Philosophy Weekend: Why Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are Wrong About Communism

It’s refreshing to see rival social, political or philosophical doctrines debated online with the kind of clear, brisk, brief writing that the best blogs feature. Last week, Michael Lind of Salon challenged the American libertarian/Paulist movement with a blunt Salon article titled “Grow Up, Libertarians!” This article led with a powerful question: “If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?”

In the National Review, Jonah Goldberg responded directly and thoughtfully with a piece called “Freedom: The Unfolding Revolution“. Goldberg tried to swipe away Michael Lind’s direct thrust by pointing out that the political ideal of liberty is too essential to be weighed on Lind’s scale. Goldberg may or may not be right about the broader meaning of libertarianism, but his piece also echoes and agrees with a basic point of Michael Lind’s that contrasts rising tide of 21st Century libertarianism with the sad history of 20th Century Communism. Here, both Michael Lind and Jonah Goldberg are accepting a sweeping premise about world history that is itself untrue, and must be challenged:

In the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and today’s North Korea, they tried to move toward the ideal Communist system. Combined, they killed about 100 million of their own people. That’s a hefty moral distinction right there: When freedom-lovers move society toward their ideal, mistakes may be made, but people tend to flourish. When the hard Left is given free rein, millions are murdered and enslaved. Which ideal would you like to move toward?

Lind sees it differently. “If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? Communism was tried and failed. Libertarianism has never even been tried.”

I’m far from a Communist, and I have no desire to see any country in the world experiment with Communism today. But the premise Lind and Goldberg agree on is patently false, and not for the familiar namby-pamby reason that the Soviet Union and Mao’s China failed to implement Karl Marx’s Communist ideal correctly or purely. No political scientist should expect any government to behave correctly or purely over any matter of principle, and this fact is not powerful enough to disqualify the Lind/Goldberg point. The point is false for a different reason.

Both Lind and Goldberg are forgetting the specific key tragedy of the 20th Century communist experiment, which is that every attempt at a Communist revolution was accompanied by, and corrupted by, one or more massive wars against their revolution. None of the great failed Communist revolutions were allowed a moment of peace in which to flourish.

Indeed, we like to pretend that the 20th Century gave the nations of our planet a chance to experiment with Communism, but the sad truth was that the 20th Century didn’t give the nations of our planet a chance to experiment with anything but total war. This is not the cauldron in which to experiment with optimistic and forward-looking economic structures. The wars were not over economics, of course, but rather were invariably over ethnic, sociocultural and religious identity, and over the territorial controls of ethnic groups forced to share physical space. Karl Marx’s poor theory of Communism was the unwitting victim of this century of ethnic violence. It never had a chance to prove itself. We never found out whether Communism could work or not.

The history of these doomed, comically misguided experiments can be traced back to 1870 and 1871, when the city of Paris was for several months ruled by a progressive and idealistic cabal which declared itself as the Paris Commune. It was a miserable failure. Not long ago a friend of mine who dabbles in history made a remark to me that Communism always fails — “trace it all the way back to the Paris Commune.”

This statement is laughable, because the Paris Commune only got its chance to briefly exist because the nation of France was at that moment completely devastated by the shocking disaster of the Franco-Prussian War. The city of Paris was brutally besieged by the Prussians during the entire period of the Paris Commune. It was only because Paris had sunk into isolation, starvation, filth and disease-ridden misery that it briefly became “free” enough from its conventions of the past to experiment with Communism. It was because of the Prussian siege, of course, and not because of the philosophical problems with Marxist theory, that the Paris Commune is remembered today as a disaster.

It’s all too easy to forget that the experience of the Paris Commune is a microcosm for the experience of Russia’s first years as a Communist empire. How many people today even know that there was a war called the Russian Civil War, and that this was a vicious total war that raged for five years and defined every aspect of the Soviet Union’s first decade?

When I was a kid, and an eager history student at school, I never learned about the Russian Civil War. We don’t hear about this war much, but it completely defined the character of the Soviet Union. Of course Soviet Communism turned totalitarian. Any government that is fighting a civil war will turn totalitarian. It’s a simple chemical reaction.

We’ll never know if Lenin and Trotsky’s ideals could have helped to produce a better society. The Soviet government was too busy fighting against its internal enemies to think much about idealistic politics. As we’ve said before in these pages, militarism makes philosophical idealism impossible. War makes ethics impossible.

Mao Zedong was a monster, but this also hardly reflects on the possible good that Communist might have achieved in China in the 20th Century. Contrary to popular cliches, Mao’s successes as a leader were not in the area of political or economic philosophy but in the area of war. He was a military leader, a warrior, with all the ethical emptiness that military leadership implies. Mao made his career leading the fight against the Japanese, then leading the fight the Western colonialism. Communism? We saw in the Mao years how terrible Communism can be in a war-torn nation. It was the fact of China being war-torn, not the fact of China being Communist, that enabled Mao’s cruel leadership.

It seems likely that Mao’s leadership would have been just as cruel if he were not a Communist. His cruelty could not have taken root, however, in a society that was not shredded by total war.

What we learned in the 20th Century is not that Communism is a flawed basis for society, but rather that militarism is a flawed basis for society. As far as the Communist experiment goes, it’s not enough to say that the test tubes were dirty. We need to express this in stronger terms: the test tubes were cracked.

We never even came close to finding out whether a Communist experiment might succeed. But the 20th Century did show us what happens to a planet that cannot break its addiction to massive industrialized violence, and that’s the lesson we need to learn from still today, as war still rages freely from Korea to Syria to Afghanistan and everywhere else.

14 Responses

  1. Some 40 years ago I had read
    Some 40 years ago I had read “Karl Marx: His Life and Thought” by David McLellan. Within those nearly 500 pages I had come across a very plain explanation on what Marx had defined in his economic theory: the state must achieve firstly “Capitalism” which then evolved into “Socialism” after that system no longer benefited society, “Communism” would manifest itself.

    I was recently involved in a debate about Communism and Karl Marx and like so many arguments about his economic theories, all the contributors strongly expressed their feelings on the great failure of Communism and in general Marxism. But between the lines of the majority of naysayers, there is the indisputable fact that Marx and his theory is being totally misconstrued, i.e. apparent nobody knows (or gives a damn), about the evolution of his ideas and even those who have corrupted his theories, i.e. Lenin, Mao and Cuba’s Castro seemed hellbent on taking a shortcut by, firstly, ignoring Capitalism as a beginning and then jumping into a failed attempt at Communism bypassing a decent Socialism.

    Of course! Communism failed. There never has been a true economic system anywhere in the world that could be accurately called “Communism”. There are several fair examples of Capitalism combining Socialism into a rather cohesive, complimentary system (which would even include the U.S. and our various socialistic systems such as our Interstate Highway System, the Armed Forces, NASA, our public libraries and schools, our garbage pick-ups within each city and township, etc… these are benign forms of socialism).

    I find it very interesting since President Obama’s election how the cry of “socialism” and “communism” became scare words to instill some sort of fear in the population. Could these names, in some circumstances, be words of warning of what maybe the inevitable..? Clearly in today’s general economy, unemployment is still a serious problem, more and more manufacturing is returning to the country but that same manufacturing is automated requiring fewer and fewer hands-on labor. What to do with this large and looming future crisis, even worldwide in a highly populated world with limited monies and resources? Can the alarmists imagine the demise of Capitalism as we knew it in the explosive 20th Century? Is there enough monies available to sustain even America’s 316+ thousand population, much less the nearly 7.1 billion of us worldwide without a radical reinvention of an economic system that advances society rather than ignores the needs of the multitudes? Would some advancement of socialism be the wave of mankind’s future that terrifies that 1-2% who control the majority of the wealth worldwide? Do they know where society is going but would rather not ‘speed it’s future up”?

    Clearly, nobody on either side of the fence can actually predict with any factual evidence what our future will bring. We can only predict given certain facts about not only the U.S. but the world… a world that is rapidly changing, changing so fast that tomorrow is simply a day away from the past… the future is a blur with many desperately looking for answers.

    Karl Marx has certainly left us with something that has not been relegated to the trash bin. His theory has had a long, but difficult, run in economic texts. There are times in my own life when I seriously wonder if he foresaw a future where his theories were the inevitable conclusion of economy. It’s too early for me to make that guess but how many instinctively feel akin to the evolution of economic system that concludes with communism? I do know that society is better off with the path of evolution versus the violence and doubt of revolution. If Marx theory is evolutionary, then he would indeed be finally honored for his theories.

  2. Aye, Marx said it was
    Aye, Marx said it was supposed to happen naturally. Not as the last recourse for a starving people in a dying regime. I’m with you, Levi, that it never really got a fair chance. Mostly because the targeted countries remained capitalist during economic crises, albeit with some socialist-economic backflips (eg. off the gold standard, massive interest rates/farm relief) to keep the system going.

    I’m not so quick to wistfully imagine what would have happened if Lenin or Trotsky had their way. Lenin set up the gulags and the first few nationwide purges. Trotsky harped for expansion and world revolution. The latter seemed to have the best of intentions, the former always came off as a cold sociopath. A less successful version of Stalin IMHO.

    Then again, Stalin had been moving Westward for sometime before the Ribbentrop-Molotov Peace Pact…

    Levi, do you think with the current crisis and the internet, the time could be nigh for Marx?

  3. Jim, the only political idea
    Jim, the only political idea I think the world is ready for right now is pacifism …

  4. when we find peace within
    when we find peace within ourselves
    only then will pacifism be manifested
    our busy mouths coming to a rest
    thoughts no longer running full steam
    we will finally be able to listen to
    the peace of silence whispering Truth.

  5. Levi, I’m not sure pacifism
    Levi, I’m not sure pacifism would ever work. With diminishing resources on the planet, people will hoard them, either to make their tribe stronger or just out of pure survival.

    Even with an unlimited food + drink scenario, you would still have people who would want to control others through force, mostly for the glory. Such campaigns and coups come from the same pie-in-the-sky, Devil may care mentality seen in compulsive gamblers (read Ian Kershaw) and charismatic sociopaths.

    I know it’s complex but it’s very ingrained in the human animal. Hell, the reason we wiped out Cromags and all the other proto-humans was that we are aggressive and fight with a pack mentality. And if people are willing to slaughter on a mass scale and their targets stick their heads into the treads of tanks in protest, it would just make the monster’s job easier.

    Then again, if we are talking pacifism, how would such a program work in Syria with it’s supposed chemical warfare, and Western arming + pressuring of revolutionaries? Could a Gandhi emerge out of this? Would he survive government oppression and charges of counter-revolutionary stance? Would the G8 support or discourage a passive resistance movement, now that they are arming one side and threatening total intervention?

    Any thoughts on the G8 and support on the Syrian cannibal rebel leader?

  6. Hi Jim — well, one of my
    Hi Jim — well, one of my primary goals for this whole Philosophy Weekend series is to construct a set of reasonable arguments for pacifism. So, when you ask this very pertinent question, I hope I can answer by pointing to the articles that are linked to this one in the right nav panel. Like, for instance:


    Or, the blog post that kicked off the series:

    This is my favorite topic, so I barely know where to begin in answering you. I fear I will start repeating myself …

    As for how to how handle Syria today — yes, I do believe that the best possible answer is to follow Gandhi’s principles and methods. Civilians need to make themselves heard, and need to risk their own safety and security in order to protest. Unfortunately, when a state of war or governmental oppression already exists, there will be no painless paths to peace. In these cases, great courage is needed to begin turning the terrible situations around.

  7. I enjoyed your article, Levi.
    I enjoyed your article, Levi.

    similar to looking at communism, if we’ve seen a “real” version or not, I’d like to look at capitalism’s impact on this planet. although, we haven’t intentionally murdered in the numbers of the people who are mentioned above, what about forced poverty? birth defects? “casualties of war”? how much responsibility is due to capitalism for death, hunger, starvation, poverty, and general despair on this rock?

    i like capitalism in general, but i wonder what people who don’t have such strong cognitive bias (due to location either geographically or philosophically) would think about our system?

    i sure hope pacifism is the answer, as you say it could be.

  8. Marx had a great amount of
    Marx had a great amount of influence on the world, but to have a dictatorship (of the people) as a means of achieving Communism never sounds right to me. I know that Marx, in theory, controls the steps that should occur, but the human mind was still so immature and under-developed that it could not follow through with them.

    The human mind is still under-developed and is evolving at a very slow pace. I believe we are in a valley right now and probably headed for worse, as evidenced by the contrarianism of Left and Right.

    Eventually, as in many hundreds or possibly thousands of years from now, I believe we will evolve into a sort of pacifist culture (but only in parts of the world at at time). The belief in Capitalism will be seen as dependent on disparities in wealth and Socialism will have many experiments/failures. After all of this, I believe, an enlightened sort of Anarchist society will begin to flourish in different areas, but only if war lets it alone to naturally grow, of course.

    Of course, this theory leaves our lifetimes as nothing more than a step, sad to say. But until the human mind evolves more, we will continue to churn out bad real-life examples of theoretical economic and social theories. The only way to get closer to our enlightenment is by education. Educating everyone and empowering them to think for themselves instead of going with the flow.


  9. Jim said: “….it’s very
    Jim said: “….it’s very ingrained in the human animal . . . . we are aggressive and fight with a pack mentality.”

    it is? … and we are? … says who? … and is it “genetic,” or acquired behavior/ belief? … how is it “ingrained?” … how much of large-scale institutional war’s “inevitability” is self- fulfilling? … and what about the phenomena of human evolution and survival adaptability? how do these fit in with the idea of war / destruction as “constants” within the “human animal?”

  10. The claim that civil war
    The claim that civil war leads (due to a “simple chemical reaction”) to totalitarianism is less proved by historical evidence that even Lind’s non-evidence and Goldberg’s correlation argument. In fact, a number of nations that have fought terrible civil wars have not embraced or adopted totalitarian policy.

    “When I was a kid, and an eager history student at school, I never learned about the Russian Civil War. We don’t hear about this war much, but it completely defined the character of the Soviet Union. Of course Soviet Communism turned totalitarian. Anyway government that is fighting a civil war will turn totalitarian. It’s a simple chemical reaction.”

  11. Jim, I will agree with you
    Jim, I will agree with you that my statement about the effect of civil war needs to be clarified. Thank you. I still do believe my point that communism cannot possibly thrive in the midst of civil war is extremely correct and important, but I suppose there have been some well-known civil wars throughout history that did not lead to totalitarianism, such as (arguably) the US Civil War of 1861-1865.

    However, even the diffference here is illuminating. The US Civil War was a regional war — North against South. There was strong solidarity in the north as well as in the south. Thus, the US Civil War lacked the main defining feature of a civil war, which is that trust is broken between the citizens of a nation, and everybody becomes a potential traitor or saboteur. The US Civil War began as a Civil War when the Confederate nation was born, but it was not fought as a civil war — rather, it was fought as a war of conquest between two now-separate nations, with each of the nations enjoying broad popular support at home. Therefore, the chemical reaction I’m talking about — suspicion, repression, corruption — did not take place in this civil war.

    So, Jim, I will try to improve my argument the next time I advance it, and make it clear that, yes, there are some civil wars that do not erode a society’s solidarity. However, my main point remains: a civil war that DOES erode a society’s solidarity will necessarily erode that society’s freedom, and require its government to become an oppressor in its fight for survival.

  12. Of course Communism failed!
    Of course Communism failed! It’s systems like that that give such power to men like Stalin and Mao that let them mass murder their own people, in fact Communism killed more people than Hitler and Nazism did, but you don’t see anybody except skinheads whitewash them.

    When Marxists say what was implemented wasn’t “real” Communism, it’s a No True Scotsman fallacy.

  13. Jake, I’m familiar with the
    Jake, I’m familiar with the No True Scotsman fallacy — but I don’t think communism is a case of this fallacy.

    Do you not agree that being in a state of total war makes it impossible for a new government to function well? War is a ruinous condition. No country can endure being in a war for long periods of time. It is not a way to practice an economic experiment. This is a serious and prohibitive problem. Therefore, I think what I say above still stands, despite your comparison of the argument to a No True Scotsman fallacy.

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