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What About the People?

by JUSTIN E. H. SMITH

Bucharest.

I was interviewed a few months back on Michael Slate’s radio program at KPFK in Los Angeles. He had read a piece I wrote for Counterpunch defending the use of the admittedly overused label ‘fascist’ in reference to the Bush administration, and he invited me on the air to expatiate.

Once there, I drifted into other historical comparisons. I said that the administration’s talk about Iraq is often reminiscent of Moscow city-planning under Stalin, when maps were published including not just, as Stalin might say, ‘actually existing’ streets, polyclinics, and centers for natation, gymnastics, and other sub-branches of ‘physical culture’, but also those they had intended to build, under Stalin’s orders, over the course of the next several years.

My host interrupted me with what he took to be a whopping revelation: I had drifted too far, he declared, for, while fascists are bad, Stalin was, as he put it, and as he insisted the historical record would show at the end of days, ‘on the side of the people’.

I didn’t get a chance to ask Mr. Slate what he thinks of Ceausescu.

I arrived in the Eastern Bloc for the first time just a month after watching Mr. Ceausescu’s execution on Christmas Day, 1989, at the hands of enraged Timisoara miners, on T.V., from the comfort of my parents’ sitting room within the gates of a Palm Springs country club. Mom implored me to postpone my semester in Moscow until things settled down a bit. That’s not, I insisted, how the dialectic of history works.

And now I am in Bucharest, almost 16 years later, giving a few public lectures on topics that have nothing to do with politics, and touring the former dictator’s ‘House of the People’, a kitsch and monstrous neo-classical palace on top of a hill in a central neighborhood he had bulldozed to make room for it, which now houses various government ministries for the promotion of commerce and for integration into the European Union, as well as a mediocre museum of national folk costumes and a rather worse exhibition of what I would describe as student-produced science-fiction/fantasy paintings. Ceausescu got it into his head to build the palace after visiting North Korea in 1971 and deciding that he might be the only communist dictator audacious and megalomaniacal enough to outdo Kim Il Sung.

It is a ruin like any other, and it too has been covered over with its own Barbarian desecrations. There are ads all about for a sandwich company called ‘Big Time’, using the slogan ‘meat me’ and displaying a grotesque, photo- shopped face of a man with an outsized mouth. The only adaptation I’ve seen in the post-communist world to rival this place in its simultaneous embodiment of two different eras’ different versions of vulgarity is the Atomic Energy pavilion of the Moscow All-Union Exhibition of the Achievements of the Peoples’ Economy, where the people can now go to purchase low-end Chinese-made microwave ovens.

But in defence of the present historical era, it is at least worth noting that there are now plenty of people milling about in the House of the People who are the undisputed descendents of those they must have had in mind when they started carrying on about ‘le peuple’ in France some centuries ago: chubby folks in shiny track suits, men with few remaining teeth, Icarus-busloads of domestic tourists who’ve brought packed lunches of hard-boiled eggs, black bread, and tomatoes to be eaten like apples.

I recall visiting another institution ostensibly designed for the people: the Lenin Library in Moscow. It was January, 1990, and glasnost’ was already in full swing. But, I was to learn, old habits die hard. I decided to test Gorbachev’s rhetoric about openness by seeing if the old ladies assigned to guard the books could produced a copy of Freud’s Totem and Taboo for me.

I knew they had one in there somewhere, since back in California I had read about the early efflorescence of Freudo-Marxism in the glory days of the Soviet avant garde that would scarcely survive Lenin’s death. They kept at least one copy in deep storage after Freud fell out of favor so that, at least on occasion, some designated hacks might haul him out and choose a few isolated, mistranslated, and decontextualized passages for derisive ‘critique’.

I was given to know very quickly that the Lenin Library is an institution the very purpose of which is to throw up obstacles at every step of a research project to prevent its purported users from getting their hands on the desired materials. If this is a library for the people, I thought at the time, I shall have to have my species membership looked into.

Yes, I feel a deep and sincere sense of loss before the ruins of that half of the world that was swallowed up over night and covered over with vulgar advertisements for things no one needs in a meaningless English no one understands. But yes, I also think Stalinism reached a level of duplicitous doublespeak it would be difficult for the Bush administration to match.

So was my casual shift from the one historical comparison to another justified?

Of course, the facile elision of fascism and Stalinism is an exercise appropriate to intellects operating roughly at the level of Nicholas Kristof, or of some worn-out, 10th-grade world history teacher in the California public school system. There are important differences. Slavoj Zizek has sharply noted that Stalin, unlike Hitler, could appropriately applaud along with the crowd at his own public appearances, for what was being applauded was not the man, but the grand and inevitable sweep of history that had propelled this man to its fore. The actually existing conditions were the result of objective, scientific laws spelled out, but not willed into existence, by Marx himself. Stalin could not be blamed for what happens in accordance with the iron law of history. Nazism, in contrast, was the result of one man’s bold and willful interruption of the normal course of history, rather than the continuation of this course.

To this distinction, one might add that, while holocaust revisionists are a particularly despicable lot, gulag apologists have something about them that commands sympathy: they are delusional, but it is a beautiful vision of what history could have been that deludes them.

Still, one had best limit one’s apologies to on-air chatter at the obscure low end of the FM dial in places like Los Angeles, where one is free to flirt with revolutionary iconography without the slightest chance of ever being confronted with a real choice between pacifism and bloodshed, and where one can wax Stalinistic on the mic until one’s hour is up and it’s time for ‘Spaceways’, ‘Inner Visions’, or ‘Aziatik Rhythmz’.

In Romania, in contrast, where the Stalinist legacy lasted not until 1956, as in the USSR, but until 1989, it’s too likely that the person to whom you are divulging your sympathies has parents who were placed in prison for years for some perceived counterrevolutionary faux-pas (like moving to an excessively Asiatic rhythm: witness Ceausescu’s crackdown in the 1980s against followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi0, or loved ones who were shot in the town square in Timisoara during what is now universally referred to as the ‘revolution’ of ’89.

Around here, after so many decades of duplicity, invocations of ‘the people’ can’t but ring false. This has nothing to do with ideology: this has to do with the way meanings attach to words in spite of what ideologues might want them to mean.

For what is said of Woodrow Wilson –that he loved the people but hated people– is assuredly a fortiori the case for the man whose House of the People would make any small child, of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, avert her poor eyes in dread, and long for the sight of something warm and human.

Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and writer living in Montreal. He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca

 

 

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