Vladimir Lenin: Tsar of the Bolsheviks

Recorded May 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

Ulyanov was his real name. Lenin was his revolutionary name. His body still lies embalmed for public view in Red Square. Born to a bourgeois family, Lenin turned radical when his revolutionary brother was killed. Embracing Marxism, he became the boldest Marxist leader in Europe. The trauma of the First World War gave him an unexpected opportunity to seize power with his Bolshevik faction. Once in power, he became a dictator who transformed Russia. Would the story of Bolshevik Russia have been different had he not died early from a stroke?

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Karl Marx: The Promise of Utopia

Recorded in February 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

When Karl Marx died, his disciples were few in numbers. But within ten years his followers were numerous. And within 20 years they constituted millions. Of all the varieties of socialism, Marx’s scientific socialism was the most successful. The drama of revolution, the clash of the classes and the ultimate emergence of Utopia invited popular enthusiasm. Marx believed that progress was inevitable, guided by the inexorable laws of history. Fashioned in academic isolation, the vision of Marx became the philosophy of a brutal empire.

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Brussels 1988 – International Federation Conference

The Jewish Humanist, November 1988

Brussels 1988. An important place and time for Humanistic Judaism.

The second biennial meeting of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews produced an important document. The question “Who is a Jew?” was answered boldly, generously and with a unique voice. Never before had any Jewish movement drawn the parameters of Jewishness so broadly. Hopefully, the issuance of this statement to the Jewish press and to the Jewish world will challenge the traditional establishment and arouse useful discussion.

The meeting in Brussels also provided for emotional highs. Two hundred people from thirteen countries, speaking Hebrew, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish, created an environment of international excitement. Some came – out of secular Yiddishist backgrounds. Some came from active Zionist organizations. Some were children of the kibbutz, imbued with the results of over seventy years of humanistic experiments. Others were members of secular Jewish schools and secular Jewish culture clubs. Still others, like us, were the products of full-fledged humanistic congregations. Even famous free-floating Jewish intellectuals, like Albert Memmi and Amos Funkenstein, added to the variety of flavors.

The- main setting for the conference was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif, a secular Jewish community center in the heart of Brussels. Established over twenty -five years ago by a charismatic couple, Simone and David Susskind, it has emerged as the major humanistic Jewish voice on the European scene. Its programs reach thousands of Jews in Brussels. Its publications, especially its French magazine Regards are read by over ten thousand Belgian Jews. Its special conferences embrace the famous leaders and intellectuals of the Jewish world and bring them together to discuss important issues.

There were many special moments. There was the triumphant conclusion of the day-long attempt to reach consensus on the Who is a Jew? statement, with regional delegations cheering and applauding-. There was the warm and inspiring message of Albert Memmi, famous writer and the honorary president of the Federation, who challenged us to respond creatively to the real world of assimilation and intermarriage. There was the simple and compelling acceptance speech of David Susskind, who received a special award for distinguished service to the cause of Jewish humanism, and who shared with us the passion of his commitment. There was the powerful challenge of Yehoshafat Harkabi, former Director of Military Intelligence for the state of Israel, who demanded that we dismiss our destructive illusions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and called us to confront the reality of Israel’s present position and the necessity for dramatic compromise. There was, of course, the incredible sense of solidarity and closeness as we all sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs with Jews from many places and many nations.

The conference made us an aware that, despite our differences, we were part of a growing world movement and that we needed to work together to make it strong. But we also recognized that context made a difference. The problems of North America were not the same as those of Europe. And the problems of Europe were distinct from those of Israel and Latin America. We discovered that we had to listen to each other very carefully so that we could really understand from where each one of us was coming and what each one of us needed.

Out of the conference came an agenda of tasks that we needed to undertake if we were going to be successful in serving the needs of secular and humanistic Jews. We needed to provide popular essays about our philosophy – in at least four languages – so that unaware secular Jews could identify with our ideology and our movement. We needed to strengthen our Institute in Jerusalem so that trained teachers and leaders would be available to serve struggling communities all over the world. We needed to develop the aesthetic and emotional side of our humanistic commitments so that shared celebrations and shared symbols would give us a heartfelt sense of Jewish identity. We needed to reach out to the thousands of Jews who had no knowledge of us but who belonged with us, especially the cultural Jews of the Soviet Union and the unaffiliated Jews of North America and Europe. We especially needed to map out an effective strategy to counter the militancy of the new orthodoxy and to help rescue the Jewish world for sanity and openness.

We left Brussels with the determination to undertake these tasks and with the comfort of knowing that we would undertake them together.

The closing event of the meeting was held at the Holocaust Memorial in Brussels, an outdoor shrine in the heart of the old ghetto where twenty-six thousand names of Nazi victims are inscribed in bronze. We stood in silent tribute and then sang the defiant song of the Jewish partisans. We felt the sadness and despair for all that was lost. We also felt deeply our connection to the suffering and survival of the Jewish people. We knew that, ultimately, we could not rely on the kindness of God. The future of the Jewish people and of humanity lay, in some small way, in our hands.

Bosnia – US to Intervene?

The Jewish Humanist, January 1996

Should American troops go to Bosnia?

Many Americans are having heated arguments about this question. After all, there is the risk that American soldiers will be trapped in a civil war that no outside force has the power to stop. Bosnia is not Vietnam. But it is also not Haiti.

The tragedy of Bosnia is the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Many centuries ago a single nation was split into three parts by religion. First the missionaries of Christianity divided the Slavic tribes of Yugoslavia into Catholics and Orthodox. The Croats became Catholics. The Serbs, who spoke the same language as the Croats, became Orthodox. When the Ottoman Muslim Turks conquered the area, many Serbs and Croats chose Islam. Most of the new Muslims lived in the Turkish province of Bosnia. In time the division was aggravated by literacy. The Croats wrote the language in Latin letters. The Serbs wrote the language in Cyrillic letters. And the Muslims sometimes resorted to Arabic script. What had been one became three. And, as we know, there is no hatred like the hatred inspired by religious faith.

The Serbs were the first to achieve independence. After the defeat of their Austrian and Turkish enemies in the First World War, the Serbs created Yugoslavia. The new country brought the Croatians and Muslims under Serbian domination. The forced union did not work. The arrival of Hitler and the German army in the Second World War split the new nation into a Croatian and Serbian part. With the help of the Nazis, the Croatians and their Muslim allies carried out a war of extermination against their Serbian enemies. Together with fifty thousand Jews, over six hundred thousand Serbs perished. The Serbs never forgot this genocide.

After the Second World War, the Russians and their Communist allies decided recreate Yugoslavia. For thirty-five years th federation” was preserved by the iron will a Communist dictator called Tito. Tito tried to secularize the country and encouraged the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to intermarry. But he continued to preserve Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as sub-units of Yugoslavia. He had no alternative since the official party line did not correspond to the strong nationalist loyalties and hatreds which survived despite propaganda. The death of Tito and a world recession undid the bonds of the fragile Yugoslav nation. War was inevitable because the boundaries Tito had drawn did not correspond to the ethnic realities. The Serbs were the first aggressors, egged on by painful memories, arrogant chauvinism and the ambitions of a former Communist leader, the Serbian president Milosevic. Since the aggression in 1991, four years of war have produced three hundred thousand dead and three million refugees. And Bosnia he turned into a devastated land. Along the way genocide (euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing”) became an ordinary weapon of war.

Despite the moral outrage of the terrible genocide and the threat to peace in the Balkans, neither America, its European allies, nor the United Nations were willing or able to stop the war. America was absorbed by domestic concerns and saw no vested interest in intervention.

And Russia prolonged the war by offering its support to the Serbs. Even the nearby Germans, French and British were ineffective because their so-called unity was only a sham.

But now Clinton has decided to intervene. After all these years of indifference, his action is hardly humanitarian. It is clearly political. He needs to establish his credibility in the face of Republican victories and an aggressive Republican Congress. Having long neglected foreign affairs, he has now concluded that becoming a world leader will enhance his chances of staying in power after November 1996. What followed was the impossible “Treaty of Dayton.”

Right action often emerges from questionable motivation. The intervention in Bosnia is one of them. Regardless of Clinton’s agenda, it will provide relief to a desolate population, enhance world law and order and serve the vested interest of the United States.

World law and order depends on the power and initiative of America. There is no democratic nation able to assume the necessary role of world disciplinarian. The United Nations suffers from the disabilities of too many conflicting agendas and too many vetoes. With the fall of Communism and the balance of power provided by the Cold War, the alternative to American resolve is chaos. Worse wars than the war in Bosnia will ensue if ‘outlaw’ nations realize that there are no penalties for bad behavior.

The vested interest of America lies in a stable international economy. That economy depends on restraints being imposed on aggressive nationalism. A continuing war in Bosnia will bring the Russians and fundamentalist Muslims into the fray. It could unleash a broader war in the Balkans and destabilize fledgling democracies in the area. Anti-democratic militaristic states are more interested in arms rather than trade.

The “Treaty of Dayton” provided for the restoration of Croatia to its pre-war boundaries. It also provided for the preservation of Bosnia as a “unified” state with two parts, one Serbian and one Croatian-Muslim. It is not clear that this “new” Bosnia will be viable. In the end Bosnia may have to be divided between the Serbs and Croats, with the Muslim state becoming a protectorate of Croatia. A multiethnic Bosnia may be more illusion than reality. But, as a first step, the treaty is appropriate.

There is always the risk that Americans will be killed. But the alternative of non-intervention is worse. Educating the American people to this reality is the task of the Clinton administration.

Russia After Communism

The Jewish Humanist, September 1993

I have just returned from Russia. Having been there four times before I was amazed by the radical transformation taking place. Capitalism and democracy may be having a hard time winning their victory. But Communism is dead.

Do not get me wrong. The legacy of Communism is everywhere. Acres and acres of decaying gulag-style apartment buildings fill the urban landscape. Families stuffed into cubbyhole fiats, without the opportunities of privacy or comfort, remain the norm. Surly bureaucratic personnel still fill the offices and the stores. Aging junk heaps of factories still belch their pollution into the air. Millions of red stars and hammers and sickles are still embedded in the stone of thousands of public buildings.

But the changes are dramatic. The red flags and Communist slogans are gone. Consumer goods from the West are everywhere. The streets are filled with the energy of flourishing kiosks and private enterprise. People are talky, pushy and defiant. Book stores and newsstands are filled with publications that people really want to read. Jaywalking and traffic jams are becoming commonplace. Nightlife, billboard advertising and fashionable dress are flourishing. The renovation of former beauty is everywhere. Public complaining is loud, raucous and outrageous.

Of course, transitions bring their terrible problems. Beggars now fill the streets. Gangsters and violent crime, emerging from the underworld of the old black market, make urban life unsafe. Prices are high. Unemployment is growing. The differences between those who make it and those who do not grow wider. Two governments, one presidential and one congressional, vie for power. The new ruble hovers on the edge of credibility. Sex shops and psychics are thriving.

If stability can be achieved, Russia is a land of opportunity for Western “investors”. Undeveloped mineral resources abound. Cheap educated labor is eager to play Mexico to Germany’s America. Confused survivors of Communist indoctrination are open to the missionary work of American fundamentalist religion. An admiration for all things Western, from MacDonald’s to rock music, is part of youthful ambition.

The turmoil in Russia worries everybody. But, except for the diehard Marxists and Stalinists who hold their pathetic rallies in a few public squares, almost nobody you talk to wants to go back to what was. Mumbling and grumbling are commonplace. Suffering is real. Yet the rightwing nationalists and fascists have been unable to mobilize a credible opposition. The right is hopelessly divided and ineffective. Monarchists and racists and anti-Semites cannot seem to get their act together. Even an opportunistic alliance with conservative Communists is a failure. They are not able to win elections, recruit the military, or to win wide public support. Even the Pamyat party, which frightened everybody, is falling apart. In the end, nobody has a real alternative to Yeltsin. And that’s why, with all his faults, buffoonery and indecision, he remains in power.

In the midst of all this uncertainty are two million Jews (and, counting the fourteen other republics of the former Soviet Union maybe three million). Their numbers have been depleted by emigration to America and Israel. But, strangely enough, for every Jew who leaves, another mysteriously appears to take his place. The hidden Jews of intermarriage and assimilation are surfacing all the time.

The Jews of Russia are free to leave for Israel. But they are not moving right now. On the whole professional and well-educated, they are reluctant to move to a Jewish state that can only provide them with the opportunities of taxi driving, street cleaning and unemployment. Although they are uncomfortable with the persistent anti-Semitism, some of them are deeply attached to Russian culture and are reluctant to leave Russia for an environment where they will be struggling foreigners. Listening to them is listening to all the ambiguities and ambivalence that are part of Russian Jewish identity.

My most exciting experience of this visit was my encounter with sixty, Jewish students from over thirty communities of Russia and the former Soviet Union, who had come to Moscow for a five day seminar on Humanistic Judaism. The seminar was sponsored by the Eurasian Section of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The purpose was to train lecturers for our movement, who would serve as spokespersons of our unique approach to Jewish identity. The organizer was Simyon Avgustevich, the director of the Institute in Moscow.

Simyon is an extraordinary man of great energy and determination. Trained as a psychologist In Saratov, a Russian city on the Volga, he became part of the Jewish reawakening that accompanied the fall of Communism. Chosen as an education officer for the newly founded Vaad (Council of Jewish Communities) he encountered Humanistic Judaism through the energetic work of Zev Katz, professor of Russian studies at the Hebrew University and the Israeli Dean of the International Institute. Over the past two years Zev and he have visited dozens of Jewish communities all over Russia and the other “Soviet” republics. Out of this whirlwind effort emerged 35 small Humanistic Jewish associations which are now federated, into a larger regional association.

The students who came to Moscow were of all ages, but primarily young. Most of them grew up in assimilationist backgrounds, where neither Yiddish nor Hebrew nor Jewish culture were present. But all of them were eager to discover their ethnic roots and to affirm their Jewishness in a way that was consistent with their secular convictions. Assaulted by the prevailing confusion and by the relentless determination of the new Orthodox Jewish missionaries to win the hearts of Russian Jewry, they had opted for Humanistic Judaism and were eager to learn more about what that commitment meant. I was overwhelmed by their sincerity, enthusiasm and desire to learn I was also distressed by the economic hardships which they daily face.

If democracy and incipient capitalism survive in Russia, there will be a future for a vital Jewish community and for a vital Russian/Eurasian Humanistic Judaism. Hopefully, in the year to come we can find brother and sister communities in North America, Europe and Israel for the new Humanistic communities in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps San Diego would like to pair with Vitebsk or Detroit with Minsk or Brussels with Kiev, or Boston with Saratov.

At the end of September 1994, the fifth biennial conference of the Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews will be held in Moscow. It will be a wonderful opportunity for Humanistic Jews, from all over the world, to express their support for the rebirth of Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia.

I hope that you will join me in this wonderful “pilgrimage of hope.”

The Fall of Communism

The Jewish Humanist, December 1989

Who can believe? The Berlin Wall is open. Poland has a non-Communist government. The Hungarians are no longer a “people’s republic”. The Supreme Soviet rejects Gorbachev’s legislation.

What does it all mean?

Failure of socialism. Socialism is on hard times. Plagued by the propaganda of utopian promises, Marxist governments have been unable to deliver on the promises they made. Eastern Europe is an economic shambles, with standards of living and levels of technology that would be unacceptable in the West. The socialist obsession with equality has produced rigid authoritarian elites who allow no space to personal freedom and individual initiative. The people are fed up – and rightly so. Despite its many faults, bourgeois capitalism remains the most attractive alternative for most developed and developing nations.

Communism is reversible. The Jeanne Kirkpatrick doctrine that Communist regimes are not reversible has been proven false. Totalitarian regimes can change without violent revolution and without foreign intervention. In the end, no regime, however dictatorial, can survive without the passive support of the people. Even years of indoctrination and surveillance do not work against profound popular discontent. Once the threat of Soviet military intervention was removed, the satellite governments in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany fell like houses of cards. There is a limit beyond which people cannot be pushed without rebelling.

Soviet Empire is disintegrating. The Brezhnev doctrine is finished. Russia will no longer intervene to maintain Communist governments in power. The test was Poland. When the Russians did nothing after the Solidarity victory they gave the signal to the opponents of communist regimes in the other satellite countries that they could proceed with impunity. Obviously Gorbachev has made a choice. The loss of empire is worth the possibility of European disarmament and the economic development of the backward Soviet economy with Western aid.

End to the Cold War. Disconcerting as it may be to many, we are losing our chief enemy. The justification for increasing armaments and warlike confrontation is gone. The Warsaw Pact is falling apart. And so will NATO. Without the Communist threat the political mentality of the West is being radically altered. Many conservative holdouts will decry the clever trick of Gorbachev to arrange for the dismantling of Western defenses. But their arguments will prove ineffective against the obvious profound changes in the Communist world.

Independence of Europe and Japan. As the Soviet threat lessens, the willingness of Japan and our European allies to follow, the lead of America will diminish. The conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union will be followed by increasing tension among the Western allies, aggravated by intense economic rivalry. The American hegemony will be sorely tested in the years to come. Military competition will be replaced by a more difficult and far more challenging economic competition.

Victory of Germany and Japan. The two “losers” of the Second World War are now emerging as economic winners, with all the power that economic success brings in a world where nuclear war is inconceivable. With the possibility now that the two Germanys may ultimately be reunited, Germany will dominate the new federation of Europe. This federation may expand to include many of the countries of Eastern Europe now in the Soviet orbit. With its central location and enormous economic power, Germany will become the premier state of a united Europe. Ironically the two militarist powers of the Nazi era have discovered that military might is no longer the chief road to success and domination.

Change in China. Just as Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria will have to conform to the democratic changes in Russia and in other European Communist states, so will China have to conform. The aging reactionary leadership that suppressed the students in Tiananmen Square confront both the hostility of their own people and the hostility of the outside world. China stands isolated, deeply dependent on Western business and investment. The government no longer has the “mandate of Heaven”. In a world where Communism is losing its credibility, all Communist regimes are on the defensive.

Revival of the United Nations. With the end of the Cold War, the United Nations can be reborn. If the United States and the Soviet Union will cooperate the United Nations can do what it was intended to do. Already there is dramatic evidence of its revival. The withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan, the truce in Angola and the liberation of Namibia have all been engineered through UN auspices. With peace in the air, the world Organization will become increasingly more important in resolving regional conflicts.

New issues are arising. As the old conflict between America and Russia dies down, the world will be able to turn its attention to issues that affect all nations and especially the survival of the human race. One of the most pressing problems that have seized the imagination of young people all over the world is the issue of the environment. Environmental concern may be one of the major vehicles for creating new bonds between old enemies. It may sponsor the beginning of genuinely world legislation. –

Individuals make a difference. Whatever his motivation, the architect of the overwhelming changes we are experiencing is Mikhail Gorbachev. History is not only the product of vast impersonal social forces. It is also a script written by bold creative individuals. What has happened was not inevitable. The disintegration of the Soviet system could have taken a more violent and frightening course. One man triggered the revolution. Despite his limitations, he deserves our praise.

What does it all mean?

We have every right to be optimistic about the human future.