Saturday, October 11, 2008

Communism and totalitarianism

Is communism necessarily or strongly predisposed to totalitarianism? Were the two previous communist governments (and many communists hold that the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China reverted to state capitalism and the bourgeoisie of the party in the middle of the 20th century) totalitarian?

First of all, we have to be a little more precise: totalitarianism is not very well-defined. You could make the case according to Wikipedia's definition that the West, including the United States, is "totalitarian" if you consider the ruling economic class as the government. Mass propaganda? We call them "commercials". Enforcing ideological purity? "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" Mass imprisonment? The United States has the largest prison population in the world, both in absolute terms and relative to population. Violation of ordinary civil liberties? The War on (some people using some) Drugs, endorsed and enforced by supposedly liberal Democrats as well as Republicans. Genocide, mass murder, imperialist aggression? The American Indians, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq.

It very much looks like "totalitarian" means "a government I don't like" in just the same sense that "judicial activism" means "a decision I don't like."

We might adopt a weaker standard, and say communist governments in the past have acted specifically in egregiously bad ways.

Are such allegations true? Perhaps, but if you're like me, you're getting all of your information about the history of communist governments from sources massively biased towards capitalism. I'm not saying that such sources are necessarily wrong, but ordinary standards of critical thought demand that you take obviously biased information with a very large grain of salt.

To what extent were egregiously bad actions explained not by communism per se, but by local historical circumstances? It's not like pre-revolutionary Russia or China were magic happy utopias; they were brutal, violent repressive dictatorships resting on de facto slavery. As an analogy, imagine if the South had won the Civil War, and a generation or two later the vastly numerically superior blacks had finally overthrown slavery in a violent revolution. Would you not imagine that — whatever their political or economic ideology — they would have extracted savage vengeance against those who had subjected them to centuries of misery and brutal exploitation? And, as much as we deplore violence, how much could you blame them?

Communists are not stupid, nor are they indifferent to human suffering. The whole point of communism is a reaction to horrors of capitalist exploitation and oppression of the working class; if capitalism worked the way capitalists themselves say it ought to work, communism would be pointless. It's easy for people in the United States to close their eyes to exploitation, because we export most of it, and we've "bought off" a fair portion of working American people. If you want to see the pointy end of American capitalist oppression you have to travel to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua; indeed most of Latin America. Or just Detroit. Live in a lily-white suburb surrounded by other members of the top economic 10%, and it's very easy to convince yourself that everyone lives the same way, just with Target and Wal-Mart crap instead of Williams-Sonoma and Sharper Image crap. Communists are just former capitalists who have rejected the dogmas of the ruling class and opened their eyes to what's really going on in the world.

The next time that someone tells you that communism is totalitarian, ask them: compared to what?

8 comments:

  1. Ok then, see u use this example of brutalized blacks becoming a revolutionary state as a analogy of the Russian peasant class who became the government of the workers and peasants state in 1917, in other words- the Soviet?
    I been to Russia for 10 days and i got me uncle there (one who escaped during the MQM crackdown-2 others didn't and got killed, anyhow), and i studied to 'A' level so i 'know' a little.
    So this is me idea then maybe.
    The analogy is good if it was the russian peasants who actually took power cos of course, read Orlando Figgs, it was landlordism (just like we got also), and terrible for peasants. But it wasn't the peasants who was running the Bolshevik Party, it was middle class elite, like Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev etc. Peasants actually was just dismal, they had no idea what was Communism and like our peasants also- they was very conservative, anti progress etc.
    Totalitarianism came cos Bolsheviks was ALWAYS a minority, they overthrew the Mensheviks and never had any real support outside Petrograd. So? So there was no mass uprising, and the storming of the winter palace was a small deal in reality.
    So totalitarianism seems inheternt in Soviet Communism on a very practical level. We got "War Communism" and the "NEP" plus the civil war, partly practical, partly ideaolgical, but again, the basis is Soviet Power, which is a elite strata, inevitable maybe, no way the peasants could have just stood up from medieval confusion to run the state, no way. Also, before we get to Stalinism where the rift with theoretical Communism is clear, Lenin's own personality seems to set the scene for atrocity and totalitarianism.
    Now me, i am interested in Communism of course, me ideas are for a sort of Pakistani people's army along the lines of the PKK in Kurdistan, i am thinking all this through, seriously, so Communism is very interesting cos i am a radical atheist, want a strong state, have no time for class or racial divisions, but also got to figure out if it's leading to human rights and to a armed, determined anti religious state where all citizens are marching under one banner and are respected as daughters of the soil in a nation that has broken patriarchy.
    Me final idea..... Communism can evolve and there it has potential, everything can evolve, so why not Communism too?
    That's me starting point.
    Jasmine

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  2. Ok, "A" level, this is what people do when they are 17-18, i done me "A" level History when i was 23 at night school and i got a grade a, top class, that's as much as i got, i am not telling i was like in a university and stuff cos no good make meself more than i am (don't want also).

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  3. First, I'm asking questions, not drawing conclusions. Second keep in mind that almost all modern communists in the West concluded that the Soviet Union reverted to state capitalism in the 1950s and China reverted in the late 1970s.

    I see a big double standard in the evaluation of communism and socialism. People justify the excesses and abuses of capitalism (and religion) saying that a) capitalism has at least improved people's lives and b) the excesses and abuses do not flow from capitalist ideology but from individuals' perverse and malicious character.

    All right, fine. If those are legitimate excuses for capitalism, why then is every excess and abuse of communism necessarily a direct expression of the ideology?

    I'm not trying to justify anything in particular here: I'm trying to raise the questions in a critical way.

    One important feature of communism since Marx is at least lip service to the ideals of science and a disdain religious-style dogmatism and epistemic authoritarianism.

    Since communist writing and thought is not authoritarian, there is no scripture, we are free to throw out the bits that don't work; so long as we keep some connection to the fundamental ideals -- equalitarianism, mutualism, no private property -- and still consider ourselves good communists.

    I've never met a communist who thinks that the Soviet or Chinese communist revolutions must be replicated, that if the Soviets or Chinese did something, it is good by definition. Rather, they want to learn from what happened -- good and bad -- to make the world a radically better place.

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  4. Oh, and Jaz, your comments are always insightful and thought-provoking.

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  5. We assume that we can tell the difference directly between good and bad: Communism is not good by definition, it is good -- if it is indeed good -- because it brings about results that we can tell directly are good or bad.

    If the bad results didn't actually happen, we are permitted to ignore them.

    If some bad results did happen, it is legitimate to inquire as to their specific causes. Not to justify them, but to explain them.

    If the bad results are due to historical circumstances, it's then legitimate to say, "That was then, this is now."

    If the bad results are part of the "add-ons" to fundamental communist ideology, we can discard the add-on, while still preserving the core.

    Unlike religious ideologies, human ideologies are subject to revision and emendation at almost every level.

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  6. i think there lots of good results under Communism, u can't just write it off with one word- "Stalin", but the heart of the issue seems to be ideaological- like the role of the individual, which is not guaranteed as sacred- like it is in liberalism (if i got it right).
    Could the ramshackle mess of the Csarist Empire have mechanized and withstood the Nazis? No way, they was listening to Rasputin and praying to icons. Communist resistance saved the world u can say. Communist order and discipline made it possible. Criminals and stuff, also, dealt with sharply. Everyone gets a house, medical care, look at Cuba or Venezuela, they're trying to help everyone and no purges. Boliva also is interest, look at the Maoists in Nepal, or me very best example, Communism in West Bengal which took on the caste system. Yes, i even visisted the CPI office in Mumbai also, so i got a real interest u can say.
    I think if u try to develop Communism, basic idea is ok as are many of the values, especially militant atheism, gender equality, racial equality, economic justice-but through empowerment, though certainly the end of class snobbery and division, so much is good in principle, but 2 things are needed in me own opinion:
    1) Democratic-popular aspect so the movement can never become cultish
    2) Greater emphasis on guaranteeing of individual liberty and conscience.

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  7. the heart of the issue seems to be ideaological- like the role of the individual, which is not guaranteed as sacred- like it is in liberalism (if i got it right)

    But is the individual truly sacred? Is that what we really want? Do individuals have the right to oppress and exploit others? To what degree should individuals compromise their immediate personal benefit for the mutual benefit of their neighbors?

    2 things are needed in me own opinion:

    I agree completely.

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  8. "The next time that someone tells you that communism is totalitarian, ask them: compared to what?"


    Sure, if you want to look like a pseudointellectual fool with no concept of history or the definition of the word "totalitarian".

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