Saturday, October 28, 2017

Confederate Statues and Mao T-Shirts

Bret Stephens has a column in the Times wondering why moralists so outraged at any sympathy toward Nazis or slave owners are silent on the crimes of Communism, and are in fact quite likely to sympathize with radical leftists. After quickly summarizing the horror of the Ukraine famine and the complicity of western reporters in covering it up, he asks:
How many readers, I wonder, are familiar with this history of atrocity and denial, except in a vague way? 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?
These are good questions, but they do have answers.

The first is that nobody has clean hands. All the major religions have murderous extremists in their pasts; all nation states were forged in blood. Capitalism has its own long list of crimes, from the machine-gunning of striking coal miners to drug-price profiteering. One of its crimes, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, had a toll in misery and death that enters the same hellish league as those of Hitler and Stalin. If we have to reject any big idea that has at any time helped to cause cruelty and murder we are going to be left with very few big ideas.

The second is that none of these denunciations – of red terror, Nazi monstrosity, Confederate perfidy, capitalist complicity in the slave trade – has much to do with either morality or history. They are rhetorical moves in contemporary politics. The point of demanding the removal of Confederate statues is to emphasize the historical plight of African Americans and press for greater political attention to their needs. Brett Stephens is alarmed by Che t-shirts because he fears a new wave of leftism led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and he wants to fight this new leftism by tying it to Stalin and the ongoing collapse of Venezuela.

The third is psychological, and more complicated. Many people are outraged about the current state of the United States and Britain. It maddens them to see that some people are billionaires while others go hungry; that some people can work all their lives and never earn what a clever take-over artist can profit from a single stock scam; that poor people who can't afford bail spend years in jail and end up pleading guilty to felonies as the only way they can get out, while rich people with good lawyers can get away with murder. Some people express this outrage by getting interested in communism, or at least wearing Che t-shirts. The point is not to endorse Maoism, it is to say that they are not ok with things as they are. This slides into a fourth point, which is that many people are drawn in psychological and philosophical ways to extremism. Systems like those of the US and Britain are mushy gruels made from compromise after compromise, spawning bureaucracies with hair-splitting rules and lawyers who get rich devising ways to game the system.

Faced with the monstrous edifice of the mixed-economy-semidemocratic-legalist-bureaucratic-police state, which can only be budged in minor ways by ordinary politics, some people long to sweep it all away and start over. Intellectuals seem particularly prone to this fantasy. Like purist programmers who recoil from a gigantic "kluge" like Windows, they long for a clean, simple system in which principles lead to rules in a clear, logical way. They want justice to shine forth like the sun, not be hidden behind roiling clouds of interest, tradition, profit, legislative horse-trading, and whatever else so befouls the air of our times.

I believe that life among social mammals can never be simple and neat, that we are condemned by our very natures to compromise solutions. I also believe that the huge nations and bewildering economies of modern times only make that more true. Given that our social and economic systems are so complex that nobody comes close to understanding them, I think that gigantic kluges are the best that we can possibly do. But I understand the frustration our systems breed, and the longing for a radical solution. So I don't mind if people vent their frustrations by wearing Che t-shirts or flying Confederate flags in their own yards. I have faith that our systems are strong enough to survive a great deal of rhetorical abuse. But the strength of our system is not infinite, and if it not defended with vigor, it must eventually fall. Since the chance that a better system would replace it seems to me remote, I have cast myself as a defender of things as they are. Yes, we can do better in many ways, and should. But not at the cost of overturning the pillars of our system: electoral democracy, the mixed economy, and a firm belief in human rights.


G. Verloren said...

"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?"

Weird questions for this guy to be asking.

1) Apartheid was much less further removed in time, was much more morally outrageous, and occured on a much larger scale than the political jailings of Cuba, so it makes sense that it'd be much better known.

2) Marxism really isn't taken seriously by the vast majority of liberals, so that's a bit of a strawman. College campuses are the exception, because young people being thrust into the larger world for the first time tend to find themselves attracted to radical ideas without having the experience and wisdom to understand them on a deeper level and realize their flaws.

3) As with the prior point, the vast majority of liberals find hipsters in "Revolutionary" shirts to be painfully cringe inducing. They're the political equivalent of awkward idiot teenagers who know nothing but think they know everything - oblivious to the blistering irony of railing against the evils of capitalism by buying commercial merchandise from cynical corporate entities like Hot Topic that celebrates the evils of marxism.

David said...

I agree with what you say, but would add that real Leninism-Maoism, with its legions of fanatical cadres obedient to death and slogans like "Let us drive mankind to happiness with an iron fist" is dead, dead, dead. Corbyn and Sanders are simply more energetic and charismatic than usual social democrats who want to give their constituents a bigger piece of the kluge (to borrow John's term). In the Petrograd drama, they're Kerensky, not Trotsky. In western terms, they're Lloyd George.

Leninism has never demonstrated any real prospect of power in the West, especially the English-speaking West. Yes, Kim Philby and Julius Rosenberg really were Soviet spies, there were (tiny, usually hapless and hopeless) groups of urban guerrillas in the 70s, and there have been enclaves of Marxist belief (Oxbridge and some parts of NYC in the 1930s, American universities since the 1960s) but these are all basically weird, sectarian cults, not serious, going political movements.

In contrast, the ills of the extreme right have been a real danger in the West. Every year I ask my students, why is it that our culture is obsessed with Hitler, and barely recognizes Stalin and Mao? There are many reasons for this, but part of it, I think, is that Hitlerism gets under our western, English-speaking collective skin in a way Leninism never has and never will. Nazism's slogans and style, its beliefs, its irrational core are all homegrown, western middle class phenomena, like the private automobile. Together they form one of our dark shadows (along with, arguably, the kluge itself). Lenin, Lin Biao, Le Duan, and the rest, are alien curiosities, like Sargon and Huitzilopochtli.

David said...

Whoops, while I was writing Verloren got in a comment. So, for clarity, by "you" in the first sentence, I mean John.

David said...

That said, I would agree with Verloren's points as well.

John said...

I do agree that Nazism is a more realistic threat to our own system than communism, because it is the extreme expression of very widespread sins: racism, suspicion of outsiders, taking pleasure in organization for its own sake, taking pride in the strength of our military and using it too often, etc. I have written before that I regularly hear echoes of fascism in American political discourse: Teddy Roosevelt strikes me as a sort of proto-fascist, FDR often sounded like one, as does John McCain.

But I wonder if the younger generation of American liberals might be more susceptible to extreme leftism than either G or David thinks. Hatred of capitalism is very widespread among the young people I know, and I mean virulent hatred. Many young people seem attracted to ideas like guaranteed basic income, and polls show that many more young people have a weak attraction to democracy. Hatred of capitalism plus a weak attraction to legislative democracy seems to me like a recipe for terrible politics to come.

David said...


Where do you see FDR sounding like a proto-fascist?

On the capitalism aspect, it is to be remembered that Nazism was also anti-capitalist. Hitler's alliance with German business was purely instrumental, as were the "socialist" aspects National Socialism. Economic (and virtually all other) considerations were always secondary to his vision of apocalyptic national-racial power (the crucial moment came when business and the commercially-oriented bureaucracy complained about his economically ruinous rearmament policy in 1936-7; their opposition was easily crushed).

John said...

It is true that you can also oppose capitalism in the name of ethno-nationalism. But the young people I know who hate capitalism also hate racism, and they are attracted to communism, not fascism.

As for FDR, I see programs that recruited young men into work brigades (like the CCC and others) as semi-fascist. Also the emphasis on energizing the nation with huge public works projects like Hoover Dam and the TVA, the contempt for property rights and local traditions that you see in progressive agriculture programs, the talking up of national shrines and heroes, basically the whole rhetoric of national greatness.

David said...

I can see what you're saying about FDR, but a curious thing about Fascism and Nazism is the way they mobilized such a huge range cultural forms in their own service, and the way people of very different characters and styles could both be attracted to them and make good, "typical" members (from the nerdy, hyperproceduralist Eichmann to the demonic criminal Otto Dirlewanger).

Thus, you could also say environmentalism, most fantasy and scifi literature (Tolkien most notably), Ayn Rand, any spectacle-oriented entertainment (including, say, Woodstock); both regular and irregular warfare; atheism, neo-paganism, and the medieval Catholic church; all sports and people who don't like sports; big business, small business, and unionism; youth rebellion and youth obedience; etc., etc., partake of proto-fascist elements.

On anti-capitalist youth, I suspect they fall more into the anarchist than Leninist camp. I doubt many of the young people you're talking about would be very interested in the essentially cult-like, discipline-imposing, self-sacrificing (in the most literal sense) nature of Bolshevism or the CCP.