Of Karl Radek, Communism and Human Nature

In 1935, a collection of essays by the Soviet journalist Karl Radek was published under the title Portraits and Pamphlets.  Radek was, by all accounts, a brilliant man.  At the time he was one of the editors of Izvestia, a frequent writer for Pravda, and was reputed to be the foremost propagandist in the Soviet Union.  He had been connected with various workers movements since the age of 14, and had become editor of The Red Flag, the organ of the Social Democratic Party in his home country of Poland, at the age of 20.  The book was published near the apogee of the love affair of public intellectuals in the “bourgeois” democracies with Communism.  Impressed by the Soviet Union’s apparent success in realizing its bold economic aspirations in the midst of a lingering Great Depression, mainstream journals such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The American Mercury were publishing articles that were unabashedly pro-Communist, marked by the tacit assumption that a transition to socialism was inevitable.  The only question remaining was how that transition would occur.  The book reflected this state of affairs.  In an introduction contributed by the normally phlegmatic historian A. J. Cummings we read,

The Soviets have proved beyond any reasonable doubt not only the stability of their regime, but their capacity, in the face of an incredulous world, to carry into effect a large part of their gigantic economic conceptions. They have also made abundantly clear their intention to keep the peace and their desire to organize an international peace system. The entrance of Russia into the League of Nations, more even than her series of agreements with individual states, marks a turning point in European history.

Five years later, of course, the Soviets demonstrated their “abundantly clear intention to keep the peace” by invading and seizing large parts of Finland, annexing the Baltic states, and partitioning Poland with Nazi Germany.  No matter, all that belonged to the future.  Radek’s essays began with a groveling panegyric dedicated to Stalin.  At the time, “The Great Helmsman” had already begun to bare his teeth.  Former leading Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev had been arrested as early as December, 1934, and were soon to appear in the second of the carefully rehearsed show trials that would lead to their execution.  The Great Purge Trials were only a few years off.  Radek was much too astute not to sense what was in the air.  He knew he was at risk because of an earlier flirtation with Stalin’s bete noir Trotsky over the issue of socialism in one country.  The tone of the essay was accordingly abject and fawning.  In keeping with the spirit of the times, all this was neatly rationalized by English Communist Alec Brown, who provided notes to the essays.  In his words,

We mostly see only what we have been trained to see by upbringing, environment and habit. Thus, the average British reader of Radek’s paper on Stalin is, until he gives it more thought, bound to be inclined to see hero-worship, and to be quite blind to what Radek really is about. But as this paper on Stalin turns on the essential harmony between communism and individuality – on the way the one necessitates and breeds the other – it is worth while drawing attention to the basic feature of the Marxist-Leninist Party, ignorance of or misunderstanding of which leads to the rather comical confusion made by the average non-Marxist student of the civilization of the future… Further it cannot be made too clear that this Marxist non-individualist scientific approach to social problems does not stultify individual life… And it follows that since the ‘man at the top’ owes his position not to any ‘personal magnetism’ or sex appeal, but to the very same qualities which make a great leader of science, plus tested personal courage, it makes possible really honest praise of a great man, a praise which is the very opposite to hero-worship.

Be that as it may, Radek’s “really honest praise” didn’t sway Stalin.  He was arrested and tried for “treason” two years after the book was published, and was shot by the NKVD in 1939.  How is it that seemingly grownup, sober people could be taken in by these deadly charades over and over again?  The same way they have always been taken in – by virtue of ardently believing in something that is palpably untrue.  Historically, that something has typically been a religion.  “Scientific” Communism was, for all practical purposes, a religion as well, and has been easily recognizable as such from the earliest days.  Astute observers have likened Communist and socialist bigwigs to so many cardinals, bishops, and popes since long before the days of Lenin.  The fact that Communism was different from its more traditional analogs by virtue of being secular rather than spiritual altered nothing in its fundamental nature.  That fact was appreciated as early as the first half of the 19th century by the brilliant British essayist, Sir James MacKintosh.  It happens that the ideology of “class struggle” was already highly developed in his day, well before the time of Marx.  Presciently, he pointed out that such doctrines were eventually bound to fail, because they promised an illusory paradise on earth, rather than in the hereafter.  Having the advantage of not being dead, the “liberated” people were bound to eventually look around and take notice of the fact that the promised paradise was nowhere to be seen. 

Eventually, that’s just what happened in the Soviet Union, and its demise meant the end of Communism as a messianic world view, although the name lingers on.  The paradise went bankrupt.  We are left with the question of why, if an astute Englishman could see it all coming almost two centuries ago, so many seemingly intelligent and highly educated people were so completely taken in by Communism for so long, in spite of purge trials, mass slaughter, and human misery on a vast scale.

The answer lies in human nature.  Of Communism as a framework for social organization, E. O. Wilson once famously quipped, “Great theory, wrong species.”  That was certainly true as far as its outcome and practicality are concerned, but far off the mark in terms of its power as a messianic world view.  Indeed, its compelling power in the latter capacity was a reflection of its perfect harmony with human nature. 

Specifically, Communism was extremely effective at exploiting those aspects of human nature we associate with morality.  Its adherents sought to achieve the ultimate “good,” in the form of the future felicity of mankind, or, as latter day architects of the latest moral systems might put it, “human flourishing.”  They achieved all the emotional satisfaction that human beings have always derived from serving a cause they believe is noble and good, in company with other, like-minded individuals, the fellow members of what one might call their tribe, or ingroup.  They derived an emotional satisfaction just as powerful by opposing the ultimate “evil,” which, in their case, was represented by the bourgeoisie.  Any opposition outside the ingroup or heresy within was associated with the bourgeois outgroup.  No matter if the enemy of the moment had no perceptible control over the social means of production.  In that case, one merely added a qualifier, such as “petty” bourgeoisie, and the association with evil was complete.  Eventually, the whole movement came under the control of the ultimate high priest in the person of Stalin, who disposed of his rivals, including Radek and all the rest of the old Bolsheviks of any talent who had actually carried out the “proletarian” revolution, by transmuting them, in turn, into “bourgeoisie.” 

And therein lays the fundamental fallacy of most of the modern cobblers of novel, revamped, and refurbished moralities.  In spite of the fact that all human history dangles it in front of their faces, somehow they always seem to manage to ignore the dual nature of human morality.  Every good implies an evil.  Every ingroup implies an outgroup.  Their fond hopes of “dialing up the knobs” controlling who we include in our ingroups to all mankind are doomed to failure because they ignore these fundamental truths about human nature.  There will always be a “bourgeoisie.”  Its identities are legion.  The Jews, heretics, global corporations, racial and ethnic minorities by the score; all these and many others have played the role of outgroup at one time or another.  Our nature predisposes us to identify an outgroup, and to treat those we identify with it with all the scorn, spite, and contempt that human beings have always reserved for outgroups.  We’ve been running a repeatable experiment that has abundantly confirmed this easily falsifiable fact for the last 5,000 years.  It’s called history.  Communism is merely one of the most recent of a mountain of data points that all point to this same fundamental truth.  Great thinkers like Arthur Keith, Konrad Lorenz, and Robert Ardrey have all pointed to this seemingly obvious aspect of our nature, and suggested that, instead of trying to wish it away, we seek to understand and control it.  I would suggest that the clever young scientists in fields such as evolutionary psychology and neuroscience who have already brought about a paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in recent years heed their advice.  We would do well to learn to understand ourselves.  Failing that, I expect there will be a great many more Karl Radeks in our future.

Karl Radek

One thought on “Of Karl Radek, Communism and Human Nature”

  1. Certainly an interesting analysis. I simply wanted to point out that the picture you have at the end is Jacob Sverdlov, not Karl Radek.

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