[Karl Marx] was also an unemployed professor, a scholar in the German tradition with a first-rate brain, a vast depth of learning and considerable obscurity of thought. Of his intellect and scholarship there can be no doubt at all. He knew many languages and had read widely in many subjects. A very learned man indeed, he was admirably fitted for the life of a German university. Marx’s complete absorption in his philosophy, history and economics was quite typical of the sort of professor he should by right have become. That mixture of scholarship, vagueness, poverty and practical inexperience would have graced a chair at Heidelberg or Bonn. But for the death in 1840 of Frederick William IV, a man of strictly orthodox views on religion, Marx might have had an academic career. Barred from this, however, as an atheist, he had no class to teach, no pupils from whom he might have learned. There is a sense, of course, in which a professor lives apart from the world. But his duties, even in the mid-nineteenth century, involved some contact with other people. The most professorial of German professors would have examinations to set and appointments to keep. Sessions of Senate and Faculty might give him scope for eloquence or intrigue, and he would find for himself the need to compromise, concede and persuade. Howbeit painfully and slowly, the professor comes to know something of administration and finance. But this was the practical knowledge which Marx was denied. All the experience he had was in his own home, where his failure was catastrophic for his wife and family. Of his children some died of slow starvation and two committed suicide. Retaining and increasing all his professional learning, he became more purely theoretical than even professors are allowed to be. Of the difficulties of organizing human society he knew practically nothing. There was in fact no human society — no province or city, no school or club — of which he could be said to have been a member. His whole life was bounded by the printed page.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Internal Contradiction”, Left Luggage, 1967.
October 30, 2013
September 22, 2013
Almost any Jew can be stateless, but Marx was particularly so — born of alien parents in a frontier region between Germany and France, educated in the Rhineland and in Prussia, a student at Berlin but a graduate of Jena, exiled by the age of thirty-two. Nor was this domicile chosen from any love of England or of anything but safety. He knew next to nothing of the English when he died, preferring to live among German exiles, talking German, thinking in German, and for preference writing in German. He knew of the toiling masses only from blue books and parliamentary reports. We hear nothing of his travels among the Lancashire cotton mills and as little of his talks with the London poor. There is no record of his visiting the coal mines, the docks, or even a public house. He was essentially homeless, offering no loyalty and expecting no aid. And with his scorn went hatred. He despised and loathed his rivals, quarreled with this allies and condemned all sympathizers who deviated even by a little from the doctrine he held to be sacred. Karl Marx had no country.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Internal Contradiction”, Left Luggage, 1967.
August 22, 2013
Jon, my former virtual landlord, sent me this link and said “Does this sort of thing really matter any more? Aren’t all governments doing this?”
Under Tocqueville’s Influence, China Chooses Despotism
Paul A. Rahe
In the last few days, the national press has been full of reports suggesting that China’s new President, Xi Jinping, is orchestrating a revival of Maoism and a crackdown on those in China who would like to introduce within that country the procedures, practices, and institutions that distinguish the West: the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and “universal values” – which is to say, a respect for human rights. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story on Saturday, claims that Xi is receiving strong support from former President Jiang Zemin; and on Monday The New York Times filled in some of the details:
Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.
These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.
Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change.
The evidence now suggests the contrary — that Wang Qishan is by no means alone in his convictions, that Xi Jingpin and his lieutenants take quite seriously the possibility that China is in a pre-revolutionary situation, and that they are intent on putting a lid on everything. Where Tocqueville might have suggested that the way forward was for the country’s leaders to embrace the “seven subversive currents,” to carry out a revolution from above, and to gradually introduce into the country the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and a respect for human rights, they have decided in this year — the 120th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s birth — to return to the path he charted more than 60 years ago.
August 19, 2013
Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.
Tony Judt, “The End of the Old Order”, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2005.
July 24, 2013
In this month’s Reason, Michael Malice recounts his tourist trip to the Hermit Kingdom:
As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”
My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s — about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.
The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”
We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.
So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs — the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers — more often than not female — become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.
Although North Koreans are kept ignorant of much that happens outside the state — and just as much that happens inside it — they’re not completely isolated:
I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”
Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.
I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.
June 17, 2013
In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Paul Bonneau makes a case for — gasp — collectivism. Well, certain kinds of collectivism:
This is of course a disease of the political “right”; those on the left generally embrace collectivism so there is nothing hypocritical about their behavior. Sometimes their honesty is refreshing, even when I don’t agree. Anyway it’s easier to make an argument directly against collectivism, than it is to first have to convince the person you are talking to that he is advocating collectivism — and then arguing against it. Thus, collectivist leftists are easier to deal with than are collectivist rightists in denial. This is assuming any argument needs to be made, of course; generally I don’t have any dispute with collectivism per se, but only against the imposition of it on me and mine. If someone wants to live as a cog in a commune, who am I to complain? How is it my business?
To know how not to be a collectivist, for those rightists who are interested in that, we first have to know what collectivism is. Merriam-Webster online says:
1: a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution; also : a system marked by such control
2: emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity
Already we can see some problems. This is such a broad definition that it includes, for example, members of a church getting together to voluntarily build a church school, at least by the second definition. Few reasonable people of any stripe would have a problem with such actions; indeed, any free/anarchist country would crucially depend on large amounts of voluntary collective action for society to function. What we really mean when we argue against collectivism is the first definition, particularly the political aspect. In that case, people are forced to participate in the schemes of others.
This point raises a question. When leftists say they support collective action, are they thinking of the voluntary sort, against which no reasonable person would argue? Is that the picture they have in their mind as they speak? Perhaps we are wrong to argue against collectivism at all, since we are in fact voluntary collectivists; and what we should be arguing against is coercion. Coercion would be much harder for a leftist to defend — assuming he goes along with it at all (which might or might not be so). Maybe we should remove “collectivism” from the libertarian Lexicon of Bad Things. Maybe we should force leftists to argue for coercion, which is really what we object to, rather than collectivism, which we don’t — that is, to draw him out from behind his usual euphemistic veil. Maybe I should change the title of this article!
June 12, 2013
David Brooks wrote a column the other day that got lots of applause from the communitarians on both sides of the aisle for blaming Edward Snowden’s atomistic individualism and his “inability to make commitments and connections”. At Jacobin, Corey Robin explains why:
This is an old argument on the communitarian right and left: the loss of social bonds and connections turns men and women into the flotsam and jetsam of modern society, ready for any reckless adventure, no matter how malignant: treason, serial murder, totalitarianism.
It’s mostly bullshit, but there’s a certain logic to what Brooks is saying, albeit one he might not care to face up to.
In the long history of state tyranny, it is often those who are bound by close ties of personal connection to family and friends that are most likely to cooperate with the government: that is, not to “betray” their oaths to a repressive regime, not to oppose or challenge authoritarian rule. Precisely because those ties are levers that the regime can pull in order to engineer an individual’s collaboration and consent.
Take the Soviet Union under Stalin. Though there’s a venerable tradition in social thought that sees Soviet totalitarianism as the product of atomized individuals, one of the factors that made Stalinism possible was precisely that men and women were connected to each other, that they were in families and felt bound to protect each other. To protect each other by cooperating with rather than opposing Stalin.
Nikolai Bukharin’s confession in a 1938 show trial to an extraordinary career of counterrevolutionary crime, crimes he clearly did not commit, has long served as a touchstone of the manic self-liquidation that was supposed to be communism. It has inspired such treatments as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, and Godard’s La Chinoise. Yet contrary to the myth that Bukharin somehow chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of the cause, Bukharin was brutally interrogated for a year and he was repeatedly threatened with violence against his family. In the end, the possibility that a confession might save them, if not him, proved to be potent.
[. . .]
Back to David Brooks. Brooks likes to package his strictures in the gauzy wrap of an apolitical communitarianism. But Brooks is also, let us not forget, an authority- and state-minded chap, who doesn’t like punks like Snowden mucking up the work of war and the sacralized state. And it is precisely banal and familial bromides such as these — the need to honor one’s oaths, the importance of family and connection — that have underwritten popular collaboration with that work for at least a century, if not more.
Stalin understood all of this. So does David Brooks.
H/T to Radley Balko for the link.
June 4, 2013
A case for finding the proper modern interpretation of the works of Karl Marx:
The first view (held mostly by its detractors) is that Marxism is little more than the politics of resentment — a philosophical justification for the hatred of success by those who failed to achieve it. The politics of resentment offers three different methods for bringing its program of economic jealousy to fruition: Under socialism, the unsuccessful use the power of government to forcibly extract wealth and possessions from the successful, bit by bit until there is nothing left; under the more extreme communism, the very notion of wealth or success is eliminated entirely, and anyone who seeks individual achievement is punished or eliminated; and finally under anarchy, freelance predators would be allowed to steal or destroy any existing wealth or possessions with no interference from the state. Marx himself saw pure communism as the ultimate goal, with socialism as a necessary precursor, and perhaps just an occasional dash of anarchy to ignite the revolutionary fires.
But there is another, more intriguing and less noxious, view of Marxist thought that gets less attention these days because its anachronistic roots in the Industrial Revolution seemingly render it somewhat irrelevant to modern economics. Marx posited that factory workers should own the factory themselves and profit from its output, since they’e the ones actually doing the work — and the wealthy fat cat “capitalists” should be booted out of the director’s office since they don’t really do anything except profit from other people’s labor. Marx generalized this notion to “The workers should control the means of production,” and then extended it further to a national scale by declaring that the overall government itself should be “a dictatorship of the proletariat,” with “proletariat” defined in this context as “someone who actually works for a living.” The problem with this theory in the 21st century is that very few people actually work in factories anymore due to exponential improvements in automation and efficiency, and fewer still produce handicrafts, and the vast majority of American “workers” these days don’t actually create anything tangible. Even so, there is an attractive populist rationality to this aspect of Marxism that appeals to everyone’s sense of fairness — even to those who staunchly reject the rest of communist theory. Those who do the work should reap the benefits and control the system; hard to argue with that.
Although the “factory” is no longer the basic building block of the American economy, Marx’s notion that “The workers should control the means of production” can be rescued and made freshly relevant if it is re-interpreted in a contemporary American context.
H/T to Jon, my former virtual landlord, for the link.
May 3, 2013
In the sp!ked review of books, Mick Hume looks at the book that got Orwell tossed out of the inner circle of leftist writers, not because it was bad, but because it was honest (and made Stalinism look too similar to Hitlerism):
George Orwell could have been killed twice in the Spanish Civil War. Once when he was shot in the throat by General Franco’s fascist forces; then when he was hunted by official Communist agents who, with the backing of Stalin’s Soviet Union, stabbed the revolution in the back and imprisoned, tortured and killed leading leftists and anarchists who were ostensibly on the same Republican side. Orwell learned the hardest way that the war against fascism in Spain was also a civil war against Stalinism.
Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s famous account of his time in Spain from his arrival in Barcelona on Boxing Day 1936 to his escape in June 1937, has just reached its seventy-fifth anniversary. Like its author, the book almost didn’t make it either. The radical journalist and author’s usual publisher, Victor Gollancz, turned the book down without even seeing the manuscript, insisting that he would not publish anything ‘which could harm the fight against fascism’ by criticising the Communists.
Most of those from Britain and Europe who went to write about and fight in the Spanish Civil War took a similarly one-eyed view and followed the pro-Soviet line. What was unique about Orwell was that he hated fascism, but also stood apart from the official Stalinist-dominated left of his time. The radical maverick wrote about what he saw in Spain, rather than simply what he was told was true — although he also warned his readers to ‘beware my partisanship’ when seeking an objective account. He questioned the ‘official’ Stalinist-dictated account of events in Barcelona and elsewhere that was accepted around the world. This heresy made him the subject of a hate campaign when Homage to Catalonia was finally published in 1938, a campaign which continued well into the 1980s.
[. . .]
Orwell’s brilliant firsthand account of the conflict stands apart from and well above the I-was-there school of emotive, narcissistic war reporting we witness too often today. He also attempts to put his personal experiences into some proper political context, in two chapters now removed (at his request) from the narrative text and published at the end as appendices.
Here, Orwell closely interrogates and challenges the ‘official version’ of events in Barcelona, put about by the Communists and their many international apologists to justify their brutal repression of the non-Stalinist left. As he unravels the twisting of truth by propaganda organs such as the CPGB’s Daily Worker, you can almost see the ideas he was soon to express in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is also cutting about the way that the Communists simply branded their opponents as ‘Social-fascists’ and ‘Trotsky-Fascists’ to avoid engaging in important political arguments. Many who express their admiration for Orwell today have yet to absorb his point that screaming ‘Fascists!’ in the faces of those you disagree with is not the same thing as making your case. ‘Libel’, as he concludes, ‘settles nothing’.
April 15, 2013
In Reason, Steve Chapman wonders if the US embargo has actually propped up the very regime it was intended to topple:
The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been in effect since 1962, with no end in sight. Fidel Castro’s government has somehow managed to outlast the Soviet Union, Montgomery Ward, rotary-dial telephones and 10 American presidents.
The boycott adheres to the stubborn logic of governmental action. It was created to solve a problem: the existence of a communist government 90 miles off our shores. It failed to solve that problem. But its failure is taken as proof of its everlasting necessity.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from this dismal experience, though, it’s that the economic quarantine has been either 1) grossly ineffectual or 2) positively helpful to the regime.
The first would not be surprising, if only because economic sanctions almost never work. Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Nope. Iran? Still waiting. North Korea? Don’t make me laugh.
What makes this embargo even less promising is that we have so little help in trying to apply the squeeze. Nearly 200 countries allow trade with Cuba. Tourists from Canada and Europe flock there in search of beaches, nightlife and Havana cigars, bringing hard currency with them. So even if starving the country into submission could work, Cuba hasn’t starved and won’t anytime soon.
Nor is it implausible to suspect that the boycott has been the best thing that ever happened to the Castro brothers, providing them a scapegoat for the nation’s many economic ills. The implacable hostility of the Yankee imperialists also serves to align Cuban nationalism with Cuban communism. Even Cubans who don’t like Castro may not relish being told what to do by the superpower next door.
March 17, 2013
In Reason, Cathy Young looks at the bloody legacy of the Soviet dictator and his startling popularity in modern day Russia (and the west):
The 60th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most murderous tyrants has passed with relatively little notice. Yet the shadow of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who died on March 5, 1953, still hangs over post-communist Russia — and has yet to face proper judgment in the West. This is one bloody ghost still waiting for its final exorcism.
During the years of his absolute rule over the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people. They included victims of state-engineered famines, particularly in Ukraine, intended to starve the peasantry into submission to collective farming; people from all walks of life shot on trumped-up charges of subversive activities; and others sent to the Siberian labor camps known as the gulag, never to return. Untold millions who survived lost years of their lives to the gulag. (Among the latter were my own paternal grandparents, who were arrested in 1947 and released after Stalin’s death; ironically, unlike most of their fellow prisoners, they were actually guilty as charged — of “betraying the motherland” by trying to escape the Soviet Union and go to Palestine.)
If there was ever a true devil in the flesh, Stalin was one of the prime candidates for the title. A tyrant with a deeply sadistic streak, he reportedly howled with laughter when told about the final moments of a former associate who had been promised clemency in exchange for a false confession and vainly begged his executioners to “please call Comrade Stalin” and clear up the misunderstanding. He jailed the wives of several men in his inner circle, presumably just for the pleasure of seeing his underlings squirm and showing them who’s boss.
Yet four years ago, this monster came close to being chosen as history’s greatest Russian in a nationwide Internet and telephone vote. Though the voting was not representative, actual polls also yield discouraging results. In a survey conducted last month by the Levada Center, a respected independent polling firm, almost one in 10 Russians said that Stalin’s role in Russia’s history was “entirely positive” while another 40 percent saw it as “mostly positive.” Fewer than a third believed it was entirely or mostly negative, while the rest were not sure.
February 28, 2013
Strategy Page on the challenges facing the government as the younger generation grows up:
A major source of information about North Korea is obtained by South Korean intelligence experts interviewing the steady flow of refugees arriving in South Korea (via China and the South Korean embassies in neighboring countries like Thailand). For the last decade, over a thousand of these refugees have arrived each year. In the last few years China and North Korea have increased their efforts to reduce that number, which peaked at 2,900 in 2009 and was 1,500 last year. These determined and desperate people keep coming. Separate interviews are compared and checked against each other to obtain an updated and accurate first-hand view of life in the north. This also helps detect the spies North Korea tries (often with success) getting into the south via the refugee route. While the refugees detail the growing decline in living standards up north, it’s also become clear that there is a very real generational shift in loyalties in the north. The generation who grew up during the 1990s famine (that killed about ten percent of the population and starved most of the rest for years) no longer believe in the North Korean dictatorship. Many who came of age before 1990 still do, but for most everyone under 30 the state is the enemy and self-reliance, and not a benevolent dictatorship, is the only way to survive. The North Korean government has been fighting these attitudes more and more, as this generation of unbelievers grows larger each year. The more astute members of the northern leadership see this as a no-win situation. Eventually most North Koreans will be very hostile to the state and more adept at making money in spite of the government, or simply getting out of the country. Most of the leadership is still afraid of enacting Chinese style economic reforms because they believe a more affluent population would seek revenge for the decades of misrule and tyranny. The Chinese say that didn’t happen in China. The North Koreans point out that, as bad as the Chinese communists were in the 1950s and 60s (killing over 50 million people via starvation, labor camps and execution) that was not as bad (proportionately) as what the North Koreans have suffered. Moreover, the North Korean leaders point out that, historically, Koreans have been a bit more excitable and brutal when aroused by misrule. The Chinese say times have changed but the North Korean leaders are not yet willing to bet their lives on that being the case.
The refugees report that most North Koreans understand that the police state up there is strong enough to suppress any uprising now or in the foreseeable future and that the only real threat to the dictatorship is intervention (openly or via a coup) by China. Refugees also report that it’s common knowledge that hundreds of North Koreans have died of radiation poisoning or been born with birth defects because of the uranium mining and working with nuclear materials. The government has responded by offering large cash bonuses to those who will work in the uranium mines. The refugees report in detail many other ways the Kim government abuses their subjects.
February 16, 2013
November 20, 2012
It’s being called “one of the most significant books of the 20th Century”, and it was published 50 years ago this month:
The character was fictional. But there were millions like him — innocent citizens who, like Solzhenitsyn himself, had been sent to the Gulag in Joseph Stalin’s wave of terror.
Censorship and fear had prevented the truth about the camps from being published, but this story made it into print. The USSR would never be the same again.
“We were absolutely isolated from information, and he started to open our eyes,” remembers writer and journalist Vitaly Korotich.
[. . .]
It was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who had sanctioned publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novel nearly a decade after Stalin’s death. Allowing a book on the Gulag, he thought, would help debunk Stalin’s personality cult. However, one story sparked many more.
“After it was published, it was impossible to stop it,” Korotich recalls. “Immediately we received a lot of illegal publications. A lot of people who were in prison started to remember how it was.