A Fly in the “Human Flourishing” Soup: An Australian Data Point

One of the favorite hobbies of secular philosophers of late has been the fabrication of new and improved systems of morality.  Perhaps the best known example is outlined in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  If conscientiously applied, we are promised, they will usher in nebulous utopias in which a common thread is some version of “human flourishing.”  We have already completed an experimental investigation of how these fancy theories work in practice.  It was called Communism.  Many eggs were broken to make that omelet, but the omelet never materialized.    That unfortunate experience alone should be enough to dissuade us from poking a stick into the same hornet’s nest again.

The Communists were at least realistic enough to realize that their system wouldn’t work without a radical transformation in human behavior.  For that to happen, it was necessary for our behavioral habits to be almost infinitely malleable, a requirement that spawned many of the 20th century versions of the Blank Slate, and perverted the behavioral sciences for more than half a decade.  Since it became clear, as Trotsky once put it rather euphemistically just before Stalin had him murdered, that Communism had “ended in a utopia,” most of the “not in our genes” crowd have either mercifully died or been dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world.  Practitioners of the behavioral “sciences” are now at least generally agreed as to the truth of the proposition, sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old, that there actually is such a thing as human nature.

That hasn’t deterred the inventers of sure-fire new universal moralities.  They seem to think that they can finesse the problem by persuading us that we should just ignore those aspects of our nature that stand in the way of “human flourishing.”  It won’t work for them any more than it worked for the Communists.  This stubborn fact was demonstrated yet again in rather amusing fashion on the occasion of the publication of a somewhat controversial book in Australia.

The title of the book was The Conservative Revolution by Cory Bernardi.  The particular aspect of human nature that its release highlighted was our predisposition to adopt dual systems of morality, in which radically different rules apply depending on whether one is dealing with one’s ingroup or one’s outgroup.  Robert Ardrey called the phenomenon the “Amity/Enmity Complex,” and it has played a profound and fundamental role in the endemic warfare our species has engaged in since time immemorial.  The philosophy outlined in The Conservative Revolution would be familiar to most southern Republicans in the US.  His ingroup is the Australian political right.  In other words, he is positioned firmly in the outgroup of the political left.  When he published the book, “warfare” was not long in coming.

The reaction of the leftist ingroup in Australia was furious.  To characterize it as hysterical frothing at the mouth would be putting it mildly.  The data demonstrating this enraged reaction has been kindly collected by the people at Amazon in the form of reader reviews of the book.  As I write this, there are 554 of them, and virtually all of them, whether “five star” or “one star,” are literary reflections of a two-year old’s temper tantrum.  Here are some excerpts from some of the 421 “one star” reviews:

It’s only 178 pages long, and at the current price of just under $27, it’s quite expensive as well. So already one’s expectations are for a good quality product, given that it costs over 15 cents per page (or 30 cents per sheet, in other words).  Just for comparison, my local Woolworths has toilet paper on sale for 20 cents per ONE HUNDRED sheets, or less than 1% the price per sheet of this book!!

It made an excellent liner for my bird cage. I love seeing my rainbow parakeets taking a dump on his head.

The Dark One hungers. In his pit of eternal hatred he squats in the darkness feeding on the screams of the weak. Soon, his blood tide reaches a peak and he will scourge the unbelievers.

…and so on.  Here are some of the 105 “five star” reviews:

Many of the rituals I frequently practice – mostly summonings of minor demons – require ‘hate’ as an active ingredient. Before this book, I never really knew what to do. When I attempted to provide the hate myself, I found it difficult to focus and the rituals often went wrong (I even ended up losing a hand once, that was a pain to deal with). After that, I tried kidnapping some of my particularly nasty neighbours, but while that worked considerably better, it certainly wasn’t perfect – often fear would override the hate I needed, and of course I had to kill them afterwards, and disposing of all of the bodies was starting to get really annoying.  Then this book came along, and all of the took away all of the hassle of finding hatred.

“Conservative Revolution” is the much-anticipated release by Cory Bestiality, after the success of his collaborative work on the ‘Real Solutions’ pamphlet. Effortlessly blending the Palaeofantasy, Historical Fiction and Political and Philosophical Satire genres, Bestiality creates a largely effective and revealing expose of the fallacies of Christian Fundamentalism and neoconservative ideology. Whilst lacking the insight and depth of ‘Real Solutions’, Bestiality’s new work is clearly inspired by similar writings, from Adolf Hitler’s stirring call to action, “Mein Kampf”, to Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue”

Short and succinct! In just over 100 pages I learned that Adolf Hitler was a very moderate, balanced, caring and compassionate man in comparison to Corey Bernardi.

One wonders that there are so many people in Australia who trouble themselves to write such stuff.  It’s certainly a tribute to the power of Ardrey’s “Complex.”  The shear irrationality of it is demonstrated by the fact that Bernardi is laughing all the way to the bank.  The book has already gone to a second printing, and the publisher is rubbing his hands as copies fly off the book store shelves.  The affair is just another data point swimming in an ocean of others, all pointing to a very fundamental truth; the outgroup have ye always with you.

Consider the ingroup responsible for composing most of these furious anathemas.  It is the ingroup of the secular left, which lives in more or less the same ideological box in Australia as its analogs in Western Europe and North America.  In other words, this stuff is coming from the very ingroup most busily engaged in cobbling together spiffy new moralities which are to be characterized by universal human brotherhood!  Sorry my friends – no ingroup without an outgroup.  Even if you ushered in the Brave New World of “human flourishing” by exterminating the very significant proportion of the population that agrees with Cory Bernardi, another outgroup would inevitably crop up to take its place.  In the absence of an outgroup, it is our nature to simply create another one.

It’s hard to imagine a less promising ingroup to gladden the rest of us with “human flourishing” than the modern secular left.  As Catholic philosopher Joseph Bottum notes in his book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, in the US these people are the direct descendants of the Puritans.  The overbearing self-righteousness evident in these “book reviews” seems to confirm that assessment.  They are saturated with a level of bile and hatred of the “other” that one normally expects to find only among religious fanatics.  And according to Bottum, that is basically what they are.  His take is summarized in a review of his book by David Goldman:

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

Perhaps “human flourishing” would be a bit more plausible if we were all Benjamin Franklins, or Abraham Lincolns, or even Neville Chamberlains.  As William Shakespeare put it in Twelfth Night, “Anything but a devil of a Puritan.”

What is the “Atheist Agenda?”

There is none.  An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period!  Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike.  Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:

Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.

Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo.  There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense.  For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.”  If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone.  For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,

So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies?  Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?

Topher chimes in,

Indeed.  Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.

Dogfondler adds,

Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence.  It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.

Ituae concurs,

Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.

There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists.  Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes.  No.  I don’t think so!  Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.”  It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus!  Schluss!  Basta!

If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.”  Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers.  In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.

Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior.  I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains.  On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached.  I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage.  I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity.  Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.

In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.”  I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions.  Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him.  It follows immediately from his theory.  Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it.  That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.

Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality?  No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option.  We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally.  It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.  On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.

Elmer Gantry

An Unofficial Entry to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris is soliciting essays for what he calls the Moral Landscape Challenge.  In his words,

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).  So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

The “central argument of the book” is defined as follows:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

I doubt my power to compose an answer of sufficient caliber to blast right through Sam’s confirmation bias and convince him that his whole “scientific morality” project has been a waste of time, or even to get him to shake loose a paltry $2000 for the lesser prize, so I will limit myself to posting one here on my blog.  Here it is:

1.  Evolution by natural selection is the ultimate reason for the existence of morality.

2.  Morality evolved because it promoted the survival and procreation of the genetic material carried by individuals.

3.  Since evolution by natural selection is a natural process, as an evolved trait, morality cannot have a purpose or goal in general, nor the specific purpose or goal of promoting “human flourishing” in particular.

4.  Therefore, the notion that morality has some goal, and a goal (such as human flourishing) that has nothing to do with the reasons that resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with, is false.

QED

It’s a testimony to the power of the illusion of the Good that Mother Nature planted in our brains that so many seemingly sane people who pass for scientists have bamboozled themselves into believing there can be such a thing as “scientific morality.”  The old lady didn’t mess around.  Assuming she ever experimented with moral relativism to begin with, no doubt she gave it up as a bad job when she noticed that her test subjects were dying like flies.  No, we perceive the Good as an object, a thing-in-itself, and there are few things harder than recognizing the illusion for what it is.

Normally, as is the case with Sam Harris, who is forever  chasing his moral butterflies, the rationalizations we come up with are remarkably flimsy.  Others can see the little man behind the curtain perpetrating the fraud immediately, assuming he’s not doing the special effects for their illusion as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, religious believers, who have their God to fall back on, may come up with some of the most whacked out versions of the divinity imaginable, but haven’t the least problem seeing through the secular versions of the charade.  For example, while I may have pronounced the Interdict on David Bentley Hart in my last post, I must admit that, in one of his rare lucid moments, he wrote,

If we examine the premises underlying our beliefs and reasoning honestly and indefatigably enough, we will find that our deepest principles often consist in nothing more – but nothing less – than a certain way of seeing things, an original inclination of the mind toward reality from a certain perspective.  And philosophy is of little use here in helping us to sort out the valid preconceptions from the invalid, as every form of philosophical thought is itself dependent upon a set of irreducible and unprovable assumptions.  This is a sobering and uncomfortable thought, but also a very useful reminder of the limits of argument, and of the degree to which our most cherished certitudes are inseparable from our own private experiences.

which can be rendered into the vernacular as, “Your personal opinions about what’s Good are not binding on me.”  And I must also admit that, if you accept Hart’s rarified, mystical version of God as an Ansatz, and aren’t too fussy about a little metaphysical fuzziness around the edges, his “proof” for the existence of the Good-in-itself makes a lot more sense than Harris’.

Alas, I personally deem the existence of Hart’s God no more likely than the possibility that Harris’ own version of the Good can somehow manage to come flying out of his skull, grab me by the scruff of the neck, and escort me kicking and screaming into his brave new world of “human flourishing.”

Does that mean I’ve relapsed into moral relativism under the stern scowl of Mother Nature?  Heavens no!  I’m just as prone as the next person to grab a rifle, sing the Marseillaise, and sally forth to battle for my own version of the Good (indeed, I have, minus the bit about the Marseillaise).  I just don’t flatter myself that there is some objective reason that my Good must necessarily be everyone else’s Good as well.  I don’t further flatter myself that the fits of self-righteousness I occasionally suffer with the rest of our species (especially when I’m driving), and which Jonathan Haidt described so well in The Righteous Mind, can have any objective justification whatsoever.  If everyone agreed with me on that point, I think it might actually promote “human flourishing.”  At the very least, it might restrain the pathologically pious among us from their most flamboyant and ostentatious displays of virtuous indignation.  I’ve always found that sort of thing very irritating (in others, of course), and think the world would be a better place without it.

“The Experience of God”: An “Adult Christian” vs. the New Atheists

The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.”  Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened  religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God.   They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge.  One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God.  As Hart puts it,

…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be.  If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book.  As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions.  However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians.  According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails.  Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate.  In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it.  He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former.  This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.”  In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.”  What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.

We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book.  What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc.  These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”

For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another.  Moslems beg to differ.  Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever.  “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye.  Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means.  One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames.  One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now.  He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.

It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.”  Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran.  Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said.  In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them.  Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,

…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.

can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits.  But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement?  Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists.  As Hart puts it,

All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence.  All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known:  that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:

The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.”  This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us.  For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.

I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them.  However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase.  These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.”  According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss).  I must say that I am in  full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing.  I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty.  However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.

In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever.  In the end, that’s really all he’s got.  These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.”  He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly.  We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory.  Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,

As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.

as for the rest of the New Atheists,

Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.

Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God.  In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee.  One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,

I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)

One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,

Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 18:3)

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

and

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.”  For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.  For example,

As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature.  Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.

and

The mystery remains:  the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals.  A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural:  it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits.  Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.

No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists.  It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation.  Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God.  In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.”  As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,

In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself.  No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.

In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality.  He just thinks that God did the wiring.  However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them.  As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:

There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor.  (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)

Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.”  It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience.  Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it.  If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question.  The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.

Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up.  It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith.  Indeed, they must be evil!  And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,

Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  (Matthew 7:1-2)

Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition.  For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:

Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty:  “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.

This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer.  For example, from one of his speeches,

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.  In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the    scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.    How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.

As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God.  Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.

Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can.  Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers.  In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.

Would you that spangle of Existence spend

About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–

And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;

Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–

Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,

And peradventure to The Master too;

Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins

Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;

Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and

They change and perish all–but He remains;

A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold

Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d

Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,

He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.

Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence.  There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

On the Indelicacy of Allusions to Communism

While strolling through the local Barnes and Noble the other day, I decided to see what I could find on the shelves by Solzhenitsyn.  There were two thin copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  That’s it!  No Cancer Ward, no The First Circle, and, most depressing of all, no copies of The Gulag Archipelago.  So much for the work chosen by Time Magazine as the “best non-fiction book of the 20th century.”  If it were up to me, a copy would be in every hotel room along with the Bible.  Communism was the greatest secular religion of all time.  It came complete with its own “scientific” morality, and when it had finished eradicating “evil” in the world in order to clear the way for “good,” it had claimed 10’s of millions of victims, shot, tortured, and starved to death under conditions of almost inconceivable brutality.  Solzhenitsyn was an eyewitness, and Gulag records the accounts of many others.

It would seem, assuming we place any value on our own survival, that every one of us should know something about these events, including historical background, and have more than a vague idea of what happened to some of the individual victims.  Millions of those victims, typically including the most intelligent and productive members of the societies in which these events occurred, were murdered in the death cellars and camps, all within living memory and in a relatively short space of time, by the zealots of a religion whose God was a future utopia here on earth rather than a superman in the sky.  It is hardly out of the question that something similar could happen again.  Assuming we want to avert that possibility, would it not be useful to understand how it happened in the past?

Instead of taking heed and learning from the past when it comes to Communism we seem to be afflicted with a remarkable level of historical myopia.  It’s as if we just wanted to forget the whole subject.  Why?  Our children are drenched with victimology in our schools and universities, learning versions of history that are often one-sided and distorted.  Somehow the Communists are off limits as victimizers.  Human morality works in wondrous ways.

I suspect one of the reasons for the blind spot when it comes to Communism is the fact that too many connections still exist to people who collaborated in the crime.  For example, Hollywood cheerfully promoted the new faith in the 30’s in spite of the fact that the crimes Solzhenitsyn chronicled were already happening in plain sight.  The notion that Communism in Hollywood was just a myth concocted in the fevered imaginations of delusional latter day John Birchers is nonsense.  Many stars, directors and writers made no secret of the Communist connections, but were perfectly open about their promotion of the “great cause.”  Their support was a matter of pride, not some guilty secret.  Thumb through the copies of The American Mercury for, say, 1939 and 1940, if you seriously believe the whole episode was just a McCarthyite fairy tale.  Today we are expected to wring our hands over the fates of those who ended up on the blacklist, suffering damage to their precious careers, but ignore the victims, many thousands of times greater in number, who were arrested and murdered to fill some apparatchik’s quota of bodies while these same stooges cheered on their murderers.

The identity of history’s “victims” is entirely dependent on who is telling the story.  We gain some insight into the political complexion of the story tellers from Malcolm Muggeridge in his book, The Thirties, where he writes that, at the beginning of the decade it was rare to find a university professor who was a Marxist, but at its end it was hard to find one who wasn’t.  Of course, British intellectuals prided themselves on being way ahead of their dense American cousins in that regard.  Fellow travelers were hardly a rarity in many other professions, and they made no secret of their political affinities.  They were reliable shills for Stalin, keeping a perfectly straight face during the Great Purge Trials, and swallowing any propaganda he saw fit to feed them, no matter how absurd.  Stalin was gone in the 60’s and 70’s, but the intellectual descendants of his earlier apologists were still there, loudly cheering the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.  Many of them are still around.  Obviously, it is more pleasing for them to pose as the saviors of other victims than to dredge up inconvenient truths about the ones they helped to bury.

The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading for every student in every public high school in the country.  If it were necessary for them to learn about the millions who were shot in the back of the head, or had their teeth knocked out and their genitals crushed in brutal interrogations, or were slowly starved or frozen to death in the squalid islands of the Archipelago, perhaps there might be some slight reduction in the chances that they and their children will suffer a similar fate.  It’s not likely to happen, though.  Instead, if the data point of my local Barnes and Noble is in any way representative, “the best non-fiction book of the 20th century” is being gradually forgotten.  Victims are all the rage; just not the victims of Communism, by far the largest and most savagely brutalized class of victims in human history.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  As Stalin so astutely pointed out, “The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic.”

Of Ingroups, Outgroups and Ideology

The set of innate human behavioral traits we associate  with morality did not evolve in order to eventually promote and uphold ideological utopias.  However, they did evolve to promote a dual system of moral behavior, in which one set of rules applies to the ingroup and another to the outgroup.  Murder, for example, which is usually severely punished if the victim belongs to the ingroup, has on occasion been treated with indifference and even encouraged if he belongs to an outgroup.  Knowledge of the distinguishing traits of ingroups and outgroups are acquired by experience and culture.  Such traits often include ideologies, of both the religious and secular types.  Thus, to cite a familiar example, while support or contempt for the dictatorship of the proletariat and the other shibboleths of Marxism played no role in the evolution of moral behavior, they are quite capable of serving as ingroup/outgroup markers.

For example, as I write this, the liberal/conservative divide in the US is a major variant of ingroup/outgroup identification.  That’s why one runs across terms like “polarization” in the news so often.  Read the comment section of any political blog, and you’ll quickly see that liberals and conservatives often don’t see their opponents as fellow citizens who happen to disagree with them, but as enemies, members of an outgroup complete with all the negative qualities commonly associated with outgroups.  They are not only wrong, but morally evil.

Mankind has often paid a heavy price for failing to understand this fundamental aspect of our moral nature.  Communism and Nazism were both highly successful ideological ingroups, in essence, secular religions, and both were also highly moralistic.  Both fought against “evil,” in the form of an outgroup.  For the Communists, the outgroup was the bourgeoisie, and for the Nazis, the Jews.  In the course of a few decades, these two powerful and charismatic secular religions had murdered tens of millions of men, women and children in the name of ridding the world of the “evil” supposedly embodied in these two groups.  The process continues today.  Old outgroups are exchanged for new ones, often strikingly similar to the ones they replaced.  For example, instead of bourgeoisie, we now have “the one percent.”  Instead of Jews, we now have “Zionists.”  The only difference in that respect between this century and the last is that the 21st century hasn’t yet spawned a new, charismatic ideology anywhere near as “successful” as Nazism and Communism to fill the vacuum left by their demise.  Unless we learn to understand and control this aspect of our moral nature, the appearance of new ones is just a matter of time.

The outgroup have ye always with you.  It represents a fundamental human need.  If one doesn’t happen to be handy, it will be invented. Hence the chimerical nature of schemes to unite all mankind into one big ingroup, a gigantic mutual admiration society.  As E. O. Wilson put it referring to a different ideology, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Morality, we are now told, must be put on a secular, “scientific” basis, in order to serve the transcendental “good” of “human flourishing.”  This new scheme of harnessing moral emotions in the name of “human flourishing” is not only palpably absurd, but dangerous.  Moral behavior evolved.  It has no purpose.  The reasons it evolved have to do with the survival of individual genes, and have nothing whatsoever to do with “human flourishing.”  “Human flourishing” itself will inevitably mean different things to different people, and these differences will spawn ingroups and outgroups as before.  There is nothing wrong with human beings uniting to consider rational means of achieving mutually agreed upon goals.  However, attempts to “tame” morality, and make it conform to “science” in pursuit of those goals is a prescription for disaster.  Human moral emotions cannot be manipulated at will.

Morality will not disappear, nor will our moral behavior undergo any fundamental change simply by virtue of our understanding it.  We will not all suddenly become “moral relativists,” nor will we all begin applying mathematical equations instead of moral emotions to regulate our day-to-day interactions.  We may, however, become wise enough to cease and desist from attempts to “tame” those emotions in the interest of promoting this or that ideological or political system.  Unless we are to understand that the mayhem and senseless mutual slaughter we have been engaged in since the dawn of recorded time represents “human flourishing,” one must hope so.

Trotsky and “The Revolution Betrayed” – Defending the Indefensible

Leon Trotsky was the best and the brightest of the old Bolsheviks.  A brilliant revolutionary and military leader, he played seminal roles in organizing both the 1905 and 1917 Bolshevik revolutions in Russia, and without him the Whites may well have won the Russian Civil War.  A few years after he defeated the last of the White generals, Stalin ousted him from power.  He gave his last public speech in 1927 at the funeral of fellow “left oppositionist” Adolf Joffe, was exiled in 1929, and finally murdered by one of Stalin’s henchmen in Mexico in 1940.  While in exile, he was kept well-informed about events in the Soviet Union, including the slaughter of the Kulaks, the mass death in the Ukraine caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, the unabated hunger and misery of the survivors, and the persistent mass terror with its hundreds of thousands of executions and rapid expansion of the Gulag system.  He treated with scorn the breathless praise of Stalin by the “friends” of the Soviet Union, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw, etc.  And yet, in spite of it all, he continued defending the Bolshevik Revolution to the end.  How could such an intelligent man continue to defend something so vile and destructive?

In fact, it isn’t so hard to understand.  Human beings aren’t really particularly intelligent, except in comparison to other animals, and they have a strong tendency to believe what they want to believe.  Trotsky was a convinced Marxist, and had a powerful incentive to believe that the revolution he had done so much to prepare and execute really was the path to a bright new future rather than the most bloody and destructive debacle in human history, as now seems clear in retrospect.  No one likes to face the fact that their life’s work has been in vain, and based on an illusion.  Trotsky’s rationalizations were probably similar to those of a great many other supporters of the Stalin regime in the 1930’s, including the “friends” he so despised.

The most concise summary of those rationalizations is probably his, The Revolution Betrayed, which was published in 1936.  Here are some of the key quotes:

…by concentrating the means of production in the hands of the state, the revolution made it possible to apply new and incomparably more effective industrial methods.  Only thanks to a planned directive was it possible in so brief a span to restore what had been destroyed by the imperialist and civil wars, to create gigantic new enterprises, to introduce new kinds of production and establish new branches of industry.

The vast scope of industrialization in the Soviet Union, as against a background of stagnation and decline in almost the whole capitalist world, appears unanswerably in the following gross indices.  Industrial production in Germany, thanks solely to feverish war preparations, is now returning to the level of 1929.  Production in Great Britain, holding to the apron strings of protectionism, has raised itself three or four percent during these six years.  Industrial production in the United States has declined approximately 25 per cent; in France, more than 30 per cent.  First place among capitalist countries is occupied by Japan, who is furiously arming herself and robbing her neighbors.  Her production has risen almost 40 percent!  But even this exceptional index fades before the dynamic of development in the Soviet Union.  Her industrial production has increased during this same period approximately 3.5 times, or 250 percent.  The heavy industries have increased their production during the last decade (1925 to 1935) more than ten times.

Gigantic achievements in industry, enormously promising beginnings in agriculture, an extraordinary growth of the old industrial cities and a building of new ones, a rapid increase of the number of workers, a rise in cultural level and cultural demands – such are the indubitable results of the October revolution, in which the prophets of the old world tried to see the grave of human civilization.  With the bourgeois economists we have no longer anything to quarrel over.  Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity.  Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of its leadership, were to collapse – which we firmly hope will not happen – there would remain as an earnest of the future this indestructible fact, that thanks solely to a proletarian revolution a backward country has achieved in less than ten years successes unexampled in history.

This also ends the quarrel with the reformists in the workers’ movement.  Can we compare for one moment their mouselike fussing with the titanic work accomplished by this people aroused to a new life by revolution?

As Milton put it in Paradise Lost, “So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair.”  At the time Trotsky wrote these words, there was nothing deceptive about them.  All of the above seemed to be quite factual.  As it happens, he was actually well aware of some of the blemishes to this pretty picture that, in the end, resulted in the demise of Communism.  For example,

But this same feverish growth has also had its negative side.  There is no correspondence between the different elements of industry; men lag behind technique; the leadership is not equal to its tasks.  Altogether this expresses itself in extremely high production costs and poor quality of product.

The tractor is the pride of Soviet industry.  But the coefficient of effective use of tractors is very low.  During the last industrial year, it was necessary to subject 81 percent of the tractors to capital repairs.  A considerable number of them, moreover, got out of order again at the very height of the tilling season… Things are still worse in the sphere of auto transport.  In America a truck travels sixty to eighty, or even one hundred thousand kilometers a year; in the Soviet Union only twenty thousand – that is, a third or a fourth as much.

A unique law of Soviet industry may be formulated this; commodities are as a general rule worse the nearer they stand to the consumer.

To the low productivity of labor corresponds a low national income, and consequently a low standard of life for the masses of the people.

In a word, Trotsky saw the Achilles heel.  He just couldn’t convince himself it would be fatal.  If a man as brilliant as him could still support the regime in spite of all these reservations, and in spite of his clear vision of the ongoing and escalating brutality, is it any wonder that millions of dupes in the West, not as well versed in economics and quick to take at face value the soothing assurances of Stalinist toadies like Walter Duranty that the starvation, executions, and Gulag were all an illusion, should support it as well, in the honest belief that it really did represent a portal to human progress and the workers’ paradise to come?  One can grasp the psychology of the useful idiots, the parlor pinks like the Webbs who hadn’t advanced intellectually beyond the stage of seeing in Stalin nothing more threatening than a loving uncle, and reacted furiously to any suggestion that the real picture wasn’t quite so warm and fuzzy as the delusion they’d created for themselves.  But what of a man like Trotsky?  Again, it’s all there in The Revolution Betrayed.

9 Thermidor is a critical date in history for Marxists the world over.  It has assumed a sort of mystical quality, supposedly representing the inevitable fate of all revolutions.  It is the date that Robespierre was deposed as leader of the French Revolution, the terror that he promoted was ended, and a period of so-called “reaction” set in.  For Marxists, Thermidor represents the victory of the counter-revolution.  For Trotsky, the victory of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian revolution.  No matter that the rise of Stalin didn’t end the terror, but vastly magnified it, and that, far from being “reactionary,” he ended the flirting with capitalism represented by the New Economic Policy of 1921, and collectivized agriculture, policies that had actually long been advocated by Trotsky and his “left opposition.”  For a mind steeped in Marxist dogma, nothing was easier than to see the rise of Stalin as the “counter-revolution” in spite of all this.  Indeed, chapter 5 of The Revolution is Betrayed is entitled “The Soviet Thermidor – Why Stalin Triumphed.”  According to Trotsky, the “counter-revolutionaries” were the caste of bureaucrats, opportunist and careerist parasites who preached that, after the shock and exhaustion of revolution and civil war, the proletariat deserved a rest.  Alas, the wearied workers were only too ready to listen to this siren song.  As Trotsky put it,

The Opposition was isolated.  The bureaucracy struck while the iron was hot, exploiting the bewilderment and passivity of the workers, setting their more backward strata against the advanced, and relying more and more boldly upon the kulak and the petty bourgeois ally in general.  In the course of a few years, the bureaucracy thus shattered the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat.

To a Marxist like Trotsky, there had to be a class explanation for everything.  Thus, Stalin was not a clever and unscrupulous manipulator who had gradually and insidiously gathered the threads of power into his own hands.  Rather, he was a secondary figure who just happened to have the good fortune to be chosen by the “new class” of bureaucrats as its tool.  Again quoting Trotsky:

It would be naive to imagine that Stalin, previously unknown to the masses, suddenly issued from the wings full armed with a complete strategical plan.  No indeed.  Before he felt out his own course, the bureaucracy felt out Stalin himself.  He brought it all the necessary guarantees:  the prestige of an old Bolshevik, a strong character, narrow vision, and close bonds with the political machine as the sole source of his influence.  The success which fell upon him was a surprise at first to Stalin himself.  It was the friendly welcome of the new ruling group, trying to free itself from the old principles and from the control of the masses, and having need of a reliable arbiter in its inner affairs.  A secondary figure before the masses and in the events of the revolution, Stalin revealed himself as the indubitable leader of the Thermidorean bureaucracy, as first in its midst.

And what was to be the solution to this unfortunate ascendency of the reaction?  After all the misery, starvation, and death, did Trotsky have second thoughts about the wisdom of “proletarian revolutions”?  Hardly!  He wanted to double down!  The gains of the October revolution were to be saved by a new revolution of the resurgent workers that would sweep the bureaucracy aside.  This new revolution was to be led by Trotsky’s fourth International, led, of course, by himself.

At the very end, Trotsky began to doubt this fine vision of a victorious proletariat.  In In Defense of Marxism, a collection of essays and letters that was the last of his books to appear before his murder, he wrote,

If, however, it is conceded that the present war will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime.  The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy.  This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class.  However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

In the end, of course, the “proletariat” did not fulfill its “mission.”  After the war, new Communist revolutions spawned new exploiting bureaucracies, just as had happened in Russia.  In none of the new Communist regimes did the state ever show even the faintest sign of “fading away,” as predicted by Marx.  But in 1936, all this was still more than a decade off, and the revolutionary hubris was still strong.  Millions of parlor pinks and fellow travelers the world over were blinded by the “gigantic achievements” of the Soviet Union, lacked Trotsky’s ability to see the downside, and were convinced that the Great Depression signaled the “inevitable” demise of capitalism, and so, in vast number, became Communists.  It is only remarkable that, in the United States, at least, the numbers remained so small.  We must be grateful for the fact that we have always been so “politically backward” when it comes to accepting the “scientific” claims of socialist theoreticians.  It remained for another one-time Communist, the brilliant Montenegrin Milovan Djilas, to confirm Trotsky’s worst fears, and describe the essential nature of the new exploiters in his The New Class, which appeared in 1957.

The fact that a man as intelligent as Trotsky could have deceived himself so completely for so long in spite of his respect for the truth and his clear perception of the fact that things were not quite going exactly as Marx had predicted does not encourage much hope regarding the collective wisdom of the rest of mankind.  It seems that, unless we find a way to become smarter, we will probably eventually find a way to destroy ourselves.  In the case of Communism, we have been given a respite.  The God of this greatest of all secular religions failed after claiming a mere 100 million human lives.  Let us hope we have learned something from the experience.  If not, the next great messianic dogma to come along is likely to claim considerably more victims.

 

 

Victor Serge’s Personalities

The best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution I know of was written by N. N. Sukhanov.  I’ve discussed his memoirs in earlier posts.  The best eyewitness account I’ve found so far of the Revolution’s aftermath, from 1917 to 1936, was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary.  Both authors were socialist insiders who were personally acquainted with many of the Bolshevik luminaries, both saw stunning events that shaped the history of the 20th century firsthand, and both eventually shared the fate of most of the old Bolsheviks, falling victim to Stalin’s paranoid tyranny.  Thanks to western intellectuals familiar with his work, Serge managed to escape Stalin’s clutches.  Sukhanov was not so lucky.  He disappeared into the Gulag.  Both left us with fascinating vignettes of individuals from the most powerful leaders to the most defenseless victims of the new regime.  Serge’s are of particular interest, because he was acquainted with several remarkable personalities, such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, from the time of their rise to almost unchallenged power to their fall from grace and execution or exile.  Many times he provides insights and details that I have never found in other histories or memoirs.

For example, there are many references to Zinoviev, once all-powerful leader of the Bolshevik party machine in Leningrad.  Serge was hardly one of his admirers, and had already come to grief trying to deal with Zinoviev’s Leningrad party machine on more than one occasion.  Then there was a remarkable change in the wind, beginning with “certain events” in 1925;

The storm broke quite out of the blue.  Even we were not awaiting its  coming.  Certain remarks of Zinoviev, whom I had seen weary and dull-eyed, should have warned me…  Passing through Moscow in the spring of 1925, I learnt that Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to all appearances still all-powerful as the two foremost figures in the Politburo since Lenin’s death, were about to be overthrown at the forthcoming Fourteenth Party Congress.

My own opinion was that it was impossible for the bureaucratic regime stemming from Zinoviev to get any harsher; nothing could be worse than it.  Any change must offer some opportunity for purification.  I was very much mistaken.

As a matter of fact, the Fourteenth Congress, of December 1925, was a well-rehearsed play, acted just as its producer had planned over several years.  All the regional secretaries, who were appointed by the General Secretary (Stalin), had sent Congress delegates who were loyal to his service.  The easy victory of the Stalin-Rykov-Bukharin coalition was an office victory over Zinoviev’s group, which only controlled offices in Leningrad.  The Leningrad delegation, led by Zinoviev, Yevdokimov, and Bukayev and supported by Kamenev – all doomed to the firing squad in 1936 – found itself isolated when it came to the vote.

Serge also left interesting details on the lives of players who may have been lesser known, but were fascinating in their own right, including his fellow author Sukhanov (his party name.  His real name was Himmer);

Nikolai Nikolayevich Sukhanov (Himmer), a Menshevik won over to the Party, a member of the Petrograd Soviet from its inception in 1917, who had written ten volumes of valuable notes on the beginnings of the Revolution and worked in the Planning Commissions with his fellow defendants Groman, Ginsberg, and Rubin, did have a kind of salon, in which talk between intimates was very free and the situation in the country as of 1930 was judged to be utterly catastrophic, as it undeniably was.  In this circle, escape from the crisis was envisaged in terms of a new Soviet Government, combining the best brains of the Party’s Right (Rykov, Tomsky, and Bukharin, perhaps), certain veterans of the Russian revolutionary movement, and the legendary army chief Blücher.  It must be emphasized that for practically three years between 1930 and 1934, the new totalitarian regime maintained itself by sheer terror, against all rational expectations and with every appearance, all the time, of imminent collapse.

In other words, Sukhanov had been tempting fate.  Repeating the mistake of so many others, he underestimated Stalin.  Then there was the case of Andres Nin, unknown to most readers, but a hero, not only to Serge, but to another great foe of Stalinism; George Orwell.  Here is the story as told by Serge;

Perhaps, for the sake of the reader ignorant of those past dramas, I must press home one example.  Andres Nin spent his youth in Russia, first as a loyal Communist, then as a militant of the Left Opposition.  When he returned to Spain he had undergone imprisonment by the reactionary Republic, translated Dostoevsky and Pilnyak, attacked the incipient Fascist tendencies, and helped to found a revolutionary Marxist party.  The Revolution of July 1936 (in which the Catalan anarchists took power in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, ed.) had elevated him to the Ministry of Justice in the Generalitat of Catalonia.  In this capacity he had established popular tribunals, ended the terrorism of irresponsible elements, and instituted a new marriage code.  He was a scholarly Socialist and a first-rate brain, highly regarded by all who knew him and on close terms of friendship with Companys, the head of the Catalan Government.  Without the slightest shame the Communists denounced him as “an agent of Franco-Hitler-Mussolini,” and refused to sign the “pact against slander” proposed to them by all the other parties; they walked out of a meeting at which the other parties asked them, all calmly, for proofs; in their own press they appealed continually to the evidence of the Moscow Trials, in which, however, Nin’s name had never once been mentioned.  All the same, Nin’s popularity increased, and deservedly; nothing else remained but to kill him.

Orwell provides the details of how Nin’s murder was managed by the Stalinists in his Homage to Catalonia.  In order to eliminate any independent socialist voices in the Spanish Republican government, they cooked up fairy tales about a “fascist plot,” and began herding their enemies into concentration camps they had already set up in Spain outside the control of the Republican government.  In Orwell’s words,

Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot,’ radio communication with the enemy, documents signed in invisible ink, etc., etc… And already the rumors were flying round that people were being secretly shot in jail.  There was a lot of exaggeration about this, but it certainly happened in some cases, and there is not much doubt that it happened in the case of Nin.  After his arrest Nin was transferred to Valencia and thence to Madrid, and as early as 21 June the rumor reached Barcelona that he had been shot.  Later the same rumor took a more definite shape:  Nin had been shot in prison by the secret police and his body dumped into the street.  This story came from several sources, including Federica Montsenys, an ex-member of the Government.  From that day to this, Nin has never been heard of alive again.

The works of Serge are full of countless similar accounts of how the lives of individuals great and small had been destroyed by Stalin’s terror, the misery, mass shootings, and starvation in the Soviet Union, the complete suppression of dissent, etc.  In his words,

The persecution went on for years, inescapable, tormenting and driving people crazy.  Every few months the system devoured a new class of victim.  Once they ran out of Trotskyists, they turned on the kulaks; then it was the technicians, then the former bourgeois, merchants and officers deprived of their useless right to vote; then it was the priests and the believers; then the Right Opposition… The GPU next proceeded to extort gold and jewels, not balking at the use of torture.  I saw it.  These political and psychological diversions were necessary because of the terrible poverty.  Destitution was the driving force.

When Serge tried to publish the truth in the west, his experience was the same as Orwell’s.  “Progressives” of all stripes couldn’t bear to have their charming dream of a worker’s paradise smashed.  They reacted with rage.  In Serge’s words,

…the succession of executions went on into the thousands, without trials of any sort.  And in every country of the civilized world, learned and “progressive” jurists were to be found who thought these proceedings to be correct and convincing.  It was turning into a tragic lapse of the whole modern conscience.  In France the League for the Rights of Man, with a reputation going back to Dreyfus, had a jurist of this variety in its midst.  The League’s executive was divided into a majority that opposed any investigation, and an outraged minority that eventually resigned.  (Note the uncanny resemblance to the selective outrage of “human rights” groups in our own time)  The argument generally put forward amounted to:  “Russia is our ally…”  It was imbecilic reasoning – there is more than a hint of suicide about an international alliance that turns into moral and political servility – but it worked powerfully.

Serge persisted.  When “progressive” sheets refused to publish his accounts, he turned to public meetings:

The dreadful machine carried on it grinding, intellectuals and politicians snubbed us, public opinion on the Left was dumb and blind.  From the depth of a meeting hall, a Communist worker shouted at me:  “Traitor!  Fascist!  Nothing you can do will stop the Soviet Union from remaining the fatherland of the oppressed!”

For many, the hallucination was only finally shattered by the abject decay and final collapse of Communism.  For some, it persists to this day.  One can but hope that the next time a great messianic ideology roles around, we will have learned something from our experience with the last one.

 

The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge

I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism.  History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior.  From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism.  It’s not a pretty picture.  In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia.  One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith.  It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”

Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published.  These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end.  A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists.  As a result he was treated “gently.”  He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation.  The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg.  The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived.  They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU.  Serge recalls,

I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”

The maidservants story was hardly unique.  Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves.  Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps.  Serge describes many other such scenes.  Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:

One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.

Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger.  One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion.  I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist.  I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.

My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off.  He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter.  They left him lying there, bloody but full.

At the rationing office a poster announced:  “Grandparents have no right to food cards.”  All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.

These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union.  Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope.  He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time.  Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20’s and 30’s.  The western intellectuals averted their eyes.  Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!”  A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean.  Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.

and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,

As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance.  I feel as though there were a book inflation.

This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it.  Serge knew better.  He wrote,

All legal means of expression were now closed to us.  From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.

In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere).  The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look.  Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look.  Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal.  After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished.  It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time.  Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.

If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet.  Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man.  We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood.  That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind.  In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now.  The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.

It would be very risky to forget about Communism.  It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.

 

Victor Serge
Victor Serge

 

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Take 2

Back in 2002, Robert Kurzban, who writes a blog for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a review of Alas, Poor Darwin:  Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, by Steven and Hilary Rose.  The Roses, ideological zealots and leftover Blank Slaters who have devoted their careers to scientific obscurantism, had regurgitated all the usual specious arguments against human nature, which had already become hackneyed by that time.  Anyone with a passing interest in human behavior likely knows most of them by heart.  They include the claim that the hypotheses of EP are unfalsifiable, that evolutionary explanations of human behavior serve evil political ends rather than science, etc. etc., usually topped off with that most ancient and threadbare red herring of them all, that anyone who dares to say anything nice about EP is a “genetic determinist.”  In his review, entitled, “Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology:  Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned,” Kurzban demolishes them all in turn, writing in his conclusion,

There are now a collection of dialogues in the popular press between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. The discussions all seem to have the same form: Critics assert that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what ought be. Evolutionary psychologists reply that they never made any of these claims, and document places where they claim precisely the reverse. The critics then reply that evolutionary psychologists are wrong in believing behavior is genetically determined, that every aspect of the organism is an adaptation, and that discovering what is informs what should be.

The contradictions between what evolutionary psychologists have said and what their critics have said they said are as clear as they are infuriating. All of the correctives that I have presented here have been discussed before, and all of them are in the pieces cited by the critics of evolutionary psychology. It is unfathomable how the Roses and the other contributors to Alas Poor Darwin could have come away from the primary literature with their impressions of genetic determinism, panglossian adaptationism, and so on.

I suspect that Kurzban fathomed the reasons well enough, even then.  Such attacks on EP are not scientific refutations, but propaganda, designed to prop up pseudo-religious ideological shibboleths that happen to be badly out of step with reality.  Even then, they already had all the familiar trappings of propaganda, including the “Big Lie”; endless repetition while studiously ignoring counter-arguments.  Nothing has changed in the ensuing decade.  “Genetic determinism” is still as much a fixture in the screeds of left-over Blank Slaters as ever.  Pointing out the absurdity of the charge is as futile as trying to refute the charge of “fascism” by carefully explaining the theory of the corporate state.  Razib Khan, who writes the Gene Expression blog for Discover magazine, notes that he was just denounced as a “genetic determinist” for daring to even question the scientific credentials of cultural anthropologists, in a couple of posts that didn’t so much as take up the question of the connection between genes and behavior.

All this points up a fact that is as true now as it was in the days of Galileo.  “Science,” understood as a disinterested and cautious search for truth inspired by a spirit of skepticism, can still be as easily derailed by secular religious zealots as it was by the more traditional “spiritual” variety who intimidated Galileo and still fume against Darwin.  The puerile myths of the Blank Slate represented the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral “sciences” for decades, propped up, not by a tolerant and open spirit of academic freedom, but by vilification and intimidation of anyone who dared to step out of line.  Evolutionary psychologists are hardly the only victims, but they are probably the most prominent.  They have the misfortune of representing an idea that happens to tread on far more ideological toes than most.  Blank Slate orthodoxy is hardly unique in that regard.

For example, one of the common hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that there may be an innate component of human morality immediately elicits a “territorial defense” response from the legions of those who spend their time devising new moral systems for the edification of mankind.  Most of them spend their time cobbling elaborate proofs of the existence of the Good just as their intellectual forebears once concocted proofs of the existence of God.  Consider, for example, the case of the author of the Atheist Ethicist blog, who has demonstrated that, because a equals b and b equals c, it therefore follows that anyone who dares to claim that there is “an evolutionary basis for morality” is immoral.  To make a long story short, the “ethicist” believes that those insidious evolutionary psychologists are not limiting themselves to studying the “is” of human moral behavior, but have a disquieting tendency to lap over into the “ought,” a territory which he has reserved for himself and his revolutionary moral system of “desire utilitarianism.”  He does not actually name any specific examples of the most egregious of these evildoers, but no doubt we can trust him given his unique moral qualifications.

It isn’t difficult to find similar examples illustrating why the ideologically inspired find EP such a tempting target.  However, the fact that it is is a stroke of very bad luck for our species.  After all, EP is a field devoted to expanding our understanding of our selves, and there is no more critical knowledge than self-knowledge.  For example, what if the greed of evil corporations, or the imperialist pretentions of certain uniquely evil races, or “frustration” don’t turn out to be completely adequate and all-encompassing explanations of human warfare after all?  Is it really possible to know with absolute certainty that innate behavioral traits play no role whatsoever?  If they do, the failure to discover and understand them may threaten our very survival.  I happen to prefer survival to the alternative.  For that reason, it seems to me that the time for refuting such charges as “genetic determinism” with patient, reasoned arguments is past.  It is high time to begin fighting back against the ideological zealots with the same weapons they have long been using against their victims.