17 September 2022

Gorbachev dies, the Queen dies

I'm no monarchist, but I appreciate that Queen Elizabeth II was handed quite a job, to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, to reconcile with the new Commonwealth and to be the symbol of the United Kingdom as it, and its former Empire transform itself.  I have little time for the vulgarians who wish to damn her as some sort of party to crimes against humanity, but equally I find the entire British Royal Family almost endlessly tedious. These are very ordinary people, of average intelligence, ability and below average achievement. It is perhaps because of this that they remain primarily because the people of Britain at the same time are rather fond of having a Head of State that is essentially benign, and because they can't be arsed to get rid of it (and look on at horror at the idea of it being someone who actually WANTS the job).

Because let's be clear, Queen Elizabeth II did the job because she felt a duty to do it, it seems unlikely that even Charles III and William really WANT to be Head of State. In many ways that's much more preferable to those who want power.

I'd be supportive of a republic, if it could guarantee a Head of State that exercised next to no power, that could guarantee a Constitution that would protect the right of the individual to control his or her body, property and life, subject only to respecting the same rights in others, and a state that did not violate those rights. Sadly I fear that many (notwithstanding Lewis Holden), wanting a republic want one that would guarantee the political future they want, and for that, I'd prefer the status quo thank you...

Mikhail Gorbachev didn't pursue a political career advancing the supremacy of the human individual, but rather a vision of Marxism-Leninism with glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). He thought he could reform a system of central command and control, by allowing people to criticise what was wrong, and through freedom enable people to centrally plan an economy and society based on the competition of ideas of how best to centrally plan. What he didn't figure was that freedom and central planning are fundamentally incompatible.

Critics of Gorbachev come from two sides. Russian nationalists criticise him for breaking up the USSR and the Soviet empire, but they are simply rebranded totalitarians that have succeeded the Communist Party old guard.  Libertarians who criticise him for being a commie miss the point, his mistake was to think the system he had spent his life defending and advancing was reformable. The tyrants in Beijing will say you can, if you let capitalism flourish under a jackboot of zero political freedom. Gorbachev did it the other way round, he let freedom emerge before setting capitalism free, but he also faced a country that had had 70 years of trauma of Marxism-Leninism (China had had 30) and had little tradition of trading and entrepreneurship (nor enough of a diaspora to support it).

Gorbachev was the great Russian anti-imperialist, because he decided that the Red Army would NOT stop the people of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic rising up against their putrid, jackbooted, sclerotic regimes. The "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart" (Berlin Wall) was to be no more because feeble little excrescences like Erich Honecker were dependent on Moscow to do their dirty work. Most of the eastern half of Europe became free because Gorbachev let Stalin's satellite countries go. Even Romania, which had notably no Red Army presence, would turn against perhaps* the most despicable of eastern Europe's dictators - the Ceausescus.  

He tried to hang onto the USSR, and briefly used force to keep the Baltic States within Moscow's grasp, but it didn't last. Ultimately the system and philosophy that put the USSR at odds with the Western allies brought it down, because it didn't deliver a standard of living remotely commensurate with the west and because inherent to the system was evasion of reality. It was built on lying, because freedom of expression weakened a system that not only didn't deliver on what it promised, but which was so fundamentally antithetical to humanity, that it couldn't stand up to criticism or any inference of error on behalf of the single authority that led it - the Party.

Beyond the USSR (most of which reverted to totalitarianism and authoritarianism after independence, especially in Central Asia, but also in the Caucasus and Belarus), Gorbachev oversaw the end of the Cold War, as it became clear that neither side wanted to invade the other. The collapse of the risk of communism was a prime reason why the National Party of South Africa started to dismantle apartheid, legalise the ANC and hold a referendum on apartheid, before ultimately allowing South Africa to become a full-fledged liberal democracy. Peace talks between Israel and, ultimately, the PLO arose because the collapse of the USSR effectively forced the Palestinians to seek concessions, and resulted in Israel withdrawing from Gaza and permitting Palestinian self-governance, as fraught as that has been.  Dictatorships across Africa fell to liberal democracy, as flawed as many were, with some political plurality that had never been tolerated when Moscow was the paymaster. Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania among others, and on the other side of the ledger, it saw the West totally abandon the likes of Mobutu.

Ending the Cold War, and the 40 years of the risk of global thermonuclear conflict, because Gorbachev not only knew he could not compete with the West militarily or economically, and he wanted his people to have a better life, was no small achievement. It is perhaps difficult for current generations to grasp what it was like growing up with the fear generated that, at some point, the nuclear deterrent would not work.

but it did, Gorbachev backed down and to this day almost all of Europe is now free. Much more freedom and liberal democracy exists in the world because of what he did and didn't do, than otherwise. He brought to an end one of history's most despotic, destructive, murderous and imperialist regimes, that itself spawned multiple mini-versions of itself. We also shouldn't forget those who shilled for that regime.

Sure, Putin's Russia is also despotic, murderous and imperialist, but Gorbachev took the jackboots out of eastern Europe. Millions of people are safer, healthier, wealthier and happier as a result.

For all of the pomp and circumstance around remembering Queen Elizabeth II, it is Gorbachev I would give the pomp for, because he was the great liberator.

* Enver Hoxha is the rival for Europe's worst post-war tyrant.

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