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November 23, 2009


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As loony as the left can be, there's a greater problem when the left is so marginal that a Barack Obama becomes a socialist stick figure in the imagination of Birdbrain America. Call Obama a pragmatist, or an incrementalist, or even a liberal. He has in much in common with a socialism as Ronald Reagan.

Our ongoing political conversation leans right because there's no left to speak of. It's why the center is now embodied by corporate lackeys like Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson. It's why even the most painstakingly minor reforms are treated as The Thousand Mile March. This country is poltically insane because pragmatism is now equated with confiscatory taxation and bureaucratic death panels.

The beautiful losers in Seattle, Eugene and Arcata dream impossible dreams but it's their irrelevance that damages this country most. If 20 to 30% of America was left, there would be a counterbalance to the right that effectively leveraged real social democracy in this country. That populism is almost exclusively the province of right-wing tribalists means a country addicted to bromides and bullshit that would embarrass Milton Friedman.

Thanks again, Jon, for sharing your insight. Excellent reading.

Mr. Talton wrote:

"My socialist friends were the real deal, "commanding heights" and all."

There is a huge range of socialist and so-called socialist schools of thought.

There are (or were) Christian Socialists, Fabian Socialists, anarcho-syndicalists (aka the IWW or Wobblies), populist socialists, non-Marxist revolutionary socialists, marxist revolutionary socialists, marxist gradualists (non-revolutionary), traditional democratic socialists (e.g., Debs, Michael Herrington), libertarian marxists (e.g., Rosa Luxemburg) Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and countless other varieties.

In my opinion, socialism is first and foremost an economic system, and while political movements may be driven by platitudes, economies cannot be. To paraphrase H.G. Wells (himself a socialist) writing critically on the Russian Revolution in the early 1920s, this was the time to put into action well-considered plan, not to experiment. There didn't seem to be any well-considered plan.

Lenin's words (in a November, 1913 letter to Maxim Gorky) regarding the latter's medical problems and treatment, were perhaps prophetic:

"The news that a Bolshevik is treating you by a new method, even if he is only a former Bolshevik, verily, verily upsets me. God save you from doctor-comrades in general, and doctor-Bolsheviks in particular! But really, in 99 cases out of 100, doctor-comrades are asses...I assure you that except in trivial cases, one should be treated only by men of first-class reputation. To try on yourself the discoveries of a Bolshevik -- that's terrifying!"

Lenin had had some personal experience of this when his wife's critically serious goiter problem had earlier gone undiagnosed by a "comrade-physician".

Incidentally, the Lenin quote about liberals as "useful idiots" is, I believe, spurious, though indeed, it's true that Lenin did not trust liberals and that, in fact, his attitude went further than this.

One thing that has to be born in mind are the specific historical circumstances obtaining in Russia at the time. The country was under the dominion of a quite brutal czarist repression (q.v. Bloody Sunday). There was precious little freedom for political reforms. As a professional revolutionary, Lenin had a sense that liberals would not leave their banquet halls for armed insurrection in the streets, and that once the police and the Czar snarled a firm NO at them, even their flow of words would come to a stop. There was some justification for such a view, both historically and in terms of contemporary events.

Lenin also was conditioned by early personal experiences. When he was 17 his older brother (whom he worshipped) was arrested. The family lived in Simbirsk where there was no rail line in 1887, and his mother, leaving young Vladimir in charge of the younger children (the father had recently died), had to go by coach to Syrzan to get a train from there to St. Petersburg, where the brother was being held.

Lenin sought in vain among the local townspeople for a companion for his mother during this journey, but nobody wanted to travel with the mother of an arrested man. (This despite the fact that the family had until then been very popular and influential locally, with many friends and well-wishers.) The home was also shunned.

Lenin's wife later wrote: "Vladimir Ilyich told me that this widespread cowardice made a profound impression upon him. This youthful experience undoubtedly did leave its imprint upon Lenin's attitude toward the Liberals".

These things are somewhat more complex than we sometimes realize. In many historical treatments, quotations and actions are taken out of the concrete context in which they occurred, for purposes of political propaganda.

Currently, I am reading a fascinating book called Three Who Made A Revolution. This is a biographical history of the events in the decades leading up to the Russian revolution(s) of 1917, especially insofar as they intersect the lives of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.

The author, Bertram Wolfe, was a marvelous writer and brings the events vividly to life in detail, without losing the big picture. Wolfe was one of the founders of the Communist Party, U.S.A. in 1919, becoming in 1928 the representative of CPUSA on the executive committee of the Comintern. He actually knew Trotsky and Stalin personally.

However, in the same year he was elevated to the executive committee, he broke with Stalin (and the Party) over the latter's insistence on running things from Moscow. In the 1950s, at about the time the book was first published (1948), Wolfe was Chief of the Ideological Advisory Staff at the Voice of America (a propaganda arm of the U.S. State Department). In later years he worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

It's very possible that the book was written with funding from the State Department or (covertly) the CIA. However, if it's propaganda, it's of a particularly sophisticated variety, and does not paint Lenin or Trotsky as simple villains. The participants come alive as human beings. Perhaps this is because, in part, the book deals with events leading up to the revolutions of 1917 rather than afterwards.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. I have the 1964 edition, which contains some modifications of the original text in response to criticisms that in its original form the author "presented the Mensheviks as too doctrinaire, and Lenin as somewhat less despotic and totalitarian than in the end he proved to be". If my perceptions are correct, these modifications involve primarily some editorializing by the author in response to political pressure; these rudely interrupt the detached flow of the original narrative, in spots.

Incidentally, the first 10 or so pages of the book are dry as dust, being a thumbnail sketch of Russian political development in the centuries prededing the 19th. Don't let this fool you: once you get past this, it's wholly absorbing.

My personal view is that "socialism" is a glorious idea but a work in progress; that it will indeed eventually prove to be the "highest development of capitalism"; that it will have little in common with the the societies of so-called socialist countries of the 20th century.

I am not a member of any group or an adherent of any doctrine or faction, but rather an eclecticist. Many of these groups are small because they consist of quibbling formalists and factionalists, the ignorant, the doctrinaire, the hopelessly utopian, or the brutally dictatorial.

Note also that Lenin's Party structure was originally conceived as a tool for the organization of professional revolutionaries to overthrow the Czar. It was not supposed to constitute the revolutionary provisional government. As Lenin himself wrote in 1905 in objection to Trotsky's calls for the establishment of a socialist, provisional revolutionary government:

"Only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the masses of the workers are informed of the aims of socialism and the methods of achieving it. And we are all convinced that the emancipation of the workers can only be brought about by the workers themselves: a socialist revolution is out of the question until the masses become class-conscious, organized, trained, and educated...Whoever wants to achieve socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at absurd and reactionary conclusions both political and economic."

Emil, you have done yourself proud with this post. A classic, especially for Thanksgiving Day, 2009.

We're living thru Lenin's words.

I can't imagine what Terry Dudas meant in his final sentence, unless it's the usual wingnut garbage. Is he actually comparing President Obama to Lenin? Is he actually suggesting that the constitutional republic of the United States is comparable to post-October, 1917 Russia?

The only thing I can imagine is that, over there at GaltNet, they're so insular that they've lost all contact with reality. This must be what the kids mean when they speak of "drinking the cool-aid".

Just a small clarification: by "provisional revolutionary government" above, I meant, not the revolutionary body which was to organize free and fair elections (i.e., universal, direct, equal, and secret suffrage), but the government elected thereby. This was probably a misnomer, as the latter is usually referred to as the post-revolutionary government.

The idea was that only a revolution could overthrow the czarist government and establish a democratic republic. This would ensure the maximum freedoms (of speech, organization, etc.) to the socialists, who would educate and organize the workers until the proletariat constituted a majority.

"The constituent assembly must be convened by someone. Someone must guarantee the freedom and fairness of the elections. Someone must invest such an assembly with full power and force. Only a revolutionary government which is the organ of an uprising can in all sincerity desire this and be capable of doing everything to achieve this...

"However, the evaluation of the importance of the provisional government would be incomplete and erroneous if the class nature of the democratic revolution were lost sight of...This democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken, but will strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie."

(Lenin, Two Tactics, 1905)

Now, I hope I will be forgiven for posting this, and understood that I am not proselytizing for anyone or anything, but in fact, I find the complexity of actual history much more interesting than the propaganda formulas we learned in school. The subject does not seem altogether off-base given the topic of the blog essay and its contents.

Obviously it did not work out this way, in the chaotic atmosphere of WW I Russia: perhaps an important lesson against the opportunistic seizure of power contrary to one's own established principles.

Mr. Talton wrote:

"The center-liberal forces are in similar disarray today, as the health care fiasco attests. The right only says "tax cuts" and it resonates, along with the conservatives' years of indoctrination about 'government, bad.' "

Mr. Talton makes a number of valuable observations, as usual. One problem is that the left needs something to rally around, and to be frank, the leadership on this issue has been less than scintillating, unlike Obama's early campaign rhetoric which suggested that things would be otherwise. (You hold the football, Charlie Brown, and I'll kick it.)

To be successful, the administration needed to understand that coverage was only one component of the problem: the underlying, driving issue behind healthcare for the working and middle classes is not so much that of widening coverage (since the majority already receive such coverage) but rather the out of control, upward spiral of healthcare costs.

Instead, the administration allowed Congress to turn the issue into an insurance reform issue, rather than a healthcare reform issue. Obviously, the use of exclusions, cancellations, and other unscrupulous profit-increasing tactics by the insurance companies is a serious and fundamental problem and the administration was right to use these defects as propaganda points. Yet, without cost control the underlying problem remains.

Furthermore, solutions which try to push the dirt under the corners of the carpet tend to result in lumps in the middle, especially if your legislation leaves healthcare, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries in control of the broom.

The administration had the chance to push a single payer system as the best means to solve all of these problems, using the campaign to educate both Congress and the public, fighting tooth and nail and without compromise.

Then, and only then, if the support simply didn't materialize, a compromise bill which included a strong public option would have appeared attactive by comparison, to many of the fence-sitters, who by this time would be both better informed and, having narrowly averted the dreaded single-payer system, would have looked at a strong public OPTION with something akin to relief.

Any bargainer knows that the initial offer will be countered by an offer considerably less than the opening offer. In circumstances under which you have a Democratic president and a (near or actual) supermajority in Congress, you should start by asking for the best possible outcome, stick with that as long as possible, using the process to educate and CONVINCE as many of the fence-sitters and (if possible) your opponents as possible, both in Congress and among the public, and let your weaker opponents sweat and try to cajole you into accepting something a bit less.

If they succeed, they're much more likely to believe they've accomplished something, than if you start with a lowball offer, under the rubric of a non-existent bi-partisanship, which allows the opposition party and the minority within your own party to set the bar.

P.S. USA Today has a great pair of editorials on the subject of healthcare reform, the need for effective competition with private industry to achieve cost control, the public option, and single-payer, today:



hmmm,,,,, still explaining Jon Talton to us, are you?

BTW, Emil, I am a MS, and Galtnet is my motto. You got that correctly.

An "MS"? What does that stand for? Milieuschadelijkheid? I agree! In any case, you certainly aren't an English major. How could "Galtnet" be a "motto"? Perhaps you mean that Ayn Rand is your inspiration, or some such. Atlas shrugged, and so do I: as P.T. Barnum once remarked, there's one born every minute.

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