The Resumption of the American Civil War

‘All of the post-war agreements and compromises are being torn up’, he said.

In reply to my puzzled look, he added: ‘Post-American Civil War’.

With that observation, a whole new angle opened up on what is happening in the ‘United’ States of America. Forget using a certain Mr Donald Trump as a scapegoat, for he is a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Forget the idea that things were going relatively well until the current anomaly in the system appeared.

Instead, the ‘United’ States has always been based on a compromise. The organs of governance, the institutions of society, the structure of the ‘sacred’ constitution,  if not the infamous American version of liberal democracy, all witness to the compromises and efforts to ameliorate a fundamental contradiction.

Let me put it in more philosophical terms: the much-vaunted ‘freedom’ championed by US ideologues is based on a structural unfreedom. As Losurdo has shown so well, the freedom in question is based on slavery.  The early liberals of the United States argued that a basic right of a ‘free man’ was to own slaves. The ‘all men are created equal’ of the Declaration of Independence restricts the meaning of ‘all’, for it excluded slaves, let alone women and indigenous people. You cannot have an idea of freedom within this framework without unfreedom. In some respects, American liberal democracy expresses the ultimate truth of ancient Greek democracy: the first European development of a robust category of freedom was enabled by a structural slavery, so much so that the Greeks could simply not imagine a world without slaves.

How does all this bear on the civil war? It is the obvious manifestation of this contradiction. We may distinguish between the ‘hot’ war of 1861-1865 and the ‘cold’ war since 1865. As with ‘cold’ wars, actual skirmishes are frequent. Think of the lynch mobs after 1865 (which can be seen as the ultimate expression of the self-governance of civil society), the prison system with its millions of inmates, the almost daily massacres in one part or another, the incredibly high death toll from handguns, if not the sea of poverty and lack that surrounds islands of obscene wealth and power … One can easily argue that the civil war has never really abated.

If you care to look at what passes for ‘news outlets’ in the United States, you will find quite a bit of discussion about a new civil war. It is nearly always framed as a war to come (soonish). Obviously, this misses the whole point I have been proposing.

What form might a resumption of the ‘hot’ civil war take? Perhaps it would once again be a move to secession, as happened in the 1860s. Wait a moment: are there not already multiple secession movements, challenging directly the constitution’s efforts to rule out precisely this possibility? Indeed, a 2017 poll found that ‘nearly four in ten (39%) agree that each state has the ultimate say over their destiny and that secession is a right’. Region by region, the poll found ‘high support for secession within the South, Northeast, and out West (48%, 43%, and 43% respectively)’.

Or perhaps it is the comment from a forlorn liberal: ‘they hate us’.

Or the Rhode Island’s resident’s wish that all the ‘deplorables’ in the central west and south would be moved to cities to learn how to work, die off or be killed by a foreign power.

Or the observation from an ex-pat: ‘This is just like Pakistan, so I am used to it’. But this is somewhat unfair to Pakistan, is it not?

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Lenin in Russian folktales

Deeply into the veneration of Lenin, so to speak. Much of the secondary material is pretty trite (the ‘cult’ was engineered from above etc.), but what emerges between the lines is how pervasive the spontaneous wave of popular veneration was. The government realised what was going on and thought ‘holy shit, what do we do?’ Publish them at least, and then try to channel them in useful directions. Here’s one, from Orenburg:

The tsar was informed by one of his leading generals that there was someone, ‘of unknown rank, without a passport, who goes by the name of Lenin’. This person was threatening to entice the tsar’s soldiers to his side with one word, and then grind into ashes the commanders, generals, officers, even the tsar himself, and throw them into the wind. The tsar grew afraid and decided to do anything he could to prevent Lenin saying the word. So he made contact with Lenin, offering to divide the country in half. Lenin agreed to the proposal, but with one condition: the tsar must take the ‘white’ half, that is, the generals and officers and wealthy people, while Lenin would take the ‘black’ half, the workers, peasants and soldiers. The tsar couldn’t believe his good fortune in keeping all that mattered to him, so he quickly agreed. But to his dismay, he realised soon enough that Lenin had tricked him. His officers had no soldiers to lead, the rich people had no workers, the tsar had no people to make the country run. So the white part under the tsar went to war with Lenin’s black part, in order to win the latter back. But the white was unable to survive for long. So it was that Lenin took the country away from the tsar.

The lice that almost defeated socialism

Volume 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works: what a read it has been so far! At one level, it is an extraordinary narrative that draws you in, giving you the proverbial never-ending book. At another level, it has blown away many caricatures and preconceptions concerning Lenin. One would have to be the sectarian Lenin, brooking no rival and eliminating them at the slightest provocation. Not at all, Lenin struggles between what I call ecumenism and sectarianism, voicing now one, now the other position – so I will need to call on a complex dialectic to deal with it all.

However, the best find of late is the lice. Lice!? Not on me, mind you.

Let me set the scene. It is late 1919, two years after the revolution. The place has faced six years of perpetual war, first in WWI and then in the ‘civil’ war. Of course it wasn’t ‘civil’ at all: the British, French, Americans, Canadians, Japanese et al thought they could topple the fledgling and weakened communist republic. They failed, so they sent arms, money, supplies and troops to old guard generals in the north, south, east and west – Kolchak, Yudenich, Denikin, Churchill et al (Churchill predicted he would have Moscow by Christmas of 1918). The lesson: any socialist state that wants to delink from the global capitalist system will be attacked, brutally and consistently, dubbed ‘terrorist’, a threat to civilisation, un-democratic, dictatorial and so on and on. It will also need to make sure it is well protected – the necessary evil of what is called ‘war communism’.

But defeat the lot of them the Soviets did, especially with the genius of Trotsky. So by the end of the 1919, they can finally turn to reconstruction. Three key issues have been dogging them: food, since the blockade had attempted to starve the Russians; fuel, since the same enemies had grabbed the coalfields and tried to freeze them to death. Pecisely on these issues does the question of the transition from old to new turn: how do you construct a completely different system of production, distribution and consumption in the midst of the old system.

But what about the lice? They are the third key issue for the tension between old and new. Here is Lenin at the seventh congress of Soviets in December 1919:

Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice! (Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 228)

Why lice? Easy: they spread typhus. Typhus was sweeping through a hungry, cold but  increasingly victorious Red Army and population. The outcome is now history, albeit less known than it should: socialism did defeat the lice, or at least those lice.

No wonder Lenin could proclaim, ‘it really is a miracle!’