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    The butter’s spread too thick!

    If you read Instapundit, surely you saw this post, with Glenn Reynolds’s comment, “Communists are as bad as Nazis, and their defenders and apologists are as bad as Nazis’ defenders, but far more common. When you meet them, show them no respect. They’re evil, stupid, and dishonest. They should not enjoy the consequences of their behavior.”

    This is not a popular position, and he quickly received a response that went, in part, like this:

    As someone who works in academia, I run into my fair share of Marxists. While I disagree with their politics, many of them are decent non-evil people most certainly deserving of respect. There is, to my mind, a big difference between communism and Nazism: it is possible to be a communist with the “good will,” i.e. to sincerely wish the best most prosperous future for everyone. I think it’s pretty obvious that communism is not the way towards that goal, but intelligent people can disagree. Nazism, on the other hand, is fundamentally impossible to commit one’s self to with a good will. It is inherently racist, hateful, and concerned with elevating particular groups of people on the basis of the subjugation and dehumanization of others.

    These people’s whole job as scholars is the unflinching pursuit of truth no matter where it may lead, and we’re supposed to credit them for their “good will” when they trumpet an abstract ideology while discreetly skating over what happens every time it’s implemented? I find myself unwilling to concede that. It’s like crediting the walrus with more compassion than the carpenter because he made a histrionic show of concern for the oysters before yum-yumming them down.

    Of course, it might be said that Reynolds’s correspondent’s colleagues are, assuming they’ve been presented accurately, at least willing to argue Marxism on the merits. The people I find most appalling, and who in my experience are equally numerous, are those who counter any discussion of communist regimes with the statement that first-world Westerners have no grounds for criticizing them at all.

    Two weeks ago, there was an Asia Society screening of a UN documentary about the trial of Comrade Duch, who ran one of the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous political prisons. Two women became upset during the Q&A session (about 37:00 into the linked video) that all this talk about torture and killing fields and retribution and memories of the dead had not been presented “in context.” You can guess what they meant, can’t you? That’s right: Big, Bad America had been an enabler for Pol Pot and his fellow-travelers, and apparently that was what we should have been getting worked up about. After all, Indochinese peoples are peaceable, guileless, grudge-free aspiring-Buddha types, so all that unpleasant torturing and executing isn’t the real story, and even if it were, we’d be in no moral position to criticize the Khmer Rouge. Yes, I’m caricaturing the view presented, but not by much. The response from the panel—pointing out that, among other things, the United States and Canada were among only five countries to condemn Cambodia’s human-rights abuses while they were happening—follows.

    I wasn’t present at the Asia Society event for this discussion of Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, but I looked it up after my beau left his book-club copy lying around. It follows the lives of six people who defected from an industrial city in the northeastern DPRK and ended up in Seoul. They were all teenagers or adults in the late ’90s and thus lived through and vividly remember the famine.

    Demick is not a conspicuously talented prose writer, but she has a great ear for an involving story; and yet, after finishing the book, I was most struck by how depressingly familiar it all was. Demick’s informants spoke of tight controls on travel and information. They spoke of indoctrination sessions. They spoke of a shrewd blending of communist ideology with national traditions to tighten the grip of the power elite—Kim Il-sung was presented as the nation’s patriarch, to which it owed absolute filial obedience according to Korean Confucianism. They spoke of the persecution or denigration of out-of-favor ethnic or clan groups, in this case Chinese and South Korean. They spoke of a rigid system of class privilege determined by membership in (or closeness to) the ruling party, from which flowed access to better housing, food, education, jobs, and purchasing power. They spoke of patent lies about industrial and agricultural productivity, with the black and grey markets flourishing as the government ceased to be able to provide for citizens’ basic needs.

    All of which is to say that, if you hadn’t been paying attention to the names and dates, you could have found yourself forgetting exactly which communist hellhole you were reading about. North Korea’s an extreme example, certainly, but somehow they all seem to end up with shortages for the masses and relative plenty for the shrinking elite.

    But of course, we must not characterize such regimes as evil. About 47:00 into the Asia Society video, a questioner complains that everything she’s heard this evening adheres to the “dominant narrative” about the famine and has not taken into account yucky weather, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the sanctions of baddies such as the United States. All this finger-pointing is a threat to national sovereignty, you see.

    Naturally, Demick couldn’t say, “Listen, sugarpie—that narrative’s dominant because it’s true!” Instead, she gently reminded her interlocutor of the US’s offers of food aid, before falling all over herself to assure everyone that she’d been at pains to make her book “apolitical.” Would a journalist who’d written about Chileans who suffered under Pinochet have been so fastidiously non-polemical? I couldn’t help wondering.

    Glenn Reynolds was talking about avowed Marxists, and it’s important to note here that none of the three questioners at these events defended the Khmer Rouge or the KWP. But then, they didn’t have to. The effect of arguing that communist regimes wouldn’t get into the trouble they do without the machinations of the West (especially America), and that therefore we have no grounds for condemning them, is to place them above reproach.

    But they’re not above reproach. No one denies that all human systems are flawed, and that no one has yet devised a political system under which innocents never suffer. The question is which systems do best for the largest proportion of the population in a way that is self-correcting and (to appropriate a term) sustainable. The empirical answer is those with the rule of law and capitalism, and everyone knows it. You don’t hear about anyone’s, including Terry Eagleton’s, desperately floating on an innertube to Cuba or wading through the icy Tumen River to escape to North Korea. As Eric says, academic Marxists often play the “McCarthyism!” card to make themselves sound like brave dissenters, when they’re actually just peddling a fantasy whose real-world repercussions they’ll never have to live through. What’s respect-worthy about that?

    Added on 22 December: Good morning, everyone! Sometimes, apparently, you wake up to find that Instapundit has linked you, a bajillion people have left comments in good faith, and your comment filter is waiting for you to approve all of them. Sorry! They should all be visible now. Thanks to Instapundit for the link, and thanks to everyone for commenting.

    51 Responses to “The butter’s spread too thick!”

    1. PB says:

      Great thread! As far as the previously mentioned semantics, I will leave off further attempts to take the capital “C” out of communism, as it seems to be an emotionally charged concept for many.

      I appreciate Nony Mouse’s comments about kibbutzim, as I see them as a good starting point for a sustainable community enterprise system. Likewise, I entirely agree with Mo’s astute comments about intentional communities requiring a smaller scale to work, but I believe that if the right infrastructure is in place, they could get quite large and still work. Imagine, for example, a community that specializes in airship manufacturing. To support the industry, they would need a substantial workforce to build the airships themselves, as well all of the roles required to keep a small city thriving.

      Indeed, such communities must maintain trade links with neighboring communities to survive. The free market economy will always be the best system but it must be democratic. Anyone who espouses our current system as democratic must either be within the small percentage of the owner class, or hope (and perhaps delude themselves into thinking) that they can find themselves among them one day. There is nothing fair about claiming what should be public land and resources as private. Even Locke said as much! The fact that your grandfather got away with it doesn’t make it any more just. Saying that, no one has the right to take away what is currently considered lawfully owned, so we are truly in a sticky situation. Again, small intentional communities could present a viable option. Participants can buy a stake in the enterprise and gradually achieve community ownership, so that over time it is justly distributed among those who are working hard to ensure that their community prospers.

      In response to Sardoni’s sardonic reply, I suggest he actually read my post rather than react to unfounded assumptions. It is utterly self-evident that we have never seen real communism – depending on which definition one chooses, which was the main thrust of my argument. Like the majority of the people who have commented on this thread, an emotional response rather than a logical one will lead to statistics of body counts, etc. based on the bloody regimes of dictators who claimed to be communists, and thus led to a universal equating of the term with dictatorship. If you look at the definition of the term in most dictionaries, the first few are along those lines. But that has little to do with the philosophy, which is generally the last definition listed.

      Whether one disagrees with Marx’s vision of how the ideal is to be achieved, as most people sensibly do, the stated philosophical aim is hard to fault: “a final stage of society in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably”. Marx himself envisioned the State as the only means possible to overcome greed. He saw this benevolent State as eventually disappearing when no longer needed. He was quite obviously mistaken.

      This vision is, however, entirely possible to achieve while maintaining libertarian values. This is the “true” communism to which I was alluding, but as apparently people’s cognitive faculties seem to abandon them in face of suggestions to see communism in another light, I will give up that semantic argument. Personally, I find the notion of a “final stage” naive, as I don’t think we can escape our cycles, but I do feel that this is where society should be headed, and hope I can to at least live in one such community. Note, that no one is condoning forced distribution here. A just market economy can see just distribution.

      To Pat Dissent, indeed I did not see those boxcars of people being hauled off for execution you envisioned, because I was not there during the Cultural Revolution. It seems you haven’t heard, but things have changed rather drastically in China over the past 20 or so years. It is certainly not a pleasant place to be for people who publically and aggressively speak out against their government, as they tend to find themselves under house arrest, but numbers equating multiple populations of the US have been successfully lifted out of poverty and most people are too busy getting on with their lives to worry about a government that they simply do not see as evil, as incomprehensible as that attitude may be to outsiders. Why argue with a full belly? Or an air conditioner? Or an iPhone Or a car? No, everyone is too busy embracing rampant consumerism to care much for rebellion, I’m afraid. Well, no one, perhaps, but the peasants. And, history has indeed shown time and time again that one must be careful not to anger Chinese peasants.

      I am no longer appalled by the quaint opinions I hear about China from uninformed people who can’t get over their CHINA=RED=EVIL=NO GOOD POSSIBLE mentality. People the world over are happy to spew whatever propaganda has been shoved down their throats, and the US is absolutely no exception, though we do seem to have more flavors of crap than most. Chinese people can spew with the best of them, but at least most of them are highly skeptical of their own government, and none would ever embrace the fallacy that any politician has their best interests at heart.

      In what I hope will be seen as an ironic twist, I simply cannot resist ending with a quote from Mao: No investigation, no right to speak.

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