Under Ground

One may be under ground in the literal sense of hiding in some hole where one will be safe from the prying eyes of those “others” who are always trying to judge you or in the figurative sense of serving in a profession not held in good repute by society. Either way, the longer one lives under ground, the more one risks becoming introverted; the more introverted one becomes, the more one risks the development of a biased perspective, which in turn transforms easily into contempt for those from whom one has hidden oneself. The rest of us, we who live conventionally as part of society, equating that conventional behavior with goodness, have many words for those who live under ground—crazy, lunatic, extremist—but what we are really saying is “different:” we reject such people, shove them further into their isolation, feed their lunacy, their “distinctiveness.” This is dangerous for what we sneer at, they do indeed come to see as their distinction, their justification for pride, and then their marginalization can become the source less of weakness than of power.

The madman who lived under ground–well…either he is mad or all of us are and since there are a lot more of us, I conclude that the fault is his—and who so meticulously noted down his self-absorbed ravings may indeed have been a pathetic and insignificant creature proud of his diseases [Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (Russian Classics in Russian and English, 13).], but from that self-absorption to a transformative drive for power can be an astonishingly short step.

Whether Dostoevsky was predicting Lenin, or Lenin discovered himself in Dostoevsky, or Solzhenitsyn had Dostoevsky’s underground man in mind as he depicted Lenin hiding helplessly in his own self-absorbed Swiss underground as the February Revolution unfolded, it is hard to tell where the brilliant ravings in Notes ends and masterful Leninist revolutionary strategy begins.

Жгло, что сам — не там, невозможно вмешаться, невозможно направить. [СОЛЖЕНИЦЫН,  КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО , Узел III — МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО,  Книга 3 (главы 449).]

Il se consumait de n’etre pas la-bas, de ne pouvoir imposer sa direction aux evenements. [Mars dix-sept (Fayard, 360).]

In his first sentence, Dostoevsky’s imaginary underground writer admits…and proceeds to make the case quite persuasively:

Я человек больной… Я злой человек. [[ Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский, Записки из подполья —Часть I, Глава I.]

I am sick…I am a spiteful man.[7.]

The real underground man, upon hearing that revolution is indeed breaking out all over Russia, rejects all cooperation, stressing his own unique grasp of Truth:

И социалистам-центристам, Чхеидзе — никакого доверия! никакого слияния с ними! Мы — отдельно ото всех!

Surtout, n’accorder aucune confiance aux socialistes-centrists, a Tcheidze! Ne jamais fusionner avec eux! Nous sommes—a part! [361.]

Let the centrists form the new regime. To retain power, they must feed the people, but (one can see Lenin smirking), they won’t be able to. Until then, let them all stew in their own juices while we remain in our citadel, safe from the free marketplace of public debate…underground:

И вообще: будет величайшим несчастьем, если кадетское правительство разрешит легальную рабочую партию, — это очень ослабит нас. Надо надеяться, что мы останемся нелегальными! А если уж навяжут нам легальность, то мы обязательно сохраним подпольную часть…

Bien comprendre que ce qui peut nous arriver de pire, c’est l’autorisation d’un parti ouvrier legal par le gouvernement Cadet, cela nous affaiblirait beaucoup. Esperons que nous resterons illegaux! Et si on nous impose la legalite, conservons absolument une activite clandestine: notre force est dans le podpolie…[361.]

As the first few days of the February Revolution pass, Lenin agonizes over whether or not it is precisely the right time for him to return to Russia but quickly focuses on the strategy he will use: repression without pity.

не повторить нам ошибок Коммуны, её двух основных ошибок: она не захватила банков в свои руки и была слишком великодушна: вместо повальных расстрелов враждебных классов — всем сохраняла жизнь и думала их перевоспитывать. Так вот, самое гибельное, что грозит пролетариату, — это великодушие в революции. Надо научить его не бояться безжалостных массовых средств!

Les deux erreurs de la Commune, ses deux erreurs fondamentales, nous ne les repeterons pas: elle n’a pas saisi les banques et elle a ete trop magnanime: au lieu de fusiller en masse les classes qui lui etaient hostiles, elle leur a conserve la vie en esperant les reeduquer. Car le plus grand peril qui menace le proletariat, c’est bien sa magnanimite en periode de revolution. Nous devons lui apprendre a ne pas reculer devant des measures de masse impitoyables! [363.]

Sneered at by “men of action,” the rejected, humiliated “little mouse” seeks safety underground in a hole where it can do nothing but…think.

Доходит наконец до самого дела, до самого акта отмщения. Несчастная мышь кроме одной первоначальной гадости успела уже нагородить кругом себя, в виде вопросов и сомнений, столько других гадостей; к одному вопросу подвела столько неразрешенных вопросов, что поневоле кругом нее набирается какая-то роковая бурда, какая-то вонючая грязь, состоящая из ее сомнений, волнений и, наконец, из плевков, сыплющихся на нее от непосредственных деятелей, предстоящих торжественно кругом в виде судей и диктаторов и хохочущих над нею во всю здоровую глотку. Разумеется, ей остается махнуть на все своей лапкой и с улыбкой напускного презренья, которому и сама она не верит, постыдно проскользнуть в свою щелочку. Там, в своем мерзком, вонючем подполье, наша обиженная, прибитая и осмеянная мышь немедленно погружается в холодную, ядовитую и, главное, вековечную злость. [Часть I, Глава III.]

Apart from the one primary nastiness the luckless mouse has by now succeeded in creating around it so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions; it has added to the one question so many unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew, a sort of stinking filth, made up of its doubts, emotions, and finally of the spits showered upon it by the direct men of action who stand solemnly around it as judges and dictators, laughing at it with all their might. Of course the only thing left for it is to dismiss all that with a wave of its paw, and, with a smile of assumed contempt in which it does not even itself believe, creep ignominiously into its mouse-hole. There in its nasty, stinking, underground our offended, crushed and ridiculed mouse promptly becomes absorbed in cold, venomous and, above all, everlasting spite. [19.]

Thinking in isolation, without action may certainly lead to lunacy, i.e., belief in something unreal provoking irrational behavior, but a short step away in a different direction lies the absolute determination to risk all in a burst of action. The mouse becomes the “direct man of action.” For this to occur, Dostoevsky’s underground mouse must answer the question so innocently posed at the beginning of its analysis of “revenge:”

Ведь у людей, умеющих за себя отомстить и вообще за себя постоять, — как это, например, делается?

With people who know how to revenge themselves and to stand up for themselves in general, how is it done? [17.]

Rule #1: Never Share Power

Yao Xueyin [ 姚雪垠]’s account of the collapse of an incompetent regime (the Ming dynasty) beset by both internal rebellion (provoked by the regime’s incompetence) and foreign invasion (invited by the regime’s declining effectiveness) is perhaps the best example of 20th century Chinese historical fiction. While the leaders argued over whether to defeat the rebels first or protect the country from invasion first, massive state armies tried to surround and overwhelm fast-moving rebel cavalry.

陝西巡撫孫傳庭在潼關南原預設了三道埋伏來截擊李自成。第一道埋伏被農民軍沖殺得紛紛潰逃,隻起了消耗農民軍有生力量的作用,但是這種結果,對作戰有經驗的孫傳庭是早就料到的。他認為,如今李自成是在他布好的口袋裡邊尋找生路,以必死決心向前沖,頭一道埋伏的地形又不夠險要,自然難以將李自成包圍殲滅。作戰的規律總是“一鼓作氣,再而衰,三而竭”,他相信經過上午的一場大戰,又加上繼續行軍,李自成的士氣已經是“再而衰”了,所以他把更大的兵力擺在這第二道埋伏上,並親自督戰。至於第三道埋伏,他隻配備了少數兵力,准備截擊潰散的農民軍。[姚雪垠 - 李自成 - 第十章.]

At the southern entrance to Tongguan Pass, Shaanxi Province Inspector General Sun Chuanting laid out a tripartite ambush to intercept Li Zicheng. By means of a vigorous attack, the peasant army had managed to flee in disorder from the first phase of the ambush, the only result being the rising exhaustion of the peasant army’s power, a result the experienced soldier Sun Chuanting had anticipated. He calculated that if Li Zicheng had pulled an escape route out of his hat by approaching the clash with absolute determination, the terrain of the first ambush also not being sufficiently favorable, naturally it would be hard in the future to surround and destroy Li Zicheng. The rule of war having always been, “Pull it off the first time, fall back the second time, and fail the third,”he believed that having undergone a big battle in the morning, not to mention continuing troops movements thereafter, Li Zicheng’s morale would already have reached the “fall back the second time”point, so he deployed even more forces for the second phase and took personal command of the battle. As for the third phase, he only allocated minimal forces in preparation for attacking scattered peasant troops. [My translation.]

Li did indeed escape from the first trap but was caught in the second trap and, in a dramatic battlefield negotiation with Sun Chuanting—each leader surrounded by his own bodyguard and yelling at the top of his lungs with both armies listening, offered—in the novel, at least—to join forces against the invading Manchus. Li undiplomatically portrayed himself as finding “unbearable”the Manchu intrusion through the Great Wall and surrounding of Beijing:


Now the Tartars have come through the Great Wall, surrounded Beijing, and come deep into the suburbs. [My translation.]

It will come as no surprise to any observer of modern politics that the regime general instantly became infuriated, interrupted Li Zicheng (who was engrossed in enumerating the conditions for his cooperation [supplies for his army, respectful treatment, etc.]), and ordered the total destruction of the rebels.

Whether or not this conversation in fact ever occurred, it underscores the fatal hubris of officials who prefer gambling their country’s freedom to sharing power with the people. No wonder Mao liked this novel, though he may have come to have second thoughts later in his career…

The Myth of Private Property in a Corporate World

It is a myth based on a misunderstanding of the financial structure of the modern world to imagine that the legal rights and privileges of corporations have anything to do with private property: the term “private” has no relevance to a corporation. However shocking this statement may be to those on either side of the debate over the presumed “personhood” of corporations, it is an insight into modern realities that was explained a century ago…by Walter Lippmann.

The trust movement [READ: corporations] is doing what no conspirator or revolutionist could ever do: it is sucking the life out of private property….

Not long ago the Interstate Commerce Commission…issued a report on the bankruptcy of the Frisco railway which contained a condemnation of certain private bankers for offering bonds to the investing public when the bankers should have known that the road was insolvent. The Commission was saying that the investor couldn’t know, that he was in the hands of experts, and that the experts have a trust to perform. You couldn’t very well go to greater lengths in announcng the impotence of private property….

…the question of nationalizing industries is not a choice between the maintenance of private property and its abolition….

If the Steel Trust is efficient, it is not due to the existence of its 200,000 stockholders. It is due to the fact that the management is autocratic….When governments are willing to pursue that course, they can be just as efficient as private management….

…the conflict between democracy and centralized authority…is the line upon which the problems of collectivism will be fought out…[Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery; An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1917), Ch. III “The Magic of Property,” 50-65.

Mr. Lippmann would roll over in his grave were he to see the “current unrest:” a recession caused by still unabated Wall St. corruption, a Supreme Court pretending that corporations–the most impersonal, anti-individualist institution ever invented–were in some way “persons,” and a federal government handing free “stay out of jail cards” to all billionaire financial criminals who actually are “persons.”

What Do We Do With the Officer Corps?

Whether revolution arrives in the normal tidal wave of violence or, by good fortune, peacefully, the core “civil security” problem remains: what to do with the military? Too powerful to defeat by brute force, too powerful casually to dismiss, and–indeed–too valuable for national security to do without, both the mass of soldiers and the officer corps challenge–in different ways–revolutionary prospects. The bottom-up, i.e., popular, nature of Russia’s February Revolution allowed a peaceful (except for a relative handful of murders of officers by self-appointed “popular judges,” i.e., mob rule) revolution via a process of the army voting with its feet to send the tsarist system to the ash heap of history, but the officer corps–that was entirely another issue. Dismiss the officer corps entirely and you are left with a leaderless mob plus the looming threat for the next generation of a counter-revolutionary reaction; keep the officer corps and you hand power back to the reactionary gang you just got rid of. “Thousands and thousands of military officers strutted across Russia–presumptuous, coarse, stupid, threatening, but were there among them a certain number of socialists?” Might one find a handful of genuine reformers…even here, at the apex of power?

Много, много тысяч офицеров красовалось в России — заносчивых, грубых, глупых, грозных, но много ли среди них социалистов? Сейчас эта гордая масса (в которой Саша задыхался несколько лет) сотрясена, сбилась как стадо, угодничает, притворяется перед восставшим народом, подписывает униженные документы — но естественно, что солдатская масса не верит ей — и права! Разве это старое офицерьё может существовать без царя?…

Однако армия не может обходиться без офицеров — и с кого же первых натягивать это революционное офицерство, если не с социалистов? Подобно тому, как юристы-социалисты призваны в новые мировые суды, — так офицеры-социалисты должны сплотить искренное революционное офицерство. Кадровое будет сейчас тесниться и даже сметаться с пути — а вверх взлетать будут даже из рядовых, как во всякую революцию, как в Великую Французскую простые конюхи становились генералами. [Солженицын, КРАСНОЕ КОЛЕСО, УЗЕЛ III, Март Семнадцатого, 440.]

Les officiers etaient nombreux, tres nombreux en Russie, et a se pavaner, meprisants, hautains, grossiers, obtus, menacants, mais y avait-il parmi eux tant de socialistes? Aujourd’hui, cette masse orgueilleuse (au sein de laquelle Sacha suffoquait depuis quelques annees) etait sens dessus dessous, pareille a un troupeau egare, elle faisait des courbettes, jouait les hypocrites devant le peuple souleve, signait des documents pleins d’humilite, mais il etait clair que l’immense majorite des soldats ne la croyait pas, et avec raison! Comment tous ces vieux officiers eussent-ils pu vivre sans tsar?…

L’armee, pourtant, ne pouvait se passer d’officiers–et comment amorcer la creation de ce corps d’officiers revolutionnaires, sinon par les socialistes? De meme que les juristes socialistes etaient appeles a former les nouveaux tribunaux civils, de meme les officiers socialistes devaient-ils constituer un corps authentiquement revolutionnaire. Les officiers de carriere allaient etre comprimes, voire balayes, et l’on assisterait a une ascension fulgurante, peut-etre meme d’hommes du rang, comme dans toute revolution, comme durant la Grande Revolution francaise ou de simples palefreniers devenaient generaux. [Alexandre Soljenitsyne, La roue rouge, troisieme noeud, Tome 3, Mars dix-sept, Ch. 440 (Paris: Fayard, 1987, 320-321.]

 All well and good to search for officers who were reformers, but what of officers who were not “socialist” or “reformers” simply because they were apolitical professionals trying to protect Russian national security? Were they to take the blame for the misbehavior of repressive or corrupt politicians? Is it not the moral responsibility of sincere revolutionaries to distinguish between oppression by the rich or by violence-prone police and military officers risking their lives on the front lines to defend the country against invasion? A telegram from military headquarters revealed the rising panic of top officers, as they saw their colleagues being murdered:

Дабы не допустить позора России, новому правительству необходимо наконец проявить власть и авторитет: срочно, определённо и твёрдо сказать, что никто не смеет касаться армии.[Солженицын УЗЕЛ III Март Семнадцатого 444.]

S’il ne voulait pas laisser la Russie sombrer dans la honte, le nouveau gouvernement devait absolument manifester son pouvoir et son autorite en declarant d’urgence, nettement et fermement, que nul n’avait le droit de toucher a l’armee. [Ch. 444, p. 336.]

Panic, indeed:

В Кронштадте и Гельсингфорсе убивали, говорят, по каким-то заготовленным спискам, —и лучших боевых офицеров, совсем не в хаосе обезглавили флот! [Солженицын УЗЕЛ III Март Семнадцатого 445.]

A Kronstadt et a Helsingfors, on tuait, disait-on, d’apres des listes toutes pretes, et pas n’importe qui: les meilleurs officiers, les “battants,” on decapitait la Flotte, mais de maniere organisee! [Ch. 445, p. 337.]

The brand-new, self-appointed bourgeois regime–nearly overwhelmed by the threatening power of the brand-new, self-appointed revolutionary Soviet–was, however, in no position to do anything “clearly and firmly:”

…в заколоженном отупевшем Петрограде не хотели ни понять, ни откликнуться. [Солженицын УЗЕЛ III Март Семнадцатого 444.]

…dans ce Petrograd petrifie, hebete, les gens ne voulaient ni comprendre ni donner signe de vie. [Ch. 444, p. 337.]

How does the new revolutionary movement avoid throwing the technically proficient baby out with the outdated, arrogant, repressive bathwater?



красова́тьсяshow off – se pavaner

зано́счивыйpresumptuous – hautain

гру́бый – coarse -grossier

гордая – proud – orgueilleuse

задыха́ться – suffocate – suffoquer

сотряса́ть – shake – sens dessus dessous

уго́дничество – subservience - faire des courbettes

притворя́ться – pretend – jouer les hypocrites

униженные – oppressed – pleins d’humilite

Обходиться- get by, do – se passer de

натягивать – stretch, initiate – amorcer

спла́чивать – join – constituer

сметаться с пути – be swept away – balayer

тесни́ться – be squeezed together, hold back – comprimer 

ко́нюх – stableboy – palefrenier

Допустить – allow – laisser

Позор – disgrace – honte

сро́чно – urgently – d’urgence

касаться – touch – toucher

Заколоженном – boarded up – petrifie

Отупевшем – stupefied – hebete

Откликнуться – respond – donner signe de vie

Power Is Top-Down; Freedom Is Bottom-Up

Can we change history? Can we drive the “red wheel” of implacable historical force ["ce large contexte, ou elle est a la fois construite et prisonniere"] where we want? Alexeyev, responsible for running the Tsarist war effort at the start of the Russian Revolution, was a good military man. He based his days on the assumption that orders were obeyed. His sense of history centered on the assumption that not only was Tsarism the right system but that the Romanovs were the right family; his simplicity excluded any conscious awareness of the implacable red wheel of history that crushed those whose anachronistic limping prevented them from keeping pace. (No insult, this, for almost all humans have a simplistic view of what is right and proper about leadership, statehood, nationalism; indeed, leaders tend to see the maintenance of those comforting delusions by the masses as the primary function of leadership. How else, in their awesome incompetence, would they ever keep their grasp on power?) It is more difficult for a leader to admit the system he serves has outlived its time than for a lover to face the pointlessness of a failed affair.

Alexeyev was confused. Meeting one General Kornilov just after the abdication of the tsar, he tried to express the new contradiction between continuing the war effort to resist German aggression and the increasingly evident collapse of the regime–not just of tsarism but also of the new, self-anointed, middle-class intellectual replacement regime:

не забывать, что всю эту революцию Ставка допустила лишь для того, чтобы сохранить армию неприкосновенной, для войны. А попытаться бы ему — удержать Петроград в таком виде, чтобы столица если хоть не помогала бы войне, но не мешала бы? Ведь вся зараза растекается из Петрограда, все эти банды по всем железным дорогам, прямо на людей наводят оружие, врываются в учреждения, грабят квартиры…[МАРТ СЕМНАДЦАТОГО, Ch 429.]

il ne fallait pas oublier que la Stavka [WM: Russian Military HQ] avait tolere toute cette revolution a seule fin de conserver l’armee intacte pour la guerre. Kornilov ne pouvait-il pas essayer de continer Petrograd de telle sorte que la capitale, si elle n’aidait pas a la guerre, du moins n’y fit pas obstacle? Car toute la contamination se deversait de la-bas, toutes ces bandes se repandaient par les voies ferrees, partout elles menacaient de leurs armes, les braquaient sur les gens, faisaient irruption dans les administrations, brulaient les dossiers, pillaient les appartements…[Dix-Sept Mars, 237.]

At least, do no harm!

In its magnanimous sympathy for the people, the army “tolerated” their little revolt in Petrograd in order to continue the war effort. If they were no longer able to help, couldn’t the masses and the politicians of the capital at least “avoid interfering with” the war?

When War Minister Guchkov, preoccupied with the power struggle, finally took a moment to get in touch with his commander, Alexeyev proudly reported that:

И вот — поехал Корнилов, надо установить порядок в частях петроградского гарнизона…
Однако Гучков — торопится в Совет министров и должен кончить беседу. Но убедительно просит Ставку, убедительно: не принимать суровых мер против участников этих безпорядков — только подольётся масла в огонь и помешает успокоению в Петрограде.
Вот как. А Алексеев-то думал в простоте: хватать эти шайки и

Kornilov est justement en route: il faut retablir l’ordre dans les unites de la garnison de Petrograd, recenser les absences irregulieres…

Goutchkov, cependant, se hatait de se rendre au Conseil des ministres—il devait interrompre leur entretien. [WM: conversation by telegraph.] Il insistait de la facon la plus pressante pour que la Stavka ne prit pas de mesures trop dures a l’encontre de ceux qui avaient participe a ces desordres; cela ne ferait que jeter de l’huile sur le feu et empecher le calme de revenir a Petrograd!

Ah bon. Et Alexeiev qui, dans sa simplicite d’ame, avait bien l’intention de faire saisir ces bandes et de les coller au mur…[Dix-Sept Mars, 230.]

The Minister of War had politics to take care of; he did not have time to deal with the war. So would the generals please, please avoid interfering with the revolution?

Politicians want top-down rule (as long as they find themselves on the top), and when control is what you want, that is certainly the way to do it. But when the normally quiescent, subservient, short-sighted people decide they actually want change, bottom-up is the way to go. Persuade the troops to vote with their feet and the greatest leader on earth becomes nothing but a guy tripping on his own shoelaces.

Mirrors Evaporate Your Sense of Judgment

I have never heard a logical explanation of why so-called intelligent Wall Street financial hot-shots could not imagine the possibility of a nationwide collapse in housing prices when the country was (so visibly that practically every citizen could see its potential profitability) riding on the slippery surface of a rapidly inflating housing bubble.

The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times. Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem. [Michael Lewis, The Big Short (New York: Norton, 2011), 210.]

Democracy Is Hard

Totalitarianism and democracy are conflicting habits, like gobbling sweets and eating nutritiously, with the lazy indulgence in totalitarian thinking (“our way is right, so we are justified in obliterating opposition”) just as insidiously easy to follow as making room for a few more desserts. Nutritious eating and democracy are hard, requiring constant self-policing. To put it differently, only birds seem naturally predisposed to be democratic: fish can relax and float, animals can relax and stand, but birds that relax will fall out of the sky. Birds must maintain the habit of beating their wings, so perhaps they would find it easier to maintain the equally difficult habit of practicing genuine democratic thinking.

Analyzing the mental and legal contortions Czechs have gone through with their post-1989 lustrace policy to purify their body politic of communists, Tina Rosenberg identifies three core concepts in their thinking that betray old totalitarian habits:

First, that a group of the enlightened know that what the masses think they want is often not in their best interest. Second, that the formalities of democracy are often abused by the unscrupulous old guard to maintain their control. Third, that to do battle, the enlightened must discard these formalities as well when the national interest demands. This thinking has gone by another name in this part of the world: Leninism.

Lustrace, designed in the East Bloc’s most Western nation with the admirable purpose of allowing free men to build free societies, does so by abridging freedom: it passes judgment without due process of law on people who have committed no crime, simply because of their membership in groups considered politically unacceptable today.

Like counting every calorie and assessing each ingredient for its nutritional quality, building democracy requires excruciating attention to detail: what did the accused do, what was his intent, what were his constraints, what did he avoid doing? If you ban opponents from politics, will they gain power through financial corruption? Must their incomes then be controlled? Which individuals? What income level? The irresistible force of psychological gravity always tugs us down the slippery slope of doing things the easy way.

In 1989–despite its democratic traditions, Western support, the complete (formal) collapse of the Soviet system, and all the generations of struggle for good governance that constitute the history of modern Europe—Czechoslovakia experienced a new version of “the law as a child:” returning almost to zero and trying yet again to invent the legal framework of a legal system based not on the ruler but the rule of law.