Posted on May 13th, 2013 No 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.
Posted on February 7th, 2013 No comments
One of the great absurdities of U.S. history has been the disparity between the oceans of tears shed for the people who ended up on the Hollywood blacklist and the cold indifference to the fate of the millions of victims of the Stalinist regime they so cheerfully supported. The whole “Have you no decency?” schtick was never anything but a pose. The people who struck the pose and invented the crime of “McCarthyism,” knew very well that the witches were real. Communists were hardly a rare commodity in Hollywood once upon a time, any more than they were in the rest of the country. The time in question was the 1930′s and Communism was all the rage among moralistic poseurs of all stripes. As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his The Thirties,
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
The same could be said, not only of economists in academia and celebrities in Hollywood, but of the stalwarts in several other professions, including journalism, as anyone can easily confirm by leafing through a few of the major intellectual journals for, say, 1934. In the days before “McCarthyism” was invented, the fact was notorious, and hardly worth raising an eyebrow about. An interesting artifact of the time appeared in the February 1940 issue of the American Mercury, which was no longer edited by the great H. L. Mencken, but still retained something of the style and flavor of the original. It came in the form of an article by William Bledsoe, former editor of Screen Guild Magazine, entitled Revolution Came to Hollywood. Far from being a vicious, red-baiting diatribe, it was written entirely in the old Mercury tradition, poking fun at another batch of Menckian “morons” who had been thoroughly duped (and fleeced) by the clever Bolsheviks. As Bledsoe put it:
Nothing since the advent of the talkies struck Hollywood quite so hard as the news of the Soviet-Nazi pacts. Mingled with cries of pain were the strains of a big belly laugh. Certain glamour boys and girls, famous writers and directors were on their knees at the shrine of the crossed hammer-and-sickle when the bombshell fell. It hit them like a dropped option. They were still staggered when the Red invasion of Poland exploded around their ears, and the panic was completed by Russia’s assault on Finland. Only in the breasts of the most devout can traces of the Stalinist faith still linger. It may still be alive in Lionel Stander, Frances Farmer, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, Gale Sondergaard, Lief Erikson, J. Edward Bromberg, Sylvia Sidney, Ella Winter, and a few others – but by the time these words reach print even they may be among the apostates. The fact is that the Hollywood Revolution is fading out. The goofiest era in cinema legend – a compound of high ideals and low I.Q.’s; party lines and just parties; noble slogans and ignoble political rackets – is about washed up. Before it goes down the drain, a respectful obituary over the remains is in order.
And Bledsoe proceed to provide one, describing a time in which,
Hundreds of the Hollywood talent crowd enrolled in formal study classes where party teachers gave instruction in the Stalinist parody of Karl Marx and Lenin. Marxist jargon filled the air, and experts on dialog became experts on dialectics. Glamour girls burgeoned forth as authorities on Revolutionary Theory and Practice. It was fun for an unregenerate infidel like myself to watch the new evangelism.
By all means, read the whole thing. Bledsoe provides plenty of detail about how the Party not only duped, but thoroughly fleeced, the heroes of the silver screen. It’s all quite hilarious, really, unless you happen to be reading a copy of the Gulag Archipelago at the same time. That takes some of the fun out of it. The thought of Stalin’s 25 million victims, shot or starved and tortured to death in the camps, has a marked tendency to dampen the deep sympathy one would normally feel for his Hollywood collaborators.
Posted on December 9th, 2012 No comments
Herbert Spencer was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of his day, yet little more than 30 years after his death, Talcott Parsons could ask, “Who now reads Spencer?” One could cite many plausible reasons for the precipitate decline in interest. I suspect his thought was too politically loaded at a time of great intellectual ferment in the realm of political ideology. As a result, he attracted many enemies among those who considered his work incompatible with their own pet theories. Perhaps the most damaging accusation was that Spencer was a social Darwinist. The grounds for this charge were flimsy at best, but since Spencer was no longer around to defend himself, it stuck. There is an interesting discussion of the matter on his Wiki page.
Spencer was not infallible. For example, though he was a strong evolutionist, he favored a Lamarckian version of the theory over Darwin’s natural selection. However, our species is not noted for its infallibility, and the fact that Spencer made mistakes is more a reflection of the broad range of his thought than of the caliber of his intellect. People who never speculate never make mistakes. Spencer did speculate, and some of his thought was profound indeed. Robert Ardrey, never one to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others, noticed, pointing out that Spencer coined the terms “code of Amity” and “code of Enmity,” referring to what are now popularly known as in-groups and out-groups, nearly a century before the academic and professional experts in human behavior caught up with him. There was another subject regarding which, in retrospect, he was a true prophet; his analysis of revolutionary socialism, which later became known as Communism, presented in his introduction to a collection of essays entitled A Plea for Liberty.
Milovan Djilas also knew something about Communism, having been a Communist for a significant part of his adult life, and an influential one at that. From 1945 until 1953, he was one of the four most powerful men in Tito’s Communist regime in Yugoslavia. However, Djilas had a strong sense of intellectual honesty, a great drawback for a Communist ruler. It inspired him to write a series of critical articles in the Yugoslav Party organ, Borba, followed in 1957 by publication of his great classic, The New Class, an indictment of Communism still strongly marked by the author’s tendency to think in terms of the Marxian dialectic. His final work, The Fall of the New Class, published in English three years after Djilas’ death, and written after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, may be considered his post mortem on his old ideal. In comparing Spencer’s predictions with Djilas’ documentation of what actually happened, one begins to understand why the former’s contemporaries were so impressed with him.
For example, Spencer pointed out that Communism was anything but “scientific.” It was merely the speculation of Marx and others reformulated as a system. That system, however, had never been tested in practice. In his words,
Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other, – especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centers. Manifestly then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work. Yet in how few cases does the inventer foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus! Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service. Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.
What, then, shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matters and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the cooperation of multitudes of such organisms? Even the units out of which this re-arranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible. Everyone is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him. Seeing, then, how uncertainly one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure?
In The Fall of the New Class, Djilas describes what actually did happen when Marx’s “patent” encountered the real world:
But communism took a vow, so to speak, that all its prophecies, all its ideals, would turn into their diametric opposites just when Communists thought these prophecies and ideals might actually come true. So it was that with the coming of Communists to power the working class and communism drew apart from one another, became alien. It did not happen uniformly, and it took various forms. By and large, this coincided with the metamorphosis of the Party bureaucracy into a privileged, monopolistic stratum of society. A special elite – the new class.
Spencer had foreseen just this alienation of the workers and emergence of the New Class with uncanny accuracy. For example,
Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?
Almost uncanny, when one recalls this was written in 1891! As Djilas put it in retrospect more than a century later,
The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism.
Spencer foresaw Stalinism, not as a mere aberration, a form of bureaucratic parasitism that Trotsky fondly hoped the workers would eventually throw off, but as inherent in the nature of the system itself. Noting the many forms of bureaucratic tyranny already existing under capitalism, he wrote:
What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.
One can imagine the Communist true believers, equipped with their batteries of Marxist truism, shaking their heads and smiling at such hyperbolic alarmism. No doubt they would have found it a great deal less amusing from the later vantage point of the Gulag. As Djilas put it,
Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.
A Plea for Liberty, the remarkable little volume in which Spencer set down his sadly unheeded words of warning, is available online, along with his autobiography and many of his other works. They may be of some interest to readers who are jaded by the latest nuances of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or bored by the effort of staying up-to-date on how close we are to stumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”
Posted on November 24th, 2012 2 comments
Milovan Djilas was a man of genius. He was also, for much of his life, a Communist, and a very effective one who contributed mightily to the victory of Tito’s Partisans in World War II. After the war he was one of the four most powerful men in Yugoslavia, but became disillusioned with the reality of Communism. After publishing a series of 18 articles critical of the regime that appeared in the Communist organ Borba between October 1953 and January 1954, he was expelled from the party’s Central Committee. He was arrested in 1956 and imprisoned for “hostile propaganda” following interviews that appeared in The New York Times and Agence France Presse, and spent much of the next ten years in jail. His famous exposé of Communism, The New Class, appeared in 1957 after the manuscript was smuggled out of prison. His later autobiographical works, such as Land Without Justice, Memoir of a Revolutionary, and Wartime, are treasure troves, not only for historians, but for sociologists and psychologists as well. They are also full of invaluable insights into the birth and evolution of ideological ingroups.
In this case, of course, the ingroup in question is Communism, with Nazism one of the two great secular faiths of the 20th century. However, the phenomena described by Djilas are also evident among the ingroups spawned by the earlier religious faiths as well. Indeed, it might be said that one of these, a latter day version of Islam, “rushed in to fill the vacuum” left by the collapse of Communism. At the moment, pending the rise of the next great secular faith, it is, in a sense, the only game in town for those with a penchant for saving the world. Hence the occasionally comical love affair of the stalwarts of the extreme left with fundamentalist religious ideologues of the extreme right.
This phenomenon is hardly without historical precedent. For example, the Nazis found a fertile recruiting ground for their storm troopers among former Communists. Both of these ideological ingroups were strongly attractive to the same psychological type. Both promised to save the world, albeit in radically different ways. However, the strength of the attraction does not depend on the minutiae of theory, but on the degree to which an ideology appeals to the innate wellsprings of human moral behavior; what Jonathan Haidt has referred to as Moral Foundations in The Righteous Mind. If the appeal is there, theoretical details are almost a matter of indifference. Communist intellectuals were occasionally puzzled by the appeal of Nazism because of what they considered its theoretical incoherence. Their mistake was in believing that the appeal of either Nazism or Communism depended on theory. Communists became Communists, not because of the intellectual elegance of Marxism, but because it happened to be around. They had an emotional itch, and Communism was a convenient tool for scratching it. As Djilas put it in Memoir of a Revolutionary,
We called it Communism. It was not Communism, but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, not to accept a hopeless monotony.
Here, too, in a nutshell, he describes the susceptible “psychological type.” Not surprisingly, the greatest susceptibility is found among the young. In Djilas words,
Youthful rebellion first assumed a moral form: the negation of traditional views and relationships. The common man suffered the dictatorship and the other hardships as elementary evils which had rendered him helpless. His concentration was on his family life. He was petit bourgeois. But he did not have any choice if he was not willing to go to prison. Opposition to this kind of life, resistance to it and the bourgeois existence, was the most frequent form rebellion took among young people, particularly among intellectuals.
Initial attempts to scratch the “itch” took familiar forms:
In the course of my two years as a student (1929 to 1931), young people sought relief in a special form of bohemian existence, in which alcohol was perhaps not the chief solace.
They did not immediately turn to Communism, in part because of the lack of an organized Communist movement in Yugoslavia at the time. King Alexander had abolished the constitution and established a personal dictatorship in 1929.
With the advent of the dictatorship, political organizations at the University were either broken up or they disintegrated. There wasn’t a trace left of the Communist organization. There were a few Communists, older students, but they were either so passive or so secretive that one didn’t know who they were. I knew one of them, Milos Tujo Cetkovic, but only because he was a Montenegrin, from my region, and a relative of my Aunt Draguna. However, he never said anything to encourage me in my rebellion, so involved was he in himself and in the mechanics of his conspiracy.
In keeping with ideological tradition, Djilas turn to Communism was catalyzed by admiration of a “heroic martyr.” In his case, it was Bracan Bracanovic, a former member of the Yugoslav Communist Party’s Central Committee.
They say that he was dark and young and wild, and that he had enormous physical strength. Several times he broke the chains on his wrists and it took as many as ten agents to subdue him. He shouted big angry words at the policemen, spitting at them in spite of horrible physical tortures. Uncompromising and unyielding, proud and strong, covered with blood and wounds, he died one night of a bullet in the nape of his neck, in a ditch near Belgrade. No grave and no stone. In my mind Bracanovic was identified with the heroes of our legendary past, the struggle against the Turks which I had sucked with my mother’s milk. The death of such a hero was a crime a hundred times greater than any other, which inspired hatred and thoughts of revenge in any young fiery spirit.
Djilas time at the University also coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression, which did not spare Yugoslavia. Economic misery and political repression promoted extremism:
My rebellious tendencies thrived in the Belgrade of this time: Belgrade with its wild night life, its crisscross of influences from the whole country and abroad, its restricted social and political life… All the forces that yearned for a breath of fresh air were packed into underground cellars. Belgrade was lively, colorful, and full of contrasts – an ostentatious display of newly acquired wealth on the one hand, and misery, hunger, and unemployment on the other. It was a setting that gave form and encouragement to the conscious organized rebellion of the young… The dictatorship’s major undoing was that it took over in Yugoslavia just prior to the Great Depression of 1929. The man in the street, who knows nothing about world economic laws, could not be convinced by elaborate but valid explanations in the press that the government was not wholly responsible for the economic downturn. Poverty was spreading every step of the way, exposing gruesome crimes and perversities.
As individuals in the face of all this misery, Djilas and his friends felt a stifling impotence:
I found my own impotence in this situation insufferable, my own and that of so many people who opposed this power as personified by the King, the tyrant. I felt that this night marked a final break between me, a citizen, and the King, the representative of state power. As it turned out, I was not alone in this reaction: we finally understood it was the King who was responsible for all that evil.
At first, Djilas joined a fellow student from a “bourgeois” party in distributing illegal political leaflets calling for a boycott of mock “elections” planned by the regime. However, this first experience with organized resistance failed to scratch the itch:
For many years I was ashamed of having distributed those leaflets and for having urged other people to join me. For a whole year my friends kept reproaching me, and their reproach, coupled with my own feelings of guilt, fortified my opposition to the bourgeois parties and their leaders. We were not yet Communists, but we had begun to compete with each other in degrees of hostility toward the bourgeoisie. Later this game assumed the character of deep ”class” hatred.
The group of similarly disaffected left-wing students that had begun to gather around Djilas decided to take their opposition a step further:
We agreed that demonstrations should be held at the Law School at noon the day before the elections… That was the first public demonstration against the dictatorship. This is not the time to talk of its impact on the development of the opposition and the Communist movement among the students. But those who joined the demonstration felt that they were initiating something new and dangerous, that they were treading into the unknown. Of that there can be no doubt.
The police smashed the demonstration, but only succeeded in fanning the flames. The result was evident at a meeting of the students the following day.
Several people made speeches, including me, critical of our weak showing. It was apparent that an organized minority was taking shape and imposing its will on the group. There were a few moderate speakers, but they were quickly silenced. Our skill in public speech-making – passion, invocation of patriotism, responsibility to the people, the duties of the young generation – had a tremendous impact. Certain speakers were able to do anything they wanted with the crowd.
The emotional buttons were being pushed. The moderate parties were pushed aside:
None of us leftists understood the full significance of the demonstrations. However, the results were soon in evidence. The bourgeois parties had lost control. In the demonstrations they were moderate, and in action they were nowhere to be seen… But the most surprising thing of all was that the bourgeois parties had lost all influence on the masses, the ram and unformed masses, rebellious, politically undecided, strongly leftist in outlook. A new generation was growing up under the dictatorship, ready to pounce. The dictatorship had given birth to its own gravedigger.
For the Party, it was now merely a question of collecting the ripe fruit. In Djilas’ case, it took the form of a message from the Communist Regional Committee that “the ‘comrades’ wished to see us.” The “comrade” who did most of the talking was one Blazo Raicevic. It turned out his Communist bone fides were somewhat dubious. According to Djilas,
In the post-1937 internal struggles, he was included in the purge as an “unhealthy,” “factional,” “antiparty” element.
It didn’t matter. Djilas continues,
…we were young Communists, not organized yet, but for that very reason most useful. He was not bothered by our ideological immaturity – he was not a very well-formed Marxist himself… For us Montenegrin leftists, he was the first contact with the party organization, even if we overestimated him as a Communist and the strength of the existing Communist Party.
Raicevic encouraged the young Communists, but he did not organize them. He didn’t need to. They had found a unifying ideological outlet for their discontent. From that point, the organization of the ingroup was almost spontaneous. Djilas had left Belgrade for several months to avoid the police, who were already watching him. The process of self-organization was already well underway when he returned:
In the three months that I had been away from Belgrade, the situation at the University had changed. The unstable leftist groups had grown stronger and better organized, and had been formed into Marxist circles. The official Communist party could in no way be credited with this development, even though the party did have its representatives in Belgrade, very respectable people at that… (I) found my colleagues organized in groups, absorbing ideology from Marxist pamphlets. They were now sober, coldly analytical, and unsparing in their criticism of “bourgeois remnants.” … I felt ashamed I had “fled” from the police and stayed away so long. I made up my mind to join one of the circles at once.
The process was complete. The young students with a ”deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life” now belonged to the Communist ingroup. In the words of philosopher Eric Hofer, they were now “True Believers.” The particular ideological shibboleths of the faith in question, Communism, were almost incidental. It was adopted, not because of its rational beauty, but because it happened to be the most effective nostrum for “scratching the itch” available at the time. Religious enthusiams have served just as well at different times and places. Nazism, which appealed, in part, to a different set of moral foundations, proved to be even more effective in what amounted to a head-to-head competition. However, for obvious reasons, an ideology based on the German Master Race didn’t play well in Yugoslavia. Communism had international appeal.
And what of Milovan Djilas? By all means, if you are suffering information overload about the results of the recent Presidential election, and are inclined to read something useful for a change, head to eBay or Amazon and pick up a couple of his books. I recommend his autobiographical works for starters, beginning with Land Without Justice. Save The New Class for later. It’s best read once you’ve gained some familiarity with the man who wrote it.
Posted on November 18th, 2012 2 comments
Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals. In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”. Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.
There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality. Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral. This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws. Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists. This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”
Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence. However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality. Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself. I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods. They certainly scratched us where it itched. When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching. Enter secular religion. The quintessential example is, of course, Communism. Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it. Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter. However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there. New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off. The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.
It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it. However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward. Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false. We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.
And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself? Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy? Would the bad guys win by default? I think not. We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally. We act morally because that is our nature. Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots. We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects. This gives us some flexibility. We cannot simply jettison morality. We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups. Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible. Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury. At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence. Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.” However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.