Friday, May 4, 2012

Totalitarianism Revived

In an article in World Affairs, Alan Johnson asks how Communism could be making a comeback among a cadre of intellectuals after the ideology's history of misery and mass murder during the twentieth century. Johnson maintains that the new Communists have little interest in history, which explains their ability to overlook the atrocities of Stalinism and Maoism. They also, in his view, have no clear plan for the future. The appeal of Communism, he argues, lies in Communists' identification of all the problems of modern society as interlinked and systemic. If "the system," as it currently exists, is the source of all problems, then the answer to all problems must be to have a revolution that will completely replace the system with some new state of affairs.

I suppose we are fortunate that most of the new Communists Johnson names are abstruse theorists unlikely to have any impact outside of seminar rooms.  But this "systemic" perspective is clearly an instance of what the sociologist Gideon Sjoberg approvingly called the "countersystem" approach in the social sciences, looking at current reality as an interlinked web of "social problems" and imagining a completely different organization of human relations. This, I would argue, was precisely why Communism always became totalitarian whenever its adherents achieved power: because they treated human societies not as products of history or as living associations among human beings, but as abstract patterns to be totally redesigned by planners of a new system.  


  1. I'm sure you saw the enjoyable May Day conflagration at the Volokh Conspiracy, where Ilya Somin suggested May 1 be Victims of Communism Day. Sifting through all the hot air, I seem to have found only two seemingly legitimate defenses for identifying as a Communist in 2012, and they are defenses that, I'm sure, my revolutionary colleagues would mount:

    1. Communism (as practiced by Stalin, Pot, et al.) was not true Marxism. Condemning Marxism by pointing at totalitarian states is like condemning Christianity by pointing at the Inquisition.

    2. Capitalism has been the source of just as many atrocities and injustices as Communism.

    Rebutting 1 is a large undertaking, and I won't do it in this context. Rebutting 2, however, is rather easy if you go about it the right way, and it doesn't require any research or facts at all (because most revolutionaries would not be interested in those). I've found it much easier to admit for argument's sake that, "Yes capitalism has its sins and victims. Why, yes, I'll admit" (though it's not true) "that for every individual killed or oppressed by a Communist regime, someone has been killed or oppressed by a capitalist regime.

    "So why, then," I ask my revolutionary friends, "are you so wedded to the idea of replacing one devil with another? Better the devil known, and all that, but more to the point: why do you prefer the one devil to the other? At least capitalism's evils aren't brought to my doorstep."

    To that question, I have yet to receive an adequate reply. At any rate, it undermines their argument because, basically, the argument is predicated upon the claim that Communism IS as bad as capitalism. No argument, at all, really, and it's their second best one.

  2. Rebutting #1 could go on at length, but I think the "systemic" nsture of the ideolgy identified by Johnson offers a succinct rebuttal. Because Communism aims not at reform, but at the replacement of an entire system of human relations, it necessarily entails unlimited use of power. Totalitarianism is inherent in the logic of total social transformation, not an accidental byproduct of potentially constructive idealism.

    I think this was what Dostoevsky was saying in The Demons/The Possessed when he had Shigalov muse "starting from total liberty, I end with total tyranny" (as nearly as I recall).

    Regarding the second one, in addition to the points you raise, there is also the fact that aside from the remarkably high body count of the Communist project, "capitalism" is mainly a description of human social and economic relations, so universal that the most successful Communist societies generally only achieved government managed market economies (i.e., inefficient versions of state-run monopoly capitalism). So, lots of people and then it doesn't even work. The Soviet Union, after all, went bankrupt.

  3. I think you're right about capitalism being more or less a description of socioeconomic relations rather than an economic philosophy per se. I'm not well versed in the history of economics, but as far as I know, capitalism is simply what emerged gradually in Europe from the notion of ownership of property. No one person ever wrote "Capitalism" and started re-engineering an existing state-of-affairs.

    "Totalitarianism is inherent in the logic of total social transformation, not an accidental byproduct of potentially constructive idealism."

    A powerful way of putting it. I generally just keep silent when people start blathering about transgressive change, et cet., but I may speak up with this next time around.