Monday, May 1, 2017


Stalin and Shakespeare

An article by Gary Saul Morson explores the savagery and its possible explanations of the Communist Revolutions in the last century. One recurring theme is why the Western intellectuals seem to be so tolerant of the brutality. His article includes discussions of the book Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg Baberowski (whose analytic abilities Morson disdains), and Stéphane Courtois' The Black Book of Communism, which documents the specific mortality numbers of those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of such a revolution. The article, which appeared in "The New Criterion," is worth the read. I have summarized some of the interesting parts here. I know little of Morson other than he was a professor at Penn before moving the Northwestern and writes for "Commentary" but it's hard not to like a guy who wrote When Pushkin Comes to Shove.

Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and, after a few months of weak parliamentary rule, the Bolsheviks seized power. We call that seizure the Russian (or October) Revolution, but it might better be designated the Bolshevik coup d’état. A party of 10,000 people gained control of an empire occupying one-sixth of the earth’s land area.

Between 1825 and 1905, the tsars executed 191 people for political reasons—not for mere “suspicion” as under the Soviets but for actual assassinations, including that of Tsar Alexander II. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that between 1905 and 1908 the regime executed as many as 2,200 people—forty-five a month!—“calling forth tears from Tolstoy and indignation from Korolenko and many, many others.” By comparison, conservative estimates of executions under Lenin and Stalin—say, twenty million from 1917 to 1953—yield an average of over ten thousand per week. That’s a tsarist century every few days. classes typically blame the Cold War on American “paranoia” about communism and still picture Bolsheviks as idealists in too great a hurry. Being leftwing means never having to say you’re sorry.

In 1997 Stéphane Courtois published (in French) The Black Book of Communism, an anthology in which experts document, country by country, how many people Marxist–Leninists killed. With suitable academic equanimity, contributors ask whether the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, or the deportation of all Chechens to central Asia that took the lives of one person in three, qualifies as “genocide.” The only sign of real emotional urgency occurs in Courtois’s introduction, which breaks intellectual taboos by drawing parallels with Nazism, questioning Socialists’ frequent alliances with Communists, and, above all, wondering why intellectuals continue to apologize for Communist murders.
The volume’s scholars estimate twenty million deaths in the USSR, sixty-five million in China, two million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in Mengistu’s Ethiopia and other African countries, and so on, to a total of about one hundred million. (Eerily, the chief revolutionary in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed predicts that the cost of perfect equality will be “a hundred million heads.”) So far as I can tell, these estimates are understatements. For example, the most authoritative study of Stalin’s war against the peasantry in the early 1930s, Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, arrives at a figure twice the one in this volume. The difference between the two estimates—the margin of error—equals the number of Jews killed by the Nazis.
By contrast, Nazi deaths are estimated at twenty-five million. Of course numbers aren’t everything.......

Delivering a toast on the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin declared: “We will destroy each and every enemy, even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!” Even when the tsars imprisoned or executed revolutionaries, they never thought of arresting their spouses, children, grandparents, and cousins as well. And note Stalin’s insistence that not just wrong actions but improper thoughts merit “destruction.”

The goal was to change both nature and human nature. The Marxist “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom” meant that everything would be subject to human redesign. At the end of Literature and Revolution, Trotsky asserted that “the present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores cannot be considered final.” .......The “new man” will also redesign himself. He will “master his own feelings,” rendering them perfectly “transparent,” and at last create “a higher biologic type . . . a superman.” Trotsky’s book concludes with a promise that “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

Apologists for the USSR have often claimed that, however regrettable the cost, the Bolsheviks had no choice if they were going to industrialize rapidly and defeat the Nazis. This excuse is nonsense. To begin with, the bloodiest event of all, the artificially induced famine during the war against the peasants, took place before Hitler came to power, and mass killings of whole groups dated to the regime’s first months. It is also hard to see how industrialization was helped by the massive arrest of the “bourgeois specialists,” which included just about everyone who understood how specific industries worked. And how was the war effort to be aided by targeting the army officer corps during the great purges of 1936–38? As Baberowski notes, “almost nothing remained” after more than ten thousand Red Army officers were arrested. In April 1938 the head of the “special department” of the Fifth Mechanized Corps dutifully reported that “100 percent of the command personnel in the corps and all its brigades” had been arrested. This was the one sort of production quota that was actually met. Is it any wonder that the Soviet army collapsed when the Germans invaded?

Apologists also suggest that there really were a lot of enemies of socialism. But people were arrested not just for conspiring against (or thinking negatively about) the regime. Quotas were issued for each region—Baberowski concludes that more than a million people were killed by quota—and local officials often filled them either arbitrarily or with the homeless, the blind, and amputees. In March 1938 the NKVD (the secret police) executed 1,160 people in Moscow with physical disabilities. Kliment Voroshilov, who occupied many top positions, argued for arresting abandoned children. “Why don’t we have these rascals shot?” he asked. “Should we wait for them to become grown-up criminals?” What’s more, two dozen whole ethnic groups were forcibly deported to Central Asia. After Stalin ordered the arrest of all Poles, the Polish section of the Comintern and the Polish Communist party had to be disbanded since they had no members.

If there is a core argument to this book, it is that none of this can be blamed on Marxism-Leninism. Believe it or not, such assertions are not a strained attempt to apologize for Marxism. Baberowski believes that no ideas ever motivate violence. “To men of violence . . . ideas are only a means of legitimizing their lust for murder to those for whom violence is not a natural course of action. Neither Stalin nor Yezhov were guided by Marxism or its promises when they had people arrested, tortured, and killed. . . . It had absolutely nothing to do with the writings of European Marxism.” For Baberowski, ideas are not just a relatively minor factor, they have “absolutely nothing” to do with what happens. “Reasons and legitimizations play absolutely no role,” he insists elsewhere; they are just means of coping with meaningless violence.

Solzhenitsyn takes the exact opposite position. Ideology makes all the difference. Why was it, he asks, that Macbeth and other Shakespearean villains killed only a few people, while Lenin and Stalin murdered millions? The answer is that Shakespeare’s villains “had no ideology”:
Ideology—that is what gives . . . the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses and will receive praises and honors.
Soviet Marxism rejected the very concept of human rights. Leninist ideology instructed one to think of classes, not humanity. What race was to Nazis, class was to Bolsheviks, and class origin, like race, was not something one chose. People born into bourgeois, noble, or kulak families had no more right to life than Jews or Gypsies did to Nazis.
Contrary to what liberals might presume, Soviet ethics taught one to overcome, not foster, natural sympathy for the suffering of others, which might make one hesitate to kill a class enemy. In November 1918, Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, published an article in the journal Red Terror in which he instructed:
"We are not waging war against individual persons. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. During the investigation, do not look for evidence that the accused acted in deed or word against Soviet power. The first questions that you ought to put are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What is his education or profession? And it is these questions that ought to determine the fate of the accused."
It was no big step to extend the notion of enemy classes to enemy peoples, like the Cossacks, Chechens, or Crimean Tatars.
Since the Party was the agent of History itself, it could not be mistaken, and so anything the party did was morally right by definition. “Morality is entirely subordinated to the class struggle of the proletariat,” Lenin declared. At the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1924, Trotsky explained:
"Comrades, none of us wishes or is able to be right against his Party. The Party in the last analysis is always right, because the Party is the sole historical instrument given the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems."
The idea that truth and morality have no objective basis but are simply what power says they are, is, of course, also a key tenet of many current postmodernists.

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