An Authorized Biography of the State

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Would you trust an authorized biography or an autobiography to give you the whole truth about a person’s life? It would be foolish to do so because the subject has every incentive to emphasize the positive things he has done and to deemphasize or even exclude the negative ones.

Most mainstream history texts are nothing more than authorized biographies of government. They overemphasize government’s achievements and downplay its failures, which makes sense when you consider that a sizable percentage of historians are employed by publicly funded colleges and universities and thus are naturally sympathetic to government activism and, in addition, have no desire to play a tune that fails to please the one who is paying the piper.

Since the state runs almost all the schools and thus purchases the overwhelming majority of textbooks, textbook publishers have little incentive to produce texts critical of the government for there would be no profit in doing so. Hence, while history texts may criticize certain individual politicians or programs, they dare not call the entire enterprise of the state into question.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the latest history textbook being approved for use in Russia celebrates the centralization of power in Moscow, the destruction of liberty in the name of security, and the rule of authoritarian leaders who strengthened the Kremlin’s hold on society. The only surprising thing is that anyone is really caught off guard by this, as blogger Yasha Levine appears to be. A study of the history textbooks used in other Western countries would surely have led one to expect precisely such a result.

Levine summarizes what he considers some of the most outrageous assertions and themes of this new textbook.

First, writes Levine, the book argues that "[t]he abolition of directly elected regional governors was a good thing because u2018regional governments could not effectively function during a crisis-type situation’ (e.g. responding terrorist attacks) [sic]. The implication here is that rigid, top-down vertical political structures are a necessity in Russia’s democracy."

Isn’t this what we’re told here in the good old U. S. of A.? Lincoln’s crushing of state sovereignty and centralization of power in Washington, D.C., were good things, we are led to believe, and necessary to move America into the modern, egalitarian era. Local governments and private organizations cannot be trusted to deal with disasters — hence FEMA, with its bang-up job of recovery from Hurricane Katrina and its fake news conferences — or terrorism — hence the Department of Homeland Security, ridiculous and invasive security procedures at airports, and ever more militarized state and local police forces.

Levine later argues that the book states or strongly implies the following: "Some countries give up sovereign rule to other more powerful countries in exchange for security. Case in point: Georgia after Saakashvili was elected in 2004. Countries such as these are puppets and do not represent their people’s will. As such, they are illegitimate."

Again, how different is this from what our historians tell us about practically every foreign intervention by the U.S. government? When Uncle Sam invades, topples the government of, or otherwise interferes in a foreign country, even if it’s a democracy, it is always for the good of the citizens of those countries and for the safety and security of Americans.

Even now we are being prepared for war with Iran, which the Bush administration and all its allies in the media portray as an Islamic dictatorship run with an iron fist by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Ahmedinejad, however, was democratically elected and has little real power; most power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni. Furthermore, Bush himself, by labeling Iran part of the "axis of evil" and continuing to harp on Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, weakened the previous, reform-minded president, Mohammed Khatami, and strengthened anti-American sentiment in Iran, paving the way for Ahmedinejad. Then, before the first round of the elections that brought Ahmedinejad to power had even taken place, Bush was already describing the elections — and, by implication, the winner of those elections — as illegitimate. In other words, as Levine put it, the Ahmedinejad government is a "[puppet] and do[es] not represent [the] people’s will." Therefore, it needs to be toppled by the U.S. government in order to liberate the Iranian people and provide more security for both them and us. Now how much different from former KGB agent Putin is Bush? How far apart are each country’s court historians?

Levine next describes the textbook’s take on Josef Stalin: "Stalin was an u2018effective manager,’ taking Russia from the plow to the atomic bomb in just a few years. His repressions were necessary to mobilize for war and industrialize Russia so quickly."

Does this not sound like most historians’ hagiographies of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR? Sure, they violated civil liberties and other constitutional restraints repeatedly, but such violations were necessary to drag a backward country, kicking and screaming, into the modern era. FDR, in particular, is praised for maneuvering the country into war by the back door of Pearl Harbor despite the overwhelmingly noninterventionist tendencies of the American people at the time and for enacting so many welfare-state programs, effectively managing the entire country from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe he didn’t get us out of the Depression too quickly, and maybe he did lock up 100,000 or so innocent Japanese-Americans, but it was all for our own good. He even got us the bomb (with a slight assist from Truman, another lauded president) before his buddy, "Uncle Joe" Stalin, did. What a heroic leader!

Finally, Levine could be describing practically any American history book (substituting appropriate presidents’ names for the Soviet premiers’ names, of course) with this characterization of the new Russian textbook: "In general, the ratings of past leaders goes [sic] like this: Khrushchev is bad because he weakened the government; Brezhnev is good because he restored it; Gorbachev and Yeltsin are both bad because they let the Soviet Union fall apart; Putin has been Russia’s best leader because he restored strong u2018vertical’ power (which was established by Stalin)."

Sound familiar? Take a look at any mainstream "greatest presidents" list, and you’re sure to find the presidents who increased federal power the most at the top of the list, with Lincoln leading the pack. (Credit is due to the person who edited that Wikipedia article to include libertarian dissent on these presidential rankings, citing numerous LRC and Mises Institute writers.) Historian Eric Foner, as Tom DiLorenzo has pointed out more than once, considers Lincoln far greater than Gorbachev and Yeltsin precisely because Lincoln kept the American Union together at the point of a gun while Gorbachev and Yeltsin allowed the Soviet Union to dissolve peacefully.

Levine is right to be angry about the authoritarian bent of the new Russian history text, but he surely should not be surprised by it. When the state authorizes its own biography, one can hardly expect the ghostwriters to portray the subject in a negative light.

Perhaps the real problem is that history is almost invariably written as the story of government, which explains why it’s often boring and seemingly irrelevant to the average person and why it can frequently be downright depressing. Perhaps it will always be thus, but wouldn’t it be nice for historians to start treating human history as the story of individuals and private institutions instead of the state collective? Since every last bit of progress has been made by the private sector, it would surely be a far more uplifting, interesting, and relevant approach than the constant drumbeat and cheering on of institutionalized force that passes for history in most quarters.

Until such time as history becomes an account of peaceful interchange between individuals, though, Levine asks if there might not be a "Russian Howard Zinn" to correct the state worship of the new textbook. Levine clearly lacks vision. What Russia needs is not a Howard Zinn equivalent but a Tom Woods equivalent. Why, the Stalin era alone could yield a good 33,000 questions Russians aren’t supposed to ask — or at least were shot for asking before the weak-kneed Gorbachev and Yeltsin let Uncle Joe’s grand project go to seed.

Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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