This All Ancient History But

Sometimes folly is easier to spot from a distance.

Almost immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution various opponents of the revolution began to attack while parts of the Russian Empire took advantage of the slackening in control to separate. The Bolsheviks responded to this threat with policies that western historians call War Communism. These policies implemented centralized political control over the economy and over life in general.

The peasants crops were requisitioned whenever this was possible. Food and other goods were rationed and the army naturally took precedence over other needs. As people from the cities drifted to the countryside, where they might find food and shelter, drastic measures were taken to recruit labor. At one point Leon Trotsky, the organizer of the Red Army, began to draft workers into labor armies - perhaps a foreshadowing of the Gulag.

War Communism lasted even after the Civil War had passed its crisis and many in the Bolshevik party considered that the country was on its way to true communism: From each according to his ability to each according to his needs - of course the Red Army and the Bolshevik government were the guardians of the Revolution and needed the most.

War Communism died in 1921 when the sailors at Kronstadt, one of the initial focal points of the revolution, rebelled against the Bolsheviks. Shocked by this unexpected event Lenin quickly dismantled most of War Communism and implemented a new set of policies that allowed peasants freedom to cultivate their land and to dispose of most of their produce. Called the New Economic Policy, these measures gave Russian about seven years of reasonable order and prosperity before they were overturned by Stalin.

But this fascinating story is not Wonks Anonymous main point. Wonks Anonymous is interested here in the reaction of some of the Bolsheviks to the events of 1921. To many Bolsheviks, War Communism was a direct step to true communism - seen by these activists as complete political control of the economy and all other aspects of life. In 1921 these zealots felt at best that Lenin had been forced to make a tactical retreat, at worst that he had betrayed the revolution. Their successors can be found near major college campuses preaching various versions of Left Communism, often calling themselves Trotskyists after Leon Trotsky.

Now in 1980 the United States suffered a much milder democratic revolution. The groups that took over government believed that an earthly paradise could be brought into being if only all political influence were removed from the economy and society and replaced by the free market.

Curiously these revolutionaries were inspired by Ayn Rand, a woman much scarred by the Bolshevik Revolution.

After almost forty years of revolution we are now faced with a perfect storm of political and economic disasters created by our attempt to rule all aspects of society by markets and chain all minds and hearts to the relentless and monomaniacal pursuit of profit.

Nevertheless, through our discussions of the recent disasters one sees motifs reminiscent of the Left Communists. The Reagan revolution did not fail, we are told. Markets were still regulated, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - quasi government entities- caused to crash or bankers did not really believe that they could fail, or bankers were forced to lend to minorities. And so on.

Complete political control would have saved the Russian Revolution but the Bolsheviks were too timid. Unimpeded market control would have saved the Reagan revolution but the government was too timid and the Democrats held back.

Wonks Anonymous hopes that most of us have now come to the conclusion that perfect markets work no better than perfect political parties and have resolved to muddle through humanely using all institutions available to make improvements in the quality of life. He dreams of a day when Trotskyists on the left and on the right represent the amusing survivals of the grand historical dramas now safely in the past.


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