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
расстреливать…

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.

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Elite Arrogance & Chaos

Speaking of the desperate effort of French workers to grab justice from the self-satisfied elite, Alexis de Tocqueville described what, in current language, might be called “extremists provoking extremism,” a not unfamiliar tragedy:

“Nous perissions, si nous n’eussions ete si pres de perir.”

Si la revolte avait eu un caracgtere moins radical et un aspect moins farouche, il est probable que la plupart des bourgeois seraient restes dans leurs maisons; la France ne serait pas accourue a notre aide; l’Assemblee nationale ell-meme eut peut-etre cede; une minorite de ses membres l’aurait conseille du moins; et l’energie du corps en eut ete fort enervee.  Mais l’insurrection fut de tell nature que toute transaction avec elle aprut sur-le-champ impossible et qu’elle ne laissa, des le premier moment, d’autre alternative que de la vaincre ou de perir. [Souvenirs, 221.]

A member of the elite himself, de Tocqueville only reveals without facing up to the implications of his words the degree to which the elite were to blame, when he characterized the working class effort as:

un effort brutal et aveugle, mais puissant des ouvriers pour echapper aux necessites de leur condition qu’on leur avait depeinte comme une oppression illegitime et pour s’ouvrir par le fer un chemin vers ce bien-etre imaginaire dont on les avait berces. [208.]

In his words, one can almost hear white neo-cons discussing Muslims, BP executives discussing the residents of the Gulf Coast, Goldman Sachs executives discussing the 17,000,000 under- or un-employed Americans.

Nothing but “Bureaucratized Anarchy”

While everyone gets excited about the crisis of the day – perhaps a colonial war of liberation or a terrorist threat, the real threat to the democratic society of the homeland comes from within. The near collapse of French democracy in the 1950s as a result of the cleavages within French society between those insisting on retaining oppresssive French rule in Algeria and those willing to contemplate a compromise with the Algerian Arab public is a case in point with vast lessons for today. Consider these remarks  by Albert Camus on one tiny event, the imprisoning of one Jean de Maisonseul on the classically vague authoritarian charge of having committed “imprudences” (surely more than enough reason to toss a man in prison without, in the case, trial or access to lawyers) by advocating an agreement by both Algerian independence fighters and French colonialists that the two sides would cease killing women and children. Note that the imprisoned person was French, not Arab. Chickens come home to roost.

…il faut dire que cet esprit civique a disparu d’abord de nos milieux gouvernementaux, ou le service public est en passe d’oublier s dignite. L’entrainement, l’indifference due a l’usure, la banalite des caracteres, parfois, y ont fiat prevaloir une conception diminuee du pouvoir qui traite alors l’innocent avec desinvolture et le coupable avec complaisance. L’Etat peut etre legal, mais il n’est legitime que lorsque, a la tete de la nation, il rest l’arbitre qui garantit la justice et ajuste l’interet general aux libertes particulieres. S’il perd ce souce, iul perd son corps, il pourrit, il n’est plus rien qu’une anarchie bureaucratisee. [Albert Camus, Chroniques algeriennes 1939-1958 (Gallimard, 1958), 194-195.]…

…les seuls hommes fermes sur leurs devoirs sont ceux qui ne cedent rien sur leurs droits. A plus forte raison, ne pouvons-nous rien ceder sur le droit de l’innocent emprisonne. [p. 196.]

Honey-Mouthed Politicians

Li Linfu, powerful chancellor of Tang dynasty China from 734 to 752, was renown for his devious ways and honeyed voice, evidently an early master of political correctness. Employing his skills to personal advantage, he ruled by backstabbing all potential competitors (which naturally included all patriotic officials intent upon serving their country) while his emperor focused on the development of new forms of music. Continue reading