Tag: totalitarianism

Prophets of the Communist Police State

In a review of five books on the Soviet police state, David Satter notes this prophetic volume:


By Nikolai Berdyaev, et. al (1909)

The year was 1909. Terrorists were murdering not only czarist ministers but provincial officials and police. It was in this atmosphere that “Landmarks” was published in Moscow. The contributors, all of them Russian Orthodox believers, called on the intelligentsia to reject materialist moral relativism and return to religion as a means of grounding the individual. Their essays, with stunning foresight, described all of the characteristics of the coming Soviet state. The religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev explained the roots of its contempt for the individual. He said that the revolutionary intelligentsia hungered for a universal theory but was only prepared to accept one that justified their social aspirations. This meant the denial of man’s absolute significance and the total subordination of spiritual values to social goals. Bogdan Kistyakovsky wrote that the intelligentsia’s predilection for formalism and bureaucracy and its faith in the omnipotence of rules were the makings of a police state. A hundred years later these essays are still among the best arguments ever made against revolutionary fanaticism, political “correctness” and the drive to create “heaven on earth.”

Sounds like a book I should have heard of before now. 

Forget North Korea, Weak or Strong: South Korea’s Strength Is Why America Should Come Home

Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.” 

No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no. 

First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over. 

More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer. 

If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.) 

Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States. 

The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America. 

Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses. 

North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance.  It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger. 

When Che Guevara Met Nat Hentoff

In the new video below, renowned civil libertarian and Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff talks about his meeting with Che Guevara when Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice. (See it also here with Spanish subtitles.) El Che is romanticized by college kids and those on the left as a champion of the oppressed, but he was in fact a main architect of Cuban totalitarianism, a cold-blooded murderer whose defining characteristic was sheer intolerance of those with differing views. The best essay on Che, “The Killing Machine,” was written by Alvaro Vargas Llosa for the New Republic some years ago. 

It is hard to imagine a symbol in popular culture in which the represented ideal is more far apart from the historical reality than in the case with Che. Surely that gap helps explain Che’s appeal among people all over the world with little knowledge of Latin America. Four years ago on a visit to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council I saw pro-democracy activist and Council member Leung Kwok-hung, a.k.a. “Long Hair,” wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt on the floor of the chamber. (Hong Kong is not yet a democracy and its Legislative Council is quite limited in its powers; in practice, the city is ruled by the communists in Beijing, which has ironically upheld the city’s free-market model and rule of law tradition inherited from the British.) Does Long Hair not know that Che despised democracy?

In his classic book, The Latin Americans, the late Venezuelan intellectual Carlos Rangel explained how outsiders, especially Europeans, have since their earliest contact with Latin America idealized the place, projecting their fantasies and frustrations, and promoting ideas there that they themselves would not find acceptable on their own turf. Thus the early inhabitants of the region were “noble savages” despoiled and degraded by the Europeans; the noble savages later evolved into the good revolutionaries, those authentic Latin Americans who fight for everything that is good and reject the imposition of all forms of oppression. Simplistic and wrong, but effective. So it is even in Latin America, where, as Rangel explains, that storyline has served political leaders well as they justify the imposition of any number of restrictions on freedom, from tariffs to censorship. Che’s image still abounds in the region. (For an excellent and eminently relevant video in Spanish of Rangel speaking in Caracas in 1980 about the central problems with Venezuela, see here.) 

Incidentally, another Cato scholar had close ties to Che. The rebel was a cousin to well-known Argentine libertarian and adjunct scholar Alberto Benegas Lynch (Che’s complete last name was Guevara Lynch). In this article in Spanish, Alberto discusses his cousin Che.

1940: The Birth Year of Liberal Anti-Communism?

We sometimes talk about 1943 as the year that the libertarian movement really started, with the publication of three passionate books by Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, and Isabel Paterson. In his review of a new biography of Arthur Koestler, Paul Berman makes 1940 sound like a crucial year for books of liberal anti-communism (that is, of course, anti-communism by modern liberals, not classical liberals, who were always opposed to socialism). Perhaps it took 20 years for liberals and anarchists to realize what was happening in Russia and organize their thoughts about it. Libertarians got there a bit sooner, from Mises’s theoretical critique in Socialism in 1922 to Rand’s firsthand experiences that led to the publication of We the Living in 1936. 

Koestler’s book Darkness at Noon was completed in 1940, then smuggled out of Vichy France and published the next year. Also in 1940:

A talented little group of intellectuals in the 1930s was keen on Promethean myths, and the center of that impulse was the United States, where the talented group pictured the Communist movement in the light of Prometheus and his struggles. Edmund Wilson devoted his masterwork To the Finland Station to the Promethean theme—it, too, came out in 1940, by the way…. 
By the time Wilson completed his own manuscript, he knew very well that, in Russia, Marxism had pretty much failed. And he attributed this failure largely to a philosophical error on Marx’s part, back in the nineteenth century. Marx had thoughtlessly incorporated into his own doctrine a whiff of mysticism, drawn from Hegel. The mystical whiff had transformed Marx’s movement from a sober, progressive-minded, social-science action campaign into a movement of religious inebriates. A religious frenzy had produced a hubris. Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, hubris led to despotism. And to crime—to the deliberate setting aside of moral considerations. To the dehumanization of humanism.

Such was Wilson’s argument in To the Finland Station. Here was the Promethean myth, twisted into tragedy: a story of rebellion and counter-rebellion. Freedom and its betrayal. Fire and self-immolation. Wilson’s philosophical mentors were Max Eastman and Sidney Hook, and in that same year each of those redoubtable thinkers came out with his own variation on the same interpretation—Eastman in an essay in Reader’s Digest (which later appeared in his book Reflections on the Failure of Socialism) and Hook in a volume called Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy. In the United States in 1940, tragic Prometheanism was more than an argument. It was a school of thought.

And somehow Koestler, composing his novel under European circumstances inconceivably more difficult than anything his American colleagues would ever experience, arrived at roughly the same interpretation.

Berman goes on to discuss Alexander Berkman, a Russian-American Jewish labor organizer who was deported to Russia in 1919 along with Emma Goldman and more than 200 others. Berkman saw what was happening, fled to France, and started raising money to support persecuted revolutionaries in Leninist Russia. One of his followers was G. P. Maximoff, a Russian anarchist who was imprisoned in Moscow and then fled to Chicago. It may be surprising to hear that what Berman calls the best-documented book about terror in Russia (at least before modern times) was published with the support of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  

He earned his living as a wallpaper-hanger. In his free time, though, he kept up the documentary labor, and he compiled his investigations in a systematic fashion, and ultimately he came out with a 624-page volume. Maximoff called his book The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia (Data and Documents). It came out in 1940—the year of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Wilson’s To the Finland Station, Hook’s Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, and Eastman’s essay in Reader’s Digest; the year in which Koestler completed Darkness at Noon…. [H]is extraordinary book was published by a little committee of his own allies called the Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund, who drew their own support chiefly from Berkman’s old fraternal order, the Workmen’s Circle, and from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (where the anarchists were part of the power structure) and a scattering of Russian and anarchist groups in the United States…. The second half of Maximoff’s book, which contains the crucial documentation, is completely unavailable nowadays, except in a few libraries and among a very few secondhand book dealers. I would be surprised to learn that more than a handful of this magazine’s readers have ever heard of this book.

Even so, of the various works from 1940 that I have been discussing, Maximoff’s The Guillotine at Work has got to be the most powerful, emotionally speaking, and the most convincing, intellectually speaking, and the most horrifying, morally speaking. The book portrays Lenin as a monster, committed to murders and terror on the hugest of scales. The book documents the portrait. The book recounts the several phases of Lenin’s policy year by year, beginning in April 1918, when the Moscow Anarchists were suppressed. The book explains the mass consequences of Lenin’s policy, beginning with a politically induced famine as early as 1921. The book recounts the gradual destruction of any sort of political freedom in the Soviet Union. The book proposes a few statistical consequences….

You also realize, reading Maximoff’s The Guillotine at Work, that here is a kind of preliminary draft of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Did Solzhenitsyn know anything about Maximoff’s great work? Solzhenitsyn definitely knew some of the imprisoned anarchists. In his novels he describes in a somewhat sympathetic fashion the admirers of Kropotkin, living out their fate in Siberian exile. But he appears not to have known anything about Maximoff. Michael Scammell is the biographer of Solzhenitsyn as well as of Koestler, and, though his biography of Solzhenitsyn is enormous (as is the biography of Koestler), Maximoff’s name never comes up. Anyway, it is hard to imagine how Solzhenitsyn could have stumbled across Maximoff’s fat volume. Maximoff wrote in Russian, but the Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund published the book in English translation.

It goes without saying that The Guillotine at Work lacks some of the rhetorical force of The Gulag Archipelago. Maximoff was a man of literary talent, even so. In reading his book, you already begin to glimpse the power that Solzhenitsyn’s work would prove to wield decades later. For here, in The Guillotine at Work in 1940, is already a total demolition, intellectually speaking, of what Alexander Berkman called, in a pamphlet of his own, “The Bolshevik Myth”—a total demolition because it blows up the Communist idea at its foundation. And what is that foundation? This is worth defining.

Marx, in his own masterwork, Capital, wrote about the horrors of poverty, exploitation, famine, and class inequality. Maximoff writes about similar things. But Maximoff’s masterwork focused mostly on the horrors of incarceration. The Guillotine at Work and The Gulag Archipelago are identical in this respect. These are books about jails, not about wages. Imprisonment, not exploitation. About the Solovietski Monastery and the Moscow Taganka prison, not about factories and farms. These books offered the revelation that, under communism, the old czarist prison system, instead of withering away, had gone into bloom. And the revelation that communism’s prisons had destroyed the old Russian heroes en masse—whole movements of those heroes, not just Peter Kropotkin’s faithful readers and followers, but the Mensheviks, too, the readers of Karl Kautsky, together with the Social-Revolutionaries and everyone else. This was the news that broke communism’s back—the prison news, and not the revelation that, under communism, the proletariat had failed to thrive, even if it was true that, under communism, the proletariat had failed to thrive….

Berman, who has written a great deal about both liberal and illiberal movements, including much recently about Islamic fundamentalism, longs for the days when liberals offered a vigorous and organized intellectual response to totalitarianism:

Reading Scammell’s account, I begin to grow a little indignant about the intellectual scene in our own moment, a couple of generations after the major achievements of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It is very odd that nothing like the Congress for Cultural Freedom exists in our time. A tremendous intellectual debate is taking place right now across huge portions of the world, with the Islamists on one side and a variety of anti-totalitarian liberals, Muslim and non-Muslim, on the other. But the kinds of liberal congresses and campaigns that Scammell describes have never taken place in our day, not on a grand scale anyway. We have human rights organizations, but we do not have sustained campaigns on behalf of the persecuted liberals in countries where organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood wield a lot of influence. We do not even have the kinds of congresses or conferences that would allow liberal-minded writers from different countries and speaking different languages to meet each other and discuss their respective experiences and thoughts. Nor do we have any kind of sustained and coordinated effort to translate books and essays from one language to another—not on a truly large scale. On matters such as these, Hook, the old socialists of the American labor movement, Koestler, his comrade Manès Sperber in France, and their various colleagues of the 1940s were way ahead of us.

The Spirit of Nien Cheng (1915-2009)

Nien ChengNien Cheng, author of best-seller Life and Death in Shanghai and one of the greatest Chinese voices of humanity to have opposed communism, passed away in Washington yesterday. To read her account of the cruelty and madness of the Cultural Revolution, during which she was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years and her daughter killed, is to come away inspired by Nien Cheng’s sheer strength of character and the dignity and power of the individual even in the face of totalitarianism. Her refusal to accept dogmas, her deep understanding and love of Chinese culture and history, her capacity for self-reflection, the way in which she used her learning and sharp wit to confront her oppressors and expose their incoherent views, and her ability to survive persecution—all was truly a triumph of the human spirit.

I had the great good fortune to have known Nien Cheng both through Cato and because she coincidentally lived in the same Washington condominium building as I did for many years until I recently moved. (It was the same building in which she typed her book manuscript once she lived here in exile, never thinking that many people would read it.)

To know Nien Cheng was to confirm the impressions one forms of her from reading her book, and more. As neighbors, we chatted from time to time, and on several occasions my now-wife Lesley and I enjoyed tea and lively discussion in her apartment. Mrs. Cheng was generous and polite, and she was curious about the opinions of others. But she was also very well read, kept up on current affairs, and was opinionated, honest and transparent. She was always insightful. The trappings of political power never impressed her. She was regularly invited as a guest to White House functions by several administrations, but although she was honored, she had long been turning them down because, as she told me, she was too old for such things and it was too much time standing around.

Nien Cheng never liked to waste time and so maintained the habits of an industrious person. Perhaps that was partly a strategy to keep her mind at ease since the death of her daughter tormented her all of her life. I’m sure, however, that she ultimately died in peace. Never displaying an air of self-importance, she was ready and happy to pass on, as she told me and others on more than one occasion. For testifying to the world about the realities of Chinese communism and for living a courageous life, Nien Cheng holds a special place in the hearts and minds of all advocates of the free society, especially the Chinese.

May her spirit live on.

‘Is Obama Punting on Human Rights?’

That’s today’s Arena question over at Politico.

My response:

This morning, both Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, and Mona Charen, at Real Clear Politics, catalogue Obama’s silence on human rights – China, Tibet, Sudan, Iran, Burma, Honduras – and his backpedaling from his campaign rhetoric. Meanwhile, Eric Posner, at the Volokh Conspiracy, rightly credits Obama for, among other things, not backing the Goldstone Report and pressuring Spain to water down its undemocratic “universal jurisdiction” statute, even as he condemns the administration, again rightly, for its decision to join “the comically named U.N. Human Rights Council,” bastion of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

What’s missing, it seems, is any coherent and systematic approach to those matters. During the Reagan administration I served for a time at State as director of policy for the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – now called, interestingly, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Things were simpler during the Cold War. We focused on totalitarian regimes, somewhat less on authoritarian regimes, since people were allowed to leave those. And, yes, realpolitik played at least a part in our thinking, as inevitably it must. But the basic principles were clear: If human rights were to be respected, not simply behavioral but systematic change would be required. And Reagan kept the pressure on, publicly. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions saw that kind of change, in varying degrees. But the contrast between totalitarianism and democratic capitalism is less clear today than it was then, and the Obama administration, in both its foreign and domestic policies, is doing little to clarify it.

The promotion of human rights starts at home, with allowing people to plan and live their own lives, not with vast public programs that compel people to live under government planning. And in foreign affairs it requires both private and public diplomacy, quiet and not-so-quiet attention to the conditions that give rise to human rights abuses. That doesn’t mean military intervention to change those conditions. But neither does it mean remaining silent, as the Obama administration too often has. Countless victims of abuse, from Cuba to China and far beyond, have written about how important it was that they knew that the world knew about them: When America speaks, the world listens. But equally important, history demonstrates that regimes that respect their own people respect other people as well. It’s time for Obama to speak out.