Stalin and GWB

April 26, 2004

This is an unfinished thought. Perhaps by blogging it I will get a better handle on it.

Locke, Paine, and the contract theorists suggest that it is morally impossible for a population to freely bind themselves and their posterity to slavery; while it is possible to freely elect a despot, that despot can not be hereditary for by creating a hereditary despot this generation will have infringed on the rights of the generation not yet born.

But, what do you do when a population freely elects to create a government that you, an outsider with some level of power and control over them, do not approve of? It is an old chestnut in political science, one that generations of undergraduates have written little think papers on, but it is a chestnut because it is a very real question - to what extent should a free population have the ability to choose a bad or even disastrous course of action?

So where do GWB and Uncle Joe come in?

I taught the early Cold War last week. At the end of WWII Stalin had an absolute commitment to preventing any future German invasion of Russia/USSR. They had done it in 1917, devastated the country, and killed millions. They had done it in 1941, devastated the country, and killed tens of millions (about 25,000,000 Soviet citizens died in the war, two thirds of them civilians). He did not want to see the third act. So, he expanded the Soviet Union Westward, expanded Poland Westward, and made sure that the minor states along his border would not serve as a stepping off point for any future invasion.

This desire received great power approval at Yalta, where the Big Three agreed that the states of Eastern Europe would have democratically elected governments, and that they would conform their foreign policies to that of the Soviet Union.

In 1946, when Poland and Hungary and the other Eastern nations began to hold elections, anti-Communists and, more importantly, anti-Russians won the elections. Faced with a choice between keeping his word about democratic elections and keeping these states closely within the Soviet orbit, Stalin chose to subvert democracy and use force to impose Communist governments against the will of the inhabitants. Those governments remained in place until the collapse of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1989-91. The inhabitants of these countries generally regarded their government as illegitimate, as dominated by outsiders, and as a very bad idea. They rejected it as soon as possible, with Hungary in 1956 and Poland in the 1980s both creating their own democratic challenges to Communism.

In Iraq right now, we are at some level engaged in trying to install a liberal democracy based on human rights, individual self worth, free elections, and an open and mobile society. Many of the people in Iraq, perhaps most of them, would prefer a government that does not fulfill the full range of human rights, feminist rights, open speech, and the other components of our current understanding of a liberal democracy. So, to what extent should the Coalition of the Willing use either military force or occupation pressure to force Iraq to conform to a liberal ideal?

The differences between the two cases are legion, starting with the fact that we believe that liberal democracy is a very good thing and doctrinaire communism is a very bad thing. But, at some level, both are driven by thoughts of false consciousness - the belief that people are misinformed and if only they knew better they would act as we wish they would act. False consciousness is not limited to Marxists, although Marxists have long used it to explain why working classes vote against socialist government.

Jefferson, for example, never considered that most Americans in 1796 preferred John Adams and the Jay Treaty over Thomas Jefferson and ties with France; instead he argued that they had been misled by "priestcraft" and a "reign of witches" then distracted by the "frenzy" of the X.Y.Z. affair and otherwise misled by a conspiratorial aristocratic elite. If they were free of superstition and frenzy, then they would prefer TJ, and so he must continue.

I do not know to what extent Stalin was a true believer in Stalinist Communism and to what extent he was a true believer in paranoia, personal power, and Russian dominance of the USSR. One could easily imagine the case of a person who truly believed that Communism was the best possible form of government and who worked to impose it by force on Poland, Hungary, and other nations for their own good, just as every day we see brave and dedicated people in Iraq who do believe that democracy is the best possible (or least terrible) form of government and who work to make it possible in Iraq.

I do support the movement to liberal democracies over the world. I worry that any attempt to impose them by force will, if badly done, look like Stalin in Hungary. And yet, without some use of force, we cede control to the people who are willing to use violence to institute personal rule, ethnic domination, or islamofascism.

But, there is a difference between imposing outside rule and convincing people that our idea is the best idea. As Jefferson put it when talking about religion, force may make a person a hypocrite, it can never make him a better man. Instead reason and conviction are the only lasting ways to change people's minds about their essential beliefs.

So, GWB and Stalin are alike in that both GWB's policy of using force to create a democratic Iraq and Stalin's actions using force to create Communist satellite states can be seen as an outside power using the logic of false-consciousness to impose a regime that the outside power approves of. If it is done well, the inhabitants of the regime will go along with it. If it is done badly, or ham-handedly, then it will undermine the legitimacy of the new regime.

So let us be careful.

Posted by Red Ted at April 26, 2004 01:56 AM | TrackBack