Saturday, April 4, 2009

The old Stalinist

I have to laugh at Rick Salutin, the old Stalinist at the Globe and Mail. When the much-lamented Frank magazine was in business, they used to claim that Salutin was the highest-paid columnist for that paper. If so, he is some kind of must-read for Globe readers--those doing well in business (or, as Peter Naglik used to say, stockbrokers who love the theatre).

In a way, the idea that successful business people feel compelled to read Salutin supports his point here. As long as Communism existed as a real possibility and hence a threat, he suggests, it was possible to make capitalists give up some ground, concede something to ordinary working people.

He repeats reports that capitalists "up in the towers" were betting on how many anti-capitalist demonstrators at the G20 meetings would get injured or killed.

How do you rattle that kind of complacency? I'll tell you: by having an alternative out there in the real world to their gluttonous, failing, yet still smug capitalist system. Of course they're smug. They're the only option available.

Another model existed during the last global depression, in the 1930s. The Soviet Union was socialist and the bloom wasn't yet off that rose. Visitors from the West often returned with accounts of how well it worked. That shook up enough powerful people to help make the New Deal possible.

Today, he says, there is no real alternative to capitalism, so even in the face of the manifest failure of capitalism, obvious to everyone, the same people basically remain in charge. "The guys in the towers can weather almost any degree of common sense with a mixture of denial, mild reform and, above all, patience. They'll even try a dash of socialism now, as long as it doesn't involve any socialists."

So: capitalism with a substantial degree of welfare state is better than capitalism without. The only way the welfare state comes about is when the capitalists are afraid of a real alternative, such as being "tried and executed for 'economic crimes' - a rare feature of Soviet communism that one can actually feel nostalgic for."

As far as it goes, this may be true. Certainly capitalists have never given up without a fight, and the history of the trade union movement alone shows that blood had to be shed before many owners would share profits with workers. What's troubling or funny, however, is that Salutin uses all this to support at least some degree of nostalgia for actual, the-way-it-always-was-in-this-world communism, as opposed to the classroom kind.

He has come some distance since 1989. He now suggests that bright Westerners could no longer defend Stalin once "the bloom came off the rose"--that is, actual information was forthcoming about the way Stalin made continuous war on his own people--and not only relatively rich people committing "economic crimes." Stalin came to realize what all actual Communist governments come to realize: there are no actual examples of "socialist man" alive--or at least, very few. Extreme violence is necessary, and it turns out that violence against the rich and powerful is by no means sufficient, to even make a serious beginning at bringing about socialist man. Capitalists may break strikes if they can, but their more usual crime, if crime it is, is to keep and enjoy their profits in a kind of normal indifference to the fate of their fellow man. Experience shows that this indifference is a Sunday school picnic compared to organized state terror, with the guns turned on virtually everyone, under Communism.

Socrates' proposals for communism in Plato's Republic are serious insofar as they show how far most of us have to go to live like him, but they are a kind of high-spirited, philosophic, typically classical Greek fun as political proposals. If the problems are serious enough to call for Socrates' drastic solutions, then they are too serious for those same solutions to work,as Socrates confirms by moving beyond one stage of impossibly radical solutions to another stage of still more radical ones. Finally he admits that only the philosopher is sufficiently free of the usual desires and ambitions to rule justly, and since this lack of "negative" desires is in no way compensated by a "positive" desire to serve his fellow citizens, he admits that he can't think of any reason why a philosopher would actually want to rule.

Salutin knows that every actual Communist government, while piously protesting their love of the poor, as if it should only be a greedy minority that they have to shoot, has always ended up, and in a remarkably short time, making a relentless brutal war on the people as a whole. It is difficult to read the hearts and minds of monsters such as Stalin and Pol Pot, but they were forced to commit this mass slaughter, far beyond the Protestant vs. Catholic wars, the Inquisition, or the Crusades, precisely if they meant well, i.e. they were more or less seriously trying to bring about socialist man, instead of the pathetic creatures they saw in front of them.

Nostalgia about people being executed for "economic crimes"? I recently read a book called The Concubine's Children, by Denise Chong, which tells of a Chinese man who lived in Canada for years, sending both his own and his concubine's (menial) earnings back to China, where he eventually accumulated some land and built a house. Because he was relatively rich for a peasant, the Communists eventually gave him some kind of trial for "economic crimes," took his land, moved someone else into half of the house, and encouraged other peasants to ostracize and humiliate this man's family in every way possible. Salutin is giving voice to the last remnant of Stalinism, and he reveals that it was always largely about what Thatcher called "the politics of envy."

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