How To Be A Socialist Without Being An Apologist For The Atrocities Of Communist Regimes

Opposing economic exploitation doesn’t mean supporting authoritarianism…

It’s incredibly easy to be both in favor of socialism and against the crimes committed by 20th century communist regimes. All it takes is a consistent, principled opposition to authoritarianism. I don’t like it when bosses mistreat and abuse their workers. And I don’t like it when governments mistreat and abuse their people. A system in which people must work for low wages, struggling to afford housing, healthcare, and education, is abhorrent and should be gotten rid of. A system in which people must either work or be sent to forced reeducation camps is even more abhorrent. We can dream of a world that has neither gulags nor indentured servitude, and I am such a romantic idealist that I believe such a world might even be possible…

Bret Stephens, in The New York Times, wants to convince readers that the choice is binary. The millennials who criticize contemporary capitalism (i.e. the majority of them, who identify more strongly as socialists) have forgotten the history of the 20th century, he says. They know that Nazis and Apartheid South Africa were bad, but they don’t have the same horror at Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge. “Why is Marxism still taken seriously on college campuses and in the progressive press?” Stephens asks. “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?”

Leftists, Stephens says, engage in excuse-making. They justify atrocities committed by revolutionaries that they would condemn if those same acts were committed by capitalists:

“They will insist that there is an essential difference between Nazism and Communism — between race-hatred and class-hatred; Buchenwald and the gulag — that morally favors the latter. They will attempt to dissociate Communist theory from practice in an effort to acquit the former. They will balance acknowledgment of the repression and mass murder of Communism with references to its “real advances and achievements.” They will say that true communism has never been tried. They will write about Stalinist playwright Lillian Hellman in tones of sympathy and understanding they never extend to film director Elia Kazan.”

The ultimate consequence of this is extremely dangerous, he says. Because leftists fail to reckon with the truth about communism, they will end up justifying anything done in the name of The People. They “cheered along” Venezuela’s socialist government as it collapsed into “dictatorship and humanitarian ruin” and people like Bernie Sanders condemn Wall Street without recognizing that “efforts to criminalize capitalism and financial services also have predictable results.” The “line running from ‘progressive social commitments’ to catastrophic economic results is short and straight.”

Alright. First of all, I am not sure how many millennial hipsters Bret Stephens spends time around, but I tend to see very few of them in Mao Zedong t-shirts (and if they were in Mao Zedong T-shirts, those shirts would almost certainly be dumb ironic jokes making Mao look ridiculous, e.g. hipster Mao or LMAO, rather than honest advocacy in favor of collectivized farming systems). I have only ever encountered one authentic millennial Maoist, and let’s just say I don’t think there’s any danger he’ll be leading the next Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

There are two main parts to Stephens’ argument, though: first, that leftists have a double standard, rationalizing communism and failing to appreciate just how bad it was, and second, that if leftists honestly faced the realities of that history, they would see that their criticisms of capitalism can only lead us toward terror and misery. The first point has some merit. The second is a steaming pile of manure.

Much of what Stephens categorizes as rationalization is nothing of the kind. There is an actual difference between racial hatred and class hatred, and it’s an important one: race is an immutable characteristic, while class isn’t. If I am a rich landlord, I can stop being a rich landlord any day of the week by simply giving all of my property away. It’s much more fair to hate someone for something they do than for some aspect of themselves they cannot change, and hatred of the rich stems from the fact that rich people, through their actions, make the world more unjust. Whenever people who have a lot of money make this silly argument that prejudice against the wealthy is the same as prejudice against Jews, they imply that rich people can’t help but be selfish. But it’s good to remind them that they could cease to be victims of “prejudice” any time they like.

Stephens also suggests that saying communism remains a sound theory or has “never been tried” amounts to an apology for dictatorships. I think here he misunderstands what the actual argument is, at least in its more sensible version. When anyone points me to the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba and says “Well, there’s your socialism,” my answer isn’t “well, they didn’t try hard enough.” It’s that these regimes bear absolutely no relationship to the principle for which I am fighting. They weren’t egalitarian in any sense; they were dictatorships. Thus to say “Well, look what a disaster an egalitarian society is” is to mistake the nature of the Soviet Union. The history of these states shows what is wrong with authoritarian societies, in which people are not equal, and shows the fallacy of thinking you can achieve egalitarian ends through authoritarian means. This is precisely what George Orwell was trying to demonstrate, though almost everybody seems to have missed his point. Orwell was a committed socialist, but he knew that socialism was about giving workers ownership over the means of production, which they don’t have if they’re being told what to produce at gunpoint. Animal Farm is not about the dangers of socialism, it’s about the dangers of using revolutions to justify totalitarianism.

The history of the Soviet Union doesn’t really tell us much about “communism,” if communism is a stateless society where people share everything equally: it was a society dominated by the state, in which power was distributed according to a strict hierarchy. When Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman visited the Soviet Union, they were horrified by the scale of the repression. “Liberty is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development,” Lenin told them. Goldman concluded that “it would be fantastic to consider it in any sense Communistic.” (Her pamphlet “There Is No Communism In Russia” argues that if the Soviet Union was to be called communist, the word must have no meaning.) Bertrand Russell visited Lenin and was alarmed by his indifference to human freedom. Russell left disillusioned, “not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.” Lenin himself acknowledged that he was implementing a form of “state capitalism.”

The primary lesson here is not about “egalitarianism” or “socialism” or even “communism” since Castro, Mao, Stalin, and Lenin did not actually attempt to implement any of those ideas. Instead, the lesson is about what happens when you have a political ideology that contains a built-in justification for any amount of horrific violence. The bad part of Marxism is not the part that says workers should cease to be exploited, but the part about the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The dominant “communist” tendencies of the 20th century aimed to liberate people, but they offered no actual ethical limits on what you could do in the name of “liberation.” That doesn’t mean liberation is bad, it means ethics are indispensable and that the Marxist disdain for “moralizing” is scary and ominous.

It actually is important, then, to do precisely what Stephens condemns: to distinguish “advances and achievements” from “indefensible atrocities.” If your society manages to have impressively low infant mortality and impressively high literacy, but tortures political prisoners, we might want to adopt your literacy program while declining to recreate your secret police. Because I am capable of holding two ideas in my head at the same time, and do not think in caveman-like grunts of “This good” and “This bad,” I can draw distinctions between the positive and negative aspects of a political program. I like the bit about allowing workers to reap greater benefits from their labor. I don’t like the bit about putting dissidents in front of firing squads. And it seems to me as if an intelligent person ought to be capable of disaggregating those things and seeing that you can be in favor of readjusting the balance of wealth without being in favor of show trials and purges. Conservatives see a necessary connection between these things, but (ironically enough) this is because they don’t actually know much about the history of socialism, and the long tradition of libertarian socialists who have been critical of totalitarian thinking from the very beginning. The critiques that Bakunin made of Marx exactly predicted the nature of the Soviet Union, decades before it came about:

[Marxists] insist that only dictatorship (of course their own) can create freedom for the people. We reply that all dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation, and that slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people, and by a voluntary organization of the people from the bottom up.”

Bakunin said that strong states, of the kind advocated by Marxists, would inevitably produce “military and bureaucratic centralization” and that the only difference between this kind of government and a monarchy is that a monarchy oppresses and robs the people in the name of the King, while the proletarian dictatorship does it in the name of “the people.” But, he said, “the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labeled ‘the people’s stick.’” (Bakunin himself was often loathsome, an anti-Semite with violent tendencies, but again, this is the magic of thoughtful reasoning: I am able to accept the sensible parts of his ideology and discard the insane ones.)

The most objectionable part of Stephens’ case is his suggestion that criticism of Wall Street is a step down the road to the Gulag, and that “progressive social commitments” necessarily lead to “economic catastrophe.” Gulags only become possible if you have an ideology, like Leninism, that justifies Gulags. If you are a leftist like Bertrand Russell, who visited Lenin and was disturbed by his lack of interest in liberty, then the conclusion is not that you should stop trying to make the economy more fair, it’s that you shouldn’t ever be willing to make millions of people miserable in the name of pursuing an ideal. Ideals are still good, but there need to be strict limits on what acts those ideals can justify. Just as “liberté, égalité, fraternité” did not become invalid aspirations when Robespierre started cutting off heads, and the Vietnam War didn’t discredit the idea of representative democracy, communist atrocities are a warning against committing atrocities in pursuit of fairness, not against fairness.

Stephens is right in one respect, however: there are still some on the left who don’t think that way. In recent interviews and op-eds about Lenin, Tariq Ali has praised him for his love of “democracy,” without mentioning the Red Terror, the Cheka, and the stifling bureaucratic misery Goldman and Berkman discovered when they first set foot in Lenin’s Soviet Union. Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right dismisses worries that Marxism will inevitably be used to justify horrible crimes, essentially by saying that revolutions are never easy and power is an inevitable feature of human life. (Examine Chapters 8 and 9 and see if you feel reassured that Eagleton’s Marxism contains any ideological backstop to limit the amount of corpses it would be willing to pile up.) It is is concerning how little time has been spent analyzing what should be a central question for revolutionary socialists: which ends would justify which means? And how will you avoid what has happened so many times before, when the belief that “counter-revolutionaries” must be dealt with using “extraordinary measures” has led to an escalating cycle of paranoia over who the counter-revolutionaries are? I’m certainly not reassured by those who dismiss free speech as a bourgeois liberal value, or who think it applies to everyone but fascists but lack a clear theory for determining who is or is not a fascist. (Since I could easily be classified as a supporter of “free speech for fascists,” I could be seen as an enabler of fascism, and therefore no better than them.)

“How will you keep this idea that sounds perfectly reasonable from becoming a total disaster once implemented?” is an extremely serious question. I distrust anyone who doesn’t think seriously about the potential consequences of various ideas. And Stephens is right that the history of communist states needs to be taught more (that would also, of course, include the 20,000,000 Soviet citizens who died in World War II and who we tend not to pay much attention to). Any leftism that justifies or downplays atrocities is not for me. It’s important to be clear, consistent, and principled. (Likewise I am sure Stephens, who believes that Soviet atrocities indict socialism, holds the principled and consistent belief that U.S support for the killing of 500,000 Indonesian communists indicts American capitalist democracy.)

There is no difficulty whatsoever in being an anti-authoritarian socialist. Everyone should be one. You should believe in freedom and equality, not just one or the other. Freedom without equality means low-wage servitude, while equality without freedom means living in a police state. Conservative critics are right that it’s hypocrisy for any leftist to condemn mass murder while justifying mass murders committed in the name of the working class. But that’s a problem of hypocrisy, not of leftism. You won’t find me giving excuses for the Shining Path or the GDR. But there is no logical reason why that should lead us to endorse the callous policies of the American right. Instead, we should be offering a set of ideas that are genuinely humane, compassionate, and socialistic.

Image: A Khmer Rouge mass grave. If your revolutionary movement keeps producing mountains of skulls, it is important to consider whether the problem may be with you rather than the people who were turned into the mountain of skulls.

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