Janan Ganesh on ‘populism’ as the problem of ‘the liberal center’ & its complicity with that amorphous enemy!

Political Reporter comments.

Here is the central conceit of Mr. Ganesh’s essay: its political actor/actors is ‘populism’ , so suggestive, yet so tantalizingly amorphous. Mr. Ganesh’s gift for the telling apercu, is repurposed into this World Historical Fiction: the diagnosis of ‘the liberal center’. Using as his tool, the resort to the rhetorical trickery, of the diminishment of small caps.

Over the course of this young century, the liberal centre has borne out its reputation for softheadedness. Stunning, then, that populism comes out of the present crisis in yet worse shape. Obama’s naiveties about the Kremlin are awkward for Democrats; Donald Trump’s active flirtation with it is much tougher for Republicans to live down. As polls favour Macron for re-election, his wilder rivals have to explain away past flattery of Vladimir Putin. Even online, an entire class of bumptious contrarians, apt to wonder if the US would put up with a communist Mexico and so on, has become tongue-tied of late.

Over the course of this young century, the liberal centre has borne out its reputation for softheadedness. Stunning, then, that populism comes out of the present crisis in yet worse shape. Obama’s naiveties about the Kremlin are awkward for Democrats; Donald Trump’s active flirtation with it is much tougher for Republicans to live down. As polls favour Macron for re-election, his wilder rivals have to explain away past flattery of Vladimir Putin. Even online, an entire class of bumptious contrarians, apt to wonder if the US would put up with a communist Mexico and so on, has become tongue-tied of late.

Mr. Ganesh presents a partial list of the political actor/actors of this ‘populism’:

The Trump presidency, Brexit, the French far-right’s entry into the last round of the 2017 presidential race: all happened after the show of force in Aleppo and Crimea.

The Reader has to piece together the fragments of an argument, that begins with the above sentence. Just tracing the progression of his argument, in fragments, might be almost as self-serving, as Mr. Ganesh resort to rhetorical collectivism, but is instructive as to motive?

Central to the appeal of populism is the idea of the effective strongman.

…the autocrat supposedly cuts through (“I alone can fix it,” said Trump of the US).

…Benito Mussolini had a way with commuter-rail logistics.

…Il Duce, then Napoleon, Ataturk and the Chinese Communist party

… had the Ukraine invasion gone to plan…

…A Russian gas-dependent Europe…

… “Autocracy works” …

Mr. Ganesh then turns to an actual argument:

But if that mode of government has structural advantages, the past few weeks have brought into clearer definition its corresponding liabilities. The hubris born of unaccountability, the advisers who are unheeded or cowed into silence, the tendency to coerce what might be better solicited or charmed out of another country over time: the demonstration of classic errors has at times almost risked cliché.

The mention of Robert Conquest on the Soviet Crimes ignores this:

Headline: Stalin Denounced by Nikita Khrushchev

Sub-headline: The Soviet leader gave his famous speech on ‘The Personality Cult and its Consequences’ in a closed session on 25 February 1956.

The twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assembled in Moscow in the Great Hall of the Kremlin on February 14th, 1956. It was the first since the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, but almost nothing was said about the dead leader until, in closed session on the 25th, 1,500 delegates and many invited visitors listened to an amazing speech by Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the party, on ‘The Personality Cult and its Consequences’.

Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the cult of personality he had fostered and the crimes he had perpetrated, including the execution, torture and imprisonment of loyal party members on false charges. He blamed Stalin for foreign policy errors, for the failings of Soviet agriculture, for ordering mass terror and for mistakes that had led to appalling loss of life in the Second World War and the German occupation of huge areas of Soviet territory.

Khrushchev’s audience heard him in almost complete silence, broken only by astonished murmurs. The delegates did not dare even to look at each other as the party secretary piled one horrifying accusation on another for four solid hours. At the end there was no applause and the audience left in a state of shock.

One of those who heard the speech was the young Alexander Yakovlev, later a leading architect of perestroika, who recalled that it shook him to his roots. He sensed Khrushchev was telling the truth, but it was a truth that frightened him. Generations in the Soviet Union had revered Stalin and linked their lives and hopes with him. Now the past was being shattered and what they had all lived by was being destroyed. ‘Everything crumbled, never to be made whole again.’

It was an extraordinarily dangerous and daring thing for Khrushchev to do. Solzhenitsyn believed that he spoke out of ‘a movement of the heart’, a genuine impulse to do good. Others have pointed out, more cynically, that it tarred other party leaders with the Stalinist brush, to the ostentatiously repentant Khrushchev’s advantage. It deflected blame from the party and the system on to Stalin’s shoulders. A few months later it was announced that the congress had called for measures ‘for removing wholly and entirely the cult of the individual, foreign to Marxism-Leninism… in every aspect of party, governmental and ideological activity.’

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/stalin-denounced-nikita-khrushchev

Or this:

Headline: Labour, the Left, and the Stalinist Purges of the Late 1930s by Paul Corthorn

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4091683?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, first published in November 1962, in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir, has escaped Mr. Ganesh attention ? The other examples cited are all retrospective, yet the Medvedev brothers , Andrey Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, Boris Pasternak, Akhmatova: I recall from that time, of following the fate of so many in the Soviet period: from the death of Stalin in 1953, The Hungarian revolution in 1956, The Prague Spring of 1968, the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978or Solidarity of the early 1980’s. The majority of my reading was in Left/Liberal publications, like The New York Review of Books, that was the key promoter of Isaiah Berlin, and one of his most important books of Intellectual History was Russian Thinkers published in 1978!

Political Reporter

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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