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The Paris Commune and Historical Materialism

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In an earlier post, frequent visitor L. Raymond had this to say about the Paris Commune.  For those of you who have never heard of the Paris Commune (for shame!), some basic information can be found here.

I often enjoy sparring with L. Raymond, because this is someone who is virtually always polite, makes carefully considered comments based on actual knowledge, and more than once has said things that made me think.  This was one of those occasions.

I had a strong emotional reaction to the comment because (as should surprise none of you) I feel an intense loyalty to the memory of the Communards, so I had to take some time to consider whether I had any genuine, principled disagreement, and, if so, what it was.  It should also surprise none of you that, after consideration, where I ended up was a difference of method.  In brief, Raymond’s argument seems to be that the failure of the Commune was because of bickering and squabbling among its leaders.

Now, what first leapt to mind is an incident from the aftermath of the US Civil War.  There was considerable argument among Southern Apologists as to what mistakes led to their loss at Gettysburg, and, above all, who should be blamed: Lee, Longstreet, and A.P. Hill being the leading candidates.  At one point, someone asked George Picket his opinion, and he said, “I thought the Yanks had something to do with it.”

So, yeah, when Will Shetterly talks about the butchery of at least 30,000 Paris workers by the capitalists, his point is valid.  And, yet it doesn’t actually address the substance of the dispute.

This is the significant thing that, in my opinion, L. Raymond’s comment is overlooking:

Those disagreements came from somewhere.  Yes, I have a distaste for those who look back from the tall mountains of history and say, “Do you see how stupid those people were? They should have done this other thing.”  But distaste, as my father would have said, is unscientific.  What is more significant is that each position, each dispute, each element in the complex and contradictory process that was the developing leadership of the Commune, was a reflection, not of the ego of the individual (which provided the expression but not the substance), but rather of genuine social forces.

Let me say that again.  The disputes among the leadership of the Communards reflected actual, real differences: liberal democrats spoke for the the most advanced sections of capital.  The communists spoke for the interests of the working class (Marx’s program–nationalizing the National Bank and turning toward the peasantry of rural France–would, in my opinion, have made success of the Commune possible). Other elements spoke for the wealthier peasants, others for certain privileged sections of the working class, and so on.

Here is my point, and here is why I actually want to address the issue: As a materialist, I believe that political ideas represent, are the products of, actual social relations.  To concentrate on the disputes and squabbling that prevented the unity of the Commune is to miss the point that these disputes themselves were a product of the early, undeveloped state of the French working class at that time. If we begin our analysis with the correlation of material forces, we can understand where the ideological disputes came from; if we begin with the ideological disputes as if they were the random products of individual egos, we will understand nothing.

That is why this post is about method: it provides a perfect, shining example of how the materialist approach differs from the idealist approach to history. And I should point out, in case someone missed it, that the argument occurred in a discussion of how to be an optimist.  If you start with material conditions and consider how changes in ideas can flow from those, there is plenty to be optimistic about; if you just look at ideas at a given moment, you’re liable to give in to despair.

The Paris Commune was, in the end, a tragedy.  But to those of us on the Left, it is also an inspiration: after Paris, no one could doubt the power of the Working Class.  And we did not despair; we learned from it and went forward.  Those who saw merely the ideas, attitudes, and mistakes of individuals have nowhere to go except a descent into cynicism.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

75 Comments

  1. “For those of you who have never heard of the Paris Commune (for shame!)”

    Brace yourself for what is perhaps the thing I say most often when you talk about history: They didn’t teach me that in school!

    (Although in this particular instance, I read about the Paris Commune in Love and Capital a few weeks ago, so I feel all wise and knowledgey.)

  2. Jenphalian, Yup. They don’t teach any of that stuff in school.

    One could draw parallels to what is happening today. Where the economic (material?) world is mostly ignored as if everything is just some form of politics.

  3. I’ve heard of the Paris Commune, but as one who was also not taught about it in school, I learned more about it on wikipedia just now than what I’d known up to this point.

    It’s amazing how much of what I learned in school I learned, not from school, but from stubborn auto-didactic tendencies and above all else being bored in the vicinity of the school library.

  4. “If we begin our analysis with the correlation of material forces, we can understand where the ideological disputes came from; if we begin with the ideological disputes as if they were the random products of individual egos, we will understand nothing.”

    I’m not an expert on this, but from what I’ve seen it looks like they didn’t have a sense of how to get things done.

    As if the way they had learned about was an autocrat tells people to do things at random and they do them. And then when they needed to organize for themselves they boggled and argued.

    GIven human beings who get enthusiastic and take initiative, maybe the important thing is to ask whether somebody sees an important reason they should *not* do what they want to do — not is there something better they ought to be doing, but is there a reason to stop them — and if there isn’t a compelling reason to get in their way, tell them to go ahead.

    Get it clear just what are the essential dilemmas that must be resolved, the material forces that are in conflict and must be resolved. And let people do what they are eager to do about everything else.

    So if *somebody* had gone out and given the rural peasants permission to do what they particularly wanted, they might easily have fought to keep doing it. If somebody had gotten permission to start effective work on defenses, and ways to get enemy soldiers to desert….

    And if somebody who was doing immediate practical work that people agreed needed to be done came back and said “I need a nationalized bank or some good alternative” then there would be an immediate context to find a solution to that issue.

    I don’t know whether anybody truly knows how to do that sort of thing even today. But it looks to me like that was one of the big problems. They didn’t know how to run an egalitarian organization and get results. Sure, they faced material issues. They didn’t know how to resolve them as quickly as they had to, to survive. Not that I blame them or anything. Just, that’s an issue that even today needs a lot more work.

  5. I think there is another parallel here. Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about Trotsky’s fight against Lenin, and the seemingly endless splits the Trotskyist movement has faced since the Left Opposition was formed. In leftist circles, these are usually attributed to what is called “sectarianism,” a term that has come to have a sneer incorporated in it. When you apply the method Steve has used in looking at the Paris Commune, you can find the social relations driving both the successive groups who opposed the Trotskyist perspectives and those who defended it. In each case, the split signaled a major development in the class struggle, and the political argument itself strengthened the party (no matter the country) for the new conditions.

    In conditions of argument, people are often tempted to back down from their position and smooth over the disagreements in order to maintain — friendships, whatever. In cases of actual struggle, a revolutionary party (or the leadership building such) has to ruthlessly battle any such urge to compromise. On the streets, this is a life or death issue. Call it sectarianism if you will — what is actually at play is a principled defense of the materialist method.

  6. skzb

    Cynthia: Excellent point. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at.

  7. Two minor points:

    I didn’t just mean that the capitalists slaughtered them. I meant that they were under enormous pressure from the outside during the short time they were trying to thrash out the best way to proceed.

    And if I remember correctly, Marx believed they had acted prematurely. He was a great believer in laying the groundwork first, but he was also a realist, so his criticism about their failure to seize the bank should be seen as, “Fuck, if you’re gonna commit, commit!”

  8. Love the image of Marx actually saying that, Will! Thanks for the smile.

  9. “To concentrate on the disputes and squabbling that prevented the unity of the Commune is to miss the point that these disputes themselves were a product of the early, undeveloped state of the French working class at that time. If we begin our analysis with the correlation of material forces, we can understand where the ideological disputes came from; if we begin with the ideological disputes as if they were the random products of individual egos, we will understand nothing.”

    The road to hell is paved by good intentions. The end justifies the means. No matter how you phrase it, if good intentions are so poorly implemented that 30,000 people die, that teaches that intentions are not enough, no matter the conditions under which they were formed. The one thing that truly sets us apart from other animals is our ability to reason. Reacting with blind emotionalism, as I feel the majority of the Communards did, is nothing more than the snarling of a cornered rat. They allowed outside forces to direct their movements rather than take positive steps to control the movement when it was still possible to do so. A normal human reaction, yes, but not an acceptable reaction among people who presume to dictate the only “correct” way to run a society.

    In “On the Paris Commune” Lenin said, “Without any particularly complex legislation, in a simple, straightforward manner, the proletariat, which had seized power, carried out the democratization of the social system, abolished the bureaucracy, and made all official posts elective.” On paper, maybe. In the realm of ideas, certainly. In reality, they never had control over their own Central Committee or the 20 arrondissemonts, and no matter what apologies are offered for their inability to effectively govern their own ranks, the fact that their failure costs so many lives shouldn’t be shrugged off by saying so sad, but it was for the good of the revolution. I don’t believe the ends justify the means. I do believe that people today who consider their ill-advised behavior worthy of respect are themselves truly cynical – they’re willing to take everyone straight to hell as long as their ideas pave the way.

    Picket’s observation is obviously correct – once a course has been decided on, the outcome isn’t entirely in the hands of the initiator, but of everyone involved. However, to choose the wrong course to begin with is itself a mistake. People don’t expect each other to be perfect, but we also shouldn’t accept thoughtless emotionalism as a valid basis for actions which can led to the loss of lives, but that is what the Commune did.

    They had all the slogans and chants and grandiose plans, with none of the needed level-headed, practical skills to implement lasting change. To have seized the bank would have required positive action; to debate the needs of the masses – whom they’d already dismissed as too ignorant to be entrusted with government and thus in need of being subjected to the “right” masters, the Communards, rather than the “wrong” masters, those they had elected for themselves – that debate was easy, it was surely intellectually satisfying, and it let them feel they were advancing the cause without actually having to do anything. They were truly like kids let loose in the candy store. They didn’t take any military measures, but they destroyed the Vendome Column, presumably in homage to Marx’s “18th Brumaire”. The Communards couldn’t work together as a team, but they sure could organize concerts. In fact, the day Paris fell a large crowd was attending a show in the Tuileries.

    Large-scale lasting change doesn’t come from reacting in the heat of emotion, but from rational planning and implementation of those plans. Compare the Revolution to the Civil War. The first was led by a bunch of pragmatic, hard headed men who understood the emotional power of rhetoric as well as they understood the need for long range planning and for selecting the right people to carry out those plans. The Confederates were an angry people who expected to win because of the righteousness of their cause and their own martial skill without having to resort to the sort of tedious administrative work that marked Northern efforts.

    “The Paris Commune was, in the end, a tragedy… Those who saw merely the ideas, attitudes, and mistakes of individuals have nowhere to go except a descent into cynicism.”

    The mistakes I see show the weakness of reacting on the basis of emotions rather than practical planning, and the results of arrogance and elitism. And make no mistake, the Communards possessed both, as shown by their declared opposition to electing a National Assembly until the peasants were properly educated in revolutionary rhetoric was complete.

    Nowhere to go but cynicism? That’s you putting way too much emphasis on what you think matters most. One view of the Commune’s fall may be that it was a set back to socialism and various economic interests, but I don’t reduce all of human life to economics. I look at the Commune in comparison to other social revolutions and civil strife and notice the similarities between them and our current events, and am pleased to know that we as a society have a talent for somehow working things out rationally, given time.

    “That is why this post is about method: it provides a perfect, shining example of how the materialist approach differs from the idealist approach to history. ”

    I’ve never liked labels, and this is a good examples of why. I don’t get the difference between “idealist” and “materialist” in this context.

    (Darn it, I’m late for work. Sorry for the length; I don’t have time to make this any shorter. )

  10. “the fact that their failure costs so many lives shouldn’t be shrugged off by saying so sad”

    Your take continues to sound too much to me like someone saying of Wounded Knee that those unruly Indians left the nice American soldiers with no other choice.

    But still, the Paris Commune is on the list of examples of violent revolutions not working out so well.

  11. Raymond, good post. It appears that the socialists in Paris handled their “revolution” as a religious (the religion being socialism) based revolution. I kept getting images of Mao and the various Asian communist states which violently subdued anything but the pure (meaning the fearless leader’s) essence of socialism.

    I realize that it never reached that state in the Paris Commune, but it felt like it was heading that direction.

    Peaceful revolutions (though much, much harder) tend to have better outcomes.

    A lot of the motivation for revolution is the economic abuse of the lower classes. Socialism is one way to try to address this. But unless the goal of eliminating this basic unfairness is constantly kept in mind, the abuse will continue regardless of the label you put on the government.

  12. Will, Not a good analogy. The Capitalists didn’t go searching for Socialists to kill. At least I don’t think so. ;>)

    Though, we seem to be doing that today, what with attacks on 3rd world countries that are socialist.

  13. The capitalists searched for 30,000 to 50,000 socialists to kill at the end of the Paris Commune.

    If you want a couple of other examples that spring to mind, the first people HItler put in concentration camps were communists, and in Indonesia, as many as 500,000 socialists were slaughtered.

  14. Yes, after the fall of Paris, government forces exterminated almost all rebel leaders — not to mention a large number of ordinary citizens.

    Goddamn Napoleon III, man. What an asshole. “Let’s invade Germany, it will be fun.”

  15. Man, I wish Steve had like buttons here, ’cause I laughed at that.

  16. Will, you know what I meant. There is a small issue with the timing and cause / effect you are ignoring to try an preserve your analogy. Hitler? Godwin’s law. Come on, he hated everybody. ;>)

    Come to think of it, we (the US) seem to be going that direction.

  17. “In reality, they never had control over their own Central Committee or the 20 arrondissemonts,”

    I think this is central to your claims. What would it have meant to have control over the Central Committee? Perhaps if one single organization of people who agreed about everything had been in charge, and enforced their will on everybody else, it would have worked out?

    But I don’t think that could have worked either. If one single ideology had taken over and tried to enforce its will on everybody else, it would have failed. No single group had enough police or secret police to stop all the others. If you had been the supreme ruler of one faction and everybody in your faction enthusiasticly followed your orders to the letter, and you had the benefit of hindsight, I think you would still have failed. You would not have gotten enough cooperation from everybody else.

    After a quick lit search, I get the impression that what worked well was the ad hoc groups that sprang up to do what was needed. If they had waited for orders from the Central Committee, a whole lot of that stuff would not have happened.

    Steven is right. The disagreements came because the delegates disagreed. The delegates disagreed because they represented people who disagreed. People disagreed because their own circumstances — particularly economic circumstances — gave them different ideas about what they needed. Suppress every perspective but one and how much will the others cooperate?

    There may have been some big mistakes. The bank lent them the money they asked for, so maybe they wouldn’t have used more if they had grabbed the bank, but apparently it sent funds away that got used to fund the army that killed them. But would that army have gotten enough funding otherwise? I don’t know enough to argue it but I say maybe it would.

    I say the central problem was that Paris was too socially separate from the rest of the country. They didn’t have enough support elsewhere. They didn’t (and probably couldn’t) arrange enough communication. Likely when they did communicate people outside the city didn’t communicate with them.

    The Paris army had a lot of low-level contact with the national army. Neither side particularly wanted to fight but neither side negotiated at high levels. Ideally the Paris army should have done more to subvert the national army, so that when the fighting came (or before) lots of units would switch sides or stop to argue rather than attack. I attribute the problem to lack of rapport between the men of the two groups.

    “Large-scale lasting change doesn’t come from reacting in the heat of emotion, but from rational planning and implementation of those plans.”

    Yes, and they didn’t do as well as they possibly could at that. But still, they were outnumbered and encircled. It takes a really good plan to beat the odds they were fighting against. They might have done better to even up the odds by proselytizing more supporters outside Paris. Why did that fail? Maybe because material conditions inevitably led people outside Paris to oppose them. Or maybe for social reasons the communication failed.

    Similarly with the Civil War. The South might have held out longer if they’d organized better. And maybe if they’d done that the Yankees would have given up and agreed to peace short of unconditional surrender. But the odds were against them, they didn’t have as many men or as much industry, their railroads didn’t meet their military needs, the odds would have been against them even if they had fought better. And they weren’t very effective at getting the people who disagreed with them to change their minds.

  18. David, I agree completely with one of your earlier statements: “Peaceful revolutions (though much, much harder) tend to have better outcomes.”

    But Godwin’s Law is only about the tendency for Hitler to come up in discussion. It’s because he’s a bit of history most people know. It doesn’t mean he’s taboo or something. In any discussion of capitalists rounding up socialists, leaving out Hitler’s concentration camps would only be giving the capitalists a point they don’t deserve.

    I don’t want to push the Wounded Knee analogy too far, but so far as I know, most of the deaths in the Paris Commune came after the Commune fell, when the capitalist forces went on a killing spree.

    Just googled. Check this: http://www.executedtoday.com/2009/05/28/1871-the-paris-commune-falls/

  19. Will, you made my point. The killing happened after the revolution, not before. This happens in many revolutions/wars. Before, the capitalists were not going out looking for socialists to shoot.

    Wounded Knee was genocide. A little different. Custer went out looking for Indians to kill. Peaceful Indians where just that much easier to kill. This was to facilitate the economic expansion of capitalism into the west.

    Hitler was besides the point to the discussion. One could also find examples of socialists/communists searching out capitalists and shooting them.

    Sorry to belabor the point. ;>)

  20. No big. But you might want to google Wounded Knee. That was the 1890 massacre, long after Custer was killed.

  21. Sorry. Brain fart. Thinking of The Little Bighorn.

  22. David Hajicek: “It appears that the socialists in Paris handled their ‘revolution’ as a religious (the religion being socialism) based revolution.”

    That’s a good analogy for this case. They were fired up with their philosophy and a certainty that they were right and had all the answers. The practical work of maintaining a society wasn’t as important as making the statement that their society is now socialist.

    “I kept getting images of Mao and the various Asian communist states which violently subdued anything but the pure (meaning the fearless leader’s) essence of socialism.”

    Have you ever read Mao? “On Guerrilla Warfare” is a masterpiece of practical, rational revolutionary action. He demonstrated the importance of having plans of action and organization in place to back up indoctrination. That’s why he was successful where the Comunards failed.

  23. skzb

    “He demonstrated the importance of having plans of action and organization in place to back up indoctrination. That’s why he was successful where the Comunards failed.”

    Right. It had nothing to do with the conditions and relationships of the proletariat and the peasantry in 19th Century France versus 20th Century China. It had nothing to do with the devastation and damage to infrastructure caused by the Japanese invasion of China. It had nothing to do with the experience of the Russian Revolution being assimilated by the Chinese. It had nothing to do with the weakened condition of the Chinese compradors after WWII versus the constantly increasing strength of the French bourgeoisie. . No, it was because Mao had “plans of action and organization.”

    You asked, earlier, what I meant by the difference between historical materialism and idealism. The above should be a sufficient answer.

  24. That’s a narrow interpretation. The plans Mao used would not have worked in 19th c. France, but had he been there at that time, he would have made different plans. It’s not the specific plan itself that matters, it’s the practical analysis of conditions and personnel combined with a knowledge of the locale and society that is important.

    Was Wellington a great general? Sure, for his time and place. Would he have met with success using his methods in the US Civil War? No, because the geography and social conditions were totally different. Grant understood the problems presented by the huge area he was working in, the lack of roads, the sodlers’ militia background vs. having a history with set piece battles.

    The Communards thought their philosophy was one size fits all, and the results they wanted would naturally flow from their ideas. They were wrong.

  25. IMO Mao was freakishly lucky. Too bad, too. He made Napoleon III look like an enlightened monarch. Some nice quotes in the LRB, though.

  26. Considering that the Communards existed for about two months, I’m not sure anyone can say what their philosophy was. It took the Americans from 1776 till 1789 to figure out their philosophy.

  27. Can’t….not….do…it….self…control…crumbling….

    L. Raymond said: “The Confederates were an angry people who expected to win because of the righteousness of their cause and their own martial skill without having to resort to the sort of tedious administrative work that marked Northern efforts.”

    Must….fix…..

    “The Confederates were composed of the rich, elite, plantation class who wanted to continue to be rich and elite, and believed they could get the support of Britain, France, and Spain to win the war for them, by imposing economic sanctions against the very countries they wished to gain the backing from, and would therefore not have to fight the North *themselves*. This belief turned out to be wrong.”

    Whew! There, fixed it for you!

  28. L. Raymond, I haven’t read that (“On Guerrilla Warfare”), I’ll look it up. I’ve read “The Prince”, however. Which seems to apply to too many political situations. Maybe I should have said Stalin (as the Fearless Leader). There is also a difference between what is said and what is done.

    I guess what I was reacting to, in this discussion, is the notion that there is some inherently “good” political system and that socialism is that one. All political systems can become corrupted (look at what has happened to the US). And it is almost a truism that all political systems will be corrupted over time. The only thing preventing corruption is the practice of a “continuous revolution.” I don’t know who to credit for that concept or exactly how to make that work.

  29. The US was set up to be a bourgeois republic, and that hasn’t changed yet. That any government can be corrupted, sure. But I’d love to read an analysis of corruption under Lenin vs corruption under Stalin vs corruption under Yeltsin.

  30. “Considering that the Communards existed for about two months, I’m not sure anyone can say what their philosophy was.”

    That’s vitally important. The disagreements they had about such things might eventually have led to some sort of coherent ideas, if they had lasted long enough.

    They didn’t have long enough because they were overwhelmed by enemy armies.

    If they had picked something and run with it quickly, then even if they’d picked the best approach they might probably still have been overwhelmed because there weren’t enough of them.

    They desperately needed to spread their revolution across all of France before a French army came to Paris and killed them. They didn’t manage that, partly because French POWs were indoctrinated against them and then thrown into battle. Still, I think that was the necessary action that didn’t happen well enough. For whatever reason they didn’t spread their sense of possibility well enough.

  31. “I guess what I was reacting to, in this discussion, is the notion that there is some inherently “good” political system and that socialism is that one.”

    Typically what reformers do, is they find one bad thing that is causing problems, and they try to fix it. Often they assume that when their problem is fixed then everything will be OK.

    So I meet people who think the problem is big business, and when we can stop big business from doing oligopoly and TBTF and successful lobbying then everything will work fine. I meet others who think the problem is big government, and when we can stop big government from overregulating the economy and people’s personal lives then everything will work fine. Tell them about big business and they say that without big government big business must inevitably wither away. But of course some others say that without capitalism big government must inevitably wither away. People believe all sorts of things.

    But I tend to believe in Liebig’s law of the minimum. Whatever necessary ingredient is in shortest supply tends to limit the whole. Fix that and things improve until they run into the next most limiting ingredient.

    http://www.theurbanfarmers.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/53UF-620X500-Posts.jpg

    So if you fix one problem but something else is even more important, then your fix might not accomplish much at all. And if you fix the most important thing, then your fix will improve things only to the level of the next worst problem.

    It’s hard to tell how many things you need to fix until you’ve fixed them all.

  32. That corruption analysis would indeed be interesting. I’m confident there was less corruption under Lenin than in any other Russian government in modern times, either Tsarist or subsequently.

    However, what there *was* under Lenin was fanaticism and a disregard for conventions of morals and ethics and laws. You had sincere monsters like Dzerzhinsky who honestly believed that it was all right to slaughter citizens extra-judicially just on the suspicion they might not be loyal. This led to the full-blown corruption, paranoia and factional in-fighting of the Stalinist era, encouraged of course by Stalin’s insanity. I think that in deliberately throwing off the chains of the past, a lot of people, especially among the young revolutionaries who joined the Cheka and the early alphabet security agencies, felt that they no longer had to pay any heed to any sort of conventional ideas of justice or morality due to the dawning of the new age. A sort of secular millenarianism, if you will. I suspect similar beliefs played into the development of fascism during the same period.

  33. @skzb: “You asked, earlier, what I meant by the difference between historical materialism and idealism. The above should be a sufficient answer.”

    I was hoping you might have expanded on this this afternoon. I honestly don’t get your point. Am I appealing to materialist or idealist history? Would you please explain these terms?

  34. @skzb – the difficulty I have with materialism is the whole notion of rationality. While we are capable of rational, reasoned thought it is not always (perhaps not even often) used.

    Economic models run into the same problem (‘rational expectations’). The assumption that humans will act rationally, individually or collectively, is a very weak prior. Habit, accident, and expediency play a very large role.

    There can be little argument that there is a strong tendency for productive growth. Yet examining different cultures/countries shows little correlation between productive growth and a decrease in the burden of labor. If the theory is thus flawed or incomplete, then optimism may be fool’s gold.

    More important, the lack of rationality introduces the possibility of avoidable catastrophes *not* being avoided. I view a several degree increase in global temperatures as now unavoidable over the next half century. This will have profound impacts.

    I am not optimistic.

  35. skzb

    L. Raymond: Idealism sees thought as primary to matter, materialism the reverse. Materialism seeks to explain our thoughts by material conditions; idealism seeks to explain our conditions as the product of thoughts. Your discussion of the Paris Commune was a textbook case of idealism.

    Kevin: Can you explain how materialism depends on rationality? That’s one I’ve never heard before.

  36. skzb – Others have put it better than I can:

    “The historical materialism story may make it sound as though technological change has a magical causal power. This is not Marx’s idea. The underlying driving force is the claimed fact that people are rational to a considerable extent. They seek effective means to satisfy their wants and being smart, find ever better means and adopt better means adopted by others. This fact of rationality leads to inventions and the tendency to growth of the productive forces. When economic changes induce social conflict, the class that can more effectively harness the productive forces can offer better deals to more potential supporters than rival classes tied to less efficient ways of conducting economic life.” – Prof. Richard Arneson UCSD

  37. That’s why I wanted to know what you think rather than look up the terms. I have not said thought is primary to matter, by which I assume you mean action in this context, and I don’t think I even implied it. Both are equally necessary. All the planning in the world is fruitless without action; no action will have a lasting, purposeful effect without planning. They’re inseparable, *if* one intends to achieve a specific goal.

    The Communards had no long term plan, which was part of their downfall. They had a philosophy which gave them plenty to argue about but was no help in effecting the future they wanted. (A comment above about not knowing their philosophy is shown wrong by the Cornell “Communards” book, which has 65 examples of their documents and deliberations, collected by someone sympathetic to their cause, some of which state their philosophical positions explicitly, others by reference.)

    The point of mentioning Mao’s work is that he was an example of someone employing action based on his philosophy. I don’t agree with his goal or his methods, but he is an excellent example of effectiveness. Sherman was another. His letter to the council of Atlanta spelled out his philosophy of war making, and his subsequent actions not only demonstrated his intent to live his philosophy, but that he was right. He’s considered one of the founders of modern war craft because of his march.

    I can’t believe anyone seriously thinks only in terms of “actions outrank ideas” or vice versa. One of the many things that bothers me about so much of the Marxist literature I’ve read is the tendency to reduce everything to black and white. The very first paragraph in “What is to be Done”, which you recommended I read, is a quote from a letter from Lassalle to Marx: “Party struggles lend a party strength and vitality; the greatest proof of a party’s weakness is its diffuseness and the blurring of clear demarcations; a party becomes stronger by purging itself…” In other words, everything has to be black and white; everyone has to agree. There can be no suggestion that people are a mixture of traits – they’re idealists or materialists or Bonapartists or Blanquists or Opportunists. I can just see a lunch meeting of Marxists: You think that rice pudding needs more cinnamon? Not in the program – cinnamonists need to form their own party!

    Mine is a considered opinion formed by reading not only what you’ve recommended (“What is to be Done”, “The Revolution Betrayed”), but also Trotsky’s “Russian Revolution” and “Whither France?”, Lenin’s “On the Paris Commune”, Luxemburg’s “Russian Revolution” and “Lenninism or Marxism”, and to round it out I have Kautsky’s “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and Reed’s “10 Days That Shook the World”. I’ve read others but didn’t think they were worth keeping when I needed more shelf space. Can you direct me to something in any of those writings or any others online (preferably the former, since I favor books over screens) that shows Marxism doesn’t view people as purely black and white mechanisms who will all react in the same way when the proper stimulus is applied? Because I see nothing but dehumanizing rhetoric in most of their work.

    (I’ll mention I thought Reed’s “10 Days” was easily the most interesting; I hope that doesn’t harm my reputation for having an idealistic approach to history.)

  38. David Hajicek: “I guess what I was reacting to, in this discussion, is the notion that there is some inherently ‘good’ political system and that socialism is that one.”

    I completely agree. There is no one-size-fits-all philosophy, and the people who think there is and that they have it are known as fanatics, or, if they’re active enough, terrorists.

    “All political systems can become corrupted (look at what has happened to the US).”

    This is the heart (and fun) of historical analysis, so far as I’m concerned – comparing present day events to their historical foundations and parallel developments in other eras. A large percent of the population would agree the US government has been corrupted, but disagree on how. Hamilton’s arguments for establishing a bank are still quoted as the philosophical basis for expanded executive power. Have we corrupted Hamilton’s ideas, the concept of executive power, or the Constitution itself? That is unanswerable because a government isn’t a square. If any side of a square is warped and becomes too long or too short, it’s no longer square. Government is a puddle – when it changes shape, which side has been warped? I’m certainly not saying things can’t be altered to make a better life for people, just that the method of making needed changes isn’t as obvious as too many people think.

  39. skzb

    I’m not sure what Prof. Arneson is talking about, but it isn’t historical materialism. Historical materialism makes no claims about people acting “rationally, in their self interest.” One of the USES of historical materialism may be to explain the reason for actions that may, to the impressionist, appear irrational. But materialism is about the claim that ideas–right or wrong, rational or irrational–are the product of objective circumstances, rather than coming from God, and historical materialism attempts to understand human history on that basis.

    L. Raymond: I dunno. I’m a bit floored that you read the stuff you read and came out of it with the idea that Marxism views people as purely black and white mechanisms, but okay. You may enjoy Trotsky’s *Problems of Every Day Life,* but then again, you may not. Oh, and I LOVE Reed’s book.

  40. L. Raymond, I’ve been hearing you as using “philosophy” in two ways. In the broader sense, yes, the Communards had a philosophy, just as the American revolutionaries had a philosophy. But in the narrower sense of how do we govern ourselves given our philosophy and the realities of the world around us, no, they did not have a philosophy: they were trying to thrash that out, something that took the Americans thirteen years.

    That said, I completely agree that too many commies are too fond of ideological purity. I want a form of democracy that will keep a tiny, powerful minority from ruling the rest of us, regardless of whether that minority are capitalists or communist ideologues.

  41. skzb – It is inherent to the philosophy. Consider one except from the Communist Manifesto:

    “Altogether, collisions between the classes of the old society further in many ways the course of development of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry; at all time with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries. In all these battles, it sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education, in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.”

    None of this makes sense if the bourgeoisie does not make rational decisions. Likewise the whole nature of new modes of production and the requirement for ever increasing markets rests upon rational decisions. Globalization does not occur by accident.

    Yet humans and their institutions often make irrational decisions, so why are we where we are? I liken it to raising a teenager. You know they are going to make mistakes. You can’t be with them or direct their actions 24 hours a day. All you can do is hope that the mistakes they make will not have irreversible consequences. Human society is that teenager. I don’t believe Marx ever foresaw the scenario where the very planet could become unliveable for a significant fraction of it’s inhabitants and far less productive for the rest. That result throws a monkey wrench into the dialectic.

    Ever since the development of nuclear arsenals we have had the ability to destroy the planet. We have avoided that irrational decision. Chemical pollution was another threat that we ultimately mitigated, though the cost is probably not completely known yet today. Climate change is another planet changing threat. Our lack of rational action makes it improbable at this time that we can avoid significant impacts.

  42. skzb

    Kevin: Um. You quote a line based on Marxist economics, and claim that it is an argument against historical materialism because it is “inherent to the philosophy?” That is like attacking paleontology by citing a disagreement you have with neuro-science because they both use the scientific method. If you are simply looking for excuses to jab a needle into Marxism, I guess you can go ahead and do that; I suspect Marxism will survive.

    Oh, and just by the way, the passage you quote describes exactly what has been happening for the last 150 years, and even more so recently, which I think weakens your argument a little.

  43. skzb – as an aside, I have not thought about these subjects in a couple decades – so forgive me if my thoughts are not well put together.

    The two lines from your post that drew me in were:

    “If you start with material conditions and consider how changes in ideas can flow from those, there is plenty to be optimistic about; ” and

    “…we did not despair; we learned from it and went forward.”

    The first line – our current material conditions – includes global climate today and the consequences for future generations. The second line requires rational behavior – learning from the past. I view historical materialism as *only* a tool for describing history – not a tool for predicting the future course of events. Perhaps I erred when I inferred that you used it to inform your optimism.

  44. skzb

    I would hope that by “we” you understand I meant the Left–the spiritual ancestors, if you will, of the Commune. I like to think some of us are rational.

  45. skzb – “the passage you quote describes exactly what has been happening for the last 150 years, and even more so recently, which I think weakens your argument a little.”

    This is why I wrote, “… so why are we where we are?” I agree that it has worked well up until now – but I give the reason that it has worked well is that rational decisions have been ultimately made at critical junctions to keep the planet alive. Obviously if we’d blown the planet up it would not be possible to say it’s worked well for the last 150 years.

    I am not anti-Marxism nor have any interest in scoring points unless justifiably earned.

  46. Yes, that’s how I understood it. I think it emphasizes my point that rationality is inherent in the system. Right, Dennis?

  47. skzb – Your initial complaint was that you did not understand how rationality had any connection to historical materialism. There is an assumption of rationality. Rationality is inherent to the philosophy. You seem to have lost this thread when you said:

    “you quote a line based on Marxist economics, and claim that it is an argument against historical materialism because it is “inherent to the philosophy?”

    Otherwise I’m not really sure of your complaint here. While Marxist economic thought is not the *only* component of historical materialism, it is the predominant factor.

    “… all the historical phenomenon are explicable in the simplest possible way – with sufficient knowledge of the particular economic condition of society” Engels in Karl Marx

    “We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive.” Engels in letter to J. Bloch

    If you do not accept that Marxist economic thought is fundamental to historical materialism, then I am speaking of apples and you are speaking of oranges – and I do not know this orange of which you speak.

  48. Kevin, I like your posts. I too am a bit confused about some of the statements. I don’t quite understand how Materialism applies to rational thought (or politics) except to deny any religious/moral influence. I’m sure Ayn Rand agrees with Materialism.

    This does not automatically drive rationality. I do not agree there should be no moral constraints. In fact, it is irrational (in the big picture) to remove moral constraints (by whatever name you choose to call them). But calling them laws, only means don’t get caught. There needs to be a notion of good/bad and don’t do bad things, in other words, internalized values.

    I do not agree that people (even Marxists) are inherently rational. I believe the opposite. Nearly all people are inherently irrational and can be easily convinced to do things against their better interests, regardless of the political system. All it takes is fear, prejudice and hatred. Something people in power supply in great abundance.

    One might think that the powerful people (rulers, oligarchs, uber capitalists, banksters) are rational and just manipulating others for their rational purposes. While the manipulation is true, the goals of the power classes are often not rational, even for their own benefit. Nearly all have mindsets where their goals are based on greed, hatreds, fears and prejudices, rather than rational thought processes. As an example, it is possible for a business to do better by treating its employees better, but the mindset is that whatever hurts the workers is automatically good for business. The corruption (another irrationality) is that the CEO may well do better for a while, at the expense of the business.

    One could argue that the weapons and oil companies are fully rational. They are making as much profit as they can at the expense of everybody else. So they are following Materialism.

    What am I missing?

  49. Hajcek – Marx’s materialism is the materialism of philosophy as opposed to philosophical idealism. It is not the materialism in common parlance that values the acquisition of goods above all else.

    In the philosophical sense, materialism places matter as fundamental. In German Ideology Marx wrote:

    “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather, it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.”

  50. I’m out of my element here. My comment was based on the definition of the philosophy of “Materialism”, which not the acquisition of things, but saying there is only the physical world.

    It appears you guys mean “Dialectical Materialism” and “Historical Materialism” which are terms applied to Marx, et. al. Which, while related to Materialism, is significantly different. Somewhere I got the notion of someone saying morality (meaning religion) gets in the way of rational political processes (which it can). But I think I get the picture now. A little esoteric for somebody not raised on Marx.

    Thanks for the help.

  51. “But materialism is about the claim that ideas–right or wrong, rational or irrational–are the product of objective circumstances, rather than coming from God, and historical materialism attempts to understand human history on that basis.”

    It appears to me that ideas are basicly random. But we prune them. When our ideas don’t fit together we call them dreams and forget them. Then we subconsciously throw out lots of others. Some we inspect and reject. We throw out more ideas when we see that they don’t work for us. We reject ideas that other people hold tight to when we see that those ideas don’t work for them. It’s these later stages that bring in the objective circumstances.

    And so we start with something that has a very large random component, and by a lot of effort we strive toward rationality. And to some extent we achieve it.

  52. J. Thomas – I’d disagree that ideas are basically random. I just had an idea: We could greatly reduce carbon emissions by mandating more gasoline efficient cars. That idea is *only* possible because of the material surroundings in which I live.

    That idea never occurred to pre-historic man, or the ancient Greeks, or the feudal serfs, or colonial settlers to the Americas.

    So ideas are not truly random, they are a product of our times.

    (I realize this may be a ‘trivial’ idea, but the case can be made for ‘big’ ideas as well.)

  53. Kevin, it’s true that many of your ideas involve things you’ve seen or done. So you might dream of taking a woman to a small hotel room that looks like the back seat of a car. You might imagine doing an internet search with a gas pedal and a steering wheel. You could imagine driving over a forest, right on the treetops.

    You’re driving your car on a lake and you see another car coming right at you. You try to swerve out of the way but it hits you! There’s a big crash and you’re thrown sideways, and now you see that you’re going off at a ninety degree angle and you’re driving the left half of your car and the right half of the other car.

    And you know, we could greatly reduce carbon emissions if we just drove cars that used water as the fuel. Wouldn’t that be great? I’ve heard of those cars for sale but you can’t buy them at dealers because the oil companies suppress them.

    Better yet we could use politicians’ speeches for fuel. We’d want to vote for the ones with the best mileage.

    You can think all kinds of crazy thoughts if you let yourself. Things that don’t make any sense at all. Car salad. And I say that stuff is going on in your head all the time, but you learn not to pay attention. Out of all the stuff that’s there, that you could pay attention to, you learn to pay attention to things that look like they might be of some use.

    Because the stupid crazy stuff is really not very useful. Except a very tiny smidgen of it can be useful if you are a fantasy writer.

  54. skzb: “I dunno. I’m a bit floored that you read the stuff you read and came out of it with the idea that Marxism views people as purely black and white mechanisms, but okay. You may enjoy Trotsky’s *Problems of Every Day Life,* but then again, you may not. Oh, and I LOVE Reed’s book.”

    In other words, we’re not just at opposite ends of the spectrum, we’re on totally different planes. I don’t agree that it’s worthwhile or useful to use phrases like an idealist/materialist interpretation of history, and I flat out do not get the appeal of Marxism. If we were sitting together, at this point I’d say, “Reed? Oh, definitely. Don’t you love first person narratives? Didja ever read…”

  55. Miramon: “That corruption analysis would indeed be interesting. I’m confident there was less corruption under Lenin than in any other Russian government in modern times, either Tsarist or subsequently.

    However, what there *was* under Lenin was fanaticism and a disregard for conventions of morals and ethics and laws…[which] led to the full-blown corruption, paranoia and factional in-fighting of the Stalinist era, encouraged of course by Stalin’s insanity.”

    I’ve found myself intrigued by this comment and have begun some basic research, but I am wondering how you’re defining corruption, if it’s not a disregard of morals, ethics and laws. What do you mean when you refer to “government corruption”?

    Mr. Shetterly, do you have any specific input on this particular topic? Were you refering to the typical definition of corruption, i.e. what any layperson on the street might think of on hearing the word?

  56. I suspect we’re both thinking of the same sort of thing, not so much morals as ethics and laws: graft primarily, because that’s the corruption that affects everyone.

  57. Yes, I’d say corruption is the subornation of government officials and policies through bribes and similar criminal arrangements.

    IMO the relative prevalence of actual honest dedication as well as fanaticism in Lenin’s newly established revolutionary government was greater than in any other Russian government in recent memory, hence the presumed lower amount of bribery.

    Corruption under Stalin and subsequent Soviet and successor governments is well known to have been very prevalent. Under Putin, Russia is currently ranked just higher than Somalia in a well-regarded international perceived-corruption index.

    But of course I have no data or even anecdotes supporting this notion, just speculation.

  58. Disclaimer: I don’t know what actually happened in the USSR before WWII. I read _A Man and His Times_ by Nicolai Borodin, Borodin’s autobiography, which gave a feel for it but which might be fundamentally misleading.

    I can imagine that in Lenin’s time there might have been a lot of people who worked for the system and went beyond what the laws should have been. Things like going after accused wreckers with too much enthusiasm and too little investigation or trial.

    In Stalin’s time there may have been more of a sense of self-preservation. Borodin claimed he had a friend who was in the OGPU who let him look at his own files. Later his friend was arrested for treason and he was allowed to visit. The man was busy working away at case files deciding who to arrest for treason, he hoped that his hard work would work in his favor at his trial and prove his loyalty. He begged Borodin for a poison pill to take if things became hopeless. Borodin thought about it — if the man took poison Borodin could get in trouble. So he gave his friend a pill full of baking soda. If he never tried to kill himself he wouldn’t find out it was fake and he’d remember Borodin as a trusted friend. If it did get that bad probably he’d never be in position to hurt Borodin. In that time lots of people were loyal to Stalin. They said “If only Stalin knew what was being done in his name, he would stop it!” But they figured Stalin didn’t know and so they had to look after themselves.

    The less idealism, the more people cheat the system for themselves. There are risks, you could be found and punished, maybe killed. But as the idealists fade out the risks don’t seem as bad, you just get trapped inside another giant bureaucracy that doesn’t really care, worse than the one you’re already trapped in.

    So in my imagination that’s the difference. The difference between people who want the system to work, who break the rules to help it work, versus people who want to profit themselves even if that’s bad for the system.

  59. Miramon (and Mr. Shetterly): “IMO the relative prevalence of actual honest dedication as well as fanaticism in Lenin’s newly established revolutionary government was greater than in any other Russian government in recent memory, hence the presumed lower amount of bribery….But of course I have no data or even anecdotes supporting this notion, just speculation.”

    OK, thanks for the clarification. Today I’ve been downloading white papers and analyses to get started on a basic overview of the question. Given the newness of the topic to me it’ll probably be a while before I learn anything concrete, but I’d be happy to share whatever I do learn that pertains to this, if you’d like.

  60. Yes, please. I feel like I’m a professor who has just had a new doctoral student wander into his office looking for something to do… 🙂

  61. Please don’t feel like that. The reason I asked for a clarification of your corruption comment is I couldn’t beleive I read it correctly. If you think of corruption as nothing but graft, you can dig up crime statistics to see who prosecuted that the most.

    When it comes to governments, I do consider “fanaticism and a disregard for conventions of morals and ethics and laws” to be corrupt. Once I’ve learned about the mechanisms of government set up by the Bolsheviks – which they created from scratch, which were borrowed or absorbed from the imperials – the questions will include which were set up despite the will of the people, which were set up in direct opposition to the common good, which were meant to suport all citizens vs. which, if any, excluded non-party members and such things as that.

    Clearly I’m biased (I despise these people, the first Soviets and their philosophical predecessors), but that doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to learn I’m wrong about some of thier actions. I’ll see what turns up.

  62. If we’re talking about graft, nepotism, and cronyism; from everything I’ve read it just got continuously worse and worse. The Brezhnev years seem to be the era when they really didn’t even bother to try and hide it any longer.

    One of the more disconcerting articles I remember reading concerned a group of scientists who worked in the USSR’s space program (probably in the late 1980s – though I don’t recall exactly). Each day get to work early, work the phones, networking, looking for stores that had something useful on the shelves; bread, chicken, fresh vegetables, etc. As quickly as they could they’d make a decision on what the best odds were of getting something and one of them would set out to see what he could get. They’d rotate the shopping duties and share whatever they got.

    These were top level engineers and scientists. Yet everyday had overtones of the need for basic sustenance. The article just left me saddened.

  63. Wow, the editor just messed up my comment pretty badly. I was in the middle of editing it, and it posted that broken piece and then returned a page error….

    Anyway, this is what I was trying to post in full:
    —-
    @ L. Raymond. Just kidding, of course re that feeling; I was just happy you were prepared to research a question I was vaguely interested in, but not enough to research myself, which is a typical professorial attitude.

    Unfortunately crime statistics are a terrible way to measure corruption. A corrupt government will never convict officials or security forces for corruption (or at least they will usually only convict the innocent, as in current-day Russia), and a very clean one will not have many cases, so the statistics will look the same for both. This is why in our current day, a “corruption perception index” is used to rank nations internationally in this dimension, instead of an analysis of crime statistics. Of course such an index has its own problems of bias in the polling method, but at least it avoids obviously forged data.

    As for what it means to be corrupt, I believe “prevalence of bribery” is the standard and indeed universal definition of the word when it is used as a description of a government or of a government official. And even if you choose for some reason to use the word in its general sense of “rotten”, it seems to me that’s not a good way to characterize a revolutionary government, as a rule — they may be awful in many ways, but they are fresh and new, not old and septic. So however justified your bad opinion of Lenin’s government may be, I would look for a different adjective to apply to it.

  64. “A corrupt government will never convict officials or security forces for corruption (or at least they will usually only convict the innocent, as in current-day Russia), and a very clean one will not have many cases, so the statistics will look the same for both.”

    A very good point!

    It’s like in the ancient Star Trek game, where damage to damage-control means that nothing gets fixed until damage-control is fixed, and you can’t even get an estimate how long it will take to fix things until damage-control is fixed.

    Except corrupt governments actively work to stop attempts to reduce the corruption….

  65. It occurs to me that it doesn’t have to be that way. When the guys at the top don’t want bribery etc, they can do things to reduce it.

    They can send spies to offer bribes to government officials, and see which of them accept. It can’t solve the whole problem, but it’s a good start. Of course the spies must be tested, or they may accuse the wrong people of accepting bribes and find ways to make it look like it’s true. You don’t want to pay them by the number of people they can get to take bribes….

    The problem is worst when it’s accepted.

    On the other hand, notice how the FBI occasionally tries to get Congressmen to take bribes. How often are the results released, and how often does the FBI use the results to blackmail Congressmen into doing what they want? How often is it that when a politician is publicly accused of seducing pages or hiring prostitutes or whatever, that it’s because he had a moment of moral clarity and refused to obey his blackmailers?

  66. It would seem that an autocracy can potentially eliminate corruption if enough power is concentrated in a tyrant’s hands. However, it tends not to work out that way, because tyrants never seem to have enough power to suit themselves, and they spend more time destroying their competent and honest subordinates out of fear than they do improving the state. Viz Stalin.

    In the US corruption is terribly problematic but is even so it’s still better than most other countries outside Western Europe and Scandinavia. It’s arguable that almost all of Congress is now legally corrupt — lobbying and campaign financing is now so slackly controlled, after that monstrous Supreme Court decision. But the feds do periodically sweep through certain states like New Jersey and Rhode Island and bag the state-, city-, and county-level pols who are so stupid that they take direct bribes and who have forgotten that the same fate was suffered by their predecessors a few years before.

    The question you ask about blackmailed pols is unanswerable if you’re not one of their number. *Something* must have happened to McCain sometime in the early 90s to transform him from a “maverick” halfway-pacifist thorn in the side of the GOP into a war-mongering neocon puppet.

  67. J Thomas, LOL. I’ve suspecte the FBI, and now the CIA, of doing exactly that kind of thing. It is amazing that those agency budgets are never cut or questioned.

  68. “The question you ask about blackmailed pols is unanswerable if you’re not one of their number.”

    Unless blackmailed politicians are honest with each other, probably knowing about yourself wouldn’t be enough either.

    If the FBI wanted nothing but to protect their own budget and reputation, that might not be so bad. They would be a big protection against *other* blackmailers. But LBJ said of J Edgar Hoover, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”. Probably the FBI has sometimes taken sides on policy.

    “…tyrants never seem to have enough power to suit themselves, and they spend more time destroying their competent and honest subordinates out of fear than they do improving the state.”

    There are lots of examples of that. It seems to me that what an autocrat ought to fear is popular subordinates more than competent subordinates. The guy who can get a big following is a threat. The guy who actually follows orders isn’t. I see arabic stories about rulers who spy on their employees to keep them honest, not as much elsewhere.

    If you depend on people to support you because they have a really cushy position with a lot of graft, and they can’t expect to do as well under some other regime, that’s sick. It’s bound to do more harm than help. If they’re worth twice what you pay them and they skim just enough from *you* to assist their self-respect, that might not be so bad. They get to feel like they’re getting away with something, and you still get value. But when they steal from your subjects it makes you look bad. There are plenty of stories about weak rulers who couldn’t keep their grafty subordinates under control.

    All in all, it makes sense that it would be easier to keep things going in good times than in bad times. When there’s plenty to go around you can spread stuff around and keep people reasonably happy. When there are problems and you must demand sacrifices, then you need people to see that their sacrifices are in their own best interest.

    http://nasredin.blogspot.com/2007/11/sky-is-falling.html

  69. Miramon: “As for what it means to be corrupt, I believe ‘prevalence of bribery’ is the standard and indeed universal definition of the word when it is used as a description of a government or of a government official.”

    Were I working on something for someone else, I’d worry about generally accepted definitions. For my own pleasure, I go by my inclinations, and that’s to look for systemic problems. Besides that, I like to research things as an excuse to read new stuff and look for information that’s just plain neat to know as well as useful.

    “And even if you choose for some reason to use the word in its general sense of ‘rotten’, it seems to me that’s not a good way to characterize a revolutionary government, as a rule — they may be awful in many ways, but they are fresh and new, not old and septic. So however justified your bad opinion of Lenin’s government may be, I would look for a different adjective to apply to it.”

    The fact it is was revolutionary is precisely why I have a bad opinion of it. When a bunch of people sit around and theorize about the only right way to govern a nation, and when they claim to possess knowledge of some set of historical laws that permit them to take charge without bothering to learn any of the practical matters of governing, and their actions result in one of the most despotic states in history, then the only question I have is to what degree did their incompetence invite that result. I admit that for all I know, some remnant of the tsar’s government was still somehow in power and managed to sabotage everything (I really don’t know anything yet about the day-to-day operations of soviet Russia in the beginning), but if everything was established and ran just as the Bolsheviks meant for it to be, following their interpretation of historic laws (the existence of which I heartily reject), that would show their theory of how society works was flawed or, as I prefer to put it, corrupt.

  70. “… if everything was established and ran just as the Bolsheviks meant for it to be, following their interpretation of historic laws […], that would show their theory of how society works was flawed or, as I prefer to put it, corrupt.”

    I’d say your premises are false.

    My understanding of the history is weak too, but it looks to me like in 1917 the revolutionaries inherited an economy which was functioning but in serious trouble partly due to losing a war. A lot of skilled workers were put in the army, replaced by people who were learning OTJ, food production was down, and the railroads weren’t bringing enough food to the cities so there was some famine. This is part of what caused the revolution in the first place.

    The Bolsheviks at first concentrated on building armies, which in hindsight needed to be a priority since otherwise they would have lost to other armies. The new government, a compromise among many ideologies, did not accomplish much in a short time before the Bolsheviks overthrew it. If they hadn’t somebody else would — the compromise government didn’t have any armies that strongly supported it.

    So the armies fought. Each side conscripted peasants — they told them to follow orders and don’t desert or else be killed. The peasants mostly followed orders, they were descended from many generations of peasants who survived military service by doing that. In the Russian winter their first priority was food plus something to burn for warmth. Guess how they treated Russian cities?

    After 3 to 5 years, 1921-1923, depending on how you count, the Bolsheviks won the war. Food production was way down, all production was way down, and a whole lot of places there were lots of people scavenging — killing whoever had what they might need. It took longer to get the killing stopped even after there was no organized opposition. Also there were a couple of droughts which contributed to the famine. During the war Stalin got a reputation as someone who ruthlessly got results, necessary in wartime.

    The Bolsheviks then had the chance to rebuild, as fast as possible since the faster they rebuilt the lower the death rate. The big majority of the public was obsessed with that, since after all it was a survival issue for them. Meanwhile Stalin maneuvered to take over everything.

    How long did the Soviets have to organize their society after the war before Stalin took over in 1924? One to three years. Or if you count the war, six to seven years total.

    Whatever ideals they had, they put them aside to win the civil war. If they had not, you would not hear much about them, they would be just another of the socialist groups that lost, that no one pays much attention to any more.

    This is not a good way to start a new system of government. But the Czarist government could not hold on, and neither could the revolutionary government after it. There was going to be a big internal war in which a million or so people would be killed. There wasn’t enough food to go around and there wasn’t enough transport to distribute it. People would die, and a lot of them would die fighting. I doubt the best political philosophy in the world could have stopped it.

    During and after the war, it wasn’t the political philosophy which gave people the most freedom or took care of them best that won. It was the one which was best at killing its opponents. That isn’t a great foundation for a utopian society to build on. We can blame lots of the bad things on Stalin, but he represented material forces. He was just the man on the spot who was best at doing what had to be done to suppress opposition and stamp out heresy. He filled an ecological niche that did not leave room for more human niches.

  71. J. Thomas, good post.

    Revolution is mostly about fighting against something rather than for something. Without a real plan for after the revolution in place, it just becomes chaos and a different form of injustice.

    Of course, you can say that if the rulers suppress change and improvement, they are asking for revolution. They are. For some reason, most rulers can never see this until too late. The bubble, maybe? Like in Washington D.C. right now.

  72. “Revolution is mostly about fighting against something rather than for something. Without a real plan for after the revolution in place, it just becomes chaos and a different form of injustice.”

    In Russia you could hardly blame them. The Czar was against them, and his secret police were ruthless at stopping reformers. And then he ended too quick.

    If Russia could have had, say, 40 years while people discussed what they wanted and how to get it, and then the Czar stepped down peacefully while the guys with the most support fixed things, it could have been completely different. But there was already chaos, and somebody had to establish order. The Bolsheviks didn’t have enough supporters or trained people to run things, but nobody else did either. And they were the best at secret organizations and at armies. The Czar failed when there was nothing like a consensus about what to do after he failed.

  73. Marx wrote that: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators’ history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”.

  74. I feel like I’ve come into the room after the party and it’s empty except for the torn down streamers and confetti everywhere. But since the Internet is always willing to listen:

    Going from skzb’s initial write-up, then scanning down through the conversation, I still had some questions:

    1) Is the historical materialism evaluation on the Paris Commune then that there was actually no possible way it could have succeeded [because the unrefined socialist conditions were still generating people with so much ego that they devolved into political squabbling]?

    2) If that is an accurate statement, does it mean that the overall trend that historical materialism predicts is a gradual elimination of ego/personality/irrationality in human beings and a gradual increase of “rationality,” whether in economic decisions or other arenas?

    3) skzb, is the material condition that predicates your astonishment at L.Raymond response to those texts about communism your family life, growing up with parents who invested class struggle issues with human personality?

    But the party has moved on….

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