The Case for Democracy: A Book Review

Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, Pubic Affairs, 2006.

Books on world politics typically have a very short half-life; their relevance quickly diminishes as events overtake their analysis. That, however, is not the case for Natan Sharansky’s 2004 book, The Case for Democracy. In fact, this small book is just as relevant today as when it first appeared in print.

In addition to allowing Sharansky to outline his theory of democracy, The Case for Democracy is a memoir and a history of major world events. Drawing on his personal experience as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union as well as having served in two Israeli cabinets, Sharansky lays out in clear prose the distinction between free and fear societies and how championing democratic reforms can be used to advance the cause of human rights in repressive nations.

In addition to political theory, Sharansky provides useful criteria for judging whether a country is democratic as well as when a criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism in disguise.

What Constitutes a Free Society?

His first item of business is to clarify what constitutes a free society and why holding elections is not an adequate measure of whether a society is free. Without the four freedoms––speech, religion, assembly, and press––elections are meaningless. Nor does adding “democratic republic” to the name of one’s country make a society democratic or free.

Sharansky also challenges the political theory behind much of Western foreign policy since World War Two. In case after case, Western leaders have made deals with dictators, claiming that the stability they provided was more important than promoting the rights of those countries’ citizens. Followers of the “realistic,” or Kissinger, school of international relations typically distrust the people of countries ruled by autocrats and dictators. They claim pressuring those rulers to grant freedoms to their citizens will only destabilize those countries and could lead to worse conditions.

Sharansky takes the opposite view. He promotes the notion that all people––including those who have never experienced democracy––yearn for freedom and that the main reason the citizens of countries ruled by dictators aren’t campaigning for their rights is that they can’t. To voice dissent or call for change is a death sentence in many parts of the world. Few people of repressive nations feel free to speak out unless the leaders of the Western nations––primarily the United States––show they are paying attention and support their freedom movement. Failure to do so––such as when President Obama failed to support the protests against Iran’s autocratic regime––is a missed opportunity to help foster democratic reforms.

Realist School Corollary: Appeasement by any other Name

There’s a corollary to the realists’ thesis that the failure of people to speak out for change is because they like what they have and that to pressure those nations to grant democratic rights will only create chaos and possibly open conflict. Proponents of that school of thought argue that by dealing with dictators the West gives them room to reform their societies from the top. That is the rationale behind providing voting rights to every member of the United Nations even when they openly violate the membership vow to grant human rights to their citizens. That theory of reform failed miserably in practice. After seventy years, the autocratic members of the United Nations have shown little inclination to provide human and democratic rights to their citizens.

History as Teacher: The Soviet Union and Israel

The middle chapters of The Case for Democracy recount the experiential basis for Sharansky’s view that promoting democratic rights is the best weapon the free world has against countries that oppress their citizens and engage in hostile behavior towards other countries.

He reviews how an unheralded provision of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which the Soviet Union signed because they needed technological and financial aide from the West to shore up their crumbling economy, required signer countries to uphold the basic human rights of their own peoples. That provision enabled proponents of freedom to rally behind Soviet dissidents. Sharansky reports when that link in the chain of oppression was removed, the volume of internal opposition increased exponentially leading in fifteen years to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The main lesson here is that dictatorships do not reform themselves willingly. Sharansky argues that societies that depend on fear for their survival need external enemies in order to justify repressive measures at home. Without external enemies the logic of internal suppression collapses. Citizens see that people in other lands have rights and ask why not us. Many realists, unfortunately, refuse to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union. As an indication of how far off course that outlook can take people, Sharansky quotes a U.S. state department official as referring to Iran as a democracy. No wonder the Obama administration thought Iran could be a reliable and honest partner to a nuclear deal.

Israel Also Failed to Learn the Lesson

Sharansky recounts how the Israeli government has failed over and over to put into practice the lesson learned from Helsinki. Israel’s biggest mistake was signing the 1993 agreement with Yasser Arafat in Oslo that not only failed to achieve peace, but also enabled Arafat to escalate his terrorist war against Israel. Sadly, prime minister after prime minister has mistakenly assumed they could trust Arafat and his successor Mahmud Abbas. Israeli prime ministers too often listened to U.S. presidents who preached the notion that dealing with the enemy you know is better than the one who might replace him. The one exception was George W. Bush’s standing up to Arafat in 2002 enunciating a statement of democratic principles that was later undermined by the realists in Washington and Tel Aviv.

History Lessons Not Known

What’s remarkable to me on a personal level is how little I knew of the history Sharansky relates despite the fact that I’ve been a moderately alert follower of world affairs since my college years. That suggests the American people are also largely uninformed about these events and about the crushing logic of Sharansky’s thesis that the ONLY way to defeat a country like the Soviet Union or its contemporary equivalents short of waging war is to require that they institute human rights reforms in order to partake in the benefits free societies offer the citizens of the world.

Thus, I believe U.S. must assert that products produced by slave or child labor cannot be part of any trade deals and must be embargoed. Further, trade deals should not be made with countries that repress religious or political dissidents. That would include China and most Muslim nations. To ignore slavery and the repression of religious and human rights strengthens dictatorships and weakens the West.

Here many readers will interject the realists’ arguments despite the fact that they not only failed to advance freedom in totalitarian countries, but also undermined the standing of the U.S. and other Western nations in the eyes of oppressed peoples. To cave to murderers like Yasser Arafat tells would-be protesters that their lives may be subjected to a trade to gain stability. The Neville Chamberlain story is not a one-time tragedy, but has been repeated over and over.

Realist theorists might also argue Moslem countries are different from the rest of the world in that there’s no indication that the average person desires freedom. Sharansky refutes that theory by listing individuals he has met and corresponded with who desire democratic change. He also could have cited cases of moderate Arabs murdered by the PLO for working with Israel, or the stories of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has spoken out on female genital mutilation and other issues despite efforts to shut her up and Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was one of Hamas’ founders and who became a Christian and a double-agent for Israel. Both have published easily accessible books.

The Case for Democracy appeared after Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil (1988), and preceded his long essay Defending Identity (2008). All three are essential reading. A fourth book, entitled Never Alone, is due out September 1, 2020. All can be read by teenagers and young adults who are growing up in a world where distorting the past is the means to controlling the present. People who care about world peace and democratic rights should take the time to read all four.

Socialism: The Impossible Dream. A review of Bernard K. Johnpoll’s 1981 study, subtitled, “The Rise and Demise of the American Left*”

I was fortunate to have taken a class with Professor Johnpoll in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University at Albany. He was sui generis––a cigar smoking, iconoclastic, child of Communists who admired people who flirted with the Left while despite concluding that their dreams can never be achieved.

Why never? The conundrum socialists have been unable to solve for two hundred years is how to get from present circumstances to the “cooperative commonwealth.” Further, they have not and never will reach a consensus on what the cooperative commonwealth looks like. Each person has his own vision of utopia, which makes it easy for the leaders of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions to get away with calling their un-cooperative societies socialism and imposing their totalitarian rule on their subjects.

In The Impossible Dream, Johnpoll dissects the history of the socialist leaders, movements, and organizations in the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. Based on extensive use of primary and secondary sources, he documents his thesis that these organizations and movements were bound to fail despite their high ideals.

The Long History of Protesting Capitalism

In the early days of industrial capitalism in England and the United States people chafed at the negative side effects of the “industrial revolution”––the lack of restraints on working conditions that chewed up people in the name of profit.

Not that pre-industrial societies lacked poverty or suffering, but what prevented the rise of reform movements in that era was an absence of a clear path to a better world. Once technology, starting with steam engines, introduced the possibility of a world where you were not tied to your previous station in life, reformers and reform movements sprouted like dandelions.

The primary critics of early capitalism were craftsmen whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the face of a new competitive environment where products could be produced in large numbers and sold for less than hand-crafted items. Combining religious images like the golden rule with visions of how industry could be re-organized, Robert Owen and others preached the coming of a society built around cooperative communities. Although the model communities Owen and others set up invariably failed––and did so very quickly by the way, they planted seeds which others sowed in the fertile fields created by early capitalism’s destructive excesses.

The goal of socialism––whether Marxian, Christian, or communitarian, is to take over ownership of the “means of production” and put it in the hands of the workers. The problem socialists have never solved, according to Johnpoll, is how one gets there. Nowhere was that more evident in the reformers’ dealings with the working class.

Labor Unions versus Socialism

In the nineteenth century, while reformers were preaching their individual variants of the total reformation of society, workers who couldn’t wait for the arrival of the cooperative commonwealth, began to form labor unions. For a time the interests of socialists and unionists were allied because owners backed by the police and legal system of the state resisted––often by force––all efforts of workers to organize.

Once the unionists demands began to be translated into law, however, their leaders broke with the socialists. When he expelled the socialists from his American Federation of Labor in 1903, Gompers said, “I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and . . . I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over . . . Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong, industrially you are an impossibility.”

For Gompers and others, socialists wanted to revolutionize all of society, while unionists were satisfied with improving the present-day lot of their members. This caused huge problems for socialists––some eschewed ameliorative gains while others saw reforms as the path to God’s kingdom on earth. Either way they failed again and again to win over the working class.

Socialist leaders, most of whom did not come from the working class, had an even harder time when it came to the problem of whether or not to participate in the electoral process. Some felt socialism could be brought about democratically, while others felt the owning class would never allow that to happen and only through an uprising by the working people of the world could a revolution that overthrew capitalism be accomplished.

Throw in conflicts born of ethnic differences and leaders personalities and you have a history of organizations being formed, making temporary gains, and then failing apart. It happened over and over again. Each generation of leaders thought this time will be different: this time the workers will vote for us or respond to our call for a general strike or join our socialist labor union. When that didn’t happen, they always had fellow socialists to blame.

Johnpoll clearly admires the reformers of the nineteenth century more than those of the twentieth with a few exceptions. Early reformers didn’t have experience to guide them and they paved the way for positive changes in society once social opinion or historical circumstance convinced the political party in power to implement reforms. They didn’t achieve their dream, but we take for granted many of the reforms they called for, from an end to child labor to unemployment insurance, from compulsory education to the right to collective bargaining.

Are Today’s Democrats advocating Socialism?

In recent years, the rhetoric in the Democratic Party in favor of some form of socialism has escalated. Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and remains one of the favorites in the 2020 race. This time around nearly the entire cast of presidential candidates is advocating one or more programs that amount to increased governmental control over various aspects of the production and distribution of goods and services. Health care and the environment are the most prominent areas where socialistic policies have won favor with the Party’s activist base, but except for Sanders none of the others seem willing to go full bore and denounce capitalism.

From a historical perspective what the Democrats are moving towards is more like the system that ruled the Soviet Union than the cooperative commonwealth envisioned by nineteenth century social philosophers––including Karl Marx. The Soviet Union was a totally statist society in which the state apparatus controlled everything, including personal choices in many areas. (There was nothing communistic about it.) We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading in––namely, the sacrifice of personal liberties on behalf of the “common good.”

The problem is who defines what’s good and proper. In the Soviet Union, it was the Communist Party. In the US today, the federal bureaucracy has assumed the responsibility for defining specifics of vaguely wording legislation, often going against the will of the current chief executive.

The fact that we still elect the president is a critical difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it offers the possibility that the power of the state can be restrained. Yet, to the average citizen, there’s little difference when waiting to get an appointment with the VA hospital in the U.S. or the poor quality of socialized medicine in the former USSR.

Ultimately, most reformers are totalitarians. They don’t like conditions in the present. Fine. They see a better world. Fine. They want to impose their vision of a better world on everyone else. Not so fine. We only have to look at Russia, China, and Cuba to understand what happens to the individual when reformers grab the power of the state. The individual becomes acted upon, not an actor. That’s the danger we’re facing in the U.S. in 2019. Reading Johnpoll’s Impossible Dream can help elucidate why the future world painted by today’s reformers is impossible to achieve no matter how appealing the picture.

Coda: Marx’s scientific socialism predicted the most advanced capitalist societies would be the first to undergo a conversion to socialism. Clearly that prediction was wrong. Lack of economic development where the elements of a capitalist system are non-existent or weak, is often coupled with a non-democratic political system, while in the US, where democracy while not perfect, is nevertheless deeply embedded, capitalism has raised the standard of living of the entire society even under the restraints of social legislation. Like democracy, capitalism is the best option available on a list of imperfect choices.

* An earlier version of this review was posted on Amazon and Goodreads in 2014.

 

Facing the modern KGB: What we can learn from Natan Sharanksy

Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky, 1998 edition (Public Affairs)

What would you do if you were arrested as a result of actions you’d taken on behalf of your religious and/or political beliefs, threatened with execution or long imprisonment, but offered leniency if you confessed and testified against your colleagues? Most of us would automatically say we’d resist, but consider the kind of pressure levied by Robert Mueller and his team of investigators against Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, who as a result of being accused of lying to the FBI, lost his job, had his life and that of his family destroyed, and has been facing prison time for two years while Mueller and the boys (there are no girls on that team as far as I know) pressured him into naming names. In other words, he was punished before he was convicted. But this is America, you are probably saying. Nothing like that could happen in America. Wrong.

If Robert Mueller hasn’t personally studied the methods of the KGB, I’ll bet someone on his team has. The KGB was masterful in their methods. Torture, you’re imagining, but would it surprise you to learn that physical torture, such as beatings and waterboarding, were not used in the case of political prisoners like Natan Sharansky, the Jewish refusnik who spent nine years in the Soviet prison system many of them in the Gulag, the Soviet Union’s desolate Siberian territory.

The KBG specialized in psychological torture, such as threats to imprison one’s family and loved ones; isolation in punishment cells where you were not allowed to lie down during the day; promises of better treatment and shorter sentences if you only name names––these methods it turns out were effective on 99% of those sucked into the system. Sharansky was the one percent who successfully resisted.

How you ask? By refusing to cooperate on any level with the KGB. He refused all offers and all threats. He accepted long stays in punishment cells even though he knew he might die as a result. He lost so much body weight that he had severe heart problems that required long prison hospital stays. He went on hunger strikes over principled issues, including demanding his copy of Psalms be returned to him or demanding that his letters home be released to his family. He protested when other prisoners were mistreated even though it meant more stays in punishment or prison cells, but he knew from day one that only by having nothing to do with the KGB could he survive his ordeal without selling out his soul.

What gave him the courage to stand up to the KGB when almost no one else could? A combination of factors, including a sharp mind that he used to become a child chess prodigy, a relationship with the woman he married only days before being arrested in 1977 whose garnered support from thousands including world leaders like France’s Mitterand and the U.S.’s Ronald Reagan, and the fact that his commitment to Judaism allowed him to separate himself from anything and everything that had to do with the Soviet Union.

Anyone wanting to strengthen their own system of belief––religious or secular––can benefit from reading Sharansky’s memoir which was first published two years after he was released in a prisoner exchange in 1986, which brings us back to 2018 and the Mueller investigation.

Hampered by one’s belief that the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice are incorruptible, and that KGB methods would never be applied in this country, good men such as Mike Flynn when arrested by Robert Mueller naively assume they can tell the truth and not be victimized. Of course, I wasn’t present at any of those interviews. So, I must speculate on the basis of what is known, and it is clear that Mueller’s methods of exacting cooperation and confessions out of people whose deeds were not criminal must be modeled on the techniques perfected in the Soviet Union. How else can one explain what has been done to Mike Flynn despite the fact that the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn did so under false pretense while he was still an official of the Trump White House and who did not believe he lied. His failure to understand that others were out to get him and the President at any cost would allow them to undertake such nefarious methods is what led to his downfall. Hence, his recent confession must be understand as that offered by a man who has undergone two years of psychological torture and who has confessed as part of a deal that might keep him out of prison and save his family further suffering.

I doubt Mike Flynn will be writing about his experience with America’s version of the KGB. His plea deal will probably require him to swear he’ll never reveal the details of how they got him to confess. Natan Sharansky withstood nine years of psychological warfare on his character. How long this country must wait for the American KGB to be brought down is anybody’s guess.