Herbert Spencer and Milovan Djilas; a Post Mortem of Communism

Herbert Spencer was one of the most important and influential intellectuals of his day, yet little more than 30 years after his death, Talcott Parsons could ask, “Who now reads Spencer?”  One could cite many plausible reasons for the precipitate decline in interest.  I suspect his thought was too politically loaded at a time of great intellectual ferment in the realm of political ideology.  As a result, he attracted many enemies among those who considered his work incompatible with their own pet theories.  Perhaps the most damaging accusation was that Spencer was a social Darwinist.  The grounds for this charge were flimsy at best, but since Spencer was no longer around to defend himself, it stuck.  There is an interesting discussion of the matter on his Wiki page.

Spencer was not infallible.  For example, though he was a strong evolutionist, he favored a Lamarckian version of the theory over Darwin’s natural selection.  However, our species is not noted for its infallibility, and the fact that Spencer made mistakes is more a reflection of the broad range of his thought than of the caliber of his intellect.  People who never speculate never make mistakes.  Spencer did speculate, and some of his thought was profound indeed.  Robert Ardrey, never one to be unduly influenced by the opinions of others, noticed, pointing out that Spencer coined the terms “code of Amity” and “code of Enmity,” referring to what are now popularly known as in-groups and out-groups, nearly a century before the academic and professional experts in human behavior caught up with him.  There was another subject regarding which, in retrospect, he was a true prophet; his analysis of revolutionary socialism, which later became known as Communism, presented in his introduction to a collection of essays entitled A Plea for Liberty.

Milovan Djilas also knew something about Communism, having been a Communist for a significant part of his adult life, and an influential one at that.  From 1945 until 1953, he was one of the four most powerful men in Tito’s Communist regime in Yugoslavia.  However, Djilas had a strong sense of intellectual honesty, a great drawback for a Communist ruler.  It inspired him to write a series of critical articles in the Yugoslav Party organ, Borba, followed in 1957 by publication of his great classic, The New Class, an indictment of Communism still strongly marked by the author’s tendency to think in terms of the Marxian dialectic.  His final work, The Fall of the New Class, published in English three years after Djilas’ death, and written after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, may be considered his post mortem on his old ideal.  In comparing Spencer’s predictions with Djilas’ documentation of what actually happened, one begins to understand why the former’s contemporaries were so impressed with him.

For example, Spencer pointed out that Communism was anything but “scientific.”  It was merely the speculation of Marx and others reformulated as a system.  That system, however, had never been tested in practice.  In his words,

Iron and brass are simpler things than flesh and blood, and dead wood than living nerve; and a machine constructed of the one works in more definite ways than an organism constructed of the other, – especially when the machine is worked by the inorganic forces of steam or water, while the organism is worked by the forces of living nerve-centers.  Manifestly then, the ways in which the machine will work are much more readily calculable than the ways in which the organism will work.  Yet in how few cases does the inventer foresee rightly the actions of his new apparatus!  Read the patent-list, and it will be found that not more than one device in fifty turns out to be of any service.  Plausible as his scheme seemed to the inventor, one or other hitch prevents the intended operation, and brings out a widely different result from that which he wished.

What, then, shall we say of these schemes which have to do not with dead matters and forces, but with complex living organisms working in ways less readily foreseen, and which involve the cooperation of multitudes of such organisms?  Even the units out of which this re-arranged body politic is to be formed are often incomprehensible.  Everyone is from time to time surprised by others’ behavior, and even by the deeds of relatives who are best known to him.  Seeing, then, how uncertainly one can foresee the actions of an individual, how can he with any certainty foresee the operation of a social structure?

In The Fall of the New Class, Djilas describes what actually did happen when Marx’s “patent” encountered the real world:

 But communism took a vow, so to speak, that all its prophecies, all its ideals, would turn into their diametric opposites just when Communists thought these prophecies and ideals might actually come true.  So it was that with the coming of Communists to power the working class and communism drew apart from one another, became alien.  It did not happen uniformly, and it took various forms.  By and large, this coincided with the metamorphosis of the Party bureaucracy into a privileged, monopolistic stratum of society.  A special elite – the new class.

Spencer had foreseen just this alienation of the workers and emergence of the New Class with uncanny accuracy.  For example,

Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members.  What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties?  What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’?  Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage:  eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?

Almost uncanny, when one recalls this was written in 1891!  As Djilas put it in retrospect more than a century later,

The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way.  It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism.

Spencer foresaw Stalinism, not as a mere aberration, a form of bureaucratic parasitism that Trotsky fondly hoped the workers would eventually throw off, but as inherent in the nature of the system itself.  Noting the many forms of bureaucratic tyranny already existing under capitalism, he wrote:

What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views:  holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means.  And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

One can imagine the Communist true believers, equipped with their batteries of Marxist truism, shaking their heads and smiling at such hyperbolic alarmism.  No doubt they would have found it a great deal less amusing from the later vantage point of the Gulag.  As Djilas put it,

Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.

A Plea for Liberty, the remarkable little volume in which Spencer set down his sadly unheeded words of warning, is available online, along with his autobiography and many of his other works.  They may be of some interest to readers who are jaded by the latest nuances of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, or bored by the effort of staying up-to-date on how close we are to stumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”

Herbert Spencer


Artifacts of the Defenders of the Faith

Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast.  See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson.  If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point.  In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time.  It’s not surprising.  Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world.  Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam.  Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part.  If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse.  Much worse.

It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by.  Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example.  The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day.  Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof.  I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.

The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.”  I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers.  Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening.  He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between.  He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.”  Hitler was a “bad guy.”  Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.”  When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.

In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927.  To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928.  Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head.  They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union.  The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country.  Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:

The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate.  Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount.  The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.

…the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great.  The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind.  The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).

Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it.  He was an Old Bolshevik.

Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934.  As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism.  I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time.  The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not.  For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks.  The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.

Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon.  One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933.  Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists.  He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt.  This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time.  The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail.  Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”

It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing.  One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance.  But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article.  Perhaps the film could do it justice.

A sound film, of course, it would have to be.  Drums – no, not the drums first.  Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute.  Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…

Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal.  Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question.  There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one.  The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.

Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler.  He continues,

Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.

Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.

Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact.  Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’  His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France.  There is good ground for accepting these assurances.  But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state.  To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.

Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:

Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.

It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the  great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history.  It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.”  As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952.  Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”

In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart.  Things have been worse.  At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence.  Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future.  Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.

Yevgeny Zamyatin and “We”

To give you an idea of how up to speed I am on science fiction, I had never heard of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, or at least not until I ran across an old review of the book among George Orwell’s essays.  In the review, which appeared in early 1946, he writes,

Several years after hearing of its existence, I have a last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age… So far as I can judge it is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one, and it is astonishing that no English publisher has been enterprising enough to reissue it.

The book was obviously rare and difficult to find at the time Orwell wrote.  Here’s how he describes the plot:

In the twenty-sixth century… the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers.  They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the “Guardians”, to supervise them more easily.  They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as “a number” or “a unif” (uniform)… The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous.

Orwell was sure the book had inspired Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, although Huxley denied it.  Be that as it may, it certainly inspired Orwell’s own 1984.  For example, the glass houses (telescreens), Guardians (though police), and Benefactor (Big Brother) are all there, and there are many similarities in the plot, including the ending.  That’s not to imply that 1984 wasn’t original.  Far from it.  The central theme of 1984 was the nature of totalitarianism, and what Orwell believed was a very credible totalitarian future, not in centuries, but in a few decades.  In We, on the other hand, as Orwell put it,

There is no power hunger, no sadism, no hardness of any kind.  Those at the top have no strong motive for staying at the top, and though everyone is happy in a vacuous way, life has become so pointless that it is difficult to believe that such a society could endure.

I would also agree with Orwell that We isn’t first rate as a novel, although it may just be because I’m put off by the abrupt, expressionist style.

Still, there are an astounding number of themes in the book that have appeared and continue to appear in later works of science fiction to this day.  For example, the loss of individuality in future dystopia’s,

You see, even in our thoughts.  No one is ever ‘one,’ but always ‘one of.’  We are so identical…

to be original means to somehow stand out from others.  Consequently, being original is to violate equality.

The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this:  humility is a virtue and pride is a vice, “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic… Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?

The totalitarian ruler and his enforcers,

And to expel the offending cog, we have the skillful, severe hand of the Benefactor and we have the experienced eye of the Guardians…

They (the ancients) however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one – one with a very precise visual appearance.

…and so on. And what became of this prescient but scarce book? As science fiction aficionados are surely aware, it is scarce no longer. It has been reprinted many times since Orwell’s time, and I had a much easier time acquiring a copy than he. I was intrigued to find that Zamyatin was an old Bolshevik. Obviously, after the Russian Revolution, he quickly discovered he was a “cog” who didn’t quite fit. We had the honor of becoming the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board in 1921. According to Wiki,

In 1931, Zamyatin appealed directly to Joseph Stalin, requesting permission to leave the Soviet Union. In his letter, Zamyatin wrote, “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics”. With the encouragement of Maxim Gorky, Stalin decided to grant Zamyatin’s request.

By this time, Zamyatin had managed to smuggle We out of the Soviet Union and have it published abroad.  He was very lucky, after having pushed his luck so far, to escape the clutches of the worst mass murderer the world has ever known.  Fortunately, Gorky was still around to help him.  That great man, although a convinced socialist himself, probably saved hundreds from the executioner with similar appeals.  Zamyatin died in poverty in Paris in 1937.

Yevgeny Zamyatin

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

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.

Remembering Communism

We live in sedate times, at least from an ideological point of view.  Such excrescences of the 20th century as Nazism and fascism have come and gone.  The greatest messianic world view of them all, Communism, if not stone cold dead, is no more than a shadow of its former self.  With its demise, its very memory is passing into oblivion.  That’s unfortunate.  Given the cost of the Communist experiment – 100 million dead and the virtual beheading of at least two countries, Russia and Cambodia – we would do well to at least learn something from it.

It seems to me that one particularly profound lesson is the degree to which vast numbers of intellectuals the world over were capable of deluding themselves about the nature of the Stalinist regime, renowned scientists among them.  Malcolm Muggeridge chronicled the phenomena in his brilliant little snapshot of the time, The Thirties.  For example,

Admiration for the Soviet regime had greatly increased since the introduction of the Five-Year Plan in 1929, though more among Liberals and the professional classes than among trade unionists, who from the beginning showed themselves to be less easily deluded by Soviet propaganda than university professors, writers and clergymen.  Professor Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, ed.), for instance, had no difficulty in believing that ‘while we were in Russia a German town-planning expert was travelling over the huge Siberian spaces in a special train with a staff of assistants, where cities are to arise stopping for a few days, picking out the best site, laying down the broad outlines of the future city, and passing on, leaving the details to be filled in by architects and engineers who remain’ or that ‘Stalin himself sometimes comes down to the Moscow goods sidings to help.’


The cost of a tour in the USSR, though moderate, was beyond the means of most manual workers, so that those who availed themselves of the exceedingly competent Intourist organization were predominantly income-tax payers.  Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to this delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of the age.


The almost unbelievable credulity of these mostly university-educated tourists astonished even Soviet officials used to handling foreign visitors.


The climax came, perhaps, with the visit to the USSR of Mr. Bernard Shaw, Lady Astor and Lord Lothian, which provided, as Mr. Eugene Lyons has put it, ‘a fortnight of clowning… The lengthening obscenity of ignorant or indifferent tourists disporting themselves cheerily on the aching body of Russia, seemed summed up in this cavorting old man, in his blanket endorsement of what he would not understand.  He was so taken up with demonstrating how youthful and agile he was that he had no attention to spare for the revolution in practice.


Despite such episodes the Soviet regime continued to be held in ever greater esteem by writers like Shaw and Andre Gide and Romain Rolland:  clergymen like the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, journalists like Walter Duranty and Maurice Hindus, economists like G. D. H. Cole and the Webbs (Sidney and Beatrice, Fabian socialists, ed.) scientists like Professor Julian Huxley.  How could all these, so learned and to righteous, be wrong?


…like vegetarians undertaking a pious pilgrimage to a slaughter-house because it displayed a notice recommending nut-cutlets.


All this is doubly astounding in light of the fact that it was so obvious at the time all this was going on that the Soviet Union had become a vast charnel house.  Indeed, Muggeridge himself had sympathized with the new regime.  The scales fell from his eyes when he took an unauthorized trip to the Ukraine while visiting the Soviet Union, and saw the starvation and misery there first hand, even as Walter Duranty was denying it in the New York Times.  The Eugene Lyons Muggeridge refers to above was a journalist who spent six years in the Soviet Union and was not as easily duped as Duranty.  He wrote a damning indictment of the regime in his book, Moscow Carrousel.  In a synopsis of his findings written for the American Mercury in 1936 in the context of a review of the Webb’s ecstatic praise of the regime in their book, Soviet Communism:  A New Civilization?, he wrote,

The material out of which the Webbs have fashioned their Utopia is that theoretical USSR of governmental forms, paper freedoms, poster proletarians, stage kulaks, decrees, and charts – the immense make-believe of externals under which all governments, especially all-powerful, all-knowing and infallible super-states, function.


One is tempted to quote endlessly from the curious mixture of misinformation, half-truths, and naive credulity which fill these volumes.  The liquidation of the kulaks, for instance, becomes under the busy pens of the Webbs almost an act of benevolence.  These poor people, it appears, would have starved to death had not the authorities come along mercifully and transferred them free of charge to the lumber camps and canal diggings.


The discussion of other aspects of the terror is in the same key.  Everything that might reflect on the institution of the OGPU (secret police, ed.) is dismissed with a sneer… The whole complex of forced and convict labor involving millions of persons (hundreds of thousands are building canals and railroads at this very moment); the mass executions without public trial; the teeming concentration camps; all of this the Webbs judge on the basis of official statements, official silences, and the mendacities of ill-informed foreign parrots.


Lyons’ article is interesting in that it documents the fact that the truth about the mass slaughter underway in the Soviet Union was perfectly obvious to anyone who didn’t deliberately delude themselves, even in 1936, before the climax of the Great Purge Trials in 1937 and 1938.  Which begs the question, why were so many seemingly intelligent people so delusional for so long?  The question was answered by Julius Caesar over 2000 years ago:  “People willingly believe what they want to believe.”  And many intellectuals of the time dearly wanted to believe in socialism, if not Communism.  Many of them shared Maxim Gorky’s belief that democracy was impossible without it.  Ironically, they included George Orwell, certainly no Stalinist or Communist, but a lifelong socialist, who never realized his work would deal such a telling blow to socialism until it was too late.  In his essays before the war, he actually claimed that there was no moral distinction between the Nazi and British versions of capitalism.  For example, in an essay entitled “Spilling the Spanish Beans,” that appeared in the New English Weekly in 1937, he wrote,

You can oppose Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”, meaning capitalism.  But meanwhile you have got to get rid of the troublesome person who points out that Fascism and bourgeois “democracy” are Tweedledum and Tweedledee… If the British public had been given a truthful account of the Spanish war (in which Orwell was a combatant, ed.) they would have had an opportunity of learning what Fascism is and how it can be combated.  As it is, the News Chronicle version of Fascism as a kind of homicidal mania peculiar to Colonel Blimps (British icon of reaction, ed.) bombinating in the economic void has been established more firmly than ever.  And thus we are one step nearer to the great war “against Fascism” (cf 1914, “against militarism”) which will allow Fascism, British variety, to be slipped over our necks during the first week.

Orwell’s comment throws a great deal of light on the phenomenon of mass self-delusion noted above.  By the 1930’s more than a century of socialist philosophers and propagandists, of whom Marx, Engels and Lenin were some of the more prominent examples, had elevated socialism to a quasi-religion.  The brilliant Scotchman, Sir James MacKintosh, had already noticed the trend in the early 1800’s, long before Marx appeared on the scene, observing that the new religion was bound to fail eventually, because it promised an unachievable paradise on earth, where it could be fact-checked, instead of in heaven, where it could not.  The new religion came complete with its own morality and its own good, the proletariat, and evil, the bourgeoisie.  Speaking in terms of human nature, the bourgeoisie became an outgroup, and the system associated with it, capitalism, anathema.  Thus, it was possible, even for a man as brilliant as Orwell, to seriously maintain that the British democracy and Nazism were really just manifestations of the same evil, capitalism, and therefore as equivalent to each other as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.   This explains another remarkable phenomenon of the time; the willingness of so many seemingly sober economists, politicians, and other miscellaneous intellectuals to liquidate an entire economic system in favor of the gaudy, pie-in-the-sky theories of socialism.  By so doing, one was not merely conducting a somewhat risky economic experiment.  One was fighting evil incarnate.  Self-delusion has always been a prominent characteristic of religious zealots, and the secular religious zealots of the 1930’s were no different.

Well, the experiment has been done, the facts have been checked, and, just as Sir James MacKintosh predicted over 150 years ago, the great Communist myth evaporated like a soap bubble.  Islam, a more traditional religion, rushed in to fill the vacuum left by its demise, inspiring a grotesque love affair between the obscurantist zealots of the old faith and the former “progressive” zealots of the secular faith that had just died.  Meanwhile, these “progressives” have begun assiduously cobbling on the outlines of a new secular faith.  The most recent versions come with a new, if somewhat hackneyed and moth-eaten, morality, including a new “good” (the 99 percent), and a new “evil” (the corporations).  We would do well to step back and consider whether we really want to go there again, before another country kills off the lion’s share of the intellectual cream of its population by way of eliminating the evil one percent.


George Orwell and Socialism

With Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a fictional analysis of the totalitarian state, George Orwell may well have done more to smash Marxist ideology than any other writer before or since.  He is considered by many the great nemesis of socialism.  As it happens, he was a convinced socialist himself.  Anyone doubting the fact need only read Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his service in the Spanish Civil War.  If he ever felt any sympathy for the Stalinist variant of the totalitarian state, that experience cured him of it.  Not so his dedication to the socialist idea.  Orwell was, in fact, a revolutionary socialist.  For example, during World War II he wrote,

The difference between Socialism and capitalism is not primarily a difference of technique. One cannot simply change from one system to the other as one might install a new piece of machinery in a factory, and then carry on as before, with the same people in positions of control. Obviously there is also needed a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas – in the true sense of the word, a revolution.

(Writing in 1940) The English revolution started several years ago, and it began to gather momentum when the troops came back from Dunkirk. Like all else in England, it happens in a sleepy, unwilling way, but it is happening. The war has speeded it up, but it has also increased, and desperately, the necessity for speed. …since a classless, ownerless society is generally spoken of as “Socialism”, we can give that name to the society towards which we are now moving. The war and the revolution are inseparable. We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century. The past is fighting the future and we have two years, a year, possibly only a few months, to see to it that the future wins.

We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war. …The fact that we are at war has turned Socialism from a textbook word into a realizable policy. The inefficiency of private capitalism has been proved all over Europe. Its injustice has been proved in the East End of London. …If it can be made clear that defeating Hitler means wiping out class privilege, the great mass of middling people, …will probably be on our side.

From the moment that all productive goods have been declared the property of the State, the common people will feel, as they cannot feel now, that the State is themselves.

One can predict the future in the form of an “either-or”: either we introduce Socialism, or we lose the war. (Published November, 1942)

and so on.  One can find much more in the same vein in Orwell’s writings. In retrospect, it all seems a bit delusional, but Orwell was no fool. He was a surpassingly brilliant man, with a deep respect for the truth. He was no ideologue, and his analyses of the great events happening around him were often remarkably accurate and profound. If anything, his example should teach us humility. If one of the greatest thinkers our species has ever produced could have been so wide of the mark in his predictions of things to come, it might behoove us to be somewhat reticent about attempting the same thing ourselves. Black swans have a habit of turning up at embarrassing times.

For that matter, Orwell was hardly an anomaly in the first half of the twentieth century.  A great number of intellectuals accepted it almost as a commonplace that socialism in some form was not only desirable, but inevitable.  Many agreed with Maxim Gorky’s conclusion that democracy and socialism were inseparable.  One could not exist without the other.  The hard times of the 1930’s seemed to sweep away any lingering doubts that the capitalist system was at the end of its tether.  The stampede to socialism was hardly just a European phenomenon.  Anyone doubting that thinkers in the United States were just as susceptible to the collective delusion need only visit the stacks of a university library and look through the pages of such intellectual and political journals as the Nation, The New Republic, and the American Mercury for the year 1934.  Orwell was merely one of many who saw the “obvious”:  the demise of capitalism was coming sooner rather than later.  The only question left was how to manage the transition to socialism as elegantly as possible.

Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, we now know that capitalism was rather more tenacious than Orwell and the rest suspected.  However, we would do well not to become too complacent.  Technological developments like the Internet greatly enhance our access to all kinds of information, but they also tend to reinforce groupthink on both the left and the right with a power that is exponentially greater than the pamphlets and journals of the 1930’s.  Our own collective delusions about the future of mankind will likely seem even more quaint half a century hence.

Orwell’s classless society may have been the stuff of dreams, but several regimes have come and gone since his death that came close to realizing the nightmare world of 1984.  As we shall see, he was remarkably prescient about a good number of other things as well.

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

The “Reconciliation” of Stalin and Trotsky

Trotsky was perhaps the brightest, and certainly the most readable, of the old Bolsheviks. However, unlike Bukharin and several other former comrades, he has never been formally rehabilitated, perhaps because he was never tried, but simply murdered at the behest of Stalin. According to an article that just appeared in The Moscow News, at least a part of the Russian left is now considering a “reconciliation” between the two. It quotes Darya Mitina, one of the leaders of the Russian Communist Youth and a former State Duma deputy to the effect that,

It is my dream to once see a memorial in a quiet part of Moscow, depicting Trotsky and Stalin sitting across from each other.

That would certainly justify a famous remark by Karl Marx,

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

The proponents of such a “rehabilitation” would do well to actually read Trotsky, starting, perhaps, with “The Stalin School of Falsification.” Sometimes he could be remarkably prophetic. Here’s what he had to say about the historical fate of Communism in “In Defense of Marxism,” a collection of his letters and articles published shortly after he was murdered by Stalin in 1940.

If, however, it is conceded that the present war (WWII) 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, signalizing the eclipse of civilisation.

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 this 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.

“Ended in a Utopia” could be said of many revolutions, and Stalin was not unique.  Revolutionary euphoria is a perfect vehicle to power for unscrupulous leaders who care more about personal aggrandizement than noble ideals.  You say you want a revolution?  Be careful who you pick to lead it.

“Age of Delirium” and the Collapse of Communism

Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union,” is another example of the apparent oxymoron, a good book about history written by a journalist. Its author, David Satter, first arrived in the Soviet Union in 1976, and spent a total of nearly two decades reporting and writing about it and Russia and the other states that merged after its collapse. Like David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb,” it chronicles the fates of people, each of whose lives shed some light on the reality of Communism and the reasons for its final demise. As glasnost gradually diminished the fear of Soviet citizens, it loosened their tongues as well, providing a golden opportunity for first rate reporters with a sense of history like Satter and Remnick to gather individual stories that, collectively, provide a wonderful insight into the nature of the sytem and the reasons for its astonishing disappearance from the stage of history. I suspect later generations will come to see the rise and fall of Communism as the most significant event of the 20th century. Russia was not the only state to pay a heavy price for this arrogant experiment of cocksure intellectuals who had mesmerized themselves into believing they had the perfect formula for creating a paradise on earth. If we are to avoid stumbling into more such experiments, it would be well if we thoroughly learned the lessons of this one. Such books should be required reading in every high school.

One wonders if the fall of the system was inevitable, and how long it might have survived if, against all odds, a man as fundamentally decent as Gorbachev had not come on the scene. He certainly had his faults, but I think his role in history was a great deal more positive than he’s often given credit for today. When I say he was a decent man, I am not forgetting he was the leader of the Soviet Union during the events of January 1990 in Baku, or January 1991 in Vilnius.  When confronted with the unraveling of everything he had dedicated his life to building, he tacked to the right.  Still, in the end, he refused to yield to the conspirators who staged the August coup, though he surely realised his life was at stake.  Later, he yielded to Yeltsin and accepted personal humiliation rather than cling to power when he knew the likely outcome would be civil war and another bloodbath in a country that had already experienced too many.  In the end, he was one more example of the decisive importance of individuals in history.

And what of the future?  In “The New Class,” Milovan Djilas analyzed the emergence of the state as a vehicle to absolute power for an elite.  George Orwell gave us a fictionalized picture of the same phenomenon in “1984.”  These two brilliant 20th century thinkers have not lost their relevance with the demise of Communism.  State power shows no signs of withering away.  On the contrary, the role of government continues to expand in our lives, regardless of the nature of our leaders’ claims to legitimacy.  The expansion of state power is inimical to the liberty of the individual in any case.   In the 18th century, no less a thinker than Boswell’s Dr. Johnson could maintain with perfect seriousness that the nature of the government one lived under was irrelevant to individual liberty.  That is no longer the case today.  Perhaps the world of “1984” is inevitable.  The only question is whether it will come, as Orwell suggested, via revolution, or “on little cats feet,” by the evolutionary expansion of “democratic” state power.

“The New Republic” and the Pitfalls of Historical Prophecy

“The New Republic” has had its ups and downs. Not too long ago its editors were almost unique in their willingness to honestly and thoroughly set forth the arguments for opposing points of view, and in their ability to address them convincingly, although lately they’ve shown a lamentable tendency to sink to the level of the rest of the pack. In common with many American journals of opinion that have survived for any length of time, its content has run from the ridiculous to the sublime, from essays by some of the most brilliant pundits this country has produced to the excrescences of Communist ideologues during the “red period” it passed through in common with many other journals in the aftermath of the Great Depression. It was launched in the opening months of that great watershed event in modern history, the first World War, and lately I’ve been looking through some of those inaugural issues.

It’s very useful to occasionally read through a few articles in the journals and magazines of days gone by. It puts things that are happening today in perspective. Back in 1914, for example, The New Republic devoted a great deal of ink to discussion of the ramifications of the U.S. military intervention in Mexico. The first page of the third issue was entirely taken up with ruminations concerning what should be done about the U.S. troops in Vera Cruz. Today the number of us who are even aware that U.S. troops were in Vera Cruz in 1914 is vanishingly small. Will the matters that raise such passions and seem of such overwhelming importance to us today assume a similar insignificance for later generations?

Perhaps the most important thing one gains from reading old journals is a sense of humility. One finds many predictions about the future, but few of them that were accurate. The problem isn’t that the authors making those predictions were fools. The problem is that we lack the intellectual capacity to assimilate all the facts that will have a bearing on the outcome of history, and correctly connect the dots between them. We must learn to appreciate our limitations. It’s unwise to overestimate our ability to predict future events that have no historical precedent. For example, how many of us back in 1988 predicted the manner in which Communism and the Soviet Union would collapse, or when the momentous events culminating in those results would occur?

There is much to be gained from the reading of history. One learns how human beings are likely to react in given situations. Occasionally, history really does repeat itself, and, to the extent that future events fit the familiar patterns of the past, they are predictable. However, once in a while she jumps her tracks completely. World War I was such an event. Reflecting on the possible outcomes of that conflict in the second issue of The New Republic, one Simon N. Patten wrote:

Progress has ever been a ruthless crushing, whether we regard it as indistrial or view it in its political aspects. Growth has meant a centralization which eliminates the weak to the advantage of the strong. Belgium and Servia are today where hundreds of small nations have found themselves in the past. Belgium is racially and socially a part of France. Economically she is a part of Germany. One or the other fate she must in the end meet. Servia must also be either Russian or Austrian.

In fact, in the aftermath of the war, the historical context on which Mr. Patten based his assumptions ceased to exist. Serbia did not become a part of Austria because the great empire that went by that name disintegrated. She did not become a part of Russia because she, too, ceased to exist in any form recognizable from the past. Belgium is still with us, and belongs to a European Union that would have been incomprehensible to the combatants of 1914. The lesson here isn’t that Mr. Patten was a fool. I’m sure he was a very intelligent man. Nor is it that we should cease speculating about the future. However, in doing so we should recall that we are not omniscient, and that the truth isn’t always obvious.