Tag Archives: Lenin

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

Friday book # 43: Lenin, the man behind the mask

Unlike most of my books, I can remember exactly where I read this week’s one, Ronald Clark’s 1988 biography of Lenin. It was in late 1989 or early 1990, when I was an infantry officer in the British army and my company had been sent to spend a week on ‘site guard’ at a depot somewhere in Germany. It wasn’t a particularly onerous duty. Apart from leading an occasional patrol around the perimeter, there wasn’t much for the officers to do, so I took Lenin along to while away the time. The available options for entertainment were a) read about Lenin or b) join the boys in watching the same German porn movies over and over again. Being a nerd, I chose Lenin, though it came with an interesting sound accompaniment from the video player in the room next door.

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Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.

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Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

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Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.

Friday book #20: Russian Revolution

Next on my shelf is a small book (84 pages) by Richard Pipes, entitled Three Whys of the Russian Revolution. The questions which Pipes asks are:

  • Why did Tsarism fail?
  • Why did the Bolsheviks triumph?
  • Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?

Roughly speaking, his answers are as follows:

  • The Tsarist state was weak and unable to cope with the strains of the First World War.
  • The Bolsheviks didn’t triumph because they had majority support (they didn’t), but because they were more determined, more organized, and more ruthless than their opponents.
  • Stalin’s ascent was inevitable. Rather than distorting Lenin’s legacy, Stalin carried it to its logical conclusion.

three whys

Autonomy v. Sobornost’

Vladimir Putin recently shocked a lot of people with an unscripted denunciation of Lenin. This should not have come as such a surprise. Although Western commentators often describe Putin as an ex-KGB agent keen to restore the Soviet Union, in reality he has repeatedly made it clear that he regards communism as a failed model of development which brought Russia mostly harm. You can’t be a fan of both Ivan Ilyin and Lenin.

What interests me is the specific reason Putin gave for denouncing the former Soviet leader. According to Interfax (with a little help in translation from my research assistant Oxana):

Vladimir Putin spoke sharply about the ideas and actions of Vladimir Lenin in an exchange with Mikhail Kovalchuk … who recited Boris Pasternak’s poem ‘High disease’,  in which the author analyzed the October Revolution. The poem went: «As I saw him in waking life, I thought, I thought, I thought endlessly what right did he have to be so bold and speak on everyone’s behalf».

«The answer was: he ruled the minds and through them, he ruled the country», continued the poem, which Kovalchuk used to suggest that academia should be able to rule the minds in particular areas.

«I agree that minds should be managed. The important thing here is to make sure that these ideas yield good results, as opposed to what Vladimir Lenin ended up with. Because at the end of the day, these ideas led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a lot of ideas like autonomy, etc. They laid an atomic bomb under the building named Russia and it went off. And suddenly no need for any world revolution. That was the extent of Lenin’s management of ideas» — said Vladimir Putin as a closing remark of the meeting.

It is clear from this that Putin blames the collapse of the Soviet Union on the federal system introduced by Lenin after the revolution. In Putin’s eyes, it seems, Russia is rightly a multinational but unitary state. The loss of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is highly regrettable, and the concept of ‘autonomy’ is to blame.

Now compare this to a speech given by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on 22 January to mark Unity Day (Den’ sobornosti). In his speech Poroshenko said,

Sobornost’, dear compatriots, is a unitary state structure. It is a categorical prohibition of the import of ideas of federalism which are destructive and unacceptable for Ukraine. Sobornost’, at the end of the day, is when at the decisive moment of colossal trials, like now, right and left, conservatives and liberals, cosmopolitans and nationalists, put behind them any type of ‘ism’ which divides them, and stand side by side for the sake of Ukraine.

As a historian, I find his emphasis on sobornost’ curious. Poroshenko claims to lead a government dedicated to Westernization. But sobornost’ is the essence of Slavophilism, which is normally seen as standing in direct opposition to Westernization. The concept’s originators, Ivan Kireevsky and Aleksey Khomiakov, viewed sobornost’  as encapsulating the sense of spiritual community which supposedly distinguishes collective-minded Russians from individualistic, atomized Westerners. If sobornost’ really is the quality which Poroshenko seeks for Ukraine, he’s not actually a Westernizer at all.

And, then there is Poroshenko’s statement about federalism. We are often told that Ukraine has made a ‘civilizational choice’ to reject Russia and Putin, and all that they supposedly stand for. In fact, it seems as if Putin and Poroshenko are in absolute accord about what a state should look like.

Friday Object Lesson #43: Dialectical Materialism

Today’s object is a collection of writings by Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the subject of dialectical materialism, which my son brought back from Finland last month. He bought it at the Lenin Museum in the workers’ hall in Tampere where in 1905 Lenin met Stalin for the very first time.

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You can read about the Tampere Lenin Museum at its website here. For those interested, here are some pictures of it:

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Knocking down Lenin

‘Ленин живёт’ (‘Lenin lives’), the signs in the Soviet Union used to say. Lenin was ubiquitous. His picture looked out from posters and from the front of newspapers. Every town seemed to have a ‘Lenin street’, a ‘Lenin square’ and, of course, a Lenin statue. In the last decades of the Soviet Union, Lenin represented the good side of communist rule, as opposed to the bad side represented by Stalin. Introducing his glasnost’ and perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev, claimed to be going back to the original values of Leninism, which he said had been distorted by later Soviet rulers. Lenin was beyond reproach.

In reality, Lenin was an ideological zealot who regarded most of his countrymen with contempt, and imposed his own vision upon them with extreme violence. ‘Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity,’ Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik party in Penza in the midst of the ‘Red Terror’, ‘You must make an example of these people. 1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Seize all their grain. 4) Designate hostages in accordance with yesterday’s telegram. Do this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks, and that we will continue to do so.’ This was Lenin – a brutal despot, who brought ruin upon his country. Stalinism was not an aberration; it was a natural evolution of Leninism.

The revolution last year in Ukraine brought with it a spate of demolitions of Lenin statues. Many Ukrainians, especially those of a ‘pro-Western’ inclination, believe that Ukraine’s dismal economic and political progress since independence is a product of a ‘Soviet mentality’ which continues to exercise a powerful influence, particularly in the east of the country. Knocking down Lenin statues strikes a blow at this mentality, and clears the way for a new one.

Many other Ukrainians, however, accept the myth of the ‘good Lenin’, and view the Soviet Union as something not entirely bad. It defeated the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’; it provided jobs and security; it is a key part of who they are. Attacks on Lenin are attacks on them.

This week the former rebel stronghold of Slavyansk in the province of Donetsk made headlines again when a group of activists tried to demolish the local Lenin statue, but were blocked by a war veteran who stood in front of the monument to protect it. Ukrainian troops then told the would-be demolition team to disperse. Lenin was saved.

Saving Lenin in Slavayansk
Saving Lenin in Slavyansk

I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without. But I also understand that other people see things differently. Ukrainians do not have a unified comprehension of history. Some have no problem with statues of Stepan Bandera, but object strongly to those of Lenin; others the opposite. If they are to live peacefully together, they have to tolerate one another’s viewpoints, however mistaken these may be. My problem with the Lenin-smashers, therefore, is not that they dislike the Soviet Union, but that they are attempting to forcibly impose their view of history upon others when those others are not ready to accept it. Knocking down Lenin smacks of contempt of others’ most cherished beliefs.

To digress a little: as I have shown in my book Aiding Afghanistan, communist economists used to think that economic development was just a matter of capital accumulation. Provide Third World countries with capital, and their economies would grow, the theory went. After a while, the communists realized that this wasn’t the case: social and political institutions were the most important thing – successful investment was impossible if these institutions acted as barriers to growth. In Afghanistan, the communists then took this logic to mean that what was holding the country back was the existing institutions – the landlords, the mullahs, and all they stood for. They had to be smashed as a precondition for progress. So the communists went around smashing them. The result was counter-revolution. The communists’ analysis wasn’t wrong, but their solution was. The institutions were indeed a barrier to progress, but the people didn’t like seeing them destroyed and rose up in arms to stop this from happening. Attempting to force change produced war.

The Lenin demolition crews in Ukraine are somewhat similar, and symbolize the broader attitude which has produced war in that country. They may be right about the negative effects of Soviet nostalgia, but their efforts to do something about it cause more harm than good. If there is one thing worse than bad institutions it is people trying to smash them without having the agreement of others to do so. Much as I dislike Lenin, therefore, on the whole I tend to the view that, at least for now, he ought to be allowed to stay.