Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Mummy Lives – Careers for Communist Dead Heads

“He took care of all North Korean people with his warm love.”
                                                                                        Kim Jong IL on Kim Jong IL

The body of Kim Jong Il now like that of his father, Kim Il Sung, has been suitably embalmed and ready for a post-respiratory career as a venerable mummy.  The current speculation is that the National Palace will soon become a unique historical site where visitors will be able to gaze upon the corpses-in-repose of both the Father and the Son, Kim Sr. (“our Fatherly Leader” as he was affectionately called by his hungry and malnourished subjects) and Kim Jr., who made it through sixty-nine years, it is reported in the official obituaries, never having to defecate, immaculate in his own special way.

Should the North Korean people enjoy the beneficence of a long-lived Kim Jong Eun, a mere chubby-faced lad with many years ahead to enhance the paradise bequeathed by his elders, he will no doubt have performed many miracles of his own, maybe an even longer feces-free existence than his father.  Perhaps someday the National Palace will host for the curious to behold a rosy communist Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy --- well … expectations will no doubt be high for Kim III.

All of this must be somewhat disconcerting for the keepers and groomers of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh – but perhaps not.   How many mummies mounted in gaudy mausoleums, after all, does a properly functioning communist dictatorship need to maintain?  How many can one afford?   In China, Mao, 36 years expired, is ubiquitous.  His visage decorates the currency.  His face is everywhere, on buildings, posters, tee-shirts, ties.   Long lines of Chinese still form to stroll past his bier in the gigantic hall.  Lenin, who died at fifty-four, is only two years shy of ninety years of mummy-hood.  He gets an occasional chemical bath, I have read.  One does wonder.

One also wonders if Raul Castro might be thumbing through the Greater Havana Yellow Pages under the "embalmer" heading, readying himself to appoint soon The Master to prepare hermano mayor for eventual display.  El Lider Maximo is old and looking mighty peeked.  Pedro Ara, the Spaniard who did the nice work on Eva Peron’s mortal coil is himself long dead, unfortunately.  Unlike Moscow or Pyonyang, Havana, however, is really warm year around.   How much spare electricity on this island of notable basic scarcities will it take to keep Fidel’s withered cadaver looking, uh, revolutionarily fit?

The communist affinity for mummification of the Leader has become a comically symbolic gesture that speaks emphatically to the false and delusional nature of the system, a system that consists of everyone at every level pretending.   The Party pretends to believe in the perfection of the departed Chief, making even his corpse into an uncorrupted object for eternal contemplation and edification.  The people pretend to grieve and everyone pretends that the misery and depravation they experienced daily never ever happened under the rule of the Dearly Departed.   All is sweetness and light in the magic kingdom where the handsome Prince reigns over his happy and prosperous subjects. The mausoleum that holds his remains is constructed to remind everyone that visits of the vast goodness and unfathomable virtue of the Departed that never actually existed. 

This weird deification rite of passage for the Dead Heads was born in desperation.   In 1924 when Lenin’s brain hemorrhaged its last, the regime he imposed was floundering. The Russian people were not happy with the progress of communism. The peasants were starving and the workers were worse off than ever.  At this moment of crisis, Lenin’s determined disciple, Stalin, needed a religious-like relic, a physical, personal object of grief for the peasants and workers who had not yet grasped the impersonal nature of Marxian dialectics.  It seemed to work, and the mummy in the glass box has become one of the more curious and ironic elements of “communist culture.”
Much of the outside world now contemplates the ghastly and hideous death rituals of the North Koreans dictators with macabre amusement and scorn.  There are notable and depressing exceptions.   In a letter of personal condolence to Kim Jong Eun, our very own Fatherly Leader, Jimmy Carter, wished the new dictator “every success as he assumes his new responsibility of leadership, [and was] looking forward to another visit [to   North Korea ] in the future.”   It would be enlightening, no doubt, to know how Mr. Carter imagined the new Kim might parse these well-wishing words.    

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where’s My Omelet? Or, Lenin versus Kant

“Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”
                                                                  Immanuel Kant

“He [Lenin] was the only member of the local intelligentsia who not only refused to participate in the aid for the hungry, but publicly opposed it.  As one of his friends later recalled, ‘Vladimir Illich Ulyanov had the courage to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results, particularly in the appearance of a new industrial proletariat, which would take over from the bourgeoisie… Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would bring about the next stage more rapidly, and usher in socialism, the state that necessarily followed capitalism. Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.’” 
                                                                     Black Book of Communism

In attempting to understand the savagery and ultimately the nihilism of Communism’s twentieth century global career, it might be helpful to juxtapose the Enlightenment’s sublime moral voice, Immanuel Kant, with the profoundly cynical calibrations of Vladimir Lenin, once he had power over the lives of others.  Lenin was Karl Marx’s supreme Man of Action, the arch revolutionary who did what Marx only dreamed of – he put the Capitalists out of business.  After that, so the theory went, life would be much better.  Well, except if you were a part of the bourgeoisie hoping for something to eat or inclined toward stupidities like faith in God.

It is difficult to conceive of a more startling juxtaposition of polarity of moral and human vision.  From Kant’s formulation of his categorical imperative each and every human being emerges not as an abstraction but as a unique person inviolate and irreplaceable, a creature whose very nature morally forbids that he become merely a means for the designs and ambitions of another.  To use another human being as a pure means is to de-humanize him, to turn him into matter.  As Kant saw it, human beings as rational creatures were bound by a moral law whose validity was tested by its universality, transcending the particularity of groups, classes, tribes, or race.  Everyone from the King to the servant was bound by the moral law, even God himself.  

Kant’s moral philosophy was one of the crowning achievements of the Enlightenment with its universality of reach and application across a rapidly emerging modern world where individuals from the entire spectrum of humanity would be becoming in some way connected with each other and in need of a moral vision that moved beyond the tribe.  Kant’s notion of an inviolate human core was articulated by Thomas Jefferson in theistic terms:  “All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”  

For Lenin by contrast human beings were nothing but means, things to be used, not persons. They were material, waste products in fact if they were obstacles to his plans to elevate humanity and realize his utopian abstraction – they were to be assigned to the “dust bin of history” as his colleague, Leon Trotsky, put it.  Lenin was particularly fond of de-humanizing “disinfectant” terminology when speaking of his political opposition – liquidation, extermination, etc. – applied to “insects,” “vermin,” “leeches,” anyone basically who did not embrace his transformational vision.  Human beings were not for him individuals but disaggregated pieces of warring social classes that grind against each other and produce winners who rule and losers who conform to the winners’ will or die. 

Kant understood that morality is universally binding.  Morality forces one to concede the presence of boundaries of reality that may limit or frustrate specific desires and aspirations, sometimes very powerful ones.  Lenin eschewed any limitation to his action -- Unlimited power above all law,” as he succinctly put it.  Fiercely atheistic, Lenin wanted to be God and craved unlimited power so as to remake humanity.   Almost un-human in his intellectual self-regard, his absolute self-certainty and conviction of omniscience rendered him unable to view those who opposed or resisted him as anything but human garbage to be swept aside and dumped into an abyss.  

Kant late in his life had reflected: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  Kant’s frame was bowed and humbled by the vast reach of the universe and the deep mystery of the human heart.  Lenin, it is safe to surmise, was never awed by anything.  He was the Supreme Knower, absolutely convinced that he possessed the blueprint to restructure humanity and bring it to perfection. Kant for all the great power and breadth of his mind was intellectually and spiritually humble. Lenin was astonishingly arrogant with not a trace of humility, and his arrogance made him into one of the most ruthless individuals to ever walk the earth.  Only someone with such fanatical self-conceit could welcome a famine to sweep his land and enthuse over its “positive” effects.  This was a crisis that would not be wasted. Equally remarkable and appalling is the report of Lenin’s friend speaking of Lenin’s “courage” in announcing his pleasure over contemplating the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people.  The moral universe of the Bolsheviks was completely upside down, inhabited by men and women of the deepest immorality.      

Lenin’s had many disciples.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot were all cast from Lenin’s mold, supreme knowers, dedicated to the making the abstraction they called the Revolution into a lethal reality.  They excelled in breaking millions of eggs, but the omelets that were supposed to follow somehow never made it to the dish plates. Lenin was succeeded by Stalin, the consummate Leninist. It was Stalin, contrary to the wishes of Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who decided to turn Lenin’s corpse into a mummy, to make the man who served the impersonal forces of history into a very personal piece of material for his own purposes, a Communist relic for the faithful to see and remember.    

After Stalin came Khrushchev, then Brezhnev.  Murder and extermination gave way to corruption and stagnation -- from Lenin, the fanatical believer to Brezhnev, the alcoholic pretender.  Finally, the urbane, well-educated Gorbachev.  Gorbachev’s impossible task was to extract from the nihilism that inevitably engulfed a land ruled by liars and frauds a pristine, original Leninism somehow forsaken by Stalin and his progeny that might rescue the Party and produce the long promised omelet.  Alas, the only thing to be had from Vladimir Illich Ulyanov was his mummy, bequeathed by Stalin, after decades still moldering away.       

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Twenty-first Century Stalinists

Nation columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel (she will never be taken for a NASCAR follower) was in an exceptionally high dudgeon just the other day. (November 30, 2011) “We need a transformational presidency, able to smash the failed, entrenched and corrupt politics of the center. That standard isn’t some perfectionism perennially demanded by disappointed liberals. It is required by the times. And what this nation desperately needs isn’t partisan unity, but a fierce and growing movement that will challenge not just the wing nuts of the right, but an establishment in both parties that has failed the country.”

I was struck by the Stalinist style, particularly her call for someone to “smash” the old, corrupt capitalist order.  Well, she did not say “capitalist” but perhaps that was an oversight.  After all, she is writing for The Nation.   What a moralizing Pharisee this woman is.   “We need… this nation desperately needs…..”   Who exactly is the “we”?  It’s all of us, I suppose.  But only a cognitively gifted few can comprehend how really ugly things are, and more importantly, who is responsible for the mess and what action “is required by the times.”  Ah yes, she will have us know that she is not one of those whiny, disappointed, self-deluded liberals.  She has firmly grasped what is “required” (What is to be Done? as Lenin put it).  The Nation scribblers are among those immaculate few who stand far above the corruption, the greed, the failure, in sum, all that unpleasant, unnecessary stuff that you expect to accumulate when the right wingers and the centrists end up in charge.  If only they were.

What then is it that she thinks we all “desperately” need?    Someone, actually, a President, who is up for some serious smashing, a “transformational” sort of guy or gal.  The idea of a “smasher-in-chief” might make a good portion of the electorate inclined toward the “wing nuts” a bit nervous as they try to guess exactly who is going to get smashed and what it might feel like.   Many of the unenlightened might be quite happy with a modest improvement of the status quo, better employment opportunities, for example, but Ms. vanden Heuvel wants  a fierce and growing movement.”  To do what?   Challenge a failed establishment. 

Transformation” is 21st century Stalinese for “revolution.”  The old order as she notes is entrenched.   It must be overthrown, smashed, transformed.   The premise embedded in this screed is that politics is war.   One does not argue with, respect, or engage the opposition.  It is corrupt and cannot be  redeemed. This premise has always been the foundation of Bolshevik intellectuals.