Friday, December 30, 2011

Time for The Nation to give up any lingering nostalgia for the Soviet Union

In many ways The Nation has been, and remains, a valuable and admirable magazine. But for much of the 20th century it had a disgraceful record of fellow-traveling apologetics for Stalinism, the post-Stalin Soviet Union, and a whole range of other allegedly "progressive" and/or "anti-imperialist" dictatorships around the world. In 1981 Susan Sontag created a bit of a scandal in American left-liberal circles by pointing out, correctly, that if we imagined one person who read only The Nation between 1950 and 1970, and another person who read only (the right-leaning and intensely anti-Communist) Reader's Digest, the one with a better grasp of the realities of Communism would clearly be the Reader's Digest reader. (The Nation's coverage of North Korea from the 1950s through the 1980s also makes pretty embarrassing reading in retrospect, by the way.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the world-wide collapse of the whole Leninist project, the magazine appeared to have gotten over these infatuations. It's certainly true that, since the departure of the appalling Alexander Cockburn, no one writing for The Nation would actually try to defend Stalinist totalitarianism. But when it comes to equivocations and apologetics about the Soviet Union, it seems that The Nation can't quite break the habit completely.

The issue of The Nation dated January 9-16, 2012 includes a symposium whose agenda is to reconsider the Soviet Union in a more positive light and to suggest, or insinuate, that maybe the end of the Soviet Union was not such a Good Thing:
Virtually all American commentary about the end of the Soviet Union extols what the West is believed to have gained from that historic event. On this twentieth anniversary of the breakup, The Nation presents three writers who focus instead on what may have been lost. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader and first constitutional president, argues that a chance for a more secure and just world order was missed. Stephen F. Cohen, a historian and longtime Nation contributor, reminds readers of the political, economic and social costs to Russians themselves. And Vadim Nikitin, a US-educated Russian journalist, presents a new interpretation of pro-Soviet nostalgia. —The Editors
I react to this sort of thing with a sense of weary resignation, mixed with a bit of irritation. Spencer Ackerman, on the other hand, is appropriately apoplectic:
[....] So it’s with horror and frustration that I see The Nation is running a series of essays asking if the world is really, really safer without the U.S.S.R. I’m embarrassed as a liberal by this shit. The liberals I know — those of my generation, certainly — have no nostalgia for an empire whose chief characteristics were slaughter and mass immiseration. The Nation would rather be Soviet Union Truthers.

Because that’s what you get from this bullshit package. It’s not an affirmative argument that the world was safer with the Soviet Union around. That would actually be more intellectually bracing than this dreck from Mikhail Gorbachev, who really is a titan of history:
In short, the world without the Soviet Union has not become safer, more just or more stable. Instead of a new world order—that is, enough global governance to prevent international affairs from becoming dangerously unpredictable—we have had global turmoil, a world drifting in uncharted waters. The global economic crisis that broke out in 2008 made that abundantly clear.
Wait, a lifelong Soviet apparatchik is going to decry the irrelevance of the United Nations? The man who opened his eyes to the chronic poverty endured by Soviet subjects is going to sit in judgment on a superior system’s economic faults? This isn’t an essay. It’s historical-counterfactual equivalent of performative skepticism. Do we know for suuuuure that the Towers weren’t knocked down by a controlled demolition? Reaaaaally? What, you believe that was really bin Laden on those tapes…

These aren’t good-faith arguments. They’re not even forthright defenses of the Soviet Union. They’re juvenile attempts at satisfaction through reminding everyone that the world didn’t magically attain perfection after the fall of the USSR. The right response to that is to improve the world, not to cultivate nostalgia for one of the central reasons the 20th century was a slaughterhouse.

Stephen P. Cohen swipes at straw men “commentators” here, caring more about historiography than the thing-itself. He’s upset at the “triumphalist narrative” in the U.S. — because you’re being a dick by not shedding a tear for what truly was an Evil Empire, even if the hated Ronald Reagan said it:

Because its seventy-four-year role in the twentieth century is still bitterly disputed, because the way it ended remains so controversial and because the full ramifications of its disappearance are still unclear, its fate can only confirm the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s axiom, “History is indeed an argument without end.”

Suffice it to say there are many Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Hungarians, Finns, Ukrainians, Afghans and others who don’t really have much patience for Geyl in this context. If you can find an Afghan rebel that the Moscow bullets missed, ask him what he thinks of voting Communist.

—Jeff Weintraub