The Trains Did Not Run On Time

May 18, 2015

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I would describe my reaction to reading Mussolini:  A Biography, by Denis Mack Smith with two words:  shock and astonishment.  How could a treatment of the political life (the author describes it as a “political” biography of Benito Mussolini) evoke such reactions?  I mean, he’s been dead and documented for seventy years, right?  Well, I never knew much about him or his reign, mostly because Hitler and the Nazis attract so much more attention and treatment in the media, but his story is indeed incredible.

I came to this book after reading Mack Smith’s biography of Cavour, and parts of his history of modern Italian politics, as preparation for visiting Turin and the Piedmont region.  Cavour was the first prime minister of the newly united Italian state and was a count in the Piedmont region which dominated the new nation, and from which its constitutional monarch, Victor Emmanuel, came.  Some readers of the biography of Mussolini complain that it lacks in-depth analysis of its subject, or the historical context, and this is true:  at times it reads like a chronicle of choices made and statements uttered, and there is some significant repetition in his evaluation of these, but the simple chronology and recounting of events is itself so outlandish that it has tremendous value, I think.

Reading this biography, I have to doubt that I even understand something I thought was very clear:  What is fascism?  Or what was it?  Certainly it has taken on a life of it’s own, down to the recent history of Chile and Argentina, to mention a few states, but when Mussolini invented it, coined its name, created its symbols, it was, as this book shows, simply a vehicle for him to gain power.  Hitler, monstrous as he was, had a program that extended beyond himself:  he saw a 1000 year Reich based on his hellish principles.  Mussolini simply juggled about 100 balls at once, keeping them all in the air, so he could continue to rule – that was Fascism for him.

The incredibly detailed and notated biography reveals that Mussolini’s rule was based on several basic principles:

  • Use violence to extort, intimidate, and sow chaos among enemies and neutral parties.  Use it without stint, and keep an eye out for the opportunity to extract advantage.  He did not deny his penchant for violence, he celebrated it as a central principle of fascism.
  • Control the news completely:  Mussolini started his political life as a journalist and newspaper operator, and to a great extent, his reign resembled that of a ruthless media tycoon who also happened to control an army of violent thugs willing to do his bidding.
  • Divide and rule without reserve:  Eventually, the Fascist party Mussolini himself created became a potential threat to his own power.  He had no compunction at setting its members against one another to keep it as weak as he needed it.
  • Abandon consistency:  Perhaps this is the most truly astonishing part of Mussolini’s rule.  The freedom with which he would contradict himself, often within a day, was incredible.  He started as a revolutionary socialist, then he advocated corporate industrial control of society, later he went back to the socialist stance.  It all depended on who he was trying to outmaneuver at the time, and since he controlled all the press, each contradictory expression would be reconciled with his other statements by judicious “erasures” within the archives.

With complete control of the press, comes the freedom to create the big lie.  Italy has the greatest army in Europe, ten million men at arms (his generals knew that it had barely 1/10th that number), a major military defeat is trumpeted as a great victory, the train system is proclaimed the best in the industrialized world, running 100% on time (journalists from abroad noted, before they were ejected from the country for saying it, that the system was a shambles.)

His government was totally centralized in his own person, and he became increasingly remote from reality, surrounded by sycophants who posed no threat, and who were totally incompetent in their posts.  Mussolini seems to have actively sought dullards and incompetents to appoint to positions of nominal power, but he rarely listened to them anyway.  Many times he delivered himself of incorrect opinions on matters of economics or military import and refused to be corrected – that would diminish his prestige – even to the point of accepting awful terms in the negotiation of foreign treaties rather than backtrack.  It was rule by an egomaniac “play-actor” backed up by vicious criminal gangs who made out while the gettin’ was good.

How did this gimcrack, ramshackle, jerry-rigged chaos come to run a modern state?  The author’s explanation seems to be that two principle factors were at play in the post-WWI era that was threatening to many established regimes:  Mussolini was some kind of a political genius; the liberal political establishment let him take power.  He was brilliant at picking the right moment to act, ruthless in employing lies and violence, totally without scruple, principle, or consistency, other than in his drive for power, and he knew how to inspire loyalty.  He was a demagogue, in other words.  And the liberal bourgeois establishment, which could have destroyed him easily at many critical moments in his rise to power, feared him less than the communists, a familiar story.  Like Hitler, he too was voted into power, a fact which annoyed him greatly as he felt it was more proper for a fascist leader to seize power with violence.  But he was willing to live with that…  Even when Mussolini was still only member of parliament and was personally implicated in a murder of a prominent opponent, the dominant establishment parties dealt lightly with him.  They sat and listened as he insulted and harangued them in speeches, even as his party members instigated fights on the parliament floor.  They were utterly exhausted as a political class, and this was both a cause, and a rallying cry of the Fascist ascendancy.

Needless to say, once he was in power, the industrial interests were happy to connive with him in his program, confident that his outlandish plans for the economy would never be implemented, the case with most of his pronunciamentos.  As Mack Smith frequently notes, the actual effect of his proposals and pronouncements was not so important;  to keep those balls flying in the air, the appearance was all that mattered.

Benito-Mussolini

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Ballet Russe, Zionism, and Terror

March 22, 2012

In my recent post of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of two short tales from Scheherazade’s 1001, I included a picture of Ida Rubenstein, a figure from fin de sièclela Belle Époque history who was new to me.  She was born to a wealthy family of Russian Jews, came to dance late, for a ballerina, that is, and made a big splash with Leon Bakst and Nijinsky.  Her début was a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which she danced through the seven veils to the nude.  She was denounced by the Archbishop of Paris for dancing as Saint Sebastian in a ballet scored by Debussy, with costumes by Bakst.  Sacrilege!  A Jew and a woman depicting the martyred saint!

During WWII, she fled France for England, where she helped escaped Resistance members, and was intimate with Walter Guinness, her sponsor and sometime lover.  He was assassinated in 1944 by members of the Stern Gang, a terrorist organization of Zionist Jews trying to dislodge Britain from Palestine.

Stern Gang is what the Brits called them, but they referred to themselves as Lehi, but also as ‘terrorists’ and, according to Wikipedia,  may have been one of the last organizations to do so:

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah,whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.” But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier. We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

There we have it.  Infatuation with The Cause, with Violence, with The Nation.  Sound familiar?  On the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Lehi made overtures to Nazi Germany, offering to assist in its war against the British in exchange for allowing the free emigration of Jews to Palestine to join the nation-building cause.

The more I learn about the history of Zionism, and its role as a foundation of Israeli society, the more disgusted I become.  Former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was a member in good standing of the gang.


Violence – exemplary and otherwise

February 25, 2010

The brilliant Professor Wanowsky weighs in on the most crucial political question:  evolution or revolution?

My previous post on the film, La cérémonie, evoked some comments on class conflict and violence.  This is an issue that has interested me for some time:  both the serious questions about whether or when violence is justified, or even practical;  and the way that violence is romanticized by political types of various stripes.  I consider the Left and the Right, the bolshevik and the fascist attachment to violence to be romantic, overtly so in the case of most fascists, especially the Italians, and covertly so among the devotees of the cult of terror in revolutionary Russia.  (They liked to think they were always being scientific.)

Pancime’s comment on that post got me thinking once again of an old comic by Robert Crumb – click on the image to see the entire rant by Professor Wanowsky (my italics):

Reading Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and current school texts and academic works in this country – all of which celebrate or promote violence – leads me to believe that there is a violent strain of the revolutionist left that is still strong and seeks to depose by violence whoever it constructs as its enemy. In this country that enemy is despised in part merely for its commitment to peaceful change.

Ah yes, the eternal argument between the “candy-assed liberals” and the real radicals committed to change.  The good Professor captures the tone of that split so well!

Pancime also pointed me to the Papin sisters, who were an inspiration to many French intellectuals (what is the matter with those guys…and gals?) and certainly to Claude Chabrol.  Two maids who maimed and killed their employers and were found huddled together in bed in 1933.  For some, there was clearly a ideological frisson to be had if you could stomach the bloodshed.

“In its broad outline, the tragedy of the Papin sisters was immediately clear to us. . .One must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters. The horror of this all-consuming machine could only be rightfully denounced by an exemplary act of horror: the two sisters had made themselves the instruments and martyrs of a sombre form of justice… For two bourgeois women hacked to pieces, a bloody atonement was required.   The killer wasn’t judged.  He acted as a scapegoat…” (my italics)

Simone Beauvoir in La Force de l’âge

This intellectual romanticizing of violence, often dissembled as hard-nosed realism, is not foreign to America:

In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.

Norman Mailer

Moving along to the right, we have the oft-quoted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who put his aesthetic into practice and  became an early supporter of Italian fascism:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.

And finally, Lenin, in a rare moment of intellectual undress:

I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. These days, one can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. Hence, you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm – what a devillishly difficult job!

This quote was spoken in full by the heroic Soviet figure skater man-of-ice while Melina, the hot socialist babe, is trying to get him to warm up to her in the fantastic film WR:  Mysteries of the Organism.


Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.


Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.


Authoritarian Followers

October 5, 2007

authoritarian.jpg

Sometime ago, I heard a radio interview of a Harvard troglodyte named Harvey Mansfield as he discussed his absurd ideas about manliness and gender. I have since learned, thanks to an excellent Salon.com column by Glenn Greenwald, that he is a right-wing extremist who believes that the prez is above the law. In that column, Greenwald makes the following remark:

I’ll leave it to Bob Altemeyer and others to dig though all of that to analyze what motivates Mansfield and his decades-long craving for strong, powerful, unchallengeable one-man masculine rule…

Well, I followed that link to Mr. Altemeyer’s study of authoritarian followers, and it is fascinating! Have you ever felt the sinking depression I feel when confronted with a rigid, dogmatic, authority-loving, robot follower who spouts slogans and seems to be impervious to simple logic? Wondered how the hell he or she can think that way? Well, Mr. Altemeyer, a professor of psychology, has, and he studied them in depth. He calls them [high scoring] RWAs for right-wing-authoritarians. In his book, which is quite funny as well, if you can believe it, I found the following passage [emphasis added by me] which knocked my socks off:

Intrigued, I gave the inferences test that Mary Wegmann had used to two large samples of students at my university. In both studies high RWAs went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea..
Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, “Because sharks are fish.” In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t “get it” that the reasoning matters–especially on a reasoning test.

Why does this grab me? Well, I couldn’t have thought of a more pithy way of summing up the exasperation I feel when I hear some citizens or politicians talk, read columns by chattering “experts” and pundits in the paper, and, on the thankfully rare occasion, hear commentators spout forth on TV. (It’s rare because I don’t watch TV.) Yes, some people just don’t get that reason matters!

But my experience with jury duty has led me to believe that anyone can reason…if they think they have to. That is, when they realize that they won’t get out of the room until they can convince the others of their point of view, they resort, a last resort, it’s true, to reason. In that situation, they feel reason does matter. Perhaps in the rest of their lives, they have the luxury of ignoring it. It’s useless to argue with such people unless circumstances back you up, i.e., present the dogmatist with an argument he can’t shout down.