Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Echoes of the distant past

On Sunday night, my wife and I went to a special event at our local art house, the Jane Pickens theater in Newport, Rhode Island. A large building with a balcony, it is chronically short of heat, and the owners decided to raise money with a screening of Dr. Zhivago, complete with white Russian cocktails donated by local businesses. I wanted not only to contribute to the cause, but to get another look at the movie, which I do not believe I had seen in full for about 40 years. I am much more familiar with the book, which I taught annually for some time in the 1980s and early 1990s, and which has a lot of emotional significance for me as well.

The film, to begin with, was a fascinating commentary on film-making at the end of the last High (it came out in 1965.) I believe it was shot in Spain, whose huge, empty landscapes provided a reasonable facsimile of the Russian steppe (although the mountains in the background were far, far larger than the Urals they were supposed to represent.) The production was quite extraordinary and could not be duplicated today anywhere in the world. No expense had been spared to recreate the look of late imperial and revolutionary Russia, and huge crowd scenes, with and without uniforms, abounded. The trains looked amazingly realistic as well. And many scenes, of course, were shot in deep snow that did not appear to be simulated. Interestingly, the director, David Lean, who had previously made The Bridge on the River Kwai (including William Holden) and Lawrence of Arabia with Anthony Quinn, managed this time to convince the producers that he could do without a single American star. The only exception was Rod Steiger, whose reputation was nowhere near what it was going to become.

Yet at the intellectual and emotional level the movie was an almost complete failure. Yes, the book is a historical drama and an adventure story, but it is also an extended meditation on politics, life, art, history, and religion, carried on in one brief, highly intelligent conversation among members of the Russian intelligentsia, one of the more reflective classes in human history. And the characters are not merely victims or observers: they are deeply involved, personally and emotionally, in the events around them, and proud of it. One of the biggest problems, I realized, was generational. The lead characters are Heroes, the young adults of the Russian revolution, but the lead actors--Omar Sharif as Yuri, Julie Christie as Lara, Tom Courtney as Pasha, her husband, and Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri's wife Tonia--were all from the Silent generation, and they usually react to the events around them as Artist generations do in a crisis--like children who don't understand why the adults have gone crazy. (The contrast with The Bridge on the River Kwai, another Crisis movie in which the leads Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins had all lived through the Second World War as young adults, is quite striking in this respect.) Worst of all is the portrait of the female characters. Lara is not merely beautiful and sexual, she is brilliant and a history teacher in the book, but such women apparently were not expected to appeal to 1965's audience, and the script lobotomizes her. Because the movie has been drained of its intellectual content it also moves very slowly, and we decided to leave at the intermission. By that time the Bolsheviks were in power (although Yuri's initial enthusiasm for their seizure had also been cut out of the book), and the images on the screen had conveyed the nightmare of a society in chaos.

And thus, I have not been able to stop thinking about the film during the last two days, because of the parallel which I see between the events it depicted and what is happening now in Egypt. Like the French Revolution in 1789, the Russian Revolution began with the collapse of a venerable but corrupt old order, one in which the educated classes no longer believed. France's attempts to establish a stable democracy were interrupted by the treason of the King and the coming of war in 1791-2. Russia was already at war when the Tsar fell in 1917 and had almost no time to attempt anything similar. And thus, in both cases, the moderate new regimes failed to establish effective authority, and the most ruthless and well-organized minority--Robespierre's Jacobins in France, and Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia--seized power and won civil wars of varying scope and duration. France, one could argue, eventually emerged a stronger nation on the road to modernity after its revolution, but the process was a very painful one. Russia never did and still bears the scars of 1917. The Iranian revolution of 1979 provides another parallel.

I do not know what will happen in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak seems destined to step down and the crowds in the street want a new order, but most of them don't seem to have much idea of what it would look like. The Muslim Brotherhood shows some parallels to the Russian Bolsheviks and Social Revolutionaries--it is a conspiratorial organization that has also tried to function as a political party despite being outlawed and persecuted by the government for decades--but it can also probably count on a lot more international assistance than they could. I am not aware of any other similarly organized opposition group in Egypt, and Mohammed El Baradei, despite his well-earned international credentials, does not seem to have any actual political base in the country. The possibility of an Islamist regime is very real. Where this could lead, in turn, was described by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in a famous interview in 2004, one which I have discussed here before.

Q. "And today? Do you advocate a transfer [of Arabs and Palestinians out of Israel] today?"

A. (Morris) "If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."

Q. "Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?"

"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

The distinguished columnists who grace our op-ed pages such as David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof still see this movement as part of the triumphant march forward of democracy. They refuse to recognize that democracy in Russia has given way to a corporate oligarchy enforced by a police state, that the famous Orange Revolution in Ukraine merely replaced one set of crooks with another, and that democracy in Palestine and Lebanon brought Hamas and now Hezbollah into power. Democracy in the west was a vibrant, revolutionary movement when it was contending with aristocracy or with Fascism and Communism in the last century. Now we take it so completely for granted that we refuse to see that even our own democracy cannot look very inspiring to many of those abroad. Western civilization in the eighteenth, nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries enjoyed unquestioned prestige around the world because of its extraordinary achievements, and also because of the power of its armies and navies. Now it faces very serious threats, at home as well as abroad. No automatic mechanism is destined to spread the bourgeois revolution around the world. We have much to do to keep it alive here at home.

Many American commentators do seem to be awakening to one critical fact: the United States has almost no control over the events taking place in Egypt. The Egyptian people will sort their problems out for themselves, one way or another, and there is little we can about it. Yet I suspect our political, diplomatic and media elites are not yet ready to face a world beyond America's control. Still, one can see emerging from the mists of the future the shape of a new order in which the United States might at last take a step back from the global responsibilities that have proven such a burden over the last few decades.


Gerald Meaders said...


Great journalism.

Especially poignant, the Israel passage.

I have long feared that nothing good can come out of the creation, many decades ago now, of a new Jewish state in the Middle East, especially for Israel's denizens.

One only has to glance at the geopolitics which surrounds it.

many thanks,

PJ Cats said...

Thank you for another thoughtful post. Revolution is an area in which I find history is sadly wanting. I followed a course at the Utrecht University where I studied. I frankly lost interest somewhere halfway, when I found that all the models, all the theory didn't satisfactorily apply. It seems to me, revolutions are simply too big events to be 'explained', or 'interpreted', let alone predicted or controlled. (my english may let me down here)
It makes me think of the afterword Tolstoy wrote to 'war and peace', in which he says something along the same lines. Still, those were the parts Hemingway always said he skipped. I liked them.
In my view, you are very right to state that the western world has its own problems (if I interpret correctly). Where are we going with our dysfunctional capitalist system that is on the leash of imaginary money (it's a fiction, this 'economy', that we are now worshipping like some golden calf), our media dominated political landscape and the choices we seem to make in matters of new versus old means of production (forgive the marxist phrase, it's just a phrase, I mean, we can make choices in how we do things, what kind of fuel we burn etcetera), to name but a few questions.
I guess I'm no wiser than the next guy, but I see some signs that may give some hope. People get closer together, they get more connected. Economic models are changing, as I read somewhere we might shift from an 'ownership society' to an 'acces society'. That's an interesting thought. Away with the 19th century ideas of owning a large factory or firm with maybe thousands of dependent employees, a limited number of shareholders who reap the profits and lots of 'market value'. On to small, interdependent, networking organisations that share a common pool of wealth. I find that not too hard to imagine, in fact I see a lot of it around, coming up here in Western Europe with the advent of new businesses by young people who don't so much want to be rich, but make a decent living and have fun.
I'll leave it at that, I talk too much already.

Anonymous said...

Prosperity will will be achieved through the power
of our citizens -- not the government.

The federal government was never intended to be
all things to all people. It’s not meant to be our
banker or our health care provider. Nor is it meant
to be our job creator. Our nation’s economic
troubles are not to be solved by the federal
government but, rather, by getting it out of the

One thing impeding U.S. businesses right now is
the incredible tax burden they face. When
companies are forced to submit large amounts of
their revenue to the federal government, they lose
valuable resources that would otherwise allow them
to expand, invest and enhance their business.


Anonymous said...

In autumn 1979, I took Fritz Stern's grad course on German history, which began roughly with the age of Bismarck and ended in about 1950. I remember Stern saying that one of the burdens that hurt Germany was that its revolution failed while the earlier French revolution succeeded. Although I no longer remember all the specifics, I concluded that Stern believed that if Germany had experienced a revolution such as the French Revolution, Hitler never would have come to power.

However, because Stern is/was fairly conservative, I do not want to claim that Stern definitely meant that. Still, it is not an unreasonable take on his argument.

Beyond that, it is not clear that the French Revolution failed. Certainly, its land reform efforts (though they were not termed that at the time) succeeded. Much of the became land owners while aristocratic claims to rent etc. were extinguished. One can argue that this actually hindered French industrialization because peasants were not forced to travel to urban areas to escape poverty and hunger, unlike Great Britain for example. However, that also made the transition to industrial capitalism in France less brutal than elsewhere in Europe.

Simply compare the French Revolution to the failed revolutions of 1848. One of the reasons that the 1848 revolutions failed is that they neither purged the military (particularly the officer corps) nor the civil bureaucracy.

Conversely, during the French revolution, the revolutionaries purged both the military officer corps and the bureaucracy. Although they did not guarantee liberty (witness Napolean), they did limit how far opponents of the revolution could go in restoring the world of the divine right of kings.

In any event, the Jacobins had no monopoly upon violence. Of course, the counter-revolutionaries who overthrew the 1848 revolutions had no problem employing violence.

Anonymous said...

At this point, something must be said about Benny Morris. I realize that you have been critical of Morris in the past, but it is important to emphasize that he is a dishonest historian and now an open anti-Arab racist. I remember Morris' articles about the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem published in roughly 1984-86 (primarily in Middle East Journal, but also in at least one other journal, which I believe was Middle East Studies).

Those articles were important at the time. I cited them in a review of Conor Cruise O'Brien's "The Siege" and Tom Segev's "1949: The First Israelis" that I wrote for Middle East International. (It appeared in July 1986.)

However, when Morris' "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949" appeared, his book seemed rather different than his articles. (I am working from memory here: I live in NYC, but many of my books and research materials, including Morris' books and articles are in New Jersey.)

As I recall, although Morris was relying upon the same evidence as he used for his earlier articles, Morris had either backed off his conclusions, or had contradicted what his evidence said. When I read his articles, it was clear that the Israeli military had expelled the Palestinians as part of military policy. However, in his book, Morris argued that Israeli forces had no centralized expulsion policy.

In one instance that I strongly remember, Morris reported that Israeli forces machine-gunned civilians before expelling the villagers from Israel. Nevertheless, Morris then claimed that the Israelis had not committed any atrocities there. (I believe that this in his discussion of Ramle and Lydda.)

Of course, more recently, Morris has claimed repeatedly that you can never trust a Palestinian. In retrospect, there were signs of Morris' racism earlier. In August, 1986 I met Roger Owen at the the Middle East Centre at St. Antony's College, Oxford. Owen was the editor of the Cambridge University series that would publish Morris' then-future "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949." When we discussed Morris' work, Owen commented that although he was happy that they would be publishing
Morris, he (i.e. Owen) thought Morris' refusal to use Arab sources was a problem. Although I do not recall an exact quote, my impression was that Owen had brought this up with Morris, but Morris still did not use Arab sources.

On another matter, I met with Owen in August 1986, but Owen's resume lists him as the General Editor, Cambridge University Press Modern Middle Eastern Library, 1987-1993.
I can only assume that he was already working upon the series before being officially named the General Editor of the series.

David Kaiser said...

Excellent comments. I shall respond after vacation.

Anonymous said...

You have spoken/written about various generations.

What is your take on the "generation net" Dr. Kaiser?

Generation net: The youngsters who prefer their
virtual lives to the real world


PJ Cats said...

This is interesting, coming from Thomas Friedman in the NYT:
"The Tahrir Square uprising “has nothing to do with left or right,” said Dina Shehata, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility. They want to shape their own destiny, and they want social justice” from a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated. Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people today will lose.

One of the best insights into what is happening here is provided by a 2009 book called “Generation in Waiting,” edited by Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef, which examined how young people are coming of age in eight Arab countries. It contends that the great game that is unfolding in the Arab world today is not related to political Islam but is a “generational game” in which more than 100 million young Arabs are pressing against stifling economic and political structures that have stripped all their freedoms and given them in return one of the poorest education systems in the world, highest unemployment rates and biggest income gaps. China deprives its people of political rights, but at least it gives them a rising standard of living. Egypt deprived its people of political rights and gave them a declining standard of living.""

How would the theory of generations transpose to the Arab World?

David Kaiser said...

There are three things to respond to here. First, in re Fritz Stern: his view was a typical GI one to which I was exposed at Harvard a little earlier. All history was a continuum, and thus, it made perfect sense to find the origins of Nazism anywhere in German history, even in the Middle Ages. I think Strauss and Howe's theory represents a tremendous advance over such views. Germany actually caught up to the French Revolution in 1871 by any reasonable standard--it was far more liberal then than post-revolutionary France was. It was the First World War and the Depression that gave Hitler the opportunity he so adroitly seized.

Regarding Benny Morris, I too, as a historian who has criticized his own country's decision to go to war, admired him before his change of heart about the future, and I have made this repeatedly clear.

Regarding Generation Net, I think everyone today has far too short an attention span to think clearly, with the exception of a few troglodytes like the author and readers of this blog. It's a big problem and a turning point for civilization.

Lastly, regarding the Arab World, much of it is on the same cycle as the US, including Israel-Palestine and Egypt (a few years behind since the Nasser revolution was 1952). Analyzing Saudi Arabia or Iraq or the Gulf states is a very difficult process. Essentially we are seeing the post-independence order in much of the Third World collapsing now and it isn't going to be fun.