Guest post: Varieties of authoritarianism

Originally a comment by Michael Haubrich on From kulaks to Mariupol.

I watched a program in the nineties about the economic struggles in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that Yeltsin was the mayor of Moscow at the time, and the government was in flux. Many people welcomed the freedoms that they had under Glasnost that they had not had under the Soviets. Recall that art exhibits in the public square, up until very recently, could be bulldozed by the Ministry for Culture if they included any Modern Art. I was surprised at how many of the older Russians longed for the days of Stalin. They said they knew exactly where they stood, and that the rules were clear. Under Yeltsin and Gorbachev, they had suffered too much anomie in the post-Soviet era. The lingering effects of a lifetime of propaganda in place of news had served to imprint on them, perhaps until the end of their lives, that the Soviet government really was serving everyone’s best interest. There really are people who feel safer when freedom from thought is valued over freedom of thought.

As a budding leftist, I was never under the illusion that the Soviet Union was a happy place for anyone with independent thought. I had been reading Solzhenitzyn before I read Lord of the Rings, believe it or not. If you don’t take the time to read The Gulag Archipelago, at least pick up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I read what I could by Russians, as well as Americans who visited the Soviet Union. The reason that I don’t think we should fall into the trap of thinking of “left v right” in politics is that what we often think of being as leftist is actually something different. Stalinism was a way for the apparatchik to gain wealth by the use of slave labor, and in the Worker’s Paradise, unions were under the control of the government. It always surprised me to find how much of the American left was participating in the propaganda that the Soviet Union was building a happy place; ignoring the suppression of science, ignoring the rampant rise in alcoholism, the five year plans that continued to fail, the continuation of the persecution of the Jews, industrializing the Siberian wilderness, polluting the Arctic, and on and on.

It irritates me no end when Bernie and AOC talk about socialism, because they really don’t mean that the Central government should control the means of production. They mean that they want to institute programs that provide government support to the people who are left behind by capitalism. Roosevelt and Johnson instituted their programs not to move us along the road to communism, but at least in Roosevelt’s case prevent the working class from rising up and starting a communist revolution. Roosevelt was protecting capitalism. But when the American left talk about socialism, they invoke the images of the Soviet Union bulldozing art exhibits and make it easy for the conservatives to ridicule their ideas, which may be sensible other than by their labels.

I think I need to go back and read Das Kapital because I was entirely too young when I did. But if memory serves, Marx was not saying that Communism could be forced by a revolution, he was saying that it is a stage of evolution in societies. Leninism and Stalinism always held out Communism as an ideal and that socialism was a means to get there, and it served to sway their masses in their favor like a carrot on a stick that the horse can never reach.

And don’t get me started on the Chinese. They call themselves Communist, but they are very much capitalist. The one thing they have retained is their authoritarianism.

I think that what we lack in modern politics is a real understanding of basic concepts, and so we have devolved in to a Red v Blue mindset, and a belief that if my side is right on one issue, then we are right on every issue. Which also leads to if they are wrong on this one issue that is important to me, then they are suddenly losers who are wrong on everything. We’ve tossed all our fine-tipped brushes and replaced them with broad ones. If I think that one of the purposes of government should be to mediate power so that the oligarchy doesn’t take over everything, I don’t mean to imply that I think that all corporations are evil money-grubbing bastards who don’t care if they kill all the bambis in the forest. I do think we need to make widgets the best we can while not doing too much damage to the water we rely on, etc. And I think that the goverment should step in and reduce the power of monopolists.

So, enough rambling. My original point is that the Soviet Union was effective at Propaganda and American leftists were fooled, but not me, and we need to be able to recognize authoritarianism whether it is from the left side or the right side.

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