but the material, life was dreary.   Alcoholism rates skyrocketed, as did depression and apathy.   Life was materially better than under the Czars, perhaps, but that might be Communism’s biggest lesson:  Materialism isn’t everything.

There are other lessons.  But it irks me when people call American “liberals” communist or socialist.   “Real existing socialism” was brutal and trivializing it by calling support for a health care system, a mildly progressive tax system or regulations on banks “socialist” dismisses the the true dangers of real socialism.    Social welfare states like Sweden are nothing like the Communist states of Eastern Europe; Barack Obama’s ideas are nothing like Communism.   Ronald Reagan was right when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire;” despite the allusions to Star Wars, it was an empire that was based on anti-human policies.   We need to learn from that, especially how good ideas went so bad, and how ideological thinking can blind one.   And don’t forget — Ronald Reagan grew the government and advocated tax rates higher than those being advocated by President Obama!

Finally, communism and capitalism are not opposites where one is good and the other bad.    Some fall victim to thinking if they dislike one, the other (sometimes in extreme form)  is the only alternative.   There are many approaches to politics and economics — dichotomous thinking is a sign of laziness.     Or, as I wrote at the end of a poem inspired by seeing the after effects of Communism in Russia ten years ago “reality defies any ideology.”

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