I am currently very focused on the ascent to power of Communism in Russia, not because it had anything to recommend it, but for the lessons it can teach us. Some of those lessons are ones the author of this book, Sean McMeekin, wants to impart—the dangers of left-wing ideology, primarily. Those are valuable lessons, certainly, but if we haven’t learned them after many decades of left-wing horror shows, we’re not going to learn them from this book. The lessons I am seeking, therefore, are more dynamic: how power can be grasped and used in fluid, chaotic situations, and by what kind of people. And those lessons are also on full display in this book, even if I did not learn any new ones.
This is a book that rewards patience. The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort. Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book. I think the rest escaped me. That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication. And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.
In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day. The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
Cass Sunstein has gathered an ensemble cast of today’s intellectual Davoisie (several of whom taught me in law school) to tell us, in seventeen separate essays, whether Trump is the harbinger of American structural doom, and if so, how. It is illuminating to read this book immediately after having read Glenn Reynolds’s The Judiciary’s Class War, with its distinction between the ruling Front-Row Kids and the ruled Back-Row Kids. This is because ultimately nearly all the authors presented here believe that “it” can’t, or is extremely unlikely to, “happen here,” because they expect the Front-Row Kids to be able to stop “it.” That is, in different ways but with the same result, the authors expect that people just like them will continue to rule, Trump and the peasants be damned.
When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state. We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War. Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution. As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin. Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it. His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.
This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains. I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000. Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book. Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day. But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome. This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.
Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented. Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005). He is even-handed and insightful. The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period. Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C. The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter. On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book …
There is a scene in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a character comes across a book of philosophy (Schopenhauer) and realizes in a soaring epiphany that it contains the answers to all of life’s questions. For me, this book served much the same purpose—it explained to me why certain things are the way they are in the modern world. Although, sadly, it did not explain “all of life’s questions,” such as what is contained in Area 51. (I will also gloss over that the character in Mann’s novel quickly forgets the supposed answers and then drops dead of a tooth infection.)
Most of us have only the dimmest idea of Russian history prior to the Soviet era. We’re vaguely aware that there were some Mongols, then Ivan the Terrible (not a Romanov), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and then a mass slaughter by the Bolsheviks. Along the way there was lots of unpleasantness; Napoleon was somehow involved too. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs” fills in all the gaps, at least from 1613 onward. And then it fills the gaps some more, until the flood of information becomes nearly overwhelming—although, at the same time, the reader is aware that the book is only scratching the surface with regard to any particular decade in Russian history. But at the end, the reader’s knowledge is vastly improved, and really, can you ask for any more?