Friday, October 9, 2009

Red Millionaire

A fascinating insight into the origins of modern political action is provided by The Red Millionaire: A political biography of Willi Munzenberg, Moscow’s secret propaganda tsar in the West by Sean McMeekin. It brings the politics of the period (1910 - 1940) thoroughly to life, though McMeekin is not as good at examining the effectiveness and reach of Munzenberg’s propaganda activities. (Stephen Koch’s Double Lives is better at that.) Munzenberg was a member of the ‘Zimmerwald Left’ – the pre-1917 circle around Lenin. Unlike the rest, he remained in the West, being a devoted (if self-serving) supporter of Moscow until eventually falling fatally foul (as almost everyone did) of Stalin’s resentment of all those whose connections to Lenin did not go through him.

The post-1917 sections of the book display, yet again, what an evil bastard Lenin was. No amount of death was too much if it achieved his purposes. Mind you, his approach to politics was the same as Marx’s was – smash what you don’t control. It is just that Lenin had a state to exercise that power, rather than fringe revolutionary organisations. Lenin was much more Marx’s heir than many are prepared to accept.

It is one of the great divisions in politics – those who think the process (in the sense of how you do things) is morally central because it must encompass a range of divergent purposes (e.g. democracy) and those who think the purpose is morally central and so process is subordinated to it (e.g. Leninism). The EU goes for the latter model (the European Project, global governance; neither of which are people deemed entitled to say ‘no’ to), the US (at least for its own citizens) for the former. Munzenberg was a purpose man, and his propaganda exulted purpose. McMeekin is particularly good on delineating how Stalin’s ‘social fascist’ line against the Social Democrats did so much to help bring the Nazis to power. It is also a great reminder how abuse of the term ‘fascist’ has been a staple of left politics since the fascists first appeared. And that the democratic left has often been the most effective enemy of the Leninist-cum-Stalinist left – the SPD was much better at exposing Munzenberg and putting him under pressure prior to 1933 than the Nazis, just as Orwell exposed Stalinism far better than anyone else. But, then, the Nazis and the Stalinists had features in common – not least the shared purpose of destroying Weimar Germany.

Still, the only important difference between Leninism and Stalinism was that Stalin applied to fellow Bolsheviks the same modes of politics Lenin applied to everyone else. Part of how the Soviet Union followed the Ibn Khaldun model of predatory rule. First, a group bound by common feeling seizes power (Lenin), then the ruler separate himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin), the system slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernenko) until it finally collapses (Gorbachev).

The legacy of Willi Munzenberg’s political activism is not in the now-defunct Soviet Union that he so effectively served, and whose service likely eventually killed him, but in the use of congenial framings, regardless of their truth content, to push political agendas. To some extent, we still live in the shadow of the Red Millionaire.

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