Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is it Fair to Hold Democratic Socialists Responsible for Stalin's Crimes?

This is a provocative question designed to get your attention. But the answer to this question is more complicated than you might think.

After Khrushchev's secret speech to the Soviet Politburo in 1956 and the invasion of Hungary in the same year, the Communists, fellow-travelers and other left-leaning individuals in the West became aware of the crimes of Stalin and the utter and complete failure of the Marxist-Leninist revolution in the Soviet Union. Stalinism was revealed as a totalitarian, anti-human, evil political movement. The question was how far back in the genealogy of this movement did the poison go?

So if Stalinism was evil, did that discredit Lenin? If Lenin was discredited, did that discredit Trotsky too? or Mao? or Castro? or Third World liberation movements like the Sandinistas? If Lenin and Trotsky were discredited were Marx's ideas discredited too? If Marx's ideas are discredited, are just some of his ideas discredited or his system as a whole? If Marx's ideas (or some of them) are discredited, are social democratic principles discredited as well? Or does the magic bullet of "democracy" instantly transform evil into good?

The issue is which, if any, parts of "The Left" escape responsibility for Stalin's evil deeds. Ideas that are put into practice and result in murder, tyranny and poverty are not good ideas and only half implementing them or implementing them as only as thoroughly as possible in the face of determined conservative resistance does not make them into good ideas. It may well be that the only reason socialism has not (yet) resulted in horrible evils in Western Europe is that these ideas have not been as fully implemented as they were in the Soviet Union; but that does not make them benign or morally good.

The New Left that arose in the West between the late 1950s and early 1970s was an attempt to be Marxist but not Stalinist. Yet, as David Horowitz (who was at the center of the rise of the New Left in Berkley, California) chronicles in his political memoir, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, makes clear, the New Left not only did not abandon the Marxist ideas that were put into practice by Lenin and Stalin (with their own twists and adapted to their own historical context), but the New Left also fell for the siren call of violence and destruction as the way to advance the revolution.

For one example, the New Left valorized the murders and drug pushers who made up the Black Panther Party. Horowitz recounts his own personal involvement with Huey Newton and his defense of the Panthers as editor of Ramparts magazine. One factor that eventually drove him away from the New Left was the murder of a friend of his who he recommended to the organization and who was asking too many pointed questions about party finances. Another example was the take-over of the Students for a Democratic Society by the ultra-extreme Weathermen, who were committed to using violence to provoke the revolutionary war that would overthrow the American government. New Leftists like Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn were involved in acts of terrorism in an attempt to ferment revolution; democracy was a failure for them.

So the attempt by the New Left in the 1960s to be Marxist (or even Communist) without being Stalinist must be judged a failure. Even many of the central players themselves seemed to recognize this. Ayers and Dohrn, like Tom Hayden and many others, eventually gave up revolutionary violence (that is, for their part, though they still supported it in other parts of the world) and began to work within "the system" to change it according to their own Darwinist-Marxist worldview. They have been part of the "long march through the institutions" the goal of which is to subvert the Capitalist West from within rather than confronting it directly through revolutionary violence.

It is clear that the strategy of using Marxist ideas but renouncing Stalinist violence and embracing democracy is perfectly compatible with calling oneself either a "Progressive" (which many in the Democratic Party do today) or a "Democratic Socialist" (which is more of a European label). In other words, I am questioning whether a Marxist who claims to be committed to democratic process is any less dangerous or culpable than an outright Communist who is infiltrating the system to undermine it from within. Does a commitment to procedural democracy in and of itself sanitize false view of human nature, history and justice?

My point is that the ideas are far more profoundly important than the political strategy. The methods can change according to the circumstances. But what is the ultimate goal? And what view of human nature is driving the movement? And is the movement based on a materialist interpretation of history? Is the definition of justice compatible with absolute right and wrong written into creation the Creator or is it a social construct, a projection of the will of the strong?

What got me thinking along these lines was the observation that radical Islamists have learned how to use Western democracy for profoundly anti-democratic goals. The goal of an imposition of sharia law and an Islamic theocracy is utterly anti-democratic, but what if the majority vote for it? Does it suddenly become good? And if a majority of American voted in a Hitler (as the Germany people did) or a Stalin, would that make the ensuing regime morally good? The only possible answer to these questions is "no" - unless on wants to defend the Third Reich.

But what would the West have to believe in order to say no and defend itself against a determined foe who uses individual liberties to subvert individual liberty, uses religious freedom to subvert freedom of religion, uses free speech to stifle free speech, uses democracy to implement a system run by unelected religious leaders who, once in power, are answerable to no one (as in Iran, for example)?

The West faces the same dilemma with regard both to Marxism and Islamism. Both are essentially totalitarian systems based on heretical doctrines that want to supplant Western liberal democracy with their own regime. Both are adept at using democracy to overthrow liberal democracy.

The answer is that the West needs a commitment to certain principles and beliefs that go far deeper than procedural democracy and individual liberty. These good political beliefs must be grounded in deeper metaphysical and ethical beliefs - in certain convictions about man being created in the image of God and in natural law and in the reality of original sin and the the folly of utopianism. A deep respect for tradition and a healthy suspicion of radical social engineering will help, but even these will not replace what are ultimately religious convictions about the nature of God, the nature of man and the limits of politics. Without such convictions, traditionalism will degenerate into a mindless nostalgia and narrow-mindedness.

The West needs a revival of Christianity and this is the crucial issue in whether the West will survive or fall. Only a religious people committed to faith in God will be able to withstand the assaults from Islamism and Marxism. Only the Judeo-Christian worldview that built the West can sustain it through this crisis. If this is not present, then freedom is at risk.

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