Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- October, 1998

Two Lessons from Russia

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org


Under communism we had order without freedom. Then we tried freedom without order, only to discover that without order, there is no freedom.

A Professor at Moscow University
As told to The Gadfly
Moscow, Summer, 1997.

There are, in our political and ethical traditions, two apparently contradictory principles:

  • --the primacy of community: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main. . . ." (John Donne)

  • --the sanctity and autonomy of the individual - that each individual is "endowed ... with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In the words of John Rawls, that "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override."

The contradiction is only apparent. In fact, no society can be both viable and just if it completely commits itself to one principle to the exclusion of the other. Recent Russian history so testifies.

The First Lesson

For seventy years, the Soviet economy proceeded under the assumption that individual enterprise and initiative would necessarily work to the detriment of the social order "The free market" - the summation of individual preferences manifested in economic transactions - was not to be trusted. Instead, the economy should be managed "from the top down."

The results are well known. Vast stores of food rotted in the fields and warehouses, because the managers failed to coordinate production with transportation and distribution. With raw materials, machine tools, skilled workers, and end users scattered from Omsk to Tomsk to Pinsk to Minsk, productive collaboration was more an exception than the rule. With quotas passed down from Moscow, the priority concern of local managers was quantity and less so quality and innovation, and least of all the safety and welfare of the workers. Harebrained theories and schemes by politically correct but scientifically uninformed charlatans like Trofim Lysenko were mandated for the entire economy, with disastrous results. Finally, the natural environment was trashed, due in large part to the pervasive attitude, "that which belongs to everyone [i.e., the state] is the responsibility of no one."

In Soviet society, citizens were expected to invest their primary loyalties to the state and the Party. "Civil society," the spontaneous and voluntary association of citizens, was discouraged at best, and suppressed at worst. Instead, citizen groups, such as they were, were organized, sanctioned and supervised by the Party.

And, of course, this political order eventually failed. It proved too much to ask of intelligent human beings that they surrender all of their initiative, autonomy, and dignity, in short the governance of their lives, to remote, anonymous and unresponsive bureaucracies. And so when, in the 1980s, the virus of liberty once again broke out in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, it spread to the east, infected the Russians, and overthrew the Soviet order.

Thus the first lesson from Russia: Pure collectivism will not work. If a modern economy is to succeed, individual preferences must be reflected in prices, and individual initiative and productivity must be rewarded.

The Second Lesson

By all appearances, "the new Russia" should be a libertarian paradise. Single party rule has been abolished, and the once all-powerful central government has been reduced to impotence. ("Government," writes the libertarian philosopher John Hospers, "is the most dangerous institution known to man."). Taxes, regarded as "theft" by libertarians, are universally evaded. Of necessity, Russians are ever-more adopting Ayn Rand's maxim: "selfishness is the primary virtue." The Russian economy is now dominated, in fact virtually owned, by a small group of hyper-capitalists, not unlike Ayn Rand's "John Galt," who have seized for their private selves much of what was previously the property of the Soviet state. (In a frenzy of ideological conversions rivaling that of Saul of Tarsus, former communist aparatchiki have become thriving capitalists - now the owners of firms that they formerly managed for the state).

The results have been dramatic, and yet should have been predictable. With tax revenues cut to a pittance, the public sector is in ruins. Russian science, once the glory of this old and splendid culture, is in desperate straits, as scholars and scientists either emigrate to Western universities or desert their professions for the only available alternative livelihood - "the private sector." The education system, the seed-bed of cultural continuity, is being devoured by private avarice. For a while in 1998 the postal service in Russia ground to a halt, thus strangling the lifelines of commerce. Thus the neglected public sector retaliates upon the culprits -- private enterprises that regard government as "the enemy." Finally, the middle class, universally recognized as the foundation of a flourishing civilized economy, is disappearing in Russia, as it moves toward the Central American model: a vast sea of poverty, surrounding a few small islands of obscene opulence.

Thus it should surprise no informed observer, that the economy of "the new Russia" has collapsed. The new oligarchs are learning, perhaps too late, what Henry Ford astutely observed: that if the few appropriate all the wealth, then there will be no customers to purchase their goods and services. One can only hope that the Russians will have another chance to do it right. However, the prospects are not encouraging.

It should not go unnoticed that the conditions that have brought down the post-Soviet economy are not unlike those that are celebrated by our home-grown so-called "conservative" politicians, and by our conservative media (a.k.a. "That liberal press"): abolish government and taxation, and "let the market decide."

The second lesson from Russia: no society can endure if its citizens are consumed by unconstrained self interest, untempered by compassion, civic loyalty, and personal investment in social justice. And no successful civilized society exists without the rule of law, effectively enforced by a government answerable to the public will.

The aforementioned two principles of community and autonomy are not contradictory, they are complementary. As Immanuel Kant so carefully argued, the ideal community consists of autonomous individuals who have freely consented to obedience to just laws ("the kingdom of ends"), and who have freely assumed self-transcending loyalties and concern for persons, institutions, principles and generations beyond themselves. Communists and libertarians similarly err as they embrace one principle to the total exclusion of the other - respectively, the principles of community (by the communists) or of autonomy (by the libertarians). (Cf. "Why Care About the Future," The Online Gadfly).

What is to be Done?

The question prompts an immediate and obvious retort: "Why do anything at all? After all, these communists gave us no end of grief for over thirty years. Besides, we have troubles of our own."

To which we reply: If you want to find an anti-communist, look first to Russia. The Russian people were not, by and large, enthusiastic supporters of Soviet communism, they were its victims. Moreover:

There are altruistic reasons for assisting the Russian people in their struggle to maintain and expand the civil liberties so dearly won. These are human beings with careers and families, and with aspirations for both. Their suffering is both unjust and unnecessary. Simple compassion calls on us to come to their aid.

For those unmoved by pleas to moral conscience, there are selfish reasons for helping the Russians, sufficiently compelling to make the moral pleadings almost superfluous. First of all, there are those thousands of nuclear warheads, formerly pointed at our 100% American heads. At what point of starvation may we expect some desperate Russians to hand over those nukes to the highest bidder?  Second, without industrial reform and renovation, and without the enforcement of a revived Goscompriroda (the Russian counterpart of the EPA), the Russian economy will continue to pour noxious nasties into the common atmosphere and oceans. Finally, the moribund Russian economy presides, paradoxically, over a society that is wealthy in human and natural resources. If Russia can get its economic act in order, there are benefits to be enjoyed, not only by the Russians, but by all mankind.

But make no mistake, Russia, and by extension the entire world community, is at a crossroads, and the outcome is both momentous and uncertain. As an old and honored friend, Oleg Kalugin(1), observed to Salon Magazine interviewer, Jeff Stein:

the United States [is] a great country which was admired by many Russians for many decades... [Now] the Russians feel disappointed, they feel betrayed. This is bad. Anti-Americanism is on the rise. I feel sorry that some people who used to be my friends [now] speak of Americans in a most negative way.

We are reminded of a remark by the American/Russian journalist, Vladimir Pozner: "Americans have accomplished in less than a decade what Soviet Communism failed to achieve in seventy years: they have provoked Russians to hate Americans."

Stein then closed his interview with the question, "Where did we go wrong?" Kalugin replied:

When the West won the Cold War and defeated the former Soviet Union, it was not the end, it was the beginning. But I think the White House, and the West generally, thought, well, the war is over, let's enjoy ourselves. But that was the beginning of another war - the war against the totalitarian mentality in Russia. That requires years of persistence and hard work. It's still up for grabs, but it's hard not to say now that that war may be lost.

And so we ask, once again, if that "war" against the totalitarian mentality is not to be lost, what must be done?

The wrong approach became painfully apparent to us several years ago on a flight back from Moscow. We happened then to sit next to an officer of a libertarian think-tank (whom and which we will mercifully decline to identify). During those hours over the Atlantic, he told us at length what he had "taught" the Russians, though we do not recall that he had a word to say about what he had learned from the Russians. He went to Moscow with his pre-packaged free-market libertarian dogmas, apparently uninformed and uninterested in the historical and cultural context into which he was eager to bestow his ideological gift. He was, we suspect, typical of a small army of "helpful" western advisors that descended upon Russia following the fall of the "iron curtain."

In contradistinction to that sort of "help," we suggest the following:

1. The very question, "what can we do for the Russians?," is mischievous. It suggests an arrogant "mission to the infidels" attitude that the Russians will quite properly resent and reject. Borrowing from President Clinton's remark during his recent African trip, we should ask instead, "what can we do with the Russians." If an acceptable solution to these difficulties is to be found, it must be a Russian solution which, at best, we might facilitate.

2. Any attempts to assist the Russians during these difficult times should adopt the "prime directive" of medicine: "first do no harm." Before we go running off to Russia with our mouths open and our ears shut, we should acquaint ourselves with their customs, and prepare to listen to their concerns, their aspirations, and their assessments. Better still, we should include in our entourage someone who can listen in their language - and best of all, we might even learn to do so ourselves.

3. We should approach the Russians as humble, appreciative and compassionate friends, and as friends we must genuinely care for their well-being. We should appreciate that we are, in many ways, in their debt. For every American casualty in World War II, there were more than eighty Russians. Moreover, while half of European Russia was overrun and devastated by the Nazis, mainland America was essentially untouched by war. But for the sacrifice of the Russians, we might today be speaking German and saluting the swastika. Furthermore, it was Gorbachev and the Soviet government that ended the Cold War, and not because they had to. When the East Germans, the Poles, the Czechs and the Lithuanians once again resisted Soviet hegemony, this time the Red Army tanks remained silent. It could well have been otherwise.

In addition, we have as much to learn from the Russians as they have to learn from us. The contribution of the Russians to world literature and music is unparalleled, and their record of achievement in theoretical science is the equal of any world power. And yet all this was accomplished under conditions of extraordinary privation and repression. How was this possible? Sadly, few of our compatriots understand or even care. Our knowledge and appreciation of Russian culture is abysmal, while myths and misconceptions abound. There are more teachers of English in Russia than there are speakers of Russian in the United States. More than half of the working population in Russia has studied English. (Though, as we found out to our frustration, none of them appear to drive taxicabs in Irkutsk). They have much to tell us, if only we have the good sense to listen.

4. We must encourage and support the development of civil society in Russia. Herein is another paradox: the Russians, with little experience with "civil society" - private, voluntary, independent, citizen-based organizations ("from the grass roots") - are acutely aware of its importance as they strive, against formidable odds, to establish civil society. In contrast, American civil society, which so caught the attention and admiration of Alexis de Tocqueville and other foreign observers, is languishing from neglect and is in apparent decline. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the United States a new dominant political ideology proclaims that society is to be treated as a market place, and the citizen as a private "satisfaction maximizer."   It is remarkable indeed that the so-called "conservatives" who so deplore communism, have adopted a political ideology that rivals, in its emphasis upon economic concepts and theory, the thought of the despised Karl Marx.  (See  "With Liberty for Some," and "The New Alchemy,"  this site).

With Gorbachev's proclamation of glasnost and perestroika in the mid- and late eighties, the door was opened to the development of civil society in Russia. Environmentalists were among the very first to pass through that door. A network of citizen-based environmental organizations emerged throughout the Soviet Union, significantly enhanced by donations of computer equipment and the subsequent development of communications networks such as glasnet. Unfortunately, subsequent economic privations have sharply curtailed such activities. Still, the viability of civil society remains the keystone to both environmental renewal and political reform in the former Soviet Union. As Oleg Yanitsky, a sociologist and chronicler of Russian environmentalism, observed in his book, Russian Environmentalism, with the the advent of perestroika and the rise of the environmental movement,

Ordinary citizens were no longer willing to display enthusiasm for building an illusory "shining future," but began, independently and very actively, to fix up the present. Moreover, they did this in such a way as to ensure that they themselves could enjoy the fruits of the efforts they had invested. The participants in the "grass-roots" movements thus rejected yet another dogma -- about the priority of public (read: state and [bureaucratic]) values over personal ones). Instead, they affirmed that a society develops only when those who build it develop themselves and achieve satisfaction. It seems to me that this represents a complete revolution in our consciousness and in society as a whole, a revolution which so far we have sense only dimly. (Russian Environmentalism, 35-6. See also The Gadfly's interview with Dr. Yanitsky at this website)

Among the prominent supporters of Russian civil society are the philanthropist George Soros, who, along with other philanthropic organizations, stipulates that financial aid be given directly to individuals and private organizations, and not through government agencies or businesses. Also noteworthy are ISAR: Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia, a Washington-based organization devoted to the promotion of civil society in the former Soviet Union (www.isar.org), and The Sacred Earth Network (www.igc.org/sen). which gives primary attention to environmental NGOs in the former Soviet Union.

Last month we were reminded of the urgency of developing and sustaining civil society, in an e-mail exchange with a friend in St. Petersburg. We wrote:

I am heartsick over the news from Russia - of the hardships being endured by yourself, your family, and your compatriots. And I deeply regret the opportunities lost this past decade. After the end of the Soviet Union, the Russians saw the worst face of Americans - with our mouths open and our eyes and ears shut. We offered too much uninformed and unsolicited advice, and too little understanding of the Russian history and Culture. Worst of all, we simply withdrew unto ourselves and forgot about the rest of the world. And now, your politics has become a Greek tragedy while ours has deteriorated into comic opera. Not a very happy situation.

He replied with a reassurance that was both admirably stoical and touching: "take it easy," he reassured us, "that is the way we usually live." He continued:

At the same time I feel that there is a great need to mobilize all the links that were developed during the "lost decade" as you call it. No more aid should come through government and monopolies. Instead, small contributions from citizens and charities should be used to support the seedlings of civil society which are in grave danger now. Donors should ensure the quality and sustainability of the aid. In short, we need links and projects.

Upon reading this, we were reminded of Churchill's plea to Roosevelt: "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job!" Admirable!

As we have noted elsewhere (in "A Funny Thing Happened..."
this website), the very notion that the West "won" and the Soviets "lost" the Cold War is profoundly misconceived. The Cold War was no zero-sum game. While it took place, both sides lost, and when it ended that very closure was a "win" for both sides. And now, both sides are on the brink of "losing" the liberation that followed the ending of the Cold War.

Though not optimistic, Oleg Kalugin still believes that the outcome is "up for grabs." We agree. While it is, we and our Russian partners must not allow what may be freedom's last chance to slip through our fingers.

1. The Gadfly met Oleg Kalugin over thirty years ago, when we were both students at Columbia University. He later rose through the ranks of the KGB to become a Major General and the Chief of Counterintelligence. With the advent of glasnost and perestroika, Kalugin became a steadfast supporter of Gorbachev and a critic of his former associates in the KGB, a public position which cost him his rank and pension, and which put his life in great jeopardy. It is a great privilege to be personally acquainted with an authentic hero.  More about Oleg Kalugin at "What About the Russians," this site.   (See also his book, The First Directorate, St. Martins, 1994).

 Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge   

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .