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.

A Papal Bull from Daily Kos: On Permissible and Impermissible Sciences

Practitioners of the behavioral sciences will be pleased to know that an official blessing has come down from on high announcing that believers in the existence of human nature are no longer to be considered fascists and racists.  Writing for Daily Kos, one Erasmussimo announced the long-expected change in orthodox dogma as follows:

In the 70s and 80s, a strict intolerance for the racist abuse of science mushroomed into something entirely different: an ideological rejection of the notion that genetics played any role in human behavior. This school of thought was so dominant that many scientists were frightened away from any research remotely related to such matters.

But you can’t deny reality.  As one scientist wrote, “Evolution didn’t stop at the neck.” Human mental evolution was strongly influenced by selection pressures, which manifested themselves in human behavior. Genetics really does influence behavior, but it took a while for scientists to re-assert that basic principle. Two scientists, Cosmides and Tooby, began an extremely rigorous program of experiments that demonstrated beyond question that there were oddities of human cognition that could not be explained by any environmental factors. They christened their field of research “evolutionary psychology”. For many years they attracted considerable opprobrium, but their research was flawless and now evolutionary psychology is a respected field of research.

Au contraire, my dear Erasmussimo!  The reality that “Evolution doesn’t stop at the neck,” was denied quite successfully by psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists alike for a period of several decades, and was the prevailing orthodoxy, not only in the 70’s and 80’s, but in the 50’s and 60’s as well, in spite of that denial being palpably ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old.  Indeed, our unfortunate Erasmussimo seems to have compounded his mistake by completely swallowing the Pinker “big bang” myth of evolutionary psychology, according to which the field sprang forth in all its glory from the mind of E. O. Wilson, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  For example,

The eminent scientist E.O.Wilson was the world’s leading authority on the behavior of ants when, in the 1970s, he proposed that evolutionary selection pressures acted on behavior as well as the body, leading to genetic factors in behavior. His work with ants demonstrated the basic concept beyond question, but when he extended his ideas to humans, he triggered a shitstorm of outrage, and was treated quite badly. Wilson’s work was impeccable, but because it was distantly analogous to the racist IQ claims, his ideas (which he termed “sociobiology”) were lumped together with that odious ideology.

As I’ve pointed out before, Pinker’s “big bang” fairy tale can be easily debunked by anyone who takes the trouble to read Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, which appeared in 1968.  A manifesto of the Blank Slaters, the last I looked it was available on Amazon for a mere 46 cents.  It documents the fact that there were several thinkers who insisted on the existence of innate human nature long before Wilson, including Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, and that they also had the honor of being denounced as fascists and racists by the politically pure.  According to the testimony of the Blank Slaters themselves, however, by far the most prominent among them was not Lorenz but Robert Ardrey, a “mere playwright.”  That fact goes far to explain Pinker’s fabrication, which spares the sensitivities and gravitas of his academic tribe.  Read Ardrey’s books, along with those of Lorenz and several others who were challenging the prevailing orthodoxy during the 60’s, and it will become abundantly clear that, as far as the overriding theme of innate human nature is concerned, Sociobiology was anything but original.

Be that as it may, it’s still gratifying to know that the authors of the recent stream of books about innate human behavior are not under any immediate threat of falling under the interdict of the secular morality police.  Alas, we gather that not all fields of inquiry have been so fortunate from the title of Erasmussimo’s epistle:  Racism has a New Name:  HBD.  For the unitiated, the acronym HBD stands for Human BioDiversity, described by one of its practitioners as follows:

Human biodiversity is an acknowledgment that humans differ from each other in various ways because of our different genotypes. Differences include, but are not limited to, physical appearance, athletic ability, personality, and cognitive abilities.

Those who have sullied themselves by lusting after such forbidden knowledge need not complain that they were unaware that they were inviting excommunication.  The anathema from Kos was preceded by numerous rumblings from lesser lights among the secular clergy.  See for example, The Perversity of Human Biodiversity, a.k.a. “Scientific” Racism, the Steve Sailer Sucks blog (Steve Sailer is an arch-wizard of HBD, who, BTW, had the effrontery to sass back), the archive for the Human Biodiversity (HBD) Category at the Unamusement Park, etc.  In spite of this, apparently not all of them are in immediate danger of secular hellfire.  Kos is merciful.  As Erasmussimo puts it,

However, riding on the coattails of this respectable (evolutionary psychology) work is the HBD movement, populated mostly by eager amateurs rather than professional scientists. The HBD movement covers a broad range of ideas, from the genuinely scientific to the nakedly racist. At the scientific end of the range we have people like HBD Chick, who aggregate lots of evidence on matters anthropological and genetic as they relate to human behavior. At the other extreme we have Steve Sailor (sic), a conservative who promulgates racist ideas.

And how are we to distinguish who in the HBD movement are dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell (to paraphrase Jonathan Edwards), as opposed to those who are granted a respite to get their minds right?  As Erasmussimo explains, by their fruit shall ye know them:

There’s an easy way to differentiate the scientific side of HBD from the racist side: fixation on IQ. These people love to wring the IQ data for every ounce of scientific justification they can find for their racism. They analyze IQ scores by race, religion, gender, national origin, and lots of other factors; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them hasn’t calculated the correlation coefficient of IQ score with aversion to broccoli. They triumphantly trumpet the results that support their prejudices and quietly ignore results that undermine their prejudices, such as the finding that national IQ scores are correlated with GDP per capita.

Paradoxically, at least for those unschooled in the holy mysteries, Erasmussimo leaves open the hypothetical possibility that these racists may actually be right:

Finally, I caution the reader to subordinate personal preference for scientific objectivity in this question. I fervently believe that “All men are created equal”, but I am willing to entertain the hypothesis that some men are born with lesser cognitive talents than others. If solid evidence arises that blacks are cognitively less capable than whites, then I shall accept the hypothesis and move on to asking how we reconcile scientific conclusions with political theory. So far, however, the evidence I have seen is completely inadequate to support the hypothesis.

It may not appear immediately obvious how such evidence, in the wildly implausible event that it exists, is to be forthcoming given that anyone who dares to investigate the matter is to be automatically denounced as a racist.  However, it’s not that difficult to understand.  Voltaire explained it in Candide, where, alluding to the judicial murder of Admiral Byng by the English, he wrote, “There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

Ancient Greek artwork depicting Evolutionary Psychology emerging fully formed from the head of E. O. Wilson.

Milovan Djilas and the Genesis of a Communist Ingroup

Milovan Djilas was a man of genius.  He was also, for much of his life, a Communist, and a very effective one who contributed mightily to the victory of Tito’s Partisans in World War II.  After the war he was one of the four most powerful men in Yugoslavia, but became disillusioned with the reality of Communism.  After publishing a series of 18 articles critical of the regime that appeared in the Communist organ Borba between October 1953 and January 1954, he was expelled from the party’s Central Committee.  He was arrested in 1956 and imprisoned for “hostile propaganda” following interviews that appeared in The New York Times and Agence France Presse, and spent much of the next ten years in jail.  His famous exposé of Communism, The New Class, appeared in 1957 after the manuscript was smuggled out of prison.  His later autobiographical works, such as Land Without Justice, Memoir of a Revolutionary, and Wartime, are treasure troves, not only for historians, but for sociologists and psychologists as well.  They are also full of invaluable insights into the birth and evolution of ideological ingroups.

In this case, of course, the ingroup in question is Communism, with Nazism one of the two great secular faiths of the 20th century.  However, the phenomena described by Djilas are also evident among the ingroups spawned by the earlier religious faiths as well.  Indeed, it might be said that one of these, a latter day version of Islam, “rushed in to fill the vacuum” left by the collapse of Communism.  At the moment, pending the rise of the next great secular faith, it is, in a sense, the only game in town for those with a penchant for saving the world.  Hence the occasionally comical love affair of the stalwarts of the extreme left with fundamentalist religious ideologues of the extreme right.

This phenomenon is hardly without historical precedent.  For example, the Nazis found a fertile recruiting ground for their storm troopers among former Communists.  Both of these ideological ingroups were strongly attractive to the same psychological type.  Both promised to save the world, albeit in radically different ways.  However, the strength of the attraction does not depend on the minutiae of theory, but on the degree to which an ideology appeals to the innate wellsprings of human moral behavior; what Jonathan Haidt has referred to as Moral Foundations in The Righteous Mind.  If the appeal is there, theoretical details are almost a matter of indifference.  Communist intellectuals were occasionally puzzled by the appeal of Nazism because of what they considered its theoretical incoherence.  Their mistake was in believing that the appeal of either Nazism or Communism depended on theory.  Communists became Communists, not because of the intellectual elegance of Marxism, but because it happened to be around.  They had an emotional itch, and Communism was a convenient tool for scratching it.  As Djilas put it in Memoir of a Revolutionary,

We called it Communism.  It was not Communism, but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, not to accept a hopeless monotony.

Here, too, in a nutshell, he describes the susceptible “psychological type.”  Not surprisingly, the greatest susceptibility is found among the young.  In Djilas words,

Youthful rebellion first assumed a moral form:  the negation of traditional views and relationships.  The common man suffered the dictatorship and the other hardships as elementary evils which had rendered him helpless.  His concentration was on his family life.  He was petit bourgeois.  But he did not have any choice if he was not willing to go to prison.  Opposition to this kind of life, resistance to it and the bourgeois existence, was the most frequent form rebellion took among young people, particularly among intellectuals.

Initial attempts to scratch the “itch” took familiar forms:

In the course of my two years as a student (1929 to 1931), young people sought relief in a special form of bohemian existence, in which alcohol was perhaps not the chief solace.

They did not immediately turn to Communism, in part because of the lack of an organized Communist movement in Yugoslavia at the time.  King Alexander had abolished the constitution and established a personal dictatorship in 1929.

With the advent of the dictatorship, political organizations at the University were either broken up or they disintegrated.  There wasn’t a trace left of the Communist organization.  There were a few Communists, older students, but they were either so passive or so secretive that one didn’t know who they were.  I knew one of them, Milos Tujo Cetkovic, but only because he was a Montenegrin, from my region, and a relative of my Aunt Draguna.  However, he never said anything to encourage me in my rebellion, so involved was he in himself and in the mechanics of his conspiracy.

In keeping with ideological tradition, Djilas turn to Communism was catalyzed by admiration of a “heroic martyr.”  In his case, it was Bracan Bracanovic, a former member of the Yugoslav Communist Party’s Central Committee.

They say that he was dark and young and wild, and that he had enormous physical strength.  Several times he broke the chains on his wrists and it took as many as ten agents to subdue him.  He shouted big angry words at the policemen, spitting at them in spite of horrible physical tortures.  Uncompromising and unyielding, proud and strong, covered with blood and wounds, he died one night of a bullet in the nape of his neck, in a ditch near Belgrade.  No grave and no stone.  In my mind Bracanovic was identified with the heroes of our legendary past, the struggle against the Turks which I had sucked with my mother’s milk.  The death of such a hero was a crime a hundred times greater than any other, which inspired hatred and thoughts of revenge in any young fiery spirit.

Djilas time at the University also coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression, which did not spare Yugoslavia.  Economic misery and political repression promoted extremism:

My rebellious tendencies thrived in the Belgrade of this time:  Belgrade with its wild night life, its crisscross of influences from the whole country and abroad, its restricted social and political life… All the forces that yearned for a breath of fresh air were packed into underground cellars.  Belgrade was lively, colorful, and full of contrasts – an ostentatious display of newly acquired wealth on the one hand, and misery, hunger, and unemployment on the other.  It was a setting that gave form and encouragement to the conscious organized rebellion of the young… The dictatorship’s major undoing was that it took over in Yugoslavia just prior to the Great Depression of 1929.  The man in the street, who knows nothing about world economic laws, could not be convinced by elaborate but valid explanations in the press that the government was not wholly responsible for the economic downturn.  Poverty was spreading every step of the way, exposing gruesome crimes and perversities.

As individuals in the face of all this misery, Djilas and his friends felt a stifling impotence:

I found my own impotence in this situation insufferable, my own and that of so many people who opposed this power as personified by the King, the tyrant.  I felt that this night marked a final break between me, a citizen, and the King, the representative of state power.  As it turned out, I was not alone in this reaction:  we finally understood it was the King who was responsible for all that evil.

At first, Djilas joined a fellow student from a “bourgeois” party in distributing illegal political leaflets calling for a boycott of mock “elections” planned by the regime.  However, this first experience with organized resistance failed to scratch the itch:

For many years I was ashamed of having distributed those leaflets and for having urged other people to join me.  For a whole year my friends kept reproaching me, and their reproach, coupled with my own feelings of guilt, fortified my opposition to the bourgeois parties and their leaders.  We were not yet Communists, but we had begun to compete with each other in degrees of hostility toward the bourgeoisie.  Later this game assumed the character of deep “class” hatred.

The group of similarly disaffected left-wing students that had begun to gather around Djilas decided to take their opposition a step further:

We agreed that demonstrations should be held at the Law School at noon the day before the elections… That was the first public demonstration against the dictatorship.  This is not the time to talk of its impact on the development of the opposition and the Communist movement among the students.  But those who joined the demonstration felt that they were initiating something new and dangerous, that they were treading into the unknown.  Of that there can be no doubt.

The police smashed the demonstration, but only succeeded in fanning the flames.  The result was evident at a meeting of the students the following day.

Several people made speeches, including me, critical of our weak showing.  It was apparent that an organized minority was taking shape and imposing its will on the group.  There were a few moderate speakers, but they were quickly silenced.  Our skill in public speech-making – passion, invocation of patriotism, responsibility to the people, the duties of the young generation – had a tremendous impact.  Certain speakers were able to do anything they wanted with the crowd.

The emotional buttons were being pushed.  The moderate parties were pushed aside:

None of us leftists understood the full significance of the demonstrations.  However, the results were soon in evidence.  The bourgeois parties had lost control.  In the demonstrations they were moderate, and in action they were nowhere to be seen… But the most surprising thing of all was that the bourgeois parties had lost all influence on the masses, the ram and unformed masses, rebellious, politically undecided, strongly leftist in outlook.  A new generation was growing up under the dictatorship, ready to pounce.  The dictatorship had given birth to its own gravedigger.

For the Party, it was now merely a question of collecting the ripe fruit.  In Djilas’ case, it took the form of a message from the Communist Regional Committee that “the ‘comrades’ wished to see us.”  The “comrade” who did most of the talking was one Blazo Raicevic.  It turned out his Communist bone fides were somewhat dubious.  According to Djilas,

In the post-1937 internal struggles, he was included in the purge as an “unhealthy,” “factional,” “antiparty” element.

It didn’t matter.  Djilas continues,

…we were young Communists, not organized yet, but for that very reason most useful.  He was not bothered by our ideological immaturity – he was not a very well-formed Marxist himself… For us Montenegrin leftists, he was the first contact with the party organization, even if we overestimated him as a Communist and the strength of the existing Communist Party.

Raicevic encouraged the young Communists, but he did not organize them.  He didn’t need to.  They had found a unifying ideological outlet for their discontent.  From that point, the organization of the ingroup was almost spontaneous.  Djilas had left Belgrade for several months to avoid the police, who were already watching him.  The process of self-organization was already well underway when he returned:

In the three months that I had been away from Belgrade, the situation at the University had changed.  The unstable leftist groups had grown stronger and better organized, and had been formed into Marxist circles.  The official Communist party could in no way be credited with this development, even though the party did have its representatives in Belgrade, very respectable people at that… (I) found my colleagues organized in groups, absorbing ideology from Marxist pamphlets.  They were now sober, coldly analytical, and unsparing in their criticism of “bourgeois remnants.” … I felt ashamed I had “fled” from the police and stayed away so long.  I made up my mind to join one of the circles at once.

The process was complete.  The young students with a “deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life” now belonged to the Communist ingroup.  In the words of philosopher Eric Hofer, they were now “True Believers.”  The particular ideological shibboleths of the faith in question, Communism, were almost incidental.  It was adopted, not because of its rational beauty, but because it happened to be the most effective nostrum for “scratching the itch” available at the time.  Religious enthusiams have served just as well at different times and places.  Nazism, which appealed, in part, to a different set of moral foundations, proved to be even more effective in what amounted to a head-to-head competition.  However, for obvious reasons, an ideology based on the German Master Race didn’t play well in Yugoslavia.  Communism had international appeal.

And what of Milovan Djilas?  By all means, if you are suffering information overload about the results of the recent Presidential election, and are inclined to read something useful for a change, head to eBay or Amazon and pick up a couple of his books.  I recommend his autobiographical works for starters, beginning with Land Without Justice.  Save The New Class for later.  It’s best read once you’ve gained some familiarity with the man who wrote it.

Milovan Djilas

The Truth about Morality: Is or Ought?

Not long ago, the “Men of Science” in anthropology were furiously denying that ancient hominids hunted, and that chimpanzees were anything but inoffensive and pacific vegetarians, and that human behavior was significantly influenced by human nature, in the teeth of abundant evidence that such notions were not only wrong, but ridiculous. Today, discussions of morality have fallen into a similar rut. It is perfectly obvious that the very existence of morality as commonly understood ultimately depends on the presence of innate mental traits that evolved at a time when the human condition was a great deal different than it is now. However, to admit that fact would be to admit at the same time that “ethics expert” is an oxymoron, and to reduce the sublime joys of self-righteousness to an embarrassing absurdity, and to finally admit that Good and Evil don’t really transcend the petty minds of individuals.  In a word, it would amount to rejecting the way things “ought” to be on behalf of what “is”.  Hence, the fact is ignored and denied. We shouldn’t be surprised. This rejection of “is” on behalf of “ought” has happened many times before.

There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, for this stubborn embrace of the fallacy of transcendent morality.    Legions of philosophers, whether believers or not, were terrified that if the rationalizations propping it up were kicked out, we would all become immoral or, at best, amoral.  This delusion is based on the groundless suspicion that, unless some chain of logic based on unquestionable axioms is provided proving that we ought to act one way and not another, society will immediately collapse in an orgy of murder, robbery, rape and deliberate refusal to obey the traffic laws.  Even worse, we might all become (gasp!) moral relativists.  This further fallacy is based on ignorance of the innate grounding of morality, and the more than dubious belief that religion has had the net effect of promoting “moral niceness.”

Today, belief in a God or gods has become palpably ridiculous for anyone with average mental powers and the courage to face the existential drawbacks of their absence.  However, the old gods have always been a reliable prop for objective morality.  Furthermore, it has been plausibly suggested that there are innate underpinnings for religious belief itself.  I doubt that we “instinctively” believe in magical supernatural beings, but you have to hand it to the old gods.  They certainly scratched us where it itched.  When they disappeared, something new had to be found to do the scratching.  Enter secular religion.  The quintessential example is, of course, Communism.  Like the supernatural tyrants of old, it was a jealous god, allowing no other gods before it.  Alas, the new god died a much quicker death than the old ones because the paradise it promised was here on earth where it could be fact checked instead of the sweet hereafter.  However, when the new god evaporated with unseemly haste, we did not simply give up on secular religion as a bad job. The itch was still there.  New secular religions sprouted to fill the gaps as soon as the old ones died off.  The various versions touted by Sam Harris and the rest of the New Atheists are familiar examples, and come complete with all the same delectable moral certitude and watertight justification for bludgeoning of the unrighteousness as the old ones.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect humanity to relinquish its cherished “oughts” anytime soon in favor of simply recognizing the “is” of morality and dealing with it.  However, I still suggest it as a contingency going forward.  Whatever our personal whims happen to be, it seems to me we are more likely to satisfy them by acting according to that which is true than to that which is false.  We might have some chance of putting the constant murderous and disruptive bickering and warfare inspired by religious belief over the centuries behind us, avoiding the untimely death of another 100 million in the name of some future version of “scientific Marxism-Leninism,” and ending the constant annoyance of living in a world full of ostentatiously righteous poseurs.

And what of the drawbacks of accepting the “is” of morality, and kicking out the props of the Good-in-itself?  Would our societies suddenly and spontaneously descent into anarchy?  Would the bad guys win by default?  I think not.  We do not need, nor have we ever depended on, religions of the secular or old-fashioned flavors to act morally.  We act morally because that is our nature.  Obviously, there are great variations in the details of moral behavior among human societies, even though they spring from the same innate roots.  We are not rigidly programmed to act one way and not another like so many insects.  This gives us some flexibility.  We cannot simply jettison morality.  We must depend on it to regulate our social interactions, at least at the level of individuals and small groups.  Under the circumstances, I suggest we keep it as simple as possible.  Reduce moral rules to an elementary common denominator sufficient for maximizing social harmony and minimizing mutual injury.  At the level of large states, reduce the influence of moral emotions to a bare minimum, and seek to apply reason to the pursuit of social goals within the constraints of our limited intelligence.  Here, of course, I am not speaking of “is,” but of some of my own, personal “oughts.”  However, to the extent that they want to survive and even, to some extent, enjoy life, I think others may find them serviceable.


Paradigm Shifts and the “Science” of Religion

We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy.  A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism.  A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame.  For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around.  However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions.  It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth.  Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.

That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind.  No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack.  But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam.  The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer.  On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town.  The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet.  Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.

I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC.  Entitled God and War:  An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war.  Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.”  It continues,

One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left.  Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc.  If nothing else it’s a safe strategy.  Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all.  Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.

As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are.  Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran.  For example, quoting from the article,

The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].

As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses.  For example,

Quran 5:33

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.

Quran 8:12

I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal.  In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II.  In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants.  Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey.  By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.

In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion.  I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones.  At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial.  Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter.  From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”

Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare.  Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all.  An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace.  And who might this evil bogeyman be?  Think, dear reader!  The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum.  That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush!  Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,

…however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”

Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy.  How wrong I was!  Reading on we find,

He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self.  From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.

Damn!  Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy.  The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,

As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.

What an understatement!  Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!

How wonderfully ironic!  After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings.  By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all.  “Further analysis” indeed!  Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and the Unpersons of Evolutionary Psychology

The history of the behavioral sciences in the 20th century cannot be other than an embarrassment to the current practitioners in the field.  Truth was sacrificed to the ideologically motivated dogma now referred to as the Blank Slate.  This dogma, according to which the influence of innate predispositions on human behavior is insignificant, crippled the advance of scientific understanding in fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology for many years.  Eventually, the dogma collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity.  Perhaps because of the innate human nature that they once pretended didn’t exist, today’s crop of experts has lacked the courage to admit how wrong they were for so long.  To admit the truth – that they had been completely wrong about something absolutely fundamental to even a rudimentary understanding of human behavior – would be to sacrifice their academic and professional gravitas.  It would be the equivalent of saying, “Yes, we were complete ninnies for the better part of a century even as we bamboozled the general public into believing we knew what we were talking about, but, trust us, now we’ve got it right.”

As a result, it was necessary to give history a makeover.  A new version of the past was created that glossed over the true scale and significance of the debacle.  The Blank Slate was described as “archaic” science, as if it had happened in the days of Galileo instead of a few short years ago.    New heroes were created as the knights in shining armor who had defeated the Blank Slate dragon, chosen from the ranks of the experts themselves, and suitable to their sense of amour propre.  Their noble deeds supposedly all began with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  This reinvented version of the past has certainly helped propped up the academic gravitas of today’s crop of experts.  Unfortunately, it has also resulted in some collateral damage.  Among other things, it ignores the contributions of those who actually did play the most significant role in the overthrow of the Blank Slate.

There were not a few of them who debunked the Blank Slate long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  One of the more interesting examples was the Austrian ethologist, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  There’s actually an interesting association between him and Robert Ardrey.  It happens that Ardrey, and not E. O. Wilson, actually was the most significant and effective opponent of the Blank Slaters.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Steven Pinker managed to write a whole book entitled The Blank Slate, now accepted as the standard “text” on the subject, that ignored the role of Ardrey and that of Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, in spite of the fact that these two were recognized by the Blank Slaters themselves as their two most influential and effective opponents.  Anyone doubting the fact need only consult the invaluable little historical document Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu.  No matter, the two just didn’t fit in the new “standard version” of history.  Pinker dismissed them with a bare couple of lines, declaring that they had been “totally and utterly wrong.”

As it happens, his “authority” for this assertion, remarkable as it is in view of the fact that the two had been the most effective opponents of a dogma that really was “totally and utterly wrong,” was none other than Richard Dawkins, who asserted as much in The Selfish Gene.  His reason for this rather sweeping assertion was their supposed support of the theory of group selection.  What’s interesting about all this as far as Eibl-Eibesfeldt is concerned is that Dawkins lumped him and Konrad Lorenz together with Ardrey in the same denunciation.  Referring to group selection in The Selfish Gene, he wrote,

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz’s On Aggression, Ardrey’s The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s Love and Hate.  The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong.  They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.  They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

For the record, here’s the bit in Pinker’s The Blank Slate that relies on Dawkins’ “authority” to dismiss the work of Ardrey and Lorenz:

Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved:  Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species.  But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves (On the second page of The Selfish Gene, for example, Dawkins wrote, “The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.”)

Basta!  So much for Ardrey and Lorenz!  To the best of my knowledge, Ardrey never even mention the “hydraulic” theory, and Lorenz only brought it up in one of his later papers.  It was of virtually no significance to his overall contribution to the behavioral sciences.  Dismissing Ardrey and Lorenz because of group selection is like dismissing Einstein because of his remarks on quantum theory.  It completely misses the actual theme of their work, which was their insistence on the significance of innate behavioral traits.  The same is true of Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  He wrote a great deal about group behavior in Love and Hate, but there is little if any basis in the book for the claim that he thought these traits existed as a result of group selection.  If anyone can find a passage to justify such a claim, I would be glad to know about it.

In fact, group selection theory was no more an essential to the work of Eibl-Eibesfeld than it was to that of Lorenz or Ardrey.  Its only real significance as far as they are concerned has been to serve as a red herring to justify relegating their work to the dustbin.  The main theme in the work of all three was their insistence that innate predispositions have a significant influence on human behavior.  Books are currently rolling off the presses in a continuous stream confirming that theme.  In a sane world, the three would be lionized as heroes who stood up against a popular lie in the teeth of a vicious campaign of vilification by the ideologues who promoted that lie.  This is not a sane world.  No matter how great their real significance, those who published before 1975 had “jumped the gun” as far as the new official history is concerned.  It was necessary to drop them down the memory hole.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt jumped the gun.  His Love and Hate, which was probably his most effective critique of the Blank Slate, appeared in 1970.  He wrote the book in part to complement Lorenz’ On Aggression, debunking the notion that Lorenz’s book promoted genetic determinism, e.g., the idea that human behavior is genetically predetermined, and is little influenced by culture or environment.  Indeed, while their opposites, the Blank Slaters, who insisted that human behavior was, for all practical purposes, completely malleable, and influenced little if at all by human nature, certainly existed in great numbers, I doubt that there has ever really been such a thing as a genetic determinist, or at least none with any pretense of scientific respectability.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt himself apparently thought Ardrey was one, writing, for example,

“Cain rules the world.  If anyone doubts it let him read the history of the world.” wrote Leopold Szondi in 1969.  In his view a murderous inclination is inherent in all men and he speaks of a “Cain-tendency,” a drive factor with which we are born.  Robert Ardrey has sketched a similar portrait of mankind.

One can but surmise that he swallowed the disinformation thrown out by Ardrey’s enemies, and, like many of his other critics, never bothered to actually read his work.  If he had, he would have found that nothing was further from the truth.  In fact, Ardrey constantly insisted on the influence of both innate predisposition and culture on human behavior.  The whole point of his work was that there is no such thing as an irresistible “Cain-tendency.”  On the contrary, as he constantly reiterated in every one of his books, he believed that the human predispositions that have contributed to our long history of aggression and violence can be controlled and, perhaps, redirected towards positive ends, but only if we understand them.  At the time that his books appeared, the main threat to acquiring that understanding was the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt was well aware of the quasi-religious nature of that ideology.  For example, from Love and Hate,

Marxists base all their efforts on the assumption that there is no such thing as human nature, in the sense of innate dispositions, and that man is shaped by his social environment alone.  Now there is no doubt that the social environment shapes man to a significant extent – it is in man’s malleability that our hope lies – but innate dispositions are equally demonstrable.  If only these can be taken into consideration then society might be spared a number of fruitless experiments.

In other words, like Ardrey, Eibl-Eibesfeldt did not agree that the best way to solve our problems was to collectively bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the behavioral traits that give rise to them don’t exist.  Elaborating on this theme, he wrote,

Our biological investigation of human behavior has first of all shown that the aggressive drive that is innate in us has its own natural antidotes… Just as medicine developed successfully as an empirical science, so we shall be able to evolve ways to cure the crises of society only from a biological understanding of human behavior… Good or evil?  This disposition toward intolerance and aggression is certainly innate in us, but we carry no mark of Cain upon our brows.  The thesis of man’s killer nature cannot seriously be upheld; on the contrary investigation shows that by nature we are also extremely friendly beings.

Many interesting examples of cross-cultural commonalities in human behavior, many of them derived from the author’s own extensive work in the field, are cited in Love and Hate.  They remind one of the similar examples cited in an earlier work by another famous author.  That author was Charles Darwin, and the book in question was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  The importance of innate behavioral traits in human beings and their relevance to morality were no secret to Darwin, as anyone who reads his book can see.  Unfortunately, few people have read it, or, for that matter, even heard of it.  Given the troubled history of the field, that should come as no surprise.

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

The memoirs of N. N. Sukhanov are probably the best eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, or, more accurately, revolutions.  The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 (old style) was preceded by the revolution that actually overthrew the czarist regime in February of that year.  Sukhanov not only lived through and described it all, but, as a member of the Executive Committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet, he played a significant role in the unfolding events.  He had a knack for turning up at key moments, such as the arrival of Lenin after his ride through Germany on the famous “sealed train,” the debut of Trotsky as a speaker before the Soviet, and in the Smolny headquarters of the Bolsheviks on the very day they launched their revolution.  He was well known to Lenin and Trotsky, on friendly terms with such other Bolshevik luminaries as Kamenev and Lunacharsky, and occasionally slept at the home of Kerensky.  More importantly as far as the subject of this post is concerned, he was a convinced left wing socialist of the type Eric Hoffer described in “The True Believer,” a religious zealot of the greatest secular religion the world has ever known.

In describing his own actions and thoughts during all these dramatic events, Sukhanov gives us an excellent close-up of the type.  Like most convinced Marxists, he suffered from the delusion that the religious dogmas he devoted so much of his time to studying and pondering were really a “science.”  By virtue of the “truth” this “science” revealed to him, he had become cocksure that he was superior to those who didn’t share his faith, possessed of an all-encompassing knowledge that was hidden from them.  The unbelievers became, in his eyes, at best, ignorant “philistines” and, at worst, willing minions of that great outgroup of the Marxists, the bourgeoisie.  A revealing instance of this attitude is his description of the conversation of two female co-workers in the czarist Ministry of Agriculture, where he held a job in spite of his illegal status (he had been banished from the city for revolutionary activities) in the days immediately preceding the February revolution:

I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section.  Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.  “D’you know,” suddenly declared one of these young ladies, “if you ask me, it’s the beginning of the revolution!”

…in those days, sitting over my irrigations systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis (a periodical edited by Maxim Gorky, ed.) manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed. These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn’t know what a revolution was.

As far as Sukhanov was concerned, the Russia of his day was inhabited mainly by such philistines, people who, by virtue of their ignorance of the true faith, were merely an inert mass, incapable of playing an active role in the revolutionary upheavals to come.  Among them were the great “grey masses” of the soldiery, suspect because of their peasant origins, and relegated to the “petty bourgeoisie,” that great Marxist catchall for “others” who didn’t happen to actually possess any of the “social means of production.”

The great exception was, of course, the proletariat.  As a true believer in the Marxist religion, Sukhanov ascribed all kinds of wonderful and fantastic qualities to the demigods of that religion, the workers.  They appeared to him as the beloved to her lover, paragons of every good quality.  For example, in describing the scene at a meeting of the Second Congress of Soviets on the eave of the October Revolution he wrote,

It was not until 11 o’clock that bells began to ring for the meeting.  The hall was already full, still with the same grey mob from the heart of the country.  An enormous difference leaped to the eye:  the Petersburg Soviet, that is, its Workers’ Section in particular, which consisted of average Petersburg proletarians in comparison with the masses of the Second Congress looked like the Roman Senate that the ancient Carthaginians took for an assembly of gods.

This deification of the proletariat was a reflection of the socialist true believer’s inability to see the rest of humanity as other than Marxist classes.  All motives, all political goals, all human aspirations, must necessarily be forced into the Procrustean bed of some class interest.  Thus, workers who opposed the Bolsheviks were transmogrified into “petty bourgeoisie,” and noblemen from wealthy families like Lenin were magically transformed into the vanguard of the working masses.  So it was that Hitler’s Nazi regime and fascism in general were simply hand-waved away as “the final stage of capitalism.”  Understanding human nature and the non-economic motivations it might inspire was never Communism’s strong suit.  In fact, the ideology required denial of the very existence of human nature.  Creatures with hard-wired behavioral predispositions could not be quickly “re-educated” to become the New Soviet Men and Women ideally suited for the worker’s paradise that was being prepared for them.  In the end, of course, human nature had the last word.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”

Sukhanov suffered from another delusion common to the socialist faithful – the notion that mass organizations were spontaneous emanations of the masses themselves, called forth by historical developments.  This particular fantasy was probably the most devastating of all the delusions engendered by Marxist ideology.  It paralyzed any resistance to the Bolshevik coup d’etat from intelligent people who should have known better.  On the contrary, many of them fought resistance by others, reasoning that, even if they didn’t agree with the Bolsheviks themselves, the party was an authentic manifestation of the popular will, instead of a tiny minority that happened to be highly effective at manipulating the popular will.  Thus, to become the vanguard of the “expression of the popular will,” it was only necessary for the Bolsheviks, far superior to any potential opponent in the field in their grasp of mass psychology, to ply a highly volatile population with propaganda slogans that pandered to the mood of the moment, regardless of whether they knew them to be false themselves or not.  They did so with a virtuosity that has seldom been equalled, their task facilitated by Kerensky’s ineffectual provisional government.  As Sukhanov put it, “Agitation and the influence of ideas were an incomparably more reliable prop of Smolny (e.g., the Bolsheviks) than military operations.”  In the end, far from being the source of a revolutionary upheaval that they had been during the February revolution, the masses became mere willing tools for the tiny minority who actually did make the revolution.  Meanwhile, the more “advanced” socialists of other parties stood idly by, convinced that the Bolshevik coup was “theoretically” wrong, but represented the will of the masses, nevertheless.

So it was that Sukhanov, even though he opposed what the Bolsheviks were doing, not only failed to act against them himself, but denounced those who did try to act as “counter-revolutionaries.”  His mind muddled by the dogmas of a new religion he took for “science,” he was incapable of perceiving the Bolsheviks as anything but the true representatives of the “democracy!”  He suffered from this delusion to the point that he seriously believed his party could have formed a “united front” with this “democracy,” and even considered his failure to do so his “greatest crime.”  After the Mensheviks and other left socialists, led by the left Menshevik Julius Martov, had decided to walk out of the Second Congress of Soviets which the Bolsheviks controlled and used as the legal facade for their coup, thus abandoning the “democracy,” he wrote,

So the thing was done.  We had left, not knowing where or why, after breaking with the Soviet, getting ourselves mixed up with counter-revolutionary elements, discrediting and debasing ourselves in the eyes of the masses, and ruining the entire future of our organization and our principles.  And that was the least of it:  in leaving we completely untied the Bolsheviks’ hands, making them masters of the entire situation and yielding to them the whole arena of the revolution.

A struggle at the Congress for a united democratic front might have had some success. For the Bolsheviks as such, for Lenin and Trotsky, it was more odious than the possible Committees of Public Safety or another Kornilov march on Petersburg.  The exit of the “pure in heart” freed the Bolsheviks from this danger.  By quitting the Congress and leaving the Bolsheviks with only the Left SR (Socialist Revolutionary) youngsters and the feeble little Novaya Zhizn (paper edited by Gorky, ed.) group, we gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.  By our own irrational decision we ensured the victory of Lenin’s whole “line.”

I personally committed not a few blunders and errors in the revolution.  But I consider my greatest and most indelible crime the fact that I failed to break with the Martov group immediately after our fraction voted to leave, and didn’t stay on at the Congress.  To this day I have not ceased regretting this October 25th crime of mine.

All this, of course, was a complete chimera.  Once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power, they had not the least intention of sharing it with anyone.  The idea that walking out on the Bolshevik “democracy” had “freed their hands” was the purest fantasy.

The socialist religion was the great hope of the 19th century, and the great disaster of the 20th. In the end it demonstrated once again, as the spiritual religions that preceded it had done many times before, that belief in things that are false can lead to very unpleasant results including, as we have seen only too frequently of late, self-destruction in the hope of an illusory paradise to come. So it was with Sukhanov and the other Bolshevik fellow travelers as well. Sukhanov was lucky. He was merely arrested and disappeared into the Gulag, where he apparently survived longer than most. In general, Stalin was in the habit of shooting these “intellectuals” who had done so much to facilitate his rise to power.

The Theology of Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus.  Here’s what he said:

It’s not about you.  It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.  But no less a theology.

The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect.  The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context.  This time the Right has it right.  For example, from Foxnews,

Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning  whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology”  over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the  stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.

“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a  Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum  said.

“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,”  he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the  Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And  I think that is a phony ideal.

I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:

I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.

I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.

In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.

Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date.  While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever.  Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge.  They were elitists in the truest sense of the word.  Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true.  They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above.  Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.

That was their Achilles heal.  The future eventually becomes the present.  The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie.  Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light.  They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims.  Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them.  Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals.  For that we can all be grateful.

In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist.  The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion.  I think not.  True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there.  For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us.  The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible.  It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty.  Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.

An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion.  They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.”  Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup.  It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion.  Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.

However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion.  For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise.  The environmental movement has nothing of the sort.  So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.

In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions.  He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.