Karl Marx once wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” He wrote these words in his opening paragraph of a study of the 1851 coup of Louis Bonaparte of France. The essence of the argument made by Marx is that although “Men make their own history, … they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Of course, men in this instance means humanity, not a specific gender.) From where I sit, this argument of Marx’s has proven itself true over and over again.
Regarding the nature of history being made first as tragedy and then as farce, Marx implies that the effects of the tragic interlude leave their mark on the farcical moment that comes later. In fact it is the tragedy that lays the potential groundwork for the farce. This is certainly the case in the latest proof of Marx’s words–the Georgian attack on its breakaway provinces and the counterattack by Russia. Historically, Georgia has always been a recalcitrant part of the Russian empire. First annexed by Russia in the 1800s as a way to protect itself from Persian and Ottoman attacks, Georgia declared itself an independent nation in 1918 during the early months of the Russian Revolution. The Menshevik government than aligned itself with Western capitalist powers intent on destroying the Bolshevik government and was invaded by the Soviet Red Army in 1921. By 1936, Georgia was once again ruled by Moscow and the leader of the Soviet Union was the Georgian Josef Stalin. World War Two began not long afterwards. The Soviet Union suffered incredible casualties while fighting against Nazi Germany in an alliance with the capitalist nations led by Britain and the United States. After the surrender of the Germans, Washington and London restarted their struggle against the Soviet Union and its economic and political systems. This became known as the Cold War.
It was a period of threats, militarization, proxy wars in third world nations and the occasional nuclear showdown. Washington ultimately won when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the late 20th century due to economic and political contradictions that could not be resolved. The role played by Washington was great and its victory provided US apologists for empire with a golden opportunity they called the “unipolar moment.” This historical “moment” was seized by the imperial apologists on both sides of the aisle and brought the world the first invasion of Iraq in 1991, the Yugoslavian wars that culminated in the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo and the eventual installation of US forces in the latter province, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the establishment of hundreds of US military bases around the world, including in countries that were formerly part of the USSR. Meanwhile, the Russian economy was reforming itself into a harsh capitalist system that saw the destruction of the social safety net created and maintained under Soviet rule. Naturally, this lead to an increase in the number of Russian poor and, conversely, an increase in the number of the very rich. US and other corporations moved into Russia taking advantage of the failure of the Soviet structure and began looting its wealth and resources. On the diplomatic front, Russia soft-pedaled its opposition to the imperialist moves by Washington.
But, Moscow had not gone quietly into the global capitalist night. Elements of its political establishment were rebuilding alliances with various nations, while simultaneously making economic deals for energy products and other goods. Like the bear that symbolizes the Russian nation, the desire for empire had only been in hibernation. The assumption of George Bush and his neocons to the US White House and their militaristic aggression and bombast stirred the bear from its rest. As the US eagle spread its wings further and further around the globe leaving its imperial droppings in nations once thought to be in Moscow’s domain, the Russian power elites found their strength and began to oppose the eagle’s moves. The move by Washington to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders and the refusal by the Western nations to allow Russia into the World Trade Organization are but two of Washington’s moves that riled the bear. That cold war we had hoped was forever gone was coming back. Would Karl Marx be right once again? Will we see the standoff between Moscow and Washington repeat itself as farce?
The events in Georgia do not bode well for a negative response to this question. The stakes have certainly been raised. The sycophantic leader of Georgia–put into place by the CIA and its front organization the National Endowment for Democracy(NED)–looks to Washington for support in his insistence that the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia must remain part of the country he leads. Russia insists on the opposite, just like Washington insisted about the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999. Naturally, every politician inside the Beltway misses the aforementioned contradiction and agrees with Dick Cheney that the Russians must not be allowed to have their way. After all, it is Washington’s world now and, even if there is hardly a horse’s hair worth of difference between the governments in Washington and Moscow, Moscow can not be allowed to think that it can be Washington’s equal on the world stage.
It is in historical moments like this that the citizen can truly see how little they matter. We have two powerful regimes trifling over a piece of territory that most of the world could care less about. Both of these regimes have proven that they are more than willing to kill thousands of people, destroy hundreds of square miles of land and water, and waste billions of dollars in doing so just so they can establish their position in their battle to control their world. It is their world because no matter how it turns out they will profit and we will pay. That is a scenario that Karl Marx also addressed when he stated, in essence, that it is the regular people that make history.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org