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  • The Red Centennial

    Posted on November 7th, 2017 Helian 2 comments

    Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  If there’s anything to celebrate, it’s that Communism was tried, it failed, and as a result it is no longer viable as a global secular religion.  Unfortunately, the cost of the experiment in human lives was far greater than that of any comparable revolutionary ideology before or since.  It’s not as if we weren’t warned.  As I noted in an earlier post, Herbert Spencer was probably the most accurate prophet of all.  In his A Plea for Liberty he wrote,

    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?

    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.

    Spencer’s prophesy was eloquently confirmed by former Communist Milovan Djilas in his The New Class, where he wrote,

    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… 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.

    The biggest danger we face in the aftermath of Communism is that the lesson will be forgotten.  It was spawned on the left of the ideological spectrum, and today’s leftists would prefer that the monster they created be forgotten.  Since they control the present, in the form of the schools, they also control the past, according to the dictum set forth by George Orwell in his 1984.  As a result, today’s students hear virtually nothing about the horrors of Communism.  Instead, they are fed a bowdlerized “history,” according to which nothing of any significance has ever happened in the United States except the oppression and victimization of assorted racial and other minority groups.  No matter that, by any rational standard, the rise of the United States has been the greatest boon to “human flourishing” in the last 500 years.  No matter that Communism would almost certainly have spread its grip a great deal further and lasted a great deal longer if the US had never existed.  The Left must be spared embarrassment.  Therefore, the US is portrayed as the “villain,” and Communism has been dropped down the memory hole.

    Indeed, if Bernie Sanders recent bid for the Presidency, sadly sabotaged by the Clinton machine via the DNC, is any indication, socialism, if not Communism, is still alive and well.  Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that socialism has been tried in a virtually infinite array of guises, from the “hard” versions that resulted in the decapitation of Cambodia and the Soviet Union to the “soft” version foisted on the United Kingdom after World War II.  It has invariably failed.  No matter.  According to its proponents, that’s only because “it hasn’t been done right.”  These people are nothing if not remarkably slow learners.

    Consider the implications.  According to Marx, the proletarian revolution to come could not possibly result in the slaughter and oppression characteristic of past revolutions because, instead to the dictatorship of a minority over a majority, it would result in the dictatorship of the proletarian majority over a bourgeois minority.  However, the Bolshevik Revolution did result in oppression and mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale.  How to rescue Marx?  We could say that the revolution wasn’t really a proletarian revolution.  That would certainly have come as a shock to Lenin and his cronies.  If not a proletarian revolution, what kind was it?  There aren’t really many choices.  Was it a bourgeois revolution?  Then how is it that all the “owners of the social means of production” who were unlucky enough to remain in the country had their throats slit?  Who among the major players was an “owner of the social means of production?  Lenin?  Trotsky?  Stalin?  I doubt it.  If not a bourgeois revolution, could it have been a feudal revolution?  Not likely in view of the fact that virtually the entire surviving Russian nobility could be found a few years later waiting tables in French restaurants.  If we take Marx at his word, it must, in fact, have been a proletarian revolution, and Marx, in fact, must have been dead wrong.  In one of the last things he wrote, Trotsky, probably the best and the brightest of all the old Bolsheviks, admitted as much.  He had hoped until the end that Stalinism was merely a form of “bureaucratic parasitism,” and the proletariat would soon shrug it off and take charge as they should have from the start.  However, just before he was murdered by one of Stalin’s assassins, he wrote,

    If, however, it is conceded that the present war (World War II) 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.

    And so it did.  Trotsky, convinced socialist that he was, saw the handwriting on the wall at last.  However, Trotsky was a very smart man.  Obviously, our latter day socialists aren’t quite as smart.  It follows that we drop the history of Communism down Orwell’s “memory hold” at our peril.  If we refuse to learn anything from the Communist experiment, we may well find them foisting another one on us before long.  Those who do want to learn something about it would do well to be wary of latter day “interpretations.”  With Communism, as with anything else, it’s necessary to consult the source literature yourself if you want to uncover anything resembling the truth.  There is a vast amount of great material out there.  Allow me to mention a few of my personal favorites.

    There were actually two Russian Revolutions in 1917.  In the first, which occurred in March (new style) the tsar was deposed and a provisional government established in the place of the old monarchy.  Among other things it issued decrees that resulted in a fatal relaxation of discipline in the Russian armies facing the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, paving the way for the Bolshevik coup that took place later that year.  Perhaps the best account of the disintegration of the armies that followed was written by a simple British nurse named Florence Farmborough in her With the Armies of the Tsar; A Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18.  The Communists themselves certainly learned from this experience, executing thousands of their own soldiers during World War II at the least hint of insubordination.  My favorite firsthand account of the revolution itself is The Russian Revolution 1917; An Eyewitness Account, by N. N. Sukhanov, a Russian socialist who played a prominent role in the Provisional Government.  He described Stalin at the time as a “grey blur.”  Sukhanov made the mistake of returning to the Soviet Union.  He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1940.  Another good firsthand account is Political Memoirs, 1905-1917, by Pavel Miliukov.  An outstanding account of the aftermath of the revolution is Cursed Days, by novelist Ivan Bunin.  Good accounts by diplomats include An Ambassador’s Memoirs by French ambassador to the court of the tsar Maurice Paleologue, and British Agent by Bruce Lockhart.

    When it comes to the almost incredible brutality of Communism, it’s hard to beat Solzhenitsyn’s classic The Gulag Archipelago.  Other good accounts include Journey into the Whirlwind by Yevgenia Ginzburg and Back in Time by Nadezhda Joffe.  Ginzburg was the wife of a high Communist official, and Joffe was the daughter of Adolph Joffe, one of the most prominent early Bolsheviks.  Both were swept up in the Great Purge of the late 1930’s, and both were very lucky to survive life in the Gulag camps.  Ginzburg had been “convicted” of belong to a “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist organization,” and almost miraculously escaped being shot outright.  She spent the first years of her sentence in solitary confinement.  In one chapter of her book she describes what happened to an Italian Communist who dared to resist her jailers:

    I heard the sound of several feet, muffled cries, and a shuffling noise as though a body were being pulled along the stone floor.  Then there was a shrill cry of despair; it continued for a long while on the same note, and stopped abruptly.

    It was clear that someone was being dragged into a punishment cell and was offering resistance… The cry rang out again and stopped suddenly, as though the victim had been gagged… But it continued – a penetrating, scarcely human cry which seemed to come from the victim’s very entrails, to be viscous and tangible as it reverberated in the narrow space.  Compared with it, the cries of a woman in labor were sweet music.  They, after all, express hope as well as anguish, but here there was only a vast despair.

    I felt such terror as I had not experienced since the beginning of my wanderings through this inferno.  I felt that at any moment I should start screaming like my unknown neighbor, and from that it could only be a step to madness.

    At that moment I heard clearly, in the midst of the wailing, the words “Communista Italiana, Communista Italiana!”  So that was it!  No doubt she had fled from Mussolini just as Klara, my cellmate at Butyrki, had fled from Hitler.

    I heard the Italian’s door opened, and a kind of slithering sound which I could not identify.  Why did it remind me of flower beds?  Good God, it was a hose!  So Vevers (one of her jailers) had not been joking when he had said to me:  “We’ll hose you down with freezing water and then shove you in a punishment cell.”

    The wails became shorter as the victim gasped for breath.  Soon it was a tiny shrill sound, like a gnat’s.  The hose played again; then I heard blows being struck, and the iron door was slammed to.  Dead silence.

    That was just a minute part of the reality of the “worker’s paradise.”  Multiply it millions of times and you will begin to get some inkling of the reality of Communism under Stalin.  Many of the people who wrote such accounts began as convinced Communists and remained so until the end of their days.  They simply couldn’t accept the reality that the dream they had dedicated their lives to was really a nightmare.  Victor Serge was another prominent Bolshevik and “Trotskyist” who left an account of his own struggle to make sense of what he saw happening all around him in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

    Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached.  As for the idea that the bureaucratic counterrevolution had attained power, and that a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it.  From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party, and we still owed everything to it:  we must live only for it, since only through it could we serve the Revolution.  We were defeated by Party patriotism:  It both provoked us to rebel and turned us against ourselves.

    Serge was lucky.  He was imprisoned years before the Great Purge began in earnest, and was merely sentenced to internal exile in Siberia.  The secret police even supplied him and a fellow exile with a bread ration.  After a few years, thanks to pressure from foreign socialists, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  Conditions for the normal citizens of Orenburg where he spent his exile, were, if anything, worse than his, even though more than a decade had elapsed since the advent of the “worker’s paradise.”  In the following he describes what happened when they received their bread ration:

    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, 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…”  Bobrov and I decided to go out only by turns, so as to keep an eye on the bread.

    So much for the look of real oppression, as opposed to the somewhat less drastic versions that occupy the florid imaginations of today’s Social Justice Warriors.  Speaking of SJW’s, especially of the type whose tastes run to messianic revolutionary ideologies, the demise of Communism has had an interesting effect.  It has pulled the rug out from under their feet, leaving them floating in what one might describe as an ideological vacuum.  Somehow writing furious diatribes against Trump on Facebook just doesn’t tickle the same itch as Communism did in its day.  When it comes to fanatical worldviews, oddly enough, radical Islam is the only game in town.  The SJWs can’t really fall for it hook, line and sinker the way they once did for Communism.  After all, its ideology is diametrically opposed to what they’ve claimed to believe in lo these many years.  The result has been the weird love affair between the radical Left and Islam that’s been such an obvious aspect of the ideological scene lately, complete with bold flirtations and coy, steamy glances from afar.  Strange bedfellows indeed!

    In terms of the innate, ingroup/outgroup behavior of human beings I’ve often discussed on this blog, the outgroup of the Communist ingroup was, of course, the “bourgeoisie.”  If even the most tenuous connection could be made between some individual and the “bourgeoisie,” it became perfectly OK to murder and torture that individual, after the fashion of our species since time immemorial.  We saw nearly identical behavior directed against the “aristocrats” after the French Revolution, and against the Jews under the Nazis.  If our species learns nothing else from its experiment with Communism, it is to be hoped that we at least learn the extreme danger of continuing to uncritically indulge this aspect of our behavioral repertoire.  I realize that it is very likely to be a vain hope.  If anything, ingroup/outgroup identification according to ideology is intensifying and becoming increasingly dangerous.  The future results are unpredictable, but are very unlikely to be benign.  Let us at least hope that, under the circumstances, no new messianic secular religion appears on the scene to fill the vacuum left by Communism.  We can afford to wait a few more centuries for that.

  • Trotsky on Proletarian Morality

    Posted on April 29th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You might say Leon Trotsky was the “best” of the old Bolsheviks.  He was smart, was familiar with the work of a host of important thinkers beyond the usual Marx and Hegel, and wrote in a style that was a great deal more entertaining than the cock-sure, “scientific” certainties of Lenin or the quasi-liturgical screeds of Stalin.  He also had a very rational understanding of morality, right up to the point where his embrace of Marxism forced him to stumble across the is-ought divide.  He set down his essential thought on the subject in an essay entitled Their Morals and Ours, which appeared in the June 1938 edition of The New International.

    Trotsky begins by jettisoning objective morality, summarizing in a nutshell a truth that is perfectly obvious to religious believers but that atheist moralists so often seem unable to grasp:

    Let us admit for the moment that neither personal nor social ends can justify the means. Then it is evidently necessary to seek criteria outside of historical society and those ends which arise in its development. But where? If not on earth, then in the heavens. In divine revelation popes long ago discovered faultless moral criteria. Petty secular popes speak about eternal moral truths without naming their original source. However, we are justified in concluding: since these truths are eternal, they should have existed not only before the appearance of half-monkey-half-man upon the earth but before the evolution of the solar system. Whence then did they arise? The theory of eternal morals can in nowise survive without god.

    It is a tribute to the power of human moral emotions that the Sam Harris school of atheists continue doggedly concocting “scientific” theories of morality in spite of this simple and seemingly self-evident truth.  It follows immediately on rejection of the God hypothesis.  In spite of that, legions of atheists reject it because they “feel in their bones” that the chimeras of Good and Evil that Mother Nature has seen fit to dangle before their eyes must be real.  It just can’t be that all their noble ideals are mere artifacts of evolution, and so they continue tinkering on their hopeless systems as the “ignorant” religious fundamentalists smirk in the background.

    The very title of Trotsky’s essay reveals that he understood another fundamental aspect of human morality – its dual nature.  In spite of approaching the subject via Marx instead of Darwin, he understood the difference between ingroups and outgroups.  In the jargon of Marxism, these became “classes.”  Thus, Trotsky’s ingroup was the proletariat, and his outgroup the bourgeoisie, and he found the notion that identical moral criteria should be applied to “oppressors” and “oppressed” alike absurd:

    Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ or Mohammed; whoever is not satisfied with eclectic hodge-podges must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.

    Let us note in justice that the most sincere and at the same time the most limited petty bourgeois moralists still live even today in the idealized memories of yesterday and hope for its return. They do not understand that morality is a function of the class struggle; that democratic morality corresponds to the epoch of liberal and progressive capitalism; that the sharpening of the class struggle in passing through its latest phase definitively and irrevocably destroyed this morality; that in its place came the morality of fascism on one side, on the other the morality of proletarian revolution.

    Trotsky was quite familiar with Darwinian explanations of morality.  One might say that, like so many Marxists who came after him, he was a “Blank Slater,” but certainly not in the same rigid, dogmatic sense as the later versions who denied the very existence of human behavioral predispositions.  He allowed that there might be such a thing as “human nature,” but only to the extent that it didn’t get in the way of the proper development of “history.”  For example,

    But do not elementary moral precepts exist, worked out in the development of mankind as an integral element necessary for the life of every collective body? Undoubtedly such precepts exist but the extent of their action is extremely limited and unstable.  Norms “obligatory upon all” become the less forceful the sharper the character assumed by the class struggle. The highest pitch of the class struggle is civil war which explodes into mid-air all moral ties between the hostile classes.

    He didn’t realize that these “elementary moral precepts” were just as capable of accommodating the Marxist “classes” as ingroups and outgroups as they are of enabling more “natural” perceptions of one’s own clan of hunter-gatherers and the next one over in the same roles.  His conclusion that these “precepts” were relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things was reinforced by the fact that he was also familiar with and had a predictable allergic reaction to the work of those who derived imaginary, quasi-objective and un-Marxist “natural laws” from “human nature”:

    Moralists of the Anglo-Saxon type, in so far as they do not confine themselves to rationalist utilitarianism, the ethics of bourgeois bookkeeping, appear conscious or unconscious students of Viscount Shaftesbury, who at the beginning of the 18th century deduced moral judgments from a special “moral sense” supposedly once and for all given to man.

    The “evolutionary” utilitarianism of Spencer likewise abandons us half-way without an answer, since, following Darwin, it tries to dissolve the concrete historical morality in the biological needs or in the “social instincts” characteristic of a gregarious animal, and this at a time when the very understanding of morality arises only in an antagonistic milieu, that is, in a society torn by classes.

    Other than the concocters of “natural law,” there was another powerful barrier in the way of Trotsky’s grasping the fundamental significance of his “elementary moral precepts” – his own, powerful moral emotions.   According to his autobiography, these manifested themselves at a very young age as powerful reactions to what he perceived as the oppression of the weak by the strong.  As Jonathan Haidt might have predicted, they were concentrated in the “Care/harm,” “Liberty/oppression,” and “Fairness/cheating” “foundations” of morality described in his The Righteous Mind as characteristic of the ideologues of the Left.  It was inconceivable to Trotsky that the ultimate cause of these exalted emotions was to be found in a subset of the evolved behavioral traits of our species that have no “purpose,” and exist purely because they happened to increase the odds that his ancestors would survive and reproduce.  And so it was that, as noted above, he skipped cheerfully across the is-ought divide, hardly noticing that he’d even crossed the line.  At the end of the essay we discover that this sober rejecter of all absolute and objective moralities has somehow discovered a magical philosopher’s stone that enabled him to distinguish “higher” from “lower” moralities:

    To a revolutionary Marxist there can be no contradiction between personal morality and the interests of the party, since the party embodies in his consciousness the very highest tasks and aims of mankind… Does it not seem that “amoralism” in the given case is only a pseudonym for higher human morality?

    Not all will reach that shore, many will drown. But to participate in this movement with open eyes and with an intense will – only this can give the highest moral satisfaction to a thinking being!

    Let us say that it provided Trotsky with moral satisfaction, and leave it at that.  It is certainly easier to forgive him for such a non sequitur than the more puritanical among the New Atheists of today, who have witnessed the collapse of the Blank Slate, can have no excuse for failing to understand where morality “comes from,” and yet still insist on edifying the rest of us with their freshly minted universal and “scientific” moral systems.

    As it happens, there is a poignant footnote to Trotsky’s essay.  Even at the time he wrote it, he probably knew in his heart of hearts that his earthly god had failed.  By then, he could only maintain his defiant faith in Marxism by some convoluted theoretical revisions that must have seemed implausible to a man of his intelligence.  According to the dogma of his “Fourth International,” the Bolshevik coup of 1917 had, indeed, been a genuine proletarian revolution.  However, soon after seizing power, the proletariat had somehow gone to sleep, and allowed the sly bourgeoisie to regain control, using Stalin as their tool.  The historical precedent for this remarkable historical double back flip was the Thermidorian reaction of the French Revolution.  As all good Marxists know, this had ended in the defeat of Robespierre and the Jacobins, who were the “real revolutionaries,” by the dark minions of the ancien regime.  A more realistic interpretation of the events of 9 Thermidor is that it was a logical response on the part of perfectly sensible men to the realization that, if they did nothing, they were sure to be the next victims of Madame Guillotine.  No matter, like the pastor of some tiny fundamentalist sect who insists that only his followers are “true Christians,” and only they will go to heaven, Trotsky insisted that only his followers were the “true revolutionaries” of 1917.

    The fact that he took such license with Marxist dogma didn’t prevent Trotsky from grasping what was going on in the 1930’s much more clearly than the “parlor pink” Stalinist apologists of the time.  Here’s what he had to say about he Duranty school of Stalinist stooges:

    The King’s Counselor, Pritt, who succeeded with timeliness in peering under the chiton of the Stalinist Themis and there discovered everything in order, took upon himself the shameless initiative. Romain Rolland, whose moral authority is highly evaluated by the Soviet publishing house bookkeepers, hastened to proclaim one of his manifestos where melancholy lyricism unites with senile cynicism. The French League for the Rights of Man, which thundered about the “amoralism of Lenin and Trotsky” in 1917 when they broke the military alliance with France, hastened to screen Stalin’s crimes in 1936 in the interests of the Franco-Soviet pact. A patriotic end justifies, as is known, any means. The Nation and The New Republic closed their eyes to Yagoda’s exploits since their “friendship” with the U.S.S.R. guaranteed their own authority. Yet only a year ago these gentlemen did not at all declare Stalinism and Trotskyism to be one and the same. They openly stood for Stalin, for his realism, for his justice and for his Yagoda. They clung to this position as long as they could.

    Until the moment of the execution of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, and the others, the big bourgeoisie of the democratic countries, not without pleasure, though blanketed with fastidiousness, watched the execution of the revolutionists in the U.S.S.R. In this sense The Nation and The New Republic, not to speak of Duranty, Louis Fischer, and their kindred prostitutes of the pen, fully responded to the interests of “democratic” imperialism. The execution of the generals alarmed the bourgeoisie, compelling them to understand that the advanced disintegration of the Stalinist apparatus lightened the tasks of Hitler, Mussolini and the Mikado. The New York Times cautiously but insistently began to correct its own Duranty.

    Those who don’t understand what Trotsky is getting at with his imputations of Stalinism regarding The Nation and The New Republic need only read a few back issues of those magazines from the mid to late 1930’s.  It won’t take them long to get the point.

    Even if the gallant old Bolshevik still firmly believed in his own revisions of Marxism in 1938, there can be little doubt that the scales had fallen from his eyes shortly before Stalin had him murdered in 1940.  By then, World War II was already underway.  In an essay that appeared in his last book, a collection of essays entitled In Defense of Marxism, 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.

    The assassin who ended Trotsky’s life with an ice pick was perhaps the most merciful of Stalin’s many executioners.  There could have been little joy for the old Bolshevik in witnessing the bloody dictator’s triumph in 1945, and the final collapse of all his glorious dreams.

     

  • Academic Left Update: Party Time at Swarthmore

    Posted on May 13th, 2013 Helian 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.”

  • Trotsky and “The Revolution Betrayed” – Defending the Indefensible

    Posted on April 14th, 2013 Helian 2 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.

     

     

  • Victor Serge’s Personalities

    Posted on March 20th, 2013 Helian 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.

     

  • The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge

    Posted on March 12th, 2013 Helian 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.

     

    Victor Serge

    Victor Serge

     

  • Herbert Spencer and Milovan Djilas; a Post Mortem of Communism

    Posted on December 9th, 2012 Helian 1 comment

    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.”

    Herbert Spencer

     

  • The Rise of The Cliodynamicists

    Posted on August 22nd, 2012 Helian No comments

    Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events.  He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end.  There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent.  The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

    According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020.  The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals.  One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers.  There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers.  This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.

    Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data.  Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years.  For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.

    Well, what of it?  At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.

    Hari Seldon

  • A European Liberal Interprets the French Election

    Posted on May 7th, 2012 Helian No comments

    Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal.  Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden.  His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends.  His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.

    As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy.  While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented.  No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned.  He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:

    It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution.  No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest.  La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization.  In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism.  Now the time has come for that to happen again.  The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence.  A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe.  The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.

    Great shades of 1789!  Break out Madame Guillotine.  What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics?  It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union.  Has austerity worked?  Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”

    …Can one overcome a recession by saving?  The answer is:  No.  those who save during a recession deepen the recession.

    I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not.  Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other.  Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.

    No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France.  It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany.  The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat.  Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along.  German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?

    Not according to Augstein!  As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.

    The Germans are poster boys of the market economy.  Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany.  It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe.  She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl.  Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east.  Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.

    Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country.  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?  If you’re successful, you must be evil.  The proper response is guilt.  Poor Germans!  They just can’t ever seem to catch a break.  Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.

    According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe.  What’s that supposed to mean?  That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?”  If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be:  “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”

    Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out.  Who am I to say?  I’m no economist.  There’s an election in Germany next year.  If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting.  We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.

  • N. N. Sukhanov and the Poverty of (Marxist) Philosophy

    Posted on April 7th, 2012 Helian No comments

    The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions.  The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year.  Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events.  He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution.  He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky.  More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.

    In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type.  Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.”  By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them.  The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant “philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie.  A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:

    I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section.  Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.  “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”

    …in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.

    As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come.  Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”

    The great exception was, of course, the proletariat.  As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers.  They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality.  For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,

    It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting.  The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country.  An enormous difference leaped to the eye:  the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.

    This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes.  All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest.  Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses.  So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.”  Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit.  In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature.  Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them.  In the end, of course, human nature had the last word.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”

    Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments.  This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology.  It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better.  On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will.  Thus, to become the vanguard of the “expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not.  They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government.  As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.”  In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution.  Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.

    So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.”  His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!”  He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.”  After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,

    So the thing was done.  We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles.  And that was the least of it:  in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.

    A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg.  The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger.  By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.  By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”

    I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution.  But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress.  To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.

    All this, of course, was a complete chimera.  Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone.  The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.

    The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.