The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Intellectuals and the Total State: @JAMyerson’s Dilettante Marxism

Posted on | February 10, 2014 | 108 Comments

Left to right: Leon Trotsky, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lavrenti Beria.

“Lenin, at every passing opportunity, emphasized the absolute necessity of the terror. . . .
“We heard such tirades from him a dozen times a day and they were always aimed at some one among those present who was suspected of ‘pacifism.'”

Leon Trotsky, Lenin (1925)

“Socialism has never and nowhere been at first a working-class movement. . . . It is a construction of theorists, deriving from certain tendencies of abstract thought with which for a long time only the intellectuals were familiar . . .”
F.A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949)

Marxism envisions the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” so that there can be no Marxism without violent terror, and self-described communist Jesse Myerson must fail in his attempts to evade this truth.

Ever since his Rolling Stone article advocating the abolition of private property provoked a furious reaction last month, Myerson has sought to evade the consequences of his ideas by employing rhetorical tactics familiar to anyone who has long studied the Left. His Salon.com article last Sunday was a particularly tedious exercise in these methods, and inspired me to remind readers of how Ludwig von Mises had described the ultimate futility of socialism:

“Socialist writers may continue to publish books about the decay of Capitalism and the coming of the socialist millennium; they may paint the evils of Capitalism in lurid colours and contrast with them an enticing picture of the blessings of a socialist society; their writings may continue to impress the thoughtless — but all this cannot alter the fate of the socialist idea.”

Myerson’s fanciful blather about a “far more open, humane, democratic, participatory and egalitarian” communism in the future, which would somehow miraculously avoid the monstrous evils of previous communist regimes, signified his own ignorance of history. Myerson’s response, however, is to accuse communism’s opponents of being ignorant: He is knowledgeable and wise; we are McCarthyite fools.

Typical of his puerile irresponsibility, when Myerson appeared on MSNBC with Chris Hayes last month, the former Occupy Wall Street spokesman declared that his #FULLCOMMUNISM Twitter hashtag was “sort of a tongue in cheek, post-Occupy joke.”

Translation: “Haha! Stupid right-wingers don’t get the joke!”

As I said Saturday, “Myerson’s intellectual superiority to others is both the premise and conclusion of his every argument,” but these gestures of his — narcissistic poses intended to elicit admiration of his cleverness — only expose his own superficiality. Does he suppose that jokes will bring about the dispossession of the 1% he advocates? Is Myerson’s idea of communism as a “utopian aspiration” intended to result in any actual policy, or is it all just droll chatter?

These are not rhetorical questions.

If Myerson seriously wishes to advocate for specific policies, then those policies may be examined and criticized according to their likely consequences, on the basis of evidence and historical precedent. If not — if Myerson is just playing tongue-in-cheek word games — then we may rightly depict him as a clown in red nose and floppy shoes. The latter approach was preferred by Jonah Goldberg:

Myerson’s essay captures nearly everything the unconverted despise about left-wing youth culture, starting with the assumption that being authentically young requires being theatrically left wing.
Writing with unearned familiarity and embarrassingly glib confidence in the rightness of his positions, Myerson prattles on about how “unemployment blows” and therefore we need “guaranteed work for everybody.” He proceeds to report that jobs “blow” too, so we need guaranteed universal income. He has the same disdain for landlords, who “don’t really do anything to earn their money.” Which is why, Myerson writes, we need communal ownership of land, or something.
One wonders why he bothered to single out landlords, since he calls for the state appropriation of, well, everything. Why? Because “hoarders blow,” and he doesn’t mean folks who refuse to throw away their Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and old Sharper Image catalogs. He means successful people who “hoard” the wealth that rightly belongs to all of us.

Myerson’s ideas deserve such ridicule because they are, in fact, ridiculous. Why, then, do so many young people take these ideas seriously? It is not merely because they are ignorant — although they are — but that they have been deliberately miseducated.

What kind of books do young people read nowadays?

In most cases, the answer is “none.” Except for what they are assigned to read in school, young people today typically never read any books at all, instead filling their minds with junk TV, videogames and Internet porn, when they’re not too busy attempting to hook up via text message: “ur so hot. call me 2nite. i wanna get w u.”

We are descending steadily into a post-literate culture, and increasingly young people learn only what they are taught.

Autodidactic curiosity — the impulse to educate yourself about the world, for the sheer satisfaction of knowing — is utterly dead in the current generation of youth. They may complete the assigned readings in school, in order to obtain good grades, but this activity is just an exercise in jumping through hoops in the pursuit of credentials that will qualify them for lucrative careers. Therefore, what today’s youth know about history is entirely a function of what they were required to learn in order to get a diploma. They feel no embarrassment at all about their vast and general ignorance, because none of their peers know anything, either.

The three most recent books I’ve read are Peter Collier’s Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Paul Kengor’s The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, and Robert Service’s Trotsky: A Biography.

Actually, I was re-reading the Trotsky book, which I first read in 2011:

Trotsky was inarguably the most intellectually gifted of the Bolshevik leaders, and his talent as a writer earned him the nickname “The Pen.” Certainly anyone who has read Trotsky’s work appreciates his subtlety as a writer in comparison to the blunt formulations of Lenin. I had often wondered how much of Trotsky’s reputation as a writer in the English-speaking world was due to the talents of his translator Max Eastman, but Service makes clear that Trotsky’s ability won him admiration among Russian radicals long before anyone in the English-speaking world had ever heard of him.

What makes Trotsky so endlessly fascinating is that such a civilized person could have become part of the brutal Soviet dictatorship.

No less than any of his comrades did Trotsky embrace the Red Terror unleashed against opponents of the Bolshevik regime. Indeed, as the People’s Commissar for Military Affairs, it was Trotsky’s leadership of the Red Army that saved the Bolsheviks and made possible their absolute dictatorship.

Not less essential to the Bolshevik dictatorship was the Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, the dreaded secret police known as the Cheka. Led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka carried out mass arrests, torture and summary executions with no regard for “bourgeois” notions of civil rights. Indeed, individual guilt or innocence was irrelevant to the purposes of the Cheka’s depredations. The aim of the Red Terror was simply to inspire fear among the regime’s potential opponents, and to excite revolutionary zeal by inflicting violence on demonized enemies, who were labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and “saboteurs” (with about as much accuracy as today’s leftists denounce Republicans as “racists” and “sexists”).

Trotsky “fully endorsed the Red Terror,” as his biographer says, and Trotsky justified this policy in his 1920 book Terrorism and Communism:

We were revolutionaries in opposition, and have remained revolutionaries in power. To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron. . . .
The Red Terror is a weapon utilized against a class, doomed to destruction, which does not wish to perish. . . .
The man who recognizes the revolutionary historic importance of the very fact of the existence of the Soviet system must also sanction the Red Terror.

This, you see, is an unashamed  doctrine of deliberate violence, as expressed by one who — even as those words were written — was chief among those tasked with carrying out the Red Terror.

Can Jesse Myerson possibly be ignorant of this? Was this not among the lessons he learned while studying human rights at Bard College (annual tuition $45,730)? How can Myerson, self-declared communist, describe his project as proposing “to construct a set of social relations based on fellowship and mutual aid”? That’s not communism, that’s Kumbayah.

However, as I say, the point of Jesse Myerson’s arguments is always the same, i.e., the intellectual superiority of Jesse Myerson.

The whole purpose of his Salon.com article was to demonstrate how much smarter he is than everyone else, because “most of what Americans think they know about capitalism and communism is arrant nonsense.” You don’t actually know anything, you just think you know, and that’s why you stupid Americans need Jesse Myerson to tutor you about your “huge misconceptions.”

There is no antagonist whose arguments Myerson respects. If you don’t agree with Myerson, you are inferior, even if you happen to be a professor of political science like Donald Douglas:

Really? Hobbes and Locke were “classical political economists”? But never mind that, let’s talk about Ellen Meiksins Wood and her book,  The Origin of Capitalism. She is a Marxist historian whose late husband, Neal Wood, was likewise a Marxist historian. Together, they published such books as Class Ideology and Ancient Political Theory: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Social Context, and Neal Wood’s final book was Tyranny in America: Capitalism and National Decay, published in 2004:

The US has been subjected to the ruthless and unrelenting tyranny of the world’s most advanced capitalism, permeating every aspect of American life. The chief difference from other tyrannies is its facelessness, its dependence on impersonal coercive power more than on direct violence and terror against its subjects. . . .
America is an inegalitarian class society with an ever-growing chasm separating a minuscule minority of the very rich from the poor and moderately well-off. . . . American society is a culture of rapidly proliferating violence, rampant consumerism, mindless entertainment, and freneticism, while its political culture, grounded in an eighteenth-century constitution that was never intended to create a democracy is ever more hollow and undemocratic.
Tyranny in America, written in the spirit of Tom Paine and inspired by Karl Marx, scathingly addresses the chief maladies afflicting the US and forcefully argues that fundamental change is necessary if moral, political, and social implosion is to be avoided.

Neal Wood hated America because he hated capitalism, which he considered a “ruthless and unrelenting tyranny” of “impersonal coercive power.” One rather suspects that he spent the Cold War cheering for America’s enemies. His widow’s book, recommended by Jesse Myerson, comes with this description:

In this original and provocative book Ellen Meiksins Wood reminds us that capitalism is not a natural and inevitable consequence of human nature, nor is it simply an extension of age-old practices of trade and commerce. Rather, it is a late and localized product of very specific historical conditions, which required great transformations in social relations and in the human interaction with nature.
This new edition is substantially revised and expanded, with extensive new material on imperialism, anti-Eurocentric history, capitalism and the nation-state, and the differences between capitalism and non-capitalist commerce. The author traces links between the origin of capitalism and contemporary conditions such as ‘globalization’, ecological degradation, and the current agricultural crisis.

This reflects the Marxist idea of historical materialism. You perhaps will not be surprised to learn she is also author of a 1995 book, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism:

Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that with the collapse of Communism the theoretical project of Marxism and its critique of capitalism is more timely and important than ever. In this book she sets out to renew the critical program of historical materialism by redefining its basic concepts and its theory of history in original and imaginative ways, using them to identify the specificity of capitalism as a system of social relations and political power. She goes on to explore the concept of democracy in both the ancient and modern world, examining the concept’s relation to capitalism.

“Marxism — now more than ever!” Just as Hayek said, “a construction of theorists, deriving from certain tendencies of abstract thought” among intellectuals who, even with the castastrophic ruin of the Marxist dream staring them in the face, continued to insist that “the theoretical project of Marxism and its critique of capitalism” was still “timely and important.” No matter how much their ideas fail in practice, these intellectuals remain committed to Marxism in theory.

Left to right: Josef Stalin, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov.

“That socialism can be put into practice only by methods which most socialists disapprove is, of course, a lesson learned by many social reformers in the past. The old socialist parties were inhibited by their ideals; they did not possess the ruthlessness required for the performance of their chosen task.”
F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944)

This is a historic truth Jesse Myerson endeavors to evade by the smug cleverness of his “tongue-in-cheek” communism: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were not mere intellectuals offering a “critique of capitalism.” They were socialist revolutionaries deeply committed to the violent overthrow of bourgeois democracy, which they aimed to replace with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Citing the work of academic Marxists like  Ellen Meiksins Wood “cannot alter the fate of the socialist idea,” to borrow Mises’s phrase, yet Myerson would have us believe that it is our “huge misconceptions about communism” which are the problem.

Did Leon Trotsky have “huge misconceptions about communism”?

The intellectual who became commander of the Red Army and advocated revolutionary terror — “blood and iron. . . . a weapon utilized against a class, doomed to destruction” — was ultimately on the receiving end of that terror. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin assumed power and within a few years, Trotsky was purged from the Bolshevik leadership, exiled and eventually assassinated.

By the time Ramon Mercader buried an ice-ax in Trotsky’s skull, the Soviet “experiment” had already killed millions of people whose misfortune it was to live and die under Stalin’s rule. The forcible collectivization of agriculture and the accompanying terror campaign against the kulaks (peasants whom the Soviets blamed for the failure of collectivization) produced a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians — estimates vary between 5 and 10 million — and many millions more elsewhere in the U.S.S.R. The truth about the horrors inflicted by Stalin’s policies was concealed for decades; there was no freedom of the press under Soviet rule, and many Western journalists like Walter Duranty of the New York Times were willing dupes of Stalinist propaganda.

After the death of Dzerzhinsky in 1926 — the Cheka commander died of a heart attack after a speech denouncing Trotsky — suppression of dissent continued under the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (known by its Russian acronym, NKVD), whose leadership was a series of murderous monsters. Genrikh Yagoda was the active manager of the NKVD during the years of the Ukrainian terror-famine and began the subsequent “Show Trial” purge of Bolshevik leaders viewed as potential rivals by the paranoid Stalin.

Yagoda supervised the arrest and executions of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev in 1936, but did not live to complete the purge, because he himself fell victim to it. Stalin announced that Yagoda had “proved unequal to the task of exposing the Trotskyite-Zinonievite bloc” and he was replaced as head of the NKVD by Nikolai Yezhov. Only five feet tall, Yezhov made up for his small size by his slavish devotion to Stalinism and a psychopathic tendency toward sadism.

Claiming that targets of the purge were “Fascist agents,” Yezhov did not deny that some innocent people were imprisoned or executed: “Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.” Among the victims of the purge under Yezhov’s direction were a majority of top Soviet leaders, including generals in the Red Army. Yezhov specialized in the falsification of “evidence” again his victims and the extraction of “confessions” by torture. Yezhov personally tortured Yagoda, who was stripped naked and beaten before finally being shot to death in 1938.

The humiliation Yezhov inflicted on his predecessor was exceeded by the fate reserved for Yezhov when he was in turn disgraced, purged and replaced by Lavrenti Beria. In addition to implicating himself and others in fictitious espionage plots, Yezhov was forced to confess in detail his “longtime vice of homosexuality.” He was convicted in a secret trial, dragged away screaming and crying, and executed in February 1940.

Perhaps the reader is beginning to notice a pattern here.

Although the Soviets managed to keep details of many of their atrocities secret for decades, the general pattern of totalitarian brutality drew the attention of Friedrich Hayek:

There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of totalitarian systems are not accidental byproducts but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain to sooner or later produce.
Just as the choice architect who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure.
It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more “successful” in a society tending toward totalitarianism.

Jesse Myerson and other neo-communists certainly must understand this, but cannot admit it: Marxism requires coercive violence — systematic terror — and the people most likely to lead such a violent enterprise are not timid intellectuals, but amoral brutes, the “unscrupulous and uninhibited.” Bad causes attract bad people and communism is “The Worst Idea in the World.”

Interestingly, many historians believe Nikolai Yezhov’s confession of his “vice of homosexuality” was true. Stalin’s spies were everywhere, and Yezhov’s vulnerability in this regard may have made him a convenient tool for Stalin’s purposes. Certainly, no one could imagine that the man who succeeded Yezhov as commissar of the NKVD was a paragon of virtue. Lavrenti Beria was a notorious sexual predator who routinely raped women, with an especial appetite for teenage girls, several of whom he reportedly strangled and buried in the garden of his Moscow villa:

“Sometimes he would have his henchmen bring five, six or seven girls to him. He would make them strip, except for their shoes, and then force them into a circle on their hands and knees with their heads together.
“He would walk around in his dressing gown inspecting them. Then he would pull one out by her leg and haul her off to rape her. He called it the flower game.”

Protecting Stalin’s dictatorship, the ruthless Beria was protected in turn. He managed to stay in power for some 15 years, during which time he oversaw the Soviet espionage project that obtained atomic weapon secrets from the United States, as well as supervising imposition of communist rule in Eastern Europe after World War II.

Stalin’s death in 1953, however, inevitably made Beria a target of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Kruschev, who feared the murderous NKVD commissar would seize power. Beria was arrested along with six of his subordinates. They were all sentenced to death by Soviet Supreme Court on Dec. 23, 1953, and the verdict was carried out the same day. It is said Beria, who never showed mercy for his own victims, cried and begged for his life before he was shot to death.

Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin — all of them understood that communism could only be implemented by the violence of revolutionary terror. The preservation of the Soviet regime was therefore dependent on the merciless savagery of monsters like Dzezhinsky, Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria, whose crimes were not an accident of history, but were implicit in the Marxist ideology that academics like Ellen Meiksins Wood wish to rescue from the ruins of the Evil Empire it created.

Under the influence of such academic impostors — for it is the habit of latter-day Marxist intellectuals to deny the centrality of violent terror to their doctrine — the young fool Jesse Myerson supposes he is qualified to enlighten us, correcting our “huge misconceptions about communism.”

His dishonesty exceeded only by his selfishness, Myerson does not seriously advocate any policy, and his pseudo-radical poses are intended only to make himself an object of admiration. Communism cannot possibly succeed as an actual economic policy, and the only way it could ever be attempted is under the absolute authority of The Total State, where there can be no democracy, no rule of law, and no civil rights.

Were it not for the fact that millions would suffer under any future communist regime, just as they have suffered under previous communist regimes, one might almost hope that Myerson could have his wish. Sooner or later, the ruthless men who would govern in any communist state would tire of Myerson’s glib chatter, and he would almost certainly be tortured before he was executed.

Instead, Myerson tortures us with his “tongue-in-cheek” communism and, if citizens of a free society can ignore Myerson, we cannot ignore that such young fools are increasingly common, and that a majority of young voters elected Obama president.

 

 

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