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Kissinger Redux, Again

27 Apr

Protesting KissingerHenry Kissinger is another of those iconic figures whom I alternately despise and admire.

I have been a close friend of Henry Kissinger’s for some time, but my relationship with him as a historical figure began decades ago. When I was growing up, the received wisdom painted him as the ogre of Vietnam. Later, as I experienced firsthand the stubborn realities of the developing world, and came to understand the task that a liberal polity like the United States faced in protecting its interests, Kissinger took his place among the other political philosophers whose books I consulted to make sense of it all. In the 1980s, when I was traveling through Central Europe and the Balkans, I encountered A World Restored, Kissinger’s first book, published in 1957, about the diplomatic aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. In that book, he laid out the significance of Austria as a “polyglot Empire [that] could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” and he offered a telling truth about Greece, where I had been living for most of the decade: whatever attraction the war for Greek independence had held for the literati of the 1820s, it was not born of “a revolution of middle-class origin to achieve political liberty,” he cautioned, “but a national movement with a religious basis.”

When policy makers disparage Kissinger in private, they tend to do so in a manner that reveals how much they measure themselves against him. The former secretary of state turns 90 this month. To mark his legacy, we need to begin in the 19th century.

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Marx The Misunderstood

27 Apr

Marx and Engels, FriendsTwo aspects of Karl Marx’s life and writings continue to impress me. His friend was Friedrich Engels, who never abandoned this odd and trying genius who never seemed to be solvent. And, for the founder of an -ism, his books are stuffed with facts. Jonathan Sperber, in Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, is out to emphasize other aspects of Marx’s life.

Thus, there is no lack of serious and reliable Marx biographies, including relatively recent ones. Sperber’s entry is a worthy addition to the collection. He is to be commended particularly for his warning against the faddish tendency of modern scholars to make Marx’s ideas more relevant to the present by putting them through a Cuisinart along with various bromides of our time such as structuralism, postmodernism, existentialism and the like.

But Sperber’s nineteenth-century focus raises some interesting questions of its own. Marx’s historical importance, it could be argued, is mainly as the man who gave Lenin his ideas, not the polemicist who wrote a book attacking the theories of, for example, Carl Vogt, whose views are almost entirely in eclipse today. Sperber certainly is justified in dismissing various attempts to update Marx, which have ranged from the ridiculous to the absurd. At the same time, he may go too far in dismissing as useless the preoccupation with Marxism, which he calls “Marxology.” After all, Marx’s private life and his interventions in the politics of his time, interesting as they are, aren’t why he is remembered today.

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Cumings On Lankov On North Korea

27 Apr

The Tribes of Korean HistoryBruce Cumings’ review of Andrei Lankov’s latest book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, exhibits the most annoying aspect of scholarship directed at North Korea, parochialism.

I mention these examples because they reflect a flaw in this book—namely, a consistent tendency to interpret DPRK history in the light of the Soviet experience and especially its demise. This is unsurprising: Andrei Lankov is part of a generation that lived through an utterly unexpected rupture, perhaps the most singular unanticipated grand event of the last century. Harking back to the abject collapse of a global superpower, Lankov foresees a DPRK death rattle. He does not know when it will come but thinks it inevitable and most likely to happen—you guessed it—utterly unexpectedly. In the wake of the demise of Western Communism (save Cuba), Lankov cannot imagine how this regime can sustain itself and particularly how it can revive its economy. Such socialist economies are ipso facto inefficient, he argues, and thus doomed to fail. North Korea’s only way out is to mimic Chinese economic reforms. But that too will mean the end of this regime because it cannot stand the fresh brush with reality that would inevitably come with a genuine opening to the world.

Lankov shares another similarity with most Russian scholars and those who base their interpretations on Soviet documents. Like them, he inflates Soviet control over the direction of Korean affairs. (This is the opposite of the outlook of most Americans, who view themselves as innocent bystanders during post-1945 Korean history, save for the war years in the early 1950s.) It is a historical fact that Soviet troops left North Korea at the end of 1948, never to return. This contrasts sharply with the Soviets’ practice in Eastern Europe; 365,000 Soviet troops were garrisoned in East Germany, for example, when the Berlin Wall fell. Stalin, who famously dismissed the pope’s significance by asking how many divisions he had, never thought he could control satellites without troops on the ground. After the Soviet troops left Korea, Kim and his allies promptly proclaimed their state to be the inheritor of the anti-Japanese guerrilla tradition, not that of the USSR. In 1949, on the first anniversary of the North Korean army’s founding, Kim’s retinue went so far as to give him the moniker suryong, an ancient Korean term translated as “great leader.” This title, up until that point, had been reserved for Stalin. This was utter heresy in the Communist world of the time, but it remained Kim’s title until his death in 1994.

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