The Editors recently read in the papers that Fidel Castro is visiting China.
Now, normally, we don't have a whole lot of interest in Mr. Castro. In fact, if the truth be told, we figure El Fidel is about as relevant to modern life as a buggy whip, or his nemesis, Jesse Helms. The simple fact of the matter is that the man's an antique -- a tinpot Latin American dictator in an age of democratic reform. And he's a Marxist-Leninist. Just can't get much more collectible than that.
In fact, it strikes us, discovering Castro is rather like finding a live Velociraptor ... except, of course, as far as we can recall from the book and the movie, Jurassic Park was on an island off Costa Rica, not Miami.
(There's an interesting image in there, somewhere. Fidel. As a reptile in combat boots and fatigues .... with a cigar the size of a bus muffler. Sort of a revolutionary iguana.)
But, we're going to make an exception and actually think about the old chap today. The reason we're going to do so is that, according the papers, he's gone to the Mighty Maoists (those wonderful folks who brought you tanks in Tiananmen Square) in search of advice.
Specifically, he wants tips on how to run a country that is largely capitalist in economics, but Leninist in its political system -- that is to say, an authoritarian political structure in which power monopolized by a single party that is in turn dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite.
We've heard this sort of arrangement called "Merchant Leninism" by some scholars. And frankly, we find it fascinating ... if more than a little frightening ... because it is precisely this model which seems to be emerging as the preferred compromise with reality being adopted by modern Communism.
There aren't many Communist states left, of course, but those that are seem to be turning to this model as fast as their little ideological feet can move. China's gone that way. Vietnam's following. Rumania seems to be a Merchant Leninist state in everything but name. Several of the new Central Asian formerly Soviet republics seem to be set up that way. Serbia, and perhaps Croatia have signs of something similar -- which is fitting, really. It was their joint venture, Tito, who may have been the prefigured the whole movement.
North Korea and the Khmer Rouge haven't made the switch but they don't really count. They're not so much nations or movements as text book cases of mental illness. Sort of Hannibal Lector on the political level.
The Editors suppose that Merchant Leninism is better than what came before. That is, these regimes are bloody-minded and sometimes bloody-handed, and they are definitely anti- Democratic ... but they lack the capacity for sheer evil of, say, a Stalin, or a Hitler, or a Mao. That is, they are Authoritarian, but they are not quite (not quite!) Totalitarian.
Oh, yes, they can be quite dangerous. To the man standing in front of a firing squad, or the teenager facing the tank at Tiananmen, the distinction between Authoritarian brutality and Totalitarian seems a subtle one, indeed.
But there is a difference. The Merchant Leninist state will kill and imprison and exploit ... but it won't launch a genuine Holocaust. It won't unleash Red Guards. It won't induce a Cambodian-style Auto-genocide. It won't ... because it is in the business of maintaining its own power and privileges, which is another way of saying the Status Quo. It is now, you see, the Establishment. And social instability is Bad for Business.
Indeed, the thing which strikes us most forcefully about these regimes is how gracefully, and how very quickly, they have become the protectors of the very moneyed classes which they were set up to destroy. Indeed, its members are now thoroughly bourgeois. Factory owners tend to be the members of the reformed Communist Parties of Eastern Europe and Russia. And, as the very first of its reforms, China made its communes into private farms, and its agricultural officials into rich farmers. After laboring for decades to exterminate land lords and "land lordism," it recreated both in an afternoon.
Thus we have an interesting age shaping up. It will be a day in which many nations are ruled by Parties that keep the signs and symbols of a revolution, while zealously prompting an economic system that is not so much Libertarian as Victorian. It will be a Great Leap Backward to a nineteenth century economy of Robber Barons and Plutocrats, Trusts and Monopolies, Sweat Shops and Union Busting...
And the real irony of the situation is that we thus discover that natural heirs to Marx are not Mao and Che, but Franco and Pinochet. It wasn't the Vanguard Party of the Communist Workers which foreshadowed the future, or will inherit it, but rather Mexico's PRI and New York's Tammany Hall.
And this, of course, is all very distasteful and disturbing. But, it does at least suggest that maybe Castro has something to teach his Chinese hosts a thing or two as well.
After all, he knew Batista.
What is, you ask, a "Bang(!)Path"?
Gosh, it's depressing that you ask that question. We'll explain why in a minute. But, for the moment, we'll just say that the name is taken from the old form of addressing for Internet and BITnet email. In the old days, your email address would be liberally studded with exclamation points. When one of us was a writer at UNIXworld magazine, for instance, our address was uunet!uworld!ourname.
In the patois of the day, the exclamation points were called "bangs" and the address was called a "bang path." It was the stuff of many silly jokes that we will not reproduce here because so many more women and children and Congress people read the 'net these days.
That's what the term means. For no good reason, we're applying it to this section of the Explosive Cargo Magazine. And, basically, Bang(!)Path will be the place where we'll have an odd sort of writing. It'll be shorter than regular features, but longer than Brother Bacon's Squibs. Sometimes we'll write them. Other times you will. We've got one of you writing for us today, in fact, in the form of Carolyn Brown.
But, none of this explains why the term makes us sad.
It's like this: the other day we used the expression in conversation with a very talented programmer and Web wizard. He had never heard it. He was also 22.
We suddenly realized that we've been in the business for over a decade ... and that the spots at the temples aren't getting blonder at all. That color's called gray.
(c) Copyright 1996 by Michael Jay Tucker