What Nancy Pelosi could learn from the Russian Revolution
Democratic leaders are not keen on impeaching President Trump, even after the Mueller report revealed several outrageous abuses of power. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, "Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point." He's clearly following the lead of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who said back in March that "I’m not for impeachment … [it's] so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country."
This attitude does not bode well. Whether they impeach or not, it will take a snarling political fight to protect American democracy from Trump's corruption. Being timid and hesitant merely invites Trump to continue to trample the Constitution.
Democratic leaders would do well to study the failure to establish a functioning democracy in Russia after the February Revolution in 1917. (It is not a perfect analogy of course, but does provide some broadly applicable lessons.) The primary cause of that revolution was the internal collapse of tsarist autocracy, which was shaky even before the bumbling doofus Nicholas II took power. The rickety regime was unable to handle the apocalyptic violence and chaos of the First World War, lost all legitimacy and control, and eventually gave up power without a fight. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, "All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door."
That created an enormous power vacuum. Traditional liberals in the Constitutional Democratic Party (or Kadets), led by Prince Lvov and Pavel Miliukov, formed a Provisional Government to try to fill it. But liberals were a small minority of the population — the vast peasant class and most of the industrial working class supported the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) or Mensheviks, while a smaller portion supported the more radical Bolsheviks. "Soviets" (or councils) had sprung up across the country immediately after the collapse of tsarism, based on the experience of the brief attempted revolution in 1905, and the Provisional Government relied on them to have any sort of legitimacy.
This turned out to be untenable. The Provisional Government had essentially appointed itself, but the Kadets repeatedly put off elections because they feared they would be shunted aside. (This turned out to be true — when the Constituent Assembly was elected later in 1917, the Kadets got only 4.7 percent of the vote, while the Socialist Revolutionaries got 40.7 percent.)
But the democratic socialists refused to force the issue, as they were hypnotized by Marxist ideology about history. The orthodox socialist view in those days was that peasant nations had to first go through a stage of bourgeois democracy, after which they could evolve into socialism. The fact that bourgeois liberals were simply too few to govern couldn't break through the ideological logjam. It was beyond obvious that what Russia needed was a democratic constitution and the rule of law, after which questions of political economy could be sorted out. Yet democratic socialists insisted on deferring to the liberals, even after SR leader Viktor Chernov was nearly lynched by an angry crowd after a worker demanded he "take power, you son of a b****, when it is given to you!"
It's worth noting that Marx himself never would have been so politically daft, as can be seen in his sharp journalism about the collapse of the Second French Republic.
All this — together with Alexander Kerensky's disastrous decision to launch an offensive in July 1917, which destroyed the last of the Provisional Government's legitimacy and wrecked the Russian army — opened a path for Lenin's anti-democratic Bolsheviks, who would seize power by force, and enforce their rule through mass terror.
Now this is not to say that Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats calling for impeachment are analogous to the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, they are loyal to democracy and recognize their constitutional obligation to defend it.
The lesson here is that in times of chaos and rising anti-democratic forces, defending democratic institutions requires bold, uncompromising action. One must fight for power and use it. And this is manifestly the case in America today. The president is plainly a crook. He's constantly using the presidency to enrich himself and his family — a flagrant violation of the Constitution. The Mueller report shows him attempting multiple abuses of power to obstruct the investigation — which only didn't work because his subordinates didn't obey his instructions.
But most of those subordinates are gone. Trump has now installed a corrupt stooge as the nation's top law enforcement officer. As Greg Sargent points out, he's instructing a former subordinate to disobey a House subpoena, suing House Democrats to prevent them from seeing his finances, and his administration is preparing to disobey the legal requirement that the IRS turn over Trump's tax returns. "Plainly, Trump is determined to treat any and all oversight as illegitimate … with the goal of keeping his seemingly bottomless corruption shielded from public view," he writes.
Democratic leaders are clearly uncomfortable with this reality. They just want to wait for an election to remove Trump from office, after which things will hopefully go back to normal. "Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment," says Hoyer. As Alex Pareene writes, the "congressional opposition is led by people, like Hoyer, terrified to exercise their own power."
But Trump could very possibly win. And even if he does lose, he might well refuse to leave office, given how it would expose him to potential criminal prosecution. Whether they like it or not, defending American democracy is going to take every tool at Democrats' disposal, and the tenacity of a wolverine. The Democrats simply standing back and hoping the people will stop Trump for them is the best way to help him corrupt the United States into a Turkey-style authoritarian pseudo-democracy.
Luckily, Pelosi is softening her line on impeachment, pushed by dissent from younger leftists within the party. Now she's saying that "if that’s the place the facts take us, that’s the place we have to go." Of course that's the entire point of an impeachment inquiry — first you hold hearings and gather evidence, and then if justified, you draw up articles of impeachment.
Still, it's an encouraging sign — but it remains to be seen whether the Democratic leadership can do what Chernov and company could not, namely find the spine and energy to rise to the occasion.