Posted on April 16th, 2013 No comments
Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal. Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths. In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays. Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years. As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.
For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:
The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency. Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.
In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:
The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste. The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.
The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people. The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets. The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship. Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day. Strange: it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.
However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable: at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.” Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion. The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses. The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.
Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate. For example,
Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.
His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.” Times change, and so do ideological dogmas. Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”
Posted on April 14th, 2013 No comments
Leon Trotsky was the best and the brightest of the old Bolsheviks. A brilliant revolutionary and military leader, he played seminal roles in organizing both the 1905 and 1917 Bolshevik revolutions in Russia, and without him the Whites may well have won the Russian Civil War. A few years after he defeated the last of the White generals, Stalin ousted him from power. He gave his last public speech in 1927 at the funeral of fellow “left oppositionist” Adolf Joffe, was exiled in 1929, and finally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico in 1940. While in exile, he was kept well-informed about events in the Soviet Union, including the slaughter of the Kulaks, the mass death in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, the unabated hunger and misery of the survivors, and the persistent mass terror with its hundreds of thousands of executions and rapid expansion of the Gulag system. He treated with scorn the breathless praise of Stalin by the ”friends” of the Soviet Union, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, etc. And yet, in spite of it all, he continued defending the Bolshevik Revolution to the end. How could such an intelligent man continue to defend something so vile and destructive?
In fact, it isn’t so hard to understand. Human beings aren’t really particularly intelligent, except in comparison to other animals, and they have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe. Trotsky was a convinced Marxist, and had a powerful incentive to believe that the revolution he had done so much to prepare and execute really was the path to a bright new future rather than the most bloody and destructive debacle in human history, as now seems clear in retrospect. No one likes to face the fact that their life’s work has been in vain, and based on an illusion. Trotsky’s rationalizations were probably similar to those of a great many other supporters of the Stalin regime in the 1930′s, including the “friends” he so despised.
The most concise summary of those rationalizations is probably his, The Revolution Betrayed, which was published in 1936. Here are some of the key quotes:
…by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the state, the revolution made it possible to apply new and incomparably more effective industrial methods. Only thanks to a planned directive was it possible in so brief a span to restore what had been destroyed by the imperialist and civil wars, to create gigantic new enterprises, to introduce new kinds of production and establish new branches of industry.
The vast scope of industrialization in the Soviet Union, as against a background of stagnation and decline in almost the whole capitalist world, appears unanswerably in the following gross indices. Industrial production in Germany, thanks solely to feverish war preparations, is now returning to the level of 1929. Production in Great Britain, holding to the apron strings of protectionism, has raised itself three or four percent during these six years. Industrial production in the United States has declined approximately 25 per cent; in France, more than 30 per cent. First place among capitalist countries is occupied by Japan, who is furiously arming herself and robbing her neighbors. Her production has risen almost 40 percent! But even this exceptional index fades before the dynamic of development in the Soviet Union. Her industrial production has increased during this same period approximately 3.5 times, or 250 percent. The heavy industries have increased their production during the last decade (1925 to 1935) more than ten times.
Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the number of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands – such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization. With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over. Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.
This also ends the quarrel with the reformists in the workers’ movement. Can we compare for one moment their mouselike fussing with the titanic work accomplished by this people aroused to a new life by revolution?
As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair.” At the time Trotsky wrote these words, there was nothing deceptive about them. All of the above seemed to be quite factual. As it happens, he was actually well aware of some of the blemishes to this pretty picture that, in the end, resulted in the demise of Communism. For example,
But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side. There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique; the leadership is not equal to its tasks. Altogether this expresses itself in extremely high production costs and poor quality of product.
The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry. But the coefficient of effective use of tractors is very low. During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 percent of the tractors to capital repairs. A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season… Things are still worse in the sphere of auto transport. In America a truck travels sixty to eighty, or even one hundred thousand kilometers a year; in the Soviet Union only twenty thousand – that is, a third or a fourth as much.
A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated this; commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the consumer.
To the low productivity of labor corresponds a low national income, and consequently a low standard of life for the masses of the people.
In a word, Trotsky saw the Achilles heel. He just couldn’t convince himself it would be fatal. If a man as brilliant as him could still support the regime in spite of all these reservations, and in spite of his clear vision of the ongoing and escalating brutality, is it any wonder that millions of dupes in the West, not as well versed in economics and quick to take at face value the soothing assurances of Stalinist toadies like Walter Duranty that the starvation, executions, and Gulag were all an illusion, should support it as well, in the honest belief that it really did represent a portal to human progress and the workers’ paradise to come? One can grasp the psychology of the useful idiots, the parlor pinks like the Webbs who hadn’t advanced intellectually beyond the stage of seeing in Stalin nothing more threatening than a loving uncle, and reacted furiously to any suggestion that the real picture wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy as the delusion they’d created for themselves. But what of a man like Trotsky? Again, it’s all there in The Revolution Betrayed.
9 Thermidor is a critical date in history for Marxists the world over. It has assumed a sort of mystical quality, supposedly representing the inevitable fate of all revolutions. It is the date that Robespierre was deposed as leader of the French Revolution, the terror that he promoted was ended, and a period of so-called “reaction” set in. For Marxists, Thermidor represents the victory of the counter-revolution. For Trotsky, the victory of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian revolution. No matter that the rise of Stalin didn’t end the terror, but vastly magnified it, and that, far from being “reactionary,” he ended the flirting with capitalism represented by the New Economic Policy of 1921, and collectivized agriculture, policies that had actually long been advocated by Trotsky and his “left opposition.” For a mind steeped in Marxist dogma, nothing was easier than to see the rise of Stalin as the “counter-revolution” in spite of all this. Indeed, chapter 5 of The Revolution is Betrayed is entitled “The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed.” According to Trotsky, the “counter-revolutionaries” were the caste of bureaucrats, opportunist and careerist parasites who preached that, after the shock and exhaustion of revolution and civil war, the proletariat deserved a rest. Alas, the wearied workers were only too ready to listen to this siren song. As Trotsky put it,
The Opposition was isolated. The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general. In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.
To a Marxist like Trotsky, there had to be a class explanation for everything. Thus, Stalin was not a clever and unscrupulous manipulator who had gradually and insidiously gathered the threads of power into his own hands. Rather, he was a secondary figure who just happened to have the good fortune to be chosen by the “new class” of bureaucrats as its tool. Again quoting Trotsky:
It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan. No indeed. Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself. He brought it all the necessary guarantees: the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence. The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself. It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs. A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, as first in its midst.
And what was to be the solution to this unfortunate ascendency of the reaction? After all the misery, starvation, and death, did Trotsky have second thoughts about the wisdom of “proletarian revolutions”? Hardly! He wanted to double down! The gains of the October revolution were to be saved by a new revolution of the resurgent workers that would sweep the bureaucracy aside. This new revolution was to be led by Trotsky’s fourth International, led, of course, by himself.
At the very end, Trotsky began to doubt this fine vision of a victorious proletariat. In In Defense of Marxism, a collection of essays and letters that was the last of his books to appear before his murder, he wrote,
If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.
In the end, of course, the “proletariat” did not fulfill its “mission.” After the war, new Communist revolutions spawned new exploiting bureaucracies, just as had happened in Russia. In none of the new Communist regimes did the state ever show even the faintest sign of “fading away,” as predicted by Marx. But in 1936, all this was still more than a decade off, and the revolutionary hubris was still strong. Millions of parlor pinks and fellow travelers the world over were blinded by the “gigantic achievements” of the Soviet Union, lacked Trotsky’s ability to see the downside, and were convinced that the Great Depression signaled the “inevitable” demise of capitalism, and so, in vast number, became Communists. It is only remarkable that, in the United States, at least, the numbers remained so small. We must be grateful for the fact that we have always been so “politically backward” when it comes to accepting the “scientific” claims of socialist theoreticians. It remained for another one-time Communist, the brilliant Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, to confirm Trotsky’s worst fears, and describe the essential nature of the new exploiters in his The New Class, which appeared in 1957.
The fact that a man as intelligent as Trotsky could have deceived himself so completely for so long in spite of his respect for the truth and his clear perception of the fact that things were not quite going exactly as Marx had predicted does not encourage much hope regarding the collective wisdom of the rest of mankind. It seems that, unless we find a way to become smarter, we will probably eventually find a way to destroy ourselves. In the case of Communism, we have been given a respite. The God of this greatest of all secular religions failed after claiming a mere 100 million human lives. Let us hope we have learned something from the experience. If not, the next great messianic dogma to come along is likely to claim considerably more victims.
Posted on March 20th, 2013 1 comment
The best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution I know of was written by N. N. Sukhanov. I’ve discussed his memoirs in earlier posts. The best eyewitness account I’ve found so far of the Revolution’s aftermath, from 1917 to 1936, was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Both authors were socialist insiders who were personally acquainted with many of the Bolshevik luminaries, both saw stunning events that shaped the history of the 20th century firsthand, and both eventually shared the fate of most of the old Bolsheviks, falling victim to Stalin’s paranoid tyranny. Thanks to western intellectuals familiar with his work, Serge managed to escape Stalin’s clutches. Sukhanov was not so lucky. He disappeared into the Gulag. Both left us with fascinating vignettes of individuals from the most powerful leaders to the most defenseless victims of the new regime. Serge’s are of particular interest, because he was acquainted with several remarkable personalities, such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, from the time of their rise to almost unchallenged power to their fall from grace and execution or exile. Many times he provides insights and details that I have never found in other histories or memoirs.
For example, there are many references to Zinoviev, once all-powerful leader of the Bolshevik party machine in Leningrad. Serge was hardly one of his admirers, and had already come to grief trying to deal with Zinoviev’s Leningrad party machine on more than one occasion. Then there was a remarkable change in the wind, beginning with ”certain events” in 1925;
The storm broke quite out of the blue. Even we were not awaiting its coming. Certain remarks of Zinoviev, whom I had seen weary and dull-eyed, should have warned me… Passing through Moscow in the spring of 1925, I learnt that Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to all appearances still all-powerful as the two foremost figures in the Politburo since Lenin’s death, were about to be overthrown at the forthcoming Fourteenth Party Congress.
My own opinion was that it was impossible for the bureaucratic regime stemming from Zinoviev to get any harsher; nothing could be worse than it. Any change must offer some opportunity for purification. I was very much mistaken.
As a matter of fact, the Fourteenth Congress, of December 1925, was a well-rehearsed play, acted just as its producer had planned over several years. All the regional secretaries, who were appointed by the General Secretary (Stalin), had sent Congress delegates who were loyal to his service. The easy victory of the Stalin-Rykov-Bukharin coalition was an office victory over Zinoviev’s group, which only controlled offices in Leningrad. The Leningrad delegation, led by Zinoviev, Yevdokimov, and Bukayev and supported by Kamenev – all doomed to the firing squad in 1936 – found itself isolated when it came to the vote.
Serge also left interesting details on the lives of players who may have been lesser known, but were fascinating in their own right, including his fellow author Sukhanov (his party name. His real name was Himmer);
Nikolai Nikolayevich Sukhanov (Himmer), a Menshevik won over to the Party, a member of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception in 1917, who had written ten volumes of valuable notes on the beginnings of the Revolution and worked in the Planning Commissions with his fellow defendants Groman, Ginsberg, and Rubin, did have a kind of salon, in which talk between intimates was very free and the situation in the country as of 1930 was judged to be utterly catastrophic, as it undeniably was. In this circle, escape from the crisis was envisaged in terms of a new Soviet Government, combining the best brains of the Party’s Right (Rykov, Tomsky, and Bukharin, perhaps), certain veterans of the Russian revolutionary movement, and the legendary army chief Blücher. It must be emphasized that for practically three years between 1930 and 1934, the new totalitarian regime maintained itself by sheer terror, against all rational expectations and with every appearance, all the time, of imminent collapse.
In other words, Sukhanov had been tempting fate. Repeating the mistake of so many others, he underestimated Stalin. Then there was the case of Andres Nin, unknown to most readers, but a hero, not only to Serge, but to another great foe of Stalinism; George Orwell. Here is the story as told by Serge;
Perhaps, for the sake of the reader ignorant of those past dramas, I must press home one example. Andres Nin spent his youth in Russia, first as a loyal Communist, then as a militant of the Left Opposition. When he returned to Spain he had undergone imprisonment by the reactionary Republic, translated Dostoevsky and Pilnyak, attacked the incipient Fascist tendencies, and helped to found a revolutionary Marxist party. The Revolution of July 1936 (in which the Catalan anarchists took power in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, ed.) had elevated him to the Ministry of Justice in the Generalitat of Catalonia. In this capacity he had established popular tribunals, ended the terrorism of irresponsible elements, and instituted a new marriage code. He was a scholarly Socialist and a first-rate brain, highly regarded by all who knew him and on close terms of friendship with Companys, the head of the Catalan Government. Without the slightest shame the Communists denounced him as “an agent of Franco-Hitler-Mussolini,” and refused to sign the “pact against slander” proposed to them by all the other parties; they walked out of a meeting at which the other parties asked them, all calmly, for proofs; in their own press they appealed continually to the evidence of the Moscow Trials, in which, however, Nin’s name had never once been mentioned. All the same, Nin’s popularity increased, and deservedly; nothing else remained but to kill him.
Orwell provides the details of how Nin’s murder was managed by the Stalinists in his Homage to Catalonia. In order to eliminate any independent socialist voices in the Spanish Republican government, they cooked up fairy tales about a “fascist plot,” and began herding their enemies into concentration camps they had already set up in Spain outside the control of the Republican government. In Orwell’s words,
Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot,’ radio communication with the enemy, documents signed in invisible ink, etc., etc… And already the rumors were flying round that people were being secretly shot in jail. There was a lot of exaggeration about this, but it certainly happened in some cases, and there is not much doubt that it happened in the case of Nin. After his arrest Nin was transferred to Valencia and thence to Madrid, and as early as 21 June the rumor reached Barcelona that he had been shot. Later the same rumor took a more definite shape: Nin had been shot in prison by the secret police and his body dumped into the street. This story came from several sources, including Federica Montsenys, an ex-member of the Government. From that day to this, Nin has never been heard of alive again.
The works of Serge are full of countless similar accounts of how the lives of individuals great and small had been destroyed by Stalin’s terror, the misery, mass shootings, and starvation in the Soviet Union, the complete suppression of dissent, etc. In his words,
The persecution went on for years, inescapable, tormenting and driving people crazy. Every few months the system devoured a new class of victim. Once they ran out of Trotskyists, they turned on the kulaks; then it was the technicians, then the former bourgeois, merchants and officers deprived of their useless right to vote; then it was the priests and the believers; then the Right Opposition… The GPU next proceeded to extort gold and jewels, not balking at the use of torture. I saw it. These political and psychological diversions were necessary because of the terrible poverty. Destitution was the driving force.
When Serge tried to publish the truth in the west, his experience was the same as Orwell’s. “Progressives” of all stripes couldn’t bear to have their charming dream of a worker’s paradise smashed. They reacted with rage. In Serge’s words,
…the succession of executions went on into the thousands, without trials of any sort. And in every country of the civilized world, learned and “progressive” jurists were to be found who thought these proceedings to be correct and convincing. It was turning into a tragic lapse of the whole modern conscience. In France the League for the Rights of Man, with a reputation going back to Dreyfus, had a jurist of this variety in its midst. The League’s executive was divided into a majority that opposed any investigation, and an outraged minority that eventually resigned. (Note the uncanny resemblance to the selective outrage of ”human rights” groups in our own time) The argument generally put forward amounted to: “Russia is our ally…” It was imbecilic reasoning – there is more than a hint of suicide about an international alliance that turns into moral and political servility – but it worked powerfully.
Serge persisted. When “progressive” sheets refused to publish his accounts, he turned to public meetings:
The dreadful machine carried on it grinding, intellectuals and politicians snubbed us, public opinion on the Left was dumb and blind. From the depth of a meeting hall, a Communist worker shouted at me: “Traitor! Fascist! Nothing you can do will stop the Soviet Union from remaining the fatherland of the oppressed!”
For many, the hallucination was only finally shattered by the abject decay and final collapse of Communism. For some, it persists to this day. One can but hope that the next time a great messianic ideology roles around, we will have learned something from our experience with the last one.
Posted on March 12th, 2013 9 comments
I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism. History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior. From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism. It’s not a pretty picture. In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia. One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith. It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”
Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published. These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end. A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20′s and early 30′s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists. As a result he was treated “gently.” He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation. The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg. The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived. They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU. Serge recalls,
I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door. “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!” Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders. He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching: “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!” They were almost naked. We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began. The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea. When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”
The maidservants story was hardly unique. Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves. Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps. Serge describes many other such scenes. Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:
One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.
Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger. One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion. I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist. I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.
My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off. He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter. They left him lying there, bloody but full.
At the rationing office a poster announced: “Grandparents have no right to food cards.” All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.
These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union. Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope. He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time. Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20′s and 30′s. The western intellectuals averted their eyes. Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!” A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean. Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.
and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,
As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance. I feel as though there were a book inflation.
This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it. Serge knew better. He wrote,
All legal means of expression were now closed to us. From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.
In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere). The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look. Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look. Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal. After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished. It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time. Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.
If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet. Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man. We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood. That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind. In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now. The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.
It would be very risky to forget about Communism. It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.
Posted on December 9th, 2012 No comments
Herbert Spencer was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of his day, yet little more than 30 years after his death, Talcott Parsons could ask, “Who now reads Spencer?” One could cite many plausible reasons for the precipitate decline in interest. I suspect his thought was too politically loaded at a time of great intellectual ferment in the realm of political ideology. As a result, he attracted many enemies among those who considered his work incompatible with their own pet theories. Perhaps the most damaging accusation was that Spencer was a social Darwinist. The grounds for this charge were flimsy at best, but since Spencer was no longer around to defend himself, it stuck. There is an interesting discussion of the matter on his Wiki page.
Spencer was not infallible. For example, though he was a strong evolutionist, he favored a Lamarckian version of the theory over Darwin’s natural selection. However, our species is not noted for its infallibility, and the fact that Spencer made mistakes is more a reflection of the broad range of his thought than of the caliber of his intellect. People who never speculate never make mistakes. Spencer did speculate, and some of his thought was profound indeed. Robert Ardrey, never one to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others, noticed, pointing out that Spencer coined the terms “code of Amity” and “code of Enmity,” referring to what are now popularly known as in-groups and out-groups, nearly a century before the academic and professional experts in human behavior caught up with him. There was another subject regarding which, in retrospect, he was a true prophet; his analysis of revolutionary socialism, which later became known as Communism, presented in his introduction to a collection of essays entitled A Plea for Liberty.
Milovan Djilas also knew something about Communism, having been a Communist for a significant part of his adult life, and an influential one at that. From 1945 until 1953, he was one of the four most powerful men in Tito’s Communist regime in Yugoslavia. However, Djilas had a strong sense of intellectual honesty, a great drawback for a Communist ruler. It inspired him to write a series of critical articles in the Yugoslav Party organ, Borba, followed in 1957 by publication of his great classic, The New Class, an indictment of Communism still strongly marked by the author’s tendency to think in terms of the Marxian dialectic. His final work, The Fall of the New Class, published in English three years after Djilas’ death, and written after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, may be considered his post mortem on his old ideal. In comparing Spencer’s predictions with Djilas’ documentation of what actually happened, one begins to understand why the former’s contemporaries were so impressed with him.
For example, Spencer pointed out that Communism was anything but “scientific.” It was merely the speculation of Marx and others reformulated as a system. That system, however, had never been tested in practice. In his words,
Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other, – especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centers. Manifestly then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work. Yet in how few cases does the inventer foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus! Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service. Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.
What, then, shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matters and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the cooperation of multitudes of such organisms? Even the units out of which this re-arranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible. Everyone is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him. Seeing, then, how uncertainly one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure?
In The Fall of the New Class, Djilas describes what actually did happen when Marx’s “patent” encountered the real world:
But communism took a vow, so to speak, that all its prophecies, all its ideals, would turn into their diametric opposites just when Communists thought these prophecies and ideals might actually come true. So it was that with the coming of Communists to power the working class and communism drew apart from one another, became alien. It did not happen uniformly, and it took various forms. By and large, this coincided with the metamorphosis of the Party bureaucracy into a privileged, monopolistic stratum of society. A special elite – the new class.
Spencer had foreseen just this alienation of the workers and emergence of the New Class with uncanny accuracy. For example,
Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?
Almost uncanny, when one recalls this was written in 1891! As Djilas put it in retrospect more than a century later,
The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism.
Spencer foresaw Stalinism, not as a mere aberration, a form of bureaucratic parasitism that Trotsky fondly hoped the workers would eventually throw off, but as inherent in the nature of the system itself. Noting the many forms of bureaucratic tyranny already existing under capitalism, he wrote:
What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.
One can imagine the Communist true believers, equipped with their batteries of Marxist truism, shaking their heads and smiling at such hyperbolic alarmism. No doubt they would have found it a great deal less amusing from the later vantage point of the Gulag. As Djilas put it,
Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.
A Plea for Liberty, the remarkable little volume in which Spencer set down his sadly unheeded words of warning, is available online, along with his autobiography and many of his other works. They may be of some interest to readers who are jaded by the latest nuances of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or bored by the effort of staying up-to-date on how close we are to stumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”
Posted on July 29th, 2012 No comments
Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone. That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world. The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it. Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track. Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France. Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,
Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law. All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages! He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.
Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work. In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account. Does that mean that Franklin was stupid? Far from it. As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist. The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology. More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.
The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly. We are not nearly as smart as we think we are. The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.
As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought. Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution. Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British. Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed. His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of. Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless. Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today. The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.
Posted on May 7th, 2012 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.
Posted on April 7th, 2012 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.
Posted on February 20th, 2012 No comments
Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus. Here’s what he said:
It’s not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology. But no less a theology.
The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect. The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context. This time the Right has it right. For example, from Foxnews,
Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology” over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.
“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum said.
“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,” he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal.
I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:
I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.
I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.
In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.
Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date. While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever. Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge. They were elitists in the truest sense of the word. Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true. They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above. Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.
That was their Achilles heal. The future eventually becomes the present. The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie. Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light. They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims. Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them. Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals. For that we can all be grateful.
In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist. The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion. I think not. True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there. For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us. The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible. It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty. Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.
An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion. They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.” Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup. It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion. Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.
However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion. For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise. The environmental movement has nothing of the sort. So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.
In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions. He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.
Posted on February 7th, 2012 2 comments
Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man. He was also a Blank Slater. In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant. He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.
Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial. How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously? Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms. Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.
And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate? I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism. I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense. Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science. It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday. We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again. Earlier generations did not have that advantage.
More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx. By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist. A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30′s. In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals. It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.
There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned. Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive. The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment. Socialism, however, required more than that. It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.
Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer. In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist. I will let Gorer speak for himself.
One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation. This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.
Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.
In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature. It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work. The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique. For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models. Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.” According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect. By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.” They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.” If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone. Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.” It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.
Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.” He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which he described as ”account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.” The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea. And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good. This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time. Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts. In his words,
The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.
Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time. It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change. The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection. In his words,
If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?
This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.
These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century. Marais was indeed a genius. Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us. It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu. Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist. He concludes his essay as follows:
The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.
The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism. Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions. It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.
In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia. It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.” As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.” And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed. It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.