A New York Intellectual’s Unwitting Expose; Human Nature Among the Ideologues

Norman Podhoretz is one of the New York literati who once belonged to a group of leftist intellectuals he called the Family. He wrote a series of books, including Making It, Breaking Ranks, and Ex-Friends, describing what happened when he underwent an ideological metamorphosis from leftist radical to neoconservative. In the process he created a wonderful anthropological study of human nature in the context of an ingroup defined by ideology. Behavior within that ingroup was similar to behavior within ingroups defined by race, class, religion, ethnicity, or any of the other often subtle differences that enable ingroups to distinguish themselves from the “others.” The only difference was that, in the case of Podhoretz’ Family, the ingroup was defined by loyalty to ideological dogmas. Podhoretz described a typical denizen as follows:

Such a person takes ideas as seriously as an orthodox religious person takes, or anyway used to take, doctrine or dogma. Though we cluck our enlightened modern tongues at such fanaticism, there is a reason why people have been excommunicated, and sometimes even put to death, by their fellow congregants for heretically disagreeing with the official understanding of a particular text or even of a single word. After all, to the true believer everything important – life in this world as well as life in the next – depends on obedience to these doctrines and dogmas, which in turn depends on an accurate interpretation of their meaning and which therefore makes the spread of heresy a threat of limitless proportions.

This fear and hatred of the heretic, together with the correlative passion to shut him up one way or the other, is (to say the least, and in doing so I am bending over backward) as much a character trait of so-called liberal intellectuals as it is of conservatives… For we have seen that “liberal” intellectuals who tell us that tolerance and pluralism are the highest values, who profess to believe that no culture is superior to any other, and who are on that account great supporters of “multiculturalism” will treat these very notions as sacred orthodoxies, will enforce agreement with them in every venue in which they have the power to do so (the universities being the prime example at the moment), and will severely punish any deviation that dares to make itself known.

Podhoretz may not have been aware of the genetic roots responsible for such behavior, but he was certainly good at describing it. His description of status seeking, virtue signaling, hatred of the outgroup, allergic reaction to heretics, etc., within the Family would be familiar to any student of urban street gangs. As anthropological studies go, his books have the added advantage of being unusually entertaining, if only by virtue of the fact that his ingroup included such lions of literature as Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Allen Ginsburg, and Lionel Trilling,

Podhoretz was editor of the influential cultural and intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. When he took over the magazine already represented the anti-Communist Left. However, he originally planned to take a more radically leftist line, based on the philosophy of Paul Goodman, a utopian anarchist. In his Growing Up Absurd, Goodman claimed that American society was stuck with a number of “incomplete revolutions.” To escape this “absurdity” it was necessary to complete the revolutions. Podhoretz seized on Goodman’s ideas as the “radical” solution to our social ills he was seeking, and immediately started a three-part serialization of his book in Commentary. Another major influence on Podhoretz at the time was Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown, a late Freudian tract intended to reveal “the psychoanalytical meaning of history.” It is depressing to read these books today in the knowledge that they were once taken perfectly seriously by people who imagined themselves to be the cream of the intellectual crop. Goodman certainly chose the right adjective for them – “absurd.”

In any case, as the decade wore on, the Left did become more radicalized, but not in the way foreseen by Podhoretz. What was known then as the New Left emerged, and began its gradual takeover of the cultural institutions of the country, a process that has continued to this day. When he came of age, most leftists had abandoned the Stalinism or Trotskyism they had flirted with in the 30’s and 40’s, and become largely “pro-American” and anti-Communist as the magnitude of the slaughter and misery in the Soviet Union under Stalin became impossible to ignore. However, as the war in Vietnam intensified, the dogs returned to their vomit, so to speak. Leftists increasingly became useful idiots – effectively pro-Communist whether they admitted it or not. As Israel revealed its ability to effectively defend itself, they also became increasingly anti-Semitic as well, a development that also continues to this day. Then, as now, anti-Semitism was fobbed off as “anti-Zionism,” but Podhoretz, a Jew as were many of the other members of the family, was not buying it. He may have been crazy enough to take Goodman and Brown seriously, but he was not crazy enough to believe that it was preferable to live in a totalitarian Communist state than in the “imperialist” United States, nor, in light of the Holocaust, was he crazy enough to believe that the creation of a Jewish state was “unjust.” In the following passage he describes his response when he first began to notice this shift in the Zeitgeist, in this case on the part of an erstwhile “friend”:

I was not afraid of Jason. I never hesitated to cut him off when he began making outrageous statements about others, and once I even made a drunken public scene in a restaurant when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler. This comparison was later to become a commonplace of radical talk, but I had never heard it made before, and it so infuriated me that I literally roared in response.

Today, of course, one no longer roars. One simply concludes that those who habitually resort to Hitler comparisons are imbeciles, and leaves it at that. In any case, Podhoretz began publishing “heretical” articles in Commentary, rejecting these notions, and nibbling away that the shibboleths that defined what had once been his ingroup in the process. In the end, he became a full-blown neoconservative. The behavioral responses to Podhoretz “treason” to his ingroup should be familiar to all students of human behavior. His first book length challenge to his ingroup’s sense of its own purity and righteousness was Making It, published in 1967. As Podhoretz recalls,

In an article about Making It and its reception that was itself none too friendly to the book, Norman Mailer summed up the critical response as “brutal – coarse, intimate, snide, grasping, groping, slavering, slippery of reference, crude and naturally tasteless.” But, he added, “the public reception of Making It was nevertheless still on the side of charity if one compared the collective hooligan verdict to the earlier fulminations of the Inner Clan.” By the “Inner Clan,” Mailer meant the community of New York literary intellectuals I myself had called the Family. According to Mailer, what they had been saying in private about Making It even before it was published made the “horrors” of the public reception seem charitable and kind. “Just about everyone in the Establishment” – i.e., the Family – was “scandalized, shocked, livid, revolted, appalled, disheartened, and enraged.” They were “furious to the point of biting their white icy lips… No fate could prove undeserved for Norman, said the Family in thin quivering late-night hisses.”

Podhoretz notes that academia was the first of the cultural institutions of the country to succumb to the radical Gleichschaltung that has now established such firm control over virtually all the rest, to the point that it has become the new “normalcy.” In his words,

For by 1968 radicalism was so prevalent among college students that any professor who resisted it at the very least risked unpopularity and at the worst was in danger of outright abuse. Indeed it was in the universities that the “terror” first appeared and where it operated most effectively.

By the late 60’s the type of behavior that is now ubiquitous on university campuses was hardly a novelty. “De-platforming” was already part of the campus culture:

By 1968 SDS (the leftist Students for a Democratic Society) had moved from argument and example to shouting down speakers with whom it disagreed on the ground that only the “truth” had a right to be heard. And it also changed its position on violence… and a number of its members had gone beyond advocacy to actual practice in the form of bombings and other varieties of terrorism.

As Podhoretz documents, the War in Vietnam had originally been supported, and indeed started and continued by intellectuals and politicians on the left of the political spectrum. He noted that Robert Kennedy had been prominent among them:

Kennedy too then grew more and more radicalized as radicalism looked more and more like the winning side. Having been one of the architects of the war in Vietnam and a great believer in resistance to Communist power in general, he now managed to suggest that he opposed these policies both in the small and in the large.

However, in one of the rapid changes in party line familiar to those who’ve read the history of Communism in the Soviet Union and memorialized by George Orwell in 1984, the hawks suddenly became doves:

…a point was soon reached where speakers supporting the war were either refused a platform or shouted down when they attempted to speak. A speaker whose criticisms were insufficiently violent could even expect a hard time, as I myself discovered when a heckler at Wayne State in Detroit accused me, to the clear delight of the audience, of not being “that much” against the war because in expressing my opposition to the American role I had also expressed my usual reservations about the virtues of the Communist side.

Of course, there was no Internet in the 60’s, so “de-platforming” assumed a form commensurate with the technology available at the time. Podhoretz describes it as follows:

The word “terror,” like everything else about the sixties, was overheated. No one was arrested or imprisoned or executed; no one was even fired from a job (though there were undoubtedly some who lost out on job opportunities or on assignments or on advances from book publishers they might otherwise have had). The sanctions of this particular reign of “terror” were much milder: one’s reputation was besmirched, with unrestrained viciousness in conversation and, when the occasion arose, by means of innuendo in print. People were written off with the stroke of an epithet – “fink” or “racist” or “fascist” as the case might be – and anyone so written off would have difficulty getting a fair hearing for anything he might have to say. Conversely, anyone who went against the Movement party line soon discovered that the likely penalty was dismissal from the field of discussion.

Seeing others ruthless dismissed in this way was enough to prevent most people from voicing serious criticisms of the radical line and – such is the nature of intellectual cowardice – it was enough in some instances to prevent them even from allowing themselves to entertain critical thoughts.

The “terror” is more powerful and pervasive today than it ever was in the 60’s, and it’s ability to “dismiss from the field of discussion” is far more effective. As a result, denizens of the leftist ingroup or those who depend on them for their livelihood tend to be very cautious about rocking the boat.  That’s why young, pre-tenure professors include ritualistic denunciations of the established heretics in their fields before they dare to even give a slight nudge to the approved dogmas. Indeed, I’ve documented similar behavior by academics approaching retirement on this blog, so much do they fear ostracism by their own “Families.” Podhoretz noticed the same behavior early on by one of his erstwhile friends:

As the bad boy of American letters – itself an honorific status in the climate of the sixties – he (Normal Mailer) still held a license to provoke and he rarely hesitated to use it, even if it sometimes meant making a fool of himself in the eyes of his own admirers. But there were limits he instinctively knew how to observe; and he observed them. He might excoriate his fellow radicals on a particular point; he might discomfit them with unexpected sympathies (for right-wing politicians, say, or National Guardsmen on the other side of a demonstration) and equally surprising antipathies (homosexuality and masturbation, for example, he insisted on stigmatizing as vices); he might even on occasion describe himself as (dread word) a conservative. But always in the end came the reassuring gesture, the wink of complicity, the subtle signing of the radical loyalty oath.

So much for Podhoretz description of the behavioral traits of the denizens of an ideologically defined ingroup. I highly recommend all of the three books noted above, not only as an unwitting but wonderfully accurate studies of “human nature,” but as very entertaining descriptions of some of the many famous personalities Podhoretz crossed paths with during his long career. One of them was Jackie Kennedy, who happened to show up at his door one day in the company of his friend, Richard Goodwin, “who had worked in various capacities for President Kennedy.”

She and I had never met before, but we seemed to strike an instant rapport, and at her initiative I soon began seeing her on a fairly regular basis. We often had tea alone together in her apartment on Fifth Avenue where I would give her the lowdown on the literary world and the New York intellectual community – who was good, who was overrated, who was amusing, who was really brilliant – and she would reciprocate with the dirt about Washington society. She was not in Mary McCarthy‘s league as a bitchy gossip (who was?), but she did very well in her own seemingly soft style. I enjoyed these exchanges, and she (an extremely good listener) seemed to get a kick out of them too.

Elsewhere Podhoretz describes McCarthy as “our leading bitch intellectual.” Alas, she was an unrepentant radical, too, and even did a Jane Fonda in North Vietnam, but I still consider her one of our most brilliant novelists. I guess there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to ingroups.

Science vs. Ideology in Genetics, in which Richard Dawkins and Professor Ceiling Cat Admonish David Dobbs

Cultural determinism is like the Paris fashions.  It defies ridicule.  The idea is so useful that it won’t drown, despite the torrent of contradictory facts it has been submerged under lately.  The cobbling of utopias is great fun, and utopia is ever so much more plausible if only everything can be changed to the heart’s desire by culture and environment.  One of the more flamboyant examples of the phenomenon recently turned up in Aeon Magazine in the form of an article penned by science journalist David Dobbs.

The title of the article, Die, Selfish Gene, Die, is provocative enough.  The Selfish Gene, of course, was the subject of a book with that title by Richard Dawkins.  Rubbing salt in the wound, Dobbs adds the byline, “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”  All this irritated Dawkins’ friend Jerry Coyne, to the point that he not only read the rather lengthy article, but penned a pair of rebuttals on his Why Evolution is True website.  It wasn’t hard.

Dobbs’ claim that Dawkins’ selfish gene version of evolution is wrong was based on his embrace of the idea of genetic accommodation.  Coyne (known to his students as Professor Ceiling Cat, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who visits his blog) described the idea in his second rebuttal as follows;

Today’s discussion is on what Dobbs and some of the heroes of his piece (especially Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard) see as the truly novel and non-Darwinian refutation of the selfish gene idea: the idea of genetic accommodation.  “Genetic accommodation” has other names: it’s also been called “The Baldwin Effect” and “genetic assimilation.”  But all of these names refer to a single mechanism: instead of existing genetic variation being subject to natural selection in an existing or changing environment, the environment itself evokes phenotypic (not genetic) variation, which is then somehow fixed in the species’ genome.

Dobbs’ version of this idea leads him to some rather startling assertions.  For example, he writes,

Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another.  We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps.  Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals – what biologists call our phenotype, which is essentially the recognizable thing a genotype builds.  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult.  The writing varies – but hardly as much as the reading.

Great shades of Trofim Lysenko!  One can almost see the great Soviet con man in one of his Siberian laboratories, turning out a race of centaurs by astutely tweaking the “reading” of the genes of a zebra.  Where is Dobbs going with this?  Let’s cut to the chase and have a look at his thumbnail sketch of genetic accommodation:

There lies the quick beating heart of her (Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s) argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation. Genetic accommodation is a clunky term for a graceful process. It takes a moment to explain. But bear with me a moment, and you’ll understand how you, dear reader, could evolve into a fast and deadly predator.

Genetic accommodation involves a three-step process.

First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form — its phenotype — by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did.

Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.

Then a mutation occurs in one grandkid. This mutation happens to create stronger, faster muscle fibres. This grandchild of yours can naturally and easily run faster than her fastest siblings and cousins. She flies. Her children inherit the gene, and because their speed wows their mating prospects, they mate early and often, and bear lots of kids. Through the generations, this sprinter’s gene thus spreads through the population.

Now the thing is complete. Your descendants have a new gene that helps secure the adaptive trait you originally developed through gene expression alone. But the new gene didn’t create the new trait. It just made it easier to keep a trait that a change in the environment made valuable. The gene didn’t drive the train; it merely hopped aboard.

In fact, all this is so banal, and so lacking in any serious departure from anything Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, that Coyne apparently assumed that he’d missed something, and accused Dobbs of Lamarckism.  After all, if he wasn’t at least implying Lamarckism between the lines, there isn’t the shadow of a hook in this scenario on which to hang the claim that such “genetic accommodation” is in any way revolutionary, non-Darwinian, or non-Dawkinsian.  In fact, if you read the passage closely, you’ll see there’s nothing Lamarckian about it at all.  The kids and grandkids don’t get faster and stronger by inheritance or acquired characteristics, but merely by hanging out with their parental role models.  Evidently Dawkins himself noticed, because at this point he chimed in and wrote his own rebuttal, patiently Fisking Dobbs article, and quite reasonably pointing out that there was nothing in all this that contradicted Darwin or himself in any substantial way at all.

Coyne and Dawkins concluded from all this that Dobbs was merely grandstanding.  As Dawkins put it, his article was,

…infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

True enough, but as scientists often do, Dawkins sees the basic absurdity of the article clearly enough, but fails to see that it is absurd, not because it is bad science, but because it is an ideological morality tale.  Let’s allow Dobbs to explain the moral of the story in his own words:

The gene does not lead, it follows.

And ‘evolution is not about single genes’ (West-Eberhard) says.  It’s about genes working together.

It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome.  It’s a social genome.

Not the selfish gene, but the social genome.

And so, thanks to the environment, the collective once again triumphs over the “selfish” individual.  If you don’t get the ideological point, dear reader, I’m not going to spell it out for you.  I’ll let the ideologues do that for themselves.  See, for example, Drugged Individualism, in the November 1934 issue of the American Mercury, or The Myth of Individuality (by Theodore Dreiser, no less) in the March issue of the same year.  The hive mind hasn’t changed much in 80 years.


The Legacy of Leon Trotsky: How far “Left” was the “Left Opposition”?

Trotsky was a lot like Blaise Pascal.  Both were religious zealots, the former of a secular and the latter of a more traditional spiritual religion, and yet both left behind work that was both original and interesting as long as it wasn’t too closely associated with the dogmas of their respective faiths.  In Trotsky’s case, this manifested itself in some interesting intellectual artifacts that one finds scattered here and there among his books and essays.  Some of these document interesting shifts in the shibboleths that have defined “progressive” ideology over the years.  As a result, by the standards of today, one occasionally finds Trotsky on the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum.

For example, when it comes to media of exchange, he sometimes seems to be channeling Grover Cleveland rather than William Jennings Bryan:

The raising of the productivity of labor and bettering of the quality of its products is quite unattainable without an accurate measure freely penetrating into all the cells of industry – that is, without a stable unit of currency.  Hence it is clear that in the transitional (to true socialism, ed.) economy, as also under capitalism, the sole authentic money is that based upon gold.

In the matter of gun control, Trotsky occupied a position to the “right” of Mitch McConnell:

The struggle against foreign danger necessitates, of course, in the workers’ state as in others, a specialized military technical organization, but in no case a privileged officer caste.  The party program demands a replacement of the standing army by an armed people.

The regime of proletarian dictatorship from its very beginning this ceases to be a “state” in the old sense of the word – a special apparatus, that is, for holding in subjection the majority of the people.  The material power, together with the weapons, goes over directly and immediately into the hands of the workers organizations such as the soviets.  The state as a bureaucratic apparatus begins to die away the first day of the proletarian dictatorship.  Such is the voice of the party program – not voided to this day.  Strange:  it sounds like a spectral voice from the mausoleum.

However you may interpret the nature of the present Soviet state, one thing is indubitable:  at the end of its second decade of existence, it has not only not died away, but not begun to “die away.”  Worse than that, it has grown into a hitherto unheard of apparatus of compulsion.  The bureaucracy not only has not disappeared, yielding its place to the masses, but has turned into an uncontrolled force dominating the masses.  The army not only has not been replaced by an armed people, but has given birth to a privileged officers’ caste, crowned with marshals, while the people, “the armed bearers of the dictatorship,” are now forbidden in the Soviet Union to carry even nonexplosive weapons.

Finally, Trotsky wasn’t “sophisticated” enough to buy into the Blank Slate.  For example,

Competition, whose roots lie in our biological inheritance, having purged itself of greed, envy and privilege, will indubitably remain the most important motive force of culture under communism too.

His bête noire, Stalin, used to refer to him as “traitor Trotsky” because he was the leader of the “left opposition.”  Times change, and so do ideological dogmas.  Today he would probably be more likely to find himself among the “right opportunists.”


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

Phys Rev Letters meets Homo ideologicus

According to Wikipedia, Physical Review Letters’ “focus is rapid dissemination of significant, or notable, results of fundamental research on all topics related to all fields of physics. This is accomplished by rapid publication of short reports, called ‘Letters'”. That’s what I always thought, so I was somewhat taken aback to find an article in last week’s issue entitled, “Encouraging Moderation: Clues from a Simple Model of Ideological Conflict.” Unfortunately, you can’t see the whole thing without a subscription, but here’s the abstract:

Some of the most pivotal moments in intellectual history occur when a new ideology sweeps through a society, supplanting an established system of beliefs in a rapid revolution of thought. Yet in many cases the new ideology is as extreme as the old. Why is it then that moderate positions so rarely prevail? Here, in the context of a simple model of opinion spreading, we test seven plausible strategies for deradicalizing a society and find that only one of them significantly expands the moderate subpopulation without risking its extinction in the process.

That’s physics?! Not according to any of the definitions in my ancient copy of Webster’s Dictionary.  Evidently some new ones have cropped up since it was published, and nobody bothered to inform me.  In any case, tossing in this kind of stuff doesn’t exactly enhance the integrity of the field.  If you don’t have access to the paper, I would not encourage you to visit your local university campus to have a look.  I doubt the effort would be worth it.

Where should I start?  In the first place, the authors simply assume that “moderate” is to be conflated with “good”, without bothering to offer a coherent definition of “moderate.”  In the context of U.S. politics, for example, the term is practically useless.  People with an ideological ax to grind tend to consider themselves “moderate,” and their opponents “extreme.”  Conservatives refer to the mildest of their opponents as “extreme left wing,” and liberals refer to the most milque-toast of their opponents as “ultra right wing.”  Consider, for example, a post about the Muhammad film flap that just appeared on a website with the moniker, “The Moderate Voice.”  I don’t doubt that it might be termed “moderate” in the academic milieu from which papers such as the one we are discussing usually emanate, but it wouldn’t pass the smell test as such among mainstream conservatives, and has already been dismissed in those quarters as the fumings of the raving extremist hacks of the left.  Back in the 30’s, it was a commonplace and decidedly “moderate” opinion among the authors who contributed articles to The New Republic, the American Mercury, the Atlantic, and the other prestigious intellectual journals of the day was that capitalism was breathing its last, and should be replaced with a socialist system of one stripe or another as soon as possible.  Obviously, what passes as “moderate” isn’t constant, even over relatively short times.  Is the Tea Party Movement moderate?  Certainly not as far as most university professors are concerned, but decidedly so among mainstream conservatives.

According to the authors, the types of ideological swings they refer to occur in science as well as politics.  One wonders what “moderation” would look like in such cases.  Perhaps the textbooks would inform us that only half the species on earth evolved, and God created the rest, or that, while oxygen is necessary to keep a fire burning, phlogiston is necessary to start one, or that only the most visible stars are imbedded in a crystal ball surrounding the earth known as the “firmament,” while the other half are actually many light years away.

Undeterred by such considerations, the authors created a simple mathematical model that is supposed to reflect the dynamics of ideological change.  Just as the economic models are all infallible for predicting the behavior of Homo economicus, it is similarly effective at predicting the behavior of what one might call Homo ideologicus.  As for Homo sapiens, not so much.  There is no attempt whatsoever to incorporate even the most elementary aspects of human nature in the model.  It is inhabited by “speakers” and “listeners,” who are identified as either AB, the inhabitants of the moderate middle ground, or A and B, the extemists on either side of it.  For good measure, there is also an Ac, inhabited by “committed” and intransigent followers of A.  The subpopulations in these groups are, in turn, labeled nA, nB, nAB, and p.  Only moderate listeners can be converted to one of the extremes, and vice versa, although we are reliably informed that, for example, the Nazis found some of their most fertile recruiting grounds among the Communists at the opposite extreme, and certainly not just among German moderates.  With the assumptions noted above, and setting aside trivialities such as units of measure, the authors come up with “dynamic equations” such as,

nA = (p + nA)nAB – nAnB
nB = nBnAB – (p + nA)n

There are variations, complete with parameters to account for “stubbornness” and “evangelism.”  There are any number of counterintuitive assumptions implicit in the models, such as that all speakers are equally effective at convincing others to change sides, opinions about given issues are held independently of opinions about other issues, although this is almost never the case among people who care about the issues one way or the other, that a metric for deciding what is the moderate “good” and what the extreme “evil” will always be available to the philosopher kings who apply the models, etc.  The models were tested on “real social networks,” and (surprise, surprise) the curves derived from a judicious choice of nA, nB, etc., were in nice agreement with predictions.

According to the authors,

Since we present no formal evidence that the dynamics of (the equations noted above) do actually occur in practice, our work could alternatively be viewed as posing this model and its subsequent generalizations as interesting in their own right.

While I heartily concur with the first part of the sentence, I suggest that the model and its subsequent generalizations might be of more enduring interest to sociologists than physicists.  Perhaps the editors of Phys Rev Letters and their reviewers will consider that possibility the next time a similar paper is submitted, and kindly direct the authors to a more appropriate journal.