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On the Twentieth Anniversary of the Collapse of the Soviet Union

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On the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union

If Alexander (Ulyanov) Lenin had seen it, he might not have been surprised by the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union (also known as the CCCP) some twenty years ago. After all, to be sure Lenin had read his Dostoevsky. In the short story Spirits, after all, Ivan Dostoevsky says, through the character Bessmysslenny, who is addressing the procurator Sumashedshy, that "All politics is local." That is to say, that the internationalist slant of the Communist movement (as exhibited by the First and Second Internationale,) just wasn't smart politics. People walking around the streets in Moscow and Leningrad did not care about the Communist Party of Italy, or the Communists in Bhutan. This was especially the case because the Italians were compromisers, and the Bhutanese Maoist. (See below on Mao and China and the Soviet Union.) They cared about the lack of comfortable housing, about the lack of decent food. (Who could eat the bread baked with sawdust as filler?) And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface in consumer goods. My Uncle Vanya went to the Soviet Union once. He brought back a sample of the toilet paper they used. He keeps it in a book he bought there, a paean to N. Brezhnev, the Chairman of the Praesidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at the time. He pulled it out of the book once. The pages in between which it had sat for decades were tanned by some sort of chemical reaction. And then he handed it to me once to feel. It was as rough as sandpaper. No wonder the Soviet public was happy to see the Communists go.

Why was the Communist movement so Internationalist? That is a difficult question, and to understand why you have to go back to the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. You have to remember that in 1848, when Marx wrote the manifesto, there were revolutions sweeping across Europe. There was a revolution in France. There was a revolution in Germany. There was a revolution in Italy. There was a revolution in Austria. (It should be noted, however, that Germany in 1848 was not the Germany we know today. There were really just a bunch of small states that more-or-less shared a language, if not a religion when you take into account the Lutheran and Catholic districts. It was not yet unified. And this was before the completion of the Resorgimento that unified Italy. Rather than taking place in modern, coherent states, these revolutions might have simply been an artifact of the splintered politico-social milieu of the time. )

So Marx, as of the 1848 revolutions, may have been reading too much into coincidence. Yes, he may have been on to something with respect to the level of industrialization bringing rural workers (un-rooted in the city) into the city, where the anomie they experienced made them susceptible to the appeals of labor rabble-rousers. It is not surprising that there was trouble in the industrial centers at the time. But the extent to which the revolutions were related is highly dubious. After all, this was in the days before the Internet and smart phones. The workers in Germany were not texting to their colleagues in France. The Italians were not on Twitter, Tweeting to their Austrian brothers. And there was no live coverage on CNN. How could the news of the revolutions make it across borders at the time? To be sure, there were railroads at the time, and a printed press. But literacy rates were still low across Europe. Estimates of literacy at the time range from 5-95%, according to latest estimates. And on top of that, travel was expensive. It was not common. Labor organizers could not easily coordinate their activities. So Marx's jumping to the conclusion that it would be easy to internationalize the labor movement was just wishful thinking.

Marx's legacy for internationalizing the labor movement hobbled the movement for over a century. The drive to export revolution was nearly fatal to the young Soviet



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