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.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Nationalism and Alienation. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: If You Care About Privacy, Be A Pacifist.