Friday, October 21, 2011

Lenin & the Legacy of Nihilism

And therefore in reasoning, a man must take heed of words; which besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker.
                                                                Thomas Hobbes

From the beginning, with the toppling of the Provisional Government in October 1917, the Bolsheviks never permitted a free and democratic election.  They forcefully disbanded the constituent assembly when they realized they could not control the outcome.  
Once in power Lenin began to operate as if he believed that he could build his perfect society simply by giving orders and shooting whoever was reluctant or unenthused.  His first major “accomplishment” upon taking power was the creation of the Cheka, the chief organ of repression and terror that became Stalin’s chief instrument of rule.  The second was the invention of the concentration camp, a dehumanized space deliberately created to maximize human misery and to assert the absolute power of the ruling party over whomever it cared to. Massive, unrelenting coercion was Lenin’s gift to the world, stamping itself all over the regime from its beginning and persisting to the end. “Unlimited power above all law,” as Lenin himself put it. [From Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991, New York, 1994, 118] 
No one, absolutely no one, was permitted to question or resist. Lenin was a master of scorn and vituperation. Language for Lenin was not an instrument of persuasion. It was a weapon. Resisters in his expansive lexicon of abuse were “scum.”  The “bourgeois” Kulaks he marked for elimination were “blood suckers.”  “[F]rom 1920 on Lenin described enemies in terms eerily anticipating the SS: ‘bloodsuckers,’ ‘spiders,’ ‘leeches,’ ‘parasites,’ ‘insects,’ ‘bedbugs,’ ‘fleas,’ the language suggesting threatening and dehumanized enemies infecting the people, requiring cleansing.” [Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge, 2005, 322]  Oppositionists in Stalin’s world were “insects”.  Decades later in Cambodia Pol Pot identified for “liquidation” “malignant microbes” within the party.  [Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, 2009, 565]  The boundless intellectual conceit of the men who installed themselves as champions of the world’s oppressed people made them into ferocious haters. They were incapable of viewing those who did not share their ideas and resisted their program as human beings. Thus when their efforts to build the perfect society failed, their frustration, disappointment and fury had a perfect target, an array of “enemies” that had populated their binary, ideological world — “counterrevolutionaries,” “bourgeoisie scum,” “reactionaries,” “priests” – all the remnants of the old order and utterly debased.
The lying and the hyper- and coercive- secrecy that was necessary to rationalize the abuse of the unenthused, to sustain the lies and to insulate the Party bosses from the consequences of their failure eventually made effective governmental decision-making impossible for the Communist governments.  When no one can tell the truth, or when the truth simply becomes the official propaganda pronouncement of the moment eventually no one can trust anyone. Suspenseful anticipation of the next propaganda turn saps energy, exhausts resources. With massive, institutional lying the power brokers ultimately slide into a state of helplessness.  “Establishments that could collectivize a peasantry and nationalize an entire country subsequently found themselves unable to take the slightest collective actions when something failed to go according to plan….  Instead….all manner of incentives [were provided] for even loyalists to lie and report fairy tales.” [Stephen Kotkin, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, New York, 13-14]  
The land that would become the first Socialist Workers Paradise and the model for the Proletarian revolution, promised by Lenin in 1917 was by 1989 reduced through corruption, dishonesty and incompetence to a crummy, third world shamble whose vodka-besotted workers could not even make a decent bread toaster.
Over time the coercion necessary to perpetuate the increasingly apparent dishonesty that rationalized the coercion and violence was simply insufficient to disguise the disparity between the reality reflected by the facts all around, and the glaring absurdity of the official propaganda. 
Even the efforts of the Soviet leaders after Stalin’s passing to soften and humanize the nakedly brutal and coercive system their mentor had left them of necessity to continue the systematic lying and deception. The regime by 1955 two years after Stalin’s death was attempting the rehabilitation of victims of his terror from the previous two decades.  But it now faced a huge dilemma: it would not be good for the Bolshevik leaders’ future prospects if the people they had now ruled for a generation learned the truth about the how many innocent people Stalin and his assistants (many of whom  were now in charge) had selected over the years to be shot. As Dmitri Volkogonov reports:  “It was therefore decided that the KGB and the State Prosecutor’s office should publish ‘Instruction No. 108ss on Camps’, which stipulated that in the information given to families, for those who had been shot on non-judicial orders the date of death should be given as roughly ten years from the time of their arrest, and the cause should be fictitious.” [Victor Volkogonov, Autopsy for an Empire: the Seven Leaders who Build the Soviet Regime, New York, 1998, 393]   Such was the staggering cynicism and dishonesty of a regime that was now hopelessly trapped in its own secretive murderous history.  Though pressed to reform and even wanting to reform, Stalin’s heirs were unable to let go of their dirty secrets. They now attempted to escape accountability through distortion and half-truths. The character of the men in charge could never be anything more than a reflection of the coercive, dishonest system they had imposed.  
The governing architecture of the Soviet Union, grounded in the Marxist eschatological promise of the end of capitalism, was put into place with the same kind of massive coercion around the world with the similar resulting waste, wreckage and misery.  The methods and practices of the Soviet masters, including the systematic dishonesty, were imitated with similar disastrous effects. The systemic, highly coerced perversion of truth-telling would with each imitative Communist dictatorship – from East Germany to Cuba to North Korea – ultimately degenerate into moral nihilism, entirely bereft of any purpose or rationale beyond the preservation of privilege and power of the ruling class – corruption and degeneracy of the masters; misery for the ruled.  Nihilism was the inevitable culmination of Communist morality. This fact, perhaps, helps to explain why the Communist leaders could sustain for decades the murder, persecution, and desolation so characteristic of these regimes and yet pretend to be virtuous. “Moral nihilism is not only the central feature of National Socialism, but also the common factor between it and Bolshevism.”  [Robert Conquest, Reflections of a Ravaged Century, New York, 2000, 64]

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