In 1925 I was working for the Sovkino in Moscow, having come to Russia shortly before as an adviser on…
When Sergei Eisenstein died a year ago, the world lost one of the great innovators of the modem cinema, and the Soviet Union its most prominent movie director. His early movies, Potemkin and Ten Days That Shook the World, were something new in the art of the film: they have influenced, to one degree or another, every production made since. But the development of his career is also significant as testimony to the dismal fate of the artist in a totalitarian society. Waclaw Solski knew Eisenstein well. He also has an intimate and expert acquaintance with Russian culture and Russian society.
In 1925 I was working for the Sovkino in Moscow, having come to Russia shortly before as an adviser on movie production for the foreign market.
One day three men came to my office. One was short, plump, with lively, piercing eyes, an unusually high forehead, and a great shock of hair. A strange, semi-sarcastic smile never left his face. His voice had an unpleasantly squeaky quality to it. Everything about him was roundish—his head, face, body, and even his arms and legs. This was my first meeting with Eisenstein.
With him was his ace cameraman, Edward Tissé, a Lett who had been a painter before he became one of the greatest living cameramen. The third guest was Eisenstein’s assistant—now a film director in his own right—Gregor Aleksandrov, who had begun his movie-making career in a rather unusual fashion: he had been a circus tightrope walker, and had a bad fall one night when Eisenstein, who was a great circus fan, happened to be in the audience. Moved by the accident, Eisenstein became interested in the young performer and from that time on they were inseparable friends.
“I understand that you’re to pass on our films chosen for showing to the rotten bourgeoisie of the West,” Eisenstein said, chuckling ironically. “What about my Potemkin? They won’t understand it but they may like it. People sometimes like what they don’t understand.”
“Why do you think they won’t understand it?” I asked.
“Because the Sovkino didn’t understand it either,” Eisenstein replied. “Did you see my Potemkin? I can assure you it is an excellent film, though its plot doesn’t exactly adhere to the most recent political currents developing in this heaven-blessed land of ours.”
I had only joined the Sovkino staff a few days before and didn’t know anything about Eisenstein’s film. He told me its story. Potemkin, later acknowledged by the whole world as one of the greatest films ever made, had been judged entirely worthless by the Sovkino Board at its first showing, and it was decided not to release it either in Russia or abroad. It was put in the so-called “morgue” along with other abortive pictures. Later, under Eisenstein’s pressure, it was shown in one of the Moscow theaters, with hardly any publicity and with a very poor musical accompaniment (Potelmkin was a silent movie). The showing was not a success, and after a very short run, the film was returned to the “morgue.”
“Sovkino did everything to kill my film,” Eisenstein added. “It is true that the public didn’t like it very much, but that was because of the NEP.1 The NEP-men would rather see half-naked girls on the screen than a serious film. But I’m not a NEP-man and I’m not interested in girls.”
Gregor Aleksandrov suddenly burst into a short laugh, but quickly stopped and turned red. I couldn’t see what he was laughing about. Not until later, when I learned what everyone in Moscow knew, did Aleksandrov’s odd behavior become understandable to me.
I promised Eisenstein to see Potemkin. This I did in a small sultry projection room at the Sovkino. The film was so badly glued together that it broke every few minutes. Perhaps that is why it did not make as great an impression on me then as it did later when I saw it in a regular theater. But even then, in that stuffy projection room, I felt that it was a major artistic triumph, that the director had introduced entirely new and revolutionary methods of montage and photography. I also understood Eisenstein’s allusion to “new political currents.”
In the movie field, the NEP was chiefly reflected by the all-out attempt to forget the sad past. Sovkino planned a large number of light comedies in the Hollywood style and also prepared some historical films quite different from Potemkin. It wanted to present Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, etc., in an “objective”—even, in those times, critical—light, but what it was really concerned with was to show the splendor of the old imperial courts, as a restorative for a people worn out by the rigors of revolution and civil war.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, the famous Soviet poet, saw Potemkin with me. His friend, the poet Assejev, had written the titles for it, and he was always loyal to his friends. Immediately after the showing, Mayakovsky and I went to see Sovkino’s president, Konstantin Shvedshikov, a party man who once had hidden Lenin in his home before the Revolution. But this was long ago, and in 1925 Shvedshikov was a Soviet bureaucrat with pronounced bourgeois habits. He didn’t know anything about movies, but he liked the products Hollywood sent to Moscow in hope of finding a Russian market. Sovkino bought very few American films, but Shvedshikov used to spend hours enjoying them in his private projection room, and the more banal the movie, the better he liked it. He was also slightly anti-Semitic and he didn’t like Eisenstein, whom, in private conversation, he used to call “The Nobleman of Jerusalem.”
Mayakovsky took the floor first. He talked, as usual, in a thunderous voice, pounding the table with his fists and rapping on the floor with the heavy cane he always carried at that time. He demanded that Shvedshikov immediately export Potemkin and told him he would go down in history as a villain if he did not. Several times Shvedshikov tried to get a word in, but in vain. Nobody ever could say anything when Mayakovsky spoke. The climax of his speech was rather dramatic. Having finished, he turned to go.
“Are you through?” Shvedshikov asked. “If you are, I would like to say a few words myself.”
Mayakovsky paused in the doorway and replied with great dignity: “I’m not through vet and I won’t be for at least five hundred years to come. Shvedshikovs come and go, but art remains. Remember that!”
With that he left. I stayed behind and tried to argue with my boss in more reasonable terms, but in vain. It was only later, under the pressure of an ever-growing group of writers and journalists as well as some influential party men who liked the film, that Sovkino finally did agree to send Potemkin to Berlin.
A German composer, W. Meisel, wrote a special score for it, and its premiere in Berlin was a triumph. After this first success Potemkin was shown again in Moscow. This time the Soviet papers were full of Berlin reviews praising the picture and the public became so interested that its second Russian premiere had an overflow audience. Other triumphs followed. After Potemkin’s American premiere in New York, Eisenstein was hailed as director of the best film ever made and he became world-famous almost overnight.
This writer cannot claim any credit for helping to make this success possible. However, I am glad I at least tried to help Eisenstein, because this attempt was the beginning of a close acquaintance with one of the most interesting and most gifted men of our time.
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was born in St. Petersburg in 1898, the son of a prosperous ship-builder. He was a student at the St. Petersburg (now Leningrad) Institute of Civil Engineering when World War I broke out, and two years later went to the front as a private. After the Revolution, he remained in the army and organized amateur theatrical groups. Then he went to Moscow and soon became the chief set-designer for the Proletkult Theater, where he designed the sets for a great number of plays, most of them short propaganda pieces without any great artistic value.
The first play for which Eisenstein designed sets was entitled Anti-Jesus. The word “anti” was also used in the title of the Proletkult’s next production, Anti-Gas (anti-poison gas). The public, however, soon became weary of “anti” propaganda pieces, and the Proletkult Theater began producing more serious plays: Macbeth, Heartbreak House, and The Mexican (based on a story by Jack London), for which Eisenstein also designed the sets.
In 1923, he not only designed, but also directed Listen, Moscow, which was written by Sergei Tretiakov, who was “liquidated” in the 1936-37 purges. It was a great success.
It was at that time that Sovkino was organized in Moscow and the production of Soviet films began on a large scale. The legitimate stage had already become too confining for Eisenstein. He decided to make films, but he wanted to make them differently, dreaming of a camera “ranging through time and space.” At the same time, he firmly believed that the making of a movie was primarily a mathematical problem that could and should be solved by mathematical methods. “I approach the making of a motion picture in much the same way that I would approach the installation of a water system,” Eisenstein then declared. (Evelyn Gerstein’s article in Theatre Guild Magazine, February 1930.) In an interview he said that he had three gods: Marx, Pavlov, and Freud. He even wanted to make Marx’s Das Kapital into a motion picture.
I remember a talk with him a few years later; it must have been in 1926 or 1927. He was then re-reading everything Freud had written. Eisenstein was in an enthusiastic mood—the only mood, by the way, that made him temporarily drop his semi-ironical way of speaking. He told me that any one of Freud’s volumes contained thousands of revolutionary film ideas and that he didn’t see how one could make films or even write poetry without studying Freud.
“What about Pavlov?” I asked. “Do you still regard him as one of your three gods?”
“Of course I do,” he answered, and told me about some interesting experiments based on Pavlov’s theory of conditioned reflexes that he was then conducting at the Moscow Film Institute where he was a professor. He was just as enthusiastic about these as about Freud.
I remarked that Pavlov’s theory could hardly be reconciled with Freud’s. Our behavior, according to Freud, was to be explained by childhood events that had been relegated to the unconscious, but Pavlov had maintained that conditioned reflexes were hereditary; in other words, everything we do might be caused by some events connected, not with our own life, but with those of our ancestors.
But Eisenstein’s train of thought had already gone elsewhere, and he began telling me about a talk he had had that day with a party man who criticized him because his films did not show the individual heroes of the Revolution, but only its masses. “I killed him with the text of the ‘Internationale’,” Eisenstein said. “Apparently he had never given a thought to it: ‘Nobody will give us freedom, neither God, nor the czar, nor a hero’—that’s what the ‘Internationale’ says. No hero! Besides, the worship of heroes, or of any individuals whatever, has always seemed to me obscene, Asiatic, and immoral. I would never do it, never.” A decade or so later Eisenstein was to produce Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. But what he said at the time was undoubtedly completely sincere.
His first film was called The Strike and won him a prize at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, but it had only an average success in Russia. The film dealt with a strike in a Russian factory before the Revolution; no professional actors were employed, all the parts being played by amateurs, most of them genuine workers who had actually taken part in real strikes in czarist Russia. The picture was uneven: some of its episodes were excellent, but in others it was obvious that Eisenstein was still groping for new methods. He was to find these in Potemkin, his next film production.
The history of Potemkin started with Nina Agadjanova-Shutko’s suggestion that Eisenstein make a film about the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. As originally planned, the movie was to be composed of six separate episodes for release in 1925, the 20th anniversary of the 1905 revolution.
The mutiny of the cruiser Potemkin’s sailors on the Black Sea was to be only one of the six episodes. Many scenes earmarked for the other parts were filmed first. But when Eisenstein began shooting scenes for the Potemkin episode in Odessa and Sevastopol, he decided that its material was so much the best that he would concentrate on it and expand it. And so he wrote a new script, eliminating all the other episodes.
Potemkin is probably the only film ever made that, after almost a quarter of a century, still makes as strong an impression as it did when first released. Almost all other old films now seem dated—not because of their plots, but because of their technique. Movie technique has made such great and rapid strides in the last twenty years that pictures tend to date very quickly. But the technique of Potemkin was more than a quarter of a century ahead of its time.
Eisenstein’s style was based on three main principles: montage, “dynamism,” and what Eisenstein himself called “the synchronization of the senses.” The creator of montage was Lev Kuleshov, who taught movie technique to both Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. In his book on montage, Pudovkin wrote that no other director could be compared to Kuleshov. “We,” he said, “are only making films: Kuleshov made the world’s cinematography.” Kuleshov gave as a classic demonstration of montage the fact that when a woman is shown on the screen, then a familiar view of Paris, followed by another shot of the woman, we automatically conclude that that woman must be in Parisalthough actually she might have been photographed in Moscow. Thus montage can create new facts that never existed before. “Two film pieces of any kind,” wrote Eisenstein, “placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept arising out of that juxtaposition.” But these pieces “must be so selected from all the possible material that their juxtaposition shall evoke in the perception and feelings of the spectator the most complete image of the theme itself.” (Sergei Eisenstein: The Film Sense, 1942.)
The principle of “dynamism” is a little more difficult to explain. “A work of art understood dynamically,” wrote Eisenstein, “is just a process of arranging images in the feeling and mind of the spectator.” This sounds innocent enough, but it isn’t. To explain his idea, Eisenstein tells us first what an “image” is. For instance, a certain position of a clock’s hands evokes in us the idea of the time of day. But sometimes, when too agitated or too preoccupied, we may look at the hands of a clock without reading the time from them. In this case the hands are only a “representation,” not an “image,” of time. It is not enough to see the hands—something has to happen to that perception before we realize what time it is. The process, as Eisenstein describes it, is this: a given order of hands on the dial provokes “representations” connected with this order. The position of the hands on the clock at 5 PM will call up the subway rush hour, stores closing, etc., etc. The image of five o’clock is compounded of all these individual images, which constitute the full sequence of the process; but our mind “condenses” the process and, as a result, “the chain of intervening links falls away and an instan taneous connection is felt between the geometrical figure on the clock and our perception of the time.” This is what takes place in our everyday life. But practice in life is different from practice in art. o achieve a similar result, art must “re-condense” the process, or, as Eisenstein puts it, “direct all the refinement of its methods to the process itself.” Thus the spectator “is being drafted into the process as it occurs,” instead of receiving “the represented result of a consummated process.”
Eisnstein maintains that this “dynamic” principle applies t all the arts, even to painting. This is perhaps a little too far-reaching a claim, but there is no doubt that in movie-making the principle does work. This is true of all of Eisenstein’s pictures, and especially of Alexander Nevsky. The battle on Lake Peipus in this film is shown through the medium of hundreds of details: pieces of ice, the gray sky with its tonality, the weapons of the German knights, and so forth.
When seeing the film, we “condense” all these images, we don’t actually see them in the usual meaning of the word—and yet they evoke in us, as a final result, the feelings the creator of the film wanted to evoke. We witness the creation of an image and its connotations, rather than simply making use of the image as we do when we notice the time of day on a clock.
Eisenstein’s third principle is the “synchronization of the senses,” as opposed to “physical” or “technical” synchronization. When we see a gun firing and hear the explosion at the same time that is “physical” or “technical” synchronization. But it is also an “objective” synchronization. The artist, however, cannot be objective. He must look at everything through the subjective prism of his own emotions. Between a “physical synchronization” and a “synchronization of the senses,” as Eisenstein understands it, there is the same difference as that between a photograph of a person and the same person’s portrait painted by an artist. The photograph may be the more exact likeness, but it can never influence our feelings, for only a work of art can radiate and evoke emotions. Thus, in film-making, it is entirely unnecessary—except for the spoken word—to have the image exactly correspond to the sound-track. On the contrary: the artist, disregarding “objective” reality, must organize the images and sounds in such a way that their blend can stimulate the desired emotions in the spectator.
Eisenstein once told me that shortly after Potemkin was shown in America, certain Hollywood producers placed metronomes in their studios because someone had told them that Potemkin’s excellence was due to its having been shot “rhythmically.” This was the height of nonsense and the metronomes of course had no effect whatsoever on these producers’ pictures. Yet even the correct application of Eisenstein’s theories would have helped Hollywood but little. Eisenstein was above all a great artist, and great artists are born, not made. His theories may help us understand how he made his films, but they could hardly teach us how to make them.
For a short period following the unparalleled success of Potemkin, Eisenstein was the happiest man in the world. He had proved the effectiveness of his theories and he had—or at least thought he had—the means at hand to create many more films that would be revolutionary in plot as well as in form. He was never a party Bolshevik—in fact, he never belonged to any political party—but he sincerely believed Russia was the only country in the world where the artist could work freely, listening only to the voice of his own conscience and disregarding the box office or the common denominators of public taste.
Three years later this dream castle crashed—with his next film, October.
October was shown in America under the title Ten Days That Shook the World. The title was taken from John Reed’s famous book, which was one of the first sympathetic accounts of the actual events of the Bolshevik Revolution to reach English-speaking readers. (This book has long since been banned in Russia—Trotsky and many of the old Bolsheviks liquidated in the Moscow Trials are prominently mentioned, but there is not a word about Stalin.)
Eisenstein’s October was not a screen version of Reed’s book, and probably acquired its American title simply for publicity reasons, but Eisenstein certainly had used Reed’s book, as well as other material. And he made an honest and a very beautiful film about the Russian Revolution. But only a few people have seen its original version.
Shortly after the film was completed, the Sovkino—in the person of the already mentioned Konstantin Shvedshikov—suggested that Eisenstein take Trotsky out of the film. Eisenstein refused. Although he didn’t make his refusal public, everyone in the inner circles in Russia knew about it, and also knew that a few overly zealous young men were assigned to cut October against Eisenstein’s will. The facts even became known in this country; a letter from Herman G. Weinberg in the Modern Monthly (July 933) says:
“It is true that Eisenstein disavowed the mutilated form of Ten Days That Shook the World with the Trotsky episodes deleted. . . . Ten Days without the Trotsky episodes was meaningless as an historical document. This was enough to make Eisenstein disavow the emasculated version of his film.”
But when his friends asked Eisenstein to disavow October publicly—which at that time was still possible in Soviet Russia—he could not bring himself to do it, and found his way out through compromise.
But a compromise with his own conscience is never easy for a great artist and almost always leaves scars. This is probably the reason why the film Eisenstein made after October was considerably weaker than The Strike, Potemkin, or October. It was called General Line (shown in America as The Old and the New). The film dealt rather superficially with the changes the Revolution brought to the Russian villages, showing in loving detail new agricultural machines quite familiar to American audiences as well as to those of many other countries long before they became the symbol of revolution on the Russian countryside. The whole film dissolved into a longwinded paean to tractors, modern dairies, big cows, and vigorous bulls. But modern dairies and scientific agriculture in themselves have little in common with revolution as such, and the Soviet press pointed this out to Eisenstein. Some of the critics, acute enough to scent the fragrance of things to come, also attacked Eisenstein for his criticism of Soviet bureaucracy (General Line likens a typewriter in the office of some bureaucrat to a machine gun: millions of unnecessary words kill the efforts of the hard-working people of the villages).
Shortly afterwards, Eisenstein received an offer from Hollywood. The Soviet government did not oppose his going to America to accept it, probably being glad to get rid of him for the time being, since he had become a little too hot to handle. This was at the end of 1929.
Eisenstein came to Hollywood as a $3,000-a-week man at Paramount, with a contract entitling him to choose his own stories. Several suggested to him by Paramount he rejected. Then he made his own suggestion: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The suggestion was accepted, but the script Eisenstein wrote wasn’t. Other projects of his met with the same fate. He soon realized that it was no easier for him to make films in Hollywood than in Moscow: Moscow wanted him to produce films imbued with political tendencies that didn’t appeal to him, while Hollywood demanded pictures without revolutionary ideas but with strong box-office appeal.
Eisenstein terminated his contract with Paramount and signed a new one with Upton Sinclair, who organized a trusteeship called the Mexican Picture Trust, and sent him to Mexico, where he began Que Viva Mexico! a film dealing with the Mexican revolution of 1910.
For Eisenstein, the most important part of movie-making was montage. From the 200,—000 feet of material he shot in Mexico, he had to select around 7,000 feet—which is the length of the average movie—for the final product. Just as Eisenstein began the montage work he was called back to Moscow and had to leave behind his uncompleted movie. The trusteeship offered the entire 200,000 feet of film he had shot to the Soviet government for $100,000, but the Russians refused to buy. Finally, an American producer, Sol Lesser, acting on behalf of the Mexican Picture Trust and without Eisenstein’s consent, put together a version of the movie that was shown under the name of Thunder Over Mexico. This version was not much good and it certainly bore no traces whatsoever of the ideas Eisenstein had intended to put into it. Many American writers and film men protested against this mutilated version, and an “International Defense Committee for Eisenstein’s Mexican Film” was formed in New York with branches in the United States, Mexico, Cuba, and Europe. But all in vain; nothing could be done in the way of creating a more authentic version.
Eisenstein returned to Moscow in 1932 full of new ideas, resolved to keep aloof from inner-party conflicts and looking for some sort of neutral ground. While still in America he had suggested to Sovkino the screening of Ostrowski’s classic play, Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man, which he had once produced for the Proletkult Theater. The suggestion was enthusiastically accepted, but apparently only in order to entice Eisenstein back to Russia. Once he was back his idea was immediately rejected. And all his other proposals met the same fate, Sovkino rejecting them as fast as Hollywood had. On orders from above, the Soviet press began to attack Eisenstein, accusing him of individualism, of inability “to understand the historical meaning of the epoch,” etc., etc. The idea was to make it clear to him that he was to do what he was told, or else nothing. Eisenstein was stubborn and pretended not to understand, so one day he was simply fired, and refused access to the Sovkino studios.
Eisenstein’s “softening up” took all of five years, during which time he remained unemployed. By 1937 he was broken. According to some usually reliable sources, Stalin had a long talk with him, and immediately thereafter Eisenstein began work on a new film, Alexander Nevsky. One year later, in 1938, the film was released.
Alexander Nevsky deals with the Muscovite resistance to invasion by the Teutonic Knights of the Cross in 1242. It is a highly patriotic film, but its beauty is monumental, unimpassioned, and utterly cold. With this film, Eisenstein confirmed what he had once said about approaching the making of a movie in the same way as the installation of a water system. Alexander Nevsky is the magnificent work of a magnificent technician of art, but not of an artist. Just how brilliant a technician Eisenstein was, he showed in the great climactic scene of the film, the battle on Lake Peipus, which was “shot” in the middle of a hot Moscow summer, in a space scarcely 1,000 feet square. Yet on the screen this sequence appears to have been made in the dead of winter on a great frozen lake. Icy winds and snow flurries seem to beat down on the spectator from the screen. The sound track, with its “subjectively” exaggerated roaring of the wind, reinforces this impression. And there is also the superb musical score expressly written for the film by Prokofieff.
Alexander Nevsky was highly praised in the Soviet press. Eisenstein was awarded the Order of Lenin for it and later the Stalin Prize. In the opinion of the Kremlin, he was now “softened” enough to be given another and much more important task. In fact there are certain indications that Alexander Nevsky was merely a sort of preliminary test. Only after Eisenstein had successfully passed it did Stalin consider him trustworthy enough to be given the most important political assignment of his life.
Eisenstein was now assigned the task of justifying Stalin’s policies, particularly the Moscow Trials. This was to be done in an indirect, rather than a direct way, through the medium of a pseudo-historical film, Ivan the Terrible.
Ivan the Terrible played a very important part in Russian history. Everybody knows that he personally murdered his own son; that he had thousands of people tortured and slaughtered en masse at Novgorod; that he organized the first Russian secret police (Oprishniki), which extorted confessions by refined torture. Often, when Ivan could not sleep, he had victims brought to his palace and tortured to death simply for his own amusement.
And this is not all. Ivan in the film has only one true and close friend, Fedor Kolyshev. This Kolyshev had indeed existed, but he never played the role ascribed to him in the film, being in reality a figure of very minor historical importance. In the film, however, he betrays Ivan in the end and joins the opposition. Now it is widely known in Russia that Stalin had only one close personal friend, Avel Yenukidze. Yenukidze was a Georgian, an old Bolshevik who had known Stalin from boyhood and later worked with Stalin in Tiflis, where the latter had begun his political career. Later Yenukidze held important government and party posts and was for many years general secretary of the Supreme Soviet—the Russian “parliament.” Then, one day in 1937, it was briefly announced in the Soviet press that Avel Yenukidze had been executed for “treachery.” There was no trial; his crime was never explained more fully; and his name was never mentioned again in the Soviet press.
But most revealing of all in Ivan the Terrible is the film sequence dealing with Ivan’s wife. As the movie has it, she was deeply devoted to him. One day she learned by accident of Andrei Kurbski’s conspiracy against her husband. For reasons not made very clear in the movie, she did not tell Ivan and was murdered later by Kurbski’s men.
Russia’s history does not give any warrant whatsoever to this story, but it strangely resembles the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of Stalin’s own wife, Nadezda Alleluyeva, in 1932. According to rumors circulated at that time, she had committed suicide, but there were also rumors that she had been poisoned. But recently Pauline Labranche, a Frenchwoman who for many months tutored Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, published an article that perhaps solves the mystery. Svetlana, Nadezda’s daughter, told the story to Madame Labranche herself, saying her mother had loved her father very much, had always worried about his health, and “tasted everything that was cooked for him an hour before he ate it.” (Pageant, April-May, 1948.)
Towards the end of the film, Ivan is shown as an ill, half-broken man. He had lost all his friends (they had been murdered on his own orders), he is alone, entirely alone. But he still believes in “the simple Russian people” who are not involved in conspiracies of any kind, and who do not belong to the boyars’ class, like Andrei Kurbski and Ivan himself. One of these people, the peasant Basmanov, gives Ivan a piece of advice. “Surround thyself with new men,” he tells Ivan, “men who come from the lower depths and who will be indebted to thee for everything. Make of them an iron ring. Surround thyself with this ring and put sharp barbs into it, directed against thine and Russia’s enemies.” Ivan’s eyes light up: once again, he is ready to fight his and Russia’s foes.
We know that Stalin himself has followed Basmanov’s program pretty closely. But Eisenstein, for all his effort to carry out orders, could not help remaining an artist, and his film version of a “progressive,” “revolutionary” Ivan is enveloped in an atmosphere of dark, oppressive fear. It took some time for the men of the Kremlin to realize this. When the first part of Ivan the Terrible was shown in Moscow in January 1945, the film was highly praised in the official press. However, a short time later Eisenstein suddenly found himself again under attack. He was accused of “advocating art for art’s sake,” of having failed to adhere to “contemporary realism,” of being an “erroneous formalist,” etc., etc.
It was quite evident that the Kremlin suspected him of having deliberately created the movie’s heavy, almost unbearable atmosphere. Its second part was suppressed while the attacks in the press became even stronger. Following a long-established Soviet custom, Eisenstein promptly admited that he had “permitted a distortion of historical facts” that made his film “bad and ideologically defective.” He promised to do better, and began work on a new script. But his heart refused to carry the burden any longer and, on February o, 1948, Sergei Eisenstein died.
Eisenstein was never arrested and never put on trial in Russia. But he must have lived under the constant fear of arrest, for he once described his own trial, jotting down on paper the following: “I am on trial and I look at the courtroom. The hall is crowded with people who know me—some casually, some very well. . . . I try to shrink by gazing at my feet. . . . Like blow upon blow fall the words of the prosecuting attorney’s summing up. . . . My return from prison: the clang of the gates closing behind me as I am released. . . . The astonished stare of the servant girl when she sees me enter my old block. . . . There is a new name on the letter box. . . . My door is closed in my face by the former acquaintances who now occupy my apartment. . . . I turn back. . . . The hurriedly raised collar of a passer-by who recognizes me. . . .” (The Film Sense.)
Eisenstein prudently added that the above was merely an example of how a film story should be written. But reading this tragic sample of double talk now, I cannot help remembering Sergei Eisenstein’s sarcastic smile. It even seemed for a moment that I was again hearing his voice, with its always half-serious, half-ironical tone.
Once at a party, in his Moscow apartment, I examined photographs stuck on the walls. One showed a group of people photographed from a considerable height. Next to it were two photographs of the same woman, one depicting her laughter, the other with her face contorted in tears. I asked Eisenstein what these pictures meant.
“It is very simple,” he said with a chuckle. “Here you can see a few people. There is a man among them who perhaps has a mistress . . . or maybe a wife he’s in love with—who knows? And here is a girl—maybe a nice girl who loves flowers and such things. And others . . . quite ordinary people, I guess. But when you look at them from the height of a rock, they all seem very small, very unimportant, in fact, they hardly exist. Now, the other photographs are a little more difficult to explain. The woman laughs, and then she cries. But the basic expression of her face in both cases is almost the same. Why? Well, I don’t know why. Maybe because it is caused by the convulsion of the same muscles. Or maybe because, after all, there is not such a big difference between laughter and tears, revolution and counter-revolution, an admiral and a rear-admiral—who is called, as you know, a contre-admiral, in Russian. . . . ”
“There’s certainly no difference between an admiral and a contre-admiral,” someone remarked. “The admiral is simply a contre-admiral, or so I think. ”
“Is he?” Eisenstein asked. “Well, maybe he is, but he doesn’t know it. Or does he?”
It wasn’t healthy to carry on such a conversation in Moscow. Someone quickly changed the subject.
1 The “New Economic Policy,” introduced in Soviet Russia in 1921, relaxed restrictions on private enterprise in an effort to permit the country to recover after the ravages of the First World War and the civil war which followed.
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The End of Sergei Eisenstein:Case History of an Artist under Dictatorship
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.