Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fathomable Contexts

According to Ha'aretz, film director, Oliver Stone has the world "up in arms" over a new documentary that tries to put Hitler and Stalin -- the Evils of Evil -- into context. "You cannot approach history unless you have empathy for the person you may hate," Stone is reported to have said.

Stone is perfectly right, which is why I've always said that most of what passes for history -- "Hitler" included -- is myth. Manichean myth, in fact. As I result, I usually end up provoking gasps of incredulity as I reproach the unassailable and defend the indefensible.

Why, just the other day I rode to the defense of Stalin. I forget exactly how the topic came up, but a friend of mine made a remark that just assumed that Stalin was rock solid, certain "bad".

"Whoooa... wait a minute, wait a minute," I said, "you gotta put things in context.... Stalin was a great man."

Arrested silence.

Stalin faced a cruel, historical choice. It is usually said that Russia was "medieval". No such luck. What we call "medieval" was pre-national but certainly not primitive or incompetent. In all respects, medieval Europe had a vibrant cultural and economic life that involved most of civil society. As for dumb serfs -- what civilization doesn't have dumb serfs? Russia, on the other hand was lumpen. One ought not to exagerate here, either, but on the whole, Russia subsisted in a pre-industrial, pre-urban state ... one that was enviously rich in natural resources. What was a despot to do ?

Russia was flanked by industrial power houses whose economic engines demanded resources. And behind these lay Britain and the United States, always hungry for a bargain anywhere. The expedition to Archangel had shown what they could be counted on. If only for her own defense Russia had to bring herself up to industrial snuff. But not only for defence. If the masses of Russians were to be lifted out of the bog of their existence, what alternative was there but to become like Germany, the United States, France, England?

However, each of these countries had had at least two hundred years for their "industrial revolution" to unfold. Only an imbecile would think that this revolution unfolded without leaving a trail of intense human misery... of five year olds turned into cart-hawling beasts of burden in mine shafts, of women physically wrecked at 20, of millions working 16 hour days and eating bread adulterated with alum. These hardships were spread out over a century or more, and so appear to be less intense -- but they formed a Gulag of Misery all the same.

The Soviety Union had to.... well.... take a Great Leap Forward and accomplish in decades what had taken the West centuries. Of course the misery was intensified. And not just misery. What the so-called Industrial Revolution actually required was a massive accumulation of surplus value. The working class was not reduced to foul and fetid levels of subsistence out of some sort of spite, but rather because that is how the capitalist system acquires "wealth". Wealth -- which manifested itself in the store fronts of vast warehouses of commodities -- had to be squeezed from somewhere. Thus, the cruel paradox for Communist Russia was that in order to modernize she had to pack 200 years of capitalist squeezing into 20.

Still, it was an astonishing achievement; and beyond astonishing when it is taken into account that the entire process was devastatingly set back by the Nazi invasion which levelled most Russian cities, scorched the country side and killed 20 million people. And still, 15 years later, Russia beat the U.S. to the punch and put a satellite into orbit. And in order to do that, Soviet Russia had to create from the nothing of ignorance and superstition an at least technologically educated working and managerial class.

When we take a step back and contemplate how the Congress of the world's wealthiest nation has quibbled and fumbled and managed not to provide universal health care to its citizens, Stalin's achievements are breathtaking.

"Leave it to you....." my friend laughed.

Well, this was not to deny that Stalin was something of a psychopath and that his system committed monstrosities. Nor is it to deny that much of the glittering material progress was spiritually hollow and environmentally devastating. It was only to put things in context.

As if by coincidence, the woman who had sheltered Anne Frank, died the other day. Needless to say the English speaking press carried the story, along with detailed accounts of how the Frank family had almost survived in hiding against "unfathomable evil" as the New York Times put it with an air of self-evidence.

"Unfathomable...." If something is "unfathomable" it cannot be comprehended or thought about; and if it cannot be thought about, it cannot be learned from but can only be trembled at in mute stupidity. That is not the path toward progress.


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