Posted on March 2nd, 2014 No comments
The notion that the suite of behavioral traits we associate with morality is dual in nature goes back at least a century. It was first formalized back in the 40′s by Sir Arthur Keith, who wrote,
Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.
Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior. At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.
Robert Ardrey combined the two words and gave them a Freudian twist to come up with a term for the phenomenon. Writing during the heyday of the Blank Slate, long before Sociobiology was even a twinkle in E. O. Wilson’s eye, he called it the Amity/Enmity Complex. The truth that it exists is highly corrosive to utopian schemes for “human flourishing” of all stripes, from Communism to the more up-to-date versions favored by the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene. As a result, it is also a truth that has been furiously resisted, obvious explanation though it is for the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history as well as such phenomena as racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, etc., all of which are really just different varieties of outgroup identification.
The current situation in Ukraine, dangerous though it is, presents us with a splendid laboratory for studying the Complex. The underlying manifestation is, of course, nationalism, a form of ingroup identification that has been a thorn in our collective sides since the French Revolution. It was the inspiration for the panacea of “national self-determination” after World War I, based on the disastrously flawed assumption that nice, clean national boundaries could be drawn that would all enclose so many pristine, pure ethnic states. In reality, no such pristine territories existed, and “national self-determination” became a vehicle for the persecution of ethnic minorities all over Europe. Human nature hasn’t changed, and it continues to function in the same way today. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian majority ingroup quickly began acting like one. A Jewish community center and synagogue were firebombed. The new rump parliament almost immediately voted to eliminate Russian as an official language, relegating Russian speakers to the status of second class citizens.
Such high-handed actions were virtually ignored in western Europe and the United States, where the collective memory of the Russians as outgroup, still strong more than two decades after the fall of Communism, insured that the Ukrainian nationalists would be perceived as the “good guys.” Oblivious to the fact that they had quite recently established a precedent by collaborating in the chopping off of a piece of Serbia and handing it to an ethnic minority, and ignoring such theoretical niceties as the claim that, if the Ukrainian majority in the west of the country had a right to vote itself special rights in the west of the country, the Russian majority in the east of the country must have similar rights in their territories, they began a war of words against the Russians, claiming that their occupation of the Crimea and protection of the Russian majority there was unheard of.
In a word, there is nothing rational about what is going on in Ukraine unless one takes into account the behavioral idiosyncrasies of our species that predispose us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups. Such manifestations are hardly unique to Ukraine,. Just look around on the Internet a little. It’s full of a bewildering array of ideological, religious, ethnic, and political ingroups, all busily engaged in cementing “amity” within the group, and all with comment sections full of “enmity” directed at their respective outgroups in the form of furious anathemas and denunciations.
The “Complex” is inseparable from human moral behavior. No morality will ever exist that doesn’t come complete with its own outgroup. Think we can “expand our consciousness” until our ingroup includes all mankind? Dream on! The “other” will always be there. The “Complex” is the main reason that puttering away at new moralities is so dangerous. No matter how idealistic their intentions, the outgroup will always remain. We saw how that worked in the 20th century, with the annihilations of millions in the Jewish outgroup of the Nazis, and millions more in the “bourgeois” outgroup of the Communists. Before we start playing with fire again, it would probably behoove us to finally recognize the ways in which it can burn us.
Posted on December 1st, 2013 2 comments
Morality exits because of evolved behavioral traits. They are its ultimate cause. Without them, morality as we know it, in all of its various complex manifestations would cease to exist. Without them, the subjective perception in the brains of individuals of such things as good, evil, and rights would disappear as well. We perceive all of these as objects, as independent things-in-themselves, because individuals who perceived them in that way were more likely to survive and reproduce. However, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, a fact that has led to endless confusion in creatures such as ourselves, who are capable of reasoning about these nonexistent objects that seem so real.
It follows that, in spite of the legions of philosophers over the centuries who have presumed to enlighten us about the objective “should,” such an entity is as imaginary as unicorns. There is no objective reason why individuals “should” do anything in order to embrace good and reject evil, because good and evil are not objects. The same applies to the State. From a moral point of view (and it can be assumed in what follows that I am speaking of that point of view when I use the term “should”), there is no objective reason why the State should act one way in order to be good, or should not act another way in order to avoid evil. When an individual says that the state should do one thing, and not another, (s)he is simply expressing a personal desire. That, of course, applies to my own point of view. When I speak of what the State should or should not do, I am merely expressing a personal opinion, based on my own conjecture about the kind of state I would like to live in.
In the first place, we can say that there is no essential connection between the modern State and morality, because no such entity as the modern State existed during the time over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved. However, a State that does not take morality into account is unlikely to be effective at achieving the goals its citizens have set for it, because it is the nature of those citizens to be influenced by moral predispositions. If a sufficient number of them perceive that the State is acting immorally, or violating what seem to them to be their rights, they may resist its laws, or rebel.
If the State is to act “morally,” does it follow that there should be an establishment of religion, whether of the spiritual or the secular variety? Based on the empirical evidence of our history, and what I know of human behavior, it seems to me that it does not. The value to the state of an established moral system lies in the potential of welding all its citizens into a single ingroup. It seems plausible that a single ingroup would be more effective at achieving the common goals of a State’s citizens then a collection distinct ingroups, each of which might perceive one or more of the others as outgroups. In such cases the expression of hatred and hostility towards the outgroup(s) would likely be disruptive.
Unfortunately, established moral systems throughout history have all tended to be unstable and counterproductive. From the time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire until the final fall of its Byzantine remnant, there was constant strife between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians, iconodules and iconoclasts, those who accepted the Three Chapters and those who condemned them, etc. Later attempts to preserve single ingroup orthodoxy spawned the massacre of the Albigensians, the long decades of the Hussite wars, the century of intermittent warfare between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, and many another bloody chapter in human history. Established religions became instruments of exploitation in the hands of the powerful, resulting in the bloody reprisals of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc. A problem with established religions has always been that people cannot change deeply held beliefs at will, and they resent being forced to pretend they believe things when they don’t. Typically, force is necessary to suppress that resentment, as we have seen in modern Iran. The “right” of Freedom of Religion” is basically a recognition of these drawbacks.
The more recent secular religions have fared no better. The two most familiar examples of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism, for example, both found it necessary to brutally suppress any opposition. The “great rewards” of such religions, whether in the form of a utopian classless society or a Teutonic golden age, are worldly rather than in the great beyond, and eventually become noticeable by their absence. All moral systems have outgroups as well as ingroups and, in the case of the secular religions, these also tend to be worldly rather than spiritual. In the case of the Communists and the Nazis, this led to the mass slaughter of the “bourgeoisie” and the Jews, respectively, robbing the State of many citizens, who often happened to be among the most intelligent and productive. It would seem that these two dire examples would be enough in themselves to deter us from any further experiments along similar lines. Remarkably, however, as those who have read the books of the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene are aware, we continue to cobble away on new “scientific” versions, seemingly oblivious to the outcomes of our past attempts.
As an anodyne to all these problems, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to limit the power of the State by establishing Rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. While these Rights are not things-in-themselves, they are perceived as such. Though they are merely subjective constructs, they can still acquire legitimacy if they are generally accepted and hallowed by tradition. Democracy was held forth as the proper vehicle for promoting these rights and guarding against the abuse of power by autocratic rulers. As implemented, modern democracies have hardly been perfect, but have been more stable than autocratic forms of government, and have often, although not invariably, survived such challenges as hard economic times and war. However, their drawbacks are also clearly visible. For example, recently they have been powerless to resist the massive influx of culturally alien populations that are far more likely to be a source of future civil strife if not worse than to be of any long term benefit to the existing citizens whose welfare these democratic states are supposed to be protecting. They benefit elites as a source of votes and cheap labor, but are likely to be harmful to society as a whole in the long term. In short, the jury is still out as to whether the post-Enlightenment democracies will eventually be perceived as Good or Evil.
It is not clear what if any alternative system might actually be better than democracy. The Chinese oligarchy has certainly had remarkable success in expanding the economic and military power of that country. However, its legitimacy is based on its supposed representation of the bankrupt, foreign ideology of Marxism. In spite of that, in a traditionalist country like China it may hold onto ”the mandate of heaven” for a long time in spite of the glaring contradictions between its supposed ideology and its practice.
In general, “virtuous” states – those free of corruption, that do not cheat or steal from their citizens, and that are effective in enforcing laws that are perceived as just - are more effective at promoting the common weal than their opposites. Heraclitus’ dictum that ”character is destiny” likely applies to states as well as individuals. I personally think that states are far more likely to be “virtuous” in that sense if their powers are carefully circumscribed and limited. Whenever new moral systems are implemented, “scientific” or otherwise, those limits tend to be dissolved. When it comes to the State, it is probably better to think in terms of “Thou shalt not” than in terms of “Thou shalt.” Two that come to mind include Thou shalt not kill (except, as Voltaire suggested, in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets), and Thou shalt not torture.
Posted on August 27th, 2013 No comments
While strolling through the local Barnes and Noble the other day, I decided to see what I could find on the shelves by Solzhenitsyn. There were two thin copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. That’s it! No Cancer Ward, no The First Circle, and, most depressing of all, no copies of The Gulag Archipelago. So much for the work chosen by Time Magazine as the “best non-fiction book of the 20th century.” If it were up to me, a copy would be in every hotel room along with the Bible. Communism was the greatest secular religion of all time. It came complete with its own “scientific” morality, and when it had finished eradicating “evil” in the world in order to clear the way for “good,” it had claimed 10′s of millions of victims, shot, tortured, and starved to death under conditions of almost inconceivable brutality. Solzhenitsyn was an eyewitness, and Gulag records the accounts of many others.
It would seem, assuming we place any value on our own survival, that every one of us should know something about these events, including historical background, and have more than a vague idea of what happened to some of the individual victims. Millions of those victims, typically including the most intelligent and productive members of the societies in which these events occurred, were murdered in the death cellars and camps, all within living memory and in a relatively short space of time, by the zealots of a religion whose God was a future utopia here on earth rather than a superman in the sky. It is hardly out of the question that something similar could happen again. Assuming we want to avert that possibility, would it not be useful to understand how it happened in the past?
Instead of taking heed and learning from the past when it comes to Communism we seem to be afflicted with a remarkable level of historical myopia. It’s as if we just wanted to forget the whole subject. Why? Our children are drenched with victimology in our schools and universities, learning versions of history that are often one-sided and distorted. Somehow the Communists are off limits as victimizers. Human morality works in wondrous ways.
I suspect one of the reasons for the blind spot when it comes to Communism is the fact that too many connections still exist to people who collaborated in the crime. For example, Hollywood cheerfully promoted the new faith in the 30′s in spite of the fact that the crimes Solzhenitsyn chronicled were already happening in plain sight. The notion that Communism in Hollywood was just a myth concocted in the fevered imaginations of delusional latter day John Birchers is nonsense. Many stars, directors and writers made no secret of the Communist connections, but were perfectly open about their promotion of the “great cause.” Their support was a matter of pride, not some guilty secret. Thumb through the copies of The American Mercury for, say, 1939 and 1940, if you seriously believe the whole episode was just a McCarthyite fairy tale. Today we are expected to wring our hands over the fates of those who ended up on the blacklist, suffering damage to their precious careers, but ignore the victims, many thousands of times greater in number, who were arrested and murdered to fill some apparatchik’s quota of bodies while these same stooges cheered on their murderers.
The identity of history’s ”victims” is entirely dependent on who is telling the story. We gain some insight into the political complexion of the story tellers from Malcolm Muggeridge in his book, The Thirties, where he writes that, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at its end it was hard to find one who wasn’t. Of course, British intellectuals prided themselves on being way ahead of their dense American cousins in that regard. Fellow travelers were hardly a rarity in many other professions, and they made no secret of their political affinities. They were reliable shills for Stalin, keeping a perfectly straight face during the Great Purge Trials, and swallowing any propaganda he saw fit to feed them, no matter how absurd. Stalin was gone in the 60′s and 70′s, but the intellectual descendants of his earlier apologists were still there, loudly cheering the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. Many of them are still around. Obviously, it is more pleasing for them to pose as the saviors of other victims than to dredge up inconvenient truths about the ones they helped to bury.
The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading for every student in every public high school in the country. If it were necessary for them to learn about the millions who were shot in the back of the head, or had their teeth knocked out and their genitals crushed in brutal interrogations, or were slowly starved or frozen to death in the squalid islands of the Archipelago, perhaps there might be some slight reduction in the chances that they and their children will suffer a similar fate. It’s not likely to happen, though. Instead, if the data point of my local Barnes and Noble is in any way representative, “the best non-fiction book of the 20th century” is being gradually forgotten. Victims are all the rage; just not the victims of Communism, by far the largest and most savagely brutalized class of victims in human history. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. As Stalin so astutely pointed out, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
Posted on August 25th, 2013 No comments
The set of innate human behavioral traits we associate with morality did not evolve in order to eventually promote and uphold ideological utopias. However, they did evolve to promote a dual system of moral behavior, in which one set of rules applies to the ingroup and another to the outgroup. Murder, for example, which is usually severely punished if the victim belongs to the ingroup, has on occasion been treated with indifference and even encouraged if he belongs to an outgroup. Knowledge of the distinguishing traits of ingroups and outgroups are acquired by experience and culture. Such traits often include ideologies, of both the religious and secular types. Thus, to cite a familiar example, while support or contempt for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other shibboleths of Marxism played no role in the evolution of moral behavior, they are quite capable of serving as ingroup/outgroup markers.
For example, as I write this, the liberal/conservative divide in the US is a major variant of ingroup/outgroup identification. That’s why one runs across terms like ”polarization” in the news so often. Read the comment section of any political blog, and you’ll quickly see that liberals and conservatives often don’t see their opponents as fellow citizens who happen to disagree with them, but as enemies, members of an outgroup complete with all the negative qualities commonly associated with outgroups. They are not only wrong, but morally evil.
Mankind has often paid a heavy price for failing to understand this fundamental aspect of our moral nature. Communism and Nazism were both highly successful ideological ingroups, in essence, secular religions, and both were also highly moralistic. Both fought against “evil,” in the form of an outgroup. For the Communists, the outgroup was the bourgeoisie, and for the Nazis, the Jews. In the course of a few decades, these two powerful and charismatic secular religions had murdered tens of millions of men, women and children in the name of ridding the world of the “evil” supposedly embodied in these two groups. The process continues today. Old outgroups are exchanged for new ones, often strikingly similar to the ones they replaced. For example, instead of bourgeoisie, we now have “the one percent.” Instead of Jews, we now have “Zionists.” The only difference in that respect between this century and the last is that the 21st century hasn’t yet spawned a new, charismatic ideology anywhere near as “successful” as Nazism and Communism to fill the vacuum left by their demise. Unless we learn to understand and control this aspect of our moral nature, the appearance of new ones is just a matter of time.
The outgroup have ye always with you. It represents a fundamental human need. If one doesn’t happen to be handy, it will be invented. Hence the chimerical nature of schemes to unite all mankind into one big ingroup, a gigantic mutual admiration society. As E. O. Wilson put it referring to a different ideology, “Great theory, wrong species.”
Morality, we are now told, must be put on a secular, “scientific” basis, in order to serve the transcendental “good” of “human flourishing.” This new scheme of harnessing moral emotions in the name of “human flourishing” is not only palpably absurd, but dangerous. Moral behavior evolved. It has no purpose. The reasons it evolved have to do with the survival of individual genes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with “human flourishing.” “Human flourishing” itself will inevitably mean different things to different people, and these differences will spawn ingroups and outgroups as before. There is nothing wrong with human beings uniting to consider rational means of achieving mutually agreed upon goals. However, attempts to “tame” morality, and make it conform to “science” in pursuit of those goals is a prescription for disaster. Human moral emotions cannot be manipulated at will.
Morality will not disappear, nor will our moral behavior undergo any fundamental change simply by virtue of our understanding it. We will not all suddenly become “moral relativists,” nor will we all begin applying mathematical equations instead of moral emotions to regulate our day-to-day interactions. We may, however, become wise enough to cease and desist from attempts to “tame” those emotions in the interest of promoting this or that ideological or political system. Unless we are to understand that the mayhem and senseless mutual slaughter we have been engaged in since the dawn of recorded time represents “human flourishing,” one must hope so.
Posted on May 13th, 2013 2 comments
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt published their now classic Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science almost two decades ago. The book described the flipping and flopping of the various species of self-appointed saviors of mankind on campus left high and dry by the collapse of Marxism. In the absence of that grand, unifying philosophy, the authors found them running about like so many chickens with their heads cut off, engaged in internecine warfare, and chasing after the various chimeras of postmodernism, eco-extremism, radical feminism, anti-racist racism, etc. For some reason, perhaps because they were scientists and they objected to their ox being gored, Gross and Levitt were willing to subject themselves to the incredible boredom of attending the conferences, following the journals, and reading the books emanating from these various swamps. Since they happened to be on the left of the ideological spectrum themselves, their book was also thoughtfully written and not just one of the usual rants from the right.
Unfortunately, no one with similar insight and tolerance for pain has published anything of similar stature in the ensuing years. We have been reduced to scrutinizing the data points that periodically bubble up through the froth to formulate some idea of how close we are to being saved. Based on the meager information at our disposal, we gather that no great new secular religion has sprung up in the meantime to take the place of Marxism. The only thing on hand to fill the vacuum left behind by its demise has been radical Islam. Since, in a sense, it’s the only game in town, we’ve been treated to the amusing spectacle of watching leftist “progressives” making eyes at the fanatical zealots of one of the most reactionary religious systems ever concocted by the mind of man, while the latter have been busily cannibalizing the revolutionary vernacular familiar from the heyday of Communism.
Other than that, it would seem that the scene today would be quite familiar to readers of Higher Superstition. Consider, for example, the recent “revolutionary action” that took place on the campus of Swarthmore. If we are to believe the somewhat overwrought account at National Review Online, it involved intimidation of the school administration and bullying of conservative students at what was advertised as an open Board of Managers meeting. The ostensible goal of the disruption was to get the administration to agree to the divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, apparently based on the rather dubious assumption that nothing disagreeable would happen if all mankind suddenly stopped using them. However, the divestment thing is hardly what is nearest and dearest to the hearts of the “academic left” at Swarthmore. What is nearest and dearest? According to NRO,
The radicals are demanding a massive expansion of Swarthmore’s politicized “studies” programs, with a new Latino Studies major specifically dedicated to Latinos in the United States, and mandatory classes for all Swarthmore students in ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies.
I doubt that the gentry at NRO really understand what is going on here, because they lack the proper grounding in Marxist theory. As Trotsky might have put it, they just don’t understand the dialectic. What we are really seeing here is the emergence of a new exploiting class of gigantic proportions, cleverly attempting to obfuscate their true historical role behind a smokescreen of revolutionary jargon. These people are exploiters, not exploitees. Ensconced in their ivory towers, untouchable within their tenured cocoons, they are increasingly gaining a monopoly of the social means of education. Like the bourgeoisie of old, who used the social means of production to suck the blood of the exploited workers, they use their own monopoly to feast on the sweat of the academic proletariat – their students. They accumulate these useless “studies” courses for the same reasons that the capitalists accumulated money.
Little realizing that they are being reduced to debt-serfs, with lives sold out and mortgaged to maintain these academic vampires in their accustomed luxury, the student proletariat are kept docile with fairy tales about “saving the world.” Now, if Marx was right (and how could he possibly be wrong?) this “thesis” of the academic exploiters will soon run head on into the “antithesis” of the developing revolutionary consciousness of the student proletariat they have so cynically betrayed. At least the bourgeoisie used their monopoly to produce something useful. The new class of academic exploiters fobs off its victims with “studies” that they will find entirely useless in their struggle against the slavery that awaits them, unless they are among the happy few co-opted into the exploiting class. Where is this leading? How will the exploited academic proletariat react when they finally figure out, crushed under a mountain of debt, with heads full of “liberating” jargon and no prospect of employment that the “radical and emancipatory” blather they were being fed really leads to chains and slavery? I can but quote the ringing warning of Edwin Markham in his famous poem, Man with the Hoe:
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
The pundits at NRO should relax. If I’ve interpreted the Marxist dialectic correctly, the revolutionary climax will be followed by a brief period of the dictatorship of the academic proletariat, followed by the gradual withering of academic administrations, and a new era of universal wisdom based on enlightened self-education.
And what of the academic exploiters? I think it goes without saying that it will be necessary to “expropriate the expropriators.” However, being by nature a kindly and sedate man, I can only hope that it doesn’t come to the “liquidation of the academic exploiters as a class.” On the other hand, I don’t want to be accused of “right opportunism” and realize full well that “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”
Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal. Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths. In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays. Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years. As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.
For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:
The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency. Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.
In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:
The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.
The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people. The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets. The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship. Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day. Strange: it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.
However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.” Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.
Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate. For example,
Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.
His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.” Times change, and so do ideological dogmas. Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”
Posted on April 14th, 2013 No comments
Leon Trotsky was the best and the brightest of the old Bolsheviks. A brilliant revolutionary and military leader, he played seminal roles in organizing both the 1905 and 1917 Bolshevik revolutions in Russia, and without him the Whites may well have won the Russian Civil War. A few years after he defeated the last of the White generals, Stalin ousted him from power. He gave his last public speech in 1927 at the funeral of fellow “left oppositionist” Adolf Joffe, was exiled in 1929, and finally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico in 1940. While in exile, he was kept well-informed about events in the Soviet Union, including the slaughter of the Kulaks, the mass death in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, the unabated hunger and misery of the survivors, and the persistent mass terror with its hundreds of thousands of executions and rapid expansion of the Gulag system. He treated with scorn the breathless praise of Stalin by the ”friends” of the Soviet Union, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, etc. And yet, in spite of it all, he continued defending the Bolshevik Revolution to the end. How could such an intelligent man continue to defend something so vile and destructive?
In fact, it isn’t so hard to understand. Human beings aren’t really particularly intelligent, except in comparison to other animals, and they have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe. Trotsky was a convinced Marxist, and had a powerful incentive to believe that the revolution he had done so much to prepare and execute really was the path to a bright new future rather than the most bloody and destructive debacle in human history, as now seems clear in retrospect. No one likes to face the fact that their life’s work has been in vain, and based on an illusion. Trotsky’s rationalizations were probably similar to those of a great many other supporters of the Stalin regime in the 1930′s, including the “friends” he so despised.
The most concise summary of those rationalizations is probably his, The Revolution Betrayed, which was published in 1936. Here are some of the key quotes:
…by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the state, the revolution made it possible to apply new and incomparably more effective industrial methods. Only thanks to a planned directive was it possible in so brief a span to restore what had been destroyed by the imperialist and civil wars, to create gigantic new enterprises, to introduce new kinds of production and establish new branches of industry.
The vast scope of industrialization in the Soviet Union, as against a background of stagnation and decline in almost the whole capitalist world, appears unanswerably in the following gross indices. Industrial production in Germany, thanks solely to feverish war preparations, is now returning to the level of 1929. Production in Great Britain, holding to the apron strings of protectionism, has raised itself three or four percent during these six years. Industrial production in the United States has declined approximately 25 per cent; in France, more than 30 per cent. First place among capitalist countries is occupied by Japan, who is furiously arming herself and robbing her neighbors. Her production has risen almost 40 percent! But even this exceptional index fades before the dynamic of development in the Soviet Union. Her industrial production has increased during this same period approximately 3.5 times, or 250 percent. The heavy industries have increased their production during the last decade (1925 to 1935) more than ten times.
Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the number of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands – such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.
This also ends the quarrel with the reformists in the workers’ movement. Can we compare for one moment their mouselike fussing with the titanic work accomplished by this people aroused to a new life by revolution?
As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair.” At the time Trotsky wrote these words, there was nothing deceptive about them. All of the above seemed to be quite factual. As it happens, he was actually well aware of some of the blemishes to this pretty picture that, in the end, resulted in the demise of Communism. For example,
But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side. There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique; the leadership is not equal to its tasks. Altogether this expresses itself in extremely high production costs and poor quality of product.
The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry. But the coefficient of effective use of tractors is very low. During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 percent of the tractors to capital repairs. A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season… Things are still worse in the sphere of auto transport. In America a truck travels sixty to eighty, or even one hundred thousand kilometers a year; in the Soviet Union only twenty thousand – that is, a third or a fourth as much.
A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated this; commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the consumer.
To the low productivity of labor corresponds a low national income, and consequently a low standard of life for the masses of the people.
In a word, Trotsky saw the Achilles heel. He just couldn’t convince himself it would be fatal. If a man as brilliant as him could still support the regime in spite of all these reservations, and in spite of his clear vision of the ongoing and escalating brutality, is it any wonder that millions of dupes in the West, not as well versed in economics and quick to take at face value the soothing assurances of Stalinist toadies like Walter Duranty that the starvation, executions, and Gulag were all an illusion, should support it as well, in the honest belief that it really did represent a portal to human progress and the workers’ paradise to come? One can grasp the psychology of the useful idiots, the parlor pinks like the Webbs who hadn’t advanced intellectually beyond the stage of seeing in Stalin nothing more threatening than a loving uncle, and reacted furiously to any suggestion that the real picture wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy as the delusion they’d created for themselves. But what of a man like Trotsky? Again, it’s all there in The Revolution Betrayed.
9 Thermidor is a critical date in history for Marxists the world over. It has assumed a sort of mystical quality, supposedly representing the inevitable fate of all revolutions. It is the date that Robespierre was deposed as leader of the French Revolution, the terror that he promoted was ended, and a period of so-called “reaction” set in. For Marxists, Thermidor represents the victory of the counter-revolution. For Trotsky, the victory of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian revolution. No matter that the rise of Stalin didn’t end the terror, but vastly magnified it, and that, far from being “reactionary,” he ended the flirting with capitalism represented by the New Economic Policy of 1921, and collectivized agriculture, policies that had actually long been advocated by Trotsky and his “left opposition.” For a mind steeped in Marxist dogma, nothing was easier than to see the rise of Stalin as the “counter-revolution” in spite of all this. Indeed, chapter 5 of The Revolution is Betrayed is entitled “The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed.” According to Trotsky, the “counter-revolutionaries” were the caste of bureaucrats, opportunist and careerist parasites who preached that, after the shock and exhaustion of revolution and civil war, the proletariat deserved a rest. Alas, the wearied workers were only too ready to listen to this siren song. As Trotsky put it,
The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.
To a Marxist like Trotsky, there had to be a class explanation for everything. Thus, Stalin was not a clever and unscrupulous manipulator who had gradually and insidiously gathered the threads of power into his own hands. Rather, he was a secondary figure who just happened to have the good fortune to be chosen by the “new class” of bureaucrats as its tool. Again quoting Trotsky:
It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, as first in its midst.
And what was to be the solution to this unfortunate ascendency of the reaction? After all the misery, starvation, and death, did Trotsky have second thoughts about the wisdom of “proletarian revolutions”? Hardly! He wanted to double down! The gains of the October revolution were to be saved by a new revolution of the resurgent workers that would sweep the bureaucracy aside. This new revolution was to be led by Trotsky’s fourth International, led, of course, by himself.
At the very end, Trotsky began to doubt this fine vision of a victorious proletariat. In In Defense of Marxism, a collection of essays and letters that was the last of his books to appear before his murder, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
In the end, of course, the “proletariat” did not fulfill its “mission.” After the war, new Communist revolutions spawned new exploiting bureaucracies, just as had happened in Russia. In none of the new Communist regimes did the state ever show even the faintest sign of “fading away,” as predicted by Marx. But in 1936, all this was still more than a decade off, and the revolutionary hubris was still strong. Millions of parlor pinks and fellow travelers the world over were blinded by the “gigantic achievements” of the Soviet Union, lacked Trotsky’s ability to see the downside, and were convinced that the Great Depression signaled the “inevitable” demise of capitalism, and so, in vast number, became Communists. It is only remarkable that, in the United States, at least, the numbers remained so small. We must be grateful for the fact that we have always been so “politically backward” when it comes to accepting the “scientific” claims of socialist theoreticians. It remained for another one-time Communist, the brilliant Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, to confirm Trotsky’s worst fears, and describe the essential nature of the new exploiters in his The New Class, which appeared in 1957.
The fact that a man as intelligent as Trotsky could have deceived himself so completely for so long in spite of his respect for the truth and his clear perception of the fact that things were not quite going exactly as Marx had predicted does not encourage much hope regarding the collective wisdom of the rest of mankind. It seems that, unless we find a way to become smarter, we will probably eventually find a way to destroy ourselves. In the case of Communism, we have been given a respite. The God of this greatest of all secular religions failed after claiming a mere 100 million human lives. Let us hope we have learned something from the experience. If not, the next great messianic dogma to come along is likely to claim considerably more victims.
Posted on March 26th, 2013 3 comments
New Scientist just published an article by anthropologist Christopher Boehm entitled, “Banks gone bad: Our evolved morality has failed us.” According to Boehm,
In their rudimentary, hunter-gatherer forms, crime and punishment surely go back for tens of millennia. The case has been made that by 45,000 years ago, or possibly earlier, people were practising moralistic social control much as we do.
Without exception, foraging groups that still exist today and best reflect this ancient way of life exert aggressive surveillance over their peers for the good of the group. Economic miscreants are mainly bullies who use threats or force to benefit themselves, along with thieves and cheats.
All are free-riders who take without giving, and all are punished by the group. This can range from mere criticism or ostracism to active shaming, ejection or even capital punishment. This moral behaviour was reinforced over the millennia that such egalitarian bands dominated human life.
Then around 12,000 years ago, larger, still-egalitarian sedentary tribes arrived with greater needs for centralised control. Eventually clusters of tribes formed authoritative chiefdoms. Next came early civilisations, with centrally prescribed and powerfully enforced moral orders. One thing tied these and modern, state-based moral systems to what came before and that was the human capacity for moral indignation. It remains strong today.
However, something has gone terribly wrong. International bankers are looting financial institutions and getting away with it. As Boehm puts it,
What is beyond debate is that in the case of major corporate crimes an ancient approach to making justice serve the greater good is creaking and groaning, and that new answers must be sought.
I would be the first to agree that evolved traits are the ultimate cause of all moral behavior. My question to Boehm and others who think like him is, why on earth, under the circumstances, would he expect human morality to be in any way relevant to the international banking system? There is no explanation whatsoever for moral behavior other than the fact that the genes responsible for it happened to promote the survival and reproduction of individuals at times when, presumably, there were no international bankers, nor anything like them. Certainly, we must account for human nature, including morality, if we want to successfully pursue social goals, as the Communists, among others, discovered the hard way. However, the presumption that our morality will necessarily be useful in regulating the banking system is ludicrous. If a reasonable case can be made that the behavior of those who control the banking system is diminishing the wealth and welfare of the rest of us, or that, given human nature, it must inevitably be perceived as so unfair as to cause serious social disruption, let those who think so unite and work to change the system. However, let us drop the ancient charade that they are in any objective sense morally superior to those they seek to control.
Modern democracies are quite similar to egalitarian hunting bands in that moralistic public opinion helps to protect populaces against social predation, and dictates much of social policy.
It is certainly true that moral emotions dictate much of social policy. The policy of continuing to allow them to do so in situations irrelevant to the reasons they evolved in the first place is becoming increasingly disastrous. Have we really learned nothing from the misery and mass slaughter we suffered at the hands of those two great morally inspired ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism? Do we really want to continue repeating those experiences? Moralistic behavior may well have evolved to protect populaces against social predation. However, there is not the slightest guarantee that it will continue to do so in situations radically different from those in which that evolution took place. Boehm’s article, along with the vast majority of modern literature on the subject, emphasizes the “altruistic” aspects of morality. And like them, it overlooks a fundamental aspect of human morality that has never, ever been missing in any moral system; the outgroup. There is no Good without Evil. Consider the behavior of the most “pious” and “virtuous” among us. Do they spend their time preaching the virtues of tolerance and conciliation? Hardly! One commonly finds them furiously denouncing the outgroup, be it the 1%, the greedy bankers, the bourgeoisie, the grasping corporations, the Jews, the heretics, etc., etc., etc.
I would be the last one to claim such behavior is objectively evil, although it certainly arouses my moral emotions. I am, after all, human too. However, I would prefer living in a peaceful world in which I didn’t constantly have to worry about ending up in someone’s outgroup, and therefore, along with my family and others like me, being “liquidated as a class,” as Stalin so charmingly put it. What’s that you say? It can’t happen here? You have a very short historical memory! By all means, let us regulate the bankers if our frail intelligence informs us that doing so would be reasonable and socially useful. However, let’s leave morality out of it. Our evolved morality hasn’t “failed us.” Our failure lies in refusing to understand morality’s limits.
Posted on March 20th, 2013 1 comment
The best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution I know of was written by N. N. Sukhanov. I’ve discussed his memoirs in earlier posts. The best eyewitness account I’ve found so far of the Revolution’s aftermath, from 1917 to 1936, was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Both authors were socialist insiders who were personally acquainted with many of the Bolshevik luminaries, both saw stunning events that shaped the history of the 20th century firsthand, and both eventually shared the fate of most of the old Bolsheviks, falling victim to Stalin’s paranoid tyranny. Thanks to western intellectuals familiar with his work, Serge managed to escape Stalin’s clutches. Sukhanov was not so lucky. He disappeared into the Gulag. Both left us with fascinating vignettes of individuals from the most powerful leaders to the most defenseless victims of the new regime. Serge’s are of particular interest, because he was acquainted with several remarkable personalities, such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, from the time of their rise to almost unchallenged power to their fall from grace and execution or exile. Many times he provides insights and details that I have never found in other histories or memoirs.
For example, there are many references to Zinoviev, once all-powerful leader of the Bolshevik party machine in Leningrad. Serge was hardly one of his admirers, and had already come to grief trying to deal with Zinoviev’s Leningrad party machine on more than one occasion. Then there was a remarkable change in the wind, beginning with ”certain events” in 1925;
The storm broke quite out of the blue. Even we were not awaiting its coming. Certain remarks of Zinoviev, whom I had seen weary and dull-eyed, should have warned me… Passing through Moscow in the spring of 1925, I learnt that Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to all appearances still all-powerful as the two foremost figures in the Politburo since Lenin’s death, were about to be overthrown at the forthcoming Fourteenth Party Congress.
My own opinion was that it was impossible for the bureaucratic regime stemming from Zinoviev to get any harsher; nothing could be worse than it. Any change must offer some opportunity for purification. I was very much mistaken.
As a matter of fact, the Fourteenth Congress, of December 1925, was a well-rehearsed play, acted just as its producer had planned over several years. All the regional secretaries, who were appointed by the General Secretary (Stalin), had sent Congress delegates who were loyal to his service. The easy victory of the Stalin-Rykov-Bukharin coalition was an office victory over Zinoviev’s group, which only controlled offices in Leningrad. The Leningrad delegation, led by Zinoviev, Yevdokimov, and Bukayev and supported by Kamenev – all doomed to the firing squad in 1936 – found itself isolated when it came to the vote.
Serge also left interesting details on the lives of players who may have been lesser known, but were fascinating in their own right, including his fellow author Sukhanov (his party name. His real name was Himmer);
Nikolai Nikolayevich Sukhanov (Himmer), a Menshevik won over to the Party, a member of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception in 1917, who had written ten volumes of valuable notes on the beginnings of the Revolution and worked in the Planning Commissions with his fellow defendants Groman, Ginsberg, and Rubin, did have a kind of salon, in which talk between intimates was very free and the situation in the country as of 1930 was judged to be utterly catastrophic, as it undeniably was. In this circle, escape from the crisis was envisaged in terms of a new Soviet Government, combining the best brains of the Party’s Right (Rykov, Tomsky, and Bukharin, perhaps), certain veterans of the Russian revolutionary movement, and the legendary army chief Blücher. It must be emphasized that for practically three years between 1930 and 1934, the new totalitarian regime maintained itself by sheer terror, against all rational expectations and with every appearance, all the time, of imminent collapse.
In other words, Sukhanov had been tempting fate. Repeating the mistake of so many others, he underestimated Stalin. Then there was the case of Andres Nin, unknown to most readers, but a hero, not only to Serge, but to another great foe of Stalinism; George Orwell. Here is the story as told by Serge;
Perhaps, for the sake of the reader ignorant of those past dramas, I must press home one example. Andres Nin spent his youth in Russia, first as a loyal Communist, then as a militant of the Left Opposition. When he returned to Spain he had undergone imprisonment by the reactionary Republic, translated Dostoevsky and Pilnyak, attacked the incipient Fascist tendencies, and helped to found a revolutionary Marxist party. The Revolution of July 1936 (in which the Catalan anarchists took power in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, ed.) had elevated him to the Ministry of Justice in the Generalitat of Catalonia. In this capacity he had established popular tribunals, ended the terrorism of irresponsible elements, and instituted a new marriage code. He was a scholarly Socialist and a first-rate brain, highly regarded by all who knew him and on close terms of friendship with Companys, the head of the Catalan Government. Without the slightest shame the Communists denounced him as “an agent of Franco-Hitler-Mussolini,” and refused to sign the “pact against slander” proposed to them by all the other parties; they walked out of a meeting at which the other parties asked them, all calmly, for proofs; in their own press they appealed continually to the evidence of the Moscow Trials, in which, however, Nin’s name had never once been mentioned. All the same, Nin’s popularity increased, and deservedly; nothing else remained but to kill him.
Orwell provides the details of how Nin’s murder was managed by the Stalinists in his Homage to Catalonia. In order to eliminate any independent socialist voices in the Spanish Republican government, they cooked up fairy tales about a “fascist plot,” and began herding their enemies into concentration camps they had already set up in Spain outside the control of the Republican government. In Orwell’s words,
Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot,’ radio communication with the enemy, documents signed in invisible ink, etc., etc… And already the rumors were flying round that people were being secretly shot in jail. There was a lot of exaggeration about this, but it certainly happened in some cases, and there is not much doubt that it happened in the case of Nin. After his arrest Nin was transferred to Valencia and thence to Madrid, and as early as 21 June the rumor reached Barcelona that he had been shot. Later the same rumor took a more definite shape: Nin had been shot in prison by the secret police and his body dumped into the street. This story came from several sources, including Federica Montsenys, an ex-member of the Government. From that day to this, Nin has never been heard of alive again.
The works of Serge are full of countless similar accounts of how the lives of individuals great and small had been destroyed by Stalin’s terror, the misery, mass shootings, and starvation in the Soviet Union, the complete suppression of dissent, etc. In his words,
The persecution went on for years, inescapable, tormenting and driving people crazy. Every few months the system devoured a new class of victim. Once they ran out of Trotskyists, they turned on the kulaks; then it was the technicians, then the former bourgeois, merchants and officers deprived of their useless right to vote; then it was the priests and the believers; then the Right Opposition… The GPU next proceeded to extort gold and jewels, not balking at the use of torture. I saw it. These political and psychological diversions were necessary because of the terrible poverty. Destitution was the driving force.
When Serge tried to publish the truth in the west, his experience was the same as Orwell’s. “Progressives” of all stripes couldn’t bear to have their charming dream of a worker’s paradise smashed. They reacted with rage. In Serge’s words,
…the succession of executions went on into the thousands, without trials of any sort. And in every country of the civilized world, learned and “progressive” jurists were to be found who thought these proceedings to be correct and convincing. It was turning into a tragic lapse of the whole modern conscience. In France the League for the Rights of Man, with a reputation going back to Dreyfus, had a jurist of this variety in its midst. The League’s executive was divided into a majority that opposed any investigation, and an outraged minority that eventually resigned. (Note the uncanny resemblance to the selective outrage of ”human rights” groups in our own time) The argument generally put forward amounted to: “Russia is our ally…” It was imbecilic reasoning – there is more than a hint of suicide about an international alliance that turns into moral and political servility – but it worked powerfully.
Serge persisted. When “progressive” sheets refused to publish his accounts, he turned to public meetings:
The dreadful machine carried on it grinding, intellectuals and politicians snubbed us, public opinion on the Left was dumb and blind. From the depth of a meeting hall, a Communist worker shouted at me: “Traitor! Fascist! Nothing you can do will stop the Soviet Union from remaining the fatherland of the oppressed!”
For many, the hallucination was only finally shattered by the abject decay and final collapse of Communism. For some, it persists to this day. One can but hope that the next time a great messianic ideology roles around, we will have learned something from our experience with the last one.
Posted on March 12th, 2013 9 comments
I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism. History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior. From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism. It’s not a pretty picture. In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia. One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith. It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”
Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published. These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end. A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20′s and early 30′s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists. As a result he was treated “gently.” He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation. The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg. The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived. They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU. Serge recalls,
I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door. “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!” Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders. He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching: “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!” They were almost naked. We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began. The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea. When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”
The maidservants story was hardly unique. Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves. Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps. Serge describes many other such scenes. Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:
One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.
Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger. One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion. I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist. I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.
My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off. He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter. They left him lying there, bloody but full.
At the rationing office a poster announced: “Grandparents have no right to food cards.” All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.
These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union. Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope. He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time. Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20′s and 30′s. The western intellectuals averted their eyes. Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!” A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean. Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.
and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,
As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance. I feel as though there were a book inflation.
This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it. Serge knew better. He wrote,
All legal means of expression were now closed to us. From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.
In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere). The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look. Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look. Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal. After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished. It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.
If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet. Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man. We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood. That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind. In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now. The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.
It would be very risky to forget about Communism. It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.