Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin and the "Not So Fine" Art of Propaganda

Boris Yeltsin's death was reported yesterday and the New York Times ran an
obituary. Ironically, I lectured yesterday in a class about the crisis
of socialism in the 1970s leading to the victory of Mikhail Gorbachev
and the eventual overthrow of the Soviet state and society.

In some of my classes I occasionally read reports from mass media,
particularly the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as examples
of "capitalist realism," that is, the information that we are given and
the interpretations that we are expected to make "freely" in our "open
society." Today, Because a printer failed to work, an example perhaps of
contemporary capitalist technology, I mentioned key points from the obituary
and used it, to the delight of many of the students, as an example of
"capitalist realism."

"Capitalist realism" works the way anti-Communists liked to say
"socialist
realism" used to work, that is, there is the truth and there is the
official
position(the "politically correct" position of the Communist party under
"socialist realism" and the biased assumptions and distorted information
of the
capitalist class under "capitalist realism," according to me, the Marxist
originator of that term, for what it is worth).

With capitalist realism, you
have got to read between the lines, and, as I have done with the New
York Times
for nearly half a century, I will try to read between the lines of Marilyn
Berger's obituary,where "the facts" of the Yeltsin
story are presented but never seriously contextualized or analyzed and
the assumptions that have guided generations of anti-Communist and
anti-Soviet propaganda are held onto like a security blanket.

So, Berger tells us, there were corrupt "oligarchs" who privatized and
robbed
the Soviet
economy. Yeltsin was still a "democrat." So he ruled at times like a
Czar, and violated the most elemental civil rights and liberties. He
still brought freedom and "democracy" to Russia, or rather helped to destroy
"the hell on
earth" that the Soviet Union was,(my reasonable reading of Berger's view of
Soviet history, given what she writes) and which of course is
responsible for
everything that was bad in the Soviet epoch and everything that is bad today


Let me begin by poking some fun at the expense of the
obituary and then make some serious points about Yeltsin, since humor is
always
a good tool to use against the pompous and bigoted

The obit portrays Yeltsin as an "erratic reformer," who sometimes
"ruled as a Czar" was "crude," heroically defeated a "right-wing
coup" against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, and became convinced,
after a visit to a Houston supermarket in 1989, that the Soviet
Union's "bloated" inefficient horrible economy and system of centralized
planning was the root of all evil.
Using quotes from Leon Aron's simple to be generous

pro-Yeltsin
biography, Berger states that Yeltsin was "overwhelmed at what he saw
at a Houston supermarket, the Kaleidescopic variety of meats and
vegetables available to ordinary Americans." For Yeltsin this was the
turning point, like Paul on the road to Damascus, a conversion that Nikita
Khruschev failed to make in U.S. kitchen in Moscow in 1959, when he was
informed of the superiorities of American consumer capitalism by Richard
Nixon,
aka St. Richard The Expletive Deleted.

Thirty years after the kitchen debate in Moscow, and fifteen years after
his resignation to prevent impeachment, Richard Nixon finally achieved
historical vindication in 1989
Then, as you may remember, Nixon wagged his finger at Khruschev
whose blustering personality might remind some of Yeltsin, and extolled
the glories of "free enterprise"in a model U.S. Kitchen, which was
part of an American exhibit in Moscow, informing Khruschev that his
father was a
humble shopkeeper. Khruscheve replied that "all shopkeepers are thieves."

Nixon used the event as further
evidence that he would "stand up" to the Russians, as he unsuccessfully
tried to
stand up to John F. Kennedy in the Kennedy-Nixon debates(Kennedy and
Khrushev exchanged notes about Nixon's pointing his finger at them to
look good for the cameras at their first Summit meeting).

The obituary extolls Yeltsin for "standing up" to the Soviets and the
Communists(which in the rest of the world would be called betraying his
country)
It hails him for leading the opposition to the 1991
"right-wing coup," a term that he used even though the forces supporting him
would be considered right-wing in the rest of the world.
The coup of course one of the strangest "coups" in history much more
Monty
Python than Augusto Pinochet. A group of
Soviet officials, believing apparently that they had Gorbachev's
support, declared martial law. They also sent word, students of the
events have contended,
to Yeltsin that they
would not threaten him(he had earlier issued directives outlawing the
Communist party in the Russian federation and was trying to assume
dictatorial
powers himself as president of the federation). When Gorbachev did not
support his cabinet members' action, they cut his telephone
communications(he
was not in Moscow at the time) but did not
use force against him or Yeltsin, or the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet
groups
that were proliferating in the final years of the Gorbachev leadership

Real coups are characterized by armed force, the arrest at least if not
execution of political rivals, and the direct use of both the military
and politice power(I am not advocating coups but that is what coups are).
In August of 1991, there were only a few
half-hearted attempts by the officials who declared a national emergency
to call upon troops to support them. There was no coup planning what so
ever because the officials didn't really think that they were launching
a coup. Four people lost their lives in the subsequent fiasco as the
capitalist
world cheered
for the victory of "democracy."
Many writers today make the point that most Russians stayed at home
during these events in utter confusion and that the great majority of the
crowds who
cheered Yeltsin at his street rallies were members of the criminal
syndicates who were in the process of becoming a major part of the "new
Russian" capitalist class.

In the aftermath of the "coup" that wasn't, Gorbachev returned with
Yeltsin as the strong man. Gorbachev, General Secretary of the CPSU,
signed orders abolishing the CPSU. Although virtually all polls showed
at the
time
that an overwhelming majority of people in the Soviet republics wanted
the Soviet Union to continue in some form, the leaders of the Soviet
Republics at the end of the year abolished the Soviet Union and replaced
it with an oxymoron called the "Commonwealth of Independant States."
Ms. Berger goes on to say in a grotesque manner that Yetlsin "showed no
reluctance to use the power of the presidency to face down his opponents
as he did in a showdown in 1993 when he ordered tanks to fire upon the
parliament, dominated by openly seditious Communists..."
"Openly seditious Communists" who were fighting what by then was clearly
a corrupt oligarcy. Although Berger goes into these bloody events in greater
detail, "openly seditious Communists" not a variety of Duma members, is what
readers are supposed to come away with. From my reading of events at the
time,
hundreds of people(not from my reading the dozens
she claims) lost their lives in the storming of the State Duma and
those captured, including the late Mike Davidoff, reporter for the PWW,
received brutal treatment as they were compelled to walk through
gauntlets. Davidoff who was in the Duma told me of his experiences and the
psychological and physical brutality used by the Yeltsin military in the
siege
and the attack.

The Clinton administration supported Yeltsin to the hilt and claimed
that these acts were "necessary" to protect "Russian democracy"

Berger then goes on to quote a variety of "post-Soviet" anti-Communist
sources which merely show the depth of the hostility and hatred that the
Soviet Union faced from its capitalist enemies from the 1917 revolution
to the 1991 counter-revolution. That the CIA had advised George Bush I
to continue to support Gorbachev as against Yeltsin whom they regarded
as an unstable alcoholic is not highlighted, although former Secretary
of State
James Baker's generous characterization of him as a "flake" is mentioned.

The misery and suffering of the Soviet people from the 1990s on as the death
rate rose spectactularly and both economic and pyschological depression
became(and for large numbers still is) a way of life is mentioned but,
in the
"capitalist realist tradition," not connected to any analysis.
Berger then recounts Yeltsin's life, portraying him as a "populist,"
ignoring
the fact that someone of his origin would have much less chance to
advance in
any capitalist country, even if such a person had the intelligence and
ability
that Yeltsin rarely showed. Also, one might add that his free
education and
career were the result of
the Soviet system.

That Yeltsin was brought into the leadership of the Moscow party by
Mikhail Gorbachev as part of Gorbachev's disastrous "Perstroika"
program is mentioned not given the importance that it deserves.

Perestroika, which had many high minded intentions, permitted in reality
black marketeers and corrupt bureaucrats to set up "cooperatives" that
siphoned off resources from the Soviet public economy and created
something like an
economic depression in the Soviet Union.

The economic crisis, which was the result of many factors, including
the longterm negative effects of cold war spending on the capital poor
Soviet Union and the huge global price inflation of the 1970S and 1980s,
encouraged a wide variety of anti-socialist and anti-Soviet political
forces, from ethnic nationalists in the Republics and Russian
chauvinists to "reformers" advocating private ownership of property,
private investments, and stock markets, to flourish.

Along with the economic crisis, a crisis developed in the Soviet
Communist party and Yeltsin turned on his benefactor, Gorbachev, to
become the political shill for these anti-Communist, anti-Soviet forces,
particularly the alliance
of black marketeers and bureaucrats who were expanding their influence
over the crisis ridden Soviet economy and government, establishing
parallel capitalist enterprises, and forming what
were in effect large criminal gangs as they tried to both form a capitalist
exploiting class and lead a counter-revolution.

In 1988, Gorbachev, fighting against both the Yeltsin group and
traditional Marxist-Leninists in the CPSU whom he called
"conservatives," in effect used his power to permit Yeltsin to become
President of the Russian Federation. The choices were Yeltsin or a
traditional Soviet Communist, since the "perestroika" Communist whom
Yeltsin was backing had no chance to win. In effect, Gorbachev, by
failing to act, chose Yeltsin as he in a sense would in 1991.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev as
capitalism's man in the Kremlin. The gangsters and bureaucrats whose
alliance
was born through
"Perestroika" carried out what was probably the greatest theft in human
history, the privatizing and looting of a socialist Soviet economy which
had risen
from the crippling effects of war and revolution to both survive and
also become a source of both inspiration and practical support for
socialist and anti-imperialist forces through the world. What right did
anyone under any law have to take over the factories and other
enterprises created entirely by socialist labor?

Like Ronald Reagan and George Bush I in the 1980s in Afghanistan, Boris
Yeltsin also
created a Frankenstein monster in the 1990s in Chechnya, a part of the
Russian
federation, first by supporting anti-Communist nationalist elements to
overwhelm the local Communist led Soviet and then, when these elements
threatened
Russian authority over a strategically important region, launching an
invasion that levelled the regional capital Grozny, and sowed the seeds
for terrorist attacks that continue to this day.

As his government swam in a sea of corruption and chaos, Yeltsin himself
stumbled and fumbled and combined his blustery statements with private
feelings of self-pity, becoming a truly ridiculous character whom it was
difficult to believe had really played such an important and negative
role in history.

Jack F. Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union praised in the
obit
both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, claiming that "they destroyed the most
monstrous political system in the history of the world, a regime with
extensive resources to keep itself in power." In that statement(which
of course includes everything from Caligula to Ghengis Khan to Hitler) he
captures perfectly the hatred and contempt that the capitalist world had
for the Soviet Union and their support for anyone and anything under any
circumstances that would work to destroy it. In that sense, the enemies of
peace and co-existence, the dogmatists and haters, were much more
prevalent on
the "free world" side of what Winston Churchill called the Iron curtain

If you wish to find monuments to Boris Yeltsin, look at the inequality,
poverty, corrupt and feeble government that the former Soviet people
live under.
Clifford Odets, the American playwright and then Communist had a
socialist character in his 1930s play Awake and Sing, say that "you should
fight so that the meaning of life is not written on dollar bills."
Today the lives of former Soviet citizens are expressed in money and what
money buys. This is the legacy of Boris Yeltsin and his friendly
enemy, Mikhail Gorbachev, along with the agressive global policies of
reaction and imperialism that the destruction of the Soviet Union unleashed.

Let me conclude by turning around an old anti-Soviet joke at Boris Yeltsin's
expense. In the
Soviet Union, the joke went, what is the stage between socialism and
Communism? The answer is
Alcoholism.
For Boris Yeltsin, one might say that alcoholism led directly to freedom,
democracy and "the rule of law"(which if you believe, that, you can
use a drink)

--
Norman Markowitz

14 comments:

John M. said...

Just because the 1991 coup was a failure and inept doesn't mean it wasn't still an attempted coup. There were normal everyday people who stood up to the tanks when they had every fear that the Soviet military would do what it did in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and threatened to do in Poland. I'm no particular fan of Yeltsin and I am not saying that the oligarchic, brutal form of capitalism that has been established is better, but when are Communists going to acknowledge not only the depth of the crimes committed in the name of socialism in the Soviet Union, but also that it collapsed not only due to capitalist encirclement, but its own failures as well?

Joel said...

Why do communists have to denounce USSR every time they open their mouths? Let's put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. Why, when ceaselessly denouncing the Soviets, do anti-Soviet critics not acknowledge that country's accomplishments: e.g., defeating Hitler, an unparalleled level of equality, scientific accomplishments in just decades after feudalism, educational and health care accomplishments, blocking U.S. imperialism, etc.? Communists HAVE argued frequently that internal problems in the USSR played a role in its collapse. Specifically what those were won't be settled by decree. PA has presented a lot of different sides of these questions over the last few years. Anyone can find some of that on PA's website: http://www.politicalaffairs.net.

Lisa W. said...

Why should the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, be singled out for special condemnation?

Let's talk about something that is real now.

Bush launched a war on Iraq on a lie and good estimates say that about 650,000 people have been killed as a result.

That's a mammoth crime carried out in the name of democracy.

Anonymous said...

Me being a communist has nothing to do with the Soviet Union. Sure, that country's history is mixed and a lot of bad people did a lot of bad things. But what that has to do with supporting a movement that fights for the unity of the working-class against exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia and the ultra-right's extremism in the US in 2007 is beyond me.

T. Desmond said...

I don't know anybody who believes rolling tanks into anywhere is ever morally justifiable. The concept of "the ends justifying the means" is bunk. But if someone's big beef with the communists is that they don't systematically discuss debate and rehash stuff that happened before most of them were alive, then I gotta say maybe that person isn't focused on real life. I don't want to be offensive or anything, but aren't there others things in the world to go on about?

John M. said...

Thoughtful responses, all. But I'm sure that T. Desmond feels that we should "systematically discuss debate and rehash" American chattel slavery, the ongoing damage of South African apartheid, and the Holocaust" even though they are "over." I just hope that communists can be rigorous about the history of the USSR since the implications will affect the movement for decades to come. To Joel, yes, PA has aired many sides of the debate over the years. People have also been driven out of the party (though hopefully that is over), but truthfully, the Party has not always been receptive to open and honest debate on this critical subject, has it?

Anonymous said...

As the author of the article that got John M going, and as someone who has failed to register a response in this system, let me try again.
First, John M's response is better than his original statement, in which he got away from what my article was about to make general criticisms of "the Communists" while denying that he had any sympathies for Yeltsin, which I doubt he has, but since he aims his attacks against Communists, like many on the left to the right and to the left of the Communist movement, it is obvious the failures of the Soviet Union mean much more to him than its successes, and that continuing to criticize in a non constructive way Communists is of greater interest to than examining the events and the social forces that have produced the defeats suffered by Communists, social democrats, and liberals, all center left forces, on the world scene, regardless of their differences

History is about context and framework. The "Communists" if John M is serious are a vital part of the left and should be, unless he merely speaking from an armchair for the sake of speaking,and really isn't a part of the left and its movements, a part of him or a part of a larger political family which, however fractured and divided, is seen by those outside it as part of the same political family.
Beating up on Communists and scoring points against Communists doesn't advance political analysis. It produces factionalism, sectarianism, and often criticism for criticisms sake.
In my previous attempted posts I stated my positions which are open and free and have been subject to criticism in and outside of the party and asked John M to state his, beyond putdowns of "the Communists" while denying that he supports the anti-Communists. Does he believe that socialism can be established through an evolutionary process? Does he think that the class struggle is a false idea? Does he believe that a managed humanized capitalism is both possible and should be the practical goal to which the left should focus all of its energies(the de facto social democratic position?). Why, even in his last comment, does he have to say that "the Party has not always been receptive to open and honest debate on this critical subject, has it."
Most capitalist partys don't even have serious debates on much of anything and exist to gain power and patronage for themselves and their members. Social Democratic parties often use debate as ends in themselves while the outcome of debates is decided by behind the scenes manipulations.
I would not deny Communists in the past often saw any criticism of the Soviet Union as anti-Communist, and closed their minds to it, in the U.S. and many other countries where, like the U.S., anti-Communism was bonded to anti-Sovietism and Communists were constantly portrayed as "foreign agents" of an "enemy's country."
But my article was about the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet assumptions that permeated the Yeltsin obituary. Do I have to attack the Soviets for my criticism to have any validity, the way cold warriors forced many activists, including Civil Rights activists, in the 1950s to say that they were not Communists and establishing Civil Rights, even advancing social reforms like national health insurance and full employment legislation, was "the best way to fight Communism."
I hope this goes through. The others haven't. If not I hope it is recovered one day in cyberspace
Norman Markowitz

john m. said...

Sorry your previous responses didn't come through professor, I'd like to read them. You make quite a few assumptions about me which I want to think about some more before I respond. But I am intrigued by this overall response while communists may not always be open to debate on Soviet history "most capitalist parties" are worse. Your standard of comparison is awfully low. If one can't engage in a principled discussion on history with communists without being labeled "anti-communist", then coalition work is going to be more difficult.

JohnP. said...

John M.'s response is worth hearing. Debate, on both sides, should be done in as friendly a manner as possible. But I'm not inclined to see debates on the USSR as a necessary part of coalition work. I have never gone to a coalition meeting where the USSR was a point on the agenda.

I also don't see Mr. Markowitz as unopen to debate. I think his article was about one aspect of the post-Soviet period, and not intended as a discussion of all of Soviet history. JohnM. then demanded he elaborate on all of this other history, which seemed not to be the point of the article at all.

Joel said...

I don't know of anyone "driven out of the party" for any reason. But having been in the party less than 10 years, I guess my knowledge of that is limited.

I agree with JohnM. that discussion about any subject should be done congenially and respectfully, though I understand Norman's apparent suspicions.

I too have met people who want to turn every conversation into a discussion of the Soviet Union (not that that is what JohnM. is doing here), a subject I am neither expert in or too concerned with. I know that isn't a great response and probably will be chastised on all sides for it.

I also didn't think Norman was charging any individual -- other than the author of the Times piece -- with anti-Communism.

I'd also remind all readers that views expressed on this blog here are those of the individual authors. So while I always value and respect Norman's views, they are not presented as official party views.

I'd encourage everyone to check out this interview with Sam Webb from a couple years back: http://politicalaffairs.net/article/view/24/

as well as this longer paper: http://politicalaffairs.net/article/view/984/

Thanks,

Joel

T. Desmond said...

Your response to my point us unclear. Are you subtly saying that Soviet history is comparable to the holocaust, chattel slavery, and apartheid? Or are you saying that there is or should be a debate over whether or not apartheid, slavery, or the holocaust were good or bad?

My point was that being a part of or talking about the Communist Party shouldn't ALWAYS equate to talking about or supporting or favoring the soviet union -- never has and doesn't now.

Also in another of your posts you mentioned debating the Soviet Union is important for getting along in coalition work. Is debating the holocaust or slavery a key item of coalition work? that must be a long meeting.

Isn't it possible to say some things that the Soviets did were good, some were bad (insert stronger language if you like), but winning national health care in the US now, or defeating the GOP in 2008, or winning union rights with the Employee Free Choice Act now, or passing meaningful environmental protections now are worthy causes for progressive people to work together on without being hindered by our views on the USSR?

john M. said...

Glad to see all the discussion. Yes, there are enough urgent things to work on in the here and now. But history is important as well. The issue that "set me off" as the Professor put it was the reference to the attempted coup that implied that it wasn't really one. I then went on to see that in the same light, right or wrong, as certain tendencies to stifle debate on some difficult subjects.

As for the comparison that T. Desmond asked about, yes, in fact I do think that the horrors of the gulag and the Ukrainian famine and the KGB terror are large enough to compare with those other historical crimes, and deserve not to be minimized because someone else did something worse.

For Joel, check out a few bio's from the likes of Dorothy Healy, Peggy Dennis and Al Richmond. All spent decades building the party before leaving.

I will also add that I feel that the Party now is light years from where it was even a few years ago as far as open debate and discussion, and in knowing that real coalition work involves not just tallking to yourselves but also with people who may not agree with you on everything. I found Sam Webb's recent report to be refreshing, accurate, solid analysis and strategy.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think armed intervention and the use of force in just about any situation, even in self-defense, is probably wrong. I say probably, because I am sure someone out there will create a hypothetical situation that seems inescapable.

At the same time, I think it would have been impossible to come to such a conclusion without the horrors of the 20th century, including those in which the USSR were involved. A true believer in progress, I feel, has to come to a similar conclusion about force and violence.

So to the extent that armed interventions such as the Afghanistan intervention in the 1980s, C-S in '68, Hungary '56 used force to defend a socialist or progressive government, i'd say those events have to considered unjust.

But the scale and proportion of those interventions pale in comparison in terms of atrocities and brutalities committed during conflicts led or aided by the US: Korea, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Afghanistan (both in the 1980s and today), aid for Pinochet's mass murders, the ongoing invasion of Iraq, etc.

The USSR's interventions in Eastern Europe pale in comparison in terms of lives lost and the level of the resulting humanitarian crisis to even the US's involvement in the December-January 2006-2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

So I guess it's good to be balanced and not simply open a discussion by accusing communists of not talking about the problems of the USSR.

Anonymous said...

To everyone
This has been a good discussion and I am happy my article elicited it. My suggestion to all is to forget about anti-Communism. It is a dead end for anyone who is part of or has any sympathies with socialism.
To paraphrase the late and very great Karl Marx, we make our own history, but not the have the actors intend it;the first socialist societies in history, of which the Soviet Union remains the greatest example, were the beginnings of an historical process, like the early capitalist societies, including the "failed ones," which reverted to feudal forms.
Without denying their failures, we still judge them against what they were fighting against, just as Karl Marx, in defending the Paris Commune from its legions of villifiers, made the point that its use of terror against clerics and other enemies, while real, did not compare with the mass killing carried out by the army that destroyed the Commune. History has to be about comparisons and context. That isn't a low standard, since socialism is not a laboratory experiment, but a social system coming into existence through revolutionary struggle, developing its forms out of that struggle, with guidelines but no blue print from Marxist theory.
A rich absolutist feudal Spain for example might seem more "humane" on a variety of issues in the late 16th century than an absolutist Britain, where a capitalist transformation based on primitive accumulation was being carried forward. But the latter and not the former represented in its development a more advanced and more progressive system that would make possible a world where a significant part of humanity did not lead their lives sick and hungry most of the time and mired in other worldly philosophies.
A while ago I spoke at the opening of the CPUSA papers at the Tamiment library(the text of my presntation can be found on both PA and PWW online under the title, "Party of Hope." I asked this question which I think is germaine to this discussion. Where would the world be today, without the successes and achievements of the Communist movement, both in the U.S. and globally. I would say the same thing about the Soviet Union?