Reflecting on the unlikely concatenation that produced the Russian Revolution, Simon Sebag Montefiore says, “Without the Russian Revolution of 1917…the tournaments of power would likely have been just as vicious—just differently vicious.”
Montifiore muses, “Without Lenin there would have been no Hitler….Mao, who received huge amounts of Soviet aid in the 1940s, would not have conquered China… Kim Jong-un, pantomimic pastiche of Stalin, would not exist. There would have been no Cold War.”
The viciousness of power and the contingency of history raise an important question. Why, if the specific events of history are so contingent, has the basic course of humankind remained unchanged?
In the context of our time, was the global ecological crisis inevitable? Did things have to come to this point?
Perceiving and responding adequately to what is happening is much harder than agreeing on what occurred in the past. Had the Russian Revolution happened not occurred, history would have been very different. On that much we can agree.
Besides, communism is still with us, albeit in a much more acceptable and therefore pernicious form in China.
My question has long been, can the basic course of humankind change? And what is required to change it?
Clearly there was a “hinge of history” in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell and the Chinese government killed thousands of students in Tiananmen Square. But do the “hinges of history” even matter if humans remain psychologically the same?
This isn’t an abstract philosophical exercise for me. I was invited to the Soviet Union in January of 1990 to find out whether America and the Russia could work together to build “an ecologically and ethically sound market” in the world’s largest country.
I talked with a lot of people in politics, academia and business in the US before I left, and nearly all said that it would be 25 years before communism collapsed in Russia. I was certain the collapse of communism in Russia would occur within a few years however, and people in America were willing to listen.
A few were even willing to support the vision of helping the Russians build a democracy and market, though the profit motive was the main motivator for most of course.
Needless to say, Americans didn’t like the other side of my premise, which was that the US would suffer an internal collapse at the same time the USSR collapsed externally. My prediction came true, even as it took, ironically, another 25 years for America’s collapse to become undeniable with the election of a narcissistic demagogue.
The chance to move in a new direction at the hinge of history 17 years ago was lost. They got Putin, and we got Trump. That’s mudflow under the bridge. Now Communist-Capitalist China is trying to step into the vacuum left by the end of American leadership. Are we at another hinge of history, and can we change course?
I wouldn’t have believed there could be the collapse of two world orders in my lifetime. But here we are, witnessing an even larger collapse than the bipolar order.
The present collapse is not just of the post-World War II order, which was largely created by the United States and preceded the nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR. We are witnessing the collapse of the nation-state system itself, as monumental an event as the end of city-states as an organizing principle.
Though I discussed the imperative of psychological revolution in America and Russia 27 years ago, it was more implicit than explicit at that time. (The Russians, being very angry at their system and critical of themselves, were open to the insight. Americans are angry at their system now, but remain uncritical of themselves.)
A reader recently wrote, “I am saddened by spiritual emptiness and decaying morality here and almost world wide. The inner core is decaying, and something has to be done to stop its acceleration and eventually put an end to it.”
There is no “eventually,” and there never was. And humankind is running out of room to change course, though most people, especially supposedly educated people, act like things can go on like this forever.
So do the vicious tournaments of power have to continue? As long as human nature remains unexamined and unchallenged, yes.