All 11 entries tagged Communism
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January 16, 2017
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38589427
The Steele memorandum, with its lurid tales of Donald Trump and “golden showers,” has put kompromat in the news.
Kompromat is the Russian term, a colloquial abbreviation, for “compromising evidence.” When did it arise? Sometimes there's the impression that it is a recent thing – a feature of post-Soviet Russia. Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the KGB, describes kompromat as “a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media” that “came into use in Russia in the late 1990s.” Likewise, Julia Joffe links kompromat to cases that became frequent in Russia in the 1990s, involving what Russians call “black PR” – the use of real or faked evidence of wrong doing to discredit political opponents in the public arena.
It’s true that, to judge from the Google Ngram viewer, kompromat was completely unknown until the mid-1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, and its use became widespread only in the 1990s. (The figure below shows both the abbreviated and unabbreviated forms of kompromat; they show similar patterns. I can't explain the spikes during World War II; they might just be a random consequence of relatively few books entering the Google Books corpus from that time.)
But this pattern also reflects the limitation to published print media. For the first seventy years of its life the term kompromat was used very widely, but only by Soviet government and party officials in the secret documentation that can now be found in archives. In Soviet times, kompromat denoted the security files that documented the political crimes, misdemeanours, and faults of the citizens. In this sense its use goes back almost a century. The Soviet secret police was founded in 1918, and it began storing kompromat as soon as the circumstances of civil war allowed it to turn from killing people to recording their weaknesses.
Here’s an example. You’re following suspect A, let’s say, someone who is suspected of passing information to foreigners. In the street, A greets a stranger, who now becomes suspect B. Someone else will now follow suspect B and identify him. After that, the officer in charge will write a note to KGB records: “Is there kompromat on B?” And the answer will come back, yes or no. If no, too bad. If yes, it might be that B listens to Western radio, or sends letters abroad, or comes from a family that once had property, or is Jewish, or gets drunk and, when drunk, is liable to curse the communist party and its leaders. For any of these is a sign that B might hold a grudge against the political and social order and should therefore be considered potentially disloyal.
Now, suppose there does exist kompromat on B. The question is, what do you do now? In the Soviet practice of kompromat the answer is that you do not, under any circumstances, take it to the media. On the contrary, you file it and store it.
In Soviet times, kompromat had a mass application and a targeted application. The mass application was to grade people in very large numbers. Then, when someone sought promotion at work, or entry to higher education, or a foreign trip, the KGB would check its files for kompromat, and the files would tell it whether to say yes or no. The evidence would never be disclosed. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Soviet citizens understood the importance of not accumulating kompromat, and this influenced their behaviour in ways that were favourable to the stability of the regime.
Kompromat had a more targeted use. Although arguably of less importance in history than its mass application, this is the meaning of kompromat that is of greater interest today.
In cases where an individual person such as B was targeted, the kompromat would be useful, not when it was published to punish or discredit B, but because it was kept secret. And, used in this way, kompromat had the magical quality that it could turn people who might otherwise have been reluctant or recalcitrant into productive material for the regime.
Kompromat in this sense is blackmail, but no money changes hands. You would use the kompromat to persuade B to cooperate in your task, whatever that might be: for example, you might recruit him as an informer. You would apply the pressure slowly, over a long period of time, and during all this time the kompromat would remain secret, and would never be disclosed, but would be a gift that keeps giving.
This principle was applied not only in police matters, but more widely in politics. The party boss must promote one of two subordinates. Which should he choose, the one that is clean, or the one with a flawed past, documented by kompromat? The choice was clear. The untainted subordinate could become a rival; better promote the one the boss could control, the one who was obligated to the boss by his silence. In a low-trust organization, in other words, kompromat is the key that guarantees loyalty.
In these cases, you can see, the moment the targeted kompromat reaches the public, it loses its power to control the target, for that power lies in secrecy. You promise to keep the information secret while B works with you and your organization. You have given B something to lose. Hold the kompromat forever, and forever your collaborator will be obligated to you.
Today’s use of kompromat to cover the publication of discreditable information – real or fake – is, in comparison, a break with its traditional meaning. To hold kompromat is to hope that the target, the person on whom kompromat is held, might one day be useful. The dissemination of kompromat signals that you’ve given up that hope. The target has nothing left to lose, and can no longer be manipulated.
Here’s the bottom line. To read discreditable stories about our leaders is a worry. We should worry about these stories and try to evaluate them carefully, as best we can. But don’t worry about the stories too much. If they’re false, we should discard them, and, if they’re true, at least we know.
And we know, also, that kompromat that is published is spent and has no more value. The kompromat that still has value, that retains its magical power to induce cooperation, is the kompromat that is held back. If you like to lie awake at night and worry pointlessly about who is manipulating our leaders, you should think about the kompromat that we don’t know and will never hear. As I said, it's pointless.
PS Lots more like this in my book of stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.
October 10, 2016
My Hoover colleague and co-author Paul Gregory is involved in a remarkable project: to bring to life the stories of women who survived life in Stalin's Gulag. His book, Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives, recounts their fates. As a historian, Paul began his research from documentary records of the survivors. He went on to track them down. The result is a beautiful and touching feature film by Marianna Yarovskaya.
In 2013 at the Hoover Institution's annual summer workshop I had the privilege to see an early cut of this beautiful film. Introducing Paul and his work to the audience, this is what I said:
For some of you Paul Gregory will need no introduction. For others, he is a leading economist and historian of Russia under communist rule. Among economists he is a rarity. All economists work with theoretical models and statistical data. Paul is one of the few that also understand the power of the story. Among Paul’s most celebrated publications are books that tell stories. His book Lenin’s Brain is a collection of stories from the Hoover Archives that range from the grim to the comic and curious. His book Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin is the poignant story of Nikolai and Anna Bukharin.
Today Paul Gregory will talk about his new book, called Women of the Gulag. Women of the Gulag was inspired by a need and an opportunity. The opportunity is represented by the Hoover Archive’s rich holdings on coercion and repression in the Soviet Union. These include millions of pages of documents from the Gulag, Stalin’s agency for forced labour camps. Among other holdings that tell the story of power and cruelty under the Bolsheviks are the minutes of many meetings of the party central committee and the personal archives of Nestor Lakoba, one of Stalin’s Georgian comrades in arms; and of Dmitrii Volkogonov, Gorbachev’s biographer of Stalin. These holdings illustrate the opportunity for scholars to work here at Hoover on the history of Soviet rule.
Now the important bit.
The need for Paul’s book is illustrated by a simple statistical comparison: In Russia, women die on average in their mid-70s, and men in their early 60s. Almost all men who experienced and survived Stalin’s mass repressions are now dead. Only a few women are still alive, and they too will soon have passed on. Their stories need to be told now, before it is too late. Through Paul’s book, the last survivors have now been able to tell their stories. They are: Women of the Gulag.
While Paul's book is published, the film of the book, which includes moving interviews with its surviving heroines, is still to be completed. Paul is crowd-funding this final stage. If you would like the chance to contribute, here's how.
August 26, 2016
Writing about web page http://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Bridge-of-Spies/Giles-Whittell/9781849833271
Were there missed opportunities to unwind the tensions of the Cold War? This question was raised by my holiday reading: Bridge of Spies, by Giles Whittell. The book was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. (Since then Steven Spielberg has made a film with the same title. The relationship between the book and the film is currently in dispute. The book is great. I'm told the film is decent, but I haven't seen it yet; my remarks are based entirely on the book.)
The book tells the stories that came together in a prisoner exchange across the Gleinicke Bridge that joined East and West Berlin on 10 February 1962. For present purposes, the story that matters is that of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 (spy plane) pilot, shot down over the Urals on 1 May 1960. After parachuting to safety, Powers was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned. The author links this moment to a missed chance for peace in the Cold War. His argument goes like this.
In the 1950s, there was a Soviet-American race to develop long-range nuclear missiles. Both sides had atomic weapons that could be delivered by planes, but planes were slow and could be intercepted. Ballistic missiles would take nuclear attack and counter-attack to a new level: fast and certain. The arms race was becoming more dangerous.
In point of fact, however, in the late 1950s neither side actually had a reliable long-range missile. Rocket science meant filling a giant tube with an oxidizer and an oxidant and setting them on fire in the hope that they would burn smoothly, not just blow up. Mostly they blew up.
There was one difference between the two sides. The American failures were public. The Soviet failures were hidden from view. They were concealed by two things. One was intense secrecy. The other was a veneer of success. As far as both the American and the Soviet publics were concerned, the Soviets were winning the space race. They were first with a space rocket, first with an orbiting satellite (the famous sputnik), and first with a dog in a spaceship, all in 1957. Judged on that basis, the Soviet missile programme was more advanced. In 1958 and 1959 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made several claims of a successful, large-scale Soviet missile programme that strongly reinforced this impression.
Only one of these claims is reported in Bridge of Spies, but they are collated in a declassified CIA report dated 21 January 1960as follows. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that Soviet intercontinental missile production was set up and ready to go. In January 1959 he repeated this announcement, referring specifically to “serial” production, implying large numbers. In November of the same year, he told journalists: “In one year, 250 missiles with hydrogen warheads came off the assembly line in the factory we visited.” (But he did not state that they were intercontinental missiles.) And, in January 1960, he announced a substantial cutback of Soviet conventional forces, offering as the public justification: “We already have so many nuclear weapons … and the necessary rockets … that … we would be able literally to wipe the country or countries which attack us off the face of the earth” (my emphasis).
(More famously, but less precisely, at a reception held in November 1956, Khrushchev had told the assembled NATO ambassadors: "We will bury you," using the Russian verb for interment of the dead.)
During 1958 and 1959 the Americans who took Khrushchev seriously raised the alarm: there was a "missile gap," they claimed, that US President Eisenhower had allowed to grow from complacency and lack of effort. Eisenhower tried to manage his critics by looking for independent evidence of the true size of the Soviet missile programme. The evidence would come from a secret CIA operation, a squadron of camera-laden spy planes overflying Soviet territory at super-high altitudes, above the reach of Soviet air defences.
In reality, Khrushchev was bluffing America over his WMD programme—a risky activity, as Saddam Hussein would later discover. The huge Soviet space rocket that was lifting satellites into orbit was completely unsuitable for a surprise nuclear attack, as Whittell explains: it "took days to fuel and was impossible to hide." Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s bluff was going wrong: it was stirring the United States into a military-industrial mobilization. If that worked, the Soviet Union would have no choice but to turn the bluff into reality. For the Soviet economy, only a fraction the size of the far wealthier United States, that looked ruinously expensive.
By 1960, therefore, Khrushchev was regretting his bluff. In January he announced a major cutback of conventional forces—justifying it by claims of Soviet nuclear strength. According to Bridge of Spies, moreover, he was preparing a daring initiative to end the missile race—a chance for peace in the gloom of the Cold War. In return for American restraint, he would offer to bargain away something that he didn't actually have: a successful Soviet missile programme. If the Americans would agree not to build missiles, the Soviet side would agree to stand down Khrushchev’s missiles. Without missiles, the balance of terror would recede, and the world would be spared the pointless expenditure of trillions of dollars on nuclear overkill.
What could go wrong? While Khrushchev was forming his plan, the Americans were trying to uncover the truth—and they were beginning to succeed. The CIA spy planes had found most of the Soviet potential manufacturing, test, and launch sites, and there was no sign of hundreds of missiles. Still, the picture remained worryingly incomplete, and the U-2 programme continued.
Then, disaster struck. On May Day, 1960, while Khrushchev reviewed the annual military parade in Red Square, a new Soviet anti-air missile shot down the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev made a huge public fuss. A planned East-West summit was cancelled. There was no Soviet arms control initiative. The missile race went on, and led quickly to the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. This came in 1962 with Khrushchev’s attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.
So, Whittell suggests, the chance for peace was lost. But I began to wonder. My first question was: if a chance was lost, who lost it? That is, who should have behaved differently? Whittel does not criticize the actions of Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who is portrayed as seeking peace. Nor does he question the decisions made by Eisenhower, the American leader, who resisted the escalation of tensions, and looked to the CIA and its U-2 programme for supportive evidence. As for Powers, he was just a soldier.
Those whom Bridge of Spies holds accountable are the American promoters of the “missile gap” theory: the profit-seeking entrepreneurs (Thomas Lanphier), position-seeking politicians (Allen Dulles and Stuart Symington), and headline-seeking journalists (Joseph Alsop and Frank Gibney) of the US military-industrial complex. Also, let’s not forget the US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned successfully in 1960 on closing the “missile gap.”
Still, one wonders: how should these people have behaved differently? In hindsight they were wrong, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for historians. At the time, however, how should they have known that Khrushchev lied? The Soviet Union was then, as before and afterwards, shrouded by the most intense secrecy the world had ever known. Why, and what did the secrecy conceal? Eisenhower’s intuition was that Khrushchev’s claims were a bluff, but he did not know for sure; that’s why he approved the U-2 spy plane programme. Dulles, Symington, and the others did not know for sure either, but at least they had evidence on their side in the public claims of the Soviet leader himself.
Was there really a lost chance for peace in 1960? As I asked myself this question, I stumbled on a second “lost chance.” This one, from 1953, is claimed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian on 18 August 2016. Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s great experts on Stalin’s Russia, was reviewing The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubinstein, published this year by Yale University Press. This is a book I haven’t read, so my comments are based entirely on Fitzpatrick’s review.
As Fitzpatrick points out, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him allowed many reforms to go ahead. Within their country they quickly curtailed Stalin’s last purges, and they went on to the phased release of millions from forced labour and resettlement. (I wrote about these changes in my own book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.) In Korea, the new leaders allowed ceasefire talks to resume, bringing a speedy end to that bloody conflict.
Could there have been more? Soviet leaders, Fitzpatrick writes, “wanted to signal their interest in easing cold war tensions …. in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March and the Berlin uprising in June of 1953, the US missed a great opportunity to meet the new Soviet leaders halfway.” She quotes Rubinstein’s verdict: “Soviet and Western governments could not overcome the decades of distrust that divided them.” That suggests equal blame for missing the chance on both sides.
Fitzpatrick answers back: this is too even-handed. Khrushchev looked for an opening. Churchill was ready for a summit. Eisenhower resisted, believing that this might be the time to call on the Soviet people to rise up against their oppressors. Whispering in Eisenhower’s ear was the older Dulles brother, John Foster Dulles, who believed that, eight years after World War II, the Soviet Union presented “the most terrible and fundamental” threat to Western civilization in a thousand years. Responsibility for the missed opportunity to unwind the Cold War in 1953 lies, Fitzpatrick concludes, “squarely with the US.”
So, the hypothesis: two lost chances to scale back the Cold War, one in 1953, the other in 1960.
After much reflection I’m not convinced. Here are my reasons. First reason: pay attention to the inherent fragility of the two Soviet peace initiatives. They were so brittle and insubstantial that, if one obstacle had not broken them, another surely would have. Consider 1953, when a new Soviet leadership wanted briefly to open up to the West. The window opened in March, when Stalin died, but it closed again in June. Why so brief an opportunity? Because, at the first signs of domestic relaxation, thousands of East Germans turned out into the streets to demand the resignation of the communist government. The uprising was promptly suppressed by tanks and guns. Hundreds of people were killed, then or later.
From that moment it was clear that the goals of Stalin’s successors had not changed: to hold power at all costs and spread their system of rule wherever possible. They differed from Stalin only in their preferences over means: “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” Did they really want peace? Not deeply enough to respond peaceably to their own people if there were unintended consequences.
The chance for peace in 1960 was fragile too. It was fragile for two reasons: the Soviet commitment to missile negotiations was only skin-deep, and it was based on a lie. Khrushchev wanted an agreement with the Americans, but how deeply did he really want it? The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers did not stop him from seeking one. The world knew nothing about the U-2 programme until the Soviets publicized it. If they had really wanted a disarmament summit, they could simply have kept the news to themselves. They had the means, after all, in the world’s most effective censorship.
You could say that the Western Cold Warriors, uncomfortable with Eisenhower’s restraint, did not help because they put pressure on Eisenhower, and this put pressure on Khrushchev, which played into the hands of the Soviet military leaders who were already uncomfortable with Khrushchev’s conventional arms cuts. (I’m writing about the Soviet military as though they were a faction, although there is no real evidence that such a faction existed.) But in fact the Soviet side was collectively to blame for all the circumstances in which this game was played out. The Soviet missile men were to blame for a failing programme that threaten to impoverish the country. And Khrushchev was to blame for lying about the programme’s success. If he hadn’t made exaggerated claims, the “missile gap” would never have existed.
Now my second reason: when communist leaders came to the West with peace initiatives, they generally had a vastly inflated belief in their own credibility. They never really got how most Westerners saw them. (But it’s true that Western sympathizers with communism shared the same blinkers.) Within their own countries these leaders, Khrushchev included, were responsible for terrible crimes of commission, arresting and killing millions, and also crimes of omission, allowing millions to die of famine. Afterwards they regretted this, and they made partial, semi-secret admissions, not of personal guilt, but of a few collective errors. Instead of resigning and allowing judicial scrutiny to take its course, their next move was to carry on as normal: So we made some mistakes. We fixed them. What’s done is past. Everything is all right now! Move on. But the world remembered.
In foreign policy, the communist leaders had occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, blanketed them with the same secrecy and censorship that they operated at home, eradicated their national institutions, exterminated their national elites, imposed new regimes, staked out new borders, and defended them with the threat of overwhelming conventional and nuclear force. Because this turned out to be quite expensive, they thought they could then turn on a sixpence and say to the West: lower your guard, because that was then, and now we want peace and friendship. And Western leaders were expected to lower their guard on the word of practised killers who concealed their own weapons under a veil that could be penetrated only by a spy plane at 90,000 feet.
The first and only communist leader to get this was Mikhail Gorbachev. He puzzled over the Soviet Union’s inability to reach new agreements with the West over arms control. Shortly after taking office, on his road to Damascus, in 1986 or thereabouts, he reached an astonishing, shattering conclusion: They don’t trust us because they think we’re liars! And they’re right: we are liars! We can only be credible partners in negotiation if we learn to be open about everything and tell the truth! (Which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. I wrote part of this story here.)
So my conclusion on the lost chances to end the Cold War is pessimistic. I don’t see real missed opportunities in either 1953 or 1960. On a more optimistic note, there was usually scope for both sides to gain from arms control, and negotiations were generally better than fighting. The important arms treaties would come. But their negotiation required more mutual trust than was available in 1953, and more mutual openness than was available in 1960.
March 11, 2016
China is investing heavily in its capacity to monitor and evaluate the attitudes and behaviour of the population. On 14 June 2014 the State Council issued a Notice concerning Issuance of the Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System. The plan envisages that by 2020 every adult Chinese citizen will have a social credit rating.
In a market economy, a person's credit is based on the record of what you earn, spend, borrow, and repay. You gain credit by demonstrating that you can handle money within the law and by honouring your debts. In China, "social credit" is partly financial, but it's also cultural and political. Social credit is gained, not just by handling money honestly and non-corruptly, but also, on a reasonable interpretation of the official language, by knowing the right people and showing the right attitudes in your social and political behaviour.
In other words, just as you can lose financial credit by breaking money rules, you will lose social credit by knowing the wrong people and saying the wrong things. And these things will interact, so that if you know the wrong people or say the wrong things you will put at risk your ability to borrow and to find responsible employment.
What's it all about? Based on its official motivation, the programme
uses encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.
Thus, it's explicit that social credit is an incentive mechanism aimed at behaviour change at the level of the population. Every single adult must must understand the norms that China's ruling communist party sets for personal behaviour in economic, cultural, and political life. Break those norms and you lose trust. Lose trust, and there wil be personal consequences. No one will be beyond the system.
Communist regimes have always aimed to classify their subjects for political reliability, but classification was usually crude and error-prone. Stalin's "usual suspects," (described in my new book One Day We Will Live Without Fear) were anyone who from a non-proletarian background, anyone educated under the old regime, anyone of foreign origin or experience of life abroad, anyone with religious beliefs, and so forth. In Mao's China people were classified into "red" and "black."
What the Chinese authorities have in mind today is a classification that is more sophisticated in every way: multi-dimensional, continuously calibrated, and above all comprehensive.
It's not hard to see the benefit for the party leadership. The party authorizes the norms that you should follow, but enforcing those norms throughout society is an unremitting slog. Through comprehensive "social credit" rating of the population, based on big data, the rulers gain a system that sets up clear incentives for every single citizen to conform in every aspect of their lives. If you have the wrong friends or you're indiscreet on social media, you lose the promotion or you are denied the loan you hoped for. So most people will be persuaded to conform.
Plus, the system will also identify the minority that isn't persuaded, and so resists the official incentives, and it marks them out as security risks.
Recently my attention was grabbed by the technology website Ars Technica discussing China's investments in big data collection such as CCTV:
The authorities are watching for deviations from the norm that might indicate someone is involved in suspicious activity (my emphasis).
I knew I had seen this somewhere before. So I looked for it, and here's what I found:
Our communists should be concerned every day to study and know more deeply processes that are essentially anomalous, that is, incorrect, deviating from the general rule of processes and phenomena, and in a timely way to obtain alerts leading to the exposure of persons intending to carry out hostile actions that can lead to serious consequences (my emphasis again).
This was nearly fifty years ago: on 24 April 1968, Lt. Col. Matulionis, an officer of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, was speaking to a meeting on counter-intelligence priorities of the day. (The documentary record is held on microfilm by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, where I consulted it.)
Communism in Europe and China had common roots. After that, they went different ways. China today looks very different from the Soviet Union. But in respect of what makes a security risk, China's secret policemen have retained exactly the same idea as the Soviet KGB. An ordered society has normal processes. Good citizens follow those norms. When social norms are disrupted, the result is "anomalous, that is, incorrect."
That's where the secret policeman steps in. What is anomalous is incorrect. It arouses suspicion of a crime, and what is suspicious must be investigated for evidence. Who is behind this, and is the hand of the enemy at work?
February 02, 2016
Writing about web page http://www.amazon.com/One-Will-Live-Without-Fear/dp/0817919147/
My book One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State is published today in the US. It will be available in Europe from February 29. This is the story behind the title of the last chapter of my book, which I also used as the title of the book as a whole.
It’s 1958. David is chatting to his friend. Their subject is David’s dream, which is to emigrate. He’s a Jew, living in Vilnius, the capital of Soviet Lithuania. He was once a Polish citizen, born on territory that was absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1939 when Stalin and Hitler split Poland between them. Suddenly, David was a Soviet citizen. In World War II he fought in the Red Army. After the war he settled in Vilnius, got married, and made a family.
In the 1950s there was a short window when the Soviet authorities allowed people like David, born Polish, to leave for Poland if they wished. His younger sister, Leila, left for Poland the previous year, and from there she was able to travel on to Israel. David did not go with her, but now he regrets that he stayed behind. He would like to follow her, but he finds that he is trapped. Whether he left it too late, or for some other reason, the government will not let him go.
David tells his friend that he has become afraid of even asking about permission to leave.
It could turn out that you put your papers in to OVIR [the Visa and Registration Department] and they give them back to you, and then you get a ticket to Siberia, or they can put you in jail.
David has come to a decision. There's no point dreaming about leaving, he tells his friend. He has concluded it's dangerous even to think about it. He realizes he is going nowhere. He and his family will stay at home. But then he comes back to another thought, perhaps even more dangerous, that he cannot help but voice:
We’ll stay in Vilnius and we'll live in the hope that he [one of the Soviet leaders of the time, not named] and generally this whole system will smash their heads in, and maybe we will live here freely and without fear.
After that, David’s friend went home and made a note of the words David had used. In due course he passed the note to his handling officer, because this friend, unknown to David, was a KGB informer. The note ended up in the files of the Soviet Lithuania KGB, where I came across it more than half a century later.
The KGB handler thought David's remarks were pretty interesting. At the end of the report he summed up:
Report: Information on David received for the first time.
Assignment: The source [David's friend] should establish a relationship of trust with David and clarify his contacts. Investigate his political inclinations and way of life.
Actions: Identify David and verify his records.
Few people who lived in Soviet times ever imagined those times would come to an end. David was one of the few.
What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life
One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, is published on 2 February 2016 by the Hoover Press in Stanford, California. Order it today from Amazon US or pre-order it from Amazon UK.
October 29, 2015
Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/247-2015_harrison.pdf
Just forty years ago this week, on 31 October 1975, KGB chairman Yurii Andropov made a “top secret” report to the members of the Central Committee of the ruling Soviet Communist Party. Andropov had a simple message: In the war on anti-Soviet activity, he said, we are winning.
Andropov began by pointing to a steep decline in the number of prosecutions for state crimes such as treason and anti-Soviet agitation—from more than 1,300 a year at the end of the 1950s to less than half that number in the early 1970s. But what factors were driving this success? Andropov proposed four explanations:
The further reinforcement of the moral-political unity of our society; the growth of political consciousness of Soviet people; the correct penal policy of the Soviet state; and the dominant role of preventive-warning work to deter criminality (my emphasis).
In Andropov’s analysis, behind the decline in crimes committed lay an increase in crimes prevented. Andropov went on to show that the KGB was issuing preventive warnings to tens of thousands of people each year. These warnings were issued to people who, failing to conform to the many requirements of an obedient, conformist Soviet citizen, had crossed the line in some small way. The warning was intended to be helpful: to stop them from going on to some more heinous violation that would end badly. Moreover, these warnings were outstandingly effective. Out of the 120,000 that received such a warning between 1967 and 1974, Andropov reported, just 150, or barely more than one per thousand, were subsequently brought to court charged with a state crime. In short, prevention worked.
The KGB programme of preventive warnings is the subject of a new paper I will present to a conference in November called If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. The paper is based on microfilm records held by the Hoover Institution's Library & Archives. In the paper, I report work in progress on preventive warnings and their history, application, scope, and effectiveness. I suggest that the KGB's use of preventive warnings was "the largest and most effective programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world at that time outside school and college."
(Note. I believe that must be the case. Stalin did not use preventive warnings; his remedy for enemies, including "potential" and "unconscious" enemies, was to remove them. The Chinese did not use the KGB method as far as I am aware, because they lacked the capacity it required, and they relied on mass struggle to align behaviour, not personal threats or suasion. And I cannot think that there was another large population on which a similar method was practised. Capitalist advertising does not count; at this time it was not personally targeted, and besides it did not threaten anyone with the consequences of failure to respond. If you know differently, however, contact me.)
What explains the effectiveness of a KGB preventive warning? In the paper I suggest that fear was the key. The tone of the preventive warning was intended to be friendly, even helpful. But the common element at the core of every warning discussion was an unambiguous threat: "If you do not change your behavioiur, there will be more serious consequences." Every person who received such a warning knew that the KGB had unlimited authority to translate these words into actions that could affect every aspect of the subject's life and their family members' lives, from residence and employment to education, promotion, the chance to travel abroad, and personal liberty.
At the same time, there is a puzzle. While the KGB issued preventive warnings to hundreds of thousands, the Soviet Union was a country of hundreds of millions. The KGB did not have the capacity to warn off more than a tiny minority. In the paper I consider how it was possible for the KGB's treatment of this tiny minority to exert a calming influence on the whole of society, and I show that KGB leaders consciously exploited the wider effect.
Just ten years after Andropov's victory speech, it all began to fall apart. After 1985, because of Gorbachev's new policies, people ceased to fear the KGB. For the tiny minority that would be first to express dissent, fear was the key. The removal of fear released their inhibitions, and this precipitated a tidal wave of change that overwhelmed the Soviet state.
March 24, 2014
Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/comment/economics_of_capitalism_ver_2.pdf
The news has been so grim on many fronts that I begin to long for something a little lighter. To help things along, here is a story I began to write a long time ago, but never finished until now. It tells how it happened that in 1976 I published a 20,000-word pamphlet called The Economics of Capitalism.
Another stimulus to go back to this was that I got drawn into a discussion about Marxian economics. Not everyone with whom I was debating with would give me credit that I knew much about Marxism in the first place. In that context I mentioned that one day I intended to put my pamphlet on line. Now, here it is -- in two versions. One is the original, scanned as images(therefore large: 30Mb). The other is OCR'd and so 99 per cent searchable(much smaller: 4Mb). (Or, if you insist, a few copies are still available in the second-hand market.)
In the searchable version I've taken care to conserve the original illustrations and page layout. The illustrations were by Richard Hill, whom I never met, so I never got around to telling him what I thought of them. Are you out there, Richard, or anyone who knows you? I just loved the illustrations as soon as I saw them, and I still do.
The origins of the pamphlet were like this. I joined the communist party in 1973. This was for reasons I've discussed elsewhere so I won't go into them here. I was soon drawn into various activities as a student and then as a young lecturer. It wasn't long before I met Betty Matthews, who ran the communist party's education department. This meant she was responsible for producing education material for the party members and their branches.
I certainly wasn't the party's only economist. Others, such as Maurice Dobb and Bob Rowthorn (Cambridge), Ron Bellamy (Leeds), and Pat Devine and Dave Purdy (Manchester) were of longer standing and greater eminence. Dobb was a world-famous scholar. I recall that the party had an economic advisory committee to consider its economic policies. I wasn't a member of that, and I've no idea who was on it, but probably some of these. Anyway, unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, somehow or other I was the one Betty persuaded (or maybe I was the one who offered) to write an economics pamphlet for the purposes of party education.
The previous material that was out there for party members was Sam Aaronovitch's Economics for Trade Unionists, published in 1964. In its time this was a solid introduction, and Sam was a good scholar, but Betty felt it needed updating. So I got to work and The Economics of Capitalism was the result. If you read the acknowledgements, you'll see I had some help, with comments and advice from Pat Devine (see above), from Betty Matthews and Bert Ramelson (see below), and also from Keith Cowling and Ben Knight who were sympathetic colleagues at Warwick. I remain grateful to all these people.
I'd like to break the narrative for a moment to say how much I valued getting to know Betty and meeting and talking with her (and her assistant Deanna, whose family name I've forgotten). Betty always seemed like a thoroughly cheerful person and a kind soul. According to Sarah Benton's obituary she was "unique in the communist world in having no enemies." I'm not surprised. Betty spent her childhood in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). I'd recently read Doris Lessing's account of a similar childhood. Lessing was sent to church, where the message was brotherly love, and then came out and saw the hypocrisy of the colour bar. She decided that the colour bar must be wrong. I asked Betty if her experience was the same. She laughed and said: "Oh, no. I decided that the church must be rubbish!" Anyway, I thought Betty was a good person and that made her hard to refuse.
As for the substance of what I wrote in the pamphlet, I'm not going to review my own work here. Anyone can read it and decide what they think for themselves. I'm just going to comment on a couple of aspects of the writing. One is about the history in it; the other is about the party and its sensitivities.
First, the history. One question I've sometimes asked myself is: Where on earth did I get the history from? There was a lot of freedom in writing without footnotes, and I am not sure I used that freedom wisely. When I re-read what I wrote then, the history now seems pretty slapdash to me. Probably it was a mishmash of stuff I half understood and borrowed from Dobb, Rodney Hilton, E. P. Thompson, and a few others that I've forgotten. They might not appreciate what I did with their work. I'm pretty sure that today I'd follow a different style of writing, with more respect for facts, including the ones that did not fit. Nowadays even my lecture notes have footnotes for everything.
In contrast to my cavalier approach to history, I tried to be careful with the economic facts. I even put in a statistical appendix.
Second, the party. As a young party member, and at the same time a professional scholar, I was always watchful and curious to find out whether at any point the party would start telling me what to write. I didn't know how I would react if that happened. I felt a commitment to the truth. I felt a commitment to the cause. Politics being what it was, I half expected that at some point these two commitments might clash, and I did not know how I would manage it if that came.
As it turned out, the only aspect of the pamphlet that anyone in the party (other than an economist) really cared about was how it would explain inflation and the role of trade unions. This was bitterly controversial in British society in the 1970s, and the issue was contested within the labour movement and even within the communist party.
Since the 1950s, successive British governments had taken the view that the cause of rising inflation was increases in wage costs, which arose from the excessive wage demands lodged by the trade unions. The appropriate remedy to inflation was therefore wage controls, voluntary or statutory. In recognition that wages were not the only cost of production (although the largest proportion in the economy as a whole), this became known as "incomes policy." From the 1950s through the 1970s, successive governments tried and failed to use incomes policy to control inflation.
At the time I was writing, the British economy was experiencing its greatest inflationary crisis. We didn't know it yet, but it would pave the way to Margaret Thatcher's historic 1979 election victory. Trade union power and wage pressure were huge issues. The "official" position of the communist party at the time, as far as I recall, was that inflation hurt the workers, but wage pressure was not the cause of inflation. A class struggle was in progress in which the organized workers were fighting the employers using the weapon to hand: wage demands, backed up by strike action. Price-setting was the weapon in the hands of the capitalist employers, so inflation was the counter-attack of the capitalist class. Anything that weakened wage pressure favoured the enemy.
This line was much debated. I've probably forgotten a lot of nuances that were important to others, so I'll speak for myself. My own view was something like this: There was a distributional struggle in progress. Suppose the initial distribution of the national income between wages and profits was 70 per cent to 30. The workers wanted to increase their share at the expense of the employers, and would try to achieve this by pushing up nominal wages. The capitalists wanted to raise profits at the expense of the workers, and would aim to achieve this by raising prices. As a result, the implicit claims on the national income would exceed 100 per cent. The workers wanted 75 and the employers wanted 35. If you added up 75 and 35 the sum was 110 percent, so the outcome would be 10 per cent inflation -- a self-defeating wage-price spiral.
Put like that, it was a non-monetary theory of inflation. Nowadays absolutely nobody believes you can understand inflation without thinking about money. Even then, the party's economists had surely all read Milton Friedman, who told us that inflation was "always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon." While we didn't buy this completely, we understood that inflation had to have a monetary dimension. For myself, I thought that the inflation process was contingent on some sort of government commitment to full employment. This was the commitment that enabled workers and employers to push up their incomes against market pressure. A later generation would call this the "soft budget constraint," a term that Janos Kornai developed to analyze Soviet-type economies. In capitalist Britain, the soft budget constraint meant was that the government's fiscal and monetary policies were being relaxed continuously to maintain real demand and keep down real interest rates, and this would also be an essential permissive condition of the inflationary process.
In the trade unions, many communists were not particularly keen on this line of argument. It seemed to give away too much to the idea that trade unions caused inflation. They wanted to say that the capitalist class was on the offensive and the wage struggles of the time were basically workers' self-defence. In other words it was capitalism that caused inflation, not the workers. In my view, even at the time, this was somewhat implausible. The share of profits in British GDP had been declining since the 1950s (and the contribution of domestic trading profits had fallen even faster) so wage militancy looked more offensive than defensive. On that basis, it was very hard to maintain that trade union militancy was not at all complicit in the inflation of the time.
In this context, there was a lot of focus on what my pamphlet should and shouldn't say about inflation. Betty Matthews told me I had to meet Bert Ramelson and talk it through with him. Bert ran the communist party's industrial department. He had played a key role in many episodes of the struggle of Britain's organized workers, most famously the seamen's strike of 1966 and the miners' strike of 1972. The last thing he and other communists involved in the trade unions wanted was that a publication by the party's own education department would be quoted in the media saying that striking for higher wages would end up hurting the workers.
My one and only meeting with Bert took place in Coventry railway station where we talked over a cuppa in the cafeteria off platform 1. I was nervous about it. Bert was a legend of the labour movement; I was a nice middle-class boy who had never done anything much outside school and college. I had the academic qualifications, but Bert had the steel that was tempered in the furnace of the class struggle. I could not anticipate how he would respond to me; I did not know what criticisms he might have, and I did not expect he would swallow them easily.
In fact, our conversation was amicable. I had insured myself to some extent by being even-handed: I wrote in the pamphlet that the causes of inflation were controversial, and I outlined various perspectives, and I suggested that they all contained some unspecified measure of truth. I also wrote that wage militancy was not enough to transform society; this was something that no one would have disagreed with, even then, although there would have been a lot of dispute over how and by how much it fell short. There were certainly those party members that behaved as if they believed wage militancy was 99 per cent of the revolutionary struggle -- at least.
Bert turned out to be concerned more with what I would write about the future of trade unionism than trade unions in the present. Tighter restrictions on trade union rights were in the air. The party was opposing them vigorously. In order to give credibility to the party's defence of unfettered trade union rights in the present, it was also party policy to promise that trade unions would continue to be free and independent, with entrenched rights, in the transition to socialism. Bert wanted me to make this clear.
The result was a passage that read:
Our path will encounter many problems. For example, in the process the state must acquire far more power than ever before. But we seek power for all working people, not for bureaucrats and civil servants. And in fact the struggle for democratic rights is an integral part of challenging the state power of monopoly and ultimately replacing it. Thus if the outcome is to mean more democracy, and not just more bureaucracy, the autonomy of the working class, and of its sectional mass organisations the trade unions, and of its allies, must be strengthened and extended. That is why the freedom of collective bargaining today is a guarantee for tomorrow.
For example, in a socialist economy, for the progress of society as a whole, one group of workers or another may sometimes have to be asked - not ordered - to moderate wage demands, or change jobs. But in a socialist state, for the first time, these processes will be open and subject to democratic control.
Today it may read like wishful thinking. It didn't at the time. at least, not to me; there was nothing there that it was hard for me to sign up to. Bert had been persuasive but not heavy handed or confrontational; he treated me very correctly and I did not feel that I had compromised anything in writing those words. Just in case, however, I concluded with a libertarian flourish:
The most important of society’s productive forces is the working class itself. The British working class today has skills, understanding and aspirations available to it as never before. Capitalist relations today hold back its development, and face it with low wages and stultifying labour discipline at work as the only alternative to unemployment. Beyond it lies the vision of a world in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.
Anyway, the pamphlet was finished, went to the printer, and came out. I was very proud of it (and delighted by the illustrations, as I've said). What impact did it have? I've absolutely no idea. Looking back, I think it's remarkable (and not in a good way) that I never had any idea of how many were printed or sold or how widely it was used for its intended purpose, that is, for discussion as educational material. I think I did one or two meetings around the Midlands, based on the pamphlet, but that was all. For all I know, the rest of the stock was packed up and warehoused, or sent out to the branches where it was stored in cupboards up and down the country, and finally ended up in a hundred skips when the party branches closed down.
There's a final question that I'll pose: What would have happened to the British economy if that party programme had been implemented? It's not a completely idle question. In 1976 the late Tony Benn, then a government minister, put something pretty similar to the British cabinet as an alternative to the IMF loan that Denis Healey was after. It was rejected -- but what if it had been put into effect? How would the economic effects have worked out? Not well, I now imagine. Most likely the experience of Belarus or Venezuela would give a few hints.
The moment when my pamphlet appeared, as it happens, was just about the peak of popularity of Marxian economics in the English-speaking world. After that, everything went downhill. This should not be a surprise because the world of the 1970s was about to move strongly to the right. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became British prime minister, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected US president. Everyone moved on, including, eventually, me.
To prove my point, here's the evidence. This chart uses the Google Ngram Viewer to show the changing relative frequency of three terms that no one would ever use except in connection with seriously discussing Marxian economics: "monopoly capitalism," the "rate of surplus value," and the "organic composition of capital." The what? Yes, it's in my pamphlet.
And here is a link to the same chart in its native location, where you can play with it as you like.
As you can see, everything was going up until my pamphlet came out, and afterwards everything went downhill and never recovered.
January 16, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.voxeu.org/article/costing-secrecy
Yesterday VOX published a short column that I wrote about Costing Secrecy. The teaser is as follows:
Democracy often seems bureaucratic with high ‘transaction costs’, while autocracies seem to get things done at lower cost. This column discusses historical research that refutes this. It finds empirical support from Soviet archives for a political security/usability tradeoff. Regimes that are secure from public scrutiny tend to be more costly to operate.
A starting point of my column was that communist rule in the Soviet Union gave rise to one of the most secretive systems of government that has ever been devised. I'm always looking out for ways to illustrate this, and I found a new way recently with the help of Google's Ngram Viewer(thanks to Jamie Harrison). The Ngram Viewer searches the Google Books corpus for words and word combinations and shows their changing frequency over time. The chart below shows the result of searching in the Russian corpus for the word "Главлит" (Glavlit).
Glavlit, the Soviet Union's Chief Administration for Affairs of Literature and Art, was created in 1922 to centralize the censorshop of the media. The background is that the Bolsheviks introduced censorship in November 1917 as one of the first acts of the Revolution (the "Decree on the Press"). During the Civil War that followed, they operated censorship through many agencies at many levels. Glavlit pulled it all together into a single, unified agency. The official title of Glavlit changed a few times over the next 70 years. Still, no one ever called it anything but "Glavlit," even in official government and party documents.
My current research is on secrecy. Censorship and secrecy are not the same. But they are closely connected. Enforcing government secrecy was one of the most important functions of censorship. In addition, Glavlit was a government agency, and its working arrangements were entirely secret, so the censorship had to censor the facts of its own operations.
How effective was Soviet censorship? The frequency with which the chief agency of censorship was mentioned in published works offers a simple measure in one dimension. Here it is:
Notes: My guess is that the Google Books Russian corpus must include books published in the Russian language abroad, out of reach of the Soviet censor, as well as within the Soviet Union. For transparency the chart is completely unsmoothed. In the years of the Civil War (1918 to 1920) and World War II (1941 to 1945) fewer books were published, making observations in those years more susceptible to the law of small numbers. You can view and play with the chart here in its home setting.
There is a simple message. The Soviet censorship agency was openly acknowledged and discussed at the time of its establishment and for a few years afterwards. From the mid-1920s it faded rapidly from sight. By 1931, when Stalin was fully in charge, its disappearance was almost total. For more than half a century Glavlit successfully covered its own tracks. Fifty-six years later, in 1987, Gorbachev launched his policy of "glasnost" (openness). Only then did Glavlit gradually come back into uncensored view. Glavlit was finally abolished in 1991.
In short: Soviet censorship worked.
January 03, 2014
This item first appeared under the same title on DNA India on 3 January 2014.
In the name of counter-terrorism our phone and Internet communications are today under continual government surveillance. Should we worry about the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ? Yes: Ordinary people have a right to privacy and few means to resist covert surveillance. The privacy of hundreds of millions of people is at risk. Against that, a relatively small number of ordinary people have secret plans that threaten our security. Compared to the threat, the indiscriminate character of surveillance seems disproportionate.
But the critics of surveillance also need a sense of proportion. Many commentators have suggested that more than privacy is at stake. Our liberty is also at risk, they fear: perhaps we are moving towards a police state. Really? A standard of comparison is needed, one that would be best provided by the historical records of a real totalitarian police state.
The Soviet Union was such a police state. In the Soviet Union under Communist rule, the secret police was the KGB (Committee on State Security). Most KGB records remain under lock and key, because Russia today is governed by an ex-KGB elite that has no interest in letting the world see how the KGB upheld Communist rule. A few of the former Soviet states have made a clean break with the Communist past and have opened up their KGB archives. For the last five years I have been working with records from now-independent Lithuania — held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution in California. These are highly revealing about KGB methods of mass surveillance and intervention.
Soviet society was organized to make surveillance easy. Every citizen had an ID card; everyone’s residence was registered with the police. At work, everyone was employed by the State or by government-controlled “collectives”. At home, everyone was a tenant of the government or some collective. The government and the ruling party ran the press and TV; there were no independent media, no independent access to copying or print services, and absolutely no Facebook or Twitter.
With one State postal and telephone service, any letter or call could be intercepted. The KGB ran a network of informers, which was concentrated on key offices, factories, and colleges where young people gathered. The extent of secrecy and surveillance was never debated in any public forum.
No one could leave the country without permission, and the small numbers allowed in and out were basically limited by the KGB’s capacity to watch them individually or in groups. In the 1970s, for example, Soviet Lithuania sent at least 1,000 visitors abroad each year and received at least 10,000 visitors. Forty years later, freed from Communist rule Lithuania would receive more than one million visitors each year just from the European Union. By the standards of a middle-income country today, Soviet citizens were almost unbelievably isolated. Just as important, the cause of their isolation was the Communist regime’s resolve to keep the citizens under continual observation. The first lesson seems to be that a police state will restrict citizens’ travel and communication to a level that it can observe. As humans we love to move around and be in constant touch with each other through social media. In open societies our intelligence agencies respond to this challenge by gathering our data indiscriminately and hoarding it in vast quantities. But they do not compel us to live or work only where they can watch us, and they do not try to prohibit us from communicating through channels they cannot overhear or from travelling to where they cannot see us. On this criterion we are still far from a police state.
After surveillance comes intervention. Intelligence agencies don’t do surveillance for its own sake; they want information on which they can act. Another important difference between us and them is what the authorities do with the products of surveillance. On the basis of the information it received, the KGB intervened directly in the lives of citizens to nudge their behaviour and limit their choices. Suppose they heard that Ivan Ivanovich was behaving suspiciously or voicing undesirable views. The response, at a minimum, was to call Ivan in for an unpleasant and frightening warning. Ivan’s card would also be marked for the future. No Soviet citizen could be promoted to any management position or allowed to travel to any foreign destination without KGB clearance, and Ivan’s chances of either of these were now greatly reduced.
At the moment we have no clear evidence that any of the NSA’s programmes has impinged on the life of any citizen in this way. Nor is it clear how they might do so, other than in the form of private abuse. Again, we seem to be a long way from the working of a real police state.
Still, is there something to worry about? Absolutely. Just as there is no clear evidence that Western intelligence surveillance is taking us into an Orwellian nightmare, there is also a lack of evidence that it is effective at doing what it is supposed to do: combat terrorism and strategic threats to Western security. Western security establishments look overfunded and undermanaged. Potentially, vast resources are being wasted to promote the careers of security empire builders. That should be of huge concern.
What is the true mission of national security in a free society? Surely it is to protect the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government, to protect our freedom (as private persons) and to be the people we want to be. A question then is: What do we want to be, or how do we want to live? Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should set limits on surveillance and accept some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. It’s a tough one, especially for politicians who do not want another 9/11 on their watch.
October 14, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.conservativepartyconference.org.uk/Speeches/2013_George_Osborne.aspx
At the Tory conference George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an interesting point about the views of Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition:
For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people. That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital. It is what socialists have always believed.
Osborne’s point made me think about the influence of Marx on modern intellectual life. To many this is something of a puzzle. Isn’t Marxism discredited as a political philosophy? Haven’t the economic policies of Marxist regimes generally failed to provide for “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – the words by which Marx once distilled the goal of communism? How many of those that identify with the ideals of socialism today have actually read and followed even one page of the fifty volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works?
My answers: Yes, Yes, and Not many. Yet Marxism shows no sign of dying out; it lives on in a variety of political movements and branches of academic and cultural life.
Why’s that? The question is puzzling only if we think of Marx as the the reason why Marxist ideas exist. Of course Marx was the originator of Marxism, but I am quite sure that if Marx had never been born to invent Marxism, some other scribbler would have taken his place. The basic ideas that underlie Marxism pre-existed Marx, and would have existed without his writings, and are continually reborn and propagated among people who know nothing of Marx for a straightforward reason: because such ideas correspond with how most people experience everyday life. Marx’s importance, therefore, was not as the discoverer of these ideas but as the writer that gave them a scholarly form.
What are the experiences to which Marxist economics correspond? Behind the complicated terminology of capital and value and Marx’s elaborate philosophical and historical argumentation of them are four simple ideas:
- The market is a jungle, a chaotic struggle of each against all, in which the strongest, most ruthless predator wins. Lurking behind every transaction is the chance that someone will rip you off.
- Of all the possible functions of market prices – accounting, economising, distributive – the only one that matters is distribution. A rise in the price of food or fuel cuts the real income of workers and redistributes it in favour of the producers that employ them.
- Work is hard and stressful, and the main source of pressure is the employers' drive to make you work harder and longer, in order to save them money or increase their profits.
- You can’t do anything about this on your own. Idealistic advocacy has no traction without numbers. Everyone should get together and intervene forcibly to bring about radical improvement.
What kind of economics do these four ideas make? They make the economics of everyday lived experience for most of the world’s seven billion people. I’m not talking just about the poor and ignorant. It’s nothing to do with education or position in society. My guess would be that most people in my immediate circle of family and friends that are not trained economists hold, most likely, two or three of the four ideas; I expect that all might hold at least one.
Suppose you decided to give your life to elaborating these four ideas and you spent years working them up into a philosophy of economics: What kind of book would you write? I think you’d end up writing something pretty much like Das Kapital. In other words, Marxism is a philosophization of the economics of lived experience, but it's the economics of lived experience that should really demand our attention.
What kind of economics would lived experience support? It would make, in the words of Frederic Bastiat, the economics of “that which is seen.” It would take into account only the most immediate effects of things. It would leave out the other effects, those that “unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us,” Bastiat went on, “if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.”
What’s wrong with the economics of “that which is seen”? By analogy, think of the physics of “that which is seen”: the earth is flat and parallel lines never meet. Or the chemistry of “that which is seen”: burning is the release of phlogiston. I’m not saying that economics is a science like physics or chemistry in all respects. What I’m saying is that Euclidean geometry, the idea of a flat earth, and the theory of phlogiston are perfectly serviceable for making sense of a number of things everyone can see from day to day. It’s true, though, that these ideas miss out badly on other things and this prevents them from being useful in many contexts. For the purposes that are missing, we need more; we need the physics and chemistry of “that which is not seen,” including molecular science, gravity, and relativity.
What is added by the economics of “that which is not seen”?
- The market creates many opportunities for sellers to abuse buyers, yet the market is not chaos: it enables specialization and competition. The same market economy that often feels like a jungle is the mechanism that has sustained the West’s unprecedented prosperity and is also the hope for sustained progress of the Rest. But this is not seen because it has taken hundreds of years to materialize; life’s too short for it to be seen. (My colleague Omer Moav makes a similar point in a penetrating review, which he showed me recently, of Ariel Rubinstein's Economic Tales.)
- If something that you consume is in short supply so that the price goes up, you lose in the short term, and this is seen. Beyond this, however, is an unseen process by which all gain. There is adaptation. Responding to the increased cost, we economize on uses, we search for substitutes, and we find or create new sources of supply. The adaptation is not seen because it would require the simultaneous observation of a million small responses.
- Work is stressful, and a predatory employer can increase the stress for the sake of profit. But that is incomplete. In the Marxian perspective there is only one kind of surplus, called profit, one source of surplus, called labour, and one class of recipients, the capitalist class. In the competitive market economy every transaction gives rise to a surplus on both sides. Day by day, billions of small surpluses accrue to both sides, buyers and sellers, that are party to every transaction. In other words, there are surpluses everywhere and they accrue to everyone; they are not the monopoly of one class. But this, too, is not seen.
- Everyone getting together to force change does not always make anything better, and this might be the case quite often. This is not seen for two reasons. First, in every case to establish the results of intervention requires the careful construction of a counterfactual (in other words, what would have happened without the intervention) which, to most people, seems intolerably speculative. Second, when intervention has demonstrably not brought about the benefit sought, there is a natural human tendency to shift the responsibility from our own action to the counteraction of those that disagree with us, whom we make into scapegoats.
Whatever things are not seen, it’s hard to know they are there. Understandably, therefore, most people stick to the economics of what they can see for themselves. Most of those don’t think of themselves as Marxists or even socialists. Still, it ensures a reservoir of instinctive sympathy in our society for ideas that are aligned with Marx's and helps to explain his lasting influence. This reservoir is continually refilled from everyday experience. That's why Marxist ideas live on and will often be well received by well educated, well intentioned people.
Full disclosure: In years gone by I considered myself a Marxist and I read a lot of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others. At various times I joined a Capital reading group, and taught the economics of Marx (alongside Smith, Ricardo, List, and Schumpeter), and I even wrote a pamphlet called The Economics of Capitalism; I still have a copy; one day I’ll scan it and put it on line. Somewhere between that time and this, however, I changed my mind for reasons that I wrote down here.