Thursday, November 05, 2009

Communism and individual rights

In his retrospective of communism, Fred Halliday writes:
… underpinning these three ideas – “state”, “progress”, “revolution” – lay a key component of this legacy: the lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension. True, there was a supposedly ethical dimension – whatever made for progress, crudely defined as winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a, mythified, working class – was defended. However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion. That many of those who continue to uphold revolutionary-socialist ideals, and the potential of Marxist theory, today appear not to have noticed this, that they indeed reject, when not scorn, the concept of “rights”, is an index of how little they have learned, or have noticed the sufferings of others.
Halliday is simply wrong here. If he were making an empirical case, if he were to say that historical communist governments lacked an independently articulated ethical dimension, that these historical governments crudely defined an ethical dimension only of winning power for a party leadership, etc. — and if you cherry-pick the empirical data — he might have a point. But at the theoretical level, about the ideas underpinning "state", "progress" and "revolution", he's just wrong.

Before we can actually refute Halliday's position, we have to understand it: a difficult task. What precisely does he mean by the "lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension"? What is an "ethical dimension"? Why does it need to be "independently" articulated? And what does Halliday believe an ethical dimension be independent of?

Halliday clarifies his position, referring to "the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion." It is seems clear here that Halliday is speaking primarily about a legal system and the underlying philosophy of law: the law is is nothing more or less than explicitly articulated criteria applicable to the uses of governmental coercion.

All well and good: there's much to legitimately criticize in formal and philosophical communist legal systems. But it would be simple nonsense to imply that these flaws stemmed from a lack of theoretical concern for the well-being of individuals, an ethic limited to "winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a mythified working class." And the idea of winning power for a party leadership as an instrument of achieving human well-being goes only as far back as Lenin. Indeed there is little talk at all about revolution (and how to achieve it) in the earliest days of Utopian socialism, to which Halliday presumably refers to by socialism's 200 year history. Halliday must (if we are to interpret him charitably) mean by "rights" something not really directly related to human well-being and how to achieve it.

Chris Bertram interprets Halliday as claiming that communism promotes a (bad) Consequentialist ethic in unstated contrast to a (presumably good) Deontic ethic. But deontic ethics are at best a shortcut to consequentialism under limited, imperfect information and at worst a delusion.

Betram notes that Western, capitalist, ethics are just as philosophically consequentialist as communist ethics, theoretical or historical. (Which is not to say that those thoroughly indoctrinated into and accepting of Western judgments of consequence would agree with theoretical or historical communist judgments.) John Stuart Mill, for example, makes an entirely consequentialist argument for freedom of speech in On Liberty: we ought to have freedom of speech because such freedom will help us get at the truth*, and merely speaking an incorrect or reprehensible idea causes only trivial damage. A strictly deontic argument for freedom of speech would hold that freedom of speech is good regardless of the consequences; even if someone could call up Cthulhu by uttering magic words, we should not prevent him lest we abridge his freedom of speech.

*We don't have to make any argument at all for the value of truth: no one wants to be deluded or lied to.

On this interpretation, Halliday criticizes communism for failing to buy into the delusion that there are such things as deontic individual rights. This argument has no more power than the Christian argument that we should believe a God exists — even if no God actually exists — so that the fear of punishment in the afterlife will keep us moral.

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