Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Fascism, Communism and the Confederacy:

   So I was thinking...   It's become common recently to argue that the Confederacy was similar to (or at least roughly as bad as) Nazism/Fascism. I don't think that this is an entirely unwarranted comparison, in part because I've long been inclined to think that slavery was approximately as evil as the Holocaust / Nazi mass murders. So anyway, it's recently become socially impermissible (where I intend this to contrast with morally impermissible) to display the Confederate battle flag. I don't necessarily think that's crazy, though I'm less sure about that than I might be.
   However, as many (e.g. Jordan Peterson) have noted, it's still socially permissible to display symbols of the Soviet Union. In fact, it's not only permissible, but fairly common, for academicians to consider themselves Marxists. Of course there's the standard defense that Marxism is separable from Soviet totalitarianism. But (a) the cause of Southern independence is (to a much lesser extent, admittedly) separable from slavery, and (b) there are academicians who explicitly categorize themselves as e.g. Leninists or Maoists, and (c) that doesn't explain why it's socially permissible to display symbols of the USSR.
   So there seems to be a kind of inconsistency here. What explains it? One hypothesis is: it's the left that's driving this sort of thing (um..."the national conversation"? Cultural change? I'll need to leave that unspecific.) So they are inclined to push against things roughly on the right and inclined to excuse things roughly on the left. (Again: striving for unspecificity.)
   That's all I've got.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, for what it's worth, Marx would've detested the Soviet Union.

He was a vociferous advocate for freedom of the press and free speech, and he was, of course, completely against the elite class that actually exploited the USSR during its communism-by-name-only brand of totalitarianism.

Lenin, not so much. Obviously, that dude was basically the founder of USSR-brand totalimunnism.

But Marx gets a bad rap in many ways on account of little more than modern Marxists, if you ask me. He had lots of flaws in his theories that led to that, of course, but in his defense, he was not as hard pressed to resolve those issues on his own and modern Marxists have just basically ignored them despite greater awareness now on behalf of their critics.

For example, Marx's position was firmly that his theory of human behavior (more or less) was not a philosophical or moral theory. He regularly lambasted moral theorists as unscientific distractors from the "real work" he was doing, but none of that prevents (it actually basically invites) the obvious critique of his position that, if he's not declaring communism a morally superior endeavor for humanity, then wtf is he talking about? All his vicious critiques of the bourgeois and the exploitation of the common man are frequently nested in assertions that these are not moral judgments he's making, but if they're not, his push for communism as a betterment of the human condition is hard to make sense of.

Gerald Cohen, perhaps Marx's best analyst/defender in recent history, basically said of this matter that he figured Marx really did think the oppression of the common man at the hands of moneyed elites was immoral, but he couldn't bring himself to make such a claim since he had such a staunch anti-moralizing position in his work.

I don't need to tell you that Marx's theories have lots of problems, but one thing's for sure: he would not have supported the USSR or modern-day China. They are basically disasters of exactly the kind he saw inherent to capitalism, only they call themselves communist. I would be very interested to know what Marx would think of those governmental failures now. He'd probably be extremely depressed about it and critique the shit out of them relentlessly.

So that's a charitable account of why there's some plausibility in considering oneself a Marxist.

On the other hand, the Confederacy was basically a tantrum thrown to avoid the dissolution of slavery and nothing else. Modern admirers of the "states' rights" for which the Confederacy purportedly fought (despite the particular rights in question at that time being entirely related to slavery) have to sort of take the position like: The Confederacy was right about the general, but wrong about (all) the particulars they employed in reaching to it.

Modern "Marxists" have less work to do in terms of defending Marx from his association with the modern USSR or China (though not all of them do this, of course). Lenin is obviously basically un-divorce-able from the USSR disaster, so he's pretty indefensible, though.

So I guess what I'm saying is: at least part of what you've referenced (Marxism) doesn't seem to me to be a strong equivalent with modern supporters of the Confederacy.

But you're probably right, as you well know, about the inclination to push harder against unpalatable positions of the American political right than against unpalatable positions of the American left among academics.

That's not really much of a question, it doesn't seem to me.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Re Marx, basically what The Mystic said.

I would only add that some of the critiques of capitalism that Marx made were accurate IMO e.g. that it would tend to overproduce, that business owners would tend to take advantage of workers (btw, this is a criticism that Adam Smith shared). However, it was Marx's proposed solutions that were misguided. That is true even accounting for Mystic's point that the former SU is not what Marx had in mind.

As for the Confederacy, I think rather than speculate about the motivations for secession and the relative importance of slavery in that regard, we can just refer to the states'statement of secession:


12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I discagree with Mystic's interpretation at several points, but only have time for one right now: Marx's apparent dispassion is quite superficial. His is a theory very much in the capital-R Romantic vein, a glorious tale of redemption and the recovery of human nature through a terrible struggle. It's as moralistic as, say, the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien doesn't have to tell you that Sauron is evil, and Marx doesn't have call out the bourgeoisie. They just lay out the story with enough thick moral concepts ("exploitation", etc.) for it to be obvious who is good and who is evil.

Marx's repeated claims to be engaged in only a descriptive project is so much window dressing, designed to appeal to the mid-Victorian worship of all things scientific. Calling his own theory "scientific Socialism" is good branding, a stick with which to smack his rivals, the "utopian socialists". (Have you noticed, Winston, in the world of academic buzzwords, the "utopian" is once again showing up as an epithet? Yikes.) Marx's adoption of economic analytic techniques from people like Ricardo is temporary at best, as when he adopts adopts rational egoism as an explanatory tool to get to class struggle but then, when rational egoism would create more classes than he needs: [Here the manuscript breaks off.]

In his popular works and journalism, Marx is unafraid to be plainly moralistic. See, for example, his justification of the actions of the French Communards in 1871. It's only in addressing the intellectuals that Marx adopts the scientific pose.

4:52 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Yeah, I thought that was pretty much what I said, actually, Anonymous. I didn't think Marx was genuinely engaged in a non-moral venture. As I pointed out, it would be pretty hard to make any sense of what he was doing if he were really operating without any moral basis. I was saying that he did declare himself to be doing so, and that this was one of the problems with his theoretical work. I was trying to point out that this is one of the problems which he, himself, was not pushed hard to remediate, and which many modern Marxists tend to simply ignore.

So I'm not sure where we disagree.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Incidentally, and before the Marxathon really takes off, I wanted to say that the answers to my question seem cogent to me--thanks for that.

I take it that incidental displays of Soviet symbols is a kind of secondary / less important phenomenon.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mystic, the place where I think disagree was in as to whether merely descriptive nature of the project was something Marx himself believed in. I'm a hater, I guess, and consider Marx to have been strategically misleading on this as on many other points. I took it that you consider this to be more of a "tension" in his view, which he was unaware of. I also think that Marx would have been an apologist for the USSR, had he lived to see it, but that's another matter.

The highly effective mendacity of Marxism, by the way, is why I think that there is reason to excuse people for displaying its symbols. The Marxists always managed to keep their story straight, consistent, and appealing to people of good will. The apologists of the Slave Power were always having to adapt their propaganda to circumstances, and their appeal to genuinely attractive ideas (like Honor) was was inconsistent. As LC points out above, going into the Civil War Confederate rhetoric was explicitly racist, but also futurist and pseudo-scientific in a nearly Marxist fashion. Pre-war, the Slave Power was the wave of the future, set to sweep the world in a tide of wealth and military might. It was only after the Confederate Army spent half the war marching around looking for shoes that the South became a peaceful little place tragically forced to defend its way of life. Anyone who wants to defend the South has to reconcile not just the statements with the facts, but the statements with each other.

The level of culpable self-deception required to wear a Che shirt is just much lower than the RE Lee one.

6:28 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well that's fair. I don't know to what degree Marx was really serious about that position. I suspect that he probably fancied himself serious about it, but given all the evidence from his more popular works that you reference (which is indeed ubiquitous, as you say), I agree with Cohen at least that he was trying to dance around an actual understanding of his project as a moral one. Given that such an understanding would undercut his equally ubiquitous critiques of utopian communists and other morally-centered arguments for communism, he couldn't overtly embrace that understanding which nonetheless appears to obviously have existed.

And really, I don't fault him for having a moral foundation for his program since it's basically necessary to render it sensible. Instead, I fault him for failing to embrace it in a reasonable manner. The only alternative to such a moral foundation is to argue, as he did, that he's engaging in a purely descriptive/predictive (or "scientific") project regarding human economic behavior (and if one takes seriously the extreme degree of his "historic materialism", human existence in general). If that's the case, then the idea that one should accelerate the arrival of communist systems of governance is sensible only perhaps in terms of some sort of utilitarian goal of reaching the inevitable end sooner, but without the appreciation of that end as something which needs to materialize for moral reasons, it's hard to say why such an acceleration would be desirable.

9:48 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Anyway, I think we agree there, but where we disagree as far as I can tell is in the estimation that Marx would've been an apologist for the USSR. Given his vigorous commitment to and dependence on freedom of the press, speech, and dissent in his life and works, I really don't see how you can argue that he would drop all of that in favor of a government which also failed to realize the ideals of communism in basically any way whatsoever. The USSR, as well as China, justified their failures in those areas in the name of a "means justifies the end" sort of mentality which Marx and Engels include in a limited respect in their hypothetical progression towards communism, but having never reached the end (or even given a serious impression that they were interested in that end), I really doubt Marx would've put up with either for very long, if at all. Even Lenin's support for dissent and free discussion among the elites in the USSR (still fundamentally flawed in favor of a given class of citizens, against which communism overtly rails) evaporated after his death. Had Marx been alive during that time, I expect the degradation of the USSR project would've just waited for his absence, as it did with even the more conciliatory Lenin, for Stalin to really bring about the fullness of the totalitarian state he developed.

Maybe Marx would've been supportive of the initial years of the USSR's formation, seeing the means of the vanguard party as necessary to the end, as Lenin did, but it seems to me obviously implausible that he would've supported it for the many decades during which it continued that practice with no appreciable progress towards the end it purportedly sought.

All that being said, I don't know about the self-deception claim. I think Marxism and its symbols are far more defensible than the Confederacy and its symbols if the above considerations are made, but without qualification, I have to agree that support for Soviet Russia is about equivalent with support for the Confederacy in my mind, and therefore Winston's position in that regard is justified.

It's a shame, too, because I really love the hammer and sickle emblem. I love what it was supposed to represent, and I really, really love the Heroic Realism of the art in the Soviet Union. It's too bad that all of that is tainted by the utter failure and horrible hypocrisy of the USSR. It would've been a huge boon for the world, if you ask me, had the USSR actually proceeded down Marx's and Engel's ideals. I don't know how it would've turned out, but I'd love to see a genuine attempt at attaining a communist economy in opposition to capitalism. I often think the latter has been successful only because of its relationship with strong and largely well-founded governments such as the United States and European nations who are fundamentally devoted to personal liberty in the way that communism, as Marx and Engels develop the idea, requires as well.

9:48 AM  

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