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How the few dominate the many: Stalin, Mao, Trump & PNG


RECENTLY I finished reading Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore - an exhaustively researched book of great erudition by the British born, Russian speaking author.

Montefiore traces the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia from 1929 to 1953 and effectively created the Soviet Union.

Like most of the early Bolsheviks (Russian communists), Stalin was poorly educated but totally committed to the cause of communism.

He was also a man of ferocious intelligence, considerable cunning and a great deal of energy, which enabled him to rise through the ranks of the communist party until, ultimately, he  achieved total personal dominance over the party and its membership.

Stalin became, as the title of Montefiore's book says, the Red Tsar.

Like virtually all the Bolshevik leadership, Stalin regarded both the Russian middle class and the peasantry with contempt, seeing them as stupid, bovine and a major barrier to the introduction of necessary economic reforms.

So, for example, he and his colleagues ruthlessly implemented the party's plan to collectivize all agricultural production even though this meant the dispossession and relocation of tens of millions of people.

Any resistance to the party's program was regarded as an attack upon the state and mercilessly crushed by force. Very conservative estimates indicate that at least 10 million people died during the collectivisation program, most due to starvation.

The Bolshevik leadership were, to a man, political fanatics. More than a few of them were ignorant, cruel, capricious, depraved, self serving and violent. That said, many were also intelligent autodidacts, who learned to master the intricacies of government as well as survive in the malignant swamp of Bolshevik politics.

Stalin towered over all of them, deeply paranoid and, like his German counterpart Adolph Hitler, a megalomaniac.

As I read the book, I marvelled at how a very small number of Bolsheviks somehow managed to seize control of the apparatus of a huge and diverse state like Tsarist Russia.

They were not the cleverest people in Russia by any means, but they were certainly the most committed, ruthless and violent. Torture, murder, intimidation and lies were simply tools of statecraft, justified by an unwavering commitment to the Marxist-Leninist "science" of history. Nothing could be permitted to impede the Bolshevik revolution.

I am struck by the parallels with the rise of the Chinese Communists and their ‘great helmsman’ Mao Zedong. Mao was much like Stalin, famously saying that political power grows from the barrel of a gun. Like Stalin, Mao presided over the destruction of a corrupt and incompetent regime.

As in Russia, tens of millions perished in the ensuing Chinese revolutionary struggle, with society being regularly convulsed with violence until Mao's death in 1976, when he was replaced by the pragmatic reformer and true architect of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.

As I contemplated the appalling history of communism, it struck me that there are more than few eerie parallels to be found in recent developments in the USA.

In Donald Trump, we have a president who is petulant, impulsive, egotistical, hypersensitive and narcissistic and displays many of the hallmarks of a megalomaniac. Worse still, he has surrounded himself with people who share many of his outlandish ideas about how the world should be ordered with, of course, the USA calling all the shots.

I think it is no accident that Trump feels instinctively drawn to Vladimir Putin, whom he has admiringly described as strong leader. Putin is, in my judgement, a hugely smarter, more strategic and more cunning political operator than Trump, much more in the mould of Stalin.

An important reason why Trump cannot become a US version of Stalin is that he does not control the whole apparatus of the state, notably the legal system. Nor, in truth, can he control the legislature, many of whose Republican members actively detest him.

Also, while Trump is commander in chief of the US military, he lacks the practical ability to control it, at least in the manner that Stalin did.

Importantly, there is no equivalent to the KGB (Committee for State Security) within the USA. The KGB (now called the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation or FSB) served as Stalin's instrument of intimidation, terror and extrajudicial killing within Russia.

Some people believe the CIA fills this role but this thinking reflects a profound misunderstanding of what it really does.

For all that, the Trump ascendancy is reflective of a situation where the governance of a democratic state can be effectively taken over by a small but vociferous minority (less than 25% of eligible voters actually voted for Trump), whose disregard for truth and evident contempt for much of the population are very evident.

So what has this to do with Papua New Guinea.

PNG is, in my judgement, peculiarly vulnerable to an effective takeover by a small but determined cabal of political activists or opportunists. This is the case because, like in Tsarist Russia and Imperial China, some key institutions such as parliament, police, army, bureaucracy, media and perhaps business, are deeply susceptible to political influence, subversion and intimidation.

I do not think that it necessary for me to recite a litany of evidence that suggests that these institutions have been or are being compromised by PNG's political leadership.

Some people may not even understand that they are undermining these institutions, but some undoubtedly do understand this and are taking full advantage of their positional power to do so.

Also, the huge bulk of the population in PNG are, like the Russian kulaks and Chinese peasants, reliant upon subsistence farming to survive.

Their capacity to exert any truly effective influence over political and economic decision making is severely constrained by a combination of poverty, ignorance and multiple cultural barriers.

Happily for PNG, it has a few things going for it. First and foremost, its government is operating in a relatively transparent environment, where most of the time the world can see and hear what is going on.

This obliges the government to mostly conform to accepted international behavioural norms when dealing with its citizens.

Stalin and his colleagues operated in a closed, secretive society without any effective internal or external scrutiny. The Bolshevik solution to crises such as that in Hela Province would have involved the arrest and deportation or murder of anyone who resisted their plans.

Second, there is at least some overt political opposition to the government which seeks to make it accountable for its actions. While the O'Neill government has done its best to prevent scrutiny of its decision making processes, it has thus far been unable to stop it entirely.

Stalin solved this problem by the simple expedient of defining his opponents as "enemies of the people", having them tortured into confessing to fictitious crimes and executing them.

Third, PNG still has an independent judiciary which, thus far at least, has largely succeeded in resisting attempts to subvert it.

In Stalin's Russia, all members of the judiciary had to be members of the party and conform to the wishes of its leadership. This is the current situation in China, while Russia's judiciary is thought to be largely independent, although sometimes susceptible to political influence or corruption.

Thus it seems to me that, despite its vulnerabilities, PNG is not yet ripe for a Stalinist-style takeover.

However, it is clearly vulnerable to the sort of populist politics that exist in places like Venezuela, where the poor were made extravagant promises by the late and unlamented Hugo Chavez; promises which could never be fulfilled and which had the primary effect of bankrupting the country.

It is possible that Mr O'Neill and his political allies will draw some lessons from Donald Trump's successful demagoguery and run a populist election campaign, promising much that cannot be delivered. The rural population may in particular very well be susceptible to this style of politics. Certainly, more than a few Americans were.

Once reinstalled in power, O’Neill and his colleagues will be able to continue their efforts to further bend the apparatus of the state to their will, probably by making additional judicious appointments to critical leadership positions across the important institutions, just like Trump. Who knows where that might lead?

PNG's brightest and best could do worse than read Montefiore's book, in which history delivers an ominous warning about how a very few really determined fanatics or opportunists can first subvert and then overthrow and utterly dominate an ancient and well established nation state.



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Chris Overland

History is not just a collection of facts arranged in chronological order. It also tells a story and that story is, of course, always interpreted through a cultural filter.

One result of this is that the same set of facts can be understood in different ways, depending upon the point of view of the observer.

So, right now, Donald Trump and his followers have seized upon certain historic facts as proof of the validity of their explanation about why America is, in their terms at least, no longer the world's sole, undisputed super power.

Many US citizens see those same facts in a somewhat different light but they are being howled down as being un-American or enemies of freedom.

There is, to my mind, a certain poetic justice in all this because so many of the anti-Trump forces have previously been so willing to heap derision and contempt upon anyone who did not agree with their particular view about how history had and should continue to develop.

In an Australian context, the decisions about what texts should be read in the NSW English curriculum reflect a very particular view about Australian history, usually called the black arm band view.

As a person who majored in Australian history and has continued to study it for the last 40 years, I know that this is an attempt to redress what some believe is an imbalance in the teaching of our history.

Paradoxically, in their efforts to write Aboriginal people and non-Anglo minorities into our history, the proponents of this version of history have now become every bit as doctrinaire as those they accused of ignoring these groups in the first place.

The result is that our children are being taught as distorted a view of history as I was subjected to whilst being schooled in the wonders of the British Empire.

In a PNG context, where their modern history is short and, predominantly, written by outsiders, there is unsurprisingly a search for a historic narrative that attaches more value to their unique cultures and traditions.

The main danger with this is that PNG historians will fall for the trap of writing up their pre-history as some sort of Arcadian idyll, that was rudely disrupted by nasty German and Australian colonialism.

This is at least as bad a mistake as that made by some Europeans who have chosen to stress things like cannibalism, head hunting, tribal warfare and so on that was a part of many traditional PNG societies.

In his book "1984", George Orwell made the point that he who controls history controls the present. The job of one of the main protagonists in the book was to constantly rewrite history to meet the requirements of the present.

This was and is not a fanciful notion. Orwell knew that Stalinist Russia regularly reimagined the Bolshevik version of history to suit current circumstances. Thus, great heroes of the revolution (like Leon Trotsky) would suddenly be recast as bourgeoisie revisionists shortly before being banished to Siberia or murdered.

Nothing Trump is doing is that much different. We are now grappling with "alternative facts", such as the infamous Bowling Green Massacre which, in fact, never happened but is nevertheless cited as proof of the perils of letting foreigners enter the country unchecked by "severe vetting".

So, I think that Papua New Guineans need to be on their guard lest an opportunistic cabal of politicians write or rewrite the country's history to serve their own purposes.

PNG's new best friend forever, China, has achieved Zen mastery of this art form and so are well placed to tutor others in its use.

Ed Brumby

As becomes horrifyingly evident in Mr Montefiore's latest book, The Romanovs 1613-1917, Stalin simply maintained the cruel, autocratic practices and traditions of his Tsarist predecessors without, perhaps, the same degree of both public and private debauchery.

Russia's current 'tsar', while continuing, more or less, with those traditions, does so with varying degrees of subtlety and deviousness. Unlike those who fell foul of Peter the Great who were variously knouted, had their limbs broken, torn out or severed, their bodies quartered, or were impaled and/or their heads removed (or combinations of two or more of these), Putin's competitors and victims are despatched more swiftly, with poison or bullets. No less painful, perhaps, but swifter nevertheless.

And do we really need to remind ourselves that control of the many by a few was the status quo internationally until relatively recently - and remains the case in so many polities? Or that enlightened or progressive liberalism has had but a short lifespan?

As Chris implies, this is certainly a time for those of us who retain at least some faith in the ideals of a liberal democracy to remain actively vigilant.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Good stuff Bernard.

As someone who has worked with tribalised Aboriginal elders those 'welcome to country' and smoking ceremonies stand out as entirely non-traditional ( i.e. modern inventions - like 'Celtic' music) designed primarily to (1) make a buck and (2) elicit sympathy.

You can see some of that happening to PNG 'traditions'.

Also appalled at the Australian authors missing out on being taught in government schools because they are seen as politically incorrect.

Bernard Corden

Ross Howard must have been reading this week's edition of The Spectator Australia, especially the article by Tony Letford entitled Dumbing Down NSW:

There is also an interesting article from the former AAP Reuters PNG correspondent, Chris Ashton regarding indigenous indulgence and acknowledgement of country:

It almost gives PNG Attitude a run for its money, despite its inherent right wing ideology.

Philip Fitzpatrick

We often complain about ideologically driven agendas in Australian politics Chris, so maybe PNG's lack of it in government isn't a bad thing. Unless of course you count greed as an ideology.

Party politics as practised in Australia adhere to ideologies and that is a big problem.

I guess one of the problems with ideology is its constricting nature on thought - following an ideology makes it very difficult to think outside the square.

PNG's founding fathers had an ideology of sorts; anti-colonialism driven by a Marxist interpretation (Russia was a big proponent of anti-colonialism, especially in Africa, when PNG was coming up to independence). But it was very, very mild and quickly dissipated after 1975.

The only really ideologically based organisations in PNG are the churches. They have considerable influence, usually unhealthy, on PNG politics.

Ideally a country needs secular leaders who are not ideologically driven - people like Justin Trudeau in Canada.

Paul makes an important point elsewhere about Trump - he is basically a longlong. Is his ideology laissez faire economics? Hard to tell. Then again, a lot of nutters have made good leaders.

Paul's other point elsewhere about businessmen not making good politicians is also pertinent, to wit our own esteemed leader. Or for that matter, O'Neill, who is an accountant.

If you are a businessman you are probably like Trump and probably ideologically driven - by greed and laissez faire.

Chris Overland

In broad terms, I agree with Ross Howard comments, although I do not think I was drawing quite as long a bow as he thinks in pointing to PNG's vulnerability to rule by a small cabal of fanatics or opportunists.

I endorse his view that the loose coalition of special interest groups that now constitutes the left of politics has a lot to answer for in relation to the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump and others like him.

I dislike intensely political correctness in all its forms because it is, in many cases, a convenient justification for shrill denunciation of anyone who dares to deviate the "accepted' orthodoxy.

Consequently, no room is left for an intelligent debate because there is only "one right way" to think about an issue (shades of Stalin, Hitler, Mao et al).

I find the whole notion of things like "safe spaces" for those who cannot cope with hearing contrary opinions both contemptible and anti-democratic.

Also, I think that the idea that gender identity is essentially a social construct and always subject to fluidity is dangerous, self serving nonsense propagated by a tiny minority whose views do not reflect reality.

I am not anti-LGBT people and quite happy to support gay marriage. What I don't like is a rabid minority hijacking the issue to impose their world view upon an increasingly confused and bemused public.

While I detest the burqa as a symbol of female subjugation, I am equally opposed to protestors being able to wear balaclavas while they assault others, smash windows and behave in other totally unacceptable ways.

I couldn't care less about peoples' religious beliefs as long as they are not trying to impose their world view upon me.

As a political moderate and perennial sceptic, I now feel largely excluded from a political process in which totally polarised positions are increasingly the norm.

Of course, this really has nothing to do with PNG, where ideology appears to be totally irrelevant to the political process.

I am not sure if Papua New Guineans ought to be pleased or appalled by this.

Ross Howard

Chris Overland is certainly correct to suggest that a determined few can easily dominate the majority. The Nazis and communists proved that.

But when he tries to draw Donald Trump and PNG in with the likes of Stalin and Mao, he draws a long bow that would be the envy of any Kukukuku.

Paul Oates correctly notes that Nazi thugs were often highly intelligent people. Conversely, the psychiatrist Leo Alexander who was attached to the Nuremberg Trials, found that the most common reason Christians became Nazis was not because of any profound intellectual conviction, but simply because it was the current fashion, which goes to show just how pathetically weak are the convictions of the majority when the chips are down.

But intellectuals were particularly gullible to communist propaganda. Malcolm Muggeridge lamented how his Leftist friends like George Bernard Shaw displayed “toward Stalin an imbecile credulity which an African witch-doctor would have found enviable.”

Marx and Lenin regarded themselves as intellectuals. Italy’s communist “Red Brigades” of the 1970’s drew most of their members from universities, especially from the University of Trento’s sociology department.

Peru’s “Shining Path” communist party, one of the most vicious guerrilla movements of the 1980’s, was led by Abimael Guzman, professor of philosophy, and was staffed mainly by students.

UC Berkeley Law School alumnus Ronald Cruz justified the recent violence at that university by simply branding the speaker as “Fascist”, and the student-run newspaper wrote an opinion piece, “Violence as Self-Defense”. These as the same tactics that Nazi Brown Shirts and communists have long used.

Ideologues are impervious to truth or facts. European Marxist Georg Lukacs, who had seen all the communist violence and failures of the 20th century, still proclaimed in 1968 that even if every empirical prediction of Marxism were invalidated, he would still hold Marxism to be true.

Marxism has survived because of a few dedicated ideologues. But it has survived most strongly in Western universities where it has been dominant for decades now. That, I suggest, is the real story of how a dedicated few can dominate the majority.

Herbert Marcuse promoted “repressive tolerance” being “intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements of the Left.” Political Correctness (Cultural Marxism) now infests all Western universities which are increasingly inimical to free speech, free inquiry and free minds.

George Orwell knew that the purpose of speech restrictions, which he termed Newspeak, was “to make all other modes of thought impossible.”

Decades ago, the US Senate condemned a history syllabus by 99-to-1 for being anti-American; At George Washington University a student can major in history without studying US history, At Marquette Jesuit University, Professor John McAdams was sacked for standing up for a student who was prevented from disagreeing with gay-marriage in a philosophy class.

In Australia the “Black Armband” of history holds sway, so you don’t see books by famous writers like Mary Durack, A.B. Facey, Xavier Herbert, Les Murray, Thomas Keneally or Clive James on the NSW HSC English syllabus. Not one.

Instead we have gender fluidity theories promoted under the banner “Safe Schools” devised by the Marxist Roz Ward. Facebook has variously listed between 51 and 71 gender options.

Now that Trump promises to wind back this madness, activists have promised to make America “ungovernable.” And those who have allowed this madness to ferment over 50 years simply blame, you guessed it, Trump.

It was 17the century writer Balise Pascal (“Pensees”) who wrote that people hate having to admit their own negligence: “He conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.”

Paul Oates

A common mistake many make is to think that the kind of thugs who take over and run a dictatorship are unintelligent as often they can be brutish in nature.

Those before the War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1945/46 were all highly intelligent men with proven high IQ's.

I see that while the O'Neill government took the decision to host the next APEC Meeting it now needs the Australian government to help fund this responsibility and to keep in place the Australian police currently deployed in PNG.

I wonder if Trump will actually accept the invitation to attend APEC? Perhaps he could then visit and start to understand the situation on Manus first hand rather than shoot from the hip and then try and smooth it over?

Conducting diplomacy in the public forum on Twitter may suit his business concept of 'a good deal' but its hard to retract a public utterance when it comes to international relations. Certainly there's 'a good deal' to talk about but it should be behind closed doors. Laga!

Barbara Short

Thanks. Chris, for that.
At the moment I think Trump is inspiring many educated PNG people to want to "stand up for PNG" which I think is good.
I hope this attitude will help them to elect good people to the parliament.

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