Mainstream, VOL LII, No 20, May 10, 2014
A Clash of Two Worldviews: West - Russia Conflict on Ukraine
Monday 12 May 2014
by N. V. K. Murthy
To understand the conflict between the West and Russia on the Ukraine problem, one has to go back to the beginning of the 20th century, or even earlier—to the last decades of the 19th century. When England was in the throes of the industrial revolution, and capitalism was developing fast, a German intellectual, named Karl Marx, was working on his famous book called Das Capital in the British Museum Library. Karl Marx and his collaborator and patron, Frederick Engles, published the Communist Manifesto in 1848. This was when the ruling philosophy of the capitalist world was based on The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Ever since then, these two worldviews, communism and capitalism have been in competition. Capitalism was based on enterprise and individualism, whilst communism was based on social welfare and the common good of society. Each looked upon the other philosophy as a potential enemy.
History does not progress along simple, straight lines—human history is full of inter-actions between various forces and ideas. The world continued more or less the way it had gone on until World War I, which broke out in 1914. However, by the time it ended four years later in 1918, the world had changed tremen-dously. In 1917, even before the Western powers had signed a peace treaty with Germany, there was an upheaval in Russian society. The Bolshevik Party had overthrown the rule of the Czarist emperor, and proclaimed the proletarian state. In the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engles had predicted that the capitalist system would one day collapse because it contained seeds of its own destruction. In fact, the Communist Manifesto ended with a dramatic call: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Many political intellectuals expected the communist revolution to take place first on the European continent. In fact, they expected it to happen in Germany first because Germany had a very strong trade union movement. But, to their surprise, it occurred in Russia, a country without a trade union. The country was mostly an agrarian society with a very strong feudal system. The new government of Russia, following the revolution, was headed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who wanted to end the War immediately so that he could consolidate the power of the new state. An anecdote emphasises the urgent need for this peace— Trotsky, who represented Lenin’s new govern-ment, was asked to go to the ceremony of signing the peace treaty at a place called Brest-Litovsk on the border between Germany and Russia. The Communist that he was, he was horrified when asked to appear for the ceremony dressed in an official tailcoat and tie. He is supposed to have telegraphed his leader Lenin asking him what he should do. Lenin sent back a telegram asking him to go and sign the peace treaty immediately, even if he had to go in a petticoat! That showed the urgency for peace in Russia at that time. In a sense, from then on to this day, the urgency for peace in Russia seems to have remained the same.
Even as this peace treaty was being signed between Russia and Germany, the Western countries were not happy that Russia was being let off the hook. A number of wars of intervention by these powers were waged all along the Russian border, to demonstrate against the new society rising in Russia which could threaten the capitalist system of society that existed in the Western world. Marx and Engles had suggested that capitalism would lead to monopoly in production and distribution and thus result in higher prices for consumers. Ultimately, they suggested that this monopoly would lead to colonisation and imperialism, by which the capitalist countries would try to grab the resources that they needed from all over the world. However, after the First World War, which ended in 1918, two great powers emerged: the United States of America in the West, and Russia in the east. Russia ultimately became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the USSR. There was an uneasy equilibrium between the US and USSR. In fact, the uneasiness grew into hostility just before the Second World War. In Europe, Germany was no longer a strong power when Hitler rose to seize the reins of government. Hitler annexed territory after territory and Chamberlain went on an appeasement policy hoping to direct Germany away from Russia. The wily Russian leader, Stalin, signed in 1939 a non-aggression treaty with Hitler.
As said earlier, history does not proceed along straight lines. These two world views, which were developing in the West and in Russia were constantly interacting with one another. In the US, for example, soon after the First World War, a near collapse of the capitalist system was seen during the Great Depression of the 1920s. Also, many collective factors were put in place to take care of the ills of capitalism. For example, a federal commission was created to restrict the development of monopolies. Anti-trust laws were enacted to prevent big corporations from forming cartels, and indulge in price-fixing. Then, social welfare measures were put in place. The rights of the workers to form unions, to demand higher wages and better conditions of work and living were recognized, In fact, many conservative capitalist critics condemned these attempts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as socialist programmes. However, in England, for example, church leaders, like the Dean of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson, wrote a book called The Socialist Sixth of the World and praised socialism as being very Christian in nature. Also two prominent British economists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, wrote a book titled Soviet Communism- A New Civilisation, praising the economic justice of the communist system.
However, all was not well in the Soviet Union. After the death of Lenin in 1924, within a couple of years of the socialist revolution, Stalin became the leader and he proved to be a ruthless dictator. Opposition was put down with a firm hand. Members of the Communist Party became very powerful individuals, and they seemed to use the power for their own personal betterment. The most striking difference between the two systems of government— Stalin’s communism and Western capitalism— was in the field of dissemination of information. The democratic systems in Western countries ensured that the public had some information, if not all, about how the government functioned. However, in the USSR, citizens were kept completely ignorant. There was a one-party rule, and no attempt at democratisation. The emphasis seemed to be on providing economic security, and the idea of setting up democratic political institutions was relegated to the background. This lack of democratic institution building in the USSR reached a peak during the 1980s when President Reagan headed the US, and Gorbachev headed the USSR. Glasnost— loosening control of information and making society more open—as well Perestroika—restruc-turing of the system of government—were both introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev. This changed the relationship between the government and its people in the Soviet Union. Due to problems of its own making, the USSR brought about its end in 1991, and broke into several independent republics.
Even before this split occurred, several people in the Western world were rejoicing about the death of communism and the triumph of capitalism. But wise people, such as the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who had come to be called the Sage of Cambridge had said that the people who are talking about the death of communism and the rise of capitalism were foolish. He said that what had been happening in the world was a sea-change in
communism. Those who believe in capitalism have come to realise the limitations of capitalism and the need to combine the benefits of capitalism with the benefits of some of the concepts of communism, like social security and better distribution of resources. Communists, on the other hand, are beginning to realise the need for individual freedom, private enterprise, and democratic methods of government.
To understand the present we have to go back to the past and learn from it. For example, to understand what is happening in the Middle East today, where there is a maze of small countries which were born after the Second World War, we have to go back to the wars between the competing empires—the Ottoman, French and British empires—which were warring with one another for the resources found in the Middle East. After the Second World War they decided to chart out their own spheres of influence and this is how the present state has come about with some states under the influence of Russia, some under that of United Kingdom and some under the French Government.
This is even better illustrated if you go into the history of Europe. There, till recently, even the concept of territorial states was unknown. The various emperors and kings claimed their power from divinity and what was known as the divine right of the kings followed. Each one claimed universal rights although in reality they did not have the authority beyond their limited territory. After centuries of various ethnic groups fighting one another, in the middle of the 17th century they signed the Treaty of West-phalia, which marked the birth of a territorial state. But this did not end the conflict based on ethnicity, religion and economic interests. Bigger states began to disintegrate into smaller states in the USSR, Yugoslavia, and others. Again after decades of being separate states, they are all now trying to come together as in Europe by trying to get admitted into the European Union. Thus one sees ethnic, religious and economic interests dictating the separation and coming together of states at different times in history.
The world has come to realise that if these conflicts continue, we will only succeed in destroying the planet earth, our only common home. We must be clever and wise. The days of imperialism and colonialism are gone. So are the days of Western and Russian spheres of influence. We have to realise that living together in harmony means mutually recognising the right of the other to do the same. So, the latest news about an hour-long telephone conversation between Obama and Putin is a good sign. It shows that both sides are looking to settle this conflict without going to war. One can only wish them all success in this endeavour.
The author, now retired, was the First Registrar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Subsequently he functioned for sometime as the Director of the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. Later he was appointed the Director of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai.