Category Archives: philosophy

Decembrists as European Celebrities

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1667-1683:

Nicholas and his ministers had sought, if not the physical, then the political annihilation of the Decembrists as representatives of constitutional reform within the Russian elite. But in these terms they failed, for the story of the Decembrists’ exile to Siberia is the story of a victory snatched from defeat. Lionized by their supporters, their moral authority only grew over the course of Nicholas I’s reign and would inspire a subsequent generation of radicals after his death. In exile in London, Herzen became the leading draughtsman of the inspiring legend of the Decembrists and their wives. His journal, The Polar Star, took its name from an almanac published by the executed Decembrist poet Ryleyev, and boasted a masthead adorned with the faces of the five hanged ringleaders of the rebellion. Herzen established himself as the most influential radical intellectual of the first half of the nineteenth century and was one of the leading architects of the Russian revolutionary movement in the 1860s and 1870s. The tale he crafted of the revolutionary martyrs of 1825 went on to inspire a later generation of the autocracy’s enemies.

The Decembrists’ uprising and their exile also resonated far beyond Russia itself. In the Italian peninsula, Giuseppe Mazzini and his republican movement, Young Italy, saluted the memory of the men “who gave their lives for the liberation of the Slavic peoples, thus becoming citizens and brothers of all who struggle for the cause of Justice and Truth on earth.” The Decembrists had also blazed a trail for Polish patriots. By the end of the 1820s, republicanism in Poland, buoyed by developments elsewhere in Europe, was very much in the ascendancy. Polish rebels would look to the Decembrists’ attempt to restore “ancient Russian freedom” as a source of inspiration. The next armed challenge to Nicholas I would come not in the streets of the imperial capital, but on the westernmost periphery of his empire, in Warsaw. Siberia would beckon for the Polish rebels as it had for the Decembrists.

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Origins of Elite Russian Patriotism

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1165-1188:

The uprising on Senate Square had intellectual roots that stretched back into the European Enlightenment and Romanticism, but the Decembrist movement had taken shape a decade earlier in the Imperial Army. The future Decembrists had discovered the Russian nation while fighting Napoleon and the invading French in 1812. The conflict had forged new bonds of fraternity and loyalty between the officers and their men. Russian peasants, many of whom were serfs, had shown themselves capable of loyalty, dependability and devotion to the motherland. Upon their return to Russia at the end of the conflict, the young noblemen struggled to reconcile their inspiring experiences of fighting alongside men who remained their legal property as serfs. The institution of serfdom became for them a shameful reminder of the empire’s backwardness and of the yawning gulf between the educated and wealthy elite and the desperately impoverished peasantry. Forged in the crucible of 1812, the officers’ patriotic loyalties to the Russian people began to eclipse their dynastic loyalty to the tsar.

Many Russian officers also returned from the Napoleonic Wars with their heads full of new political ideas. One officer observed that “if we took France by force of arms, she conquered us with her customs.” Many leaders of the Decembrist movement, such as Sergei Volkonsky, Ivan Yakushkin and Mikhail Fonvizin, had returned triumphantly in 1815 only to chafe at the strict hierarchies and stifling parade-ground discipline of military life. Having fought against “Napoleonic despotism” in Europe, they struggled to reconcile themselves to a Russia that was essentially the personal fiefdom of the tsar. Nikolai Bestuzhev attempted to explain his participation in the rebellion in a letter to Nicholas after his arrest:

We delivered our homeland from tyranny but we are tyrannised once again by our own sovereign…Why did we free Europe, only to be placed in chains ourselves? Did we grant a constitution to France only to not dare to speak of one for ourselves? Did we pay with our blood for primacy among nations only to be oppressed at home?

Others, such as Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Dmitry Zavalishin, too young to have fought Napoleon, were nevertheless driven by the ideas of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Concordet [sic] and Rousseau. In the wake of Russia’s victory over Napoleon, they found inspiration in the rebellions led by liberal officers in other countries demanding constitutionalism and independence.

From 1816 onwards, these young patriotic idealists began to gather in informal groups and “secret societies” to discuss reform.

But they spoke mostly French among themselves, and Russian with their servants.

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China’s Agricultural Revolutionaries

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5314-5338:

The transformation of agriculture in 1978 and 1979 proceeded with little instigation from the top. The peasants sensed the opportunities provided by the loosening of the party’s political control and pushed ahead. It was a process marked by wide regional variation; there seem to have been as many different names for agricultural reform experiments during this period as there are counties in China. It was also very much a matter of trial and error. When the politicians learned what the peasants were up to, they usually waited for evidence of success before they committed themselves unambiguously. Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang could claim credit for letting the farmers do what came naturally. When the experiments of the peasants bore fruit, Deng publicized their success, recognizing a good thing when he saw it. But he certainly could not take credit for giving farmers the idea.

The irony, as American anthropologist Stephen Mosher realized, was that Western scholars at the time regarded the Chinese as incorrigible collectivists. “Group thinking” was considered an indelible part of traditional culture that predisposed the Chinese to Communist ways. As a result, Mosher had come to the countryside expecting to discover evidence that the peasants were fundamentally satisfied with the stability and predictability furnished by the regime. According to scholarly reasoning, the Communist Party had taken power in 1949 largely due to the support of the country dwellers. It had promised to improve the lot of the peasantry, and in this it had surely succeeded. After all, hadn’t the Communists brought schools and basic health care to even some of the most remote villages? Hadn’t they eliminated the corruption and tyranny of the old landlords? Upon his arrival, Mosher carefully noted all the characteristics of a traditional society that skewed visibly to collective ways of doing things.

The rampant cynicism and apathy that he encountered in China’s real-existing countryside thus came as something of a shock, and his account provides a fascinating chronicle of how a preconceived view can disintegrate upon contact with reality. But amid the ruins of Mao’s utopian edifice, Mosher also discovered intriguing evidence of a powerful source of transformative energy: individual initiative. Though they were far from the places where the most important experiments were under way, the people in Mosher’s remote Guangdong village had already picked up on the spread of the household-responsibility system, and he succeeded in capturing a nice snapshot of the spirit that, once unleashed, would soon lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The old entrepreneurial mind-set of the Chinese “flared anew once opportunity presented itself,” Mosher noted. When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch, planting the bushes between the rows of trees on the farm. “You can’t do that now because people are careless when they work,” she explained to the American. “They would step on them when they are spreading mud [as fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I’ll be careful because they’ll be mine.”

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Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

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Hua Guofeng and the Two Whatevers, 1977

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2594-2619:

In the wake of Mao’s death, the colorless Hua surprised everyone with a sudden show of initiative. Allying himself with two established party elders, Army Marshal Ye Jianying and veteran functionary Li Xiannian, Hua engineered the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was a startling gambit even by the Byzantine standards of twentieth-century Communist conspiracies. Hua had started by splitting off one of the Gang’s key allies, a man by the name of Wang Dongxing, who had risen with the Gang’s help to become the head of the party’s Praetorian Guard, the 8341 Special Regiment, which provided for the security of top officials. Hua and Wang arranged for two of the Gang’s leaders to be called to a special session of the Politburo. They were arrested at gunpoint as they stepped into the room. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow and the Gang’s leader, was taken into custody in her bedroom; one of her personal servants is said to have spat on her as she was led away. Under orders from Hua, the People’s Liberation Army quickly moved to disarm the heavily armed militias and the powerful media machine that Jiang’s faction had built up over the years. The Cultural Revolution was finally coming to an end.

Yet what was Hua offering in its place? This was not immediately clear. Hua certainly understood that the country could no longer afford permanent revolution. Adopting a strategy originally envisioned by Zhou Enlai, he declared that China should push ahead with “the Four Modernizations” (science and technology, industry, national defense, and agriculture). He moved to restore the economy’s animal spirits by ordering a huge surge of investment in industry and agriculture. Like Gierek in Poland, Hua seemed to believe that part of the solution involved taking big foreign loans for flagship projects; also like Gierek, he seemed to have few concrete ideas about how these loans would be paid back.

Hua’s program did result in tangible growth. But it also led to big budget deficits and scandalous waste, since it failed to tackle many of the serious problems of management and organization bequeathed by Maoist excess. Hua had the right idea, but he was still, in essence, relying on mobilization and slogans rather than substantive economic policy. Some of his critics belittled the program as another Great Leap Forward, a utopian exercise with little practical foundation. Hua, for example, urged a rapid increase in the output of steel, which duly materialized. But to what end? What, precisely, was the underlying economic strategy?

Hua had eliminated the Gang of Four. He tried to revive the economy. But he seemed hesitant to put an end to the broader legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1977, a few months after Mao’s death, Hua’s supporters published a statement containing a conspicuous quote: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” This credo came to be known as the “the two whatevers,” and its adherents, “the Whateverists.” Like many factional nicknames, this one contained a large grain of truth. Hua’s legitimacy stemmed from the fact that he was Mao’s chosen successor. That counted for a lot. But it also limited his freedom of maneuver. He could not chip away at the memory of the Great Helmsman without undermining himself.

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Quoting Mao Against Mao, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2656-2682:

In May 1978, the prominent national newspaper Guangming Daily published an article with the innocuous title “Practice Is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth.” The piece was quickly picked up by a series of other publications, including the leading army newspaper. The title sounds dull enough, but it went off like a bomb. The article, collectively authored by a team of academics working under the direction of rising party reformer Hu Yaobang, argued that Communist ideology was not the only yardstick for determining what was true. If Marxism was indeed a scientific theory, as it claimed to be, its findings ought to be tested through experiment: apply them to reality and see if they worked. Marx had said that the social and political prescriptions derived from his theory had to be subjected to constant empirical testing to make sure that they coincided with the dictates of historical materialism. And just to be sure that everyone got the point, the authors of the article undergirded their argument with a slogan from Mao himself—the one they used as the article’s title.

They were, in short, using Mao’s own words to undermine the central Maoist postulate of the Cultural Revolution, namely, the idea that the imperative of “revolution” overrode all else, including professional expertise, scientific knowledge, or economic efficiency. To many Chinese, the article’s paean to pragmatism sounded like a healthy dose of common sense after years of hysteria. Yet this was exactly what the Whateverists did not want to allow. After all, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his adepts had followed a rather different principle: for them it was revolutionary zeal, directed against the entrenched establishment, that had become the decisive litmus test for the correctness of policy. It was this same mind-set that had led to the persecution of countless engineers, managers, scholars, and scientists on the grounds of insufficient “class consciousness”—with devastating consequences for the Chinese economy.

Prioritizing “practice,” as the authors of the new article demanded, thus represented an implicit challenge to those who considered themselves to be the keepers of the chairman’s flame. If this new argument won the day, unwavering loyalty to Maoist slogans would no longer be the deciding factor in career advancement or political struggle. Professional skill, managerial competence, or scholarly acumen would come to the forefront. Deng, who does not appear to have been directly involved in the publication of that article, was quick to see its uses in his reckoning with Hua. Since his return to the center of party life, Deng had already been putting a different Mao quote at the center of his speeches: “Seek truth from facts.” This, of course, was a dig at Hua and his adherents, who continued to stress that truth was whatever Mao had said it was. Among the things that Deng had learned from his long years of involvement in party intrigues was the importance of defining the terms of debate. He now set out to deploy his “good,” pragmatic Mao against the “bad,” doctrinaire one of the Cultural Revolutionaries. Would the party cling to the Mao celebrated by the Gang of Four, inflexible, rigid, and dogmatic? Or would Chinese Communists reach back to the earlier version of Mao that was now held up high by Deng and his friends—a Mao who had (allegedly) celebrated the virtues of practicality and sober realism?

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1979, A Turning Point

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 236-279:

These five stories—rich in event and grand personalities—would be worth telling in themselves. But do they really have that much to do with each other? Surely, Britain’s first female prime minister has nothing in common with Iranian Shiism’s leading militant cleric. And what could possibly unite the bishop of Rome, the budding Islamists of Afghanistan, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party? The fact that they lived through the same historical inflection point, one might argue, does not mean that their stories are linked. Coincidence is not correlation.

In fact, though, they have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories—the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher’s election victory, the pope’s first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China’s economic reforms—deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.

Not all of the historical figures whose fates converged that year necessarily thought of themselves as conservatives, and none of them tried to turn back the clock to some hallowed status quo ante. This is precisely because they were all reacting, in their own ways, to a long period of revolutionary fervor that expressed itself in movements ranging from social democracy to Maoism—and it is striking that they were all variously denounced by their enemies on the Left as “reactionaries,” “obscurantists,” “feudalists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” who aimed above all to defy the march of progress.

There was a grain of truth to these accusations. The protagonists of 1979 were, in their own ways, participants in a great backlash against revolutionary overreach. Deng Xiaoping rejected the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in favor of pragmatic economic development—a move that, despite Deng’s disclaimers, entailed a gradual restoration of capitalist institutions. Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state was fueled by his violent repudiation of the shah’s state-led modernization program (known as the “White Revolution”) as well as the Marxist ideas that dominated Iran’s powerful leftist opposition movements. (The shah, indeed, denounced the Shiite clerics as the “black reaction” in contrast to the “red reaction” of the Marxists.) Afghanistan’s Islamic insurgents took up arms against the Moscow-sponsored government in Kabul. John Paul II used Christian faith as the basis for a moral crusade against the godless materialism of the Soviet system. And Margaret Thatcher aimed to roll back the social democratic consensus that had taken hold in Great Britain after World War II.

At the same time, it was easy to underestimate just how much these leaders had actually absorbed from their opponents on the utopian Left. A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counterrevolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution. John Paul II, who had spent most of his adult life under the Communist system, knew the Marxist classics intimately and devoted considerable intellectual and pastoral effort to countering their arguments—knowledge that helped him to shape his program of moral and cultural resistance. (It also left him with an intense interest in the politics of the working class that informed his patronage of the Solidarity movement—as well as feeding a deep skepticism about Western-style capitalism.) Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated Marxist rhetoric and ideas wherever they could, forging a new brand of religious militancy that railed against colonialism and inequality; socialist notions of nationalization and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy. (One historian describes the resulting synthesis as “revolutionary traditionalism.”) Afghanistan’s jihadists borrowed from the Communist playbook by building revolutionary political parties and comprehensive ideological systems to go with them. Margaret Thatcher, who studied at Oxford when Marxism was the reigning political fashion, fused her conservative instincts with a most unconservative penchant for crusading rhetoric, ideological aggression, and programmatic litmus tests. It was precisely for this reason that many of the Conservative Party comrades-in-arms who accompanied her into government in 1979 questioned just how “conservative” she really was. As for Deng Xiaoping, he insisted on maintaining the institutional supremacy of the Communist Party even as he charted a course away from central planning and toward state capitalism. Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad describes Deng’s reform program as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen.”

It was entirely in keeping with this spirit that Thatcher proudly reported to a Conservative Party rally in April 1979 that her political opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. “Well,” she declared, “there’s a lot to react against!” It was, indeed, precisely this peculiar spirit of defiance that gave the year its transformative power. The decisions of these leaders decisively defined the world in which we live—one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicized religion looms large. Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.

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