Slogans for a Gulag Society

Young Karl Marx made a demand. Marx insisted that we must reabsorb the communal into our personal lives, in order to realize our full potential as human beings. Then, and only then, would humanity be truly emancipated. As Marx said in 1843:

Only when real, individual man reabsorbs into himself the abstract citizen and becomes a species-being, in his everyday life, in his individual work, and in his individual relationships; only when man recognizes and organizes his “forces propres,” his own powers, as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates from himself social force in the shape of political force–only then will human emancipation be accomplished.

This emancipatory project was about something other than justice, freedom, or democracy. It was about the transcendence of alienation. A genuine revolution would reconcile our human essence and the conditions of our existence. It would remove the underlying causes of social antagonism. It would tear down the barriers that separate individuals from each other and from society as a whole. It would place the material conditions of life in the service of all humanity. Our interests, properly understood, would converge. As our selfish misconceptions withered away, we would come to identify with this collective unity.

Of course, communist revolutions in the twentieth century made a gruesome mockery of this promise. But their leaders did not repudiate Marx. They claimed his project as their own. They used Marxism to rationalize the contradictions of their own regimes: fraternity compelled by terror, and equality imposed by a revolutionary elite. According to philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, their interpretations were plausible, and their tyrannies should have come as no surprise. A former communist who lived for many years in the Polish People’s Republic, Kolakowski traced the logic of Marxian thought in meticulous detail. His masterly tome Main Currents of Marxism is a haunting indictment of revolutionary hubris.

Kolakowski gave a partial summary of his argument in the essay “Marxist Roots of Stalinism.” He said:

In Marx’s eyes the original sin of man, his felix culpa, responsible both for great human achievements and for human misery, was the division of labor–and its inevitable result, the alienation of labor. The extreme form of alienated labor is the exchange value, which dominates the entire process of production in industrial societies. It is not human needs but the endless accumulation of exchange value in the form of money that is the main driving force behind all human productive efforts. This has transformed human individuals, with their personal qualities and abilities, into commodities which are sold and bought according to the anonymous laws of the market, within a system of hired labor. It has generated the alienated institutional framework of modern political societies; and it has produced an inevitable split between people’s personal, selfish, self-centered lives as members of civil society on the one hand and, on the other, the artificial and obscure community which they form as members of a political society. As a result, human consciousness was bound to suffer an ideological distortion: instead of affirming human life and its own function as an “expression” of that life, it built a separate, illusory kingdom of its own, designed to perpetuate this split. With private property, the alienation of labor divided society into hostile classes struggling for the distribution of the surplus product; finally, it gave rise to the class in which all society’s dehumanization was concentrated, and which was consequently destined both to demystify consciousness and to restore the lost unity of human existence. This revolutionary process starts with smashing the institutional mechanisms which protect existing labor conditions and ends with a society where, with all the basic sources of social conflict removed, the social process is subordinated to the collective will of the individuals associated in it. These latter will then be able to unfold all their individual potentialities not against society but for its enrichment; their labor will have been gradually reduced to the necessary minimum, and free time will be enjoyed in the pursuit of cultural creativity and high-quality enjoyment. The full meaning of both history and present struggles is revealed only in the romantic vision of the perfectly united mankind of the future. Such unity implies no more need for the mediating mechanisms which separate individuals from the species as a whole. The revolutionary act that will close the “pre-history” of mankind is both inevitable and directed by free will; the distinction between freedom and necessity will have disappeared in the consciousness of the proletariat as it becomes aware of its own historical destiny through the destruction of the old order.

I suspect it was both Marx’s anticipation of man’s perfect unity and his myth of the historically privileged proletarian consciousness that led to his theory’s being turned into the ideology of the totalitarian movement; not because he conceived of it in such terms, but because its basic values could not be realized in any other way. It was not that Marx’s theory lacked a vision of future society; it did not. But even his powerful imagination could not stretch so far as to envisage the transition from the “pre-history” to “genuine history” and come up with the proper social technology for converting the former into the latter; this step had to be carried out by practical leaders. And that necessarily implied adding to the inherited body of doctrine and filling in the details.

Another partial statement of Kolakowski’s views can be found in his essay “The Myth of Human Self-Identity.” The myth was “soteriological,” or a doctrine of salvation, and it required “the identity of civil and political society.” In this essay, Kolakowski cited Marx’s quote above about “human emancipation” and argued that the revolutionary theorist’s later works “grew out of this initial hope.” The same vision, he said, “of man returning to perfect unity, experiencing his personal life directly as a social force, makes up the philosophical background of Marxian socialism. In all later writings which were to define his position in contrast to liberal, anarchist, and communist totalitarian doctrines, the same eschatological concept of unified man remains.”

Liberalism, broadly defined, is not compatible with this project. Liberalism offers social peace and individual freedom, but not perfect unity. It takes conflict between rival interests as a given. It seeks to mediate our competing demands through the state, which partially limits the freedom of each in order to provide security for all. And while this state can promote the general welfare, it leaves most human activities to civil society, which is the autonomous realm of particular interests. The state neither replaces civil society nor becomes superfluous to it, thus avoiding the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.

Liberalism seeks a balance between the public and relatively private. But by partitioning social life in this manner, no free society can answer the communist demand for social unity. As Kolakowski said in the closing paragraphs of his myth essay:

I believe that socialist thought in its traditional areas of concern (how to ensure for working society more equality, more security, more welfare, more justice, more freedom, more participation in economic decisions) cannot at the same time entertain prospects of the perfect unity of social life. The two kinds of preoccupation run against each other. The dream of perfect unity could be realized only as a caricature that would deny its original intention: as an artificial unity imposed by force from above, with the political body preventing real conflicts and real segmentation of the civil society from expressing themselves. This body is almost automatically compelled to crush all spontaneous forms of economic, political, and cultural life. Thus the rift between civil and political society, instead of being healed, is deepened.

To the question of whether this outcome was somehow inscribed in original Marxian thought, the answer is certainly “no” if “inscribed” means “intended.” All the evidence indicates that the initial intention was the opposite of what grew out of it. But this initial intention is not, as it were, innocent. It could scarcely be realized in any very different form, not because of contingent historical circumstances but because of its very content.

The dream of a perfectly unified human community is probably as old as human thought about society; romantic nostalgia was only a later incarnation. It is a dream that was philosophically reinforced by that element in European culture which arose from Neoplatonism. There is no reason to expect that this dream will ever disappear, for it has strong roots in our awareness of the split which humanity suffered at the very beginning of its existence, when it emerged from its animal innocence. Nor is there any reason to expect that it can ever come true, except in the cruel form of despotism; and despotism is a desperate simulation of paradise.

The dream cannot come true, but it can be faked. A counterfeit unity is possible. In “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered,” Kolakowski explained how this can be achieved:

An attempt to implement a conflictless order by institutional means can be indeed successful in the sense that it can, by applying totalitarian coercion, prevent conflicts from being expressed. Being incapable, however, of eradicating the sources of conflict, the utopian technology necessarily involves a huge machinery of lie to present its inevitable failure as a victory. A utopian vision, once it is translated into political idiom, becomes mendacious or self-contradictory; it provides new names for old injustices or hides the contradictions under ad hoc invented labels. This is especially true of revolutionary utopias, whether elaborated in the actual revolutionary process or simply applied in its course. The Orwellian language had been known, though not codified, long before modern totalitarian despotism. Rousseau’s famous slogan, “One has to compel people to freedom,” is a good example. So is the announcement of the Paris Commune stating simultaneously that the compulsory military service has been abolished and that all citizens are members of the National Guard. So is the egalitarian-revolutionary utopia of Tkachev (an important source of the Leninist doctrine) which asserts that the main goal of the revolution is to abolish all the elites and that this task is to be carried out by a revolutionary elite.

The fault in Marx’s project is not in seeking to reform society. It is not even in the attempt to demystify private property. It is in the communist demand for social unity and the millenarian conceit that humanity could be redeemed through social revolution.

The Vanguard Knows Best

The tricky thing about communism is that social hierarchies are not going to abolish themselves. In order to have a social revolution, some force must destroy the existing order. Raising such a force has been a major preoccupation of radical egalitarians since at least the Conspiracy of Equals in 1796. Hence their propensity to form vanguards.

But to achieve this end, members of a revolutionary vanguard must legitimize the power they seek to wield. They need a way to set themselves apart from everyone else, one which provides a basis for their authority. For the Bolsheviks, what set them apart was a special way of knowing. Lenin and his comrades claimed to possess a “revolutionary consciousness.” The practical meaning of this conceit was ably explained by Leszek Kolakowski:

Marx alleges that the working class carries, simply because it is the working class, a kind of privileged knowledge, “revolutionary consciousness,” of the course of history […] But this cognitive privilege, while it may have existed as something much to be desired in the minds of Marx and Engels, has to this day failed to materialize in the minds of the workers. Lenin (and before him Kautsky) thought that this little practical difficulty could be overcome by adding a supplement to Marx’s theory: since the proletariat was incapable of spontaneously generating “revolutionary consciousness,” it had to be instilled from without. This was to be done by the “vanguard” of the proletariat, the Communist party; and the Party–now sole repository of the true purpose of history–is vested with the right, indeed the duty, to discard the immature, empirical consciousness of the masses and lead them, through revolution, to the classless society. And Lenin added–which is an important point–that what the workers could produce of themselves was a bourgeois consciousness, since in a capitalist society only two basic forms of consciousness could exist.

The implication of this theory is that the Party knows better what lies in the genuine interests of society, and what constitutes the will of society, than society itself, and once the spirit of the Party is incarnated in the will of one man, Marxism-Leninism comes to mean the dictatorship of one man over the proletariat. Thus Marx’s hypothesis that the working class has a privileged knowledge of the final purpose of history culminates in the assertion that Comrade Stalin is always right.

The real interests of society, the true course of history, and the inner workings of oppression—these things were only known to the enlightened vanguard. They alone could pierce the veil of ideology. They alone knew what must be done to liberate humanity. Members of this egalitarian elite were, as Kolakowski said, “vested with the right, indeed the duty” to do whatever they deemed necessary. No one outside of their cadre was in a position to challenge their judgments, because no one else had their epistemic authority. The objections of their critics merely revealed an ignorance of oppression, or a complicity in it.

Yes, an elite to end all elites is a self-defeating absurdity. It is also what we should expect from radical egalitarians and their projects. Because as Kolakowski warned elsewhere, there is no honest way to resolve the contradictions of communism.

Activist Violence in Context

When activists resort to force, their tactics are commonly described as “mistaken,” “ineffective,” or “counterproductive.” But too often, such criticisms miss the point. Not every activist is trying to win over new adherents. Some are less interested in changing minds than in breaking wills. So to advance their cause, they employ the methods of coercion. (Examples of this fanaticism can be found here, here, and here.)

Fear has its uses. If you listen to radicals on the left, they will tell you so. Consider a 2014 piece published by Salon that defended the physical harassment of Google employees. Direct action of this kind, Natasha Lennard argued, can get results:

Intimidation tactics targeting the employees of major corporations are nothing new and have a history of success: Indeed, animal rights activists achieved some major victories in securing the closure of animal testing facilities in the ’90s and early 2000s through the intimidation of key investors. This intimidation was deemed terrorism, but, hey, it worked.

Lennard was referring in part to the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (for background, see here, here, and here). This campaign was dismissed by some at the time as an anomaly. But looking back now, its ethos of “by any means necessary” no longer seems so unusual.

Abusive behavior by radical activists should come as no surprise. In this respect, they are not so different from other political actors. They test the limits of what they can get away with doing. And the more their transgressions are indulged and even celebrated, the bolder they will become. They will give us more of what we reward and less of what we punish.

Granted, there are risks to being less than peaceful. (A movement would do well to keep its goons at one remove from its spokespeople.) But Lennard had a point about diversified tactics. A bit of violence can do something for a movement. When it works, it adds a hint of menace to activist demands. It implies a penalty for obstructing their version of justice. It compels people to yield.

The real trouble with activist violence has less to do with efficacy than with democracy. This was ably explained by Sidney Hook, in his 1967 essay “Democracy and Social Protest: Neither Blind Obedience nor Uncivil Disobedience.” Citizens in a free society, Hook argued, should be “free to disagree with a law but that so long as it remains in force they have a prima facie obligation to obey it.” The burden should remain on protesters to justify their actions to their fellow citizens. There should be a presumption against illegal acts of coercion.

This arrangement is necessary, Hook said, to “escape the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy. Tyranny is avoided by virtue of the freedom and power of dissent to win the uncoerced consent of the community. Anarchy is avoided by reliance on due process, the recognition that there is a right way to correct a wrong, and a wrong way to secure a right.” Activists must be denied the means of political extortion. Otherwise, liberal democracy would not be viable.

The freedom to protest is essential for democratic consent, and it must be protected from undue interference. Disobeying the law can also serve a legitimate purpose, if the public act of defiance is both non-violent and has a principled justification. All of this Hook acknowledged. The problem is not honest and peaceful dissent. It is the tendency of some liberals to fixate on one evil to the exclusion of another. Hook criticized “ritualistic liberals,” not because they rejected “the absolutism of law,” but because they demanded “something very close to the absolutism of individual conscience.”

Properly rejecting the view that the law, no matter how unjust, must be obeyed in all circumstances, they have taken the view that the law is to be obeyed only when the individual deems it just or when it does not outrage his [or her] conscience. Fantastic comparisons are made between those who do not act on the dictates of their conscience and those who accepted and obeyed Hitler’s laws. These comparisons completely disregard the systems of law involved, the presence of alternatives of action, the differences in the behavior commanded, in degrees of complicity of guilt, in the moral costs and personal consequences of compliance, and other relevant matters.

It is commendable to recognize the primacy of morality to law, but unless we recognize the centrality of intelligence to morality we stumble with blind self-righteousness into moral disaster. Because, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not wrong sometimes to lie to save a human life, because it is not wrong sometimes to kill in defense to save many more from being killed, it does not follow that the moral principles: “Do not lie!” “Do not kill!” are invalid. When more than one valid principle bears on a problem of moral experience, the very fact of their conflict means that not all of them can hold unqualifiedly. One of them must be denied. The point is that such negation or violation entails upon us the obligation of justifying it, and moral justification is a matter of reasons not of conscience. The burden of proof rests on the person violating the rules. Normally, we don’t have to justify telling the truth. We do have to justify not telling the truth. Similarly, with respect to the moral obligation of a democrat who breaches his political obligation to obey the laws of a democratic community. The resort to conscience is not enough. There must always be reasonable justification.

Activists who break the law owe the rest of us more than indignation. Even when one hears the voice of conscience, Hook said, one “is hearing not the voice of God, but the voice of a finite, limited” mortal. This inner voice “is neither a special nor an infallible organ of apprehending moral truth.” Outrage alone is never enough, no matter how righteous it may seem. Conscience must “cap the process of critical reflective morality,” lest it become prejudice masquerading as a divine revelation.

In a liberal democracy, grievance is not license. It does not entitle an activist to get their way, by hook or by crook. But many activists on the left in the late 1960s chafed at this civic restraint. They viewed American society as fundamentally oppressive. They claimed to be fighting for real democracy, which could not be achieved by remaining peaceful. Democracy for them was only real when it granted their demands. Hook said of their conceit:

The rules of the game exist to enable them to win and if they lose that’s sufficient proof that the game is rigged and dishonest. The sincerity with which the position is held is no evidence whatsoever of its coherence. [….] The right of petition gives one a chance to persuade, and the persuasion must rest on the power of words, on the effective appeal to emotion, sympathy, reason, and logic. Petitions are weapons of criticism, and their failure does not justify appeal to the criticism of weapons. Some groups that have resorted both to civil and uncivil disobedience justify themselves by claiming that the authorities did not listen to their demands on the ground that their demands were not granted. This begs all questions about the legitimacy and the cogency of the demands.

The absurdity of this position is much easier to see when it is taken by one’s opponents. For example, most liberals condemn activist violence on the right without equivocation. Few of us indulge the self-proclaimed “patriot” militias who threaten to use any means necessary to achieve their ends. We are not eager to make excuses for any aggrieved mob of white supremacists who march to intimidate their enemies. We do not pretend that activists who bomb abortion clinics are compelled to act by some intolerable pressure of society. Their counterparts on the left are no better, and they should not be held to a different standard.

A free society requires peace. It requires a way of living and arguing with political rivals without kicking them in the teeth. Those who would undermine this arrangement should not be mistaken for heroes. They are nothing more than pop-up tyrants.

Addendum (January 7, 2021): There must be one standard against activist violence. A double standard, where some fanatical goons are punished while others are indulged, is not sustainable. Indulging violence by any side changes the terms of engagement. Political rivals will take this change as an excuse to respond in kind, when the old rules no longer apply.

The point of rejecting violence by activists on your side is not for everyone to join hands and sing Kumbaya. The point is to preserve a civic restraint that keeps the other side’s jackboots off of your neck.