Friday, January 29, 2016

Tolstoy, Kutuzov, Sanders, and the Dao

I've been reading Tolstoy's War and Peace again. I've done this so many times that I've lost track. It must be something like a dozen times by now. I do this because it is something like a sacred text to me---every time I read it I find something new to think about. And, I find more depth to the wisdom of Tolstoy.

This time around I have been struck by Tolstoy's description of the Russian army and it's leader Kutuzov.   What I have finally become aware of is the contrast between the Marshall and the staff officers that surround him. Bye-and-large, these staff officers are of two types. Some are idealists who have grand theories about how the war should be fought. The others are careerists who are
General Kutuzov
moving heaven-and-earth to gain wealth and influence through politics. Kutuzov understands that most of these people mean well, but ultimately their value is pretty much zero. They are like flies that buzz around him and cannot be avoided.

The point that Tolstoy makes is that our understanding of warfare is fatally flawed. We tend to think of it like a game of chess that is played by "master strategists". But if it is like chess, it is a strange game where each piece has a mind of its own, there are severe time constraints, and, you cannot see the entire board. The only real power that even the most intelligent Field Marshall has is to not make catastrophically stupid mistakes. Beyond that, they are totally victims of circumstance. Any "genius" that they may manifest only appears so after a victory. The same decisions could also have resulted in defeat---and in that case would have been seen as mere folly.

What mattered far more was the will of ordinary soldiers to fight to their last drop of blood to destroy the invaders. Even more, the same could be said for all the members of Russian society. Greedy store owners gave away their stock to retreating Russian soldiers and told them to burn what was left rather than sell it to the French invaders. Wealthy aristocrats gave enormously of their personal wealth to raise new regiments of soldiers for the army and militia. Instead of selling fodder and food to French soldiers, the peasants hunted them down and killed them every chance they could. The Czar said he would retreat to Siberia and grow his own potatoes rather than sign any sort of peace treaty with Napoleon. Once a society decides that it will not capitulate, any invader is doomed.

Napoleon's soldiers, on their part, were horrified by this way of fighting a war. They were used to fighting a hard battle, doing a bit of looting, then settling down to a comfortable occupation after the peace had been signed---like had happened everywhere else in Europe (except, of course, Spain and Portugal.) When they realized the tar baby that they were stuck to, they ran as fast as they could back to Europe. Indeed, Tolstoy says that contrary to the popular opinion that winter killed off the Grand Army of Napoleon, most of the soldiers died of exhaustion because their officers couldn't get them to slow down their rate of retreat. Instead, they ran so fast that they couldn't properly forage for supplies, worked their horses to death, left hordes of stragglers, and destroyed the health of all but the strongest individual soldiers.

What is important for Tolstoy is to remember that we are all part of a grand historical process, one that manifests itself in spite of all our pet theories and careful schemes. IMHO, Tolstoy's vision of history is Daoist. The Dao manifests itself and there is nothing any individual can do other than agree to its dictates.


I see a parallel between Napoleon's invasion of Russia and our present political situation. Looking at the current American election I am struck by the huge number of "experts" who are offering many different opinions. They are like the staff officers buzzing around Kutuzov. They are either idealists with some grand idea about how the election can be won and the country revitalized. Or, they are opportunists who are trying to make money through consulting fees charged to either a candidate or a major news outlet.

The thing that they don't understand is that politics is also like that strange chess board that Tolstoy describes. Each individual in a political party has a mind of his own.  A low level worker can write something dumb in a leaflet. A candidate can get caught having sex with someone they shouldn't have. Some event in world news can overshadow a well-calibrated media event. All a political leader can do, ultimately, is try to avoid making a catastrophically stupid mistake.

I was involved in politics for years And I was often frustrated by two things.

First, I could never impress upon people that getting elected to office is primarily an issue of luck. Instead, people invariably believed that if they just worked a little harder and were a little more careful and "smart" that they would be able to get the job done. As a result, every election campaign routinely "burnt out" hordes of idealistic people who were told that if they totally killed themselves working that they would win. Of course, they lost and at that point they decided that it was too much work to be in politics and drifted away. If the party had told them the truth, they might have paced themselves a bit more, had some fun, and decided that politics was something that they should make a regular part of their life.

The second point I want to make is that people who feel that they have control over the world around them tend to become obsessed with avoiding mistakes. The problem with this was that it meant that party volunteers had all their freedom to be creative and expressive taken away.  Door knockers were told to not answer questions but stick to talking points. Politicians were schooled to avoid getting caught in a "gotcha", so they tend to become "mush mouths" incapable of answering simple questions. Any printed material became numbingly conventional advertising copy.

Both of these problems are unnecessary---because getting elected has a great deal to do with luck. They are also counter-productive because they push politicians and political parties into a mushy orthodoxy that is usually incapable of dealing with substantive problems or exciting voters.


Having written the above, I would also argue that once in a while a problem becomes so large that society "rears up" and collectively finds a solution. In the case of Napoleon, it was the sort of people's war that occurred in Russia. This isn't to say that it was inevitable that the Grand Army of Europe would be destroyed. The Czar could have signed a treaty. But probably if that had happened, there
An American Kutuzov?
would have still been popular uprisings and guerrilla warfare like that which was happening in Spain at the same time. Germany was also ripe for uprisings.

In Canada the neo-Liberal consensus under the Conservatives was overturned by the Liberals under Justin Trudeau. In England, the "new-Labour" created by Tony Blair was crushed by Jeremy Corbyn.  In the USA, it might just be that the political equivalent of General Kutuzov is Bernie Saunders.

This isn't to say that I believe Saunders is going to win the nomination---but he just might. It also isn't to say that I believe that he is some sort of political genius. What I do think, however, is that he is "genuine" or "real" in a way that most politicians do not allow themselves to be. This is an important point. It isn't that this is a quality that makes one successful in politics. But sometimes it is essential. And this is one of those times.

Tolstoy describes Kutuzov's behaviour at the battle of Borodino
By long years of military experience he knew, and with the wisdom of age understood, that it is impossible for one man to direct hundreds of thousands of others struggling with death, and he knew that the result of a battle is decided not by the orders of a commander-in-chief, nor the place where the troops are stationed, nor by the number of cannon or of slaughtered men, but by that intangible force called the spirit of the army, and he watched this force and guided it in as far as that was in his power. (Chapter  35)
I think that Bernie understands politics in the same way that General Kutuzov understood warfare. It isn't something that involves clever tactics or brilliant strategy. Instead, it is about understanding the times we live in and the spirit of an entire people. I don't believe he decided to run for the presidency because he thought he would "win", but rather because he felt it was the right thing to do. He doesn't calculate what the consequences of a specific word or action will be and as a result he acts in a genuine way that inspires people. He is who he is and he doesn't really care if people know it. He has shown that time and again in the primaries.

Is this because he is an especially brilliant or good man? No. I think he is both good and smart. But more importantly, I think that he is old and wise. I think some things are just invisible to people when they are still filled with youthful vitality. When you get old, however, and you start being thankful for the odd day when you really feel energetic, you begin to observe life a little more objectively and see settled patterns to the way things operate. Tolstoy mentions this in his novel by showing how old and tired Kutuzov is.

I mentioned that I have read War and Peace many times and each time I do so I see something new. When I was young and vigorous I would never have noticed Tolstoy's point about the way cleverness and activity can be overcome by authenticity and patience---the way Napoleon was beaten by Kutuzov. But when I am tired and can do nothing more than observe the world around me, I can look back on my past political activities. This gives me the distance to integrate my lifetime of experience and see things that I believe are invisible to others. This doesn't mean that I don't believe that young people should still be clever and hard-working. That is what we all should do when young. (Kutuzov was very energetic in his youth.) But our leaders need to be more than that. America needs a wise, authentic person right now.  It might have finally found one.

No comments: