Sunday, February 18, 2018

Normalizing Mass Murder And Repression

With the election of Donald Trump, cries abounded on the Left that society and media needed to avoid "normalizing" the new President.  In this context "normalizing" does not mean agreeing with Trump, but rather accepting that he can, and should, be evaluated for both the good and bad things he does with some degree of objectivity.

But while progressives decried any reasoned discussion of Trump as normalization, one of the left's leading organs, The New York Times (though even the Times is, based on comments on its articles, apparently not always as crazy left as its readership demands), devoted all of 2017 to normalizing communism, one of the ideologies that along with Nazism, and fascism, made much of the 20th century a charnel house

Last year, the Times ran a 40-part series called "Red Century: Exploring the history and legacy of Communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution".  The series included, as you would expect for a normalization project, a great deal of civilized discussion about the pros and cons of the communist experiment.

But it was also carefully curated so it found little or no space in its forty episodes to discuss communism in Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, or the recent experiment in Venezuela.  It was also remarkably unreflective about what went wrong with little discussion of dissidents, including leading critics of the communist system such as Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia.  Most surprisingly there was no assessment of the monumental impact of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's revelations on the tottering edifice of Soviet Communism. And there was a complete absence of the big picture questions - how does human nature fit into the idea of the Soviet New Man?  Is it possible to prevent any communist society from descending into the darkness that each Red regime has done so far?

What the articles in the series did unintentionally highlight was the ability of idealists, or ideologues if you prefer (ideologues being idealists you disagree with), to walk optimistically into the future with their heads held high as they search the skies for their new world, which enables them to avoid seeing the sea of blood they wade through.

Let's look at some examples from start to finish, with some THC comments added:

What's Left of Communism by David Priestland (February 24), an Oxford historian and man of the Left, in which he espouses communism with a smiley face, without ever reflecting on its feasibility.  Here are some snippets:
"So did I witness Communism’s last hurrah that day in Moscow, or is a Communism remodeled for the 21st century struggling to be born?"

"But the flaws of laissez-faire soon came to Communism’s rescue. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed made socialist ideas of equality and state planning a compelling alternative to the invisible hand of the market. Communist militancy also emerged as one of the few political forces prepared to resist the threat of fascism." [THC here: Priestland ignores that in the end game of the Weimar Republic, Stalin ordered the German Communist Party to focus on destruction of the centrist parties and not attack the Nazis.  And, of course, we have the communist parties of Western Europe and the U.S. happily supporting Stalin and Hitler from 1939 to 1941.]

"A new left might then succeed in uniting the losers, both white-collar and blue-collar, in the new economic order. Already, we’re seeing demands for a more redistributive state. Ideas like the universal basic income, which the Netherlands and Finland are experimenting with, are close in spirit to Marx’s vision of Communism’s ability to supply the wants of all — “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” [THC: And how exactly is that to occur without the use of government force]

"There will be no return to the Communism of five-year plans and gulags." [THC: Glad he feels so confident about that.]

"Lenin no longer lives, the old Communism may be dead, but the sense of injustice that animated them is very much alive."
 This piece was quickly supplemented with a very amusing correction by the Times:
Correction: February 24, 2017

A picture supplied by Getty Images was initially posted with this essay. Editors later learned that the photograph, of Lenin giving a speech, had been manipulated by the Soviet authorities to erase several figures near Lenin, notably Leon Trotsky. The picture has been replaced because such unacknowledged alterations violate Times standards.
On March 13, we had Angels and Demons in the Cold War and Today, by Stephen Boykewich, described as a consultant to social justice organizations.  His piece isn't even about the communist revolution or communism, it's merely an anti-American screed blaming the United States for everything that's gone wrong with the Soviet Union and Russia.

Only a week later we have Francis Beckett, yet another British Leftist, trotting out the old theme of "Lenin was on the right track, it was that nasty guy Stalin who made it all go wrong"; a theme buried by Solzhenitsyn and the revelations of the Soviet archives after the Evil Empire's fall.  Some sample excerpts:
After the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, the Soviet state became a beacon of hope for the left, and Moscow a place for pilgrimage. It was four decades before the magic faded, and the world is still waiting for something to replace it. [THC: the kind of people who are still waiting for something to replace it are precisely the people you do not want anywhere near the levers of power.]

To be sure, Communist parties around the world kept the allegiance of many hard-liners and still recruited some young idealists, but 1956 was a turning point, and the Soviet Union as an idea was irretrievably tainted. Thereafter, Communists were as likely to define themselves as against Moscow as for it. [THC: Yes, they would always turn to the next group of Communist heroes who would finally get it right - we had Mao (40-50 million dead), then Ho Chi Minh killing anyone who opposed him; next was Cambodia Year Zero (20% of the population dead) and Fidel (arbitrary executions, imprisonment of homosexuals, destruction of one of Latin America's best economies).]
On April 3 it was the turn of Tariq Ali, of the New Left Review, and fanboy of Hugo Chavez, on What Was Lenin Thinking?, furthering Beckett's theme of the prior week regarding the brilliance of Lenin and the sadness that under Stalin things went awry.
While its final details were obviously not advertised beforehand, the takeover was swift and involved minimal violence. [THC: Ali is actually describing a coup against the real revolutionary government, consisting of social democrats!  There is also no mention in his paean to the great man, that a month later he ordered the forcible dissolution of the only legislative assembly ever elected by the Russian people.]

That all changed with the ensuing civil war, in which the nascent Soviet state’s enemies were backed by the czar’s former Western allies. Amid the resulting chaos and millions of casualties, the Bolsheviks finally prevailed — but at a terrible political and moral cost, including the virtual extinction of the working class that had originally made the revolution. [THC: Tariq Ali is not stupid.  Here he is deliberately misleading readers not familiar with history by blaming what happened next on Lenin's enemies.  Anyone who has read Lenin's own bloodthirsty words and directives, which do not distinguish between innocent and guilty, and were designed to instill terror, knows better.]

Nor should we forget that a few decades later, it was the Red Army — originally forged in the civil war by Trotsky, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Mikhail Frunze (the former two killed later by Stalin) — that broke the military might of the Third Reich in the epic battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. [THC: No mention of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.  I guess it must have slipped the author's mind.]"
April 29 brought us a pathetic piece by Vivian Gornick, When Communism Inspired Americans.  The author was raised in an American communist family and was twenty years old when Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin occurred, revealing their beliefs were based on a lie.  Sadly, she is still trying to give meaning to that lie so many years later, to salvage something from the deluded beliefs of her parents and herself.  In reality, her family were members of an organization under the direction of a foreign power dedicated to the destruction of American democracy.  A sampling of her continuing delusions:
“America was fortunate to have had the Communists here. They, more than most, prodded the country into becoming the democracy it always said it was.”

"The effective life of the Communist Party in the United States was approximately 40 years in length. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were Communists at one time or another during those 40 years. Many of these people endured social isolation, financial and professional ruin, and even imprisonment. They were two generations of Americans whose lives were formed by political history as were no other American lives save those of the original Revolutionists. History is in them — and they are in history."
Sarah Jaffe of The Nation informed us of The Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism (June 6), in which it turns out commies were just true American reformers, albeit many a little more intense (and under the direction of a hostile foreign power).
In short, American Communism was a movement that grew out of what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, the author of “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,” calls “the most despised and dispossessed elements of American society.” It was the black workers drawn to the party, Professor Kelley argues, who shaped its political choices as much as the varying dictates that came from the Communist International, Moscow’s directorate for foreign parties. [THC: Conveniently ignored is that in the 1920s and 1930s the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas was fiercely anti-communist because of its authoritarian and totalitarian beliefs.]
And we have an unexpected bonus from Ms Jaffe.  Turns out intersectionality, the latest poison introduced into our society, a poison designed to turn Americans against one another, actually originated with communists!
These arguments were championed by organizers like Claudia Jones, a black leader within the Communist Party U.S.A. and a journalist for its newspaper, The Daily Worker. According to Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100, Ms. Jones expounded the idea now known as intersectionality decades before that term became so ubiquitous that Hillary Clinton used it in a tweet on the campaign trail. For Ms. Jones, understanding the lives of black women and the economic and social position they occupied would create a better understanding of the system of capitalism as a whole. It followed, Ms. Carruthers explains, that black women’s work was central in the struggle to replace the system.
What American Communists, at their best, pioneered was to show how effectively grass-roots movements can challenge the racism, state violence and economic exploitation that people face in their daily lives, and connect those fights to a broader vision of a just world. [THC: One is sometimes left just speechless.]
On August 7, Fred Strebeigh may have written the most preposterous entry in a series already chock full of ridiculous attempts to normalize the abnormal.  It's titled Lenin's Eco-Warriors about how, under Lenin, a "longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping", the Soviet Union became a global pioneer in conservation!  For anyone familiar with the wreckage of the Soviet Union's natural environment and the incredible levels of pollution caused by its insane push for centrally planned industralization at the expense of every other consideration in society this article is an insult.

Strebeigh's article is also a prime example of normalization that in other circumstances would never see the light of day in the Times.  The Nazi Party in Germany enacted the most far reaching environmental and worker safety laws of the day, yet I don't think the Times would be comfortable promoting that as part of a "balanced" assessment of the legacy of the Third Reich.

Wait a minute!  I may have been wrong about the Strebeigh piece being the most preposterous.  On August 12, the Times published Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee.  It's a cheery, upbeat piece of fluff.  Turns out the sex was great, as long as you otherwise kept your mouth shut, and did what you were told.  Enjoy!
Some might remember that Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free child care. But there’s one advantage that has received little attention: Women under Communism enjoyed more sexual pleasure.

Agnieszka Koscianska, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Warsaw, told me that pre-1989 Polish sexologists “didn’t limit sex to bodily experiences and stressed the importance of social and cultural contexts for sexual pleasure.” It was state socialism’s answer to work-life balance: “Even the best stimulation, they argued, will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.”
Enough of this silly stuff!  On August 28, Odd Arne Westad, who despite his weird name is a professor at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, so we know he must be incredibly brilliant, tells the sad story of The Cold War and America's Delusion of Victory.  Turns out the Cold War was a regrettable event that happened despite "people of good will on both sides".  It takes a sophisticated Harvard professor to equate freedom with slavery but Odd is up to it.

The next month we learned from Helen Gao about How Did Women Fare in China's Communist Revolution?  Turns out they did pretty well, if they lived.

On October 2, the astoundingly shallow Times reporter Alessandra Stanley wrote about The Communist Party's Party People, which starts off "There was no better time or place to be a Communist than in San Francisco in the spring of 1945" [THC: I believe the same holds true today regarding San Francisco].

A week later we heard from another leftist Brit professor, John Sidel, on What Killed The Promise of Muslim Communism?, in which he remembers that "For a brief moment after the Bolshevik uprisings of 1917, it looked like revolution might be waged across vast swaths of the world under the joint banner of Communism and Islam", [he thinks this is a good thing!] and laments:
One effect of the failure of revolutionary forces to mobilize under the joint banner of Communism and Islam was to deeply divide Muslims, weakening their capacity first to fight colonialism during the first half of 20th century and then to resist the rise of authoritarianism across the Muslim world. [THC: Wait, you're saying communism is not authoritarian?]
Later the same month we had yet another lament from another professor; this one an American from Hamilton College, When New York City was the Capital of American Communism by Maurice Isserman.  The good professor regrets that:
With the onset of the Cold War, and of a second Red Scare more pervasive and longer-lasting than the original, Communists found themselves persecuted and isolated. [THC: I wonder why secret members of a party who accepted direction from a totalitarian foreign power devoted to the destruction of American democracy would find themselves persecuted and isolated?]
On a serious note, the Isserman piece is part of a larger, and largely successful effort to rewrite the history of American communism.  As with many of the pieces in the Times series it cast American communists as idealists who were just ahead of their time.  A couple of years ago I watched a panel discussion on C-Span.  The panelists were authors and researchers who, in recent decades, have done remarkable research exposing the depth of Soviet espionage in the United States and the complicity of American communists in the spying, as well as the evidence of direct Soviet control of the American Communist Party (the most prominent of the researchers being Harvey Klehr, whose work I recommend).  They had their own lament.  According to the panelists there is no new research work in academia looking further into this aspect of American communism even though the speakers said there is still much unreviewed documentation out there.  Instead, grad students are discouraged from pursuing such research and the academic journals devoted to this subject focus on articles stressing the reformist nature of American communism and the undeserved repression party members experienced.

The series came to a close on November 6 with Simon Sebag Montefiore's essay, What If The Russian Revolution Had Never Happened?  Thankfully, Montefiore is no apologist for communism (his book Stalin: The Court Of The Red Tsar is a masterpiece).  He writes to remind us of the reality:
The Russian Revolution mobilized a popular passion across the world based on Marxism-Leninism, fueled by messianic zeal. It was, perhaps, after the three Abrahamic religions, the greatest millenarian rapture of human history.

That virtuous idealism justified any monstrosity. The Bolsheviks admired the cleansing purges of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror: “A revolution without firing squads is meaningless,” Lenin said. The Bolsheviks created the first professional revolutionaries, the first total police state, the first modern mass-mobilization on behalf of class war against counterrevolution. Bolshevism was a mind-set, an idiosyncratic culture with an intolerant paranoid wordview obsessed with abstruse Marxist ideology. Their zeal justified the mass killings of all enemies, real and potential, not just by Lenin or Stalin but also Mao, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. It also gave birth to slave labor camps, economic catastrophe and untold psychological damage. (These events are now so long ago that the horrors have been blurred and history forgotten; a glamorous glow of power and idealism lingers to intoxicate young voters disenchanted with the bland dithering of liberal capitalism.)
Of course, Montefiore cannot resist taking a swipe at Donald Trump:
But Lenin’s tactics, too, are resurgent. He was a sophisticated genius of merciless zero-sum gain, expressed by his phrase "Kto kovo?"  — literally, “Who, whom?” asking the question who controls whom and, more important, who kills whom. President Trump is some ways the personification of a new Bolshevism of the right where the ends justify the means and acceptable tactics include lies and smears, and the exploitation of what Lenin called useful idiots. 
One wonders if he was contractually obligated by the Times to insert the reference to Trump. However gross Donald Trump may be, the attempted comparison is so absurd it diminishes the power of Montefiore's article.  It is also another example showing why decent liberals are proving so ineffective in taking on the growing authoritarian trend on the Left.  They seem to be unable to take the threat seriously, finding it easier to take potshots at the Right for which they will be applauded by their constituency.

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