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The cult of Che Guevara (all those posters and tee-shirts, not to speak of the recent movie hagiography) is a persistent—and rather annoying—reminder of the way that the crimes of communism still rank oddly low in the popular imagination.

But if the Che cult is bad in the United States, in Argentina—the land of the murderer’s birth—it is worse. Please see below a few pictures I took recently in Buenos Aires. Some of this tat must have been aimed at the tourist peso, but I suspect that it also reflected a certain pride in a local boy made, uh, good, a pride about as perverse as, oh, I don’t know, maybe irony-free US tee-shirts commemorating “Charles Manson, American”, a design that may somewhere exist but, if it does, remains mercifully rare.

Well, you get the picture.

Then again, back in the USA there is this…..

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Faith Meets Reality

From a FT review of China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom by Richard Baum:

One of the best stories [in the book] concerns the actress Shirley MacLaine, who was seated near Deng Xiaoping at a 1979 banquet. She explained to Deng how impressed she had been during a trip to China when she had met a Chinese scientist. He had told her how grateful he was to Mao for banishing him from his ivory tower and sending him to the countryside to learn about ordinary people and grow cabbages. “Deng, ever the polite listener, looked her squarely in the eye and said earnestly, ‘He was lying.’”

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Dead political religions

I recently read The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown. This is a general survey which runs roughly from the late 19th century down to the present day. Though there was a focus on the Soviet Union (for obvious reasons), Brown sheds light on the rise and fall of Communist movements the world over. He has a great deal of first hand knowledge as a visiting scholar in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, so there was an aspect of first-person reportage strewn across the narrative which made this a more lively read than a typical work of political scholarship. Much recommended. Three points which I thought were interesting:

1) Stalin was explicitly self-conscious about the fact that he was fostering a quasi-religious cult based around his own personality as a messianic and god-like figure. His perspective on the history of the Russian Empire was that only with this sort of mystical charisma could the Soviet system persist. To some extent the wind-down and decline of the Soviet system in the more oligarchic and colorless post-Stalin era seem to support his contention. The Communist states with cults of personality have persisted in more unreconstructed fashion than those without, North Korea and to a lesser extent Cuba. In contrast, Communist states predicated on party control and a more oligarchic power structure, such as China, Vietnam and Laos, are Communist in name only (as opposed to being more generally authoritarian).

2) The peculiarities of Mikhail Gorbachev’s personality seem to be one of those contingencies which changed the arc of events, at least for a time. In all probability the Soviet system would have had to evolve into something different due to economic forces, but Gorbachev’s influence likely hastened the shift by preventing the party from serving as a check on reform in the late 1980s. Additionally, his rejection of the use of force in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s was decisive in the relatively peaceful and seamless transition which occurred (there is scholarship which argues that in fact Soviet operatives aided and precipitated the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic). I recall as a child in the 1980s being perplexed by this figure who was the leader of the enemy of the West, as were my teachers (let’s just say Gorbachev really ruined many lesson plan templates). We were conditioned to be wary of the intentions, motives and means of any Soviet head of state. A friend recently suggested that Gorbachev’s ascendancy to the position of Secretary General of the Communist party was analogous to a closet atheist becoming the Pope. The reality is that after all these years the deeper roots of Gorbachev’s behavior and actions remain a cipher for many, as evidenced by persistent rumors that he is a believing Christian. He denies this and avows his atheism, which I think we should accept as likely a true reflection of his beliefs seeing as how most post-Soviet political figures have converted to Russian Orthodoxy (both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin converted after the fall of Communism, as have many other prominent figures such as the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov).

3) Nice to be reminded in concrete terms how important price signals are.

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