Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stalinism, the Utopian Wager

In Stalin's invincible time! . . .
In recent years the dove,
Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,
Found herself on his shoulders
And Stalin, the giant,
Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . .
A wave beats against the stones of the shore.
But Malenkov will continue his work.
                        Pablo Neruda (Ode to Stalin)

Stalinists have always been obsessive utopianists. Their quest is to push the society that they impatiently and contemptuously endure from point a, the current and detestable status quo, to point b, which will be a perfectly calibrated social order free of the structural defects and the pathologies that infect the status quo.  Envisioned is not just an improved society, but a completely new society – new institutions, a new morality, new social structures, new relationships, new people.  Everything is new and immaculate…transformed.  The language used to refer to the old order and how it is to be dealt with is loaded with cleaning and disinfecting metaphors.  The old order is so thoroughly contaminated that it must be completely scrubbed with any of the remaining elements “disinfected.”   Unfortunately the “scrubbing” must be applied to large numbers of people, classes of people that is, whose links to the past make them permanent elements of potential contamination or infection. The language of newly installed revolutionaries is replete with harsh and violent terminology that emphasizes their determination to make a complete break with the past and the peoples of the past – liquidation, obliteration, complete elimination – language which predicts and then mirrors the massive violence and coercion that is inflicted on large portions of their own people.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, all of these utopianists articulated and practiced this kind of social “disinfecting.”  Getting from point a to point b does not happen spontaneously nor by chance. The arrival at point b comes about only by design, the right design, and it comes about only if the people who know the design and how to make it happen have complete power.  Stalinists do not share power, except as a preliminary step towards taking it completely, and they do not voluntarily relinquish power once they have it. Witness the Castro brothers.  How many free elections have there been in Cuba since 1959?
To grasp the utopianist-ideologue’s thinking, motivation and conduct and how they relate fundamentally to the rationalization of lying in a Stalinist world, it is necessary to focus on the process by which the Stalinist discovers the detestable features of the status quo and their provenance. The defects of society that so grieve the utopianist, with the immense suffering and deprivation that result from them, are the sorts of evils, he opines, that can be completely eradicated.  The real but yet unrecognized possibility of eradication, not containment or reduction, above all else absorbs the utopianist’s energy and forges his determination to prevail.  Poverty, oppression, war, exploitation and other collectively-spawned miseries that have routinely plagued societies are by the utopianist-ideologue’s calculation, evils attributable to specific groups or institutions.
To get from point a to point b, where misery, deprivation and strife give way to harmony and bounty, the utopianist-ideologue must first identify and isolate the culprit-group or defective institution responsible for the defects and pathologies, and then  proceed to remove with force the malefactors and dismantle the institutions that create and perpetuate the misery. Once the fog and mystery deliberately blanketed by the profiteers and exploiters is cleared away, the course of action seems obvious.   In this ambitious undertaking, the utopianist-ideologue asserts himself as an exceptionally gifted creature, with an intellectual and moral superiority that exempts him from the norms and standards that apply to others.  The Stalinist-utopianist is a self-affirmed, invincible antinomian.  The norms of the corrupted society in which he lives do not and must not bind him. The Stalinist in his capacity as moralist and as revolutionary represents and acts not for himself but on behalf of an oppressed class. His guiding ideology always seeks to identify the oppressor and de-mystify his authority. [“Ideology being the theory of oppression, the ideologist speaks for the oppressed and acts in a representative capacity.” Kenneth Minogue, Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, St. Martin’s Press, 1985, 188]  The revolutionary action of the utopianist is as well an act of heroic rescue.  In establishing an identity with the oppressed group the utopianist will be able to cover his actions under what Bertrand Russell called “the doctrine of the superior virtue of the oppressed.”  Thus, those kinds of acts committed by the oppressor class and condemned by the ideologist as murder, robbery, fraud are acts of liberation when committed by the oppressed class.
The theory specifies the source of the problem and predicts that once that source is removed the evils drop away. Marx remains the ultimate utopian theorist.  Capitalism and private property were theorized as the cause of virtually every social evil and human pathology.  War, poverty, exploitation all would end when capitalism gave way to communism.  
However, a society at point a can only arrive at point b, purified, if the theorist has sufficient power to force the move and to prevail over the inevitable resisters. At the beginning, only the theorist knows exactly what the ideal outcome will be and how to bring it into reality.  Here then is the intellectual-cognitive superiority that motivates the leaders of the entire adventure.  Everyone else at point a is ignorant, stupid, corrupt or a combination of all of these.  The purely ignorant who are members of the exploited class are salvageable through “consciousness-raising.”  Those advantaged by the status quo will be skeptical, and many more resistant and oppositional.  They are damned. They will be eliminated. In sum: an enormous but justified amount of coercion is going to be required to get everyone to point b, even though point b is where, according to the utopianist-ideologue, we all should be. 
The theorist now has to grapple with a huge additional theoretical and moral challenge. He must justify the steep human and material costs that he knows his coercion will exact in order to create that society he has already argued is far superior to the status quo. The justification amounts no less to a wager that the sum total of human suffering caused by the disruption that gets to the desired goal will be offset by the eventual total amount of happiness and well being that is attained by all of those fortunate enough to emerge in tact in the new order.  The confidence in the moral outcome of the wager derives from the confidence in the certainty of the theory, a theoretical certainty never actually tested prior to the launching of the conflict. The certainty is essential because if the theory is wrong, then the moral consequences are staggering. 

The theory did in fact turn out to be completely wrong. A large portion of the world in the twentieth century became a theater to the ghastly consequences of implementation, from the Gulags to the poverty to the repression to the physical liquidations of the resisters. The key word here in this high wager of morality and human suffering is “eventual.” The reference to the future is the moral escape valve for the utopianist.  The present misery brought about by the highly motivated “change agent”-utopianist can always be justified because, while the ultimate goodness of the new order is yet unrealized, it assuredly will be.   Moreover, the utopianist’s intentions are to bring about the new order are morally justified by the theory.  There is no consequence from his actions, no matter how dismal or destructive, for which he will admit culpability. What he intended was noble. If he does not succeed it is because of the entrenched forces of reaction.  His failure when it occurs is always either tactical or failed calibration – never cognitive, never moral. Using the Communist alchemy of self-delusion and self-rationalization, conspicuous failure transforms itself into heroism.  The motivating moralism of the utopianist-ideologue always insulates him from any culpability from his actions.  The blame he shifts to the totally debased and morally rotten agents of the status quo.  Their failure to give way only emphasizes their evil and testifies to his goodness. The willingness of the Communist to make the practical, hedonic wager – that the felicity of the promised future will justify the suffering required to get there – ultimately rests on the tautological assertion that the future Communist society is wonderful and thus justifies any present misery that moves toward it because Communism is wonderful. With this failsafe logic no current atrocities are ever sufficiently egregious for a Communist to be morally culpable; failed Communism, as it is argued, can never be real Communism because real Communism is always successful.   Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian, a life-long and long-lived Marxist and enthusiast for Communist dictators in a BBC interview with Michael Ignatieff was asked: : “What (your view) comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?” He replied: “Yes.” [Oliver Kamm,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/thunderer/article460555.ece] Hobsbawm, it is reported, answered without hesitation. He was trapped by the failsafe logic. Real Communism was what Stalin and the Bolsheviks had put into place and so whatever was done was justified. 

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