Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Forgotten Man: In Which I Start With Someone Else's Words and Take Them Where They May or May Not Have Been Meant to Go

Alexander Kerensky is the forgotten man of the 20th century.

When Americans think about the Russian Revolution of 1917 …

Oh, who am I kidding. Americans don’t think about the Russian Revolution of 1917. To do so would be to acknowledge that the world continues to exist in physical form beyond the county line and has done so for longer than they’ve been alive, neither of which most Americans are willing to admit these days. It would challenge their unshakable conviction that the world has always been just like it is here and now, a conviction that somehow manages to withstand an equally passionately held conviction that things were better back in some indefinable past before the [insert derogatory collective noun here] showed up and mucked things up for decent folks.

Yeah, I’m feeling a little cynical about my fellow citizens these days. Sue me. I think I’ve earned the right.

So Americans really don’t think about the Russian Revolution of 1917 all that much. But on those rare occasions when they are forced to do so, such as (hypothetically speaking) when a professor teaching Western Civ II tells them about it, they are almost always shocked to learn that Vladimir Lenin and the Communists did not take over the government of Russia directly from the Czar. The Czar had been overthrown eight months earlier, in fact, and there were therefore two Russian Revolutions of 1917 to consider – the February Revolution, which happened in March, and the October Revolution, which happened in November.

Calendars. How do they freaking work?

For those eight months in 1917 – a brief interregnum between autocracy and totalitarianism – Alexander Kerensky gave to Russia a liberal democratic government, one that was astonishingly forward thinking for its day. He enacted a sweeping program of reforms, abolishing the old aristocracy at a stroke and instituting civil rights legislation such as freedom of religion, speech and assembly. His government greatly expanded the rights of women, including giving them the right to vote at a time when American women were still on the outside of politics looking in. For a short while, it looked as if Russia was going to join the European family of liberal democratic nations.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

Kerensky’s Provisional Government – no, it never got a real name, just a temporary one – faced a number of crises that it could not solve during the time it was in power. The Russian military hated it, in part because Kerensky refused to withdraw Russia from World War I. The Provisional Government also never really managed to consolidate power into its own hands, instead sharing it with various workers’ councils known as “soviets” (which is where the next government would get its name – a real name of its own). And it had to deal with Vladimir Lenin, whose Bolshevik movement eventually overthrew the Provisional Government and instituted a new autocracy, one that would rule Russia for nearly three quarters of a century.

Among their many disturbing qualities, the Bolsheviks were enemies of democracy. For all that they talked about ruling in the name of the People (with a capital P that was usually audible in their diction), they did not really care to be ruled by the people. The common citizens were there to be ruled, to be led by their betters, to be forcibly herded into the proper moral, social, political, economic and cultural channels by those who knew better than they.

Bolshevik rule was a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The interplay between the doomed Kerensky (who lived to a ripe old age in exile in the United States, by the way) and the Bolshevik Lenin has been on my mind a lot lately, here in The Land Of The Free (tm), in large part because I can see some of that happening now.

In the comments section of my post on the return of the Articles of Confederation the other day, Eric noted in regard to the Teabagger efforts to remake the Constitution to their liking that:

The gist of their [the Teabaggers’] complaint is that the process is broken because it didn't produce what they wanted, but the truth is that the most likely scenarios in which they get what they want are, in fact, anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian ones.

They are, aren’t they?

And I have no doubt that they will embark on just such strategies to get their way, too. I’ve lived that dream here in Wisconsin for the past few months, and it’s wearing on a body.

That’s the part about the Teabaggers that worries me the most, actually. It’s not their harebrained view of history – trust a professional historian, harebrained ideas of history are not unusual in this country. It’s not their unworkable economic ideas, which will never get implemented because there is too much greed arrayed against such impediments to wealth-gathering, and the power of greed is not to be challenged in the United States as it is currently constituted. It’s not even their clear inability to recognize reality as it exists outside of their ideological cocoon, a trait which they share with a whole lot of people these days. No, it is simply this: for all that they claim to be a libertarian movement aimed at smaller government and more “freedom,” howsoever they define that term, in point of actual fact if you look at what they are doing it is abundantly clear that they are an authoritarian movement bent on forcibly herding the rest of us into what they consider the proper moral, social, political, economic and cultural channels.

They are not interested in democracy. They are not interested in the will of the majority. They know what is best and the consider themselves to have a mandate from all that is True, Good and Holy to inflict it on everyone else whether they want it or not.

They are the American Bolsheviks.  The program changes, but the attitude remains the same.

Here in Wisconsin, for example, the extreme right wing of the Republican Party – the Teabagger tail that has wagged that dog all year – has made it patently clear that they have no actual interest in things like the democratic process, the rule of law, or constitutional safeguards (regardless of whether you talk about state or national constitutions). Their attitude is that they are in charge, they know better than the rest of us do, and we are there to be ruled.

This is why you see such pushback from the Teabaggers against elections, for example.

As with all of the other ALEC-inspired right-wing state governments these days, Wisconsin Teabaggers are doing their best to disenfranchise the voters who might conceivably want a say in their own state, on the grounds that such a say would likely contradict the will of their Teabagger betters.

Thus you see one of the most restrictive Voter ID bills in the US being rammed through the legislature in the hopes that it will be signed before the summer’s recall elections. They will tell you this is an effort to combat voter fraud, but if you do the research you will find that there actually is very little voter fraud in America. Oddly enough, most of the fraud in recent elections seems to have come from the right wing officials running the elections rather than any left-wing voters trying to participate in them. It’s not about fraud. It’s about limiting the voice of the American people in the running of their own government, so that their betters can herd them along where they want them to go.

Thus you also see a hurried attempt at redistricting also being rammed through the Wisconsin legislature these days in the hopes that it will nullify the recalls as well by confusing what voters the Teabaggers do finally allow to vote.

It’s also why you see such complaints from the Teabaggers regarding the ongoing recount in the State Supreme Court election which was held on April 5. It’s too expensive, they say. It’s political harassment, they say. It’s frivolous, they say. Non-Teabaggers should just accept that the final margin of victory – less than 7500 votes out of 1.5 million votes cast – was provided entirely by votes which were magically discovered 24 hours after the polls closed, on the personal computer of the County Clerk of the most heavily Republican county in Wisconsin, a clerk with a long history of suspicious vote counting and a reprimand in her file from her own County Board for excessive partisanship, and a computer with no connections to the state-run system, running privately-written software instead of the state-approved system. Because they know better than we do.

It’s why the Teabaggers who control the Wisconsin legislature refused to allow the minority party even to vote on key issues. It’s why they are so willing to violate the law in the pursuit of their goals. It’s why they get so touchy and defensive whenever the subject of the will of the majority comes up.

It’s Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his bludgeoning campaign to consolidate all political power in Wisconsin into his hands by converting elected positions into appointed ones, by moving the tasks assigned to appointed officials he can’t control into the hands of those he can, and by systematically undermining the authority of those elected officials – such as the Secretary of State – whom he cannot eliminate. Because he knows what the People of Wisconsin should be doing better than those people themselves, apparently. Or at least his Koch-Brothers-funded, ALEC-ghost-written handlers do, anyway.

They are the Bolsheviks of Wisconsin.

And it’s not just Wisconsin, as Eric may or may not have pointed out depending on how much of my own point I can stuff into his words (hey – it’s a neat parlor game! Fun for the whole family!). It’s the United States in general.

You see it in the the fact that the Teabagger attitude toward elections that is evident in the Wisconsin State Supreme Court fight is a straightforward rehash of Republican attacks during the 2000 presidential election, when the possibility that the will of the people of the United States had been thwarted by corrupt and/or incompetent electoral officials never seemed to matter as much as the drive to win at all costs, the denigration of the entire idea of electoral transparency and Constitutional standards, the ironic slashing of state rights in favor of a Supreme Court decision, and the willingness to rig the entire system in order to get the desired results. I have no idea who really won in Florida that year and neither does anyone else. We will never know. And that – more than an actual Republican victory – scares me.

You see it in the willingness of this group to push forward an agenda that even many conservatives find extreme, because of the certainty among the Teabaggers that they know and you don’t and you should just take it. Seriously, when Newt Gingrich tells you that your plan is too radically right-wing, even if he backtracks on it when you beat him over the head with his words, maybe you ought to take a long hard look at what you’re trying to do and why.

You see it in their oft-stated position that they speak directly to God and don’t need to listen to the people of the United States for guidance. Listen to them when they say that. They mean it. We used to put people like that in padded cells instead of political office, and the nation would probably be better off if we went back to that practice.

You see it all over, in ways that get tedious and frightening to catalogue.

Bolsheviks, every one of them.

And the great lesson that Alexander Kerensky provides is that in the face of a concerted Bolshevik attack, liberal democracy can be astonishingly fleeting.

We forget Kerensky, the forgotten man, at our peril.


Janiece said...

David, scaring the crap out of the proletariat since 2008.

David said...

Hey - somebody's gotta do it.

John the Scientist said...

Hah, I am an American who thinks about the Russian Revolution quite a bit (and I'm not a historian). Of course, the fact that I spent 1990 and 1991 in the USSR doesn't hurt... :D

Though I like your parallel with Kerensky, I'm not sure so tenuous a regime can be compared with the US system, even in jest. Russia had no experience with self rule and even Trotsky, pushing his idea of dvoevalst'e (I don't mean to name drop, but I don't know another word in English that succinctly expresses the idea that Revolutionary leaders need to have experience before taking power or they make a hash of things), could not find any better training grounds than the worker's Soviets of 1905. We had the Continental Congress (and before that the Colonial legislatures) acting as shadow training governments before the actual split in 1783, which is a big part of the reason why someone like Napoleon or Lenin didn't step into that 6 year void from the end of the war to the ratification of the Constitution.

Kerensky also shared a lot of characteristics with his enemies - the premature declaration of a Republic before the agreed-upon mechanism to determine Russia's future government was implemented sounds a lot like a Bolshevik (or teabagger) trick. True, it was done to prevent the aristocrats and monarchists from getting too firm a hold on the process, but that would have been the "wrong result" in Kerensky's eyes - no different from the teabaggers.

I have an especial interest in the USSR of the 1920s where Trotsky and Stalin were fighting it out "like spiders in a jar" in the words of Stalin's personal secretary. And it's striking that Kerensky and Trotsky in their capacity as War Minister both had the idea of stripping officer's power and putting authority in the hands of political committees. Trotsky finally had to reverse direction somewhat, but the parallels with him and Kerensky are striking. (And for the record, I think Trotsky would have been a wrose despot than Stalin).

What I'm winding my way towards is the conclusion that I see Alexander "No Enemies to the Left" Kerensky more as a Newt Gingrich type figure than a representative of any firm liberal system.

I agree with your assessment of most American's grip on history. Have you read "Empires of Trust" or "The Legacy of Rome"? I'm in the middle of those, and I see a lot of parallels there, though as the author of "Empires of Trust" put it, most parallels with Rome made by conservatives are in complete ignorance of Roman history. The other parallel with a decently (or at least longer than 9 months) established system would be the Weimar Republic (including the parallel conservative assault on liberty), but then again, I can see why you'd steer clear of Godwin's Law.

In any rate, great piece, it makes you think, and the greatest threat to Democracy right now is people not thinking.

John the Scientist said...

Oh, yes, I never thought of Kerensky as the Forgotten Man, more of a creature along the the Russian Literary tradition of the Superfluous Man. But I guess you can say he's both.

David said...

Hi John, and thank you for the thoughtful criticism!

I would have to agree with your assessment of Kerensky’s for the most part – it was a very tenuous regime (despite its accomplishments), and some of his actions were (from a liberal democratic perspective) questionable at best. But he did try to make Russia into a liberal democracy, and that’s important. Gingrich, for all his many and varied flaws, fits only haphazardly into the Teabagger mold – he seems to believe in liberal democracy, even if his actual ideas would be catastrophic in practice, which makes your parallel between Kerensky and Gingrich fit my point well.

One of the points I make when my Western Civ II class gets to the 1920s and especially the Depression of the 1930s is that countries with deep roots in liberal democracy (Britain, France, the US) weathered the challenges from totalitarianism better than countries without such roots (Germany, Italy, Spain). That point holds for Russia in 1917 as well, as you indicate.

Although I do like the notion of dvoevalst’e.

Kerensky was more of a framing device than the main point of the post, though. The key part of the post was this paragraph: They are the American Bolsheviks. The program changes, but the attitude remains the same. They, of course, being the Teabaggers.

My main purpose was to compare them to Lenin’s party on one very specific point of attitude – their shared contempt for democracy, the ensuing belief that they have the right to be in charge regardless of the will of the people, their eager willingness to undermine or ignore democratic institutions and values to achieve that power, and their blind faith that they are right to do so. I see a fundamentally anti-democratic movement in both cases, and it worries me that such a movement is gaining popularity here the way that they are.

For all its deep roots in liberal democracy, there is nothing inevitable about the US remaining so. It has to be maintained. And if we do not choose to maintain it, it will go away.

I’ve not read Empires of Trust or The Legacy of Rome – thanks for the tip. More for the reading list - at this rate I'll never die. ;)

John the Scientist said...

Sory, typo. It's dvoevlast'e: "vlast'" not "valst' "("vlast'" means "political power" in Russian, "dvoi" means "double" or "dual": двоевластье It's featured prominently as an ideal in Trotsky's "Portraits of the Revolutionaries". Here is a contrarian view about its utility in Russian politics. (I tend not to subscribe to that view - see post-Revolutionary France, and probably Libya if Qaddafi is overthrown).

BTW I have a phonograph record of Lenin's speeches from 1919. One of the big ones is "Shto takoe Sovetskaya Vlast'?" - "What is Soviet Political Power". It's kinda eerie to hear the murderous old bastard's voice. It's a very thick voice, as if he'd been drinking syrup before sepaking - the Russians call this a "sweet voice".

If I ever get around to buying a converter to record my vinyl to CD, I can send you a copy, if you are interested.

And I do agree with your overall premise, my comment was more to point out that there are several levels of parallels that can be drawn from that system in crisis.

John the Scientist said...

Hmmmm, Blogger seems to have eaten my response. I'll repost again this evening if it doesn't show up. Might be in the spam filter because of 2 links.

John the Scientist said...

I agree with the overall thrust of your post, I was just pointing out that the parallels are on multiple levels, and I agree that Kerensky = Ginrich fits well with your overall premise.

John the Scientist said...

Also, sorry for the typo. It's "dvoevlast'e": "vlast'" not valst'".

Vlast' in Russian means "political power", dvoi means "double" or "dual". Here's a view of its pernicious effect on Russian history. I don't really subscribe to that view, I don't think anyone who has thought seriously about the difference between the US and French Revolutions could not come to the cponclusion that our version of dvoevlast'e helped us.

John the Scientist said...

Here is a link to the concept of Двоевластие on the Russian Wiki. Sorry for the multiple posts, but blogger ate my other one again.

David said...

No problem on the multiple posts! I found your original in the spam filter and freed it up, so it is up now.

I would be very interested in hearing that recording of Lenin, if you ever get a chance. At some point I am going to set up an email address for this blog, but if you get there before I do we’ll figure something out.

I did not mean to give the impression of arguing against your response. There are indeed a number of levels of parallels that can be drawn, and yours were very enlightening to me – my knowledge of Russian history is fairly shallow – so thank you for that. I just wanted to clarify what my own main point was.

As someone who does not speak Russian or read in Cyrillic I’m afraid the one link went right by me, but the Medvedev piece was interesting. I don’t know whether he’s superfluous or forgotten or both, but all I ever hear about these days is Putin.

Some of the differences between the US and French Revolutions are no doubt due to the application of dvoevlast’e – we had much more experience with self-government and it showed. Some of it was also the theories that we were working (classical republicanism versus Lockean liberalism in a time of radicalizing Enlightenment thought), and some of it was the fact that our entrenched opposition was mostly 3000 miles away while the French entrenched opposition was right there and fighting back. It’s a fascinating swirl of ideas.

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, having the artistocracy right there and fighting back always threatens to turn revolutions to the Dark Side. In order to make society even somewhat equitable you have to give the peasants their land, but in order to do that you've got to violate property rights, and it's hard to stop that ball once it gets rolling. I've often wondered what the American Revolution would have looked like if the King had granted landed titles in the Colonies. I think it might have looked a bit like the Warlord Period in post-Imperial China.

I ran that Russian site through a couple of the web-based translation filters and they do a reasonable job (with the typical occasional wonkiness) in translating the sense of it.

And heh, the descriptor I'd apply to Putin is eminence grise.

Janiece said...

David, I have smart friends, don't you think?


David said...

@John - re: Putin - more like "eminence chauve," it seems. :)

@Janiece - we do!