the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2004 June 24


The newsweeklies in the United States maintain a pretense of objectivity; but when the subject is mostly non-controversial, that pretense is quickly discarded. The (identical) image of Ronald Reagan used on their covers after his death was explicitly hagiographic, even if in simple terms. And yet the image was fairly accurate: Reagan as smiling cowboy, a man of simple beliefs, hollow bluster, superficial ideas, and a veneer of charm, topped with a distinctive hat. The British newsweekly Economist, on the other hand, does not so often pose as objective and yet more often is. Institutionally, the Economist knows what it believes, and says it frequently. But that, too, presents problems, as apparent with its own cover on Ronald Reagan, “the man who beat communism”. The US newsweeklies were simple; the Economist was simplistic. In fact, in cowboy simplicity we can characterize the characterization. It was nothing less than stupid. The general opinion of Reagan, which the Economist endorsed, is silly and ignorant. Silly, in that it is debunked by the slightest logic. Ignorant, in that it is debunked by the slightest information. I would think that the Economist, if it did not have logic available, could have made do with information. But neither of those commodities is valued by Reagan’s admirers in general, so we should not expect them to be on hand.

Let us restate the proposition so that we may examine its truth: “Ronald Reagan defeated communism.” This is a simple sentence structure with three simple parts, a subject, a verb, and a direct object. For it to be true, we must be able to say that something ― ‘communism’ ― was acted upon in a particular way ― ‘defeated’ ― by someone ― ‘Ronald Reagan’. Each of the three parts must be true. I will wreck the suspense: none of them is. Not a one. We may as well say that a unicorn asked for a Hindu beefsteak from the square root of -1.

Communism, as a smattering of French will tell you, simply refers to sharing, and as an economic theory to shared or collective ownership. As a system it surely predates private ownership in the modern sense, and as a modern political reaction to private ownership it far predates the twentieth-century revolutionaries who claimed to believe in it. This was a political reaction not just to the poverty and deprivation that private ownership wrought, but to the nonsensical supposition that private ownership existed as more than an imposition in the first place. The English word ‘own’ and the Latin word ‘PROPRIVS’ (whence ‘property’) have the same approximate meaning, referring originally to the relationship between a thing and inherently-associated things ― my hand, your mother, her state of mind. The idea that land can belong to a person in the same way that a mother can is quite a leap indeed; though we can see plainly that those who appropriate natural wealth for their private use benefit greatly by giving it the sheen of motherhood. Ronald Reagan probably did think (if he thought at all) that private ownership was equivalent to motherhood, and that collective ownership was evil. And some of the revolutionaries who called themselves ‘communist’ surely were. But what came to be in the Russian empire post-revolution was clearly just a different form of private property. One power succumbed to another; one wealthy stratum was deposed and another took its place. The comrades in the party simply took the empire’s wealth for themselves, and the masses remained poor, as ever. Those who now had did no sharing; those who lacked shared only their misery. Had the Bolsheviks called themselves ‘sharers’, it would perhaps have discredited ‘sharing’ as a word, but not sharing itself. It is true enough that humans are often far from altruistic, and disinclined to share. Perhaps communism built on altruistic assumptions will never work. But oddly, it is Christians, who rhetorically support altruistic sharing (‘charity’), who have most said that ‘communism’ is evil. We can hardly be sure what they mean; but there was no communism in Russia to be defeated, that is certain.

The Russian empire was, during much of Reagan’s life, the greatest locus of tyranny in the world. The dominion of Stalin in particular was worse than anything that preceded or followed it in Russia, if only by degree. But to say that tyranny was defeated in Reagan’s time is ludicrous, of course, since Reagan himself actively supported tyranny across the globe, and died in a world that was still full of it. Russia is today a tyranny for many of its subjects, no better than what was faced in Reagan’s ascendancy. But if we narrow the reference to tyranny in the name of communism, tyranny of the Bolshevik sort, there is still no defeat. Reagan died in a world still full of that, too. Cuba, Việt Nam, Laos, China, and especially North Korea are still Stalinist states, oppressive régimes where the individual is given no rights by a totalitarian party that claims to act on behalf of the people and to have instituted equality while in fact aggravating social distinction. Because of China alone, the progress of the Reagan era represents the liberation of only a small minority of Stalinist victims, and considering Russia only a partial liberation at that. We cannot even say that now more of the world recognizes that Bolshevik tyranny was a bad idea. Only the Bolsheviks ever really believed otherwise, and the partial exposure of their lies is mitigated by the partial persistence of the lies on the other side, a persistence to which Reagan contributed. Reagan was accurate, in his own idiom anyway, to call the Russian empire “evil”, but he would not have known evil if it walked in the door and shook his hand, as it did on any number of occasions.

In the very limited sense that much of the former expanse of the Russian empire in eastern Europe and northern Asia has seen a great improvement in liberty, the world has improved because of what happened during Reagan’s time in office, and immediately afterwards. But even if we suppose that the Bolsheviks were at one point disheartened by a minor actor naming names in a witch hunt, Reagan could not have caused the collapse of Stalinism in Russia, because it began before Stalinism itself, before the revolution and before the birth of Ronald Reagan. There were always factions among the Bolsheviks; they themselves began as a faction, and the smaller faction even. The most obvious fissure during Lenin’s time was between Stalinists and Trotskyites, with Lenin straddling both, and manipulating both, as they struggled to manipulate him. Lenin sided with Trotsky, but too late, and Stalin took power after Lenin’s death. But the factional struggle continued throughout Bolshevik rule, between the brutal Stalinists and the (relative, mind you) reformers who were opposed. Remarkably, considering the techniques by which Stalin suppressed his opposition, his ultimate successor, his own sycophant Nikita Khrushchev, essentially sided with the reformers. Khrushchev, in turn, inspired a new generation of reformers, and opened the door to dissent in a way that strengthened the reform faction enough to lead to its ultimate triumph. Khrushchev was deposed by the Stalinist Leonid Brezhnev, and a long period of retrenchment ensued. But by Brezhnev’s death, the reformist faction was strong enough to elevate Yuri Andropov to power over Brezhnev’s protégé Konstantin Chernenko. But Andropov did not live long enough to bring to power his own protégé, and Chernenko and the Stalinists ascended once again. Chernenko had a short reign as well. With his death, Andropov’s protégé did come to power. This was Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformer whose fellows had abandoned Stalinism in their hearts along with Nikita Khrushchev. This happened in 1956, between the two terms of Reagan’s presidency ― of the Screen Actors Guild.

That the reformist faction could contend for power, and even survive the mass murder at the height of Stalin’s terror, is evidence of the strong human desire to be free. The reformists knew that things in Russia must change; they were usually greatly dissatisfied themselves, and they knew the populace to be more dissatisfied. It is also true that the populace wanted to be fed as well as free. But when Gorbachev, in power, began liberalizing his society, the public discontent made clear that the public was far more concerned with freedom of mind than fullness of belly. Given a little freedom, Russian subjects demanded a lot, and the state was finally unable or unwilling to suppress this sentiment. Reaganist propaganda supports this conclusion; it is inconsistent with Reaganist doctrine to instead suppose that Russian subjects cast off their tyranny because it could not feed them, because it was bankrupt, because it was trying to outspend the United States, which had bankrupted itself for exactly that purpose. Reagan needed Congress to authorize the defense build-up, and between them they could not have brought the reformists to power, considering that Gorbachev’s reign was seventy years in the making. The defense build-up was ruinous for both sides; and the last thing we should have wanted the Russian empire to have, if we wanted it to collapse, was more weaponry. This supposedly-brilliant stratagem of Reagan was potentially counterproductive, then. But in any case, it happened after the fact. All the requisite factors were in place before Reagan ever came to office.

Did he help inspire the collapse, then? Possibly, in a very small way. The oppressed certainly need to know that they are remembered. But others could have made this point better. His zenith, the famous speech before the Berlin Wall, was poorly written and poorly delivered, contrary to all legend. Watch the film; what kind of orator would not realize that he had stolen the thunder of his own intended climax, or, realizing that he had done so, could not have ad-libbed another crescendo? Reagan could deliver a line, but could not think even as an orator. He called the Russian empire “evil” almost negligently. He was no Great Communicator. And as a leader, he was even less inspiring. He was, as I said, supporting capitalist tyranny to counter Stalinist tyranny, making clear that he did not understand or care about tyranny as such. And the Reaganists continue to demonstrate that, where China is concerned, they will sacrifice the freedom of the Chinese masses for the business interests of the US élite. Chinese tyrants and Russian tyrants, despite what may be foolishly argued about Confucianism, are the same at heart. They must be confronted, if only to let their victims know that we who are free to confront them care enough to do so. Reagan cared selectively. His rhetoric may have given support to some of the world’s oppressed, but his actions must have discouraged many more.

If Reagan did not defeat communism, did he have another accomplishment? He is credited with an economic expansion by the same people who would deny such credit to Bill Clinton for an even-larger expansion, or spare Reagan the blame for the economic contraction that also took place during his administration. But obviously any government can goose an economy by spending money that it never collects; to do so is just irresponsible, not clever. And the other cleverness said to lie behind the expansion would be the monetarist policies of Paul Volcker, who was named to head the Federal Reserve by Jimmy Carter. Reagan talked about shrinking government but oversaw its expansion. He abandoned sound policy, common sense, law, and finally honesty in the Iran-Contra affair. He took long naps and long vacations and was otherwise disengaged from the management of the government, to which he was not equal in any case. He did little that was good, and much that was not good. I can only hope, then, that he is remembered in history as superficially as he has been remembered and understood in recent days. Ronald Reagan wore hats. We have the evidence for it; he apparently did it quite well. But changing the world was wholly beyond him, and we should drop that nonsense from the public record while there are still those of us around who know better.


Original version


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