|Manuscripts Don’t Burn
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|Author:||Robert Tulip [ Sun Sep 03, 2017 9:37 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Manuscripts Don’t Burn|
Reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov has opened my eyes once again to the vast tragic humane visionary world of literature and politics surrounding the modern history of Russia.
This weekend I was able to visit one of my favourite bookshops, at Ulmarra, https://www.localstore.com.au/store/152 ... s/ulmarra/ and discovered that the shopkeeper had a large half price second hand Bulgakov collection, which I was able to pick up in its entirety for a very reasonable outlay. As well as Manuscripts Don’t Burn, the collection of Bulgakov’s letters with introductions based on the most celebrated line in The Master and Margarita, I now possess two more copies of M&M, one translated by Glenny and the other again by Pevear and Volokhonsky, so I can give my aunty’s copy back after ten years, now that I have read it. I also got The White Guard, Black Snow, The Heart of a Dog and A Country Doctor’s Notebook.
I look forward to gradually reading these testaments to the spirit of humanity in an inhuman world, not as the furtive samizdat typed photocopies that Soviet dissidents read, but as actual secondhand paperbacks.
Why the obsession? As I follow the rise in totalitarian thinking in the USA, on both left and right, I am deeply concerned at the forgetting of how this has happened before in history, in rhyme if not repeat. Bulgakov was a White Russian, a Tsarist. His efforts to become a writer in Soviet Russia were therefore impossible, since any questioning of Bolshevik Orthodoxy earned a one way ticket to the gulag, or nine grams of lead in the skull.
His intense humanity, and his sense that Trotsky was the psychotic destroyer of everything good and sane, provided the inspiration for his writing, what he calls, in a French word that has some English currency, his idée fixe. The translator notes that Bulgakov saw Trotsky rather than Lenin as the real leader of the Russian Revolution, quite an interesting historical point. The rise today of a dogmatic anti-fascist movement draws heavily from Trotsky’s ideas, including Trotsky’s depraved ability to demonise everything traditional and moral as mere cloak for mercenary class interests.
When Bulgakov worked as a country doctor in Grozny in 1919, as is related and documented in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, he wrote a short newspaper article calling for military counter-revolutionary action, decrying the pit of shame and calamity brought by communism, calling for those scoundrels and madmen to be driven out, scattered and destroyed. Such sentiments naturally drew the attention of the secret police, and it is quite remarkable that Bulgakov was never arrested, obviously due to his talent, and Stalin’s wish for some social reconciliation with the reactionary forces and enemies of the people, not all of whom could be purged and re-educated.
Bulgakov sought to suppress his Grozny article, and then when his diary was seized in 1925, and later returned, he burnt all his diaries. Surprisingly, it turned out that the secret policy typed up a copy of all the incendiary content, helping to explain the meaning of the title phrase. Bulgakov’s diaries were found in neat KGB typescript when the archives of the secret police were opened in the 1980s.
I hope this thread can be a place to explore the political context for The Master and Margarita, asking general questions that don't relate to specific chapters, and explaining more broadly how that secret book satirised Stalin and his henchmen as violent buffoons.
M&M brings Satan to Moscow in the 1920s and 30s. We could equally imagine his Satanic presence in the world today, working malevolent mischief. It surprised me in reading the introduction to Manuscripts Don’t Burn that the translator thought that Satan in M&M was an agent of good. I did not read it that way at all. I thought that Satan was a caricature of Stalin, doing impossible things to illustrate how the actions of the communists, such as their zany five year plans backed up by bullets and barbed wire, would have been rejected as impossible, were Russia sane.
|Author:||Harry Marks [ Fri Sep 08, 2017 9:47 am ]|
|Post subject:||Re: Manuscripts Don’t Burn|
But Robert, the five-year plans were an economic success. I say this with not a hint of irony. The incredible success of Stalin's relocation of his war plant beyond the Urals in response to Hitler's invasion was just the most dramatic example of the fact that central planning, backed by bullets and barbed wire, can actually accomplish amazing feats.
Russia's economic growth in the 20s and 30s exceeded that of any Western nation, even after we subtract off the horrific effects of the forced collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine. Again in the 50s it resumed its phenomenal growth rate. By using factories to build more factories, you can increase production at a pace which market forces will not choose on their own.
I always try to convey this to my students so they will understand the appeal of a non-market, government-centered approach in the developing countries around the late 50s and early 60s. Honestly it looked like a no-brainer. Give up a little freedom in exchange for industrialization and sufficiency? Of course! What good does freedom do you if you are starving?
To understand why the system then ground to a sluggish slog, in the 70s and 80s, you have to think about innovation, and about producing quality, not quantity. Both innovation and quality are very responsive to market incentives, and central planning (especially with an egalitarian structure) is hostile to both.
Gorbachev was, like other Soviet leaders, not so dumb, and after he saw the trends, it was clear they needed market incentives. China and then Vietnam have come to the same conclusion. But that doesn't erase the sheer awesome productivity of a command economy, when it is just doing more of what has been successful in the past and doing it on a massive scale.
|Author:||Robert Tulip [ Mon Sep 11, 2017 10:50 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: Manuscripts Don’t Burn|
Yes, but as the eventual collapse of the Warsaw Pact in the 1980s proved, the amazing feats were not sustainable, because they rested upon direct denial of facts. That was Bulgakov’s early intuition, coming from the same social background as Ayn Rand, who formed the same radical anti-communist conclusion.
The White Guardists who sought to restore Tsarism saw Bolshevism as sheer madness, and did not imagine that such vast social classes could be swept up by ideological fervour to establish a command economy that would deliver national security. Similarly, I think Hitler imagined lopping the hydra’s head in Moscow would be a doddle, without recognising that the political dynamic of communism can generate strong military power, as Kim Jong Un is now showing the world, with this recrudescent death throe of a failed system.
The Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest tells the story of the forced famine in Ukraine, when Stalin surrounded that sad nation with a ring of steel and stole all its food, starving ten million people to death, sending secret police to force people to give their last food to the state.
Hayek provides some caustic illustrations of how the absence of catallaxy in a command system leads to economic decisions of numbing stupidity. Catallaxy is trusted exchange in markets, and is banned by communism, which thereby signs its own death warrant.
As this communist idea has wended its way toward its end point, in Mugabe, the Kim dynasty, Pol Pot and other corrupt venal brutal monsters, with Mao and Stalin the worst, this devil’s pact of communism has shown that selling your soul is a bad deal.
Losing freedom means installing a tyrant, who will make economic decisions for his praetorian interest, forgetting the needs of the people, who can go hang for all their leaders care. The clique of “more equal than others” despots will become fabulously rich and powerful, like Pontius Pilate in The Master and Margarita, securing their position with guns.
This is all why transparency and accountability are the core virtues of good governance, and why seductive lies from demagogues have to be resisted by a resolute focus on freedom. That is why Bulgakov portrays Stalin as the devil.
Central planning means that bureaucrats make production decisions, based on politics rather than profit. As such, the incentives of communism are blind to market signals, and the end result is that state ownership produces prodigious waste, demoralisation, corruption, oppression and poverty.
And meanwhile the people can see the bright lights across the democratic border, until information is ruthlessly suppressed, adding a numbing ignorance and deception to the cocktail of insane suffering. When I visited North Korea in 1989, my guides sincerely believed they lived in the best country on earth. What an inoculation that was for me.
The comparison between Russia and China presents a signal lesson in the trade off between stability and freedom. Deng thought Gorbachev was a fool for failing to see that any retreat from stable despotism towards democracy would cause systemic collapse. So China has retained political despotism while allowing market capitalism. This was summed up for me in Jiang Zemin’s comment that his two favourite authors were Mao Tse Tung and Milton Friedman.
|Author:||Harry Marks [ Tue Sep 12, 2017 3:18 pm ]|
|Post subject:||Re: Manuscripts Don’t Burn|
Yes, the rulers tend to believe they have been put in charge of things because they are the best choice for the job. To the MBA class I say, beware!
Yes, particularly because Stalin had built up a record of purging his own generals, and the more competent the more likely that they would be purged. I don't know how much was known outside Russia about all that, but I do know that Hitler was relatively clueless about economics, so he would have had no concept of the possibility of a whole new economy sprouting up twice as far away from Germany as Moscow was.
I am not familiar with the term, or with Hayek's analysis on the point, but it is an interesting one. Often, of course, the trust that matters is bankers trusting corporate tycoons to manage investments successfully, (by honest means if necessary), and we know that not all corrupt venal brutal monsters are communist. I sometimes wonder if Bill Gates had a soul to sell but he seems to be genuinely interested in improving the world, now that he has made one of the biggest boodles of all time.
That's pretty oversimplified. True in essence, but oversimplified. The workers of the communist bloc enjoyed better lives before markets than after markets. "Decisions based on politics" in practice means taking into account what is good for people. The old BBC (before Thatcher, but to some extent even today) illustrates this kind of top-down decision-making. It did not fill people's time with distraction and drivel like the U.S. "market responsive" system did. Similarly, the centrally planned economy took people from mass poverty to essential sufficiency in a relatively short amount of time, by emphasizing needs. Tractors, not cars, apartment blocs, not suburban sprawl for the middle class minority, bread, not cakes. The problem was that it could not duplicate the feat when there was enough bread and people were ready for cakes. And, of course, it also had the problem that it bred waste, demoralisation, corruption, and oppression.
It may be that the rule of law, which is coming on strong in China, is more important than competition for elections. The Chinese system of recruiting elites through a single party is not, in principle, a bad system of governance. The fact that it needed to use violence and suppression of freedom to keep its power is certainly a serious downside, but it enabled the Party to clamp down on population growth, which is surely behind much of China's soaring growth in the 90s and 00s, and one could make a case that China is now capable of growth within freedom as long as it respects the rule of law. China is showing more sign of dealing effectively with greenhouse emissions than the US is, and we should not be too quick to extol the virtues of adversarial politics.
I got a serious introduction to the possibility today of effective governance outside electoral accountability, in the form of a presentation about how traditional leaders maintain legitimacy partly by embracing modernity and giving oversight and guidance outside the framework of party politics. The Thai King, the Queen of England and several other European monarchs have pulled off the feat of lending stability through the use of moral authority to hold the politicians accountable. Tradition holds within itself the promise of aspiring to excellence. Elected leaders have sometimes (almost always in war time, come to think of it) risen to the task of holding their country to such aspirations, but often the brute fact of opposition tends to drag the discussion into the weeds of competing interests and to preclude a priority for common interests.
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