Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Charmed Life of Communism

It should come as a surprise to no one by now to learn that one of the greatest storms of barbarism the world has ever seen, in which much of the cultural heritage of China was destroyed, was met with enthusiasm in the West by young radicals whose own barbarism, one might suspect, was too often frustrated by the slow progress of their own great works of self-expression.
.....One of those youngsters was Peter Tatchell, who today reminisces about the good old days of nineteen sixty-eight:
In response to the Australian media’s deranged and often racist anti-Chinese propaganda, a few of us organised a ‘Be Kind to Mao Month’, where we promoted the ‘good’ aspects of the red guards’ rebellion against what we saw as the privileged, arrogant and authoritarian communist elite in Beijing. [1]
Having rejected Soviet-style communism as “an inhuman betrayal of the communist ideal of a compassionate, classless society”, [2] and having taken care to note the compassion of Chairman Mao during the Great Leap Forward, the young Mr Tatchell proselytised in favour of the more fashionable Maoist-style, which by then had already surpassed the Soviet-style in the production of emaciated corpses. So attuned were Mr Tatchell’s “libertarian communist” instincts, and so profound was his compassion for the people of China — peasants, recalcitrant workers, liberal bourgeois, and sundry political undesirables not included — that Mr Tatchell chose to favour the “good” aspects [3] of the most fanatical force in the history of Chinese communism: the red guards of the Cultural Revolution, steered by the Great Helmsman himself.
.....Now, I have little interest in what Mr Tatchell’s youthful sympathies were, or in what they are now, still less in what claims he might make for the purity of his intentions. [4] Another political fantasist to add to the pile makes little difference. What interests me is how the ideal of communism has enjoyed so charmed a life in the West, eking out a fanciful existence in the heads of such men, wherein it has remained unsullied by the reality of its application or even of its theoretical expression.
.....Before communism got its name in the 1840s, it was already linked to the ideal — sorry, the unfortunate “necessity” — of revolutionary terrorism, most notably in Babouvism; that is to say, even before Marx and Engels added to its legacy, and long before Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot perfected its theory and practice, it already had its terrible cast. Even if one traces communism back to the puritan Diggers, or to Thomas More, or to millennialist Christianity, or even further back, one can hardly observe in earnest the character of communism as it has come to exist in various regimes without noticing that it bears the unmistakably grim features of Babouvism and Marxism. Gracchus Babeuf, the forefather of much misery, is mostly forgotten, as is most of the output of Marx and Engels, and today there are those who profess to see communistic regimes as if they were the wayward scions of a noble lineage — as betrayals rather than consequences of the ideal. But how is it that anyone can be so brazen as to claim compassion as the very basis of his politics, and yet not bother to find out whether those politics might actually be good for others? To advocate a scheme for the whole of society, and to have made little effort to find out what effects it might have, other than that it makes one feel warm inside, is not to show compassion for others, but rather to show passion for oneself. Here, ignorance may be a defence, though not of any claim to compassion.
.....It would have been much more interesting today if some old lady had written in another newspaper a favourable reminiscence of how in nineteen thirty-three she ran a charity tombola- and lemonade-stall in support of the Deutsche Studentenschaft as it set about its task of clearing university libraries of politically undesirable books and of burning them. It would have been interesting for a comparison of reactions, for indicating biases, and in particular for showing what little part conscionable morality, as opposed to political moralism, has to play in decrying Nazi barbarism; for the destructiveness of that student body, instigated at a time when Nazism had hardly got started, was tiny as compared to that of the red guards, instigated at a time when the victims of communism were already in the tens of millions, and yet can anyone seriously doubt that the reminiscences of our old Nazi would provoke far more outrage than the reminiscences of our old commie? Now, of course, old Nazis don’t get to write for the newspapers, except perhaps by apologising at length, whereas old commies do, no apologies required — not that I think tomorrow’s newspapers should be full of old commies apologising; expedient liberal contrition is rarely interesting. No, it is more interesting to observe that, with regard to barbarism, it matters more about which tribe you are in than about the degree of it. And, as I say, communism enjoys a charmed life.
[1] Peter Tatchell, “The Black Panthers and me”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 14th May 2008.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Even he cannot use the word “good” in this regard without enclosing it in quotation marks, which leads me to wonder.
[4] The degree of wishful thinking or downright dishonesty is incalculable, though we can perhaps count at least three sops to conscience: the defence from ignorance (“we didn’t really know either its present form or its pedigree”); the defence from good intentions (“it meant well”); and the defence from imposture (“it wasn’t really communism or socialism”). The latter two are often aspects of the first.


Anonymous said...

re: Tachell

One of the secret factors for a leftist in deciding whether to eulogise a particular socialist country is obscurity. ie the more we know, the less likely is the country to be celebrated in leftist circles.

During the time of Peter Tatchell's embrace, there was too much history about the Soviet Union to credibly claim that country (eg. Czechoslovakia was fresh). By contrast China was a closed society, which had just rejected the Soviet Block. You might at a pinch get away with claiming it was the promised utopia.

I doubt Tatchell knew much at all about the real China. Peter was 2 pages ahead of us in the bluffers guide and relied on the rest of us to be too lazy to look for better information.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment about François-Noël Babeuf. I don't think you have to look so far.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract contains the seeds of totalitarianism in the contradiction between the individual and general will. Rousseau grants powers to the collective by arguing that the general will knows better that any individual. Thus the collective executes citizens who deny the general will.

The leit-motif of collectivism is the marginalisation or death of opponents.

Deogolwulf said...

"You might at a pinch get away with claiming it was the promised utopia."

Naturally, with a large dollop of special pleading.

As for my opinion on Monsieur Rousseau and his contribution to totalitarianism, see my recent and short appraisal here.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with your placement of Rousseau.

Interestingly Stephen Hicks traces Post Modernism back to Rousseau via Kant. Now it seems to me self evident that Post Modernism, in denying universalism, is anti-enlightenment. That raises the question of when did that path ceased to be enlightened. This has relevance to Grayling's suggestion that Rousseau stands at the head of a Romantic tradition. Is Kant anti-enlightenment too?

In leftist circles, universalist ideas have largely been superseded by relativism.

Now Grayling may well place himself on the left but that means he rubs shoulders with people who totally reject western ideas including the enlightenment legacy (eg. Bunting).

Deogolwulf said...

I think placing Kant in the counter-Enlightenment would be drastic, even if counter-Enlightenment ideas can be traced back to him. Such can also be said of Hume, whose ideas had a profound influence on the ideas of Jacobi and Hamann; or Rousseau, whose ideas had great influence on those of the Romantics. All were men of the Enlightenment nonetheless.

The Enlightenment was mostly a matter of the emancipation of ideas from traditional authority. It was, however, more inspired by passion and optimism than by reason, a view to which the zeal of rationalism — the arrogation of all manner of domains to that of reason — gives testimony. That the Enlightenment gave birth to Romanticism shouldn’t surprise us. Romanticism fully idealised one of the main motives of the Enlightenment — the emancipation from authority — especially by its idea of the creative power of the unbounded individual. It also carried on the Enlightenment legacy of radical criticism, whilst rejecting rationalism as being too stifling of aesthetic sensibility, intuitive expression, and creativity, not to say, perverting an understanding of reason itself.

Radical ignoramuses such as Bunting who reject the Enlightenment don’t know the debt they owe to it; they perpetuate at least one -- and perhaps its most important -- aspect: its optimistic critical spirit. Still, I think I prefer her kind to those who fully identify with the Enlightenment for little better reason than that of its name and its rationalistic promises. Marketing was invented for such people.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that Bunting perpetuates a optimistic critical spirit. I think she is driven by nihilist self hatred. She learnt that white people are the cancer of the human race and never looked back.

Deogolwulf said...

Point taken, but the subscription to progressive social schemes derives much from the "optimistic critical spirit" of the Enlightenment. It would be interesting to note just how much nihilism owes to that spirit. After all, Jacobi, the coiner of the word "nihilism", had noted it in his contemporaries, and the history of nihilism goes hand-in-hand with progressivism. This is most notable in the Russian radicals.

“In its final form the Enlightenment turns against itself: humanism becomes a moral nihilism, doubt leads to epistemological nihilism, and the affirmation of the person undergoes a metamorphosis that transforms it into a totalitarian idea.”

Leszek Kolakowski, “Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusions of Cultural Universalism”, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.30.

Anonymous said...

the progressive social schemes derives much from the "optimistic critical spirit" of the Enlightenment


Let me try to avoid Hegelian dialectics but still observe that any antithesis is a reaction to a thesis. Romanticism may be traced back to the enlightenment. However it still remains a reaction to it. The fact that there is a grey area in the development from enlightenment to romanticism does not change the fact that the latter is better understood as a reaction to the former and hence a different thing.

Similarly, one can trace the path from the Enlightenment to Post Modernism or Madeleine Bunting. That doesn't make the end of the path belong to the enlightenment. I agree that Bunting has benefited from it, doesn't understand it but she isn't articulating a philosophy that can be said to be enlightenment. Distinctions matter.

Moreover, that path is one of many possible ones from the enlightenment. eg. Ayn Rand gives us an alternate path and that is clearly not nihilistic. Clearly in Randian world the enlightenment legacy of individualism would be prioritised over others. For whatever reason, we drifted away from the individualism of the early Scottish enlightenment towards a collectivist ethos.

If you want to claim that nihlism is the inevitable product of the enlightenment then I think you need to explain why.

Deogolwulf said...

"Romanticism may be traced back to the enlightenment. However it still remains a reaction to it."

It was indeed a reaction to it, or rather to the rationalistic aspect of it, but it also developed some of its implications. As Frederick C. Beiser puts it:

“If the romantics were critics of the Aufklärung, they were also its disciples.”

(“Early Romanticism and the Aufklärung”, in What is Enlightenement? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed., J. Schmidt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p.318.)

"that path is one of many possible ones from the enlightenment"

Broadly, the sort of view I have been promoting. The Enlightenment was a complex process and is not coterminous with those aspects of it that we might favour.

"If you want to claim that nihlism is the inevitable product of the enlightenment then I think you need to explain why."

I don't want to claim any such thing if by the above you mean to impute that I mean to say that all ideas that arose in the Enlightenment necessarily lead their adherents to nihilism. (That wouldn't be true even if all such ideas logically implied nihilism.) But if you mean to impute that I mean to say that nihilism first arises as a named phenomenon in the Enlightenment, then I am happy to agree. Jacobi himself used the word to characterise the implications of rationalism, and we generally take the word to refer to the mechanistic-materialistic belief that the world is without objective meaning, purpose, or essential value -- a "disenchantment" with the world which finds expression in the Enlightenment and with which many people now agree, or rather, they agree intellectually. I say "intellectually" because such beliefs and their implications do not often filter down, so to speak, fully into people's operational beliefs: most people holding to the intellectual belief leave it in the abstract and remain detatched from any implications that it might have for their behaviour.