Posted on October 29th, 2009 No comments
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl called for a resumption of nuclear testing. Such a step would be both unnecessary and a potentially disastrous threat to our national security.
I am no pacifist, and I favor maintaining a strong and credible nuclear deterrent. It is for that very reason that I oppose a resumption of nuclear testing. It would in no way strengthen us. Rather, it would promote nuclear proliferation and result in a weakening of the nuclear posture of the United States vis-à-vis its potential nuclear armed opponents.
Obviously, Senator Kyl has heard some of these arguments, but they somehow don’t seem to sink in. He notes in his article that, “There’s a related theory, which is that the U.S. has to ratify the CTBT if it wants to have any credibility or leadership on nonproliferation,” but then dismisses these arguments with the claim that, “Aside from the fact that countries will act in their best interest whether or not the U.S. ‘leads’ them, no one can legitimately question U.S. commitment on proliferation issues.” I, for one, would question the U.S. commitment on proliferation issues if we resumed testing, whether Kyl considered it legitimate or not, and I would hardly be alone in that conclusion. Beyond that, his assertion that other countries will act in their own best interests ignores the reality that the actions of the United States can have a substantial bearing on what those best interests happen to be, particularly in matters relating to nuclear proliferation. Take, for example, Iran. If she tests a nuclear device after her oft-repeated denial of any desire to do so, she will become an international pariah, and likely subject herself to severe economic sanctions. She will also provide moral backing to those in Israel and the United States who advocate an attack on her nuclear facilities, greatly increasing the chances that one will occur. However, if she tested a nuclear device after the United States had resumed testing its own weapons, she could and would portray it as a legitimate act that had been forced on her by the actions of her enemies. The idea that the path chosen by the United States would have “no bearing” on her national interests is absurd.
Kyl cites the danger that clandestine nuclear tests cannot be verified and other nations will be able to test on the sly. To “prove” this dubious assertion, he notes that monitoring systems “failed to collect necessary radioactive gases and particulates to prove that a test had occurred” following the latest test by North Korea. In fact, seismic devices did detect it, in spite of the fact that its estimated yield was only a few kilotons. I have heard no credible argument to the effect that major nuclear powers could substantially enhance the power of their arsenals vis-à-vis the United States with clandestine tests that had a significant chance of going undetected. If anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about cares to make such an argument, let them put their cards on the table.
The part of Kyl’s argument that is likely to carry the most weight is the contention that there are serious concerns about the aging and reliability of our arsenal. To bolster his argument, he cites the testimony of C. Paul Robinson, former Director of Sandia National Laboratories, before the House Armed Services Committee last year. In fact, this testimony is very interesting in its own right, and, among other things has a direct bearing on the issue of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which was promoted by the Bush Administration, but wisely rejected by Congress. It’s exactly what one might have expected to hear from a weaponeer at Los Alamos if one were transported back in time to the 1970’s or 80’s. In fact, that’s exactly what Robinson was at the time. In those days, the suggestion that a substantially new weapon could become part of the arsenal without previous testing would never have passed the “ho-ho” test.
Referring to his position on nuclear testing at the time that the Stockpile Stewardship program was first formulated in the early 90’s, Robinson said,
I will repeat only a few of the words that most of us with responsibilities for U.S. warheads said at the time—e.g. that “there is no precedent for such complex technological devices to be depended on unless they were periodically tested” and that “fielding of first-of-a-kind new devices without testing would be the most stressful challenge.”
Note the direct reference to a “first-of-a-kind” device here. The only such device anyone has seriously discussed building since the end of testing in 1992 is the RRW. Robinson goes on,
But in other areas we are just as uncertain today. My belief is that most weapons designers have less confidence about making changes to their designs than they had in the past. I particularly found the recent colloquy between the JASON group and the lab designers most curious —as they each speculated over the difficulties of fielding designs under the contemplated Reliable Replacement Weapon (RRW) effort. Although you will doubtless find a spectrum of views at the labs, my take is that uncertainties will necessarily (and quite naturally) grow over time for several of our systems.
Here again, although he speaks of other systems in general, Robinson specifically refers to the RRW as a system that it will be particularly problematic to introduce to the arsenal without testing. It is the only one he could be referring to when he cites the concerns of weapons designers about “making changes to their designs.” In spite of this, after an interesting bit on the genesis of the RRW concept, Robinson makes a remarkable intellectual double back flip a few sentences later:
After some discussion, the key idea of the RRW then emerged —that if we incorporated designs of “different genetic diversity” in each leg of the TRIAD, there would be a much lowered likelihood that all would fail at the same time from a common problem. Yet from what I’ve read, the Congressional support for the idea has been less than lukewarm —as evidenced by your canceling of the RRW funding, with some suggesting that the labs might be trying to “create new designs that would necessitate underground testing” in order to field the RRW. I assure you that this suggestion is just not true. RRW was conceived to lessen the likelihood that testing would be needed. At the very least I must conclude that “there has been a significant failure to communicate”, and I believe we must not let such misunderstandings perpetuate, when there is so much at stake.
This remarkable juxtaposition of the contradictory assertions that 1) new designs must be tested, but 2) the RRW will reduce the need for testing, is difficult to explain as other than a variant of Orwellian “doublethink” inspired by the need to stay “on message” on both the need to build the RRW and the necessity of resuming testing. In other words, Robinson and some of his fellow weaponeers at the National Labs want to have their cake and eat it too.
As is abundantly clear from Kyl’s article, there is no lack of people, both inside and outside the weapons labs, who want to resume nuclear testing. Trust me, if the RRW is built, it will result in a ratcheting up of the pressure to do so many fold. This is one of those rare instances when Congress actually got it right. Let’s forget about the RRW.
What, then, of the general assertion that testing is required because “concerns about aging and reliability have only grown?” In fact, if we stop hankering after the RRW and devote our attention to maintaining the weapons we already have, there is no credible reason to believe that they will not work as advertised. Let those who would maintain otherwise drop their vague assertions, put their cards on the table, and explain exactly what failure modes they are referring to. The weapons in our arsenal are robust, and any opponent who assumed otherwise would be making a very disastrous mistake.
Assuming, then, that we can really dismiss the negative political effects of resuming nuclear testing as Senator Kyl does with a cavalier wave of the hand, what would be the advantages of doing so? Surely, if we took the lead, the other nuclear powers would resume testing as well. The science of nuclear weapons has reached a high level of maturity in both the United States and Russia. It is much more likely that a resumption of testing will enable countries that have joined the nuclear club more recently to substantially improve their weapons designs than it will countries that have already developed highly sophisticated weapons. At the same time, it will negate the vast advantage we currently hold in possessing by far the most capable experimental facilities for validating nuclear weapons physics of any nation on earth. The experimental assets represented by Z facility at Sandia, the National Ignition Facility at Livermore, and a host of others give us a major leg up over the rest of the world in approaching the conditions that exist in nuclear weapons and investigating the relevant physics. When combined with our superiority in supercomputing power, they insure us a decisive advantage that it would be positively foolhardy for us to cast away with a resumption of testing.
Why then, the persistent pressure to resume testing? Once can only speculate. In Senator Kyl’s case, perhaps the increasing unsuitability of the Nevada Test Site as Las Vegas continues to sprawl in its direction may play a role. There are attractive alternative sites in his own state of Arizona that could potentially create many new jobs. As for the weapons designers, their lives were a lot more interesting during the era of nuclear testing. I suspect many of them would prefer a return to those “golden days of yesteryear” to their current role as custodians of an aging stockpile. These, however, are considerations that should not and cannot be allowed to play any role in our decision to resume testing or not.
Our weapons are reliable, and can be maintained with confidence. Let us preserve our advantage, and refrain from foolishly throwing it away with a resumption of nuclear testing.
Posted on October 28th, 2009 No comments
Posted on October 28th, 2009 No comments
Hattip to Harry’s Place, where the title; “The prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving,” says it all. The “also ran” referred to is Irene Sendler, who volunteered for a job in the Warsaw Ghetto and, according to Harry, “…managed to smuggle out and save 2500 kids/infants. She was caught, and the Nazi’s broke both her legs, arms and beat her severely.” I suspect she was able to sleep at night better than the five Norwegian judges who gave the nod to Al Gore. The gratitude of those she saved is surely a greater honor than their tarnished prize.
Posted on October 27th, 2009 No comments
When generals in a democracy say “we are losing the war,” it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether true or not, such pronouncements inevitably become powerful psychological weapons in the hands of our enemies, and are thus better left unsaid, at least in public. Our military caste somehow manages to remain ignorant of such elementary aspects of modern asymmetric warfare. At the highest levels, our system tends to produce military commanders who are highly competent in doing what they’ve been trained to do, but lack the imagination and originality necessary to deal with the unexpected. Occasionally, genius is indispensable, but one would search in vain for a Napoleon or an Alexander among our generals. Instead, we produce Westmorelands and McChrystals. As the comment above would seem to demonstrate, we also produce political imbeciles who have somehow concluded that we can turn the situation around by throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of defeatism.
The result is as inevitable as it was predictable. One detects an increasing stench of defeatism in the media, not only from its usual sources on the left, but from the right as well. For example, today CNN treats us to the umpteen billionth “ghost of Vietnam” story to appear since our troops went into combat. No doubt they’re preening themselves on their originality. USA Today joins the crowd in reporting on the resignation of Matthew Hoh from the State Department, with the usual highlighting of such weepy remarks as “”I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Great job, Matthew! That’s bound to get us back on the right track. ABC News chimes in with more judiciously chosen quotes from Hoh’s letter, such as, “To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war,” Ah, yes, the “civil war” meme. That old chestnut is sure to please traditionalists. Look at the web pages of the Wall Street Journal, Foxnews, the Washington Times, etc., and you’ll find the same stories spun in almost the same way. Apparently defeat in Afghanistan is as palatable to the right as it is to the left if only it discredits Obama.
Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was unmoved by the ebb and flow of defeatist propaganda during his administration. He really did “stay the course,” in spite of the derisive remarks of the usual know-it-alls. As a result, the Iraqi people have at least a fighting chance of avoiding a slide back into dictatorship or theocracy. He was no philosopher king, but at least he was made of sterner stuff than Obama. The President appears more inclined to apologize to our enemies than fight them, and he is likely casting about for some graceful way to skedaddle in Afghanistan even as we speak. The increasingly shrill tone of defeatist propaganda will make it easier for him.
Well, what of it? As noted above, these developments were abundantly predictable and, given the limitations of our military leadership, probably inevitable. Is there a lesson here? Not really, other than the one that we should have learned a long time ago; modern democracies are anything but steadfast in fighting determined insurgents, particularly if their populations are as fickle and spineless as the current citizens of the United States. If we send in the troops, we should do so only with a well considered plan to get them back out again, and that with alacrity, before the famously insubstantial national backbone once again turns to jelly. In retrospect, the remarks of our much abused former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sound remarkably prescient. For example, from a speech delivered in February, 2003:
Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. The objective is not to engage in what some call nation building. Rather it’s to try to help the Afghans so that they can build their own nation. This is an important distinction. In some nation building exercises well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems and say let’s fix it. This is well motivated to be sure, but it can really be a disservice in some instances because when foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, if not very careful they can create a dependency.
A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. This has happened in several places with large foreign presence. The economies remained unreformed and distorted to some extent. Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants. Despite good intentions and the fine work of humanitarian workers individually, there can be unintended adverse side effects.
Our goal in Afghanistan is to try and not create a culture of dependence but rather to promote [inaudible]. Long-term stability comes not from the presence of foreign forces but from the development of functioning local institutions. That’s why in the area of security we have been helping to train for example the Afghan National Army. Our coalition partners have been training the police. And the goal is so that Afghans over time can take full responsibility for their own security and stability rather than having to depend on foreign forces versus for a sustained period.
When Rumsfeld was in office, an abundance of geniuses appeared who assured us they knew how to do his job much better than he did. In retrospect, we probably should have ignored the geniuses and paid more attention to him. The next time we feel the yen to embark on another military adventure, we should reflect on the fact that some of the biggest cheerleaders for such projects in the recent past became hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists a disconcertingly short time after the troops were actually on the ground. We will surely have an abundance of such heroes to “help” us the next time around as well. Before we commit our forces to another ill-considered war, we’d do well to recall that there are legions of Matthew Hohs in our midst, useful idiots who are adept at persuading themselves that collaboration with the enemy is both a noble moral good and a patriotic duty. They will always be with us, and they will always make the cost of victory higher the longer our troops are engaged.
UPDATE: I take it from John McCain’s cry in the dark that he has also noticed that the water is up to our chin and climbing. Of course, he’s right. We can win in Afghanistan. The enemy is much less formidable than he was in Vietnam. It’s a matter of national will. In fact, that’s just the problem.
Posted on October 24th, 2009 4 comments
Instapundit links some excellent articles about the imbecilities of “progressive” sages concerning the supposed “stability” of Communist regimes in the years immediately prior to the time that most of them collapsed, and their continuing attempts to revise history so as to present Stalin at his most charming. We at least have the consolation of knowing that the remaining representatives of the “New Left” of the 60′s who are still busily decorating the corpse of Communism with pretty ribbons are rapidly aging. Although it is unlikely it will ever dawn on them that more than 700,000 admitted executions of the Soviet secret police, not to mention the deaths of milllions of others in the Gulag, were not actually necessary and just means of promoting social justice, at least they will eventually have the good sense to die. While they are at it, let us take care to make sure all the relevant source material is preserved.
Posted on October 24th, 2009 No comments
A lot of what passes for political discussion these days amounts to pointing out the moral flaws in one’s opponent, often referred to as demonization. This is typically done by people who would be dumbfounded if asked to explain the rational basis for their claims to superior virtue. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg, has no problem with this, pointing to our long history of political incivility. He reminds me of Cunegunde in Voltaire’s “Candide,” who was ashamed that she resisted being raped and mutilated by the soldiers of an invading army after it was explained to her that it was, after all, a mere matter of tradition.
All Goldberg is really saying is that we have a long habit of striking Pharisaical poses and expounding on the inferior virtue and moral turpitude of our enemies. That does not make it right or useful. There are good habits and bad habits. This is a bad habit. Perhaps it’s best to look at it from a practical point of view. It’s emotionally satisfying to feel holier than the other guy, but it doesn’t really inform him, or anyone else, for that matter. When I read or hear someone declaiming on someone elses immoralities, I reflect that there are probably very few people in the world who deliberately and consciously go around doing things they know are evil, and, taking one moralistic poseur with another, the chances are vanishingly small that the person doing the ranting has a clue about why what he thinks is good is really good and what he thinks is bad is really bad. I then shrug my shoulders and move on.
I am far from believing that I will solve such a pervasive and persistent problem with an appeal to our better natures. However, I point out to the happy few who are more interested in approaching the truth than reinforcing the walls of the ideological boxes they live in that it is impossible to do so without listening to and considering opposing points of view. Moreover, ones own point of view is considerably more coherent and persuasive when presented in temperate language. It happens that I am far from perfect in this respect. However, I will make an effort to take my own good advice, and at least respond with civility if I am approached with civility. I hope others will do so as well.
As noted in the Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve unveiled Thursday a set of curbs and rules for executive compensation at banks, marking a watershed moment for government intervention in the private sector.” As one might expect, the right is spinning the pay curbs as an assault on free markets and capitalism, and the left as a long overdue step to end the looting of corporate America by CEO’s in collusion with the Boards of Directors who decide their compensation.
Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of how the system currently works, and a more detailed, albeit somewhat dated, scholarly paper on the subject may be found here. I tend to lean to the left on this one, and am more or less in agreement with Mark Green’s take at Huffpo. In short, I suspect the claim that CEO compensation decisions are comparable to those for other highly paid individuals such as the top tier in major league sports, movie stars, pop singers, etc., is poppycock. I have little faith in the integrity of the system, and suspect that, in effect; CEO’s are not only cutting the cake, but are deciding who will get the first piece. I do not agree that such legitimized thievery is an essential aspect of free market capitalism.
According to the arguments on the right, summarized, for example, here and here, the Administration’s attempt to regulate executive pay won’t work. We are told that the services of these highly talented individuals are in great demand, and, if we refuse to cross their palms with silver, they’ll simply jump ship and move to more lucrative posts, or, according to a rather more fanciful argument, will start successful new private businesses of their own. To all this I can only say, I doubt it. I suspect people are standing in line to take these jobs, and that many of those in the line are not only more capable than the current incumbents, but are also willing to work for a much more reasonable level of compensation. Who is right? We are in the process of conducting an experiment to find out.
The right has made some very specific predictions about what will happen if the Administration follows through on its policies. I propose that we carefully monitor the future careers of the executives affected by the cuts. If they actually do “go Galt,” and no comparable talents can be found to replace them, I will cheerfully eat crow. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the services of these individuals were not really as critical or as indispensible as advertised, and the dire degradations in the performance of management at the affected firms predicted by the right fail to materialize, then perhaps they might consider adjusting their paradigm of what constitutes “free market capitalism” accordingly.
In general, I avoid histories written by journalists. They are usually bowdlerized accounts in which the facts are pruned to fit a narrative portrayed in black and white. Great care is usually taken to describe individuals in a way that can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader about whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” is no different in this regard. Here, for example, are typical descriptions of Communist party officials;
Kunayev unfolded himself from the backseat. He was enormous, silver-haired, and dressed in a chalk-striped suit. He wore dark glasses and carried the sort of walking stick that gave Mobuto his authority. He had a fantastic smile, all bravado and condescension, the smile of a king.
…the most flamboyand mafia figure in the country was Akhmadzhan Adylov, a “Hero of Socialist Labor” who ran for twenty years the Party organization in the rich Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. Adylov was known as the Godfather and lived on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men… He locked his foes in a secret underground prison and tortured them when necessary. His favorite technique was borrowed from the Nazis. In subzero temperatures, he would tie a man to a stake and spray him with cold water until he froze to death.
Perm-35 was a tiny place, five hundred yards square, a few barracks, guard towers and razor wire everywhere. Osin (who ran the camp) was there to greet us, and he was much a Shcharansky had described him, enormously fat with dull, pitiless eyes… Osin had a broad desk and a well-padded armchair, and he affected the pose of a contented chief executive officer… He was, to use the Stalinist accolade, an exemplary “cog in the wheel.” He did what he was told, “and all the prisoners were the same to me.” Equal under lawlessness.
You get the idea. Nevertheless, “Lenin’s Tomb” is an exception to the rule. It is well worth reading. Remnick was an eyewitness to events in the years leading up to and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also an excellent reporter who went out and “got the story,” seeking out and talking to people all over the country in all walks of life. Beyond that, he had a profound knowledge of Russian history in general and the history of the Soviet Union in particular that gave him an exceptional ability to portray events and individuals in their historical context. As a result, the collection of vignettes he has captured for us in “Lenin’s Tomb” provides rare insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse, and the sort of thoughts that were going through people’s minds in all walks of life. In the process it sheds a great deal of light on a stunning and unprecedented historical event, the magnitude and implications of which we are still far from grasping. I recommend it to anyone who suspects that the sudden demise of the Bolshevik’s great experiment was not entirely explainable as the inevitable effect of Reagan’s increase in defense spending.
Today I visited the home pages of CNN, USAToday, ABC, AP, CBS, and MSNBC and, as I have done for the last several days, searched for the word “Fox.” The result hasn’t changed. No such word was found. Apparently the editors have decided that the American people should be kept in ignorance of the fact that the White House has launched an effort to delegitimize one of the nation’s major news organizations. Not long ago they also decided that it was in the interests of the American people to remain unaware of the controversial remarks of the likes of prominent White House appointees Van Jones, Cass Sunstein, and Anita Dunn. One can spin these stories any number of different ways. One cannot, however, claim that they are insignificant, or at least not while claiming to be sane at the same time.
How are we to understand this studied indifference to stories of such significance? To all appearances, the legacy media have gone beyond the organizational bias we have long been familiar with and are now starting to show symptoms of becoming, in effect, organs of the current Administration. Perhaps it is best understood as a transient phenomenon, likely to disappear as soon as the legacy media gets over its infatuation with Obama. It is worrisome nonetheless. I, for one, would prefer to live in a world in which such gatekeepers do not control my access to information. For that reason, I will do what I can to defend the independence and freedom from state coercion of alternative voices such as Fox, not to mention talk radio and those on both the left and the right in the blogosphere who have not yet been “Gleichgeschaltet” to conform to the official narrative.
Posted on October 14th, 2009 1 comment
The intellectual demolition of Communism was hardly the work of an individual, but even compared to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, George Orwell was probably its most lethal foe. His “1984” and “Animal Farm” revealed the hideous reality of the beast behind the ideological mask, and it never really recovered from the blow. In the intervening years, Orwell the human being has been transmogrified into Orwell the intellectual icon. In the same way that the reality of Thomas Jefferson the deist has been “modified” to reveal Thomas Jefferson, defender of Christianity, so too has the reality of Orwell the democratic socialist been “modified” to reveal Orwell the defender of capitalism. He was anything but that.
To those interested in seeing the real man through the intellectual fog, I recommend “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell’s account of his experiences on and off the front in the Spanish Civil War. He was well into his 30’s when he arrived in Spain, and I doubt that his fundamental world view changed much after he left. He was by no means a fanatical ideologue. In fact, he said that the political side of the war bored him. His perception of the events that marked the conflict certainly altered both during and after the conflict. Nevertheless, he stood to the left, not to the right of the Communists in Spain. He saw them as pawns of the Soviet Union, and their policy as subordinated completely to the need to defend the U.S.S.R. As Orwell put it,
The whole process is easy to understand if one remembers that it proceeds from the temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker. This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other. The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation – and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding – is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right… In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.
And who were the real revolutionary leaders? Orwell happened to arrive at a place and time during the conflict where the revolutionary upsurge following the shock of Franco’s coup d’état had reached its peak. He came to Aragon and Catalonia, where, led by the anarchists and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification or POUM, from its Spanish acronym, the workers were in the saddle, the local economy had been collectivized, and an extreme spirit of equality prevailed. As a democratic socialist, Orwell found this state of affairs highly attractive. As he put it,
I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist… However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality… But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all… And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.
How could such a man have become the hammer that dealt such a mortal blow to Communism? It’s easy enough to understand for anyone who reads this short book. There were two fairly well defined party lines prevailing in Spain at the time Orwell arrived. The POUM and anarchists insisted that the revolution must continue unabated or the war would be meaningless. However, orthodox Communists, represented in Orwell’s area by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, or PSUC, insisted that it was essential to win the war at all costs. To achieve victory, revolutionary hubris must be sacrificed to political reality. “Reality” included accepting a return to bourgeois control, centralized government, and a militarized army in place of the party militias prevailing at the time. Initially, Orwell preferred this point of view. Later, he came to reject it. As time went on, the dispute became increasingly bitter.
Orwell had come to Spain with a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party, which was associated with the POUM. As a result, he joined and went to the front with a POUM militia. At first, he was irritated by their “ceaseless carping against the ‘counter-revolutionary’ PSUC,” which struck him as, “priggish and tiresome.” Later, as he put it, “I realized that the POUM were almost blameless compared with their adversaries.”
At the front, Orwell witnessed the heroism of POUM fighters, some of them mere children of 15, in their battle against the fascists. There was no question in his mind about the integrity of their revolutionary ideals. However, when they returned to Barcelona after months of privation in unspeakably primitive conditions, the Communists treated them to anything but a heroes’ welcome. Quite the contrary. In Orwell’s words,
Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgment but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column.” This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy… It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise… One of the dreariest effects of this was has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.
Here, then, one finds the source of Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism and orthodox Communism. He rejected them, not because he preferred Capitalism, but because, as a convinced Socialist, he found the Stalinists devious, power-hungry, and essentially counter-revolutionary. In Spain, he was confronted with their betrayal. It was a betrayal, not of Capitalism, but of the workers power. Thanks to them, “the process of collectivization was checked, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces (for Orwell, the natural enemies of the workers), largely reinforced and very heavily armed, were restored, and… finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias (in which Orwell had fought), based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differential pay rate, a privileged officer-caste, etc. etc.” As a result of Communist activity, Orwell noted that, “A general ‘bourgeoisification,’ a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place… What had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor.”
When Orwell, a man who had suffered and risked his life in defense of that workers’ State, was denounced as a “traitor, fifth columnist, and fascist,” by the very Party that he saw dismantling the revolution before his eyes, that betrayal inspired the intellectual deconstruction of the Stalinist state that occupied much of his remaining life and culminated in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”
The fact that Orwell, like so many of his fellow intellectuals during the era of the Great Depression, was a democratic socialist, and launched his blows at Communism, not from the right, but from the left, is not as surprising as it might seem in retrospect. Many of Communisms most effective foes were similar to him in that respect, at least at some point in their lives. Often, like Orwell, they had witnessed the contrast between the ideal and the reality firsthand. See, for example, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, and “Child of the Revolution” by Wolfgang Leonhard. Another interesting and entertaining if lesser known example of the genre is “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin. Thinkers long before the time of Marx had predicted the eventual demise of the socialist ideal because, unlike conventional religions, which promise paradise in the world to come, it promised paradise on earth, where the disconnect between the reality and the ideal would finally become too obvious to overlook. Orwell and his peers were the messengers who finally revealed the man behind the curtain. We owe them much, and their relevance hasn’t ended with the demise of Communism. Eventually, another messianic ideology will arise to take its place.