Of birds and wires

Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016. He was very popular in Poland in the 1970s and 80s, long before Hallelujah, before the world tours and the late commercial success. We loved our obscure-not-obscure artists, even as we misunderstood or misinterpreted them. We mispronounced his name (“Lee-oh-nard”). We didn’t understand English well enough to get the wry sense of humour or the sexual innuendos. And still.

We had no commercial radio at the time, and no record industry to speak of. Western music was brought to us by enthusiasts who travelled abroad – not many of us could – and spent their own money to buy records, then played them in clubs or on the radio. The rest of us made mix tapes off radio broadcasts, borrowed records and tapes from those who had access to them, stayed up late or rearranged our schedules to listen to music we cared about. There was no Western style commercial promotion through exposure. There was institutionalized political pressure to play Soviet bloc artists, but few, if any, commercial incentives to promote Western rock music. The DJs and broadcasters played it because they loved it, and the audience listened because we loved it back.

Cohen’s fandom first percolated to Poland through word of mouth: a borrowed record here, a tape there. Then a dude, Maciej Zembaty, translated some of Cohen’s songs into Polish and started singing and recording them. It took off like wildfire.

It was not all Cohen all the time, of course. We listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and Hendrix and Tangerine Dream and Dead Can Dance. They were beloved, but also intimidating. You could blast Zep II or Tubular Bells or The Dark Side Of The Moon on your home stereo equipment and get blown away by the sound effects. You could delve into the complexities of The Wall. But when we needed something to sing around the campfire, or on a train, or in a dorm room when a conversation was too much and silence was not enough, few of us would attempt Floyd or Zep. Maybe some of the ballads, and even that was hard.

Cohen was more forgiving. It was OK if you only had a cheap guitar. It was OK to sing Cohen badly; after all, he was doing that himself. Your back could be bent into a permanent question mark, your lungs shrivelled and throat inflamed from the coal dust or chemical pollution or cigarette smoke. You could be missing a few teeth, as people often do when the food does not nourish, hygiene is impossible to maintain, and dentistry is the stuff of nightmares. You could still sing Cohen. And that might have been because he, as the songwriter, had done most of the heavy lifting for you in advance. Bob Dylan, interviewed for a New Yorker article, praises Cohen’s musical gift:

When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius… Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. … [Cohen’s] gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.

For all of Cohen’s self-deprecating comments about his “golden voice,” he wrote melodies that were eternal and indestructible. They could withstand all the abuse that we inflicted on them, the drunken performances, the missing chords and forgotten lyrics. It would still be alright.

He was forgiving in other ways as well. I learned later that, in the land of the constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness, Cohen was considered dark and depressing. That was not how we saw it. Sure, he sang of broken people, failed promises, lost wars. These were statements of facts that were just true, even when we did not have the permission or ability to say so. Having them spoken out loud felt like understanding and forgiveness. It might have even felt uplifting, in telling us that such things mattered, that they were worth a song.

On November 9, 2016, some Americans woke up feeling that they were in a country they did not know. Disoriented, they looked to historians and philosophers of faraway places for advice and consolation. They resolved to remember what normal life looked like and take note of everything that was not normal. They made lists of things they would not do and compromises they would not make.

Oh, you sweet summer children. I do hope that you will act, that your institutions can be mobilized to prevent the worst. I really do, for your sake and my own and that of everyone else on the planet. But since you ask me so often where I’m from, let me tell you what it’s like to live under oppression and see no end of it.

Continue reading “Of birds and wires”

The weight of dead symbols

The photos in this post are mine, from my visit to Poland in late May and early June. The full set, annotated and viewable as a slideshow, is available here. I have provided English-language links where I could, but much of the information I used is only available in Polish. I marked those links with an asterisk, to save you a click if you do not speak the language.


The Polish-Soviet Friendship (officially, Brothership-in-Arms) Monument in Legnica was built in 1951*. It stands in the Słowiański Square, right in the city center. Two soldiers, one Polish and one Soviet, shake hands while a little girl held by the Pole embraces both of them. Poland, invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union acting in agreement, then devastated in the conflict between them, occupied and plundered by both even as its soldiers fought on every front they could find, finally claimed by Stalin for his Soviet empire, had to be represented as a little girl with no memory, history or trust issues, happy in the care of her saviours. Of course the child had to be a girl. A boy might not project the same naivetė, helplessness or passivity.

The monument is still there. I photographed it just a few weeks ago. The inscription, “To the Soviet Army heroes, from the people of the Legnica region,” had been removed in the 1990s and was never restored. The statue was vandalized repeatedly; past renovations notwithstanding, the neglect is palpable.

From 1952 until the end of the Cold War, Legnica was home to the headquarters of the Soviet forces stationed in Poland*. From 1984 to 1990, it also hosted the central command of the Western Theatre of Strategic Operations of the Warsaw Pact: had the Pact attempted to invade Western Europe, the military directions would have been issued from there. Estimates point* to 80-100K Russian soldiers and civilians stationed in town and at various unmapped bases nearby at any given time. The precise numbers and locations were classified, as was the exact layout of the Soviet-occupied parts of the city, surrounded by walls and guarded by armed soldiers posted at each entrance. The largest one, the “Kwadrat” [Square], measured 39 hectares and was a miniature city within a city, self-sufficient with its own shops, hospitals, cinemas, pools and sport venues. In total, the Soviets occupied about a third of the city’s pre-war area.


I grew up not far from that monument. I often walked past it on my way back from school but rarely thought about it. We acquired the skill of inattention in response to the relentless barrage of words and images that ranged from the hostile to the nonsensical*. “Workers of the world, unite!” “PZPR [the communist party] – the working class’s party, the leadership of the nation!” “We build socialism for people and through people!” Above all, invocations of friendship and brotherly love between Poland and the Soviet Union. Unlike ordinary human friendships that enter quietly and tie little knots here and there, that friendship could not be anything less than eternal, was written into the Polish constitution and had to be pledged and re-pledged every day in the streets of every city. We learned to tune it all out except to mock it. That skill continues to come in handy. Corporate language, often no less Orwellian than Soviet propaganda, washes off me like water off an oiled plate. I can look at ads and zap them off my computer screen without ever engaging with their content. (Sorry, Google and Facebook.)

Continue reading “The weight of dead symbols”

The less complicated narratives

Martial law in Poland. Photo credit: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Martial law in Poland. Photo credit: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Steven Attewell makes good points about Selma:

Selma is definitely the best film yet made about the Civil Rights Movement. And I say this because it is, more than a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. himself, a movie about movements. When King bursts into the kitchen of Richie Jean Jackson early in the film, he brings with him a large crew of experienced SCLC activists, who fiercely debate tactics and policy and who are shown doing the heavy lifting of activism – leading trainings, working with local activists, working phone banks, organizing supplies for the 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, organizing volunteers, working the media, and actually going out and marching and getting beaten to hell in front of the media. We also meet a diverse crew of activists outside of the SCLC crew, from local volunteers like Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family and Annie Lee Cooper, to SNCC activists like James Forman and John Lewis who have their own ideas about movement strategy, to Malcolm X, who shows up very much aware that his radical cred can be used to make King’s activism more palatable to whites. […]

However, the choice to depict Johnson as an opponent to the Voting Rights Act is one that has ramifications for the movie’s argument about how movements work. In this film, presidents like Johnson are shown as obstacles to be overcome.

And to me, that’s less interesting and arguably less radical than the story that even a president who’s actively preparing a Voting Rights bill and pushing it through Congress couldn’t get it passed without Selma giving the issue the “fierce urgency of now,” (or without the massive majorities he got in 1964 and would lose in 1966) as Julian Zelizer points out in his new, eponymous book. After all, it’s pretty conventional on the left to say that grassroots activists have to struggle against an uncaring establishment and force it to act – it’s more novel to point out that grassroots activists have to struggle, even with an establishment that’s on their side, and that sometimes the establishment might even seek out grassroots activists to cause a crisis for them to solve. Likewise, I think the point that legislation leads to long-term structural political change, and that winning the election after the march succeeds is a vital part of making sure that the success is lasting, needed more than a mention in the end credits.

Selma is excellent and you should see it if you haven’t already*. But I also promised a long time ago that I’d write one more post about Tony Judt’s Postwar, specifically about his treatment of the end of communism in Eastern Europe. This is a perfect opportunity to do that.

Continue reading “The less complicated narratives”

Eternal sunshine of the progressive mind

Leszek Kolakowski, 2007. Photo: Mariusz Kubik
Leszek Kolakowski, 2007. Photo: Mariusz Kubik

Every now and then, I’m instructed to have more faith in the progressive tendencies of humanity. Racism and sexism, I’m told, are relics of the past, and especially so in science and tech. Progressive, open minded people are against discrimination. Scientists and tech geeks are open minded almost by definition, therefore progressive, therefore against racism and sexism, which therefore are no longer a problem. I should just look around and see how many Chinese and Indian immigrants work in tech and science; clearly, this means that the field is not racist. And if there aren’t so many women around, that’s obviously because they’re not interested – or, as the progressive feminist Steven Pinker explains, maybe it’s just the innate differences. Progress! We’re all in this together! Let’s forget our differences, join our hands and work together for a better future.

Except I’ve seen it before: the unquestioning conflation of all possible good causes, the expectation that good intentions alone guarantee progress and enlightenment. Take, for example, the Western New Left in the 1950s and 60s. Leszek Kolakowski in “My correct views on everything: A rejoinder to Edward Thompson’s ‘Open letter'” from 1974:

[S]ocialist writing […] amounts to saying that the world should be good, and not bad, and I am entirely on your side on this issue. I share without restrictions your (and Marx’s, and Shakespeare’s, and many others’) analysis to the effect that it is very deplorable that people’s minds are occupied with the endless pursuit of money, that needs have a magic power of infinite growth, and that the profit motive, instead of use-value, is ruling production. Your superiority consists in that you know exactly how to get rid of all this and I do not.

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, was being subjected to a practical implementation of that wondrous dream of progress and unity. If the Party represents everything that’s good and progressive, why would anyone ever want to oppose it? Who would need other political parties? Why, indeed, should any organizations be independent of the Party and government – surely, progressive and well-meaning people would want to associate themselves with the historic forces of good? Who could possibly be against world peace? The logical consequences are obvious. Kolakowski again:

… we got rid of this fraudulent bourgeois device of the division of powers and we achieved the socialist dream of unity, which means that the same apparatus has all legislative, executive and judicial power in addition to its power of controlling all means of production; the same people make law, interpret it and enforce it; king, Parliament, army chief, judge, prosecutor, policeman and (new socialist invention) owner of all national wealth and the only employer at one and the same desk-what better social unity can you imagine?

Clearly, if some Eastern Europeans were unhappy with this arrangement, this was just because they didn’t understand. They had “false consciousness,” in the language of the Marxist-Leninist theory, and therefore needed to be told what was really good for them, and beaten into submission if necessary. Not to say that the system was perfect, of course:

… you, not unlike most of both orthodox and critical communists, believe that everything is all right in the Communist system as long as the leaders of the party are not murdered. This is, in fact, the standard way of how communists become “critical”: when they realize that the new alternative socialist logic does not spare the communists themselves and in particular party leaders. Did you notice that the only victims Khrushchev mentioned by name in his speech of 1956 (whose importance I am far from underestimating) were the Stalinists pur sang like himself, most of them (like Postychev) hangmen of merit with uncountable crimes committed before they became victims themselves? Did you notice, in memoirs or critical analyses written by many ex-communists (I will not quote names, excuse me) that their horror only suddenly emerged when they saw communists being slaughtered?

I’m thinking of the progressive folks who believe that the main focus, always and in all matters, should be on them. I’m thinking of the men testifying on feminist blogs that they, too, have to prove their merit all the time, and there was even this committee meeting three years ago when someone interrupted them twice. I’m thinking of the journalism genre that “treats race as an intellectual exercise – a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence.” I’m also thinking of how the same people, when asked to stop and listen for a moment, respond with “I’m listening” followed by yet another barrage of words on how their arguments are really superior. Which of course they must be, seeing how eagerly they are accepted and applauded by the important target audience of other like-minded progressives. If someone like me continues to dissent, that’s my false consciousness speaking. Or maybe I’m simply too emotional and pessimistic. I should just continue to do my good work and we’ll all benefit, as I’ve been told many times. Kolakowski again:

… the spontaneous and almost universal mistrust people from Eastern Europe nourish towards the Western New Left. By a strange coincidence the majority of these ungrateful people, once they come to or settle in Western Europe or in the US, pass for reactionaries. These narrow empiricists and egoists extrapolate a poor few decades of their petty personal experience (logically inadmissible, as you rightly notice) and find in it pretexts to cast doubts on the radiant socialist future elaborated on the best Marxist-Leninist grounds by ideologists of the New Left for the Western countries.

Czeslaw Milosz:

I lived through two phases in Paris. In 1950, I was an attaché of the Polish embassy and attended parties with Paul Éluard and Pablo Neruda. The following year, after breaking with the Polish Communist regime, I came to live there as a refugee. At that time, French intellectuals were completely in love with Communism and Stalin. Anyone who was dissatisfied and who came from the East like myself was considered a madman or an agent of America. The French felt that their so-called ideés générales were valid for the whole planet—beautiful ideas, but hardly realistic. At that time the political climate of Europe was dismal; millions of people were in gulags; their suffering contaminated the aura, the air of Europe. I knew what was going on. The West had to wait for Solzhenitsyn to write The Gulag Archipelago to learn about it.

I’ve never been a fan of sloppy comparisons to communism, and I want to be very specific here. My beef is with those who say, “I’m a nice, progressive person, therefore I can’t be doing anything wrong and your complaints are not valid.” It’s with those who believe in the theory and refuse to see the evidence. It’s with those progressives who feel that every “good” cause, by virtue of their self-identification with it, is about them; and that their opinions trump everyone else’s experience because they, sensitive and enlightened as they are, would obviously notice any signs of injustice or discrimination; and that, when such experience is presented to them, the proper answer is to point to the bright future that is sure to descend on us soon like a state of grace.

Progressive minds such as those like to be unburdened by history and evidence. For all the talk of “inevitable historical forces” in Marxist theory, socialist writing rarely respects history as history. Instead, it invokes history as the future, the promise and the fairytale. “Historical determinism” was then, as “progress” is now, the magic wand that would forge a perfect world out of the fairy dust of good intentions. Forgive me if I’m a little bit skeptical.

Obedience training

This happy and cheerful period on my blog would not be complete without some mention of Anton Makarenko’s “Pedagogical poem,” aka “The Road to Life.” (Full text available here.) Makarenko, in case you don’t know, was one of the founders of Soviet pedagogy, best known for his work at the Gorky colony and the Dzerzhynsky colony, and for the book in question.

The Soviet government was chaotic and disorganized through much of the 1920s, with multiple factions and doctrines competing for dominance. On a practical level, the Bolsheviks had little if any experience with actual governance and running of the state institutions, and whatever blueprints they might have thought they had rarely survived confrontation with reality, so they made it up as they went along. Makarenko was one of such improvisers, controversial at first for his methods. Evidently, not everyone – even among Bolsheviks – shared his ideas, especially as they pertained to child labour and military-style organization of educational institutions. Stalin’s rule put an end to those voices in the 1930s. Makarenko was vindicated in a Resolution of the Central Committee of the Party on “pedological distortions” in 1936, became respected and imitated, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1939. (Warning: that link is to a Soviet-era hagiography piece in PDF.)

In 1920, the Bolshevik authorities tasked Makarenko, a 32 year old teacher at the time, with establishing a new colony for juvenile delinquents in the countryside near Kharkiv, Ukraine. (This eventually became known as the Gorky colony.) Initially, the staff consisted of a manager and two more teachers; the buildings were in a state of disrepair, the furniture, equipment and almost everything else of value having been stolen. After two months or so of preparations, the colony welcomed its first six charges, who immediately set about ignoring their supposed superiors, undermining their authority, and demanding food and service while refusing to do any work. One was arrested for robbery and murder soon after his arrival. The colony continued in that manner for a few months, until Makarenko finally found a way into their hearts, which he describes thusly.

And then, one day, the storm broke. I suddenly lost my footing on the tight rope of pedagogical practice. One wintry morning I asked Zadorov to chop some wood for the kitchen stove, receiving the usual cheerfully insolent reply: “Do it thyself! God knows there are plenty of you here!”

It was the first time any of the boys addressed me with the familiar ‘thou.” Desperate with rage and indignation, driven to utter exasperation by the experiences of the previous months, I raised my hand and dealt Zadorov a blow full in the face. I hit him so hard that he lost his balance end fell against the stove. Again I struck him, seizing him by the collar and actually lifting him off his feet. And then I struck him the third time.

I saw to my astonishment that he was simply aghast. Pale as death, he kept putting on and taking off his cap with trembling hands. Perhaps I would have gone on hitting him, if he had not begun to whimper out: “Forgive me, Anton Semyonovich!”

And then… they happily lived ever after. When Makarenko ordered the boys to work that day, they complied:

Continue reading “Obedience training”

St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, dogma and mathematics

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading “Between the Lord and the Priest”, a book-length conversation between Adam Michnik, Jozef Tischner and Jacek Zakowski. I came for the historical content, but stayed in part for certain disputes in Catholic theology in Poland in the 1960s and 70s. It’s not my usual cup of tea; Tischner himself acknowledges that all this was of very limited interest to the general public while trailing well behind contemporary Western European philosophy. It nonetheless describes beautifully some of the disagreements I’ve had with my fellow mathematicians with regard to life in general and social issues in particular.

The framework for the dispute is provided by the long-standing dichotomy between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. The way Tischner explains it, Thomism posits eternal, unchangeable truths that must be accepted as dogma and followed in life. It prescribes synthesis, universality, vast generalizations, logical chains of cause and effect all the way back to deity. Augustine, on the other hand, is less sure of himself. Even if the truth, somewhere out there, might be eternal and unchanging, our understanding of it is grounded in history, tradition and experience, and in the end that understanding is all we can ever access. In practice, this is a more bottom-up approach to religion, starting with personal, individual existential questions and then seeking guidance in the Scriptures and the church’s intellectual tradition.

Now, here is where things get interesting. Tischner goes on to say that Thomism, in its methodology and spirit, is actually quite similar to Marxism. Marxists, too, had their axioms of class struggle and dialectical materialism. They presumed to shape human consciousness through class awareness, much as Thomists presumed to shape it through philosophical and religious dogma, with little regard to individual experience and understanding.

That was why Michnik, an atheist and a leftist at odds with communism, tuned into Tischner’s polemics with Thomists. Thomism, like Marxism, represented codified, linear thinking where “one thing always follows from another, and everything is perfectly arranged and therefore very simple.” Tischner found that he could not talk like that to his parishioners – people who’d fought in the war, lived through the horrors of Nazi occupation, made choices that most of us wouldn’t want to think about. Their experience defied the scheme. Michnik, then in his twenties and already a veteran of protests and prisons, trying to graduate from university before his next arrest, had no love for simple explanations of everything, either. He’d rejected Marxism already; he would go on to consider religion, but not if it offered no escape from the same kind of closed-minded thinking, not if it were perfectly arranged with one thing always following from another.

At times, Marxist-Leninist philosophy was almost comical in its straightforwardness. Michnik cites Lenin’s theory of cognitive reflection, asserting that

(1) a world exists “independent” of and “external” to consciousness, and (2)
knowledge consists of approximately faithful “reflections” of that world in consciousness.

The second part of that, understood literally as Lenin indeed intended, is, on a very basic level, at odds with science, and I could say much more along these lines just based on my experience with photography. What’s less funny is the underlying Thomist assumption that there can only be one intellectually correct interpretation and only one right set of conclusions, namely those espoused by the bearer of the dogma, and that any departure from that must be a result of either misinformation or bad faith. When communists censored dissenting opinions, part of it was a genuine conviction that such opinions were obviously nonsensical and therefore there was no reason to disseminate them. When they lost the 1946 referendum in Poland, they blamed it on “confused thinking” and “complete ignorance” among the population. In a similar vein, but centuries earlier, the Catholic Inquisition might first try intellectual arguments, but if the accused were not persuaded, that constituted proof that they were possessed by the devil, because how else could they not agree? Thomists responding to Tischner informed him on a regular basis that he did not really know St. Thomas, because had he known him, he’d love him.

I started drawing my own analogies long before the point where Tischner actually uses the word “mathematical.” Like a good Augustinian, I’ll start with specifics. A couple of weeks ago, in a comment section far away, a mathematician proposed to “solve racism” by generalizing it (to something he never quite defined) so that racism itself would follow easily as a special case. In a different comment section last year, several mathematicians insisted on a purely mechanistic solution to sexism in mathematics. They accepted it as a self-evident axiom that mathematicians were progressive and well-intentioned people who would automatically eliminate sexism from their ranks if it only were pointed out to them. One might of course wonder why it hasn’t worked yet; but one would then be doubting an axiom, an act that’s not only morally reprehensible but, worse, logically inexplicable.

I’m thinking of mathematicians who’ve argued with my blog posts by taking shots at some sentence pulled out of context, the way they might point to an incorrect formula in a math paper. I’m thinking of one person who started a discussion with me, then allowed reluctantly in response to my arguments that he might not be able to change my mind after all, because convincing people is hard in general. Apparently, the possibility of me convincing him had never been on the table. I’m thinking of those who expected I’d stop believing in that gender bias thing if they only could explain it all to me, almost like religious evangelists. Sorry, no. I’ve heard your arguments many times already. I disagree with them, not because I don’t understand them well enough, but because I do. They don’t address my experience, and they never will if you keep starting from your own axioms instead.

It became clear to me over the last couple of years that I’m not, and probably never have been, part of a “mathematical community” of any kind. Sure, some of my best friends are mathematicians. I do my expected share of “service to the community.” But after hours, I’d rather kick off my shoes with people who at least share my logic. I’d rather discuss experiences, not axioms. I’d rather debate someone who’s actually listening to me, not just building his own castles of abstraction.

It’s been claimed by some of those in question that mathematics itself supports Thomist thinking. (As in, “I’m a mathematician and therefore this is how I approach this problem.”) I’m not so clear on that. To some extent, sure: we’re all trained in binary logic and deductive reasoning, as we should be. But in my own research practice, I often work in the Augustinian direction, starting with specific examples and then working towards something more general. Freeman Dyson’s “Birds and Frogs” article comes to mind, except that I’ve met froggy types like me who are incredibly dogmatic on social issues, and birds who are not.

If I were a Thomist, I’d try for a diagnosis, conclusion, and a list of recommendations for my peers. Maybe the problem is when mathematicians Act Like Mathematicians, showing off their smarts where wisdom is called for. Maybe, too, it’s unexamined purchase into the letter of the deductive philosophy of Russell and Bourbaki, without stopping to consider the actual practice of mathematical research; but that argument becomes circular right there. So, instead, I’d rather just leave you with something to think about, and excuse myself from Math Overflow once again.

The complexities of communism

Another day, another political speech mocking science and calling for funding cuts:

Another little one here, which I am sure might be a favourite of many sitting on the opposition side, is a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism—$60,000. Another one here is $180,000 for a study rethinking the history of Soviet Stalinism to provide a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of Stalin’s Russia. We know the complexities—obviously, Stalin must have been a good bloke who was misunderstood. We need $180,000 to find that out.

That kind of rhetoric has of course been seen and debunked many times before, but still keeps coming back. No, we don’t need to spend money to “study” whether Stalin was a good guy or not. That’s clear enough. The specifics of it, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether. Especially with so many politicians throwing around words like “socialism” or “central planning,” it would indeed help to have a better understanding of the concrete realities and mechanisms involved, both among specialists and in the popular discourse.

I’m still reading and thinking about Tony Judt’s “Postwar.” I wrote one post about communism already and got into some discussions elsewhere (hi everyone!), so I’ll follow up on that. I’ve said that Judt does not really explain how the Eastern European “planned economies” actually worked, a matter that tends to be widely misunderstood in the West. I’ll try to clean that up a little bit here.

Let’s start with what Judt does talk about: emphasis on unprofitable and outdated heavy industry, rigid quota, bureaucracy, inefficiency, corruption, wastefulness, shortages and supply bottlenecks.

The crippling defect of Communist economies by this time [the 1970s] was endemic, ideologically-induced inefficiency. Because of an unbending insistence upon the importance of primary industrial output for the `construction of socialism’, the Soviet bloc missed the switch from extensive to intensive, high-value production that transformed Western economies in the course of the Sixties and Seventies. Instead it remained reliant upon a much earlier model of economic activity, redolent of Detroit or the Ruhr in the 1920s, or late nineteenth-century Manchester.

Thus Czechoslovakia – a country with very limited resources in iron – was by 1984 the world’s third largest (per capita) exporter of steel. To the bitter end, the GDR was planning ever-expanded production of obsolete heavy industrial goods. No-one who had any choice actually wanted to buy Czech steel or East German machines, except at heavily subsidized prices; these goods were thus produced at a loss. In effect, Soviet-style economies were now subtracting value – the raw materials they imported or dug out of the ground were worth more than the finished goods into which they were transformed. […]

Much of the responsibility for all this lay with the inherent defects of centralized planning. By the late 1970s Gosplan, the Soviet central economic planning agency, had forty departments for different branches of the economy and twenty seven separate economic ministries. The obsession with numerical targets was notorious to the point of self-parody: Timothy Garton-Ash cites the example of `The People’s Economy Plan for the Borough of Prenzlauer Berg’ (in East Berlin), where it was announced that `Book-holdings in the libraries are to be increased from 350,000 to 450,000 volumes. The number of borrowings is to be increased by 108.2 percent.’

The description is absolutely correct and the anecdotes ring true. I could add more along the same lines. The symptoms were obvious enough, easy to mock and critique.

But wait. Why, exactly, was heavy industry so important to the communists? Was it a matter of ideology, as Judt suggests? While Marxist theory does (sort of) prioritize industry over agriculture, it does not prescribe favouring any specific kind of industry in particular. Even if it did, communists have been known to make greater compromises in the name of staying in power, going all the way back to NEP in the early days of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had plans to reorient the economy towards production of consumer articles in the 1960s; after the unfortunate initial period of hardship and difficult choices, socialism was to bring prosperity and abundance. There was talk of similar reforms in the satellite states. With all the central planning structures at their disposal, why didn’t the communists go ahead and reallocate the resources accordingly? Were they stupid, or suicidal?

On a related note: in popular imagination, “Communism” is synonymous not only with inefficiency, shortages and corruption, but also with a rigid, brutal totalitarian system, 1984-style. How did those two aspects of it coexist? Aren’t dictatorships supposed to be good at making trains run on time? Is there some reason why the government couldn’t just mandate a transition from heavy industry to intensive high-value production, and then have the security apparatus enforce it? Why, for that matter, were the bureaucrats allowed to continue in their inefficient ways? There’s a long record of unsuccessful government-initiated attempts to overhaul and modernize socialist economies, from the 1960s all the way to Gorbachev’s perestroika in the 1990s. Why did they fail? Inertia is often mentioned, and rightly so – but can’t inertia be broken by force? Evidently, the ruthless dictators (and make no mistake, they were ruthless) did not actually have that much power over their own domains.

Continue reading “The complexities of communism”

History as written by emigrants

I’m reading Tony Judt’s “Postwar”, a history of Europe since 1945 until the 1990s. It’s an excellent book, impressive in its breadth of scope and attention to detail, encyclopaedic at times, yet still very readable. I’m finding it more than worth my time and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding Europe’s history and politics.

I’m also finding that Judt’s analysis of Western Europe is much better than that of the Eastern Bloc. “Postwar” is fascinating in its account of the larger political, social and economic processes that constrained the main actors in the West: why a remilitarized West Germany was inevitable, for example, or how the loss of overseas colonies affected the European balance of power. The Eastern European history is, by comparison, more superficial.

Given the sheer number of names, dates and facts in the volume, Judt can be forgiven for the occasional inaccuracies. (The Polish leader that Gomulka replaced in October 1956 was Ochab, not Bierut who had died in March 1956; Ilia Rips is a man, not a woman; and so on.) What matters more is that, while Judt tries to avoid the “few great men” version of Western European history, he succumbs to it somewhat in writing about the East. Eastern Europe is seen disproportionately through the prism of Western headlines and secondary sources (the show trials, the major uprisings), with less attention paid to social analysis and the reality of life on the ground.

Judt, of course, has very good excuses. It would take a large team of experts, not a single author, to access and interpret primary sources in all of the languages involved. Moreover, there’s only so much that can be done within the constraints of a single encyclopaedic volume of much wider scope, meant to be accessible to an audience with little prior familiarity with the subject. In a limited “teaching time”, it’s a perfectly valid strategy to focus on those parts that can be explained effectively with less effort. I’ve done it myself on occasion, both in my math teaching and here on this blog.

Still, there’s a lot missing. Take the economy, for starters. Judt speaks of the economic failure of socialism, but never really explains how a Soviet-style planned economy was organized, how it was different from Western European social and economic planning (the subject of many misconceptions in the West), or why it did not and could not work. This is important because, without that information, most readers will just assume that Eastern European central planning was much like in Western Europe, only more rigid and dysfunctional. It was not. Its origins, philosophy, mechanism and execution were all very different from anything known in the Western world. To give one example, all prices (including food and consumer articles) were dictated by the government, and I really mean dictated, not just regulated or subsidized. (Francis Spufford’s “Red Plenty” is excellent on that, and I’d also recommend Anne Applebaum’s “The Iron Curtain” on the early postwar years in Eastern Europe.)

Judt’s Western chapters are so good in part because of how he writes on large and small scales simultaneously, humanizing politics and, at the same time, distilling general trends from a mass of individual events. To wit:

Street scenes in post-war Britain would have been familiar to citizens in the Soviet bloc – in the words of one British housewife, recalling these years, `It was queues for everything, you know, even if you didn’t know what you were queuing for… you joined it because you knew there was something at the end of it.’

No Eastern European housewives were similarly interviewed, at least in the part of the book I’ve read so far. If they had been, they could have talked about how queues formed first thing in the morning and waited for hours before anyone even knew whether anything would be delivered that day. This went on into the 1970s and 80s, not just the early post-war years. They could have talked of the power and water outages that could happen any time, the decrepit 1950s buildings with communal kitchens and bathrooms, or carrying a baby stroller up to the 5th floor of a walk-up apartment building while pregnant with their next child. Likewise, factory workers (both male and female) could have spoken of the long hours, insane schedules, ever-increasing norms, inhuman and unsafe work conditions. It would have explained the desperation behind the strikes, protests and riots.

I started writing this post in response to the chapter on the events of 1968 in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Continue reading “History as written by emigrants”