Red Plenty or Red Poverty? Reality versus ‘Psychoprophyilaxis’: Reflections on Spufford’s vision of the rise and the decline of the communist system

by Antoaneta Dimitrova on May 29, 2012

Despite being modestly defined as a Russian fairytale by its author, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty combines, in an original way, Russian style fiction and social science. Its originality lies in making the history of an idea into fiction and doing it in such a way that the combination of documentary and fiction does not come across as false history or as historical literature, but as a complex, engaging, exciting epic illuminating questions of economics and politics that are normally too dry for art. By interweaving the stories of numerous characters with historical events and a grand narrative describing economic and social processes of several decades, Spufford fits into the best traditions of Russian fiction, but his focus on ideas rather than emotions makes his approach profoundly un-Russian. This is, to my mind, rather a plus than a weakness of the book, since the great Russian writers of the 19th and 20th century are unrivalled in portraying the great mysteries of the human soul in turbulent times. What they have not done, what hardly anyone has done, is to make a calm, objective, almost scientific investigation of the ideas and relationships that made the success of the Soviet regime possible in the 1950s and 1960s, at the genuine and idealistic belief of citizens and elites at the time that, as Spufford’s Kantorovich character reasons, ‘if he could solve the problems people brought to the institute, it made the world a fraction better’ (p. 11).

 

Thus Red Plenty is a book for social scientists in more ways than one. First because it draws on history and uses a great amount of documentary material, economic and social history of the Soviet Union to tell the story of the communist dream of abundance for all. And second, and perhaps more important, because its evidence driven narrative aims to answer several typical social science questions, especially for a social scientists interested in communism’s rise and fall. How could the Soviet planning economy be so successful in producing serious economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, how could the Soviet system produce the science and innovation that led to space exploration and many other scientific achievements? And why did it then fail to continue doing so, to keep the pace of economic growth and scientific discovery?

 

Among Spufford’s many achievements in this book is that he provides some direct and some indirect answers to these questions. Even though he leads us to the answers by telling the stories of characters that are convincing and fully capable of engaging the reader’s interest in their destiny, he manages somehow to explore mechanisms that are structural and not personal. Despite the attention for Khrushchev and other historical figures from the Soviet Union, the personal vignettes are embedded in a narrative in which science, even more so than the idea of plenty – is the hero. This is perhaps best represented in by the prominent and fairly convincing character and the fate of the mathematician and economist Kantorovich.  Other Red Plenty characters remain, as the planner Maksim Mokhov,  ‘a confabulated embodiment of (the) institution’ (p. 395).

In contrast to many other books written about the Soviet period and especially about Stalinism, Spufford’s account is not emotional, grim and dramatic, does not aim to show the suffering of ordinary people or their disillusionment with the system as has already been done with unrivalled mastery by the classical works of Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak or Bulgakov, to name but a few. Instead, he shows the various characters influenced not so much by the cruel decisions, but by the dreams of the communist leaders. The leaders who, in accordance with Marxist dogma, pretended (Stalin) or hoped (Khrushchev) that they were social scientists and in Spufford’s interpretation harbored dreams of achieving abundance for all – Red Plenty. A dream that seemed to come true for a while by building on the idealism and enthusiasm of ordinary people and of talented scientists like the mathematician Kantorovich and his students and followers.

Spufford’s approach to the period, in my view, is a success despite his self confessed lack of knowledge of Russian and the occasional unrealistic dialogue (for example, the dialogue between the ‘fixer’ Chekushkin and the factory director representative Stepovoi  – pp. 234-245- rings somehow untrue pitched half way between the dry formal register of Soviet apparatchiks and the very informal everyday talk among drinking buddies).  Even as his dialogue does not always achieve authenticity – and it seems that Spufford does not, rightly, aim to do so, (for example by using comrade instead of Mr. as a form of address) – the characters and their relationships are convincing and reveal a kind of deeper truth about human behavior. As all good fiction, the book achieves a truthful representation of the social forces and personal relationships and in doing so, helps the reader to understand the Soviet system better.

And as with all good fiction, Red Plenty provides, through the fate of its characters, the possibility of reaching for other conclusions than the author may have intended, of reflecting on other questions than the one defined as central by  him. For me, even more important than Spufford’s quest to understand the Soviet planning economy and its failure, is the question what mechanisms and relationships caused the moral failure of the communist system, the political decline which, arguably, preceded the economic failure by destroying the initiative and idealism which gave the communist regimes their energy and strength at the beginning.

In the rest of this contribution I will highlight the characters and reflections in Red Plenty that, to my mind, contribute pieces to resolving the puzzle of the decline of communism as a political system and a set of social rules and relationships.

The character of the fixer, Chekushkin, represents the well known fact that as the planning economy did not work and neither did the formal rules by which communist bureaucracy and society were meant to operate, there were informal channels and ways to get things done, that served as the grease helping the turning of the heavy cogs and wheels in the machinery of the plan. I am not entirely convinced if it was really possible for anyone to play the exact role that Spufford imagined Chekushkin playing, of a spider in the middle of a web of economic relationships, trading favors to make the Plan work. In my personal experience, the trading of favors was a process that was so informal and embedded in everyday relationships that it could not be used for large scale, economic correction of the inflexibilities of communist planning. Still, the character is convincing even without being realistic as he fulfills a role that needed to be fulfilled for the system to function.  His existence provides also some insights in the legacy of informality and corruption that plagues post communist regimes to this very day.

The party cadres and party secretaries – to whom Spufford devotes some of his documentary style, reflective sections – are also worth paying closer attention to. His portrayal of them as the managers of the planned economy – and the change in their character and recruitment over time – inspires reflections on the gradual and to a great extent voluntary stifling of personal autonomy and initiative that led to societal and economic stagnation.

The systematic selection of the opportunistic young men and women for communist party membership and the selection of the most ignorant and opportunistic of these for higher level party posts was, to my mind, a key contributing factor to the decline of communism. The party secretaries: who were initially, in Spufford’s description ‘progress chasers, fixers, seducers, talent scouts, comedians, therapists, judges, executioners…’ (270), became later …  ‘the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic’ elites of the communist regime. Spufford describes how this resulted in foul-mouthed language in Party meetings. But it is worth pausing to consider the more profound consequences for governance of the systematic, decades long selection of the most opportunistic and most mediocre members of society as its leaders. The party elites own ability to recognize innovation and brilliant inventions in all areas of society was limited and the party ideology made them also blind for the need to foster personal initiative and innovation.

To me, even if it may not be its main goal, Red Plenty shows how this organizational and structural principle of reproducing mediocrity combined with the role of Marxist-Leninist ideology led the communist system to stagnation and eventually, destruction.

As the ideology of Marxism Leninism was indispensable for maintaining the collective belief in the bright future of communism, it remained enshrined by the party apparatchiks as unassailable social science doctrine that provided the only ‘true’ representation of real developments.

Spufford’s book provides an excellent illustration how and why this fusion of opportunistic but ignorant elites and an ideology claiming to be the only social science became harmful for science, for the arts and for intellectual life and morality through the individual stories of the scientists, inventors and artists. The scientists saw their own initiatives, driven by idealism and the love of progress that fuelled the initial boom of the Soviet economy, abandoned and stifled as ideology became more important than real progress and mediocrity ruled without need for innovation or creativity. Brezhnev’s advisor Kosygin, as the planner Mokhov explains to the economist Shaidulin, ‘has a lively sense that our system has better not be broken by we—meaning experiments’ (p. 298).

The vignettes of disappointed and disillusioned scientists become more prominent as the book progresses through the decades of Soviet history, from the Khrushchev to the Brezhnev era: the leading cybernetics research professor Lebedev (e.g. p. 337), who does not manage to convince Kosygin and Brezhnev to support the original Soviet computer industry, the brilliant geneticist Zoya, the economists and mathematicians that prepared the reform that was to rescue the planning economy itself only to come against Politburo’s opposition against ‘market prices’.

The fates of Spufford’s scientists and his popular artist turned dissident, Galitch, ultimately turn out to be determined by the Party’s ability to accept and utilize change. Through their stories he shows that one of the main the causes of stagnation was not simply the impossibility of efficient central planning, but the political commitment to ideology above reality, the growing gap between the predictions and tenets of Marxism-Leninism and real developments in economy and society. Spufford illustrated this, for example, with his imagined dialogue between the economist Emil Shaidulin and Brezhnev’s advisor Kosygin on the proposed pricing reform.

Not only did the Soviet system produce elites that were not equipped with any knowledge or tools to evaluate societal and economic trends (and Spufford comes with several extremely informative and perceptive passages on the educational reform that achieved this result), but the communist ideology, masquerading as social science, required them to believe that what it predicted was actually happening, contrary to evidence supplied by their own experiences. As Spufford says, ‘By definition, friends of truth, friends of thought and reason and humanity and beauty were friends of the Party; friends of Stalin. To be opposed to the Party would be to become an enemy of truth….’ (p. 145). This excellent observation can be used as a definition of something close to a law of social behavior, guiding the elites and party apparatchiks through all the decades after the Stalin period, in all communist regimes until the very collapse of the system: to be opposed to the party was seen as to be opposed to truth and if truth, social reality appeared to be different from what the party was saying, then social reality was rejected in favor of the ‘higher truth’. In other words, all elites and ultimately, most citizens of these regimes learned to live in a state of deep hypocrisy: what we would think was happening was not happening, what was really happening was what the Party told us would happen.

Never mind that, as Spufford also reminds us, ‘the scientific method itself taught lessons’ and so did the reading of classics of Russian literature, so already by the 1960s it was possible for scientists to start realizing that, in Spufford’s succinct formulation, ‘what was enthroned in Russia, after all, might be stupidity’. Marxism Leninism turned out to be a perverse kind of post modernism – if the theory did not really make existence better, then it would construct a reality in which it did, in which pretense was all there was.

The consequences of this all pervasive hypocrisy, of the practice of ‘psychoprophylaxis’ (p. 302)– pretending that the world was better than it was –Spufford’s most glaring example of it being the women giving birth who were required to pretend that it did not hurt – cannot be overestimated. Millions of people that have been born and socialized into the ‘pretend-the-world-better’ system of socialism find it, to this very day, near impossible to believe in the objective consequences of their actions in a social context. Truth about society or the economy, facts and data are underestimated and suspected not to exist – after all, millions were taught facts they could observe did not really exist – only the party’s version of them did. If everything is pretend, then no one can contribute much to society – take a new initiative, build something, start a business – and there is no need to try. This exuberant irrationality can be seen as the last revenge of communism on all of those who ever were reluctant participants in its experiment.

 

 

{ 114 comments }

1

The Raven 05.29.12 at 4:10 pm

“But it is worth pausing to consider the more profound consequences for governance of the systematic, decades long selection of the most opportunistic and most mediocre members of society as its leaders.”

Surely this process is also taking place in the USA? Consider Reagan and Bush II. Is this perhaps a common characteristic of certain types of organization, regardless of politics?

2

William Timberman 05.29.12 at 5:46 pm

What I found myself wishing, after reading this masterpiece, is that someone would write a Red, White and Blue Plenty of equal persuasiveness covering the years 1932-2012 in the United States.

3

Brad DeLong 05.29.12 at 6:04 pm

Aren’t you looking for John Dos Passos’s “USA”?

4

Dave 05.29.12 at 6:17 pm

nice title

5

William Timberman 05.29.12 at 6:21 pm

Brad DeLong @ 3

Oy! A lot of water under the bridge since 1936. No, that’s not right…. It’s more like somebody pulled the plug in 1950. We need an update. You yourself have been uniquely placed, not to mention well-schooled and skilled enough to write one, but it doesn’t seem you roll that way. Still, I have hopes someone does….

Why? Well, if this goes on long enough, this stumbling in the dark, I have a feeling it won’t be Dos Passos we’ll need, but Isaac Babel.

6

Doctor Memory 05.29.12 at 10:15 pm

“…the systematic, decades long selection of the most opportunistic and most mediocre members of society as its leaders.”

Any resemblance to the admissions process at top-ten law, economics and political science schools in the US, and to the executive search and promotions process in private industry is, I’m sure, entirely coincidental.

7

shah8 05.29.12 at 10:34 pm

My impression from this aspect of the book is awfully like *The Raven*’s. The use of hypocrisy to enshrine mediocrity through top-down shouting is almost always a sign of decrepitude.

8

Maynard Handley 05.29.12 at 10:37 pm

This really is an astonishing summary isn’t it? I couldn’t have written a more damning condemnation of the US in 2012 (and of what happens to those who refuse to learn from other places and other times) if I had tried.

9

Data Tutashkhia 05.29.12 at 10:50 pm

I don’t think bureaucratic structures are actively looking for mediocrity. What they do value, above all, is loyalty. Of course mediocrity may be a typical consequence of that, but not necessarily.

10

shah8 05.29.12 at 10:50 pm

Hmm, I should have also said that the purpose of systematic and coercive hypocrisy is to enforce the idea that the flaws of the world as pertains to the individuals, belongs to the individual, and asking for better leadership is just trouble-making at its worst.

Like I said the the democracy blogpost, metis is hard won. People with real skills and real talent can always be outmaneuvered and out-paced by the skill-less, because they aren’t actually working on any craft. The skill-less don’t have embarrassing failures that discredit. The skill-less don’t have any internal harpy that forces them to care about doing anything right. So in any open political arraignment, the skill-less drives to close competition to political office, obscure real measurement of effectiveness, and blur all the other distinctions as a whole. This is why wars are an important part of human political ecology. They tend to kill the stupid and the greedy. They also tend to make competent people *visible* to other competent people at all levels of society. I think a crucial aspect of the Soviet Union’s story in the ’50s and ’60s had to do with the formation of effective bureaucracies that were filled with capable people, and they all knew each other, and such organizations gave up a harvest of talent towards civilian purposes. Of course, such people got old, cynical, and retired, and feckless kids never challenged the resulting ossified gerontocratic leadership of the timeservers and political animals. Then again, the usual toxic relationships between commodities export and politics played a pretty big role.

11

Colin Danby 05.29.12 at 10:57 pm

One part that stayed with me was the 351-3 passage in which Zoya is drummed out of her institute. If you have a life with a lot of committee meetings, it’s chillingly plausible. What’s interesting throughout is the way Spufford poses the question of how this system works on a day-to-day basis, what are the personal relationships it enables, constrains, requires.

12

Sebastian 05.30.12 at 12:16 am

“How could the Soviet planning economy be so successful in producing serious economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, how could the Soviet system produce the science and innovation that led to space exploration and many other scientific achievements? “

Nazi scientists?

13

gordon 05.30.12 at 1:47 am

Shah8 (at 10): “Wars…tend to kill the stupid and the greedy”.

No, actually they tend to kill the best. The stupid and the greedy are the ones that survive and profit from the war.

14

DrJim 05.30.12 at 3:43 am

The Raven @1 “Is this perhaps a common characteristic of certain types of organization, regardless of politics?”

Only “certain types?” Don’t you think the mediocre and opportunistic (sycophants) rise to power in all types of organization? Can you think of one in which that is not true? Academia? Business? Give me a break …

15

ajay 05.30.12 at 9:05 am

12: well, partly. Also, space exploration didn’t require much new science. Rocket science is not difficult: it’s 17th century ballistics and 19th century chemistry. Rocket engineering is difficult.
Same goes for the nuclear programme: no new science came out of Los Alamos, Fermi said, and the same is probably true of its Soviet counterpart.

16

Peter Erwin 05.30.12 at 2:28 pm

ajay @ 12:
no new science came out of Los Alamos, Fermi said, and the same is probably true of its Soviet counterpart.

Of the kind of science Fermi was particularly interested in, that was mostly true. But the weapons programs produced important developments in materials science, computational physics (such as Monte Carlo simulations), and a number of other fields, at the very least.

(There’s a nifty passage in Kip Thorne’s book Black Holes and Time Warps, where he talks about having had an idea for predicting X-ray radiation from black holes in interstellar space that depended on particular interactions between X-rays and plasma. He mentions this to a prominent Russian physicist during a visit to Moscow, but the latter suggests it won’t work due to plasma instabilities, though he can’t give a detailed description why. Later, Thorne mentions the idea to an American physicist who had worked on nuclear weapon development and gets pretty much the same response. When Thorne, in frustration, mentions that he’d gotten the same dismissive response from the Russian, the American physicist looks very interested and says something like, “Oh, so he knows about that, too! Huh!” And Thorne decides that in both cases, the physicists are working from classified knowledge about the interactions of X-rays and plasmas, which is important for making hydrogen bombs work…)

How much the Soviet seizure of German industrial technology, including whole factories disassembled and transported back to the Soviet Union, may have contributed to Soviet progress in the 1950s is something that might be worth thinking about.

17

Peter Erwin 05.30.12 at 2:31 pm

Whoops — that should have been “ajay at @ 15“, not 12…

18

ajay 05.30.12 at 2:48 pm

How much the Soviet seizure of German industrial technology, including whole factories disassembled and transported back to the Soviet Union, may have contributed to Soviet progress in the 1950s is something that might be worth thinking about.

I would be prepared to believe “not very much”. Progress in terms of production capacity, yes. Progress in terms of technological expertise, not so much. The Germans weren’t all that scientifically and technologically advanced compared to the allies: and the Soviets were getting a lot of technical assistance from the allies over the same period, either voluntarily or involuntarily. When they built their first decent jet fighter, the MiG-15, it used a Rolls-Royce Nene engine. An earlier attempt, the MiG-9, used copies of German BMW jet engines, but it failed because the German engines weren’t as good as the Nene. Their first strategic bomber, the Tu-4, was a straight copy of a captured American B-29.

19

Antoaneta Dimitrova 05.30.12 at 3:08 pm

@1, 6 and 8. I am not familiar enough with selection for top jobs in the USA to judge. However, it seems to me that where for many management positions today (including in education), mediocrity and opportunism provide a good start, for communist party membership renouncing your principles and allegiance to the truth was an obligatory pre-condition for entry. It seems to me also that under a totalitarian system, living within the lie, as Vaclav Havel called it, was required of everyone, even if you had no ambitions to rise in the system. Surely the fact that so many US academics can post on this and other places and embrace a variety of critical opinions suggests it is not quite the same thing.

20

Peter Erwin 05.30.12 at 3:22 pm

I would be prepared to believe “not very much”.

I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if the answer was “not very much”, either; it was something which seemed possibly relevant.

When they built their first decent jet fighter, the MiG-15, it used a Rolls-Royce Nene engine

But they may have also used captured German aeronautical designs while developing the MiG-15, including the swept-wing approach of the Focke-Wulf Ta-183. Certainly the AK-47 was at least partly inspired by the WW2 German Sturmgewehr 44, and the Soviets made extensive use of captured German technology (and engineers) in their postwar rocket research, just as the Americans did.

21

Phil 05.31.12 at 8:53 am

Marxism Leninism turned out to be a perverse kind of post modernism – if the theory did not really make existence better, then it would construct a reality in which it did, in which pretense was all there was. … Millions of people that have been born and socialized into the ‘pretend-the-world-better’ system of socialism find it, to this very day, near impossible to believe in the objective consequences of their actions in a social context. Truth about society or the economy, facts and data are underestimated and suspected not to exist – after all, millions were taught facts they could observe did not really exist – only the party’s version of them did.

I think it might be worth digging into exactly what was wrong with this mindset. It seems rather obvious to say that we can and should rely on the facts we can observe, but actually it’s not the case at all. We observe bubbles moving downwards in a glass of Guinness, defying the laws of physics; an expert (or Wikipedia) can tell us we’re wrong and the laws of physics are just fine. We observe the parents of a murder victim sobbing inconsolably on TV; an expert (in a police uniform) tells us we’re wrong and they’re the chief suspects. We observe those [ethnic minority]s committing [crime] again like they always do; an expert tells us we’re wrong and [crime] is committed just as often by other ethnic groups. We observe our employer offering us the most generous pay rise possible; an expert (in a union position) tells us we’re wrong and the employer is being deplorably mean. We observe a foreign leader telling us that he wants nothing but peace; an expert (in government) tells us we’re wrong and the foreign leader is actually a dangerous tyrant.

I could go on! The point is, first-person empiricism is a lousy way of finding out what’s really going on, and we routinely rely on expert interpreters to make sense of social & other phenomena. If Marxism works as an interpretive method, and if the Party were full of hot-shot Marxists, wouldn’t it be reasonable to defer to the expertise of the Party over and above the evidence of our lying eyes?

One more point, about the ‘fixer’ Chekushkin.

I am not entirely convinced if it was really possible for anyone to play the exact role that Spufford imagined Chekushkin playing … In my personal experience, the trading of favors was a process that was so informal and embedded in everyday relationships that it could not be used for large scale, economic correction of the inflexibilities of communist planning

Emphasis added. This strikes me as a really important point, and quite a substantial criticism of Spufford. The point isn’t that there wasn’t anyone quite like Chekushkin; it’s that – on your account – the trading of favours was a different kind of activity from what Spufford represents: more spontaneous, less conscious, more affective, less calculating. I’ll leave it to people who have read the book (I will get round to it!) to say how big a problem this actually presents for Spufford’s account; it looks substantial enough to be worth commenting on.

22

Phil 05.31.12 at 9:05 am

under a totalitarian system, living within the lie, as Vaclav Havel called it, was required of everyone, even if you had no ambitions to rise in the system

I re-read that essay a while ago, and it’s been bugging me ever since. The example he begins with – the greengrocer displaying a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” – seems like an open-and-shut demonstration of how Communism made ordinary people live within a lie. But imagine a bus driver, living in the Free World – in Britain, say. He’s a good driver, he likes the idea of helping people get around, he likes meeting people, he hates deskwork… he’s perfect for the job. But he’s not a salesman; he’s got no interest in selling mobile phones and car insurance and patent medicines. He’s not an advertiser: he’s got no interest in advertising films and CDs and computer games. All he wants to do is drive a bus and help people get from A to B for not very much money, but he knows that in order to do that he is going to have to drive a bus whose sides are giant advertisements, while displaying smaller advertisements to his passengers. Is he also living within a lie? If not, why not?

23

Antoaneta Dimitrova 05.31.12 at 11:26 am

@ Phil
thanks for engaging with the questions which also continue to puzzle me. I don’t have the answers, but it’s interesting to continue the discussion on some of your points…
on first person empiricism, it also occurred to me while I was writing that from a social science perspective saying that the party doctrine contradicted the evidence of our own eyes is not very convincing, precisely for the reasons you mention. and yet, I think there is a difference between one person’s impression of the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ in large scale terms or in small scale terms. On a large scale, if , for example, the party claimed that the plan had been been fulfilled 110 per cent, one could not disprove that and probably would not even try or be particularly bothered either way, even if one worked in a factory where the target had not been achieved. If, on the other hand, one was told by the Party that socialism has moved to the next stage of its development as predicted by Marxism Lenninism, in which production managed to fulfil people’s (material) needs completely and on the same day one would stand in a 3 hour queue for fresh fruit, it would seem to me that the everyday examples would be enough to disprove the theory. One’s own experience would be then like a critical case, like the theory would be saying, all crows are black and we see one which is white.
-Chekushkin the fixer – yes, I also think that his role is a major point of discussion, I wonder if any anthropoligical research has been done on the way ‘connections’ were used under communism, it would contain part of the answer whether this was realistic and a possible way for the system to correct itself.
-your last point, on the greengrocer and the British bus driver, it puzzles me too, there is probably some similarlity that I find quite challenging and need to think more about. I would think if there is a difference it may be a matter of the degree to which a government and a social system restricts one’s personal freedom.

24

Francis Spufford 05.31.12 at 2:06 pm

Antoaneta, Phil: yes, the anthropological research into favour-trading in the USSR has been done, by the excellent Alena Ledeneva, in Russia’s Economy of Favours
(1998). She describes
blat as being, exactly, ‘between gift and commodity’, something running through the circuit of affective networks and reliant on being able to be mystified as purely friendly, yet at the same time always performed in the expectation of some return of favours, and fulfilling economic functions. Her research concentrated on the late-Soviet decades, but I made quite a lot of use of it in the Chekuskin chapter. I tried to portray him as something off to one side of the archetypal blatmeister, because operating in the less mystifiable industrial world where transactions are clearly transactions, yet leaning necessarily across the boundary into the world of the personal and affective, as he does across the boundary on the other side into the world of out-and-out organised crime. Where I’ve stretched credibility, I think, is in concentrating three different illicit skill-sets in one practitioner.

25

Francis Spufford 05.31.12 at 2:06 pm

Would somebody take pity on me, and tell me how you do a close-italics HTML tag?

26

Barry Freed 05.31.12 at 2:10 pm

eliminate the spaces.

27

Barry Freed 05.31.12 at 2:14 pm

Bloody hell, it got rid of my example text.

Less than sign followed by slash (aka forward slash) followed by the tag followed by the greater than sign.

28

Phil 05.31.12 at 2:14 pm

That sounds fascinating. It sounds as if my unease with the idea of favours being partly calculated – or transactions being partly gifts – may reflect a certain queasiness in the reality of blat. Much reading awaits.

29

Peter Erwin 05.31.12 at 3:25 pm

Would somebody take pity on me, and tell me how you do a close-italics HTML tag?

[let’s see if this works…]

As Barry Freed mentions, you have to end the italics not by repeating the initial <i>, but by inserting a forward slash in front of the “i”, thus: </i>.
This is true for pretty much any HTML formatting code: the end of the formatting is specified by repeating the start code but with a forward slash added just after the initial angle-bracket (less-than sign).

An example:
<i>This bit of text is in italics </i>, but this text is not.

should display as:

This bit of text is in italics , but this text is not.

(And if none of that comes out, you can also take a look at this page:
http://www.ironspider.ca/format_text/fontstyles.htm )

30

Peter Erwin 05.31.12 at 3:26 pm

OK, that was interesting… just follow the link at the end of my not-very-illuminating entry.

31

Francis Spufford 05.31.12 at 3:59 pm

Barry, Peter: thank you.

32

Data Tutashkhia 05.31.12 at 4:03 pm

I would think if there is a difference it may be a matter of the degree to which a government and a social system restricts one’s personal freedom.

The problem with this is that governments restrict personal freedom of different categories of people to different degrees and in different ways, so it’s hard to compare.

There’s always a huge outrage when some dissident-intellectual can’t get his opus published, or is banned from travel abroad or something, but some homeless guy getting kicked out of a warm hallway won’t make any news.

33

ajay 05.31.12 at 4:30 pm

All he wants to do is drive a bus and help people get from A to B for not very much money, but he knows that in order to do that he is going to have to drive a bus whose sides are giant advertisements, while displaying smaller advertisements to his passengers. Is he also living within a lie? If not, why not?

Phil: unless I’m missing something, then the answer is: no, because no one is trying to pretend that the bus driver endorses the positions of the advertisers on his bus. No one believes this. Everyone knows how the advertising business works and what the bus driver’s responsibility is. There is a general understanding that he is no more responsible than a postman who delivers a slanderous letter.

If the bus driver was involved in some kind of product placement deal where he was compelled to say “Thanks! Smoke Marlboros!” – or indeed “Workers of the world, unite!”- to everyone as he sold them their tickets, then the position would be different.

34

Phil 05.31.12 at 8:35 pm

As I remember Havel’s argument, his point was precisely that no one believed that the greengrocer endorsed the position of the poster he had in his window. Certainly everyone knew how the party slogan system worked and what the greengrocer’s responsibility was. It was exactly that level of taken-for-grantedness that he was aiming at with the idea of “living within the lie”.

35

Phil 05.31.12 at 8:46 pm

There’s always a huge outrage when some dissident-intellectual can’t get his opus published, or is banned from travel abroad or something

There’s a weird passage in Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, where the Czech secret police bust an undercover Shakespeare production (that’s not the weird part, it did happen). The secret policeman looks round the room, recognises several dissident intellectuals and comments sarcastically on the blue-collar jobs they’re all now doing. Then he turns to the director – “An audience full of factory workers! Congratulations, comrade – you’ve brought Shakespeare to the masses!”

I wondered at the time quite how ironic that was meant to be; I decided in the end that I was hearing more irony than Stoppard had put in. Intellectuals being deprived of legitimate Shakespeare opportunities and forced into factory work is one issue; whether actual factory workers (East or West) might in fact be able to appreciate Shakespeare is another, and one which I don’t think Stoppard has been greatly bothered by.

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Phil 05.31.12 at 8:47 pm

On second thoughts, I think it was Cahoot’s Macbeth. Never entirely sure.

37

Marcus 05.31.12 at 9:20 pm

People ask how it is possible that Marxism as a tool for understanding the world became so ‘post-modern’ in the USSR. There’s a good answer to that provided by Isaiah Berlin, that the ‘dialectic’ of M-L as institutionalized by Stalin was primarily a tool for government rather than a means for understanding, criticizing and changing the world in the normal Marxist sense.

It’s the chapter ‘The artificial dialectic: generalissimo Stalin and the art of government’ in the 2004 book ‘The Soviet mind’, originally published in the 1950s.

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Antoaneta Dimitrova 06.01.12 at 7:13 am

Francis, Alena Ledeneva’s research was indeed what I was thinking of, thank you for clarifying this. I think Cherkushkin’s combining different skills sets works for me, after all, many party apparatchiks became part of organized crime in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, the transition from trading favours to survive to trading favours to get rich is not implausible. I am still wondering, however, whether the communist party allowed anyone to perform the economic barters you describe at the level of industry, when they were not part of the party apparatus. Something about the closed character of the party as an organisation and the paranoia makes me doubt this. I don’t know and have not seen research on this, but I think the factory managers and party secretaries did this on some kind of tit-for-tat basis, but one person could not swap favours between different entities because this would require levels of trust that did not exist in the system and would be too much like an official acknowledgement the plan had not worked. the Spanish lessons, on the other hand – yes, one collected people’s skills exactly in this way, to trade against some future need…
ajay@ 33 and phil @34, I think that’s it. the bus driver is probably allowed to say, all it’s all bollocks, my bosses stick those adds on the bus but I have nothing to do with them. The greengrocer, Havel is clear that he is not committed to the slogan, but the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ is only implicit, Havel stresses it, in my opinion, to emphasize the hypocrisy of the system. If there was doubt about the loyalty of the greengrocer, then he would be asked and he would be expected to say that he believes the slogan, that the party is leading the workers towards a better future etc. If he did not, (and that’s even more true of intellectuals who could spread their scepticism further like Havel did), there would be repercussions.
Marcus: I think Marxism Leninism started being used as a tool for government and soon became an orthodoxy which could not be criticised or disproven like other theories. Marx’s original work was not studied at university in the obligatory political economy courses, but was presented in textbooks with carefully abridged versions based on the current idea of party ideologists and, formally, the secretary general of the party. I liked Francis’ comments that they all liked to pretend they were social scientists. But it was not social science to be tested by anyone else.

39

Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 7:40 am

I haven’t lived in Poland, but I find it extremely doubtful that, during the 70s-80s, a greengrocer would suffer repercussions for telling anybody that party slogans are bullshit.

He might, I suppose, if he printed his opinion on leaflets and tried to distribute them, but so would Phil’s bus driver.

40

Chris Williams 06.01.12 at 7:54 am

Perhaps the best lines in the book (apart from the gangsters / social scientists one) are those when Kruschev is pointing out that “We are the ones who are supposed to be the materialists.” The USSR and the state socialist systems (even the rather more economically democratic ones like Hungary and Yugoslavia) failed completely on the material level. They couldn’t pay their debts, and that was a pity, because their debts were to their enemies, and they needed more hard currency to buy the things their own economies could not produce, try as they might. Ticktin was right: they couldn’t create value for consumers.

It was only when they reached the end of the road in material terms that they failed ideologically. There was a lot of passive support for them, and in some cases active support. Lesson: people can handle the cognitive dissonance fine, provided there’s food on the table and a modicum of stuff in the shops.

Today, my children are going to be told by their school to stand in a row and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ – whether or not they believe in one and support the other. This isn’t a million miles away from Havel’s ‘Workers of the World’, though in the service of a very different system.

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Alex 06.01.12 at 8:36 am

The original greengrocer argument is that he has to put up the sign on Revolution Day or whatever – to actively go out of his way to look like he cares. This is also why the authorities bother – it’s much more important to get people to do something than to have them passively sympathise, or passively tolerate, or passively ignore. It’s a costly signal of loyalty.

The bus driver is a bad example. Nobody expects bus drivers to, say, wear advertising on themselves or greet passengers with a hearty “Drink Coca-Cola”, and their union would shit if this was proposed.

Now, a London Olympics volunteer, who is expected to be sponsored by McDonalds and to go around being all enthusiastic…

42

Ken MacLeod 06.01.12 at 9:02 am

Chris @ 40: When I visited Prague for a few days in 1977, wandering around the streets as an unguided tourist living out of a camper van, I had quite the reverse impression: material conditions were better than I had expected, but it was quite obvious that the official ideology meant nothing to people. There was food on the table and stuff in the shops. The party museum (a house Lenin had once stayed in, I think) was empty. Etc.

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Marcus 06.01.12 at 9:38 am

Antoaneta, I would agree with you but slightly alter the terms. It’s not so much a social theory that is reified as it’s the institutionalization of revolutionary practice, and as such it has a cultural dimension as well. This is explored by Berlin, and in a different way by Groys and similar authors as well.

If we conceptualize of the planning mechanism as infrastructure, we can see M-L and socialist realism as institutionalized by Stalin as superstructure. The relation between these two is very interesting to explore. My thoughts on the issue are only half-formed, so may appear a bit tenuous but I’ll hazard a few comments (and be grateful for any critique). Basically, I would say consumer choice is never free but always in a negotiation with not only supply but also the superstructure. The latter should be understood in broad terms as the aesthetic of the everyday (well-explored by Groys and others like Kotkin and his notion of ‘speaking Bolshevik’ and perhaps even Bakhtin). I see this as the underlying current of Soviet culture and statecraft put into place by Stalin and never truly repudiated, even if mellowed in the decades succeeding his death and ultimately run into the ground through Glasnost.

As a tool of control and revolutionary practice (‘Soviet power’), this would impact the planning mechanism in various ways. What does optimization or plenty then mean? In effect it can only be determined politically, by applying ‘Soviet power’. In the end it’s not surprising that this went nowhere for the reasons cited here and in Red Plenty itself. But if we de-couple the Stalinist tool of power and control (or that of Mao for that matter) from the infrastructure of the planning mechanism, it might just be that in other circumstances the latter could work better. What if people in the USSR had gotten the critical tools of Constructivism as a superstructural means of making consumer choices and defining plenty in relation to the well-being of themselves and their fellow beings? It’s an interesting counterfactual, if totally off the radar of anybody but art-interested people.

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ajay 06.01.12 at 11:31 am

As I remember Havel’s argument, his point was precisely that no one believed that the greengrocer endorsed the position of the poster he had in his window

But, and I appreciate this is a nice point, he still had to pretend to endorse it by taking action. The bus driver doesn’t. It’s about being forced to actively lie – even though everyone knows you’re lying.

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ajay 06.01.12 at 11:33 am

When I visited Prague for a few days in 1977, wandering around the streets as an unguided tourist living out of a camper van, I had quite the reverse impression: material conditions were better than I had expected, but it was quite obvious that the official ideology meant nothing to people. There was food on the table and stuff in the shops. The party museum (a house Lenin had once stayed in, I think) was empty.

My impression is that this is the big difference between the USSR and its empire. Don’t forget, Czecho, Hungary etc were all much richer than the Soviet Union.

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Maynard Handley 06.01.12 at 2:59 pm

40
“Today, my children are going to be told by their school to stand in a row and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ – whether or not they believe in one and support the other. This isn’t a million miles away from Havel’s ‘Workers of the World’, though in the service of a very different system.”

This was what I thought of. There are plenty of examples in Western life where one just shuts up and goes along with idiocy because it is the easiest option. School is full of these, but it’s hardly the only one. Every interaction with TSA is essentially along these lines. Most of us become drooling Stepn Fetchit’s when forced to deal with the police. And so on.

I have to agree that, whatever Havel’s point was, his example is weak. The main thing behavior like this shows is that most of us have better things to do with our lives than waste them fighting stupidity — easier to go along with the stupidity and save one’s energy for something important. Yes, if no-one went along, then society would be very different — and if humans had wings, society would also be very different. Given real humanity, this behavior neither strikes me as especially evil nor especially noteworthy.

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Maynard Handley 06.01.12 at 3:08 pm

@44
“But, and I appreciate this is a nice point, he still had to pretend to endorse it by taking action. The bus driver doesn’t. It’s about being forced to actively lie – even though everyone knows you’re lying.”

And this differs from Mitt Romney’s attempt to win the presidency, how? I don’t even mean this facetiously.
This sort of behavior strikes me as inherent in living in human groups, not something peculiarly communist. If you’re the arab family living in Texas, you’re damn well going to be enthusiastic about football, no matter your personal feelings on the subject.

Yeah it suck, yeah it’s not ideal. But what are you going to do? The particular price being paid in Havel’s example strikes me as a whole lot less than the price than many people have to pay in the US. Sure, it has the force of the state behind it. But if I’m a US teacher, it’s a whole lot easier to just stand up and recite (ooh active lying!) the Pledge of Allegiance every day than to make a big deal about how I don’t agree with whatever part of the Pledge I find offensive.

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Maynard Handley 06.01.12 at 3:45 pm

I realized, after these two posts, that it may come across that I more or less approve of people being forced to lie in their daily lives. That’s not my point. I think the correct framework in which to view this is one of dignity, and not having that taken away from one is a good thing.

My actual point was something different — that, at least in this respect, the communism Havel is describing is not unalike life in the west, and one loses understanding if one tries to insist that the two are, in fact, poles apart.

49

ajay 06.01.12 at 3:59 pm

48: Maynard, what would happen to an Arab man living in Texas who said “Well, I’m afraid I’m not very interested in football?”
What would happen to a Czech shopkeeper who put a sign in his window reading “Communism is a system of economic idiocy backed up by immoral coercion?”

It’s a pity Havel’s not still with us; you could have explained to him how he was wrong about what it was like to live under a Communist government.

50

Sebastian 06.01.12 at 4:00 pm

Drawing a comparison between the greengrocer/communist example and the bus driver/capitalist example is pushing it.

In the greengrocer example, the implicit threat is that if some party spy (and their existence is difference enough) gets a bug up his/her ass and decides you aren’t enthusiastic enough about the party, you can end up dragged into a questioning session with the authorities which can end up with you in jail and all of your family, friends and associates under investigations that could end up with them in jail. It can also end with you vanishing in the night, never to be seen from or heard from again.

That threat doesn’t exist in the bus driver case.

No we can argue all we want about whether or not that fact is a ‘necessary’ part of communism in some theoretical way. But in practical fact THAT is the difference between the greengrocer case and the bus driver case. And it ends up making a difference in terms of amount of and type of systemic lying expected under actual existing communism and actual existing capitalist systems.

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Peter Erwin 06.01.12 at 4:33 pm

When I visited Prague for a few days in 1977, wandering around the streets as an unguided tourist living out of a camper van, I had quite the reverse impression: material conditions were better than I had expected, but it was quite obvious that the official ideology meant nothing to people. There was food on the table and stuff in the shops.

As ajay pointed out, the Eastern European states were richer and more advanced than the Soviet Union to start with. As I understand it, in the 1930s Czechoslovakia was the richest, most industrialized, and most technologically advanced country east of Germany (and didn’t suffer as much devastation and looting as eastern Germany did during the war).

Skimming through Tony Judt’s Postwar, I found a discussion of Eastern European economics in the 1970s, which mentions that many of those countries borrowed heavily from the West in order to subsidize food prices and consumer goods .(E.g., “In the course of the 1970s alone Czechoslovakia’s hard currency debt rose twelve-fold. … Communist economists in Prague recommended phasing out subsidies and introducing ‘real’ prices, but their political masters feared the social consequences of such a retreat and preferred to increase their debts instead.”)

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J. Otto Pohl 06.01.12 at 4:51 pm

Czechoslovakia was not actually east of Germany. The Sudetenland was considerably west of much of Germany at the time and even Ruthenia was no further east than most of East Prussia. It was geographically very much a Central European state.

The rest is correct and goes for Poland and Hungary as well. But, the mentality of Central Europe including the Baltic States was very different from the USSR. Russia and eastern Ukraine not to mention Central Asia and Azerbaijan had never really been part of Europe.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 4:52 pm

In the greengrocer example, the implicit threat is that if some party spy (and their existence is difference enough) gets a bug up his/her ass and decides you aren’t enthusiastic enough about the party, you can end up dragged into a questioning session with the authorities which can end up with you in jail and all of your family, friends and associates under investigations that could end up with them in jail. It can also end with you vanishing in the night, never to be seen from or heard from again.

That’s just nonsense. That period ended in 1953, when Havel was a teenager. After that, nothing whatsoever would happen to the greengrocer, and nobody cared about the greengrocer.

This kind of rhetoric is an equivalent of the official Soviet rhetoric, according to which every black person in America is spending every minute of his/her life worrying about being lynched.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.01.12 at 5:04 pm

53

Being an active dissident could get you interrogated and thrown in prison. It could also have negative ramifications for you family as well. But, there does not seem to have been any persecution of apolitical people in the USSR or Czechoslovakia unless we are talking about some of the religious sectarians such as Baptists during the post-Stalin era. What is amazing is just how few people cared much about political issues at all. Active dissent in the USSR during the 1970s was largely concentrated among a number of small nationalities such as Jews, Germans, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, Balts, Georgians, and Armenians with relatively few Russians and Ukrainians and almost no Central Asians added to the mix. There were more Estonian dissidents than Russian dissidents for example.

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Peter Erwin 06.01.12 at 5:27 pm

Czechoslovakia was not actually east of Germany.

True; I was aiming for something a bit less long-winded than “of the Central and East European countries which became Soviet satellites or quasi-independent Communist states after World War 2”.

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Agog 06.01.12 at 6:18 pm

Re: parallels with the USA – my thoughts when reading the section of the introduction to part 6 describing the overexpansion of heavy industry in the 1960s were immediately of the 21st century West’s financial industry. “Adding less and less value to the raw materials it sucked in.” And also in the story that follows, where the same thought is represented by the malignant growth in Lebedev’s lung.

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Sebastian h 06.01.12 at 6:34 pm

Data. You’re wrong. If you were labelled a dissident your life was fucked and you risked the lives of your family and friends being fucked. Not showing the right signs at the right times was exactly how you risked being labelled a dissident. That continued well after 1950 anything. Did it soften so that it wasn’t as harsh as before? Sure. Was it ever as safe as the bus driver example. No it was not.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 6:47 pm

To be labelled a dissident you would have to be a real activist, not a greengrocer who doesn’t like party slogans. If you had chosen to be an activist, then they would started harassing you, first a little, increasing pressure gradually. An American equivalent of a person seriously harassed by the authorities would be someone like Ralph Nader.

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Sebastian h 06.01.12 at 7:13 pm

What years did Ralph Nader spend in jail? Lech Walesa was in and out of jail in the seventies, which is after 1953…

And ceasing to oppress Solidarity members is how communism fell in Poland which makes it a good case for differentiating between the US bus driver and the communist shopkeeper.

Even Havel was denied university because of political reasons.

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bianca steele 06.01.12 at 7:18 pm

Marx’s original work was not studied at university in the obligatory political economy courses, but was presented in textbooks with carefully abridged versions based on the current idea of party ideologists and, formally, the secretary general of the party

I’ve talked with engineers who studied at Soviet universities and they’ve mentioned these courses, which were tacked on to their regular engineering course, one a year with IIRC Marxism/Leninism in the final year. They did, I think, describe them as basically “social science” at least until that final year. I was curious about the contents but I suppose textbooks for those courses would not be easy to find in the West.

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Substance McGravitas 06.01.12 at 7:20 pm

I suppose textbooks for those courses would not be easy to find in the West.

If you think a textbook for that sort of stuff might be readable then you might want to know that The Great Soviet Encyclopedia is here.

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bianca steele 06.01.12 at 7:22 pm

I would take an East German one, but now I’m wondering whether the contents would even be the same. (“bol’shaya”- I remember that word- not much else)

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 7:25 pm

Ralph Nader hasn’t spent time in jail, although he was seriously harassed by GM. But like I said upthread, it’s a different class of people who get harassed in the west. Intellectuals, you’re right, not so much. Apparently they don’t represent enough of a threat. The impoverished and marginalized do.

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Matt 06.01.12 at 7:31 pm

To be labelled a dissident you would have to be a real activist, not a greengrocer who doesn’t like party slogans.

A fair number of people who could not properly be thought to be political activists got serious trouble, too- folks like Eduard Limonov and Brodsky. “hooliganism” and “social parasitism” and the like were the charges. Some of these people _became_ dissidents in the more normal political sense, but they didn’t really start that way, nor were they persecuted because of what we’d most normally think of as political activity.

One’s role in life also was important to the amount of every-day pressure one felt. My university professor friends in Russia who are old enough to have been teaching in the early 80’s or before talk about considerable interest into their contacts with foreigners, the nature of their lectures, etc. I suspect this was less for shop clerks, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

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Maynard Handley 06.01.12 at 7:42 pm

(a) 49. ajay,
I note you very carefully avoided the most interesting of my examples — the teacher who doesn’t want to say the pledge of allegiance…

(b) I have no idea whether Ralph Nader has spent time in prison. Martin Luther King certainly did. But since the issue is now supposedly free speech and intellectuals, let’s talk Tarek Mehanna…, or Julian Assange…
We WERE discussing low-level tyranny (of many sorts, social, national, corporate) and the issue of how it’s easier to just go along than the hassle of fighting; but if you want to raise the issue of how gloriously some states protect free speech when they feel it’s in their interests to threaten, or even just to put on a show for the rabble…

The question, as always, is: are you interested more in scoring points, or are you more interested in seeing the big picture?

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 7:47 pm

Isn’t Limonov a post-communist dissident?

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Maynard Handley 06.01.12 at 7:48 pm

@64
I thought we were specifically discussing Czechoslovakia and its similar societies, specifically not the Soviet Union or some sort of “world communism”.

If we’re going to just talk undifferentiated superficially similar social systems, hey, let’s discuss Steve Biko — South Africa was still an ally of the US at the time, stalwart in the fight against the Red Menace in Angola and Mozambique.

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Chris Williams 06.01.12 at 7:52 pm

Walesa’s fate is not good evidence for the Czech situation. There was never, especially after 1956, a single lump of people’s democracy in eastern Europe. In Hungary, Kadar’s actual slogan was ‘anyone who is not against us is for us’. In Romania, not so much. Alas, we can’t generalise about dissident culture either. Czechslovakia had a small, very distinct and very impotent one: Poland’s was very different (esp role of KOR in Solidarnosc), DDR’s different still. In Hungary the economic reformers were already in the Party or in state research associations. Etc.

BTW, readers, if you had 12 hours to teach undergraduates about 1989, where would you start, and whose interpretations would you feel the need to include?

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Matt 06.01.12 at 7:54 pm

Isn’t Limonov a post-communist dissident?

No, or not only. He was arrested and thrown in jail for “hooliganism” and “social parasitism” as a young guy in the Soviet Union (much like Brodsky, actually, though he was more of a hooligan, I think, if his own writing is to be trusted) and then basically forced into exile, with his citizenship stripped. My impression is that he got this (as opposed to just forced labor) only because he was already somewhat known as a poet. (This was in the mid to late 70’s.)

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J. Otto Pohl 06.01.12 at 8:02 pm

67

While the US was a supporter of UNITA in Angola against the MPLA along with the South Africa, both the US and UK supported the Marxist FRELIMO regime in Mozambique against RENAMO which was at various times backed by Rhodesia and then South Africa.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 8:14 pm

I read Limonov in exile.ru, and he sounds like a shock-jock. One could as well complain about Howard Stern being harassed by the FCC.

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Sebastian h 06.01.12 at 8:15 pm

“We WERE discussing low-level tyranny (of many sorts, social, national, corporate) and the issue of how it’s easier to just go along than the hassle of fighting; but if you want to raise the issue of how gloriously some states protect free speech when they feel it’s in their interests to threaten, or even just to put on a show for the rabble…”

We were specifically talking about US bus drivers vs green grocers. The difference is as I outlined above. Obscuring it out of lack of knowledge is one thing, but I’m suspicious. Denialism is ugly.

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Sebastian h 06.01.12 at 8:20 pm

Btw I’m specifically calling out the reaching to South Africa. I compared in good faith the freer direct Soviet satellites to the US directly because that is what was raised. I did not bring up the freedom levels of third world European colonial messes that got swept into the cold war. Bringing up South Africa in response to poland is a sign of rhetorical desperation.

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bianca steele 06.01.12 at 8:21 pm

Incidentally, and totally off-topic, one of the engineers I was talking about wasn’t a Soviet citizen but a citizen of a non-aligned nation, and later pretty successful in US corporate life, though maybe with a previous background in Marxism.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 8:28 pm

No, seriously, Sebastian. In 1939, you’d get 10 years for saying that the party apparatchiks are a bunch of thieves. In 1979, if you weren’t saying that (calling them, sarcastically, “servants of the people”), everybody around you thought you’re weird.

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Sebastian h 06.01.12 at 8:42 pm

You’re understating the oppression and 1979 is well off of 1953. But even if I grant you all that, the eventual refusal to continue to enforce the lies required by the command economy ended the command economies wherever the oppression ended. That may not be a final proof, but it certainly is a fact worth dealing with in this context.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 8:53 pm

A different dominant ideology requires a different set of lies (if you want to call it that), that’s all. Different methods, different ways of justifying and enforcing the new hierarchical structure. For a pop-version, see that old Carpenter’s movie They Live.

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Matt 06.01.12 at 9:05 pm

One could as well complain about Howard Stern being harassed by the FCC.

This is really not serious. Please, try to do better.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.01.12 at 9:09 pm

I think for this kind of comparison you’d be looking at things like HUAC, COMINFIL, so-called COINTELPRO and its vast undocumented penumbra, the -public executions- spate of lone nuts in the 60s, and all the rest of it since, much under the umbrellas of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Also, against dissidents (as opposed to token contrarians etc), sophisticated and effective techniques of marginalisation (see the paranoid style, conspiracy theory and its links to anti-semitism, etc). That’s assuming calling them communists wouldn’t get them ostracised or lynched, and that they weren’t important enough for or couldn’t be got with some sex or drugs ‘sting’. But the more subtle techniques are more interesting – and more insidious. The USSR’s problem was in the end too straightforward about its demands, and the cognitive dissonance was just too great. The US society has enforced some impressive doublethink in its time but always keeps it ‘deniable’. Obviously this looks different from outside the society, though.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.01.12 at 9:22 pm

Matt, I don’t understand. I read Limonov’s piece where he advocates a society based on the principles of the Manson Family. Literally. And he is extremely racist too. Charles Manson, incidentally, has been in jail for the last 40 years for “conspiracy”, to follow your notations.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.02.12 at 12:39 pm

79

I don’t think the comparison really holds. What makes the Soviet case interesting is that in a lot of ways it does look like the US. It was a largely literate, urbanized, industrialized, educated and cultured society as Americans understand these terms. It was thus modern in a “Western” sense. What stood out as being radically different was not so much the fact the state rather than private corporations controlled most of the economy. A lot of Western European and East Asian states also had significant state control of key portions of their economy. What was different was the fact that this modernized and Westernized society was an authoritarian police state.

The number of people convicted of political crimes in the post-Stalin era is hard to calculate exactly. But, I have seen realistic estimates that as many as 10,000 prisoners of conscience served serious terms, over one year, in the USSR during this time. In the US you can point to a handful of incarcerated political activists such as Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. During the 1970s and 80s human rights organizations regularly ran lists of dozens of political prisoners in the USSR. The Crimean Tatars were a small nationality, less than 500,000, and yet they alone had over 200 political activists arrested and incarcerated for long terms including between the years 1966 and 1972 alone (_Krimskii studii_, no. 5-6, 200, pp. 62-63). This would be roughly equivalent to the US imprisoning 200 Navajo political activists because of their activism in a six year period. Obviously nothing on this scale happened in the US during this time and the Crimean Tatars again are only one small ethnic group. When one starts factoring in Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and other political prisoners it starts to get significant.

People like Nader, Chomsky, even Edward Said were never imprisoned and subject to the type of official sanctions that Dzhemilev, Chabanov, Grigorenko, Tarto, Parek, Astra, Bergmann, Fast, Chernovil, etc. suffered. If the US was really just a mirror image of the USSR in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in terms of repression than the number of political prisoners should be roughly equal. But, it is not. On the Soviet side I could name hundreds on the US side only a handful.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 1:27 pm

In the US you can point to a handful of incarcerated political activists such as Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

But that’s what Tim is saying, when he’s comparing it to COINTELPRO. In the US environment a straight incarceration may be, in many cases, less efficient than, say, a frameup or assassination. Though a lot of them got incarcerated too; it’s just that their names don’t pop up in your head as readily as the names of Soviet dissidents. Ask any ex-Soviet older than 50 who Angela Davis is: they all know.

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Chris Williams 06.02.12 at 2:02 pm

Casting around for someone whose condition approximates dissidents in (some) late C20th state socialist countries, I thought of Ward Churchill. There’s a clear difference in scale between the degree of internal repression within the USSR and the USA. On the other hand, if we consider the USSR as a sphere of influence rather than a unitary state, and compare the repression there with concurrent repression in the USA’s sphere of influence, while compare the RFSR itself with the USA, the gap narrows sharply. It was crap being a Crimean Tartar nationalist in the 1970s, but it was also crap being a Sandinista.

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Phil 06.02.12 at 3:31 pm

I note you very carefully avoided the most interesting of my examples—- the teacher who doesn’t want to say the pledge of allegiance…

In ajay’s defence, from a British p.o.v. anything to do with the Pledge of Allegiance looks so damn weird that we (well, I) tend to steer clear of saying anything about it, in case it turns out that it was phased out in 1956 and nobody’s told us, or that it was drafted by Eugene Debs and is actually an immensely progressive document, or just that everything we know is wrong.

If the US was really just a mirror image of the USSR in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in terms of repression

As the person who started this hare running, can I just say that I think this is a very different (and, I think, much less interesting) issue than the one I was talking about. My point was that Antoaneta’s post and comments echo Havel’s idea of Communism as a regime of falsehood entrenched in everyday life, as exemplified by the greengrocer story in the 1978 essay Power of the Powerless. Excerpt:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? …

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say…

The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”

Havel’s arguing that this kind of pressure for conformity through routine falsehood is characteristic of life under Communism and not of life under capitalist democracy. Like Maynard, I don’t really think it stands up.

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Sebastian 06.02.12 at 4:04 pm

“Havel’s arguing that this kind of pressure for conformity through routine falsehood is characteristic of life under Communism and not of life under capitalist democracy. Like Maynard, I don’t really think it stands up.”

But the examples of ‘similar’ levels of pressure for conformity through routine falsehood have been spectacularly bad. We have neither come up with the similar routine falsehood (that support for the Party is universal) nor similar levels of pressure (that your entire life and that of your friends and family could be ruined and you could be put in jail).

I want to really stress the friends and family bit as well. It is psychologically damaging to always worry that any little thing you do could set off against everyone you care about. You were not only potentially putting yourself in danger by taking the sign down, you were subjecting your entire family and all your friends to danger from the government. The closest parallels would be the danger the KKK posed to black people in the South during reconstruction. That was a terrorist organization with disturbingly deep roots, but it wasn’t the US government. If you want to argue that the communist systems were like the KKK in the US, I’m willing to agree with you, but I think it shakes the argument out rather differently…

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Tim Wilkinson 06.02.12 at 4:05 pm

But HUAC too is of great importance – this was actually the height of the Cold War, certainly so far as finishing the US Left is concerned. I’ve mentoned before this tends to be assimilated to ‘McCarthyism’, thence quite wrongly to McCarthy, who was (a) actually concerned with espionage, (b) not as wrong or as pissed as he painted, and (c) squelched by the establishment once his electoral and partisan usefulness had run its course. Hooverism, perhaps. Point being that the Hollywood blacklist, for a prominent example, was exactly the same thing, functionally speaking, as the repression of intellectuals in the USSR. There is obviously also the massive propaganda effort of the CIA et al., funding plausible wordwrights such as Berlin to wreak an ideology (and numerous CT threads have examined the hegemony of ‘free market’ ideology in the US since that decisive era).

Again, the US orthodoxy was just easier to enforce through propaganda, socialisation and, around quite a wide and busy perimeter, covert action, because it was so much less demanding (Chomsky never ceases to illustrate, in minute detail and a monotonous ironic register, the flexibility of terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’) and so much better packaged (the Marlboro man in Levi’s and all that). By contrast, the USSR had a detailed, scientistic and in parts quite loony founding mythology to enforce, as well as considerable external pressure, military, economic and ideological, increasing as they passed through successive defeats in the Cold War, from Hiroshima t0 Gdańsk.

(Subsequent vaguely leftish resurgences were dealt with harshly, though HUAC was ineffective to intimidate Grouchoists. For parapolitics afficionados, the spiking of 60s radical youth politics with psychedelia seems likely to provide an interesting research topic; Lenin and MKUltra.)

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Sebastian 06.02.12 at 4:48 pm

Chomsky is in fact an excellent example of the distinction. His professorship at MIT would not have lasted through 55 continuous years in the USSR or any of the European satellites (much less the non-European satellites) if he were as vocal a critic of them as he was of the US.

And again the House Un American Activities committee, while ugly and awful doesn’t compare in scope, scale, or actual impact to even the small relatively free countries in the USSR orbit, much less the USSR itself. In an enormous country like the US, how many people did HUAC put in prison? Hiss and maybe two others total? Even the blacklist which was nasty, was tiny. Again any single country in the USSR orbit did far more, for far longer, to far more people than the entire impact of the HUAC and the blacklist together. If those are really your best examples, Havel is right and the difference in scale is immense.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 5:14 pm

On the other hand, the US has a half-million more people imprisoned today than GULAG had at its peak, never mind Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s periods. Those in prisons are the ones refusing to conform, to play by the rules. Details differ, but every hierarchical structure defends itself, the best it can.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.02.12 at 5:27 pm

If Chomsky was in the USSR rather than the US he would have at best been treated like Sakharov. But, it could have been a lot worse. He could have fared like Grigorenko and been sent to a Psychiatric Prison. So far people have only been able to name four US citizens imprisoned for “political reasons.” I named two of them, and I have serious doubts about whether Mumia Abu-Jamal actually was framed. Peltier’s case for being a political prisoner is more compelling, but he is one man. The others named were Angela Davis who was incarcerated for violating gun control laws and was afterwards a tenured professor at UC Santa Clara and Alger Hiss convicted of perjury. In contrast I listed nine political prisoners from the USSR, many of them who were convicted and served multiple sentences and I could list a lot more. So TW’s claim that US HUAC and COINTELPRO were comparative in scope in their repressive activities to the KGB is really not convincing.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.02.12 at 6:27 pm

JOP – comparable. In scope? Well, yes, defined by objectives.

Talk of ‘small numbers’ targeted by the blacklist (etc) overlooks the fact that it was, er targeted, and targeted at the opinion-forming stratum of society.

I have no brief to try and compare volume of prisoners and so on – but having said that, I’d presume, on methodological grounds, that figures certified by US officialdom (including tame historians etc.) would be liberal to the point of fraud in classifying Soviet prisoners & psychiatric patients as political, and conversely strict where the US is concerned.

Besides perspectival issues which the generality of USians are apt to underestimate (shows how well they work; cue rote – not by accident, Popperian – formulae about unfalsifiablility), the point is that the USSR version had a kind of mad idealistic uncompromisingness, while the US effort was (and is) far better run (so far as the US homeland is concerned, vide Chris Williams supra). ‘Better run’ here in a Machiavellian sense, obviously. That means less of the usual black-letter stats, a clean bill of health from, er, ‘Freedom House’, etc.

See also CT threads passim, re: hacks in the media, academy, politics etc.: big money interests, coordinated (or confluent), role of, ideology of US exceptionalism and free whassname, maintaining, in.

Take the Bilderberg Group. That can’t be mentioned in polite society without some kind of defensive humour reminescent of the guilty sniggers of British sexual humour – in particular, it is required to utterly repudiate the taboo notion that it as a distinct grouping has any significant power or influence on the world. But this mandatory posture is actually quite demented. Isn’t it.

(And note that its secrecy has been taken down through the gears from ‘it doesn’t exist’ to whatever current bland formula is now standard only because of the attention of ‘conspiracy theorists’ over the years. Allegations about it, as is the way with such things, sublimate from solidly ridiculous and obviously false to obviously true but aetherially trivial. Who needs unfalsifiability when you have a Someone Else’s Problem field?)

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Tim Wilkinson 06.02.12 at 6:29 pm

reminiscent

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J. Otto Pohl 06.02.12 at 6:58 pm

TW:

I don’t think anybody has ever been arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated multiple times in the US for mentioning the Bilderburger Group. Right Wing conspiracy nuts mention them all the time without any police action what so ever. On the other hand Crimean Tatars demonstrating peacefully for the restoration of the Crimean ASSR which had been created by Lenin and eliminated by Stalin were routinely sentenced to long terms of incarceration after 1966. If anything the numbers go the opposite way you are suggesting and I am giving a lot more liberal interpretation to the definition of political prisoner in the US. Most of the people we are talking about such as Davis did advocate violence. Whereas in the USSR the Crimean Tatars for instance had a very adamant commitment to non-violence. They also advocated for a restoration of Leninist nationality policies within the framework of socialist legality and the USSR. Whereas many of the people in the US we are talking about openly supported the overthrow of the existing government. The difference is not that the US had a more efficient means of repressing dissent. The difference is the Soviet government felt it necessary to suppress any organized or articulated opposition to its policies no matter how non-threatening. In contrast the US government except in a few extreme cases has allowed people like Chomsky, Churchill, Said, and others to freely advocate their ideas without ever arresting them.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.02.12 at 8:12 pm

I believe it’s pretty much the opposite. The KGB was concerned mostly with individual activists, while COINTELPRO was a much more comprehensive enterprise, aiming to destroy various movements and organizations. Here:
http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/cointelpro/coinwcar3.htm

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Phil 06.02.12 at 8:18 pm

We have neither come up with the similar routine falsehood (that support for the Party is universal) nor similar levels of pressure (that your entire life and that of your friends and family could be ruined and you could be put in jail).

You’re rewriting Havel’s scenario, which seems discourteous considering that he was writing from first-hand experience. The slogan wasn’t “We all support the Party”, it was “Workers of the world unite” – and who (in a soc1alist society) could object to that? I think it has a very similar level of superficially harmless banality to most commercial advertising in a capitalist society. (“Of course they’re saying their stuff is great – why shouldn’t they? They’ve got a right to try and sell their stuff, haven’t they?”) As for the greengrocer’s friends and family being incarcerated if he dared to take the sign down, Havel never suggested that that would happen. He said:

He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty.

It’s not a message that means anything to you – to say that you endorse it is, strictly speaking, false – but it’s harmless enough, it doesn’t say anything you *object* to, and if you took it down “there could be trouble”. So you leave it up, and you continue to live in the lie. If you ask me that’s really not a million miles away from my bus driver.

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lupita 06.02.12 at 9:11 pm

I do not think that states or families that use violence to control its members are more successful than those that do not. For example, instead of beating your child for not saying “please”, a parent can model the behavior and explain that being courteous is the expectation. The outcome (a child learning to say “please”) may well be the same outcome of both approaches. Perhaps the beaten kid will grow up to be more rebellious.

In the case of the US, political parties, the media, and politicians model appropriate behavior by not using terms like “justice”, “equality”, “social”, by not being socialist, and by using “socialist” as synonymous to crazy, childish, unreasonable, evil, and un-American. The expectations of Americans are exceptionalism and being the greatest nation of the world, the most powerful, its leader. The result is that there is no left in the US (good behavior).

By way of contrast, in Latin America leftists have been murdered, incarcerated, and tortured. The result has been a strong left and two victims of torture (Bachelet and Rousseff) elected as heads of state (rebellious behavior).

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ajay 06.02.12 at 9:13 pm

I note you very carefully avoided the most interesting of my examples—- the teacher who doesn’t want to say the pledge of allegiance…

Well, as Phil said, I’m a Brit and know virtually nothing about the pledge of allegiance. We very rarely sang the national anthem at my school, and on the occasions that we did I know that several people remained silent without any punishments.
If we’re attacking each other’s sincerity, though, I notice you very carefully avoided the question of what would happen to an Arab non-football-fan in Texas vs. a Czech dissident under the Communists. And the point of how, exactly, you would explain to Vaclav Havel that he was wrong about what it was like to be a dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, the US has a half-million more people imprisoned today than GULAG had at its peak

Data, do you actually know what the phrase “per capita” means?

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Tim Wilkinson 06.02.12 at 9:21 pm

Everyone else is by now talking at cross-purposes to JOP, so he wins the cherished minority-of-one status. (Also makes my point with the ‘right-wing conspiracy nuts’ remark.)

Meanwhile, re: COINTELPRO etc.

We know both feds and spooks ran grey and black ops with (attempted, arguably achieved depending on who you poll) total deniability. Slush funds, weird unofficial sex and drugs parlours, mafia assets, coke traffic, programmes to discredit people with drugs and other means of inducing apparent mental instability… (Again only looking at domestic operations, we leave the global heroin trade, death squads etc aside – only Commie stooges are to be counted, not imperialist ones).

We also know that they are, unsurprisingly, pretty generous with the black marker in declassifying documents and don’t declassify all docs by any means. Further, they have ‘lost’ and destroyed (without further explanation) substantial quantities of documentation (and we should – shouldn’t we? – presume spoliation, as well as redaction, to be targeted at less nocuous stuff than that which remains).

The standard conspiracy denialist trope of rigid bureaucracy staffed with tight-assed jobsworths and crawled over by ultra-cautious legal counsel really doesn’t apply to (the entirety of) either of the main official US ‘security’ outfits.

The Soviet types on the other hand, seem so far as one can tell to have been rather thorough about record keeping, and either through choice or surprise, don’t seem (again SFAOCT) to have gone in for wholesale shredding. I’d hazard a guess that they were also rather rigidly bureaucratic too, in their own inimitable way. I stand ready to be corrected on this side of things, of course.

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bianca steele 06.02.12 at 10:55 pm

Phil, ajay, I think a better analogy might be someone who felt it was necessary to praise Microsoft to the skies whenever the subject came up, and defend them against every possible criticism, even though they don’t even work for Microsoft, aren’t writing for the press, and so on, but just on grounds that they are felt to be the big kahuna (even if sometimes wrongly felt to be so, due to ignorance or simply being out of the appropriate loop)–which is not a common American thing. (At least, I think it would be better in terms of the phrases in the last paragraph you quoted being taken as oppressive as I have gathered they were in the time and place Havel is discussing. Someone else, I guess, might complain about being forced to discuss the Presidential election when they don’t think politics have any real value.)

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Phil 06.02.12 at 11:26 pm

someone who felt it was necessary to praise Microsoft to the skies whenever the subject came up, and defend them against every possible criticism

Surely that would be a good analogy for someone who felt it was necessary to praise the Party to the skies, etc, etc? The point of the greengrocer example, to my mind, is that it’s nothing out of the ordinary; everyone just does it & accepts the fact that everyone else just does it. The force of Havel’s argument is that it takes this very everyday thing that nobody’s particularly bothered about – it’s just one of those things that you do, everyone knows it doesn’t mean anything, etc – and says, in effect, “Look at yourselves! what are we *doing*?” But it does tend to set the West up as the land where people do live in truth, which is the part I have trouble with. (Tell me more about this Pledge of Allegiance. Seriously.)

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bianca steele 06.03.12 at 12:16 am

It’s this that I’m trying to find an equivalent for, though: that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.

I have a lot of trouble imagining someone using this language. I can do it, but in 99.99% of those cases I would think they were mistaken about the requirements (as with the person who confused Microsoft with some real power). The closest I can come up with is someone who displays a sticker for the Fraternal Order of Police in their car window–but in my experience the justification will be different–or maybe someone who displays a poster for some local good cause, usually liberal in the American sense, and thus not really in line with your point, I think. Is the point that everybody follows certain rules in society without thinking about it, or is the point the narrower one about people who consciously follow rules they ordinarily wouldn’t because they’re aware “everyone else” requires it?

Only schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and they comply about as well as schoolchildren ordinarily do. Maybe you could tell me why you think it’s funny, and why it’s entirely unlike anything else in your experience.

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Sebastian 06.03.12 at 12:43 am

The problem is that you’re having trouble coming up with examples in the US where “there could be trouble” on a similar scale. I’m sure there are people in the US who have felt pressure to politically conform. Hell, I have felt ‘pressure’. But it doesn’t involve the implicit threat of the police unless you are out to physically harm someone. In communist countries the threat of the secret police was always there. It is a difference in magnitude but the difference is quite big.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.03.12 at 8:29 am

So, his greengrocer is actually a supermarket manager. That makes more sense. Managers have a lot to lose, so they put up with a lot of crap. Everywhere.

In a communist country there was no unemployment, and the guy who had no pressure to conform whatsoever was someone occupying the lowest level of employment, typified as nightwatcher or street sweeper. One of those occupations is where an actively disloyal person would end up, typically. The lowest point in the hierarchy.

In a capitalist country there are several niches like that: ghettos for the unemployed (of course), academic tenure (first you have to win it, by conforming), and being independently rich.

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J. Otto Pohl 06.03.12 at 1:21 pm

TW:

The Soviets were not that great of record keepers. There are lots of discrepancies, contradictions, and things missing from the Soviet archives. In part (see below) this is due to the fact that they did destroy lots of stuff. But, an even greater problem is the fact that they never recorded a lot of stuff. For instance the high level discussions leading up to decisions like the mass deportations appear to have never been committed to paper in any form leaving only the official justifications in writing. On lower levels the Soviet government did not collect data on things it was not interested in or could not infiltrate. Their information on African students in Moscow during the 1960s for instance is like a black box.

The Soviets did in fact destroy a large amount of documents. See the first part of Oleg Khlevniuk _The History of the Gulag_ (Yale U. Press, 2004). He reproduces a schedule from the Soviet archives on how long each type of document dealing with the Gulag was to be stored before being destroyed. Only a minority of documents were designated to be kept forever. The rest were to be destroyed at regular intervals. It also appears that Khrushchev had a large number of documents incriminating himself for actions during the Stalin era destroyed when he was leader of the USSR.

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bianca steele 06.03.12 at 5:03 pm

Sebastian, not to beat a dead horse into the ground, but I’m not sure I’m trying to “com[e] up with examples in the US where “there could be trouble” on a similar scale.” I’m sticking to the passage quoted from Vaclav Havel’s essay (which I think I’ve read parts of before), where he talks about the subjective feelings of the operator of a shop under Communism. His point seems to be about the fact that Communism makes people think in terms like, “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” That he needs to go to an excessive length to prove that he is an okay person, and proving he fits in isn’t even enough, he has to prove he’s “obedient.” And that this is a corrupted way of thinking, caused by Communism and its theories. He doesn’t seem to be making other points he could be making, like that this is a description of the greengrocer’s actions which he wouldn’t make himself in those words but which Havel thinks is true, or that the problem is the possibility of police oppression if the right signs aren’t presented. Instead, he suggests that the oppression is in the past and has corrupted people’s identities to such an extent that they don’t really remember it, though they do remember the theories they were given to explain why they should conform like everyone else.

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Data Tutashkhia 06.03.12 at 6:48 pm

The more I think about Chomsky in this context, the more it seems to me that his schtick is not really outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse, certainly to the degree where he would need to be punished. He criticizes US foreign policy and the US elites. But what are their failings, according to Chomsky? Why, their failings are their failure to live up to the standards they proclaim, admirable standards. He advocates more democracy, and democracy is officially a good thing. And he tells you to vote for Kerry and Obama. That is not commie rhetoric. The essence of his MO is no different than that of any US pundit.

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lupita 06.03.12 at 7:33 pm

Ideological repression takes many forms in the West just like it did in the Soviet Union. Just because both systems do not repress the exact same thought or behavior in the exact same way does not mean that they are not equally oppressive. Following are some examples of how neoliberalism (“There is no alternative”) has been imposed through different degrees of coercion:

1. Wal-Mart supplier performance objectives. Suppliers must lower their prices year after year. This was achieved by laying off workers, paying them less, having them work more under more pressure and, finally, moving production overseas. Non-compliance meant going out of business.

If Wal-Mart takes something the wrong way, it’s like Saddam Hussein. You just don’t want to piss them off. Paul Kelly, Silvermine Consulting Group

2. No Child Left Behind. Despite 85% of teachers being opposed to this program, teachers being middle class professionals, and being highly unionized, this program went ahead. Teachers conformed out of fear of being deemed “underperforming” and fired.

It is un-American in its basic principles, relying upon fear, intimidation, threats and punishments in ways that would make Stalin happy. Jamie McKenzie, former teacher, principal and superintendent

3. Greece. Must elect a pro-bailout government. Non-compliance means financial and social chaos.

Voters are being bombarded by the media with precisely the same dilemma: If you vote for Syriza, as opposed to one of the pro-bailout parties, the money flow from the troika will cease and then all hell will break loose. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek economist

4. Chile. Elected a socialist and nationalized copper mines. Non-compliance meant coup, torture, and death.

In retrospect, their [Chicago boys] willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile. Gary S. Becker, Nobel Prize winner

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J. Otto Pohl 06.03.12 at 7:48 pm

Except for Chile where the military dictatorship did torture, imprison, and kill thousands of political opponents the rest of this list is not really comparable to the Soviet incarceration of thousands of political dissidents.

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lupita 06.03.12 at 9:08 pm

I do not think that the impact on society from incarcerating thousands of political dissidents is much different from that of a financial crash. Both are extremely coercive methods that provoke immeasurable suffering – and compliance.

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The Raven 06.03.12 at 9:25 pm

Sebastian, #85: consider what, in 1950, would have been done to a southern shopkeeper who didn’t maintain the color bar.

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Maynard Handley 06.04.12 at 3:18 am

@89

“So far people have only been able to name four US citizens imprisoned for “political reasons.” I named two of them, and I have serious doubts about whether Mumia Abu-Jamal actually was framed. Peltier’s case for being a political prisoner is more compelling, but he is one man. The others named were Angela Davis who was incarcerated for violating gun control laws and was afterwards a tenured professor at UC Santa Clara and Alger Hiss convicted of perjury.”

I have ALREADY given the names of Martin Luther King and Tarek Mehanna. Bradley Manning was implied when I mentioned Julian Assange, and while Assange is in some sort of limbo right now, it certainly seems likely that, one way or another, he’ll land up in prison.

And to claim that these people are in prison for breaking actual, on the books laws, for no other reason, is to completely miss the point. Those in the Soviet Union broke on the books laws as well.

[That’s the great thing about having so many laws on the books: you can always find one that has been broken when necessary.

(A very real variant of this that is so common place it goes unmentioned is the use of copyright law to suppress whatever it is one wants suppressed. Scientologists have played this game aggressively, of course, but plenty of corporations have tried it one way or another. And those are not government? Well plenty of municipal and state governments have tried to play the “you can’t take photos of our activities” game, and the fact that that is drawing to close does not, I’m sure, represent the end of all levels of government, including the feds, trying to use IP law to suppress information when they can.
Let’s not forget that, to take one example, Amazon claimed that they suspended service for Wikileaks because Wikileaks was “infringing copyrights”.

But I digress.)]

Of course one could go further. There are certainly those who would put Ruby Ridge and Waco in these same categories of largely unjustified violence by the state — I don’t know enough to have an opinion.

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Maynard Handley 06.04.12 at 3:35 am

@99
You can find plenty about the Pledge of Allegiance, where one is forced to swear it, and why people have various problems with that at:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance

I particularly liked this sentence: “In 2009, a Montgomery County, Maryland, teacher berated and had school police remove a 13-year-old girl who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom.”
School Police! Like Mall Police only scarier?

You can read what you like into that list of legal challenges. Doubtless some will prove they show that the US isn’t forcing anyone to do anything. I read them, more, as support for my original (Czechoslovakia, not USSR) point that all human societies have ways of telling people to say and do things they don’t believe in, and most people go along with it because it’s easier than fighting and just doesn’t seem that important. Certainly my boarding school compelled me (an atheist) to go to church every Sunday and I wasn’t interested in learning what would happen to dissenters (more likely from being beaten up by my class-mates than by the school authorities) by protesting this. Easier to zone out during that 90 minutes and use the time to review schoolwork in my mind.

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Maynard Handley 06.04.12 at 3:45 am

@109

The problem seems to be a split between one crowd (let’s call them the Libertarians) who think the ONLY problematic coercion is that of the state; and the rest of us, who think that much coercion in school, at church, by our neighbors, by our employers, by other corporations, is just as problematic.

I don’t know that there’s any common ground here. If Libertarians, in 2012, are still convinced that the state is a larger problem than corporations, it’s not clear than anything will ever persuade them otherwise. Sure you see the occasional apostate who concedes that maybe health care doesn’t work that way, but he’s then drummed out of the party. Cato management suddenly saw a problem when it affected them personally, but once again, drummed out of the party.

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bianca steele 06.04.12 at 5:23 pm

bianca steele @ 104
Looked at more of the essay and further on he does mention the police and the boss, and it looks like his problem is more with (a) having to make a personal pronouncement of political beliefs in order to placate a supervisor and also possible local informers (which would presumably have been contested ordinarily especially right after Communism was imposed), and (b) the pollution of the public sphere by disingenuous statements, among other things.

The greengrocer doesn’t say anything like, “it’s only words and doesn’t mean very much but is only a vague expression of good things that anybody would approve,” which one could argue is a corrupted way of thinking or even inaccurate but doesn’t focus on either the coercion or the sign-hanger’s subjective state.

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The Raven 06.05.12 at 8:33 am

Maynard Handley @ 109: I think Corey Robins nailed this one when he talked about how most libertarians were not so much opposed to the abuse of power as the abuse of centralized governmental power (can’t quickly find the quote, sorry); private domains are just fine with them, because so many of them hope to become little kings and nobles. This shows up very clearly in Ron Paul’s ideology; he is perfectly all right with the states turning into nasty little oppressive domains as long as the federal government is not involved.

I have no idea what this has to do with freedom, and indeed am coming to the view that many of the people who talk most about freedom are in reality its most ardent opponents.

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