Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where’s My Omelet? Or, Lenin versus Kant

“Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”
                                                                  Immanuel Kant

“He [Lenin] was the only member of the local intelligentsia who not only refused to participate in the aid for the hungry, but publicly opposed it.  As one of his friends later recalled, ‘Vladimir Illich Ulyanov had the courage to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results, particularly in the appearance of a new industrial proletariat, which would take over from the bourgeoisie… Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would bring about the next stage more rapidly, and usher in socialism, the state that necessarily followed capitalism. Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.’” 
                                                                     Black Book of Communism

In attempting to understand the savagery and ultimately the nihilism of Communism’s twentieth century global career, it might be helpful to juxtapose the Enlightenment’s sublime moral voice, Immanuel Kant, with the profoundly cynical calibrations of Vladimir Lenin, once he had power over the lives of others.  Lenin was Karl Marx’s supreme Man of Action, the arch revolutionary who did what Marx only dreamed of – he put the Capitalists out of business.  After that, so the theory went, life would be much better.  Well, except if you were a part of the bourgeoisie hoping for something to eat or inclined toward stupidities like faith in God.

It is difficult to conceive of a more startling juxtaposition of polarity of moral and human vision.  From Kant’s formulation of his categorical imperative each and every human being emerges not as an abstraction but as a unique person inviolate and irreplaceable, a creature whose very nature morally forbids that he become merely a means for the designs and ambitions of another.  To use another human being as a pure means is to de-humanize him, to turn him into matter.  As Kant saw it, human beings as rational creatures were bound by a moral law whose validity was tested by its universality, transcending the particularity of groups, classes, tribes, or race.  Everyone from the King to the servant was bound by the moral law, even God himself.  

Kant’s moral philosophy was one of the crowning achievements of the Enlightenment with its universality of reach and application across a rapidly emerging modern world where individuals from the entire spectrum of humanity would be becoming in some way connected with each other and in need of a moral vision that moved beyond the tribe.  Kant’s notion of an inviolate human core was articulated by Thomas Jefferson in theistic terms:  “All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”  

For Lenin by contrast human beings were nothing but means, things to be used, not persons. They were material, waste products in fact if they were obstacles to his plans to elevate humanity and realize his utopian abstraction – they were to be assigned to the “dust bin of history” as his colleague, Leon Trotsky, put it.  Lenin was particularly fond of de-humanizing “disinfectant” terminology when speaking of his political opposition – liquidation, extermination, etc. – applied to “insects,” “vermin,” “leeches,” anyone basically who did not embrace his transformational vision.  Human beings were not for him individuals but disaggregated pieces of warring social classes that grind against each other and produce winners who rule and losers who conform to the winners’ will or die. 

Kant understood that morality is universally binding.  Morality forces one to concede the presence of boundaries of reality that may limit or frustrate specific desires and aspirations, sometimes very powerful ones.  Lenin eschewed any limitation to his action -- Unlimited power above all law,” as he succinctly put it.  Fiercely atheistic, Lenin wanted to be God and craved unlimited power so as to remake humanity.   Almost un-human in his intellectual self-regard, his absolute self-certainty and conviction of omniscience rendered him unable to view those who opposed or resisted him as anything but human garbage to be swept aside and dumped into an abyss.  

Kant late in his life had reflected: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”  Kant’s frame was bowed and humbled by the vast reach of the universe and the deep mystery of the human heart.  Lenin, it is safe to surmise, was never awed by anything.  He was the Supreme Knower, absolutely convinced that he possessed the blueprint to restructure humanity and bring it to perfection. Kant for all the great power and breadth of his mind was intellectually and spiritually humble. Lenin was astonishingly arrogant with not a trace of humility, and his arrogance made him into one of the most ruthless individuals to ever walk the earth.  Only someone with such fanatical self-conceit could welcome a famine to sweep his land and enthuse over its “positive” effects.  This was a crisis that would not be wasted. Equally remarkable and appalling is the report of Lenin’s friend speaking of Lenin’s “courage” in announcing his pleasure over contemplating the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people.  The moral universe of the Bolsheviks was completely upside down, inhabited by men and women of the deepest immorality.      

Lenin’s had many disciples.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot were all cast from Lenin’s mold, supreme knowers, dedicated to the making the abstraction they called the Revolution into a lethal reality.  They excelled in breaking millions of eggs, but the omelets that were supposed to follow somehow never made it to the dish plates. Lenin was succeeded by Stalin, the consummate Leninist. It was Stalin, contrary to the wishes of Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who decided to turn Lenin’s corpse into a mummy, to make the man who served the impersonal forces of history into a very personal piece of material for his own purposes, a Communist relic for the faithful to see and remember.    

After Stalin came Khrushchev, then Brezhnev.  Murder and extermination gave way to corruption and stagnation -- from Lenin, the fanatical believer to Brezhnev, the alcoholic pretender.  Finally, the urbane, well-educated Gorbachev.  Gorbachev’s impossible task was to extract from the nihilism that inevitably engulfed a land ruled by liars and frauds a pristine, original Leninism somehow forsaken by Stalin and his progeny that might rescue the Party and produce the long promised omelet.  Alas, the only thing to be had from Vladimir Illich Ulyanov was his mummy, bequeathed by Stalin, after decades still moldering away.       

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