Nearly a century ago, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was in charge of a country that was living in the past. Changes had to be made, so Stalin did what he had to do to drag Russia, kicking and screaming, into the 20th Century.
Today, Barack Obama (1961- ) is in charge of another country that’s living in the past. Again, changes have to be made, so Obama is doing what he has to do to drag America, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.
If history has proven one thing, it’s that there is always resistance to change—the bigger the change needed, the greater the resistance. The changes facing Russia a century ago and facing America today would have to be called MASSIVE by any reasonable standard!
From here, though, the similarities between Stalin and Obama start to polarize.
What They DON’T Have in Common:
Building from the Ground Up Vs. Remodeling
A century ago Russia was still a peasant economy… meaning most people’s worldly awareness didn’t venture much outside the home. Nearly nine out of ten people lived on farms (80 percent of the workforce had farm-related jobs, 2 percent worked in factories, nearly 2 percent were in the noble class, and 1 percent were in the military), so few Russians gave much thought to the large, integrating forces that we today take for granted—things like nationwide transportation and communication networks and big conglomerates of manufacturing, mining, medicine, finance, and other such activities. Except for the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the economy began and ended at the grassroots level, for all intents and purposes. Stalin’s job was to build an entire national infrastructure almost from scratch—kind of like a real-estate developer putting up a brand-new, 100-unit apartment complex on a big open field.
America’s challenge under Barack Obama is more like a massive urban renewal or community development project—say, doing a complete overhaul of 100 leaky old mansions that need new appliances, furnaces, water heaters, windows, insulation, roofs, paint jobs, banisters, flooring, and so on. Until recently, the USA always had abundant resources, compelling it to evolve into a conveniently disposable society… simply use products, throw them away, and buy new ones. The new America, with dwindling resources, has to stop throwing away so much stuff and start recycling; has to give up gas-guzzling cars for hybrids and mass transit systems; has to replace wasteful old infrastructure components with efficient new ones; has to switch from an oil economy to sustainable energies… and so on. You get the picture! Rebuilding a wasteful growth economy into a thoughtful, sustainable economy is a much more imposing challenge than simply building a new economy from scratch! And the resistance is just as intense, though it comes from different sources.
Resistance from the Left, Resistance from the Right
Stalin’s fascist government was at the political right, and it was the Left Opposition that was doing most of the kicking and screaming. The massive changes that Stalin brought Russia a century ago could only materialize after overcoming stiff opposition from the provisional government first of all, and then from Leon Trotsky and other adversarial party members.
Obama is at the political left, and it’s America’s right-wing opposition that’s throwing tantrums to undermine Obama’s plans and policies. His first test—a bill to bring American healthcare up to modern standards—barely squeaked through the Senate, with unanimous, vicious opposition by right-wing adversaries. Even a couple of fellow Democrats had to be bribed to get the bill passed. And healthcare is just the first of many huge changes needed to drag the USA into this young century! So Obama’s big question now is, how to go about renovating America against such fierce opposition?
Overcoming the Resistance by Force or by Dialog
Stalin had a noted advantage over Obama in terms of expediency; he met the opposition with purges, exiles, assassinations, Siberian labor camps, and other brutal practices left over from Russia’s authoritarian history. Despite the many freedom-related disadvantages of autocratic government that we’re so familiar with today, there is that one advantage of dictatorship—its ability to implement quick decisions despite opposition. Even modern authoritarian countries have that expediency advantage over lumbering democracies like America. China’s recent decision to go green is an excellent example.
Obama, by contrast, holds liege over a democracy that requires a softer hand and exhaustive debate before big decisions can be made. He entered the Presidency hoping to foster dialog and collaboration with the political opposition, but that illusion quickly vanished during the opening play of the healthcare issue, when it became clear there’d be no collaboration of any kind by Republicans. So Obama relies on a fragile majority in the legislature 1) that has to approve his plans before they take effect, and 2) that’s populated largely by self-seeking politicians influenced largely by special interests whose undeclared motto is, “Damn the changes if they’re not profitable to us.” Will Obama be able to overcome the polarization obstacles and special interests inherent in democracy… in order to bring America into the 21st Century? The jury’s still out, so stay tuned….
And the most apparent difference…
Finally, Stalin maintained a head of thick, black hair through most of his career, whereas Obama’s already starting to go gray just a year into his Presidency. I suspect that trying to make big necessary changes to a democracy does that to a guy!