Instapundit links some excellent articles about the imbecilities of “progressive” sages concerning the supposed “stability” of Communist regimes in the years immediately prior to the time that most of them collapsed, and their continuing attempts to revise history so as to present Stalin at his most charming. We at least have the consolation of knowing that the remaining representatives of the “New Left” of the 60’s who are still busily decorating the corpse of Communism with pretty ribbons are rapidly aging. Although it is unlikely it will ever dawn on them that more than 700,000 admitted executions of the Soviet secret police, not to mention the deaths of milllions of others in the Gulag, were not actually necessary and just means of promoting social justice, at least they will eventually have the good sense to die. While they are at it, let us take care to make sure all the relevant source material is preserved.
In general, I avoid histories written by journalists. They are usually bowdlerized accounts in which the facts are pruned to fit a narrative portrayed in black and white. Great care is usually taken to describe individuals in a way that can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader about whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” is no different in this regard. Here, for example, are typical descriptions of Communist party officials;
Kunayev unfolded himself from the backseat. He was enormous, silver-haired, and dressed in a chalk-striped suit. He wore dark glasses and carried the sort of walking stick that gave Mobuto his authority. He had a fantastic smile, all bravado and condescension, the smile of a king.
…the most flamboyand mafia figure in the country was Akhmadzhan Adylov, a “Hero of Socialist Labor” who ran for twenty years the Party organization in the rich Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. Adylov was known as the Godfather and lived on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men… He locked his foes in a secret underground prison and tortured them when necessary. His favorite technique was borrowed from the Nazis. In subzero temperatures, he would tie a man to a stake and spray him with cold water until he froze to death.
Perm-35 was a tiny place, five hundred yards square, a few barracks, guard towers and razor wire everywhere. Osin (who ran the camp) was there to greet us, and he was much a Shcharansky had described him, enormously fat with dull, pitiless eyes… Osin had a broad desk and a well-padded armchair, and he affected the pose of a contented chief executive officer… He was, to use the Stalinist accolade, an exemplary “cog in the wheel.” He did what he was told, “and all the prisoners were the same to me.” Equal under lawlessness.
You get the idea. Nevertheless, “Lenin’s Tomb” is an exception to the rule. It is well worth reading. Remnick was an eyewitness to events in the years leading up to and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also an excellent reporter who went out and “got the story,” seeking out and talking to people all over the country in all walks of life. Beyond that, he had a profound knowledge of Russian history in general and the history of the Soviet Union in particular that gave him an exceptional ability to portray events and individuals in their historical context. As a result, the collection of vignettes he has captured for us in “Lenin’s Tomb” provides rare insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse, and the sort of thoughts that were going through people’s minds in all walks of life. In the process it sheds a great deal of light on a stunning and unprecedented historical event, the magnitude and implications of which we are still far from grasping. I recommend it to anyone who suspects that the sudden demise of the Bolshevik’s great experiment was not entirely explainable as the inevitable effect of Reagan’s increase in defense spending.
The intellectual demolition of Communism was hardly the work of an individual, but even compared to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Milovan Djilas, George Orwell was probably its most lethal foe. His “1984” and “Animal Farm” revealed the hideous reality of the beast behind the ideological mask, and it never really recovered from the blow. In the intervening years, Orwell the human being has been transmogrified into Orwell the intellectual icon. In the same way that the reality of Thomas Jefferson the deist has been “modified” to reveal Thomas Jefferson, defender of Christianity, so too has the reality of Orwell the democratic socialist been “modified” to reveal Orwell the defender of capitalism. He was anything but that.
To those interested in seeing the real man through the intellectual fog, I recommend “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell’s account of his experiences on and off the front in the Spanish Civil War. He was well into his 30’s when he arrived in Spain, and I doubt that his fundamental world view changed much after he left. He was by no means a fanatical ideologue. In fact, he said that the political side of the war bored him. His perception of the events that marked the conflict certainly altered both during and after the conflict. Nevertheless, he stood to the left, not to the right of the Communists in Spain. He saw them as pawns of the Soviet Union, and their policy as subordinated completely to the need to defend the U.S.S.R. As Orwell put it,
The whole process is easy to understand if one remembers that it proceeds from the temporary alliance that Fascism, in certain forms, forces upon the bourgeois and the worker. This alliance, known as the Popular Front, is in essence an alliance of enemies, and it seems probable that it must always end by one partner swallowing the other. The only unexpected feature in the Spanish situation – and outside Spain it has caused an immense amount of misunderstanding – is that among the parties on the Government side the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme Right… In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.
And who were the real revolutionary leaders? Orwell happened to arrive at a place and time during the conflict where the revolutionary upsurge following the shock of Franco’s coup d’état had reached its peak. He came to Aragon and Catalonia, where, led by the anarchists and the Workers Party of Marxist Unification or POUM, from its Spanish acronym, the workers were in the saddle, the local economy had been collectivized, and an extreme spirit of equality prevailed. As a democratic socialist, Orwell found this state of affairs highly attractive. As he put it,
I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist… However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality… But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all… And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.
How could such a man have become the hammer that dealt such a mortal blow to Communism? It’s easy enough to understand for anyone who reads this short book. There were two fairly well defined party lines prevailing in Spain at the time Orwell arrived. The POUM and anarchists insisted that the revolution must continue unabated or the war would be meaningless. However, orthodox Communists, represented in Orwell’s area by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, or PSUC, insisted that it was essential to win the war at all costs. To achieve victory, revolutionary hubris must be sacrificed to political reality. “Reality” included accepting a return to bourgeois control, centralized government, and a militarized army in place of the party militias prevailing at the time. Initially, Orwell preferred this point of view. Later, he came to reject it. As time went on, the dispute became increasingly bitter.
Orwell had come to Spain with a letter of introduction from the British International Labor Party, which was associated with the POUM. As a result, he joined and went to the front with a POUM militia. At first, he was irritated by their “ceaseless carping against the ‘counter-revolutionary’ PSUC,” which struck him as, “priggish and tiresome.” Later, as he put it, “I realized that the POUM were almost blameless compared with their adversaries.”
At the front, Orwell witnessed the heroism of POUM fighters, some of them mere children of 15, in their battle against the fascists. There was no question in his mind about the integrity of their revolutionary ideals. However, when they returned to Barcelona after months of privation in unspeakably primitive conditions, the Communists treated them to anything but a heroes’ welcome. Quite the contrary. In Orwell’s words,
Tentatively at first, then more loudly, they began to assert that the POUM was splitting the Government forces not by bad judgment but by deliberate design. The POUM was declared to be no more than a gang of disguised Fascists, in the pay of Franco and Hitler, who were pressing a pseudo-revolutionary policy as a way of aiding the Fascist cause. The POUM was a “Trotskyist” organization and “Franco’s Fifth Column.” This implied that scores of thousands of working-class people, including eight or ten thousand soldiers who were freezing in the front-line trenches and hundreds of foreigners who had come to Spain to fight against Fascism, often sacrificing their livelihood and their nationality by doing so, were simply traitors in the pay of the enemy… It is not a nice thing to see a Spanish boy of fifteen carried down the line on a stretcher, with a dazed white face looking out from among the blankets, and to think of the sleek persons in London and Paris who are writing pamphlets to prove that this boy is a Fascist in disguise… One of the dreariest effects of this was has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right.
Here, then, one finds the source of Orwell’s hatred of Stalinism and orthodox Communism. He rejected them, not because he preferred Capitalism, but because, as a convinced Socialist, he found the Stalinists devious, power-hungry, and essentially counter-revolutionary. In Spain, he was confronted with their betrayal. It was a betrayal, not of Capitalism, but of the workers power. Thanks to them, “the process of collectivization was checked, the workers’ patrols were abolished and the pre-war police forces (for Orwell, the natural enemies of the workers), largely reinforced and very heavily armed, were restored, and… finally, most important of all, the workers’ militias (in which Orwell had fought), based on the trade unions, were gradually broken up and redistributed among the new Popular Army, a ‘non-political’ army on semi-bourgeois lines, with a differential pay rate, a privileged officer-caste, etc. etc.” As a result of Communist activity, Orwell noted that, “A general ‘bourgeoisification,’ a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place… What had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor.”
When Orwell, a man who had suffered and risked his life in defense of that workers’ State, was denounced as a “traitor, fifth columnist, and fascist,” by the very Party that he saw dismantling the revolution before his eyes, that betrayal inspired the intellectual deconstruction of the Stalinist state that occupied much of his remaining life and culminated in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”
The fact that Orwell, like so many of his fellow intellectuals during the era of the Great Depression, was a democratic socialist, and launched his blows at Communism, not from the right, but from the left, is not as surprising as it might seem in retrospect. Many of Communisms most effective foes were similar to him in that respect, at least at some point in their lives. Often, like Orwell, they had witnessed the contrast between the ideal and the reality firsthand. See, for example, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, and “Child of the Revolution” by Wolfgang Leonhard. Another interesting and entertaining if lesser known example of the genre is “Out of the Night,” by Jan Valtin. Thinkers long before the time of Marx had predicted the eventual demise of the socialist ideal because, unlike conventional religions, which promise paradise in the world to come, it promised paradise on earth, where the disconnect between the reality and the ideal would finally become too obvious to overlook. Orwell and his peers were the messengers who finally revealed the man behind the curtain. We owe them much, and their relevance hasn’t ended with the demise of Communism. Eventually, another messianic ideology will arise to take its place.
If you haven’t read Alexander Herzen’s “My Past & Thoughts,” I recommend it to your attention. Nobleman, journalist, and anarchist, Herzen’s book is full of interesting historical anecdotes. He must have met nearly every significant 19th century radical of one stripe or another, and a lot of other very interesting characters besides. Some examples:
“I myself made Garibaldi‘s acquaintance in 1854, when he sailed from South America as the captain of a ship and lay in the West India Dock; I went to see him accompanied by one of his comrades in the Roman war and by Orsini. Garibaldi, in a thick, light-coloured overcoat, with a bright scarf round his neck and a cap on his head, seemed to me more a genuine sailor than the glorious leader of the Roman militia, statuettes of whom in fantastic costume were being sold all over the world. The good-natured simplicity of his manner, the absence of all affectation, the cordiality with which he received one, all disposed one in his favour.”
(Buchanan, then ambassador in London, hosted a party for a Who’s Who of European radicals at the behest of President Pierce, who, according to Herzen, was “playing all sorts of schoolboy pranks” on the old governments of Europe at the time.)
“The sly old man Buchanan, who was then already dreaming, in spite of his seventy years, of the presidency, and therefore was constantly talking of the happiness of retirement, of the idyllic life and of his own infirmity, made up to us as he had made up to (Alexey) Orlov and Benckendorf at the Winter Palace when he was ambassador at the time of Nicholas. Kossuth and Mazzini he knew already; to the others he paid compliments specially selected for each, much more reminiscent of an experienced diplomatist than of the austere citizen of a democratic republic.”
“Owen‘s manner was very simple; but with him, as with Garibaldi, there shone through his kindliness a strength and a consciousness of the possession of authority. In his affability there was a feeling of his own excellence; it was the result perhaps of continual dealings with wretched associates; on the whole, he bore more reesemblance toa runined aristocrat, to the younger son of a great family, than to a plebeian and a socialist.”
(Herzen had discouraged one of his revolutionary projects.)
“Bakunin waved his hand in despair and went off to Ogarev’s (a friend of Herzen) room. I looked mornfully after him. I saw that he was in the middle of his revolutionary debauch, and that there would be no bringing him to reason now. With his seven-league boots he was striding over seas and mountains, over years and generations… He already saw the red flag of “Land and Freedom” waving on the Urals and the Volga, in the Ukraine and the Caucausus, possibly on the Winter Palace and the Peter-Paul fortress, and was in haste to smooth away all difficulties somehow, to conceal contradictions, not to fill up the gullies but to fling a skeleton bridge across them.”
It’s a good thing all these old nineteenth century idealists and revolutionaries never lived to see what would become of their dreams in the twentieth. To them it would have seemed a tragedy, in spite of spectacular technological advances. In many ways, it was.
Trotsky was the best and brightest, and probably also the most readable, of the old Bolsheviks. He was also the Cassandra of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” 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.”
Too bad Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, et.al., didn’t listen to him. It would have saved us all a lot of grief.
Milovan Djilas, one of the great political thinkers of the 20th century, wrote a postscript for Trotsky in his seminal work on Communism, “The New Class.” An excerpt:
“The movement of the new class toward power comes as a result of the efforts of the proletariat and the poor. These are the masses upon which the party or the new class must lean and with which its interests are most closely allied. This is true until the new class finally establishes its power and authority. Over and above this, the new class is interested in the proletariat and the poor only to the extent necessary for developing production and for maintaining in subjugation the most aggressive and rebellious social forces.”
Those who would elevate the likes of Chavez and Zelaya to the rank of great heroes of democracy should take note and think again.
Trotsky and Djilas are both well worth reading. Djilas, in particular, is one of the most brilliant and under-appreciated thinkers of the last hundred years. See, for example, in addition to “The New Class,” works such as “Land Without Justice” and “Wartime.” You can find them on eBay, Amazon, Barnesandnoble, etc.
Our pathetic clandestine hectographs, our homemade clandestine hand-presses were what we pitted against the rotary presses of lying officialdom and licensed liberalism. Was it not like fighting Krupp’s guns with a Stone-Age ax? They had laughed at us. And now, in the October days, the Stone-Age ax had won. The revolutionary word was out in the open, astonished and intoxicated by its own power.
Trotsky in “1905”.
Humanity has produced many Cassandras over the years. Maxim Gorky was one of them. Or at least he was during the critical years 1917-18, when he edited Novaia zhizn’ (New Life), an independent socialist newspaper. Would that Russia had listened to him. Here are some of his more prophetic passages:
“Imagining themselves to be Napoleons of socialism, the Leninists rant and rave, completing the destruction of Russia. The Russian people will pay for this with lakes of blood.”
“All this (the Bolshevik experiment) is unnecessary and will only increase the hatred for the working class. It will have to pay for the mistakes and crimes of its leaders – with thousands of lives and torrents of blood.”
To the Russian workers:
“You are being led to ruin, you are being used as material for an inhuman experiment, and in the eyes of your leaders you are still not human beings.”
“Therefore I keep on saying: an experiment is being conducted with the Russian proletariat for which the proletariat will pay with their blood.”
Sad, isn’t it, that there are certain things mankind just seems to have to learn the hard way? Of course, when it comes to the messianic quasi-religion of Communism, there were many other Cassandras. Sir James MacKintosh, a brilliant Scottish thinker who died in 1832, long before Communist ideology was systematized by Marx and Engels, nevertheless saw what was coming. Socialist ideas were already quite familiar to the intellectuals of his generation. He remarked that the zealots of the new ideas might eventually succeed in gaining power, but they were doomed to failure. The reason? Unlike religious fanatics, with their celestial heaven, they promised a heaven on earth, and would be exposed as false prophets when it failed to materialize.
We should have listened to Sir James. Instead, it took more than 150 years and tens of millions of corpses before the rest of the world caught on.
There’s an interesting article over at Classical Values entitled, “So who owns Socialism?” The author is in a quandary because so much of what we’ve seen happening on the national scene walks like socialism, quacks like socialism, and flaps its wings like socialism, that a national debate on whether it really is socialism would seem to be in order. Unfortunately, that seemingly innocent word became fouled in the cogwheels of political correctness long ago, and one can no longer use it without treading on any number of ideological toes. It’s too bad. I agree with Eric at CV that, as something very closely akin to socialism, if not actually the genuine article, is already a fait accompli in some branches of industry, a serious national discourse on the subject is long overdue. While, as a rule, I’m anything but an enthusiast, I do make exceptions. For example, I would be a whooping fan of socialism in cases such as, for example, nationalization of the legal industry.
Socialism wasn’t always in such ill repute. The great Russian author, Maxim Gorky, thought, along with many other progressive intellectuals in his day, that “democracy cannot be other than socialist.” (“Untimely Thoughts,” p. 164) In January, 1918, just after the Bolsheviks had seized power, he wrote with what now seems uncanny prescience in his newspaper, Novaya Zhizn, “Therefore I keep on saying: an experiment is being conducted with the Russian proletariat for which the proletariat will pay with their blood, life, and worst of all, a prolonged disillusionment with the very ideal of socialism.”
He certainly got it right when it comes to the ideal of socialism. However, perhaps he was rather too pessimistic when it comes to the reality of socialism.
Venezuela’s most recent political embarrassment, Hugo Chavez, wants to present Obama with one of Lenin’s tomes at their next meeting. Apparently he’s been in a Rip van Winkle like slumber for the last 20 years, and no one has bothered to inform him about the demise of Lenin’s reputation along with the very bad joke he played on the Russian people known as Communism. Well, the right wing in the US worked itself into a furious lather when the Prez had the common decency to shake Chavez’ hand, so here’s a golden opportunity for him to redeem himself. An appropriate return gift comes to mind. How about “Lenin’s Tomb,” by David Remnick, or Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” or Medvedev’s “Let History Judge.” If he prefers a more subtle touch, he might give him something by Trotsky, a Bolshevik writer one can actually read without being bored to tears, or, if his tastes run to one-up-manship, perhaps a copy of the original “What is to be Done.”
The blogosphere has apparently already tired of Chavez’ antics. MSNBC, Fox, and the rest of the major news outlets picked up on this story, but, other than a few mentions here and there, bloggers are giving it the ho-hum treatment. It’s hard to blame them.
South America can never seem to catch a break. One never hears anything about her leaders unless they are abject, tyrannical, imbecile, or as in the case of Chavez, all three. Well, Venezuela has produced better men than Chavez in the past. No doubt she will in the future as well.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Ivan Bunin was a Russian man of letters who experienced the Russian revolution firsthand, and published his impressions in the book, “Cursed Days.” As the title would imply, he didn’t like what he saw. For example, he objected to a phenomenon we would, nowadays, refer to as ideological demonization. He describes it very accurately in connection with ad hominem attacks on one Nazhivin, a poet villified by the Bolsheviks and their hangers on in the midst of the Russian Civil War:
“Because of his book, though, Nazhivin is beginning to be persecuted in a malicious, coarse, and most obscene type of way.
“For the simple reason that he dared to say things that violated the credo of the left.
“It would seem that one could simply say to Nazhivin: ‘In our view you have made a mistake because of this or that.’
“One could express himself even more strongly and say, ‘It is not good that you have said this or that.’ – if the person really deserves such a remark.
“But when reviewers begin mocking this outstanding Russian person and writer, when they start slandering him with all kinds of cliches, as leftists are often wont to do, …I …hardly the newest person in this literature…decisively protest their actions and hope that my views will be shared by many of my colleague writers.
“I repeat: One may or may not agree with Nazhivin. One may argue with him, refute him… but to rebuke him in an indecent way, to rush off in a frenzy and seek to silence a great Russian individual and writer – such actions are not ‘liberal,’ nor should they be tolerated or allowed.”
Sound familiar? It should. Ninety years later, the sort of ideological demonization Bunin refers to has not disappeared. Far from it! One can spend days hopping from blog to blog, website to website, “news” channel to “news” channel, and never encounter a serious argument against this or that political point of view that doesn’t amount to a melange of ad hominem attacks, snarky remarks, and name calling, accompanied by the striking of virtuous poses from the “moral high ground.”
This phenomenon has long been a trademark of the ideological left in the US, but is now increasingly affecting the right, so that mutual villification has become the rule. One rarely finds cool, detached, objective arguments on any ideologically loaded topic. Instead, one hears a recitation of the reasons ones opponent is a villain, accompanied by much moralistic preening. The truth suffers. How refreshing it would be to find, if only once in a great while, an attack on an opponent’s arguments rather than his or her character. What a pleasant surprise it would be to find some ideologically loaded topic discussed on its merits, without the implication that anyone holding an opposing point of view must not only be wrong, but necessarily suffer from some kind of a moral deficit as well.
The shallowness necessarily associated with this form of “debate” eventually becomes oppressive. One reflects that none of these furious zealots would be remotely capable of explaining, based on first principles, why one action is good and another evil, and recalls a remark once uttered by Nietzsche: “Virtuous indignation is a crutch for the intellectually crippled.”