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  • The Red Centennial

    Posted on November 7th, 2017 Helian 4 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.

  • Trump and the “Russian Hackers”

    Posted on January 15th, 2017 Helian No comments

    I’ve just read the unclassified version of the U.S. Intelligence community’s report on “Russian hacking,” entitled, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution.” A pdf version is available online, and I hope my readers will have a look at it.  It is almost unbelievably lame.

    The document begins with the assurance that it is an unclassified version of a “highly classified assessment.”  This, of course, begs the question of how some of this “highly classified” information was leaked to the press.  I personally think this is the most important take-away from the whole “Russian hacking” flap.  Our intelligence community in general and the CIA in particular are still infested with leakers who apparently had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they swore to protect this “highly classified information.”  Any potential human intelligence source who seriously expects them to protect his or her identity must have a death wish.

    As we read on, we learn about the “analytic process” that was used to produce the report, its scope, the sources of information used, etc.  Eventually, we come to a section entitled “Key Judgments.”  We shudder as we learn that,

    Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.  We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.

    If the goal of the document was really to inform our political leaders, it’s odd that no attempt was made to put the above in context.  By “context” I mean the “clear preferences” of other government leaders.  For example, French President Hollande revealed his “clear preference” by announcing that Trump gave him a “retching feeling.”  Then British Prime Minister David Cameron publicly announced his opinion that Trump is “divisive, stupid, and wrong.”  The British Parliament seriously debated banning Trump from travel to the UK because of his “hate speech.”  The President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, declared that “Trump is a problem for the whole world.”  Germany’s Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, called Trump a threat, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly praised Hillary Clinton.  Mexico’s President Nieto didn’t stick at violating Godwin’s Law, comparing Trump to Hitler.  Apparently, these expressions of “clear preferences” by other government leaders are not considered a threat by the people who run our intelligence agencies, because their “clear preferences” were for the correct candidate.  In short, then, such a preference was only deemed objectionable if it happened to be for Trump.

    As far as actual “hacking” is concerned, the content of the document is of the flimsiest.  Basically, it was supposed to have consisted of “intrusions into US state and local electoral boards,” which were apparently conducted for the purpose of collecting information and had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the election.  In addition to that, as we all know, the Russians were supposed to have gained access to the DNC emails, and have passed damaging information therein to WikiLeaks.  According to the document, “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.”  In other words, the “hacked” information was true, and should have been reported by our own media, but wasn’t, because it didn’t fit the narrative.  Apparently the message here is that the U.S. voting public should have been “protected” from the truth, but was “unfairly” subjected to it by those nefarious Russians.

    Beyond that we have the assurances of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that the information involved was so poorly protected that it could have been hacked by a 14-year old; no Russian meddling was necessary.  Given Hillary’s adventures with classified State Department information on her personal server, I suspect there’s little reason to doubt the WikiLeaks version.  I note in passing that the “progressive Left” considered Assange such a hero that they saw fit to release a movie about his exploits (Underground; The Julian Assange Story – 2012), and another in which he played a major role (The Fifth Estate – 2013).  No doubt they’re feeling very ill-used at this point.  They never suspected that Assange would be capable of divulging information that didn’t fit the “correct” narrative.  In any case, paltry as it is, that’s the extent of the actual “hacking” alluded to in the document.

    Reading on, we finally discover the identity of the “real culprit.”  It turns out to be none other than RT America, a Russian funded news channel.  Much of the document proper and a whole, five page appendix are devoted almost entirely to RT!  We shudder to learn that “RT’s coverage of Secretary Clinton throughout the US presidential campaign was consistently negative.”  It devoted extensive coverage to the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, that known bastion of right wing conservatives and Trump deplorables.  It dared to mention the existence of election fraud and voting machine vulnerabilities in the U.S.  Even more damning is the document’s assurance that RT ran “anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”  As we all know, Hillary and the “progressive Left” have always been “yuge” supporters of fracking.  NOT!!!

    No kidding, dear reader, the meat of this “assessment” is nothing but a rant about RT’s vile criminal act of exercising its right to freedom of speech.  When I was done reading it I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The entire mainstream media in the U.S. was utterly in the tank for Hillary from the start.  I have never come across a single article about Trump therein that couldn’t be characterized as “negative.”  The same can be said of another “state-funded news channel,” the BBC.  There was a negative article about Trump on the BBC website every single day I happened to look for the last three months before the election.  The same can certainly also be said of both the English and German versions of the German media.  I follow it daily, and never found anything therein about Trump that could not be characterized as “negative.”  What can I say?  To outweigh all that, RT America must be a more effective propaganda tool than anything ever heard of since the days of Barnum and Bailey!  Hitler himself would have been green with envy!

    Apparently this is the sort of drivel we’ve been getting for the $80 billion we invest in our intelligence services every year.  It would seem they’ve degenerated into hidebound bureaucracies that are no longer even capable of being embarrassed by the transparent stupidity of such “highly classified” assessments.  It could hardly hurt to start over from scratch.  We might ask the Russians for help with that.  I suggest we take the 1918 Cheka as a model.  I’ve heard that their methods were somewhat harsh, but by all accounts they were able to collect intelligence that was actually worthy of the name, and at bargain basement prices.  We could use a man like Felix Dzerzhinsky again!  Someone should tell Trump.

    UPDATE:  Mild-mannered Czech physicist Lubos Motl has a similar take at The Reference Frame.

    Felix Dzerzhinsky

  • On Losing Our “Moral Compass” in Syria

    Posted on February 13th, 2016 Helian 2 comments

    It’s important to understand morality.  For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea.  Syria is a case in point.  Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN.  The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.”  In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well.  I’m not so sure about that.

    In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I.  Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II.  Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose.  We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.”  He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN.  Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.

    If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies.  It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations.  According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.”  Apparently all that has changed.  Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.”  Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.”  It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces.  Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN.  We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.

    I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be.  Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind.  However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article.  In his words,

    Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.

    Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.

    It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government.  In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia.  It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914.  Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today?  It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.

    What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government?  It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya.  Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum.  So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.”  Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small.  In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad.  Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels?  Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?

    Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders.  Great shades of the Crimean War!  What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO?  Turkey is a de facto Islamist state.  She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel.  Remember the Palestinians?  Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling.  She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East.  She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds.  She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.”  Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO?  NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.

    But I digress.  The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well.  It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN.  Forget about the “moral compass.”  Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires.  Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.

    Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present.  It exists for that reason alone.  It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive.  We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.

  • MSNBC’s Orwellian Take on “Animal Farm”

    Posted on May 9th, 2014 Helian No comments

    There’s been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately about MSNBC host Krystal Ball’s “re-interpretation” of Animal Farm as an anti-capitalist parable.  The money quote from her take in the video below:

    At its heart, Animal Farm is about tyranny and the likelihood of those in power to abuse that power. It’s clear that tendency is not only found in the Soviet communist experience. In fact, if you read Animal Farm today, it seems to warn not of some now non-existent communist threat but of the power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy elites and corporations…

    As new research shows that we already live a sort of oligarchy that the preferences of the masses literally do not matter and that the only thing that counts is the needs and desires of the elites, Animal Farm is a useful cautionary tale warning of the corruption of concentrated power, no matter in whose hands that power rests.

    Well, not exactly, Krystal.  As astutely pointed out by CJ Ciaramella at The Federalist,

    This is such a willfully stupid misreading that it doesn’t warrant much comment. However, for those who haven’t read Animal Farm since high school, as seems to be the case with Ball: The book is a satire of Soviet Russia specifically and a parable about totalitarianism in general. Every major event in the book mirrors an event in Soviet history, from the Bolshevik Revolution to Trotsky fleeing the country to Stalin’s cult of personality.

    Indeed.  Animal Farm’s Napoleon as the Koch Brothers?  Snowball as Thomas Picketty?  I don’t think so.  True, you have to be completely clueless about the history of the Soviet Union to come up with such a botched interpretation, but, after all, that’s not too surprising.   For citizens of our fair Republic, cluelessness about the history of the Soviet Union is probably the norm.  The real irony here is that you also have to be completely clueless about Orwell to bowdlerize Animal Farm into an anti-capitalist parable.  If that’s your agenda, why not fish out something more appropriate from his literary legacy.  Again, quoting Ciaramella,

    What is most impressive, though, is that MSNBC couldn’t locate an appropriate reference to inequality in the works of a lifelong socialist. It’s not as if one has to search hard to find Orwell railing against class divisions. He wrote an entire book, The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible living conditions in the industrial slums of northern England.

    Not to mention Down and Out in Paris and London and four volumes of essays full of rants against the Americans for being so backward about accepting the blessings of socialism.  Indeed, Orwell, has been “re-interpreted” on the Right just as enthusiastically as on the Left of the political spectrum.  For example, from Brendan Bordelon at The Libertarian Republic,

    Leaving aside the obvious historical parallels between Animal Farm and the Soviet Union, the inescapable message is that government-enforced equality inevitably leads to oppression and further inequality, as fallible humans (or pigs) use powerful enforcement tools for their own personal gain.

    Sorry, Brendan, but that message is probably more escapable than you surmise.  Orwell was, in fact, a firm supporter of “government-enforced equality,” at least to the extent that he was a life-long, dedicated socialist.  Indeed, he thought the transition to socialism in the United Kingdom was virtually inevitable in the aftermath of World War II.

    In short, if you’re really interested in learning what Orwell was trying to “tell” us, whether in Animal Farm or the rest of his work, it’s probably best to read what he had to say about it himself.

     

  • 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.

     

  • German Media Update: The Honeymoon is Definitely Over

    Posted on March 26th, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    Times have changed in Germany since Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke before 200,000 enraptured fans in Berlin.  Only 6,000 turned out to hear him when he returned last year.  Meanwhile, the media there, particularly since the recent events in Ukraine, has been resurrecting themes that were familiar during the Cold War.  The political left is beginning to turn to Russia, and the political right is decrying the weakness of the Obama Administration.  For example, while the overall tone of the main news magazine, Der Spiegel, has been anti-Russian, Jakob Augstein, whose column “When in Doubt, to the Left,” appears there regularly, wrote a couple of days ago:

    Media and political pundits want to breathe new life into an old “face of the enemy” (Feindbild):  the evil Russian.  As far as Russia is concerned, the West is in once again stuck in the same rut as in the cynical days of yesteryear, when US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger publicly expressed his hope that the superpower in the East would go under “with a whimper, not with a bang.”  Hillary Clinton just compared Putin to Hitler.  That’s how one recommends oneself in the US as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.  Meanwhile, the Russia policy of the two East Germans Merkel and (German President) Gauck is as resentful as if they were exploiting their offices for private trauma therapy.

    Meanwhile the polls are showing that the public isn’t inclined to tag along.  A majority of Germans do not consider Putin unreasonable for viewing the Crimea as a Russian sphere of influence.  (As opposed to Putin) the tendency to ignore and violate borders is a characteristic of the West.  It constantly seeks to fish in troubled waters (“periklitieren”), to use one of Bismarck’s favorite expressions, outside of its own sphere of influence.  Or, more to the point, it claims the whole world as its sphere of interest.  That’s just the problem.

    The West can never get enough, and is therefore insatiable… The Asians have finally drawn their own conclusions:  the lamb must now itself become the wolf.

    It’s clear from the reader comments that appeared after a recent Spiegel article on the crisis that Augstein hasn’t misrepresented German attitudes.  The article itself, entitled, “The Ukraine:  Obama Expresses Scorn for Ukraine as a Regional Power,” includes the understated byline, “This isn’t how de-escalation should look.”   Some typical examples:

    The ineffectual US President dares to shoot his mouth off like this?  He never seems to come up with anything concrete and positive except stupidities… I demand that his Nobel Peace Prize be revoked. (whiteelephant1)

    The US is clearly on the path of escalation… It would be nice if the German media would adopt a more critical attitude, and not always just go along with everything the US/EU says.  Putin isn’t the danger.  The danger comes from those who now sense an opportunity to finish Russia once and for all.  That’s what this is really about.  (mc6206)

    Very nice, Mr. Obama, just keep playing with fire.  After all, thank God there’s a buffer zone between Russia and your homeland in case Russia loses its nerve.  It’s called EUROPE!  (Korf)

    If Russia is just a “regional power,” and one has more important problems to deal with, why these hysterical attempts to isolate Russia and portray her in a bad light.  Who is supposed to be swallowing such stupidities from Obama?  (itf)

    Well, we’re not exactly seeing a return to the last super-eruption of anti-Americanism in Germany that reached its climax about 15 years ago, but the honeymoon is clearly over.

    UPDATE:  Der Spiegel just published its take on an interview with former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that appeared in the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit.  Schmidt is a highly intelligent man whose memoirs are well worth reading, and who can hardly be described as anti-American.  Der Spiegel headlines the interview, “Former Chancellor Schmidt Defends Putin’s Ukraine Policy.”  The byline reads, “Helmut Schmidt finds the actions of Russia in the Crimea ‘completely understandable,’ and considers sanctions ‘dumb stuff’ (dummes Zeug).  No doubt the situation in Ukraine is dangerous – however, in the former Chancellor’s opinion, the West is at fault.”

    A few excerpts from the article in Der Spiegel:

    Schmidt was highly critical of the way in which the Crimea crisis has been handled in the West.  He referred to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the USA as “dumb stuff.”  In Schmidt’s opinion, attempts to impose further sanctions would be misguided.  For the most part they would have merely symbolic value, “but they would affect the West just as much as the Russians.

    Schmidt’s words provide support to those taking part in the debate in Germany who favor looking at things from the Russian point of view.  Former Chancellor and party colleague Gerhard Schröder recently spoke in similar terms.

    According to Schmidt, the situation in Ukraine is “dangerous, because the West has worked itself into a frenzy.”  (literally, “has become terribly excited”)  As a result, “the overwrought reaction in the West has naturally led to a similar overwrought reaction in Russian public opinion and politics.”  Referring to the (reserved) policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel the 95-year old said, “In this case praise for the caution of the German Chancellor is appropriate.”

    So far the editorial narrative at Der Spiegel has been mainly anti-Russian.  However, there has been a shift to a more circumspect approach lately, with articles critical of right wing nationalists in the current Kiev regime, taking note of western media darling Yulia Timoshenko’s hateful tirade against Putin in an overheard telephone conversation in which she said she was “ready to pick up a machine pistol and shoot this piece of crap in the head,” suggesting the use of nuclear weapons to kill Russians, and so on.  It is noteworthy that the German Green Party, which has tacked to the right in recent years, immediately condemned Schmidt’s comments, while the Party of the Left, positioned to the left of the German Socialist Party (SPD), praised his remarks.

     

  • The Legacy of Leon Trotsky: How far “Left” was the “Left Opposition”?

    Posted on April 16th, 2013 Helian 5 comments

    Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal.  Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths.  In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays.  Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years.  As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.

    For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:

    The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency.  Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.

    In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:

    The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste.  The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.

    The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people.  The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets.  The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.  Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day.  Strange:  it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.

    However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable:  at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.”  Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion.  The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses.  The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.

    Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate.  For example,

    Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.

    His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.”  Times change, and so do ideological dogmas.  Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”

    trotsky

  • 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