11th Grade: Blitzkrieg and The Worship of Death


This week we began the fighting in World War II, which in many ways simply continued World War I.  It had many of the same combatants on nearly identical sides, but the stakes had increased as weapons got more powerful, and the ability of governments to mobilize their populations got stronger.  We looked at the fall of France, and the idea of blitzkrieg in general.

I believe that many false assumptions exist as to why France collapsed catastrophically in May-June of 1940.  Among them:

  • That France was ‘defeatist’ throughout the 1930’s, so when war came, they laid down and died for Germany.

On the contrary, they spent the 1930’s building up their armed forces, believing a conflict with Germany inevitable.  They had more modern weapons than Germany did, in general.

  • That France wrested strategic control from England, who had more “backbone” than the French.

On the contrary, France throughout the 1930’s pandered to England at their own cost, and adjusted their tactics to protect Belgium, and hence, England itself.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, England had much more to do with the “appeasement” of Hitler than the French.

  • That France was purely defensive minded, and never fought.

Again, not so fast.  They did go on the offensive (mistakenly) in Belgium, and they did suffer some 200,000+ casualties in their six week conflict with Germany.

The Germans shocked them through their swift movement through the Ardennes Forest, a terrible miscalculation by France.  But when the Germans broke out of the Ardennes the English decided to ‘abandon ship.’  In English lore the Dunkirk evacuation was a heroic moment of pluck and glory.  For the French, the English cowardly abandoned them in their hour of greatest need.

Well if these are not the reasons, why then did they collapse so dramatically?  No one in Germany, not even Hitler, believed that they could accomplish what they did so quickly?  We have to dig deeper.

France had the  military tradition in the whole of Europe.  From Charlemagne, to Wiliam the Conqueror, to Joan of Arc and Napoleon, no one could match the French fighting reputation.  In W.W. I they lived up to this reputation.  About 10% of their country suffered untold physical devastation.  French soldiers suffered in greater percentages than any other main combatant, yet still they emerged victorious.

Victorious, yes, but also exhausted.  The idea of France suffering what it did before could not be comprehended.  It must never happen again.  This mindset led to the elevation of the army in the national consciousness.  It became their crown jewel, set apart from the rest of society. “The army will save us.”  One sees this in tangible ways, such as French military HQ’s not even having direct phone lines to government leaders.  “You want to talk, you come to us.”  It manifested itself more directly when the Nazi’s invaded.  After the British left at Dunkirk, Marshal Petain wanted to surrender, at least partly to make sure  he could “preserve the French army,” France’s “my precious” (to channel Tolkien’s Gollum).

Understandably, the French did not want to fight the Germans in France.  So they built the Maginot Line, a vast network of forts along the French-German border.  And, they planned an offensive into Belgium to meet what they assumed would be the focal point of the German assault, just like it was in W.W. I.

But the Germans did not plan their main assault there.  Instead they went through the Ardennes Forest, where France had their weakest troops.

This was not merely bad luck.  The French suffered from what many victors suffer from, a belief that the next war will be like the last.  Their key miscalculation was in the area of tanks. In W.W. I tanks served as support, and not as spearheads.  But thanks to Heinz Guderian, the Germans thought of how to use tanks differently, in mass formation, not spread out like field kitchen units.  The Germans thought differently in part because they had to.  Nothing prevented the French from coming to Guderian’s conclusions, except their own short-sightedness.

We must also consider the nature of blitzkrieg itself, which sought to hit quickly and without mercy or pause. The idea arose from the concept that the Germans knew that they would be outmanned and outgunned in the coming war.  Victory needed to be quick if it was to come at all.  They stunned the French and never let them get their bearings.

Blitzkrieg also seems to fit with the mindset of the Germans, and also the Japanese.  Both sides felt humiliated by other western powers.  Both sides dealt with pent up anger for at least several years before they actually attacked.  ‘Lightning War’ allows you to vent all that anger in one go, so to speak.

But one wonders if the dramatic and complete nature of Germany and Japan’s early conquests did not work against them eventually.  The amount of territory they gobbled up gave them the dilemma of occupation.  How should they pacify their holdings?  They could have made friends and tried to integrate with them (as the Romans or Persians might have done), but Nazi and Japanese racial theories made that a non-starter, with the embarrassing exception of Vichy France.  The only way then to secure peace is to ‘beat-down’ the opponent to such a degree that they could not resist.  But blitzkrieg meant quick pincer thrusts to stun the opponent.  It was not a tactic geared towards controlling territory, but to destroying armies.  But if you want to ‘beat-down’ the opposition, that requires more force, which requires more resources, which might also inspire more resistance in the end.

But I think another issue at stake is the relationship between totalitarian ideologies (present in both Germany and Japan) and its relationship to the individual, something I touch on in this post, if you have interest.  Totalitarian society’s absorb individual identities into something larger, more abstract.  Maybe it’s the “German Race,” or “Japanese Honor,” or “The World Wide Class Revolution,” in the case of communism.  Whatever the cause, the individual subsumes themselves to the group.  Totalitarian movements have real appeal in part because they offer us something outside of ourselves.  After all, what could be a greater form of pride than having oneself be the only reality?

The danger comes when you reach beyond yourself and attach to something that denies and robs you of your individual identity. You graft yourself onto a leech that seeks to erase your uniqueness, your spiritual identity.

Destruction of the spiritual identity of the person is a mere precursor to the destruction of the physical person itself.  In the case of the Nazi’s they certainly did this to Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, etc.  But some Nazi’s did it to themselves in the end. One sees in Hitler, the S.S., and the Japanese Kamikaze’s (to name a few) a worship of death itself, a will towards destruction.  I don’t want to hang too much on my non-existent ability to play arm-chair psychologist, but I wonder if subconsciously they courted their eventual destruction with their military strategy.  For blitzkrieg was a strategy rooted in anger and desperation.  It could not have long-term success, but gave one the exaltation of a “last stand,” a glorious death.

And this brings us to what may be the real roots of Japanese and German strategy.  Both countries espoused ideologies that looked to a distant past for inspiration, and sought some form of purity.  In other words, both had a strongly romantic strain.  The romantic loves the grand gesture, and as an idealist, does not think about results.  The Japanese looked towards the bygone era of samurai’s, who lived for glory.  The best way to achieve glory was death in battle.  The Nazi, as we discussed a few years ago, had direct inspiration from Wagner, where someone is always dying or something is always burning in the end.  But from this death could come rebirth.

Many 19th century romantic poets had a fascination with death, as did their progeny (think Jim Morrison, for example).  Did the Germans and the Japanese plan a strategy that subconsciously they thought would fail?  Did they seek glorious death instead of victory?

I do not mean to imply that “Romanticism” is bad, any more than idealism is bad.  In literature one only needs to think of C.S. Lewis’ Reepicheep the mouse to see romanticism oriented in positive ways.  But we should consider the possibility that there may be a reason why military strategists shake their heads at German and Japanese strategy in the war.   It did not make much sense, and maybe they did not want it to.

These dilemmas would prove the undoing of both Germany and Japan, and we’ll see how after Easter break.

Finally, thanks to The Toynbee Convector, I stumbled upon this death oriented totalitarian movement, if you are interested.

Many thanks,



The Imperial Draftee

Children often hear, “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you,” before getting punished and of course they never believe it.  One day, they find out that it takes a lot of energy to come up with a punishment and enforce it.  In a similar vein, no one who wins the lottery believes that they will fall victim to the “curse” of great financial windfall actually making people more unhappy.

So too imperial states do not realize that extra conquests often presage a time of troubles,* and soon begin to work against them.  We usually think of the geo-political or financial burden of conquest, but it takes a psychological toll as well.

Here is a picture of a draftee into Japan’s army, with his family at a farewell gathering.

The Imperial Draftee

The picture should be blown up beyond screen size to get the full impact, and you can do that here.

We might guess that this picture was taken late in World War II, when all that seemed left for Japan was either surrender or “honorable” death.  But in fact, the picture is from 1939, when Japan’s fortunes seemed very much on the rise.  But this “rise” in fortunes may not have been all it seemed.  In 1939 Japan had reached a stalemate of sorts in China after quick and early victories.  To break the stalemate they began wanton and indiscriminate bombing of Chinese cities.  As David Derrick notes, Japanese tended to look somber in photographs, but here they appear beyond somber.  They are troubled , suffering from what Toynbee called a “schism of the soul.”

Whether your religion be Christianity, or in Japan’s case, Shintoism, people were not made to kill on such a scale.  Such actions take their toll.  It may hurt the conqueror more than the conquered.

*Readers of the linked post may note that while Japan technically was ruled by the Emperor, in fact they were controlled by a military oligarchy.

11th Grade: The Nazi State and the Art of Purity


This week we looked at rise of the Nazi’s in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

How can we make sense of the rise of the Nazi state?  While countries like Spain, Italy, the Soviet Union, Turkey, and Japan all experienced totalitarian regimes in varying degrees, none had quite the intensity and impact of Nazi Germany (though it would be fair to say that Stalin came close).  What distinguished the Nazi’s from other regimes?  How did a country with one of the richest cultural heritages in the world give themselves over to abject barbarism?

Naturally we think of the Nazi regime as one built on hatred and violence, and there is much truth to this.  But unless we see that the strongest appeal of the Nazi’s for people was their fervent hope, hope for better Germany and a better world, we will miss the fundamental basis of their appeal.

Germany, of course, had only recently been a nation (since 1871), but before that greater ‘Germany’ had often been the stomping grounds of Europe.  When the European powers wanted to fight they often came to the divided German principalities to do so, dating back to the 30 Years War in the early 1600’s.  As a political and national unit, “Germany” lacked the strength to prevent it. The Versailles Treaty made the incredibly foolish blunder of humiliating Germany with its war guilt clauses.  The Nazi’s vowed that they would erase the stain of humiliation the world had inflicted on Germany.   If we can remember what it feels like to be humiliated, we remember too the anger and desperation we felt, and the desire to do nearly anything to rid ourselves of that wretched feeling.  The Nazi’s claimed to be able to do just that.

Richard WagnerHitler was obviously a cruel man, but he also believed that he had ‘high’ taste in art.  Many in the Nazi party leadership, like Hitler himself, were either failed artists, minor poets, or small time authors of some sort or another.  We saw Friday how Hitler was a big fan of opera, especially Wagner.  Hitler himself said that one could not understand Nazism without understanding Wagner’s music.  He filled his operas with romantic visions, grandiose themes and sets, and an idealization of antiquity.  All this moved Hitler, but perhaps Wagner’s deepest appeal lie in his theme of purity and sacrifice, and escaping the bonds of this ‘sordid’ world to achieve perfection, a kind of worship of death.

In Wagner we see a link between fulfillment and extinction.  In his Tristan and Isolde the two take a love potion, which also causes their death.  Wagner’s mistress, Cosima von Bulow, styled their relationship as a “death-in-love.”  Wagner became enamored with King Ludwig of Bavaria, and Ludwig of him.  Ludwig promised Wagner, “Rest assured that I will do everything in my power to make up for what you have suffered.  . . .I will procure for you the peace you desire in order that you may be free to spread the mighty wings of your genius in the pure aether of rapturous art.”  Once again, we see in Wagner not only life imitating art, but the concept of art and purity.  Hitler’s own death recapitulates in some ways the finale of Wagner’s Reinzi, where the hero, betrayed by those he trusted, dies as the city is engulfed in flames.  So too did Hitler die, feeling ‘betrayed’ by his generals, in flames, as Berlin burned around him.

When we think of Nazi rallies, one can see links with Wagner.  Many have commented on the theatrical nature of the rallies, as well as their over-the-top production.  They are spectacles that seek to overwhelm and get people to ‘lose’ themselves in the experience.

For the Nazi’s a great culture needed great art to embody and inspire it.  They had this in the past, in the form of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, and so on.  They believed so strongly in this idea of a “healthy” culture that when the Nazi’s seized power, state doctors and ministers of culture often wore military uniforms.  Both doctors and artists had the charge of bringing ‘health’ back to Germany, be that health racial, moral, or cultural.  Doctors did not serve the individual, they served the “people,” the nation, the “race” as a whole, and this of course had horrible consequences later on.

In their eyes a ‘high’ culture would create a ‘healthy’ people, and a ‘healthy’ people would create an unbeatable army.  This is why they banned ‘mongrelized’ and ‘decadent’ culture like jazz (whose biggest stars tended to be either African-American or Jewish).  The Nazi’s didn’t just dislike the music, they viewed it as a threat to their national well-being.   But the same horrible logic applies to the euthanization of the mentally unfit.  Eventually we know that the ‘protection’ of the German nation meant the ‘protection’ of German blood.  Eradicating that threat meant eradicating the Jews, who had done more than anyone else to ‘pollute’ German blood over the years.  They had ‘infiltrated’ German society to a greater degree, and intermarried more than any other non-German ethnic or religious group.

Hitler, therefore, did not just promise an economic recovery, or to put people back to work.  He promised a kind of spiritual redemption on a national scale, one that primarily would touch the soul of the people.  Not surprisingly, he rose to power at a time when attendance in both Catholic and Protestant church had been in decline.  Spiritual power has always been more potent (for good or ill) than mere political power, and this helps us understand Hitler’s hold on Germany.  We know how great art and music can move us.  But when we ascend to such heights of feeling the possibility of good and evil both increase.  Perhaps this is why a nation with such a rich cultural heritage could fall so far so quickly.

This has been a ‘heavy’ post so if you wish, join me and Looney Tunes in poking fun at Wagner, who certainly deserved it:

Conversations with Stalin

Some might argue that history constrains us.  Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way?  Why must the world work as it does?”  The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.

We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities.  But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case.  Recall the French Revolution, for example.  They remade everything, even their sense of time.  But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration.  The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency.   Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities.  Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.

Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses.  Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality.  They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world.  Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.

But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.

In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,

It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.

I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se.  Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way.  The problems with their work lay elsewhere.  Among the issues raised:

  • There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories.  How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
  • Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view?  In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?

This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?

Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort.  They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail.  Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct.  By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author.  Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind.  The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.”   Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:

Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.”   Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?

Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).

Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so?  Who do you want to destroy?

Daniel: To whom are you talking?  To me, or to my character, or to someone else?

Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero?  Who expresses your point of view in the story?

Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.

Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?

Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part.  No single character represents the author.  Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white.  . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.”  That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.

Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work.  Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.

In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years.  Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia.  What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all.  That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?

He explores this in different ways.  For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted.  Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him.  As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed.  He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.

What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:

“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived.  Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment.  That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”

Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power.  It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.*  Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.

Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully.  Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion).  But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.


*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark.  He argued that the concentrated narrowness of barbarian civilizations can give their art a certain vitality.

Stalinism as a Civilization

I have never quite agreed with Tolstoy’s famous quote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The quote seems to indicate to me that goodness is static, while evil has “interesting” variety.  I see it the other way round.  The great saints of the Church demonstrate great variety, whereas all the bad guys of history have little to differentiate them.  What, after all, makes Pol Pot that much different from Mao, or Nero from Cambyses, or Hitler from Stalin?  On the contrary, St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas, to take two contemporary medieval examples, could not be more different.

Of course I could also be misinterpreting the quote badly.

Reading Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization I thought of Tolstoy’s quote again and rethought it a bit.  

Kotkin’s goal for the book intrigued me.  Ok, he states, of course Stalin was a bad guy and Stalinism proved enormously destructive in many ways.  But no regime can last for as long as Stalin’s did without him doing something right, or at least, appealing to large numbers of the population with his ideas and “results.” In other words, not everyone got oppressed, and some must have benefitted from what Stalin did.  More than that, enough must have truly believed in what Stalin sought to accomplish not to just obey his directives, but to revere him as well.  Kotkin seeks to uncover exactly how Stalinism “worked” in every day life and get us beyond our cardboard cutout of Stalin as “bad dictator” without leaving it entirely. Looking at the city of Magnitogorsk gives him ample opportunity to do so, for it was a city built from nothing almost overnight according to at least what Soviets planned as purely “socialist” or “Stalinist” designs.

Is it possible that, “All evil dictators are alike, but each of them does their “good” things in different ways?

The book begins by discussing briefly the context of the rise of the “Stalinist city.”  Part of the appeal of communism in the 1920’s lie in the seeming collapse of the west.  In retrospect World War I seems to be the death knell of Europe, and many at the time felt the same.  Capitalism had, obviously, exhausted itself and brought about the grisly destruction of the war.  What else could one expect on a system rooted fundamentally in economic and class exploitation.  Socialism was so obviously the way of the future, only a stubborn fool would cling to it still.

Or so the argument went.

Given that for many ca. 1925 socialism represented the way of the future, socialism needed to be on the cutting edge of technology. Socialism had rational roots, and this rationalism would inevitably flee tradition and embrace the hopeful future.

To that end, the Soviets faced a few problems.

The first is that Russia was far, far behind the west in terms of technology and industrialization.  They needed to catch up in a big hurry, and not just for reasons of security, but also for ideology.  Socialism must show itself superior to capitalism in all respects if their revolution would spread.

The second is that Russia never quite experienced the Enlightenment and may have been the most traditional of European societies.   These traditions had their roots in the daily rhythms of peasant village life and in the multitude of small villages scattered throughout the country — the kind of places adored by Tolstoy.  These villagers invariably looked down on “cities” as enemies to their way of life and their faith, often with good reason.

To build the new humanity sought by socialists nearly everything had to change within the Soviet Union.

The “Magnetic Mountain” served as a perfect template for all of Stalin’s most important plans. Everyone knew that the mountains nearby contained enormous quantities of iron ore deposits, some of the largest in the known world.  And because the area stood as merely a barren wasteland in the steppes, they could build on a blank slate.  The new steel plant would be the largest in the world, and the people who came to work could be drafted from the villages, forging a new kind of humanity in the process (the use of the term “forging” was deliberate, tying the plant and economic changes to the social and political changes they sought).

Kotkin uncovers some fascinating, but perhaps obvious details about the design of the city.  Not just the village, but the family itself presented a barrier to socialist reform.  The original design of the living spaces were apartments.  Apartments had the advantage of economic efficiency.  They also helped “forge the new humanity, breaking down the village and then family unit in one go.  The first apartments had no kitchens or common space within individual quarters.  They located the kitchen’s and common areas in more central locations — no one should be excluded, and no one could exclude themselves (later buildings allowed for more family space).  The design of the buildings discouraged families from creating distinct identities for themselves apart from the people as a whole.

Equality formed the bedrock value, so each apartment should have equal access to the sun. Unfortunately, this meant that, with no courtyard, each apartment had equal exposure to the brutally cold winds that roared across the steppe 6-7 months a year.  Finally, as socialists defined value through labor, all apartments got built on a line equidistant from the plant itself. The prominence of the massive plant in the geography and psychology of the city made it not unlike the role of churches in medieval towns.  Mankind will be defined by what he worships, whether that be God or labor.

One of the most dreary aspects of this period was the politicization of all aspects of life.  The Soviets faced the embarrassment of needing capitalist firms to design most of the major parts of the plant.  But . . . socialists could show their superiority by getting more out of the machines than believed by the capitalists.  So if part ‘x’ was predicted to operate at ‘y’ speed and efficiency, we could do better.  We will operate at ‘y + ?’ efficiency, thereby showing the superiority of socialist labor.  Of course, this resulted in a host of mechanical problems.

This forced them into an uncomfortable choice.  Either socialist labor was not superior, or . . . “wreckers” existed within the plant — counter-revolutionaries and capitalists.  So, now those that worked the machines too hard might be subject to “unmasking” by true patriots and devotees of the revolution.  Of course, if workers were to be true participants in the revolution they had to have the power to “unmask” — and be expected to.

As you might expect, many got unmasked. Limiting production turned into treason, for it was “counter-revolutionary.”  Under the principle of equality, many party members got unmasked as well (though many got reinstated on the back end — the party had to cover for itself).

But Kotkin shows that despite the madness of the method, it won many converts.  The Soviet Union did get transformed into an industrial colossus, and had enough social unity to withstand the withering Nazi onslought in W.W. II.  By most any rational calculus, Stalin and the Soviets should have closed up shop in 1941.  How did they avoid this fate?

We have recourse to the standard answers, which include

  • The Russian Winter
  • The deep reservoirs of Russian nationalism the Nazi’s unleashed that mobilized an entire population
  • The brutal tactics of the S.S. turning local populations against the Nazi’s
  • The over-extension of the Nazi forces and the sound interior lines of Soviet defenses.
  • And again, the industrialization Stalin began allowed them to churn out tank after tank after tank.

All of these factors played a role.

However, we cannot overlook the fact that Stalin also had converts.  His program worked in the sense that it gave people a a new purpose, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of destiny and their own place within History and the cosmos. Many remained ambivalent, some opposed him — mostly in secret.  But many others no doubt believed.

This should give us pause.  No man is an island.  We would like to think that we would not fall prey to the design of the buildings, the alluring glow of the plant and the comradeship of the work.  None of these, we think, would have any impact on us.  We would not believe, we would not be changed.

Hopefully, we would be right.  But one lesson of Stalin’s Magnetic Mountain is that people are inextricably influenced by their surroundings, sometimes even against their inclinations.

11th Grade: Market Psychology


This week we looked at the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and how it happened.   Not all Stock Market crashes cause deep depressions or recessions, and in fact, many now argue that the Great Depression had many other factors besides the ’29 crash.  For example, only about 3-5% of Americans owned any stock at all in 1929.  But I do think that the crash both revealed and foreshadowed deep problems within the economy as a whole, and so I still thought it worthwhile to examine.  At the very time, for example, when the stock market rose dramatically, key industries like agriculture and construction showed major signs of weakness.
Not only that, it gave us a great platform to discuss the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, which did not bring about substantial economic harm, and the crash of 2008 recently which did.  What were the differences in the two, and which was 1929 more like?  It seems that the 2000 dip revealed a weird anomaly in the economy, whereas in 2008, the problems lay much more at its heart of our financial system in general.  Here are a few different graphs that show similar drops in the market, but each had its own particular effect on the economy:
This graph suggests that maybe market ‘crashes’ are simply ‘corrections.”
We spent two days this week on our own’Stock Market of the  1920’s’ activity.   My main purpose was not recreate  entirely how stocks are actually sold and have value.  I wanted the students to focus on understanding the psychological aspect of not only stock value, but the  value of anything at all.  After all, what makes our paper money  valuable in itself?  Only that we have all agreed as a society that it  does carry value.  If we lost that belief, the economy would collapse  shortly.
In our game this week the market started slowly.  In fact, this class on the first day was the most cautious class I can remember in the last 10 years I have done this activity.  But towards the end of the first day and into the second, the volume of trades and the amounts traded grew a great deal. Crashes usually happen when meteoric rises create a bubble, but in this case most every stock traded at a reasonable growth rate.  “Consumer Confidence” remained high throughout this period, as most teams willingly parted with cash to get stock.  Then, some interesting things happened as certain teams noticed that other teams had a lot of certain stocks.  They then attempted to crash the market for certain stocks, but other teams caught on, and countered effectively.  Though “the market” feared instability and lost some value, in the end it “held” enough for team with the most “blue chip” stocks to win.
Dave Mathwin

Meandering Thoughts on Equality

For the past several years now we have seen a fair amount of thought on the idea of economic inequality. Some see it as a serious problem, others perhaps as a temporary byproduct of the switch from a production economy to one rooted in service.  I suppose a very few might celebrate the possibilities free market economies in the fact of inequality.

I had a chance to think about this a bit recently, and attempt to bring some historical perspective.

It is hard to imagine this issue being resolved more successfully than the Athenians under Solon, ca. 590-570 B.C.  There were the aristocrats and the commoners, with law and wealth heavily sided in favor of the aristocratic class (the ‘Code of Draco’).  Debt spiraled out of control, society was coming apart.

Enter Solon.  He was given full powers to resolve this crisis. He did not need to curry votes or constituents. He was not an aristocrat, but he was rich.  He could appeal to both sides and be trusted by both sides.  He believed that Athens needed its rich citizens, as we might expect.  More crucially, he knew how to motivate reform by appealing to the aristocratic ‘need’ for glory, or arete.  One can’t just dismiss this, as it was part of the Greek mindset for centuries.

He made paying high taxes a sign of arete. You could pay your high taxes not in terms of a fixed percentage, but in terms of

  • Pay for this religious festival, and we’ll say loud and long that you paid for it
  • Build a trireme and pay the crew, but you get to command the ship
  • Build this bridge and we’ll name it after you
  • Etc.  You get the idea.

By some accounts aristocrats paid a percentage 12x higher than the poor, but they got ‘arete’ for those taxes, and they had a direct hand in how they were spent.  

He did other things, like expanding the merchant fleet and encouraging trade, which put a lot of people to work.  This sounds easy but must have been politically difficult, given the role of farming in almost every ancient civilization.

He canceled all debts, but he refused to redistribute property.  

In the end

  • Athens had a stronger middle class
  • Athens had relative social stability
  • Many believe that this helped lead to the cultural/political explosion in their ‘golden age’ a century later.  They  create modern science, literature, democracy, etc.)

Alas, many things about Solon are not replicable for us.  For one thing, change did not come from a democratic process.  He was a ‘tyrant’ (a technical description and not a bad word).  C.S. Lewis commented a few times that to get good results for democracies often you have to achieve them in non-democratic ways.  We are locked into our one democratic tradition, and have not nearly the flexibility the Athenians had.

I love his taxes idea, but we just too big and bureaucratic to copy it.  Could we do something like it–give the rich the privilege of naming how they contribute if they willingly contribute more, and giving them public recognition for this, i.e. naming a bridge after them, getting their name on a fighter jet’s wings, I don’t know).

The idea of a ‘bridge-builder’ politician we can do, and have done successfully before.  But we lack the civic-mindedness of the Athenians.  For better or worse we are more individualistic.  The ancient world would find our attitude towards the state unfathomable.  

Unfathomable, yes, but their conception of rule, society, etc. was far more personal, far more uniform, and far more religious than ours.  Ancient Persia could be an exception.  The Roman Republic could also serve as an exception.  They did integration and pluralism quite well until they ventured beyond Italy and the Alps and into the Mediterranean.  It proved too much for them to swallow. Most Italians had similar cultures.  But in North Africa, Spain, etc., . . . they were different.  This is another factor, I’m sure, in the collapse of the Republic.  It may be that societies with higher ethnic diversity have a harder time with equality.  If so, this makes America’s relative equality all the more impressive.*

The trade-offs are huge.  You can get more civic buy-in, in theory, in America, but you would probably have to sacrifice some sense of personal rights, and you would definitely have to ditch pluralism and open immigration.  The first is highly unlikely, the second probably impossible.  Would you want to make these trades even if it was possible?

Anyway, we can’t dismiss the rugged individualism out of our national DNA, nor should we want to. Solon could not dismiss arete.  But . . . he found a way to work with it.  

Can we create low-skilled jobs from the digital revolution and keep them in America?  If we did so, would it make things worse for workers in Asia?  Would we want the flag-waving and possible economic confrontations that would come from a more nationalistic America?  Would the world be safer?  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

We are such a big nation (like almost every other one) that our problems become abstract and impersonal.  In Athens more or less everyone knew everyone in some way.  Dealing with inequality has much more meaning when we have a personal connection to the problem.

Rome faced a similar problem ca. 150 B.C. that Athens faced in 600 B.C.  They never found a way out, and the Republic collapsed.  All agree this period has many complexities, and historians hotly debate why the collapse happened, but I think most agree that

  • Both sides used violence to settle issues
  • Both sides tended to view politics as a zero-sum game, very much an ‘us vs. them.’  They destroyed each other with a century of intermittent civil war.

The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the revolutions in China, SE Asia, Cuba, and even arguably the American Revolution created far worse tyrannies than those they replaced (this is a stretch in the U.S.– the British weren’t tyrants, and neither were the victors, but the victors did exile many loyalists, slavery expanded, Indians fared far worse than under the British, etc.).  The Roman civil wars gave us the emperors.  

We need a political genius of sorts, who can find a synthesis between liberty and equality, between civic responsibility and rugged individualism. He/she would need to be trusted by the common man in Iowa and in Silicon Valley.  He/she would have to, perhaps, give huge tax breaks to corporations who did not outsource jobs–a pro-nationalist low taxes weird hybrid.  If we find him (and I don’t see him/her around), he would not have nearly the power Solon had, at least by the letter of the law.  

None of these mostly unoriginal thoughts get to the unspoken root issue.  Why is inequality a problem in the first place?  By “problem” I don’t mean whether or not inequality exists, but whether or not people perceive it as an issue worthy of much attention.

We might think that inequality is problem in every society but, not so.  For example, monastics renounce property and have all things in common.  We say that communism has never worked, but it works in monastic societies, though of course on a small scale and with everyone present strongly and voluntarily committed to that idea.

Other societies experience inequality, but seem not to think much of it. Neither Homer, Plato, Augustine, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Austen ever made it a burning issue.  But we do see the issue move right to the front of political thinking just after Austen in the mid-19th century.**  We see it in Marx as well as Dickens, and thereafter inequality could be a rallying cry for political revolution.

Surely the Industrial Revolution has something to do with this, for it created a society where, having mastered the elements of nature, one could quickly have great material success.  The first two generations of factory workers at least likely lived at lower standard of living than previously.  Vast gaps between classes opened up.

Vast gaps existed in ancient Egypt as well between the pharaoh and the peasants, for example, but these gaps made sense to their society historically and theologically.  In a society where “all men are created equal” inequality hits with much greater force.

Marx thought that in the first 50 years or so of Industrialism some of these “non-sensical” gaps would certainly destroy the capitalistic state.  Marx had many things wrong.  But on this, I can’t blame him for his guess.  Why did the capitalist state survive?  Marx, the great materialist, had ironically underestimated our materialism as a society.  Its reasonable to assume that the social gaps created by the industrial revolution, coupled with our ideology of equality, would end the industrial-capitalist society.

The “cause” of the problem of inequality perhaps lies in solving this riddle.  It seems that the poor want what the rich have. Both rich and poor want the same thing, and the values of western society tell them they should have the same thing.  I don’t mean to say that inequality is not a problem or no such problem of economic injustice exists, or that the poor should rest content with the rich as mortal gods on earth.  I am not advocating a revival of ancient Egypt.  I merely point out that our society as a whole has surrendered to the materialist impulse which makes easing the problem that much harder.

Of course this parallels the rise of the issue in the mid-19th century just as social Darwinism, textual biblical criticism, and other de-mythologizers of life gained pride of place.  All that we left ourselves had to do with the here and now, i.e. applied science to increase our standard of living, and our various abstractions to make these things real.

All this to say, dealing with crippling inequality in society will involve a spiritual solution.  The monastics show us that it is possible.


*If this is true, we are faced with choosing between the competing goods of liberty and equality.  Would we prefer economic peace between our citizens or freedom of movement for all?

**Others I’m sure would disagree, but I don’t see the French Revolution being driven primarily by inequality.