- Maggie Thatcher still owns the Left John Harris, New Statesman
- Stalinist Terror, Communist Prisons Patrick Kurp, Los Angeles Review of Books
- 1968 and the Irony of History Michael Mandelbaum, American Interest
- When Populism First Eclipsed the Liberal Elite Michael Massing, New York Review of Books
We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.
This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.
Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on libcom.org), but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.
From his article on meeting Lenin:
Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.
A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).
I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.
This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.
According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.
Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”
Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.
Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.
Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.
I was led into a large cell with an arching stone ceiling I would have called a dungeon except that it was harshly lit. There were about twenty-five men in the room, mostly in their late twenties. They greeted me loudly in their language. An older man who looked vaguely middle class because he wore a suit (without a tie) asked me in Italian where I was from. There were five or six blankets altogether. A tall, bony guy with the ravaged face of an operetta brigand requisitioned two and handed them to me. Then, we all lined up for whole-grain bread and soup. (Yes, whole-grain used to be the cheapest before it became fashionable, in the seventies.) The brigand pushed me to the head of the line. Then he showed me that you had to dunk the hard bread into the soup to soften it. After dinner, I had a long, civilized conversation with the old man, he speaking Italian and I, French. He told me that most of my cellmates were returning from Germany where they had gone to work without a proper Yugoslav exit visa, and that they were awaiting trial for that low-grade offense. “Why don’t they look more worried?”- I asked. (The mood was, in fact, downright merry.) He told me each would get a few months in the poker but that the cars they had bought in Germany with their earnings would be awaiting them when they got out. In fact, he said, the jail had a parking lot reserved for that usage. Real communism, communism as it existed, communism with a small “c,” was not simple!
As evening came, the inmates prepared for bed in their own rudimentary ways. There was tenseness when the brigand signaled for me to set down my two blankets next to him, on a raised wooden platform. I was old enough to doubt a free lunch existed. I perceived that I was the cutest thing in the joint, and the youngest! With no gracious way to escape, I did as he suggested. Tension turned into panic when he took my head into the crook of his arm. I withdrew brusquely. He delivered himself of a vociferous and loud speech that I guessed was at once re-assuring and reproachful. There was probably no ambiguity in his gesture. Yugoslavia was the beginning of the mysterious Orient, deep into Western Europe, with different customs. Later, I saw soldiers, and once, a pair of policemen, walking peaceably hand in hand. The brigand had just adopted me as a brother. He was no jail predator. For all I know, he had protected me from the real thing.
In a recent post, I pointed out that life expectancy in Cuba was high largely as a result of really low rates of car ownerships. Fewer cars, fewer road accidents, higher life expectancy. As I pointed out using a paper published in Demography, road fatalities reduced life expectancy by somewhere between 0.2 and 0.8 years in Brazil (a country with a car ownership rate of roughly 400 per 1,000 persons). Obviously, road fatalities have very little to do with health care. Praising high life expectancy in Cuba as the outcome Castrist healthcare is incorrect, since the culprit seems to be the fact that Cubans just don’t own cars (only 55 per 1,000). But that was a level argument – i.e. the level is off.
It was not a trend argument. The rapid increase in life expectancy is undeniable, so my argument about level won’t affect the claim that Cubans saw their life expectancy increase under Castro.
I say “wait just a second”.
Cuba is quite unique with regards to car ownership. In 1958, it had the second highest rate of car ownership of all Latin America. However, while the rate went up in all of Latin America between 1958 and 1988, it went down in Cuba. During that period, life expectancy went up in all countries while there were substantial increases in car ownership (which would, all things being equal, slow down life expectancy growth). Take Chile and Brazil as example. In these countries, the rate went up by 6.9% and 8.1% every year – these are fantastic rates of growth. During the same period, life expectancy increased 25% in Chile and 19% in Brazil compared with Cuba where the increase stood at 17%. In Cuba, the moderate decline in car ownership (-0.1% per annum) would have (very) modestly contributed to the increase of life expectancy. In the other countries, car ownership hindered the increase. (The data is also from the WHO section on Road Safety while the life expectancy data is from the World Bank Database)
This does not alter the trend of life expectancy in Cuba dramatically, but it does alter it in a manner that forces us, once more, to substract from Castro’s accomplishments. This increase would not have been the offspring of the master plan of the dictator, but rather an accidental side-effect springing from policies that depressed living standards so much that Cubans drove less and were less subjected to the risk of dying while driving. However, I am unsure as to whether or not Cubans would regard this as an “improvement”.
Below are the comparisons between Cuba, Chile and Brazil.
The other parts of How Well Has Cuba Managed To Improve Health Outcomes?
- Life Expectancy Changes, 1960 to 2014
- Car ownership trends playing in favor of Cuba, but not a praiseworthy outcome
- Of Refugeees and Life Expectancy
- Changes in infant mortality
- Life expectancy at age 60-64
- Effect of recomputations of life expectancy
- Changes in net nutrition
- The evolution of stature
- Qualitative evidence on water access, sanitation, electricity and underground healthcare
- Human development as positive liberty (or why HDI is not a basic needs measure)
Last week I posted some quotes by Joseph Stalin. I’m afraid too many people are still misguided by the myth that Lenin was a good leader whose plans were somehow distorted by Stalin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joseph Stalin had a great teacher, Vladimir Lenin, and brought the plans of his teacher to perfection. Here are some quotes by Lenin, so that we can learn more about international Marxism. Notice that he sounded very reasonable and pacific before 1917, and not so much so when revolution actually came.
The Congress decisively rejects terrorism, i.e., the system of individual political assassinations, as being a method of political struggle which is most inexpedient at the present time, diverting the best forces from the urgent and imperatively necessary work of organisation and agitation, destroying contact between the revolutionaries and the masses of the revolutionary classes of the population, and spreading both among the revolutionaries themselves and the population in general utterly distorted ideas of the aims and methods of struggle against the autocracy.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (July–August) , “Second Congress of the RSDLP: Drafts of Minor Resolutions”, Collected Works, 6, Marxists.
It is necessary — secretly and urgently to prepare the terror. And on Tuesday we will decide whether it will be through SNK or otherwise.
Memorandum to Nikolay Nikolayevich Krestinsky (3 or 4 September 1918) while recovering from an assassination attempt by Socialist-Revolutionary Fanni Kaplan on 30 August 1918; published in The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (1999) Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, p. 34.
Whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (Summer) , “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, Collected Works, 9, Marxists, p. 29.
You cannot do anything without rousing the masses to action. A plenary meeting of the Soviet must be called to decide on mass searches in Petrograd and the goods stations. To carry out these searches, each factory and company must form contingents, not on a voluntary basis: it must be the duty of everyone to take part in these searches under the threat of being deprived of his bread card. We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism: speculators must be shot on the spot. Moreover, bandits must be dealt with just as resolutely: they must be shot on the spot.
“Meeting of the Presidium of the Petrograd Soviet With Delegates From the Food Supply Organisations” (27 January 1918) Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 501.
On individual liberty:
Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association (including the party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views. Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (13 November 1905), “Party Organisation and Party Literature”, Novaya Zhizn (Marxists) (12).
We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general. We do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed.
In striving for socialism, however, we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich, The State and Revolution, Ch. 4: “Supplementary Explanations by Engels”
No Bolshevik, no Communist, no intelligent socialist has ever entertained the idea of violence against the middle peasants. All socialists have always spoken of agreement with them and of their gradual and voluntary transition to socialism.
“Reply to a Peasant’s Question” (15 February 1919); Collected Works, Vol. 36, p. 501.
When violence is exercised by the working people, by the mass of exploited against the exploiters — then we are for it!
“Report on the Activities of the Council of People’s Commissars” (24 January 1918); Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp. 459-61.
Sometimes I like to read quotes by famous intellectuals and leaders. I believe it is a great way to learn one thing or two about several subjects, and specially the thought of said people. I suddenly became curious about Joseph Stalin, and to my surprise he was at times a very reasonable (albeit terribly evil) person. Here are some quotes by Joseph Stalin I subjectively find interesting:
On Social Democracy:
Social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism…. These organisations (ie Fascism and social democracy) are not antipodes, they are twins.
Joseph Stalin, “Concerning the International Situation,” Works, Vol. 6, January-November, 1924, pp. 293-314.
We are not the kind of people who, when the word “anarchism” is mentioned, turn away contemptuously and say with a supercilious wave of the hand: “Why waste time on that, it’s not worth talking about!” We think that such cheap “criticism” is undignified and useless.
We believe that the Anarchists are real enemies of Marxism. Accordingly, we also hold that a real struggle must be waged against real enemies.
Anarchism or Socialism (1906)
On differences within the communist movement:
We think that a powerful and vigorous movement is impossible without differences — “true conformity” is possible only in the cemetery.
Stalin’s article “Our purposes” Pravda #1, (22 January 1912)
He did make a lot of people conform to his ideas.
A sincere diplomat is like dry water or wooden iron.
Speech “The Elections in St. Petersburg” (January 1913)
On the press:
The press must grow day in and day out — it is our Party’s sharpest and most powerful weapon.
Speech at The Twelfth Congress of the R.C.P.(B.) (19 April 1923)
I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.
Said in 1923, as quoted in The Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary (1992) by Boris Bazhanov [Saint Petersburg]
Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.
Interview with H. G. Wells (September 1937)
So the bastard’s dead? Too bad we didn’t capture him alive!
Said in April 1945 — On hearing of Hitler’s suicide, as quoted in The Memoirs of Georgy Zhukov
On his role as a leader at the USSR:
Do you remember the tsar? Well, I‘m like a tsar.
To his mother in the 1930s as quoted in Young Stalin (2007) by Simon Sebag Montefiore
To finish, a comment by George Orwell about Stalin, and above that, about people in the West who failed to see what the USSR actually was:
I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.
But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet regime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class. Moreover, the workers and intelligentsia in a country like England cannot understand that the USSR of today is altogether different from what it was in 1917. It is partly that they do not want to understand (i.e. they want to believe that, somewhere, a really Socialist country does actually exist), and partly that, being accustomed to comparative freedom and moderation in public life, totalitarianism is completely incomprehensible to them.
George Orwell, in the original preface to Animal Farm; as published in George Orwell : Some Materials for a Bibliography (1953) by Ian R. Willison