Blueprint 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 is about something more than justice, freedom, or democracy. It is 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 with those of the entire species. 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. Much of his work, like his masterpiece 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 expression 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.” In Marx’s eschatology, humanity could redeem itself through social revolution.

Liberalism, in contrast, cannot deliver us from alienation. Liberalism (broadly defined) 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 (also broadly defined), which is the varied realm of particular interests. Liberals regard this bifurcated arrangement as indispensable. The state neither replaces civil society nor becomes superfluous to it, thus avoiding the twin evils of tyranny and anarchy.

But by partitioning social life into public and private spheres, 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 injustice 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 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 one knows how to begin the world anew.

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 active force must destroy the existing order. This force must be raised and guided by some conscious element. So, it should come as no surprise when some on the left claim this role for themselves. The tendency goes back at least as far as the Conspiracy of Equals in 1796.

But to rationalize their actions, something must set members of such a vanguard apart from everyone else. For the Bolsheviks, it was an esoteric way of knowing. What made Lenin and his comrades special was their “revolutionary consciousness.” The practical meaning of this peculiar notion was explained here 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 the system of oppression–these are known only to the vanguard. With this special knowledge comes incredible authority. Only its members can say what must be done to liberate humanity. They are, as Kolakowski said, “vested with the right, indeed the duty” to do what they deem necessary to this end. The rest of us cannot appeal their judgments, because we lack their superior insight. Our objections merely reveal our ignorance of oppression, or our complicity in it.

Of course, an egalitarian elite is a self-contradiction. But as Kolakowski warned elsewhere, contradictions are what we should expect from utopian projects.

Activist Violence in Context

Not every protest is an attempt to persuade. Some activists are less interested in changing minds than in breaking wills. So, they employ the methods of coercion (as shown here, here, and here).

If you listen to the further left, they will tell you as much. For example, consider a 2014 piece published by Salon that proudly defended the physical harassment of Google employees. Direct action of this kind, Natasha Lennard argued, gets 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 as an anomaly by some at the time. But looking back now, its ethos of “by any means necessary” no longer seems so unusual.

There are obvious risks to being less than peaceful, but the temptation should be easy to understand. After all, 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 opposing their version of justice. In short, it puts the screws on their adversaries.

An act of protest should be defined by what it does to others. Seen in this context, violence by activists is a tool of political extortion. Most liberals already take this view, when the assailants are on the far right. We do not make facile excuses for white supremacists when they form a mob. We do not pretend that abortion clinic bombers are grievance bots, who are compelled to act by some “intolerable pressure.” We do not indulge the self-styled “patriot” militias, who would use any means necessary to achieve their ends. No, we hold them to account for their coercive actions. We should apply the same standard to their counterparts on the illiberal left.

The matter is one of democratic principle. This was ably explained by Sidney Hook, whose 1967 essay “Democracy and Social Protest: Neither Blind Obedience nor Uncivil Disobedience” is well worth revisiting today. 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 presumption should be against illegal acts of coercion. This is necessary, he 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.” Otherwise, liberal democracy would not be viable.

The freedom to protest is essential for democratic consent, and it must be protected from undue interference. There is also a place for civil disobedience, if the actions are public, deliberate, and non-violent. All of this Hook acknowledged. The problem, then and now, is not honest and peaceful dissent. It is the tendency among 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.

Grievance is not license. A sense of righteous indignation does not entitle activists to get their way, by hook or by crook.

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.