Boris Yeltsin and the problem of Russian democracy

The death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has called forth a range of appraisals of his contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union and the development of democracy in Russia. Monica Attard, who reported so memorably on the drama of the Stalinist coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and Yeltsin’s role in defying it, has produced a critical appraisal in yesterday’s Australian. However much other commentary has been both far less critical and far less well informed, portraying Yeltsin as having single-handedly brought democracy and freedom to the former Soviet states, defending all his actions (including his unconstitutional and deadly dissolution of the Russian parliament in 1993) as consistent with this project, and exonerating him for setting in place the institutional conditions for Vladimir Putin’s erosion of democracy. One such hagiography is provided by David Boaz of the Cato Institute. Tuesday’s editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald also managed to descend into the fatuous cliche-mongering of post-Cold War liberal triumphalism. Consistent with this approach, the SMH refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives as “Tinkering with communist party control”, overlooking the fact that such “tinkering” had, amongst other things, enabled Yeltsin to be elected Russian President in the first place.

In this post I want to consider Yeltsin’s legacy in the light of the problem of replacing Russia’s centuries of autocratic and unaccountable executive dictatorship (whether in its Tsarist, Leninist-Stalinist or Putinist manifestations) with a framework of enduring democratic institutions including strong parliaments and other elected deliberative assemblies, the rule of law and constitutional guarantees of citizens’ rights, and the recurring phenomenon of the democratic project in Russia being railroaded by what can be termed Jacobin foundational projects which, whilst able to run in harness with the democratic project whilst in opposition to a decaying autocratic ancien regime, become objectively hostile to democratic institutions and practices when they place a brake on the foundational project.

In its last years the Tsarist feudal absolutist regime was challenged by a very diverse opposition movement comprising socialists, labour activists, feminists, liberals, national independence activists, anarchists, etc. The first peak of this movement was the revolution of 1905, in which the first soviets (workers’ councils) were formed on the initiative of the Mensheviks, and which extracted from the Tsarist regime the formation of a consultative parliament (the Duma). In the years following the defeat of the revolution the soviets were suppressed, and the Duma reduced to a shell by removal of what little powers it initially had and restriction of the franchise to ensure its domination by conservative elements. The second, highest, peak of the democratic movement was the “Glorious February” which culminated in the abdication of the Tsar and the formation of a provisional government, ruling in parallel with the soviets until a constituent assembly could be elected and convened.

I have previous presented Orlando Figes’ account of the February events here and here. Work commitments have prevented me from fulfilling my original promise of a full account of the democratic revolution, but the important point to be noted here was that its main institutional achievement and intention was the creation of a range of popular-democratic assemblies (the soviets) and the attempt to create a national elected assembly (the Constituent Assembly) to replace executive autocracy in its Tsarist incarnation. Figes argues persuasively that the most desirable (albeit difficult to achieve) outcome in revolutionary Russia would have been the consolidation, under the leadership of a democratic left coalition including Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries and moderate Bolsheviks such as Kamenev, of a system of popular democracy combining the soviets, the Constituent Assembly, and other assemblies such as the zemtsvos. Unfortunately this was not achieved.

This was partly due to the indecisiveness and timidity of the democratic socialist parties in the soviets. Figes argues (and I am persuaded) that the democratic left shirked their historic responsibility by failing to initiate a full-blown democratic seizure of power by the soviets, preferring to allow a liberal-conservative dominated provisional government (albeit with some socialist involvement) to continue ruling within limits set by the soviets. And of course the liberals, Mensheviks and SRs erred tragically by persisting with Russia’s hopeless involvement in World War I. This led to a bleeding of workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ support to the Bolsheviks, with their Jacobin foundational agenda of communist revolution which owed less to Marx than it did to Russian chiliastics like Tkachev and Nechayev, and allowed them to seize the initiative as 1917 ground on. After the Bolsheviks played the key role in resisting the counter-revolutionary coup led by General Kornilov (who thought he was acting with the blessing of Provisional Government leader and pseudo-socialist dilletante Kerensky), their momentum was unstoppable.

Now, during 1917, the Bolsheviks, as part of the democratic opposition, had helped to create and lead the soviets and other organs of popular democracy. They were able to agree with the democratic socialists, liberals, anarchists, etc., in opposing the Tsarist autocracy and its revenants and creating popular-democratic bodies in opposition to the regime. However, their commitment to democratic institution-building evaporated when those fledgeling democratic institutions became an obstacle to the Bolshevik project. The Constituent Assembly was forcibly disbanded when the elections delivered a non-Bolshevik (mainly SR) majority. The soviets were vitiated by the suppression of the non-Bolshevik socialist parties and tendencies as “counter-revolutionaries”. Those Bolsheviks who had misgivings about the way things were heading were silenced by the ban on factions imposed at the 1921 party congress. When the Kronstadt workers and sailors (an erstwhile bulwark of Bolshevism) rose to demand a restoration of socialist democracy, they were shot “like ducks on a pond” at the behest of Trotsky and Tukhachevsky, with Lenin’s blessing. To cut a long, sad story short, the Bolsheviks completely reversed the February Revolution’s work of democratic institution-building and created a savage new executive autocracy headed, successively, by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.

Fast forward to 1985-91. As Mikhail Gorbachev himself relates in his memoirs, a central task of glasnost and perestroika was the replacement of the Stalinist party-state executive autocracy with a political framework based on the rule of law and the existence of strong popular-democratic assemblies chosen through multi-candidate and ultimately multi-party elections. Yeltsin and the radical democratic forces which emerged to support him in this period were ardent champions of this process, and Yeltsin was the main beneficiary, being elected Russian President in 1991. It is now history that Gorbachev’s attempts, like the democratic leftists of 1917, to steer a reforming centre course between the conservative defenders of the ancien regime and the radicals led by Yeltsin came to grief in the August 1991 military coup and Yeltsin’s defiant and genuinely inspiring symbolic defence of the Russian parliament against Stalinist counter-revolutionary tanks. The Kornilov coup and the Bolshevik resistance redux!

As we now know, the similarities between the Yeltsin forces and the Bolsheviks did not end there. Like Lenin and Trotsky, Yeltsin had become the champion of a Jacobin foundational project – neo-liberal capitalist revolution and the “shock therapy” of ultra-rapid privatisation, marketisation, deregulation and de-welfarisation as prescribed by the western neo-liberal brains trust. And like his Bolshevik precursors, Yeltsin was not going to allow democratic parliaments and such to get in the way of his revolution. He procured extensive powers to rule by Presidential decree, and when a majority of the Russian parliament – conservatives and democratic reformers alike alarmed at the social havoc being wrought by “shock therapy” – objected, it set in train a confrontation which culminated in Yeltsin’s unconstitutional and forcible dissolution of parliament, with the loss of over 100 lives, in September 1993. And just as several generations of indifferently groomed young radicals in the west constituted themselves as a claque to exonerate the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the crushing of Kronstadt as necessary “emergency measures” against “counter-revolutionaries”, so a claque of besuited western journalists, politicians and right-wing intellectuals applauded Yeltsin’s crushing of the “communist hard-liners” in the parliament and his assumption of wide-ranging Presidential powers as necessary to advance the cause of “reform”. Late in 1993 a new constitution was adopted which replaced the parliament with a Duma with limited powers, and which concentrated immense powers in the presidency, despite warnings that these powers would be wide open to abuse by a future tyrant. As we now know, these powers have been, are being and will continue to be abused by Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, to once again entrench executive autocracy in Russia and to complete the project, begun by Yeltsin, of destroying the institutions of popular democracy and the rule of law which were the main fruits of glasnost and perestroika, and which Yeltsin and his followers were happy to support for as long as it suited them – and only as long as it suited them.

Of the many striking parallels between the two great democratic revolutions in Russia which were eventually betrayed by their Jacobin passengers, perhaps the most striking is the failure of the western barrackers for Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, and for Yeltsin and the shock therapists in the 1990s, to get what a democratic revolution is about. It is not about the triumph of goodies over baddies. It is certainly not about the triumph of a narrow circle of self-defined Jacobin goodies (Lenin, Yeltsin) over not just outright reactionaries who are undoubtedly baddies, but over anyone who, whatever their democratic revolutionary credentials (e.g. the Mensheviks, Gorbachev), is defined as being just as bad as the baddies because they’re not part of the Jacobin elect. A democratic revolution must be about the creation of institutions such as parliaments and other elected and popular-democratic deiberative bodies, independent courts, constitutions and laws which guarantee citizens rights and restrain the powers of rulers, etc., and the creation of the culture of democratic civility which goes with the institutional framework. And a democratic revolution must entail the acceptance by Jacobin utopians of whatever stripe (communist chiliastics, neo-liberal shock therapists, etc.) that however earnestly they believe in their foundational project, they must cop the constraints of democratic constitutionalism and democratic civility, and the compromises which will inevitably be forced on such projects as a result of the will of the people who are the intended laboratory rats of the Jacobin/Bolshevik/shocktherapy/whatever experiment.

It is ironic that neo-liberal apologists, like David Boaz, for Yeltsin’s revival of executive autocracy in the service of capitalism would doubtless be the first to condemn Hugo Chavez’s recent assumption of autocratic presidential powers in the service of Venezuelan socialism. Conversely, what there is of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left applauds the executive autocracy of Chavez whilst condemning the executive autocracy of Yeltsin and Putin. Consistent democrats are equally disturbed by both.

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73 comments on “Boris Yeltsin and the problem of Russian democracy
  1. Katz says:

    Nice analysis Paul.

    Your identifcation of a recurring theme of “jacobin foundational projects” in Russia is a very potent one.

    Moreover, your identification of neo-liberal hypocrisy is very well targeted.

    One of the remarkable features of the absence of an enduring rule of law in Russia is the absence of an enduring judicial system.

    The Common Law system of Britain grew organically over a period of time and achieved huge legitimacy by a broad range of people in the countries where it was adopted.

    The Napoleonic system achieved longevity and legitimacy by other means.

    Yet, the notion of an independent juidiciary is foreign to Russia. And until something arises to copy or to replicate the above-mentioned systems, the likelihood of a civil society would appear to be somewhat remote.

    Just one question. I wonder whether the Soviets of 1917, representing as they did the interests and energies of only particular sectors of the Russian population, would ever have developed into a viable and legitimate legislature.

  2. FDB says:

    Superb post Paul.

  3. philip travers says:

    As a regular reader of Nexus,New Dawn Hard Evidence magazines,there is a point that Yeltsin and I both have experienced,and it isnt alcohol abuse.This subject already treated with disdain elsewhere today, I found at a U.S.A. forum yesterday re Virginia Tech. matters,and I found myself defending the investigative police.But until someone has had the experience that makes for a terrible process of thought confusement correction… then ,my approach as much as it can be mine, is hope,whilst trying whatever can be tried.Yeltsin was convinced a mind altering thought inducing process was operating on him.As a person familiar with A.R.LURIA as reading material and Arthur Janov who I have deep respect for,it is alarming for me to self assess and conclude,constant attempts are being made to reduce my capacity for independent thought.Yeltsin blamed communist spies from another era I think. I cannot, not out of evidence or lack of it, but ,there is no way for me to trace its origins. Psychology under these influences as a thought or opinion seems a sham,and whatever befuddled reality was Yeltsin,I now have doubts about why human events occur, regularly! This problem exist ,as I type, with the limitations I already have in this regard..extended by a process I can often hear and do nothing else.His illness, therefore to me, is, the foundation for this technology riding him to death.The technology I refer to is artificially induced thought and emotion,and memory modification patterns heard as conversation that locks in as a traveller with what often doesnt even seem to be ones own thoughts.

  4. Kim says:

    Excellent work, Paul.

    It is ironic that neo-liberal apologists, like David Boaz, for Yeltsin’s revival of executive autocracy in the service of capitalism would doubtless be the first to condemn Hugo Chavez’s recent assumption of autocratic presidential powers in the service of Venezuelan socialism. Conversely, what there is of the Trotskyist and Stalinist left applauds the executive autocracy of Chavez whilst condemning the executive autocracy of Yeltsin and Putin. Consistent democrats are equally disturbed by both.

    Totally agree.

  5. Yeltsin a bolshevik neo-liberal Jacobin? Get a grip, Norto.

    Your analogy between the bolshevik putsch and Yeltsin’s period as president of Russia is profoundly inaccurate.

    Ask yourself a couple of questions:

    1. Was Yeltsin popularly elected?
    2. Was Lenin?
    3. Did Yeltsin receive a popular mandate in the 1993 referendum?
    4. Was the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies, opposing Yeltsin and dissolved by him in 1993, popularly elected?
    5. Was its successor, the State Duma?

    Comparing Yeltsin to Lenin is ridiculous. Yeltsin was a corrupt, incompetent populist, but he wasn’t a murderous, anti-democratic bolshevik.

  6. j_p_z says:

    Fine post, Paul, very educational. Thanks!

    Kim, whilst I think you and Paul are not wrong for pointing out the contradictions that you do, w/r/t Chavez/Yeltsin-Putin seeming hypocrisy, the critical difference, it seems to me, is ideological export value. Not to attempt apologetics for either one, but Putin is probably just consolidating power in the base of what is now merely Historical Russia, no longer the HQ of a global ideology with missionary impulses and worldwide hungers. Chavez, on the other hand, I am sure would love to export his brand of daffy socialism throughout Latin America (already having some success, too). So you see how the cheerleader squads line up on either side. Ideology, or the lack of it, is like the magnet under the table making the iron filings dance the way they do.

    Now that Russia is free of a world-explaining ideology, it is merely alone with its history. If Russia is to develop a democracy, it will have to do so within the calculus of that history and culture (that is, if it does not simply demographically auto-destruct first). But this stripe of tyrants is no longer in the business of trying to forcefully ‘share’ their authoritarian calamities with the rest of us; and for that, I sleep a wee bit better at night. We’ll see what the Russians manage to make of their country. Considering the serial traumas they’ve been through for something like 150 years, I wouldn’t bet on democracy growing up straight and tall right away, even with the best intentions. Democracy probably requires a very healthy soil and a long lead time to develop in the way we understand it. People who are chronically unhappy and unhealthy will have a hard time understanding why their vote should matter, or why they ought to fight for it. We’re seeing similar problems in Iraq, unsurprisingly. The free world should put a higher premium on developing simple global decency, before it lectures chronically miserable societies about advanced concepts like genuine democracy. First things first.

  7. FDB says:

    My, what a shallow reading you’ve indulged yourself in Fyodor.

    Can you point out for me where exactly in Paul’s post he says “Yeltsin was precisely the same as Lenin”?

  8. j_p_z says:

    Hmm, just had a comment go up in smoke. Don’t know if it was moderated or simply vaporized; or maybe Putin’s people have got this thread under observation. But if it’s in jug, would someone kindly liberate it?

    And if it turns out to no longer exist, at least this much… Nice work, Paul!

  9. John Greenfield says:

    While, in 2007, it is nigh impossible not to see Socialists, and other leftist-marxist types, as being perfectly ridiculous, I am in awe at the diligence with which they learn history; particularly Russian history.

    I get giddy trying to piece together the Trotskyist, Bolsheviks, Stalinists, Mensheviks, Jacobin foundationalists, ancien regimes, Leninists, Maoists, anarchists, democratic Leftists (who are the undemocratic leftists, or shouldn’t I ask?), counter-revolutions, bourgeois nationalists, communist chiliasts, and on and on.

    I’ve read a bit of Marx, but pretty quickly worked out it’s all tarted-up Judeo-Xian mysticism and providentialism. Y’all should have worked out the whole project was still-born the moment he elevated the proles to the status of everyman, with the revolution dependent on their collective ‘Eureka’ moment when it dawns on the poor saps that life is fucked! Instead, they chose Big Brother and electric toothbrushes.

    But I notice y’all have now added “neo-liberal” to your shtick.

    Curioser and curioser.

  10. My, what a shallow reading you’ve indulged yourself in Fyodor.

    Can you point out for me where exactly in Paul’s post he says “Yeltsin was precisely the same as Leninâ€??

    Sure; right after you point out where I used the word “precisely”.

    Alternatively, you can tell me which part of the following text indicates Norto was NOT constructing an analogy between Yeltsin and the bolsheviks:

    As we now know, the similarities between the Yeltsin forces and the Bolsheviks did not end there. Like Lenin and Trotsky, Yeltsin had become the champion of a Jacobin foundational project – neo-liberal capitalist revolution and the “shock therapyâ€? of ultra-rapid privatisation, marketisation, deregulation and de-welfarisation as prescribed by the western neo-liberal brains trust. And like his Bolshevik precursors, Yeltsin was not going to allow democratic parliaments and such to get in the way of his revolution.

    You can also address my earlier questions if you like. That’s if you can get over the “shallowness” of drawing a distinction between Yeltsin’s democratic mandate and the bolsheviks’ murderous tyranny.

  11. FDB says:

    Fyodor, Paul’s post was quite clear about making your beloved distinctions where they apply, within the overall aim of drawing an analogy.

    His thesis (as it came across to me) was that despite obvious and well-known differences, the two occasions on which Russia has escaped authoritarianism were both brief and both destroyed by their respective ostensible champions’ unwillingness to accept their mandate’s limitations in the context of robust democratic institutions.

    An interesting point, well-made, that got your hackles up. Simmer down.

  12. FDB says:

    The less controversial point being made was of course that it is the much o’er-glossed Gorbachev who deserves much of the credit for what democracy does exist in Russia, not the drunken buffoon who handed Putin the throne presidency.

  13. FDB says:

    Anyway, there’s no point in me trying to stoush. The thread moderator only lets me through when they get around to checking.

    So in advance, I humbly yield to the impending passive-aggressive tirade.

  14. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Add to boxhead’s quote making Yeltsin-Lenin equivalencies:

    It is not about the triumph of goodies over baddies. It is certainly not about the triumph of a narrow circle of self-defined Jacobin goodies (Lenin, Yeltsin)

    Personally I think this is a simultaneous insult to the Jacobins, who as a group were morally puritan, humourless, incorruptible—at least by wealth—and totally fixated on process, rather than outcome. They were a bunch of miserable murdering bastards, but at least they were honest miserable murdering bastards.
    They didn’t care what kind of France they created, as long as it was the product of human reason and national justice. That’s quite a different sense of foundational project to the Marxist-Leninists’ or the Chicago School’s sense of destiny.

  15. Kim says:

    The thread moderator only lets me through when they get around to checking.

    FDB, you really need to contact Akismet. Every time we mark you as “not spam” it should send the program a message. It may be that you’re commenting at other places where the moderators don’t do that consistently.

    The easiest way for you to get around this would be to change your moniker. I’m sure the three letter moniker was the reason it assumed you were spam in the first place.

  16. professor rat says:

    Thank you Paul for putting the democratic socialist case so well.
    Now for the libertarian socialists I would recommend Maurice Brinton’s, workers control 1917-21. G. Maximoff’s ,’ The guilotine at work’ , P. Arshinovs work on the Makhnovista and Volines, ‘ unknown revolution’.
    There is a strong case imho for democratic and libertarian socialists to unite in rejecting Leninism. Knowledge is power.

  17. FDB says:

    Thanks Kim (I should have added that I am eternally grateful for the patience of said moderators every time they bother to help out!).

    I’ve contacted Akismet twice with no reply or result, and often post with other monikers with the same result.

    Sumpin’ funny’s going on.

  18. FDB says:

    And as far as I know, I’m not having problems getting published anywhere else.

    Don’t bother with these ones by the way (as if you would).

  19. Mark says:

    It may have tagged your IP address or email address as well, FDB.

  20. Hmmm... says:

    Testing

  21. FDB says:

    Well, I look different… some would say better… maybe it was some anti-Thatcher bot messing with me.

    Okay, thanks for the tip.

  22. Fyodor, Paul’s post was quite clear about making your beloved distinctions where they apply, within the overall aim of drawing an analogy.

    What, you mean like here:

    “And like his Bolshevik precursors, Yeltsin was not going to allow democratic parliaments and such to get in the way of his revolution.”

    I didn’t see an acknowledgement that said parliament was NOT democratic, being a Soviet holdover, and not popularly elected, unlike Yeltsin himself. Perhaps you can point out WHERE Norton made that particular distinction in his comparison?

    Alternatively, perhaps you can point out in the following where Norton acknowledges that the State Duma established post the dissolution of the CPD WAS popularly elected? Or perhaps you can point out how the undemocratic Soviet “Congress of People’s Deputies” was a “parliament”, but the democratic “Duma” was not?

    Late in 1993 a new constitution was adopted which replaced the parliament with a Duma with limited powers, and which concentrated immense powers in the presidency, despite warnings that these powers would be wide open to abuse by a future tyrant.

    Alternatively, you can point out where Yeltsin and his successor have discarded the popular mandate? Contrasting the last 15 years with Lenin’s approach to democracy is simply laughable.

    Norton simply ignored basic, easily-established facts in constructing a feeble analogy.

    His thesis (as it came across to me) was that despite obvious and well-known differences, the two occasions on which Russia has escaped authoritarianism were both brief and both destroyed by their respective ostensible champions’ unwillingness to accept their mandate’s limitations in the context of robust democratic institutions.

    Except, of course, that the supposedly “obvious” and “well-known” differences were so obvious and well-known as to be contradicted by Norton.

    While Russia’s democracy is dismally far from perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the horrors inflicted on the Russian people by the bolsheviks. Norton’s analogy is ridiculous to the point of obscenity.

    An interesting point, well-made, that got your hackles up. Simmer down.

    An inaccurate analysis, badly argued and based upon false assumptions.

    So in advance, I humbly yield to the impending passive-aggressive tirade.

    What’s passive about it?

  23. Theodoric of York: Medieval Social Democrat says:

    “There is a strong case imho for democratic and libertarian socialists to unite in rejecting Leninism.”

    Whoa, slow down there buckaroo! Why, if they reject Leninism, next thing you know they’ll be rejecting leech-bleeding therapy, the art of witch-finding, and trial by combat! Do you have any idea what sort of pandora’s box you could be opening?

  24. Bridie says:

    If Russia is to develop a democracy, it will have to do so within the calculus of that history and culture (that is, if it does not simply demographically auto-destruct first).

    Yes, j_p_z, that is how democracy best develops – autonomously. Of course Russia was never give that luxury, and it is such a pity US governments have never accepted, nor acted upon, that simple but crucial fact.

    Still, there is no pleasing j_p_z. Either the most disadvantaged peoples and nations are selfishly breeding like rabbits (India, Bangladesh, Mexico, e.g., apropos his previous sickening rants on LP) or they are, as in Russia, boosting their mortality rate and collapsing life expectancy to the extent of threatening demographic auto-destruct! How uncouth of them! And, of course, per usual, these hopeless critters will expect the US of A to save their bacon. Sheesh, the things you have to put up with!

    John Greenfield, you might be in awe at people’s knowledge of Russian history, but that merely bespeaks of the poverty of your own education, sensibility, initiative, curiousity and imagination.

    I learnt all the important detail about Russian history, politics and literature, the foundation for a lifetime interest, at age 16-18, studying Modern History at a Catholic school in Brisbane, All Hallows, and in first year politics at University of Queensland.

    As to what is going on in Russia today, what the people are thinking, the intellectuals saying, about their past, present and future, well, we hardly, barely, simply don’t know. These extraordinary people are once again, largely, tragically, silent.

  25. Tom Noonan says:

    There’s a lot here and it will take me a while to study it; but try this for a broad brush picture:

    The collapse of the Soviet Empire was the greatest sucker play since Napoleon’s march on Moscow. Reagan was calling Russia the Evil Empire, for securing Caspian Basin oil; meanwhile messing undercover in Afghanistan. So Gorbachev said “OK, we’ll teach them a lesson.”

    Then Yeltsin said, “Let’s teach the Russian people a lesson about Capitalism that they won’t forget quickly at the same time.”

    The rest is history, and history that is still to play out. Putin has won back most of the assets that were under attack by Western Financial Proxies, and is showing signs of flexing diplomatic muscle hardline over Central Europe. USA is somewhat bogged down in the Middle East.

    Who knows how it will work out; but I wouldn’t get too happy-happy triumphant yet. The implied belief is that right down low on the food chain things are bad in the USA as well as in Russia.

  26. j_p_z says:

    Bridie — In all honesty, I think discussion is a whole lot more useful than denunciation. If you find my rants sickening, I’d be interested to hear the reasons and the arguments why. Who knows, you may even persuade me you’re right; it happens all the time. Personally I don’t find it to be best practice, intellectually, to go about in the world being ‘sickened’ and ‘horrified’ by every unfamiliar thought under the sun, and finding everything ‘obscene’ which doesn’t correspond to what one already thinks one knows. Keep in mind the question that the Firesign Theater asked: “What if Everything You Know is wrong?” I know I do.

    Bridie 27 April 7:14 pm: “How uncouth of them! And, of course, per usual, these hopeless critters will expect the US of A to save their bacon.”

    Well, here’s the Prime Minister of Bangladesh on that very question:

    Bangladesh in 2000 had 128 million people, and is projected to have 211 million in 2050. In a December 3, 2000 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Prime Minister Sheika Hasina was asked “How will Bangladesh feed, educate, employ and house those kinds of numbers?” Hasina answered: “We’ll send them to America.”

    It appears that reality has a habit of trumping sarcasm. Stop the presses.

    But the Prime Minister goes on…

    “Globalization will take that problem away, as you free up all factors of production, also labor…
    There’ll be free movement, country to country.”

    Just perfect for the irresponsible non-policies of Bangladesh, but kind of hard on the already-pressed labor pools of all those other countries; unless they heartily embrace the great privilege of becoming as poor as the Bangladeshis. But hey, if they object, then they’re sickening, right? And we can handily dismiss their concerns, in the name of the greater good, as arbitrarily defined by the noble Non-Sickening such as your august self.

    But there’s more! The Prime Minister continues to dispense non-sickening wisdom…

    “Globalization in its purest form should not have any boundaries, so small countries with big populations should be able to send population to countries with big boundaries and small populations.”

    Fantastic! Countries with big populations are now forever free of taking responsibility for their actions! They can send their surplus to countries with ‘small populations’ — like, say, the United States: which, with over 300 million people and 2 million-plus immigrants arriving every single year, is already the third most populous country on earth. Unless we use the non-sickening calculus of the noble Bangladeshis. And adopt their enviable lifestyle.

    From the same report (Migration News, University of California at Davis, 4 June 2001):

    “There have recently been far more reports of smuggling migrants from India, reflecting an emerging migrant smuggling infrastructure that involves Indian agents recruiting migrants, transporting them to Europe or North America, and then collecting fees from them and perhaps [perhaps! sic! — my emphasis] providing them with jobs in the destination areas. The migrant smugglers located in the Paharganj area in Delhi generally charge $7,500 to $9,000 to bring an individual to Europe. …A new report, “Status Report for Delhi 21,” projects a 22-million population for Dehli in 2021. About 40 percent of the population in Delhi lived below the poverty line of Rs 1250 ($27) a month in 2000…”

    Gotta love those standards! $28 a month would be ABOVE THE POVERTY LINE! Coming soon to a non-sickening porous border near you.

    Honestly, there’s room for all sides of debate to a problem like this, but debate there must be; and that means being willing to listen to the other side, and possibly even (I know it’s hard, but try) acknowledging that everyone who doesn’t agree with you may not be entirely evil. If you think the people in these countries are categorically incapable of taking any sort of responsibility for their destinies, then that puts you in the same boat with, guess who? Kipling.

    Hey, glad I’m on the other side of that one.

  27. Jason Soon says:

    Fyodor has Norton properly tagged. What an obscene piece.

    Once a communist, always a communist.

  28. Ilsa, Phantom Agent says:

    Once a communist, always a communist.

    I agree Jason. It was a rubbish apologia . For all that you remain a disingenuous critic right up there with Hendo.

  29. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Well, that neatly disposes of Alexander Litvinenko, Soon. Not to mention the politburo of the PRC, thanks to whose policies you are living high on the hog.

  30. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Well, that neatly disposes of Alexander Litvinenko, Soon. Not to mention the politburo of the PRC, thanks to whose policies you are living high on the hog.

  31. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Well, that neatly disposes of Alexander Litvinenko, Soon. Not to mention the politburo of the PRC, thanks to whose policies you are living high on the hog.

  32. Rob says:

    Hey, not so, Jason.

  33. Sir Felix Dzherzhinsky says:

    Ahh, a post in triplicate. There’s bureucracy for you. And while I’m at it, add Ron Brunton and Keith Windschuttle to your list.

  34. John Greenfield says:

    Jason Soon

    You are so right. But what the cheeky sods started doing in the 1980s is go silent on Marx, dialectical materialism, etc. and started “othering” and “discoursing” and “Orientalising.”

    Yet, as soon as the conversation turns to contemporary politics, watch them reflexively CONSTRUCT and IMPOSE a politco-economic reality of the currect world, straight out of their Communist toolbox.

    At present their preferred structural imposition is “neoliberalism.” 😉

  35. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Or market economy.

  36. Ilsa, Phantom Agent says:

    You are so right.

    Give me a break JG, I retract my earlier statement. Although I don’t agree with him, at least Norton presented an argument. You and Soon expect to get away with crap non-debates like “once a communist, always a communist”?

    What garbage. You people have all the intellectual rigour of Malkin.

  37. Bridie says:

    J-p-z, as long as we insist on artificial idealised rigid nation states that carve up, privatise and monopolise the world’s productive wealth in inherently inequitable ways, then it will always be the case that people from poor countries will want to migrate to richer ones. ‘Twas ever thus, and ‘twill ever be, no?

    And since roughly half of humankind consumes about six-sevenths of the world’s production, and the US is the most extravagant and greedy consumer by far, then how can the US, in all conscience, bellyache about the fact that so many fellow human beings, who have been immiserated to a great extent by the economic and foreign policies of the US, want to come and share in that disproportinate wealth?

    As many excellent American humanists, from Twain to Emerson to ML King to Michael Moore have explained, the citizens of a pluralist liberal democracy, which the US aspires to be, should have a great deal more concern than they do for the fate of human beings outside their own national borders – and not in a purely instrumental way either, but in a way that understands the global responsibility rich countries and their citizenry have for protecting the most vulnerable and impoverished peoples and encouraging, rather than blocking and undermining, their capability to become self-sufficient and equitable societies.

    If ya not part of the solution, j-p-z…

    And yes, in moments of cantankerous fury, you force otherwise simperingly insouciant sweeties like myself, to condemn with all the weak weapons at our disposal, ignorant and callous remarks about overbreeding or demographically self-destructing peoples in the world, as evidence of, well apart from all else, j-p-z, moral failure.

  38. Sir Alexander Kerenski says:

    Ilsa, you are so right.

  39. Ilsa, Phantom Agent says:

    What garbage. You people have all the intellectual rigour of Malkin.

    Jason Soon redux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt_YcQlYxyY&eurl=http://www.michellemalkin.com/

  40. Ilsa, Phantom Agent says:

    (Apologies for quoting self)

  41. Katz says:

    The neo-liberal apologists on this thread (yes I’m looking at you Fyodor and Soon) wish to claim that Yeltsin was qualitatively different from earlier “jacobins” (by which I assume that Paul means regimes that ruled without respect for any rule of law).

    Of course, such a claim by enolibeal apologists is as laughably predictable as it is absurd.

    The presidency of Yeltsin represented the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world, and it was done illegally.

    No one represented the public interest in the creation of Russia’s oligarchs.

    And there still exists no legal system in Russia competent to convict the guilty of this enormous fraud and to restore the public weal.

  42. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Yelstin a Jacobin? Katz, mate, you’ve lost it, pal.
    The Jacobins were ideologists, purely, honestly, murderously. The Bolsheviks were ideologists without a cause. Yeltsin wouldn’t have known ideology if it got him drunk and pinched the keys to his Zil.

  43. Bridie says:

    Bolsheviks were ideologists without a cause.

    Fuck a duck. The man has obviously never read Chekhov or Tolstoy. How embarrassing.

  44. Katz says:

    There you go again FDG.

    Read the original use of the word “jacobin” by Paul in this thread. Paul refers to a:

    Jacobin foundational agenda

    by which I take him to mean that Jacobins imposed their system and methods of governance without any reference to a pre-existing framework of laws or precedents.

    The crucial term here for this discussion in “foundational”.

    In exactly the same way Yeltsin’s foundational project was to redistribute and to privatise without any reference to a pre-existing framework of laws or precedents.

    So, pal, before you get a rush of blood and shoot from the hip. Think, read, reflect.

  45. j_p_z says:

    Bridie — thanks for your thoughtful reply, and thanks also for responding within the terms of an intellectual framework that makes discussion possible. As it happens I don’t agree with that particular framework, but of course that’s exactly how a reasonable debate comes about.

    I can certainly understand your dissatisfaction with the status quo, as it indisputably leaves much to be desired. But I don’t think you are considering these questions from the most helpful possible perspective, and I also think you’ve got a few too many un-questioned and un-criticized ideological assumptions within your point of view, which will not help you to achieve your (actually perfectly laudable) goals.

    Let me address a few of your points, and tell me what you think in turn.

    “since roughly half of humankind consumes about six-sevenths of the world’s production, and the US is the most extravagant and greedy consumer by far…”

    I think you’ve made a few uncritical assumptions here. For instance, if we apply a principle of economic and social justice based on a premise like, say, “One man, one loaf of bread,” then it makes a great deal of difference who produces the men and how many, and who’s baking the bread and how much. The ‘one-half of humankind’ that does your consuming was, only a few generations ago, a far larger proportion of the total. And they also do the lion’s share of the producing. What has changed since then is not simply their ‘greed’ per se, but also the number of humans in the other half of the equation. By a substantial amount, and without improving the terms of production. If we say that X will produce beans and Y will consume them, then if Y doubles its numbers every two generations, it will either have to start making more beans on its own account, or else it will have to reduce the amount of beans available to each individual. This is one of the ways that Y becomes steadily “poorer,” and it’s not honest to fail to recognize that.

    But that’s an abstraction; let’s look at the reality. You have this idea that the United States has somehow, out of the blue, wound up with “disproportionate” (important to examine what that may and may not mean) wealth. But the truth is the United States has massively contributed to the store of human wealth. It has led the world, and by an extraordinary margin, in technological, medical, and agricultural innovations that advance humanity’s well-being, which is ultimately the indicator of human “wealth”; that is, the US has created this wealth, where it did not exist previously. Electricity, computer and air-transport technology, the internet, the cure for polio and a thousand other maladies, satellite communication, sea lanes free of international piracy, the thwarting of murderous militaristic ideologies, and a zillion other things, all have been massively advanced through the efforts of the United States. What’s Mali done for anyone lately? They’ve certainly been around much longer.

    All of these benefits have spread across the globe, and have increased the store of human “wealth”. If you want to discuss with seriousness the “equity” of wealth, then you also have to seriously look at what wealth IS in itself, and where it comes from. It’s not a great big heap of gold, that some malicious dwarf stole from a dragon’s hoard. Wealth is in the context of how humans live. You cannot claim in fairness that people in Malawi are “poor” because they have no access to rural electricity (they NEVER did, in thousands and thousands of years of history!), and at the same time refuse to understand what electricity is, where it came from, how it’s produced, what are the alternatives, etc etc.

    What are the indices of national “wealth”? (viz., another way of saying, how do we know if someone is “poor”?) Some might be, access to energy, clean water, education, public health and sanitation, ready communication, availability of trade goods… these would be a few of your categories. Who has done more to advance all these things, the US or Bangladesh? And if Bangladesh has not done much to distinguish itself in these matters, A) how is that the fault of the United States, and B) why the hell HASN’T it?! It’s certainly not for a want of talent or manpower.

    All these issues have a vital bearing on your potential formulations of

    “a way that understands the global responsibility rich countries and their citizenry have for protecting the most vulnerable and impoverished peoples and encouraging, rather than blocking and undermining, their capability to become self-sufficient and equitable societies.”

    How did the peoples become vulnerable and impoverished? What is this “blocking and undermining”? The United States has only existed as a civilization for about 250 years; I humby submit that most countries in the world have a far longer history, and so had a massive head start. Yos assume your terms have constant definitions, but I don’t believe that’s so. Ultimately what I’m saying is that human beings have agency, no matter who or where they are, and that this needs to be understood in the equations. Without understanding this, humanity won’t advance in ways you think are equitable; it will always be one side creating and the other side passively consuming.

    Which goes to this last bit of business,

    “ignorant and callous remarks about overbreeding…”

    If it sounds callous, it may be because it’s a necessary and well-earned wakeup call. But there’s certainly nothing ignorant about it. I’d be willing to bet that I’ve interviewed a good many more poor rural Mexicans than you have, and if I think they have more children than they can afford, I didn’t just make that opinion up. People who live in an objectively ‘wealthy’ country the size of most of Western Europe, but who still live in “grinding poverty” in this day and age, and who thoughtlessly (and even eagerly) shed a million of their countrymen *a year* as illegal migrants, are doing something very, very, very, very wrong. They are not immune to criticism, no one is; that would be patronizing. And if their lives are ever going to be improved, then they should be actively seeking out criticism, not fleeing from it.

    I’m not saying I’m always right, but this stuff needs to be talked about, and these people should not be patronized. If I can take a bit of a sarcastic beatup, then I believe so can they. I’m not made of glass, and they aren’t either. Like Nick Lowe used to say, “Baby, you have to be cruel to be kind…”

  46. Rob says:

    j_p_z, you said —

    “[Wealth is] not a great big heap of gold, that some malicious dwarf stole from a dragon’s hoard.”

    One of the major problems with the left is that it has never got over thinking it is in fact just that. It’s just there; no one makes it, no one works for it; some nasty person over there went and damn well stole it.

    Great comment, btw.

  47. Fiasco da Gama says:

    And if you think the cause of Tolstoy or any of the nineteenth century reformers/revolutionists had anything to do with what the Bolsheviks organised while they Newly Economically Planned, Bridie, you’re giving far too much credit to the commissars. Tolstoy’s soppy Christianity and Chekhov’s romanticism went out flying somewhere before the Civil War, and the CPSU kept the worst bits of the Czar’s police regime, throwing out the best of the economics. The secret-state apparatus of Felix Dherzhinsky (hi there, how’s it going) was clearly heir to the Okhrana, which every progressive nineteenth-century Russian despised.
    Katz, you and Humpty Dumpty can swing around on your words and definitions, using them to mean what you want them to mean, as you choose. I prefer to refer to the Jacobins who actually existed, exploited their majority, guillotined, were overthrown, and eventually passed away.

    Yeltsin’s foundational project was to redistribute and to privatise without any reference to a pre-existing framework of laws or precedents.

    Actually, no. The share scams and asset-giveaways that occurred under Yeltsin were illegal then, under the laws that existed, then, and outrageously wrong, then—it’s just that everyone got away with it.

  48. Katz says:

    FDG, the point is that Yeltsin’s executive power utterly trumped whatever judicial power may have existed to punish the crimes of the executive. To assert otherwise is to reveal an addiction to the fantastic.

    If you don’t like Paul’s use of the term “jacobin foundational project” complain to him.

    Or maybe you could ask LP to allow you to have a thread about your own hobby horse.

  49. Paul Norton says:

    Once a communist, always a communist.

    A comment which, if it were accepted as valid, would have some interesting implications given the subject of this thread. Amongst other things it would mean that Jason Soon is implying that “Yeltsin is precisely the same as Lenin”.

    Katz has made a number of points in response to Fyodor which I don’t need to add much to, besides pointing out that the adoption of a constitution with wide-ranging presidential powers, a limited role for the State Duma and a prime minister subjected to presidential hiring and firing, rather than a strong elected legislature from which the prime minister are drawn and to which they are accountable, represented a fundamental break with a central principle of both the 1917 democratic revolution and of the Gorbachev-era reforms, namely the replacement of executive autocracy with rule by popularly elected democratic assemblies. Wikipedia characterises Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution thus:

    “Russia needs order,” Yeltsin told the Russian people in a television broadcast in November in introducing his new draft of the constitution, which was to be put to a referendum on December 12. The new basic law would concentrate sweeping powers in the hands of the president. The bicameral legislature, to sit for only two years, was restricted in crucial areas. The president could choose the prime minister even if the parliament objected and could appoint the military leadership without parliamentary approval. He would head and appoint the members of a new, more powerful security council. If a vote of no confidence in the government was passed, the president would be enabled to keep it in office for three months and could dissolve the parliament if it repeated the vote. The president could veto any bill passed by a simple majority in the lower house, after which a two-thirds majority would be required for the legislation to be passed. The president could not be impeached for contravening the constitution… At the time, most political observers regarded the draft constitution as shaped by and for Yeltsin and perhaps unlikely to survive him.

    Further information is provided here.

    It is true, as Fyodor states, that the Yeltsin constitution of 1993 was endorsed in a popular referendum. This does not invalidate the criticisms which can be made of it.

  50. Fiasco da Gama says:

    Or maybe you could ask LP to allow you to have a thread about your own hobby horse.

    Well you’ve definitely got my sense of humour, Katz.
    I’ll take armchair admiralship for $100, how about you? International common law?

  51. bridie says:

    j_p_z_ I am sure most people who blog on LP would agree with your perspective, and Rob and John Greenfield and FDG, and other regular commentators too, so no point in me arguing with you.

    However, if I may, I would be interested in asking your opinion of the situation in Mexico, drawing on the firsthand experience you mentioned you have had there.

    Why do you think it has been so difficult to control population growth there; what do you think about the recent legalisation of abortion in Mexico City; and what political and social ramifications do you think it will have?

  52. melaleuca says:

    Bridie says:

    “J-p-z, as long as we insist on artificial idealised rigid nation states that carve up, privatise and monopolise the world’s productive wealth in inherently inequitable ways, then it will always be the case that people from poor countries will want to migrate to richer ones.”

    If you keep thinking this way, Bridie, you’ll have a massive brain fart and end up like Rob and John Greenfield; that is, you too will become a bitter and twisted ex-Red.

  53. Karen says:

    But, Meleleuca:

    Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms;

    And with thee will I break in pieces the horse and his rider; and with thee will I break in pieces the chariot and his rider;

    With thee also will I break in pieces man and woman; and with thee will I break in pieces old and young; and with thee will I break in pieces the young man and the maid;

    I will also break in pieces with thee the shepherd and his flock; and with thee will I break in pieces the husbandman and his yoke of oxen; and with thee will I break in pieces captains and rulers.

    Jeremiah 51

  54. The Devil Drink says:

    Two can play at that game, Karen. At least.

    The city of chaos is broken down,
    every house is shut up so that none can enter.
    There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;
    all joy has reached its eventide;
    the gladness of the earth is banished.

    Isiah 24:10-11

  55. j_p_z says:

    Bridie — you know, I’m always grateful when a person like yourself makes me re-consider my outlook, and question my assumptions. So I think you should speak your mind as you see fit, and not worry about who agrees; thinking about differing viewpoints is how we get a better grip on things. My working assumption is that I’m wrong about things a lot of the time, so it helps to hear what others think and why.

    I’ll try and answer your question as best I can, but I should point out that my work was in talking to immigrant workers in California and Texas, who mostly came from rural Mexico, but I didn’t live in Mexico myself. We were primarily interested in collecting health-related data; but we asked a lot of work- and family-related questions to indirectly get the info we needed, and it painted an interesting picture, though that wasn’t our main purpose.

    From what I understand, the abortion program there is only in the D.F., and only available to residents (i.e. you can’t travel from outside to have one) so its impact is probably more in the way of a pilot program. I don’t know where it will lead, but I think that in their society, abortion is not directly relevant as a method for population control, I think the issue has far more to do with the overall “outlook” on life that people have. A friend of mine recently put it best, in a pithy little paradox: “The only realistic way to solve the problems of Mexico, is to make Mexico rich.”

    That sounds silly at first, but I think it’s true. The problem there, strictly speaking, is not population in absolute numbers, but population in relation to what you can support or sustain, and prosper. Mexico is a large country, and it has all the ingredients for a prosperous society, so it *should* be prosperous (it’s slowly getting there, but it’s taking a long time). But it has a lot of problems with internal attitude and outlook, as well as a ruling class that is crooked and incompetent. And it has a lot of problems with racism, and its economy is based in large measure on wrong-headed assumptions. It shouldn’t have millions and millions of people constantly wandering into other countries looking for work; it should be able to give them work at home.

    Actually to be more precise, (and to cop a line from Rousseau) we shouldn’t make Mexico rich (we can’t do that), we have to force them to make themselves rich. If you see what I mean.

    One of the things that always strikes me as strange about Latin American society (and it’s so obvious that one tends not to notice it, but I do) is how many euphemisms and slang expressions they have in Spanish that basically mean “vast numbers of unbelievably desperate, hopeless poor people.” They seem to take poverty almost for granted, as a simple fact of life, but of course they shouldn’t. Think of the words you use to denote the Little Guy, in English: the punters, the battlers, etc. It doesn’t sound so hopeless and resigned. (These days, when we say “the masses,” we’re either joking, or else we’re talking about somebody else’s country.) That’s a much healthier way of looking at things, and it’s an indicator of a certain kind of difference.

    I think that attitude is slowly changing, too, but there’s still a long way to go. There are certain policies we could adopt that I think would prod them in the right direction, but this isn’t the place to discuss them. But in the end, the goal is for people to live prosperous, satisfying lives, not to de-limit their numbers arbitrarily. The holistic approach (one that understands the ways those things are, and are not, related) is probably the one with the best chance of success.

  56. Paul Norton says:

    Just a further snippet in response to Fyodor. Yes, the State Duma was and is entirely popularly elected, unlike the former Congress of People’s Deputies which was a Gorbachev-era transitional arrangement (not simply a Soviet holdover) involving a mixture of popular election and functional representation. The problem is that the State Duma, unlike its predecessor, is in a position of weakness vis-a-vis the presidency, contrary to Gorbachev’s intention (and that of the democratic revolutionaries in 1917) that elected assemblies should be in a position of strength vis-a-vis executive government.

  57. Bridie says:

    j_p_z, these days the political economy of growth model, formerly thought by most everyone to be the key to reducing both poverty and population in the context of “underdevelopmentâ€?, is probably a chimera. It may be too late for many of these countries especially with the whole raft of new dilemmas posed by climate change. It doesn’t mean solutions can’t be sought – and not just pragmatic ones either. Pragmatic politics usually translate as ineffectual, gutless politics. Just take the ALP or you own rather worse version, the DP, as case studies in this.

    Fertility control that excludes the use of abortion for large numbers of women over a lifetime has not been achieved in any country in the world – for complex reasons. Women everywhere continue to use it even where other forms of contraception are freely available and cultural norms technically give women the personal freedom to exercise reproductive control. The lack of freely available abortion does translate into very bad outcomes for women though, for all the well-known reasons.
    If an institution as powerful as the Catholic Church opposes abortion and contraception then it is setting in train a set of social inevitabilities that create the sort of patriarchal societies that are by definition inefficient,inequitable and oppressive.

    The essential problem with your overall argument is that it is timeless, non-materialist and ahistoric. The advantages that resource rich nations with large productive land masses have over those without these is just one reason that some countries, e.g. the US, Australia, Russia, China are far ahead of others economically and have been able to advance relatively quickly, or recover, in the modern post-industrial era.

    You mention Bangladesh, Mali and Mexico as examples of nations that are not pulling their economic and social weight and you imply that it is the fault of these nations for not doing so, which simply ends up in a form of racialism which is objectively false, self-defeating and morally repugnant. It is impossible to conceive what any of these countries, which in their current form are essentially artifical European constructs, might have been able to achieve economically if their territories had not been dismembered and sliced off from larger geographic entities that would have been far more viable. And all in the name of nationalist ideology – another European construct that has disproportionately benefited the West and designed so.

    I think it not accidental that your country and mine which were both founded on forms of genocide and extermination of the native population, land theft (e.g. Mexico) and the use of slave or indentured labour, has meant that we both have ongoing legacies of racial “difficulties” and all that entails for a civil society. One offshoot of this is that a significant proportion of the population of both countries tend to hold the views you describe about other races and peoples, who do not have anywhere near the standard of living we have because of a combination of structural factors.

    And I haven’t even mentioned unequal exchange, debt, expropriation, protectionism, the use of Third World countries as quarries, dumping grounds for toxic wastes, the centuries long distortion of local economies by imperialist economic policies (just study the history of India in its relationship with Britain and so many of the Latin American and African countries and their relationship with their respective imperial, colonial overlords).

    But we are way off topic and I intuit the axe is about to fall. And if my mind was in danger of imploding, if that is what your crass male humour term means Melaleuca, ‘twould’ve happened a long time ago.

  58. Paul Norton says:

    Jonathan Steele provides this knowledgeable analysis in the UK Guardian which gels with the points I was trying to make in the original post. Amongst other things, Steele states that:

    Yeltsin’s name is indelibly linked with Russia’s faltering experience in trying to create democracy in a country which had known centuries of authoritarianism. He was given strong support by western governments who feared a return to communist rule but confused personality with process. They frequently overlooked Yeltsin’s mistakes and encouraged him to bring in a constitution that concentrated massive power in the presidency rather than achieving a reliable system of checks and balances.

    In September 1993 Yeltsin’s patience ran out. He ordered the dissolution of parliament and sacked his vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, even though he had no constitutional right to do either. Scores of MPs decided to stay in the building and resist eviction. There were strange ironies in that Yeltsin was now the man putting pressure on the same building and the same MPs that he had been defending only two years earlier during the 1991 coup.

    Instead of having a referendum on five years of Yeltsin’s rule, his advisers managed to turn the [1996] election into a referendum on the abuses and atrocities of the communist past. When Yeltsin had been elected president in 1991, the two national TV channels were divided. One supported him. One opposed him. The fact that five years later, voters were subjected to a less open democratic process was a sad reflection on Yeltsin’s failure to build on the foundations that Gorbachev had left for him.

    The manner of his departure from power fully confirmed the description of Yeltsin which had been given some years earlier by Pavel Voshchanov, his first press secretary. Voshchanov called him “a battering-ram”. In the days when destruction was on the agenda he performed a powerful role, undermining the Communist party and defeating the August 1991 coup. In government, he was less impressive. He did not have the political skills to reconcile opposing views or search for consensus. He was not a dictator, but he was authoritarian. He accepted the broad rules of democracy, provided that he could manipulate them sufficiently to remain on top. He tolerated widespread corruption, and though he frequently sacked ministers, it was never because of their dishonesty or because of their ties to the new economic oligarchs.

  59. Paul Norton says:

    BTW, Jason’s “onca a communist…” comment on this thread really is channelling Graham Bird at 11pm on 10 January.

  60. j_p_z says:

    Bridie: “The essential problem with your overall argument is that it is timeless, non-materialist and ahistoric. The advantages that resource rich nations with large productive land masses have over those without these…”

    Actually, I think you’re the one who’s flipping the ‘historic/ahistoric’ switch on and off at your convenience, to suit whatever ideological mold you wish to fill at a given moment. ‘Historical’ examples can be selected, tailored, or selectively ignored, to flatter just about anyone’s taste. The Germans live pretty darn well in their land mass, and have done so for quite some time. Who did they steal Germany from, the… Germans? You claim that the US ‘stole’ land from Mexico, but who, I wonder, did the Mexicans steal it from? I reckon the Paiute, the Hopi, the Navajo and the Comanche would be sort of astonished to learn that all along, they were all ‘really’ Mexicans. I always marvel at how in your ideology, Europeans, alone among peoples, seem to be space aliens who exist outside of the rest of human history, and it is their misdeeds alone which are unparalleled. An example par excellence of ‘stealing’ a resource-rich land mass would have to be the theft of Anatolia by the Turks; and in return, humanity was treated to five or six centuries of war, aggression, jihad, pillage, oppression, looting, and slavery, throughout Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. I’m still waiting for some clever archaeologist to show us the early Ottoman websites and electric can-openers, which at least woulda made the whole escapade worthwhile.

    “It is impossible to conceive what any of these countries, which in their current form are essentially artifical European constructs, might have been able to achieve economically if their territories had not been dismembered and sliced off from larger geographic entities that would have been far more viable.”

    You’re quite right there, it is impossible to guess. But I don’t know why you’d assume that they were busy doing one thing rather than another, before they were so rudely interrupted. (And interrupted by whom, by the way? The raiding and destruction of African and South Asian societies was gleefully undertaken by Arabs and Muslims long before Europeans could even find the Congo on a map.) Left to their own devices, they could just as easily have spent their time on pointless border wars and tribal bloodletting, which is what humanity at large seems to have a habit for, much or even most of the time. Ask a Carib and an Arawak what they were busy doing before Columbus bumped into them — killing and enslaving each other, or working out the theory of special relativity. Ask a 10th-century Ulsterman and you’ll probably get a similar answer.

    None of my sarcasm proves a damn thing, naturally, in a positive sense, except to underscore that you aren’t proving much with this line, either. You’re wearing a set of ideological goggles, and that’s fine, something brilliant may in fact come from it; but you should at least recognize that that’s happening, and you’re being selective about things.

    Some of the other things you’re saying are I believe quite interesting, and I’m going to have to think further about them; thanks for that. (Some are simply too far out of my intellectual ball-park for me to have any useful opinions of them.)

    On a different note, since you seem not to have a very sanguine view of growth models for improving impoverished societies, what do you think is a more viable strategy?

  61. melaleuca says:

    Bridie says:

    “Pragmatic politics usually translate as ineffectual, gutless politics.”

    On the other hand, revolutionary left-wing politics almost always translates into mass death and destruction: Kim’s North Korea, Mao’s China, Lenin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea and on and on we go. The only exception I know of is Cuba, yet even that country is an oppressive police state where ordinary people are ocassionally imprisoned, bashed or killed if they offend the Marxist ruling elite.

    Would it be overly presumptuous of me to assume that a factory hand in Sweden, an oil rigger in Norway and a seamstress in Finland are far better off in the boringly pragmatic heartland of Social Democracy than any “liberated” proletariat?

    As a result of reactionary thinking such as yours, the Marxist movement throughout the West is now an irrelevant rump that could comfortably fit into a shoe box.

    ps. Women also use the jocular term “brain fart”. Please avoid sexism as I find it offensive.

  62. Adrien says:

    Jason I don’t think the tag “once a communist always a communist” is fair. I knew Paul Norton at Uni and he’s very committed to democracy.
    >
    In addition to his retort re. Yeltsin we could add a name like Irving Kristol. Given that politicians like Yeltsin or Gorbachev were born precisely in the era in which the iron hand of Joe Steel closed around Russia I don’t think they can be blamed for being communist. To do so would imply that they had options. Under the Soviet system the Comm Party was the only way to become involved in politics (or anything else).
    >
    As for Russia and democracy it seems to me there are cultural impediments to the development of democratic institutions. The cultural attributes of, say, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture that are compatible with democratic government took centuries to develop and are hard to make sense of in non-democratic cultures. Ideas like the concept of loyal opposition are antithetical to ‘common sense’ in many parts of the world. This is evident in places where there is democracy on paper but not in practice. For example: Singapore.

  63. Adrien says:

    I think it not accidental that your country and mine which were both founded on forms of genocide and extermination of the native population, land theft (e.g. Mexico) and the use of slave or indentured labour, has meant that we both have ongoing legacies of racial “difficultiesâ€? and all that entails for a civil society.

    Mmmmph.

    Is there a single country in the world that wasn’t founded on genocide at some point? It doesn’t make it right (and I’m definitely NOT doing a ‘those children weren’t stolen’ thing) but attributing this sort of unpleasantness solely to Western Europeans is naive. And incorrect.

  64. melaleuca says:

    On the issue of third world poverty, schemes like micro-credit, especially when they involve women, are very effective at alleviating poverty.

    On the other hand, revolutionary Left schemes like forced collectivisation of farmers and the elimination of free enterprise and private poroperty rights have killed and emaciated countless millions.

    It is also worth pointing out that “we” in the West are not the sole cause of third world poverty. Many countries that have been colonised have become wealthy- South Korea, chile, Taiwan and Singapore for example. This shows that it can be done.

    In regards to the African slave trade, this existed both before and after European colonisation. Africans can thank the British for destroying the mostly Arab Muslim slave trade that had immiserated so many black Africans for centuries.

    Resource rich countries like Nigeria and DR Congo are impoverished mostly due to internal factors like tribalism, poor governance and corruption.

    The West has contributed to third world poverty through the use of trade barriers and because of the shocking behaviour of the IMF (read Joseph Stiglitz for details).

    In summary, the reality of third world poverty is far more complex than Bridie’s cartoonish Marxist meanderings would suggest.

  65. anthony says:

    Many countries that have been colonised have become wealthy- South Korea, chile, Taiwan and Singapore

    Let’s a have a warm round of applause for Japanese imperialism, the Mapuche millionaires, and small city states.

  66. Adrien says:

    Nigeria and DR Congo are impoverished mostly due to internal factors like tribalism, poor governance and corruption.

    But let’s not forget that multinationals can share some of the blame:

    The case of Shell in Nigeria is the best known. In Africa’s biggest oil producing country, whose people are still among the poorest in the continent, the manna extracted by the western oil giants has for decades helped tyrannical elites and their corrupt clients to get rich and hold on to power. Benefiting from a system in which Shell held the lion’s share, some amassed considerable fortunes (1). In the early 1990s the oil-rich Niger delta became the scene of violent confrontations between the local ethnic minorities, who accused Shell of damaging their environment and their culture, and the Nigerian security forces who had orders to protect the oil installations.

    And in Congo.

    Brice Makouso of Justice & Peace, an organisation from Congo Brazzaville talked about the mystery which they have been investigating for several years ” how come his country is the third largest producer of oil in the Gulf of Guinea region, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world whilst pumping hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil”. He described how the Congolese government took advances from Total to fund arms purchases and now finds itself in debt to Total and to various international financial institutions. Despite being in dialogue with Total and with the French government, it seems that ‘confidentiality clauses’ in the contract between Total and the Congolese government block access to any hard information about revenues, production, payments, etc

    Naughty, naughty.

  67. Mark says:

    Jason I don’t think the tag “once a communist always a communistâ€? is fair

    It’s certainly not fair, and it doesn’t vaguely resemble an argument either.

  68. Boris says:

    As someone who took part in the memorial demonstrations of 1991 that propelled Yeltsin into power, I want to express my opinion here.

    I certainly don’t agree with the main message of this post. The analogy with Lenin is so grossly unfair, it hardly worth commenting on, and the author knows this. Are there any similarities between Yeltsin and Levin? Of course there are, like there are probably similarities between any two persons who ever lived. However in their essential qualities these leaders were radically different, one being a violent dictator who physically crushed all and every dissent, while the other was the first democratically elected leader in Russian history, who championed freedom of speech and has never jailed a single journalist.

    As a widely respected Russian economist and commentator Evgeny Yasin said recently, history will remember Yeltsin as a leader who accomplished three tasks:

    1) Presided over the largely peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire. He counts war in Chechnya as Yeltsin’t biggest mistake (I would say crime). However even this horrible war pales in comparison with what would have happenned if disentgration followed Yugoslavia style, with Russia trying to keep it together by force. Note that Gorbachev wanted to preserve the failing empire (he would, wouldn’t he) and still considers Yeltsin responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. What a great empire that can be dissolved by a gang of three persons?

    2) Oversaw transition to market economy. Many words have been said how distorted that process was, and I am not here to defend it or to argue with those who think it was too radical or too fast or too slow. I will simply say that those who think that it could have been an orderly and painless process do not know the true state of the economy at the time when Yeltsin took power. Food supplies were so low the threat of hunger loomed big. It required radical measures and a bold leader. Russia was fortunate to have Yeltsin at the time. Note that Gorbachev was very afraid of any serious market reform and rejected even very modest proposals in that direction.

    3) Presided over the transformation from the totalitarian state into a democracy. As Yasin pointed out , in this department his achievements were not conclusive, and the failure to establish democratic institutions is haunting us now at the time when Putin is shamelessly rolling back democratic reforms. Of course, it is true that this is partly the result of Yeltsin’s failure to build strong institutions. But does anyone thinks it is really possible to build such institutions from scratch overnight? BTW it is only in this deparment that Yeltsin followed in the footsteps of Gorbachev. However even here suggestions that Yeltsin somehow was authoritarian in contrast to deomcratic Gorbachev are comepletely off the mark. Gorbachev was a theoretical democrat. He never subjected himself to a popular vote, preferring to be elected by the Supreme Soviet.

    So does all this mean that Paul Norton does not have a point? No it doesn’t. Yes, Yeltsin had some totalitarian tendencies. Most notably in 1993 when the parliament had been elected when Russia was a state within the Soviet Union, voted to impeach the democratically elected president, and some members of Parliament attempted to organise an armed rebellion. Yeltsin responded with force. It is really unfortunately that he was unable to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis. He tried, going for a referendum and getting a popular mandate. But he was unable to resolve it peacefully. This was tragic. But I don’t think we can call a person who regularly submits himself to a popular vote an authoritarian.

    Now 1996. I do not quite know what was so undemocratic in that process, except for some fairly strong media manipulation. Yes, the media ran a scare campaign telling the voters that Zyuganov will take them back to the years of Gulag. What’s wrong with that? I do know that cronies Yelstin’s popularity was very low and cronies (eg the head of presidential guard Korzhakov) were begging him to abandon the electon. Yeltsin resisted and eventually sacked Korzhakov and his allies. Grigori Yavlinsky, a seasoned opponent of Yeltsin (and his market policies) told an interesting story. Before 1996 elections Yeltsin called Yavlinsky to his office in attempt to pursuade him to withdraw his candidacy in exchange for a high post in the government. It was a reasonable offer for Yavlinsky stood no chances in the election, but Yavlinsky refused, saying politely that is voters will not understand this. They argued for an hour and then Yavlinsky said good bye and began leaving. When he reached the door, Yeltsin called him back. You are not withdrawing, he asked again. Yavlinsky said ‘No”. “Right”, said Yeltsin. “I would not withdraw either”.

    Was Yeltsin a democratic leader by the standards of western democracy? No. But he was more democratic than any other leader in the history of Russia and far more democratic than Russia could have dreamed for, so soon after liberating from totalitarian oppression. Get real!

    For these reasons I consider a comparison with Lenin to be fundamentally inappropriate and insulting.

    No matter what the future holds, history will remember Yeltsin as a collossal figure who alongside Gorbachev dismantled what remained of the communist system, presided over peaceful dissolution of the empire, implemented radical market reforms and gave Russian people freedom and (incomplete) democracy, if only for a short while.

  69. Bridie says:

    j_p_z, you’ll get no argument from me that the history of all hitherto existing society is as you describe. Slavery, which was only abolished relatively recently in the US, for example, dates back to the earliest human societies we know.

    The Germans (since you mentioned them) like the rest of the European peoples, trace their lineage back to the constantly moving tribes and federations of tribes, large and small, in search of better land. The Germans have a word for this historical process that led to the formation only relatively recently of large stable unified nation states: the “Volkerwanderungâ€?, the “Wandering of Peopleâ€?.

    In the 30 years war (1618-48), between a third and half of the German population died from pillage, famine and disease and Church endorsed murder of people said to be witches. During this time, the manly exploits of Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Croat, Flemish and French soldiers profoundly changed the racial composition of the German people. The trauma, destitution and humiliation suffered then sowed the seeds of great philosophies and political movements which first voiced some of the secular ideologies that still have enormous influence and resonance today.

    As to what world economic strategy I think viable? In a nutshell, one based on ecological rationality, democratic control and planning, social equality, the dominance of use value over exchange value, an interdependent, co-operative global division of labour and production based on the most best use of resources and people.

    What’s the alternative? A 1000-Year Reich of neo-liberalism?

  70. Bismarck says:

    Just curious, Bridie. What mechanism would you propose to ensure the dominance of use value over exchange value consonant with human liberty?

  71. Ilya says:

    What Boris said

  72. THR says:

    Boris’ comment above is a wildly charitable piece of revisionism. Yeltsin was an autocratic thug who is the most hated Russian leader after Stalin. He didn’t merely ‘transition’ Russia to a market economy, rather, he orchestrated mass theft for his oligarch mates. Later, when Parliament tried to take him to task, he dissolved it and ordered the troops to fire, killing hundreds. It is an insult to Lenin that an incompetent crook such as Yeltsin could be mentioned in the same breath.

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