Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Enduring Mystique of Communism

How does it happen, Bret Stephens asks, that liberal and progressive thinkers, up in arms at the least whiff of fascism or Nazism, are perfectly insouciant when it comes to Communism? They must know that the horrors produced by those who followed Karl Marx’s musings about political economy count among the worst events of the twentieth century. With a body count above 100 million Communism counts as a pestilence, comparable to the bubonic plague.

And yet, Stephens writes, Communism passed away with a whimper, not with a bang. Intellectuals pay lip service to its failure, but keep it alive with their Che Guevara tee shirts and quotations from the little red book of Chairman Mao. 

People who fight in the streets against all things fascistic happily support continuing efforts to make Communism work… in Venezuela, for example. As that country disintegrates, as its people starve en masse, a sympathizer like British Labor Party chief, Jeremy Corbyn is on the verge of becoming the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Had Corbyn or any other politician uttered the mildest racist epithet, he would have been immediately expelled from public life. Expressing sympathy with a regime that has immiserated the people of Venezuela is not a problem. If you don't believe me, ask Bernie Sanders, someone whose speeches will never be interrupted or shut down on an American college campus.

Stephens explains that we—by which he seems to mean, American students-- do not even know the history of the Soviet Union. When millions of people were starving in the Ukraine, the New York Times correspondent declared that nothing was happening:

“In the spring of 1932 desperate officials, anxious for their jobs and even their lives, aware that a new famine might be on its way, began to collect grain wherever and however they could. Mass confiscations occurred all across the U.S.S.R. In Ukraine they took on an almost fanatical intensity.”

I am quoting a few lines from “Red Famine,” Anne Applebaum’s brilliant new history of the deliberate policy of mass starvation inflicted on Ukraine by Joseph Stalin in the early 1930s. An estimated five million or more people perished in just a few years. Walter Duranty, The Times’s correspondent in the Soviet Union, insisted the stories of famine were false. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for reportage the paper later called “completely misleading.”

And that is not all:

How many know the name of Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s principal henchmen in the famine? What about other chapters large and small in the history of Communist horror, from the deportation of the Crimean Tatars to the depredations of Peru’s Shining Path to the Brezhnev-era psychiatric wards that were used to torture and imprison political dissidents?

Why is it that people who know all about the infamous prison on Robben Island in South Africa have never heard of the prison on Cuba’s Isle of Pines? Why is Marxism still taken seriously on college campuses and in the progressive press? Do the same people who rightly demand the removal of Confederate statues ever feel even a shiver of inner revulsion at hipsters in Lenin or Mao T-shirts?

One begins thinking that American educators no longer teach history and no longer want to be fair, balanced and objective.  They have set out to indoctrinate their students in leftist ideology.  In the media, American politicians speak up louder and stronger when rightists have done something wrong. You cannot define yourself as a warrior against racism and sexism while also attacking Communism.

After all, Communism promoted all of your favorite gauzy ideals: like equality. Keep in mind Communist governments always label themselves as true democracies… the ones whose elections were not influenced by Facebook ad buys.

Under its aegis all people were equally miserable… except for the great thinkers who belonged to the Party and who ran the country. Democracy meant that the Party ruled according to the general will of the people, what was best for them, even if they did not know it.

Lest we forget, the forces of Western capitalism defeated Communism. Surely, it was one of the most momentous events of the late twentieth century:

It’s a bitter fact that the most astonishing strategic victory by the West in the last century turns out to be the one whose lessons we’ve never seriously bothered to teach, much less to learn. An ideology that at one point enslaved and immiserated roughly a third of the world collapsed without a fight and was exposed for all to see. Yet we still have trouble condemning it as we do equivalent evils. And we treat its sympathizers as romantics and idealists, rather than as the fools, fanatics or cynics they really were and are.

Might we say that Communism dulls our moral sense by asking us to accept horrors as tests of our faith, of our adherence to a greater cause? Besides,for a good Communist all bad outcomes are caused by counterrevolutionaries, by capitalist roaders, by patriarchal oppressors, by people who remain wedded to the discredited ideology of capitalism.

Being a good Communist means never taking responsibility.

Communism manifests an idealist tendency to disregard fact and to ignore empirical evidence. Pragmatists care about what works. They discard policies and even theories that are disproved by outcomes. Empiricists allow their theories, their hypotheses to be tested against real experience or experiments. If the hypotheses are disproved, they are discredited.

Idealists believe that great theories, like Hegel’s or Marx’s will always prevail over facts. Setbacks, even the most appalling disasters, are merely blips on the road to the Worker’s Paradise.

It beats having to admit that you were wrong. Intellectuals, as almost an occupational hazard, never admit that they were wrong. They chose to be intellectuals rather than political leaders because they wanted to avoid responsibility for what happens once their ideas are put into practice. Theirs is a world of thought, a world that does not pollute the environment, a world that does not oppress anyone, a world where no one lies, cheats or steals. If implementing the ideas produces mass starvation, that can only mean that bureaucrats have not understood the ideas correctly. Marxism, like Freudianism, has sustained itself because it has skillfully found a way to explain away its own failures.

Intellectuals hate fascists because fascists, presumably, are not great thinkers. When they discovered, to their mindless chagrin, that their favorite twentieth century philosopher, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi they rushed out to proclaim that his great ideas had nothing to do with his politics. He might have been a university rector; he might have turned on Jewish colleagues; he may have supported the Hitler program; he may have loved the inner truth of the Third Reich. But, he was a philosopher and philosophers should never be held to account.

Curiously, those who have governed Communist countries have dispensed with the ideology far more easily than have Western intellectuals. Bearing no responsibility for the well-being, even the lives of citizens, Western intellectuals remain trapped in idealist fictions, the kinds that gave us Marxism.

Besides, bad habits die hard. If Marxism is a bad intellectual habit, one that can only be acquired with thousands of hours of hard work, it must be good for something. It cannot simply be wrong. It cannot be toxic.

After all, it makes narrative sense, and, in the mind of those who do not govern, but who sit on the sidelines and opine, that suffices. In a world where narrative coherence counts for more than practical results, keepers of the ideology reign supreme.  

Once people learn to think within the parameters set down by an ideology, they see everything through that lens. Asking them to toss it all aside and to learn how to think differently is simply too much for them. The more time they have invested in mastering Marxist theory the less likely they will be to abandon it.

You might believe that Marxism is dead, and yet, people still declare with the utmost seriousness that we must continue the struggle against the patriarchy, against capitalism, against free enterprise and against predatory men. Have you noticed that today’s feminism still bears the traces of its founding document, Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State? It’s no longer about the class struggle, but about the struggle between the sexes.

I am sure you recall that the New York Times has been running a series of nostalgic pieces about Communism. For those who wish to cling to their ideals, the Times even reported that women living under Communism had more orgasms.

As they say, keep the faith. Because that's all that's left.


James said...

There is a convincing school of thought that says Communism by it's very nature can never succeed in the real world. At best it can only be a vehicle for the pursuit of power and even that is very transitory.

Anonymous said...

ed in texas
A former coworker of mine , a Belorussian, was fond of saying that he wondered which German political philosopher had kill more people, Marx or Hitler.
Valid question.

Sam L. said...

Marx, by proxies, ed.

David Foster said...

Two reasons why Communism is considered more acceptable than Naziism:

1--the advertising. Communism, like Christianity, positions itself as a universalist philosophy, one that is applicable to and intended to benefit ALL humans everywhere. Whereas Naziism was quite explicit that it intended to benefit only a certain ethnically-defined subset of humanity, at the expense of everyone else.

2--the intellectuals...large numbers of intellectuals were involved in the Communism movement; this is much less true of Naziism, despite the eager complicity of some like Heidegger and the go-along-to-get-along complicity of many others, there was a strong anti-intellectual component to the Nazi movement. And since intellectuals tend to be the ones who write the books and the magazine articles, it makes sense that Communism has been dealt with more gently.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that no one ever says national socialism failed because they didn't do it right?

Sam L. said...

Intellectuals are so very good at overlooking masses and piles of dead bodies...

Ares Olympus said...

Bret Stephens: Bernie Sanders captured the heart, if not yet the brain, of the Democratic Party last year by portraying “democratic socialism” as nothing more than an extension of New Deal liberalism. But the Vermont senator also insists that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.” Efforts to criminalize capitalism and financial services also have predictable results.

I'm glad Stephens mentioned Sanders effort at Scandinavian Socialism, but it does seem worthy to challenge his assertion that Sanders rejects capitalism or Wall Street, while of course we know socialism FAILS when it tries to run purely on an extractive economy, whether that economy is based on oil exports or ever more complex financial schemes that hide our dependencies upon an actual sustainable economy based on real people doing real work, and having a world where those doing real things get peanuts, and those who invent the latest and greatest way to slice and dice bad mortgages and debt instruments into AAA ratings for retirees hopes and dreams, they shouldn't make more money that all the rest of us, but that's the world we've created under the sacred name of "capitalism". The prosperity gospel is indeed built on lies whether the altar is on Wall Street or in the televangelist churches.

Capitalism should mean people who work hard have surplus income and they can invest their savings in things that will make the future a better place for their community. People with savings shouldn't be competing with banks that can create money out of thin air, and then socialize the losses when a critical mass is sucked into their bubbles.

But given we're in the largest bubble economy in the history of humanity, I agree its trouble to make Sander's socialism dependent upon our infinity and beyond debt-economy. This modern monopoly game has to end on is own excesses before we can see what's left of our opioid addled population.

If Sanders is unfairly optimistic in public, its because pessimism doesn't sell well. And its at least slightly more credible than building a 70 billion dollar wall with Mexico and making the Mexicans pay for it.

Jack Fisher said...

If a kid is 20, he or she is attending a high school with ashtrays, and is nearly totally dependent on parental money, government loans and an artificial life style. And since rebelling is a natural part of finding one's identity independent of parents, and since there's nothing else to rebel against with little means of actually rebelling, wearing Che t-shirt is not surprising. "Capitalism" is just a strawman to anyone who hasn't sweated out a paycheck, "communism" is a shining alternative to anyone who hasn't waited for STASI to knock on the door.

Then again, I wouldn't trust any kid who did not go through this stage.

Jal Pari said...
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