Secondhand Time is a breathtaking, tragic, heartwarming and human book, and revived one of my favorite past times - pontificating about communism and the human condition. It's simply a series of interviews with people who lived through the Soviet Era and its subsequent collapse. The regime was repressive, people were hungry and starving, and it was hell on earth for millions of people. And yet, there was stability, a big, unifying dream of a utopian future, and a feeling of greatness, which were dearly missed after the fall.
Suffering is a ubiquitous theme, and a key element of Russian culture. There's reluctant suffering, where people were forced to the camps, forced into war, forced to starve, coerced into informing on their neighbor. And then there's suffering that's deliberately sought out. A woman who chose to marry a convicted murderer, leaving her husband and family in the process. The young boy who worships Stalin and cannot wait to go to the front lines and be a defender of the motherland.
This book has such cynicism, violence, and horror that it's hard to believe that humans have any natural goodness in them. And yet, people persist, they love, they strive for a better life.
It also peels back the thin veneer of civilization that people like myself, who have grown up in stability and safety, might think is immutable. There are structures around us that shape behavior, that prod us and incentivize us to act a certain way. In one set of circumstances, someone can grow up to be a gentle, law-abiding citizen that loves gardening and going for runs, maybe they're a teacher or a social worker. In another, the same person might become a sadistic prison guard, torturing people for false confessions, coming home and abusing their wives, and drinking enough Vodka to bring them an early grave. What explains these differences? People can be molded into very different fates, but underneath people are the same.
Everyone wants to feel more pleasure, and less pain. In some circumstances, opening up your heart and embracing kindness works to maximize the pleasure side of the equation. In other cases the best you can do is minimize pain, by hardening your soul, keeping your head down, and simply surviving.
The most illuminating passage of the book described how every individual holding up the terrible system saw themselves as helpless victims, unable to take any other action. "They would throw me in jail and take my family to the camps!" they might say. It makes sense that a worker ant feels powerless to change the workings of the colony. But even Stalin himself would say that he didn't make decisions, it was all the Party.
He taught his son, “You think that I’m Stalin. You’re wrong! That’s Stalin!” And he’d point to the portrait of himself hanging on the wall.
Fictions tie us together, and take on a life of their own. Warhol played with the idea that famous celebrities were actually two entities - the flesh and blood human, and the image that is mass produced by the media. The image held in the minds of the masses becomes divorced from the original person. All of these ideas – that communism will lead to utopia, Stalin is the strong leader of the people, or anyone who speaks bad against either is an enemy and needs to be eliminated – similarly become separated from any particular person. And like any successful meme, they have built-in mechanisms by which they spread and self-perpetuate.
Some people think that revolution happens when some enlightened individual or group of people takes control of a situation, and shapes it according to their power and will. Another view is that revolution happens when the right idea meets the right circumstances, and the people pushing it forward are merely vehicles of the meme's seeding and replication.
There's a similar question in philosophy - do philosophers bring ethics, morality, science, liberalism, etc. into existence by the sheer brilliance and rigor of their thought, or are they just reporting on the ideas that were already forming and spreading of their own accord. In the river of progress, is philosophy the current, or is it just the bubbles along the surface?
In the river of progress, is philosophy the current, or is it just the bubbles along the surface?
And what about great business opportunities, conceived by the wise entrepreneur? Probably most, if not all, were simply the right idea at the right time, and had founder A never existed, the same product would exist via founder B. One's differential impact is hard to attribute at the best of times.
Are ideas created by humans, or are humans merely hosts to ideas whose time has come? The parasite and the host live in symbiosis, one needing the other for survival.
In the west, we hold on to the idea that people have a wide range of inalienable rights. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to be safe from harm, freely speak your mind, vote for your leader, and others. When it really comes down to it, people can happily live without many of these. But the non-negotiables are simpler: a roof over your head, the ability to put food on the table, and security for your family. When these are put at risk, people will do anything, from electing a populist leader to fight the system on your behalf, to chopping off heads in the streets.
When communism was initiated in Russia, it gained power because so many wanted these basic needs met. When it fell, it was because these basic needs weren't being met, and capitalism offered a more reliable path. The masses being unable to meet their basic needs it the tinder for the inferno of revolution.
In both of these circumstances, the people were swept up in a passionate fight for a better future, and they were ultimately left in just as sorry of a state as before. Meanwhile, there were opportunists who championed the revolution, and enjoyed the support of the people to build a better future. These leaders used the revolution to dethrone the old guard, claim power, and leave the masses to rot once again.
Was Lenin a genuine idealist, fighting for the common person, or was he an opportunist that saw the most reliable path to claim power? Inevitably, regardless of the purity of any initial intentions, power corrupts. And once the system is set into motion, it can self-sustain for an extremely long time, independent of any of the participating actors.
So what are the conditions for a new political meme to spread? People need to be disillusioned by the current system to have an appetite for change. They must be stretched to the absolute breaking point, for a period of time, to solidify the conviction that the current system is not working. And then this idea needs to be championed by a leader who is eloquent, charismatic, capable, has a pure devotion to the cause, and is from the same tribe as the common people. Lenin would not have been as successful had he been from the aristocracy.
And how did the ideology take hold so strongly? It promised a bright future that gave power to the common person, a utopia where all of the hellish problems of today are to be solved. You will have bread, security, and hope for the future. The revolutionary has the luxury of being able to criticize the current system without having to offer a plan that will actually work work. (Though if it doesn't work, the second time around will be much harder, hence nobody seriously suggesting a communist revolution today). The important thing is having a north star that gives people hope for the future, and just enough implementation details that people see a path to getting there.
This just sets up the initial conditions. Then the system self-perpetuates as a shared fiction, an inter-subjective reality as Yuval Noah Harari would say. It coerces and controls the human super-organism and can be extremely difficult to break. That is, unless it stops providing people with their basic needs. It's an organizational self-driving car.
One commonly expressed sentiment was that the Soviet Union used to stand for big ideas, which the people could support and be proud of. Now there are no big ideas, just the market, making money and buying as much junk as possible. This is an important observation, and it's interesting contrasting with sources of meaning in the West. At best, it comes from work, family, hobbies or religion, and at worst political partisanship or other destructive tendencies. This is a need that isn't generally being met in our current system. I wish that people would value and strive for higher ideas, rather than chasing the next hot startup.
The laws of Communism is defined by brutal idealists, willing to sacrifice anything for their utopia. Piety is value, and the most pious eat those who are branded as heretics. The laws of Capitalism are closer to the laws of the jungle, where the most profitable eat those that are unable to find a niche of economic value. Whether people or the market are deciding how to keep score, it always seems to leads to exploitation. I hope that we can someday find a new model that is more aligned with human flourishing, both in theory and in pr