Stalin’s Short Cuts and the Judgment of History

Stalin’s attempts at “short-cutting” history are numerous. They are also rather ironic, since classical Marxism took a more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary” approach to politics. According to Karl Marx the transition from feudalism to capitalism to socialism was both gradual and inevitable. More moderate socialists, including many Mensheviks, believed that they should ally with the bourgeois democratic revolution against Tsarist autocracy as a necessary phase in societal progress toward full communism.  By contrast the Bolsheviks under Lenin favored violence and direct action. The proletarian state must be built as quickly as possible.

Stalin was initially wary of Lenin’s bold tactics during the early stages of revolution. But his attitude changed. With his appointment as commissar during the Russian Civil War the Georgian radical was able to exercise his penchant for arrogant and ruthless action. Lenin’s overthrow of the Provisional Government and the terroristic military and economic measures of War Communism were prototypes of the types of short cuts which Stalin would pursue later in his career.

Many Bolsheviks were impatient for change, but Stalin saw his role as particularly significant. By the late 1920s the Soviet leader had consolidated his power by successfully playing off different wings of the party against each other.  As the emerging autocrat of the Kremlin he grew wary of compromise measure like the New Economic Policy and urged immediate collectivization and industrialization.  He believed that cultural, military and economic transformation had to be speeded up. Facts were ignored. Quotas for agricultural and manufacturing output were concocted in advance, and the work of experts was disdained in favor of fanatical enthusiasm and brute force.

Both collectivization and the later purges of the Great Terror served an additional purpose in Stalin’s mind. Opponents would not be combated through normal political measures but would simply be eradicated. Here we gain a clear insight into Stalin’s ethical impatience. He is quoted as saying, “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” This approach applied to his dealings with both individuals and whole classes of people.

Was such an outlook “successful”? In the purely Stalinist sense perhaps it was. Russia was a country of vast resources and population. The “Vozhd” (leader) could afford to be profligate in the short-term. His system of entrenched terror, centralized control and permanent ideological mobilization created what may be cynically viewed as the perfect tyranny. Stalin’s supremacy went unchallenged until his death in 1953. But seen in terms of fundamental humanist values it was achieved amid incredible waste and brutality to the point that even his successors dismantled its worst features; while in the long-term, the Stalinist legacy eventually crumbled under the weight of its own failures. In this respect one might say that history ultimately had its revenge on the “short cuts” of the USSR.

The above commentary is taken from an essay originally submitted for the class “Stalin and Stalinism in Russian History,” taught by Prof. Irina Filatova, National Research University Higher School of Economics (offered through Coursera).

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Posted in History, Politics

When Words Fail

There are two ways in which words can fail us: either we find them wholly inadequate to the intensity of our feelings, or else speech is appropriate yet the words chosen are done so without care.  As an example of the first instance, the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote that “the impact of grief, to be extreme, must stun the whole soul and impede its freedom of action.” He also quotes Seneca: “Light cares can speak, but heavy ones are mute.” Just as illuminating are some facts about Montaigne himself:

When he started his book [of essays] he had lost a dear friend, Etienne de La Boétie, to whom he had been able to express his every thought, view, and feeling. Self-sufficient though he was, he had an imperious need to communicate…. [T]he reader takes the place of the dead friend. When we talk to a friend we do not constantly confess and plumb the depths of our soul; for to do so is to threaten, by excessive self-concern, the tacit equilibrium that friendship assumes and needs (Donald Frame, introduction to The Complete Works of Montaigne).

It is possible to over-communicate. We usually do so to our regret. In the public sphere especially there must be a balance between reticence and candor. To say too much about our likes or dislikes lessens the impact of our message. By contrast I’m reminded of the power of an author like Maurice Baring, an infinitely humane and sensitive man, who could artfully convey the horror of war, plague or sundry other adversities. Speaking of his time as a correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War:

I remember a train journey to Liaoyang, and a soldier crying in the train because another soldier, after using strings of blood-curdling language and startling obscenities, which did not produce any effect, as they were like worn-out counters, called him a sheep….

Writers in his day referred to people using “unprintable language.” They knew what it meant. Today we apparently have to spell out all the expletives, even when they become “worn-out counters.” The question here is not what I or anyone else says in private (which may at times be unprintable) but how we express ourselves to the world at large. It is an opportunity to use speech at a more thoughtful level. On the other hand, an inadequate, disrespectful or slovenly misuse of words actually shuts down communication.

Related commentary: Literary Insights from Albert Camus

Posted in Art and Culture

Enlightened Skepticism

Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony has penned an interesting essay in The Wall Street Journal (“The Dark Side of the Enlightenment”) about Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. I have not read the volume in question, but the fact that Bill Gates calls it his “new favorite book” makes me doubtful.

Hazony takes issue with Pinker’s belief that all of modernity’s best ideas came from a pantheon of secular 18th century thinkers. Historically it simply isn’t true. Instead Hazony traces many advances in science and some of our cherished Western political assumptions to Renaissance theorists, who flourished in an age when religion and custom were just as venerated as the goddess of reason. By that same token other, less desirable, developments can be attributed to the philosophers celebrated by Pinker.

It was once well understood that much of the modern world’s success grew out of conservative traditions that were openly skeptical of reason. When I was a graduate student at Rutgers in the 1980s, the introductory course in modern political theory had a section called “Critics of the Enlightenment.” These figures included more conservative thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. They emphasized the unreliability of “abstract reasoning,” which they believed could end up justifying virtually any idea, no matter how disconnected from reality, as long as it sounded self-evidently true to someone.

Yet on one point at least he seems to be justifiably consistent in his optimism: modern race relations. Whereas ideologues on the hard left, committed to the notion of crisis politics, tell us that racism is just as pervasive as it was in the days of the lynch mob, Pinker’s view of human progress inclines him to acknowledge the statistical decline in racialist attitudes (for further commentary, see a recent article in Quillette).  This notable exception aside, however, I tend to agree with Hazony:

Mr. Pinker praises skepticism as a cornerstone of the Enlightenment’s “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge.” But the principal figures of Enlightenment philosophy weren’t skeptics. Just the opposite: Their aim was to create their own system of universal, certain truths….

Hazony questions the genius of rationalists like Locke and Kant, who thought of morality as a laboratory experiment. Pinker’s research can be criticized as being highly selective and he glosses over important exceptions. Kant’s contemporary, the more traditionally-minded Samuel Johnson, warned that “We seldom consider that human knowledge is very narrow,” and as for benevolent social schemes: “Every novelty appears more wonderful as it is more remote from any thing with which experience or testimony has hitherto acquainted us.” Remote, and often attainable only at a very high cost.

Posted in History, Philosophy

The Observant Traveler

English writer Hilaire Belloc was observant not only in his travels, but also in his journey through life. Consider the essay “On Wandering” in Places (1941):

A man wanders in order to entertain himself with new discoveries and experiences…. But he travels in order to visit cities and men, and to get a knowledge of the real places where things happened in the past.

The first is undertaken for its own sake, the other with a definite goal in mind. Belloc also urges us to visit even those sites we think we know well through books or photographs, reassuring us of the “novelty about a distant place actually experienced at last through the senses.” There is no substitute for being there, a point perhaps even more germane to our age of simulated realities. Such a journey is more than an opportunity for selfies and social media postings; it is a “discovery” that belongs uniquely to each individual.

In “Fashion” Belloc discusses the evolution of travel writing: the gradual shift from descriptions of people and towns (which had held sway since ancient times) to the romantic, almost pantheistic, fixation on nature itself, which became popular by the late 18th century. He seems impatient with the latter, though few writers were as masterful or sympathetic as Belloc in describing the natural world. Consider his essay “The Silences” where he speaks of communing with the dead amid the great woods: “The trees are brotherly to man, especially the greater trees.” Even in remote locales there is always an anthropological reference. That is perhaps what set him apart from most of his contemporaries. By comparison, he says of the romantic writer

He is all rocks and waterfalls and big hills…. With these he will infuse… a certain personal melancholy, not to say peevishness…. That was the great mark of the romantic time, I think; a naive, often exasperating preoccupation with the writer’s little troubles…. Later on, this inordinate complaint with the general lot turned sour and became worse, it bred a taste for horrors and all manner of misfortunes, mainly sordid. But still the fashion for the inanimate world, presumed to be animate by a fiction, survived. It is going full blast today in the angry complaint against the sordid surroundings which, none the less, our moderns love to dwell upon as well as to dwell amid.

We are reminded of Belloc’s belief that at heart all great issues are theological. One could say a lot more about the contrarieties of a society obsessed on the one hand with the cynical and obscene aspects of human existence and on the other with a nihilistic desire to eliminate that same humanity and return the earth to the plants and the beasts. The older view of human imperfection and constructive humility has been replaced by a mixture of arrogance and self-loathing. For related thoughts, see Belloc on the Present Age.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, Literature, Philosophy

Detectives and Philosophers

I picked up a new set of the Bantam two volume edition of Sherlock Holmes to replace the tattered copies acquired during my college days. I started with “A Study in Scarlet” a  novella length story, published in the 1887 volume of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Conan Doyle would not pen his last Holmes story until four decades later. The opening chapters are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable. The often humorous preliminaries describe the beginnings of Holmes and Watson’s association at 221B Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground. You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?”

From that point on Dr. John H. Watson is established as the faithful chronicler and companion of the most famous detective in literary history. In the next tale, “The Sign of Four,” I came across this mordant Holmesian aphorism: “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done?” The famous literary detective is referring to the fact that Scotland Yard inspectors will frequently take the credit for the results of his intrepid sleuthing. Later, however, he consoles himself by saying that “I claim no credit…. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward.”

These fictional introspections are a nice segue to some recent philosophical reading. Inner peace has been the quest of all the great thinkers going back to Pythagoras and Socrates. It was later popularized in the ethical systems of Epicurus and the Stoics. I include the Epicureans, despite the fact that their outlook was not spiritually minded. According to Anthony Gottlieb (author of The Dream of Reason):

[T]he real Epicurus – in contrast to the crude sybarite invented by his detractors – denounced the rapidly rotting fruits of dissipation and excess. The constant pursuit of intense pleasures will in fact backfire, according to Epicurus, because it leads to the psychological hell of enslavement to unsatisfiable appetites….

While it is unlikely that Gottlieb will convert me to his brand of post-modern Epicureanism, the self-restraint urged by even an obvious materialist thinker is striking. Also cited in The Dream of Reason is Heraclitus’ famous adage: “A man’s character is his fate” (also rendered as “Character is destiny”) which is a nice way of saying that we are not blindly led by things outside our control; rather, our repeated actions reveal our inner disposition toward virtue and vice, and it is this which forms the real thread of our lives.

Posted in Fiction, Literature, Philosophy

A Habit of Silence

“And over and above all else we must keep at hand… the saying of Simonides, that he had often repented of speaking, but never of holding his tongue.”—Plutarch

The idea of talking (or writing) about silence is admittedly ripe with irony, but I hope that after a lapse of three months readers will indulge me in this brief meditation on Plutarch‘s essay “Concerning Talkativeness” (Moralia, vol. VI). The Greek writer’s encomium of verbal moderation is itself quite chatty, leading one to suspect that most moralists are best at describing the faults they possess, or the virtues they lack. But as Samuel Johnson, himself a brilliant but imperfect champion of ethics, noted, “He, by whose writings the heart is rectified, the appetites counteracted, and the passions repressed, may be considered as not unprofitable to the great republic of humanity, even though his behaviour should not always exemplify his rules” (Rambler, No. 77).

The “disease” of babbling “must be mastered by habituation.” Plutarch advises us to not always talk when the mood seizes us. If a question is asked, wait until everyone else has had a chance to speak. If one has not conversed for a long time, avoid the temptation to unleash a pent up torrent of words; otherwise, people may not give you the chance to speak again. There is also a danger in discussing only those topics that interest us. We grow verbose about the things we know and like, and at the same time are inclined to be inconsiderate toward the sympathies of others.

The essayist urges us to pause and reflect before speaking. When some thought is forming itself on our lips we must ask ourselves: “What is this remark that is so pressing and importunate? What object is my tongue panting for? What good will come of its being said or what ill of its being suppressed?” Self-control in speech is not just a matter of avoiding tediousness. It lessens the likelihood that we utter awkward, inane or irascible words. The emphasis is as much on quality as quantity, since a taciturn individual may speak little yet still manage to say the wrong thing.

Following the thread of Plutarch’s logic, it would appear that this capacity for external quietude demands inner stillness… which is perhaps a topic for another meditation.

Posted in Philosophy, Plutarch

Some Notes on Living

The time that I have not spent recently in blogging has been devoted to an online course on Communist Russia. Taking a momentary break, and picking through my accumulated notes from recent weeks’ reading, I thought this comment by Samuel Johnson was pertinent. It’s a brilliant response to those ideological schemes which promise “happiness” from the top down.

To general happiness indeed, is required a general concurrence in virtue; but we are not to delay the amendment of our own lives, in expectation of this favourable juncture. An universal reformation must be begun somewhere, and every man ought to be ambitious of being the first. He that does not promote it, retards it; for every man must, by his conversation, do either good or hurt. Let every man therefore, endeavour to make the world happy, by a strict performance of his duty to God and man, and the mighty work will soon be accomplished (Sermon No. 5 ).

In Johnson’s Rambler essay, “A suspicious man justly suspected” (No. 79). The author cautions us

We can form our opinions of that which we know not, only by placing it in comparison with something that we know; whoever, therefore, is over-run with suspicion, and detects artifice and stratagem in every proposal, must either have learned by experience or observation the wickedness of mankind… or he must derive his judgment from the consciousness of his own disposition, and impute to others the same inclinations, which he feels predominant in himself.

In other words, “it takes one to know one.” Meanwhile, perusing some treatises in Kierkegaard’s Spiritual Writings, I came across a beautiful meditation on the religious meaning of “silence.”

Praying is not listening to oneself speak but is about becoming silent and, in becoming silent, waiting, until the one who prays hears God.

Once could say much more on the subject, but as the author wryly observes, instead of keeping silent we are apt to make it yet another topic of study “in such a way that there [is] no longer silence but only talk about keeping silent.”

Addressing the topic of suffering the Danish philosopher offers this paradoxical insight, noting “what makes suffering heavier (the uncomprehending sympathy of others)… what makes suffering last all the longer (talking a lot about suffering) and… what makes suffering worse than suffering (the sin of impatience and dejection).” So perhaps we will think twice when it comes to “venting” about our woes? It would be an interesting experiment.

I will end with a brief adage by the Roman Stoic writer Seneca: “Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human….”

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism

More Orwellian Reminiscences

I’m rummaging around in Orwell Remembered, a series of recollections about the famous English novelist. I remarked on the volume a couple of years ago and was tangentially prompted to pick it up again while sampling a friend’s bottle of Scotch. It was distilled on the island of Jura, the remote Scottish locale where Orwell penned Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One can only say of Orwell what one can say of most people, that he was an antinomy of qualities. Some acquaintances speak of a streak of cruelty, at least in his conversation and writing. Others frequently testify to his kindness—especially toward children and animals—and his generosity. Orwell was very jealous of his privacy. That is why he sought out Jura so that he could devote all of his failing energies to his cautionary tale about Big Brother. He wanted to avoid the distractions of fame that had come in the wake of his best-selling satire, Animal Farm. A former neighbor said of him that “he was quite easy to get on with” though one often didn’t see much of him as he quickly retreated to his bedroom to write. “He was imperturbable, he was terribly calm, and he was always pleasant.” At the same time the neighbor observed, on a sardonic note, that while the novelist “was a staunch socialist… if he had to live with working-class people, I don’t think he would have got on.”

Fellow writer Anthony Powell sums up his struggle between tradition and radicalism: “in many ways Orwell was a Victorian figure, for like most people ‘in rebellion,’ he was more than half in love with what he was rebelling against.” And a former pupil recalls a surprising discussion he had with Orwell about the English Civil War.

I remember him saying that he would have sided with the [Royalist] Cavaliers rather than the [Revolutionary] Roundheads because the Roundheads were such depressing people…. For temperamentally he was a Cavalier, lacking the fervour and fanaticism of the Puritan… He was never noisy and lacked the dogmatism of the insecure.

This explains the roots of Orwell’s criticism of Communism, a skepticism shared with contemporaries like Arthur Koestler and Malcolm Muggeridge. Then there was his defense of P. G. Wodehouse. The famed humorist was falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis while naively agreeing to a series of chatty radio interviews during his wartime internment in Germany. On this point someone remarked that Orwell “always spoke out when he suspected an injustice was being done.” He was a true non-conformist who rooted for the underdog even if he disagreed with him. Another endearing quality was his penchant for more practical endeavors, like farming or motorcycle repair. Though the writer was not always successful, the good-natured attempts were appreciated by others.

Posted in George Orwell, Literature

Off the Shelf Remarks

Paying a holiday visit to a used bookstore, I reluctantly passed up a couple of enticing volumes. It was, I decided, better to conserve my depleted funds and catch up on the already prodigious stack accumulating by my bedside.

First up was Erasmus and the Age of Reformation by Johan Huizinga, author of The Waning of the Middle Ages—long a staple of college history classes. I read Waning as an undergraduate as did my father before me. Huizinga’s work on Erasmus is one of those rare pieces of engaging intellectual biography: sympathetic yet critical, analytical but full of personal and social insights. One passage discusses the Dutch humanist’s innovative role in the rise of print culture:

Erasmus is one of the first who, after his name was established, worked directly and continually for the press…. It enabled him to exercise an immediate influence on the reading public of Europe such as had emanated from none before him; to become a focus of culture.

It was as if Erasmus had come of age in the world of the internet and social media. He was a marketer of ideas as much as a scholar, and in that way very different from Renaissance figures even a generation before. Huizinga also points out the downside of this. The brilliant but vain intellectual was distracted by incessant controversy and much of his voluminous writing was of transitory value, though his philosophical “journalism” nevertheless had a major impact on the age in which he lived.

A truly obscure gem came my way earlier this year: Roman Road (1951) by George Lamb, sent to me by a longtime friend. Though forgotten today, Lamb was one of a legion of English converts during the Catholic Literary Revival (1860-1960) who penned highly articulate and insightful memoirs. I’ll quote one passage in particular, since it closely mirrors my own experience.

Speaking of Cardinal Newman’s famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Lamb writes, “I had heard of it as a great religious autobiography, and I had thought that I should read it. I read about thirty pages and could go no further.” It seemed, he says, no more than the musings of a sheltered academic preoccupied with obscure controversies. But taking the Apologia up again sometime later

At once the whole book, and the whole predicament behind the book, became alive. The language no longer sounded pompous, but as though common speech had of necessity grown enlarged by the breath of a lofty spirit; the tone, no longer querulous, seemed to express the sufferings of the most sensitive spirit… And when I read of those two luminous certainties, God and the human soul, of whose ultimate value the writer alone was convinced, I felt that I had at last in my loneliness discovered a friend.

Other books in my pile include literary criticism by C. S. Lewis, art theory by Jacques Barzun, and some philosophical history by Ernst Cassirer, which I’ll review in future posts.

Posted in Literature

Just Jazz

It’s nice to comment on music again. I am prompted by a recent Wall Street Journal column “Elevating the Great American Songbook” by Terry Teachout. He poses the question often on my mind:

Will jazz ever become popular again? I claimed in this space eight years ago that “the audience for America’s great art form is withering away.” I still fear for jazz, though I also believe (as I did then) that it remains creatively vital. The problem, I argued, was that its transformation from a dance-based popular music into “a form of high art…comparable in seriousness to classical music” inevitably alienated many once-loyal listeners, who turned instead to less complex, more immediately engaging styles of pop music.

Teachout references “fusionist” musicians who have tried to broaden their audience by integrating contemporary pop styles into their music. However, I am less interested in this than jazz instrumentalists who embrace “the American songwriters of the pre-rock era, whose appeal remains undiminished to this day.” He adds “That’s what Bill Charlap does—and nobody does it better.” I can only second Teachout’s praise. Charlap’s Live at the Village Vanguard album has long been a favorite, as well as many of his tracks from Somewhere: Songs of Bernstein.  I agree that the New York native’s “pellucid balladry, especially at the super-slow tempos that he relishes, is nothing short of exquisite.”

As regards overly esoteric jazz music, it is a by-product of the trends that have afflicted the arts since the birth of modernism. Not that the era has failed to produce excellent works; nevertheless, it signaled a move by intellectuals away from accessible performances.  The gradual elimination of a creative middle ground has done a disservice to both high brow and mainstream music. The latter has gone off on its well-known tangent, obsessed with volume and repetitive, mindless cadences; the former is fixated on abstraction and dissonance. What is so often absent in both is melody. (For related observations, see Scruton on Musical Ethics and Aesthetics.)

By contrast, Charlap plays “with a warmly singing tone that puts you in mind of the noted vocalists whom he likes to accompany whenever his crowded schedule permits.” In other words, these are songs that can be sung. Virtuoso experimentalism is natural to any creative genre—writing, painting or music. But such subjectivity, while of interest to the artist or a small coterie, quickly lapses into snobbishness (and indolence) when applied to public performance. For that reason it’s nice to know that artists like Charlap are keeping traditions alive. Perhaps, in time, music will recover from current extremes and jazz as well as pop and classical musicians will rediscover the aesthetic wisdom of their common cultural roots.

Posted in Art and Culture