Category Archives: philosophy

Afghanistan’s New Class

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Abdur Rahman’s imprint would remain surprisingly strong over time, as Barnett Rubin discovered through a statistical analysis of who held prominent government positions eighty years later.

The ethnic composition of the old regime [of the 1970s] was remarkably similar to that of the court circles originally recruited by Amir Abdur Rahman. The most salient characteristic of that elite was that it included more than ten times the concentration of Muhammadzais and Kabulis than the population as a whole. Other Pashtuns were also over-represented, and the overrepresentation of Pashtuns and Muhammadzais was greater among the core power holders than it was in the elite as a whole. Tajiks (mostly Kabulis) were also quite predominant, but mainly in the legal, financial, and social ministries; Pashtuns held the core of power.

The power base of this new elite stood in sharp contrast to the old feudal aristocracy, although it remained largely Pashtun in origin. The feudal aristocracy’s economic power had rested on its landed estates in the provinces, and its political power was derived either from the troops that it could muster or its ability to mobilize its own people in support of (or opposition to) the national government. Abdur Rahman’s elite drew its wealth and political influence either from state patronage that could be withdrawn at any time or their ability to influence state policy. Unlike previous Afghan elites, these people were not masters of a national government but rather its servants. It was a rentier aristocracy that would live in a hothouse world in which everyone knew everyone else (and where everyone not related by birth appeared to be connected by marriage). Members of the Muhammadzai clan in particular would come to display a paradoxical air of aristocratic hauteur undercut by a political servility that ill befit either Afghanistan’s egalitarian ethos or its tribal emphasis on preserving personal autonomy. More significantly for Afghanistan’s future, they were city people in a land where the vast majority of the population still lived in rural villages. Their ties to, and understanding of, this “other Afghanistan” were weak. For the next eighty years, national politics would be restricted to the city of Kabul and the state-dependent elite that held the reins of power there.

Like a similar prerevolutionary aristocracy in France, a small but influential minority of their members were supporters of radical social and political change. They assumed that they would be the leaders of any progressive movement because they were the only educated people in the country. Yet the expansion of the government and economy in the 1960s began to produce a larger class of educated people, who lacked the same access to power and wealth, and the respect for the existing structures of power. Previously, the number of such people was so small that they could be incorporated into the older aristocracy directly or at least co-opted into its patronage network with government jobs. But by the 1970s, their numbers had become too large and their social origins too diverse for this tactic to be effective. The dominating role of Kabul in Afghan political life instead had the perverse effect of creating a mirror counter-elite that Rubin labeled “rentier revolutionaries.” While these groups spoke of radical socialist change that would transform Afghanistan, their means of achieving this goal were the same as their royal predecessors’: to control the state’s assets and use its power themselves.

Based almost exclusively in Kabul, this counter-elite had few ties to rural Afghanistan, even though many had provincial origins. They certainly had no political base there. Rather, they saw themselves as a socialist vanguard party that would use the state to reorganize the economy and Afghan society from the top down. Although more radical, they shared with the Muhammadzais a dependency on state institutions and state power to implement such changes. After taking control of the state structure in 1978, they assumed that they could use its power to impose their policies on the rest of the country at a rapid pace. Never was an assumption more unwarranted. The realities on the ground in Afghanistan would prove much more challenging and difficult, as this and all future governments would come to learn through hard experience. It would also raise questions long buried: What made a government legitimate, and who had the right to rule?

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Truman’s View of Politicians

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 49-50:

For years, John Anderson Truman had taken his family to Jackson County town picnics to hear local politicians speak. “Politics is all he ever advises me to neglect the farm for,” Harry wrote Bess. Harry had studied the lives of all the American presidents. His hero was Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States (1829–1837) and the founder of the Democratic Party, for whom Jackson County, Missouri, was named. Jackson’s adventures in war and politics made his life story read like an adventure novel. “I have been tossed upon the waves of fortune,” Jackson famously said. He was the first American president to come from the common people—people like the Trumans. “If Andrew Jackson can be President, anybody can!” was a common quip of Jackson’s day.

In the fall of 1912 the presidential election was the talk of the Truman dinner table for weeks. Not in Truman’s lifetime had an election been so bitterly fought. A schism tore apart the Republican Party. The incumbent president, William Howard Taft, had won the nomination, leading a humiliated Republican opponent, Theodore Roosevelt, to strike out independently. With his newly created Bull Moose Party, his magnanimity, and his wild oratory style, Theodore Roosevelt riveted Americans. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had only two years of political experience, and none in national politics. Less than a month before the election, a would-be assassin fired a gunshot into Theodore Roosevelt’s chest, the bullet passing through the pages of a speech he was about to give. With the bullet lodged less than an inch from his heart, he delivered the speech, then went to the hospital and survived. Two weeks later Vice President James Sherman died, leaving the Republican Taft with no running mate.

“Nobody talks anything but election,” Harry wrote Bess on November 6, the day after the contest, which Wilson won, becoming the twenty-eighth president of the United States. The brutality of this election made Truman philosophical about his future and politics itself, especially when his father threw his hat in the ring, running and winning the local office of road overseer.

“Politics sure is the ruination of many a good man,” Harry wrote Bess. “Between hot air and graft he usually loses not only his head but his money and friends as well. Still, if I were rich I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and offices as yachts and autos. Success seems to me to be merely a point of view anyway . . .

“To succeed financially,” Harry concluded, “a man can’t have any heart. To succeed politically he must be an egotist or a fool or a ward boss tool.”

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Gorbachev Begins His Last Day in Office

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 8-10:

Known by the security people as the wolfichantze (wolfs lair), the presidential dacha is serviced by a staff of several cooks, maids, drivers, and bodyguards, all of whom have their quarters on the lower floor or in outbuildings. It has several living rooms with enormous fireplaces, a vast dining room, a conference room, a clinic staffed with medical personnel, spacious bathrooms on each floor, a cinema, and a swimming pool. Everywhere there is marble paneling, parquet floors, woven Uzbek carpets, and crystal chandeliers. Outside large gardens and a helicopter landing area have been carved out of the 164 acres of woodland. The surrounding area is noted for its pristine air, wooded hills, and views over the wide, curving Moscow River.

For more than half a century Soviet leaders have occupied elegant homes along the western reaches of the river. This area has been the favored retreat of the Moscow elite since the seventeenth century, when Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich expressly forbade the construction of any production facilities. Stalin lived in a two-story mansion on a high bank in Kuntsevo, closer to the city. Known as Blizhnyaya Dacha (“nearby dacha”), it was hidden in a twelve-acre wood with a double-perimeter fence and at one time was protected by eight camouflaged 30-millimeter antiaircraft guns and a special unit of three hundred interior ministry troops. At Gorbachev’s dacha there is a military command post, facilities for the nuclear button and its operators, and a special garage containing an escape vehicle with a base as strong as a military tank.

Every previous Soviet leader but one left their dachas surrounded by wreaths of flowers. Stalin passed away in his country house while continuing to exercise his powers, and those who followed him—Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—all expired while still in charge of the communist superpower. Only Stalin’s immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer like Gorbachev, had his political career brought to a sudden end when he was ousted from power in 1964 for, as Pravda put it, “decisions and actions divorced from reality.”

Today Gorbachev will suffer the same fate as Khrushchev. He will depart from the dacha as president of the Soviet Union. When he returns in the evening, he will be Gospodin (“Mister”) Gorbachev, a pensioner, age sixty—ten years younger than Khrushchev was when he was kicked out.

At around 9:30 a.m. Gorbachev takes his leave of Zakharka, as he fondly calls Raisa (he once saw a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Venetsianov of a woman of that name who bore a resemblance to Raisa). He goes down the wooden stairs, past the pictures hanging on the staircase walls, among them a multicolored owl drawn in childish hand, sent to Raisa as a memento by a young admirer. At the bottom of the stairs was, until recently, a little dollhouse with a toboggan next to it, a reminder of plans for New Year’s festivities with the grandchildren, eleven-year-old Kseniya and four-year-old Nastya; the family will now have to celebrate elsewhere. He spends a minute at the cloakroom on the right of the large hallway to change his slippers for outdoor shoes, then dons a fine rust-colored scarf, grey overcoat, and fur hat, and leaves through the double glass doors, carrying his resignation speech in a thin, soft leather document case.

Outside in the bright morning light his driver holds open the front passenger door of his official stretch limousine, a Zil-41047, one of a fleet built for party and state use only. Gorbachev climbs into the leather seat beside him. He always sits in the front.

Two colonels in plainclothes emerge from their temporary ground-floor lodgings with the little suitcase that accompanies the president everywhere. They climb into a black Volga sedan to follow the Zil into Moscow. It will be their last ride with this particular custodian of the chemodanchik, the case holding the communications equipment to launch a nuclear strike.

With a swish of tires, the bullet-proof limousine—in reality an armored vehicle finished off as a luxury sedan—moves around the curving drive and out through a gate in the high, green wooden fence, where a policeman gives a salute, and onto Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway. The heavy automobile proceeds for the first five miles under an arch of overhanging snow-clad fir trees with police cars in front and behind flashing their blue lights. It ponderously negotiates the frequent bends that were installed to prevent potential assassins from taking aim at Soviet officials on their way to and from the Kremlin. Recently some of the state mansions have been sold to foreigners by cash-strapped government departments, and many of the once-ubiquitous police posts have disappeared.

The convoy speeds up as it comes to Kutuzovsky Prospekt. It races for five miles along the center lane reserved for official cavalcades, zooms past enormous, solid Stalin-era apartment blocks, and hurtles underneath Moscow’s Triumphal Arch and across the Moscow River into the heart of the Russian capital. The elongated black car hardly slackens speed as it cruises along New Arbat, its pensive occupant unseen behind the darkened windows.

The seventh and last Soviet leader plans to explain on television this evening that he dismantled the totalitarian regime and brought them freedom, glasnost, political pluralism, democracy, and an end to the Cold War. For doing so, he is praised and admired throughout the world.

But here in Russia he is the subject of harsh criticism for his failure to improve the lot of the citizens. Few of the bleary-eyed shoppers slipping and sliding on the dirty, compacted snow outside food stores will shed tears at his departure from office. They judge him through the prism of empty shop windows.

Gorbachev knows that. He has even repeated to foreign dignitaries a popular anecdote against himself, about a man in a long line for vodka who leaves in frustration, telling everyone he is going to the Kremlin to shoot Gorbachev, only to return later complaining, “There’s a longer line there.”

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China’s Constant Internal Migrations

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 53:

China generates paradox. The Chinese are renowned for their attachment to place, their deep identification with native soil. And yet whenever one looks at Chinese history one finds people everywhere on the move. Migration is part of this movement, the permanent transfer of people from one region to another, sometimes pushed out of their original homeland by overpopulation, poverty, disaster, or war, and sometimes attracted to new lands by real or presumed opportunities for betterment of their lives.

But migrants were not the only travelers across the Chinese landscape. Merchants big and small set forth on business trips; Buddhist monks and devout layfolk made pilgrimages or sought centers of learning; scholars aspiring to prestigious careers in the imperial civil service headed for provincial capitals or Peking to take the most fiendishly demanding examinations ever devised. Officials took up their posts across the far-flung realm, and some were exiled for real or alleged offenses to the most remote and dangerous corners of the empire; corvee labor gangs were sent to work on canals or defensive walls; boatmen and transport coolies moved the goods of the empire; one might even spot a rare travel buff exploring his world out of curiosity or scholarly interest. There were foreign traders, Japanese and Korean monks who had come to learn from Chinese Buddhist masters, ambassadors and their retinues, entertainers, bandits, fugitives. In wartime, armies were on the march. Rebel hordes, angry and desperate peasants headed by ambitious or megalomaniac leaders with their own dynastic dreams, followed the same routes as migrants, merchants, a11d scht1lars. In the mid-1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, urban youth went on an orgy of hitherto prohibited travel, sanctioned by Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary dictum to “exchange revolutionary experience”; later, beginning in 1969, some fourteen million of these urban youth were sent whether they wanted to go or not to the countryside to “learn from the peasants.”

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Grendel the Revolutionary

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 35-36:

Other days I gave them writing assignments; for Beowulf we talked about point of view, and they wrote about the story from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Almost without exception the boys wrote about what it was like to eat people, and how to do it properly; while the girls wrote about how cold and dark the moor was, and how monsters have feelings too. One student named Grace wrote:

The warriors said I am a monster, I can’t agree with them, but on the contrary I think the warriors and the king are indeed monsters.

You see, they eat delicious foods and drinking every day. Where the foods and drinking come from? They must deprive these things from peasants.

The king and the warriors do nothing but eat delicious foods; the peasants work hard every day, but have bad foods, even many of them have no house to live, like me just live in the moor. So I think the world is unfair, I must change it.

The warriors, I hate them. I will punish them for the poor people. I will ask the warriors build a large room and invited the poor people to live with me.

In college I had been taught by a few Marxist critics, most of whom were tenured, with upper-class backgrounds and good salaries. They turned out plenty of commentary—often about the Body, and Money, and Exchange—but somehow it didn’t have quite the same bite as Grace’s vision of Grendel as Marxist revolutionary. There was honesty, too—this wasn’t tweed Marxism; Grace, after all, was the daughter of peasants. She didn’t have tenure, and I had always felt that it was better if people who spoke feelingly of Revolution and Class Struggle were not tenured. And I figured that if you have to listen to Marxist interpretations of literature, you might as well hear them at a college where the students clean the classrooms.

The truth was that politics were unavoidable at a Chinese college, even if the course was foreign literature, and in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics.

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The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

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Fake News in Spain, 1937

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1153-70, 1262-68:

On the afternoon of May 7, some six thousand additional government troops arrived, and the fighting ended. Again, Orwell was impressed by how well these rear-area units were equipped, compared with his front-line unit. To his disgust, the government blamed all the fighting on POUM, because it was the weakest of the leftist factions.

Watching all this, Orwell arrived at some conclusions that clashed with leftist conventions of the era. At a time when leftist solidarity was considered mandatory, the right thing to do, Orwell began to harbor suspicions. Observing the fighting in Barcelona between different antifascist factions, he noted, “You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.”

In effect, the events in Barcelona forced him to examine the left as he once earlier had scrutinized imperialism and capitalism. He concluded, “The Communist Party, with Soviet Russia, had thrown its weight against the revolution.” It was determined to systematically wipe out the anticommunist parts of the left—first POUM, then the anarchists, and then socialists.

But to say this in public was a form of modern heresy. Orwell realized, with shock, that the left-wing newspapers did not report the situation accurately, and did not want to. Rather, they willingly accepted lies. “One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right,” he wrote. This set him on his life’s work, to push continually to establish the facts, no matter how difficult or unpopular that might be.

On May 10, 1937, he left Barcelona to return to the front, where the POUM was still deployed, despite being suppressed back in Barcelona by the government whose territory it was defending. On May 11, the POUM was denounced in the Daily Worker as “Franco’s Fifth Column.” Posters appeared on Barcelona walls with the headline TEAR THE MASK, showing a face marked POUM, and a fascist face underneath it. It was classic “big lie” propaganda.

The POUM soldiers at the front there had not been told that they were being denounced in Barcelona, and the newspapers from the city remained quiet about the purge.

From Spain on, his mission was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power. This became his faith. “In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he wrote a few years later. He continued:

I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”

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