Thursday, March 19, 2009

Power not bound by any laws

For much of the world the Twentieth Century was ghastly. The two incredibly destructive world wars weren't even the worst of it. Utopian regimes like Mao's China, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union killed far more people than all the wars in the name of making a better world. In a review of a book about research in Stalin's archives, Gary Saul Morson helps us understand the "idealism" of the totalitarian.
During a famine, Lenin ordered his followers not to alleviate but to take advantage of mass starvation:
It is precisely now and only now when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.
“can (and therefore must)”: Leninist and Soviet ideology held not just that the end justifies any means, but also that it was immoral not to use the utmost cruelty if that would help. And it was bound to help in at least one way—intimidating the population. From the beginning, terror was not just an expedient but a defining feature of Soviet Communism. ....

Trotsky was simply voicing a Bolshevik truism when he rejected “the bourgeois theory of the sanctity of human life.” In fact, Soviet ethics utterly rejected human rights, universal justice, or even basic human decency, for all concepts that apply to everyone might lead one to show mercy to a class enemy. In Bolshevism, there is no abstract justice, only “proletarian justice,” as defined by the Party. ....

In his copy of Lenin’s works, Stalin underlined his predecessor’s descriptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat:
The dictatorship is power depending directly on force, not bound by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws.
The Great Purges have puzzled scholars because they seemed to be directed at no particular group; local officials were given arrest quotas to fill as they saw fit. But precisely because of their senselessness, the Purges served the function of letting everyone know that no law would ever protect them. One usually thinks of a repressive regime as one that deals ruthlessly with dissenters, but in Soviet Russia no one was ever safe. ....

Marxism-Leninism claims to be materialist, but, in fact, it is governed by ideas. It is the idea of social constructionism—certainly not empirical reality—that led Stalin and so many since to treat people as the wholly redesignable products of their environment, as so much sausage.

Stalinism was idealist in another, even more terrifying sense: it aimed at controlling from within the very thoughts we think. In a toast delivered on November 7, 1937, at the height of the Terror, the Great Helmsman swore to destroy 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 the worst of the tsars never thought of punishing relatives for a criminal’s acts. But what is truly remarkable about this toast is the promise to murder people and their kin for thoughts. One must live in continual fear of one’s own mind. ....
And yet there are those who think it cool to wear the hammer and cycle or an image of Che.

Update 3/21: From the April 6 issue of National Review:
Adidas has been marketing a hat showing the hammer and sickle. How do they sell you the hat? They say, “Show your love for the former USSR during training time.” Yeah, feel the burn, show your love—for a brutal system that killed tens of millions and immiserated many more. Well, at least Adidas has given us something to wear with our Che shirts.
The lingering stench: airing Stalin’s archives by Gary Saul Morson - The New Criterion

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