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This past Monday, the global left celebrated May Day – International Workers’ Day. Around the world, workers marched in the streets, in some places violently, demanding better pay, working conditions, and an end to capitalist exploitation. For a civilization that thought globalization and the end of communism had brought about the end of history, all this is no doubt unsettling and comes as a great shock. Marx, it seems, is having the last laugh after all.
For the doctrinaire free marketeers – whose nihilistic mantra of one from all and all to us is at least partly responsible for this resurgence – the unease with unfettered capitalism in places as disparate as Seattle, Bangladesh, and Spain comes as a great shock. Combined with the catastrophic collapse of the world economy in 2008, a demoralizing event for the capitalist faithful to be sure, the intellectual leaders who have so long touted the market as a cure-all for all the world’s ills seem adrift in the sea of reality. What can be done, they might ask, to restore the good name capitalism previously had?
In answer to that question, capitalist leaders in the West, especially on the conservative right in the United States, should look to two of the greatest leaders of the late twentieth century. Neither were capitalists, and neither were Westerners. Indeed, both were ostensibly communists and came from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, respectively. Their experience in trying to salvage something from the ossified roots of their failed ideology demonstrates that pragmatism, rather than political correctness, is what all leaders should strive for, regardless of their ideological predisposition.
The first leader, of course, is Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the man who not only is most responsible for ushering in the end of the Cold War but of the Soviet Union itself. Gorbachev’s background is an interesting one. Born in March of 1931, young Mikhail was the first, and as it turned out, only leader of the Soviet Union to have been born after the establishment of the communist regime in 1917. As such, he saw the system not as a crusading revolutionary – like Lenin, Stalin, or Khrushchev might have – but as a citizen who knew full well the failings of his own society.
Growing up under communism
Gorbachev as a young boy, for instance, witnessed and lived through the great Soviet famine of the 1930s – a man-made catastrophe caused by murderous, brutally misguided agricultural policies imposed on Soviet agricultural communities by Josef Stalin. It killed millions, including half the people in Gorbachev’s home village and several members of his immediate family. The consequences of ideology-driven policy were obvious to him from very early on.
In 1941, just having barely turned ten, Gorbachev saw the Second World War up close. Poverty, hardship and desperation were things that, as a young man, he knew intrinsically. When the war ended and stability of a sort returned to the lands Moscow ruled, Gorbachev left his farming community for study – eventually becoming a lawyer and rising through the ranks of the Communist Party apparatus to a leadership position in his home region.
This rise through the ranks was facilitated both by his success as a politician and his ability to get things done. In 1970, for instance, he was appointed the regional party chief of Stavropol Kraikom, where he ably reorganized collective farms, improved worker conditions, helped increase agricultural production by increasing the size of private plots, and expanded worker participation in collective-farm decision-making. This success brought attention from higher-ups, who in short order promoted him to Moscow. By 1980 he was a member of the Politburo – the highest decision-making body in the Soviet Union. Five years later, he would be selected by his Party peers to be General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the highest-ranking office in the country.
What is fascinating about Gorbachev, both then and now, was his sheer determination to try anything, do anything, to get his country going again, for the Soviet Union – military superpower though it may have been – was falling apart. By the late 1980s, shops were increasingly empty. Food was becoming scarce in the major cities, and top-ranking bureaucrats were obsessed with such things as providing an adequate supply of nylon hose for Soviet women. A country that could devastate America in the space of 45 minutes could not even feed, clothe, or keep its people warm during the winter. Gorbachev himself once said to his wife of the crumbling Soviet economy: “We cannot go on like this any longer.”
Tear down this (ideological) wall!
Desperate and fully certain that the Soviet system of central planning – in combination with the gigantic parasite of military spending – was a root cause of the economic collapse, Gorbachev did the unthinkable – he reached out to the West for help. In a famous series of negotiations first with US President Ronald Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush, Gorbachev ended the Cold War by agreeing to breathtaking reductions in nuclear and conventional arms. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and, in the end, gave notice to Soviet clients in Eastern Europe that Moscow would no longer spend resources – political, economic, or military – to prop them up. Within a space of a year of that statement, all of Eastern Europe was free of communist rule.
Unfortunately for Gorbachev, his determined quest to end the Cold War so as to give respite to the Soviet economy proved to be too little, too late. As the end neared and the Soviet economy collapsed even further, Gorbachev even reached out in one letter to then-British Prime Minister John Major. In it, Gorbachev plainly stated how stark conditions within the USSR really were – “Dear John,” he wrote. “Help!”
Help, however, did not come, and Gorbachev was temporarily ousted in a half-baked coup led by Soviet hardliners. He was only returned to power when Boris Yeltsin – rising to power on the back of Russian nationalism – brought out the Russian people to peacefully turn back the tanks. Within a year, Gorbachev had resigned and the Soviet Union was no more – replaced by an independent, ostensibly democratic Russia.
Gorbachev never set out to destroy the Soviet Union. Indeed, every action he took was an attempt to save it from itself – to reform and make better a system he knew from experience mostly to be a rotting, hulking failure. That he ultimately did not succeed in his quest to keep the Soviet Union intact and viable should not distract us from the immense bravery and pragmatism he showed in dealing with his nation’s problems. He could have used force to keep the system together, but instead he understood that change needed to happen, and helped facilitate it by making peace with his country’s enemies. He did the best he could with no stultifying ideology to pen in his decisions. What mattered to him was what worked – and making peace with the West, despite the immense internal opposition to doing so, was what worked.
Pragmatism with Chinese characteristics
A similar laser-like focus on pragmatic results as opposed to ideological fantasy was also the primary trait of the other great communist leader of the late twentieth century – Deng Xiaoping. While Gorbachev vainly, if bravely, tried to salvage something out of the Soviet implosion, Deng Xiaoping not only saved his country from political and economic collapse, but did so relatively peacefully, in a way that set the People’s Republic on a path for greatness in the following – our – century. How did he do this?
Unlike Gorbachev, Deng was a member of the inner-core of Party leadership in China almost from the very beginning. He joined the party as a young man in 1923 and after a brief foray abroad worked as a political commissar for the nascent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai, where he narrowly avoided being liquidated in an anti-communist crackdown orchestrated by the ruling Nationalists. Deng henceforth showed himself to be the ultimate survivor – following Mao along with the rest of the remnants of the Chinese Communist Party on the Long March from the Party’s beleaguered bases in the south into northern China.
Once ensconced in China’s northern badlands along with the rest of the Party, Deng assisted Mao in reorganizing the Party and its People’s Liberation Army for a long struggle against both the Nationalist government in Nanking and, later, Japanese invaders. Rising through the ranks, Deng became a key military and political actor within the CCP and, once victory came in 1949, obtained a high-ranking place at Mao’s side as the communists transitioned from being a revolutionary movement to a ruling party. This rise, however, was not simply due to Deng’s association with the inner party and his reputation as a survivor. He was a competent military and political administrator who put Mao’s policies, for good or ill, into effect as best he could.
In power, Mao’s increasingly messianic fanaticism threw the country into not just one man-made disaster, but two. The first came in the 1950s with his ill-fated ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign of grass-roots industrial mobilization from the bottom up. Poorly planned and even more ineptly implemented, the Leap was, like Stalin’s forced collectivization of Russia in the 1930s, an unmitigated disaster that caused a massive famine. Millions died, and as the country reeled, Mao’s grip on the country – iron-like since 1949 – slipped. Soon, disaffection among the leadership forced Mao’s hand and more responsibility for economic management shifted to Deng and his coterie of CCP technocrats.
Ending the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, Deng and his followers by this time had transformed into pragmatists. Deng himself began to articulate this new, non-ideological approach when in 1961, he uttered what amounted to heresy at a conference on agricultural production. At the conference he made his famous quip that, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a white cat or a black, I think; a cat that catches mice is a good cat.” A year later he offered a pragmatic policy of economic incentives, obvious to all but doctrinaire communists, designed to boost agricultural output by leasing land to peasants and allowing them to keep and sell their surplus production.
Reign of terror
This policy of de facto market liberalization was not to be in 1962, however, because Mao struck back – calling upon his ultra-leftist supporters who were aghast at the ideological compromises Deng was prepared to make in order to feed people. To wrest back control, Mao called for a “Great Cultural Revolution” designed to heighten ideological commitment among the Chinese masses. It would do so by using dedicated, grassroots cadres to root out “bourgeois” corruption – code for anyone who opposed Mao’s hair-brained fanaticism. It was a disaster, of course, and the country became almost ungovernable – nearly devolving into civil war as rival communist factions vied for power at every level of government throughout the country.
During this second episode of ideologically-imposed madness, Deng’s earlier pragmatism marked him out as a “capitalist roader” and he fell from power, barely avoiding execution and imprisonment in the process. He became instead an outcast who saw his family persecuted for his perceived disloyalty to Maoist thought. During this period the man who had helped run China’s day-to-day affairs in the 1950s was exiled to a tractor factory to work as a common laborer. His son, not so well-protected as his father, was in 1968 tortured by the Red Guards and forced to jump from a four-story building, the injuries from which rendered paraplegic for life.
Somehow Deng survived and by the early 1970s was brought back into government, where he was careful to give no indication that he opposed Maoist doctrine in any way. As China’s mad “Great Helmsman” grew frail and his grip on power weakened, Deng and other pragmatists who had survived Mao’s purges, famine and the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution, bided their time until they eventually orchestrated the ouster of the ultra-leftist Gang of Four – upon whom they pinned all the crimes of the Cultural Revolution, thus allowing Mao himself to slip into the great beyond as an unsullied hero of the Chinese people.
By 1978, Deng was paramount leader of the world’s most-populous country, a position he retained until 1997. During this time, Deng rebuilt his country from the chaos Mao created. Economic reforms of the type he proposed in 1962 were instituted nationally in the late 1970s into the 1980s, and a concerted effort was made to recast Chinese foreign policy away from supporting revolutionary movements in the developing world to supporting a policy of trade openness with the rest of the world. Above all, growth and stability were the watchwords by which Deng, far more effectively than Mao, guided the Chinese ship of state.
To be sure, not all went smoothly. When the Soviet empire collapsed and the Chinese people rose up and demanded their democratic rights in 1989, Deng and his fellow elders in the Communist leadership had no qualms in sending in the tanks; despite this, the overall trend of Deng’s rule over China was one of liberalization, modernization, and the slow, steady opening-up of Chinese society to outside influence on China’s terms. Given what had come before, this is a phenomenal achievement.
Back to the future – after the end of History?
The common thread in Gorbachev’s and Deng’s story is that both men found themselves the heirs of spent political movements that had, through unthinking fanaticism and dogmatic adherence to doctrine, destroyed their countries. Both were touched by personal tragedy caused by this ideological madness – Gorbachev lost family in Stalin’s famine while Deng saw his son tortured and maimed by Mao’s mouth-breathing cultural revolutionaries. Furthermore, both men valued results and competence above political theory or correctness, and both knew at heart that the system they inherited not only needed to change – but to change so dramatically as to be all but unrecognizable. They were not idealists in the classic sense – they were realists who understood their societies had failed and corrective action was needed. They looked to what worked, not what they wanted to work.
In the U.S. today, one of our great parties and the political movement it represents has learned the wrong lesson from the fate of these two giant communist countries and the men who led them. American conservatives would like to believe that both Gorbachev and Deng “saw” the light – that, somehow, the inherent goodness of market capitalism and democracy came to them like Christianity did to Saul on the road to Damascus. This is not the case – they made their liberalizing reforms because evidence indicated that success lay in a fundamentally different direction than the one in which their respective country had been going. The realities and contingencies of their historical moment guided their decisions – not some would-be, transcendental truth of neoliberal ideology.
This essential misunderstanding of how and why capitalism triumphed at the end of the twentieth century has turned American capitalism and the cultural conservatism that champions it into something akin to a religion. This religion, in turn, is fanatically preached to and imposed on American society much like Mao Zedong’s thought was imposed on the Chinese masses – regardless of costs, consequence, or effectiveness. Like the Red Guards holding up Mao’s Little Red Book, our fanatics hold up copies of Atlas Shrugged, the Second Amendment, or the Bible – totems of ideological loyalty and group identity. To the people who brandish them, again not unlike Mao’s Red Guards, facts and logic do not matter and any reality-driven pragmatism merely appears as another way to say treason.
The Cold American Civil War
If America is to survive, then the political party that has succumbed to this fanaticism must come to its senses or, if it does not, it must be contained and eliminated on the electoral battlefield, as ruthlessly and totally as one might go after a malignant cancer. Our system is thankfully set up so that madness in one, or even many, sub-parts of it can be constrained by our political institutions – but only at the cost of debilitating gridlock that works to stymie and corrupt progress on every vital issue of the day to the advantage of the party that has gone insane.
This domestic stalemate is ironically very much like the system of nuclear deterrence that kept the peace between the West and the communist world for so very long during the twentieth century. Like Washington and Moscow eyeing one another with suspicion through radar screens, our two parties are locked in a death struggle to determine the fate of the American body politic. It will not end until one side or the other admits defeat and is overcome. Until that moment arrives, we in the United States are locked in our own Cold Civil War where we fight with ballots and media broadsides, not bombs and covert operations.
Unfortunately, this conflict does not look to be ending anytime soon, and it is very doubtful that a grave mistake by one side or the other will allow either political bloc the opportunity to deliver a sudden, crushing blow. To fight this Cold Civil War, progressives must understand what they are up against, the impossibility of defeating conservatism in any one election and the need to prepare for a long, twilight struggle until American conservatives either give up – or come to their senses, as did Deng and Gorbachev, eventually. In the meantime, as we await the emergence of a conservative Deng or Republican Gorbachev on the American right, our Cold Civil War continues on, indefinitely.
Let’s hope he or she arrives soon.